Given that the current crop of young'uns grew up reading Harry Potter, there is no question that kids and young adults are reading genre fiction. However, the YA market is dominated by fantasy: from the classics there are Narnia and The Lord of the Rings (or The Hobbit for younger set), and in the two years that the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Fiction has been included in the Nebulas, twelve out of the seventeen nominees (70%) have been works of fantasy. This leaves a gap, into which steps Jonathan Strahan's anthology The Starry Rift, an assembly of stories from sixteen major authors in the field, all undeniably science fiction, all aimed at kids. It succeeds admirably well. Any imaginative child (between the ages of say, 10 and 14, depending on the kid) should find stories here to enjoy. There is a wide variety of styles and sub-genres on display, and also plenty of recommendations for what to read next.
Two notable standouts are the stories by Kelly Link and Greg Egan. Link's story, "The Surfer," centers on a young man in the near future who finds himself en route to Costa Rica with his father during a global flu pandemic. Given that he was something of a local football (soccer) star back home, he is not happy with this development at all. He's even less happy when everyone from his plane is quarantined in a hangar. His father had planned to join a collective on the island, one linked to the first man to incontrovertibly be contacted by aliens. The father is a huge SF fan, as well as being a doctor, and although the contactee is something of a hippy nut, the father assumes that he's still the best chance for renewed alien contact. In the enclosed atmosphere of the hangar, things actually go pretty smoothly. Chores are divided and assigned, soccer games are organized, and people have conversations and debates about the latest pandemic and its casualties. The young man finds himself faced with all sorts of people he wouldn't normally meet, and as a result grows quite a bit. At the very least, he begins the process of getting over himself. In the background, the books that the father packed in his luggage form the core of an impromptu lending library—and they're all science fiction books. After reading The Starry Rift, if any young reader has any questions about what to read next, he or she will need only to consult this story, and they'll get the names of Zelazny, Butler, Stapledon, Bradbury, Willis, Tiptree, Russ, Stephenson, and others. Half the time when a new scene starts, one of the participants is reading a classic of SF. So while the story develops in a character-oriented and fairly linear way up top, there's a great subtext about the depth and history of SF that anybody can then go and investigate. It's wonderful propagandizing on behalf of the field, and in the context of this anthology it is a perfect touch.
Greg Egan's equally remarkable story, "Lost Continent," is obviously influenced by his work with refugees in Australia. It is the story of a time-traveling refugee, Ali, who comes from a land whose native culture seems similar to that depicted in the Arabian Nights. It is thrown into turmoil by time-traveling warlords in Land Cruisers, and Ali's parents pay a time-traveler to smuggle him sometime safer after his older brother is disappeared. The time-traveler dies in the dangerous crossing, leaving Ali all alone. He is rescued from the desert, and finds himself in a modern-day refugee camp with other displaced persons, and no one to corroborate his story. Although the landscape and policies seem to indicate that he's in Australia, the specifics are never mentioned. He does the best he can, navigating the confusing bureaucracy with the help of fellow refugees and occasional appointed translators and lawyers. He tries to do everything he can to adapt: he helps out around camp, starts learning English as soon as he can, and picks up stories and cultural tips from the other refugees. However, it looks like he will be trapped in bureaucratic limbo. Unlike Egan's novels, this story is short on hard SF and infodumps. The focus is completely on Ali and his situation, hearkening back to the style of some of Egan's early short fiction—such as some of the work collected in Axiomatic—in which questions of politics, ethics, and identity trump rigorous scientific extrapolation. In being so specific, focused tightly on Ali without detailing the society running the refugee camp or its politics, it becomes universal to the plight of refugees anywhere. One needs no knowledge of the political background that inspired this story to be moved to new awareness by it.
Egan is not the only author dabbling in political issues here. Cory Doctorow's story, "Anda's Game" (the only reprint story included in the anthology) also shows off its author’s views, and focuses on the completely different experience of virtual reality offered to rich First World kids compared to their exploited Third World. It's a well-done extrapolation from current "click farms," and the story has a lot of adventuresome action to draw the reader in before getting the message beaten home.
Although the stories by Egan and Link stand out, most of the contributors have written stories that are very enjoyable, even if they're a little light. The introductory story, "Ass-Hat Magic Spider" by Scott Westerfeld is like "The Cold Equations," but for young book lovers it gets a happy ending. Neil Gaiman's "Orange" is a charming experiment in form, where the reader deduces the story from interview answers, sans questions. "The Star Surgeon's Apprentice" by Alastair Reynolds is set in his Revelation Space universe. It's reminiscent of a sea-faring pirate story, and is as gory as any youngster could hope. Ann Halam provides "Cheats," which examines the potential of virtual reality to unlock the potential of differently-abled people. Stephen Baxter's "Repair Kit" is an Analog-style story of alien tech gone interestingly and logically awry. Tricia Sullivan's "Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome" gives us a view of personalized galactic combat in a Buffy-style fighting story. Speaking of Buffy, alien vampires are on tap in Garth Nix's "Infestation." Other stories pack a more significant emotional punch. Ian McDonald gives us another exotic story in his River of Gods future India, one where inter-family combat can outlive most of the participants. He manages to be both adventurous and poignant. "Pinocchio" by Walter Jon Williams provides us with a fascinating look at a future in which life is lived in public, style is everything, and if you don't have an audience you are nothing.
Jeffrey Ford and Margo Lanagan's stories felt to me like they may be pitched over the heads of the average young reader. Ford's story, "The Dismantled Invention of Fate," is a truly lovely tale of loss and nostalgia. An aging astronaut reminisces over his adventures, which read as if ripped from a particularly well written pulp adventure novel. He mourns the loss of his only love. She may or may not still exist in some reality/dream world/other plane, and the fate of the universe may rest on an artifact she possesses. Ford describes his story as an homage to Michael Moorcock in its reality-bending ways, but the lovely sense of nostalgia that pervades each page seems an odd tone to strike for young adults, who won't make the connection to the era he's nostalgic for. Moreover, at times it can be confusing for adult readers, never mind kids; certainly some more advanced readers will appreciate it, but I suspect some won't get it at all.
Likewise, Lanagan's story is a little obscure. It’s also quite disturbing. Her young protagonist is disabled, but is being given his first opportunity to join the work of his community. A gigantic humanoid corpse is landing near their village, and he will be leading one of the teams assigned to dissect the corpse into salable pieces. Obviously modeled after tales of the whaling industry, it quite put me off my lunch, though it's a very interesting portrayal of a marginal society. I suspect that for most readers this and Ford's story will pass harmlessly over their heads, but for the smarter kids it will give them something that rewards a greater stretch to understand.
One reason why children’s literature is explicitly for children is that it is often much, much too simple for adults. There’s nothing for a mature audience except triviality and platitudes in pure children’s fiction such as the Goosebumps series. However, in books that limited, there’s also nothing much for brighter-than-average kids. One can be fairly sure that The Starry Rift will not have that problem, since there is a lot here for adult readers to enjoy. Not simply the stories described in detail above: almost any of the book's tales would be perfectly at home in a "normal" SF anthology. The stories here generally have young protagonists, but just because Ender was six doesn’t mean that many thousands of adults can’t enjoy reading Ender's Game. Most of the stories included here ride that same line: while aimed at young readers, the authors bring the same speculation, style, and flair to their work that makes them so popular with adult readers.
Of course, most of these stories are told by young protagonists who learn and grow. Their young heroes are particularly bright and perhaps a little socially isolated, much like the anthology's expected audience. But ultimately the greatest strength of The Starry Rift is that it contains so many different kinds of narratives, from flat out adventure stories to puzzle stories to coming of age stories. This is a good way to expose young readers to the many different potentialities in SF. Genre fiction isn't monolithic; if one style of storytelling doesn't appeal to you, you can always find a style you like better. Between knowing its audience, not talking down to them (except in Strahan's rather stilted introduction—hopefully the kids will skip that bit), showcasing some of the best authors SF has to offer, and showing them the way to even more of the greats, this anthology does exactly what it set out to do. I hope that it will be widely available in libraries as well as in bookstores, and that it draws in many kids to experience the joys available from our genre.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and archives her reviews at www.SpiralGalaxyReviews.com. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.