YA sf

So I was asked to suggest good YA sf and I lamely suggested Scott’s Uglies series, which I do indeed love, but everyone’s already heard of them—especially folks who read this blog. (I’d also recommend his Fine Prey which I think totally works as YA, but it is pretty dirty—not to mention being out of print.)

Thing is though I’ve read a fair amount of YA sf in the last few years I haven’t liked hardly any of it. A lot of it is bog standard: plots I’ve seen before, characters I’ve seen before, worlds I’ve seen before, and nothing new done with any of it. Vastly yawn-worthy.

Remember though I spent more than eight years doing nothing but read science fiction. My standards are very very high and my tolerance for less than stellar very very low.

I will recommend Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It. It breaks no new ground as science fiction—in fact, some of it doesn’t make any sense—but it’s gorgeously written, the protag has a wonderfully vivid voice and I could not put it down. Literally, I read it in one sitting. I highly recommend it.

But that’s all I’ve got. Can any of you help? Preferably recent books. But if you recommend older titles say when you last read it. Books you thought were wonderful when you were twelve—lo, those many years ago—may not stand up now. I can’t tell you how shocked I was when I tried to re-read some of my childhood favourites and discovered that they made Flowers in the Attic look like literary genius.


  1. jenny d on #

    It wasn’t marketed as YA or as SF, but Jonathan Lethem’s “Girl In Landscape” is a book I’d wholeheartedly recommend in this light… There’s quite a lot of grown-up SF that’s suitable for YA readers, isn’t there? That might be a good line to pursue instead. When I was a teenager I would have loved (and loved now also of course!) Gwyneth Jones’s “Bold as Love” and series.

    Like you, Justine, I read far more YA fantasy than SF! But Colleen will probably have some good suggestions here…

  2. marrije on #

    what? in what way does ‘life as we knew it’ not make sense? i read it twice and loved it (and it made my sister do a paranoid inventory of her supply cupboard), but perhaps i suspended my disbelief so much that i didn’t notice glaring obviousnesses?

    there’s meg rosoff’s ‘how i live now’, of course. i loved that, too. and i might perhaps recommend gibson’s ‘pattern recognition’, great for japan/internet loving ya’s.

  3. Justine on #

    Jenny D: Really? I would not recommend Girl in Landscape as YA.

    Marrije: I didn’t buy the initial moon out of orbit incident. It made no sense to me.

    It’s a while since I read it so I can no longer remember many specific objections but a lot of the world building didn’t work for me. When I finished the book I was full of dissatisfied questions.

    My main objections are to the end of the book but they’re very spoilery.

    All of that said: when I read it I loved it. Could not put it down. She’s a gorgeous, gorgeous writer. I highly recommend it. I’m just very very very picky about science fiction.

  4. Ellen on #

    Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is pretty old now, but it (at least for me) stands up to rereadings. I love Monica Hughes’s Invitation to the Game, but it’s more of a guilty pleasure. Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm is more recent, as well as being excellent and a Newbery winner. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game isn’t categorized as YA SF, but the protagonists are young and plenty of young adults read it. That’s about all I’ve got at the moment…

  5. Justine on #

    Ellen: Nancy Farmer! [slaps forehead] How could I forget Nancy Farmer?

  6. orangedragonfly on #

    i was just going to write about nancy farmer, too; i’ve read the house of the scorpion many times, and even listened to the audio book. my sciencey friend pointed out several holes…but even she really liked it and thanked me for the recommendation. 😛

  7. cecil on #

    I will suggest MT Anderson’s FEED.

    I will also suggest Sylvia Louise Engdah’s ENCHANTRESS OF THE STARS

    And for my super old school, I’ll throw in Robert Heinlein’s CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY

    And although it’s technically middlegrade and I haven’t read it, I’ve heard great things about a book called SPACER AND RAT.

  8. cecil on #

    oh. I just read enchantress in 2005 and Citizen of the Galaxy in like, 1996.

  9. Justine on #

    Feed! I smack my forehead again. How could I have forgotten Feed?!

    I suspect that the last few crappy YA sf books have somehow wiped all the good ones from my memory banks.

    I read the Heinlein juveniles about five or so years ago and really enjoyed them. But they were horribly sexist so much so that there should be a warning label.

  10. Eugene on #

    I recently read Ann Halam’s Siberia, which was definitely SF. I didn’t love it, but it was enjoyable. I also recently re-read and highly recommend William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig, and indeed many of his other books, including Singularity and The House of Stairs.

    Wasn’t Lois Lowry’s The Giver SF? Also, I think Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember is terrific, though I didn’t like the sequel as much. There’s a third book, but I haven’t read it yet.

  11. gwenda on #

    Hmmm… people have mentioned most of the ones I would already (and second Spacer and Rat, though it will be mostly old hat for you, Justine). Colleen did a long post about this awhile back (in which she also gave a bunch of recs). Most of the SF seems to be cross-over with another genre and so it’s treated as that genre instead of being id’d as SF.

    I would write it if I could manage it, but I prefer the less fact-based waters of fantasy.

  12. Justine on #

    Gwenda: Absolutely. I much much much much prefer fantasy to read and to write. It’s so much harder to get sf right. Also so much of it ignores class and race and gender in ways that the best YA fantasy doesn’t.

  13. Elisabeth on #

    The Droughtlanders by Carrie Mac is one of my recent favorites. It’s an older YA book (as in the ever-flexible mature content kind of way, not in a chronological sense) and the start of a trilogy.

    The Secret Under my Skin by Janet Mcnaughton is also really. The sequel has just come out, the Raintree Rebellion.

    How to Be a Hero on Earth Five by Rob Payne is a surreal and occasionally ridiculous book, but definitely YA SF.

    Heir Apparent by Vivian Van Velde is about a girl stuck in a virtual reality game.

    Leaning more towards the middle school end of things, there’s the City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, and the Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, book one being Among the Hidden. And Monica Hughes’s Dreamcatcher and Devil on my Back and a host of others.

  14. ben on #

    What are your thoughts on Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy? Whether one agrees with the philosophies espoused, I consider it essential reading in the sciency-fiction-sort-of-young-adult-but-really-for-everybody genre.

  15. tobias s buckell on #

    Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles completely rox! I’ll also ditto Nancy Farmer, I was quite blown away by the Scorpion King. And Kenneth Oppel is a lot of airship fun.

    I’ve also been making my way through Garth Nix’s catalogue 🙂

  16. R.J. Anderson on #

    I second the recs for Philip Reeve (his style in the first book is terrible, but he improves very quickly and his sense of humor is more than worth the price of admission) and Kenneth Oppel. Frankly, you can’t go wrong with dirigibles in my view, and in Reeve’s case big honkin’ cities on caterpillar treads trundling around eating each other is just the icing on the airship cake.

    I’m glad other people mentioned Feed and House of the Scorpion because those were going to be my next recs, but in the MG realm I’ll also stick up my hand and wave it around for Margaret Peterson Haddix, whose first Shadow Children book I just read, and now I’m dying for the rest.

  17. Melissa on #

    Rash by Pete Hautman.

  18. Justine on #

    Ben: I love the first two books of Pullman’s Dark Materials. I don’t consider it to be science fiction though.

  19. ben on #

    Intriguing…I guess that raises the question of what your definition is…interestingly, Wikipedia connects the Pullman work to the “steampunk” genre; the work does have various principles of dark matter, quantum mechanics, etc. as subtexts. It apparently occurs in the past though, on Earth. Is there a requirement for the sci-fi genre that it be in an alternate present, or the future, or not on Earth, or…? Just curious about how your personal method of classification…thanks!

  20. Justine on #

    I have no strict method—it’s more of a “I know it when I see it”. To me though His Dark Materials is clearly fantasy as it’s chock full of magic.

    But for me fantasy is the primary genre. I know lots of sf heads who are always claiming stuff for sf. I do the opposite. Mostly cause I don’t like science fiction.

  21. ben on #

    Ahh…but remember, wasn’t it Arthur Clarke himself who said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinquishable from magic? Still, since this is your blog we’ll call it fantasy here…. 🙂

  22. lili on #

    when I was a kid i LOVED gillian rubenstein’s ‘space demons’ and ‘skymaze’ (not sure if they were published in the US). about people getting strangely sucked in to a computer game, and then elements of the game leaking out into the real world. scared the pants off me.

    at work, we get about five books come in a day, and they are very often fantasy, but almost never sci-fi. I don’t know why that is. I’m not sure why… I also have a vague and completely raw theory that as a culture we’re at the end of a cycle (hence all the postmodernism and remakes and sequels and ‘looking back’), which makes it very hard to look forward. We’ve pretty much gotten to the ‘future’ that we used to dream about in the 50s (except for the flying cars), and we’re not really sure what comes next.

    oh, and i must put my oar in for Cold Comfort Farm, which isn’t YA at all but i love, and is science fiction in a deliciously eccentric way.

  23. Anna on #

    I really enjoyed Enchantress from the Stars but I read the sequel, The Far Side of Evil, and enjoyed that one much more than the other. I think I read TFSoE when I was 15.

  24. Rebecca on #

    i’ma getting caught up on my commenting which has been extraordinarily lax of late.

    i really liked fine prey, though i wouldn’t consider it ya. definitely able to be enjoyed by young adults, but not ya.

    hmm, i find it disturbing that i can’t think of very many ya sf titles. ender’s game is probably one of my favorite books ever written, but it was not originally published as ya. though now there is a ya edition out there. the only other book i can think of is shade’s children by garth nix, which was awesome. well, actually, there was a book i read called the bar code tattoo, which was good, but not up there with my favorites.

  25. Diana on #

    Yeah, there are definitely books I won’t read again for fear of my memory of them being ruined. Mists of Avalon tops that list.

    I like the Heinlein juveniles. I tend to think of the sexism in them being like that crotchety old uncle who says the most appalling things at family dinners but you all pat him on the head and love him anyway…

  26. Diana on #

    Ooh, and what about Lois Lowry’s “the giver” and related books?

  27. Diana on #

    Ooh, and what about Rash? I haven’t read it, though.

  28. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    Huge ditto for Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars and The Far Side of Evil. Read and re-read and wrote petitions to reissue and so glad that they’re finally back in print! If you’re going to read them, read them in order, even though TFSoE is much better. They build.

    Also another old one, Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage, which I also read and re-read; I really enjoyed the way it addressed taking on adult responsibilities, from standing up to your community to sex.

  29. hillary! on #

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! I haven;t even heard of most of these! But I totally *LOVE* Sleator’s *Interstellar Pig* and *Parasite Pig*. My library actually had BOTH!

  30. Ellen on #

    I’m an idiot — I also should have mentioned Robert O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

    I think of Pullman’s His Dark Materials as fantasy rather than SF, but I definitely recommend it as good young adult fiction.

  31. amanda coppedge on #

    I second William Sleator. Well, older Sleator, anyway. Every time I see “Hell Phone” on the shelf I chuckle at the title. Haven’t looked inside yet.

    I also second Ann Halam. “Siberia” was probably my least favorite of hers, but I love “Dr. Franklin’s Island” and especially “Taylor Five.” As an adult I found t5 a bit intense so I definitely wouldn’t give it to a younger teen. I put this one on display in my library all the time and nobody ever takes it. *sniffle*

    A popular one with my patrons is “Surviving Antarctica: Reality TV 2083” by Andrea White. Also Gloria Skurzynski’s Clone Wars series. Haven’t read any of these myself.

  32. Colleen on #

    Chiming in late here, but I’ve been looking long and hard for YA SF for awhile now and let me tell you – it’s not easy. I have recently read and loved two novellas from Subterranean Press: D.A. by Connie Willis and Sky Horizon by David Brin. No surprise that these two authors would do a great job but I wish the books were getting more coverage – they both have teen protags and tell classic SF stories.

    In my August Bookslut column I reviewed Eliot Fintushel’s Breakfast With the Ones You Love which was an adult release but only because the imprint doesn’t do YA SF. (Go figure.) It’s about a guy building a rocket ship in the abandoned part of a Sears store so it’s very solidly SF. But there’s also the devil, some bat crazy old ladies, a bunch of Jewish rabbis who hold meetings in a sewer and teenage girl who can kill living creatures with a thought. Quirky does not even begin to describe it, but I thought it was big fun and one of the most original books I’ve read in ages. (And yes, the rocket does fly and aliens are present – but so is the mafia so it’s hard to pinhole this one in any single genre.)

    Ann Halam’s Siberia has been horribly overlooked I think – I just loved it. It’s set in a future where the gov’t largely controls connection to the natural world (domed cities, no free roaming animals, etc.). The protag and her mother are sent to a gulag after her father is killed and her mother punished for their research into preserving animal DNA. It falls to Sloe to guard those DNA strands (which basically represent all living creatures on earth) when she and her mother become separated. Based loosely on the actions of the scientists of the St Petersburg seed bank who protected the nation’s seeds during WWII (and many died in the effort) this book is coming-of-age/thriller/SFF (and even a wee bit of romance.

    Very cool.

    I have copies of The Declaration by Gemma Malley and The Quantum July by Ron King both new releases, but haven’t read them yet.

    I am still waiting for someone to write like Ray Bradbury – Connie Willis comes really close with D.A. though.

  33. Diana on #

    Oh, I just remembered a book I read as a teen. It was called *eva* (peter dickinson) and was set in the future, about the adolescent daughter of zoologists who, after a horrible accident, becomes the first person to have her mind transferred into the body of a chimp. It’s about overpopulation, environmentalism, gaia theory, bioethics, animal behavior, animal rights. Fascinating stuff. One of the big questions about the books is who owns the new Eva — the org that paid for the transplant, the zoo that owned the chimp, eva herself?

    I don’t know if it’s in print anymore. It should be.

  34. Diana on #

    Oh, hey, look what you learn care of google. Dickinson is married to robin mckinley.

  35. liliya on #

    second Gwyneth Jones’ ‘Bold as love’ series (waaay back at the start of this thread) especially the first one, although definitely for older YA… she’s the same person as ann Halam, by the way.

  36. Carbonel on #

    Be ashamed. Be very ashamed: Andre Norton Awards.

    How could you forget–?

  37. Justine on #

    Carbonel: Why for ashamed? The Norton has gone to two fantasy books. And the vast majority of the shortlist is fantasy!

  38. tobias s buckell on #

    the philip reeve books are post-apocalyptic, not set in the past (they talk about cee-dees, shiny round things, scattered all over archeological digs). etc.


  39. hope on #

    Norton isn’t as blazingly sexist as Heinlein, but her work is more dense and I don’t know if you could get a ya into them. But Moon of Three Rings holds up pretty well on re-reading, and so does The Zero Stone. I haven’t re-read Witch World lately.

    Lois McMaster Bujold is ya, I think, for most of Miles’s Life. Even when he ages, I think it’s good reading-up for teens. Life comes at you fast.

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