Everything old is new again!

Perhaps what I’m about to say will show my age (and no, I’m not telling), but there are two well-established science fiction authors I believe every middle grade reader should delve into at some point. They are Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946).

Ooh, I can already hear the moans and growns in the audience. “But they’re so, like, old! Who would want to read them. I mean there’s lots of really good new authors.”

Yes, they are old, so old they’re dead (sorry). And yes, again, there are plenty of new authors out there who write as well. But please, allow me the chance to continue before the virtual tomatoes rain down on my digital head.

I believe part of the reason many people see these writers as … dated … or more appropriately, out-dated, is the collection of film and TV adaptions we have been pummeled with over the years. Take, for example, H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds”(1898). Immediately, you either have images of Gene Barry (who?) running valiantly away from thrumming ships on three legs, with creatures that have three eyes, or you see Tom Cruise doing pretty much the same thing. BTW, John Wyndham’s novel, “The Day of the Triffids” (1951), covers much the same ground.

But have you ever read WotW? No? Well if you do, you’ll see just how different it is from these “action” movies. The original novel spends far more time focussing on the hero, unnamed, than on the invaders and their machines. It’s truly more about how people might react given such extraordinary circumstances.

Another great Wells read is “The Time Machine” (1895). Fortunately, an early movie adaptation stayed fairly close to the text. If you’re a fan of steampunk, as well as science fiction, I highly recommend TTM. You might also like diving into “The Invisible Man” (1897).

If we step a bit further back in time, we find Jules Verne whipping up sweet fictional delights. One of my favorites is “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1864, revised 1867). In this novel, we follow the exploits of Professor Lidenbrock and his crew as they retrace the steps of Arne Saknussemm who, according to an ancient piece of text, found a path to the center of the earth. Okay, go ahead and laugh. We all know, today, that the center of the earth is a core of molten metal. But this does not take away from the beauty of Verne’s writing.

Another Verne book I can recommend is “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea” (1869-70). Here we follow the exploits of, who else, Captain Nemo, as he takes vengeance against civilization. He also makes great scientific discoveries along the way.

The true thrill of reading Verne is that he was able to imagine technologies, that we see as common place, so very, very long ago. Unlike some early science fiction pulp novels, about space travel and weird aliens (think space opera), Verne and Wells create stories that though they might seem outlandish, today, still have a ring of truth about them. Good writing does last.

Now, here’s the really great part about author’s such as these. Their work is so old, it’s in the public domain. That means that you can download ebook versions typically for free. You can find them at bookseller websites such as amazon.com, as well as another site I recommend you take a good look at: Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/).

So download an ebook version to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, Android, or whatever. Or, better yet, step into your favorite local public library, and check out a few. I know you’ll thank me.

Nuff said!

A Plea for More MG Science Fiction

There are two areas of Middle Grade writing that I often discuss in these blogs. The first is poetry, and why there is not a lot of true poetry for MG readers. I’ll try and cover that again in a future entry.

The second is one I feel is more pressing, as it impacts on the future interests, and possibly career choices, of our children. That is, the presence of good Science Fiction for MG readers.

Of course, there will be many of you who will start listing fantastic SciFi tomes, attempting to refute my argument before I’ve even begun. So, allow me to agree, that there are a fair number of excellent MG SciFi books in the marketplace. Charlotte’s Library (http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/), and other blogs, do a fair job of listing new titles. Hopefully this will satisfy the “wait a minute” crowd.

But consider, who reads these SciFi volumes. Boys? Girls? I would suggest that the majority of MG SciFi readers are male. Oops! I can hear the “wait a minute” troops marching back. “My daughter reads nothing but science fiction!” I hear them scream. Yes, this may be true. In fact, my own daughter, now in her thirties, has always read two genres: science fiction and mysteries. No sparkly vampires for her!

But it stills seems, at least to me, that there is a gender divide with respect to what boys and girls read. BTW, for me, males and females do not become men and women until they’re at least eighteen years old. Until then, they’re boys and girls.

Getting back to the discussion, I see boys as being drawn to more fact based plots, ones that have the look and feel of contraptions. Girls, I would suggest, are more drawn to plots where the focus is on how people interact with one another. For MG readers, that might, perhaps, include some light romance (very light).

But let’s stop right here and examine the flaws in assumptions you may be making, based on what you’ve read so far. For example, that all science fiction plots are just full of nuts and bolts stuff. Oh how wrong you’d be to think that way. Many, many of the greatest SciFi books ever written have very little to do with things like science or technology. Instead, they focused on people, sentient creatures from various planets, and how they interact. Shouldn’t this attract girls?

And let’s put aside the false premise that all books with a romantic bent have wimpy plots. If a book, any book, has a wimpy plot, no one would read. No editor would ever say yes to purchasing it. Good writing is good writing, pure and simple.

No, the true fault I see is not in the books themselves, or the readers, but in those who publish MG, and also YA, books. There *seems* to be a notion that girls want do not like SciFi because it’s too, well, techy. That girls wanted softer material, and genres such as fantasy or the supernatural are perfect for their tastes. Don’t believe me? Just take a walk through your favorite brick and mortar chain bookstore and you’ll see what I mean; all those glossy dust jackets, usually in YA, with girls in slightly suggestive poses. And sparkly vampires! BTW, how come only vampires get to sparkle?

I just took a peek at the New York Times best-selling list for Children’s Middle Grade. The only book on the list that falls under the label “speculative fiction” is A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz and Jacob W. Grimm (Penguin Group), a collection where Hansel and Gretel end up in other Grimm tales. That’s not even science fiction!

So, if you are beginning to sort of, kind of, agree with me, then how do we go about getting MG readers of all genders to get interested in true science fiction (as opposed to pseudo-science fiction, which is actually more fantasy or supernatural than anything else)? We need to write more of it (of course) and work hard at getting agents and editors to attach themselves to it.

This last part also means convincing them that there *is* a market for the stuff. This, I’m sure you all realize, is the hard crux of the matter. No matter how “daring” an agent or an editor is, they still must deal with what they believe the market will bear. I suggest that for many, this vision is a weak one, and that MG readers will gladly buy and read lots of science fiction IF it’s well written.

Finally, allow me to get back to an earlier theme concerning how reading more MG SciFi can affect or kids’ futures. It is a fact that as kids get older, girls seem to shy away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics). Yes, there is a fair number of girls who do pursue careers in STEM fields, but the majority of adults in STEM areas are male.

I believe this is the outcome of a self-prophesizing myth that girls do not do well in STEM and boys do. I also propose that this myth is part of the rationale behind not targeting girls as likely SciFi readers. If we want *all* of our children to be successful, in a wide variety of career paths, then we, as writers, should foster reading of all genres by all genders.

Okay, it’s time to hear from the “wait a minute” folks.

Nuff said!

Is dystopian future fiction also science fiction?

The question I’d like to address is whether or not all dystopian future novels also fall under the umbrella of science fiction. So, let’s cut to the chase … No.

There, all done, simple as pie. But, have you ever tried to make a really good pie. It’s not that easy, and neither is answering this question. Take, for example, The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. This takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, far enough into the future that it might fall into science fiction. Then again, not all books set in the future are necessarily SF.

The premise of these wonderful books is that a massive war occured, in the past, and we are dealing with the aftermath. Psychological? Yes, most definitely. Social issues? Of course. Science fiction? Well … ?

What precisely was the cause of the apocalypse? Did a mad scientist release a nasty virus that wiped out almost the entire population? Did some government lab create a weapon more deadly than any atomic bomb so far?

In fact, exactly what the nature of the apocalyptic event was is never fully revealed. So, in my very humble opinion, given that science is not specified as either the cause of this specific dystopian future, nor is it shown as a way to improve this future, this book cannot be called science fiction.

BTW, I know full well that The Hunger Games is YA, and not MG, but it serves my purpose in this post.

When it comes to dystopian MG that is science fiction, a recent classic comes to mind: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer.

This novel takes place in a future, after some apocalypse, where some individuals have mutated, slightly, to acquire special powers. Without getting into specific plot points, it is the enhanced senses of three mutated individuals who help rescue three kidnapped children. Science, the science of how people can mutate, is at the heart of bringing the plot to a climax. This is therefore, by definition, both dystopian future and science fiction.

Now, why did I bring up this issue at all? Well, it’s because over time I have watched the umbrella if science fiction stretch and stretch, to include so many sub-genres, until the fabric of the definition has grown thin and fragile. I, for one, would entertain more genres than simply extending existing categories. Then again, this is just my very humble opinion.

Nuff said!

I heard that …

Recently, on twitter, I heard that editors and agents who handle mid-grade novels are looking for … wait for it …

Science Fiction!

Oh, how my heart jumped when I read that. Why? Well, besides the fact that this is what I mostly write, I’m glad that the wheel has turned, once again, away from sparkly vampires, and towards the kind of work I love. Also, it means that there will hopefully be some new books I’ll actually want to read.

I’m not saying that paranormal fantasies are bad. On the contrary. What I am saying is that it’s way past time that bookshelves get re-energized. And I, for one, cannot think of a better genre to do that than good old science fiction.

Of course, what science fiction is, how it’s interpreted, has grown over the years. Instead of just SciFi, we now have …

  • Hard SF, strong on facts and real science, mostly the big three of biology, chemistry and physics.
  • Soft SF, dealing more with the human condition, pyschology, the impact of science on people. Ray Bradbury was a master if this type; check out Martian Chronicles.
  • Alternate Histories, more speculative fiction than true SF.
  • Steampunk, where electronics are supplanted by steam power.
  • Cyberpunk, an offshoot of Hard SF, where man and machine meld together, literally.
  • Space Opera, where science is there, but takes a backseat to an old fashioned good versus evil yarn. Think Star Wars!

… and the list goes on.

So yes, I am excited, but also a tad fearful that some of these books for kids/teens may get usurped by adults. That is, that booksellers may see them as adult books instead of MG or YA. I’m mostly concerned about YA.

I’m also hoping that once the SciFi bug takes hold, that editors and agents do not latch onto the first successful trend and beat it to death. Did I mention vampires? Science Fiction is a broad enough genre that many, many rich veins of ideas can be mined, beyond creating one new universe after another. In fact, many of my favorites look at our world and wonder what might be around the corner, timewise. 1984, before it was 1984, was a book that made you think. So was 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So, if you hear about a good SF book, drop me a Tweet (aniprof) and maybe I’ll add it to future posting.

Nuff said!

Call for Submissions: Mid-Grade Science Fiction Anthology

This is a general call for short short submissions for a proposed mid-grade science fiction anthology. The working title is Almost Human, and each story’s protagonist should be “almost human”, though how is up to the author.

Each submission should be between 5,000 and 10,000 words, and take place in current times. That is, no historical stories, future stories, alternate histories or alternate universes. No matter the premise of each story, it should be scientifically plausable, given it is science fiction. No pure fantasy or previously published stories will be accepted.

Submissions should be sent as email attachments (doc, rtf, txt) to aniprof at optonline dot net, no later than April 15, 2012. A short, one paragraph bio should be included in the email. If accepted, payment will be two copies of the anthology, in addition to whatever arrangements are negotiated with a publisher. The publisher will receive first North American print rights. All other rights revert to the authors after publication.