Vita Nostra Q1: Coming of age

1

I read this book as a story of Sasha transitioning from the predictable, controlled world of childhood to the complex and incomprehensible adult world. Is this a reading that others got? Is Sasha's transformation a believable one (in terms of how she changes, not necessarily the magic)? Do you think that the Institute's tasks (memorisation of pages of gibberish and visualising impossible geometry) are good analogies navigating adulthood? What about the idea that "adults" (the school academic staff) aren't human? Are children and adults really that different?

And why are coming-of-age stories so popular and common? Is this a feature of genre fiction, and something that keeps it from being better literature?

Comments

  • 1

    Good questions :-)

    I definitely got that this was a coming of age story, but I'm not entirely convinced that everything in the book is a metaphor for coming of age. Or rather, I'm not convinced by these metaphors - I can accept that these are meant to be metaphors. I think her own transformation is believable, but what I don't find convincing are the gibberish tasks as analogies for adulthood, or non-humans standing is as adults because they are so different. As a child, the adult world was not alien to me. And I think these tasks would have made even less sense to Sasha's mother than they do to Sasha - so it doesn't really ring true to me that the child's world (Sasha's world) is sensible, whereas the adult world is alien.

    To some degree, I can accept this as a student-professor metaphor, but I'm not sure I quite buy that, either.

    I think coming of age stories are popular and common because they are really a common denominator - relatable across all cultures on some level, and something we all experience. They fall in with love stories, breakups, and deaths in the cycle of life category. (Notably, births do not seem to feature as frequently - is that because none of us remember our birth?) Coming of Age stories are not confined to Genre literature (and hardly feature at all in some genres, like mysteries), and I'm not convinced they are more popular in fantasy and SF than elsewhere. BUT SF and Fantasy are popular genres for the young market, so it might be more the case that SF and Fantasy settings are a feature of coming of age stories, rather than coming-of-age being a feature of SF&F.

  • 0
    I think it's partly coming of age (and the postscript indicates that it's partly inspired by their daughter's experiences... presumably without the magic and all).

    But it's also partly about how any three year course feels, at any age, surely - year 1 is full of excitement and enthusiasm, year 2 is a grind when nothing makes sense and some people drop out, year 3 picks up again and there's a sense of triumph and fulfilment.

    Although the incomprehensible texts, sounds, and images are, to be sure, overdramatised, there is truth in it... I'm sure any of us can think of equivalent things in whatever subjects we've taken! Specifically in particle physics, I vividly remember a paper written by a French group of mathematicians which I came to realise I was never going to really understand, even though I thought they were onto something very cool. If you like, it remained in its state of being alphabet soup (though in this case heavily laced with topological insight) and never clarified into meaning.

    @Apocryphal said "Notably, births do not seem to feature as frequently - is that because none of us remember our birth?" - I agree (and tried in some small measure to redress the balance in Scenes from a Life)... my theory is that most authors want to focus on the romance, or maybe the sex, and try to avoid the consequences! Which perhaps reflects a great deal of real life as well :)
  • 1

    I agree there was a coming of age story, but it was one of a child who is unaware of their true nature by blood from the father, like Moses, or Jesus, or any lost king. In this case the speculation is that that they have a genetic predisposition to knowledge of what reality really is because they don't know their dad really. Same old reactionary stuff.

    As a coming of age it is a story not about transformation but discovery, and that discovery is that they are not actually human like the people actually around them. Just as every radicalised youth everywhere I suppose. It is also a story about class-identity being determined at genesis, and natives being mooks, or at best resources to be enjoyed.

    As such it provides no useful model for any actual child, nor for understanding coming of age. If you're not born to it you're never going to accomplish it. Thanotologic and antibiotic.

    It was fairly well translated, and has some interesting ideas, but I am bored of stories like this.

  • 1

    @NeilNjae said:
    And why are coming-of-age stories so popular and common? Is this a feature of genre fiction, and something that keeps it from being better literature?

    I think this is a really interesting question, but as I said in the other post I would rephrase the question as to why stories of coming of age being discovery of doom (Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Sasha) are popular rather than struggles for accomplishment. Don't have an answer, but when I taught music I discovered that many people were motivated to be musicians, while far fewer were motivated to struggle to make music. It's damn hard work, and there is no guarantee of success.

  • 1

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I agree there was a coming of age story, but it was one of a child who is unaware of their true nature by blood from the father, like Moses, or Jesus, or any lost king. In this case the speculation is that that they have a genetic predisposition to knowledge of what reality really is because they don't know their dad really. Same old reactionary stuff.

    As a coming of age it is a story not about transformation but discovery, and that discovery is that they are not actually human like the people actually around them. Just as every radicalised youth everywhere I suppose. It is also a story about class-identity being determined at genesis, and natives being mooks, or at best resources to be enjoyed.

    Thank you for this! This is a much clearer articulation of something I was stumbling towards. Yes, many of these "coming of age" stories are of the Chosen One, innately more powerful than their peers, coming into their true form. It's a reinforcement of the notion of bloodlines, breeding, and the innate superiority of aristocrats.

    Your idea of "not struggling" is something lamented in educational circles. Often, students want to have learnt, but don't want to go through the process of learning.

    Going back to SFF stories, I think this was interesting in the second recent Star Wars sequel (Last Jedi?) where it was revealed that the Force-powerful Rey had no ancestry of any note and was someone standing on her own talents.

  • 0

    I am finding this discussion very interesting but feel that I must have missed something. I don't remember it being explicitly made clear that the trainee adept (for want of a better word) had to have been the child of an adept, ie that it was explicitly nature rather than anything else. Certainly some people there had adept parents, but was there ever a claim that a random child was intrinsically unable to master the subject? Clearly children-who-were-born-to-adepts may have a prior advantage through having some grasp of the basics - just like as in real life children of academic parents grow up in a culture of books, learning, debate/conversation etc.

    I guess the nature/nurture issue is a constantly challenged question in education theory - can anyone become a great mathematician / musician / engineer / salesperson / company director, simply given adequate instruction, motivation, and practice, or are some people forever excluded because of some genetic factors? I don't recall Vita Nostra making a clear choice on this, but am reading this conversation as saying that there was such a thing, which I happened to miss.

  • 1
    I don’t think it’s about children and parents, but these children who are ‘words’ are clearly inherently words. That mysterious fellow at the beginning (whose name I forget) was searching for and recognizing these ‘words’ in society. Much like the search for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, I suppose.

    As for work, I thought it was clear the students had to put in the work, regardless of their birthright. All the more important since the value of the work was never explained to them. So they had to have ‘faith’ as well.
  • 1

    @RichardAbbott said:

    I guess the nature/nurture issue is a constantly challenged question in education theory - can anyone become a great mathematician / musician / engineer / salesperson / company director, simply given adequate instruction, motivation, and practice, or are some people forever excluded because of some genetic factors? I don't recall Vita Nostra making a clear choice on this, but am reading this conversation as saying that there was such a thing, which I happened to miss.

    I think it's the "inherent nature" of Sasha that @BarnerCobblewood is commenting on: Sasha has a distinct essence that marks her as being separate from others. She's different not because of anything she's done, but because of how she was born.

    Yes, in this book, there's a chance she could fail. She finds some of the tasks almost too difficult. And no-one initially knew what power she had; that only becomes clear during her education. But it's still a process of the discovery of her essence, not the development and honing of some ability.

  • 1
    edited October 2021

    @RichardAbbott said:
    I am finding this discussion very interesting but feel that I must have missed something. I don't remember it being explicitly made clear that the trainee adept (for want of a better word) had to have been the child of an adept, ie that it was explicitly nature rather than anything else. Certainly some people there had adept parents, but was there ever a claim that a random child was intrinsically unable to master the subject? Clearly children-who-were-born-to-adepts may have a prior advantage through having some grasp of the basics - just like as in real life children of academic parents grow up in a culture of books, learning, debate/conversation etc.

    I guess the nature/nurture issue is a constantly challenged question in education theory - can anyone become a great mathematician / musician / engineer / salesperson / company director, simply given adequate instruction, motivation, and practice, or are some people forever excluded because of some genetic factors? I don't recall Vita Nostra making a clear choice on this, but am reading this conversation as saying that there was such a thing, which I happened to miss.

    Point taken. I wasn't saying that the children were offspring of Words, but that our two main characters didn't know their dad growing up, and weren't impressed with him either. Step-children. And the nurture of that situation didn't get rid of their talent, but both were told they were (emotionally?) blocked by it. I thought @Apocryphal 's description of Sasha as a pupa was right on. Anyone see any connection with the treatment of children in the Chrysalids? Been so long since I read it that I really can't remember much, and when I read it I wouldn't have twigged to something that anyway.

  • 0

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    Point taken. I wasn't saying that the children were offspring of Words, but that our two main characters didn't know their dad growing up, and weren't impressed with him either. Step-children. And the nurture of that situation didn't get rid of their talent, but both were told they were (emotionally?) blocked by it. I thought @Apocryphal 's description of Sasha as a pupa was right on. Anyone see any connection with the treatment of children in the Chrysalids? Been so long since I read it that I really can't remember much, and when I read it I wouldn't have twigged to something that anyway.

    Yes, I see what you mean. In Vita Nostra, it also allows the teachers to act far more in loco parentis than I can ever remember anyone doing in my university days. Again, maybe this is cultural, and maybe Russian or Ukrainian lecturers do, but it seems unlikely to me.

Sign In or Register to comment.