Adventures in Reading: New Planets and the New Adult Genre

(A/N: Mild spoilers for Beth Revis’s Across the Universe series)

Here’s a scenario for you:

Imagine you had the opportunity to help colonize a new planet located hundreds of light-years away.  This would involve saying goodbye forever to everyone and everything you know and love on Earth, being cryogenically frozen for centuries, and shipped off into the stars.

Would you go?*

This question is brought to you by a dystopian young adult sci-fi series dealing with this very subject: Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy.  This trilogy includes Across the Universe, A Million Suns, and the final book of the series – Shades of Earth – which I read back in February.

The Across the Universe series centers on two main characters.  One is Amy, a 17-year-old cryogenically frozen girl aboard a generation ship (Godspeed) on a 300-year journey for a planet in the Alpha-Centauri system – a girl who is mysteriously awoken from cryo 50 years early.

The other character is 16-year-old Elder – the future leader of Godspeed’s inhabitants (second to Eldest) – who, with Amy’s help, comes to understand how things on the ship are not as they seem, and prematurely ascends to leadership as a result.

Shades of Earth (along with the other two books in the series) were interesting reads for me as a writer, for though I really enjoyed them, every aspect I liked (tight, suspenseful narration; interesting portrayal of life on a generation ship; killer plot twists; exciting story premise) was matched with something I simultaneously didn’t like (identical-sounding first-person narration for Amy and Elder; character secrets that were dragged out too long; the requisite dystopian YA rebellion).

And then there’s my biggest gripe of all, which extends to all the YA books I’ve read to date: I dislike how teenage characters are put in charge of situations that are utterly ludicrous for someone that age.

“Young” first, “adult” (a distant) second

I get that I’m meant to suspend my disbelief, and that as a 34-year-old adult, I’m not exactly the YA genre’s target audience.  But there are 1456 people from babies to seniors aboard Godspeed when 16-year-old Elder assumes command of the ship and becomes the head of their society.

Really?

Call me ageist if you want, but if I’d been abroad that ship, even if Elder had trained for leadership from childhood (earlier childhood), just by virtue of my having been alive twice as long as him, I’d consider myself more qualified for the job.  Especially given that setting up a new civilization on an alien planet isn’t an inherently youth-focused endeavour.

You’ve gotta have some life skills for that shit!  I’m talking less of this…

Elder, on the UK cover of Beth Revis’s A Million Suns

…and more of this…

…or this…

…or this.

(Hell, I’d even settle for this if he promised to keep his famously wandering hands to himself.)

Yet if Elder were in his early 20s, while it might still chafe to be led by someone so much younger, if he knew what he was about and behaved confidently, I’d be more willing to give it a shot.

And how much more powerful a story would that make: a character just coming into true adulthood, struggling to understand all that that entails, and forced to become a leader to his people at the same time.

Young adult with actual adults

“New adult” is a new genre I’ve rather unimaginatively heard referred to as “young adult with sex”.  Bor-ring!

Yes, NA can contain explicit sex.  Overall, though, I believe NA’s true defining characteristic will be plots hinging in one way or another on the protagonist being neither a youthful ingénue anymore nor an experienced, commanding adult, and the myriad challenges that lie within such an inchoate state.

Those are certainly the types of NA stories I’ll be seeking out.

——————–

*I would.  Though my mother would kill me.

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4 thoughts on “Adventures in Reading: New Planets and the New Adult Genre

    • I do wonder how readily teens see themselves in these sorts of fictitious situations. Well enough, I guess, for YA remains a growing genre. Although strangely enough, much of that growth is due to a significant adult female readership – people like you and me.

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  1. It does get a little bit hard to swallow sometimes, but I think if it’s written where at least some of the teen characters act their real age, teenage leadership can occasionally be pulled off. In Game of Thrones, which is, of course, not YA, Joffrey ascends the throne as a 13 year old in the book (if memory serves; I think the HBO show has him as age 15). George RR Martin has Joffrey act like an arrogant, cruel, inexperienced, power-hungry teen probably would act — he makes some horrifically bad decisions. These bad decisions drive the plot.

    On a completely different part of the spectrum, in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (SPOILERS AHEAD), a group of teens and “new adults” form a colony to survive. Although, admittedly, parts of the book are incredibly dated, I really felt for the main character (age 18 when the book starts, 20 when it ends) when, after being the leader of a colony for 2 years, when he’s “rescued,” his parents treat him like a little kid again.

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    • Hi Christi, thanks for the comment. I definitely agree that stories of teen leadership can and do get pulled off. I fully bought the actions of the kids in Harry Potter, for example, so perhaps it’s just a case of the admittedly few YA titles I’ve chosen that felt a little far-fetched.

      The believability of young people and their actions is actually something I think about a lot in my own writing. I am writing a historical fiction set in the 13th century. My protagonist is 16 years old, and is involved in politics, runs her family’s household, and gets married.

      Is it credible from a modern context? Absolutely not. Yet it is very much in keeping with the trends of the 13th century. My strategy for helping readers suspend disbelief is basically to not mention her age very often in hopes that they forget, or else hope they recognize that people did things young in the medieval times. Perhaps I need make a similar recognition for myself when reading YA. Perhaps in the dystopian future, teens will take on much more adult situations. 😉

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