Friday, March 7, 2014

Reader Response: Airborn

A free-form reader response to Airborn by Kenneth Oppel for my Teen Materials class. This was the secondary Fantasy title, which I picked from a small list.

** spoilers **


I picked this because I liked the cover art and because of the Printz Honor label. Hadn't heard of the author previously.


Like everyone else in my class, I question categorizing this as "fantasy" as opposed to "science fiction." There are three major speculative elements:

* The creatures. These are explained as possible results of regular ol' biological evolution on Earth. Between real life bats and (once) pterodactyls, it sounds like a reasonable enough possibility given our current understanding of science.

* The gas. Hydrium is supposedly lighter than Hydrogen and doesn't go boom, and it's naturally occurring! Convenient, but it's such an egregious error Chemistry-wise. Hydrogen is as simple and light as it gets in our universe. This called "science fantasy" where something is given a sciency-sounding explanation that doesn't work, but that's also any faster than light travel conceit in plenty of other stories. Science Fiction isn't limited to Hard SF.

* The alternative history. This is a result of the discovery of Hydrium, supposedly. I kept thinking the timeline divergence had to come earlier than that because of place names and such, but why be so picky?

Overall, I would label this Science Fiction, not Fantasy. I suspect my teacher's evil plan was to get us to think about the distinction for a bit.

As for the story itself, I had the hardest time getting into it. There were wonderful passages here and there: the food, the airship architecture, the wildlife (jumpy snake!), and some pleasant romantic crush stuff. I had to put the book down, laugh, pick it back up, and copy out this line for my Facebook feed:

"I liked watching her hands as she wrote, the way her fingers held the pencil. She had lovely long fingers, but they looked strong too. Probably got lots of exercise turning the pages of books." 

Maybe it's just me, but well-toned reader's fingers are a plus. 

The problem is that this book is such a corners-rounded perfect example of How Adventure Stories Work. Every strength and every item and every character focused on becomes relevant later on when the heightened action kicks in. The upper-class scholar and lower-class workman relationship. The moral black and white. The climactic fight on top of the airship. The creature just happening to show up to help with that fight despite Matt only threatening it previously. 

It was so sappy and simple. A perfectly fresh specimen for young readers. Shallow juvenile-only stuff for readers like me. I'm sure it would make a great movie because of the visual opportunities and because most adventure movie plots are precisely this (non)detailed anyway.

I don't understand how it was a Printz Honor book since that award is for "literary excellence" for young adults. It has polish for younger teens, and it might count as literary excellence for middle grade, but something doesn't seem matched up quite right here. 

In short: I'll be recommending this to kids, but won't be reading the sequels myself.

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