Reviews 2010

Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People

Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People. Noga Applebaum. New York: Routledge, 2010. 187 pages. £80 (hardback).

Noga Applebaum’s contribution to Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series offers an insightful new angle from which to explore constructions of childhood in literature for young readers. The study is motivated by her concern that the technophobia expressed by adults in both literature and in public debates may lead children to become alienated from the tools they will depend on in later life. She begins by situating technophobia within wider debates concerning the Romantic “innocence” of the child and the perceived disparity between the worlds of science and the humanities. Applebaum then considers the ways in which technological innovations, particularly consul games, have shaped the narrative structure of Young SF novels. The fourth chapter examines how technology may be changing the hierarchical power structures between children and adults, and the final chapter offers a case study of a specific theme within the genre: cloning. This is a fascinating study which has much to offer to those interested in science fiction, but perhaps even more to those interested in the myriad of ways in which adult-child power relations inform children’s literature.

The study draws on a corpus of some 200 Young SF novels published between 1980 (the year in which IBM first produced a PC and BITNET, the internet’s precursor, was launched) and 2008 (when Applebaum was presumably fine tuning the study for publication). The impressive size of this corpus is an overt response to the critique that Jill P. May offered to Perry Nodelman for a study in which he arrived at many of the same conclusions as Applebaum, but without the necessary empirical support. Applebaum’s sizable corpus is further supplemented by references to canonical texts which have informed the development of Young SF as a genre and to non-literary works such as computer games and films. Her overview of the history and form of the genre is helpfully thorough, and thankfully avoids getting bogged down in the traditional mire of distinguishing between SF and Fantasy fiction.

The use of so many texts has affected the study in a number of ways. Applebaum’s goal is not to offer in-depth analyses of each text in the corpus, but rather each chapter identifies a manageable number of texts which illustrate the issue she examines. The precise number varies, depending, in part, on how common a particular feature is in the corpus as a whole. Chapters One and Five refer briefly to sixteen texts each, commenting very precisely on only those aspects of the novels that are relevant to the argument, whereas Chapter Three focuses on just three novels, but in considerably more detail. About three quarters of the texts in the corpus are, sensibly, not analysed within the study.

Applebaum relates adult technophobia to the myth of the Romantic child. Since children are perceived as being “naturally” oriented towards the world of nature, technology is perceived as being a threat to the child’s innocence. In the first chapter, Applebaum draws on the work within the field of environmental ethics in order to create a basic framework for categorizing the novels according to their assumptions about relationships between nature, humanity and technology. She observes that there are very few texts which treat technology as being neither good nor bad per se or suggest that the ways in which technology is used determine its value. The vast majority of the texts in her corpus show, at best, ambivalence towards technological innovation, and many take technophobia to the extreme and demonize technological tools. This demonization, Applebaum demonstrates in the following chapter, is intimately connected to debates concerning the value of the humanities in an increasingly technological world, and the humanities’ repeated claims that the arts are central to the maintenance of higher human values. Another, more practical, explanation as to why adults might be so prone to technophobia is offered in the fourth chapter, where Applebaum contemplates the ways in which children’s apparent aptitude for computers often leaves adults feeling disempowered. Not only is children’s affinity with technology perceived as running counter to their assumed affinity with nature, it also undermines the knowledge-based hierarchy which allows adults to dominate children.

The third chapter shifts the focus from thematic elements to the structure of Young SF novels. Applebaum examines the ways in which computer games have affected the narrative structure of the novels in her corpus. She maps the parameters of her enquiry with references to the ways in which narratologists have tended to treat computer games as natural evolutions of traditional storytelling formats and, at the other extreme, with references to studies by ludologists (who specialise in computer game theory) who claim that the dissimilarities between games and traditional literary narratives are so great that an entirely new vocabulary needs to be developed. Applebaum’s method is to identify four central elements which reveal the influence of consul games on children’s literature: multilinearity, interactivity, blurred or collective authorship and multiple perspectives. Her examples in this chapter are limited to just three novels, which indicates that this format is still very rare. Nevertheless, I cannot help reconsidering the corpus – for although it is extensive, some of the omissions are surprising. I was particularly struck by the lack of reference to works by Diana Wynne Jones, especially since Applebaum accredits Wynne Jones with the term “Young SF” (5). Homeward Bounders and Hexwood both make reference to console games, the former on a more thematic level, but the latter is also structured in accordance with games. Applebaum also omits all references to the DIY adventure books which were popular in the 1980s and made a reappearance in the mid-noughties. Given how many texts she does include, it may seem pedantic to be critical of such absences. Yet her observation that only two texts in her original corpus (i.e. 1%) draw on technological innovations such as console games for their structure suggests a rarity which may not be justified. Her discussion of the four narratological elements is detailed and would be as applicable to Wynne Jones or the series books. Another element to which Applebaum alludes, but does not specifically mention as being inspired by console games is the invitation to multiple readings. As with game playing, each time one reads these novels will be different, for DIY adventure books, even the plot will change on each reading.

The final chapter considers one of the most common tropes in Young SF: the cloned child. Setting her examination of novels containing such characters within the context of debates surrounding the cloning of animals and GMO foods, Applebaum notes that although some novels raise the complexity of the issues behind the debates, they all conclude by rejecting human cloning as a means of developing society.

Overall, Applebaum’s study offers a detailed, well-evidenced, convincing argument that Young SF shows an overly marked tendency towards technophobia. Adults’ fear of computers, electronic media and other recent technologies is primarily rooted in traditional, Romantic views of the child, but also in the fear that children may understand such technological innovations better than adults themselves. By presenting worlds in which technology leads to dystopia, Young SF novels attempt to repress children’s interests, and reinstate a view of childhood as a time of affinity with the natural world, in which they live subordinated to the adults around them. Applebaum has presented her case well, and her concern that we may be encouraging children to alienate themselves from the technology they enjoy and which is likely to prove beneficial to them seems equally well founded. However, like Applebaum, I have considerable trust in our young readers. If they really are, as they seem, more savvy than the adult population about how technology works, one can also suppose that they will not swallow texts which consistently shed enjoyable activities such as gaming in a negative light without first chewing over the alternatives.

Works Cited

Wynne Jones, Diana. Hexwood. London: Methuen, 1993.

—. The Homeward Bounders. London: Macmillan, 1981.

Lydia Kokkola
University of Turku, Finland