Writing Comic Sci-Fi for Children – a blog post I was asked to write for The Bookette
Martin Amis once said he could never write children’s literature because of the restrictions this would place on his artistic freedom. I don’t know if Marty has read the nursery rhyme ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ recently, but in it a cow actually jumps over the moon. I mean, how much freer can literature be?
Science fiction comedy (and if a cow jumping over the moon doesn’t count as that, I don’t know what does) seems to me a natural form to use when writing for children, allowing, as it does, tremendous scope for the imagination and for the inversion of the normal way of things. Indeed, science fiction with a humorous twist is at the core of much memorable children’s literature. The marvellous medicine George feeds his granny in the Roald Dahl story is simply a comic update of Dr Jekyll’s potion.
The mind-swap trope, in particular, has a long and distinguished history in (usually comic) literature – from F. Anstey’s classic tale of father and son who exchange souls, Vice Versa, through PG Wodehouse’s Laughing Gas, to the modern braintwizzling hijinx of Mary Rodgers’ Freaky Friday and Todd Strasser’s Help! I’m Trapped… series. These stories appeal to children’s innate sense of fairness because they usually portray imposing authority figures being forced to undergo the humiliations they normally inflict on others.
In my book Space Lizards Stole My Brain!, an evil, warmongering, alien lizard creature, Admiral Skink, is brought down to Earth, literally, when his mind is transferred into the body of an ordinary Earth boy, Lance Spratley. Skink, the interstellar bully (at the opening of the book we see him picking on a weaker, nerdier, alien civilisation) is forced to experience life from the victim’s point of view. Now it is he who is pushed around by the stronger life forms that normally plague the existence of Lance Spratley – school bullies, mean teachers, tyrannical parents and an impossibly bossy little sister. Slowly, the alien warlord develops a grudging respect for the fortitude that Lance must show in the face of such daily indignities.
Using the viewpoint of an alien creature as a distorting lens, the everyday upsets and worries of an 11 year old boy are made to look like weird, incomprehensible, life-threatening perils – in fact, just the way they actually feel to an 11 year old boy. Admiral Skink is Lance’s alter ego in many ways. When, his mind trapped in Lance’s body, he goes on a ruinous rampage through town astride a dinosaur, it’s hard not to feel that it is the frustrated child Lance himself who is taking destructive revenge on a world that constantly slights him.
Science fiction is often about what ifs – what philosophers call thought experiments – ways in which we reimagine the world to compare and contrast it with the one we’re familiar with. Children do this with constant and unthinking freedom in their games, and by writing comic science fiction for them, as an adult I can go some way towards recapturing that freedom.