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Stumbling through the Arena: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Movie

Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while probably realize that I’m a big fan of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I frequently use it as an example, and have written up some more in-depth discussions of the books, as well. And having recently seen two very different yet still compelling film adaptations (see my write-up here), I was looking forward to Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games. Here’s what I thought:

NOTE: What follows doesn’t really have any spoilers as to what happens, but it does discuss particular scenes that worked or didn’t work in the movie itself. So be warned.

Pacing is the Heart of the Hunger Games

In the book, Collins nails a slew of narrative techniques: her characters are compelling, the world she describes is vivid, and the story itself is fast-paced. There are plenty of iconic moments in the book, scenes and passages that leave the reader crying, terrified, or cheering. One can’t help but invest in the characters. But if the characters are the lifeblood of The Hunger Games, then it is Collins’ deft management of the story’s pace that keeps that blood pumping.

Regardless of the medium, uniform pacing kills narrative momentum. Yes, the audience wants the story to move forward. But for that movement to be emotionally satisfying, it needs to be modulated. We need moments where we’re on the edge of our seats, our hearts hammering. And we need moments when the action slows, where we can take a moment to breathe, and to savor deeper emotional content. Despite the action at the heart of Collins’ story, she still manages to include enough introspective moments to imbue her characters with an emotional progression, which in turn gives their actions and choices emotional meaning for the audience. Stories whose pace is unmodulated, where the rate at which we are asked to invest in the characters is unchanged, are exhausting.

Unfortunately, Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games evidences a clear lack of analysis into why the original book worked so well. While it gets the window-dressing right, it stumbles on the most important points.

The Hunger Games According to Gary Ross

A story is more than a collection of scenes. Each moment serves a particular purpose, be it expository, emotional, inertial, etc. Often, a moment works to fulfill multiple purposes simultaneously. When I talk about the unity of a story, I mean having each moment and each level of the story working in concert towards a shared purpose. Collins’ books evidence great and powerful unity throughout. Key inflection points are able to escalate our emotional investment through their drama, which in turn builds upon the foundations laid through preceding moments.

On the face of it, Gary Ross’ adaptation can be called faithful: most of the key moments from the book are there (FWIW, io9’s got a good analysis of what’s missing), from the reaping, Katniss’ heartfelt goodbyes, the arrival in the Capitol, the tribute parade, the interviews, the training sequences, etc. So yes, on the superficial level of “what happens” the movie remains reasonably faithful to the book.

However, though every scene contributes to a story’s overall emotional impact, different scenes demand, need, and produce varying degrees of emotional investment. One of the differences between good storytelling and bad lies in knowing which scenes should evoke stronger and weaker emotions. In her prose, Collins gets this right. In his movie, Gary Ross does not.

Shortly before the movie’s premiere, I came across an answer Gary Ross gave to a question about his favorite scene in the movie. It was the kind of standard question for which every director has some sort of diplomatic throw-away response, perfectly geared to not offend any fan. Ross’ answer was that for him, every scene was just as important as every other, and thus he didn’t have a favorite. At first blush, I thought this was just a diplomatic non-answer. But after seeing the movie, I realized that this value judgment carries through Ross’ directorial vision.

In his adaptation, Ross imbues each and every scene with the exact same level of emotional intensity. The actors deliver solid performances (though in some scenes I found Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss a touch wooden), but I had no sense of which moments in the story were supposed to be more or less dramatic/important than any other. In most movies, a scene’s cinematography, editing, music, and the transitions between its preceding and following scenes give some indication of its relative importance. Not so in Ross’ The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ appearance in the Tribute Parade is apparently just as important as her stroll through the woods at the movie’s opening.

Many reviewers have called the movie exhausting – and they’re right. With no variability in its pace, or with the audience’s emotional investment, its uniformity turns it into a slog. Whether the audience’s emotions run high or low doesn’t matter: what matters is that because they are relatively unchanging, the entire experience is lessened.

Tent-pole Moments that Fall Flat

In reading the book, there were several key moments that (for me) rang with resonant power. These are the scenes that – several years after first reading the book – have stayed with me. They are, in order of their occurrence:

  1. The Reaping, where Katniss volunteers on her sister’s behalf,
  2. The Tribute Parade, where Katniss’ dress lights on fire,
  3. The Interviews (Katniss and Peeta’s) where they begin their conscious manipulation of the games’ audience,
  4. The Training Evaluation, where Katniss’ demonstrates her skills, and;
  5. The Games themselves (which to avoid spoilers I won’t get into).

Each of these scenes represents an inflection point in the story, both for the characters and for all events that follow. They are the tent-poles on which the story hangs. One would think, therefore, that these scenes would demand more of the director’s attention. But in the film itself, almost all of these points fall flat. Let me consider each in turn:

The Reaping The book’s first-person, present-tense narration rapidly invests us in Katniss’ perspective of the events. We perceive the Reaping, and her sister, and her sister’s selection, through her eyes. This gives the moment poignancy, relevance, and immediacy. The movie, however, is not a first-person experience. And by the time the Reaping takes place, we lack the world-building background or emotional investment in the characters to really care about Prim’s selection, or to understand the implications of Katniss’ volunteering.
The Tribute Parade Katniss is “the girl on fire” and it is at this moment in the story that she receives that sobriquet, and when she realizes that she can affect the games’ audience. It is a turning point for the character, both in terms of how she perceives herself and how we as the audience are meant to perceive her. When her and Peeta’s costumes light on fire, it is a visual dramatization of their characters, which in the book unifies in that one moment the book’s themes, the characters’ journeys, and the imagery in the prose. But on film, this (very brief) moment rings hollow because of terrible costume design and even worse CG (seriously, I’ve seen animated GIFs with better rendered flame animations).
The Interviews The interviews with Caesar Flickerman further drive home the shift in both Katniss and Peeta’s awareness of themselves. They are the denouement to the Tribute Parade, deepening our understanding of the characters’ changes. As such, they are central to the progression of each character, to their relationships with Haymitch, and to their relationships with each other. They also fundamentally drive our awareness of each character, respectively. Here, too, Collins’ relies on the symmetrical visual imagery of Katniss as the “girl on fire”, where in one scene her dress lights on fire…and then becomes a completely different dress. As a symbol, this works on every level: it ties into the series’ over-arching themes of revolution and dramatizes the character’s growth…and again, the CG and direction fall flat on film: the fact that the dress doesn’t actually change ruins the effect. The scene itself is only saved by the excellent acting of Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mallark).
The Training Evaluation The training evaluation gives us further insight into Katniss’ character, and into the lengths to which she is willing to go. It is a visual, dramatic moment in the storytelling that focuses entirely on Katniss’, her relationship with Haymitch and the unspoken relationship with the gamesmaster Seneca Crane. In the movie, it gets about as much focus as Peeta giving Katniss burnt bread.Both are necessary, but I would argue that the training evaluation raises the stakes for the character and thus deserves more focus (screen time, directorial consideration).

I won’t comment on the Games themselves, since doing so would include far too many spoilers to be helpful. But the uniformity of tension and emotional engagement is almost perfectly maintained throughout. There are, in fact, only two moments which deviate from this uniformity – and both make for some of the best acting in the entire movie.

Overall Assessment of The Hunger Games (movie)?

Overall, the movie was “okay”. As far as adaptations go, it wasn’t anywhere near as well directed as Scorsese’s Hugo (see my earlier post), yet it was infinitely better than Chris Wietz’s adaptation of The Golden Compass.

The Hunger Games’ weaknesses are not inherent to the story, nor as far as I can tell do they stem from the screenplay, and certainly not from the actors’ performances. They are – in each case – a consequence of the director’s understanding of narrative. As such, they were all avoidable.

Despite these weaknesses, fans of the book will enjoy the movie…but they (like me) will be relying on their experiences of the book to support their experience of the film. People who come to the story fresh, without having read the book, will likely respond with a “meh”. The book will surely be a fan favorite for years to come, but I suspect this movie adaptation will be forgotten relatively quickly.

With three more movies to come (because apparently every third book in a trilogy needs to be two movies, e.g. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, etc.), I hope that Lionsgate either gets a new director who understands pacing, or that Gary Ross learns something about storytelling. Considering the amount of money the first movie made opening weekend, I think that they could afford to do either.

Explorations of Religion in Science Fiction…but what about Fantasy?

In the real world, organized religion is messy. It has inspired wars and peace treaties, marriages and shunnings, art and book burnings. It is incredibly varied, both between areas where different organized religions predominate and within each area as well. There is no aspect of human history – anywhere on the planet – where organized religion has not influenced and been influenced. It is only natural that our species’ fascination with the divine and its concomitant expression in the organized structures of society would figure prominently in our fiction. And when we look at speculative fiction, some of the greatest works explicitly deal with it (A Case of Conscience, The Sparrow, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.) and yet I find that they are almost always science fictional, as opposed to fantasy. Which leads me to wonder why?

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford and David Langford point out that science fiction’s roots lie in sixteenth and seventeenth century organized religion. And while fewer SF titles today deal explicitly with religion, it remains a theme that we return to time and time again. Here’s a brief overview of the ways in which science fiction explores religion:

Faith versus Reason One of religion’s functions is to provide an explanation for the reality we live in, and when scientific discovery expands the boundaries of that reality, organized religions have to either incorporate it into their faith or reject it. Naturally, science fiction – which pushes the boundaries of science – can mine this vein for rich conflict.

Syncretic Science Fiction By couching the descriptions and events of a story in scientific terms, some authors are able to construct a metaphor which achieves a syncretic unity between religion/faith and science.

Time Traveler vs Facts of Faith By taking certain articles of faith at face value, science fiction authors can explore the events and implications of the underlying tenets of (a usually Christian) faith.

Religion as Sociological Construct The role that religion – and in particular, organized religion – plays within society is another dimension that science fiction often explores.

The Identity of God An exploration of the borders between humanity and God, as well as an exploration of the more metaphysical/spiritual aspects of faith.

But is a similar table even possible for fantasy? I wracked my brain to come up with one, and simply couldn’t do it. Instead, when I trolled through my library looking for interesting secondary-world fantasies that explore religion, I almost always found:

  • A thinly-disguised version of the late medieval or early Renaissance Catholic Church.
  • A Corrupt Church riven by internal power struggles more tied to politics than faith.
  • A Church which usually bans the practice of magic, and hunts and kills magic practitioners.
  • A Church which dominates militarily and sociologically its sphere of influence…with relatively little diversity in its practitioners or its practice.
  • A Church which is opposed by some (usually implicitly pagan or animistic) external (read: savage) religion.

In the cases of some books, Christian religious scripture is literally appropriated to serve the purposes of the story. And while I don’t have a problem with this per se, the sheer frequency with which I see it makes me scratch my head. Shouldn’t secondary world fantasy be able to support and explore the more complex dimensions of religion? Must it always boil down to the (I think false) dichotomy of dogma versus magic?

To some extent, science fiction has an easier time of it because it can assume some reader familiarity with most major religions. As a result, there is less risk of bogging the story down with the world-building that a realistically complicated imagined religion demands. Is this weight of world-building the only reason why religion is so superficially addressed through fantasy? Or have I just missed the really interesting fantasy books that explore religion the way science fiction does?

The only examples that I can think of that do a good job with it are Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion, David Eddings’ Belgariad series (though this is somewhat debatable), Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Surely there are others? Am I just missing them?

Characters’ Age: Musings on How it Affects Writing

In the western world, we live in a culture that idolizes youth, and I suppose that’s understandable. We naturally gravitate towards characters who are young, healthy, vibrant, powerful, and exciting. And yet, some of my favorite characters in fiction (e.g. M. John Harrison’s teugis-Cromis, Ian McDonald’s Georgios Ferentinou, or John Scalzi’s John Perry) are the exact opposite: they’re old, often sickly, damaged, and (superficially) weak. And yet despite their age and infirmity, they become memorable and compelling characters. (since a book I’m currently shopping to agents has an eighty-five year old protagonist, it’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently)

The protagonist’s age is central to every dimension of their story. There is nothing — literally, nothing — that their age does not affect. Whether we’re writing realistic fiction, space opera, or secondary world fantasy, our protagonist’s age will affect the story’s broad plot, the techniques through which we build our world, the style of dialog, and even the specific word choices we make in our narrative.

Age and Plausibility

Let’s first look at age’s interaction with our protagonist’s background. Would you trust your brain to a fourteen year old neurosurgeon? Or would you get into a starship captained by a ten year old? Probably not. At least, not without some hefty assurances that you’re not about to commit suicide. When we consider the role our character plays in their society, we need to run a basic plausibility check. If the character’s age and role stretches that plausibility, then we need to ensure that we provide adequate justification for that divergence.

One of the better examples of this I’ve seen takes place in Philip Reeve’s madcap middle-grade space adventure, Larklight. There, we meet a fifteen year old space pirate captain named Jack Havock. Of course, Larklight is aimed at children…which is good, ’cause there are few readers who call out plausibility BS faster than a ten year old. And the idea that a fifteen year old might find himself a space pirate — and a space pirate captain, no less — obviously stretches credulity. But Reeve makes it plausible both through how he depicts Jack Havock’s actions (while still a child, in a crunch he behaves very responsibly) and through the back story he shows the reader.

A counter-example, where I felt a character’s age worked less well, was Ian McDonald’s recent YA debut Planesrunner where McDonald’s teenage protagonist is shown to be preternaturally skilled at just about everything he puts his mind to. McDonald is too experienced a writer to ask us to make the leap in plausibility unaided: he does provide explanations that justify Everett Singh’s abilities. I might have easily believed Everett to be a savant quantum physicist. Or a naturally gifted soccer player. Or a superb chef. But all three? That suggests plot-oriented convenience, and strains plausibility. Because each of those skills takes time to master…time that a teenager simply hasn’t had yet.

The same plausibility gap works in the opposite direction. In my aforementioned WIP, my protagonist is an eighty-five year old named Johann von Kempelen (yeah, the guy who invented the Mechanical Turk…’cause who else would you want as a clockwork emperor’s physician?). In this case, making him a young man would have stretched credulity on two fronts: first, his job is to be the personal engineer to the emperor. He is responsible for keeping the emperor ticking. That’s not a job you get at a young age, regardless of how fantastical the world is or how talented the engineer. Second, the real-life von Kempelen actually lived in the 18th century. But my alternate history is set in the 19th century. So to make that alternate history less-credibility-stretching, I decided to keep him an old man (even though, in reality, by 1885 he was long dead). Keeping von Kempelen old prevented a plausibility gap, and simultaneously better allowed me to explore the philosophical themes of the book.

In Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (which I discussed here), his protagonist is also an old man, in this case an aging ghul-hunter. On a superficial, sword-and-sorcery action-oriented level, Ahmed did not need Doctor Adoulla Makhslood to be an old man. He could have made him an inexperienced young ghul-hunter, eager to prove himself. Or he could have had him a ghul-hunter in his prime. Any of these choices would have been equally plausible given the overall shape of his story. But they would have completely changed the themes explored, the story’s emotional trajectory, and the technical way in which the story was told.

Age, Actions, and Reactions

Have you ever seen old people fight? I mean, physically? They move differently from the ways teenagers do. There are many reasons for that, some physiological, some psychological, but the bottom line is that a badass move we might pull off at twenty is not something we’re likely to succeed at when we’re sixty. As a result, the character’s age completely changes the way action sequences are depicted. Movement slows and becomes more deliberate, reaction times increase. The characters’ movements in an action sequence, the choices they make, the way they react to danger, all of those will be different based upon their age and whatever infirmities might come with it.

The same holds true for a character’s emotional reactions to events. I react to events completely differently today than I did at the age of sixteen (thank god). That’s one of the realities of aging. And it is one that we need to bear in mind when constructing our characters.

Nnedi Okorafor handles this brilliantly in Who Fears Death? (which I wrote about here). Her heroine, Onyesonwu, is relatively young. And she acts her age, with all of the high-strung emotion that entails. Reading the book, her choices made me gnash my teeth in frustration…but that didn’t mean they were “wrong” for the character: they were exactly the choices Onyesonwu would make. If she were fifteen years older, she would likely have taken a completely different path. But the character worked because her choices – however frustrating they might have been – were realistic given her emotional makeup and maturity.

Equally well-done in this regards is Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems. If you haven’t seen it, check it out: whether you have kids or not (I don’t), you will find it absolutely charming. The picture book centers around a child who loses her favorite stuffed animal (the titular Knuffle Bunny). What makes this book stand out is that it focuses just as much on the father’s reaction as on the child’s, and Willems manages to grasp both the child’s frustration and fear, and her father’s panic and guilt (so well that we feel the story must be autobiographical). Both reactions are determined by the characters’ ages…and both are rendered in text and illustration perfectly.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Age and Its Relationship to Prose and Themes

There’s a school of thought that says a well-rendered character needs to grow and change over the course of a book. And this is true. But the trajectory of that growth differs based on the character’s age. All characters, regardless of their age, have some sort of back story that informs everything about the character, their perceptions, their values, their opinions, and their voice. However, when writing older characters there needs to be more of that back story, with all of the ups and downs that a full life demands.

The reader doesn’t need to see it, unless it somehow directly affects the events of the story. But we as writers need to know it, because the choices our characters made yesterday affect the choices they’ll make today. For example, if we’re writing first person or close third person, characters are going to notice and react to different smells, colors, textures, tastes based upon their previous experiences. Does the character notice a particular scent? Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, followed closely by taste. How a character reacts to it (and what else a character notices) should be informed by their earlier experiences.

So should the choices they make. A more mature character is going to grow and change differently from how a teenager would. That’s not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s just that a more mature character will already have grown and learned many of life’s lessons. This dimension of character growth is, I think, more difficult for more mature characters. For the character’s emotional arc, I think the trick is to identify what lessons they failed to learn before the events of the story.

Saladin Ahmed does an excellent job of this in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Adoulla’s emotional journey centers around his failed relationship with a mature, strong-willed woman. He “failed” to learn a lesson about priorities in his younger days (or made choices that he has since come to regret), and the emotional arc of the story focuses on his realization of this fact and his rectification of that mistake. This puts into conflict two “goods” against each other: his duty as a ghul-hunter, and his love for Miri. This makes for a poignant emotional conflict. And a believable one for a character of his age.

Age Handled Well

I’ve mentioned a couple of books where I think characters’ ages are handled particularly well. But there are others which I also wanted to give shout outs to. I’ve mentioned Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: if Scrooge wasn’t an old man, the book would have no meaning. Hugo’s Les Miserables also works precisely because of its interplay between the emotional arcs of youth (Marius, Cosette, Eponine, Enjolras) and age (Valjean, Javert, the Thenardiers). And last but not least, John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big also only works because of the characters’ ages: the growth and evolution of Smoky Barnable and the Drinkwater clan only works because of their (sometimes purposefully indeterminate) ages.

What are some other examples that you think handle characters of different (or unusual) ages well?

An Unscheduled Rant: The Death of Science Fiction and Unrepentant Ignorance of YA SF

While I do tend to blather on about my thoughts about speculative fiction, I don’t normally post off my weekly schedule or post rants. In what is perhaps a bit of a departure from my norm, today I’m going to do both. What set off this rant is a couple of thought-provoking posts, the first from Jason Sanford over at SF Signal and the second a thoughtful response over at Nerd Redefined.

Sanford’s post started the simmer of my rant. He poses a good, thoughtful question: why are there so few readers of science fiction while so many consumers of science fiction in other media? That is an interesting question, relevant to storytelling across all media, and to our society’s aspirations and future. And – perhaps unsurprisingly – the answers suggested by both Sanford’s post and the comments in response lay the blame squarely at the feet of YA science fiction:

However, in today’s marketplace there are relatively few current SF novels aimed at young readers (with the exception of dystopian novels, like The Ember series by Jeanne Duprau and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and movie tie-in novels related to Star Wars and Star Trek).

This is one of those “facts” that I see SF fandom trot out time and time again. And this fact is wrong. Let me be clear: it is factually incorrect. It evidences a basic ignorance of what is being produced within the YA community, which – BTW – is actually a vibrant community often completely separate and unaware of the SF fandom/writer community. For those who want evidence, at the end of this post I’ve got a brief list of some YA SF novels published in the last couple of years.

I also took the time to go through the last seven e-mails I’ve received from Publisher’s Marketplace listing deals that were announced in the past week. Bear in mind that not all deals are announced in Publishers Marketplace, and that a one week sample isn’t statistically sound (if I wanted to be methodologically reliable I’d need to go through at least one or – better yet – two years worth of deal announcements). But even this cursory glance at titles/deals announced in the US and the UK is telling. Here’s how the numbers break out:

DATE YA SF YA Fantasy Middle-grade SF Middle-grade Fantasy
March 8, 2012 3 1
March 7, 2012 1
March 6, 2012 1
March 4, 2012 2 5
March 1, 2012 1 1 1 1
February 29, 2012
February 28, 2012 2 1
TOTAL: 9 6 1 4
as % of Non-adult SF/F 45% 30% 5% 20%
as % of Age Group 60% 40% 20% 80%

Now, there are a lot of methodological caveats to be made here, not least:

  • I am doing a categorization based on the little snippet of information included with the deal announcements.
  • My categorization of titles is neither anonymized nor corroborated to exclude personal bias.
  • I selected the last seven e-mails from PM that I had in my inbox. Thus the time period is not random, nor is it broad enough to draw far reaching conclusions.

But these methodological caveats, coupled with the list of titles below, should at the least be suggestive that perhaps there is more YA/MG science fiction being published than the traditional SF community is cognizant of.

Now, I’m not a YA or MG (middle-grade) author. Not writing for those age groups, I don’t have a horse in that race. But because The Professor edits YA/MG for a living, I do tend to read a lot of it. And hear about a lot more than I read. And so when I’m confronted with authoritative statements being made that evidence little awareness of the facts, it tends to get me riled.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of Jason Sanford’s post. His post was thoughtful, respectful, and intelligently constructed. Instead, what I wish to indict is the fact that in almost every discussion of YA SF I have come across – whether at cons or online – those invited to the table are almost always SF authors with little exposure to the contemporary world of YA literature. Their arguments all too often are based upon ignorant assumptions.

Let me bust out some – potentially heretical – knowledge here:

Heinlein juveniles are utterly and completely irrelevant in today’s YA marketplace.

I know, I know. We all grew up reading them. And we all love them. But readers below the age of twenty thirty who’ve ever heard of them are few and far between. Tomorrow’s science fiction readers are not interested in whiz bang technology, or in “accessible” science fiction. They want good storytelling, tight prose, and most importantly, engaging characterization. In casual conversations with some of The Professor’s colleagues (who all edit YA and MG for a living, I should add) I once asked if they’d ever heard of Heinlein’s juveniles. The only one who had (and who groaned at my question) was The Professor. Now, some of us might say “Aha!” and point to that as the problem. But it isn’t. Because these same editors publish tons of science fiction. They just don’t call it that: they call it YA or middle-grade.

And this is the problem, which Nerd Redefined touched on. The traditional SF community and the YA community are completely and utterly ignorant of each others’ existence. It’s like a middle school dance. In one corner, we’ve got the SF folks who are all lamenting the fact that there’s no science fiction being written for kids. And across the gym we’ve got the YA writers who are happily writing science fiction while blissfully wondering who’s whinging in the other corner.

Here’s how I see it: today’s young audience is devouring speculative fiction. Whether it’s science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, they’re eating it up in video games, in movies, in sequential art, and — yes — in books, too. But for today’s audience, the borders between genre have become porous. A teenager doesn’t give a damn whether something is science fiction or fantasy. They want a good story, and they go to their store’s YA section to find it, which itself you’ll note is rarely subdivided into “YA SF” and “YA Fantasy”. We have a vibrant, active community of YA authors who are writing SF for young readers…only they think of themselves as YA writers first and SF writers second (if at all).

SF fandom likes to make sweeping (lamenting or condemning) statements about YA science fiction: there’s very little of it, it doesn’t sell, it’s all dystopian. These kinds of generalizations remind me of the same ignorant statements often made about SF: scantily-clad greens skinned women, nothing more than “escapist” fantasy, etc. I suggest that our compatriots writing for YA audiences deserve just as much respect as those of us toiling in the SF mines.

If we’re going to make broad generalizations, I’d like to see the hard data backing those claims up. There’s precious little data that I’ve seen on YA SF publishing, or on YA SF sales. And as for the “all dystopian” brush-off, even a cursory familiarity with the YA marketplace would suggest that the “dystopian trend” is just that: a momentary trend in a genre where trend cycles are three to four times faster than in adult genres. I think these are fascinating issues to discuss, and I’m delighted whenever anyone wants to discuss them, but they require us to converse based upon a familiarity with both the YA world and the SF world.

I suggest that anybody who in 2012 suggests that SF readership is declining because there’s no equivalent for Heinlein juveniles is stuck in the 1950’s. Consider that Heinlein’s juveniles were published from 1947 – 1958. During that same time period, young adults were consuming Leave It to Beaver, Captain Video and his Video Rangers, Dragnet, The Adventures of Superman, Gunsmoke and a host of other television programs which by the standards of today’s YA media are “quaint” at best. Do we really expect kids to like the same kind of books? Try getting a fourteen year old to sit through an episode of Gunsmoke. While I still enjoy Heinlein’s juveniles, and while I think a YA reader can, they are simply no longer relevant.

Which is why I think the SF community’s concern with “accessibility” is missing the mark. First, because there is a lot of SF being published for kids today (it’s just not on the radar of most adult SF fans). And second, because it prescribes a solution (the Heinlein juvenile equivalent!) to a non-problem (no SF for kids!).

If we want kids and teenagers to read science fiction, we need to put the story and characters first and the science second. Because what kids care about today is the story, and not the science. Science is transparent to kids: they live in a world where digital information surrounds them. They can play an immersive three-dimensional multi-actor game before they ever go to school. The hard science that it takes to make these playthings work is uninteresting: it is taken for granted, just as is the air we breathe. But the characters and stories that unfold in that reality, that’s a different matter.

So here’s my appeal to science fiction fandom: accept the fact that Heinlein juveniles are a product of the 1950’s, and consign them to the nostalgia for yesterday. Before you start making authoritative statements on “the state of YA science fiction”, at least take the time to familiarize yourself with what’s happening in that arena. Take a stroll through your local bookstore’s YA section. Hold your nose at some of the cover art: remember, unless you’re a hormone-crazed teen, odds are you’re not its target audience. Crack some of the spines and read some of what you find. Not all of it will be good; in fact, some will be pretty lousy. But I guarantee you that you will be surprised at what you find.

To help, here’s a quick list of YA and MG science fiction books. These are the ones I was able to spot just taking a quick spin around our home library: I’m sure there are tons more out there. Pick ’em up, there’s good reading there…even if it isn’t much like a Heinlein juvenile. And if anyone wants to chime in with their thoughts or with other suggestions, please do so!


  • For books in a series, I’m only listing the first book.
  • I’m going by the publishers’ recommended ages to categorize books as MG/YA.
  • I haven’t read all of these books, and so can’t really “recommend” every one of them. But I have read many of them.

Middle Grade: aged 8 – 12 Young Adult: aged 12 – 18

Reflections on the Workshop Experience: Viable Paradise

So as I’ve mentioned before, this past October I attended the Viable Paradise writing workshop. The basic facts are pretty simple: it’s a week-long writing workshop for science fiction and fantasy taught by eight professional writers and editors. And the experience itself was amazing. While I’d been meaning to write a blog post about the experience, it wasn’t until some recent online discussions with other writers got my butt in gear, and thus here are my thoughts on my experiences at VP (note that Viable Paradise is so far the only workshop experience I have had, and so these thoughts may or may not apply to other workshops like Clarion or Odyssey).

Choosing to Attend a Workshop

Everybody’s got their own reasons for attending a workshop, most of which are set up like a combination of critique group and summer camp (only the “fun activities” involve critiques, lectures, and writing). I can’t speak to my classmates’ goals, but in my case I applied to VP hoping for a number of things:

Craft-oriented Critique Writing – especially in the novel-form – is a lonely activity, and living in suburban NJ I haven’t had any luck finding a professional-grade critique group. I was seeking new insights into the way I wrote, to identify and address weaknesses, and to get it through rigorous and detailed criticism of my work.
Revision Techniques When I applied to VP, I knew that I could write something novel length. But to then revise it so that it would be ready to ship out, that’s a whole ‘nother story. I wanted to develop the revision techniques I’d need to polish my prose enough to get published.
Community While there are lots of people out there who want to write, in the offline world I’ve had little luck finding those as serious about the craft, and as committed to writing as I am. I was hoping to get plugged into a shared sense of community that goes beyond the virtual.
Validation And yeah, it’s a guilty secret, but I wanted someone who didn’t have an emotional stake – either through love, family, or friendship – to give me their honest assessment of my writing. I hoped for some indication that my writing is good (while simultaneously learning where it could improve).

So with these hopes in mind, I had to figure out which workshop to apply to, get in, and then go.

Picking Between Viable Paradise, Clarion, and Odyssey

In the science fiction and fantasy genre, there are three workshops that regularly come up in discussions. In order of their (seeming) size/stature in the field, they are Clarion, Odyssey, and Viable Paradise. There are major differences between these workshops, however, and by considering how they differed I was able to pick which one I wanted to attend.

Note, that this comparison is based on what I (a prospective workshop student) was able to find out about these workshops online. I haven’t attended either Clarion or Odyssey, so please forgive me if I got anything wrong!

Clarion Odyssey Viable Paradise
Time of Year Summer Summer Fall
Duration Six weeks Six weeks One week
Focus Short stories Short stories (mostly) Novels or Short Stories
Instructors (total) Six One (with guest lecturers) Eight (though we got lucky and had a 9th “guest star”)
Instructors at One Time 1 – 2 1 – 2 Eight (though we got lucky and had a 9th “guest star”)

  • Milford-style Critique
  • Lectures
  • One-on-one Critique
  • Writing Exercises

  • Milford-style Critique
  • Lectures
  • One-on-one Critique
  • Writing Exercises

  • Milford-style Critique
  • Lectures
  • One-on-one Critique
  • Writing Exercises

Application Fee $50 $35 $25
Tuition $4,957 $1,920 $1,100
Housing Cost (included in tuition) $790 – 1,580 $465 – 1,050 (plus tax)

With my more-than full-time job, taking six weeks off in the middle of the year was just not going to happen. And so that simple fact automatically disqualified both Clarion and Odyssey. Putting this underlying fact aside, Viable Paradise still appealed to me more out of the gate: with a reputation of focusing more on novels than short stories, VP aligned more with the issues I was wrestling with in my own writing. And I imagined that having eight instructors on-location for the entirety of the workshop would make it more intense and stimulating.

The Viable Paradise Community

After applying to VP (and getting accepted) I was shocked by the degree to which a VP community exists in the science fiction and fantasy genre. Sure, there’s an e-mail list on which instructors and alums from various years are pretty active. But when in July I went to Readercon, I met a whole bunch of awesome VP alums who were able to offer lots of insight into what the experience would be like. This community, and the sense of shared-experience and support were awesome.

When I got to Martha’s Vineyard, getting to know my classmates was equally awesome. While I can’t speak for everyone else, I was really nervous about meeting everyone. Some of them had pro sales to their names, others had agents already, and there I was with neither. I was nervous that I’d be the amateur among a group of budding professionals. I was a little nervous of the exact opposite, too: anyone serious about writing has met people who have lots of desire to write, but less will to do so. In hindsight, both fears were absolutely ridiculous.

My class at VP was a diverse group of folks, at all ages, all levels of experience, and all backgrounds. We had homemakers, and scientists, and business folk, and lawyers, and this diversity of background really enriched our discussions. Regardless of whether we’d sold anything or not, we all shared a passion for writing, our love of the genre, and our desire to improve. And more than anything else, finding my tribe was one of the greatest aspects of my Viable Paradise experience, and with any luck it will be the most lasting. It is probably telling that six months on, my VP class remains in touch and even has a sort of loosely-structured, self-organized online critique group type thing going on. Which is unbelievably cool.

Structuring the Learning

Like, I think, all of the leading workshops VP combines elements of Milford-style critique with lectures. Each day features group critiques, scheduled one-on-one critiques with instructors, lectures, general discussions, and unscheduled one-on-one critiques with instructors. The day literally starts around dawn, and doesn’t end until quite late in the evening. VP’s focus seems to be very much on face-time and interaction with classmates and instructors, which was exactly what I wanted.

Groups for group critique are structured around writers who wrestle with similar issues, or who the instructors think can bring particular insight to their other group members. I found the composition of these groups (put together based on our application materials) to be a masterful piece of psychology and craft deconstruction. The groups I was in (can’t speak to those I wasn’t) worked really well, and everybody had something different to say about the writing. Diverse viewpoints, all coalescing into a stronger whole.

The lectures and group discussions were another interesting dimension. Each day, a different instructor offered a lecture or moderated the group discussion (sometimes themed, sometimes not). But what is perhaps unique about Viable Paradise is that during these lectures and group discussions all (or almost all) of the instructors were present. This effectively turned the lectures/group discussions into a highly-interactive conversation, moderated by a group of super-experienced professionals. As a result, we got to see where different instructors might have different approaches, where something that worked for one instructor might not work for another. The heterogeneous nature of these discussions really elevated the experience beyond a typical “lecture”.

Each of us had two one-on-one sessions scheduled with different instructors. But what is even cooler is that the students are actively encouraged to seek out the other instructors to have off-schedule one-on-ones with them. The net result was that rather than having two one-on-one critique sessions, I got to pick eight different (amazing) brains about my specific work. I got infinitely more out of the sheer variety of viewpoints, the differing issues that they identified, and their different approaches than I could possibly have gotten from any one critiquer (however brilliant).

There was less of a focus on writing new content than I expected (I expected to have to write something new every day – don’t worry, you don’t) but I don’t think the program suffered any for that. And I couldn’t possibly forget about the social dimension: hanging out, talking about books, about writing, drinking, philosophizing, making music, and generally having a good time.

The Net Assessment of Viable Paradise

All in all, I cannot recommend Viable Paradise enough. It is the only workshop I’ve done to date, but the experience was fantastic. I have the sense that one gets out of it what one chooses to get from it. I went in wanting to gain a sense of community, to learn new skills, to identify weaknesses in my own writing, and to get validation that I’m not crazy to think I can write fun, interesting stories. I got all of that (and more) out of VP – and in only one week’s time.

If you’re looking for the kind of stuff I was, and you can take a week off of work to find it, then I recommend you apply to Viable Paradise. Applications for this year (2012) close on June 15, 2012, and you can find out what you need to do to apply by clicking here.

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