Category Archives: William Sleator

Books by William Sleator.

Review 48: The Green Futures of Tycho


The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator

It’s always dangerous to revisit a book that you loved when you were a kid. Everyone knows that. Some books are really just geared towards a certain age, a certain time in your life where that book can step in and say, “Here – someone knows what you’re thinking about.” And those books are amazing. You read them and your life changes. Maybe only in small ways, maybe in ways you don’t even realize until later, but it does.

Then you come back to it ten or twenty years later and think, “I remember this book. I loved this book. I think I’ll read it again.” So you do, and it’s a disappointment. Not because the book isn’t as good as you thought it was but rather because you aren’t the person you were when you first read it. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just life.

When I ordered this off Amazon, I did so with a certain amount of trepidation. This book occupies a very special place in my heart. I read it over and over again when I was a kid. It instilled a love of time travel that I keep to this day. I even adopted the name Tycho as a pseudonym for various parts of my own mind all the way through high school and beyond. I knew that re-reading it would put that entire past at risk of becoming foolish or stupid or childish, and I wasn’t sure my ever-vulnerable pride wanted to take that.

Fortunately, I discovered that the book was as good as I recalled it being. Shorter than I remember, of course, but still quite good.

The story is deceptively simple – Tycho Tithonus, the youngest of four siblings – the other three being very talented and thoroughly unpleasant – finds a small, silver, egg-like object while digging up a new vegetable garden. As innocuous as it seems, that object is about to change everything. It is, in fact, a time machine.

It’s not very difficult – it has a series of dials on one end, which you turn to set the time you want to go to. Press the other end and it’s done. And Tycho does what anyone would do when presented with such an amazing device: go back and re-work an unpleasant event in his past. And if by doing so he could maybe teach his nasty siblings to appreciate him more, well, so be it. Of course, the ramifications of this act don’t become clear until it’s much too late.

But the past doesn’t really hold that much allure for young Tycho. It’s over and done with, and was never very pleasant to begin with. So he decides to go to the future, to see what has become of himself and his family. A quick twenty-year jump to April 23,2001 shows him what’s in store for himself. A desperate, unhappy, bitter man, fronting for a lunar entertainment industry and reduced to begging sponsors for money.

Disappointed and upset, Tycho comes back. Later, he visits the future again – same day – only to find it has changed completely. He’s no longer a sad, shapeless man but a tough, ruthless one, a man who uses his ability to travel through time to make money and ruin his family. Terrified, Tycho returns to his own time. But his curiosity can’t be stopped. He needs to see a future where everything works out right. Unfortunately, every time he goes there it’s worse and worse. His future self becomes a monster and a murderer, a willing agent to bring beings of higher power onto this planet.

This is one of the things I’ve always liked about Sleator – his mind turns around corners. Everyone and his uncle can write about a time traveler going to the past and changing the present, but who writes about someone changing the future by messing about in the present? Not many, I’ll tell you that. Each time Tycho comes back from the future, the knowledge he has gained causes him to say something or do something that alters the course of his future in a new and terrible way. And seeing how much worse it gets just forces him to make even more terrible decisions, until you have the final, terrible paradox of an old Tycho trying to chase down and kill his younger self over the course of millennia.

Which does bring up the problem of paradox, unavoidable in any time travel book, known in fiction as “massive, gaping plot holes.”

For example – if Tycho time-travels twenty years into the future to see his older self, there shouldn’t be any older self there for him to meet. It’s impossible – as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Tycho vanished on April 23, 1981 and re-appeared twenty years later. Everyone else lived through that time, but he simply side-stepped it. Instead of finding a letter from his older self to his mother in their future house, he should have found perhaps a black-framed picture of 11 year-old Tycho with a note to the effect that they should have loved him more. The only way I can think of to resolve this problem is to assume that Tycho was absolutely and incontrovertibly determined to return to his own time after each future visit, thus ensuring that he would eventually live out those twenty years.

Fortunately, Sleator handles these paradoxes in a very simple and straightforward manner. During one of Tycho’s experimental first trips into the future, he meets his teenage self, who shows him how the dials work on the egg:

“But,” Tycho said. “But if you’re me… I mean, if we’re the same person, how can we both be here at the same time?” 

“No time to explain now,” said the other Tycho, bending over him. “I’ve got to show you how to work this thing, fast, so you can get back to your own time.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Tycho said, more confused than ever. “If you have to show me how it works, then who showed you how to -”

“Shut up and concentrate.”

There you go. That bit there is the author saying, “Yes, I know there are paradoxes involved, but that’s not the point of the book.” That pretty much sweeps aside all those little picky details, like older Tycho trying to kill his younger self, or the fact that, by the end of the book, the entire story didn’t, technically, happen. “Shut up and concentrate.”

He handles the alterations resulting from time travel very neatly as well. Rather than beat us over the head with “Things have CHANGED!” he just inserts a simple descriptive line in there. If you’re reading carefully, you’ll notice that Ludwig’s hair has gone from proto-emo long to a nice crew cut. Even Tycho doesn’t notice, which is interesting. When presented with the results of a change in time, he has a moment of jamais vu – the feeling of something familiar as totally new – and then the story moves on. The effects multiply and resonate, and even Tycho isn’t aware of how much he’s changed.

Going back to the plot hole problem for a moment, there is the small issue of the egg’s origin and purpose. We know it was planted on Earth by aliens, something like 150 million years ago. It seems they did so with the intention that it one day be found and used in order to prepare the way for their arrival and dominance of Earth – this is what can be gleaned by the ravings of older Tycho. But why would an alien race which has time travel sorted out need such a roundabout way of conquering the world? Why drop it into some Jurassic mud and leave it at the whims of plate tectonics? Why not just show up at Tycho’s house one day and drop it on his bedside table? This is never adequately explained in the book, probably because it’s not what the book’s about. But it nagged me when I was a kid, and it still does now.

All plot holes and paradoxes aside, it’s a really good book, and if you have a kid, I recommend it. It’s the kind of story that you really can pick apart and look from many angles. In one sense, it’s a story about destiny. Tycho and his siblings are all named after extraordinary famous people – Ludwig Beethoven,Tamara Karsavina, Leonardo DaVinci, and Tycho Brahe – in the hopes that they would grow up to emulate them. Tycho’s siblings fall into line very easily, adopting the roles that they’d been given from birth. Tycho doesn’t – he’s interested in a little bit of everything, and isn’t entire sure what he wants to do with his life. I knew that feeling when I was eleven years old. Hell, I know that feeling now.

And of course it’s about the futility of letting your future control your life. The future isn’t fixed. It’s an organic, growing thing that you can’t begin to control, and the tiniest change in the present could become a radical change in the future. Sure, it’s good to have goals and plans, but to try and wield unbending control over who you’re going to be is foolish at best.

And that brings me to the nagging question that occurred to me right around chapter 9, the first time Tycho sees his adult self and is terribly disappointed in him. Reading this again as an adult, I found myself wondering that if eleven year-old me suddenly appeared, what would he think? Would he be impressed at the path my life had taken? Would he be disappointed by my physical appearance? Would he be surprised at the relationship I have with my siblings? Would be be shocked that I have a boyfriend? What would his judgment be on his future?

Following right on the heels of that, of course, was the more important question of, “Who cares what eleven year-old me thinks of my life?” Not to disparage the eleven year-olds out there, but you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do, and becoming a teenager isn’t going to confer any more wisdom. Tycho doesn’t know the twenty years of history and context that led to him becoming a miserable bastard. Perhaps if he had learned a little, he might have made better decisions when he returned to his own time. And if eleven year-old me gave me any lip about what I’d become, I’d send him back to his own time with a whole host of new neuroses to deal with.

Anyway, my point is this: The Green Futures of Tycho is a damn fine book. It’s a good time travel adventure, and it’s a good allegory for the existential angst we all go through when we consider the future. While such feelings might be new and raw to a child of Tycho’s age, and old and familiar to us adults, it’s still something that we need to deal with. And perhaps that best way to do it is to simply appreciate what we have now.

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“After all, he wasn’t doing anything dangerous, like interacting with the past, which might have unexpected effects on the present. What harm could a little peek at the future do? How could he change anything there?”
from The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator
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The Green Futures of Tycho on Wikipedia
William Sleator on Wikipedia
The Green Futures of Tycho on Amazon.com
Green Futures fan site

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Filed under science fiction, time travel, William Sleator, young adult

Review 22: House of Stairs


House of Stairs by William Sleator

Young adult fiction must be a really tough genre to wrap your head around, for a writer. You have a story that you want to tell, and you have to tell it in such a way that it is simple enough for your target audience to read, yet engaging enough to keep them reading. The themes have to be familiar enough for them to understand and relate to, yet unusual enough to be interesting for them. Go too far in the wrong direction and you have a failure. So how does a YA writer do it, balancing all those issues, while still writing a good book?

Damned if I know. I’ve never managed to write a decent book for adults, much less young ones.

Fortunately, there are plenty of talented writers who can write for young people, and one of those is William Sleator.

A YA writer who specializes in science fiction, Sleator has written his fair share of strange, fantastic and sometimes disturbing books. Of all the ones I’ve read, this book is probably the one that creeped me out the most.

The setup for this story is simple. Five sixteen year-old orphans – two boys, three girls – are put into a giant room, with no visible walls, ceiling or floor. The only structures in this room are stairs and landings. Nothing else except for a small machine with flashing lights and odd sounds that dispenses food.

That’s it.

The five characters are very different and very interesting. First we have Peter, a scared boy, uncertain of his surroundings in the best of times, and utterly overwhelmed by being dropped into this bizarre place. He’s afraid of everything and everybody, and finds solace only his the strange trances he drops into, in which he is with an old orphanage roommate, Jasper, feeling safe and protected. As an interesting aside, it wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out Peter’s sexuality. It wasn’t that thinly veiled, either. I really don’t handle subtlety well, I think….

Lola is not a showgirl. Sorry, had to put that in. Lola is a tough, street-smart girl who has no tolerance for stupidity or cruelty. She’s had to learn a lot in her time, and doesn’t look to others to decide what she should or should not do.

Blossom is a fat little girl who is the first to figure out how to use the food dispenser (in a rage at it, she sticks out her tongue, and out pops a food pellet – but more on this later). She is cunning and devious, much sharper than people would give her credit for being. If anyone is truly dangerous in this crowd, it is her.

Abagail is a mousy girl, pretty in her own way, but with very little in the way of self-confidence. She tends to latch on to other people and question her own thoughts and actions. She does have compassion, however, though not the means to make her compassion a reality.

Finally, Oliver is the other boy of the group, and he is all that Peter is not. He is strong and confident and good-looking. For a while, Peter thinks that Oliver is his old friend, Jasper, and subsequently Peter is devoted to Oliver. A certain power structure evolves when it is discovered that of all the people, only Oliver can bring Peter out of his trances. Oliver has power, and he is not afraid to use it.

These five kids are trapped in this house of stairs. None of them know why they’re there, they only know that they are. They soon discover that the food-dispensing machine will only give them food under certain conditions. In the beginning , they are forced to repeat a series of actions and movements, that evolve into a kind of dance, hoping to get food from the machine.

From there it gets only worse. They soon discover that the dance isn’t enough. The infighting that comes naturally becomes essential to their survival, for only when they are cruel or greedy will the machine start flashing its lights and entice them to dance. The question then becomes whether or not the kids will do as the machine wishes, and how long they can hold out against it. Or if they will.

This book is disturbing to say the least. It levels some pretty harsh accusations about human nature, not just regarding the kids in the house of stairs, but also regarding the people who put them there. The kids are there for a reason, and not a good one. The whole setup (which is thoroughly, if somewhat clunkily, explained at the end) is about conditioning, and changing people’s personality through stimuli and reinforcement to make them behave as desired. Because it demonstrates people, young people in particular, behaving in a manner that displays the truth of their nature, this book has often been compared to Lord of the Flies, and rightly so.

In its way, it’s even more disturbing than Lord of the Flies – at least the kids in that book had been left to their own devices, as terrible as they were. In this book, the horrors that these five teens go through are part of a deliberate state-sanctioned experiment in human conditioning – a kind of horrible, Pavlovian Breakfast Club. Such is the nature of that experiment that the two children who resisted the conditioning were actually regarded as failures. Upon reflection, the people pulling the strings are far more frightening and disturbing than these poor, manipulated children.

If nothing else, the lesson to be learned from this story is simple – be a human being. There are some things that are too important to sacrifice for something as simple and petty as food and acceptance. We must never allow ourselves to be beasts. We have to be human. This has relevance today, when we are debating the ethics of torture – is it a necessary evil that we must tolerate if our society is to survive, or is it an offense against our humanity? If we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that an evil act is somehow the right thing to do, then we have lost a very important part of ourselves.

Of course, it’s also about science, but the message here is less dire – we must not allow science to lose its humanity. In this book, a strange future with a monolithic state government, science is entirely utilitarian, with no moral qualms about putting minors through psychological torture. The good news is that, at least as of this writing, science errs on the side of ethics. Modern science certainly has its moral gray areas, but the majority of scientists out there would never consent to run an experiment such as this. I hope.

The last line in the book is one of the more frightening ones in literature, right up there with the last line in 1984. It’s a blunt reminder of everything that has happened in the book, and a pointed summation of everything that Sleator has been trying to say – that humans have a base nature, that we can be manipulated, and we will, given the right circumstances, allow others to shape who we are. His message to his readers – teenagers like the ones in this book – is to refuse to submit to such control. Good advice for them, and for us.

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“You… you’re not going to… to go along with it, are you?”
– Peter, House of Stairs
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William Sleator at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Amazon.com
Operant conditioning at Wikipedia

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Filed under behavioral conditioning, children, morality, science fiction, survival, teenagers, William Sleator, young adult