But as any genre becomes popular, the inevitable knock-offs appear: inferior versions of the real thing created quickly and sloppily to make a buck. This is, perhaps, even more common in the case of literature for young people, where the (very insulting) assumption seems to be that kids won’t care and won’t know the difference. It happened with Harry Potter, paranormal romance, dystopian, The Hunger Games, and it’s happening with YA sci-fi. I pick up a lot of titles that sound promising, only to find them derivative, predictable, and just plain bad.
The good stuff I review on Goodreads and Amazon. The bad stuff I don’t mention by name. But here, for fun, are three telltale signs of uninspired YA sci-fi. All of these techniques typically occur within the first few pages, certainly the first chapter—so it’s easy to throw aside such books before you get too deeply into them.
1. Caps Out of Control. Some things (namely, proper nouns and titles) are indeed capitalized. Sometimes, in the real world—and usually for marketing reasons—such capitalization gets a bit out of hand. But when you read a YA sci-fi book that starts like this, you know you’re in trouble:
“Kaitlin Woke. She rose from the Bed, checked the Wall, noted the time on the Clock. Today was the day she’d Take the Exam. If she Failed, she wouldn’t get into the Academy. If she Passed, the Doors of Opportunity would be wide open.”
How does capitalizing these words make this a futuristic society? Isn’t it just, like, some teenager taking the SAT?
2. NewSpeak. There’s a strong tradition in sci-fi of coining new words, often in conjunction with new technologies. (As, for instance, the word “robot,” from the 1920 play R.U.R. by Czech sci-fi writer Karel Capek.) It takes real ingenuity to do this well, to invent a word that sounds plausible but that is not, in fact, a word in common usage.
That’s probably why one sure-fire sign of lazy YA sci-fi is bad word-coining. Typically this takes the form of using truncated, combined, or otherwise mangled real words to create ostensibly hip, newfangled, futuristic words. So the device that projects one’s inner fantasies will be called the MentProj. Or the gizmo that walks a dog remotely will be called the TeleSpot.
I mean, come on!
3. Techno Overkill. And while we’re speaking of technology: yes, science fiction relies on it. New technologies, altered technologies, lost technologies, alien technologies—all of these are fundamental to the genre.
But folks, just because sci-fi typically features unfamiliar technologies does not mean that merely introducing unfamiliar technologies makes something sci-fi. Throwing in a bunch of gimcracks and gewgaws for atmosphere or whatever misses the whole point of technology in science fiction: it needs to make sense. It needs to be integrated with—indeed, integral to—the society you’ve invented. It needs to have some logical connection not only to our world, but to the history and current functioning of the speculative world. It’s not good enough to have people flying around in high-tech cars and having their ear wax removed by VirtEarProbes.
Then again, that might come in handy. I think I’ll Look it Up on the GlobWebPurch and Buy a Couple.