Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Review: Children of Tomorrow

I picked up this book primarily because of the author. A.E Van Vogt isn't someone you think of when you think of science fiction authors. You think Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Pohl, Bear, and the like. But when you ask those guys who they like to read among the list is always A.E. Van Vogt. So when I was at the Friends of the Arlington Library Book Fair I saw this book and picked it up.

New concepts in science fiction are rare. Clarke has the Space Elevator and communications satellite. Asimov defined robots. Niven gave us the Ringworld. I read one guy who predicted the dancing colors in the music player on your computer years before there were even personal computer. He just gave it an MTV type setup. "Children of Tomorrow" gives an interesting twist to an old favorite.

There's a zillion old short stories from the 50's that talk about men going off in rocket and being gone for years or even decades while the wife and kids sit at home and wait. I guess those must be left overs from WWII where men went of to war for years and the family waited like good little housewives.

This story takes place in the city/military base of Spaceport in what I presume to be Florida. It's about the size of Wichita, KS (pop. 300,000) and consists largely of military personnel going to space, the support and command staff, and their families. The book takes the somewhat sexist view that the women couldn't raise their children alone. Not to mention that only men seem to go to space. I mean if the book were copyright 1950 I'd understand, but it's 1970. As a sci-fi writer I expected him to be more progressive.

Ok, off the subject. Anyway, some fleet of ships have just returned after 10 years exploration. They found something. They met aliens and the aliens attacked. There was a battle and the humans ran for Earth, making sure to duck, bob, and weave all the way back so they wouldn't be followed. It didn't work. But that's not the unique part.

Since the men on this ship were gone for 10 years their kids started running wild without the strong guiding hand of a man. Yeah, just take it as part of the made up part of the story and go with it. K? The kids have joined what they call "Outfits". At first blush they seem like gangs. They group together for protection and raise each other. But upon further reading they're more like Scouts. There are lots of small Outfits of a dozen or so boys and girls. Almost everybody between about 12 and 18 are members of one. Parents can call upon them to help make their kids too young for an Outfit to behave. They have extensive rules about what they can and cannot do and punishments to fit. Until you're 18 and leave the Outfits there's no lip kissing and special rules about who can kiss what cheek. The teens are assigned several younger kids to work with. They have jobs and responsibilities and authority. The outfits are officially sponsored so when punishments need to be inflicted on bad parents they have the full backing of the military authority.
Punishments for kids often involve short term suspensions from their Outfits. More severe punishments involve expulsion and even juvie camps for the worst offenders. For adults they can bring in MPs to take down the violent cases. For merely troublesome parents they can take control of what food the family is allowed to buy.

Van Vogt is a clear and easy read. The story was interesting and engaging. He didn't really deal with the tech so he didn't screw it up or use much in the way of impossible tech (i.e. transporters, warp drive). It just deals with space travel as a fact of life even if it is still restricted to military and research personnel. It's just the Navy in space.

I do recommend this book and this author. Once I whittle down my pile of unread books I'll start looking to expand the A.E Van Vogt wing of my library.

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