As yet another teen-oriented franchise draws throngs to theaters worldwide, allow me my moment as elderly curmudgeon. No, you needn’t run to the fridge for vegetables past their due date. This is not a review of THE HUNGER GAMES. I haven’t seen the film yet. I do plan on seeing it, if only because part of the movie was filmed on my property in North Carolina. (Cool, right?) And I never throw my own rotten veggies without a good look at the target.
In this case I’m heaving tomatoes at a much broader bulls-eye—the whole “Young Adult” phenomenon, especially as it concerns science fiction and romance. In our comments section recently someone wondered whether THE HUNGER GAMES could be considered SF. Would you ask whether TWILIGHT is paranormal romance? In both cases the answer is yes—and no. And the danger is that the public perceives these franchises as primarily science fiction and paranormal romance—to the detriment of writers of adult fiction in both genres.
What everyone can—and should—agree on is that YA fiction, whether in print or on the screen, has its own rules. The protagonist(s) should be young, their concerns should be those of young people “coming of age”—first love, finding themselves and their places in the world, the whole “Romeo and Juliet” thing of bridging different worlds, firsts of all kinds, good and bad. Often the protagonist has been an outsider or misunderstood and is suddenly offered an explanation for this (Harry Potter) or finds a kindred spirit (Bella Swan). The external plot proceeds from there. So far, so good.
Because the protagonists (and the target audience) are so young, most YA fiction is free of the explicit sex, language and violence that are common in other forms of modern genre fiction, including SF and romance. After all, we are not actually talking about “young adults” in most cases; we are talking about children in the case of the early Harry Potter books and many similar books, teenagers in the case of TWILIGHT. Proficient readers can start these books the age of nine or ten—hardly “young adults”.
We’ll leave aside for a moment the slightly icky issue of thirty-something mothers and pre-pubescent daughters both caught up in the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob debate. Or the multitude of apparently mature and intelligent adults who enjoy the occasional escape into the world of Hogwarts. An intricate and well-drawn world, such as the one J.K. Rowling created in her Harry Potter books is appealing for readers of any age, even though her original target audience was children.
The problem comes when a series like The Hunger Games begins to be seen as the standard for science fiction, or when agents and editors feel that the audience for similar kinds of themes can only be “young adults”. A recent reviewer was kind to the initial film in what is slated to be a four-film series, but admitted Suzanne Collins’s books were “science fiction for kids new to the tropes of sci-fi.” (Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service)
Yeah—like a premise that has been done and re-done since the days of E.E. “Doc” Smith. I’d have to do the research to name the stories, but I can name the onscreen titles without too much thinking: DEATH RACE 2000 (in all its incarnations), TRON, “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, even DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS. But of course the kids don’t know the difference. They might have seen the remake of TRON last year.
Now, the reason the books made it to publication was that the old SF tropes were given a YA twist: the young protagonists, all that teen angst, set in a post-apocalyptic near-future that seems very likely given our current state of affairs. It was a great formula that worked to make the series a terrific commercial prospect. And the folks who invested in that prospect were rewarded when the public responded and made the series a resounding success.
Could you have sold the same story without that YA twist? No. The themes are too outdated and clichéd. But it doesn’t really matter because they are only a framework for the YA part of the story.
So is THE HUNGER GAMES science fiction? Yes, it’s SF lite. Just as TWILIGHT is paranormal romance lite. A recent article in Utne Reader magazine rhapsodized over Stephenie Meyer as the “queen” of paranormal romance. I had to write and set the authors straight. Meyer writes YA, not paranormal romance. The acknowledged queens of paranormal romance are Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon, who almost single-handedly invented the form. But, you see, outside the romance community, who knows that?
And, outside the SF community, who knows that SF is read by thinking adults? Many people, including, unfortunately many agents and editors, have this idea that science fiction is the realm of comic book geeks, TREKKERS and STAR WARS conventioneers and teenagers who will eventually outgrow it. So a YA novel that features SF is great; an adult SF/R novel is a commercial dead end.
Back in the day (yes, I’m still in curmudgeon mode), children and teenagers were encouraged to “read up”. That is, you were encouraged to read beyond the limits of your ability to understand, in hopes that one day all that good language and deep thinking would sink into your pea brain and make you grow up. There were no “young adult” novels, that I can remember. There were “kids’ books” and books. I read my first real SF novel (Rocannon’s World, by Ursula K. LeGuin) when I was about 11. I have no idea what it was about. I just know I was hooked.
But I had already tackled Treasure Island and The Adventures of Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe and Alice in Wonderland. Try getting an eleven-year-old to read those now. Their reading skills aren’t up to it; their attention spans aren’t up to it. So the YA genre has risen to meet the demand for books for the smarter kids to read. At least they’re reading something.
What does it say about our society that so many of the kids’ parents and aunts and uncles want to read what they’re reading, too? How do we interpret the fact that the easier reading level, the more familiar themes, the blander taste is more appealing to a great many people? And what does it say for those of us who would prefer to write full-bodied, highly-flavored SF/R that so many folks prefer SF lite?