Sarah Prineas in conversation with Jenn Reese
Prairie Lights (prairielights.com/live) -- Tuesday, April 27, 6 p.m.
How do we teach empathy?
Numerous studies have been done that attribute increases in empathy to reading fiction — any fiction. But (and this may just be my own personal biases speaking here) I’d argue that science fiction has the edge. In it, we’re faced with characters that are so, well, alien from ourselves that we have no choice but to find something more visceral to cling to, something to connect with beyond physiological similarities.
When we are first introduced to the narrator in Sarah Prineas’ new middle grades novel Trouble in the Stars (Philomel Books, out April 27), they are an amorphous blob of goo floating in space, introducing readers to the word “pseudopod.” But, as we are frequently, explicitly reminded throughout the story, whether a blob of goo, a sweet puppy begging for scraps or (as in most of the novel) a human boy named Trouble, the narrator is (a) entirely a person and (b) entirely themself.
Trouble is a shapeshifter — the only one in the universe, he tells us. His isolation is deepened by the fact that his blob-of-goo shape has limited mental capacity, and if he stays in that shape too long, there’s no enduring memory of what came before. Still, Trouble has an indelible sense of self and an almost religious understanding of personhood. To be a person is to think, feel and make choices: no more, no less.
It’s a definition that Trouble manages to cling to even during a crisis of self, shapeshifting into a creature that seems mindless and uncontrollable. Prineas’ language is precise and galvanized here; in early scenes the narration of the monstrous form — the Hunter — is in third person, eventually shifting again to first by the close.
At its core, this novel is the best of what sci-fi can be: playing with philosophy like a cat with a ball of yarn, threading it throughout but never letting it get in the way of a good adventure. Even though Trouble never stops thinking about who he is, at some point the action takes center stage, and the story morphs into a high-stakes space romp with plenty of derring-do and opportunities for heroism. No one is quite what they seem, and everyone gets the chance to shape-shift into the best version of themselves.
If you’ve seen and loved the newest Disney flick, Raya and the Last Dragon, many of the prevalent themes of Trouble in the Stars will resonate deeply with you. These go beyond the explorations of personal identity and into the territory of why being independent isn’t such a great goal, actually, and what it means to trust and rely on others. They’re heady concepts for tweens, especially since (if my experience was normal in any way) that’s exactly the opposite of what the world typically teaches you at that age.
The ability to find and cling to a chosen family, to forgive choices that have harmed you, to choose peace, to choose to trust seems so alien nowadays. But it’s exactly the lesson that even adults need to learn — something that, perhaps, we can stand to learn from the kids we know. It’s possible that I’m too optimistic(!), but it feels like this is a trend in humanity being reflected, not driven, by current art. But no matter what stage of development it’s at, it’s clear that Prineas has her finger on the pulse of it.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 293.