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[personal profile] deborah
(Note: This post started as being one about trends I see in young adult and children's science fiction, but turned into something of a critique of Farah's article. I want to preface the post, then, by saying that I have nothing but respect for Farah, and I agree with the overall thrust of her article and her point. I'm niggling because I see more positivity for the genre and the direction it's going right now than she does, not because I disagree with her overall thrust. ETA: Farah offers important clarifications.)


Farah Mendlesohn has been perturbed for some time about the dystopias that monopolize young adult science fiction. Now she's turned that concern into an article at The Horn Book, "The Campaign for Shiny Futures". Certainly Farah is, if not the most well-read person in the field, damn near it, so I trust her description of the field as accurate. It coincides with my own impressions, anyway -- one of the questions I kept asking my students is why young adult science fiction is so intensely political (not always subversive, but always political). I find it odd, especially because children's science fiction is much less political, and children's and young adult fantasy is almost as reactionary as adult fantasy except with more prone to girl power.

Wanting to escape the ubiquitous (if well-written) dystopias provides yet another reason for everyone to read the middle grade science fiction novel The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex. I actually believe it was Farah who told me that she found the book too didactic (Farah, correct me if I am misremembering), but I found it just the opposite. (ETA: I was misremembering; see below.) I admit I love nonsense, so of course I'm prone to loving this book. I need Adam Rex to write more books in this age range, or at least make more videos. But while the book is certainly political (a multiracial female heroine of a science fiction novel can't be other than political, just by her very existence), I found the narrative so enjoyable, so rich independent of the overarching ideological message, that I didn't even notice the in-your-face Manifest Destiny metaphors until a second reading.

In any case, I have more positive feelings about all this dystopian science fiction than Farah does; for one thing, I know plenty of adolescent readers who love it, who gobble up the next Westerfeld, who don't "head for the adult shelves". I also, of course, have a vested interest in disagreeing with some points of the article, anecdotally, at least. I review much of the young adult science fiction at Kirkus, and I am an expert in the field. I'm no Farah, but I'm a pretty decent second stringer, and I'm a reader of children's, young adult, and adult science fiction so I do know the generic practices of each. So of course what I see happening in reviews is exactly the kind of respect Farah discusses, simply because it's coming from me.

In any case, I'd like to see some more investigation of the difference between children's and young adult science fiction, and young adult and adult. There's a fair amount of nonsense (I use that word as a descriptive, not as a pejorative) in children's science fiction, not political at all. There's also a fair amount of straight adventurers; Farah calls attention to Bruce Colville and Katherine Applegate. There's very little hard science in science fiction for younger children. That seems to start showing up in the adolescent dystopias. I'm curious as to what the boundaries between children's and young adult look like.

One thing that drives me nuts is the fans of the crossover authors, those heavily read by adults as well as teens. There are far too many forums where adult science fiction fans are saying that Scalzi (whose first young adult outing follows the character development tropes of YA literature but the science-fiction tropes of adult SF), Doctorow, and Westerfeld should be published for adults instead of teens because... why? They are "too good for teen books"; or the readers are afraid they will look like pedophiles if they go to the teenage section of the bookstore; or switching to adult science fiction was good enough for us when we were adolescents, so ought to be good enough for this generation of science fiction readers as well. I would argue that fans like these, scornful of the adolescent market, are at least as much a part of the problem (such as it is) as authors, publishers, and reviewers who don't really understand adult science fiction.

But overall I'm solidly optimistic about the state of young adult science fiction. Yes, it's overwhelmingly dystopic right now, and it would be nice to see some branching out. But it's also popular and widely read, a rich genre currently filled with both b-list and high-quality books, beloved by teenagers outside of the outdated geek mode. And it is changing, slowly. Scalzi's Zoe's Tale was one example. Walter Moseley's 47 is another, with its mythic overtones, or Nnedi Okorafor's The Shadow Speaker. Or how about the (now 10 years old) Singing the Dogstar Blues by Alison Goodman. Or the steampunk worlds of Kenneth Oppel. Or even the b-list uber-soft science fiction, like that endless Pendragon series by DJ MacHale.

Color me biased, but when I was a teenager the options made available to me were Anne McCaffery, Orson Scott Card, and Piers Anthony. (Although actually my library also had Suzette Haden Elgin.) Right now, I think we are doing pretty damn well.

Date: 2009-03-06 07:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fjm.livejournal.com
Mendlesohn (you need to swap the el around.

And I *never* use 'didactic" as a put down (I *like* didactic). What I think I said is that sometimes it wasn't handled as smoothly as I'd have liked.

My one comment here is that so much of the political sf in the YA range is political in a way I find unnerving (and I praise the Westerfeld in the book, not my cup of tea, but that's quite different from what I'm complaining about. My comment on Uglies etc is that it succeeds as sf precisely to the degree it loses its grip on "YA issues".

Also: the book makes very clear that I think the situation began to improve dramatically after 2000. The article is a victim of length requirements.

Date: 2009-03-06 08:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fjm.livejournal.com
Ah, but does the character arc, or does it take off in a rocket ship to outer space?

[g]

Date: 2009-03-06 07:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] diceytillerman.livejournal.com
Because of Farah's vast knowledge and experience in the field, I tend to defer to her on this topic; however, the other person I tend to defer to is you. Her article makes feel thinky, thirsty for more scifi knowledge, and also a little skeptical on a few of the points. But I have the least knowledge of the three of us BY FAR. You've personally taught me much of what I know about scifi, and I wish I could read more adult scifi ongoingly, for fun as much as background. I simply haven't the spoons for that, so I figure I'd count in her book as one of the people who shouldn't be reviewing YA scifi at all for Kirkus. This makes me sad because I love it so, but I also understand the point, and I certainly see (and have been pondering for years) the oddness of "childen's lit" being considered a single specialty. There are plenty of types of children's lit that I don't (and wouldn't) review for Kirkus exactly because they're not my specialty and frankly feel like "not my field": poetry that isn't a free verse story; most nonfiction; most anthologies; early readers.

Date: 2009-03-08 08:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bunnyjadwiga.livejournal.com
Hm. Where does Daniel Pinkwater fit in?

Date: 2009-03-12 05:03 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I apologize for the long post. I hope you don't mind.

I've read Farah Mendlesohn's article in The Horn Book. As an SF reader, I wish I agreed with more of her arguments. I remember very clearly sitting in a Library School class on YA lit as a guest speaker on Science Fiction dismissed Norton and Heinlein as "dated."

I'm grateful to Mendelsohn for pointing out the distinction between a child reader and a reading child. The reading child is one who reads Enid Blyton, Hugh Lofting, E. Nesbit, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein. All of whom are dated.

That said, I thought Mendlesohn's characterization of both YA and juvenile SF was orthogonal to reality. Many of Heinlein's most enduring juveniles are heavily relational-- Podkayne of Mars, Farmer in the Sky, Tunnel in the Sky. They aren't about "hooking up," it's true, but then, I disagree that that is a root characterization of YA.

YA protagonists are seeing the world for the first time. When a YA protagonist grapples with racism, or poverty, or death, they are engaging it for the first time. They are taking responsibility, they are taking control, they are exploring the world outside their childhood. I would argue that the same sense of "newness" and exploration, is endemic to science fiction, and that most popular SF is YA.

David Weber, Orson Scott Card, Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Haldeman. They are YA. They all have a "Let me show you the world," feel to them. "Let me suggest you think about this."-- with the assumption that the reader hasn't thought about it much before. Which isn't to say that the reader HASN'T thought about these things before. Only that stylistically, the writing proceeds from the position that the world and ideas presented are new to the reader. When adults read YA, or SF for that matter, I don't think it is because they are superannuated young adults. I think it is because they enjoy the style.

I think the argument that SF in YA is just doom and gloom is a straw man. I don't consider Orwell's 1984 SF, and I don't really consider Feed SF, either. I am willing to put "gloomy view of the imminent future" under the very wide umbrella of SF, but I am not willing to see this subgenre as a perversion of "Good sciencey-fictioney- SF". Why this subgenre is the only one represented in YA, is the question.

Farah Mendlesohn needs to show me the science fiction books that have been undervalued, or left unpublished, to convince me that it is action or inaction on the industry's part that is keeping good YA SF out of the market. I don't believe it is kept out of the market. The YA SF are all over there on the Science Fiction shelf and I haven't seen a good argument for moving them so long as Teens can find them. Most important to me, on the SF shelf they are free from the puritanical constraints they would be under if they were in the YA section. I think the SF people would like them moved-- people like TOR and Penguin-- because they want the sales. I'm interested in hearing arguments for moving them, but so far, I'm happy with them where they are.


hope

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