April 4th, 2007

  • pgdf

The Child Is Father to the Man

Coming across two vastly different depictions of childhood, back-to-back, has raised in my mind the perennial question:

What the hell is up with "da yute" of today?

I don't intend to belabor this old chestnut, an insoluble head-scratcher that has sparked countless tomes of sociological bloviation. And to some degree, I believe that changes in the lineaments of childhood are in large part superficial, that certain eternal constants persist across centuries, and will do so until we start mucking with the human genome. But there's no denying that cultural touchstones and rituals and practices concerning childhood vary from generation to generation. And I think I've spotted a new fallout of current childhood practices that relates to our beloved genre of science fiction.

But before launching into any theories, let's see the items that triggered my thoughts.

The first is an article from the NY TIMES for April 1, 2007, titled "For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too". The article is here:

http://tinyurl.com/22bfac

But if you can't get at it, or don't want to register with the TIMES, just email me. I've copied all the text into an email which I'll happily send to anyone. I might even try to post it as a "comment" to this thread. Of course, you don't get pix or linx this way.

The NYT piece is the standard reportage we've seen so often lately, about elite teens who are being groomed as superbeings. You know the drill: prenatal enrollment in the best nursery schools, etc., etc. (I'm reminded of the great quote identifying this tendency from all the way back in 1973, from Vonnegut's BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, about the man who pushed his daughter so hard to excel at competitive swimming: "'What kind of man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?'") As such, this depiction does not represent the childhood of every youth in the nation, especially those mired in poverty. But I think it's safe to say that scaled-down versions of these ambitions and practices extend to millions of middle-class teens. We all see it all around us: overprogrammed childhoods without a moment's free time.

And most importantly for my theory to come, these children are the leaders and readers of tomorrow.

Now, for the opposite end of the spectrum, check out OH SKIN-NAY! THE DAYS OF REAL SPORT, by Clare Briggs and Wilbur Nesbit.

http://tinyurl.com/2n4rza

This charming facsimile edition of an album of cartoons from 1913 depicts an era when children ran wild--when not in school or doing chores. It's like Bradbury's DANDELION WINE, but even more bucolic. I am also reminded of Stephen Leacock's SUNSHINE SKETCHES OF A LITTLE TOWN (1912). (Does anyone but me still read Leacock these days? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Leacock) No "advanced placement" or "independent studies," although there is a piano lesson.

Now certainly my own Boomer childhood was much closer in style and substance to OH SKIN-NAY than it was to the the current model of "perfection." And that childhood imbued me with certain aspirations and models of how people related and thought, and how the world worked. Or would work in the future.

And those models inform the science fiction I write.

Which might very well be why SF is dwindling in popularity as its core audience ages out.

The futures we depict, with their unstated assumptions about the duties and privileges of the prominent players, make no sense to the average eighteen-year-old raised under the high-pressure regimen.

It's just a thought.

There's a little dramatization of this notion in John Birmingham's AXIS OF TIME trilogy, which is basically a counterfactual warfare series. A group of mostly young soldiers from the 2020's, raised to confront an endless jihad, is dumped back into the middle of WWII. The natives of that era regard these people as over-sexed merciless killers with the powers of minor gods.

Just about the way a kid from 1913 would regard one of the "amazing girls" of today.