Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sciency Fiction with Jacqueline Houtman

Today Jacqueline Houtman, author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, answers a few questions about her book and about Aspergians, fictional and in the real world. 

Remember, I'm giving away a copy of this book. All you need to do is comment on any of the NOS labled posts. You should also stop by Jacqueline's blog, Sciency Fiction, to check out her Twitter challenge. 

About the Book: Science geek Eddy Thomas can invent useful devices to do anything, except solve his bully problem. Eddy Thomas can read a college physics book, but he can't read the emotions on the faces of his classmates at Drayton Middle School. He can spend hours tinkering with an invention, but he can't stand more than a few minutes in a noisy crowd, like the crowd at the science fair, which Eddy fails to win. When the local school crossing guard is laid off, Eddy is haunted by thoughts of the potentially disastrous consequences and invents a traffic-calming device, using parts he has scavenged from discarded machines. Eddy also discovers new friends, who appreciate his abilities and respect his unique view of the world. By trusting his real friends, Eddy uses his talents to help others and rethinks his purely mechanical definition of success.

Eddy's concern for others is very impressive. Is that "out of character" for a person with limited social skills?

Not necessarily. A lot of people think that people on the autism spectrum lack empathy, that they don’t care about others. This could be because autistic people may not express their concern in ways that neurotypical people would expect. They also might not catch the more subtle, nonverbal communications, and so their apparent priorities may seem unusual. In the book, Eddy is not so good at figuring out who his real friends are, but his concern for the safety of the neighborhood kids when the crossing guard is laid off is very real. He has a very strong idea about what is right and what is wrong.

In the book, no one ever "labels" Eddy with a diagnosis. Why not? Wouldn't it be an advantage for the readers, especially young readers to *know* how to talk about people like Eddy? Wouldn't that improve awareness?

There are a lot of kids out there who are “different,” but who don’t have a diagnosis. Are they any less worthy of respect and acceptance than someone with an official diagnosis?
I decided not to label Eddy with a diagnosis because I didn’t want readers to form opinions about EDDY based on their own experiences or expectations of what autism “is supposed to be like.” Everyone on the spectrum is different, an individual with his or her own gifts and challenges. I wanted readers to get to know Eddy as a character. Autism is part of who he is, but it’s not everything.
I agree that a label might have made it easier for people to find my book if they are looking for Aspergian protagonists. I’m hoping word will spread. That’s one reason I’m doing a bit of a marketing push during Autism Awareness Month.

Why "sciency fiction"?  How is that different from science fiction?

Eddy has an analytical way of thinking and knows a lot of facts. I used scientific metaphors and descriptions throughout the book. There’s even an embedded lesson in scientific method. But I didn’t just throw the science in; it’s integral to the story and theme. I came up with the term “sciency fiction” to describe books like THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS when I started my blog. Here’s how I explained it then. Of course, “science fiction” can have a lot of science too, but there’s always some sort of speculative element. The term “science fiction” already had a longstanding fan base and body of literature, so I felt I needed to come up with a new term.
In contrast to science fiction, the science in “sciency fiction” is accurate, and reflects our current understanding of science. Or, in the case of historical sciency fiction, it reflects our understanding of science during that period.  (In that way it’s different from fiction science, in which the science is made-up, or inaccurate in service of the story.) Last year, Tom Webb independently came up with “sciency fiction” in response to “Lab Lit,” arguing that not all science happens in the lab.
I’m hoping the term will catch on, especially in kidlit, since there are a lot of kids who seek that stuff out. A couple of my favorite sciency fiction titles are THE GREEN GLASS SEA by Ellen Klages and THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly.
And if you’re Googling sciency fiction, make sure Google doesn’t insist you’re looking for science fiction. It thinks it knows better, at least for now. 

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