Thursday, July 22, 2010

Science Fiction is Dead! Long Live Science Fiction!

I've talked before about the dearth of science fiction in kidlit, and the demise of adult science fiction has been long hailed. Is it because the pace of technology has sprinted past our wildest imaginations? That authors fear SF books that will be out-of-date before they go to print? Or are SF books (rightly or wrongly) simply seen as uncool, or too mentally challenging compared to SF movies, and thus languish on the shelves? Was it the combination of fantasy and science fiction that brought the death-knell? Calling it "speculative fiction" doesn't make putting Elves next to Robots any more sensical.

No, I think it is something more subtle. And more grand.

There was a golden age of science fiction, that was over long before I picked up my first Foundation novel, or gobbled up I, Robot. A time when everything was fantastical and new, and a wide-eyed optimism gripped the nation (because most SF came from American writers). We put people on the Moon. We invented computers and cracked the genetic code. We had beat back Fascism, and a period of (relative) peace and prosperity reigned.

But then the world, and especially technology, got a lot more complicated. Suddenly tech seemed almost magical, with gadgets multiplying faster than we could keep pace and computer speeds doubling every nine months. Rather than technology being the Grand Master on the stage of Progress, it become at once impossibly fantastic and utterly mundane.

Your computer could fit in your lap.
Your phone could fit in your pocket.
Your music was tailored to you and could fit in the palm of your hand.

This wasn't the technology of adventure. This wasn't the technology that would change The World as We Knew It. And yet it was, in ways so pervasive that we can hardly imagine a world without computers or email or cell phones. We came to see technology as an infallible workhorse that would always improve, always do more with less.

We expected it to fix busted oil wells in the gulf. And give us wars without civilian casualties.

But it couldn't do that either.

At some point along the way, we internalized technology. It went beyond Terminator and cyberpunk, and became something that was a seamless part of our lives. Paranormal powers and magical abilities became as believable as the light saber app on my iPhone.

Today, I think a resurgence in science fiction novels is quietly happening, and as with all things revolutionary with a small "r", it begins with the children. The kids and teens who believe in a brighter future, but who also fear the End of the World is indeed nigh. This new SF is whimsical and dystopian; it is science fantasy rather than science fact; it is wrapped up in the stiff clothing of steampunk, but with contemporary sensibilities of justice.

It is born of the knowledge, held deep within the genetic code of these millenial children, that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

I couldn't be more excited.

This new breed of science fiction is being written by authors that remember the classics with fondness and are birthing them into a new era.

Here's a taste of what's already here (see Devafagan for a more extensive and rockin' list):

RESTORING HARMONY, Joëlle Anthony (2010, YA) - The year is 2041, and sixteen-year-old Molly McClure has lived a relatively quiet life on an isolated farming island in Canada, but when her family fears the worst may have happened to her grandparents in the US, Molly must brave the dangerous, chaotic world left after global economic collapse—one of massive oil shortages, rampant crime, and abandoned cities.

SHIP BREAKER Paolo Baciagalupi (2010, YA) In America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota--and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life. . . .

HUNGER GAMES / CATCHING FIRE / MOCKINGJAY Suzanne Collins (2010, YA) Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games twice. But now that she’s made it out of the bloody arena alive, she’s still not safe. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge. Who do they think should pay for the unrest? Katniss. And what’s worse, President Snow has made it clear that no one else is safe either. Not Katniss’s family, not her friends, not the people of District 12.

FLIGHT OF THE OUTCAST Brad Strickland (2010, MG) Asteria Locke has never left her father's farm on the remote planet of Theron. But in one terrible moment, a surprise attack by space raiders destroys everything she's ever known. Orphaned and alone, Asteria vows to avenge her father's death by joining the Royal Spacefleet Academy. . . even if she has to lie to get in. Branded an outcast at the Academy from the start, Asteria must work twice as hard as the other students to prove herself. But in time, she suspects that the Aristocrats who torment her have more sinister motives than shaming a commoner. They'll stop at nothing to hide a secret from her father's past-a secret that could shift the balance of power throughout the entire universe.

LEVIATHAN (2009), BEHEMOTH (2010, MG) Scott Westerfeld In an alternate history, Europe is headed towards a Word War. The Germanic Clankers, with their advanced machinery, face off against the British Darwinists, with their crossbred animals. The Darwinists have a new weapon, the Leviathan, a flying whale ship. Deryn Sharp is new to the service and is on the Leviathan for her first assignment. But only males are allowed to be in the service, so she must hide her identity from everyone, and disguise herself as a boy. Meanwhile, Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand is woken in the middle of the night and forced to flee his home. With only a small group of men, Aleksandar faces foes at every turn. When the Leviathan lands near Aleksandar, he meets young Deryn, and their fates intertwine.

And what's to come:

THE LONG WALK HOME (2011, YA) Jeff Hirsch
CONTROL ISSUES (2011, YA) Elana Johnson
XVI (2011, YA) Julia Karr

It's an exciting time to be writing at all, but crafting a new wave of science fiction feels wondrous. Fascinating. And a little intimidating. Just the way SF should be.

I can't wait to get reading!

Also: I will be off the grid for a week, as I visit my family in California. I have a special guest post coming on Monday, so please stop back and see what a real-live teen has to say about what she loves/hates in MG/YA books today.

Starting next Friday (7/31) through Monday (8/2) I will be blogging live from the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators Conference in LA! And following #LA10SCBWI on twitter. Let me know if you will be there! I can't wait to meet my cyber friends in RL.

p.s. Thanks to Beth for a chance to interview over at her blog, Project 52!


  1. Great post Susan! I especially love to see these awesome books you've highlighted as examples, both those already out there and the others still to come.

  2. Really great post! SF is the reason I loved words as a child and why I am still reading as an adult. Keep writing!

  3. Other recent favorites:
    Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka, Dark Life by Kat Falls, Mike Steller; Nerves of Steel, Found by Haddix, and When You Reach Me by Stead.

  4. @Matt IKR? My only lament is that I can't find Jeff Hirsch's book on Goodreads to put on my TBR. I think I was the first one to pre-order Beth Revis' book!

    @Sarah Hail fellow SF fan! It's cool to know there's some good SF on the way, yeah?

    @Jan Thanks for the recs! I have to admit I'm having a hard time with When You Reach Me (too much Jeapordy) but I'm only about 1/3 of the way through. I've heard so much about Spaceheadz and Mike Steller, I need to make sure they're on my TBR. Thanks!!

  5. Halfway through this post, I was thinking that SF is more or less headed in two ways: (1) dystopia or (2) singularities (a theoretical point at which technology and/or evolution changes so fast as to become unpredictable, almost like magic).

    And then you said this: "This new SF is whimsical and dystopian; it is science fantasy rather than science fact..."

    So yeah, I think I totally agree with you.

  6. @Adam I'm determined to write an MG or YA book about the singularity at some point. (See Rapture for Nerds) I haven't quite figured out how to bridge the "otherness" gap across the singularity, but then I haven't given it serious thought (yet).

  7. Susan, you might try this book, Cusp by Robert Metzger (at least I think this is the book I'm thinking's been a while since I read it). That was where I first started really thinking about the singularity. I thought it was pretty cool, actually.

  8. Great analysis! Makes sense to me!

  9. @Adam "Hard Space Opera?" I didn't even know that was a sub-genre! LOL Cusp looks very interesting - I will def check it out.

    @KarenG Thanks!

  10. ooo, Susan! Thanks for this post and the book listings... I'm trying my hand at a ligh SF, and I'm encouraged b/c it sounds like it would fit in your analysis. I'm also Freaked Out b/c it *is* intimidating.

    Musn't look at what's "been done"...

    good stuff~ :o)

  11. @LTM Reading is good, but don't let it intimidate you out of doing what you want. One thing that's cool about a "new" trend (and really SF of any kind) is that it's really wide open. At least, that's how I look at it. :)

  12. I just hope that interest in adult sci-fi will grow again. My next book is far too bloody for YA. It's a bit like La Femme Nikita (the movie, not the tv show) meets Quentin Tarantino.

  13. @Ted Wow. Ok, probably your book is not YA material. LOL! And you always have to grow your readers, yes? I look at MG/YA SF as the gateway drug to adult SF! :)

  14. I love SF, and I'm excited to see the way it's coming back.

  15. I'm such a Sci Fi nut and I admire those who write it. Besides it was those far-fetched ideas in science ficiton that eventually came to be real. I believe the old adage that if you can dream it, it can become true. We need those visionary writers, so I'm all for a resurgence in this genre.

  16. @Myrna Me too!

    @C. Lee Wait, you mean if I dream it up, it might come true?? Hmm...I better be more careful. :)

  17. I loved reading your post. I remember about 20 years ago my husband saying that he wished someone would invent a tiny computer that he could use in the field (soybean) to record data rather than to write it down on paper and then carry it to the office and log it in the computer. And Whala! Someone invented it! Do you remember bag phones? OMGoodness, my daughter (14) thinks they sound like they were hilarious. I remember being so excited by that piece of technology. I can't wait to see what sci fi things are created by writers and then developed by researchers in the future.

    Enjoy your time off, Susan! I gave you a special spot on my sidebar with a few other of my critique buddies. :)

  18. @Sharon Hey, thanks for the coveted spot! I can't wait to read your work when I get back! Hmm...and I might have to steal your daughter to crit some of my YA sometime ... [insert evil laugh] :)

  19. Have fun in CA! And yes, I think the sf writers have turned to steampunk and dystopian. :)

  20. Hey, thanks for the link, and for the thoughtful post. I think this in particular is very true and also the key to getting more scifi read:

    "This new SF is whimsical and dystopian; it is science fantasy rather than science fact"

    So often I hear folks saying they are scared of scifi, intimidated by "the science", or thinking that they need to be a technical genius to understand it. And yes, there's some highly technical scifi out there. But I also think it's entirely possible to create fantastic, accessible scifi in the same way it's possible to create fantastic, accessible fantasy: by providing the right amount of detail to set the stage and let the reader's imagination fill in the gaps.

    It's what I am trying to do in my series, though only time will tell if I've succeeded...!

  21. I'm a scifi nut who also writes the stuff. As an engineer it's a natural fit for me. Looking at the books you highlighted my mouth started to water. This is an excellent post!

  22. Thanks for the links Su; I missed those, but thoroughly enjoyed the discussions. I like your thoughts on science fantasy too; I have to agree the genre's are changing. That's no cause for anxiety though; its exciting.

    This was a truly informative post. Thanks for all the links and the book examples.


  23. Great post! I think you are spot on.

  24. Susan, I had a whole thoughtful comment thought of about how sci fi is on the rise and all that such, but then I saw how you were one of the first peeps to preorder my book and now all I can think of is:




    :) :) :)

  25. Awesome post! And look - you didn't crash my computer! Sunny days, sunny days...

  26. @Laura I'm having fun already! Come check out my posts about the conference over the weekend! :)

    @Deva I think you definitely have the right idea, in keeping with the direction SF is heading! I would love to have a peek at what you're working on! :)

    @LM I wish you were here at the conference, so I could meet you in person! Someday ... ! :)

    @Donna Hi! I need to catch up on my blogging - you are the queen of awesome links!

    @Charlotte Thanks!!

    @Beth Sorry I short-circuited your comment with my fangirling! LOL I can't wait till your book comes out (OBVS)

    @Bryan I'm so glad your browser isn't hating me anymore!!


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers