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Tales from the Wonder Zone #4: Odyssey

edited by Julie E Czerneda, illustrated by Jean-Pierre Normand

(Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2004. US$15.95 trade paperback, 129 pages.)

Five stars.

On the theory that "the Golden Age of science fiction is 13," this publisher has cover scanput forth a series designed to hook young readers on both science and fiction. The stories vary in target age range, from grades 5 through 8. Honestly, Wonder Zone has published some of the most original, engaging, and often hair-raising stories I've read over the last few years. By all means, use the book for its intended purpose -- take it to class, buy it for your kids -- but read it yourself first.

The introduction this time features Greg Bear, a talented author and lecturer, explaining science fiction as a kind of game. "Jigsaw" by Douglas Smith is a darkly amusing look at what can go wrong when humans use alien technology they don't fully understand: "Found with still-only-partly-translated, we-think-this-button-does-this libraries and databases, and we-can't-fix-it-so-it-better-never-break technology." It's one of several stories in this anthology with a communication theme. M.T. O'Shaughnessy's "Skeeters" ventures into the realm of physics instead, although I'm more accustomed to hearing "skeeter" as slang for "mosquito" than "water strider." That's the source of inspiration for how to cope with crash-landing in a mercury ocean. A young man struggles to find his place in an alien world in Sarah Jane Elliott's "Tides of Change." This one has elements similar to fantasy, but still grounded in science. Francine P. Lewis tackles unplanned parenthood in a completely innovative -- and disturbing -- way in "To Feast on Royal Jelly" in which the protagonist's carelessness lands him more responsibility than he knows what to do with. My favorite illustration is the one for this story, featuring one of the Sanirtoh mor Sartoh. Laura Anne Gilman presents an impressive set of haiku riddles about the planets of our solar system (answers on the next page). Some are easy to solve, others challenging! Annette Griessman tells her story, "Treasures," from the alien perspective. Desperate humans grab the wrong things for trade goods.

I found the last story, "Defining an Elephant" by Peter Watts, disappointing in comparison with the others. Its narrow premise was too obvious for my taste. Worse, it violates the rule about protagonists needing to have some way of influencing their situation -- because all the action happens in the flashbacks, and the conclusion just sort of dribbles away into hopelessness. This really clashes with Wonder Zone's overall "work the problem!" attitude.

Odyssey makes a terrific addition to a terrific series. As intended, it holds enormous appeal for young readers; but for older fans, it's a trip down memory lane. Most highly recommended.

Review by Elizabeth Barrette.

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