- The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teen's Science Fiction
I was pleased to be asked to review Farah Mendlesohn's new book. I'd very much liked her previous volume, the award-winning Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), and said so in a review in Science Fiction Studies. Also, I knew that The Inter-Galactic Playground had at least part of its genesis in an essay by Mendlesohn that appeared in a special science fiction issue of the Lion and the Unicorn that I co–guest edited with Janice Bogstad in 2004. There aren't all that many people doing serious work on the confluence between adult and young adult science fiction and fantasy, and for a number of years Mendlesohn has been one of the colleagues with whom I've most enjoyed discussing this topic.
Reviewing The Inter-Galactic Playground, however, has turned out to be a slightly odd experience. I quickly discovered that yet another (admittedly related) genesis of the book, which Mendlesohn specifically mentions in her first chapter and returns to later in the volume, is an ongoing argument that she and I have had over exactly what constitutes "real" or "full" science fiction and the extent to which much of what is published as young adult science fiction fails to meet her definition of the same. Over the years I believe that I've been able to nudge her slightly toward my position, and I know that she's had a reciprocal effect on me as well. While Mendlesohn and I still have our differences, I believe that she has some very valuable points to make about young adult science fiction.
Although she is rarely abstract, Mendlesohn is a very Aristotelian critic. She likes to structure and categorize, and she did so brilliantly in Rhetorics of Fantasy, in which she created the definitive study of "the way in which the fantastic enters the text" (Rhetorics 273) by surveying literally hundreds of works, many of them children's or young adult fantasy [End Page 407] (including a particularly memorable examination of Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls). At the center of her argument in The Inter-Galactic Playground is her belief that "science fiction is less a genre than it is a mode … a way of writing about things, events and people" (10). Expanding, as she did in Rhetorics, on the theories of John Clute, Mendlesohn summarizes what she calls the "full sf novel" as requiring "DISSONANCE, RUPTURE, RESOLUTION, CONSEQUENCE" (10). Dissonance is caused by some element of the plot, usually introduced early on, which simply does not exist in our world—a "novum" in the critical vocabulary of Darko Suvin—perhaps a fabulous invention like a robot, or an event like the impending impact of an asteroid, or a setting like a closed, dystopian community. Rupture, frequently called "cognitive estrangement" by critics of science fiction, is the change in the world caused by Mendlesohn's dissonance. "Full" science fiction, she argues, does everything it can to maximize the rupture; "the author must be willing to demand that the reader identify with a completely other reality in which nothing is questioned or explained" (12). Next in Mendlesohn's system comes "Resolution," a critical term that has pretty much the standard meaning—that is, things begin to come together; however Mendlesohn's usage of that term requires that Resolution never be the end of a "full" science fiction story. It must, she argues, always be followed by "Consequence … the rippling out of effect, the quantum butterfly that flaps its wings and triggers economic panic on the far side of the world" (13). To put it another way, Mendlesohn's "full" science fiction story must always end with an opening out into the universe. The protagonist cannot return to the family hearth untransformed. After the aliens are defeated, the world cannot return to the way it was. Something important must have changed, either the protagonist's attitude toward the universe, or her/his status in...