REVIEW: Escape From Earth edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

REVIEW SUMMARY: A sure-fire way to get teenage readers hooked on science fiction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of seven original young-adult novellas designed to get kids hooked on science fiction.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Filled with sense of wonder; strong, positive role-models.

CONS: One story less effective than the others.

BOTTOM LINE: This is simply a very good collection of science fiction stories, for teenagers and adults alike.

This week my daughter’s elementary school had a book fair and I was once again amazed at how many more fantasy titles there are for kids than there are science fiction titles. I could count the number of sf books they offered on one hand and still have enough fingers left over to poke Scholastic in the eyes. To be fair, there is a much higher demand for fantasy these days thanks to books and films like Harry Potter. And, of course, we are happy that kids are reading anything! But that doesn’t stop us here at SF Signal from opining about the lack of science fiction for kids. (Not for the least of reasons which include being able to use a form of the word “opine”.)

Imagine, then, how high my hopes were when I heard about the new young adult sf anthology Escape From Earth edited by well-respected and capable editors Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois. The book is designed to be a gateway to science fiction for younger readers.

It succeeds in a big way…with one caveat. Parents may feel that some of the language (s**t, b***h,) and situations (talk of sex) presented herein might be unsuitable for younger readers but they may decide it’s OK for teenagers. This exemplifies the difference I see between “young adult” and “juvenile” books. The good news is that all the stories have positive messages for young readers, something that, as a parent, I find particularly encouraging and commendable.

While all the stories are good (with one borderline case), the standout ones for me were “Derelict” by Geoffrey A. Landis, “Combat Shopping” by Elizabeth Moon and “The Mars Girl” by Joe Haldeman. Each one of these not only provided the requisite sense of wonder that drew me to the genre in my formative years, but they also contain characters who exhibit positive qualities without being phony.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow.


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. “Escape from Earth” by Allen Steele [2006 novella]

    • Synopsis: Eric, a sixteen-year-old small-town boy, dreams of becoming an astronaut. His dream just might become a reality when he meets three mysterious teenage strangers in search of the nearby nuclear power plant.
    • Review: This story typifies the classic young adult sense-of-wonder story – maybe too much given the corny and schoolboy-fantasy moment or two – with its hopeful young protagonist dreaming of the stars who is thrust into an adventure beyond his imagining. Steele does an excellent job showing Eric’s troubled home life (father dead, absentee mother working two jobs, druggie brother) and how Eric is able to overcome his hardships. In the process Eric makes some brave, mature decisions about his life. He also exhibits confidence when he decides that it’s time to take action. Very good stuff.
  2. “Where the Golden Apples Grow” [The Company] by Kage Baker [2006 novella]
    • Synopsis: On a newly colonized Mars, settlers reside either on Mons Olympus hauling stuff in the open Martian air or down in the farm domes working the fields for a greener planet. Bill, a Hauler’s son dreams of being a farmer while Ford, a farmer’s son, would rather be working a Hauler. When the two meet under less-than-favorable circumstances, they get to see how the other half lives.
    • Review: Ford’s and Bill’s adventures nicely exhibit the common but usually neglected dangers of living off-world, but other than that there is little else here that screams sense of wonder in this “grass is greener” story. Bill is perpetually angry at his life and his “irresponsible” dad but learns a lesson or two about life. Ford, a starry-eyed twelve year old, is more naïve to the ways of colonization than Bill, and he also has room to learn a few things. They don’t immediately hit it off – in fact, they come to fisticuffs – but they do eventually learn to work together to overcome some very serious situations.
    • Note: Set in Baker’s Company universe.
  3. “Derelict” by Geoffrey A. Landis [2006 novella]
    • Synopsis: A trio of youngsters from an orbital space colony plans a clandestine trip to a derelict station for some forbidden exploration. And also to score some space-weed!
    • Review: What starts out as a run-of-the-mill “kids on space stations will be kids!” story really starts to shine when they head over to the derelict Hercules station, mysteriously destroyed some seventy-five years before. Dylan, Kibbie and Barb are inseparable friends whose plans for a little adventure run afoul at the space station. The search for the euphoric weed turned out to be a minor plot element that was used as a lesson in perspective when all was said and done. Landis also sprinkles a fair amount of hard science in the story, lending an amount of realism beyond the lighter fare. Nicely done.
  4. “Space Boy” by Orson Scott Card [2006 novella]
    • Synopsis: Todd travels to another world via a wormhole to save his mother who disappeared years earlier.
    • Review: While this story was OK overall, I had a hard time getting fully immersed in it. I’m not sure if it was the prolific use of “crap”, “anus”, etc. (as if that is somehow supposed to appeal to the target young adult audience) or the fantasy-like feel of the story, which offered little scientific explanation of the wormhole and fantasy-like tropes such as an “elf”, a king’s castle and an ethereal existence in the other world. On the plus side Todd was nicely portrayed as a strong youth who deals with some mature issues like his mother’s assumed death, his supposedly-delusional kid brother and an angry father who fails to believe him.
  5. “Incarnation Day” by Walter Jon Williams [2006 novella]
    • Synopsis: A posthuman coming-of-age story in which virtual human children are downloaded into physical forms when they mature. Here, Alison narrates the story of her own approaching “incarnation” and freedom from the threat of termination imposed by parents who might see their children as defective.
    • Review: The virtual/posthuman aspect of the story puts a nice spin on the coming-of-age story. The children are not considered legally human until incarnation and are therefore have no rights. Nice touch. Children who don’t measure up are snuffed out by the “blue lady”, a digital version of the boogeyman. There’s a nice sense-of-winder-filled scene where the kids are granted temporary physical form to attend the incarnation of one of their cadre. Ultimately, the story focuses on Alison’s friend Janice and her very strained relationship with her mother. Alison comes up with a creative way to salvage the escalating situation, but will she be successful before the blue lady strikes?
  6. “Combat Shopping” by Elizabeth Moon [2006 novella]
    • Synopsis: On the ice moon of Ganymede, young Andi longs to escape her miserable confinement to the habitat of her mean adoptive parents. A trip to the base camp dome provides Andi with a little adventure when she sneaks off to apply for a pilot’s license, but loses her younger brother and sister and faces the danger of being abducted by workforce pirates.
    • Review: This is a fast-paced story that has many likable aspects, not the least of which is the endearing character of Andi. All she really wants is to fit in (she’s shorter than average and “less than plain”), meet the friends she hasn’t seen in person for 500 days, and get away from her confining existence. On Ganymede, couples must adopt children rejected from Earth in order to own land. Andi’s parents adopted five kids for all the wrong reasons. None of them are treated properly for supposed financial reasons. Andi is a smart kid and her run-in with workforce pirates gives her a chance to flex her mental might. In the process she learns self-acceptance and responsibility -great messages for the target younger readers. There’s plenty of action and drama as well. I must admit to finding myself cheering for Andi in the climactic shuttle landing sequence. Very well done.
  7. “The Mars Girl” by Joe Haldeman [2006 novella]
    • Synopsis: Carmen is one of a group of children sent to a colony on Mars. She has a few run-ins with the colony leader and takes a defiant trip outside the colony. But when she accidentally stumbles upon the hidden habitat of intelligent creatures, she might be in for more than she can handle.
    • Review: Excellent sense of wonder marks this well-written adventure story. Carmen’s journey begins in a space elevator, on her way to a five-year stay at the fledgling space colony where she must, among other things, become familiar with space suits and learn the value of water. Dargo Solingen, the leader of the colony, is against the decision made by those on Earth to bring children to Mars and seems to focus her resentment on Carmen, or at least that’s how Carmen sees it. Carmen, in an act of defiance for punishment received for a late night swim in the precious water reserve, decides to go outside the human habitat where she falls through the roof of an underground lava tube only to be rescued by real, live aliens. Carmen remains in full control of her actions through this scary ordeal and soon realizes that the aliens are seemingly benevolent; they cure the broken ankle she received from her fall. Naturally, those back at the base camp do not believe her. They think she is delusional. But that’s the least of her problems, for Carmen seems to have picked up an alien germ which soon threatens the other children. Good drama and sense-of-wonder make for a darned good adventure story. With Martians! (Sort of.)