We would be remiss not to begin with Lois Lowry’s classic of young adult dystopian fiction. It is one of those books that seems always to be either on the syllabus or on the banned list in schools. This stems from the book’s bleak but powerful story about unveiling the lies of the world around you, and embracing the reality of both joy and pain. The story is set in a community of colourless conformity, where pain and conflict have been eliminated. When 12-year-old Jonas is sent to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, he discovers not only his capacity for emotion, but also the complexity of morality. He sees the brokenness of his ‘perfect’ society and begins a course of action to change his world.
The Knife of Never Letting Go
The first of the Chaos Walking Trilogy, Patrick Ness’ series starts in Prentisstown, a town inhabited only by men. What’s more, the men can all hear each other’s thoughts in what they call the Noise, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t secrets being kept. Weeks away from the birthday which will make him a man, Todd Hewitt discovers something which turns his world upside down - a patch of silence. This discovery will send him on a dangerous journey to escape the lies that have surrounded him. Ness’ simple language carries the energy of the story, which travels at breakneck speed through his darkly inventive dystopian world.
Delving back into the theme of dystopias disguised as utopias, Neal Shusterman’s Scythe is set in a future which has eliminated hunger, poverty, conflict, even death. Now the only way to die is to be randomly selected for ‘gleaning’ by a scythe. Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been unwillingly apprenticed to the profession of scythes. Now they must learn the art of taking lives, or else their own lives are in jeopardy. As might be expected, this perfect society is not what it seems and there is corruption growing among the ranks of scythes. Shusterman balances a gripping adventure with a thoughtful look at mortality and morality.
Paper Girls, Volume 1
A stunning example of science fiction in comic books, Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls is set in 1988 in the early hours of the morning, as four newspaper delivery girls uncover a mystery which will lead them to encounter a terrifying glimpse of the future. The elements of futuristic mystery are all beautifully conveyed in the artwork’s striking but nostalgic eighties style. Never saccharine or sentimental, the young protagonists of Paper Girls jump off the page, with their raw energy and unpolished likability. With its stunning artwork and captivating story, Paper Girls is a fantastic place to explore science fiction and comics.
Full disclosure here, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash doesn’t quite sit in the genre of young adult fiction, with some adult scenes and language, but this cyber noir is unmissable for it’s almost satirical approach to the genre. Its irreverent and savvy style is immediately engaging for readers of all ages. The story is set in a hyper-capitalist America where the Mafia run pizza delivery, and the Internet has become incarnate in the form of the Metaverse. We follow the aptly-named Hiro Protagonist, a freelance hacker and pizza deliveryman. When his friend dies from Snow Crash, a drug delivered in the form of computer virus, Hiro must find and destroy the shadowy villain behind it all.
From life in the marginalized Himba tribe, to life a galaxy away in the prestigious Oomza University, Okorafar’s Binti is a sweeping story filled with exhilarating twists and turns. The eponymous protagonist, Binti, is given the opportunity to be the first of her tribe to attend Oozma University, a place where she can explore her talent for advanced mathematics. However, accepting the offer will mean abandoning her place in her tribe, journeying across a conflict-ridden universe, and joining strangers who neither know nor respect her customs. Okorafar has created a distinct and compelling setting for her story of sacrifice and the search for acceptance.
Out of the Silent Planet
Most famous for his children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis is perhaps under appreciated as a science fiction author. His Space Trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet, tells of the remarkable adventures of Dr. Ransom, a wandering professor who is abducted and taken to the red planet of Malacandra to be used as a human sacrifice. Ransom escapes and explores this new planet, filled with strange and wondrous races. Lewis’ story is beautifully written, with a largely poetic, rather than technical, approach to science fiction. It’s a captivating look at the both the failings and the potential of humanity and civilization.
Marcus, aka w1n5ton, is a seventeen-year-old hacker who thinks he’s got the system beat. But after a terrorist attack in his home city of San Francisco, Marcus and his friends find themselves among the suspects taken to a secret prison to be interrogated by the Department Homeland Security. When one of his friends doesn’t reappear after their questioning, Marcus realises his only option is to take down the DHS himself. Doctorow carries the language and tone of his teenage protagonist with ease and the narrative is written with a sense of immediacy and modernity which instantly plunges the reader into the story. The book masterfully balances its casual and familiar tone with its heavier and darker themes, making it exemplary in the genre of young adult science fiction.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
For a twist on the usual tropes of science fiction, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a classic. The novel follows the story of Hank Morgan who suddenly finds he has travelled back in time to the court of King Arthur. Using his knowledge of modern sciences he fools the people around him into believing he is a great magician by performing a series of ‘miracles’ of pyrotechnics and demolition. Beyond the trope of time travel, Twain’s playful use of anachronistic knowledge, makes for a fun and unusual science fiction story. While it is not explicitly young adult fiction, it is a wry and unromantic read where fairy-tale, historical fiction, and science fiction all meet, making it entertaining and accessible for all audiences.
Parable of the Sower
Written in 1993, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower is unnervingly prescient. It is set in 2026 in an America where society has collapsed under the strain of global warming and economic crises. Still more ominous is the president, with his promises to “Make America Great Again.” Against this unsettlingly familiar backdrop, the book follows the story of 18-year-old Lauren Olamina, who has a dangerous condition known as hyper-empathy. Experiencing the feelings and pain of those around her, Lauren is inspired to develop her own religion and community, but first she must learn to survive in a harsh world. It’s a bleak but powerful read, which shows the strength of science fiction to tell us about our own world.