Harper Collins (Tui), $14.95
Ken Catran is the unsung artisan of young adult writing in this country. He has been writing television scripts (Children of the Dog Star), novels (Steel riders) and film scripts (Alex) for years with success but without major recognition.
The Deepwater trilogy should change that. It is a jaunty science fiction saga so full of ideas that it is going to take three books to hold them all. Deepwater Landing is the second volume in the series.
Deepwater is a genetic ark, a huge spaceship fleeing the plague-doomed solar system, and programmed to time warp back to Earth a million years in the future.
Catran has had the happy inspiration of having Deepwater’s crew cloned from gene cells, so that each crew member carries a slice of pre memory within their genes. All life on Earth and Mars is now dead, but this vision of pre-existence allows a flow of interaction both ways.
Thus the main character in Deepwater Landing is Cei, an adaptable and brave fighter, but Cei is also aware of herself as her gene‑donor, Denie, a schoolgirl on Earth, coping with schoolbullies and missing hockeysticks.
The action in Deepwater Landing is continuous. Whether Denie is engaged in a bicycle chase on her long‑dead home planet, or is fighting off a space-insect swarm on Deepwater, she finds her nonviolent principles put to the test.
Deepwater Landing is not a work of ‘hard’ science fiction, but it is in the great tradition of the ‘juveniles’ written by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, to introduce young readers to the science fiction genre.
While Catran may not provide nuts and bolts SF, he does offer imagination and word magic. Any writer could decide that a spaceship crew would name an ‘outside maintenance auxiliary’ Oma (Dutch for Grandma), but it takes real talent to write ‘. . . and there was the bright, shiny, little fourlegged Oma, out of its tunnel like a crayfish from a hole’.
The characters interact well, with crisp, pared dialogue. Most of the spaceship scenes are dominated by two Earth girls, but there are some with witty racial tension, with the brown South Martians being resented by the red, blue and green North Martians.
Characterisation is not Catran’s strong point, but there is a lively science teacher, and the unlovable bully, Meatgrinder, is sensitively developed.
For those who flinch at the word ‘girl’, it is important to the story that the crew of Deepwater are all very young. It is not giving away too much of the intricate plot to reveal that several different characters exist simultaneously at different ages and in different forms. There are certainly some interesting adults in Deepwater Landing, but it is girls like Yoona, the commander, and Denie who bring Deepwater to its destiny.
I was greatly moved by the passage where these two find some broken human gene‑capsules, each with an identifying hologram:
All around us were … the crystal-tipped capsules floating in the air. All flattened, punctured and broken, each one a life lost, never to be born. Sometimes … the identifying hologram … was activated, flicking on. Asian, African, European, all nations, men, women and children, hundreds and hundreds of them looking at us, then flicking out like pale ghost flames.
‘There must be some left, there must be,’ whispered Yoona.
But there weren’t. All the capsules were broken and all those smiling faces flicked on and off in the darkness like the dead souls they were.
It is a delight to know that such a high quality of writing is going into literature aimed at our young people.
As Deepwater settles into the rich brown soil of an empty Earth, the stage is set for the concluding novel. I don’t know what will be in it, but I do know that I look forward to it with pleasure.
Trevor Agnew is teacher-librarian at Christchurch’s Hillmorton High School.