Science Fiction Juvenile Books
Many science fiction juvenile books appear to repress the rupture inherent in the genre. Instead, they domesticize rupture with recursive fatalism and an assumption that teenagers’ maturity must lie in the recovery of their family structure.
Fortunately, there are a few alternatives. One is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel that recognizes the human foibles that could dirty the clean sweep of scientific progress.
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Two hundred and fifty-one years after the Builders created Ember, it has run out of supplies and is descending into darkness. A deadly coughing plague, shortages of food and fuel, and the failure of the generator that keeps the lights shining are all causing despair among its citizens.
One of the main themes in this book is team work. Lina and Doon work together to escape the dying city of Ember and into a new world.
In general, thematic elements of juvenile SF differ from those of adult SF. Juvenile books typically eschew the pessimistic, anti-technological outlook of many adult SF works in favor of a more positive view of future technology and a yearning for an idealized rural past. This theme is also reflected in the emphasis on cooperation over competition and tolerance of differences found in many SF works for children and young adults. This is in stark contrast to the competitive destruction found in much of adult SF.
The Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein
In 2075, teenager Matt Dodson passes the rigorous physical, mental and ethics tests to become a Space Cadet. Along with Texan Bill Jarman, Venus colonist Oscar Jensen and the arrogant son of a spaceship builder, he is sent to the orbiting Space Academy for training.
Here Heinlein demonstrates some of his philosophy that would make him famous later with Starship Troopers, a story that is rooted in the same Future History concept as SPACE CADET. The cadets are expected to abandon loyalty to their individual countries in favor of the greater good of humanity and the other sentient beings of the Solar System.
Heinlein also anticipates the civil rights movement with the fact that the cadets are recruited from a wide variety of backgrounds. The cadets are trained on how to deal with alien races, another issue he would later explore in more depth with the novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
The Book of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
One of the major conceits of science fiction is its premise that the universe is a dangerous and exciting place, and that it can be understood through investigation and experiment. Unfortunately, the genre has never fully embraced this premise for children’s books.
DuPrau’s story is set in a underground city called Ember, which was built 200 years ago. It has everything the residents need to live, including canned food and electricity generated by a hydroelectric generator. The only thing missing is the knowledge of where they are or how they got there.
DuPrau’s story is reminiscent of Gernsback’s precursory pulp periodicals, with its cliffhanger chapters and fast-paced plotting. It also includes explanations of scientific details that are intentionally short and only loosely based in fact, a concession to the presumption that younger readers have shorter attention spans. Ultimately, however, the book is still caught in the trap that a work of children’s science fiction must return us to a world unchanged by events within its covers.
The Last Book in the Universe by Sylvia Engdahl
Like an enchantress, Sylvia Engdahl appeared on the science fiction scene in 1970 to glowing reviews with her Newbery Honor book, Enchantress from the Stars. Though she produced a number of books and several non fiction works, her career was short-lived.
While her novels are labeled science fiction, Engdahl’s work is not traditional sci-fi with stereotypical robots and ray guns. Her plots are primarily concerned with scientific philosophy.
Engdahl develops her own characters to verbalize her optimistic philosophy. Her “strong” characters — Alex in Journey Between Worlds, Elana in the Enchantress series, Kari in this Star Shall Abide, and Scholar Stefred in her The Far Side of Evil trilogy–have the ability to sway readers with their knowledge and experience.
The underlying theme in all of Engdahl’s fiction is the need for human exploration and colonization of planets outside our solar system. It is an exploration that is necessary for the survival of humans in a rapidly changing universe.