Science fiction - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


40. Science fiction


Jessica Yates


Not every genre of children’s literature has a corresponding adult genre - school stories being one example - and it is only recently that the horror novel and murder mystery have returned to children’s literature. Historical novels for adults and children both have an honourable and independent pedigree; but, while children’s fantasy enjoys a far longer and more distinguished tradition than adult fantasy, which only became a commercial genre after Tolkien’s success in the 1960s, children’s science fiction (SF) is considered the poor relation of both adult science fiction and children’s fantasy. In this chapter I shall discuss why this is so and demonstrate how, since the 1950s, writers specialising in children’s and teenage science fiction have raised the literary standard of the genre.

The story of the development of children’s fantasy is well known (Green 1962/1969/1980: 1-16), and authors choosing a supernatural mode for their children’s books would choose fantasy or mild forms of the ghost story, not science fiction. Although the term ‘science fiction’ was not coined until the late 1920s as an improved version of Hugo Gernsback’s first name for the genre - ‘scientifiction’ (Clute and Nicholls 1993: 311, 1076) - the genre had been recognisably in existence for several decades as ‘scientific romance’, a term applied to the work of Verne and Wells, and science fiction plots were also familiar in the ‘pulp’ literature read by adults and teenagers. So just as it can be argued that the first modern science-fiction novel is Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818) - not only because of its now-typical SF motif of the artificial man, but because of its theme of the man who desires to rival nature through science - so one might look for protojuvenile SF among the fantasy classics of the nineteenth century.

Science-fictional motifs may appear, therefore, in work whose overriding ethos is magical. Although the story of The Cuckoo Clock (1877) includes a voyage to the Moon, it remains a children’s fantasy; in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) the agency which brings characters out of the past is magical. In general we find that children’s fiction employing time travel to and from the past will be fantasy, and to the future, science fiction. Although I would not claim Carroll’s Alice books as SF, we can still note the somewhat scientific basis for their events: mathematics, the logical aspects of language, and the challenge to the laws of physics in the looking-glass world.

My candidate for the first modern children’s SF novel - the counterpart to Frankenstein for adults - is The Water-Babies (1863) by Charles Kingsley. The branch of science known as Natural History forms the background, and one of the messages of this deceptively entertaining but highly didactic work is that technology is right, if rightly used. Kingsley, by profession a clergyman and by interest not only a writer but an amateur naturalist, was excited by the controversies of the time, especially Darwinism, and corresponded with Huxley and Darwin. In The Water-Babies he attempted a synthesis of children’s belief in fairies, the doctrines of Christianity and the new theories of evolution and the origin of species, and was much more successful in communicating his ideas about the wonder of God’s creation in this fantastic form than in his pamphleteering and adult novels.

According to his unique theology, the world is governed by a Goddess who appears in several guises: as Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, embodying the natural and moral law and punishing transgressors; Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, embodying God’s love for Creation; Mother Carey, who supervises the process of Creation; and the Irishwoman who carries out good deeds on Earth, and intervenes in Tom’s story to start him on his quest. All four beings share one consciousness and represent Mother Nature; they are also described as fairies: Kingsley says that ‘the great fairy Science ... is likely to be queen of all the fairies for many a year to come’. The reverse-evolutionary fable of the Doasyoulikes, and the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus, instruct Tom that humans were meant to use their brains and that technology is better than abstract science, which doesn’t improve the quality of life. When Tom has completed his quest he returns to Earth to become ‘a great man of science’, using technology to improve the state of the world.

Two short stories anticipate SF more directly. Hans Andersen wrote a prophecy of Americans seeing Europe by airship, ‘In a Thousand Years’ Time’ (1853), in which he predicted the Channel tunnel between France and England, an ‘electromagnetic cable under the ocean’ and the destruction of ‘ancient eternal Rome’. It is certainly science fiction, but more a satirical essay than a children’s story.

E. Nesbit, who established the fantasy convention that magic must have particular rules, embedded a tiny piece of science fiction in her time fantasy The Story of the Amulet (1906). The children have been searching in the past for the other half of the Amulet, and Cyril suggests that they go into the future where they will remember how they found it. Although they do find the whole Amulet in the British Museum, they do not remember how it was united. Walking out of the Museum into a clean and sunny London full of happy people, they find a sad boy expelled for one day from school for throwing litter. The boy’s mother shows them her lovely house, and calls their own time ‘the dark ages’. Her son is named Wells ‘after the great reformer ... We’ve got a great many of the things he thought of.’

The one pure science-fiction novel by a classic children’s author before the First World War, although it has not achieved classic status, is The Master Key (1901) by L. Frank Baum, subtitled ‘ “An Electrical Fairy Tale” founded upon the mysteries of electricity and the optimism of its devotees. It was written for boys, but others may read it.’ (Baum included scientific devices in his Oz books, and Tiktok of Oz is a robot.)

Baum’s son Robert, the dedicatee of The Master Key, was an electrical gadgeteer, and inspired this story of how Rob, a teenage experimenter, one day connects all the wires in his bedroom together and accidentally summons the Demon of Electricity, a kind of genie, who offers him a series of electrical gifts in order to move the human race on to the next stage of civilisation. Pseudo-scientific (and thus magical), the gifts include food tablets to do away with food preparation and eating time, a stun-gun for self-defence without killing, a fly-anywhere device strapped to the wrist, and a mini-television to show current world events. Rob is trapped by cannibals and pirates, saves the king of England and president of France from conspirators, and intervenes in a war between Turks and Tatars. Having risked his life several times by failing to realise the dangers caused by his impulsive use of these gadgets, Rob returns them to the Demon and persuades it to wait until mankind is ready to be trusted with them. Sadly, this professional, entertaining novel has remained out of print for many years, only reissued in a collector’s edition in 1974, as its dated political allusions have made it impossible to reprint for children as originally published.

These few books demonstrate that there has been no tradition of children’s science fiction comparable to children’s fantasy. Kipling and Nesbit could no doubt have written in the genre had they wished: Kipling wrote adult SF, Nesbit adult supernatural stories; perhaps they did not find the Vernian yarn a congenial model, and believed that the Wellsian scientific romance was too pessimistic to import into children’s literature. Since children willingly accepted magic, there was no need for a pseudo-scientific explanation for supernatural events - compare Nesbit’s treatment of invisibility in The Enchanted Castle (1907) with H. G. Wells’s in The Invisible Man (1897).

Thus the juvenile SF published from the late nineteenth century onwards, comparable in popular appeal to other children’s genres like the historical novel or adventure yarn, had no market leaders who combined popularity with quality and whose names are recalled today. The best authors in the developing SF genre had the sound commercial sense to write for the widest possible audience: adults and their teenage children; lesser authors imitated their plots and wrote more directly for youngsters. If Verne, an author for adults who did not exclude younger readers, is the genre’s Henty, there are no equivalents to, say, Angela Brazil, Frank Richards or Robert Louis Stevenson.

Jules Verne (1828-1905) rightly takes a pre-eminent place in the early history of children’s SF. A professional writer, he published over sixty novels, which he described as ‘ Voyages extraordinaire/. The most famous in the SF vein are Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1863), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Around the Moon (1870) and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870). Speedily translated into English, they were often abridged for the young, and technical details cut. In their full versions they display awareness of political issues as well as authenticity in the fields of geography and practical science.

H. G. Wells (1866-1946), with Verne the co-creator of science fiction, is more obviously an author for adults, and his early SF novels have become classics recommended to teenagers moving on to adult literature, whatever their genre preferences. These classics are The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899, revised as The Sleeper Awakes 1910), and The First Men in the Moon (1901). With the horror novel The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), he provided many classic ideas to open up the genre: alien invasion, adventures on other planets, genetic manipulation, future totalitarianism, and naive over-reaching scientists.

Other yarns in the science-fiction area which have become popular classics for teenagers are The Lost World (1912) and The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Scarlet Plague (1914) by Jack London; and most memorably the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs learned from Rider Haggard the plot motif of the unattainable Goddess- Woman, and more practically the way to sell books by writing a series of novels about the same characters, some linked by book-to-book cliff-hangers. Most famous for his Tarzan yarns, Burroughs wrote three sets of planetary romances, the first set on Barsoom (Mars), the second set in Pellucidar, the land ‘at the Earth’s core’, and the third on Venus, and also wrote The Moon Maid, set in several future epochs. Clearly a writer for adults, with his recurrent heterosexual theme of the hero in search of his kidnapped lady love, Burroughs’s sagas appeal to youngsters who are beginning to be curious about sex.

Here then were the themes which were to be recycled by juvenile publishing in four distinct formats: the dime novel; the boys’ paper; the hardback, often in series form; and the comic.

Science fiction was part of the repertoire of boys’ thrillers (Turner 1975). Dime-novel SF developed from the American dime-novel Western. Set in the Wild West, a major series featured Frank Reade Junior with his amazing transports such as the Steam Man and Steam Horse, and others like airships and submarines. Written in the 1880s and 1890s under the pseudonym of Noname, they were probably the work of Luis Senarens, who, according to his entry in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, was characterised by ‘sadism, ethnic rancour, factual ignorance ... On the positive side, he led the dime novel away from eccentric inventiveness into a developmental stream that culminated in modern Children’s SF’ (Clute and Nicholls 1993: 1083).

From Frank Reade Junior’s status as boy inventor, and a rival series featuring Tom Edison Jr in the early 1890s, Clute named this type of story an ‘Edisonade’ by analogy with ‘Robinsonnade’ (Clute and Nicholls 1993: 368-70), and shows that the problemsolving type of SF plot derives from this tradition: the archetypal myth figure of Trickster becomes the Competent Man in the hands of writers like Robert Heinlein. Other story- types featuring in dime novels included the lost-race story, usually involving a hunt for treasure, and the marvel tale of strange peoples and adventures in Antarctica, or on other planets. The dime novel may have influenced Burroughs and Doyle (Clute and Nicholls 1993: 336).

Boys’ papers were predominantly a British phenomenon, deliberately set up to provide a higher moral tone than the penny dreadfuls. Several of Verne’s novels were serialised in the Boy’s Own Paper, this being often their first appearance in any English publication. One dominant story-line, an obsession of Lord Northcliffe’s, was invasion of Britain in the near future, and it frequently appeared in the boys’ papers he published before the First World War (Turner 1975: 176-86). Space adventures, future catastrophe and lost-world themes also appeared (Turner 1975: 187-99). Science-fictional themes turned up in the story papers published by D. C. Thomson, with such characters as Morgyn the Mighty and Wilson the Incredible Athlete.

In 1934 Scoops, a newspaper-style boys’ magazine devoted solely to science fiction, was launched in Britain, combining new SF with reprints; but it lasted for only twenty issues. To sum up, boys’ papers ‘played an important role in the history of SF ... by creating a potential readership for the SF magazines and by anticipating many Genre-SF themes’ (Clute and Nicholls 1993: 149). George Orwell’s critique ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ includes a reference to ‘Death-rays, Martians, invisible men, robots, helicopters and interplanetary rockets’ which he considered new plot ideas; Frank Richards’s riposte corrected him by pointing out the work of Verne and Verne’s predecessors (Orwell 1940/1968: 460-93).

Turning now to the conventional hardback format, we find as yet no classic authors, but the genre was paid some significant attention by Edward Stratemeyer, who published two important series of juvenile SF, the Great Marvel and the Tom Swift series (Fortune Magazine 1934/1969: 41-61; Donelson 1978). Stratemeyer supplied synopses and then published novels by a stable of writers under his house names. Roy Rockwood’s Great Marvel series, the first six written by Howard Garis, describes the adventures of two boys with a professor who invents spaceships and other futuristic travelling devices. Titles included Through Space to Mars (1910).

Much better known, and commercially very successful, was the Tom Swift series written by ‘Victor Appleton’ (mostly by Garis) from 1910 to 1941, in which a boy inventor realises the potential of, and copes with the problems caused by, his futuristic inventions, such as a giant magnet. A second series about Tom Swift Jr written by ‘Victor Appleton II’ and, including off-planet adventures, ran from 1954 to 1971, and two more series have appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. They are fast-paced and addictive, packed with science and pseudo-science, and promote an optimistic view of technology and atomic power. The plots generally involve criminals or spies trying to steal Tom’s latest invention. Reading Tom Swift was thus a formative experience for thousands of teenagers who took their ideas about science and science fiction from the series. There was some stereotyping of female characters and foreigners, although it seems to have been well intentioned.

In Britain, Dr Gordon Stables, a stalwart adventure story-writer in the Ballantyne tradition and regular contributor to the Boy’s Own Paper, wrote several Vernean yarns: The Cruise of the Crystal Boat (1891), The City at the Pole (1906) and a future-war novel, The Meteor Flag of England (1905). Throughout the first part of the twentieth century, SF juveniles continued to be published in the Burroughs and Verne traditions, featuring survivors from Atlantis, lost worlds and super-criminals. The Burroughsian yarns of American Carl Claudy are especially remembered: two youths under the patronage of an eccentric scientist have rather frightening adventures in stories with such titles as The Mystery Men of Mars (1933).

The ‘mad scientist’ motif also turns up in several fantasies of the period with SF overtones. In Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1929) the Doctor is brought to the Moon by a giant moth. The journey was airless but the Moon has an atmosphere to which the Doctor and his friends adapt, enjoying the release from Earth gravity. The Doctor learns to communicate with the Moon plants, and finds that Moon life is a utopia where vegetable and animal life live in harmony, supervised by the one Moon man. The Moon people plan to keep the Doctor with them for ever and, as originally written, Dolittle was intended to stay on the Moon, but Lofting’s public would not allow him to ‘kill off’ the Doctor, so he returned in a sequel.

Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm books are classics of nonsense humour. Their science-fictional content deserves a mention, as humour is otherwise distinctly lacking in the genre. Hunter wrote The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm in 1933, following it with Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt (1937); there was then a gap of over thirty years until Hunter retired and a new market appeared for the books, whereupon several more Branestawm collections were published. In these short stories the Professor usually invents a machine to solve a problem, and the machine goes wrong, resulting in chaos.

A precursor of British juvenile SF in the 1950s was Professor A. M. Low’s Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937), with its near-Earth plot and emphasis on problem-solving; its preposterous story and lucky escapes also render it unintentionally quite amusing.

It seems that the first SF comic strip was ‘Le Roi de la lune’, published in the early nineteenth century by Jean-Claude Pellerin (reproduced in Gifford 1984: 12). It is a moral tale about naughty children being taken to the Moon for punishment to fit the crime: a cross between The Water-Babies and Dante’s Inferno! In the twentieth century, once comics had developed into adventure stories told in pictures and were no longer ‘funny’, nor indeed ‘comic’, the potential for depicting SF’s impossible scenarios was relished by artists, writers and readers. Apart from comic-book versions of SF novels such as The Invisible Man, there were two main types of SF story: the space opera; and the superhero tale. The latter, in monthly comic-book form, has been the most popular comic-book type in the USA for decades. Because of the indiscriminate distribution of comic strips in newspapers and comic books in shops, SF comics have generally been aimed at a universal audience of juveniles and adults, until the graphic novel became commercially viable in the 1980s.

High points in the SF comic strip were ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’, which began in 1929 as a daily strip, and then became a Sunday page. An American air-force pilot is transported five hundred years into the future, makes friends with female soldier Wilma Deering, who becomes his regular companion, and has typical space-opera adventures. A serial film (1939), TV serials and a modern film (1979) followed. Other important strips were ‘Brick Bradford’ (from 1933), who uses a Time Top to travel to the past and future, and ‘Flash Gordon’ (from 1934) which went on to radio and other spinoffs, including a film (1980). Gordon’s girlfriend is always Dale Arden, and his arch-enemy is Ming the Merciless of the planet Mongo. Superman (from 1938) is, of course, the most famous. SF has continued to flourish in comics, and the worldwide influence of Superman, Dan Dare and the Marvel Comics Group superheroes like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men cannot be overestimated.

As we move into the 1940s, it is obvious that children’s SF has made no contribution to the body of ‘classic’ children’s literature. Only writers familiar with the conventions of the genre would have had the knowledge and motivation to write good juvenile SF, such as the writers of adult SF published in J. W. Campbell’s Astounding magazine. Campbell was an intellectual who constantly challenged his stable of writers with new ideas, and it was one of his men, Robert Heinlein, who took juvenile SF in hand with Rocketship Galileo in 1947. Crudely plotted in its snap solutions to chapter-end cliff-hangers and its happy ending, it remains a brilliant transformation of the Tom Swift ‘can-do’ plots, with fresh colloquial dialogue, varied and exciting episodes, and factual but lucid technical details. From 1947 to 1958, Heinlein published one juvenile a year.

Heinlein’s basic plot is the initiation of a teenage male into his adult career as space pioneer, colonist or politician, and the books share a common background with some of his adult fiction - the unrolling colonisation of space. He intended not only to entertain but to educate his readers in citizenship - that is, Heinlein-style, politically of the right, non-pacifist and libertarian, supporting revolution in colonies on planets such as Mars and Venus. But his novels, for all their terse titles - The Star Beast (1954), Between Planets (1951), Farmer in the Sky (1950) - address complex political issues; Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) is even a homage to Kipling’s Kim! Heinlein’s view of gender roles is also unexpected - women may be doctors, pioneers, pilots or even soldiers and survivalists.

His Starship Troopers (1959) was rejected by his juvenile publisher as being too violent and militaristic; published for adults, it won the Best SF Novel Hugo award.

Heinlein’s influence on children’s SF (and on the young adult novel) was immense, establishing its literary credentials and establishing classic plot motifs. He co-scripted Destination Moon, the first post-war SF film, and his Space Patrol, an ethical organisation run on naval lines, moulded Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the cult TV and film series Star Trek.

One of Heinlein’s early disciples was Lester del Rey, with such books as Marooned on Mars (1952), Attack from Atlantis (1953) and Moon of Mutiny (1961) about a teenage space pilot with the gift of calculating courses without a computer.

In the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of short thrillers about David ‘Lucky’ Starr, a ‘Space Ranger’; Asimov’s second wife, Janet, who also wrote SF, collaborated with him on the Norby Chronicles in the 1980s. These are humorous tales which are far-fetched even for SF, and might best be called science fantasy.

Arthur C. Clarke, a British author writing for the American market, using American genre conventions, wrote two juveniles. Islands in the Sky (1952) describes Clarke’s vision of space satellites between Earth and the Moon, but the balance between predicted fact and story is weighted towards non-fiction, and the book is a near documentary. Dolphin Island (1963) is much better, a story enhanced by Clarke’s personal experience of underwater exploration. Both books are set during the twenty-first century, a time of world peace. Of Time and Stars (1972) is a collection of his short pieces selected for young readers.

Ray Bradbury, another of SF’s all-time-great authors, wrote no SF juveniles, but made two selections from his adult short stories for the juvenile market, R is for Rocket (1962) and S is for Space (1966), the latter including the chilling ‘Zero Hour’ in which aliens seduce the USA’s children into abetting their conquest of Earth with the promise of late nights and plenty of TV.

James Blish made A Life for the Stars (1962), the second volume of his Cities in Flight quartet, a Heinleinian rite-of-passage story about a teenager press-ganged aboard a city just before its take-off into space. He also wrote The Star Dweller (1961) and Welcome to Mars! (1967) - both optimistic and rather intellectual.

Harry Harrison, one of today’s leading SF writers for adults, has written a few juveniles, such as the very simply written The Californian Iceberg (1975) and the humorous The Men from P.I.G. and R.O.B.O.T. (1974). With Spaceship Medic (1970), however, Harrison produced a book which deserves classic status. When a meteorite holes a spaceship travelling to Mars, nearly all the ship’s officers are killed and the ship’s doctor assumes command; he appoints new officers, corrects the ship’s course, copes with solar storm and mutiny, and works out an antidote for the meteor-borne plague which strikes the ship. All this is done with only knowledge, experience, devotion to duty (and drugs to keep him awake!).

Other noteworthy books of this genre include Alan Nourse’s Star Surgeon (1960), which innovatively makes an alien the hero, and the book is propelled by a powerful plea for racial equality.

Two characteristics of post-Second World War children’s SF are that, compared with children’s fantasy, the author needs to have produced a substantial body of work to achieve classic status; second, specialist juvenile SF writers take over from adult SF writers. Some are forgotten, like ‘John Blaine’, author of more than twenty Rick Brant Science Adventures between 1947 and 1968.

However, the first woman on the scene has remained popular, and has become the grande dame of SF. Taking an androgynous pen name, Andre Norton, Alice Mary Norton (who has also written as ‘Andrew North’) has written prolifically. Norton’s SF novels usually share a far-future setting where humans (Terrans) mix with alien races; intergalactic law is enforced by the Patrol in a never-ending conflict with the Thieves’ Guild. Norton is uninterested in the nuts and bolts of engineering her faster-than-light ships, and she has imported several fantasy motifs into her SF, especially motifs from the sword-and-sorcery sub-genre: the quest; the magic token; enhanced mental powers such as telepathy (which in Norton’s universe may occur between people and animals as well as interpersonally); and archaic dialogue to suggest the lifestyle of less advanced cultures. With her research into anthropology and archaeology, Norton gives depth to the varied cultures in her worlds, as in The Beast Master (1959), while scenes in Android at Arms (1971) recall Tolkien. Norton’s lengthy novels do not suit modern teenage taste, nor does the absence of a love interest, or its delay to the last page (romance, however, flourishes in her Witch World fantasies).

We turn now to children’s SF in Britain (and a few French titles) immediately after 1945. These were conventional genre-books with SF motifs added: the most popular type was the space thriller, optimistic in mood, reflecting the feeling that, now the war was over, Britain, probably co-operating with the USA, would build on wartime rocketry developments and start exploring the Solar System. The most well-known authors of this period were W. E. Johns, Patrick Moore, Angus MacVicar and Hugh Walters, and I should also mention Paul Berna’s Threshold of the Stars (France, 1954) and its sequel Continent in the Sky (1955), about a space station and lunar exploration.

Johns, the creator of Biggles, wrote ten books about a traditional group of explorers - war hero, teenage son, eccentric professor and doctor - who make contact with Martians. Free of the Empire ethos which some have criticised in the Biggles books, the books are ‘ripping yarns’ and are also a vehicle for serious criticism of the arms race: in The Quest for the Perfect Planet (1961) the professor searches for a place to shelter refugees if Earth blows up.

Patrick Moore, a popular astronomer, has published over twenty children’s SF novels, including Mission to Mars (1955); Angus MacVicar, Scottish novelist and scriptwriter, had some of his children’s SF, about the Lost Planet serialised on radio and children’s television in the 1950s - a series which has obvious messages about the Cold War; while Hugh Walters specialised in children’s SF, writing a single series about astronaut Chris Godfrey from 1957 to 1981. With their straightforward plots, incorruptible heroes and internationalist ethos, Walters’s SF is the best of its kind and Britain’s nearest rival to Heinlein in terms of an unfolding vision of the future. The Tom Swift tradition of improbable technology was continued in E. C. Eliott’s Kemlo series published from 1954 to 1963.

During this period some fine literary fantasies, precursors of today’s ‘science fantasy’, were published by non-SF-genre authors. The plot of T. H. White’s The Master (1957) is familiar from James Bond thrillers: a mad scientist with mesmeric powers and a secret weapon plans to rule the world; two children accidentally trapped in his island fortress destroy him, thanks to their pet dog. The Little Prince [Le Petit Prince (1943)] is a unique classic fable, illustrated by its author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and other examples are Garry Hogg’s In the Nick of Time (1958) (inspired by J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time), Meriol Trevor’s The Other Side of the Moon (1956) and Merlin’s Magic (1953) by ‘Helen Clare’ (Pauline Clarke) - a family treasure-hunt guided by Merlin and the god Mercury, with clues and adventures from literature and legend. Six children learn that the Tree of Imagination is threatened by hordes of robots, and they need Drake’s drum and Arthur’s sword to destroy them.

With the most memorable British children’s SF of the period being actually ‘science fantasy’, the way of writing genre SF had to change. A radical shift away from ‘space opera’ was driven by new developments in adult SF and world politics. The influence of John Wyndham’s four great disaster novels in the Wellsian tradition, The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), on British children’s SF cannot be overestimated. Another vital influence was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which chimed in with Cold War fears about Soviet invasion and gave to children’s SF the motifs Escape from the City and the Forbidden Romance. With Nigel Kneale’s SF-horror Quatermass trilogy about alien invasions shown on television, the 1950s were an exciting, if doom-ridden time for the genre.

In the new model of children’s SF, where some terrible, often irreversible disaster took civilisation back to the Dark Ages, historical, political and religious issues took centre- stage. Donald Suddaby is an important transitional figure, writing space stories (Prisoners of Saturn (1957)) and disaster fiction (The Death of Metal (1952)). David Severn’s The Future Took Us (1958) is a vital pivotal work, a chilling vision of post-holocaust Britain in AD 3000, where machines, especially the wheel, are banned by the ruling theocracy of Calculators.

John Christopher was the first British genre writer for children to emerge in the 1960s. His first juveniles, the Tripods trilogy - The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1967) and The Pool of Fire (1968) - are a tribute to H. G. Wells: suppose the Martians had won? His masterpiece is the Winchester trilogy: The Prince in Waiting (1970), Beyond the Burning Lands (1971) and The Sword of the Spirits (1972), in which man-made geological disasters have returned Britain to a medieval city-state culture guided by the Seers (who operate the remnants of technology pretending it is magic). The Guardians (1970) is probably the first to use Orwell’s motifs of the Escape from the City and the Forbidden Romance/friendship, in a world divided between the Conurbs and the Country. Empty World (1977) is about worldwide plague, and in A Dusk of Demons (1993) he reverts to the post-holocaust formula.

Peter Dickinson wrote for adults first, and has written for the young in many genres. The Changes trilogy - The Weathermonger (1968), Heartsease (1969) and The Devil’s Children (1970) - is set in a future Britain where people hate machines and have reverted to superstition; The Devil’s Children is interesting as a positive view of an ethnic minority group (Sikhs) written shortly before educationalists began to make demands for such books. Dickinson has also used biological sciences to back his fiction, as in Eva (1988) when, after a car crash Eva’s brain is transplanted into a chimpanzee’s body. As the human race loses its will to live, the future may lie with the chimps. A Bone from a Dry Sea (1992) tells the parallel stories of a sea-ape girl, Li, four million years ago, and a palaeontologist excavating the African desert who finds her relics.

Nicholas Fisk specialises in shorter SF for the under-thirteens: catchy titles like Antigrav (1978) indicate his approach. His work can be deceptively light-hearted when dealing with matters of life and death: for example, in Trillions (1971) when a fanatical general decides to use nuclear weapons to destroy the alien mineral ‘Trillions’. Grinny (1973) and its sequel You Remember Me! (1984) deal with alien invasion, while in A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair (1980) a nuclear accident causes the world’s birth-rate to fall, and scientists attempt to clone new humans.

Louise Lawrence is Britain’s leading woman SF writer, and she confronts her teenage protagonists with inescapable moral choices, beginning with Andra (1971) and The Power of Stars (1972). Her next SF novels were published in the USA, and a fresh start came with Children of the Dust (1985), a powerful nuclear holocaust novel inspired by her children’s involvement with the peace movement. She followed it with a sequence of young adult (YA) SF novels on pollution, feminism, the dangers of technology, and human-alien love. Ben-Harran’s Castle (1992) is an Earth-on-trial story, and The Disinherited (1994) is an Escape/Forbidden Romance between a rich girl and poor boy when Britain is gripped by the ultimate energy crisis and the greenhouse effect. In Dreamweaver (1996) and The Crowlings (1999) Lawrence shows the culture clashes and potential for disaster caused by humankind settling on other planets.

As we move from the 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s, several new trends are apparent. First, the development of the teenage novel from contemporary realism into other genres, entering children’s SF to produce teenage and YASF novels with serious romantic relationships and a more pessimistic view of world politics. Then the revival of anti-nuclear weapons protest in the early 1980s, in response to the fear of a new generation of nuclear weapons, prompted several outstanding prophetic novels about the aftermath of nuclear holocaust. Who, however, would have believed that at the onset of the 1990s we would see the downfall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, the unification of Germany and development of liberal regimes in Eastern Europe?

Third, authors who had specialised in other genres or for other age-groups, including writing for adults, turned to children’s or YASF, or science fantasy, either to play the prophet or simply to tell the story their creative talent demanded. Following the lead of Peter Dickinson, such authors include Lois Lowry, Bruce Brooks (No Kidding (1989)), Rosemary Harris (A Quest for Orion (1978), Tower of the Stars (1980)), Jan Mark (The Ennead (1978)), Robert Westall, Diana Wynne Jones, Annie Dalton, Ann Schlee (The Vandal (1979)), John Rowe Townsend (The Xanadu Manuscript (1977) and King Creature, Come (1980)) and Jill Paton Walsh (Torch (1987)), with fine trilogies by Jean Ure, Ann Halam and Terry Pratchett, a quartet by Catherine Fisher and a septet by John Marsden. Such quality writing sets a challenge to genre specialists.

Moreover, authors now write about computers to match their real development as PCs, pocket machines and game consoles, instead of the way traditional SF used them, as enormous mainframes or shipboard computers.

British-born Canadian emigrant Monica Hughes took advantage of new freedoms to make girls her leading characters, and did not share the British prejudice against space adventures. Her Isis trilogy (from The Keeper of the Isis Light (1980)) is a study in prejudice and superstition with leading roles for girls, and in a lifetime’s writing, mainly in the SF genre, she warned against environmental catastrophe (Ring-rise, Ring-set (1982) and The Crystal Drop (1992)) and preached peace and reconciliation.

Canadian-born Douglas Hill turned in mid-career to juvenile SF, writing new sagas in the Heinlein tradition with comic-book verve. The Last Legionary quintet (1979-82) features a near-invulnerable hero; the Huntsman trilogy (1982-4) is a post-holocaust, alien invasion series; and the ColSec trilogy (1984-5) features teenagers dispatched through space to colonise a new planet.

From the 1970s the mood in the USA has been individualistic, breaking away from Heinleinian space opera. Outstanding examples have been Jay Williams’s Danny Dunn series; Laurence Yep’s Sweetwater (1973) set on a colonised planet; Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) about laboratory rats with increased intelligence, and his feminist, post-holocaust Z for Zachariah (1975); and Virginia Hamilton’s trilogy about four children with psychic gifts, beginning with Justice and Her Brothers (1978). Sylvie Engdahl explored deep religious and philosophical questions with Enchantress from the Stars (1970) among others. H. M. Hoover sets most of her books on alien planets, backing her plots with anthropological research and frequently featuring girls in the lead: This Time of Darkness (1980) is an Escape from the City. William Sleator has written quirky tales about the disruption of reality and Pamela Sargent has written YASF novels with strong heroines, such as Earthseed (1983) and Alien Child (1988). Pamela Service has written in several genres: Under Alien Stars (1990) shows humans surviving alien domination.

A powerful anger fuelled the writing of political YASF in Britain, reviving the Wyndhamesque disaster novel. Robert Swindells’s Brother in the Land (1984) describes survival after worldwide nuclear war; a new final chapter offers hope. Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) demonstrated the futility of civil defence as an uncomprehending elderly couple die of radiation sickness: it became an animated film. In Germany, Gudrun Pausewang published the grim, post-nuclear The Last Children (1988) (Die Letzen Kinder von Schewenborn (1983)). Dr Seuss followed up his wonderful graphic eco-fable The Lorax (1971) with the brinkmanship of The Butter Battle Book (1984).

Civilisation is destroyed by plague in Jean Ure’s trilogy Plague 99/Plague (1989), Come Lucky April/After the Plague (1992) and Watchers at the Shrine (1994). The theme is the sex war and women’s vengeance on male aggression which supposedly caused the plague. Robert Westall describes a stratified society in Futuretrack 5 (1983), an Escape/cross-class Romance, and in Urn Burial (1987) Earth is the battleground between Good cat-like aliens and Evil dog-aliens. Swindells’s Daz 4 Zoe (1990) varies the Forbidden Romance with its joint narrative, alternate chapters told by an upper-class girl, and a semi-literate boy from the fenced-off city. Robert Leeson tackles social injustice in his optimistic Time Rope quartet (1986).

Religion is a frequent theme of adult SF: religious children’s SF includes Madeleine L’Engle’s series beginning with A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Starforce Red Alert (1983), a temptation story, and the third of Diane Duane’s Wizard series, High Wizardry (1990), in which Dairine discovers the wizard’s oath on a computer and chooses an outer-space mission where, again, the First Temptation is about to happen.

SF motifs turn up in children’s picture books: But Martin! by June Counsel (1984), the Dr Xargle series by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Michael Foreman’s Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish (1972), and the post-holocaust satirical Henry’s Quest by Graham Oakley (1986). The ever-popular Tintin had SF adventures: Destination Moon (1953), Explorers on the Moon (1954) and Flight 714 (1968), in which the team learn that aliens have observed Earth for centuries.

The particular history of European immigration to Australasia, a continent with its unique fauna and landscape, already inhabited by people with a culture adapted over centuries to their environment, is probably responsible for certain recurring themes in antipodean children’s SF - the Unearthly Child and the Desert Landscape. We also find the perennial theme of the breakdown of civilisation, and remember that the well-known adult novel about the end of the human race after nuclear holocaust, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), was set in Australia.

Notable SF novels of the late twentieth century by antipodean authors include Alan Baillie’s Megan’s Star (1988) and Magician (1992), Joan Phipson’s Dinko (1985) and Lee Harding’s Displaced Person (1979), an original story about a boy who gradually becomes invisible to the rest of the world, losing his senses of colour, hearing and touch until he is trapped in a grey limbo. Robin Klein’s Halfway across the Galaxy and Turn Left (1985) is rare in its explicitly humorous intent. An alien family on the run from their home planet Zyrgon hide on Earth and are surprised and delighted by aspects of our culture, such as real food instead of ‘compressed food slabs’. Margaret Mahy’s Aliens in the Family (1986) also features aliens researching humankind. A youth is set a test to bring information back to his interstellar school to form part of the great inventory of universal knowledge. Caroline Macdonald’s The Lake at the End of the World (1988), set in 2025, relates in alternate sections the experiences of a boy and girl after the breakdown of urban civilisation and possibly the near-extinction of the human race.

Gillian Rubinstein has written some outstanding YASF novels. Beyond the Labyrinth (1988) tells of an alien researching Earth customs; in Galax-Arena (1992) Earth children are kidnapped to perform circus feats on an alien planet; Space Demons (1986) begins a fascinating trilogy where sequels Skymaze (1989) and Shinkei (1996) appeared in response to fanmail. Some Australian teenagers test-drive new computer games from Japan and are drawn into cyberspace, risking being trapped there for ever if they cannot solve the game.

Finally, John Marsden’s powerful septet, opening with Tomorrow, when the War Began (1993), about a teenage guerrilla group in an invaded Australia, is a passionate, compelling saga.

Science fantasy is a label bookshops use for their adult SF/fantasy section. I am using it to describe SF combining technology with outright magic, in a present, future or alien setting. My examples are entertaining, often raising deep philosophical issues, and finely written, usually by fantasy specialists. Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City (1987) employs the Time Patrol concept, Hexwood (1993) role-playing games. Annie Dalton’s The Alpha Box (1991) combines Greek legends, rock music and an alien threat. Jane Yolen’s Dragon trilogy (1982-7) mixes the SF idea of breeding alien creatures to fight in gaming pits with the telepathy the hero and heroine share with their dragons. Ann Halam’s Inland trilogy (The Daymaker (1987), Transformations (1988), The Skybreaker (1990)) depicts a future where the scientific way of life has collapsed and humankind has developed complementary magical powers. Women supervise in harmony with nature, but magic only works as long as people don’t turn back to machines and electricity.

Finally I list some of the best-received children’s and YASF of the last ten years: space opera by Ben Jeapes (His Majesty’s Starship (1998) Winged Chariot (1999) and The Xenocide Mission (2002)); environmental disasters from Lesley Howarth (Weather Eye (1995) and Ultraviolet (2001)) and Julie Bertagna (Exodus (2002)); time-travel to AD 2032 from Malorie Blackman (Thief! (1995)). We have secret science, thriller-SF: Terence Blacker’s The Angel Factory (2001) and Malcolm Rose’s Clone (2002); a space colony from Earth underestimating the small furry-skinned natives in Brian Caswell’s Deucalion (1995), and various future dystopias. In Melvin Burgess’s Bloodtide (1999) London is ruined and run by gangs; in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) mobile cities are predators, at least a thousand years ahead from now. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2001) gives the Forbidden Romance a fresh twist: not just class separates the boy and girl, but race, and in this alternative Earth, black people - Crosses - are the dominant race, white people - Noughts - are inferior. Lois Lowry writes of enclosed communities in Gathering Blue (2002), about a gifted female artist who needs to express and fulfil herself, and most superbly in The Giver (1993), winner of the Newbery Medal, about a totalitarian community which has banned colours, history and memory and promotes a false sense of happiness. Inevitably the teenage hero rebels. Terry Pratchett has written two fine comic trilogies: Truckers (1989-90), about tiny people, ‘nomes’, struggling to survive on Earth, having forgotten they came from space; and the Johnny Maxwell series (1992-5) about a boy who gets caught up inside a computer game and also goes time-travelling. Humour lies in the leading characters’ comments on human society seen from the outside.

Children’s SF, embracing YASF and science fantasy, presents today a mature body of work both by lifelong practitioners and by authors ‘moonlighting’ from other genres, and including many award-winners. Typically recycling a small number of plotlines, it is overall more optimistic than adult SF. SF comics and action films continue to be popular, so the genre has the potential to entice reluctant readers, as well as the intellectual content to engage committed readers, and the quality of current writing stands up well against current children’s fantasy and history genres.



Clute, J. and Nicholls, P. (eds) (1993) The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, 2nd edn, London: Orbit.

Donelson, K. (1978) ‘Nancy, Tom and Assorted Friends in the Stratemeyer Syndicate Then and Now’, Children’s Literature 7: 17-44.

Fortune Magazine (1934/1969) ‘For It Was Indeed He’, in Egoff, S., Stubbs, G. T. and Ashley, L. F. (eds) Only Connect, Toronto, Oxford University Press.

Gifford, D. (1984) The International Book of Comics, London: Hamlyn.

Green, R. L. (1962/1969/1980) ‘The Golden Age of Children’s Books’, in Egoff, S., Stubbs, G. T. and Ashley, L. F. (eds) Only Connect, 2nd edn, Toronto, Oxford University Press.

Orwell, G. (1940/1968) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Vol. 1. An Age like This 1920-1940, ed. Orwell, S. and Angus, A., London: Seeker and Warburg; Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Turner, E. S. (1975) Boys Will Be Boys, 3rd edn, London: Joseph.


Further reading

Aldiss, B. W. (1986) Trillion Year Spree: The History ofScience Fiction, London: Gollancz.

Egoff, S. (1981) Thursday’s Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children’s Literature, Chicago: American Library Association.

James, E. (ed) (1997) Foundation, the International Review ofScience Fiction, 70.

Mendlesohn, F. (ed) (2003) Foundation, the International Review ofScience Fiction, 88.

Nodelman, P. (1985) ‘Out There in Children’s Science Fiction: Forward into the Past’, Science Fiction Studies 12: 285-96.

Reid, S. E. (1998) Presenting Young Adult Science Fiction, New York: Twayne.

Sullivan, C. W. (ed.) (1999) Young Adult Science Fiction, Westport: Greenwood Press.