[(essay date November 1985) In the following essay, Nodelman offers a critical reading of one of the dominant recurring themes in juvenile science fiction--the hero-child escaping a sterile, enclosed society into the natural world--and asserts that the "central paradox of these books is that their characters' curiosity and self-reliance leads them into knowledge of why curiosity and self-reliance are dangerous."]
Not surprisingly, SF intended for young readers is not much different from SF intended for adults. Such books represent a wide variety of SF themes and situations; they form a distinguishable sub-genre only because their main characters are almost always youngsters themselves, and because, in comparison with other SF, they tend to describe less complicated situations in a simpler way.1
Nevertheless, a disproportionately large number of SF novels for young readers explore a pattern found much less frequently in adult SF: they begin in enclosed cities and describe how their protagonists move out into a larger world outside. In John Christopher's Wild Jack (1974), for instance, a boy from such a city learns that self-sufficient tribes survive happily in the wilderness beyond its limits.2 Similarly, Adrien Stoutenberg's Out There (1971) describes how youngsters from a domed city confront danger and learn to live with themselves during an expedition into the wilds "out there." Indeed, the idea of going "out there" is so attractive that the American publishers of a 1975 novel for youngsters by Elizabeth Mace, published in Britain as Ransome Revisited, renamed it with the same title Stoutenberg chose; and although the flavor of this more complex Out There is not adequately evoked by the title, the book does describe how youngsters confront the world outside their original homes.
All these novels deal significantly with ideas of constriction and freedom by representing them with closed environments and the open spaces outside them. In the light of adult SF that follows this pattern, that's not particularly surprising; while there are, of course, exceptions, many adult SF novels and stories about closed cities represent similar ideas with similar images. Gary Wolfe says that "like the hulls of the spaceships in stories of outer space exploration, the walls of the cities become images of barriers that must be broken" (p. 93), and Brian Stableford has suggested that the theme of such novels "is almost always escape from the claustrophobic comfort which kills initiative to the wilderness which offers evolutionary opportunity through the struggle to survive" (p. 120). The best known works of this sort intended for adult readers are E. M. Forster's classic novella The Machine Stops (1909) and Arthur C. Clarke's novel The City and the Stars (1956): both describe a young man's claustrophobia in a theoretically perfect city and the delight he feels in the less urbanized world he discovers outside it.3
In fact, the potential to discuss such themes may explain why oppositions between cities and open spaces are so popular in SF intended for youngsters. A potent cliché of adolescence is the idea that young people wish to...