Fonda Lee Guest Post–“The Case for YA Science Fiction”

Fonda Lee Guest Post–“The Case for YA Science Fiction”
30 May

On a recent plane ride home from a major book festival, I ended up chatting with a woman next to me who had also been at the festival. “So, what do you write?” she asked, when she discovered I was an attending author. I reluctantly told her that I write science fiction and fantasy. “Oh, that explains why I didn’t see you on any panels this weekend,” she said. “I don’t read that stuff. Except for Harry Potter, of course. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books.”

This is why I generally avoid talking to strangers on the airplane.

There’s no question, however, that young adult fantasy is one of the largest, most lucrative categories in fiction publishing, exploding since J.K. Rowling changed the game in 1997. Some of the biggest names in speculative fiction work almost exclusively in the field—authors like Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah Maas, and Maggie Stiefvater to name just a few. They top bestseller charts, win awards, and headline festivals. The biggest recent YA novel to hit the shelves, Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy Children of Blood and Bone, was a whopping seven-figure deal optioned by Hollywood before it was even published.

As for YA science fiction? Three years ago, when my second novel was on submission, nearly every rejection I received boiled down to, “We’re not looking for science fiction.” Naturally, being an insecure early career author, I was tempted to think this was code for, “We think your writing is garbage,” but by then, my first novel had been published to some acclaim and won awards, so I had more reason to believe my agent when he did his best to reassure me.

“You’re writing in a genre that makes people nervous,” he told me. “I’ve had to battle against folks who say things like, ‘Sci-fi is too hard,’ or, ‘I just don’t know how to market sci-fi to teens.’” Ever optimistic, he ended with, “Regardless, we’ll find the perfect home for this one.”

We did; that book, Exo, sold to an editor at Scholastic who believed in it a hundred percent, and all’s well that ends well. But for a while, I had a frustrating front row view into the disparity between the two sides of the genre coin. While fantasy is more popular and more lucrative in the adult speculative fiction field as well, the imbalance seems to be worse in YA. Readers of adult fantasy often also read YA fantasy, and numerous authors are successfully published in both categories: Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman, V. E. Schwab, Kate Elliott, and Daniel José Older jump to the top of my mind with little effort. In contrast, few authors cross between adult and YA science fiction. (I only managed to come up with Paolo Bacigalupi and Cory Doctorow.)

Why, at a time when we have a new Star Wars movie seemingly every six months, and teen-centered films A Wrinkle in Time and Ready Player One are box office successes, do we not have more breakout YA sci-fi books? I refuse to believe that the core ideas of science fiction—technology, society, change, and exploration—do not resonate with an activist generation that is growing up with smartphones in hand. That bleak cousin of science fiction, dystopia, hit its peak in YA with The Hunger Games and Divergent, but remains robust and in no danger of going out of style anytime soon. Yet as a whole, YA sci-fi lags well behind YA fantasy when it comes to publishing industry love and mainstream market success.

Perhaps authors and publishers believe that magic is simply more accessible to a younger audience than science. It’s rare for me to find a YA science fiction novel in which believable technology plays any substantial part in the world building. What results is a dynamic like this:

How does the wand work?

Adult fiction: It’s magic.

YA fiction: It’s magic.

How does the spaceship work?

Adult fiction: With a matter-antimatter rocket providing constant acceleration at 9.8 m/s² the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation can be employed to describe the final/initial mass expressed in terms of effective exhaust velocity V, acceleration A, and distance traveled D between the beginning and end of the rocket burn . . .

YA fiction: It’s magic.

As someone who reads both adult and YA science fiction, I’ve found myself frustrated on both sides of the aisle. I’ve come across quite a lot of young adult science fiction wrapped in the trappings of the genre—spaceships, planets, etc.—but lacking positive inclusion of actual science or technology, the sense of questioning and extrapolation of the future, the pointed observations of society that great science fiction has always given us.

On the other hand, the “trickle up” effect that we see in fantasy, in which adult fiction is adopting the pacing, narrative immediacy, and youthful characters of YA (think S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, Fran Wilde’s Horizon, Rati Mehrota’s Markswoman, just for starters) is largely absent in adult science fiction. The lauded “crossover” zone that draws on both YA and adult readers seems to be slim to non-existent in science fiction. (Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series may be the only notable exception, and please don’t start down the path of arguing that we should introduce teen readers to the genre by starting them on the “classics.”)

I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that many YA sci-fi writers don’t read adult science fiction, and many adult science fiction writers rarely go into the YA section of the bookstore.

“It’s a gender issue,” a fellow author postulated when I brought this idea up to him. I think he has a point. YA is viewed as a “female” category, one of the few areas of publishing dominated by female authors, constantly derided as full of books about teen girls caught in love triangles. There’s an incorrect perception, certainly among many casual adult readers, that all YA novels require a romance-heavy plot centering on a teenage girl, narrated in first person present POV. Meanwhile, even with all the women who’ve worked and are working in the field, science fiction, especially “hard” science fiction, is still pervasively viewed as a bastion of geeky masculinity. There remains a wall of misunderstanding and stereotype that often sadly puts YA fantasy and adult sci-fi as far away from each other in readership as picture books and true crime.

Part of what exacerbates the situation is the fact that the speculative fiction community often doesn’t recognize, discuss, and celebrate the full range of excellent YA sci-fi that does exist, often because it is written by authors who do not populate the usual convention panels. Feed by M. T. Anderson is a smart, savage cyberpunk satire with a pitch perfect teen voice; Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion is one of the best books out there about cloning; the acclaimed Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld is a fabulous blend of steampunk, biopunk, and alternate history—yet I rarely hear such titles mentioned on SF websites or conventions. While our industry recognizes excellence in the field with the Andre Norton Award, the Locus Award, or this year for the first time, the not-a-Hugo YA Award, we have not yet made those awards widely known and relevant to stakeholders outside of the SFF community—teachers, librarians, and most of all, teen readers.

I’m still optimistic about YA science fiction. I have to be; I’m launching my next novel, Cross Fire, even as this post goes up. Also, I see the wealth of work that is out there (just look at BookRiot’s list of 100 Must Read YA Science Fiction Books or the 2017 Locus Recommended Reading List), I take heart in the enthusiastic fan mail I receive from teen readers, and I think about the fact that science fiction, like fantasy, is broadening and evolving in its inclusion of voices. Good work is being done by programs such as the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop, that every year admits YA writers among its participants and gives them scientific knowledge they can use in their creative work. I’ve met many teachers and librarians who see the value of science fiction and champion it to their students. And I think there’s a lot more room in the YA category for science fiction to do something we’re already seeing in film: combine the fast-paced storytelling and youthful appeal of YA fiction with the sci-fi genre’s sense of sharp intelligence, social observation, and the gosh dang coolness of gadgets, spaceships, and the frontier of human invention to inspire the next generation with meaningful human stories.

If you’re not already a fan of the category, I urge you to give it a chance—either as a reader, an educator, or a writer. I say this with complete selfishness, because I want more quality YA sci-fi in more glorious variants: YA technothrillers, YA space operas, YA cyberpunk noir, give me all of it—and I’d like the subgenre to get some of the love and clout that YA fantasy has found.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing.

Fonda Lee is the award-winning author of science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux) and Exo (Scholastic), and the gangster fantasy Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City (Orbit). Fonda is a martial artist, foodie, and action movie aficionado who lives in Portland, Oregon. Learn more online at and on Twitter @fondajlee.



« »