Girls in Spaceships, with a side order of robots please

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about YA science fiction – and the lack thereof. As YA fantasy took the noughties by storm, a regular refrain I heard was, but what about the science fiction?

It turned up from time to time, of course, and there have been some wildly successful examples: Scott Westerfeld’s dystopian Uglies series, Suzanne Collins’ the Hunger Games trilogy, and zombie thriller Feed by Mira Grant. Then there have been the steampunls stylings of Westerfeld (again), Richard Harland and Cassandra Clare. Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi have both written books for teens.

But… there just haven’t been enough spaceships. To be precise, not enough girls on spaceships. With robots.

Science fiction as a whole has been in a bit of a slump. More specifically, science fiction written by women has been shrinking at a rate of knots – it’s still around, but whenever publishers put out less of something, diversity is usually the first thing to suffer. A wave of spaceships and robots in YA could be just what the doctor ordered, sparking off a renaissance in the larger genre similar to what has happened with the development of urban fantasy and paranormal romance.

There’s a myth that girls aren’t interested in science fiction. It’s far more likely that this idea has come about because, in fact, science fiction has not always been that interested in girls. This post about “hard SF now with girl cooties” was very nicely timed, and those books have gone straight on to my To Read list.

Science fiction has been around a really long time. It needs new ideas, new blood and new waves in order to revitalise itself on a regular basis. The thing that still hasn’t been done to death, in fact has hardly really got started (yet) is the science fiction for and about teenage girls.

(Sarah Rees Brennan once blogged the brilliant idea of doing a Gossip Girl in Space, and it really stuck with me – why has no one written this yet? Do I have to?)

I think it’s coming. I’ve seen the signs. Not just in manga, and in the popularity of shows like New Doctor Who with female audiences, but in the books that are starting to emerge. I recently read Across the Universe by Beth Revis, a generation ship story which gripped me from its opening chapters, because of the compelling teen characters combined with a crunchy, difficult science fictional setting. It’s a great read, with the emotional intensity that makes YA so appealing to the adult (as well as teen) reader, but also raised some really interesting themes that felt fresh because of the way they were being told through the voice and style of modern YA fiction.

Amy, one of the novels protagonists, is cryogenically frozen for a 500 year space voyage to a new planet, along with her parents. They are important military personnel; she is inessential cargo. She is accidentally unfrozen fifty years too soon, and finds herself stuck in the middle of the creepy community aboard the spaceship – the people who are taking the long route to the new planet, generation after generation, their job being to maintain the ship along the way.

Amy’s arrival has a powerful effect on Elder. the boy who is designated the next leader of the ship, and he begins to realise how many unpleasant compromises his predecessors have made to keep the community functioning – and how much of his world is a lie.

The book is packed with all manner of interesting ethical questions, many of which do not have easy answers. Then, right when I was beginning to feel like the book had come to an acceptable though not entirely happy ending, it pulled out a sucker punch in the last couple of chapters which made me realise that the slight discomfort I had been feeling about the romance itself, and the nature of unrequited love/unspoken crushes as a trope, was also about to be paid off in spades.

I’m not sure I liked or approved of the ending, if I thought about it too carefully with my feminist hats on (feminism requires more than one hat) but it fitted with the overall theme of the novel which was – sometimes you have to compromise your ideals to survive. The fact that the ending squicked me out a little bit didn’t actually ruin the reading experience for me or make me throw the book across the room at all – it made me think. As all the best YA does.

In short, I want more – more combinations of the squishy girl cooties YA emotional relationships, and the science fiction toolbox. I can read a LOT more of these before they come close to catching up to my urban fantasy or mainstream girlfic reading history. So what else is coming? Has anyone heard of upcoming releases in this vein? I know Diana Peterfreund is working on Persuasion-in-space which is super exciting. I know that robots are being heralded as the Next Big Thing in spec fic. It’s all very promising, and I’m really hoping that the next couple of years bring me the books I an dying to read.

Robots! Girls in spaceships! Intellect and Romance over Brute Force and Cynicism! BRING IT ON!

12 replies on “Girls in Spaceships, with a side order of robots please”

  1. Tehani says:

    I’m currently reading Anne McCaffrey & Elizabeth Anne Scarborough’s “Catalyst” which, while really about space cats, has a girls in spaceships 🙂 McCaffrey has done this many times over the years (although not always YA. And not always all the great, in later years)…

  2. Kristan says:

    I just started ACROSS THE UNIVERSE yesterday!

    Also, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m a girl, and I’ve always loved scifi (ST:TNG hooked me first). I don’t write it, but I would love to see more of it on the YA shelves. My friend/writing buddy Erin Danehy just came up with a wicked cool scifi idea — I’m going to have to pass her this article. 🙂

  3. Marg says:

    You could try Inside Out and the sequel Outside In by Maria V Snyder. Inside Out has been out for a year or so, but Outside In either is just about to be released or has been recently released.

  4. tansyrr says:

    Tehani: I always feel like I missed Anne McCaffrey because I didn’t read Pern at 13-14 like you’re kinda supposed to, but in fact at that age I was reading and re-reading The Rowan and its sequels. Talk about SF with girl cooties! I loved it even though the last two books are really awful.

    Kristan: There are so many marvellous sociological issues that come up from living in spaceships – the shape of families, etc – which fascinate me. Star Trek Next Gen & DS9 really pulled me in because they promised to explore that, though I do think on the whole they didn’t do as much of it as I gave them credit for at the time. Tell Erin to write her book! This is totally the right time for it.

    Marg: I already have heaps of Maria V Snyder books on my To Read list and have never even heard of these. Thanks!

  5. allreb says:

    There’s Dom Testa’s Galahad series, about a bunch of teens on a spaceship, sent off to found a new colony as Earth dies. It’s a bleak premise, but the ship is captained by a highly-competent sixteen-year-old girl. It (the first book, I haven’t read the others yet) wasn’t anything that I found particularly deep; there’s some diversity, if I’m remembering right, and nothing tipped my feminist radar as problematic, but it also isn’t an exploration of any current-day issues or questions. Just teens on their own on a space ship.

  6. Eric Searleman says:

    How about Rocket Girls by Housuke Nojiri?

  7. tansyrr says:

    Hey Eric – I haven’t read Rocket Girls yet, but have ordered it.

  8. Eric Searleman says:

    There’s another one too. The sequel, Rocket Girls: The Last Planet, should be out next month.

  9. (My original comment seems to have disappeared so apologies if this shows up as a double comment)

    Hear, hear! Count me in as someone who’d love to see YA SF become a trend. I cut my teeth on adult SF, and wish I’d been able to read age-appropriate science fiction stories (both with and without romance) in my youth.

    Now that I’m a parent, I’ll be spending my hard earned dollars on YA SF books for my daughter, who will be ready to start reading the genre in a few years. It’s important for publishers and booksellers to anticipate the needs of my daughter and millions of others like her rather than scramble to catch up. And if any of them think these girls won’t have an interest in science and science fiction, they’ve got another think coming.

    For tweens and young adult readers, I’d like to recommend Toni LoTempio’s MY SUPERHERO SISTER, a fun action-adventure tale. At $2.99, it’s a very affordable ebook. Interested parents can learn more about it in my interview with the author (who’s also a friend of mine).

    I also just heard news of a forthcoming YA SFR release from a Big Six publisher, and the author will be announcing the sale in the near future. I’ll blog about it at The Galaxy Express as soon as I get the clearance.

    […]In Girls in Spaceships, with a side order of robots, please, Ms. Roberts laments that[…]

  10. tansyrr says:

    Hi Heather

    I found your original comment caught in the spam filter – sorry about that, it happens if there’s more than a couple of links. Thanks for your in depth response!

  11. Hi, I cut my teeth on YA SF, devouring almost every Superman and Batman comic there was to be had – and I agree, there’s a dearth of it, overrun by the Harry Potter craze no doubt. While I like Harry as well as the next guy, I also am a sucker for guys and gals in tights and capes – hence my YA book, My Superhero Sister, aimed at MG/YA’s who love superheroes!

  12. […] that the reader has realised long ago). I picked it up because I read great reviews of it on Tansy Rayner-Robert’s and Random Alex’s […]

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