Rejection of a Dark Age By Christopher M. Chupik
This is a companion-piece of sorts to my earlier post:
As I mentioned before, I never read much YA when I was a young adult. Early on, I vaulted past my contemporaries. Most of the books aimed at kids my age were depressing “problem novels”. I didn’t want to spend time with depressingly realistic kids with depressingly realistic problems. I had school for that. Escape was what I wanted.
Working at a library now, I handle a great deal of the new YA books that come our way. The success of The Hunger Games has unleashed a flood of copycat dystopian fiction. I read the jackets and feel a depressing sameness creeping in:
“In the dystopian near future, climate change has wrecked everything. The EvilCorp/EvilGov has taken power, crushing freedom and reorganizing society into an unfair class system designed to make teens angsty. Actiongirl Unlikelyname is completely ordinary and totally special. She must join the Resistance and make a choice that will change her world forever: which generically hunky guy will she be with at the end of the trilogy?”
This Twitter feed does a great job of mocking the cliches:
There’s a few YA novels set on other planets, but they almost invariably involve evil corporations or “the one-percenters”, who of course have colonized space on the backs of everybody else. What a great way to get the kids interested in space exploration, than to turn it into tedious left-wing class warfare propaganda, right?
And most of these came out back in the Obama years, when left-wingers, and by extension their fiefdoms in the publishing industry were optimistic about the future. But now that they lost the election one can only imagine the outpouring of over-the-top dystrumpias which is about to flood bookshelves in the months and years to come.
Now, let it be known that I’m not entirely against the dystopian trend. I did grow up reading John Christopher’s Tripod and Prince in Waiting trilogies, after all. I certainly see the value in showing the younger generation that leaders should not be blindly trusted, that “progress” is not a guarantee and that freedom is not something that you inherit, but something that must be constantly renewed, lest it be lost forever. All are important points.
But I’m worried that all our kids are seeing of the future is doom and gloom. There was some of that when I was growing up. The media of the ’80s played up the threat of impending nuclear war for what I’m sure were completely non-partisan reasons. And then there was the steady drumbeat of ozone hole/acid rain agitprop. But I had Star Trek to show me something better. And even though I look at Trek‘s worldview with some skepticism now, I still appreciate that it’s a fundamentally optimistic view of humanity’s future. YA science-fiction readers aren’t getting that. What they’re being told, over and over, is that the future sucks and that science-fiction is the genre about how much its its going to suck.
And the politics are far too simplistic. It’s easy to say you want a revolution, but readers are often given the impression that rising up and replacing the existing order never ends badly. Indeed, it’s more likely that a totalitarian regime exists because of such a revolt. After all, there’s only one revolution in history that didn’t result in tyranny. Hint: it’s not the Russian one.
And the worldbuilding in a lot of these is pretty weak too. Obviously, no teen wants to read a treatise on the socioeconomics of a fictional future. Not many adults either. But would it hurt the authors to spend the time to create something that could stand up to more than a few minutes of scrutiny? You can learn quite a bit about survival skills and how to build a society from Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. And the younger generation needs to learn it from somewhere because they certainly aren’t getting it from our increasingly-misnamed “education system”.
There are a few books that buck the trends. Timothy Zahn’s six-book Dragonback series is a great Space Opera with a genuine sense of wonder (alien dragons that become two-dimensional symbiotes on human hosts) as well as a complex and logical plot with characters who act intelligently. There’s even an honest corporate executive.
Brandon Sanderson has written some YA, including his Reckoners series, which starts with Steelheart. While it has dystopian elements, it’s a great take on the idea of superheroes and villains, with Sanderson’s customary rigorous worldbuilding and strong moral sense.
Baen has published a few YA novels of their own, including the Weber-Lindskold Treecat books, which are good entry-level SF and a gateway drug to the Honorverse.
I should add that the adult books of all these authors would also be appropriate for YA readers.
At risk of turning this into shameless self-promotion, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Huns and Hoydens who have done their part to address this issue with their own writing. Our own Dave Freer has written several YA books, including his Steampunk novels Cuttlefish and The Steam Mole and his Space Opera Stardogs. J. M. Anjewierden’s The Long Black is a Space Opera in the classic vein, with a young heroine escaping from her oppressive homeworld (think a heavy-gravity North Korea) and striking out for the stars. Cedar Sanderson’s (no relation) new SF novel Tanager’s Fledgling is not strictly YA, but she informs me it is “written to be YA friendly” so that’s good enough for me.
If you have other suggestions (and I know many of you will), feel free to add them in the comments below. And as to older writers that young readers today should try . . . well, let’s just say that’s another post altogether.
Don’t give our children the dead dreams of Karl Marx. Give them something to dream about.
It’s only a Dark Age if you allow it to be.