August 9, 2011

William Sleator: A Non-Beer Non-Design Obituary

(Ed. Note: Today's post is not about beer, as the title implies, so my beer and design-focused readers may want to skip it. I'll be back to my usual beer design investigations soon. I do see a link, however, in the fact that today's subject inspired a great deal of my general geekdom, which may as well be defined as the tendency to learn deeply about things on a systemic and detailed level, particularly if a complete understanding of that thing is practically or theoretically impossible. Whether learned or inherited, that drive is absolutely what drives me to dissect labels art and branding campaigns of craft breweries, and it was stoked in me at an early age by certain figures like the late man I discuss in this post..)

Young Adult Sci Fi is big these days. We've got Harry Potter breaking all sorts of records from box office to Barnes and Noble, and we can only assume these records will be broken by Katniss of the Hunger Games. If we expand the genre to include all things fantastic, shirtless werewolves and glittering vampires step in to remind us exactly how nuts the market is for Junior High imaginative drama. The genre is an enormous engine, enough so that it has been granted the ultimate designation: a chic abbreviation for industry insiders of YASF.
hotlinked from Onion AV Club

Before there were all of these, though, there was William Sleator. Sleator, who died last weekend at his home in Thailand, wrote YASF novels in four decades, spanning every sub-genre from straight sci-fi to critters and ghosts to The Cube-style sadistic experiments. Whether basing a book on a role-playing game or teenagers with strange abilities, his characters managed to resonate with young readers in that special blend of escapism and relatability that so delights fans of bespectacled wizards today.

As you might imagine from the fact that his obituary is appearing here, the young me was a big fan.

If we chart my developing geekdom, the first influence was likely Edward Packard (author of the most engaging and weird Choose Your Own Adventure books), followed by Brian Jacques and the talking rodents of Redwall. But my 4th to 6th grade was dominated by Sleator's strange universes and cruel people. The reviews, like those by The NYT and the AV Club, highlight his other gifts (as a pianist and composer) and his legacy more than his writing ability. 

This is the edition I read. Yeah, '80s.
If you want a quick look at his work, Adam Cadre has a good intro, as well as a defense of Sleator as an master craftsman of tropes. Interestingly, Cadre refers to the period that I loved as Sleator's weakest (though I was certainly reading things from prior years without knowing it). I actually think of his as a bit better than that. His moody, often repressed teenage characters resonated with us disaffected preteens precisely because of the way they did not show the emotion that we could tell was boiling under them. In this way, he is closer to a Ray Carver than a Madeleine L'Engle, depicting a noir-esque world of repression that only occasionally showed its hand when pushed to the absolute brink (as in The Duplicate or House of Stairs). His characters were willing to face down the weird and unknown, look wistfully at a girl (or, occasionally, guy. Though Sleator was gay, his books were not yet of a time when gay teenage characters could be written openly. Still, some of his best written relationships seethed with homoeroticism; if no one has written a paper on the sexual tension between the protagonist and his evil clone that chases his girlfriend in The Duplicate, I will be stunned.), and then try to move on carrying the damage that has occurred from the unspeakable things that they have helped transpire. In short, they are an adolescent's dream vision of him and herself as anti-hero.

Most of the obits note how, despite a strikingly film-friendly style and structure (limited characters, a lack of overwriting, the right demographic, snappy and innovative plotlines), none of Sleator's books were made into movies. Hopefully that will change in the years to come. If Sci-Fi writers are mostly considered after their time, one can only imagine how long it takes for a serious critical appreciation to find a sci-fi writer who wrote dark yarns for kids. Or perhaps history will largely forget him, just as it no doubt has countless other deserving authors. Art is like life; it is often unfair and good people with good intentions and ability get screwed by things outside of their control. If anyone understood that, it was William Sleator.

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