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Monday 28 October 2002

John Barnes and the Young Adult SF Novel

by Rich Horton

The Sky So Big and Black, John Barnes
(Tor, New York, NY, 2002, 317 pages, $24.95, 0-765-30303-5)

The Duke of Uranium, John Barnes
(Warner Aspect, New York, NY, 2002, 293 pages, $6.99, 0-446-61081-X)

All of a sudden, it seems, Young Adult fantasies are all the rage. Time magazine recently ran a prominent article about well-known writers of adult fiction who are publishing YA books. Most notable is Pulitzer Prize Winner (for Fiction) Michael Chabon, whose new novel is a YA fantasy called Summerland. In our own field Neil Gaiman has garnered excellent reviews for his new book Coraline, also a YA fantasy. (Though arguably Gaiman's earlier Stardust is also a YA book — thus calling Gaiman an adult novelist just now discovering the joys of YA may be off base.)

The culprit, it would seem, is Harry Potter. Writers (and perhaps more importantly, publishers) have certainly noticed the success of J.K. Rowling's YA series. In addition to new YA fantasies, older books are being reprinted, for example many of Diana Wynne Jones's wonderful stories. A new line has been launched, Firebird, which is reprinting some outstanding YA fantasy, like Sherwood Smith's wonderful Crown Duel. Tor has gone so far as to reprint some books originally published for adults in YA packaging in their new Starscape imprint, including Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.

But most of that is quite explicitly fantasy. What about SF? For many of us, YA SF novels were the "gateway drug" to the genre. In recent years, many people have lamented the "graying" of SF fandom, and some have suggested that there aren't enough good new YA SF books to attract new readers. Where is today's Robert Heinlein? Andre Norton? Alan E. Nourse?

It should be said right away that the Tor program mentioned above includes some SF as well as fantasy — particularly Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and sequels. Still, it doesn't appear to me that SF per se is getting as much attention, nor as many sales, as the more prominent YA fantasies. (Perhaps this is nothing new, though. I wonder which sold better, the Narnia books or Heinlein's Juveniles, which were published at about the same time?)

Beyond the Starscape program, there have been some recent attempts to start explicitly YA-oriented SF lines. Best known might be Tor's Jupiter series, from the mid to late 90s. This included novels by Charles Sheffield, Jerry Pournelle, and James P. Hogan. The series was explicitly modeled on Heinlein's Juveniles. I found the examples I read to be mostly OK but not outstanding, and to be honest, to read more like warmed-over, derivative, Heinlein than like something new. At about the same time David Brin conceived the Out of Time shared-world series — a group of linked YA novels about teenagers taken from various eras to the future. I read only one of those books, by Nancy Kress, and it was quite poor. Neither series seems to have lasted very long, and I can't believe they proved very successful financially.

At least in my perception, things were somewhat different in the past.

The Young Adult novel, once called Juvenile, has an honored position in SF history. In the 1950s it was a fairly significant publishing subcategory. There were entire lines devoted to Juvenile SF, most notably the so-called Winston Juveniles.

As with anything, Sturgeon's Law applies to YA SF, and many of these novels were quite poor. But some were very good. Two authors in particular are revered to this day for their "Juveniles": Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton. Heinlein wrote thirteen official juveniles for Scribner's, and three more novels that arguably also count (these being Starship Troopers, Orphans of the Sky, and Podkayne of Mars). Andre Norton wrote many more, not only SF but some borderline stuff (like the Witch World books), some pure fantasy, and some historicals. Ask an SF reader over the age of 40 what hooked him or her on the genre, and there is a good chance the answer will be early reading of Heinlein or Norton. (I am an exception: I only read a few of the Heinlein juveniles — Tunnel in the Sky and the three ambiguous cases mentioned above. I did read some Alan E. Nourse, and a few Norton books, but for the most part my early reading of SF was nominally adult stuff, mainly Asimov (but NOT the Lucky Starr books), Clarke, and Simak.)

Any good Young Adult book will be, in my opinion, also good reading for an adult. Indeed, many of the early SF Juveniles were also published in adult-oriented venues. For example, several of Heinlein's Scribner's juveniles were first serialized in SF magazines: The Star Beast in F&SF, and Citizen of the Galaxy in Astounding, to name two. Andre Norton's books often had hardcover editions marketed as Juveniles (aimed largely at the library trade, I suspect), followed by Ace paperbacks marketed to adults. Some of Alan E. Nourse's best-known juveniles were based on earlier short stories from the magazines: for example, The Universe Between (1965), one of my favorites, is based on two novelettes from Astounding in 1951. And Raiders from the Rings is actually based in part on another story from Astounding in 1951, "The Mauki Chant", but this story was not even written by Nourse! (The author was J.A. Meyer, apparently a friend of Nourse's: the two collaborated on another story and a novel (The Invaders are Coming!, 1959).)

To be sure, even some good SF writers were decidedly less successful as YA writers. I've already hinted that Asimov's YA series, Lucky Starr, was not to my taste. Another example is James Blish. He wrote several YA SF novels in the early 60s, to some extent explicitly in reaction to what he regarded as political problems with some of Heinlein's books. But most of Blish's juveniles are awful (exceptions might be A Life for the Stars, which while written as a Young Adult book is also part of his Cities in Flight series, and the oddly charming Welcome to Mars, about a kid who travels to Mars in a space vehicle he built in his backyard). Blish did have a place in my early SF reading — but as the writer of the first Star Trek books, "novelettizations" as it were, of episodes of the original TV series. Robert Silverberg also wrote several YA books — I read his first novel, a rather weak effort called Revolt on Alpha C, before I even knew there was such a thing as SF. A couple of his later YA books, The Gate of Worlds and Time of the Great Freeze, were quite enjoyable.

All this might be a hint — perhaps YA books are best if not conceived of as purely for kids.

If the better Young Adult books are so readily publishable as adult books, what makes them YA? As I see it, there are three main factors. First, they tend to be written in somewhat plainer, more direct, prose. (It should be noted that this is true of much purely adult SF anyway.)

They sometimes tend to have content restrictions: some restrictions of depictions of sex, some on use of vulgar language, some on violence. (It might be noted, again, that the same restrictions historically applied to much nominally adult SF.) These last restrictions have relaxed considerably in recent years. They were very much in force in the 1950s, though, leading to a famous story about Robert Heinlein. His editor at Scribner's, Alice Dalgleish, was rigorous in eliminating any questionable material. Heinlein presumably took this mostly in stride, but he did make the effort to insert a labored pun into The Star Beast. The hero of that book is a young man named John Thomas. For several generations, his ancestors (all also named John Thomas), had cared for an alien beast. In the book we learn that the beast is female, and that she has regarded it as her duty to help a succession of men to grow to adulthood. Indeed, her hobby is "raising John Thomases". Either this went right over Dalgleish's head, or she decided to let boys be boys, as it were, and didn't worry about the mild pun.

Finally, and probably most importantly, YA books tend to have young protagonists, dealing with issues important to people of their age (and their target audience). In general, coming of age issues: becoming independent from parents, taking on personal responsibility, and of course dealing with the opposite sex.

Heinlein's last "juvenile" was published in 1963. Blish's YA books were published into the mid-60s. Broadly speaking, by the late 60s true SF juveniles were rare, though Nourse published The Bladerunner (not the source for the famous movie!) as late as 1974, and John Christopher's outstanding Tripods trilogy ended in 1969 (with a lesser followup in 1988). Coming to the field as a teenaged reader in the early 70s, I really wasn't discovering new YA books. As I've said, I graduated pretty quickly to adult books anyway. And my local library had a quite adequate collection of YA stuff from the 50s and 60s. So I found my "gateway" to SF anyway. But where do young readers look nowadays? Many of those 50s books will have been deaccessioned as libraries have bought newer books, and newer YA SF either doesn't exist, or doesn't really fit the bill. (You could argue that a series like Animorphs is SF, but in my opinion it's not very good, and it also appears to be aimed at a slightly younger audience than the classical YA age of say 12 to 15.)

But there is a place to find good SF books that seem to me likely to appeal to that age group. I've already hinted where that place might be — in the adult stacks. Arguably this is nothing new — I've already cited the examples of Norton and Heinlein having had books published in both "YA" and adult markets. This too is where Starscape's editors are looking when they find something like Ender's Game to publish as a YA: a book originally published as purely adult SF, indeed a book which won a Hugo Award. (Though other books that are potentially YA have won Hugos and Nebulas: consider Starship Troopers, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage.)

This year I've read at least four novels that seem to me to explicitly appeal to YA readers. All of them, in my opinion, could have been published by a YA line. (Three of the books do feature the protagonists having sex, but not in a particularly explicit way.) All of them are quite clearly about the protagonist coming of age, by being forced to face a catastrophic situation and to handle the situation on his own. The protagonists include a 12 year old boy, a 15 year old boy, a 15 or 16 year old girl, and a boy of about 18. One story is set on Earth following an alien invasion, one on the planet of a distant star, centuries in the future, one on Mars about in the 22nd century, and one in several places in a well-inhabited 36th century Solar System. These range from good to excellent in quality. I think I'd have enjoyed any of them when I was 12, and I enjoyed them all at my current age.

These four novels are Carol Emshwiller's The Mount, Robert Silverberg's The Longest Way Home, and two by John Barnes: The Sky So Big and Black, and The Duke of Uranium. I'm particularly interested here in the Barnes novels, partly because one of them is good enough to be a potential Hugo nominee, and partly because Barnes seems particularly Heinleinian. He manages to do many of the same things that made Heinlein's juveniles so much fun to read, while maintaining his own voice, and while writing SF novels at the turn of the millennium, not rehashing '50s material.

The lesser of the two Barnes novels is The Duke of Uranium. This is pretty much a romp. Jak Jinnaka is a boy living in the Hive, a huge space habitat at the Earth/Sun L5 point. He is just graduating from school, and hasn't quite managed to qualify for the PSA (some sort of Space Academy). He plans to join the Army as a grunt, instead of just accepting life as a Social Parasite. (Echoes here of Starship Troopers.) But when his girlfriend is kidnapped, he learns that he really didn't know much about her, nor about his own family. His girlfriend turns out to be the Princess of a nation in the L4 habitat, and she was kidnapped for political reasons. His uncle and guardian turns out to be a secret agent for a political entity generally opposed to the kidnappers. So Jak is engaged to act as a messenger in an attempt to force the release of the Princess.

Jak's trip involves first an extended loop around Mercury in a sunclipper, a solar sail powered cargo/passenger ship. He makes friends with some folks aboard the ship, and learns a lot about the social organization of the sunclippers. (Slight echoes here of Citizen of the Galaxy.) Dodging various near disasters, he finally makes his way to Earth and his Princess, on the way meeting another important individual: a Rubahy, member of the alien species that centuries previously had tried to destroy Earth. Jak gets to engage in some derring-do, but the ending reveals that once again not everything was quite as he had expected.

The fun to this story is in the background. The future society, with a nearly devastated but now repopulated Earth, and colonies on various planets as well as the space habitats, is fascinating in its political/social organization. The further backdrop of the past war with the Rubahy, complicated again by the threat of extermination for both Humans and Rubahy if the Galactic Court rules against them (echoes here of Have Space Suit, Will Travel) is also interesting. The plot of this book kind of peters out, but the way it ends, and an odd prologue, strongly hint at future stories about Jak Jinnaka. (And, indeed, the second book, The Princess in the Aerie, has already been completed.)

The Sky So Big and Black is something else — a first-rate novel, clearly a Hugo contender in my view. It's scary at times, sweet at times, it presents another fascinating social structure, and some excellent SFnal speculation about terraforming Mars. And it features one of the scariest SFnal ideas since Vernor Vinge's "Focus" (in A Deepness in the Sky).

It is very well structured, presented as a psychologist listening to a series of interviews he did with Teri-Mel Murray, a young woman on Mars who was working with her father as an "ecospector". It's clear from the start that something terrible happened, and indeed that the psychologist was forced to erase Teri-Mel's memory. It's also clear that he likes her a lot, and is really torn up by what has happened, and worried that he may have to treat her again, for some mysterious reason that takes a long time to become clear. The interviews tell of Teri and her father travelling across the lightly terraformed planet to a "Gather" of the "rounditachis", people who live more or less in the open on Mars, working to help advance the terraforming. Teri is hoping that she will be certified a "Full Adult" at the Gather, and be free to marry her boyfriend. Her father wants her to go back to school for one more year, because he's not convinced that ecospecting will remain a good living. As they travel, they plan to make one more attempt at a big "scorehole". And Teri is starting to worry about her boyfriend.

All the above is cute stuff, and interleaved with neat SFnal details about the terraforming of Mars. In the background lurk details about the future history up to this point, especially the takeover of ecologically ravaged Earth by a "meme" called "One True", or "Resuna", which more or less has turned Earth's population into a hive mind. Also we learn bits and pieces about the psychologist's feelings, which give us hints about the disaster which has clearly occurred. So it's a scary book, as we learn to like Teri more and more, while we just know that she's going to get hurt real bad. And when the crisis comes, it's exciting, and terribly sad, and even scarier than I had first expected. The resolution is moving, real, and open-ended.

Barnes' future is on the one hand full of hope, and full of cool SFnal stuff, and on the other hand it is very very scary, and much of it dominated by something purely evil, yet not sneeringly evil. I should note that this is a sequel to three earlier novels: Orbital Resonance (another YA-ish novel!), Kaleidoscope Century (definitely not YA!), and Candle. But that said, it reads just fine alone. (Though some aspects are surprising: for example, it is set in an alternate future that diverged from ours no later than 1992. This is explained in the earlier books. Even so, as Jo Walton suggests in a review in The New York Review of Science Fiction, that gives the book an odd feeling of not being a possible future, of denying, almost, that it is a possible future.)

Besides the world-building, the interest in politics, and a certain bounciness of presentation, the two books also recall in Heinlein in other ways. For example, the characters are clearly to some extent "competent men" (and women). Both books feature examples of the "wise mentor" that showed up so often in Heinlein (though in both cases this notion is undercut just a bit). They also recall Heinlein in their vocabulary, especially the smoothly integrated future terminology. For example, the never explained "Wager" and its associated Principles that underlie the Solar System society in The Duke of Uranium, and such slang as "dak" (a word that echoes, perhaps, "grok"), and "singing-on". In The Sky So Big and Black there is slang like "froyk" and "limward", and terms like "ecospector". And there are passages like this, as Teri-Mel's father explains 20th century education:

"In fact what [20th C. students] got was either a specialty in some academic subject, like math or literature, or certification is some useful trade, like engineering or lying."

"They didn't have certification in lying!"

"Ha! The first place my grandpa taught was a program in something called 'communications'. Look up the curriculum sometime and tell me that's not a degree in lying!"

I hope I'm not overemphasizing the way in which Barnes recalls Heinlein. Clearly Heinlein is an influence, and on Barnes he is a good influence. But it is not slavish imitation: Barnes is writing his own novels, reflecting his own ideas. And he is doing as good a job as anyone nowadays in doing for our time what Heinlein did for the 50s with his juveniles. He is writing very entertaining SF novels, that I believe would appeal strongly to younger readers, and which satisfy adult readers fully as well.

Rich Horton now contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found on Tangent Online and SF Site. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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