Prolific and professional, Norman Bilbrough

Focus and the DeathRide; The Ghosts of Triton; Shadow of Phobos,
Ken Catran
HarperCollins, $14.95

New Zealand children’s writers have come of age. They have reached a maturity that adult fiction writers in this country often fall short of. The genre helps, of course.

Children’s literature imposes its own restrictions. There are limitations of consciousness, limitations of language, and the subject‑matter needs moral boundaries. However, limitations can be a blessing. To have to work with guidelines can he a help.

But we have a gutsy, funny, dramatic and no‑nonsense body of children’s literature behind us. In the last few years I have read vigorous and mature stories for children by Alan Bunn, David Hill, Pat Quinn, Jane Westaway, William Taylor and Janice Marriott. Some of these writers acknowledge influences and antecedents as diverse as Enid Blyton, Mark Twain, Ursula Le Guin and Richmal Crompton ‑ mostly European culture of course, but the stories that are being produced now stem very definitely from our culture.

These writers are not self‑conscious and they are professional. They are able to take an idea from its inception and produce a convincing finished result, which is well ‑written and entertaining. This may sound like commonsense, but it is not easy to achieve. Professionalism is confidence and assurance of one’s craft.

Roughly, there seem to be two kinds of children’s books:  the Paul Jennings style of writing and the more serious genre. Writers are still haunted by the tarbrush of commercialism. If you’re successful, in fact grossly successful like Jennings, you can’t be serious, you’re not writing literature.

In Jennings’ case there may be some truth to this. His stories are brittle, they use a minimal vocabulary, they strenuously teach nothing and say nothing and they care not a jot about authenticity. They are resoundingly like their titles, “unreal”, “unbelievable”, etc. They’re the junk food of children’s literature, which is probably why they’re so popular. Jennings creates stories which are immediately accessible to children. They make no demands and, like hamburgers and thick shakes, leave no lasting memories. Yet I believe Jennings’ stories to be professional. They are well judged, they are successful in what they attempt. They are, I suppose, a better sort of hamburger.

Ken Catran is also a professional. If Jennings writes for the fast‑food trade, Catran writes for the bespectacled, intense, computer‑whiz audience. He’s a sci‑fi writer, but a sci‑fi writer who knows his fictional craft very well. He understands adolescents and their passions and he’s a traditional enough writer never to underestimate the value of a rattling good story. Next to him Paul Jennings tends to look like a miracle of imaginative paucity.

I don’t know how old Ken Catran is, but I suspect he’s been around a while ‑ long enough to have a really felt sense of our immediate history that a younger writer can’t achieve. Certainly World War II history. Reading Focus and the Death Ride, I felt that Catran was brought up with an amount of Boys Own literature, like W E Johns and Percy F Westerman. Even John Buchan.

As one reads further into his writing one realises that Catran uses very different fodder for his subject matter. Essentially, he is writing about, or mercilessly exploiting, the phenomena of virtual reality. He’s stumbled on an elemental truth, or maybe he knew it all along. that fiction is essentially virtual reality. And vice versa.

But he doesn’t try to bridge the gap between, say, trench warfare, and being an adolescent in the nineties. Rather, he uses a wide variety of inspirational sources which he then fashions into good entertaining yarns, guided, of course, by a professional writer’s skill. This may sound like too much of a good thing but, with perhaps the exception of Shadow of Phobos, his stories are wonderfully realised.

Focus and the Death Flight is a gothic tale. It exists on the edge of the believable. Bryce is an adolescent living in provincial New Zealand. He has a Dad who has gone awry because he’s just won $100,000; a mother who’s trying to keep the Dad in control but is really about to leave for good; a black girl friend called Focus from Canada, transplanted in New Zealand; and a male New Age teacher trying to get together with another teacher who is really irritated by him.

But the central adventure of the book is provided by a livid and abusive eccentric called Mad Perce McAllister who flew the Lancaster bombers during the war that were part of the dambusters team. A gothic addition are the hulking, pale‑eyed twins called Twinner, specialists in brutality. Focus and Bryce get tangled up in Perce’s particular neurosis, which finally results in an escapade into virtual reality which is nearly fatal.

It’s a gripping story which is not inhibited by Catran’s dazzling computer and technological know‑how. Catran does tend to set too many signposts in the story of the “worse is yet to come” type, which can be irksome. But possibly only an adult reader might pick this up; I don’t think adolescents would care.

The Ghosts of Triton is a story in Catran’s “Solar Colonies” series. Large parts of Earth are uninhabitable because of radiation. Earth possesses awesome technology, but it is dependent on the resources of its colonies, Mars and beyond. The colonists who mine these resources are genetically adapted so they can withstand the environment of outer space. They also have different skin colours from Earth dwellers, which leads to racial and social discrimination.

In Ghosts two adolescents, each from a different culture, land on the planet Triton, which is apparently one of Pluto’s moons. Triton is inhabited by ghosts, but they are Earth ghosts: medieval knights, soldiers in gas masks from the trenches. The adolescents see dramatic incidents of world history ‑ unwilling viewers to a slide‑show of past violence.

In the hands of a less‑accomplished author these tricks would be incongruous and difficult to pull off. But in Catran’s hands they are credible. They are lessons: he’s quite a moral writer. But he doesn’t preach; his lessons are imbedded authentically in the narrative.

Sci‑fi fiction is not just an easy escape from the restraints of earthly credibility: it involves constructing another reality, setting up a new and convincing framework. Catran does this well. Obviously the solar system has captured his imagination, and he creates wonderful evocations of the great “gas” planets, Mars and Neptune, and the deep space around them.

With Shadow of Phobos (book 3 of the series), Catran is more ambitious. He attempts two stories: that of Cela, the Mars girl who is abducted to Earth; and Telesforo, the Earth boy who has crash landed on Mars.

It is revealed that Earth is really dead. Pacificus, the enclosed, hi‑tech city state, is set above a vast black oily radioactive ocean, and the sun (minus the ozone layer) is a searing, red hot wound. Only mutants exist in this environment: huge taloned rat‑like birds called Petros and distorted sea creatures like the Kracken, a cross between a whale and an octopus. Evil resides in the form of a scientist who wants to control what is left of Earth by creating synthetic humans and animals (synthos).

The crux of the story ‑ to revitalise the ancient natural life of Mars ‑ tends to be vague. This is the least well-realised book of the three. But it’s still exciting and inventive. It blats along, full of suspense and intriguing phenomena and technology. And his adolescent protagonists have strong likes and dislikes. Confrontations, both verbal and physical, are common. There are no holds barred and this is refreshing for the reader. One knows exactly where the protagonists stand. Nobody is neutral in these stories and because of the contrasts of personality, and desire, passions run high. It’s all high drama.

Reading these books, one realises that an amount of children’s literature actually lacks imagination. Imagination gives bite to writing. Catran is not scared of his imagination: he uses it to the full.

He doesn’t write adult sci‑fi for younger readers. His protagonists are young people with young feelings. They are right into adolescent strife ‑ within a cocoon of sophisticated technology. This is appropriate. Adolescents of the 1990s (or the 2040s) have a facility with that technology that my generation (which instigated the technology) never had. Catran writes about adolescents, not for adolescents.

He is also a prolific writer. These three books have been published this year, but the quantity of prose doesn’t detract from its professionalism. He deserves a wide audience.

Norman Bilbrough’s children’s novel, The Birdman Hunts Alone, has just been published by Penguin.

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Posted in Children, Literature and Review
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