Science fiction is a genre long-dismissed by many as "for nerds," conjuring up the image of a glasses-wearing, pasty-faced, video-game-playing introvert. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. Between us, we've got those categories nailed.) Some think of pulpy movies from the 1960s, featuring silver lycra-clad girls and UFOs on strings. Some say visions of the future mean nothing to teens more interested in their own lives. But it's never been cooler to be a nerd, and science fiction is enjoying a long-overdue comeback. From Doctor Who to Pacific Rim, fans of the genre are enjoying a renaissance of science fiction books, movies and TV--and they're not taking those dismissals lying down. Science fiction matters, and the fans know it.
A true science fiction fan already knows exactly how to argue against the traditional dismissals. There's a difference between pulp and SF--just as there's a difference between schlock horror and Stephen King. By proposing possible visions of the future, science fiction asks questions of us--of humanity, of Earth, of individuals--that we wouldn't ordinarily ask ourselves. Who are we? Where are we going? Does what we do today matter? Real science fiction is as close to an intense discussion of philosophy as you can get while still reading fast-paced, page-turning fiction. And it doesn't always give us the answers. Sometimes it leaves us to answer those questions ourselves, and that discussion is one readers of all stripes relish.
Which leads us to the most baffling assumption of all about science fiction: that it will go right over the heads of today's teenagers. Part of this stems from the (regrettable, but true) fact that the majority of young adult fiction readers are female, and girls aren't supposed to like science fiction. Try telling that to the girls and women of all ages embracing science fiction fandom at every level. Part of it is because adults still have an inexplicable tendency to assume that young people can't, or don't wish to, understand things beyond their immediate realm of personal experience.
A few years ago an article popped up on The Wall Street Journal criticizing the young adult genre for being too dark, and for addressing subjects teens weren't ready to understand. It resulted in a knock-down drag-out fight on the internet as authors and readers leapt to the genre's defense. Supporters of young adult fiction pointed out that for some teens struggling with dark issues, these "ever-appalling" books were the only place they could look for answers. These fictional characters were the only ones troubled teens could turn to in order to figure out their own lives.
Science fiction in the young adult genre serves this same purpose. The extreme popularity of young adult fiction in general among readers of all ages is linked with the universality of the teenage experience. We all remember what it was like to be that age; to wonder who we were, whether we mattered, whether we were alone in the things we struggled with every day. Teenagers are constantly changing who they are, deciding who they want to be. As adults, it's hard to change. But teens are just discovering themselves, and they do that by asking those very questions that make some people think YA fiction is too dark.
Science fiction asks those same questions, just on a larger scale: what does it mean to be human? What's our place in the universe? Do we matter?
Are we alone?
In an age where science fiction television shows like Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica are huge favorites among teenage audiences, it's a bit silly to keep on thinking that young adult readers have no interest in science fiction. If anything is, and always will remain, relevant and important for young people to read about, to talk about, to dream about, it's the future. All our futures. Bleak futures and hopeful futures. The plausible, the impossible, and everything in between. Keep them thinking, keep them asking questions.
Keep them looking around and asking themselves, "Who am I? And who do I want to be?"
Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner are the authors of the new book These Broken Stars.