Stephanie Saulter really needs no introduction. The woman absolutely blew my mind with Gemsigns, a book I’m still thinking about and can’t wait to re-read (and also packed full of incredibly important subjects). I’m just about dying to get my hands on Binary, the second book in that series. When I asked if she’d be willing to write a post for my dusty website, and she actually said yes, I just about passed out. She’s an incredibly busy woman, so taking the time to write something for Bookworm Blues is beyond thrilling. I’m also so absolutely envious of the brilliant mind that can write such a captivating book…
So, without further commentary on my part, let me clear the stage for the brilliant writer herself.
Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent fifteen years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. Stephanie blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets slightly more reliably as @scriptopus. Gemsigns is her first novel. She lives in London.
GEMSIGNS will be published in May 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books (an imprint of Quercus). It is the first book in The ®Evolution Series.
More Kids, Please
By Stephanie Saulter
Over the past few weeks I’ve been busily responding to interview requests and writing a steady stream of guest posts, mostly relating to the release of Gemsigns in the US. I had a similar experience a year earlier, when it was first published in the UK and Commonwealth, and I’m reminded what an interesting exercise it can be to answer questions about your own work. The process of examination and analysis always throws up things I either hadn’t spent much time thinking about previously, or in some cases hadn’t realised at all.
In the case of Gemsigns, I’ve always known that the novel was to a great extent me writing a book I wanted to read; a book that contained the kind of story and characters I wasn’t finding elsewhere, and ignored or upended tropes that I was tired of seeing. The inclusion of a small child, Gabriel, as a central character was part of this; I was aware of my own annoyance at reading endless science fictional futures populated by women and men in the prime of life, but containing absolutely no children. Often not even a passing mention of them. If they are there it’s usually just to provide a bit of background – a little added texture – for an adult character. All these stories about ‘the future’, filled with heroic grownups fighting for and forging ahead into ‘the future’, with barely an acknowledgement of, y’know. The Future.
So I put little Gabriel at the heart of my story, and I gave other characters conversations about children, and memories of children, because a human society that doesn’t have kids at its heart feels completely artificial to me. But it’s only been fairly recently, while unpacking other aspects of the book and answering questions about other characters, that I’ve realised how unusual it is for a novel aimed at adults to have a child character with actual agency. Even when they’re not merely wallpaper, they still generally serve no more purpose than as a device for the adults to respond to: The Magical Child who needs to be protected, The Demon Child who should be feared, The Adored Child who is worshipped, The Endangered Child who must be rescued, and, occasionally, The Mystifying Child who exists to illustrate some aspect of adult incompetence.
Now, the Gabriel storyline does contain some of these elements; but he is very definitely not a prop. He’s a person. He has his own history and personality and point of view. His actions are crucially important in the narrative (not, let me be clear, solely by virtue of triggering adult reaction, but in their own right). And I’ve been looking at my shelves, trying to identify other novels that contain child characters of equal narrative significance in works that are not packaged as children’s books.
I’ve found a handful*: Dandelion Wine, Ender’s Game, The Poisonwood Bible, Lord of the Flies, Let the Right One In. Even so, most of those are about children primarily interacting with other children and not with grownups – as though they are destined always to inhabit different worlds in fiction. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, maybe, although something about the construction of that – an adult recovering lost memories of his childhood – leaves me with the slippery feeling that it’s the adult perspective which is prioritised, not the child’s. I took a long hard look at Lolita – but that is definitely a book in which the child is completely objectified by the adult perspective. Also, I don’t want to drift north into adolescence. This is about the absence of characters who are still clearly and unequivocally kids, but who have personhood and agency and are important players in adult narratives.
Think about your own narrative. Whether or not you have kids, you’ll certainly remember being one. Didn’t you have constant interactions with the adults around you? Didn’t you think thoughts and have complex feelings and cause things to happen? Weren’t you a person then too?
Where is that person, in the books that you read now?
There’s another child character in Binary, the sequel to Gemsigns; and there will be yet another in the third book of the ®Evolution, Gillung (none of which, let me stress, are ‘children’s books’). I promise you that I did not plan this: there was no conscious intention to have a kid in every book, tick tick tick. It’s happening organically, and that tells me something: the exclusion of children as agents in adult narratives is one of the fictional conventions that feels false to me. It also tells me that I’m still writing the books I want to read, set in a future I can envisage happening. Without children that future – any future – is unimaginable.
*A double handful if I include Charles Dickens, who was brilliant at portraying the full depth and richness of humanity at all of our stages of life. I’d argue that one of the reasons we’re still in awe of his ability to illuminate the human condition is because he understood that a society’s moral worth can be revealed through this most crucial question: how does it treat its children?
I think its harder to write a child dealing with adults, and keep that child’s viewpoint, than it seems. I give you credit for doing it, but its hard not to make a child a “miniature adult” in the attempt.
Also there seems to be a “peer thing” going on in YA–YA protagonists mostly interact among themselves, with adults as distant, threatening figures, at best.
I really struggle with children in adult books, not because they are children, but because so often I think they come across as far more immature than the authors mean them to, and it just gets on my nerves. It’s rare that an author creates a realistic child that doesn’t annoy me. Saulter managed to, but few do. That says something for her writing prowess, but I do agree with you, Paul. I think writing children must be very, very hard.
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