Adults Who Are Young

I’ve been checking out the Young Adult genre for the past little while now. Harry Potter and his ilk have completely changed the publishing industry and apparently “saved reading”, so I wanted to find out what the fuss was all about. Harry Potter was okay, but not without certain nitpicking flaws. James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series was so inexcusably bad that I couldn’t make it through the first few chapters. Sara introduced me to another series by Rick Riordan called Percy Jackson and the Olympians and surprisingly, I couldn’t put it down.

It’s the story of Percy Jackson, a dyslexic, ADHD twelve-year-old boy who one day finds out that his long lost biological father is none other than Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and earthquakes. After a desperate escape to a demi-god summer camp in upstate New York, Percy is assigned a quest to retrieve the Thunderbolt of Zeus from the Underworld, which is now in LA (Mount Olympus is respectively now on the six hundredth floor of the Empire State building. It’s a long story, read the book already). It was heavy on action and self-referential humour, but it was complex enough to get me to read all three books in the space of a week.

Now, as I was going through all of these books for “young” adults, I realized I had gone sour on most adult books of the same genre. Truth be told, most of my friends had as well. The Author of Old Man’s War, Jon Scalzi wrote a really neat post on what is happening to the industry. Without mentioning titles, YA Science Fiction titles are outselling adult titles two to one. YA Fantasy outside of Harry Potter is outselling adult Fantasy by four to one.

So, Young Adult authors are moving books like gangbusters, and we can reasonably assume that an increasing portion of that readership is made up of adults (including yours truly). The question is why? It’s not because the books are shorter either. The Harry Potter series topped out at 900 pages. There hasn’t been a Percy Jackson book under 200 pages. The answer then, is hidden in the adult books.

I’ve also been doing a long, painful parallel study into adult science fiction novels, particularly David Brin’s Uplift War, Verner Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky and Greg Bear’s Forge of God. In all three books I found ideas that would blow your mind. A Galactic culture based on cultivating animals into sentient races, 1000-year-old computer programming traditions, and roving fleets of self-replicating killer robots. The problem is that the books are an utter pain in the ass to read.

In all three of these books, the authors seemed more concerned about getting the science and social concepts right rather than concentrating on writing an entertaining novel. The ideas in these books are great food for thought. You could debate for hours on how the societies and technologies in these books actually work. Unfortunately the characters are either unlikable or unremarkable, the language is obtuse and the conflicts are unsatisfying. In Uplift War, everyone except the sentient chimpanzees speak the same “alien” dialect that’s devoid of any slang or color. If you’ve heard Mr. Spock open his mouth at any time you know what I’m talking about. The Qeng Ho space traders in A Deepness in Sky were so insipid that by the time they had defeated the Fascist Emergents, I just didn’t care any more. I feel really bad about Forge of God, because I loved Greg Bear’s Blood Music. But in this book, so many of the characters are just stalwart experts and scientists. I can’t properly tell the astronomer advising the president from the geologist held in quarantine at the Airforce base. The President in this book decided to lay down arms in front of the impending alien invasion, but the description of his thought process was so mushy that I wasn’t aware of the decision for about two chapters.

It’s important to note that all three of these books are Hugo award winners, the top honor among literary science fiction. Some fans out there may scoff my claims, that these books are too advanced for my primitive brain to handle. However, all of these books are guilty of the sins described in George “1984” Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”.

In the essay, Orwell writes that difficult prose with too many long words, jargon and adverbs is not only difficult to read, it might as well destroy western civilization. By making political speeches and decrees unclear and lacking of any strong imagery, you can justify any monstrous action you can imagine. Take George W. Bush’s definition of “freedom”, for instance. The same rules apply to fiction, only we don’t use it to pick leaders, we just don’t want to get bored at the bus stop. It’s impossible to enjoy yourself when you’re puzzling over what “circumlocution” means.

It wasn’t Harry Potter who saved reading. That series was only a conduit, a lightning rod for a public that was tired of bloated prose, threadbare imagery and indulging author’s neuroses. We should keep in mind that it’s enough just to keep it simple, stupid. The very best of the genre will walk the edge of pandering and indulgence. Most Adult SF and Fantasy are on the indulgence end of the equation. If the genre is to survive, then this time a little bit of pander is in order.