Children's Literature

21st July 1995 at 01:00
PARKLAND by Victor Kelleher Viking Pounds 5.99 - 0 670 85904 4. NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman Scholastic Pounds 12.99 - 0 590 54178 1 Age 11 plus

Victor Kelleher's futuristic Parkland is a breeding unit for endangered species. Naturally enough, this is not entirely how the inhabitants view their situation. Aware that they are in some kind of a sanctuary for anthropoids, the humans are in no position to guess that they are on the same level as the gorillas and chimpanzees and are, moreover, bred in vitro.

A few are genetically engineered, like Boxer, a chimpanzee cross, and Ralph whose affinities are clearly with the gorillas. With the girl Cassie they form a trio of devoted friends concerned with the normal teenage pursuit of breaking the rules - a very dangerous pursuit in this set-up. The appearance in the enclosure of a feral human from outside makes Cassie at least, determined to discover the exact nature of their confinement.

The book does indeed discuss the nature of humanity, as the blurb claims, but inhibits itself with a protagonist who is a human without a culture and therefore without terms of reference. How does Cassie so readily interpret what she discovers?

There have been many suggestions about what it is that makes man a unique species: the ability to write? The ability to draw? The need, as Johnny Morris once memorably observed, to be entertained while we eat? I was prepared to the last to learn that Cassie herself is clad in a coat of ginger whiskers. But Parkland is a substantial book, a good SF read and it does make you think.

Substantial hardly begins to describe Philip Pullman's Northern Lights. It is a big book and only the first part of a trilogy. It is also finely produced and intriguingly jacketed: never did anything so boldly flout the usual protective mimicry of the teen read. This novel really does discuss the uniqueness of humanity - the fact of the soul. In Pullman's parallel universe the soul inhabits its own personal body and is known as a daemon. It appears to be an independent entity, yet is inseparable from its human. In what is claimed to be an act of humane prophylaxis, a group of scientists has developed a means of perpetuating childhood innocence by amputating the daemon - stealing the soul.

The story functions on many levels. It is a rousing, fast-paced, occasionally violent adventure with a young-adolescent heroine who bears more than a passing resemblance to Huckleberry Finn, and it is a leisurely, probing, moral debate. It is also beautifully written, shocking, moving, intellectually funny and displays the most magnificent invention. The multiple levels of engagement are there for those who can recognise them, but no one is short-changed. At the simplest level, everyone gets a great story. Others have haunting allusions, the complex ideas, and the jokes, such as the deranged academic, imprisoned for years in frozen wastes, and still raving about plagiarism. Young readers will warm to it because it comes under the Point imprint. The danger is that concerned adults may shun it for the same reason. Don't. It is expensive, but worth every penny.

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