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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!

NOTES:

  • 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

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. KR #

    Have to agree that there is plenty of sci-fi/speculative publishing going on in the YA world. I’m a YA reader, fantasy/sci-fi/spec. makes up the majority of my reading, and I haven’t run out of anything yet. True, it is not the sci-fi of your generation, but that can be a good thing. I also think that it has begun to appeal to a broader range of readers, where nowadays you don’t necessarily have to be geeky to like sci-fi. It’s become an almost cool thing, which I think is great!

    March 8, 2012
  2. Exactly! And I love the way genre fiction is increasingly coming out of its ghetto. When I was in high school (tongue-in-cheek grumble: not that long ago *cry*) it was a guilty pleasure. Now? Seems like it doesn’t have to be.

    March 8, 2012
    • KR #

      Very much so. And I think the lines between fantasy, science fiction, speculative, etc. have become blurred and less important. Very few people I know make the point of differentiating. I, strangely enough, feel a little sad that everyone now feels that they “understand” some of these books…but I suppose it is worth the exposure that the genres are getting.

      March 8, 2012
  3. sftheory1 #

    Thought provoking rant, Chris.
    I shouldn’t be surprised that YA SF= Dystopia is a fallacy similar to JKR= Mother of Magic School Subgenre, or, critics not doing the proper amount of research.
    Another thing that has caught my attention is: when did the division between fantasy and science fiction start? Is it, perhaps, a product of a changing fandom? A new uncertain landscape that encourages a retrenchment among certain segments of fandom? Perhaps this demands a more indepth exploration.

    March 8, 2012
    • Hmm…you pose an interesting question. I suspect (and this is purely a suspicion) that it might date back to the pulp era when certain editors (e.g. Hugo Gernsback) would only publish science fiction (or “scientifiction” as he liked to call it) and others would only publish fantasy. But maybe that was a product of a pre-existing cultural division amongst the audience? I’m not sure.

      March 9, 2012
  4. Well, I for one never read Heinlein’s YA stuff. I started right off with Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” along about the age of nine. I didn’t “get” a lot of it then, but that’s not relevant. I was hooked. I grew up watching the original Star Trek, and while I may have read juvenile sci-fi, I don’t really remember it much. I dove straight into the ‘adult’ stuff- Asimov, Clarke, etc. Maybe other YA readers are doing likewise.

    March 8, 2012
    • I loved Bradbury as a kid! He was probably one of my first intros to SF as well – didn’t get into Clarke until much later. But yeah, we didn’t have the variety of YA science fiction that there is today: for that matter, there wasn’t really a “YA” genre in general at the time, either. But there is now, and it’s a shame when folks dismiss it without at least taking a look.

      March 9, 2012
  5. I too went straight into adult fiction, both sci-fi and fantasy, but have done a fair amount of research in YA because of my own book–and yes, one of the first things I noticed was that it’s all a mix. Paranormal, sci-fi, fantasy, and romance fuzz into each other on the edges, and some of the sharpest writing today is in YA fiction.

    March 9, 2012
    • I’m fascinated by the way that the YA genre blends together all of the different other genres and categories. It really makes me wonder how today’s YA readers are going to approach genre and books when they’re older. Will that willingness to blend carry over into their adult reading? Or will their reading tastes harden into the age-old genre categories that we’re used to?

      March 9, 2012
  6. Wow, this is like, the third post over at he Signal I’ve seen in about six months to make those kinds of claims–essentially that there’s no YA or MG sci-fi, that if there is, it’s the wrong kind of sci fi, etc. etc.

    Meanwhile, over at the Intergalactic Academy, we’re swimming in ARCs. Seriously, we’re having trouble finding time on the schedule for them.

    Anyway, great post, Chris.

    March 9, 2012
    • Thanks, Phoebe! I don’t specialize in YA the way you do, and even I end up with two or three ARCs of YA science fiction in my mailbox every month. Are we just living in a parallel universe where we see all the YA SF that others don’t?

      March 9, 2012
  7. thanate7 #

    Honestly, I never got into SF because I felt like all the stuff out there when I was growing up was all dystopian and cold war backlash and full of characters who were all irritating and/or doomed. (Well, and there was early Robin McKinley & proto-YA fantasy to be read.) The “bring back the Heinlein Juveniles!” mindset seems to me to come from the people who grew up liking this stuff, and therefore I’m kind of skeptical that anything they’d approve of would be something I really want to read.

    March 9, 2012
    • Can’t argue with you there. No doubt a lot of it is the hoary old “Back in my day (when the sky was blue, and men were men), we read…” mentality. And sure, I guess I understand that: it’s a natural part of aging for some, I suppose. But I’d hope that before people dismiss an entire category out of hand they’d at least be a little better informed. There’s lots to criticize/bemoan without just making stuff up about it. Or am I just being naive and expecting too much?

      March 9, 2012
    • Robin McKinley; writing YA Fantasy before there was even a name for it. My favorite was The Blue Sword.

      March 9, 2012
  8. When I started reading sci-fi, circa 1970, I think there was this notion that, as man’s technological advancements evolved, man would become more serious and would wise up. Science and logic would win out and rule the future. Thus, characters were often portrayed as very serious men who never looked at a girl’s ass. One of the things I’ve made sure to include in my WIP is the bawdy side of man, and I’ve determined that man will never wise up. We may get cooler toys, but we’ll always be morons.

    March 13, 2012
  9. thatollie #

    In an ongoing discussion with some SF readers, I posted a link to some articles including the two mentioned at the top of this page and this article itself. One poster believes that the paragraph quoted below implies that Heinlein is a poor storyteller and I insist that it’s a misunderstanding. I would like to politely request clarification on this point.

    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.

    April 14, 2012
    • Thanks for the comment and for sharing the post with others! I’m happy to clarify, and apologies if my clarification runs a bit long:

      Heinlein is a fine storyteller, and I have gotten enormous enjoyment out of his novels and stories over the years, from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to Have Space Suit, Will Travel. The principle point I was making had less to do with Heinlein in specific, and more to do with the ignorance of large swathes of the “adult” SF community. Though Heinlein is a fine storyteller, his aesthetics, narrative style, and structures come across as dated to a contemporary YA audience. That’s not an indictment of his writing. Shakespeare, Hugo, Dumas, Tolstoy – every one of these writers comes across as dated today. But as a consequence, today’s YA readers are ignorant of Heinlein (since unlike those other authors he is rarely assigned in school), and gravitate towards stories which are structurally, stylistically, and thematically different from Heinlein’s juveniles. And which remain in line with the evolving conventions of the middle-grade and YA genres. This isn’t to say that either Heinlein or contemporary YA is good or bad: I am simply pointing out that reading tastes among YA readers have changed since Heinlein was writing.

      SF fans who bemoan the lack of young adult science fiction are speaking out of simple ignorance. There is plenty of young adult science fiction being written and published. It is aesthetically very different from the Heinlein juveniles, in the same way that Vladimir Nabokov is very different from Sinclair Lewis. Anyone who claims that there is no YA SF is factually incorrect. And when they proscribe a “solution” for this non-existent problem (the writing of more Heinlein juveniles) they are ignoring another fact: that tastes and narrative trends (in both YA and adult SF, and literature in general for that matter) have changed since Heinlein’s time.

      To say that YA SF doesn’t exist invalidates the work of the countless people writing, editing, selling, and reading it. And the over-played suggestion to write more Heinlein juveniles ignores the changing tastes of YA readership. It is a position of sad ignorance, analogous to the claim that adult SF is dead and suggesting that the solution is to write more Gernsbackian stories. That aesthetic boat, fun as the ride is, has sailed. Some new readers will still get enjoyment out of the old stories, but for the majority (with less catholic tastes) they will be just that: old stories, like Melville, Dickens, or Shakespeare. They might be good, but their audience becomes naturally constrained by popular tastes (consider how many people still read Herodotus).

      But for all that, there’s a very simple way for adult SF fans to fix this ignorance, regain some optimism about the future of SF, and potentially find some fun stories: go into their bookstore’s YA section, and pick up some titles.

      April 14, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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