Ayanni C.H. Cooper
The Children Are (In) The Future
C Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2019. 304 pp. $95.00 hc.
Childhood agency has been a central area of discussion for the children’s literature community from the earliest moments of the discipline. Articles, monographs, and presentations have contemplated models of youth agency, analyzed partnerships with adults, and even dismissed the potential of positive agentic relationships between generations. The various ways youth agency is depicted in and understood through literature can and do influence cultural constructions of childhood, as well as how children view themselves and their ability to affect the world around them. Child and Youth Agency in Science Fiction: Travel, Technology, Time takes on these conversations, focusing specifically on the possibilities of children’s agency in the imaginative playground of sf. Many of the essays are provocative and insightful, asking questions of how their focal texts relate to their publication eras and cultures of origin, as well as how sf can expand readers’ understanding of childhood agency. The collection also plays its discourse relatively safely, however, treading familiar ground with hyper-popular and frequently discussed texts.
Editors Ingrid E. Castro and Jessica Clark begin Child and Youth Agency in Science Fiction with a co-written introduction to present the collection’s aim: highlighting how sf “[offers] unique spaces for the consideration of children’s agency” (10-11). While shorter than the chapter-length analyses that follow, the opening deftly clues readers to the collection’s overall argument that “The cognitive estrangement provided in familiar and yet unfamiliar landscapes of SF pose new possibilities and challenges for young characters, and their travels within such narratives demonstrate control but also power, structure but also agency” (11). The introduction, “Girl Zombies and Boy Wonders: The Future of Agency is Now!,” succinctly provides background on some academic conversations around childhood agency and childhood in science fiction before launching into analyses of the 1980s “coming-of-age SF adventure” movie Explorers (1985) and child-zombie film The Dark (2018) (2). While these films may not seem directly connected at first glance, except for their child protagonists, both relate to the themes captured in the collection’s subtitle (Travel, Technology, Time), which the editors, in turn, emphasize in their readings. Their argument underscores common motifs of the collection, including (but not limited to) “the tendency to view boys as both more active and geographically mobile than girls” (3), representations of the posthuman child, how children in sf enact “ethics of care” (8), and, as Stephanie Thompson says in her chapter, “concerns adults have regarding young people’s access to and use of technology” (237).
After their close reading, the editors explain their collection’s temporal organization of “The Past,” “The Present,” and “The Future,” with three or four essays contained under each heading. While it may seem like the obvious go-to arrangement for the project, Castro and Clark do not simply rely on undefined categories to organize their chapters. The essays in “The Past” “variously examine children’s agency located in cinematic, televisual, and literary works set in the past decades of the twentieth century” (11), including Stranger Things (2016-) and Back to the Future (1985). The mid-section looks to “the second decade of the twenty-first century … to consider how alternative imaginings of present-day landscapes or current implications and contestations of future landscapes provide new ways of understanding and interrogating youth agency” (12). Finally, the collection turns to the future, or as Castro and Clark elaborate, “alternate visions of the future of children and childhood, societies, and humanity, represented either within literary text settings or through new theoretical and analytic propositions and assemblages” (14). The editors present a range of media in each section, though television and prose are covered most frequently. The three sections offer a tightly organized experience, with each of the ten essays leading logically to the next, even across section breaks. This cohesion—present because of shared critical through-lines—does not imply that the collection needs to (or should) be read as a whole in order to be appreciated.
Similarly, the interdisciplinary nature of the contributors brings a variety of expertise to the table, though the intended audience seems to shift depending on the chapter in question. For example, Kip Kline’s “‘It Was a Wonder I was Ever Born’: Reversing the Technical Performance of Childhood in Back to the Future” uses the term “scissiparity” (55) in the chapter’s opening without providing a definition in the text or endnotes, even with the acknowledgment that “this term is potentially unfamiliar to readers” (72, n.1). Conversely, “‘hegemonic masculinity’” receives a comprehensive breakdown (observing that “hegemony originates in Marxist discourse”) in Clark’s “Biker Gangs and Boyhood Agency in Akira” (109). While bound together by common themes, this variety of expected audiences is one reason why the collection is best understood as a series of individual pieces, since each asks different questions and makes distinct claims about child and youth agency. Scholars will find varying uses for each piece, depending on field and area of expertise. I have chosen to focus largely on representative chapters from each section that speak to the established through-lines of the collection and perform innovative readings, while also gesturing to the collection’s shortcomings.
“The Past” begins with a foray into 1980s nostalgia with Joseph Giunta’s comparison of the first season of Stranger Things to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). He argues that the adults who create and present child characters “shape both the ideologies of childhood and their representations in cinematic and televisual media” (Guinta 47), though important elements of children’s “symbolic culture” may be absent (35). The second chapter by Kline (mentioned above) relies heavily on Baudrillard’s simulacra theory to show how Back to the Future “reinforces the notion of teen as consumer” (61) through ubiquitous product placement in both of the film’s timelines, as well as the protagonist’s status as a “third-order simulacrum” (61). Kline then emphasizes the ways protagonist Marty McFly parents his parents through time-travel hijinks, again depending upon Baudrillard and his assertion of childhood as “a technical performance” (63).
The last chapter of the section, “In the Shadow of the Claw: Jubilee, X-23, and the Mutated Possibility of Youth Agency across Generations in the World of X-Men,” co-written by Kwasu David Tembo and Muireann B. Crowley, makes ambitious arguments about many of the collection’s core tenets, including ethics of care, the posthuman child, and children’s relationship with technology. Admittedly, I was drawn to this essay from the onset because of my own childhood interest in Jubilee and X-23 and found the piece thought-provoking. Tembo and Crowley’s work focuses particularly on the introduction of these two “mutant girl-children” to the expansive X-Men franchise, as well as on how they relate to the infamous, claw-wielding X-Man Wolverine (77-78). That said, the discussion is somewhat unbalanced in character focus—with X-23 occupying the bulk of the chapter—making it appear as if two separate essays were collapsed into one.
The first portion of the essay discusses Jubilee, a “recently orphaned second-generation Chinese American who escaped the foster care system” (79). Tembo and Crowley’s analysis of her agency in relation to the mall in which she lives is intriguing, as they argue that “Shopping malls, iconic spaces within Western urban spaces, illustrate places agentic youth resist adult dominion of public areas … despite the marginality of young people in urban spaces overall” (79). Though the adult authority represented by security guards detests Jubilee and her fellow mallrats, the authors contend that Jubilee’s activities in the mall “[enact] a tactical appropriation of the space that changes, albeit slightly, the mall’s function and meaning” (80).
Most of the essay, however, concerns the bio-engineered clone of Wolverine, X-23 (14 of 25 pages, compared to Jubilee’s approximately 5). Tembo and Crowley track the evolution of X-23 from her introduction in “the animated television series X-Men: Evolution (2003)” to her debut in comics with NYX: Wannabe (2004) and X-23: Innocence Lost (2006). The chapter covers significant ground over five sub-sections, addressing Western expectations of childhood, the politics of child soldiers, and bio-power. In particular, the authors’ attention to anger and control is of interest when considering agency. X-23’s “ability to recognize and self-regulate her emotions” was damaged during her engineering process, “skewing her toward a range of emotions anchored by anger and aggression” (85). Her rage, which connects her to “her genetic father,” is due to her “extreme victimization by the state” (94). Additionally, because of her manipulation and excessive training, she suffers emotionally and physically, leading her to self-harm. The authors seem to have missed an opportunity to explain if (and how) X-23’s rage turning outward (rather than self-ward) works toward a greater positive, as Wolverine takes the fact that he is a “successful product of the military-industrial complex that forged him [… into] an excellent killer” and opts to “leverage it in the creation of a better world” (79). Unpacking her development in NYX: Wannabe, including her interaction with other young mutantsas compared to the trauma unpacked in X-23: Innocence Lost, could have been a fruitful exercise.
The essay’s conclusion works to unite the conversations through a blanket discussion of gender in comic books and how it relates to “the precarious position” of sidekicks (which I would have liked to hear more about) (99). A longer focus on Jubilee—perhaps discussing her introduction in the 1990s cartoon X-Men: The Animated Series (1992), since a still from the show was included in the text body—could have helped balance the conversation and create parity among the ideas at hand.
In “The Present,” Megan McDonough covers the famous, arguably canonized, and much-discussed Hunger Games trilogy (2008–2010). She considers how Katniss enacts agency by both asserting her individuality and choosing allies, be they her peers in the titular Hunger Games or “cross-generational” characters (141). The section ends with a fan-studies essay by Erin Kenny that uses the sf series The 100 (2014–) as a case study. She examines how “fanfic allows for transformation of mainstream ideas about gender, sexuality, and desire” (188). Though perhaps overly utopic in her conclusion, Kenny raises interesting points about fan communities and “shipping” dynamics in sf fandom and fandom studies. This is also, to Kenny’s credit, the only essay in the collection to consider and concentrate on queerness.
One of the chapters I found most representative of the stakes inherent in “The Present” is editor Jessica Clark’s convincingly argued “Biker Gangs.” This piece stands out as the only chapter to consider a non-Western text. Clark addresses foundational anime film Akira (1988), which, although made in the late 1980s, takes place in a dystopian 2019. Clark develops a fascinating discussion of material artifacts, noting that interest lies in the “positioning and agency of the adolescent boy,” specifically in the ways motorbikes “serve to shape and provide context for the emergence and enactment of agency” (109, 121). Similar to Jubilee’s reframing of the mall space, Clark argues that Akira’s central figures, Kaneda and Tetsuo, as well as the members of their bike gang (bōsōzoku), use bike customization and racing as a way to “[navigate] structural constraints of schooling and authoritarian regimes in creative, imaginative, and social ways” (114). She insists that the boys’ agency is enhanced through their connection to their bikes, arguing that they “form significant relationships with various material objects and endow these items and structures with emotional importance and meaning, deploying them as part of their agentic action” (118). Using Akira as an example, Clark surmises that “it is imperative to recognize the capacities of children as not pitted against or replaced through, but extended and supplemented by, material artefacts and technologies” (118). The film analysis—especially Kaneda’s famous, frequently homaged motorbike—has delightfully dense citations, with a wide range of references. The chapter’s early introduction to anime seems less impressive in comparison, however, leading again to questions about this work’s intended audience. For example, Clark feels it necessary to establish where anime and manga studies stand in the academy—in relation to film and comic studies—as well as to stress that “anime, like other popular culture, reveals the values of societies that produce and consume the genre” (111). In a collection arguably dedicated to pop-culture critique, and in an essay directly following an investigation into comic and animation studies, did this argument need to be made so explicitly?
Chapter six, “The Yoke of Childhood: Misgivings about Children’s Relationship to Technology in Contemporary Science Fiction” by Jessica Kenty-Drane, picks up the through-line of children and technology from Clark’s piece. In one of the collection’s most accessible essays, Kenty-Drane analyzes two television episodes: Black Mirror’s (2011-) “Arkangel” and Electric Dreams’s(2017-) “Safe and Sound.” The chapter begins with ten pages of careful, critical orientation covering contemporary conceptualizations of childhood, “Technophobia and Children” (154), and a short literature review of “Children and Technology in Science Fiction” (158). This introduction provides a clear launchpad for her argument that both texts reflect a modern-day technophobia: “Contemporary adults anguish over children’s relationship with technology, lamenting children’s capacity to surpass the adult in tech’s utility, but also in tech’s capacity to grant children access to what is defined as the adult world” (172). She takes her argument further in a turn toward sexual agency, as both episodes feature girls, suggesting that “Young women in SF futurism seem to have made no progress in terms of sexual agency” (173). Though an interesting supposition, making this claim on the basis of two episodes seems tenuous, as it overlooks work being done by various creators across media and funding strata. Kenty-Drane also makes the claim that “Secular, educational, parental, and religious movements view technology as an existential threat” (154). Perhaps writing this review—and teaching—during the COVID-19 pandemic is coloring my perspective, but arguing that most (if not all) authority structures see technology as a threat seems unfounded.
In a particularly inspired section, Kenty-Drane calls attention to the fact that both episodes prioritize “predominantly white middle- and upper-class anxieties” which, in turn, “ignore historic and contemporary threats to poor and working class, racial and ethnic minorities, and immigrant children” (169). She is absolutely correct to turn this critical lens on the works she is discussing, but I would also like to turn that critique toward the collection. While there is an impressive range of texts included in Child and Youth Agency in Science Fiction—from television to comics to novels—and a breadth of theoretical approaches, there is a pointed lack of critical race analysis. At times, though these conversations felt right below the surface, they ultimately remained absent. (For example, Jubilee is noted as Chinese-American in Tembo and Crowley’s piece, but there is no attention to how or why that might be important when considering the larger X-Men franchise.) Though Clark’s chapter acknowledges one non-Anglophone text in Akira, looking solely outside of the West for diversity overlooks diversity within Western cultures. Furthermore, including a single non-white text feels like tokenism. Perhaps Kenty-Drane’s critique should be kept in mind for scholarship as well—calling attention to the overwhelming presence of whiteness does not guarantee an inclusion of other conversations.
The final section, “The Future,” starts with Joaquin Muñoz’s “celebration of youth action and agency” (209) in Orson Scott Card’s expansive Enderverse series (1977–). Muñoz uses three young male characters (including Ender) to argue for their “significance to the seriousness of childhood experience” and to “consider the structures that can limit children’s agentic expressions” (210, 212). That said, I found the chapter sub-sections “Agency Reconsidered—Whose Agency is Missing?” and “Implications and Future Directions for Educators” to be the most fascinating, as they wrestle with the canonicity of the popular but fraught texts and the arguably narrow depiction of diverse perspectives.
Muñoz’s work is followed by Stephanie Thompson’s reflection on representations of home and literal safe spaces in Unwind (2007) by Neal Shusterman and Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. Thompson concludes—through analysis of “spaces made by adults for children” vs “spaces that … are constructed by children” (238), as well as virtual vs physical spaces—that sanctuaries and homes are, ultimately, “not … defined by [their] central spaces or lines and boundaries, but by shared purpose and desire for positive change” (247). This resonates in the current moment.
Unsurprisingly, editor Castro’s “The Emergence of Agency after Bionuclear War: Posthuman Child—Animal Possibilities” functions as a superb closer for the collection in the way it mirrors and reflects the ambitions of the opening, gesturing toward a future of possibility for children and youth agency. The chapter follows the chronological narrative of David R. Palmer’s Emergence (1984), examining the way child protagonist Candy becomes both hybrid- and posthuman as the novel progresses. Castro discusses Candy from multiple vantage points, including as a superhuman “Homo post hominems” (253), her “hybridized … innate, psychic connection” with her bird-brother Terry (257), and her reconstruction of “her identity as a child and as a friend” (258). Although it may seem an odd decision to end the collection with a novel from the early 1980s, this move gestures to the enduring, but constantly evolving, conversation about youth agency. For example, Castro shows how her posthuman readings of Candy could influence and alter how readers and scholars view other classic characters in literature: “perhaps is it time to reframe Tarzan and Mowgli as agentic posthuman children, similar to Candy” (266). Moreover, she argues that texts such as Emergence can spotlight how the “moral and ethical aptitude children and animals share should serve as our compass to a new joint plane” that creates “space for the admiration and respect for children” (267).
For all the strengths of each chapter, the argumentative turn of the afterword, “The Children of Wonder” by Gary Westfahl, was unexpected and somewhat shocking. Up to this point, the previous authors on whole reflect the ideas expressed in the introduction that “[the] past, present, and future topographies children and youth live through and in, being and becoming themselves, place SF in the unique position of reflecting the limitless range of possibility” (Clark and Castro 16). Yet, after an engaging literature review of children in sf from the twentieth century on, Westfahl condemns contemporary children’s and YA sf for, apparently, “encourag[ing] our children to feel that they are entitled to all the rights and privileges of adults, even though, in the main, they have not yet accomplished anything that would fully justify such a status” (280; emphasis added). This claim seems antithetical to the nuanced and layered discussions that make up this collection and that address the importance of diverse representations of childhood and youth agency. Although Westfahl grasps “the appeal of hearing that one might be acknowledged as a significant member of society even while very young,” he hopes that “fans of young adult novels will continue to apply themselves to their studies instead of magically being recognized” (280; emphasis added). Beyond his disparaging and pedantic tone, Westfahl seems glibly to put down the significance of children and young adults in our greater global society. In the current era of youth activism around climate change, gun violence, and institutionalized racism, this argument seems like a dramatic oversight, especially in a collection that celebrates the potentiality of children working alone or in tandem with adults. In his own words, this conclusion to the afterword does indeed make him seem an “old fogey” (280).
I come away from Child and Youth Agency in Science Fiction: Travel, Technology, Time with a variety of questions. Some are related to further application from the myriad productive avenues of research it demonstrates. Undoubtedly, it is important to think about youth agency within and through sf, especially because speculative fiction is primed for pushing audiences beyond their own experiences. As the editors note, “SF allows us to see those people and things who are shrouded in mystery, cloaked in secrecy, and silenced by perpetuity” (Castro and Clark 5). Yet there are other questions related to curious absences. For instance, no essay cites the recent, influential work of Marah Gubar, whose kinship model is central to current conversations on childhood agency. Though Castro and Clark are cited liberally, the collection could have also benefitted from further engagement with other scholars who are making major interventions at the cross-section of children’s literature and childhood studies, such as Vanessa Joosen and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak. Mining these points of connection between fields and disciplines will continue to be vital as representations (and studies) of childhood and children’s agency continue to evolve. Overall, Child and Youth Agency in Science Fiction is a thought-provoking collection of essays and, ultimately, a worthwhile addition to popular-culture criticism and youth agency discourses.
Deszcz-Tryhubczak, Justyna.”Thinking with Deconstruction: Book-Adult-Child Events in Children’s Literature Research.” Oxford Literary Review 41.2 (2019): 185-201.
─────. “Using Literary Criticism for Children’s Rights: Toward a Participatory Research Model of Children’s Literature Studies.” The Lion and the Unicorn 40 (2016): 215-31.
Gubar, Mara. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 2010.
─────. “Risky Business: Talking about Children in Children’s Literature Criticism.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 38.4 (2013): 450-57.
Joosen, Vanessa, ed. Connecting Childhood and Old Age in Popular Media. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2018.
─────. “Wild Children and Wicked Journalists: The Remediation of Constructions of Childhood in the Popular Press in Children’s Literature.” The Child Savage, 1890-2010: From Comics to Games. Ed. Elizabeth Wesseling. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2016. 176-86.
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