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Response to: Young Adult Science Fiction Is Getting More Pessimistic, Less Scientific

The lovely @robinwasserman pointed this morning to a quote on the Young Adult Science Fiction genre, Young Adult Science Fiction is Getting More Pessimistic, Less Scientific. The link will show you the whole quote, but here it is as well, posted by  Charlie Jane Anders:

"[In] the Golden Age... there was an emphasis on writing for young people, to essentially hook them and get them excited about the genre, so they would become lifelong science fiction readers. And in those works, juveniles written by people like Heinlein and Asimov and Andre Norton and such, there was this sense that technology was good. Part of this was because many of these authors were trained as scientists themselves, engineers [or] physicists. There was the idea — a sense of wonder — that young people could grow up in to this new technological world and really change it and make it their own. And so even the ones that seemed negative in some ways — for example Robert Heinlein's Starman Jones was a story that had a very negative view of the way the Earth was developing, people couldn't get into jobs they wanted unless they were essentially born into a family that held one of those jobs. There was little advancement... but because space was out there, a young man could go out there — and in this case, most of the time it was a young man — and make his way. And that negative view of how things might turn out was in fact just the spark the heroic character needed to light a fire under him and motivate him to go out and make his own way. And actually, in the end, change the world.
"And some of the things I see now, particularly in science fiction juveniles, are of a different character. And part of that I think is because the authors writing them are not trained in the sciences, they're trained in the humanities. And they are looking back at the legacy of what science is doing, has done, on everything from environmental issues to questions of weaponry and warfare, and they're sort of taking stock of this, and I wouldn't say necessarily that it's all pessimism, but you don't see the same sense of wonder balanced in the same way. It's become more self-critical, particularly in these works that are hitting the, say, 14 to 18 year old readers and bringing them into the genre for the first time." — Professor Amy Sturgis, interviewed by NPR station WFPL for "The Subversive Side Of Science Fiction" (Full podcast at link). [via Geekend]

And now, my response. I tried leaving a comment, but you have to jump through hoops to be able to do so.

Science has grown exponentially, to a point where some areas have hit a temporary stalemate. Consider that the human race has made more breakthroughs in technology and science in the last 5, 10 years than in the last 5,000. Sci Fi writers of the past could imagine ahead a world of technology as a dawning of the greatness of man far easier than we can now, for that very reason. They weren't advancing as much as we are today, when we measure tech progress in days and weeks, not months or years. This, I believe, is the main root of this supposed pessimistic shift of sci fi today, not the lack of science training for writers.

Some of the many YA Sci Fi books I've read are post-Apocalyptic, but its the survival beyond that thats heartening. As an avid reader of YA Sci Fi, and an aspiring YA writer myself, I don't see a presence of negativity in the new teen protagonists, I see them overcome the loss of technology, the determination to rebuild their world. Just as with Asimov, negativity from outside is what spurs the characters on, but in a different direction - towards a unity of society.

And frankly, this overall generalization is disturbing. The quote reads that this woman, Amy Sturgis, may not be carefully reading the books she doesn't actually name. Where are the examples of general negativity in the characters? Where is the pessimism of the future? Why would we ignore the hurts our Scientific Progress has done to the planet we call home? Why would we be held in awe by new technology, instead of asking what more damage will it do to the world? Self-critical is also called caution, its a way of becoming more self aware. Being trained in science or humanities doesn't have a bearing here - its what we do with science that directs the world. And its how the youth of our imagined futures deals with it that is the most insightful - they aren't as influential as the adults that run the world, and so they MUST act and react with the world the best they know how.

Science without humanity can and often is deadly, as we've seen in history, and this is what authors are pointing at, whether by will or no.

Books, as in science and technology, must evolve with the times, and on a more superficial level, the wonder that the good Professor says is lacking is mainly due to the lack of newness of the new technology. Its expected now, rather than hoped for. History is cyclical, and again we are trying to become more aware of ourself as a people, a society. Its the sign of the ages, and thats what writers write about.


  1. The grass was always greener twenty years ago, wasn't it?

    I agree with you that YA sci-fi isn't more pessimistic than it used to be. In general, I'd say it's darker. But even then, it's not as though the concept of dystopia is a new one. I think an arguement could be made that the genre's actually more optomistic now because there are fewer shiny-happy starting points yet at least as much people finding purpose/happiness/love. Success means more when the obsticles are bigger.

  2. Raval911 says:

    The whole question of optimism/pessimism can't be addressed w/o context of looking @ how much the dynamics of scifi and YA have changed. The genre's still a hot elitist mess, but def much less the Whiteboys club it was in "the good ol' days." This is gonna be reflected in how ppl envision the world, the future, etc. Longing for the technology happy, country club past....smh

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