Speculative Fiction Continues to Tilt Toward Young Adult Readers

Divergent Scene

– By Jacob Foxx –

If you’ve worked in a bookstore the past decade or two, you’ve probably noticed something strange going on in speculative fiction. Publishers are making bank on young adult titles, pushing aside traditional “high-brow” genre fiction. These novels sport younger protagonists, young adult themes, and bend more toward action and away from science. Provocative philosophical questions and plausibility are not as important as they once were. In some novels, the science is stretched so thin that they could easily be reclassified as fantasy. Sci-fi readers tend to argue over whether this trend is really happening (some people don’t like to face facts), why it is happening, and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. Is the science fiction genre better off with this onslaught of young adult titles?

Now Wait a Minute…

Before I can get into the topic, there are a few objections that I anticipate will be raised right away. When I broached this subject on message boards and at book club, a number of people argued that young adult fiction (YA) is not a rising genre at all. Sure, when it comes to movies or TV, it is all about youth. Whether its the countless teen superhero shows on CW or the worldwide success of The Hunger Games, the evidence is undeniable. Yet readers seem to think their literary realm is free from the superficial obsession with sexy young heroes, non-stop action, and easy to follow plots.

Publishing statistics say otherwise. Young adult fiction, which was once a niche market, has expanded to compete with adult fiction. Are younger people reading more? It is doubtful. Actually, adult readers are taking a liking to YA novels in greater numbers. Surveys suggest the young adult demographic is stretching from the traditional 12-18 age group to one that extends into the 20s. There are even readers in their 30s who admit to reading and enjoying YA novels.

The second objection to the success of YA fiction is the typical battle over labels. It seems readers cannot agree on a definition. For the purposes of this article, I will use the definition from Wikipedia: “YA is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults.” The definition here focuses on the intent of the author and publisher, not reader definitions or interpretations. Luckily, it isn’t too hard to discern the intent of authors or publishers; most of them are unafraid to publicly state whether their product is YA fiction or not.

I Don’t Want to Grow Up

What makes our task somewhat difficult is the subtle changes in YA plots compared to what publishers called YA in the last century. YA fiction used to include problem novels or social novels, where there was a specific focus on an important societal problem one would encounter as an adult. There were also coming-of-age stories, or ones where a young protagonist experiences something that transitions them from child to adulthood. This is not what we are talking about here. Genre fiction in particular, tends to put out stories that are more action-based, easier to read, and less substantive. Some might describe it as “low-brow” but that might not be the best term. It isn’t that these novels are for stupid people but that they are for readers who want something lighter, even if they often read the high-brow stuff. In any case, YA genre fiction doesn’t seem focused on the transition to adulthood. It is for readers who want to feel young and idealistic.

Based on surveys and sales numbers, it appears the YA demographic is much wider today. The readership has expanded out of the teen years into the early 20s. Why are older readers picking up novels written for teenagers? They are not only buying up these books, they are enjoying them. It isn’t the books or promotional campaigns, it is the readers themselves that are changing. Late adolescence and early adulthood (roughly 16-24) is no longer a transitional phase but one that many are encouraged to relive as much as possible in their later years. Social norms used to put great emphasis on working hard and being practical. Young adults needed to grow up and get started on a career as soon as possible. They typically married in their early twenties and had children not long afterward. All the things associated with adulthood, like personal responsibility, were expected from you starting at 18.

As a Gen-X’er, I can tell you that norm is not as prevalent today. Not much is expected from an 18 year old, whether it be employment or personal responsibility. It is very common for young adults to live at home into their 20s, failing to embark on their own career until 24 or 25. College and graduate school had rigorous academic and disciplinary standards, much different than the glorified daycare for adults they are now.

Marriage and children are coming later and later, or sometimes not at all. College is treated as a time for students to explore or “find themselves” in an environment with minimal consequences. Academic standards are relaxed in many institutions of higher learning. Any mention of being “realistic” or practical is met with a scoff and an eye-roll. Such notions are considered ignorant, oppressive, even fascist. Being practical is to be repressed.

In other words, people are growing up more slowly. The expectations of adulthood have been delayed from high school graduation to college graduation or maybe 30. It makes sense that such individuals would still find YA novels enthralling.

Less Nerd, More Action

When it comes to science fiction, some things remain constant regardless of whether a book is marketed toward young adults or adults. However, it does seem like the genre has moved away from technology-centered plots toward conventional drama or action. They focus more attention on the protagonist rather than the technological challenges or the changing world around them. Science and plausibility are not emphasized, which tends to make them less relevant to current events and more specific to the individual experiences of young readers. They can see more of themselves in the modern protagonist than say Paul Atreides, Offred, or even Ender.

The plots also tend to be more conventional. For example, the hero’s journey has always been a common story structure both within and outside of speculative fiction. What surprises many (including me) is its implementation in traditionally non-heroic or tragic realms in speculative fiction. The biggest example is the prominence of heroes in YA dystopian fiction. Dystopias have traditionally been a place for social commentary, dark nightmares, and alternative perspectives. Heroes seldom factor into these stories, or when they do, they meet with tragic ends. Today, authors use dystopias as oppressive settings for young heroes and heroines to break through and tear down. Their rebellion is a triumphant conquest of the flawed society.

Revolution, rebellion, defiance, and fighting the man are all extremely appealing to younger readers. This has been true since the Pharaohs of Egypt. The mystery is why younger people, who are largely apolitical, even apathetic, would find the conflicts in dystopian stories so appealing. It may be because politics don’t play much of a role in recent dystopian novels, if at all. In most cases the dystopian societies are ill-defined, poorly-conceived, or a carbon copy of some previous dystopia such as Brave New World or 1984. It is merely a setting for a great action story, or the platform for a unique new, stereotype-shattering heroine.

The same could be said for YA post-apocalyptic fiction as well. The dire warnings and future nightmares of post-apocalyptic fiction are now nothing more than setting for a love triangle among three young, attractive survivors.

Every Child is a Special Snowflake

At the same time, these lightweight YA novels can be distorted to produce stories with self-centered, self-indulgent, narcissistic themes where the protagonist’s great achievement is becoming a celebrity. The protagonist often begins as an impoverished nobody, neglected or ignored by the people and institutions around him. Their call to action is the discovery that they possess some innate quality that allows them to change the world. Whether it is Tris’s divergent disposition, Sookie’s fairy lineage, or Percy’s genetic connection to Poseidon, the stories all suggest the boon or elixir comes from within. For example, one could summarize the Harry Potter novels as “a white kid learns he is special, and attends exclusive private school where he is a celebrity.” Obviously the Harry Potter novels are much more than this simplified tagline but it is an example of a greater pattern. Generally, the protagonist learns she is special and moves on to cash in on her gifts.

You rarely see a protagonist rise through hard work, training, or guile. They always seem to have an innate talent that carries the day. Greatness comes from nature, not nurture. Moral or ethical dilemmas are rare; often the central conflict is simply a test of courage. Worst of all, the stories tend to be about glory, with the protagonist promised great rewards for their sacrifice, making them far from selfless. These are great bedtime stories but most would attest that they bear little resemblance to the experiences of modern life.

For nearly two generations, it’s been standard practice to tell children they are special. Even into early adolescence, parents stress the unique and special qualities of their children. In high school and college, there is an emphasis on students having an impact on the world, becoming leaders, activists, etc. We are all special snowflakes and if the world does not recognize our greatness, it is because the world is unjust. We must make it just. Some novels seem to be focused on exactly that, correcting the world’s rejection of the protagonist. In other cases, the conflict is the dystopian/PA world interfering with the protagonists wants, such as a forbidden love, or more commonly, absolute freedom.

Everything in the plot is clear. The bad guys might as well be wearing black, sitting on a throne while stroking a cat on their lap. The good guys are perfect examples of virtue, compassion, and just all-round goodness. They also tend to be attractive. No reason to offer up any subtlety.

Is this New Trend a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

First off, I really doubt the rise of YA fiction is displacing quality adult science fiction. Also, there is certainly nothing wrong with people reading more fiction, even if it is lightweight. What should trouble us is the increasing desire of older readers to read fiction written for teens. At some point, you need to grow up and challenge yourself to read something that will make you think. If you are in your mid to late 20s and love Divergent or Red Rising, you should ask yourself why you keep reading books about teenagers.

High-brow science fiction is still out there; it just isn’t enjoying the same commercial success. Perhaps publishers and authors should give some thought as to why deeper, more thought-provoking novels like Charles Stross’s Glasshouse or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam aren’t getting the same sales as love triangles in the future. Maybe demand is down, or perhaps the supply isn’t measuring up to the classics of the previous century.

Also, it is important to recognize not all YA science fiction is light, self-indulgent pulp. The Hunger Games Trilogy is a triumph. Other titles such as The Giver, are also worth reading even if you are older. They resemble the older problem or coming-of-age novels. In each, there is something about the real world that must be faced when we become adults. It will not be as simple as good guys defeating the bad guys. Real life rarely is that clean.

The best elements of adult science fiction is the thought-provoking worlds, the unique moral and ethical dilemmas, the philosophical quandaries, plausible futuristic scenarios, and warnings of future perils. They are about the future but also a uniquely powerful method of cultural self-examination that mainstream fiction cannot accomplish. Many of the conflicts and issues raised are bigger than any single individual, which separates it from the more individualistic nature of most YA science fiction. I believe there is still a place for adult science fiction and a strong demand that is not being fully supplied. These novels may never compete with Tris or Sookie for the top spot on the bestseller list but I think in time they will begin to command more attention from readers.


Jacob Foxx is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.