Several recent blockbuster movies about and/or for adolescents — The Hunger Games, Super 8, I Am Number Four, not to mention all the recent superhero movies — have something in common. They’re science fiction. Why do adolescents dig science fiction, particularly the dystopian variety, so much?
For the same reason that adults do, only more so, because adolescents are more idealistic than adults.
Dystopianism — appealing to idealists? You bet. Dystopian science fiction extrapolates from a current social trend (in the case of the Hunger Games trilogy, for example, the widening achievement gap between rich and poor kids, a development that pundits say threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects) in order to depict a perverse social order that might imaginably develop if that trend isn’t nipped in the bud. Dystopian science fiction is better described as “anti-anti-utopian,” because at bottom it’s an expression of frustrated idealism.
Unlike realistic fiction, and even fantasy (which is purely escapist), science fiction encourages readers to believe that dramatic social change is possible. More than any other genre, science fiction frees our imagination from that enchantment cast upon it by everyday life which would encourage us to believe that the way things are is natural, permanent, and inevitable. Much of the media to which kids are exposed blunts their critical reasoning skills; but science fiction gives those skills a good workout.
Here are a few favorite science-fiction novels — with an emphasis on pre-1990s titles that today’s adolescents may not know about it — that are popular in my household. There’s a shorter version of this list in UNBORED, and we mention other science fiction titles throughout.
- Red Planet (1949), by Robert Heinlein. When they learn that their headmaster plans to sell Jim’s alien pet, a three-legged “bouncer” named Willis, Jim and Frank run away from their Martian colony’s boarding school and skate home along Mars’ frozen canals. En route, they learn a lesson or two about corrupt authority, and the value of a culture other than their own.
- Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1958), by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams. When the inventor Professor Bulfinch builds an early computer, middle-schooler Danny and his pal Irene figure out — through trial and error — how to program it to do their homework. They learn the hard way that computers aren’t any smarter than the humans who program them. PS: There are 15 books in the Danny Dunn series (1956-77), but the first four, which were written by both authors, and illustrated by the great Ezra Jack Keats, are the place to begin.
- Matthew Looney’s Voyage to the Earth (1961), by Jerome Beatty Jr. The first in a series — about Matthew Looney, an adolescent member of a lunar society whose scientists refuse to believe that Earth is inhabited — which is an excellent introduction to science fiction for younger kids, yet rewarding for all ages. New Yorker cartoonist Gahan Wilson illustrated them.
- A Wrinkle in Time (1962), by Madeleine L’Engle. Like the author of this beloved novel was at that age, 14-year-old Meg Murry is shy, awkward, and too good at math to be considered cool. When their scientist father disappears, Meg and her genius baby brother travel through space and time to rescue him — with the assistance of two weird neighbors (Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who), and a basketball-playing jock. The other books in the series are also worth reading.
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964), by Ian Fleming. Forget the 1968 musical movie, which turns this spy yarn — written by the author of the James Bond books, for his son — into an extended dream sequence. Although the book’s titular car may from time to time surprise its inventor, there is less fantasy here than intrigue, suspense, and science-fictional action.
- The Tripod trilogy (1967-1968), by John Christopher. Earth has been conquered by aliens, who control the minds of everyone over 14. In The White Mountains (1967), 13-year-olds Will, Henry, and Beanpole join the anti-alien resistance. In The City of Gold and Lead (1968), Will infiltrates an alien city; and in The Pool of Fire (1968), the resistance forces go on the attack.
- Sword of the Spirits trilogy (1971-1972), by John Christopher. In a post-apocalyptic future, only the Seers have any inkling about the technology of the past. In The Prince in Waiting (1970), 13-year-old Luke is named the future “Prince of Princes,” then flees to the Seers’ sanctuary. In Beyond the Burning Lands (1971), Luke becomes a hero when he slays a giant amoeba; and in The Sword of the Spirits (1972), he leads an army against his own home city.
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), by Robert C. O’Brien. A group of hyper-intelligent laboratory rats escape from the National Institute of Mental Health and set up a utopian colony on a farm — where they befriend the field mouse Mrs. Frisby. Despite the talking-animals context, this isn’t a pastoral fantasy… it’s science fiction at its most thrilling and visionary.
- Kamandi series (1972-1978), by Jack Kirby. A teenage boy emerges from a bunker (named “Command D”) after a catastrophe has wiped out his species, and discovers that tigers, rats, and other animals have evolved into talking humanoids. This terrific comic book series was recently republished in an archival, full-color, multi-volume hardback edition by DC Comics.
- Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (1979), by Daniel Pinkwater. Unhappy at their conformist, unchallenging suburban high school, two misfit friends, Leonard Neeble and Alan Mendelsohn, visit Leonard’s funky old city neighborhood, where a bookstore owner sells them a kit for learning telekinesis and mind control. Not only does the kit work, it turns out that Alan is a Martian — though he didn’t know it. High school will never be the same again.
- Isis trilogy (1980-1982), by Monica Hughes. In The Keeper of the Isis Light (1980), Olwen, a teenage girl, lives alone on the planet Isis, where she awaits colonists from Earth — who, in a surprise twist, can’t accept her as one of them. In The Guardian of Isis (1981), a settler named Jody N’Kumo is banished from the Earthling colony, which has devolved into a superstitious, primitive society. In The Isis Pedlar (1982), a descendant of Jody’s tries to save the colony.
- Ender’s Game (1985), by Orson Scott Card. “Ender” Wiggin is a brilliant child who is recruited by Earth’s outer-space Battle School as a potential leader of the planet’s military forces against an insectoid alien enemy. The book is one of the most popular science fiction novels of all time, though — in my opinion — it is probably too disturbing for readers under age 11.
- The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm (1995), by Nancy Farmer. In Zimbabwe in the year 2194, the military ruler’s 13-year-old son and his younger siblings are kidnapped by gangsters, forced to slave in a plastic mine, and accused of witchcraft. A bumbling, yet amazing trio of mutant detectives known as The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm are despatched to seek them out.