- The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction
The Inter-Galactic Playground continues Farah Mendlesohn's work in devising and explaining interesting and useful categories of fiction for the reader of science fiction, fantasy, and children's literature. Mendlesohn's Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children's Literature (Routledge, 2005) examined Jones's work in the contexts of the rhetoric of place, narrative time, metafiction, the kuntslerroman, and more. I noted in a review of that book that "The book teaches us about fantasy structures in general and Jones' unconventional play with those structures in particular" (Cadden 99). But along with her work explaining literary features, Mendlesohn shows interest in what she calls the "the reading child," both an implied audience and a real audience that she claims Jones targets. This is the beginning of Mendlesohn's focus on the child who reads, not simply the child reader. Mendlesohn uses existing definitions and categories to show how Jones is an unconventional writer, thereby challenging easy classifications; in Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan, 2008), she continues to reconsider and reform categories of fantasy, but she also expands her work on the relationship between the writer and the reader. So it is important to note that while Mendlesohn is known for her structuralist tendencies—her proclivity for thinking about categories and classifications—she is a critic equally concerned with the subtextual as well as contextual, which we see in The Inter-Galactic Playground. The consideration of these in relationship makes her book useful and provocative. [End Page 258]
The Inter-Galactic Playground is at its best when Mendlesohn tracks historical trends in the development of and tendencies in children's science fiction, and its categorical divergence from adult science fiction. As a trained historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, she ably shows how children's science fiction has changed in structure, theme, and purpose over the course of the twentieth century. We learn that by the middle of the 1980s, adventure narratives were only to be found in adult and children's science fiction, not in the YA category, which had, like the rest of YA, turned inward. We are given insight into how ensemble character narratives were developed to provide more characterization without having to depict round and growth-destined characters in significant relationships. We see how the adult mentor character reemerges in children's science fiction only to morph from teacher to protector. We are shown the social conservativism of children's science fiction sustained over time, especially as it results in gender role limitations (girls have equal success with boys as long as they don't have to grow up and try to be working mothers, and boys with brains have been transformed from normal and curious to nerds).
Beyond the historical concerns, however, Mendlesohn admittedly likes definitions and categories. She makes it clear that "this book will . . . suggest a structural understanding of the genre in which it is the trajectory of the narrative that tells us we are in a science fiction book" (4). Mendlesohn argues for a trajectory for all science fiction narrative that builds on earlier work by John Clute. A science fiction narrative must move from dissonance to rupture to resolution and finally, and most important for Mendlesohn, to consequence. In fact, a critique she has of much children's (and especially YA) science fiction is that it lacks this last sense of what happens in society as a result of the resolution of the story, which also must be about the "impact of technology" (125). She prefers "to work with a more structuralist and attitudinal approach about what science fiction is" (10), and that "attitudinal" issue crosses us over onto ground that is less about structural tendencies and patterns and more about "mood" and feeling in terms of science fiction. "The fundamental contention of this book," she argues, " is that children who are likely to want to read science fiction as adults should have access...