Once upon a time this young science fiction reader ran across a book that picked me up, set me in free fall and then set me down again with a lot to chew over. It was a book and title I never forgot, and when I was an adult, I tracked a copy down to add to my personal book collection. Today I’ve learned that the author has died and it’s made reflect again how powerfully the writers we encounter affect our lives, our ways of thinking, and our memories.
In January of 2014 I did a flashback Friday post of this title. I’m sharing it again on this post today in memory of Nicholas Fisk.
You’re a super smart super skilled youth in the 22nd century. Children are rare here, so you are special–and you know it. Now the Seniors have assigned you a very important part in their research. You’re to interact with a group of Reborns–people who have been cloned from the past–and report back your findings. What you find will change you forever.
Do you remember:
A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair by Nicholas Fisk (Oxford Childrens, c1980)
Brin is one of the precious super smart children raised in the 22nd century. Because of radiation, most people have been rendered infertile, so children are a rarity and Brin knows just how important he is. When the Seniors, the elders of his people summon him for a special assignment, Brin arrogantly treats the honor as simply what is due him. The assignment he is given is to interact with a group of people who have been “Reborn”. The Seniors have secretly been experimenting with cloning DNA from past history in order to find an answer to the present day infertility. They’ve cloned two siblings, Brian and Mavis and their housekeeper, Mrs. Mossop based on samples they could extract from pre-accident excavations.
Brin is being assigned to befriend these experimental clones–but the catch is that they don’t know that they’re clones. The Seniors have built a WWII era set of rooms for the group to live in and have constructed unconscious memories so that the group actually think they are living during the time of the Blitz in London. Since the shock of bringing Reborns in the future setting is considered dangerous to their psyche, the Seniors implant memories that make them believe they are living in more than one small 1940s kitchen. Brin will pretend to be a child from the era himself in order to continue the illusion. Brin quickly becomes caught up in the limited lives of the children, who hungrily press him for stories about his Uncle (Brin tells them he’s a fighter pilot) and yearn to go outside. His stories get more and more detailed over time until even Brin half believes what he is telling them. But as Brin goes from cocky youth to thoughtful friend and ally, he rapidly begins to question the Seniors methods and intentions. These people are more than a simple experiment, despite being created from “a rag, a bone and a hank of hair” they are real and vital and deserve more than being locked away in a single room. When the illusion begins to shatter, Brin will find that nothing is what he thought it was.
This book stuck with me after I read it–gave me the chills. It’s a story that questions what is truth and what defines real. It’s a story that speaks to the questionable nature of cloning, and where it could lead. It’s a profound story of one boy’s transformation and growth. It touched me enough that years after I had read it, I purposely sought out an out of print copy to buy for my own. While I’ve never read any of Nicholas Fisk’s other science fiction titles for children, I’d like to find some of them to try . Nicholas Fisk is apparently the pseudonym of David Higginbottom and he is a British author who began writing children’s Science Fiction stories in the 1960s and continued writing well into the 1990s. A bio and full bibliography can be found here.
To be honest this is a book that should be as relevant today as it was when written, so I’m sad it’s out of print. A powerful cloning story that’s among my favorites, fans of Anna to the Infinite Power by Mildred Ames might want to give this a read if they haven’t already. As I’ve said, this one is sadly out of print and hard to find on library shelves . . . but perhaps they’ll reprint it one of these days.
Any Nicholas Fisk fans out there? Comments welcome!
For those reading along, this is the 7th part of this pathway, the introductory paragraph is pretty much the same for each of these entries.
I will note that these are taking me longer than the casual lists I usually do. Each of these probably consumes about five hours of effort. I want to make certain I’m providing a decent list, after all.
So, there are always lists out there detailing these or those must-read Science fiction books. Often SF and Fantasy are thrown in together without differentiation. It’s inspired me to try a different kind of series of Tuesday Ten lists, one that takes readers on a trip from childhood to adult with Science Fiction stories recommended in each age bracket. A potential pathway so to speak. I’m going to limit each bracket to ten titles (which is a REAL challenge in some cases), and I’m going to try and put in a range of works, recent and past, that are still available for readers to find. After all, the point of this list is to give you ideas of titles share with your kids or read yourselves! There will be many more options in each age range, this is only the jumping off point after all! Let’s blast off!
This week’s Ten is focusing on the next group in my age bracket, the 15-18 year-olds. (You can check out the 0-3 years list here , the 3-5 year-olds here, the 5-7 year-olds here, the 7-9 year-olds here, 9-12 year-olds here. and the 12-15 year-olds here.) By now we’re verging into adult territory. Normally I don’t cover adult science fiction on this blog, but this pathway will be an exception, since I want to give a complete pathway. Teens at the point will be reading (or not) what they want. Having piles of books around, modeling reading for entertainment and being willing to discuss the type of books they’re reading without minimizing their interests, excitement and enthusiasms are probably some of the best ways to keep them reading. These young adults want to be respected for their choices, and if you keep an open door to listen to what they enjoy without trying to derail it, they may continue to share that reading life with you. They will still be having regular school assignments in book reading, both fiction and nonfiction and that may include some science fiction. What their friends are reading, what’s hot on social media . . . those books are likely to be paid attention to. They may become passionate about certain authors or series. And they may be trying a hand at writing their own. This is a great time to make sure they get a chance to meet authors they admire if the opportunity arises.
At this point, my list is going to be mostly adult science fiction. I’ve tried to reflect a range of tones, publication dates, and a diversity of authors within the list, but at only ten books there is only so much I can represent. Please make sure you take this as only a starting point for more wonderful reading, and certainly not as an exhaustive list of the best or most crucial reads. In many cases I took off a book or author I love because I wanted to round out the list and because I have confidence that my readers will encounter them if they are exploring more in the genre.
A Science Fiction Pathway: 15-18 year-olds
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Harper Perennial, c1932)
Out of the classic dystopian stories, this chilling view of the future embodies many ideas and warnings that are still incredibly relevant to readers. Despite the changes and advances in technology, despite the fact that this was written in 1932, the impact of this story remains powerful. If your reader has encountered Feed or the Hunger Games, there are plenty of points here to compare and contrast and discuss. It’s not an easy read, and there’s plenty of sex and death in these pages which is why I wouldn’t recommend it for the younger teen crowd, but for social discussion this is timely. This is a world where a rigid caste system has been established by test tube eugenics, where the population is kept calm and happy by a drug called soma and where most books are forgotten relics of the past.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Bantam, c1992)
Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza while in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Before the World Wide Web and social media even really began to begin to crest in the wave that would follow, Stephenson had penned this futuristic cyberpunk novel that weaves in stories of viruses, assassins, Sumerian mythology and living online lives very different from “real-life”. I found this as a teen, and I still think it’s extremely brilliant. Stephenson’s work continues to expand over the years so a reader who enjoys this may dive into some of his more experimental and complex stories. For a reader who might have encountered Ready Player One, this is the predecessor.
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (Bantam Books, 1998)
For time travel with a science fictional basis, historical fiction and hilarity you can’t quite beat this novel by Connie Willis. Willis has a love of British history and great fun plunging slightly future researchers into the past and then having things go wrong. This is one of the most light-hearted of these books, and gives readers a good taste of this kind of meddling in the past. Often what’s referred to as “soft” science fiction, these kinds of stories highlight characters and relationships and tend toward less technical forms of science fiction. Check out the author’s many other books for more fantastic reads.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com, 2015)
It’s still not easy to find a lot of diversity in science fiction, but authors such as Nnedi Okorafor are writing the books and being the voices to support more works by women and persons of color. This novella about a 16-year old girl on a journey to a galactic University, the first one of her people to attend. But before she can even contend with school itself she must survive the trip there! Up for several awards this year, this is an ideal book to place in the hands of those looking for what’s new on the horizon, or those looking for characters who might look like them in a story. Okorafor has some great books out already, and you get the feeling she’s only getting started.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager, July 2016)
I wanted something fairly new and upbeat to add to the list, despite the wonderful classics clamoring for my attention. Thus I’m including something that’s currently available in electronic form, but won’t be available in physical paperback until July. A group of travelers on a small interstellar ship all have their own stories and backgrounds that we’ll learn about in this journey. Science fiction is full of profound stuff, sometimes dark or gritty, sometimes worriesome or dismaying. But there’s also room for fun and positive stories, where we aren’t dealing with dystopias or the fate of worlds. I think it well worth including something of that nature on the list.
Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler (Grand Central Publishing, c1987)
I would be terribly remiss if I left Octavia Butler off this list. Often included in high school reading lists, she remains one of the most notable women of color who wrote science fiction in the twentieth century. I would recommend reading any of this author’s works, but for this list I chose a book that encompasses the entire Xenogenesis series. Lilith Ayapo dies in the war that destroys the Earth, but centuries later she is resurrected by aliens who seek to heal humanity by merging with it. Octavia is a powerful writer and should be considered a part of the foundation of a well-read science fiction fan.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Spectra, c1950)
For the iconic image of robots in the future, you really can’t avoid Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics. Asimov helped created the science fiction landscape of the twentieth century, both in what he wrote and in the books he edited. This may be his most iconic work, and one that will open the doors to new readers to this past master of the craft. As one of the most prolific writers of all time, there’s plenty of material after this for readers to dive into. If you’re looking to cement your science fictional foundations, he is a must-read.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Ace, c1969)
Ursula Le Guin was part of the New Wave of science fiction that began to explore and experiment with ideas of identity, philosophy and gender. In this book a lone human emissary is sent to an alien planet where the inhabitants can choose and change their gender. It’s a groundbreaking work that continues to be listed today among the classics. If you’re exploring the shift in science fiction from the Golden Age to the New Wave, this is an excellent choice to begin to grasp the way the genre expanded to include new ways of thinking about the future. Thoughtful and profound, this is the kind of work that’s less about the adventure than the new horizons being opened.
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013)
One more contemporary novel for the list, this one a funny science fiction romp about a symbiotic alien life forms that need a human or animal host. Tao, the alien being is currently in need of a new host to survive, and he picks the hapless and out of shape IT technician for his next host–and to transform into the ultimate secret agent. But even with Tao on the job, transforming Roen is going to take some work. Fun and funny, this story combines alien invasion and warfare with an energy and hilarity that is also a part of the genre. Science fiction does not have to be super-serious to be awesome, and part of reading it is to be entertained and to have fun with the genre. I wanted to include contemporary titles despite not knowing their staying power because part of the science fiction genre is how fast tech and the future transform again. What is relevant to this generation of young adults may be in many ways ephemeral, but it does not make it any less vital.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Simon & Schuster, c1953)
I’ll freely admit to bracketing this list with dystopian stories. But they are two of the most significant books that set about to demonstrate dystopian visions and the nightmare of them. Bradbury’s world in which a fireman is someone who burns books is particularly frightening. The question over the control of knowledge and why such places as libraries are important becomes clear, as do the inherent dangers to the freedom of information in the real world around us. I’ve commented a few times to friends that young adults are almost by dint of their age and status living in a dystopian world by their perception. Not old enough to have real power in the world, but old enough to have opinions and different ideas and a sense of their own identity, young adults may well see the world as a place in need of change.
My earlier pathways can be found here:
You’re a group of kittens that has been born–amazingly–with wings. But city life is no place for these four kitties, so they head to the country. But things may be no safer there! Do you remember:
Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by S. D. Schindler (Orchard Books c1988)
When I say the name Ursula Le Guin to you, many of my readers who know Science Fiction and Fantasy will recognize this author for her esteemed adult and young adult works. And for good reason. She’s an astonishing writer with some powerful things to say, and a strong voice and advocate for stories and future writers. Check out her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards here. But I bet a lot fewer readers know that this author also penned a series of whimsical books for beginning readers. These early chapter book stories clock in at about 40 pages a piece, but I’ve loved them since the first time I encountered them as a child.
Mrs. Jane Tabby couldn’t tell you why her litter of kittens was born with wings, but she can tell you that winged kittens in the city are a hassle and half. So when the youngsters are old enough, they set off for the countryside and hopefully safer spaces. But the kits quickly find that the predators are many, and they don’t fit anywhere in the forest. Their very difference makes them suspect to so many animals who don’t accept them or are afraid of them. Even humans aren’t necessarily friendly towards these extraordinary furballs. But the kits do finally find their way to humans who don’t mind their differences and are happy to welcome them into their home.
These are simple stories, and fairly simplistic. No surprise since they are meant for early readers. The magic of cats with wings is the only magic within these otherwise real-world stories of creatures looking for acceptance and a home. The illustrations throughout help to make these friendly and accessible “small magic” stories. Readers who’ve been delving into Le Guins richer works for years may find these bare bones to their taste, but they’ve been perfect for helping my son launch himself into longer chapter books. And there’s just something so charming about cats with wings that these continue to be a fondly remembered series.
There are four books in all that are part of this series, Catwings Return (1989), Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings (1994), and Jane on her Own (1999). Great for the young cat lover or the older cat lover who’s charmed by these titles. I admit when I first saw them as a junior high school kid I was a little in disbelief that someone would create something so whimsical and place it in very matter-of-fact surroundings. It made you want to believe that cats with wings were possible.
It’s a marvelous little series, though it won’t keep the stronger reader busy for long! These bite sized books are best in helping those just encountering short chapter books to begin to piece together stories without too much detail or complication. I am still delighted to keep these stories tucked next to my Star Ka’ats books by Andre Norton. Now I just want to get some Space Cat tales to tuck next to them and I’ll feel I’ve got a proper set. ^_^
Any other fans of this catfantastic series?