Whenever I hear that a favorite author of mine is working on a young adult novel, my heart sinks. "Oh, that won't be for me," I say to myself, "I am not a young adult." Sure, I know adults can read YA fiction: I read the His Dark Materials trilogy and the Harry Potter books along with the rest of the universe. But I object to the idea that young people need their own special, segregated genre of books, as if their minds are so dramatically different from adult minds that they require their own category of fantasy. Once a person has reached adolescence, relegating their reading material to its own gated subgenre seems at best condescending and at worst censorious. As many critics have pointed out, writing YA fiction doesn't mean avoiding so-called adult topics like sex, horror, and politics. China Mieville has written a dark YA novel called Un Lun Dun, and Cory Doctorow has published the highly-political YA book Little Brother. It sounds like Paolo Bacigalupi's YA novel will be political, too. So what exactly separates YA fiction from A fiction? It would seem that it's simply the ages of the protagonists. YA fiction features teen heroes, and A fiction features those over 18. If age of protagonists is the delineator, that means publishers could easily repackage Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep as YA fiction, since at least half the novel is about two young people on a strange planet. Or hell, why not make Neal Stephenson's new book Anathem YA too? Its protagonist is just 18 years old. But nobody would think Stephenson's book was for young people, just as they wouldn't likely slap "young adult" on the cover of a Vinge tome. Obviously age isn't the only indicator, then: There is something more than safe subjects or young characters that makes a book YA. I think you and I know exactly what that "something" is. It's niche marketing. We've already got clothing, games, and technologies aimed at teenagers. Now we have scifi books aimed at them too. I don't want you to think that I have some giant objection to niche marketing, because I don't. It's helpful to have bookstores divided up into sections. What I don't like is when one of those sections is specifically designed to repel me, to make me think that I shouldn't be there.
When scifi novels with adolescent protagonists are marketed as "just for adolescents," a curtain of taboo falls between most adults and that novel. In an era where there is so much legal panic around relations between adults and young adults, it's hard to deny your knee-jerk response that there's something slightly distasteful and pedophilic about an adult reading stories aimed at people under the age of 18. I just can't get that scene from the movie Happiness out of my head, where we figure out that one of the main characters is a pedophile because he buys Tiger Beat magazine. What I'm trying to say is that labeling novels YA in the hope that that will make them "mainstream" may actually backfire. You will certainly alienate possible adult readers, who feel vaguely nasty for cozying up with a genre aimed at teens. And I believe in the end you will lose teen readers, who are exactly the sorts of people who dislike being told that their youth bars them from understanding adult novels. What self-respecting 15-year-old wants to read "young adult" fiction when she could be reading stuff actually written for adults? The beauty of science fiction is that our hypothetical 15-year-old can read adult fiction and enjoy it just as much as adults do. Not because scifi is simplistic, but because it usually operates on multiple levels: One level is devoted to an adventurous plot, and the other seethes with social subtext and commentary. The most successful scifi novels should work as entertainment for people of any age, and can suggest deeper ideas to people who have been on Earth long enough to want a little contemplation with their space battles. Many of the recent and forthcoming YA novels in scifi could just as easily be marketed as novels without any particular age designation. My guess is that young people would read them anyway, just as I read adult novels by Rudy Rucker, John Varley, and Robert Silverberg when I was in the "young adult" target market. If we really want to open science fiction up to new readers, we won't do it by dividing our audience up into smaller and smaller groups. Nor will we expand the minds of young people by telling them that they should only read specially-designated novels for young people. Why not admit that teens have a place in the world of adult imagination, and vice versa? Adults and teens are different in all kinds of ways, but surely they can meet in the world of fiction. Since so much scifi is about changing the future, it seems crucial that this genre forge alliances between youth and adults. We'll build a better space-faring species together if we don't deliberately create generational barriers where they aren't necessary.