Late Night Rant on YA Sci-fi and the Labeling Of

Hi, guys! I’m editing.

If you're anything like me, you will zoom in on this image to try and read the text. Because you are nosy. 'scool.

I just looked at the clock and realized it was almost midnight and I hadn’t written a blog post yet. I could write about slashing and burning my book, but that’s boring. Really–talking about editing? Snooze. What works for me isn’t likely to work for you, anyway.

But I was just listening in a bit to someone’s twitter conversation, and it seemed to be ripe fodder for a post, because it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot. They were talking about Across the Universe by Beth Revis, and how they think it’s not really sci-fi.

Hmm.

I’ve encountered this sort of argument before, but it seems to be a recent one in YA. I’m used to arguing genre with literary types, who want to proclaim that any book that’s good couldn’t possibly be science fiction, even if it has, like, talking squids in space. But this argument is different. It’s not precisely the same sort of qualitative argument–these parties are likely to argue, in fact, that certain YA genre books are not, in fact, science fiction because they don’t think they’re particularly good science fiction.

I’ve heard arguments that those writing YA dystopian novels are just opportunistic phonies riding a trend wave toward fame. They think it’s clear that the writers in question Have Not Done Their Research because they can find world building flaws or because they’ve seen certain tropes before. And I’ll admit, I’ve been annoyed by the shoddy world building in certain books, or found aspects implausible (I’m looking at you, Delirium). I even kinda didn’t like some of these books.

But I’m still fine with calling them sci-fi.

Because of these aforementioned arguments with literary types about genre, I generally subscribe to what I like to call the “Calling a Utopia a Utopia” system of labeling sci-fi. Basically, if a work has any of the tropes commonly recognized as science fictional, it’s sci-fi. Aliens? Sci-fi. Spaceships? Sci-fi. Genetic engineering? Sci-fi. Apocalypses? Sci-fi.

I think this works two ways: it avoids weasely arguments that only define as science fictional works that suck, and it brings genre definitions more in line with the common sense way that most readers–both mainstream, and genre–actually interact with books and television. Because, you know, when my mom says she loves sci-fi she doesn’t mean only hard sci-fi where every aspect of the world building is perfectly considered (in fact, she mostly means B-movies on the SyFy channel), and when my friend says she hates it, she mostly means Star Trek leaves her cold.

Anyway, the reason this all troubles me, and quite a bit, at times, is that I’m a big sci-fi nerd. I’ve been searching for YA science fiction for years, and mostly came up completely empty until recently. And so, while I haven’t loved every sci-fi or dystopian release, I’ve been really happy to see some sort of push in publishing for the type of books that I love. For the first time, there might be room at the cool kids’ table for a dork like me.

And this dork isn’t a terribly huge hard SF fan. In fact, I really wonder if the soft science fiction that I’ve been reading since I was twelve–Katie Waitman or Megan Lindholm or Anne McCaffrey or Elizabeth Moon or Sherri S. Tepper–would pass muster with a lot of these objectors if these writers didn’t have tradition on their side. Because some of their world building is occasionally holey. Because sometimes the SF is used as atmospheric window dressing for a character-driven story. Because sometimes their books are a bit cliche, like psychic soulmates and effortless FTL travel and stuff

We have a term for this guys. It’s not “not science fiction.” It’s soft sci-fi (and it’s awesome).

Of course this is personal, too. I’ll tell you: I’ve done my homework. I always bristle when people are ignorant about the genre they’re writing in, but I’ve read every piece of YA space opera I’ve been able to get my hands on. I have an adolescence spent reading Frederick Pohl and a young adulthood spent reading Octavia Butler behind me. But the science fiction in Daughter of Earth isn’t perfect (though I’ve worked hard to make it work), and I can’t really pretend that I coined the term generation ship or anything like that. And I worry that my credentials are going to be held up to the light and judged and, feh, you know what? I love stuff like Alien Nation and Star Trek even when they are filled with rubber forehead aliens, because they thrill me. I just love all that spacey, alienish stuff.

And I don’t feel like I’m in any position to judge whether another speculative author deserves to sit with me under a genre umbrella or not (even if I might not like particular books etc. etc.). I’m just glad, really glad, that people are reading and writing books in the genre that I care about–and honestly, if you love sci-fi, I think you should be, too. Because even if the sci-fi books that are out now aren’t working for you, they represent a shift in publishing, a shift toward an environment where young adult sci-fi has a chance to find an audience for once, and that creates the possibility of harder SF being accepted, too, whereas once it was all sparkly vampires. It’s an exciting time to be a nerd.

I guess what I’m saying is, viva la (imperfect, implausible) spaceships.

32 Comments

  1. I'm a huge sci-fi nerd, too, so the label doesn't put me off, either… But a lot of people ARE put off by it. So stories are spun. Dystopian, futuristic, whatever it is. "Terminator" is sci-fi, but it's spun as action or horror. I hope one day that stigma goes away, but the tide is not with us on this.

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  2. Btw– I do firmly believe one sci-fi mega-hit will change things radically. So, hope for that.

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  3. I’m a huge sci-fi nerd, too, so the label doesn’t put me off, either… But a lot of people ARE put off by it. So stories are spun. Dystopian, futuristic, whatever it is. “Terminator” is sci-fi, but it’s spun as action or horror. I hope one day that stigma goes away, but the tide is not with us on this.

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    • Hey SJ, thanks for the comment!

      In this case, I’m actually referring to science fiction fans harping on how they don’t think the SF of a lot of YA is good enough to deserve the label. It’s really . . . strange. As you say, it’s difficult to get mainstream readers to be at all accepting of the SF label. It’s strange that SF readers would be so stingy with it, too.

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    • Also, uh, your book sounds awesome. *subscribes* ^_^

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  4. Every group has its snobs who think things they don't like are lesser and don't count, even when it looks, feels, and smells like whatever the group revolves around. (I could tell you *stories* about natural fiber yarn vs. acrylic yarn knitters. OH THE HORROR. It involves melting babies, and how acrylic yarn isn't real yarn.)

    The real SF vs. wannabe SF has been around for a while. There are fantasy fans who won't count UF or PR as fantasy. And we all know there are readers who don't count *any* genre as Real Books unless they're placed in the "literary" section in their bookstore. Fortunately they don't notice when things like HANDMAID'S TALE get stuck in there.

    PS. When are we all going to write REAL books? You know, ones for grown ups.

    *g*

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    • Jodi, your comment’s got me giggling lots. You’re so right that there are snobs everywhere. Funny thing is, I started my writing “journey,” so to speak, as a literary poet, and so as I’ve moved into genre and YA I’ve been floored by how inclusive everything is. So when I come up against people claiming that people writing dystopians are poseurs, or whatever, I’m kinda like, “Buh?!” Used to that attitude in the grad school crowd, not in YA!

      PS. When are we all going to write REAL books? You know, ones for grown ups.

      *g*

      Probably around the time that we grow up. Not planning on doing that! ;)

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    • The real SF vs. wannabe SF has been around for a while. There are fantasy fans who won’t count UF or PR as fantasy.

      One thing I can’t help but wonder at, though, is why it’s always the legitimacy of books read mostly by women cast into doubt? Soft SF, romancey dystopians, urban fantasy or paranormal. It’s like GIRL BOOKS aren’t real or something. Harumph!

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  5. As someone grew up loving Science Fiction, this is definitely a subject that speaks to me. On the one hand, I have seen some make the argument that science fiction has been on the decline in popularity over decade or so.

    Take TV, which I think is the easiest example. There’s very little in terms of mainstream programming that involves spaceflight. For that matter there’s not much in the way of movies that involve spaceflight, outside of those that stem from established series (Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate). Of course I can think of one notable exception in Avatar, although I don’t know if that movie would’ve even been made if not for James Cameron’s creditable. At the least, I doubt it would’ve had the same budget.

    Beyond Avatar, which might feel like more of the exception than the rule when it comes to the mainstreams acceptance of Sci-Fi, there clearly still is a market for Sci-Fi and it’s a target demograph too. Look at the popular video games out there and you’ll see plenty that easily fall into the sci-fi field. With video games, the emphasis on story will obviously vary, but some games have stories just as compelling as those you’d find in any other medium. Additionally, as video games become more sophisticated, people tend to evaluate games on their story as much as anything else. So I think it can be an argument that science fiction can still thrive in other markets.

    Still, I wonder if the perception that Science Fiction is on the decline (and therefore less marketable) makes people more reluctant to brand a story with sci-fi elements a sci-fi.

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    • I think that's definitely part of this, though I do think that things are improving. Compare the cover of Academy 7, published two years ago, with the aforementioned Across the Universe, published this year. Both space-set SF published by non-genre imprints, but massively different approaches. I don't think all those stars would have flown a few years back! Perhaps Avatar had something to do with it (and I think a lot of the dystopian lit. like The Hunger Games kind of primed the market for it), but whatever the reason, things seem to be improving.

      Honestly, I can more readily understand when publishers obscure or mislabel SF to reach a more mainstream audience. I don't agree with it, but they're motivated by the desire to reach readers, at least. I'm not quite sure what the motivation is with genre fans who don't want to call a clear SF novel SF, either, though.

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  6. Woah. Spiral binding?

    That's pretty hard core.

    The 'YA doesn't count' attitude is actually more common than I thought – or at least, that's the conclusion I've come to since I started talking about books in more diverse places online. (Like Metafilter – 'raw sewage', right?) A lot of people do seem to think that YA anything is going to be 'genre-lite'.

    …which, yeah, I've complained about that before. It's not an entirely undeserved reputation, but I'm saying that as somebody who keeps a very close eye to what's going on in the industry. Most of the people criticizing YA like this don't have a clue what's actually out there.

    That's one reason why it's gratifying to see sites like io9 cover (some) YA science-fiction/dystopian news. An awful lot of the comments for those posts say things like 'Wow, I never knew this existed, but I'll check it out'. I think getting coverage on sites like that could be a very good move for YA authors who write SF.

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    • It is hardcore! But mostly it's because I just didn't want to wrestle with my printer. ;)

      That’s one reason why it’s gratifying to see sites like io9 cover (some) YA science-fiction/dystopian news. An awful lot of the comments for those posts say things like ‘Wow, I never knew this existed, but I’ll check it out’. I think getting coverage on sites like that could be a very good move for YA authors who write SF.

      Yeah, I'm excited about this, too. Just a little confused when it's people who claim to like both YA and sci-fi. I have NO IDEA what would make these people happy. Do they want Larry Nivenesque stuff? Or what? You know?

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  7. Phoebe,

    For fans that don’t want to call a Sci-Fi novel a Sci-Fi…I think it might sometimes be because they see Sci-Fi as something that’s beneath them. I consider myself a pretty big Sci-Fi nerd, but I’ve met people who take pride in the fact that they don’t like Star Trek. Those same people usually like a Sci-Fi show, book, movie, or at very least, video game, but my sense is that they don’t want to be associated with the geek culture that they feel comes with liking sci-fi. So that could be a reason why some try to rebrand their favorite stories.

    Of course, what I’m describing might only be true of a few people or it might not be true at all. It might have very little or nothing to do with any particular person’s attempt to argue against something being sci-fi. It’s just a theory off the top of my head.

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  8. I am always *very* suspicious of (and irritated by) efforts to label something not SF (be it science fiction or fantasy), especially when it's clearly working with well-established genre tropes.

    That this discussion centered around Across the Universe cracks me up, given a recent rave on Smart Bitches (if I'm remembering right) that declared it was SF, but not really a romance at its core.

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    • Ooh, I missed the Smart Bitches conversation. I'll have to look it up. I was recently chatting with people on the Strange Horizons blog about it–whether Across the Universe should rightfully be called dystopian or sci-fi. Barring the fact that dystopian fiction is a subcategory of science fiction, anyway, it seems odd to me to categorize a book set on a spaceship in deep space with cryochambers and genetic engineering according to an important, but less pervasive, plot element. Ditto for calling it a romance, though of course, I understand why publishers would be eager to categorize a YA novel that way.

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  9. I'd read a post about editing.

    Anyway, what makes something science fiction is that it's concerned with how technology defines our existence, as a species, or culture, or as individuals. And the difference between "hard" and "soft" sci-fi is simply the amount of technical detail. As an example, portable mp3 players have radically changed our society, and I've read articles about that, and they are essentially sociological or anthropological or psychological in nature. But if somebobody had had the foresight or imagination to write that kind of paper in the 60's or 70s, say, it would be science fiction. And without any concrete theory of how you'd build an ipod, it'd probably be soft science fiction: it would be about how our society was altered by the introduction of new technology. What I would describe as "tv sci fi" or "Hollywood sci fi" isn't science fiction because, typically, it is really unconcerned with science on any level: it just borrows what you call tropes because there IS an audience that maybe grew up watching shows and movies that containd those tropes, that is, they appreciate the aesthetics of sci fi ("real" or not). "Science fiction" is mainly used as a catch-all phrase (the other day I saw a movie version of Peter Pan listed as "Science Fiction" on the channel guide), but generally stuff described as sci fi by the mainstream is really fantasy. Does the obvious popularity of "sci-fi themed fantasy", if you will (stripped of the science ideas that the general public I guess finds unpalatable), mean that "real" science fiction is making a comeback? Personally, I don't think so, because in this country fewer people are getting science/engineering degrees, the popularity of sci-fi depends on people being excited about science, and the fact that most so-called science fiction has no science reflects that people explicitly do NOT want science fiction that is too "science fiction-y"

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    • Have we argued about this before? I think we have.

      Your definition of science fiction is extremely limited compared to the definition used by many/most writers in the field. Soft sci-fi isn’t considered, by most, hard SF with fewer technical details, but rather, science fiction that focuses either:

      1. On the “soft” or social sciences (psychology, anthropology, etc.)
      2. A heavier focus on the characters or society, rather than on the hard science aspects.

      And, I mean, it’s fine that you’re suing terminology that’s different than what’s commonly used in the field, but it IS a definition heavily skewed (and with an inherent value judgment, when you bring in terms like “real”) toward hard-SF sensibilities, so I’d just be aware that it might lead to some communications difficulties when discussing these with other fans. :P

      In any event, some of the books in question do focus on “how technology defines our existence”–for example, A Long, Long Sleep was about the impact of a sort of cryostasis both on one individual life and the legal ramifications on the wider society. It’s a premise that falls apart without that central scientific conceit, even if the application might be what you call “TV sci-fi.” Likewise Revis’ Across the Universe which would unravel without the deep space exploration, genetic engineering, and cryostasis. All of that seems pretty science fiction-y to me.

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  10. Thumbs up. I tend to subscribe to your line of thinking about SF — that it's more all-inclusive and its tree branches a lot farther than hard SF and traditional Space Operas. My current WIP is Steampunk-based, but I consider it (soft) SF because my literary world includes a lot of biological and botanical science. Fictional, of course, but it's there. Of course, there are also frilly petticoats and a touch of romance, so. Y'know.

    Sometimes sub-genres just get UNWIELDY.

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    • . . . I have to say that basically this conversation is just making me want to read all of ya'll's books.

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    • . . . you know, this discussion is just really making me want to read all of ya'll's soft-SF books. Steampunk + biology + botany sounds AWESOME.

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  11. I will admit that I am starting to get really tired of futures that are just generically bad and repressive, and just happen to be bad and repressive in the same ways that schools and parents are bad and repressive. (They don't take young love seriously, man!)

    But fantasy books where the magic is insufficiently thought-out or numinous are still fantasy books. Historical fiction where the history is howlingly inaccurate is still historical fiction. And to say that science fiction books with careless science don't count as science fiction is tiptoeing awfully close to a No True Scotsman fallacy…

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    • Emily Horner: I will admit that I am starting to get really tired of futures that are just generically bad and repressive, and just happen to be bad and repressive in the same ways that schools and parents are bad and repressive. (They don’t take young love seriously, man!)

      Oh man, yeah. There are a few limp dystopians that are pretty much all about the horrors of arranged marriages within cultures where arranged marriages are commonplace (and so should perhaps be seen as less than horrible to the parties in question, but, you know, twu wuv, and all) and I really don’t enjoy that narrative at all, or the way it’s been explored so far.

      But like I said–it’s one thing to think a book sucks. It’s another to be like, “This sucky book cannot be SF.”

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  12. Well, first of all, I used the exact same definition you’re using, that soft sci-fi focuses on the psychological/sociological aspects of technology rather than the technical details (a story could do both and be both, but I think you’d generally call such a story hard sci-fi, anyway). However, that doesn’t mean that ANY story that focuses on character is science fiction, obviously — but not even if the story happens to happen in the future or whatever. I understand that people use the term “sci fi” to mean, essentially, there’s aliens and crap in here, and I don’t have a problem with that per se; but I also think science fiction is more about an approach than it is about an aesthetic.

    People like, for example, the “Star Trek future” or the “William Gibson future” and want to write stories in those worlds or ones similar to them. Those stories would then be at least derivative of science fiction and therefore implicitly suggest ideas about how technology changes what it means to be “human” (or doesn’t). But they might also completely lack the CONTENT that makes something “science fiction” rather than a fantasy romp through a future landscape. I haven’t read those books, and a Long, Long Sleep, at least, does sound like science fiction to me.

    Also, if I go to the trouble of putting the word “real” in quotes myself, I think it suggests that I’m not making a value judgment.

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    • Also, I forgot to say: -I- like soft sci-fi. My interest in the nitty gritty of real space ship design is very limited.

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    • The problem with deciding that it's based on approach is that no one can really speak to approach except for the author, and it's entirely possible that the authors in question approached TV-style SF with the same care and level of intention that, say, the Star Trek: TNG writers did, or whatever, but that care and intention is not always reflected in the book (maybe it's not narratively relevant; maybe they Did Their Homework but were not very Good At It, etc. etc.) And that's why I'm uncomfortable declaring that these works are not SF, or are just fantasy, or whatev, because we really don't know. I'd prefer to err toward inclusion for that reason.

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  13. <blockquote cite="comment-1899">

    Emily Horner: I will admit that I am starting to get really tired of futures that are just generically bad and repressive, and just happen to be bad and repressive in the same ways that schools and parents are bad and repressive. (They don’t take young love seriously, man!)

    Oh man, yeah. There are a few limp dystopians that are pretty much all about the horrors of arranged marriages within cultures where arranged marriages are commonplace (and so should perhaps be seen as less than horrible to the parties in question, but, you know, twu wuv, and all) and I really don't enjoy that narrative at all, or the way it's been explored so far.

    But like I said–it's one thing to think a book sucks. It's another to be like, "This sucky book cannot be SF."

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  14. It seems though that the best sci fi is something that you don’t even consider being of that genre. Someone had brought up Avatar, but also such films as Inception, Back to the Future, or several superhero comic book/movie (Iron Man is completely sci fi, with elements that appeal to both the hardcore and the general audience). And usually if the film is up-to-snuff, it’s normally not labelled as a genre, but instead regarded as a film as a whole.

    Even if it is “dumbed down” and packaged in a way that makes it accessible to the general audience, it can only introduce more people into that type of fictional world. Even Twilight… maybe.

    Also, Phoebe, in terms of great sci fi movies, I don’t know if you’ve seen Moon, but definitely worth the watch.

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  15. I cannot recall the title of a YA sci fi book about a young girl whose father has changed her after a car accident by essentially resurrecting her. Something about blue goo instead of blood, she is told she was in a coma and probably won't remember parts of her life, includes memory scans so that they basically resurrect her after an accident that pulverized her. Hoping you can help. I am considering it for my book group. We did FEED last time, but it was a bit too edgy for some members…too bad.

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    • Hi there Irisa, sorry for the late response. Try the Adoration of Jenna Fox. :)

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