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Young Adult

Entry updated 27 June 2022. Tagged: Theme.


Young Adult or YA sf, like Children's SF, is named for and defined by its target audience. The YA label is sometimes applied to any sf with young adult protagonists, but this approach  is often problematic. For instance, Nnedi Okorafor's Binti novellas, starting with Binti (2015) have been included on many recommended YA sf lists, but Okorafor insists that they are not YA. This problem is more common in the case of late twentieth century books that were originally written for a general audience but are retrospectively labelled as YA, like Orson Scott Card's Ender series, beginning with Ender's Game (1985). The term "Young Adult" only came into common use in the 1960s, and has become primarily a publishing category that influences editing and marketing decisions with young people in mind, though publishers also now cater to the increasingly common adult "crossover" audience for YA.

Sf for young adults written prior to the rise of the YA term in the 1960s might be more accurately called Juvenile sf (see Children's SF for coverage of earlier forms of what would eventually become YA). Young people were reading sf stories in Dime Novels and Pulp magazines in the late nineteenth century, often Edisonade or Lost World adventures, but specifically Juvenile Series emerged in the early 1900s. This category of sf for young people only became widely accepted and respected in the late 1940s when Scribner's commissioned Robert A Heinlein, who was already a popular sf author by that time, to write a series of Juvenile sf specifically for adolescent audiences. The first of these were Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) and Space Cadet (1948). Heinlein continued to write for this series for Scribner's over the course of a decade, including such popular titles as Have Space Suit – Will Travel (1958) and Starship Troopers (1959) – the last being published by Putnam's when rejected by Scribner's for what they deemed to be unacceptable content. Heinlein's Juveniles were distinct in quality (both the hardcover presentation and the serious content) from the heavily criticized Pulp magazines and paperbacks and even from the earlier Juvenile series. Several other serious sf writers soon penned their own Juveniles. Isaac Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr sequence beginning with David Starr: Space Ranger (1952; vt Space Ranger 1973), Arthur C Clarke wrote Islands in the Sky (1952). Other significant authors of Juvenile sf include Andre Norton, starting with Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. (1952), and Alan E Nourse, starting with Trouble on Titan (1954). Scientist and nonfiction author Franklyn M Branley's Lodestar, Rocket Ship to Mars: The Record of the First Operation Sponsored by the Federal Commission for Interplanetary Exploration (1951) was also a significant one-off addition to the Juvenile sf market.

When the Juvenile label was supplanted by the YA label that came into common use in the 1960s, the content and focus of sf for young people also changed. While Juvenile sf was often about using technology, learning science, and exploring the consequences to the world, YA sf began to turn inward with an interest in the emotional and personal consequences of living in futuristic worlds. YA sf from this transitional era includes Quatre Montréalais en l'an 3000 by Suzanne Martel (1963; rev vt Surréal 3000 1966; 1963 version trans Norah Smaridge as The City Under Ground 1964), The Iron Man (1968) by Ted Hughes, Escape from Witch Mountain (1968) by Alexander Key, Enchantress from the Stars (1970) by Sylvia Louise Engdahl, and many novels from John Christopher such as the Tripods series, starting with The White Mountains (1967). In the 1970s, the authors writing YA sf like H M Hoover and Monica Hughes specialized in YA rather than writing across audiences, leading to further distinctions in the themes and style of YA sf (versus general sf).

As a result of this inward shift, YA sf includes very few works that could be classified as Hard SF, but often instead depends upon Imaginary Science. Common YA sf plots like Virtual Reality stories – see Dangerous Reality (1999) by Malorie Blackman, Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline, Warcross (2017) by Marie Lu, Forever Fantasy Online (2018) by Rachel Aaron, Everything About You (2018) by Heather Child, CTRL+S (2019) by Andy Briggs, etc. – are focused on human behaviour and relationships in new situations caused by technological advances, rather than on the science that got them there. The science of YA sf often borders on fantasy, as well. Like Children's SF, YA sf thrives on genre fusion and Equipoise rather than on genre purity. Stories like Marissa Meyer's The Lunar Chronicles series, starting with Cinder (2012), and Yoon Ha Lee's Dragon Pearl (2019) deliberately rework traditional folk and fairy tales into sf settings, while others like the Zanne series by Gwyneth Jones as Ann Halam starting with The Daymaker (1987), Fade (1988) by Robert Cormier, the Worldweavers series by Alma Alexander beginning with Gift of the Unmage (2007), and The Power (2016) by Naomi Alderman disregard and even play with the boundaries between fantasy and science fiction to enrich their narratives and style.

YA sf also often manifests in more frequent first-person point of view and interest in interpersonal relationships – especially romance – than might be expected in general sf. In Tahereh Mafi's Shatter Me series, starting with Shatter Me (2011), the environmental is dying, a Dystopian regime has taken over, and the main character's touch is lethal, but the first-person narration features long passages expressing the character's trauma and fixating on the idea of being touched by the male lead. Romance often influences the plot in YA sf, causing conflicts and plot complications as in The Big Empty (2004) by Liz Braswell. Following the widespread popularity of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series, starting with The Hunger Games (2008), there has been a particularly popular trend of love triangles in YA sf and fantasy, such as Marie Lu's Legend trilogy, starting with Legend (2011), and Kiera Cass's The Selection series starting with The Selection (2012). In turn, some authors have capitalized on the combination of YA romance and sf's Feminist proclivities to challenge the love triangle trend and all of its implied gender and sex norms in favor of queer and radical relationships as in Tarnished Are the Stars (2009) by Rosiee Thor and Iron Widow (2021) by Xiran Jay Zhao.

Since YA sf is almost exclusively written and produced by adults, it is prone to the reflecting of adult beliefs about young people. Stanley G Hall's Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education (1905) inspired the common belief that teens are inherently rebellious and led to YA literature that offers vicarious rebellions wherein the protagonists define themselves against a system of (adult) power but ultimately find a place within it (see YA scholar Roberta Seelinger Trites). In sf, this YA tendency is demonstrated by the popularity of Dystopian YA novels such as the YA works of L J Adlington, Frank Bonham, Pierce Brown, James Dashner, Nancy Farmer, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Patrick Ness, Neal Shusterman, Scott Westerfeld, and many more, in which young people must fight against an oppressive (adult) regime, but often end up part of the new system.

YA sf also exposes adult anxieties about teens' increasing access to technology and information and decreasing engagement with the natural world. M T Anderson's Feed (2002) revolves around teens who are permanently connected to the Internet via implanted chips, echoing concerns about young people being addicted to computers and phones. In stories like Journey Outside (1972) by Mary Q Steele and The City of Ember (2003) by Jeanne DuPrau, the plot resolves when the adolescent characters turn against their technologically-enhanced city in favor of regressing to a simple, pastoral world. These adult anxieties result in many YA sf stories that may seem ironically technophobic and regressive for sf, but even these are in keeping with the technophobia and pessimism often found in early Dystopias.

As environmental destruction has become a more pressing and public issue, stories idealizing the natural world have begun to express fear for the future of young people. In Climate Change YA sf, the young protagonists adapt and survive and evolve in a Ruined Earth that they have inherited. Some of these stories, like Overshoot (1998) by Mona A Clee and Orleans (2013) by Sherri Smith, the damaged world and hopeless ending function as a cautionary tale. However, other stories embody more of the evolutionary and revolutionary potential of sf, in which young protagonists find ways to subvert the systems that enabled climate change and envision a new Posthuman generation that do not regress to a natural world, but instead renegotiate a relationship with nature. Examples include The Drowned Cities (2012) by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Ones We're Meant to Find (2021) by Joan He. Several such recent stories specifically consider environmental destruction and restoration from the perspective of non-Western cultures, such as Want (2017) by Cindy Pon, The Marrow Thieves (2017) by Cherie Dimaline, War Girls (2019) by Tochi Onyebuchi, and Rise of the Red Hand (2021) by Olivia Chadha.

Awards for YA sf include one category of the Locus Award, first presented for 1973 work; the Andre Norton Award (see Nebula), named for Andre Norton and first presented for 2005 work; the Lodestar Award associated with the Hugos (though not technically a Hugo), first presented for 2017 work; and the Best Fiction for Younger Readers category of the British Science Fiction Association Award established in 2022. Several works of science fiction have been honoured with the Newbery Award, the highest honour for American children's literature, among them A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C O'Brien, The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry, When You Reach Me (2009) by Rebecca Stead, and The Last Cuentista (2021) by Donna Barba Higuera. In 2020, the ALA founded the Core Committee Recognizing Excellence in Children's and Young Adult Science Fiction, which issues an annual list of notable YA sf called The Hal Clement Notable Young Adult Books list. [EM]

see also: Light Novel.

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