Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ann Halam's Young Adult SF

John Scalzi has an interesting post about the science fiction to be found in the young adult section. It never occurred to me to go looking outside the adult areas of my local library and the nearest B&N, mostly because there are so many books on my "to read" list already. But now at least I know to be on the lookout for novels that aren't shelved in the regular SFF section. By coincidence I recently ran across a young adult novel that sounds quite interesting: Dr. Franklin's Island by Ann Halam (the YA pen name of SF novelist Gwyneth Jones).
We were flying to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We were going to stay in a hotel there, before traveling overland to the rain forest base. It'll be all right once we've settle in, I told myself (hoping it was true). We'll be working, helping the scientists, learning about the wildlife. It's easy to talk to people when you're doing something together. Back at home, my brother and my parents were getting ready to go to Jamaica for their summer holiday. My brother thought I was mad to prefer going on a science trip, and I was beginning to agree with him. But I wasn't going to get downhearted. Even if I didn't make any friends, even if I never had a single conversation beyond "could you pass the graph paper" or whatever, this had to be th trip of a lifetime. Meeting real scientists, seeing the Galápagos . . .
~ Dr. Franklin's Island, by Ann Halam
Three children survive a plane crash on an isolated island, and find that they are not alone. There is a military research facility manned by a Dr. Franklin, who uses genetic engineering to create human-animal hybrids. If the plot sounds familiar, that's probably because the novel is loosely based on H.G. Well's Island of Doctor Moreau. As Halam explained in an interview with her publisher:
Dr. Franklin’s Island is sort of an argument with The Island of Dr. Moreau. When I started thinking about my transformation story, The Island of Dr. Moreau immediately came to mind and set the scene on the “desert island”–the isolated place where the mad scientist could do his will, undisturbed by public opinion. When I reread the story, I found I didn’t like the ideas in it at all. This is different from not liking the story. I think it’s a great story, but I didn’t like H. G. Wells’s ideas about animal nature versus human nature. Part of what happens in Dr. Franklin (though this isn’t Dr. Franklin’s intention!) is the wonder and joy of being reunited with the animal kingdom, rediscovering the delight of being an animal, at home in the living world–but still this special kind of self-aware, conscious animal that is a human being. H. G. Wells comes to a very different conclusion about his “beast men.” I won’t try to explain it; read the story and make your own judgment. In short, I like H. G. Wells’s terrific stories, but I’m not much of an admirer of his opinions.
The (long) Wikipedia summary of the plot makes it sound both horrific and thought-provoking, and Lisa DuMond at SF Site gave it a very positive review.

Some of Halam's other novels also have biological themes. In Siberia, a young girl and her mother are living in a prison camp, where the mother secretly creates and harvests animal life using a "Lindquist kit". From Bookslut's review:
At some point in Siberia’s future, the world has lost touch with nature and become a cold wasteland separated by domed cities. The people in the cities are distanced from those who live in the wilderness, and all of them are distanced from nature. Animals are now raised in fur farms (dogs, cats, everything) and wild animals are rare. Sloe’s parents were city scientists who opposed the government’s decisions concerning the destruction of wild animal DNA. After her father was arrested and killed by the government she and her mother are to a camp; a camp that sounds a lot like a Soviet era gulag. It is there that she learns about her mother’s “magic” and the compressed DNA she smuggled out of the city and now safeguards until they can one day escape to the safety of the almost mythical city on the other side of the forest. This compressed DNA, referred to as Lindquists in the book and named by Halam in honor of real life MIT biologist Susan Lindquist, is able to express itself in many forms. In essence, Sloe and her mother have the future of every wild animal in the small kits they hide beneath the floor of their Siberian hut. What will become of these kits after Sloe is sent away to school and her mother is arrested by the government authorities for teaching her daughter science is the crux of the story. Can Sloe save them and successfully travel to the safety of the northern city, and more importantly, can she learn enough about how to control the DNA so that they can save her from those who wish her harm (and want the DNA).
And Halam's novel Taylor Five is the story of one of the first human clones. From the Amazon.com description:
Taylor Walker seems like any ordinary 14-year-old. Ordinary—if you overlook the fact that she lives on the island of Borneo, on a primate reserve run by her parents, and knows how to survive in the jungle. Obviously, Tay isn’t just like everyone else. But she is like one other person. She’s exactly like one other person. Tay is a clone, one of only five in the world, and her clone mother is Pam Taylor, a brilliant scientist. When rebels attack the reserve, Tay escapes with her younger brother and Uncle, an exceptionally intelligent orangutan. As they flee through the jungle, Tay must look within to find her strength: Pam’s DNA, tempered by Taylor’s extraordinary life. And she looks to Uncle for guidance—for Tay knows that the uncanny bond between Uncle and herself is the key to their survival.
All three novels sound interesting, and I love that the protagonists are all smart resourceful girls. I've added Ann Halam to my reading wish list.

Previously: Free fiction by Gwyneth Jones

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