Monday 28 May 2012

Dystopian fiction: Science Fiction for Girls?

by Teri Terry
Last week I attended an event, "Worlds of Tomorrow: the rise of SF in children’s and YA fiction". Presented by the UK Society of Authors and Foyles bookshops, in association with the Kitchies Awards, it was moderated by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre with special guests Steve Cole, Kim Lakin-Smith and Moira Young. 
Philip Reeve
Philip Reeve as moderator: Mortal Engines. Need I say more? Okay: also Fever Crumb, Larklight, and new release, Goblins.

Sarah and Steve
And co-moderator Sarah McIntyre, amazing illustrator: spaceships and aliens in picturebook You Can't Eat a Princess.

Moira Young's debut Blood Red Road won the Costa prize; Steve Cole's Astrosaurs are loved by younger readers; Kim Lakin-Smith is a prolific writer of SF for YA and adults.

Kim and Moira
Wow. If the moderators and panel weren't enough of a line up, the audience was sprinkled with authors – myself, Patrick Ness, Bali Rai, Sara Grant, Candy Gourlay, Jeff Norton to name a few. There were enthusiastic readers, bloggers, and librarians, too. 

This started at 7 but let's back up an hour: sat in the Café at Foyles with author buddies Candy Gourlay & Anita Loughrey, we were happy to be unexpectedly joined by Philip Reeve.

L to R: Candy, Anita, and me!
Once I stopped smiling and gazing off into space in a star-struck manner (pardon the pun), a conversation on all the labeling and label dodging that goes on in publishing and bookselling followed. My novel Slated has been referred to as dystopian; then as a futuristic thriller; then back to dystopian. It is set in the future and has future technology in it, yet the words science fiction are avoided. These questions came up in discussion:
Is dystopian fiction science fiction for girls? Is there a difference in what it is, or just in what it is called? 
Later when all the seats were filled and everyone listening, these were the questions in my mind.

One of the topics of discussion: publishers and booksellers seem to edge away from the label science fiction. There seems to be a perception that this label puts people off

When I'm writing, I don't focus on classifying my work. Moira Young said much the same about Blood Red Road: she thought she was writing a Western, albeit one set in the future; she didn't think of it as SF.

When I think back to when I first started Slated and was asked what I was working on, I shrank away from calling it science fiction - and this wasn't with any thought at all about what label was good for sales.

Why the hesitation? There is so much that is good about SF: you can make more comments about society by setting it in the future instead of today. As Philip Reeve pointed out, SF shows us in a strange mirror.

I read a lot of SF as a teen and into my 20s, Asimov, Heinlin, basically everything in the SF section of the library. And all that stuff that crossed between SF and fantasy I devoured: Julian May (LOVED Intervention); the Dune series; the Pern books. 

I think at least part of the discomfort I have with the label is a feeling that there is no way I can write SF. Even thinking about it scares me. In my head you have to have advanced science and engineering degrees and be some sort of mad boffin inventor to even attempt it. Yet, give it a different label....sneak up on it, sideways, and....
I've done it.

I wonder now if this is the same thinking behind why publishers and book sellers avoid the label for children's and YA novels - that the word 'science' may put readers off, think they can't cope with it. And hence the wave of current science fiction for YA has been relabeled: some steam punk, some futuristic thrillers; even more, dystopian.
"Dystopia is code for science fiction. It is the science fiction you are allowed to like." Philip Reeve
And OF COURSE dystopian YA isn't just for girls. The majority of readers of YA are girls, though, and many of the dystopian phenomenon feature girl main characters, like Katniss in Hunger Games, Kyla in Slated; many are written by women authors also, where traditional SF seems dominated still by male writers. SF for YA seems, in general, to be more about the characters and story, and less about the science. But the big issues and stories they cover should and do appeal to both sexes.

So, have I answered my questions? At the end of it, I don't care what label my books are given, so long as it gets them into the hands of readers. But I'm thinking I need to embrace my SF roots: it is part of where I came from, and part of where I want to go.

We'd love to hear from you:
Do you think dystopian fiction is SF for girls - or for YA in general? Is it really science fiction in disguise?
p.s. I can see if I'm going to get in touch with my inner SF goddess, I need to get me some space boots

Kim & Moira
Special thanks to Candy Gourlay for the photos in this blog, and to Foyles and Neil Jackson for hosting the event. I love Foyles at Charing Cross: if you love books and are in, around or visiting London, go there. It is massive, and the cafe at Foyles is perfect for a few hours writing. And just now I especially love that they have Slated as a staff pick, and let me sign some copies.


  1. Very interesting post - and great shots of sci-fi/dystopian footwear.

    1. thanks!
      and sounds like a good excuse for boot shopping, to me :O)

  2. Dystopian fiction should be for everyone! But so should SF - it's not just for the geeks. I've always loved it, ever since watching Fireball XL5 as a small child. So, please, write some! No need to worry about 'how' future science works - I never worry about how the fridge or Tv or car work, I just use them!

    1. It does seem to be the case that, in general, this new crop of dystopian SF doesn't go into the science in the way that SF used to do: whether this is good or bad depends on the reader's perspective, I think

  3. Yes, embrace the science fiction! I think the great thing about writing in this area is that it gives you so much freedom to explore big ideas.

  4. I love these thoughts. I'm hooking some teacher friends together to celebrate a Science Fiction Summer, and my goal was originally to discover some non-dystopian science fiction that was written in the past 10 years or so. I'm a huge fan of the science fiction genre, but most of the books I recommend were written in the 80s or earlier.

    After reading this post, I'm going to add in some of those dystopian and post-apocalyptic books, and see which of them are also strongly science fiction in nature.

    1. Brilliant to hear!
      One I'd recommend is Unwind by Neil Shusterman.
      (and Slated, of course :O)

  5. Great post! I'm a girl and I love sci-fi. My favorite SF writer is Philip K. Dick. I think I've read everything he wrote. He was kinda crazy, but his books are awesome. :)
    Loved the photos!

    1. thanks! Candy Gourlay was the photographer.
      I don't think I've read Philip K Dick but will have a look.

    2. He was a sci-fi genius. If you're new to him, I'd recommend starting with The Minority Report. You might have seen the movie version with Tom Cruise. The book is better :)

    3. thanks for the recommendation! I'll have a look :O)

    4. Hi
      I also attended the event at Foyles - sadly the soaring temperatures are a distant memory now! Like others I was a great sci-fi fan when young (Ray Bradbury was my fave, RIP). I've just finished my own 9-12 futuristic adventure with a good slice of sci-fi included and have had my first rejection from an agent :( - very complimentary about the writing but labelling my story as dystopian and saying that there was effectively too much of it around at the moment. So I'm wondering if, moving forward, sci-fi, even as dystopian fiction, stands a chance?

    5. Hi Alison - a tough question. A bit more than a year ago I was also told that dystopian is saturated by some, yet then got an agent, a deal in the UK and one in the US! so bucked that trend. And there seems a lot of enthusiasm for it now - despite that sentiment. All I can say is keep sending it out. Just because one agent says that, another may not. All you can do is keep hitting your head against that brick wall, keep writing something else at the same time, and see what happens. Do you remember what Patrick Ness had to say? - that publishers will jump on something if it is good, if they love it. All you need is to find the one who loves it. And if not, right the next one. :O)

    6. Thanks Teri. Encouraging words - and interesting to hear you were getting the same message from industry reps. over a year ago. I have, since making my earlier post, had a positive response from an agent who wants to see more, so am keeping fingers and toes crossed (and eyes too) - although will clearly have to stop this soon or I won't be able to get on with my writing. :)
      Anyway, thanks again - and I shall invest in a helmet for the wall banging...

  6. This was a great post! I've loved science fiction ever since George Orwell's 1984. Glad to see that I'm not the only one. I like reading what others have to say about this specific genre because I recently finished my first post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Can't wait to see what people think about it. Thanks for posting!