March 4, 2021
Science fiction is the marriage of science and imagination. The genre has been popular in film, television, graphic novels, and fiction for young people (mostly middle grade and up). It is a genre that often requires careful research as well as a huge dose of predictive imagination but how that mix coalesces into a story can vary depending upon what sort of science fiction you're interested in. Let's look at some our science fiction options:
Hard and Soft Science Fiction
Hard science fiction doesn't necessarily mean hard to read (though when a writer falls in love with the science they're creating or the tech, the book can become quite a slog for many readers), instead hard science fiction simply means that the science and/or tech is rooted in the hard sciences. Hard science fiction might focus on biology for instance when creating life on a different planet. Hard science fiction might focus on physics and/or engineering as it explores the demands of traveling across the vast distances of space. Hard science might also focus on predicting the advances of technology both in terms of hardware and in terms of software (such as A.I.).
Hard science fiction will usually try not to take leaps away from what science says is possible (even if it does depend heavily on something science says is improbable). For writers, hard science fiction works best when the writer loves science, because hard science fiction does require research and it is helped along by solid grounding in science. Truly hard science fiction is a bit less popular in YA, where most books are about character and society as much as science. This doesn't mean YA writers ignore the science. Many are inspired by specific scientific ideas and developments, especially in genetic engineering, robotics, and A.I., in such books as Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton and The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson.
Now if science fiction can be hard, can it also be soft? Definitely! Some science fiction does explore the future with a focus on the soft sciences or social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, or psychology rather than focusing on what's possible within the laws of physics or the reality of astronomy or chemistry or biochemistry. Soft science fiction is often more focused on society and how people will interact with it in the future with the science and technology playing a lesser role (or barely mentioned). One classic example of soft science fiction is George Orwell's dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Soft science fiction is also quite popular in YA with books like The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (where the setting of a space colony is mostly employed to allow the society of the story to exist) and The Maze Runner (which is primarily about the interaction of the young characters and is full of tech, but the science and tech behind it is a bit shifty.)
Much of YA science fiction mixes both hard and soft with books that pay attention to the hard sciences while also focusing on how society reacts to catastrophe and how people handle hard choices. In YA, characters and their relationships with other characters is always front and center, which tends to mean the psychology of the character plays as much of a role as the science behind the technology.
Some books have the window dressing of science, but pay little to no attention to whether the science works. In other words, the technology used violates principles of physics or other sciences. These books may boldly mix science fiction and fantasy elements such as having magic and also having technology advances. Most middle grade novels with future or science elements fall under the heading of science fantasy. This is especially true in novels where the setting suggests science fiction but the tone is humor.
Although anything goes in science fantasy, it all must work within the logic of the world you have created. You shouldn't create a world where the fantasy or magical elements are random or seem to conflict with other choices. Fantasy is most believable when it is based on laws, maybe not the laws of the real world, but definitely the laws of the fantasy world you create. When the mix of science and fantasy become nonsensical, readers will tend to resist going along for the ride. Examples of science fantasy for middle grade include The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge and Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. An example for young adults is Maximum Ride by James Patterson. In each, elements of science fiction inspire the story, but the books go well beyond what is possible.
The term space opera has been used insultingly to suggest a book is overly simple, melodramatic, and probably poorly written, but (other than a touch of melodrama, perhaps) none of that is universally true of the genre. What is true of a space opera is that it is set in space and involves space ships and space warfare with a strong thread of adventure and risk-taking. Space operas are large scale compared to much of YA that focuses on the lives and experiences directly surrounding a single main character. If the word "epic" comes to mind when you think of your novel plot, you're probably crafting a space opera. Because of the scale of space operas and the tendency toward risk-taking and melodrama, these books often find their way to the movie screen or television series with examples including Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein and The Expanse by Garth Nix. Other examples of space operas include A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth.
In alternate history novels, writers take a look at what actually happened in history and give it a hard twist. Popular changes involve things like imagining a different "winner" of major wars or hard tweaks in other elements of society. One thing that tends to be strongly affected by this change in history is the type and scope of technology. Sometimes a book supposes how life would be with steam-driven technology, resulting in a branch of alternate history often called Steampunk. Sometimes alternate history mixes in fantasy elements, such as imagining how history might change if magic were real. Sometimes alternate history mixes in social questions, such as imagining a past event that caused a banning of religion or books or that put women in positions of power during a time this wouldn't have been true. The scope of alternate history is as wide as the imagination, but it does require considerable research and understanding of history and technology.
Examples of YA alternate history include Leviathan by Scott Westerfield set in the beginning of World War I with a world divided by technology, Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger which imagines the Victorian era with both advanced steam-driven technology and paranormal elements and Front Lines by Michael Grant which imagines a World War II in which young women enlisted to fight the Nazi War machine directly.
Apocalyptic novels (envisioning catastrophic events for society) and post-apocalyptic novels (envisioning the aftermath of catastrophic events) were massively popular for a while. The genre isn't dead, by any means, but it has become considerably more difficult to sell novels in this subgenre of science fiction. Some of the appeal of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novel is the demonstration of the human ability to rise above nearly anything. The stories most always feature severely broken societies and often brutal conditions, but they also show that no amount of brutality can prevent change brought by people who refuse to give up.
In these novels, young people put under incredible pressures rise above them to do truly amazing things. Keep in mind that the catastrophe that is at the core of these novels can come in many forms. Most zombie novels are apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic (such as The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan and Feed by Mira Grant), but so are novels about asteroid collisions (such as Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer ) and other stories of ecological disaster (such as Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson which focuses on a girl who leaves the earth after it is devastated by climate change to join a new colony on Mars.)
Apocalyptic novels are often a mixture of warning and optimism. They serve to sound alarms about possible futures, but they also remind us that good can persevere in the most unlikely of situations. Because of this mix, the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novel may have fallen a bit out of its trendy favor, but we needn't fear it will ever disappear. There are always warnings to be given and hope to be stirred.
So which of these sounds like a novel type that interests you? Could your imagination transform history? Or predict the future? Or would you enjoy a short jump into the future while focusing more on character than tech? Whatever type of story that interests you, there may be a science fiction spot for your story on a publisher’s shelf in a universe as big as your imagination.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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