I’ve been having a fun time sharing books with my 7th grade son.
In 8th grade, I was a library aide. It was at the lunch period, so I’d shelve all the books returned that morning (all of them, because the one I had returned before school was usually on the bottom of the pile), go to lunch between rushes when the line was short, then come back to the library to choose a book and start reading. I’d finish it that night and return it the next morning before school.
As a result, I have a very good grounding in juvenile literature (through 1970, I’m catching up), and I was ready when my son reached 7th grade. Luckily, he’s a team guy and likes having other people recommend books. I’ve been re-reading some and hunting down new ones.
As you can see by the list below, I want to make sure he has a good grounding in the classics.
Ralph 124C 41+, Hugo Gernsback. Michael loved this book, even though it was written nearly a hundred years ago and that shows in the style and vocabulary. Gernsback was totally caught up in the wonders of the year 2660 and that somehow connected. I have a soft spot for visions of the future written in the past, and this one is from 1911, so it is even more fun. It is mostly a travelogue of the future, but there is enough plot to keep it moving.
Be sure to get the edition from the Bison Books Frontiers of Imagination series because it has the cool illustrations. Sigh, that web site is a disaster, but the books are really nice. If they could reissue the catalog of Sam Moskowitz’s Hyperion Press, I wouldn’t care if they wrote their whole site in PDF.
Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Robert Heinlein. You think that all those SF juveniles are the same, then you find one that is just better. This one has it all — tinkering engineers, good aliens, bad aliens, a prison on Pluto, a galactic tribunal on the worthiness of the human race, and a strong female character who’s good at math. Michael ate it up, but found the 1950’s small town scenes somewhat stranger than being imprisoned on Pluto. Maybe we should go watch a bunch of The Andy Griffith Show or Happy Days episodes to get a proper grounding in 50’s stereotypes. Or maybe not.
Space Cadet, Robert Heinlein. You’d probably pass this one up because of the title, but you’d be wrong. Yes, a lot of the plot is predictable, but it there is something interesting going on besides the regular academy and coming-of-age stuff. The Space Patrol is in charge of a global deterrent, orbiting nuclear weapons. The folk on the ground are so used to peace that even talking about the bombs is impolite. Could we make a lasting peace out of Mutually Assured Destruction? What kind of guardians would we need to make that work? The chill of the cold war spawns a bit of hope.
Heinlein’s Space Patrol has a lot in common with Doc Smith’s Galactic Patrol, but without the all-knowning Arisians to keep them on course. This time, it is all up to the humans.
Of course, Ender’s Game is the best space cadet novel of all time, but I think it is a lot stronger if you know which direction a space cadet story is supposed to go. There are always a couple of cadets who don’t make the grade because they aren’t moral enough, but we don’t expect them to be psychopaths. Space Cadet stands on its own, but if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, you now have another reason to read Heinlein first.
So Yesterday, by Scott Westerfeld. Set the time machine for today! The main character is a Cool Hunter on the watch for emerging fashions. He blows apart a marketing session by inviting an Innovator, a girl who starts fashions instead of following them. Then someone disappears and fashion gets deadly.
I really like how the plot charges ahead while peeling back the facade of marketing and fashion. The language has a now, post-modern shine (is post-modern already passé?) decorated with brand names. Even the cool hunting protagonist is nearly a brand name, Hunter Braque. He makes an aside early on about mentioning brands when he avoids saying “Google” because it is just too common.
It’s good this book is short, because both my son and my wife had to finish it in one sitting. Westerfeld writes longer stuff, too. He has a trilogy on another set of themes that hit home with teens. Uglies, Pretties, and Specials is set in a future where everyone is forced to get surgery and mods to be pretty and happy at age 16. Well, almost everyone. What did they give up to be pretty and happy? Was it worth it? What would you choose?
The King in the Window, by Adam Gopnik. This one isn’t science fiction. Well, there is some weird quantum physics stuff at the end, but that is more fantasy than SF. It is there for narrative effect not intellectual effect (but that is a different blog post). The wonderful part about this book is the feel of Paris and the presence of the past in the present. Racine, Molière, and Richelieu (still adjusting his mayonnaise) are here, and Versailles really is a portal to a different world. Unlike the other books on this list, this book is more about place and character than plot. The plot is fine, but what I remember is Paris, the dinner with Mrs. Pearson, the clochards, and all the windows.
I think the first half of the book was more satisfying and that it loses itself a bit when the American startup guy enters the story. Maybe New York authors just can’t write convincing Silicon Valley stereotypes. But that is a nit on a fun story with a nice bit of depth. My son didn’t see anything wrong with it. For me, catching myself reflected in the café window isn’t quite the same anymore.
When Worlds Collide, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. When a book gives away the ending in the title, you know the authors are betting everything on the ride. Imagine a mystery titled “The Butler Did It”. This edition combines When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide. That’s the sequel, but I bet you figured that out. This is another early SF novel, but from 1932 this time. That is a long twenty years from 1911 — world war, depression, and an influenza pandemic. In When Worlds Collide the destruction is not limited to govenrments, economies, or populations, the entire Earth is destroyed and it is done with convincing detail: huge tides, monster storms blotting out the sun, mass panic, and a final desperate dash to another planet. Once there, the meteorological and geological scares are over, but the sociological and political problems are just as serious.