The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction, is not precisely a general study, even a general critical study, of the field. Farah Mendlesohn has a specific argument to make, and looks at the field through that argument, like a lens. While her overall argument, as far as it goes, seems to me as unobjectionable as an appeal for Mom and Apple Pie, and her book is significant for the field, much of her supporting argumentation is flawed, as is her writing, though it could be far worse. The devils (there's more than one, unfortunately) are in the details, and they can be pretty diabolical.
The fundamental argument is that children's and juvenile science fiction of the 1950s—think Heinlein and Andre Norton—despite its limitations and flaws, exhibited certain characteristics, which Mendlesohn later sums up as "Best Practice," that benefited both their readers and the field of science fiction (by drawing in the kind of reader that would like the best kind of SF, potentially making them lifelong SF readers). Many of those characteristics were lost in the period from, roughly, 1970 to 2000, as "juvenile" morphed into "young adult" (YA), although the field now seems to be turning back to what Mendlesohn wants to see, almost, it seems, to her embarrassment.
Best practice—perhaps the only kind of science fiction she would call worthy of the name—begins by exhibiting what she calls "the essential structural elements of a science fiction book: dissonance, rupture, resolution and consequence" (p. 180). These actually define SF for her, giving, as she says in another context, "what science fiction is, as opposed to what it is about" (p. 184). She needs to define science fiction so that she has a measure for what does, and does not, really qualify, to measure what the best is (when it meets her criteria), and to offer the reader "something to test my arguments against" (p. 9). This is commendably honest and even brave.
Her full discussion of the structure of science fiction comes early in the book. "DISSONANCE is constructed by the novum and the element of cognitive estrangement. The novum is the idea or object that creates the rupture within the world as we understand it" (p. 10). She goes on to say that the "RUPTURE" is the cognitive estrangement (p. 11). RESOLUTION is necessary to any story, but she points out that in SF, it may not be a personal resolution, and that "more important, in the 'full SF story,' the resolution is not the end of the story, it is the beginning, for SF resolutions are about change and consequence [. . .] Without CONSEQUENCE any SF tale is incomplete" (p. 12).
In addition, she identifies certain "core genre values" and sums them up neatly in her seventh chapter, "Best Practice Now":
an outward-bound trajectory; information density; emotional development grounded in a reaction to the world rather than a boy-meets-girl romance or other social networking skills; encouragement to analytical thinking, whether applied to political, social or scientific contexts; a questioning approach to the material of the text and to the built world; a moral or ethical ruthlessness that argues with the world rather than tritely positing one stance as innately good, another innately bad; a sense at the end both that one has learned something, and that there is something more to learn. If possible, I also want books that ask the protagonists to use the skills they have or have learned, rather than to rely on 'character traits' (being good, kind, labeled as 'nice' or 'brave') to carry them through" (p. 183).
Of course, many of these are aspects of worthwhile fiction of any sort.
In addition, Best Practice does not surrender to ideological demands for YA fiction, it takes risks, and it is not limited by assumptions about what "kids" can understand, but makes demands on its readers. It illustrates and demonstrates the actual use of science and the scientific method. It values knowledge, information, and learning for their own sake. It focuses on the real world and learning about it, coping with it, changing it; on others, as opposed to a focus on one's self and one's emotions; and on taking action, rather than being passive or succumbing to one doom or another (pp. 175ff passim).
Mendlesohn's feeling is that in "many of the novels aimed at children and young adults produced between 1970 and 2000 [. . .] maturity (the growth into adulthood) substitutes for the political and social consequences of the rupture" (p. 13). That, in other words, the standards of Best Practice are not being met.
Furthermore, current opinion in the pedagogy of both reading and science seem to militate against the "core values." She seems to have read a lot of the literature in these fields, and probably deserves a medal for getting through it, and summing it up for her readers. Much of what she reports is appalling. Those in charge of reading and book selection for children seem to think the only thing they want to read about is the emotional trials of people just like themselves; and many science educators think science should be taught by doing and demonstration, but without giving facts and principles that explain what's being explored or demonstrated, because too much information is too "didactic," old-fashioned, off-putting, and, for most children, too hard.
But while Mendlesohn's argument is laudable, some of what goes into it is problematic, such as her "definition" of science fiction via its structure.
She tells us that "Science fiction is less a genre than it is a mode. It is a way of writing about things, events and people, rather than a description of which things, events and people should be written about." She compares this understanding to John Clute's concept of the "full fantasy" as set out in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "a process of identifying WRONGNESS, THINNING, RECOGNITION of the moment of turn (what we might call an epiphany), and the process of HEALING." It's in imitation of this that she generates the structure given above.
I have no problem with this as a structure that fits much, even most SF, and as a measure of what she considers SF of the "better" sort. But I don't think it's remotely a definition, or that it can stand alone.
Here's a recipe I found online, rendered Clute/Mendlesohn style:
Remove and set aside
Add and stir
Cover and simmer
Continue to simmer
Don't know what that makes? Understandable. Because to know what a recipe produces, you have to know something about the INGREDIENTS, not just the actions, steps, or "formulation."
I simply don't understand the urge to define a genre this way. What would be the narrative scheme of a "western"? A "mystery"? I don't see why Clute's couldn't fit a novel of religious crisis and resolution, and I don't see why Mendlesohn's doesn't fit, say, A Farewell to Arms. The elements of dissonance? World War I (and an unexpected child, and the death of a loved one). Those aren't "science fictional," but a war would certainly qualify as a "novum" in most people's lives, that sets up a cognitive distance from the normal world. It does so explicitly in the book; it's part of the book's point. I think her schema could also be applied to novels of religious crisis and disaster novels, and to a number of outright fantasies; The Lord of the Rings springs to mind. Despite her protests, the real difference between genres, and between genre and non-genre stories, is what they're about.
SF stories deal with things currently non-existent, contrary to fact (as in alternate histories), or impossible, but which are theoretically possible within the world as we know it. If the phenomena they deal with are currently impossible, they have been reached by the extension of the world we know with no disruption by the supernatural or transgression of what is possible—really possible, as opposed to what we understand as possible—at any point along the line, whether we see that transition or not. Fantasy deals with the supernatural and its material is, in some respect, impossible in our world or any extension of our world reached by rational means. SF doesn't always imply the use of science, per se. If aliens show up, they don't show up through the scientific method. But if ghosts show up, or angels, it's fantasy.
Perhaps this sort of definition doesn't allow for the kind of examination of the elements of stories that those of Clute and Mendlesohn do, or serve as a measure for "Best Practice"; but none of that is the same thing as a definition.
Furthermore, the kind of science fiction Mendlesohn prefers is not the only kind, and not everyone who reads SF likes it, whether it comes from Heinlein or Cory Doctorow. It's easy enough to argue that the chipper, elitist conventionality of some of Heinlein's juveniles (I haven't read Doctorow) is hopelessly clueless about the real difficulty of the world and of being a full human being, and will not really prepare anyone to read Alfred Bester, Cordwainer Smith, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick, or even late Heinlein.
While I can't go through the entire book, point-by-point, to discuss what I find problematic, I'd like to do a bit of close reading from the early pages, where Mendlesohn sets out much of her thinking.
Following some of her academic and pedagogical sources, Mendlesohn says that she is
attempting to discern and define the quality of a book in terms of those values which I believe children should assimilate from a particular genre [. . .] or [. . .] imposing a top-down reading which draws on a set of codes established by adult readers. [. . .] Books for children are not written by children. [. . .] Given this, the implied community for a children's SF book might be those who are directing the reading of children towards securing a readership for adult science fiction. If the "hidden curriculum" of children's books is to keep children reading, then it seems not unreasonable for a reader or critic of adult SF to argue that the best science fiction for children has, as its hidden curriculum, the desire to persuade children to move into the adult genre (p. 3).
I find this reasoning somewhere between slippery, tortured, and disingenuous. The aim of those who direct children's reading—to get them to keep reading—is not the same as the aim of someone who wants to get them to read and value the thing she reads and values—in this case, SF. As if a course in general religion were the same as proselytizing for my particular religion. It would have been nice if she could have slipped in something about the hidden curriculum of SF being the education of children in reason and an appreciation of science. That comes later, and perhaps wouldn't fit here; but she leaves the reader, for some time, with the disquieting feeling that she values her thing—SF—over everything else, even over science.
And it really does seem that the "values" of the genre—which, for Mendlesohn, include its structure—have been blended into the desire to persuade children to keep reading SF, which becomes one of the values, perhaps the most important one.
The failure to privilege the universe of adult SF does not necessarily make the book a bad book [. . .] but it does make one suspect that the book is less likely to appeal to those who are already reading in the genre or who are likely to be attracted to adult SF. These books can then be tested against what Raymond Williams argues is an idea of quality through "tradition," a way of judging books by the extent to which they promote the values of the communities in which they are marketed (pp. 3-4).
The chief value of children’s SF is to get children to continue to read SF, so a book that fails to do that contravenes the values of SF, and is to that extent a bad book (despite the hedging "not necessarily"). It's like devotion to a chauvinistic state whose chief "value" is that devotion.
In the course of the argument, the various hedging "might argues" and "perhapses" and "can be considereds," are lost sight of, and the whole is accepted as proven. I was unwilling to grant these as they came along, so when they were later assumed to be true, I was left unconvinced.
But the topper was that "idea of quality through 'tradition,' a way of judging books by the extent to which they promote the values of the communities in which they are marketed." Had I been drinking something when I first read that, I'd have done a spit-take. Evidently Mendlesohn hasn't considered applying this idea to works by which most of us, she included, would be appalled, but which genuinely meet this standard. I've recently read some books by Thomas Dixon, Jr., after watching The Birth of a Nation (1915), based on his novel The Clansman (1905). They frequently contain what I consider horrifying racist propaganda (as did the film)—but since they embody vigorously and well the values of their audience, and were duly popular, by Mendlesohn's standard, they were actually great. Don't even get me started on Mein Kampf.
Mendlesohn again: "If we accept SF as a community—and this book will proceed on that assumption—then it is valid to consider these texts in terms of whether they support the beliefs and ideological structures of the genre" (p. 4). The worth of the books will depend on the extent to which they promote the values of that community.
I'm not entirely convinced SF is a "community" with a set of values, but if it is, I missed the vote when the values and structures she elucidates were agreed on as the values of the SF community (or the "beliefs [. . .] of the genre"—whatever that means). Not to be sly about it, this is either a faulty bit of reasoning or a lot of nerve.
"SF" is not a monolithic community, though reading this, one would think it uniform and homogenous (and all, apparently, in accord with Mendlesohn). So which community do we check with? Which values? She goes on to say that one of her sources expresses the concern "that children's science fiction does not seem to share the worldview of the adult genre" (p. 4). The worldview? The values? You mean that worldview shared by Heinlein, Bester, and Dick? The values shared by the Smiths, E.E. "Doc" and Cordwainer? The identical attitudes and lockstep thinking of Podkayne of Mars and The Left Hand of Darkness? Jerry Pournelle and Carol Emshwiller? Analog and Strange Horizons?
Besides the fact that I think this argumentation suspect, I think that, outside of the academic context in which, presumably, the book must fit, it's unnecessary. As if basing your assertions on the prior assertions of some other academic makes your assertions less assertions and more truths grounded in fundamentals. Like the medievals quoting Aristotle, as if that proved something. If only she had said, "Here are the things I think work in books and in pedagogy; object to them if you like—or dare" and gone on from there. It's trying to present her opinions as something more than opinions that makes those opinions troubling.
As I said above, even if you think a certain overall cluelessness lurks in the worldview Mendlesohn promotes, it's hard to imagine anyone objecting to it as a model for books for children. But over the long haul of the book, the argument's unremitting, almost Victorian sense of usefulness, industriousness, of "improving the time," of clean living through science fiction and a cult of Muscular Heinleinians, does wear a bit and come to seem Gradgrindian. There's more to children's SF than the Scylla and Charybdis of her view and the view that children only want to read about the emotional lives of characters just like themselves, and shouldn't be stressed with a lot of information. What about children's fiction as a place where you can just play and be silly? I think that's one of the interesting aspects of children's SF: its (at times) sheer goofiness, the freedom imparted by a kind of double meaninglessness in the eyes of the adult world (it's for kids, and it's that goofy stuff, science fiction) that allows for a kind of secret liberty you'd be hard put to find mentioned in Mendlesohn's book.
Mendlesohn herself, however, does not come across as hard-nosed, but rather down-to-earth and likeable, and though this is an "academic" book, the sense of an authorial personality does come through. She is usually direct and unpretentious. She doesn't claim to be all-knowing or omni-competent, but in occasional asides, gives the impression of having insufficient time to tackle a nearly unmanageable subject. She compares the work on the book to "running the Red Queen's race" and gives a sense that the books she read were to some extent randomly selected, based on what she happened to find and what she had time for (p. 6).
Even her writing bears out this sense of frazzled rush, with repeated run-ons and "comma splices," as if she daren't hold up her sentences with a semicolon or period, or hadn't time to revise. But in the writing and apparent lack of revision, some of the charm of her honesty is lost. While she doesn't generally write obfuscatory academic prose, some of her sentences are car wrecks, which accumulate in some paragraphs into a multi-car pile-ups. Other sentences, merely lamed, seem never to have known the healing touch of revision, editing, or a strict grammarian.
At its worst, her writing makes the sense temporarily impenetrable. A couple of her plot summaries left me with no real idea of what went on in the respective books. Typical of her manner, but also tell-tale, is a sentence that starts, "I'm not explaining this very well, but. . ." (p. 191). The immediate—the only sensible—response is: "Well, then stop and rewrite it until you are explaining it well, then delete the bad patch, and move on. Is this a book or a talk?"
There are far too many failures of proofing, including simple errors, such as "Men 48-58 at the time of the survey (born between 1957 and 1967)" (p. 214); the online survey she did ran in 2004-5, not 2015. Who needed this book so desperately that it couldn't have had another month for editing and revision? Its mechanics are simply shoddy.
Whatever one thinks of Mendlesohn's basic argument one has to ask oneself about the importance of the whole issue outside the rather smallish, hothouse world of SF. How much does what she's arguing for really matter?
I want to see people encouraged to be open-minded, curious, and rational. Science fiction may encourage that. It may also encourage scientism—science-as-a-belief-system—not intrinsically better than any other belief system. I should think that teaching actual science would better strengthen the values Mendlesohn wants to see strengthened. That any significant number of people might miss out on these values because there's not enough of the right kind of written science fiction I find implausible. That they might not become stalwart readers of the genre if they don't get the right kind of SF I find only a minor problem, but I also find that implausible. I think they will find it in adult SF, and I think they will find it fairly early. I hardly had any access to juvenile SF growing up. In SF, I went quickly to scientific romance (Burroughs), then Bradbury, E. E. "Doc" Smith and some other pulp writers, some Wells and Verne, some authors from the 1940s and 1950s, and lots of anthologies made for adults.
I understand that her field is SF, not science education (though she does discuss the latter). But if the real concern is raising rational, open-minded, curious people, why not tout more, earlier, and better science education? I know several people who read very little to next to nothing at all, if they don't have to, who are intelligent, rational professionals. They're scientists.
I expected to like this book. I have read books about books, including summaries of books, even lists of books, with pleasure and no sense of boredom since, literally, early adolescence. And yet I found this tedious. It's not a long book, however, as far as number of pages.
Despite its flaws, there's probably nothing else that covers the same ground, at least, not from this insider, SF-friendly point-of-view. Professionals on whose fields it impinges should own it, or at least, their institutions should (it's priced for institutional purchase). And it has just been nominated for a Hugo. A pity it wasn't done with more care, and perhaps with a different, or additional, focus. It probably makes other books on the field, especially any kind of a survey, impossible for some time.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published twenty-two short stories, with more forthcoming, and over two hundred and fifty nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.
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