Kids These Days

3 May 2001

It's my mom's birthday. And Machiavelli's, but that's not really important right now. Anyway, I can't call Mom for her birthday, since she's up in the Cities keeping the rebel Lutherans in line. (And somebody's got to do it. They've been getting on my very last nerve this week on their listserv.) But when they went out for supper to celebrate yesterday, the waitress told her, "Wow! I'd never had somebody admit to their real age before!" Mom just laughed.

She leads the music for the little kids at their church, and every time one of the kids has a birthday, they count pennies into the bank, one for each year of their lives (a maximum of six), and everybody sings to them. So my mom gets out quarters and dimes and nickels for her birthday. The little kids clamor, "How old are you, Mrs. Ding-a-Lingen, how old are you?" And their Sunday School teachers, mommies in their late twenties and early thirties, wince and look at each other sympathetically. And then my mom belts out how old she is. The year I last remember being there was: "I'm forty-one! Isn't that old?" At which point the kids all agreed that yes, that was really old, and all of their mommies looked floored that she'd admit to over forty right out in public. Priorities, priorities.

After she gets the rebel Lutherans straightened out, Mom's going to spend her birthday weekend with Aunt Ellen and Uncle Phil. Not that I'm jealous. Oh, noooooo.

I'm going to try to keep this short today. I have an article to finish, and there's lots of stuff that could stand doing around here. It'd be nice if I thought I'd hear about the book today, or even about a short story or two. But I don't. Ah well.

I started Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World last night. Managed to disagree with him in the first paragraph. That's pretty rare. Usually the first paragraph is bland enough to be inoffensive, or else I see promise that the author will at least attempt to justify his claims.

Oh, not so this time. Disch starts out with the old idea that "the Golden Age of SF is 12" (I've also heard 14, but evidently it must be an even number), and then claims that it's not true. That Kids Today just don't get caught up in a sense of wonder with their first SF books, because they already have seen rockets into space and computers. That they've been watching SF movies all their lives (which is true), so they don't get really into the literary part of SF when they're about 12. This is doubtful, and he certainly doesn't justify it. Doesn't seem to feel he needs to. It seems to have been a Great Truth that Kids Today Don't Read SF Like They Used To, since maybe 1960. Maybe before, I don't know. Does anybody bother to back this claim up? Of course not. It's about Kids Today.

Look. If your sense of wonder is based on your reader never having encountered something that you, in your childhood many years ago, would have considered high tech, well, hang it up, because you are no good at this job. I read Disch's Camp Concentration. It wasn't about flying cars, and there was a sense of wonder to it, albeit a more twisted one than we're used to seeing in SF. I really hate it when people do something cool and then demonstrate that they didn't know what they were doing. It's precisely because of books with sense of wonder that's not, "Gee whiz, Bobby, you mean we'll be the first boys on the Moon? Golly, wait until the rest of the Junior ROTC hears about this! Skip Anderson is going to get such a bee in his bonnet!" that SF continues to draw in geeky 12-year-olds everywhere -- not just in its watered down TV form, but in the books, the stories, the real stuff.

If you took a random sampling of my parents' seventh grade classes, I don't believe that most of the kids would have been SF readers. We're not losing the readers to Pokemon and video games. Most of the most avid video game players I knew in college were also the most avid readers of SF. Sure, the kids who are watching MTV for six hours a day or more are not reading SF. But they had their equivalent in the Sixties, too. It's just that chances are pretty good that SF writers weren't friends with them.

The up side is that Disch seems to think that it's pretty good that SF stuff has permeated the culture this far. The down side is that he's way overestimating technological progress, and how much we have imagined but not yet achieved. And the other down side, of course, is that he gets sucked into the Kids These Days trap. He could just go meet some.

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