Book Review: This Place Has No Atmosphere
Author: Paula Danziger
Length: 156 pages
Quote: “We’re going to move to the colony on the moon.”
Paula Danziger started out as a feminist writer. In her first novel for high school students, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, she put students and teachers on the same side of a civil liberties case. Based on current situations, she wasn’t able to give the characters the ending they wanted, but she let them make their own case with dignity. Later, in There’s a Bat in Bunk Five, she gave them a happy ending, with the student narrator having adventures, solving problems, beginning to appreciate her parents, and staying friendly with her favorite teacher.
Danziger wrote other novels that were genuinely teen-friendly. In The Pistachio Prescription, students get tired of the farce of reelecting the “popular clique”in every class election every year, so they get themselves elected instead. In The Divorce Express, the narrator isn’t able to put her parents’ marriage back together, but is able to organize her school friends to stop whining about the cafeteria food and organize a useful protest. In Remember Me to Harold Square and Thames Does Not Rhyme with James, the kids in an extended family explore first New York and then London as a group, with minimal adult supervision.
Nevertheless, a funny thing happened to Paula Danziger after the publication of The Divorce Express. Maybe she was thinking of an actual teenager; maybe she caved in to pressure from those who thought the kids were getting too strong and confident. Although the narrator of The Divorce Express had been presented as a sensible girl, a good role model for other children of divorce, in 1984 Danziger told the publishing world that she thought the narrator “had some problems” and would be sent for counselling in the sequel.
And from 1984 on, Danziger’s view of her characters, and apparently her readers, has changed. Her girl characters don’t solve problems for themselves any more. They “can’t” change the situations into which Danziger writes them. They have to change themselves, stop thinking about what they really want, and start pasting on a smile about whatever’s being done to them. Even, in one particularly gruesome example, the untimely death of an uncle who apparently didn’t want his family to think seriously about why the men in this family tend to die so young, but wanted them to keep dashing around having fun-fun-fun. Pasted-on smiles, nonstop wisecracks, and silly puns would be appropriate in a story about kids who didn’t win the class election, but they seem pathological in a story about death.
According to a longstanding stereotype in the publishing industry, boys are willing to read fiction only if it shows them a plausible way for the protagonist to succeed—and boys won’t buy characters who settle for “accomplishments” like “accepting something I can’t change,” either. Girls, however, will read stories about characters who don’t win or accomplish anything, or even get much sympathy for having tried, as long as the characters get some sort of “boy friend” at the end.
It’s possible that the shift in Danziger’s sales relative to actual readership reflects more of the truth. Before 1984, Danziger’s books made their way into libraries by popular demand; librarians didn’t necessarily offer them, but kids donated them and other kids wore them out. Since 1984, librarians have faithfully bought each of Danziger’s new books, but they’ve stayed on the shelves. Possibly this is because today’s girls would rather read about protagonists who solve their problems than about protagonists who just give up trying and paste on a vapid smile.
So, in 1986, Danziger transferred a common contemporary teenage problem (the protagonist doesn’t want her parents to move to a different town) into a hypothetical future (the other town is on the moon). It’s another one of all those underwhelming “girls’ stories” where the girl gives up trying, pastes on a smile, and gets a boy friend, because more than looks, money, charm, or compatibility, what all men really want is a good loser.
It’s possible that Danziger means well. We’ve heard of teenagers in the real world who convince themselves that a teenager has to die to give adults the message that uprooting their children is wrong, so they stage a suicide attempt, and sometimes their plans miscarry, like Romeo’s and Juliet’s, and they actually end up dead. But if the smiley-face non-answer of “Don’t try to change anything, just go with the flow and try to act happy” is the only alternative they’re given, the incidence of teen suicides as protests is unlikely to decrease.
If Danziger wanted to help the teenagers who threaten suicide while screaming that moving, or changing schools, or their parents living apart “will ruin my life,” she might have done better writing for adults, as Wendell Berry did, about the benefits stability and commitment offer to families.
Failing that, she might have tried realistic tips for suicide threateners, such as “Dispose of most of the pills in some other way before you swallow two pills and collapse on the floor; doctors will know you’re faking, but your parents will get plenty of expense and embarrassment.” Yes, giving teenagers a message like that would amount to enabling selfish, stupid behavior. So? Maybe somebody was thinking that a message like “Parents don’t need to worry about providing a home, roots, and an extended family for their children” does not amount to enabling selfish, stupid behavior?
Nevertheless, the premise of This Place Has No Atmosphere does have some redeeming social value. In Danziger’s vision of the mid-twenty-first century, the population of Earth has grown at the pace predicted in the early 1970s. There’s little real difference between life in a crowded, polluted city where everyone lives in high-rise buildings and nobody’s ever been able to walk in the woods, and life in a domed colony on the moon where everything takes place in buildings with artificial atmospheres and nobody can go outdoors. Although the colonists have been screened for youth and health, the colony’s doctor is needed to perform a “combined heart, lung, and liver transplant.” If readers can accept that the unlovable personalities of the characters in this story, the little kids’ sexual precocity, the teenagers’ meanness, the adults’ selfishness, the undeniably “dopey” remarks, and the physical collapse of what was evidently one of Earth’s healthiest people before age fifty, are likely effects of unchecked population growth, they just might be interested in learning about the choices they can make now to ensure that they’ll have fewer and better babies.
In this sense, the premise of This Place Has No Atmosphere qualifies as real science fiction. It’s still a pretty depressing read, but a lot of science fiction is depressing—dystopian—and science fiction fans believe that dystopian science fiction can serve as a valuable warning for the real world. If you find dystopian science fiction helpful, This Place Has No Atmosphere is for you.
This ought to be a Fair Trade Book. Paula Danziger died too young. To buy it here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package, which means you could get eight copies at once for a total of $45, to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. If you can get a better deal elsewhere, please scroll back and buy a Fair Trade Book here.