Critical Context

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Although Robert C. O’Brien’s three novels for young readers are all suspicious of science and of power imbalances, they are startlingly different in conception. The Silver Crown (1968), which is set in the present but looks backward to the Dark Ages, meditates on technology’s dangerous and “magical” ability to force even good people to conform to its destructive demands; the more lighthearted Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) uses talking animals to ask its audience to ponder whether society should properly be parasitic or symbiotic.

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Z for Zachariah has the simplest plot of the three works but arguably demands the greatest amount of thought from readers because of its heightened recognition of moral ambiguity—as Ann recognizes, she and Loomis have much in common. The Silver Crown derives its excitement from the dramatic struggle between good and evil, suggesting that evil is artificial and eradicable. Z for Zachariah is both less melodramatic and less naïve. In its use of archetype and the connection that it makes between plot and underlying message, this novel is allied to such works of science fiction for young adults as Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars (1970), another artistically successful narrative that links the maturing process of an individual with that of a culture. Historically, juvenile science fiction has often been condemned as pulp, criticized for using cardboard characters and preferring action to thought. Novels such as O’Brien’s are reminders that these complaints are sometimes unjust.

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