Science Fiction Studies

82 = Volume 27, Part 3 = November 2000

Janice Bogstad


Suzanne Elizabeth Reid. Presenting Young Adult Science Fiction. Twayne, 1998. vii + 230 pp. $28 hc.

Karen Sands and Marietta Frank. Back in the Spaceship Again: Juvenile Science Fiction Series Since 1945. Greenwood, 1999. x +168 pp. $55 hc.

Gary Westfahl. Science Fiction, Children's Literature, and Popular Culture: Coming of Age in Fantasyland. Greenwood, 2000. x + 176 pp. $59.95 hc.

C.W. Sullivan III, ed. Young Adult Science Fiction. Greenwood, 1999. xi + 264 pp. $59.95 hc.

The history of science fiction and fantasy in the US has been inextricably linked to popular entertainment for young adults, especially young adult males. While we may speak of the "maturation" of the genre during the 1960s, it is undeniable that most individuals outside the field or only tangentially connected to it by the more popular media still associate the genre with its pulp origins and so with bad writing, poor technique, and juvenile story-lines. It is thus not surprising that the four works reviewed here repeatedly reference this notion and make the related observation that "young adult sf" and "adult sf" are read interchangeably by both age groups. Where addressed at all, the definition of YA sf is made in terms of marketing categories and the absence of overt sexual encounters. Each of these works also acknowledges the intimate relationship between sf fiction and other major twentieth-century media such as comic books, film, and television by discussing YA—and in some cases, children’s—sf as it has developed in relation to or alongside fictional creations found in modern entertainment media generally.

Thus, while each book offers its own benchmarks for classification, the reader is advised not to look to them to demarcate children’s and young adult science fiction from works directed exclusively at adults. They do not, in short, offer assistance in defining young adult sf. To be sure, the essays and bibliography in C.W. Sullivan’s collection intimate definitions through their patterns of inclusion and exclusion; moreover, in comparison with the other works, Young Adult Science Fiction attempts an international perspective on the field of YA sf. But its cross-cultural perspective only adds to the sense that expansive inclusiveness rather than the delimitation of borders is the central criteria dominating the authors’ coverage of sf for younger readers.

The service these works perform for the scholarly community is in articulating contexts of literary production, forging relationships between literary subgenres (as well as between literature and other media), and establishing a basic canon of texts. A fairly accurate portrait of the field of YA science fiction in the context of other sf and of other modern media can be gained by reading all four works, but not, I believe, from reading any one of them. While a list of major writers clearly emerges, each work cites many authors that the others have chosen either to exclude or to make part of the critical background. Perhaps the greatest scholarly value of these titles is their bibliographic information, such as Michael M. Levy’s "Science Fiction for Children and Young Adults: Criticism and Other Secondary Materials" in Sullivan’s collection, the "Annotated Bibliography of Juvenile Science Fiction Series" in Karen Sands and Marietta Frank’s Back in the Spaceship Again, and the bibliographies attached to the author essays in Suzanne Reid’s Presenting Young Adult Science Fiction and Gary Westfahl’s Science Fiction, Children's Literature, and Popular Culture. Westfahl’s book is perhaps the weakest as a bibliographic resource but the most provocative in terms of intellectual stimulation.

Each of the four works addresses YA and children’s sf from a discernably unique perspective, though three—Sands and Frank, Sullivan, and Reid—can basically be seen as targeted broad surveys. As these compendia show, the potential for critical work on this sf subgenre is vast: that most of the essays featured here are broad surveys implies the need for additional theoretical analyses. Westfahl has perhaps initiated this sort of investigation, offering in his book a richly imaginative and speculative treatment of the field. The international scope of YA sf has yet to be fully articulated, though a start is made by Sullivan, who includes survey essays covering Canada (including French Canada), Great Britain, Germany, and Australia; still, his volume, like the other titles, focus almost exclusively (with the exception of historical references to Jules Verne) on English-language works and largely those produced in Britain and North America.

Presenting Young Adult Science Fiction is clearly intended for a younger critical audience, the young adult reader of sf. It is thus unfair to compare its theoretical level to the other studies. The book’s strength is in its accessibility to a less experienced readership, which is the essential charge of Twayne’s Young Adult Authors Series. This series "enables young readers to research the world of their favorite authors" and "provides teachers and librarians with insights and background material for promoting and teaching young adult novels" (ix). Reid succeeds at the former task more than the latter. She contextualizes YA sf within the history of sf publishing in the West; her first essay in particular is very useful to those unfamiliar with the field, hitting all the high points and missing little that the uninitiated need to know. It serves the novice reader best by reviewing the now canonical stages in the development of the genre in general and by pointing to more substantial critical works for the details of these stages.

Reid chooses to focus on eight major writers of YA science fiction—Orson Scott Card, Douglas Hill, H.M. Hoover, Pamela Sargent, Octavia Butler, Pamela Service, Piers Anthony, and Douglas Adams—yet she doesn’t really address the fact that at least five of them (Card, Sargent, Butler, Anthony, and Adams) are well-known as adult sf rather than YA sf writers. In fact, it is difficult for me to understand Butler’s sf as in any way written for young adults. Reid’s choices are understandable in that they allow her to pursue thematic issues in the context of single-author discussions, such as sf adventure, alien worlds, feminism, gender and race, science fantasy, humor, cyberpunk, and film. The chapter on Pamela Sargent, for example, offers a basic description of Sargent’s fictional output while including a mini-history of women in science fiction (which would, frankly, have made at least as much, if not more, sense in the introduction). Like Sands and Frank, Reid offers readable introductory essays, but the lacunae will be obvious to a seasoned reader. Reid would have done well to address her selective criteria, which seem to be thematic, in explaining why she leaves out such major, popular YA writers as Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Virginia Hamilton, Louise Lawrence, Madeleine L’Engle, and Anne McCaffrey, who are mentioned only in passing. Yet Reid’s choice of authors does productively illustrate the difficulty of identifying a work as exclusively YA or adult sf. I am reminded of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), which was first marketed as YA and then as adult sf, as well as a number of sf works that have been marketed as YA in hardback and adult in paperback.

Sands and Frank’s Back in the Spaceship Again focuses on works in series, defined as more than three books in the same setting with roughly the same characters. They effectively link sf series by authors such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Engdahl, Hamilton, and Hoover to earlier "science" series such as Victor Appleton’s TOM SWIFT and less science-fictional series such as Jay Williams’s DANNY DUNN. They do not neglect lesser-known or specifically children’s series such as Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen’s THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS and Ellen MacGregor’s MISS PICKERELL books (childhood favorites of mine). Focusing on series fiction published since 1945, they create a supplement or update to Francis J. Molson’s many essays on the earlier history of series fiction. The secondary bibliography provides ample suggestions for further reading, including the central works on the influential Stratemeyer Syndicate, which largely predate the historical range of this study. The starting point for their demarcation of modern YA sf is Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), the first hardcover sf published for the school- and public-library market, but they are careful to establish the historical context for Heinlein’s and other writers’ postwar success in the introductory chapter. Within this framework, they cover major and minor authors (John Christopher, Asimov, Andre Norton, etc.) in terms of recurrent themes such as robots, alien planets, women, humor, science, utopias/dystopias, and aliens and racial alienation. Not always critically stimulating, the chapters are usually quite short and generally stick to outlines of plot elements and settings. The work is eminently readable as a collection of thumbnail sketches of the series under consideration. But there is unfortunately no attempt to link their appearance to social, theoretical, or historical contexts in American culture outside sf, as Westfahl and several essays in Sullivan’s collection attempt to do. The volume is capped with a lengthy if not exhaustive "Annotated Bibliography of Juvenile Science Fiction Series."

Westfahl’s essays in Science Fiction, Children’s Literature, and Popular Culture range widely over American children’s and YA popular entertainment, covering Superman, Horatio Alger, the Hardy boys, sf film (especially of the 1950s), Star Trek, and even music video and advertising. The author asserts that this "is the least polemical book I have ever published; none of the works discussed herein was chosen to illustrate any thesis; in fact two of them were chosen in part so that I could rescue them from the reductionist theses of other critics" (xii). This free field of play gives rise to many intriguing speculations connecting popular-culture phenomena in convincing but previously unarticu-lated ways. I greatly enjoyed each of the essays, even the first one about a now-obscure children’s series that features a too-good-to-be-true boy named Charlie ("How Topsy Made Charlie Love Him," from the Better Homes and Gardens Story Book), which Westfahl analyzes from a developmental and a feminist perspective. The chapter "Giving Horatio Alger Goosebumps" supplements the Sands and Frank book by offering valuable critical takes on the production, marketing, and other social contexts for YA series fiction. "Opposing War, Exploiting War: The Troubled Pacifism of Star Trek" should be read alongside Martha Bartter’s essay on militarist themes in Sullivan’s collection. "Legends of the Fall: Going Not Particularly Far Behind the Music" has caused me to look again at fictionalized biographies in many contexts, although Westfahl focuses on stories of rock-star legends featured on MTV and VH1. But my favorite chapter in the book would have to be "Even Better than the Real Thing: Advertising, Music Videos, Postmodernism and (Eventually) Science Fiction," a brilliant discussion that links issues of genre with media-based advertising to sell non-media products, such as the production of music videos to promote music sales and the promotion of films through the use of film trailers. Westfahl makes a convincing argument for the interrelated development of texts and advertising (similar to the argument made by Palumbo on comic books in Sullivan’s volume), and this is only one of several insights provoked by this essay. Westfahl does not attempt a summary chapter but ends with an analysis of Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and its many permutations in the cinema, giving us, in essence, a sociohistorical perspective on the film industry that also reflects on the history of science fiction.

Sullivan’s collection, Young Adult Science Fiction, has two aims: to present historical and contemporary overviews of national sf literatures for children and young adults, and to present critical, contextualizing, thematic overviews of selected bodies of them. The first two essays divide the terrain of American young adult sf, with Molson covering 1900-1940 and Sullivan focusing on the period after 1947 (Rocket Ship Galileo again presenting a major defining moment in the establishment of YA science fiction). Then come essays on Canadian sf by Greer Watson, on British sf and YA readers by K.V. Bailey and Andy Sawyer, on German sf by Franz Rottensteiner, and on Australian sf 1940-1990 by John Foster. The varying perspectives on the definition of sf and of YA sf in these different national contexts makes for rewarding comparative reading.

The thematic essays in the second part are more critically interesting in themselves, in part because of their multimedia focus (which makes for productive comparisons with some of the essays in Westfahl’s book). Levy’s "Young Adult Science Fiction as Bildungsroman" uses the classical definition of this fictional type as a male coming-of-age story and, using feminist frameworks of analysis, defines a comparable genre for women. Marietta Frank (Sands’s co-author) appears here with a discussion of matriarchies in Heinlein’s juveniles; a controversial author within the feminist community, Heinlein is often simultaneously credited (as Frank provocatively shows) with introducing many young female readers to science fiction and then confronting them with the stereotypical roles of wife, mother, or nurturer. Bartter’s essay illuminates another controversial topic within both mainstream and sf literature, examining the pervasiveness of war scenarios in sf fiction, film, and television. She focuses on the critical dilemma that action-adventure is very popular with young readers yet also serves to foster negative images of our ability to "get along with each other." Admirably, Bartter presents the complexity of the fiction itself and of the reading process as a potential answer to this dilemma. The last two essays, James Craig Holte’s on American sf film and Palumbo’s on sf comics, are equally stimulating: Holte periodizes a series of thematic concerns and offers a useful filmography, while Palumbo focuses on science fiction’s influence on the development of comic book characters and stories, especially in the many Marvel series.

Considered as a body, the four studies reviewed here point us towards the next steps in scholarship on children’s and YA sf. One useful approach might be to compile a list of authors and titles of YA sf common to all of the critical works, and then examine those unique to one or two of them. This would give us a perspective on the center, but more importantly also on the margins, of the categories children’s, YA, and adult science fiction. Furthermore, children and young adult readers no longer experience sf as exclusively a written form, as Westfahl, Palumbo, and Holte acknowledge, which suggests that there are many more intersections between media that can be productively explored—from the cinematic adaptation of science fiction to the expansion of television sf through series fiction. More than any other genre, sf has adapted itself to the new media and made them intimate, pervasive, and fascinating links in the current definition of the field. Thus, in addition to addressing age-based categories of sf, these four critical works also suggest the genre’s ability to expand and adapt to the changing tastes, habits, and needs of its youthful audience.

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