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Posts tagged ‘YA Science Fiction’

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

REVIEW: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald


Title: Planesrunner
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: December 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced adventure story that reads more like adult science fiction than YA science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.

McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction, I don’t know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. UPDATE: but his foray into MG/YA fiction represents an interesting critical challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?

Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.

Judged solely by the protagonist’s age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald’s hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald’s excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett’s voice. Particularly in the novel’s first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett’s cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyderabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald’s presentation of cultural complexity.

The first third of the novel focuses on Everett’s reactions to his father’s kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story’s pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett’s family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father’s co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald’s typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.

Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book’s pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.

On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald’s point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald’s skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.

Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.

The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald’s alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.

The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot’s focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett’s family introduced at the book’s opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book’s end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.

Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I’ve done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one’s place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett’s place within the airship’s “adopted family”, but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book’s emotional resonance.

Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won’t be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald’s earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald’s strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald’s adult novels won’t find it here. That complexity may exist below the story’s surface, incorporated into the story’s world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald’s earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

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