Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lack of Science Fiction for Children: Failing to Imagine a Better Future

In a recent panel at the New York Public Library, an important question was asked: Where’s the science fiction for young readers?

Even today when one hears the term “science fiction,” the immediate titles that come to mind most often belong to the oeuvre of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells—the founding fathers of the science fiction genre. Many of the older SF writers are now celebrated for having the foresight of envisioning many of the technological advancements that now are a part of our daily lives. We belong to a time when the brightest minds of our time were able to create Siri, a “personal assistant” and “knowledge navigator,” who functions as a “human consciousness inhabiting [an] electronic [space], blurring the boundary between human and machine” (Cadora); but has our imagination and ability to envision the future stunted in comparison to the past?

In the wake of the moon landing and the Star Wars saga, there was an explosion of interest in the SF genre—as seen by the popularity of books like A Wrinkle in Time, Ender’s Game, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Giver—but the emergence of the Harry Potter series in the late 90’s changed the children’s publishing world forever. Following on its coattail came the Percy Jackson series and the Twilight saga. Fantasy suddenly became the most desired sub genre for young readers. 

Even the popular dystopian novels of today, which fall under combined category of science fiction/fantasy, have a distinct lack of science in them. Despite our futuristic world where we are slaves to our phones, people are turning away from the imagining and exploration of a future defined by “exploitive technologies” and “obeisance to authority” (Cadora). With constant criticism that social media and texting are taking away our ability to connect with each other on a personal level, one would think the fear of “social breakdowns caused by the alienation” of communicating with each other through machines would be a more enticing issue to readers (Crandall). Yet, readers are much more interested in patriarchal oppressed dystopian societies, and the popularity of the Hunger Games and Divergent series can attest to that.

Most books that are solely identified as SF are generally marketed towards adults. Even so, some YA novels, such as Cinder by Marissa Meyer and The Maze Runner by James Dashner, do try to incorporate the SF characteristics of technologically and scientifically advanced future societies into their stories for interested readers, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the difference between fantasy and science fiction for YA.

As far as science fiction books for children, you can find pictures books like Doug Unplugged by Dan Yaccarino and Oh No!: Or How MyScience Project Destroyed the Whole World by Mac Barnett and Dan Santat. Then in middle grade you find select books such as When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and The Accelerati Triology by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman. But the issue remains they are few and far in between. So it begs the question: Is science fiction in children’s literature out of place because there are not enough interested readers? Or is it that publishers are choosing to place their focus elsewhere? I believe it is a disservice to young readers to not let them explore the fun side of science fiction. The writing of both Stead and Shusterman/Elfman are filled with so much heart and humor:

"'s like they say, 'Keep your friend's clothes... in your enemy's closet.'" 
-Tesla's Attic (Accelerati, #1) 

This shift away from science fiction has me wondering: At what point did children turn away from imagining and exploring the possibilities of a technologically advanced future to yearning for a life of magic and monsters (of the mythical and human variety, but not machine)?

Scholarly Sources:

Cadora, Karen. "Feminist cyberpunk." Science fiction studies (1995): 357-372.

Crandall, Nadia. "Cyberfiction and the Gothic Novel." The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders (2008): 39-56.

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