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YA sf = Dystopia?

I found a fascinating blog entry by Rahul Kanakia, the guy who wrote the bedbugs-and-squatters story, with a gay teenage Indian hero (yay!), for Diverse Energies. (I see elsewhere on the site that "I'm currently shopping a gay-themed YA novel -- set in a dystopian Washington, D.C. -- to agents." I hope it sells. Depressing or not, I would read it.)

The sly humor in his story also comes through in his post, but that's not why I'm linking it. It's about how he got into the anthology in the first place. He was not solicited for a dystopian story, but for "an action-oriented SF story with a teen protagonist who had some kind of diversity."

He adds, "Actually, no one ever told me (when I was writing a story for it) that it was going to be marketed as an anthology of dystopian stories. I wonder if that’s because they just assumed my story would be dystopian (which it was, of course) or if everyone else also turned in dystopian stories and they just decided to roll with it, marketing-wise."

In comments, anthology editor Tobias Buckell notes, "In the YA market they’ve decided anything that looks SF is ‘dystopian’ because ‘SF’ is like a bad word, so if there is a way to shoehorn the word dystopian on the cover it seems to end up there."

Regarding Diverse Energies, it intrigues me that, when given the guidelines Kanakia quotes, almost every single author wrote a genuinely dystopian story - a story in which the world is objectively awful, oppressive, and/or doomed. (Exception: Tempest Bradford. The other two non-quite-dystopian stories were reprints, not stories written for that prompt.)

This is not just about marketing, but about perception. Buckell could have just as easily received a bunch of non-dystopian stories, in which the world was not horrible, and slapped "dystopian" on the cover to satisfy the demands of marketing.

But in fact, not a single author read the prompt "action-oriented sf with a teen hero and diversity" and wrote a space opera, a story about teens meeting aliens, a non-horrific future world like Nnedi Okorafor's biotech wonderland, a story about mutant or psychic or uploaded or immortal or robot or alien teens, or anything that could not be very easily and accurately classified as a dystopia. (Again, exception for Bradford, who wrote an intriguing alternate realities story with dystopian elements.)

I see some circularity going on here, not merely regarding this particular anthology, but perhaps in YA as a whole. All science fiction is labeled "dystopia," whether it is or not. Actual dystopian fiction is popular. Writers begin to assume that "science fiction" means "dystopia," so when they get a request for science fiction, they write a dystopia. Non-dystopian stories are harder to sell, and so don't make as many appearances.

And so, the fictional future, at least as far as teen sf is concerned, is incredibly bleak.

Too bad! I don't much like dystopias, or the sort of post-apocalyptic stories that are about cannibal rape gangs and mass slaughter. I like post-apocalyptics that are about a transformed and marvelous and terrible landscape (like Railsea or Nnedi Okorafor's books), space opera, other planets with different cultures and aliens, and mutants. I like to think that the future will be different rather than doomed.

As far as my own personal tastes go, the future of my YA sf reading looks dystopian indeed.

Crossposted to http://rachelmanija.dreamwidth.org/1073411.html. Comment here or there.


( 49 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:14 pm (UTC)
I see some circularity going on here, not merely regarding this particular anthology, but perhaps in YA as a whole. All science fiction is labeled "dystopia," whether it is or not. Actual dystopian fiction is popular. Writers begin to assume that "science fiction" means "dystopia," so when they get a request for science fiction, they write a dystopia. Non-dystopian stories are harder to sell, and so don't make as many appearances.

My experience, of course, is anecdotal, but confirms this to a frustrating extent.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
Would love to hear more of your anecdotal experience if you want to email me.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
I'm okay posting it here. It's nothing too salacious, I don't think. Just that every bit of YA-SF out there gets stamped with the 'dystopian' label, regardless of accuracy.

This has a couple of prominent side-effects, the first of which being that anything SF-oriented that cannot be labeled dystopian, even if you squint at it (i.e. my ms), is harder to label and categorize, and is met with trepidation by editors and terror by marketing folks.

I've gotten several regretful rejections from editors based solely on genre. One house said they were having a terrible time selling SF, and so had to pass due to marketing concerns. (They published a mega-bestselling dystopian series, but the corollary to 'all SF is dystopian' seems to be 'dystopian is not SF'.) Another was doing TOO well with SF, and looking to diversify their list. (They ALSO have a bestselling dystopian series, so it's fascinating to see the dissonance).

That's how it affects me. But in my opinion, the bigger problem is that editors (and agents) have burned out faster than readers do. Dystopian is dead and gone as far as new projects or - worse - new authors are concerned, because pubs have been flooded with these projects, accurately-labeled or otherwise.

The same holds true for anything paranormal. Agents and editors won't touch it, by and large, with a ten-foot pole.

You'll note, of course, that books in these genres still sell quite well.

I'm just becoming a little bitter, honestly, which I've tried so hard NOT to do. But as a genre writer, I feel like an awful lot of YA pub folks have started turning their nose up at genre fic and are now in pursuit of more 'literary' works, even though genre is still keeping the lights on.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:33 pm (UTC)
Arrrrrrrgh. It's so frustrating! I totally sympathize.

And yet, somehow I suspect that three years from now, there will still be just as many dystopias and paranormals. SOME of them will be sold.

One lucky thing about Stranger is that if dystopias are still desirable by the publication date, it could easily be marketed as one. It's not depressing, nobody's being ground underfoot (okay, some people are being discriminated against, but no one's a slave in the salt mines), and the government doesn't control the color of your underwear. But it's post-apocalyptic, so close enough. And, of course, if dystopias are no longer hot, it doesn't have to be marketed that way.

Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks. It is frustrating! What's also frustrating is that my current project is high fantasy, and I'm told I've already missed the trend-boat on that too. The winds are changing so fast because everyone is so desperate to find the next 'big thing' right now, and as someone who is very much A Slow Writer, I just feel like I'm going to be eating everyone else's dust for the next few years.

C'est la vie, I suppose. I think I'm going to try and finish this draft by Christmas, though, and then take a long vacation.

On a better note, I think post-apocalyptic has really gotten the short end of the stick up till now, and maybe that will change. It's one of my favorite genres! It's NOT dystopian! I WANT MORE OF IT.

So obviously, I'm excited for Stranger.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:39 pm (UTC)
I love high fantasy! I bet you're doing something interesting and different with it, too.

The good thing about being a slow writer (I am too) is that the trends go so fast that by the time your book FINALLY hits the stores, it might be a genre that's been popular, unpopular, anathema, and then makes a resurgence - just in time for you.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
This is what I'm hoping, since I'm one round of submission away from shelving the previous project in hopes that it'll see life as an option book someday.

I've three times now though been thwarted by books released in my genres with unsettlingly similar premises - so similar that my agent and I would e-mail each other simultaneously and go, "Oh, fuck". We almost pulled a sub from one house, which in the end rejected us for being too similar to the title we'd almost pulled over.

All this makes me grateful I ended up overestimating how much booze I'd need for a party last weekend. I brought home an extra handle of vodka. It's possible I've been fantasizing about it all day.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:52 pm (UTC)
God, that sucks. I need vodka just thinking about the whole YA market, honestly.

It reminds me of how about ten years ago, there were movies released from major studios in the same year which were, respectively, about talking pigs, volcanoes, and boys in men's bodies. Two of each. All in the same year. I remember waiting for two competing movies to be released in which a talking pig and a boy in a man's body save the world from a volcano.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:54 pm (UTC)
in which a talking pig and a boy in a man's body save the world from a volcano


*stabs eyes out*
Oct. 4th, 2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh yes. I've started running into the "sure fantasy is still selling like gangbusters but that's why we won't buy any more of it we want stuff about Realistic Problems now" kind of response, and it makes me want to kick everybody in the head.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:17 pm (UTC)
I generally find dystopia stories so *dull*, at least when the point is the dystopia and the hopelessness. Even when they are believable, and so many of them aren't. If you have to posit that somehow people entirely forget about wind, water, and solar energy while building super-springs and genetically engineered mega-elephants, I'm just going to roll my eyes, not be impressed.

I keep comparing to Ursula LeGuin, who can write a pretty depressing situation and yet have it seem believable, with characters who feel like real people and with real people's abilities to find enjoyment even in grim situations.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
I've long had a hankering to do a YA SF that has actual spaceships and aliens and adventure and optimism and handwavium-style science...
Oct. 3rd, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
Dooooo eeeeeet. You know you want to. You would if you loved me.

Wait. You don't even know me. Maybe cheap teenage peer pressure will be completely ineffective.

Still. Audience of one!
Oct. 3rd, 2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
I'd read it.
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
Another reader here!
Oct. 4th, 2012 11:21 pm (UTC)
I totally want a whole bunch of Heinlein juveniles that AREN'T WRITTEN BY KCUFING HEINLEIN.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
My favorite dystopias--okay, the only dystopias I really enjoy at all--are the ones where you can see both sides of the issue. Sucks for some people, works for other people, in a way that it makes sense that this would be the way a given society works. "Everything is miserable for just about everyone" just...isn't any fun to read about, and goes straight into negative fun if the story isn't about fixing that. One of my favorite dystopias is the one from the Uglies series, because honestly, it's not a dystopia for the vast majority of the people in the setting; they're absolutely happy and fine with the way things are. (Heck, the final companion novel even makes it clear that once the Terrible Secret is revealed to everyone, some people still think it's worth it to continue that level of life satisfaction.) It still needs to be changed, but it's interesting and complex rather than...well, miserable.

It sometimes feels like YA scifi is getting hit with the same grimdark stick that adult non-S&S fantasy has been; everything has to be in muddy shades of gray and full of Terrible Constant Misery so that it's properly "plausible," with the less miserable settings being rejected as overly childish.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
Scott Westerfeld is an exception to everything. He's also managing to write very successful cheery mecha-biotech steampunk adventure - sadly without setting any trends that I've noticed.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
Yes! I've loved everything of his that he's read, the vampire story aside. He thinks about things slantwise from other folks, in a way that makes them more fun instead of just weirder.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
As far as my own personal tastes go, the future of my YA sf reading looks dystopian indeed.


You crack me up.

Give it time. Something different will somehow break through, sell like hotcakes, and then the trends will shift. Plus, I think you're right to trawl the ebooks and self-published things--probably more variety there.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:29 pm (UTC)
Here's something else I found interesting: when I thought that the anthology's mandate really had been dystopian from the get-go, I tried to figure out how in the world Le Guin's "Solitude" could be considered a dystopia. Then I realized that the mother did think the alien culture was dystopian.

...and so I got a genuine insight based on a completely wrong premise. The anthology hadn't been intended to be dystopian at all, and "Solitude" was most likely selected because it was directly about diversity in the sense of culture clashes.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
Interesting--kind of like religious scholars struggling to explain a passage that ends up being an interpolation or a mistranslation or whatever, and ending up with great insight into something about life, let's say. The insight is still true even if the passage is bogus.

You were challenged to find something, so you looked, and you did find something . . . which makes it sound like self-delusion, but it's not; it's something that was there that you wouldn't have been prompted to look for if you didn't have the push of an incorrect assumption.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC)
ISTR from my middle-school days in the 80s, most anything labeled science fiction that you had to read in school was depressing or dystopic in some way or the other. I think the only non-depressing SF that we read was Asimov's novelisation of Fantastic Voyage. (I mean, really: "Flowers for Algernon," "All Summer in a Day," some story about organlegging whose title and author I don't remember. Etc.)

In other words: I don't think this is necessarily a new phenomenon, but perhaps a result of what adults think is worthwhile for kids to read.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:34 pm (UTC)
I cannot tell you the name of the organlegging story, because I recall reading at least three of them at that same time.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:55 pm (UTC)
Oo, I remember when I hit a whole sequence of organlegging stories while trying to read through the scifi of my high school library. It was so bewildering I kept wondering if it was all by the same author under different names, because, well... Andre Norton! Heinlein juveniles! Exciting adventures in space and--SUDDEN ORGANLEGGING EVERYWHERE.

It confused me.
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:34 am (UTC)
WTF is organlegging?!
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:44 am (UTC)
Like bootlegging, except you illegally transport and sell body parts for transplant instead of bootsalcohol. Generally speaking one obtains the body parts from unwilling donors.
Oct. 4th, 2012 02:55 am (UTC)
As explained above! There was also a whole spate of settings where increasingly trivial crimes (say, traffic violations) were punished with the death penalty to provide enough transplant organs for the market's demand.
Oct. 4th, 2012 05:31 am (UTC)
And then there's Neil Shusterman's YA dystopia Unwind, in which America has "compromised" on abortion by making it illegal, but also making it legal for kids under the age of 18 to be sold for organs. Their organs are still alive, therefore it isn't murder.

I have not actually read the book, because my eyes rolled so hard at this premise that they almost went into orbit.

All else aside... what the hell sort of compromise is that? There is a large contingent of Americans who want abortion to be legal. There is no corresponding contingent which wants infanticide or child murder to be legal. That is a "compromise" which pleases no one... much like the dystopias in which absolutely everyone is miserable and no one benefits.
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:10 pm (UTC)
...oh god, I read that one! I think. Back when I was in a Christian high school that carried a lot of books like that. (I tell you, This Present Darkness is very exciting at a certain age.) Was that the one in which the parents of a kid with hemophilia have to hide this fact from the government, because the government will Take Away all the kids with serious health problems to put in their organ farms?
Oct. 4th, 2012 06:07 pm (UTC)
No - that is, maybe! But Birthmarked was the YA dystopia where hemophilia is banned and the government controls babies.
Oct. 4th, 2012 06:22 pm (UTC)
Yes! With the nice Christian doctor who is secretly treating the hemophiliac kid on the side, knowing the government will rip the kid away and use him for...uh...really not very good organ donation, I guess?--if his identity isn't preserved. And I think someone gets thrown into prison for smuggling Bibles or otherwise being Too Christian.

Man. There were more of these books than I realized.
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:18 pm (UTC)
Someone described that one to me last summer and I had a similar reaction to yours.
Oct. 4th, 2012 07:01 pm (UTC)
Unwind actually isn't too bad if you read it as horror rather than science fiction. Not, of course, even marginally realistic and the part where one of the characters turns out to have gotten bits of somebody else's personality, memory, and mental health issues because of transplanted neuro-tissue is ummm... maybe a little over the top. (But Shusterman usually is a little over the top. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.) I think the whole concept of "unwinding" and "retroactive abortion" is really supposed to be about the ways middle class society tries to get rid of trouble makers rather than really being meant as a discussion about abortion.

But that's just my take on it, of course. :)
Oct. 3rd, 2012 08:35 pm (UTC)
Really, you need to read And All the Stars for a nice change^^. SF and apocalypse and YA and not dystopia. And Sartorias has already enjoyed the first three chapters, how's that for another enticement - of course I hope she'll enjoy the rest, too, heh.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 08:36 pm (UTC)
It's on my Kindle!
Oct. 3rd, 2012 09:05 pm (UTC)
Simple, Free Image and File Hosting at MediaFire
Oct. 3rd, 2012 09:46 pm (UTC)
I have been thinking for a long time about how to write space adventurey YA science fiction, because it seems really difficult to make up science fictional situations where fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds have any believable agency without it being a Wesley Crusher kind of thing. So much adult science fiction is rooted in scientific, military, or government contexts where it seems like you're unlikely to get anything done until you're at least forty years old!

I haven't read the Beth Revis books, but I've heard good things about those -- and I'm looking forward to Phoebe North's book Starglass which is coming out next year.

(I am working on something about a girl and her sentient, organic generation ship. Because if there's one thing that's more fun than science fiction, it's girl-and-her-pet stories. As long as the pet doesn't die at the end.)
Oct. 3rd, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
Interesting issue - I hadn't thought of that. Perhaps a society in which social norms shifted toward giving teens more agency, so that it isn't unusual for them to have jobs, rights, etc.
Oct. 3rd, 2012 10:20 pm (UTC)
It also depends on how routine it is to spend time in space in the society. In any realistic near-future scenario it will be very rare and expensive, and therefore not something teens will get to do at all (unless Richard Branson or someone actually gets spaceflight for incredibly rich people launched, and some rich person brings their teen children along - but I am not dying to read this, personally).

If it's far enough in the future - or a near future in which aliens come by and sell us nifty spacefaring tech, or something else handwavey - it can all be routine. Teens will fly spaceships the way they drive cars (or fly small planes) today, even without positing societal changes. Which isn't to say there shouldn't be societal changes, of course.

A rough analogy: in the 1960s it would have been hard to write believable fiction in which teens had adventures involving computers, because computers were big, expensive, and confined to contexts where teens wouldn't come into contact with them until they went to college. The technology changed enough that by the 1980s, teens (in the US, anyway) often had lots of opportunity to use computers, and of course now it's a commonplace that they use that kind of tech more than anyone else.
Oct. 4th, 2012 11:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, you had Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine and, uh, that was about it.
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:46 am (UTC)
Or there's the approach of having a specific need for teens in space. This is the Rocket Girls approach.It may not be terribly plausible, but at least it's upbeat. (I might go so far as to call the books "peppy.")
Oct. 3rd, 2012 11:08 pm (UTC)
As far as my own personal tastes go, the future of my YA sf reading looks dystopian indeed.

Your dystopia is my u-! We should write a book about it!
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:04 am (UTC)
In fact, the prevalence of dystopias is why I don't tend to read YA SF. I actively avoid dystopias. At this point in my life, I need hope.
Oct. 7th, 2012 07:37 pm (UTC)
Belated comment is belated.

Since Starglass got me an agent, I've been pretty vocal about the fact that it's sci-fi despite a few dystopian elements. I was scared to death that it would be marketing like Academy 7, a space opera from a few years ago (which really, really, really looks like a romance novel from the cover). I feel really lucky that S&S went with a clearly SFnal cover--but my editor is an SF geek, and I think that helps quite a bit. Curious to see if teenagers bite on it. I think Across the Universe opened a few doors, despite the fact that even that was pitched more as a "dystopian murder mystery [in space]" than a sci-fi novel.

I've actually been pretty surprised by the number of truly SF YA titles I've come across as a reviewer at the Intergalactic Academy. Of course, most of these are marketed as "[SF] thriller" or "[SF] dystopian" or "[SF] romance" but conditions have definitely improved. Some day, I'd love to edit a YA-in-space anthology, but it's one of those things that I just don't have time for right now. Stupid books that need to be written. I do believe that there was Strahan YA Martian-inspired antho a few years ago, but it seemed to be one of those "YA" titles mostly written by authors working in adult SF that don't get much traction in YA, probably unfairly. The factions are still pretty clearly delineated.

Nevertheless, I want more space opera and xenobiology.
Oct. 7th, 2012 08:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Starglass isn't out yet, right? What is the premise?
Oct. 7th, 2012 08:28 pm (UTC)
Nah, it comes out in July. It's set on a generation ship where a 16-year-old botanist deals with the unraveling of her controlled society just as they reach the long-promised alien planet. The sequel, which is out in 2014, mostly deals with colony building (it's planetary romance whereas the first is space opera, but I try to do stuff with psychological realism and issues of gender/identity and post-colonialism and Judaism in diaspora and stuff. Those are all hard to squeeze into a 1 sentence pitch, though).

Some other space-based YA titles that have already been released/or are forthcoming sooner are Glow & Spark by Amy Kathleen Ryan, the Skyship Academy Books by Nick James, The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper, and Losers in Space by John Barnes. There are probably more, but those are the first that come to mind.
Oct. 7th, 2012 08:32 pm (UTC)
Jews! In! SPAAAAAAACE! I look forward to it!

I saw Losers in Space, but 1) I almost never enjoy stories about spoiled rich kids OR about celebrity culture, 2) John Barnes' writing style annoys me, 3) I tried a Kindle sample, and my twee-meter exploded when I learned that the culture is divided into eenies, meanies, minies, and moes. Not for me.

Do you rec any of the others?
Oct. 7th, 2012 08:51 pm (UTC)
Ha! Yes. Exactly!

Honestly, I wanted to love Losers in Space (not in the least because your very lovely editor sent it to me), and I think Barnes was doing something interesting with the exposition, but the worldbuilding and class arguments didn't work for me (our co-reviews of it are here (http://www.intergalactic-academy.net/2012/08/03/co-review-losers-in-space-by-john-barnes/)). Glow was a pretty interesting book--disturbingly dark and certainly ambitious, but unsettling. I respect it, but didn't enjoy the reading experience. The Pearl Wars was pretty good--a rollicking, if odd, little SF book. I haven't gotten a chance to get to either of the sequels yet, or The Creative Fire. Hopefully soon.

Looking through stuff I've reviewed at the Academy, I would recommend Tankborn by Karen Sandler without hesitation. I really think she's the inheritor of a lot of what I absolutely loved about 70s soft SF. Really, really fantastic worldbuilding. Also a Confusion of Princes, but I see you've already read that.

Oh, and I wanted to agree with what was said upthread about marketing folks. Several very nice editors weren't able to offer on Starglass due to the concerns of the marketing departments at their pubs, despite their own enthusiasm. The marketing depts didn't seem to know how to spin it beyond "more Beth Revis! But Jewish!" I have hopes that I'll be able to pitch a science fantasy or a really rich space opera after this, but, well, we'll see.

Edited at 2012-10-07 08:54 pm (UTC)
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