Aside from Contemporary Young Adult Fiction, YA Sci-Fi is arguably one of the most popular genres of books out there. It comes in all shapes and sizes: Beth Revis' Across the Universe, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, Veroncia Roth's Divergent, Marie Lu's Legend, Allie Condie's Matched... The list goes on and on and on AND ON.
What do all of these books/series have in common?
Humanity (or some part of it) has endured some apocalyptic event.
All those stories are about fighting against impossible odds in a world ravaged by the dark side of nature, or wartorn cities/landscapes, or corrupt governments that have all the citizens in their pockets.
Basically, humanity screwed up and now they're facing the consequences.
But while all of that makes for an action-packed thriller, giving the people in the book the hope that they will live another day...what does it actually do for us, the readers? How are we able to relate to this world, a world so destroyed that recovering it seems inconceivable -- and it is a preposterous notion. Should I mention that although these series end right at the point of the main conflicts, it's ridiculous to think that humanity as a species will survive very long after the story. They don't have the same resource-rich environments to pull from that their ancestors did, so to think that any manageable, enduring, industrious civilization could be constructed is, in essence, a lost cause.
Of course, looking at it like that is probably in the overkill range.
But despite the "rising from the ashes" trope, where humanity has endured this apocalyptic event and managed to get through the worst of it, what do we the readers get out of it? When we read those books, we're stuck rooting for those characters. "Woohoo! They made it out alive! I'm so proud of them!"
Do you see the problem with this?
Because YA genre fiction is so big in today's society, and most of it consists of these post-apocalyptic, rising from the ashes scenarios, that we collectively associate hope and pride and better futures with these scenarios. We sit back, enjoy the show, and go on with our own lives while imagining how cool it would be to experience those societies.
People, no. It would not be fun to watch your friends die, be controlled by the government, live in a police state, have only one personality, have arranged marriages and punished for breaking them, etc etc etc. Think about those realities, and what they say about humanity, and how humanity got into those scenarios. Humanity had to fall. Humanity had to destroy itself. Citizen slavery had to take hold. The "brighter futures" of those stories are the "normal lives" of reality.
These stories inspire us, yes, but to do what? Hopefully to avoid these situations. But where do we go from there? What are we as a society supposed to aspire to after reading these books? Sure, we look around and see similar instances around the world that mimic these books, so we point our fingers and shout, "AHA! The Hunger Games is practically real! We need a symbol!"
Yes, these books can tell us something about our current situations, and even rally people to a cause that moves us away from falling into the dark spiral of entering a dystopian society....but again I ask, where do we go from there?
SO WHAT CAN YOUNG ADULT SCI-FI DO TO CHANGE THIS?
50 years ago, the science-fiction genre showed us incredible technologies like space ships, devices through which you could communicate wirelessly, an invisible network that anyone anywhere in the world could access, robots, AI, heck, even self-tying shoelaces.
And what happened? We got cell phones, the internet, robots, AI, space ships, and, right on time in 2015, self-tying shoelaces....all because of science-fiction!!! Science-fiction inspired the creation of these technologies, filled us with wonder and awe and made us dream of futuristic cities and holograms! Hell, even the space program flourished in the time when dreams of science-fiction dominated culture (we'll skip over War of the Worlds...hopefully that doesn't happen).
But do you see what happened? Science-fiction inspired people to look forward to the future! We didn't hope to break free of a corrupt government. We were united, and sought to advance the entire species! More than half of all modern technology was inspired by science-fiction and space exploration (seriously, no computers, no toasters, no cell phones, no fluorescent light bulbs, no fiber optics...etc etc etc).
Now we have cat videos, memes, and visions of war-torn, post-apocalyptic, bombed-out cities where humanity is struggling to survive.
And why? Because those scenarios DOMINATE the YA genre.
Is this reversible? My answer: an adamant YES. How, you ask?
Shift the YA genre.
Let's have more stories celebrating human endeavor. Show our ingenuity, our desire to explore, our passion for knowledge, our yearning to survive where no one has ever survived before. Take us on a journey across the stars, show how rewarding space exploration can be. Give humanity the reputation of uniting, overcoming nature, and surviving on that planet where the air is toxic, there's no natural food, not a tree in sight....
And yet we live there anyway.
We build a home. We claim it as ours. We don't survive -- we thrive. We use technology to our species' advantage. We mine asteroids, walk on comets, discover organic life elsewhere in the universe (and NOT a far-superior alien race that seeks to destroy us). Maybe the life doesn't depend on water to survive, but methane, or hydrochloric acid, or something weird that isn't life as we know it.
We want to see glass raining from the sky, purple and blue trees in the forest, ugly alien animals that are so spectacular we study their habitats and biologies and how they live... We travel to the centers of stars, measure dark matter, even figure out how gravity works (because as of yet, we have NO IDEA HOW GRAVITY WORKS. We know it's related to mass and distance, but after that...nobody knows).
See, now more than ever we need stories that showcase the spirit of human endeavor. We need the unity, the awareness, the sense of wonder and awe that the world shared 50 years ago. If science-fiction from 50 years ago inspired our modern generation of technology and space programs, just imagine what we could achieve today and in the next 10-20 years. We're talking exponential technological growth. Settlements on the moon, colonies on Mars (I say colonies, because colonization describes the claiming of land that is already inhabited, and technically speaking, only robots live on Mars....)
So let's push for a change in the YA genre. Let's inspire the next generation to do good in the face of adversity, to lead humanity to a new frontier. Books and movies have the power to change the future, so which would you rather have? A world where war has claimed the lives of millions and you die any second under the dictatorship (or stupid genetic experiment) that rules the world? Or a world -- no, many worlds where humanity has broken free of its roots and set out to explore the universe?
I, for one, choose the latter.
Society tends to achieve the future it expects. Reading about doomsday inevitably makes us lose faith in humanity, but if we can alter our literature and tell stories about humanity's triumphs, society will fall back into that mindset. And it's why I write the books I do: I want to help inspire a love for space exploration.
Because we are the human race.