Today author, SF Said, drops by to talk about his new book Phoenix (Candlewick, October 2016) and share about his love for science fiction.
I was 10 years old when the first Star Wars film came out. It was a life-changing moment for me, as for many of my generation. As I looked up in awe at that first starship filling the screen, I remember thinking that I wanted to write a story as big as that one day. I wanted to write a book that contained an entire galaxy.
I loved science fiction. I grew up watching Star Trek and Doctor Who on TV, and wishing there were more children's books set in space. There weren't many, even then; film and TV were boldy going where publishing was not. But I wanted to see a sci-fi space epic for young readers – so I finally sat down and wrote one myself.
When Phoenix was published in the UK in 2013, it stood more or less alone. British children's literature had seen waves of books about wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, post-apocalyptic dystopias – but somehow, not space. The prevailing wisdom was that it wouldn't work, despite occasional books in which space was an ingredient, like Frank Cottrell-Boyce's Cosmic. Space stories had yet to take off.
But a new wave of science fiction is rising in children's literature. In the last three years, we've seen big sci-fi titles from some of the UK's leading children's authors, such as Philip Reeve (Cakes In Space, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre, for younger readers; Railhead and Black Light Express for older ones), Malorie Blackman (Chasing The Stars), and Paul Magrs (Lost On Mars and The Martian Girl).
I've seen booksellers and librarians make fabulous displays from all the new space-themed children's books. Many authors have told me they're now writing one too, and the next few years will see the field expand still further. Sci-fi is even being mixed with other genres; I recently shared a panel discussion with writers of sci-fi thrillers (Kat Ellis, Purge) and romances (Lauren James, The Next Together).
It makes sense, when you consider the resurgence of public interest in space itself. NASA's Mars missions have restored a sense of discovery. Astronauts like Chris Hadfield and Tim Peake have used social media brilliantly to spread the wonder of space exploration.
Meanwhile, breakthroughs in astronomy have revealed a truly awe-inspiring universe. We now believe there are 2 trillion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. The incredible images captured by the Hubble telescope have only amplified the awe people have always felt when looking up at the stars. Such images are thrilling to young people, who are also enthusiastic followers of figures such as Neil deGrasse Tyson. His new Cosmos series means as much to young people today as Carl Sagan's original Cosmos meant to people like myself.
I have to admit, though, Phoenix is not exactly 'hard' sci-fi. It's a story about a human boy and an alien girl who have to save the galaxy. Its scientific plausibility matters less to me than its metaphorical resonance. I've certainly tried to write a story that taps into all the things I find electrifying about space: the science of stars, black holes, dark matter. But I'm also interested in the mythic dimension; the sense that there's something transcendent about the stars.
They pose the biggest questions imaginable, making us consider our place in the universe, and what it means to be alive in it. We now know that the atoms in our bodies were created in the hearts of exploding stars: something that feels closer to ancient myth than astrophysics. That's one reason why Phoenix contains as much mythology as science, and why I'm as comfortable calling it 'mythic fiction' as 'science fiction'.
But I think the same is true of Star Wars. So when I visit schools to talk about Phoenix, I always start by telling kids about seeing that first Star Wars film, so long ago. They know exactly what I mean; they've felt the same awe with each new Star Wars film. It belongs to them as much as it does to me – even if they never believe me when I say it wasn't called "Episode IV: A New Hope" back then, but just "Star Wars"!
It's been wonderful to see that young readers in the UK are thrilled by the idea of space and hungry to read stories about it. I hope readers in the US and beyond will be open to it too, and will enjoy flying through the stars with the new wave of children's science fiction.
About the book:
Lucky lives a relatively normal life on a remote moon of the planet Aries One, safe from the turmoil and devastation of the interstellar war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky has seen images of the horned, cloven-hooved Aliens before, but he’s never seen one up close. Then one night, he dreams that the stars are singing to him—and wakes to evidence suggesting that he is not so normal after all. When Lucky’s mother sacrifices herself to help him escape an elite Human military force called the Shadow Guards, he must rely on the Alien crew of a ramshackle starship, where he finds that humanity’s deadly enemies seem surprisingly Human up close. In fact, they may be more Human than Lucky himself, who has a dangerous power that could change the course of the war and the fate of the galaxy—if he can learn how to use it. Star Wars fans seeking another saga to love need look no further than this epic middle-grade adventure from SF Said, illustrated by Dave McKean with remarkable white-on-black spacescapes.
A boy with unprecedented power must turn to the terrifying Alien enemies of humanity to discover his true nature and bring peace to a galaxy at war.
About the author:
SF Said is the award-winning author of Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw. His new book Phoenix was chosen to represent the UK on the IBBY International Honor Book List, and was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Award. It is published in North America by Candlewick Press. You can find him on twitter: @whatSFSaid