I’ve been an addicted bookworm ever since I taught myself to read at the age of four. My parents never restricted my book access, leaving me to roam untrammeled through full-bore fiction and non-fiction from the get-go. My fairy tales and myths were unexpurgated; so was my country’s painful history, unfolding right before my eyes. Whenever I dipped into “age-appropriate” books, I detested the didacticism, the insipidity, the contrived dilemmas. Even with my limited life experience, I knew watery gruel when I tasted it.
So I hardly ever read Young Adult (YA) works, even when I was YA myself. From time to time I try again, only to confirm that my allergy appears to be permanent. This puts me in several quandaries: SF/F, one of my mainstay genres, has an enormous YA component – in fact, can be considered YA almost in its entirety in terms of its proclivities; the YA domain is a major venue for women writers and a major showcase for women protagonists. Yet I constantly run into bumps, even when authors try hard… sometimes, especially when authors try hard.
One of these bumps is magic, which I find tiresome with few and ever fewer exceptions. Most fantasy magic is paper-thin, incoherent and shifts arbitrarily to fit plot points and generate dei ex machina (two better-than-average recent fantasies, Sherwood Smith’s The Banner of the Damned and Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts would have been far better works without magic, in my opinion). Another is the persistent neoteny I discussed in a previous essay. Within that category, a near-constant irritant is the “finding one’s self” theme endemic in Anglophone YA fiction. Which brings us once again to cultural parochialism, lack of imagination, possibly market niche cynicism… plus that dreaded term: agency.
“Finding one’s self” appears as a near-default trope for a culture obsessed with youth’s trappings (Flat bellies! Hard muscles! Perky breasts and perkier penises!) that still believes in the libertarian myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: the idea that you can become rich, famous and powerful provided you’re Chosen and that everyone has a near-infinity of choices for everything, from their breakfast cereal to their identity. So in a standard YA – and not just YA – story arc the protagonist must find himself (I use the male pronoun deliberately, since this narrative is essentially defined by masculine/masculinized parameters), usually through a conflict that ticks off the ersatz-mythic checklist points of the Campbel/lite quest.
Reading bits of contemporary YA SF/F (a few pages at a time is the most I can manage before breaking out in hives) it hit me why “personal growth” quests are omnipresent in them: most of the stories are products of cookie cutters. The characters are not individualized enough to register as fully dimensional people, so the canned conflicts are meant to give them some substance as well as move the standardized plot along (including the almost-mandatory assembly of the quest team, a direct import from RPG games). There is no personality delineation beyond occasional resort to verbal tricks for quick recognition, which is one reason why almost all the recent SF/F YA works I read form a single lumpy blur in my memory banks.
Mind you, Homer used such tricks: “gray-eyed Athena”, “horse-fighting Hector”. However, these occurred in a long oral epic in which they served as memory aids to both bard and audience. Furthermore, Homer did not confine his characterizations to these shortcuts. We know what Hector felt when he took leave of Andromache and Astyanax. We know what Achilles felt when Priam was begging him for Hector’s body. Homer (or whoever wrote the Iliad) did not have to write those passages, they’re not critical to the forward motion of the epic. But by doing so, the bard made us care – and Andromache, trying not to weep as she watches her husband’s jaunty helmet plume dwindle in the distance, brands herself in our memory.
The default setting of semi-infinite flexibility also plays a role in the boilerplate depictions of what constitutes self discovery. An occasional critique I get for my fiction is that my protagonists are usually fully formed when my stories start and don’t “evolve” to satisfy the growth-through-adversity mandate. Sort of like Antigone and Odysseus, who also appear fully formed, even though their actions are shaped by the sum of their external and internal circumstances. Yet I doubt either would be considered a dull thud: they have urgent lives to manage beyond just “growing into their full potential”.
My native culture has undergone more than its share of upheavals, and the ensuing hardship and instability make it less able to luxuriate in choices; by both tradition and necessity, it also demands that its members make many crucial life decisions early – and often the choices are constrained so strongly that they appear almost preordained. These constraints, incidentally, also hold for such domains as contemporary research science. For someone with my cultural background and professional experiences, the concept of fiction protagonists spending endless sequels rolling dice for their D&D designations appears neither organic nor compelling.
Not surprisingly, this brings us to agency – women characters’ agency in particular. Agency – aka women as more than decorative or useful furniture – has been a perennial issue in speculative fiction, especially in the grittygrotty pornokitch subgenre cave. On parallel lines, people have observed that the still-too-sparse SF/F women protagonists are deemed fully worthy only if they “kick ass” (with video game prototypes like Lara Croft leading the way). However, the problem is more systemic than that: characters of all ages get shoehorned into the Procrustean bunkbed of the teenage self-discovery quest. This is simply more obvious for women because, with the exception of the occasional magical crone, most SF/F hardly ever shows women past the age of “peak attractiveness” – which for the US has been relentlessly shifting to the younger and thinner end of the spectrum, except for the obligatory pneumatic breasts.
In almost all SF/F YA works we rarely if ever see full adults, especially women, doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: work at things they care for and often are good at; love, hate and everything in between; create and preserve and sometimes destroy; grow old and experienced, if not always wise; but above all, go through the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life. The artificiality and interchangeability of the standard conflicts makes most YA books as individualized (and as nutritional) as movie theater popcorn – in large part because their readers’ cortices register that nothing really crucial is at stake, no matter how many djinn or dark-magic wizards are involved.
To put it simply, heroes in both real life and non-popcorn fiction often have little choice (and to be crystal-clear, “heroes” include non-male people – once again I use the term deliberately because “heroine” has very different connotations). What makes non-messianic people heroes is when in unusual circumstances they surpass their usual selves. Heroes feel fear, doubt, guilt, grief for their actions; what they don’t do is navel-gaze, because they’re busy with far more substantive struggles. Give me an artisan with a thickened waist whose arthritis is hobbling her but who retains the passion to push against formidable obstacles while still appreciating her wine. I’ll take her over all the homogenized teenager Chosen Ones of YA SF/F.
By Viktoría Theodhórou – Poet, resistance fighter
A soft mat she found and sat down, upon the leaves.
A song emerges from the flute of her throat,
softly, so her dozing companions don’t awaken,
just so it accompanies their dreams.
Her hands don’t stay still, she takes up thread and needle
to darn their wool socks with the hand grenade
she always carries at her waist, with it she lies and rises.
The grenade inside the sock, round and oblivious
to its fire, thinks it’s a wooden egg,
that the country was freed and the war ended
and Katia is not a partisan in the snow-covered woods –
that she sits by the window behind the white lilacs
and sews the socks of her beloved, who came home whole.
Images: 1st, Tree of Books, by Vlad Gerasimov; 2nd, Hector and Andromache, Giorgio de Chirico; 3rd, magical crones: Fin Raziel in Willow (Patricia Hayes), The Oracle in The Matrix (Gloria Foster)