Where's the best place to start your kids with reading Science Fiction? Here's a booklist of some of the best Sci-Fi for the discerning young adult, because it's never too early to teach them about the dangers of dystopian societies.
Perhaps you've found a dog-eared copy of Ender's Game under your thirteen-year-old's mattress. Perhaps your progeny comes home one day and announces they're reading 1984 at school. Perhaps you've noticed someone has made off with your copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
It's time to have "The Talk". It's time to tell your child about Science Fiction.
To assist with this, I've picked out list of books ranging from Science Fiction to Futuristic Fantasy, and various Dystopian coming-of-age novels. Note: I have not included Fantasy novels. You'll notice some things you'd imagine should be here are missing, like Dragonriders of Pern and His Dark Materials, because those fall into the Fantasy category.
Start with the classics. Verne's From The Earth To The Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Well's The Time Machine and The War Of The Worlds. A good grounding in the realms of space adventure and time travel is invaluable to any child. They'll thank you for it someday. Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles are included on many school reading lists. If your school system isn't already on the previously-banned-books bandwagon, seek these books out and gift them to your child. These books are great, nay, essential reads for any kid interested in science fiction.
Robert Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel (1958)
Unlike Heinlein's later books with a progressively more adult tone, this is a strictly PG-13 outing aimed at younger readers, which takes elements of noir and adventure and drops them into a Sputnik-era vision of future space travel. Even taking the intended audience into account, this early novel sometimes suffers from Heinlein's workmanlike narrative style. Nevertheless, Spacesuit neatly treads the line between "hard" and "soft" Sci-Fi, presents a likable and gutsy teenage main character, assumes a technology that's dirty and lived-in, and ultimately involves alien contact which raises thorny questions about humanity. Recommended, especially for pint-sized fans of the history of science and Sci-Fi who will appreciate that these visionary elements (especially having been written in a time of gleaming rockets and apparent human domination of space) later turned up in everything from 2001 to Star Wars.
John Christopher's Tripods Trilogy (1967)
These books are truly unique in the YA Sci-Fi pantheon. This story of three boys pitted against the sinister overlords who have run Earth for more than a century explores subversive ideas about propaganda and totalitarian systems of government, the confusing interplay between adolescent ideals and the compromises of the grown-up world, and even the ethical nuances of the relationship between pets and their 'owners.' These books include several elements that are unusual for a YA series, such as an ending to the series that will definitely challenge the expectations of young readers raised on saccharine fairy tales, and a pronounced atmosphere of isolation and uncertainty for much of the series. Highly recommended.
Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome To The Monkey House, particularly Harrison Bergeron (1968)
Many kids nowadays read Slaughterhouse-Five or Cats Cradle in high school. I'd go so far as to recommend Vonnegut for discerning 7th or 8th graders. This was the age my friends and I discovered Vonnegut and we hungrily read everything from his collection we could get our hands on. My introduction was Sirens of Titan (which blew my everlovin' mind), but in retrospect I think Welcome To The Monkey House would have been a better jumping-off point. Vonnegut's short fiction is breathtaking, darkly humorous, and speaks quite well to discontented adolescents. Harrison Bergeronis a favorite of mine, and despite its dark ending it has a great message at its core about the power of the individual and how much courage it takes just to be yourself in a world that is constantly putting you down.
Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars (1979)
Many readers are more familiar with the author's equally original Lizard Music, aimed at slightly younger readers, but Mendelsohn, written three years later, remains nearly as accessible, while gleefully leaping even further into the weird, silly and downright hilarious reaches of the Pinkwater universe, a place populated with strange and dangerous bookstores, malfunctioning authority figures ranging from the well-meaning to the sadistic, and intelligent youngsters struggling to be themselves while avoiding utter invisibility, open hostility, or (possibly worst of all) unstable idealization from their more conventional peers. Highlights include a fierce satire of new-age seekers and self-help gurus (undercut by gentle reminders that reality cannot always be taken at face value), a not-so-subtle celebration of urban neighborhoods over suburban sameness, and a touching and deeply felt meditation on friendship as a means of broadening one's horizons.
Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy trilogy (1979)
At the tender age of thirteen I was handed a copy of the first novel in the Hitchhikers Guide trilogy. This became a life-long love affair with not only all of Adams' work, but with speculative fiction as a genre. For the uninitiated, Adams' comically misnamed trilogy is a series of five books chronicling the interstellar adventures of the last remaining Earthman, Arthur Dent, as he discovers the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything. Adams' "trilogy" is a classic of satirical science fiction and a great tool for teaching kids how much fun it can be to explore the galaxy. Just don't forget your towel.
Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985)
Love it or hate it, Ender's Game has become something of a staple of YA Science Fiction. I include it mainly because I know so many folks who claim this is one of the first sci-fi books they ever picked up and have so many fond memories of it. And despite the vicious debates over its promotion of violence and its heroic depictions of the battle-field mentality, it holds up as a very well-written space adventure story. While there are certainly valid concerns about the ideals of both the book and its author (I would encourage any parent to have a dialogue with their child while reading this book), I don't really think reading Ender is going do your kid any more harm then playing HALO.
Jane Yolen's The Pit Dragon trilogy (1982)
Nominally Sci-Fi— taking place in the distant future on a distant planet— the overall feel of Yolen's Dragon novels is closer to fantasy, with the relationship between humans and dragons taking center stage throughout most of the series. Due to a romantic subplot, these books may draw slightly older readers, but the presentation is still fairly chaste and innocent. Yolen infuses her stories with a warm, feral emotional core, and the subtle interplay between the various characters is convincing. Recommended for kids who aren't afraid to get in touch with a more sensitive side of this beloved genre.
William Sleator's Interstellar Pig (1984)
Despite the rapid escalation of the storyline to planet-imperiling proportions, this briskly-paced novel, involving a young boy whose summer neighbors introduce him to a particularly unusual board game, is more of a romp than anything else. Will appeal to fans of teen detectives, and should nicely set up the young reader to appreciate the works of Douglas Adams. Recommended, especially for readers on the younger side with a taste for adventure and an active imagination. Caution: may lead to your kids making their own version of the titular board game.
Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring Of Endless Light (1980) and The Arm of the Starfish (1965)
These elegantly written novels will mostly appeal to older tweens and younger teens, dwelling as they do on themes of betrayal, love and death. Despite healthy ribbons of Sci-Fi, mostly centering on limb regeneration and ESP, most of both books deal with human relationships and frailties, even if the speculative elements help to cushion these themes somewhat. The characters here appear in several other L'Engle titles, but either book can be read on its own, or both can be read together as a water-themed duo. Recommended for slightly older readers who are ready for more emotionally challenging fare.
Lois Lowry's The Giver (1993)
I was assigned The Giver in sixth grade. It had come out only a few years before, winning the Newberry award and a permanent place on most middle-school reading lists. It was my first encounter with dystopian fiction and was one of the books that started me writing. Many YA Science Fiction novels deal with this same type of territory - most recently Scott Westerfield's Uglies trilogy – a story connected to the empowerment of the individual and his or her struggle against the uniformity of the community. At the "Ceremony of Twelve", young Jonas becomes the receiver of knowledge shared only by one other member of his community, The Giver, and discovers the terrible truth about the dystopian world he inhabits. A coming-of-age novel at its heart, The Giver is about the pain of growing up, of gaining knowledge of the world around you, and of facing the responsibilities of adulthood. It is no surprise that over the past fifteen years this has become essential reading for every twelve-year-old.
Jonathan Letham's Girl in Landscape (1998)
I'm a fan of Letham's more adult work, like Gun, With Occasional Music. His stab at a science-fiction coming-of-age story is bittersweet, heartbreaking and at times terrifying in its accuracy. It deals with many of the challenges of youth, from moving to a new place to the pain of sexual awakening, and the difficult adjustment to living in Martian environment run by hermaphroditic aliens. Ok, so maybe it's not exactly what everyone remembers about being a thirteen-year-old girl, but Letham's Girl perfectly captures the awkward transition from youth to adulthood, and what it's like to feel, well, like an alien during that tumultuous time.
M.T. Anderson's Feed (2002)
It's really the classic story. Boy meets girl, boy has a computer implant in his head, connected to the entire internet, to control his environment and spoon-feed him consumer culture propaganda. A cyberpunk tale of the next generation, this recent novel from the brilliant mind of M.T. Anderson is set in a corporate dystopian future-verse. It's a great read and a great tool for introducing your teen to the evils of consumerism and corporate monoculture and to the coolness of hacker culture. I'd particularly recommend it as a two-part gift for an older teenager, along with Naomi's Klein non-fiction work No Logo. I'm truly sad this book wasn't around when I was fifteen, although I made do with a stack of Adbusters under my mattress.
For the younger reader, I'd highly recommend M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales series, beginning with Whales On Stilts. Taking its cues from everything from The Tripod Trilogy to Mark Twain, the series follows the adventures of three best friends who are trying to save the world. The books harken back to an innocent, 1950's era of story telling and are an entirely engaging and endearing read for both children and parents alike.
Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy (2005)
I will openly admit that, despite its transparent analogies, I wish I'd had the Uglies trilogy around when I was twelve years old and felt as through I was a total outcast. It hits hard on all the classic themes of a modern coming-of-age novel; puberty, peer pressure, body image and the importance of individuality. In this dystopian world disguised as a utopia of beautiful people and seemingly unending bounty, children are born ugly and become uniformly beautiful by undergoing a complicated surgical procedure when they reach the age of sixteen. The novels follow a group of rebels who opt out of the procedure and embrace their individuality.
Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (2008)
Call me biased from living in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I think Little Brother is a great addition to this pantheon of classic YA science fiction. Apparently I am not alone, as the novel has been nominated for, and subsequently already won, a handful awards since hitting the shelves last year. For more information, check out Charlie Jane's review of Doctorow's new classic.