sci-fi

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

how to beeRecently, I’m seeing a great deal of science fiction that’s set in the very near future (mainly in adult fiction, but also in some children’s novels), as if we’re nearing our own dystopian landscape. But generally, this genre works well. It enables the author to envision a future not that different from the present, but tweaking elements to make a specific point. For the reader, it coaxes belief in this imagined world, in that there is a startling familiarity with specific things, despite the larger world being a little different.

In How to Bee, Bren MacDibble goes with the premise that due to widespread use of pesticides, the bees have died out, and to continue growing produce and farming, pollination must be done by children (leaping from tree to tree with special pollinating wands). Based on real practises in Chinese provinces, where humans do actually hand-pollinate pear blossom, and her real-life experience of growing up on a farm, the book feels authentic and disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.

What shines most from this dazzlingly yellow book is MacDibble’s use of ‘voice’ to tell Peony’s story. Peony is nine years old, a worker on the farm, although not yet a Bee, because to be a Bee a child must be ten and awfully quick. She’s working towards it, but not quite there yet. Her voice, as she tells her story, feels new, fresh, lively, irrepressible but mainly fast, as if she’s scrabbling over the words as she would scrabble across the trees. The voice feels unschooled, unrestrictive, and matches her immense physicality. The play on words of the title sum up Peony’s whole existence. This is a girl bursting with life. She wants to be as much as she wants to bee.

Of course, like all good novelists, MacDibble must throw obstacles in Peony’s way, and this is where things become dark and difficult. Peony is removed to the city, away from her beloved grandfather and little sister and farm, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. The episode of her removal from the farm is fairly traumatic, and the two worlds – city and country – could not be more disparate.

In fact MacDibble’s vision of the future is fairly bleak. Human rights are eroded – the children of the farm are broadcast ‘lessons’ on loudspeakers in the morning while they work – there is no universal right to education. Once in the city, Peony is a servant rather than merely staff – workers’ rights too seem to have been eroded. What’s more, there is unpoliced domestic abuse and cruelty to children. Poverty is widespread and there is no welfare system net in place.

But for many children, they will not read into the bleakness of this. Peony’s move to the city is an adventure, and she swiftly makes friends with the girl of the house – Peony’s kind nature and selflessness shining through. And there is an uplifting ending with Peony’s love for family and nature winning the day. Mainly because Peony’s voice is so lively and uplifting, and her shining adoration for the farm, her immediate family and nature triumphs against everything dark and evil.

The book is well paced – short sharp chapters, with quick forward movement like the bee pollinators themselves, the reader is propelled forwards on Peony’s adventure. The reader feels an enormous amount of empathy for this small child in a frightening world – having a more all-seeing terrain of her story than Peony does herself.

For all its shortness, MacDibble breathes plenty of life into the book. There are complex dynamics between characters – particularly the mother/child bond, and also an unabashed look at inequalities in society.

MacDibble writes with confidence and ease – the book feels different, atypical, which makes it shine brightly in the field of current children’s fiction. It turns out being is a complicated business, but with books such as this, children will buzz with excitement about their ability to influence their own futures. You can buy your copy here. I would suggest as 9+ years, but beware some of the darker episodes. Young teens who are reluctant readers will love the story’s depth whilst appreciating the brevity of the text.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

When I was twelve years old a new English teacher started at my school. She was young and glamorous, and I wanted very much to impress her, especially as she taught my favourite subject. Then, one day she handed out our homework assignment on the text we were studying – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She wanted us to depict a scene in a comic strip. I was devastated. Drawing wasn’t literature, I thought. My level of drawing barely matched Wimpy Kid levels, my love for my teacher plummeted as swiftly as Sir Toby descends into revelry. The effort I put in matched my grade. Low.

But it remains one of the Shakespeare plays I best remember. The cross-garters (easy to depict visually), the gender disguises, the triumphant reuniting of the twins. And perhaps that was to do with having to try to make a visual representation.

One of the ways in which the children in my library club best engage with the books I’m reading to them is if we use the books as inspiration to discuss and draw the contents. We may do craft, or create our own story, or redesign covers, or simply draw our feelings.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a series of comics presented in paperback book format. In fact, the publisher very kindly sent me the first three, which I devoured with glee, chortling nonstop. Hilo comes crashing down from the sky, clad only in silver underpants, and has no idea where he comes from, or what he’s doing on Earth.

DJ, a normal kid from an overachieving family, and his friend Gina, try to figure out where Hilo comes from, and by the end of the book, how to fight robots in order to save the world!

The comic is fast-paced – action leaps from frame to frame, but the book goes much deeper than that. DJ has pretty low self-esteem, believing that he lacks the skillsets he sees in his siblings. With the friendship of Hilo and Gina, he grows in confidence, and finds out what it takes to be a real hero.

Winick evokes great humour in his portrayal of Hilo, who has no idea what food and clothing are for, and yet absorbs new information at a startling rate. He introduces catchphrases for the friends, and references other comics and movies.

The books are bright and bold – the colour screams from the page, and the characters are wonderfully empathetic and emotive in their depictions.

There’s long been, and still is, a snobbery about comics, and yet by using them for readers who don’t want to be confronted with a large chunk of text, comics can easily imbue children with great storytelling skills.

One of the great things about comics is that they explore the angle of a scene – like assessing the point of view. The reader can explore each individual picture to see why the illustrator has drawn it in that way – what is shown in this scene, what is not – where is the ‘camera’ looking from, is it a close-up? The language has been carefully selected – after all there’s only so much the author can fit into each square – why did he chose those particular words? And more than that, what is the narrative stream between the different frames? – the connectivity of panels relates to the connectivity of sentences in a narrative text.

With a diverse cast, a cliffhanger ending, and a message of friendship, loyalty and bravery, this is a great new series. For 8+ years. Discover it here.

Millie vs the Machines by Kiera O’Brien

Millie vs the machines

A fascinating debut book that crosses the realms between science fiction and boarding school fiction, with an eerie atmosphere running throughout that gently reminded me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Set in 2099, in which each student uses their RetinaChip and index finger to see what everyone else is doing, as well as using it to select the right clothes (what’s fashionable that day) and food (adhering to nutrition guidelines) for themselves, as well as using the chip to gain access in and out of transport, school and shops. Millie appears to be a typical 13 year old girl, she checks what her friends are doing, wears the fashionable clothes of the day, and worries about her impending exams. Told in the first person, the reader feels increasingly on Millie’s side.

Except all is not as it seems, and when students start disappearing from their high-security school, Millie wonders if the robots who serve them are really as docile as they should be.

This is a compelling thriller with a spectacular plot twist towards the end. Kiera O’Brien builds suspense throughout the novel, imbuing the school with a sense of entrapment as well as security. Ever since Millie’s accident, she’s been unable to remember everything in the past, so the reader and Millie are only privy to backstory when she attempts to access segments of her memory through the technology of brain streaming.

Of course, with all this technology comes loss of privacy – beautifully drawn out – and also a reliance on robots. There is a new political structure to this world too – with corporations consuming governments, and a small uprising of people who want rights for robots. A marvellously believable and yet strange world, with a pacey plot and sharp references to what technology could do.

Hugely enjoyable, with oodles of wit mixed in with Millie’s fear, and a good understanding of the teenage psyche – teenagers of the future it seems will also fret about schoolwork, fashion and friends. A great read, and another highly recommended novel. 13+ years. You can purchase it here.

 

Railhead by Philip Reeve

Railhead

It was apparent from the name of the book (and its author) that this was going to be one exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a book, and the content lives up to its title. Packed with action from the beginning, it’s an adrenaline ride that takes the reader through multiple emotions, with a large cast of engaging characters.

Zen Starling is a petty thief in the future, a place where interstellar locomotives run through the Great Network, passing through K portals – like wormholes – to jump from one planet to another. Mingling with the humans are drones and androids, train maintenance spiders, station angels and hive monks – the reader feels the heaving mass of transit and commuters passing through. When the mysterious Raven sends Zen on a mission to infiltrate the ruling Emperor’s train, in return for safety and riches, Zen is raring to exploit the opportunity of exploring this amazing web of worlds, riding the trains through the Great Network. But in the end Zen has to decide who is fighting for good and who is fighting for evil, and where his loyalties lie.

Philip Reeve’s imagination knows no limits. The world he has built includes trains that come alive, insects that commune together in formations to look like people, robots with whom you can fall in love. It takes a few pages to get to grips with the futuristic terminology that Reeve has created to describe systems and castes in his new world, but before long they become a part of the reader’s language. And each new technology is only a magnified version of our own – the Internet becomes a thing of the past, and the ‘datasea’ Zen’s present. There are algae colonies, breathing out oxygen “seeded in the shallows when the planet was being terraformed”; there are drones galore.

Despite this scintillating world beyond ours, there is familiarity in the age-old narrative devices of following a protagonist as he navigates through good and evil; through the clearly delineated hierarchy of this new society; and on his journey of discovery to find out whom he can trust.

Reeve’s language is chosen carefully – each word lives up to the world he is trying to create, from the ‘flutter-thud’ of rotors, to Zen’s luck, which is ‘glitchy’. But one of the most compelling characters is an android – who mirrors human emotions and reactions in order to seem more human itself:

“Nova sniffed. She had no need to sniff, but she had seen movies, and knew it was something that people did when they’d been crying.” Almost as if Reeve has taken how an author crafts a character’s reaction to things, and has stripped it bare for the reader to see. It’s fascinating, eerie, and wonderful at the same time.

Railhead is sci-fi, thriller, and romance, all neatly tucked into one fascinating book. Although marketed for children aged 12+yrs, it will be a lucky adult who gets to read it too. It’s amazingly filmic – Zen’s world is so otherworldly, and yet conversely seems so real.

You can buy it here.

With thanks to OUP for a review copy.