16 March 2007

Cybils Nominee Silver City

Back in the early 1980s, Nickelodeon showed a ten-year-old British science fiction series called The Tomorrow People. Like Marvel’s X-Men, it gratified kids with the notion that they might have more powers than adults--psychic powers, in the TV show. But of course with great powers come great responsibilities, and the Tomorrow People had to fend off various supernatural threats and villains in such adventures as “The Thargon Menace” and “The Revenge of Jedekiah.” Part of the series’ ominous feeling arose from Thames Television’s limited production budget: each show had an odd sense of both claustrophobia and impermanence as the too-close walls threatened to tumble onto the actors.

Silver City, by Cliff McNish, felt to me like part of the strangest Tomorrow People series ever. As the story begins, a huge winged child whose eyes point in different directions is hovering over junky Coldharbour in England. His name, it seems, is Milo. A small group of other children who have developed lesser powers are gathered beneath his wings, wondering what will happen next. And other children from all over the world are trying desperately to reach that area, acting under a compulsion no one understands.

The book shifts among three narrative voices:

  • Thomas, who has a healing power he calls his “beauty.”
  • Helen, able to look into others’ minds.
  • A third-person description of the Roar, an immense, interstellar monster speeding toward Earth, her bowels being devoured by the newborn creatures inside her.
Milo, Helen, Thomas, and three other exceptional children are “the beginning of the defense against the Roar.”

The scenes in Silver City are really scary. Scary not just because of the Roar and what destruction it might bring but because everything is so weird and so personal (kids turning into drilling machines!) that you really don’t know what might happen next.

As a novel Silver City suffers from what I call Empire Strikes Back syndrome. That movie, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Irvin Kershner, is cinematically the best in the Star Wars sequence. But it’s the middle of a trilogy. It doesn’t introduce its central characters or their situation, and it doesn’t resolve any of the stories. In fact, it ends with Han Solo encased in carbonite. Therefore, as admirable as it is, The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t stand on its own.

Similarly, the main characters of Silver City were introduced in The Silver Child. This book doesn’t pause a moment to tell us about their previous lives, desires, and so on. They’re too busy trying to figure out what’s happening to them Right Now. And the book ends with the Bad Things coming closer, the kids rushing to find a Good Thing, and nothing resolved. So Silver City doesn’t stand on its own, either. Like Milo, it hovers, expecting the worst to come soon, in Silver World. I can’t say if the book truly fulfills its promise until I finish all the required reading.

One of the qualities I’ll look for in those other volumes is how well they portray the individual kids with their own personalities, hopes, and choices. In this volume, they act under some compulsion larger than any of us (except possibly not larger than the Roar). Over and over we read that the kids have to do this or that, though they don’t know why. I “allowed myself to be guided into Coldharbour’s northwest region,” Thomas says. Helen’s segment starts, “Someone’s nightmares made me scream.” As a result, McNish paints a vivid, frightening picture of their plight, but not of the kids as individual characters.

(A note about covers: McNish’s Silver Sequence was published by Orion in the UK, and then a couple of years later by Lerner in the US--an unusual lag in a time when almost any British fantasy gets snapped up quickly. Confirming my notion that I’ll never understand British publishers’ ideas of book design, Orion’s Silver Sequence covers are violet, orange, and blue. Lerner shows its roots in school-library publishing by marketing the series under the catchy slogan “Exceptional Reading & Language Arts Titles for Intermediate Grades,” but at least its dust jackets are shiny silver.)


gail said...

I agree that Silver City doesn't introduce the characters and situation or resolve the storylines. Because of its incredible weirdness, perhaps, I didn't have any problem reading it. We liked its intensity and the feeling that it was a little more hardcover science fiction than fantasy.

J. L. Bell said...

Silver City was my second favorite of this year's Cybils nominees, and seemed to rank high with the other judges, too. I do feel that a story needs to introduce characters and resolve its major conflicts, though, so I'm looking forward to reading the whole Sequence.

What do you mean by "hardcover science fiction" (besides the obvious, of course)?

Like Pucker, I've seen this book categorized as science fiction, but I have no problem calling it fantasy, despite it having extraterrestrial beings instead of demons. I have a rather expansive definition of fantasy, though, and seek more solid explanations in science fiction than Silver City's kids can provide. For instance, The Tomorrow People explained that it's young psychics were the next stage in human evolution. That explains it all, what?

gail said...

I meant hardcore, not hardcover. Oops. And I don't have a good definition of either science fiction or fantasy. I think if I'm reading aliens and outer space, I think science fiction. If I'm reading demons, djinns, alternate universes, I think fantasy.

Though I believe alternate history is considered science fiction. And when we were discussing Cybils nominees, one of our members read a definition of apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) fiction as being considered science fiction. On my own, I probably would have considered those fantasy.

J. L. Bell said...

I'd wondered about the "hardcore" possibility, but didn't dare to assume since I feel out of touch with science fiction typology. Steampunk? Slipstream? Neurospace?

We tend to think of science fiction as set in the future, and high fantasy as in the past. But I think some of the most interesting work in both fields bends those expectations. And I'm pleased that the Cybils, SFF.net, and many other enterprises treat the genres together rather than trying to draw a line between them.