Late Night Rant on YA Sci-fi and the Labeling Of
Hi, guys! I’m editing.
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.
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.