Science Fiction

Forgotten Children’s SF Writers: Alexander Key

Posted on March 4, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Science Fiction |

Last week’s post left me thinking I needed to get over to the library, check out whatever Alexander Key books they had and be ready to blog summaries and reflections, Key being a children’s science fiction writer who’s known for little other than his sympathetic aliens.

Here’s the hitch, our library–which I adore and find generally delightful and well stocked–has NOTHING by Alexander Key. Now that I’ve fished around a bit, that’s not such a surprise. Of his 22 novels for children and young adults, only The Forgotten Door is still in print. Of his two novels for adults, The Wrath and the Wind was reissued in 2005 by a small press. Not much of a legacy. But it happens all the time–somebody dies, the copyright holders do nothing to keep the work in print and–zap!–a generation later, the whole wealth of an author’s body of work is largely inaccessible. It’s how American publishing works.

It’s just that, in this case, I feel like I have a debt owing. Alexander Key was my favorite science fiction writer when I was a kid. Yep, for me, before there was Bradbury, before there was Heinlein, before there was Ursula LeGuin, and way before there was Alice Sheldon, there was Alexander Key.

If you buy the party line on why Key’s work has not endured, it’s his sentimentality (telepathic animals) and moral earnestness (aliens are often both wiser and nicer than we are) that have kept him from the iconic status of such genre greats as, well, Bradbury, Heinlein & LeGuin. I don’t buy the argument. Keys is no more sentimental than Heinlein and probably less morally earnest than Bradbury or LeGuin (how could he be more?).

I think the reasons he’s not better known are as follows: 1)He wrote almost exclusively for children and young adults in a genre that, in its haste to legitimize itself with adult readers, has become much less kid-friendly in the last thirty years; 2)He died the year he finished his last novel and his heirs, who have also died, did not keep his work in print; 3)He bears the taint of Disnification (Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain were both made into Disney movies), which has made him easy to dismiss.

What am I going to do about the situation? What do I want you all to do? Well, this post’s a start. I do know there’s a small cult following online, even a little Internet archive of his lesser known works. I’m not linking you there, as I have no desire to bring a cease-and-desist order down on somebody’s well intentioned labor of love. Besides, if tracking the copyright and convincing somebody to bring the works back in print or sign them over to the public domain proves to be as impossible as it sounds, I might just be starting a little DMCA-violation archive of my own. Stay tuned. 😉

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Wanted: Sympathetic Aliens in Children’s Literature

Posted on February 25, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Science Fiction |

When he created the Star Trek franchise, Gene Roddenberry insisted that futuristic alien-human interspecies relationships were a metaphorical way of looking at present-day interracial relationships in the United States. In the utopian frame of the show–we are to assume Earth (including the U.S.) has already outgrown racial prejudices and that human beings are now at a stage where they are working to make nice with “humanoids” much more different from them than they are from one another.

In genre terms, Roddenberry wasn’t doing anything really new–aliens as outsiders, or “others” to borrow a postcolonial term, have a history almost as long as the genre itself. And though there’s plenty of adult science fiction that features space marines with big guns ready to exterminate any alien menace (genocide, anyone?), I’ll wager there’s an equal amount of adult science fiction that takes the notion of alien otherness quite seriously. I’ll spare you the full genre tour, but suffice it to say that as early as the 1930s, writers from the U.S. and elsewhere were creating sympathetic alien characters and using the relationships between those characters and their human counterparts to explore ideas about difference and tolerance (in terms of race, creed, color, gender, ability, etc.) that would not surface in popular discourse until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

On to the Amazon search I did this afternoon. I thought it would be fun to dig up some kid’s picture books on aliens as an oblique way of opening some points of discussion on difference and tolerance. I was assuming that what’s true of adult science fiction was likely true of kid’s SF as well. Imagine my surprise when I had trouble finding even a handful of picture books that featured sympathetic portrayals of aliens. And not that many overall that featured aliens of any kind. Doesn’t anybody remember how popular E.T. was, or even Lilo and Stitch? In chapter books, there were more aliens–but fewer of them sympathetic in any way. With rare exception, I was thrown back on the few titles I was already familiar with. I’ll list those in a minute, but right now, I’m still absorbing my—admittedly superficial and anecdotal–findings. But assuming those findings aren’t too far from the mark (including picture books and chapter books, I looked at well over 100 titles in Amazon’s 4-8 age bracket):

What does it mean that most readily available children’s books about aliens feature them as a evil invading armies rather than curious individual explorers? Or that those books that do include arguably harmless aliens generally characterize them as ugly, gross or stupid?

I think those questions are a lot more powerful left open, so I’m just going to skip to my recommended list of kid’s picture books featuring sympathic aliens (for chapter books, READ BRUCE COVILLE!):

Sector 7 by David Weisner
Surreal rather than typically sci-fi, Weisner nevertheless captures a playful friendship between a boy and a cloud.

Company’s Coming and Company’s Going by Arthur Yorinks
And why should we not simply invite the aliens over to dinner when they arrive?

George Hogglesberry, Grade School Alien by Sarah Wilson
New to me, but definitely on my get-it list: George is an alien new to Earth and new to school. Great example of what could be happening with the trope in kid lit.

Andy the Alien by Jeffrey Scott Chase
Bending the picture-book definition here, but Andy, our fictional tour guide to the actual universe, looks like such fun.

Hedgie Blasts Off by Jan Brett
Okay, so other than the talking dogs, the aliens here aren’t all the most responsible cosmic citizens, but there’s certainly nothing mean or threatening about them.

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You’re a Prisoner of the Ant People, What Do You Do?

Posted on February 3, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Science Fiction, Web Resources |

A. Lie still on the floor.
B. Attack them.
C. Concentrate on excreting pheremones that will drive them away or make you their leader.
D. Search the cave for the naturally occuring components of boric acid.

That’s right. CYOA. Time to read like it’s 1983! For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, the Choose Your Own Adventure books, many of them still in print (!), were as hot among middle-schoolers in the mid-eighties as Sudoku puzzles are among the middle-aged today. And, hmmmm, there’s a lotta overlap in those two populations–I’ll have to ponder that at greater length later.

Each CYOA book, written in the second person, set up an opening scenario: you’re alone in a room with an strange object; you’re stranded in an exotic location with only basic survival tools; you’re a spy on a deep-cover assignment; you’re, well, a prisoner of the ant people. The opening scenario might be a paragraph, might be two or three pages. At the end, you’d get a choice like the one that opens this blog entry. It would take you to a particular page in the book and from there you’d read another few paragraphs or pages and get to select a path from another set of options. The books were written generally, but not exclusively for boys–that second-person narration left a fair lot of room for girls to play too. Though perhaps the prevalence of the “Attack them” option could be interpreted as a gendered response?

At any rate–the CYOA books, while not great literature, were an important part of my middle-grade reading diet. Why?

1. Great social leveler. We all read them. The insufferable smart kid (me), the kid who’s now serving time for armed robbery, the girls who are now accountants and nurses, the four boys whose parents were splitting up, the kid with severe epilepsy and brain damage, the girl whose babysitter was turning tricks upstairs. We all shared the classroom library copies and, when those fell apart, even each other’s personal copies. It gave us a common, totally voluntary experience (a reading experience!) to share and discuss at length.

2. Bad endings. Nothing said GAME OVER like turning to page 105 and finding out that the serum I’d just swallowed was a lethal poison. A deterrent? No way. I’d go back and make another choice. And that’s where it got interesting. Sometimes I’d discover there were no really good choices on a page and I’d have to work further back in the decision tree to get to a really cool ending. We all shared a lot of information on and had a lot of good arguments about this aspect of the books. Searching for the way out of the ant colony, we were learning a sophisticated lot about cause and effect, story structure, and rhisomal narratives–a key concept in both postmodern literature and hypertextuality. It’s worth noting that many video games follow this same structure…;-)

3. Power. Reading a CYOA book, *I* was always the main character, capable of making things happen or unmaking them. While I loved being able to vicariously enjoy the adventures of fictional characters, getting to BE the character was a thrill all its own. And I’m betting that element was a big part of the draw for the more reluctant readers in our bunch too.

So, well and good, it’s been a nice trip for me down nostalgia lane. But don’t worry. There’s something here for the rest of you too. I believe the valuable experiences my classmates and I shared through CYOA books are replicable–and not just in video game form. The books, as the earlier Wikipedia link indicates, are generally still in print and there are all kinds of print spinoffs that use the same concept.

I’d like to say, best of all, there are now CYOA websites. HOWEVER–most of them contain significant adult content. Google Earth is the possible exception–it apparently has a Carmen Sandiegoesque CYOA that would probably be both home and school appopriate. I think loading Google Earth on my aging machine would about kill it though, so I have left that link unexplored.

Before blogging, I spent some time clicking through all the other Wikipedia links, and though there are some great hyperlinked CYOA stories for kids out there, they exist on the very same sites as stories like “Smutty Sex Romp” and “Super Trooper Blood Bath.” Yeah. Limits their usefulness at school to about zero and their usefulness at home to “Supervision Only Toy.” If you’re brave and you want to find kids’ CYOA stories online, I’d recommend the CYOA Wiki, My Adventure Game and Make Your Own Adventure. For teacher materials that might help elucidate other educational benefits of CYOA books, see Sundance Publishing.

And now, it’s time for me to make a break for it, out through the tunnel that leads to the light, scattering that Macgyver-would-be-proud boric acid as I go.

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