Imagine yourself keeping intergallactic peace in outer space or hacking into a government database to bring down a conspiracy. Picture yourself going back in time to change just one little thing, or taking command of a rogue steam train while evading assassins. Welcome to some of the best YA science fiction subgenres … We’re all familiar with dystopian science fiction, and certainly there is enough of it out there to never get bored. But did you know there are a myriad of other sci-fi genres? Some of these YA science fiction subgenres are old, some are standbys, but all are worth checking out for the YA sci-fi fan who is hungry to look beyond the horizon and find something new. Read on for my favorite YA science fiction subgenres and the most influential young adult authors and their essential works.
When it comes to YA science fiction subgenres, space opera has been around forever (Hello, Star Trek! Hello, Star Wars!), yet these stories have never been more popular. A space opera takes place in outer space. There are often a large cast of characters (making for longer books!). Instead of creating the setting into an empty void, though, space opera writers create elaborate storylines packed with enough action and intrigue to fill the galaxy. Interstellar warfare is common, as is romance. Amie Kaufman is one YA science fiction space opera superstar. Two of her most popular young adult novels include the Starbound Series (These Broken Stars, etc., co-written with Meagan Spooner, and the Illuminae Files (The Illuminae, etc.), co-written with Jay Kristoff. Naturally, most space operas take place in the future. How do writers envision such a distant future? In an interview with Goodreads, Kaufman and Kristoff spoke to the challenges and opportunities of writing so far into the future given our continually advancing society: “One of the things about writing science fiction is that technology is advancing so insanely quickly that by the time you’re finished writing a book, it may well have overtaken you. There’s just no way to keep up. We loved imagining what the future would be like, but we have no idea if we were right. The truth is, the future will look like something we can’t even imagine yet. Which is kind of awesome.” Other space opera YA authors include Marissa Meyer, author of the beloved Lunar Chronicles series (Cinder, etc.), and Beth Revis, who wrote the insanely popular Across the Universe trilogy that starts with Across the Universe.
Cyberpunk: what an awesome name, and one of my favorite YA science fiction subgenres. Who doesn’t want to be a hacking genius cyberpunk? The cyberpunk genre examines how technology—Internet, computer science, and the digital life—is manipulated and controlled within a dystopian environment. These stories often occur in an urban setting. One author who leads the pack of cyberpunk YA is Cory Doctorow, who is perhaps best known for his novel Little Brother and its sequel, Homeland. Little Brother follows a group of teens who hope to evade their school’s surveillance program but get caught up in a terrorist attack that the government uses to target and torture them. Another famous cyberpunk-themed novel is M. T. Anderson’s Feed, a story about how in the future, unrestrained technology can infiltrate your life and corrupt your ability to genuinely feel. What if your thoughts were recorded? What if technology saturated your mind to make money for big businesses? What if the government put a chip inside you to track your movement? These chilling themes that border not on today’s realities drive cyberpunk fiction.
Have you ever heard the phrase “timey-wimey”? It’s a famous Doctor Who catchphrase from the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, that perfectly embodies the theme of time travel stories, that time can be bent and massaged, allowing you to hop back and forth from the dawn of the universe to the far and distant future.
These stories have been around forever, and you can trace the history all the way back to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, first published in 1895, and follow it up to present day. Some modern time travel authors are Heidi Heilig, author of the pirate-and-romance heavy novel The Girl from Everywhere and its sequel. Rysa Walker pens the popular Chronos Files books, which start with Timebound, etc.
Readers fell in love with Amalie Jahn’s debut novel, The Clay Lion, about a sister who travels back in time to save her brother from a deadly virus. The Clay Lion series of four books explores the idea we have all had: if you could go back in time and change one thing, would history—and your life—still unfold the same way? This “What if…?” question is one of the central themes of time travel books and what makes them so enduring and appealing for all time.
Steampunk is one of the most well-known YA science fiction subgenres. These stories combine steam-powered technology in a historical setting, meaning they fall into the “alternate history” category of science fiction since society has by and large moved on from these older, more archaic systems. Steampunk often takes place in the American West (“The Wild West”) or Victorian Great Britain. There’s no doubt that the Victorian era persists in today’s culture, with TV series like the BBC’s Sherlock updating a beloved Victorian character and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful mashing together historical and fiction characters from the nineteenth century. The American West still captivates today, too (Hello, HBO’s Westworld). There is no shortage of steampunk in YA science fiction, either. For YA steampunk, no one comes close to Gail Carriger, beloved author of the feminist Etiquette and Espionage (Finishing School #1) and Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1). The Finishing School series can be summed up best by its tagline: “It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.” Carriger imagines a Victorian era Britain that empowers young women to tackle the real concerns of the world, where ladies can be assassins rather than fragile dolls. Scott Westerfeld is an extremely versatile and prolific author of YA fiction, including the action-packed and romance-laced Leviathan series, which naturally starts with Leviathan, set in the lead-up to World War I.