By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Atheneum, 2008.
In 2003, I read an article about the discouraging scarcity of good science fiction for children and teens. Since I had loved science fiction as a child, I puzzled over what might have caused it to dwindle. Lots of modern science fiction titles are gloomy, I thought. Gone are the glorious exploring-the-universe books like Space Cat. Gone is the sheer inventive fun of Norstrilia. We're left with the grim world of the Terminator, I mused, and I wouldn't have cared too much for that when I was a child. What today's children need, I decided, is a science fiction "Henry and Ribsy" book, with lots of colorful adventure and no messy warnings about how the Apocalypse is almost upon us. And that's what I set out to write.
Of course, it didn't turn out that way.
I gave my average thirteen-year-old "Henry" character (Martin is his name) a dog. A great dog! Martin's dog Chip is a dog we all would love to have. And then I gave him an annoying little sister. After all, where would Henry be without Ramona? The most annoying sister I could think up was a genetically engineered six-year-old super genius named Cassie. Cassie represents the next wave of consumer products, the new-and-improved child. Everyone below the age of eight is new and improved, beautiful and polite and as smart as a whip.
Naturally, I expected Martin to be annoyed that his sister was so smart. But what stunned me was how upset the neighbors were. I watched Martin and Cassie wander around their neighborhood, and I saw the dirty looks and heard the hateful comments. And that's when it dawned on me: we don't kill off races or people we think are inferior. We lash out only when we feel threatened. We reserve our deepest hatred for the people who scare us with our inferiority and possible obsolescence. That's when we turn to genocide.
So much for writing a book without messy warnings.
Martin's world has a political structure that seems to be eerily similar to ours, and yet it is very different. His parents vote. They vote every day. But they are essentially powerless, self-censoring puppets of the state. How can this be?
I've been interested in the psychological comfort factor involved in voting since I studied Russian in college. It was then that I learned that the Soviet citizens also voted for their president. They had only one candidate, but they voted. They absolutely had to vote! And so the whole country went to enormous trouble and expense to cast its ballots for the one person who had all the power anyway. The variations in voting strategy around the world and the role of voting in keeping a citizenry happy have fascinated me ever since.
From studies of the Soviet Union and Nazi-run Europe, I learned of the mind games regular people play on themselves in order not to see big-picture problems. These mind games show up in The Sky Inside. Martin's parents talk about the state-run spying that goes on as if it is nothing but an inconvenience: "The walls have ears." When a video camera secretly tapes them in their own home, they consider that all will be well since they have nothing to hide. When neighborhood kids disappear out of the suburb, they consider that this is probably a good thing since these children were misfits anyway. And they remind themselves that the people dying every day on the televised game shows are obviously criminals and deserve to die. After all, if they were innocent, they certainly wouldn't be there.
Nevertheless, in keeping with its original goal, this book is colorful and adventurous, not dark and gloomy. It celebrates simple family relationships: brother and sister, boy and dog. It provides lots of "I'd love to do that!" moments, and it has lots of fun tweaking stock science fiction concepts, such as the clichéd "domed city" and labor-saving robots. For instance, cookers in every house provide the evening's dinner for free; all the homeowner has to do is select the meal. But I realized that if everyone in a suburb had the choice of whatever he or she wanted to eat for dinner, then everyone would eat steak every night, and the cost would be unmanageable. Consequently, my cooker is built like a one-armed bandit slot machine, with cheap meals coming up frequently but great meals coming up only on rare combinations. The homeowner can slap the lever all day to try for better meals. Martin's mom tells him, "Eat your brandied pepper steak. I spent all afternoon on it. If you don't get three red diamonds in a row, the cooker won't make brandied pepper steak!"
Does my book have a political ax to grind? No. I didn't pattern any of its events on specific events from our day. In fact, I felt bad when President Bush warned the country about the dangers of avian flu because I had already written a chapter in which a president fakes a dangerous epidemic as a way to control his population through fear. I didn't write this chapter as a subtle warning not to fear bird flu; I wrote it because, unlike enemy attack or earthquake, an epidemic seemed like a fairly easy calamity to fake. The whole book reflects our time, but it doesn't set out to pick on any particular person, party, or group within this time. If The Sky Inside has any political message to deliver, it is this: If we spend more time shopping for our next car than we do for our next president, we shouldn't be surprised if our country suffers for it.
Early in the book, Cassie tells about reading Peter Pan, in which "Tinkerbell thought she could keep her job if enough little children believed in advertising." I based this grotesque rewrite of a classic on some of the ghastly movies coming out nowadays: producers borrow a few names and the skeleton of a plot from a classic, and then sadly unsubtle, untalented people go on to create a simple-minded, action-packed soundbyte out of one of the triumphs of Western civilization. No one has produced anything quite as awful as Cassie's edition of Peter Pan. But they've come close. (Please note that this is not a criticism of P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan, which I happen to love.)
The television set is the extra character in this book. It's always in the background, urging funny and useless products onto my suburbanites or soothing them with its watered-down version of real life. In Martin's state-run and repressed world, television truly is the opiate of the people. Incidentally, I had quite a bit of trouble inventing far-fetched products for my television set to sell. Many of my best brainchildren already existed! Cauliflower in designer colors? We've got it. The rose-scented bowling ball turned out to be an actual product, too—and not such a bad idea, now that I come to think about it.