Science Fiction

Science fiction began, like most genres, as a subgenre of fiction before becoming a genre of young adult fiction. At a glance, the definition of science fiction seems to be obvious: fiction about science. After all, crime fiction is about crimes and spy fiction is about spies.

However, Everett Bleiler, in his encyclopedia that explains the origins of science fiction, writes that “Science-fiction [sic] unlike any other type of literature I can think of, is inherently paradoxical . . . At each stage along the route of publication there is an easy consensus as to what science-fiction is. And yet in roughly fifty years of exposition and argument, critics on all levels have not been able to give an accepted definition of Science-fiction”[1] One might assume that science-fiction is fiction based in worlds and places that are the result of scientific “what if” sidetracks. Indeed, with some early science fiction novels (sometimes called “hard science fiction”), this is the case. But, as Bleiler notes, “the word ‘science’ has caused endless problems and will undoubtedly continue to do so.”[2] Many of the complications that Bleiler points out have to do with the fact that some worlds are technologically, but not scientifically, advanced. Others deal with space or time travel (arguably advanced technology) or “lost people” stories that deal with previously extinct races surviving what should have been their demise (e.g. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Atlantians, Mayans, etc.).[3] The definition of science fiction becomes more blurred when these are considered.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines science fiction as “Fiction in which the setting and story feature hypothetical scientific or technological advances, the existence of alien life, space or time travel, etc., esp. such fiction set in the future, or an imagined alternative universe.”[4] The Encyclopædia Brittanicaprovides a similar definition, that science fiction “deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals.”[5]

For our purpose, science fiction refers to fiction that deals with imaginary scientific or technological advancements, alternate realities, or fiction that takes for its content any possible future state of affairs (whether that be the future of modern times, the future of the past, or the future of technology.) The key element to identifying science fiction is this sense of speculation of what could be.

It is important to note in this definition that science fiction is sometimes referred to as “speculative fiction” with its counterpart fantasy, as both genres speculate about a world that is different from our own in some way, magical or not. It is also important to note in this that science fiction is fundamentally different than fantasy in that it does not deal with magic. Furthermore, the orientation of fantasy is typically towards the past, not the future.

Some major subcategories of Science Fiction are dystopian and steampunk novels.

Genre History

Beginnings of Science Fiction

“The genre formally emerged in the West, where the social transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution first led writers and intellectuals to extrapolate the future impact of technology”.[6] One of the earliest science fiction novels is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley presents the scientific creation of a humanoid creature and its potential outcomes. Another example is H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which is concerned with the logical outcome of the contemporary concern with social structures. Both of these would now be classified as “hard science fiction” because they deal with places or realities that require extensive scientific explanations. This type of science fiction is “an argument with the universe”[7]which the work reasons through to its logical conclusion. The “hard” element is that frequently the logical conclusions are tragic or harsh. Thus, hard science fiction possesses reason and intellect, without regard to feelings and the sense of what should be. Often, this cold calculation is evaluated, allowing the work to engage with the moral correctness of reason.

Hard science fiction preceded young adult fiction, but its cold sensibilities meshed poorly with the conceptions of young adult audience. The calculating hardness and lack of meaningful familial relationships seemed at odds with the social, family, and morally-oriented elements of young adult fiction. In contrast to hard science fiction, “soft science fiction” allowed room for the personal: room for the family, for interpersonal relationships, for growing up. Instead of an argument with the universe, soft science fiction was an engagement of personal issues and concerns within a speculative universe. One successful example of soft science fiction is Frank Herbert’s Dune series, whose focus as a narrative is on the people and politics of a universe that relies on spice (a drug necessary for intergalactic space travel and is only mined on one planet). Another is 1984 by George Orwell, which deals with a man and his relationships in a society enforced by a political system that uses technology mercilessly. Unlike hard science fiction, soft science fiction provided more fruitful ground for young adult literature.

Young Adult Science Fiction

“Publishing trends brought about an important shift in the development of the genre. Trends moved from the Victorian triple-decker novel to magazine publishing which allowed for shorter works that functioned well with the genre. The result were many works of cheap ‘pulp’ fiction.” [8] An early example of this that led towards young adult fiction is Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, published in 1926. This “pulp fiction” publication trend opened up the market for works such as Robert A. Heinlein’s Juveniles, published yearly from 1947 to 1958. These science adventure stories prepared the way for a more clearly identifiable young adult science fiction genre.

Young adult science fiction, along with all young adult fiction, became more fully developed in the 1960s with the publication of John Christopher’s Tripod Trilogy. The Tripod Trilogy included many of the themes frequent in young adult science fiction: humanity in a dystopian society (enslaved by the tripods in this case) and a young protagonist who joins a resistance against the governing forces.

One thing we see quite often in young adult literature is that as time has gone on, science fiction aimed towards young adults has lessened the amount of science required to enter the speculative universe. These works “do not stretch the conceptual or scientific imaginations of their readers”[9], which is one of the stark differences between sci-fi for adults and for young adults.

Young adult science fiction is easily identified by the orientation of its young protagonists toward the adult-run government. “In most children’s science fiction to date this sense of perceived crisis surrounding the adult world has been rendered in extraordinarily negative terms, often with child characters pitted against a powerful adult regime” [10]. The coming-of-age theme in science fiction often becomes a teen discovering the flaws in their society and government and rebelling against it rather than becoming a valuable member within society as it is. This theme is notable in Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal winning YA sci-fi The Giver, which was published in 1993. In The Giver, the protagonist is in training to receive all of the memories of a community, but feels that his society is corrupt and rebels against it. While it takes place in a dystopia, the dystopia subgenre experienced an explosion in popularity with the publication of The Hunger Games.

Qualities of Young Adult Science Fiction

Young adult science fiction novels come in a wide variety, but the many of the same themes can be found in these books across the board. Many plots feature adolescent protagonists in conflict with powerful, totalitarian-type governments. The societies often promote sameness. The protagonists often do not fit within their societies and break free from the molds of that society. These societies are often the logical construct of a single progression in technology. Usually the protagonist ends up destroying the system to free themselves and others.

Earlier examples featured settings with significant science in them: robots, space travel, and aliens. Newer examples within the genre have favored post-apocalyptic settings. Other trends include alternate histories that have advanced beyond the original technology of the time period. Alternate realities are frequent.

Science fiction for young adults turns the readers out toward the world, toward what they could prevent through their own actions or what could be possible for them to achieve.

Some Examples of Young Adult Science Fiction

These are just a few novels that deomonstrate some of the breadth of the genre. Also see steampunk for a list of science fiction novels with that emphasis.

  • Heinlein’s juveniles are some of the early examples of young adult science fiction. His novels fit the classification because they involve “adventure, sociology, and science/technology.”[11]
  • Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card is about a boy who is training to become a leader in an army to protect earth from aliens. The novel features the themes of futuristic technology, aliens, genetic manpulation, boy vs. society, etc.
  • The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry is about a boy in training to become the keeper of memories, the only one in his entire society able to feel. Society has eliminated emotion in order to eliminate war and suffering.
  • Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins is about a girl who, to save the life of her younger sister, volunteers in a game where she is pitted against other teens to fight for her family and her life. The novel carries themes of advanced technology, teen vs. society, dystopian societies, family, etc.
  • Divergent (2011) by Veronica Roth is a book about a girl who, on the day she is destined to pick between the four factions of her utopian society, realizes that she has an ability to break the test. She later finds corruption in the society she viewed as pristine and will do anything she can to save her world. The novel features themes of advanced technology, teen vs. society, dystopian societies, etc.
  • Wither (2011) by Lauren DeStefano is a book about a world which is so obsessed with perfecting humans that something horrible has happened: due to genetic modification, boys only live to age 25 and girls to age 20. Rhine is kidnapped and married off at the age of seventeen, and must survive the wily grasp of her father-in-law and sister wives to escape. The novel focuses on themes of advanced technology, genetic modifications, dystopian societies, etc.


Works Cited

  1. Jump up Bleiler, Everett F. Science-Fiction: The Early Years. London:Kent State University Press, 1990. p xi. Print.
  2. Jump up Bleiler, Everett F. Science-Fiction: The Early Years. London:Kent State University Press, 1990. p xi. Print.
  3. Jump up Bleiler, Everett F. Science-Fiction: The Early Years. London:Kent State University Press, 1990. p xi. Print.
  4. Jump up Citation: “science fiction, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 13 February 2016.
  5. Jump up “science fiction”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 07 Mar 2016.
  6. Jump up “science fiction”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 07 Mar 2016.
  7. Jump up Mendlesohn, Farah. “Is There Any Such Thing as Children’s Science Fiction?: A Position Piece”. The Lion and the Unicorn. 28.2 (Apr 2004): 284-313.
  8. Jump up “science fiction”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 07 Mar 2016.
  9. Jump up Mendlesohn, Farah. “Is There Any Such Thing as Children’s Science Fiction?: A Position Piece”. The Lion and the Unicorn. 28.2 (Apr 2004): 284-313.
  10. Jump up Sambell, Kay. “Carnivalizing the Future: A New Approach to Theorizing Childhood and Adulthood in Science Fiction for Young Readers.” The Lion and the Unicorn. 28.2 (Apr 2004): 247-267.
  11. Jump up