Let’s talk about invention. There’s a wide swathe of science fiction that is just chock full of invention. In fact, some of the earliest science fiction had to to with just that. When people talk about Frankenstein and his monster, the word “mad scientist” easily pops to mind. But quite often people focus on the “mad” and forget the key “scientist” part. Our inventive individual in his lab isn’t creating life out of some desire to rule the world or to spread evil through the world, he truly believes he is doing something remarkable, incredible and ground breaking. Or our mercurial Dr. Jekyll with his violent alter ego who seeks to better understand and distill human emotions by his research. Neither intends to set monsters loose on innocents, (though maybe they should have), this is simply what happens in their fervent pursuit.
Invention isn’t something just for stories either. Every day there are stories across the web about new inventions and discoveries. There is a constant need to invent, to come up with solutions and new ideas out of the unknown. In fact, much of what is invention and discovery falls into the STEM fields. (Science, technology, engineering and math). I think few would argue that these fields of study are crucial and we want to encourage young people to seek careers as scientists, engineers, etc. In fact there’s a lot of value being placed on teaching kids STEM related programs and activities. Nonfiction offers many informative and interesting texts on the subjects.
But I’m of the opinion that it’s not enough.
If you want a new generation of kids that will embrace and internalize dreams of discovery and invention and innovation that are so key in the STEM fields, you need to give them a reason to do that. You need to give them stories and characters to emulate. Spark the imagination, win the heart and the mind will focus on the task of becoming. If you ask other generations of scientists and engineers what inspired them, they’re going to bring up Heinlein, Bradbury or Asimov, or the stories of Tom Swift. They’ll relate to you stories and fantastic flights of science fiction from authors that they loved as kids. Books that set them on the path when they were young, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams.
The Stigma of the Mad Scientist
It’s not that invention and science has disappeared entirely from the world of children’s fiction, but when it does come into a story, too often it is the trope of the unhinged scientist working out of test tubes in a gothic castle with a lurching assistant and plenty of maniacal laughter. Most of these scientists are evil, either from an experiment gone wrong, or due to being disillusioned by society. Our protagonists often are working to stop these individuals. Most commonly, this happens in superhero stories such asGeeks,Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung (Arthur A. Levine, 2012).
Jim Benton’s Franny K. Stein provides us with a hilarious version of the mad scientist in his Franny K. Stein series.
But mad scientists can crop up anywhere–even right next door, as twins Josh and Danny discover inSpider Stampedeby Ali Sparks and illustrated by Ross Collins (Lerner, 2013), the first book in a new science fiction adventure series called S.W.I.T.C.H.
Mad scientists are popular characters in movies and in television shows, including many cartoons. They are usually unhinged, unethical and defeated soundly by the protagonists. The more comical versions come up with wild inventions that are bizarre and often a source of humor. The meglomaniac mouse, Brain, from Pinky and the Brain comes up with wild plan after plan to take over the world, with no success but much hilarity for fans. Most of these mad scientists are weird in appearance, eccentric in their behaviors and particularly unsuccessful on the social scene.
Dr. Drakken from Kim Possible is a prime example of the socially inept mad scientist who turns to a life of crime and mayhem.
When scientists are all on the fringe and often the villains of the script, the tradition is going to be internalized. Kids are likely to hear “scientist” and add “mad” to the description automatically. While there’s no crime in featuring the mad scientist trope in a story, when all the scientists kids see in their favorite stories are distinctly uncool, unpopular and ultimately the bad guy, it’s not going to encourage them to go into scientific fields of study as a legitimate career path. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional dastardly chemist , but we need more protagonists in the sciences.
The rise of steampunk has provided a form of fiction that’s very receptive to invention. Most steampunk is set in the Victorian, to early 20th century time frame. These were times of huge changes and new discoveries in the world of science. Invention goes with steampunk much like cinnamon goes with applesauce. The Mesmer Menaceby Kersten Hamilton and illustrated by James Hamiton (Clarion, 2013) is the first book in a series that deals with an alternative steam punk universe full of wild and wacky inventions. InThe Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic, 2010) one of our main characters uses clockwork to try and build an automaton.
Beyond it’s alliterative exclamations and dachshund first person perspective, this is still a pretty bizarre, but entertaining book.
I’m all for it, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a small catch with most steam punk. It’s based on an alternative view of history, and all the discoveries and technology are grounded in the knowledge of the time. It can’t give perspective on the future based on our own time and tech. If you want to prompt kids into what might be, steampunk is a bit of a dead end. We aren’t going to wind up living in a world where Westerfeld’s remarkable whale-ship, the Leviathan cruises the skies. Readers can enjoy the characters in the genre, but they can’t aspire to the same types of roles or inventions based on steam and clockwork.
Beyond goofy alien stories, there’s a whole side of science fiction that’s about military adventures in space, or young explorers landing on other planets and encountering new civilizations. They are fantastically imagined future stories that may not feature scientist and inventor characters, but they can begin to inspire those who want to see that imagined future come to be. The Planet Thieves by Dan Krokos (Starscape, 2013) is a new military science fiction story for middle grade readers that came out this year.
I would love to see more of these kinds of stories. Bradbury in particular never wanted mankind to give up the dream of space exploration and neither do I. What was a hugely hopeful explosion of these tales during the 70s and 80s with great stories like Calling B for Butterfly by Louise Lawrence (1982), Barbary by Vonda N. McIntyre (1986), and The Lost Star by Helen Mary Hoover (1979). has in recent years gone down to a trickle. If we want to inspire the next generation to look towards that starry universe with hope and daring, we need to give them the stories that will set them on fire to do so.
The Winds of Mars by H. M. Hoover (Dutton, 1995)
I’ve already noted some of this in A Swift Proposal. But it bears repeating.
We need more inventor fiction in the science fiction genre for kids.
Stories like those ofTom Swift and Danny Dunn from generations past, but for the new readers. The thing about inventor stories is that most of them become dated–possibly more so than just about any other kind of science fiction. It’s still possible to read and enjoy The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree or The Wonderful Flight to Mushroom Planetdespite the obvious outdated science. But books like the Tom Swift series, or the slightly more recent Danny Dunn series deal with specific inventions in the near future society to the time they were written, and at some point those inventions will either have come to pass, or the science used to invent them in the story will have been disproved. We continually need some new writers to peek over the horizon of invention to see what we might discover.
There is some hope of this, I’m happy to say. I’ve been delighted with two of the new science fiction book out this year that focus at least in part on invention.
The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore (Bloombury, 2013)
The Water Castle is an example of near future or present day science fiction. The entire book is chock full of kids learning about science, scientific experiments and fascination with explorers and what they discovered. I love the book because it puts the message in the minds of readers “this is possible” and “what can you discover?’ Sometimes kids get the impression that everything out there has been discovered/mapped/defined. As adults, we know this isn’t true, but we have to remind the youth that there’s a place for them in exploration and discovery. There are new things to invent, new mysteries to unravel. It’s a spectacular book.
Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman (Random House, 2013)
Sky Jumpers is a post apocalyptic story, but it’s not a dystopian tale. The survivors of the human race have come together in the aftermath and forged a new community. It’s a positive, upbeat community focused on invention along with survival and while life can be grim without modern-day technologies we take for granted, it’s not hopeless. Inventors are a positive thing here, they’re what allows the community to function as well as it does and improve life for all individuals. We get to see some of the inventive process, and how even seemingly simple inventions can make life so much easier. Our protagonist may not be much of an inventor herself, but through her eyes, we see how vital it is to her community.
Let’s face it folks. You are not going to win hearts and provoke minds simply by dropping a textbook full of STEM information in front of a child. Just as a field needs to be plowed and fertilized for a good harvest, a young mind needs the stories and the dreams that will allow them to be receptive and ready for the education. They need the stories to tell themselves. They need the “whys” before they can dream up the “hows” and want to learn the tools that will enable them to achieve.
Let’s do right by this generation of young readers. Let’s make room in their minds for all kinds of possibilities, and all kinds of futures.
There’s my take on the subject for tonight. Comments and thoughts Welcome!
Posted in General Posts
Tags: Books, Children's Books, Children's Literature, Invention, literature, MG Books, Middle-Grade Fiction, Reading, reviews, Science, Science Fiction, SF, Steampunk, Tom Swift
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine
By Jay Williams , Raymond Abrashkin , illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats