YA Science Fiction & Fantasy – Part One: The Introduction
This is the first in a series of articles talking about YA science fiction and fantasy. In the coming months we’re going to look at YA as a sub-genre of SFF—and decide if it really is a subgenre at all—and go back to its roots to track its evolution. Finally, we’ll take a look at just what makes YA what it is and examine whether it is a matter of marketing, the age of its protagonists, or if there is something very specific that YA novels exhibit that make it an inherently different genre to standard fantasy and science fiction. In this month’s article, we’re going to lay the foundations for the rest of the series and pave the way for the deeper analysis to come.
People in general don’t talk enough about YA science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps it’s because “adults” balk at reading something they perceive is written for “children” and young adults, due to the lack of choice and progress within the genre supposedly written for them, feel patronised and are desperate to justify themselves as intelligent, opinionated adults by shooting past the YA titles and diving headlong into regular fantasy. I’m not going to call it “adult”; that’s patronising. You’re an adult on a plane or train ticket from age fifteen (sometimes even twelve). It’s not a matter of maturity or experience and choosing a YA title over one found in the regular section does not somehow undermine your intelligence. In fact, statistically, it’s suggested that a great many more adults read YA fiction than teenagers and children.
That’s because a book is a book is a book. But that’s not how people see books anymore, unfortunately. They’re badges; expressions of who we are. Books are accessories, just like everything else. The problem is, sometimes people are ashamed of being seen reading a particular type of book. Some people feel genuinely judged by what they read.
This might be one of the problems surrounding the reception of YA. I was lucky enough to have what seemed like tailor-made YA fantasy right under my nose—but then I grew up with Harry Potter. Older readers of SFF who might feel like approaching YA will look to the choices they had when they were kids to help navigate the new titles and sub-sub-genres found in YA. Until recent years what was available was patronising, childish and entirely limited to fiction that catered only for ages twelve-thirteen, and these potential readers will merely browse the aisles and then quickly get lost when pointed by trends to the en vogue novels of the day. That is not the way to get into reading YA—especially if you don’t appreciate romance to dominate your novels.
There’s nothing wrong with romance: one of the reasons YA can be so rewarding is the development of real and tangible relationships. However, there is a notable branch within YA that focuses on romance (usually paranormal) and this can be alienating. Books like Twilight are invaluable to the YA genre because of the interest they generated and because of how many young readers found a doorway into the genre through the lives of Edward and Bella. But they’re also inaccessible to a whole percentage of the audience that really might find something to love in the YA and teen sections, if they just knew where to look.
It is very true that YA might have had a bit of a comeback over the past few years, but much of it has been very romantic and in the wake of Twilight, similar titles were given similar covers and marketed in similar ways. This is how marketing works. Take the bizarre success of Fifty Shades of Grey and walk into your nearest bookstore: you won’t be able to move for the—shall we say?—classy —ahem!—smut now lining the shelves. The covers are all similar, promising the same ethos of Fifty Shades. This is the same with YA novels, many featuring stunningly pretty heroines dressed in floaty, romantic dresses, all vying to be the next Bella.
Except that they’re not: it only seems that way. None of those YA books are anything at all like Meyer’s series—you’re being tricked into thinking they are.
This is nothing new; it happens with every genre. Lit-fic has its minimalist covers or long, misty piers reaching across lakes. Urban fantasy has leather-clad women glancing over the same shoulder, hips thrust at unnatural angles. Epic fantasy has its hooded men. The problem is, people are stubborn and think they know a book by its cover, or by where it sits on the shelves. I’ve seen people jeering at YA, claiming it’s for children and they’re far too sophisticated for it. What these people don’t seem to realise, is that YA is for everyone.
The market has changed a lot. The YA that you think is available is merely the tip of the iceberg: there is so much more than Twilight and The Hunger Games. Personally. I am a huge YA fan and I’ve read neither.
But I have read Laura Lam and Cinda Williams Chima. And countless others. Some of these names you will find in the adult sections, regardless of their rightful place on the YA and teen shelves. This is a good thing, since it makes readers still sceptical about the genre think, “Well, I loved that book…But wow, was that really YA?”
Yes, actually, it was. The time of YA books being so very far removed from regular fiction is over. YA fiction has never been more sophisticated and in many ways, it’s evolving in ways that standard SFF needs to start thinking about, before it starts being accused of being old and stoic. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you won’t find a story and characters like those in Pantomime in an “adult” SFF novel (from a traditional publishing house), despite the fact that pretty much everyone in the literary world needs the education books like Pantomime offer.
I’m somewhat of an enthusiast for Angry Robot’s YA imprint, Strange Chemistry—and for good reason. No two books in their catalogue are the same. Not even similar. Strange Chemistry has really taken the bull by the horns with regards to the changing and evolving genre of YA and made sure to get there first, to lead the mini revolution within the genre. And I do think that’s what’s happening: more and more people are taking notice of YA and people who previously saw teen SFF and standard SFF as two separate branches are beginning to realise that they form a part of the same tree.
There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to YA SFF and over the coming months we’re going to give it a broad and detailed consideration, by the end of which you’ll find yourselves more educated as to precisely what YA was and now is and perhaps even where it’s going. From true YA science fiction (which is rarer than you’d think) to YA epic fantasy, and teen urban fantasy that’s not paranormal romance, to everything that falls between the gaps, making a unique statement—we’ll be exploring everything. Without looking at the full map, it’s impossible to really understand the genre…and of course, the exact same thing can be said for standard SFF, which is just as varied and broad. By the end of this series, you might begin to notice that YA and what you consider standard SFF are not so different after all and that it might just be a matter of perception.
In the next instalment we will travel back to the very first instances of YA and teen SFF and see just how it all began.
Title image by Kristin Kest.