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Many (many, many) science fiction fans came to the literature in their youth (cue the old canard about the golden age of science fiction being twelve). And for many, they can pinpoint one book or story or author that took their breath away and cemented their love of the genre. I've heard authors as diverse as Robert Heinlein, Julian May, Cordwainer Smith, Ursula K. LeGuin, Olaf Stapledon, Madeleine L'Engle, and Orson Scott Card all described as readers' "gateway drug" to a lifelong love of science fiction literature. With luck there is a whole cadre of readers out there who will still be citing their initial love for Suzanne Collins twenty-five years from now. Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction, edited by Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood, looks at the blooming field of YA genre literature and hopes to fill an empty niche in terms of science fiction short stories and poetry. The editors' mission statement is laid out explicitly: "to inspire a love of science fiction in today’s teens and young adults—providing them with a launching pad that will encourage them to further explore the many branches of the genre"—in fact, it's on the copyright page. While this volume may give already-interested teens a decent overview of some of the different themes that the field explores, I would be surprised if many readers twenty or thirty years down the line cite this anthology as their gateway drug, as a moment when the genre's sense of wonder opened up for them.

It's not that there's anything particularly bad about the stories here; it's just that they are generally unmemorable. None of them stuck in my mind a few days after reading. At this point I should emphasize that I am obviously not the target audience for this book. I am many years out of my teens, and my gateway drugs have all taken their hold long since. It may be that for a reader who has never yet encountered a generation starship, or quantum parallel worlds, or a post-climate-change future, that one of the stories in this book will prove to be absolutely revelatory. But given the overall middling quality of the stories, it would take the perfect alchemy of reader and story to make that happen.

That's not to say that the stories aren't fun when you’re reading them. "The Stars Beneath Our Feet" by Stephen D. Covey and Sandra McDonald is a classic problem-solving story featuring a very bright girl and boy stranded in space. Despite the tension between them they actually collaborate together to find a solution that gets them rescued, with the girl taking the lead both in engineering and romantically. In "The Myriad Dangers," Lavie Tidhar's young Israeli protagonist can imagine any number of strange things invading his neighborhood, from aliens to doppelgangers to vampires. It's a fun story that gives free rein to over-the-top imagination, clearly shaped by Tidhar's culture and surroundings. And "Me and My Army of Me" by Katrina Nicholson, in which a budding young genius plots elaborate revenge on his bullying lab partner, accompanied by XKCD-style sketches, is possibly my favorite story in the anthology.

More common, however, are stories driven by standard tropes, which they do little to develop. As an example of this, "Spirk Station" by Chuck Rothman stood out in particular, as its presumably noble story of a xenophobic and shallow teenager having an Adventure and learning to Appreciate the Other is laden with far too much shallow-teenager faux-future slang ("You really believe that horse paska? Let me tell you—it's as spirky up here as a month with your grandparents" [p. 18]) and shallow-teenager stereotypes (not to mention Morals) to be at all relatable or readable.

"Another Prison" by Rahul Kanakia has a contrived and fantastic (rather than SFnal) lottery system. You buy a ticket for a specific wish, whether it be for money or for love or a two-tailed cat. Each wish has different odds, and if your ticket is selected you are guaranteed to get your wish—even if it is for someone else to love you. Cheyenne chooses to live in a radioactive wasteland, since her wish would be to be left alone, and she realizes that she can get that without the lottery system. Even there, however, she becomes entangled in the lives of two other young people. The piece is mostly a mood piece, so it only tangentially gestures at the enormous potential for abuse inherent in a system that can force someone else to fall in love with you. There are two major parts to this story: the lottery, and Cheyenne's relationship to her radioactive home, and they don't resonate together effectively.

"Hollywood Forever" by Llinos Cathryn Thomas reminds us that celebrities are as trapped by celebrity culture as they are the beneficiaries of it; its ending, in which Indie actors confront the top stars of their day (and all the days to come), struck me as naive. Jack McDevitt's "A Voice in the Night" hits one of his favorite themes: that going into space is worth casualties and sacrifice. A young man, Alex, is a huge fan of a future (believe it or not) radio comedian named Horace Baker. Baker enjoyed exploring with his personal spacecraft, and wound up dying from a vehicle malfunction around a rarely visited lifeless planet. Alex convinces his archaeologist uncle to help him track down the comedian's final radio transmission (with FTL travel, they can get ahead of where the transmission would be and listen for it). There's a lot of buildup about the transmission: the hero worship Alex has for the entertainer, the lengths he goes to capture this last message in a bottle, and the romance of it all. But really, when we finally get The Speech, it is fairly banal. And it is obviously aimed at the reader, who lives in a society without routine spaceflight, and not for someone in Alex's future or Baker's present, where FTL travel is relatively common and a person of means can buy their own spaceship and explore new planets.

Sometimes stuff happens. . . . But what I want to say is that nobody should miss the chance to come out here. Even if you only do it once. There's too much to see and you don't want to miss it. (p. 122)

Mid-speech Alex reacts: "'I just don't know how he does it,' said Alex. 'He's incredible'" (ibid). It would have been a much stronger story if I could agree with him.

Very few of the stories seem to realistically tackle anything close to lived teen experience. Those few that do seem to be stacked towards the back of the book, almost as if being hidden. "Over It" by Camile Alexa is one of the least fun stories in the book, but as it involves a girl being assaulted in cyberspace, her friends telling her that her experience wasn't really that bad, and her slowly recovering from and moving past it, it seemed to be one of the most important stories here. It was also, oddly, one of the few stories to feature the Internet or something like it in a prominent way—an oversight that immediately makes you wonder about the vast distance between the authors and the audience.

Two things the book does well are keeping the stories short and punchy, and including poetry among the prose offerings. None of the stories is more than ten pages long, and none of them commit the sin of overstaying their welcome. The very first entry, "Things to Consider When Choosing a Name for the Ship You Won in a Poker Game Last Night" by the mononym poet Irving, is a poem in the Robert Service/Robert Heinlein ballad mode (I'm a sucker for a good ballad) that does a good job of evoking a sense of outward-facing adventure. The rest of the poems (there are twelve total) are in modern free verse, and they do a good job of showcasing a range of tone, theme, and style. Given that I was mostly unaware of SF poetry until relatively recently, I can't help but think that this early introduction is all to the good. Futuredaze also attempts to showcase more diversity of character, and while the editors point out that the vast majority of their submissions defaulted to the White/Western viewpoint, a few of the stories here portray or highlight POC characters.

Still, I can’t shake the overwhelming impression of "meh" that I took away from this book. Some of the better stories are over-balanced by less successful offerings that seem to condescend or pander to the presumed YA reader, and unfortunately the ones that I tended to put in that category came early on in the book. Overall I'd say that this is a collection of mostly fine, middling stores that suffer a bit from their ordering within the anthology. It may be worth reading for a new YA fan who is looking to sample a wider range of the field after plowing through the most popular trilogies and series on offer in the bookstores. I would be very surprised, however, if it wins a place in their hearts and minds on the level of the gateway drugs already out there.

Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She edits the Locus Roundtable blog, and she can be emailed at karen.burnham@gmail.com.



Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction critic and book reviewer. Her writing appears in venues such as Locus, NYRSF, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. Her book on the work of Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014. Professionally she worked for several years on NASA projects, and currently lives near Baltimore in the United States.
One comment on “Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction, edited by Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood”
Chuck Von Nordheim

I think Karen produced a very thorough review. Her review provides thoughtful evaluation criteria useful not only to judge this collection, but any work of SF or fantasy.

 

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