Doyle’s YA SF Rant

by Dr. Debra Doyle

This rant first appeared in the book review section of hwæt!, my zine for Apanage, a children’s literature apa. Later on, I posted it in the Doyle&Macdonald topic on GEnie’s Science Fiction RoundTable. And after that, it seems to have taken on a life of its own.

The Giver (the 1994 Newbery Award winner) is a good example, in my opinion, of the reason why YA hardcover sf has been dying for the past fifteen or twenty years – and why it hasn’t been bringing new readers into the field.

Once, at a science fiction convention, I was part of a panel discussion of YA science fiction, where I heard a librarian explain what it was that teachers and librarians (and, apparently, a lot of hardcover YA editors) look for in YA sf. They want lots of subtext and character development and Growth. They’re big on Growth. Those of us on the panel who actually wrote YA sf for a living, and who remembered clearly what we read when we were that age, sort of exchanged glances and shook our heads. When we were kids, we didn’t want subtext and character development and Growth. We wanted Adventure. Good authors, of course, managed to sneak all those literary vitamins and minerals in there along with the fun stuff, but it was a real smuggling act. (Still is, too.)

These days, most hardcover YA sf reads like a dinner made out of tofu and supplement capsules – and regardless of its virtues, it doesn’t give its readers whatever it is that most readers come to sf for in the first place. And then librarians and children’s lit teachers complain because the kids ignore all the Worthwhile hardcovers in favor of reading Mercedes Lackey in paperback.

Personal taste aside, The Giver fails the sf Plausibility Test for me. I don’t see how a society like the one depicted could be attained/sustained in anything other than a metaphorical world. And even considered as fantasy, rather than sf, the book is too damned obvious. Things are the way they are because The Author is Making A Point; things work out the way they do because The Author’s Point Requires It. And like I said before, this book is so damned full of Meaning and Theme and Subtext that it would choke a whale. At least Herman Melville gave us one hell of a Nantucket sleighride along with the philosophy and allegory and metaphor and all.

A few notes on jargon and provenance: “YA” is short for “young adult”, which is publisher-speak for what most of us would call “teen-age”. The Newbery is the premier children’s book award. And “sf” (for completeness’s sake, though I doubt anybody who’s read this far needs the definition) is “science fiction”.

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