Let the Sci-Fi Flag Fly

By Karen Healey

Anyone paying attention is well aware that speculative fiction currently more than holds its own in young adult sales, but financial success does not automatically, even when deservedly, translate to critical acclaim or awards. In adult fiction, speculative fiction of surpassing intelligence, craft and appeal is often overlooked by critics and award committees alike.

But that doesn't necessarily hold true of young adult genre work.

The American Library Association unveiled the ALA Youth Media Awards in January, which included the 2011 YALSA awards*; the Oscars/Hugos/American Dance awards of the American young adult scene. How did speculative fiction do as a genre?

Pretty damn well.

In fact, of all the YALSA-specific categories, the only one where speculative fiction didn't contribute a winner or honor book was the YALSA Award for Excellence in Non-Fiction. Frankly, I think we can give the genre a pass on that.

The Odyssey Award for Audiobooks winner was The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex, narrated by Bahni Turpin), and The Knife of Never Letting Go (Patrick Ness, narrated by Nick Podehl) won an Odyssey Honor. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Blythe Woolston) and Guardian of the Dead (some New Zealand chick) were William C. Morris YA Debut Award finalists.

Of the ten books that received an Alex Award, which is given to those adult books most beloved by younger readers, fully half were spec fic of some kind: The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To (DC Pierson); The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender); The Radleys (Matt Haig); The Reapers Are the Angels (Alden Bell); and The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (Helen Grant).

(Incidentally, those last four books all had A Novel carefully appended to their titles. I can only suppose that this was in case the grown-ups mistook magical realist tale The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake for a cookbook, or thought the dirty-faced girl peeping through her fingers on the cover of zombie Southern Gothic story The Reapers Are the Angels represented the strung-out features of a misery memoir writer.)

The Margaret A. Edwards Award, which "honors an author, as well as a specific body of his or her work, for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature" was awarded to Terry Pratchett, one of the most popular (and most often shoplifted) speculative fiction writers in the world, specifically for his YA and middle grade works.

And the Michael L. Printz Award was awarded to Paolo Bacigalupi's dystopian adventure, Ship Breaker.

You might have heard of Paolo. He won/co-won the 2010 Nebula and Hugo awards** for Best Novel for his adult book, The Windup Girl, which was also, unusually for a science fiction work, nominated for the (US) National Book Award.

So speculative fiction is doing pretty well in the American YA award stakes, and not just with fantasy. A good chunk of the titles above make use of traditional science fiction tropes, including alien invasions, telepathy, the colonisation of distant planets, superpowers, and speculation on the politics and technology of the future.

I'm a fan of those things myself, and I'm also a big fan of time travel stories. Last week, I visited the library and went looking for 2010 Newbery Medal winner When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. I'd heard it was a beautiful, subtle book that delves into the theory, practicality, and reality of time travel, narrated by a girl who reads, and reads only, Madeleine L'Engle's children's sci-fi classic, A Wrinkle In Time. I checked the catalogue, discovered it was in, and went hunting through the speculative fiction section (my library of choice doesn't distinguish between middle grade/young adult and adult SFF). It wasn't there. Confused, I asked a librarian for help, and was directed to the book's location—on the straight fiction shelves.

"But it's science fiction!" I exclaimed.

"Is it?" the librarian said, looking dubiously at the cover. "It doesn't say."

She accepted my assurances, but I don't blame her for doubting. When You Reach Me's cover copy describes it as "a story about friendship and time . . . an intriguing puzzle with pieces that fit together in the most intricate and unexpected ways." Nor is this a unique example: Ship Breaker is a dystopian nearer-future adventure that includes, among other science fiction staples, human gene-modification and advanced weaponry. The back cover copy names it "a gritty, high-stakes adventure set in a futuristic world . . ." Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy again takes place in a future world and features extreme modification on the bodies and brains of human, hoverboards, social networking taken to hilarious and frightening extremes and other sci-fi delights. The cover copy on the first in the series describes heroine Tally's ambitions for life in a "a high-tech paradise."

These aren't inaccurate descriptions. But they tend to touch very lightly on the fact that these books use and depend upon the genres of science fiction. Most of the YA fantasy books on my shelves have words like "magical," "fairy," "vampire," "werewolf" on their cover copy, words that clearly indicate that what you're about to pick up uses fantasy genre tropes, with perhaps even more specification as to what sub-genres might be employed. But where the fantasy titles are happily discussed and promoted as fantasy, there appears to be a general reluctance on the part of gatekeepers to add "science fiction" as a description to young adult books that fall into that category, based, I think, on the perception that you have to trick teenagers into reading sci fi. It's okay—indeed, it's great!—to have science fiction on your publishing lists, but the idea seems to be that if you explicitly say the words "science fiction," it will be much like mentioning the title of the Scottish Play, i.e., misfortune will befall your publishing house, the printers will all catch the plague, and sandbags will fall upon your editors' heads at inopportune moments.

It could be argued that "futuristic world" and "high-tech" function similarly as codewords indicating science fiction within the covers, but I think they're less explicitly tied to genre. Even the selections from blurbs seem to encourage a sideways glance rather than a direct gaze at the dreaded "science fiction." Four of Ship Breaker's six blurbs describe it as, variously, "a riveting tale of adventure"; "tough, tense and terrific"; "gripping . . . intense, beautiful"; and, most specifically from a genre point of view, "a top-notch dystopian thriller." Those blurbs come from, respectively, Scott Westerfeld, John Scalzi, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Barry Lyga.

I find this vaguely hilarious: the first three blurbs come from giants in the contemporary science fiction field, and it's the realistic YA writer to whom we can attribute the closest acknowledgement of Ship Breaker as science fiction. I have no idea whether the full blurbs by each writer included more explicit vocabulary or not, but if they did, it was excised from the final copy. Perhaps the names Westerfeld, Scalzi, and Stanley Robinson were thought to be sufficiently science fictional enough?

In stark contrast, Scott Westerfeld's adult novel, The Risen Empire, includes cover copy that refers to it as "the first great space opera of the twenty-first century" and blurbs that refer to it as a "blend of traditional space opera and cutting edge speculation . . . a truly twenty-first century SF novel" and "confirms the buzz that space opera is one of the most exciting branches of current SF." No delicate implication here—like young adult fantasy, adult sci-fi apparently gets to be explicitly acknowledged as such.

I wonder if it's time for such sci-fi coyness in the YA field to come to an end. Young adult readers have clearly embraced science fiction as a genre, whatever it's actually called. Westerfeld's Uglies series is enormously popular among, especially, young women, and his steampunk alternate history Leviathan series finds particular favour with boys in the middle grade reading range. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy is an incredible success, dystopian future, high tech weaponry, science-formed monsters and all.

Even the actually-pretty-awful alien story I Am Number Four is presumably making bank for its perpetually dodgy co-author James Frey, with movie rights sold before the book was even snapped up by publishers.

Frey's newest scheme, targeting MFA graduates to write (or "co-write") pre-packaged young adult books in return for shockingly low advances (500 USD, seriously?) and no guarantees on royalty auditing, has quite rightly received a scathing response from critics, including authors Maureen Johnson and John Scalzi. But Frey knows where the money is, and in his nauseatingly ruthless scramble to acquire it, Frey's concentration on young adult genre literature—fantasy and science fiction, especially, with cross-media potential—is revealing.

If Frey's interest in YA science fiction is kind of skin-crawling, we can be at least unambiguously enthusiastic about the genre's popularity among young adult awards committees and teen readers. So can we please just call it science fiction? Asking the librarian to help me find When You Reach Me was so embarrassing.

Further Reading:

—Cynthia Leitich Smith's Children's and YA Science Fiction Novels for Children and Young Adults is a comprehensive list, detailed list, including contemporary titles and many classics.

—io9.com's "Where to Start With Young Adult Science Fiction" concentrates more on the classics, but includes a couple of more contemporary titles.

—The Huffington Post article, "9 Best Science Fiction Novels for Young Adults besides 'MockingJay'" includes one novel from this decade, M. T. Anderson's brilliant Feed. I feel that if more titles were labelled science fiction, then perhaps more titles written after contemporary teenagers were actually born might have turned up on that list.

* There are many notable Youth Media Awards not run by YALSA, including the Caldecott and Newbery Medals and the Stonewall and Schneider Awards.

**The YALSA awards of spec-fic.


Karen Healey is a New Zealander living in Australia. Her first YA novel, Guardian of the Dead, debuted in April 2010.