Prose – Star Children

(Image credit: NASA)

Star Children

The clinking of their heels rang down the steel corridor. Spinning warning lights drowned everything in red. Mother’s digital voice joined the blaring sirens.

“Attention, all crew. Ten credential points will be rewarded for the return Mike Three-Two and Juliet Seven-Five to the reeducation centre.” Juliet pulled Mike’s wrist tighter. Mike squeezed the folded paper into his uniform. It was called a newspaper, Juliet had discovered. They had found it in a vent, underneath a screw set and a repair manual. She had read the big page hundreds of times. It told her of how Earth became unlivable. How hand-picked elders colonized a new world, but struggled to tame it. How they sent construction missions to other planets, to create resorts ahead of their arrival. The writer bragged about the science behind it all, how drones would be grown in thermoplastic wombs half-way through the journey. Their strength exausted, they would be incinerated and new ones sent. Hygienic. Convienient. Juliet and Mike soon began planning their escape.

“We’re almost at the escape pod bay,” she shouted. Steel plating, always steel plating, but sometimes a deck window. They looked through as they ran past one, hungry for the view. They could see the soft, golden curvature of the planet, and the shimmer of its atmospheric water. Juliet grit her teeth and ran harder.

Two more corridors and a flight of riveted stairs. The dim lights nearly made them miss the flaking leaves of the NARPA logo. Every airlock door had the image printed on it, a green tree inside an orange rectangle. Juliet had never seen a real tree. The console stood at the other end of the room. Her head felt so light, she thought she might float away. One moment she was dashing for the keypad, the next she felt herself go airborne. She heard Mike yell before she even hit the ground.

“Oscar!”

Juliet struggled up. Oscar watched her, his foot still stuck out. Oscar, who spent hours in the gym each day. Who got promoted to engineer when everyone else still learned to read. Mike gathered loose pages of the newspaper, his hair stuck to the sweat on his face. Oscar always wore his exactly half-an-inch short.

“You’re deserting,” he said, weighing a steel pipe in his fist.

“Let us go,” said Mike. Juliet could have smiled. It had come out as a pleading mewl, but she recognized Mike’s attempt at defiance. Few remembered confronting Oscar because he would give them a concussion. He lurched forward and Mike crawled backwards, away from the pipe. Juliet scrambled to the console and slammed her fist on the release button.

“We are all landing in just a few days. Why not just sneak away then? The result will be the same. You’ll die within hours without Mother’s protection,” said Oscar.

“The Forefathers lied,” said Mike, “Mother lied. She’s just a computer program, and the Forefathers are not ascended beings. And we’re not explorers, we’re slaves. She is going to kill us.”

Juliet watched a vein in Oscar’s temple twitch as if in slow motion. Pressured condensation hissed as the airlock released and a pod descended. Its front opened wide. Juliet’s muscles coiled in preparation to tackle Oscar away from Mike. He lowered the pipe and bit his lip.

“Take me with you,” he whispered.

Juliet looked at Mike’s shimmering face, who looked back at her. Oscar handed Mike the other end of the pipe. Mike hesitated before grabbing it, but Oscar winched him to his feet as soon as he did. They stood in a circle. Mike looked at Juliet, and she nodded.

“Okay,” said Mike.

A second longer of silence and all three scrambled to the pod at once. They pushed Mike in and and tugged at the safety belts so that they reached over his belly. Oscar slinked in behind.

“It was only made for one,” squeaked Mike.

Juliet made an animal noise as she crammed in and squeezed down the pod door. They could just make out each other in the dim yellow interface light. Juliet tucked her red hair behind her ears and willed her fingers to stop shaking. Each key beeped as she typed the release code on the interior touchscreen. The siren muffled as the inner airlock vent closed, and a graphic showing pod’s trajectory animated in front of them. A few seconds later, Juliet felt as though she had been slammed against a wall. Then she heard nothing at all except for Mike’s breathing and her own frantic heartbeat.

Mike slid the shriveled page of “THE DAILY HERALD” out of his uniform jacket. Oscar hesitated to take it.

“We found it in an airduct. The Forefathers must have left it in there before the ship took off,” said Mike. Juliet heard Oscar inhale.

“I found a euthanasia protocol during Mother’s database maintenance. I don’t think I was supposed to see it,” he said. “I too started suspecting we are expendable.”

“They can’t take this planet. We live there now,” said Juliet, remembering the sing-song pledge to the Forefathers they recited every day in front of their holographic Mother.

The dashboard alarm began beeping. Seconds later, the pod began to tremble. Then it shook. Juliet and Oscar flattened themselves over Mike.

“Are you scared?” Mike shouted over the roar of the landing jets.

“No,” said Juliet.

The tumbling pod threw them against one side, then the other. Juliet could not tell Oscar’s yelling from the jet rockets or the moan of bending metal. Her head slammed on the dasboard. For a moment she thought she fainted, because everything stood still. The beeping stopped. Then the pod door hissed upwards. Oscar tore himself free and landed on ground to vomit. Juliet climbed out nursing her forehead. She reached out to the pink-blue sky, which she could not touch, even when she stood on the tips of her toes. She could not see the ship, either. The pod’s crash trail had cut through a copse of plant life, which had leaves just like the NARPA logo. On their tendrils hung red and yellow fruits. Mike picked a pebble and threw it as hard as he could, and Juliet watched. It resonated with a metallic pang where it landed.

That was when they noticed the sun-bleached sign. It read, WELCOME TO LONDON, OHIO.

 

Commentary         

I chose to write for the 13-to-16 year old reader demographic, as I interact frequently with adolescents and possess an awareness of their particular struggles and anxieties. Unlike emergent readers, who feel more comfortable self-identifying with protagonists just a year older than themselves, adolescents prefer main characters on the threshold of adulthood (Mushens 2015). This shows they experience desire to know what to expect from their future, but it also implies the presence of deeper fears. I believe these anxieties of the future should not be ignored in literature, given our modern socio-economic context. Due to the financial instabilities of the past decade, Millenial adolescents feel significantly more dysphoric than their fathers and grandfathers (Shelter 2014). This may be a result of class divides within families, as many people born in the affluent 50s do not understand the challenges faced by those grown during the dot-com bubble and the Great Recession. Some baby boomers perceive today’s youth to be apathetic and shallow (Twenge 2014), who in return feel exploited by a plutocracy run by the same older generations. Though I could not illustrate viable alternative systems of government due to my lack of political knowledge, I was still able to perscribe non-conformity and personal independence. Due to the story’s focus on intergenerational class conflicts, I chose to forgo exploring gender issues in detail. While gender and class intersect heavily (Schulz 2005), the limiting wordcount would have made it too challenging to explore both in a meaningful way.

I chose to write a dystopian science fiction story for two reasons. The first was due to the genre’s utility for social commentary. Popular modern young adult fiction also often belongs to the same genre and explores related themes. Defining examples include The City of Ember (DuPrau 2005), Divergent (Roth 2013), The Host (Meyer 2009), The Hunger Games (Collins 2009), and The Maze Runner (Dashner 2014). Unlike young adult fiction of previous generations, which focused on coming-of-age narratives as a central theme (Emra 2001), modern works tend to favour the same kind of distrust for youth-exploiting economies that is central in Star Children. The crew represent young people coerced into pursuing an unnatainable life path, and the ‘Forefathers’ represent a corrupt corporativistic oligarchy. Three adolescents I consulted with, Sequoia Tromba, Jade Gordon, and Logan Thomas, expressed enthusiasm for the story, and identified heavily with its themes and characters.

Second, I also chose a science fiction setting for hypothetical marketing purposes. While young adult literature is a booming industry (Thomas 2012), most works published are novels and novel series. Adolescents do not consume short story anthologies as often. However, science fiction is currently popular in all forms of media aimed at adolescent consumers (Gordon and Hollinger 2002), ubiquitous everywhere from videogames to film. Therefore an exception may be found in science fiction short story collections such as those by Isaac Asimov (1990) and Frank Herbert (2014), which are have been popular with young readers since the Cold War (Booker 2001). A possible science fiction collection containing short stories such as Star Children could therefore appear more attractive to young readers than anthologies of other genres.

Unfortunately, as the science fiction genre demands the introduction of worldbuilding elements (Hamilton 2009:8), this took a toll on valuable wordcount space that could have been used for deeper characterization. The second paragraph may have suffered the most from this, as it packs most of the world information into 90 words instead of exposing it organically. The story also underwent numerous rewrites. One version included a school setting aboard the spaceship, which I felt might help readers identify with the story. Wordcount constrictions made this impossible to realize without the sacrifice of important narrative features, such as meaningful characterization. As such, in the final rewrite only the escape scene and plot twist survived. Despite the aforementioned constrictions, I attempted to introduce clear character development and action-focused interaction, all the while conforming to Freytag’s narrative pyramid (Freytag 2008). Oscar’s change of sides coincides exactly with the middle of the story, with the first half serving as exposition and the last as resolution. Despite the exposition-heavy second paragraph, I still attempted to introduce the story with an exciting spaceship escape scene. An intense ‘hook’ helps secure readers’ interest and ensure they become emotionally involved with the characters faster (Mushens 2015). However, this initial intensity manifests as a threat of bodily harm to the protagonists, in which I took the risk of making the text too violent for young readers. Despite this, I believe the choice can be justified and even defended. Modern dystopian young adult novels, of which The Hunger Games (Collins 2009) is a defining example, often feature extreme situations as a means to perhaps metaphorize and resolve feelings of dysphoria. Instead of becoming gratuitous or disturbing, young adult science fiction violence may help readers understand and resolve their own negative emotions (Campbell 2010:79).

As Star Children is a science fiction narrative, it also uses some scientific vernacular, such as the words “thermoplastics”, “atmospheric”, and “trajectory”. Although this may be considered intimidating vocabolary for adolescent readers, I believe this is not the case. Modern education, easy Internet access, and the pervasiveness of science fiction in popular media all help ensure that a young reader likely would be familiar with scientific terms (Gordon and Hollinger 2002). The three adolescents that helped me in this project experienced no strain in understanding the vocabulary. The language of young adult fiction did present a challenge that I had not expected. Although themes are sophisticated, young adult fiction tends to be more literal, which is a sharp departure from the symbollic language I am most comfortable with. For example, this passage from a critical plot point in The Hunger Games (Collins 2009) features no abstract language:

“I can feel someone pulling her from my back. I turn and see Gale has lifted Prim from the ground and she’s thrashing in his arms. “Up you go, Catnip,” he says, in a voice he’s fighting to keep steady, and then he carries Prim off towards my mother. I steel myself and climb the steps.”

This differs from the writing I emulate, such as that found in Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (2011). This helped me realize that perhaps I have become dependent on symbolism and metaphor as a way of disguising a lack of skill in descriptive writing.

References

Asimov, A. (1990) Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday Books

Booker, M. (2001) Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964. Santa Barbara: Praeger

Campbell, P. (2010) Campbell’s Scoop: Reflections on Young Adult Literature. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield

Collins, S. (2009) The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic

Dashner, J. (2014) The Maze Runner. Somerset: Chicken House

DuPrau, J. (2005) The City of Ember. London: Corgi Children’s

Emra, B. (2001) Coming of Age, Vol. 2: Literature About Youth and Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill Education

Freytag, G. (2008) Freytag’s Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. South Carolina: BiblioBazaar

Gilman, C. (2011) The Yellow Wallpaper. Ohio: Simon & Brown

Gordon, J. and Hollinger, V. (2002) Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Hamilton, J. (2009) Science Fiction. Minnesota: ABDO & Daughters

Herbert, F. (2014) The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert. New York: Tor Books

Meyer, S. (2009) The Host. New York: Sphere

Mullings, L. and Schulz, A. (2005) Gender, Race, Class and Health: Intersectional Approaches. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass

Mushens, J. (2015) Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction. London: Teach Yourself

Roth, V. (2013) Divergent. New York: HarperCollins

Shelter (2014) The Clipped Wing Generation: Analysis of Adults Living at Home With Parents [online] available from <https://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/906820/2014_07_The_Clipped_Wing_Generation_FINAL.pdf&gt;

Thomas, L. (2012) Boom in Young Adult Fiction as Sales Jump 150 Percent in Six Years Thanks to Hits Like Twilight and The Hunger Games. [online] available from <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2167826/Boom-young-adult-fiction-sales-jump-150-percent-years-thanks-hits-like-Twilight-The-Hunger-Games.html&gt;

Twenge, J. (2014) Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Atria Books

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