Young Adult Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror: Speculation or Formula?

Readers and commentators might think that contemporary young adult fiction is nothing but formulaic romantic fantasies involving supernatural beings of one type or another in steamy scenes to stir young hearts and hormones. And let’s not ignore the galling and obvious sexist messages inherent in the most famous of them. Characteristically, they are encased in ‘sophisticated’ black covers (which belie the conservative nature of their contents) on which there is a glimpse of someone gorgeous, to tempt potential readers to more of the same.  Adolescents like most of us, and perhaps more than most at this stage in their lives, like to read what everyone else is reading: reading what your friends are reading is being part of the peer group. And don’t publishers know it.

Fads come and go, think Flowers in the Attic, Goosebumps, Point Horror for instance, but good writing and originality trump all and do their quiet job of luring readers into their richly imagined worlds and delighting and challenging them for a lifetime, not just for the duration of latest ‘big thing’.

Consider the longevity of the works of Ursula le Guin, whose sparse, tight prose and strong imagery demonstrate that resonance comes from having something meaningful to say and making every word count in saying it. Her Earthsea Trilogy published forty years ago, (twenty years later expanded with the brilliant Tehanu, The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea) stands as a benchmark. Unlike the fantasies of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, which draw on Western traditions of folklore and myth, Le Guin based her dark-skinned hero, Ged’s journey on Taoism. Evil comes from within rather than being an external force to be fought and conquered. Le Guin is fully respectful of her young readers’ ability to grasp and appreciate the layers of meaning in her challenging books, and carried them with her on Ged’s and Tenar’s rocky paths to self discovery.

I would argue that there is another Le Guin in the making, whose original and demanding storytelling will be read in decades to come: Margo Lanagan. While their styles are strikingly different, Le Guin and Lanagan share the knowledge that every word has to be chosen and placed in perfect location, Lanagan often inventing her own when English won’t suffice. If you are struggling with the idea of ‘originality’ in fantasy and science fiction, genres that are surely heavily derivative: fantasy positions itself in direct connection with ancient tales, myth and magic; science fiction extrapolates from the here and now; then read Lanagan. She has made the potent, weird, disturbing short story genre her own. ‘Singing my sister down’ from the collection Black Juice, has deservedly won multiple awards. Don’t stop there: read White Time, Red Spikes, Yellow Cake and her award wining novel, Tender Morsels. Then ask yourself, who’s the better writer, Lanagan or Meyer? Whose works resonate after the reading is finished? Whose ideas tug at the edges of your mind and imagination? Whose images keep appearing in your head?

One of Australia’s best-kept secrets is out: the genre-defying, gently provocative, illustrative, magical Shaun Tan (winner of the Oscar for Best Short Animated film for the adaptation of his picture book The Lost Thing; winner of the 2011 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children’s literature: ‘He combines brilliant, magical narrative skill with deep humanism’ say the judges). His 128-page ‘silent’ picture book/graphic novel The Arrival, and the variously described picturebook/illustrated short story/graphic novel Tales from Outer suburbia have reconfigured the genre of YA fantasy in a unique, hybrid form of visual and verbal narrative. He is the most individual of a group of writers incorporating sophisticated illustrations into their narratives, illustrations that require as close a reading as does the written text. This is true originality.

Brian Selznick’s innovative The Invention of Hugo Cabret has forty pages of black and white filmic images – from wide angle to close up – before the written text begins. The alternation of illustrated and written sequences continues throughout the novel’s 530 pages. In Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathian (2009) and Behemoth (2010) – with Goliath due in 2011, the illustrations appear to be a more conventional supplementation of the written text. Nevertheless, the endpapers, which consist of a coloured, stylised map of Europe in an imagined 1914, demand to be read before beginning the book itself. The detailed double page, full page, half page and incidental black and white images interspersed in the text, deliberately interrupt the reading to add tone, mood and detail to its richly imagined steam punk world, in which the Clankers fight it out with the Darwinists during an alternative First World War. Westerfeld is one of the most inventive world builders writing today (read his Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras series; The Midnighter series based cleverly around the concept of the tridecalogism (look it up or use your knowledge of Latin to decode). If you want a genuine, ingenious vampire book, read his Peeps.

An equally meticulous and exciting world builder is from the other side of the Atlantic, the British writer, Philip Reeve. His Mortal Engines Quartet is set in a remote future, the Traction Era, (in which provocatively, there is no North America). London has become a huge traction city, which roams the ‘darkling plain’, swallowing up smaller settlements in accordance with the laws of ‘municipal darwinism’. For me, this series trumps Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, which also has a richly imagined alternative universe. Fever Crumb, set before the world of Mortal Engines is for younger readers, yet with the richness of the Mortal Engines world. What also needs to be said here, is that while the meticulously imagined worlds in these stories are engaging for the reader, it is the creation of compelling characters that makes the books memorable, especially the ultimately shocking but never entirely unsympathetic, disfigured Hester Shaw, whom we follow from child to old age (Mortal Engines Quartet).

Digressing to the historical, Reeve has also written a brilliant and convincing version of the King Arthur story, Here Lies Arthur¸ in which Arthur is a big brute of man, but also the only one likely to be able to unite the Britons in clever Merlin’s view. In this telling, Merlin is not so much a magician as the original spin-doctor. Reeve’s version of the Lady in the Lake sequence will take your breath away.

Back to the US, because mention of historical fantasy has to include the award-winning and astounding books by  MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves. The protagonist is the son of a black slave, and is adopted as an experiment, by a group of self-styled scientists in pre-revolutionary Boston. They educate him, intent on discovering the limits of his ‘black’ mind. In the second volume he fights in the War of Independence. These are complex and often uncomfortable narratives, which demand concentration, stamina and a wide vocabulary from the reader, but reward the effort.

Sally Gardner has taken Oliver Cromwell’s oppressive Puritan Revolution for her evocative mix of period and Gothic fantasy in, I Coriander, and the French Revolution for The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade, all masterful, gripping stories.

Other writers who remake the genre each time they write are Garth Nix with potent mixture of horror and fantasy in The Ragwitch, and the trilogy Sabriel, Lirael, and The Abhorsen. Sabriel is a trainee necromancer, not one who raises the dead but who makes sure they stay where they belong. Nix’s seven book series for younger readers, The Keys to the Kingdom is plotted around distinctive incarnations of the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues, encountered by his asthmatic and increasingly battered hero, Arthur Penhaligon.

Patrick Ness’s tough, dystopic, violent, provocative trilogy The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men is simultaneously engrossing and challenging. Suzanne Collins’s gripping and highly popular The Hunger Games series was initially impressive in its critique of contemporary mores, but disappointing with its increasingly whingeing and whiny heroine, Katniss, and its capitulation to the values it earlier contested. Read Ness to see how it could and should have been done.

Cornelia Funke’s, Inkheart trilogy in which Meg’s father no longer reads aloud to her after he discovers he ‘reads’ characters – often troubled and malevolent ones – out of books into the real world, and her more recent, Reckless, are for readers who like their fantasies strong and dark.

This brief overview of outstanding fantasy and science fiction writers concludes with one who sadly died last week, the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones. The Homeward Bounders, only one product of her brilliant (an overused but totally apt adjective here) imagination is perhaps my favourite fantasy of all. Some of you might know her through Miyazaki’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle.

In summary, the current mass and apparent success of formulaic fantasies seem to assume that adolescents are an easy market to please and therefore to write for. The writers above suggest otherwise. Originality is what readers value, critics applaud and prize winners inevitably have.

New and emerging writers of YA speculative fiction must set their sights high.

Dr Pam Macintyre teaches children’s and young adult literature in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. She has been a judge for the Aurealis Awards, Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, Nestle Write Around Australia Awards, and Young Adult Prize of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. She has also been on the Schools’ Programming Committee of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

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