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Escape from Earth
      Travel Light
edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
      Naomi Mitchison
Science Fiction Book Club, 420 pages
      Small Beer Press, 135 pages

Escape from Earth
Travel Light
Jack Dann
Jack Dann was born in Johnson City, New York, in 1945. He received his BA from Binghamton University in 1967. He has taught at Cornell University and Broome Community College, and has run an advertising agency. He still retains big business links as a director of a New York insurance company. Perhaps best known for his short fiction, which has appeared in Omni, Playboy, Asimov's SF and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jack Dann is also a consulting editor for Tor Books. His work has resulted in him being a finalist for the Nebula Award 11 times and a World Fantasy Award finalist 3 times.

Jack Dann Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Gardner Dozois
Gardner Dozois is the editor of Asimov's SF Magazine. He is an editor of the multi-volume Magic Tales fantasy series with Jack Dann and the Isaac Asimov's... series with Sheila Williams, both from Ace Books.

Asimov's SF Magazine Website
ISFDB Bibliography

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SF Site Review: Nanotech

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Maybe it's just me. When I was a teenager I didn't discover science fiction through the young adult books by people like Robert A. Heinlein or Andre Norton, instead I went straight for the adult fiction. And now I'm a long way past the target audience for these books. Nevertheless, if I was younger and looking to discover science fiction through something like Escape from Earth, I'd expect the stories to be a little less, well, boring.

There are seven stories in this collection, by some of the best writers working in the genre today, and only Orson Scott Card and Joe Haldeman seem to understand that one of the prime functions of science fiction is to excite the reader. It's as if all the contributors were told to make their futures real, and have responded to this with page after tedious page of the minutiae of everyday life and only then have decided that maybe they should add just a little bit of story.

Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is with "Where the Golden Apples Grow" by Kage Baker. The set-up is terrific; we are on Mars early in the colonisation. Below glass roofs, Calvinist farmers lead an austere, poverty-stricken life trying to green the planet. On the surface, meanwhile, truckers lead a lonely, rough-and-ready existence ferrying necessary supplies about. We follow two boys (every leading character in this collection is in their teens: another unbreakable rule of Young Adult fiction, apparently, is that teenagers are resolutely incapable of identifying with any character older than themselves), one is a trucker's son who yearns to grow things, the other is a farmer's son who longs to escape the repressions of his life. It's a predictable prince and the pauper type set-up, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. But we start with Bill, who rides the trucks with his father Billy, and for the first few pages all we learn is what is wrong about being a trucker on Mars (and as far as Bill is concerned, nothing is right). Then we switch to Ford, to learn all that's wrong about being a farmer. We're getting on for 20 pages into the story before circumstances put Ford into Billy's cab for one trip, and it's only when Billy collapses and the two boys have to work together to get Billy and his truck back to safety that the story actually acquires drama. The last half of the story is exactly the sort of thing that would have thrilled me as a kid, but I'm not sure I'd have had the patience to wade through the slow first half in order to get there.

Contrast this with "The Mars Girl" by Joe Haldeman, also set on Mars (which seems to be a popular setting once more) and even earlier in the colonisation process. There is just one small colony when our narrator, Carmen, arrives. She is as disaffected as Ford or Bill, but in her case it comes across as mouthy, funny, anti-authoritarian and engaged. Much as she doesn't want to be on Mars, she can still get excited at what is going on around her. Her manner inevitably brings her into conflict with the authorities on Mars, and after one fight she walks out of the colony and discovers real Martians. The pivotal point, as with Baker's story, occurs roughly half way through, but we keep reading this far because the lead character is not so bored with her existence that she becomes boring, and because everything is told to us through incident, there is always something going on.

If the other stories aren't as bad as the Baker they are not, with one exception, as good as the Haldeman. Let's run through them quickly: "Escape from Earth" by Allen M. Steele tells of a teenage boy disaffected with life in a small US town who gets involved with a flying saucer that turns out to be a ship full of space cadets from the future. "Derelict" by Geoffrey A. Landis tells of a bunch of teenagers who are disaffected with their life on a space habitat who make an illicit trip to a derelict space habitat where they have to fight off baddies and make a discovery about the fragility of their own existence. "Combat Shopping" by Elizabeth Moon is about a teenage girl disaffected with life on a remote space outpost who dreams of becoming a spaceship pilot, and when her younger siblings are kidnapped by pirates because of her own carelessness she has the chance to make her dreams come true, and incidentally discover that her evil step-parents have been treating her wrong. Do you begin to detect a pattern in all this? "Incarnation Day" by Walter Jon Williams breaks the pattern somewhat, since his teenagers aren't really people, they are computer programs. In this future, children are raised and educated as computer programmes, and if they are successful they are eventually incarnated in a real, vat-grown body. Still, they are disaffected, and for once seem to have a genuine reason for it, until one free spirit among them stages a revolt. It's a clever story, more vividly told that most of the contributions which seem to concentrate almost excessively on the mundane details, but it's still not a match for the Haldeman, or "Space Boy" by Orson Scott Card.

Yes, Card's central character is a disaffected teenager, but in this instance Todd's teenage angst is caused by the fact that his mother has disappeared. She has not died, she has not walked out on the family, but she's not there any more. As his father wallows in ineffectiveness and his younger brother seems to retreat into childish fantasy, Todd has to become the competent one. Then his brother's fantasy takes on reality when he discovers that his mother was pulled through a wormhole into another universe. It's up to Todd to go through and rescue her. Card doesn't take half the story for set-up, it's done quickly and efficiently in the first couple of pages and after that we are plunged right into the plot which is told with enough humour to make it light and enough seriousness to make it gripping, and in such a dour collection it shines.

Yet all 420 pages of this collection, even the stand-out stories by Haldeman and Card, are put to shame by the 135 pages of Naomi Mitchison's 50-year-old fantasy. First published in 1952 and rediscovered now in the admirable Peapod Classics imprint from Small Beer Press, Travel Light is a model of how a story should be written for teenagers. No, let's make this right, the book may have been written for teenagers, but it can be read with real pleasure by anyone. Which is probably the secret of its success: there is no implication of talking down to the audience, of an adult saying I know how you feel. There is also no sense that the mundane reality of the world must be plastered on with a trowel. And we don't even have to have a teenage heroine: Halla begins the novel as an infant and ends at an unspecified but much greater age. Halla isn't even disaffected, in fact she seizes with relish upon every novelty presented to her. In other words, Mitchison has simply contradicted every standard trope taken as necessary by the contributors to the Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois volume, and in so doing she has effortlessly created a far more engaging and delightful work.

We are plunged into the story with the very first sentence, when the new Queen declares that the old Queen's baby daughter must be got rid of. Fortunately, Halla's nurse turns into a bear and cares for the little girl until the snows come. Then, as the bears begin to hibernate, Halla is taken in by the dragons, and spends the next several years being raised by them. But when the dragons begin to lose their long war against the humans, she finds herself alone once more. Now she heads south to Micklegard (Constantinople) where she finds herself working with a small group of men come to petition the emperor to relieve them of a cruel overlord. With her ability to talk to animals she helps them win their case, but things don't all go according to plan. Although simply and clearly told, this story is far from simple or pleasant, it is crowded with cruelty, betrayal, duplicity, slaughter, and the more exalted or heroic a character is the more vile their behaviour. It is more fanciful, more light-hearted, faster moving than anything in Escape from Earth, and yet the enchantments of Travel Light contain more truth, more straight talking, a grittier, harder-edged view of the world than any of the mundane descriptions of daily life you will find in the science fiction stories.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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