When it comes to discovering strange new worlds, there's nothing like a young protagonist venturing out into a world where it feels like absolutely anything can happen. Many of science fiction and fantasy's coolest stories are about coming of age — but coming of age, in the end, means losing your innocence and confronting the terrible truth about the world.
Here are some of the darkest coming of age stories from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy.
Top image: Luke's vision of Vader on Dagobah, by Jason Eden [Link NSFW]
In many of the best stories about growing up, there is a confrontation with existential horror — the hero comes face to face with something unthinkable. In many cases, it's facing up to the terrors of the larger world, or the fact that society lies to everybody. But often, in the best stories, it's more about the hero confronting his or her own inner monster. The loss of innocence comes from the hero realizing the evil that he or she is actually capable of. The classic example of this is probably Lord of the Flies, although it's not strictly SF.
So here are some coming-of-age stories where the hero confronts real darkness... With spoilers for old books and movies.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In the first book of the trilogy, Katniss is a fairly innocent hero who's trying to avoid being turned into too much of a monster by the Games — but by the third book, she's pretty comfortable with killing people. And meanwhile, she's discovering that all authority figures lie, even the ones on her own side, and then there's the transformation that Peeta goes through.
The Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling
I'm mostly thinking of the death of Dumbledore and the subsequent long stretch of being stranded in the woods — but also the whole stretch in Order of the Phoenix where Dolores Umbridge is forcing Harry to write with the blood quill, carving words into his own hand.
A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
In the first Earthsea book, Ged confronts one of the most literal manifestations of a personal shadow — a nameless force that he summoned in his hubris, and must defeat somehow. In the second book, Tenar is raised as a priestess of the Nameless Ones, but must slowly learn that they are not what she believed.
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
Sure, Ender's Game is the one in which Ender realizes that he's been used as the instrument of xenocide by the military establishment — but Speaker is darker, and it's the book where Ender really grows up and deals with the lasting consequences. The descolada, a deadly plague, is a universal horror, the unraveling of life.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
In a post-apocalyptic world, long after a nuclear war, 12-year-old Riddley Walker has the ultimate horrendous coming-of-age experience: his father dies, he's befriended by the forbidden pack of wild dogs, and he's embroiled in a plot to rediscover the secret of nuclear weapons.
"The Professor's Teddy Bear" by Theodore Sturgeon
You can read this story about a boy and a monster that teaches him that "the agony of death was to be promoted and enjoyed" in its entirety here.
Roderick, or the Education of a Young Machine by John Sladek
Roderick is a young robot who's educated about humanity entirely by watching television — until he's sold off to become a fake fortune teller, and discovers just how ugly humanity actually is.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
This is one of the classic stories about a false utopia, where everybody is made "pretty" around their 16th birthday — and in particular, it has a great example of a hero (Tally) discovering that everything she's grown up believing is false, and the world is broken.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Two 13-year-old boys, Jim and Will, confront an evil traveling carnival, with the terrible Mr. Dark and the Dust Witch, in this nightmarish fable about facing up to evil.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
John Savage confronts the "civilized" world of Soma and orgies, but in the end he and this decadant society both corrupt each other.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
This novel about clone kids who are raised to be spare parts is notable for two losses of innocence — first, the kids realize that the story of an exemption from the donations for any couple who are truly in love is fake. And second, Kathy winds up become complicit in the system that destroys her and her friends.
Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin
This novel, published in 1937, takes place 700 years in the future — in a world where the Nazis have ruled the world for centuries, and Adolf Hitler is revered as a tall blond god who personally piloted a crucial fighter plane. Young Alfred learns the terrible truth about the Nazi regime, shattering everything he's been brought up to believe.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Young Paul Atreides comes to the planet Arrakis with his family — and is forced to confront terrible tragedy, before he can become the hero he's destined to be.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip
Sybel has been born and raised on the mountain of Eld, and has only known magical creatures for company — until her sixteenth birthday, when she's given a baby to care for, and has to confront a world torn by war.
Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Tedla is born on the planet Gammadis, where everybody is born with no gender — until puberty, when people become either male or female. Except for a few "blands," who remain genderless for life and are treated as simple-minded slaves, fit only for menial work. This is one book where coming of age literally includes the fear of not getting to become a person at all, in the eyes of society.
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
The young Tan-Tan grows up on the utopian future planet of Toussaint — until her father commits a crime and flees with her in tow, to the shadow world of New Half-Way Tree, where the exiled criminals have created their own society. And Caribbean folklore is real. Tan-Tan must take on the identity of the "midnight robber" to survive and become a woman.
The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce
We recently praised Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale for, among other things, its great portrayal of adolescence. But this book is more focused on male adolescence in all its strangeness and dread — Sam is part of a group of wild boys who go around wreaking havoc in their car-factory town... until the Tooth Fairy appears by his bedside. But the Tooth Fairy is a sinister, sexually ambiguous figure, a manifestation of pure id. Read an excerpt here.
Rite of Passage by Alexi Panshin
This Nebula Award-winning novel is perhaps the most literal example of the "coming of age story" you could imagine — fourteen-year-old Mia Havero is a colonist on board one of the ships that survived Earth's destruction. And she's sent out on a ritual test of adulthood: surviving 30 days alone on a colony world, with nothing but her wits. On the planet, she confronts slavery, inhumanity, and the unnaturalness of her own society's focus on eugenics.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Todd is the last boy in a settlement where all the women are dead — and he's forced to go on the run with a mysterious girl he meets, discovering in the process that everything he's known is a lie and the rite of passage he's been destined for involves terrible murder.
"Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler
In this Nebula- and Hugo-winning story, Gan is a boy on an alien world, who's been raised to be a carrier for the eggs of the native Tlic species — and he comes to question his role in this ecosystem, before finally being able to make a decision for himself. You can read the story here, and there's a whole website devoted to it here.
Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The first book of the Kingkiller Chronicle tells the story of how Kvothe went from a member of a troupe of traveling players to one of the most notorious wizards of all time — including the murder of a king and his subsequent escape. You can read an excerpt here.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The confrontation between Meg and IT, the evil disembodied brain that has captured her brother Charles Wallace, still gives me goosebumps. It's one of the best "confronting the evil of the world" sequences ever.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memories for a community that has banished negative emotions and experiences, and he's set apart from the others by his awareness of sorrow. When his family fosters a baby that's later destined to be "Released," Jonas — like so many others on this list — goes on the run, alone.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Frodo and Sam confront literal darkness, pursued by the Ringwraiths, but also the darkness of the soul that comes from the One Ring.
Star Wars: The Original Trilogy
Especially in Empire Strikes Back, Luke not only learns that Darth Vader is his father — he symbolically confronts the dread that he will become another Darth Vader himself. And Luke clearly makes the wrong choice, rushing to rescue Han, Leia and his other friends instead of completing his training and trusting the Force — something that brings him right up to the edge of darkness.
Sources: Nursery Realms: Children in the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, edited by Gary Westfahl and George Slusser. Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Overviews by Robin Anne Reid. SFFWorld discussion. Also thanks to Sheerly Avni, Tim Pratt, Laura Quilter, Lou Anders and Alyssa Rosenberg.