Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Reader Request Week 2009, in which you suggest the topics, and I write about them. Yes, I am your dancing monkey for the entire week! Please do not throw peanuts at me, however. They hurt my little head. As with last year, this I’m going to try to answer more requests, in a shorter form. Since last year I didn’t manage the ‘shorter’ part very well, don’t be surprised if I blather. Hey, that’s why you’re here.
Our first reader request this year comes from Keith, who says:
I have to preface my question with a story. Recently, I met and spent some time talking to a middle school librarian from Des Moines, IA. Naturally, conversation turned to what books we read when we were that age, as opposed to what ‘tweens are reading now.
I mentioned that I cut my teeth on the juveniles (now called Young Adult!) of Robert Heinlein, and asked if many kids still ask for those. I got a blank look in response. She didn’t know who I was talking about, and was sure that her library contained no books by said author. Asimov, Clarke, Pohl- same thing. She thought she might have heard of Asimov… I thought I might cry.
So, John, my question for you is, WTF?
Do middle school kids not read science fiction any more? Does (this) science fiction have an expiration date? Is it because they’re in a middle school in Des Moines (no offense intended to Midwesterners in general…)? Am I hopelessly out of touch with the youth of today, and should just start yelling at them to get off my lawn?
The answer: Yes, Keith, you are in fact hopelessly out of touch with the youth of today. Here’s your cane; remember to shake it vigorously (or at least as vigorously as you can manage) as those Youth of Today™ scramble off your Kentucky Bluegrass. And be thankful, because think about it: Do you really want to have the same tastes as a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds? Wouldn’t that be weird? Wouldn’t that be, well, creepy? Like, restraining order creepy? You know it would be. So be proud of your old man crankiness.
But more to the point, one has to ask why one should be so surprised that the Youth of Today™ have not necessarily read the juveniles of Heinlein, or Asimov (the ‘Lucky Starr’ series, writing as Paul French) or whomever. Dude, those books are all more than 50 years old. You might as well be shocked, shocked that the YoT™ aren’t listening to the Flamingos or the Drifters or the Isley Brothers, each of whom had one of the top ten songs of 1959, or are torrenting videos of Darby O’Gill and the Little People or The Hound of the Baskervilles, to name but two of the top ten movies of that same year.
But, you say, The Star Beast is excellent in ways that Darby O’Gill is not. And maybe you’re correct about that, but it doesn’t really matter, for reasons both social and practical. On the social front, if you spend any amount of time with kids (it helps to have one in the house, as I do, if you don’t want that wacky restraining order action going on), you know that they have a strange allergic reaction to anything that’s not explicitly created for them, and specifically a reaction to anything you, as an adult/parent, might like. This reaction starts as soon as they’re able to be judged by other kids on their aesthetic choices and continues until they realize (usually around 30) that a whole other generation of kids think they are now completely out of touch, so they can relax and just enjoy what they like. When my then ten-year-old niece commented a few years ago that No Doubt sounded like something her mother might like, I realized that no amount of pushing and prodding would ever get her to listen to Gwen Stefani and pals thrash about, even if sonically it was right in line with what she was listening to otherwise. I have no doubt (no pun intended) that it works the same way if an adult drops Star Beast on a kid these days.
On the practical front, the future of 50 years ago is not the future of today, both for social and technological reasons, and kids today know it. Hell, when I read The Star Beast as a kid in the early 80s, it already felt a bit quaint, and that was more than a quarter century ago. Writers are writing for their day and age, and their day and age passes. That Heinlein’s juvies kept selling for so many years is a testament to his readability (and to the relative dearth of passible new SF for younger readers for a number of years as well), but sooner or later readability alone isn’t going to compensate for a world that doesn’t feel right anymore to contemporary readers, and science fiction doesn’t have the ability that some other books have in being a snapshot of their current time. It’s supposed to be the future. The only way you get to the future of Star Beast or Red Planet or Citizen of the Galaxy is by going backwards first.
But just because kids aren’t reading what we read when we were kids doesn’t mean they’re not reading science fiction. My daughter is currently sucking down Margaret Peterson Haddix’s ‘Shadow Children’ sequence of books like there’s no tomorrow, the latest of which was written only three years back. One might roll one’s eyes at James Patterson’s ‘Maximum Ride’ series of YA SF novels, but they are seriously popular; each of them hit #1 on the NYT Young Adult bestseller list. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games has been making quite a stir recently, and of course let’s not forget Scott Westerfeld, whose Uglies series is legitimately a watermark in modern YA science fiction. Finally, let’s not forget that on the Hugo ballot this year there’s also Little Brother, which has done very well both in sales and in critical acclaim. These are the YA SF books I can reel off of the top of my head; there are quite a few more I can’t.
Which is to say: Don’t panic. The kids are reading science fiction just fine, even if they’re not reading what you did, back in the day. And here’s the good news: If they get hooked on science fiction, eventually they probably will read the Heinlein juvies. Probably in college, as part of a survey course, to be sure. But, hey. That’s something. This is your cue, incidentally, to start shaking your cane again.
(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)