Sunday, August 12, 2007

Biology in SF a kid thing?

Last week Jannie Lee Simner posted to the SFWA LiveJournal community about the difference she sees between what "older" science fiction fans and young adult science fiction fans are reading.
But it's become standard wisdom that the science fiction readership is aging, and I'm not convinced this is true.

What is happening, I think, is that the sort of science fiction young people are reading is changing. I see SF in the YA section of the bookstore all the time. But it doesn't look anything like the SF older generations of fans read; even the packaging is very, very different. On last weekend's panel, we concluded the content is different, too, with much more of a bent toward the sociological and biological, and less of a bent toward space travel.

I think that because the kid and teen SF out there looks nothing like the SF we're used to reading, and because kids and teens aren't crossing over to read the stuff that's packaged for adults, many folks assume that kids and teens aren't reading SF at all.

Now this argument puzzles me a bit. Now, I'm not at all surprised that science fiction in the young adult section of the bookstore frequently has a biological bent. As a commenter on that thread, demonicfangirl, points out:
I think that the reason why young adult SF has changed more towards sociological and biological is because right now, technology is here. Most everything that used to just be in the realm of science fiction is now reality. Kids these days are learning how to type before they learn how to write with a pencil. So, that leaves us younger readers - and writers - with the society-side of the future, asking the questions about how Humans would interact with Aliens, and what really constitutes AS an alien.
That sounds right to me. What I don't agree with is the implicit assumption in Simner's post that most science fiction for adults is about "space travel."

I honestly haven't had any trouble finding adult SF with biological (and sociological) themes and nary a spaceship in sight. And the number of such books seems to have increased over the last couple of decades, at least. In fact, much of the cyberpunk of the 80s (when I made the transition from "young adult" to adult), while not being biology-based is very much earth bound, and the subsequent "biopunk" of the 90s is both biological and earthly. I see the treatment of similar themes in current young adult titles as the logical development of the genre.

Here are the books specifically mentioned in Simner's post with their descriptions:

  • Feed by M.T. Anderson
    "This brilliantly ironic satire is set in a future world where television and computers are connected directly into people's brains when they are babies. The result is a chillingly recognizable consumer society where empty-headed kids are driven by fashion and shopping and the avid pursuit of silly entertainment--even on trips to Mars and the moon--and by constant customized murmurs in their brains of encouragement to buy, buy, buy."
  • Spacer and Rat, by Margaret Bechard
    "Those Earthies. First they ruin their own planet, and now they are going to ruin the rest of the solar system! No wonder Jack and the other Spacers on Freedom Station call them "rats." Then Jack meets Kit, a rat, and her sentient Bot, Waldo, and against his better judgment finds himself drawn into their--well, orbit--and fleeing for his life."
  • The City of Ember (The First Book of Ember) and The People of Sparks (Books of Ember), by Jeanne DuPrau
    City of Ember: "It is always night in the city of Ember. But there is no moon, no stars. The only light during the regular twelve hours of "day" comes from floodlamps that cast a yellowish glow over the streets of the city. Beyond are the pitch-black Unknown Regions, which no one has ever explored because an understanding of fire and electricity has been lost, and with it the idea of a Moveable Light. "Besides," they tell each other, "there is nowhere but here" Among the many other things the people of Ember have forgotten is their past and a direction for their future. For 250 years they have lived pleasantly, because there has been plenty of everything in the vast storerooms. But now there are more and more empty shelves--and more and more times when the lights flicker and go out, leaving them in terrifying blackness for long minutes. What will happen when the generator finally fails?"
  • Siberia, by Ann Halam
    "In a dystopian (though vaguely familiar) wilderness called Siberia, young Rosita and her mother live in a camp as political prisoners. By day, Rosita's mother makes nails, but secretly at night, she performs her "magic" of creating and harvesting animal life with a Lindquist kit. When Rosita excels at the prison school, she is sent away to board at New Dawn School. She is quickly disenchanted, tricked into betraying her mother and sending her to die, and becomes "Sloe," helping to run a stolen-goods ring in the school. When Sloe is expelled, she returns home long enough to steal the Lindquist kit and then makes a break for the enlightened city several hundred miles to the north where her mother told her she would find safety. Halam intertwines issues of ecology, climate change, and nature conservancy with more personal themes of loneliness, identity, and trust."
  • Taylor Five, by Ann Halam
    "Taylor Walker seems like any ordinary 14-year-old. Ordinary—if you overlook the fact that she lives on the island of Borneo, on a primate reserve run by her parents, and knows how to survive in the jungle. Obviously, Tay isn’t just like everyone else. But she is like one other person. She’s exactly like one other person. Tay is a clone, one of only five in the world, and her clone mother is Pam Taylor, a brilliant scientist."
  • Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
    "It's almost the end of Miranda's sophomore year in high school, and her journal reflects the busy life of a typical teenager: conversations with friends, fights with mom, and fervent hopes for a driver's license. When Miranda first begins hearing the reports of a meteor on a collision course with the moon, it hardly seems worth a mention in her diary. But after the meteor hits, pushing the moon off its axis and causing worldwide earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, all the things Miranda used to take for granted begin to disappear. Food and gas shortages, along with extreme weather changes, come to her small Pennsylvania town; and Miranda's voice is by turns petulant, angry, and finally resigned, as her family is forced to make tough choices while they consider their increasingly limited options. Yet even as suspicious neighbors stockpile food in anticipation of a looming winter without heat or electricity, Miranda knows that that her future is still hers to decide even if life as she knew it is over."
  • Peeps and The Last Days, by Scott Westerfeld
    Peeps: "Nineteen-year-old Cal, a Texas transplant, lost his virginity–and a lot more–when he first arrived in New York City. He became a parasite-positive, or peep–he prefers not to use the v-word. Now he works for the Night Watch, a secret branch of city government dedicated to tracking others of his kind. Unlike the rare natural carriers like Cal, who has acquired night vision, superhuman strength, and a craving for lots of protein, most peeps are insane cannibals lurking in darkness. But now the teen has found the young woman who infected him–and learns that something worse than peeps is threatening the city, and he is on the front lines."

    The Last Days: "Something horrifying is bubbling up from the earth, and vampires stalk the streets of New York--but in this electric sequel to Peeps (2005), Moz and his buddy Zahler think only of forming a band. One night Moz, with the help of passerby Pearl, rescues a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Like Moz, Pearl is a musician, and a band is born. Soon the band recruits a singer, a Peep with her parasite mostly under control, and a drummer who literally sees the music and the terrifying things it attracts. Eventually it becomes clear that the new band will play a key role in the coming struggle against the powerful evil."

  • Uglies (Uglies Trilogy, Book 1), Pretties (Uglies Trilogy, Book 2), and Specials (Uglies Trilogy, Book 3) by Scott Westerfeld
    "Set some time in the future, after a human-made bacteria destroyed the modern world, the trilogy tells of new cities established and tightly controlled through brainwashing and a series of operations leading to a compliant society. Tally Youngblood, the 16-year-old protagonist, learns in the first two books that free will and truth are more important than a false sense of security. In Specials, she has become an elite fighting machine, fully enhanced with nanotechnology and super-fast reflexes, and made to work as a Special Circumstances agent for the nameless city that she fled
Take away the teen protagonists, and I don't think these would be out of place thematically with "adult" science fiction - at least the kind I enjoy reading. So my question is this: if you exclude all the Star Wars and Star Trek tie-in novels, is the majority of current science fiction about space travel and not biology or sociology? Or are my own personal preferences blinding me to the continuing dominance of space opera?



  1. Ann Halam is a pen name of Gwyneth Jones, who also happens to write very fine SF, most of it with a biological theme, for adults. And her last adult series featured a bunch of rock stars, which might be a good cross-over point for teenagers.

  2. Thanks for the info. I've added Jones to my reading wish list!


I've turned on comment moderation on posts older than 30 days. Your (non-spammy) comment should appear when I've had a chance to review it.

Note: Links to are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.