Wehmeyer, L.B. Images in a Crystal Ball

Futures and the Young – Images in a Crystal Ball: World Futures in Novels for Young People,  211 pages, I9.50 sterling (Littleton, CO, Libraries Unlimited, 1981)


Stories set in future time can be immensely useful in a field which relies so heavily on plans, projections, paradigms and scenarios. They illuminate aspects of futures that would otherwise escape our attention, hence making the latter more accessible to imaginative exploration by non-specialists and the young.[1] We should therefore welcome a book which summaries over 150 children’s novels and provides an elaborate index of themes and motifs

Sadly, however, our praise must remain muted because the works examined are not among the best of their kind, neither are most of them available outside the United States. Furthermore, the book never succeeds in escaping the narrow, academic frame within which it was originally conceived, nor does the author properly engage with her theme or with the literature which, skilfully used, could have made this a valuable work.

Thematically, the book steers an uncertain course between regarding ‘futuristic fiction’ as a means of familiarising children with real-world problems and issues, and as a vehicle for the development of literary skills. In the former case, some use is made of the work of various futurists. But the author is clearly unsure of what she is attempting and platitudinous in her conclusions. Dated or minor sources are cited while many later and much more significant ones are not even referenced.[2] Apart from a brief mention of Polak, the literature relating to images of futures, crucial to what is attempted here, is simply passed over.

Wehmeyer’s view of the futures field is not only a caricature of that diverse collection of disciplines and interests, its unconscious elitism contradicts the thrust of her argument.[3] The essays that comprise the first two sections of the book fail to convince because they are not grounded in clearly-stated and defensible theories, and the author’s sheer unfamiliarity with the background literature is sadly evident.

As an exercise in literary criticism, the book is also weak. For example, one work is described as “a bit shy on plot but well written as to diction and sentence structures’ (p. 13). Another is indexed under ‘Surrealism’ because “the scenes are disjointed and the narrator is sometimes out of touch with himself, speaking and acting in ways he does not expect or understand” (p. 125). Occasionally there is a flash of insight – mention is made of a novel in which a very old newspaper photo football match is mistaken for a “battle with a bomb” (p. 35). Here is a hint the ironic comment and transforming potential of speculative literature, these deeper themes are never followed up. Instead, the author seems to be occupied with extrapolative concerns and the gaudy trivia of space fiction.

Similarly, the imputed literary quantities of the stories in question are given undue emphasis while little is said about their role as imaginative vehicles through which children can interpret their world, resolve their own private difficulties and gain access to deeper meanings.[4] One is at a loss to understand why relatively trivial stories like two of the McCaffrey “Dragon” novels are included, while Heinlein’s considerable juvenile output is ignored, as is Guin’s highly-praised Earthsea trilogy. Could it be that the latter to towards fantasy and only a few works have been included, just “so the students may compare them with futuristic novels”? (p. 59). The over elaborate content analysis of the lit. crit. technician has often queezed out the archetypes, values and sheer human significance in works by Le Guin, Lewis, Garner and others.[5]

The best – perhaps the only – use this book is the access it provides to little-known children’s novels through an index of themes and motifs. It will therefore be of some interest to teachers and others working in this field, assuming, that is, that copies of the novels be located. Overall, however, it is nowhere near the standards of, Delany’s Jewel-Hinged Jaw (Berkley 1977); Bretnor’s The Craft of Fiction (Barnes and Noble, 1977 Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (Penguin, 1978); and Williamson’s Teaching Science Fiction (Owlswick, 1980). Those who want a reliable guide to stories themes in this wider field should consult Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science (Granada, 1979). Apart from being real work of scholarship, it also costs less.

Published in Futures, Vol. 15 No. 3, 1983, pp. 234-6.


[1] In this view, stories complement and extend rationalistic and analytical methodologies in futures research. See R. Scholes, Structural Fabulation (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).

[2] For example, an early essay by Dennis Livingstone is cited, but his much more significant ‘Science Fiction as an Educational Tool (in Toffler, ed, Learning for Tomorrow, Vintage, 1974) is not mentioned.

[3] In her view futurism is a ‘new science’. As it ‘becomes more refined, decision makers will be able to examine the set of alternatives, select the descriptions that appear most desirable, and then guide governments and institutions into conditions which favour those futures…’ p. 23)

[4] For a masterly development of this theme, see the introduction to Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (Penguin, 1978).

[5] The contrast is evident in Le Guin’s short essay on the Earthsea trilogy, Dreams Must Explain Themselves (Algol Press, New York, 1975). That Weymeyer’s system of classification has become an end in itself is suggested by the futile exercise of listing numerous future centuries under separate headings. While there are exceptions (e.g., Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, 1930) future time most commonly functions as a distancing device of no literal significance.