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Friday Five: 5 Classic Space-faring YA Science Fiction Stories

This week's Friday Five comes courtesy of the award-nominated poet and author, Dennis M. Lane.

His work includes a compilation of poetry 8 Million Stories (2010), the collection The Poring Dark (2012) and two YA SF novels - Talatu (2013) and The King's Jewel (August 2013). (You can find them all here.)

You can also hear Dennis - he narrates stories and poems and presents a regular Film Review on the StarShipSofa podcast. (He also plays the harmonica.) 

Dennis is taking us on a blast to the past with a new look at some older YA novels...

heinlein rocketship galileoScouting gets a pretty bad rap nowadays; but it taught me to parachute, skin a rabbit, build a bivouac, and take anything that the world could throw at me. The books that inspired the same feeling in me when I was a teenager were, for example, the Heinlein Juveniles that I discovered in my local library in the early 1970's. Readers of contemporary YA science fiction may be surprised that SF has been doing strong teen (and pre-teen) protagonists for decades.

So here are five of the novels that I read as a 1970s schoolboy, ones that inspired me to pack my bags and follow my dreams...

There's Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), the first of what became known as the Heinlein Juveniles. I recently re-read this and, while it is quite heavily laden with forties slang and quite a lot of the "science" has been proved wrong, it still stands up as a short, easily read adventure. With a plot that follows three teenage boys as they build a rocket, travel to the moon, and defeat Nazis who have set up base there; what’s not to like?

panshin rite of passageAnother favourite of mine was Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin (winner of the Nebula Award and nominated for the Hugo). The story follows thirteen-year-old Mia as she trains for her ‘trial’ (all ship-born children have to survive for a month on a colony world shortly after their fourteenth birthday).

The book raises a number of dilemmas: not everything about the giant ships is benevolent, through her trial Mia begins to see the colonist "mudeaters" as people, and what obligation do the technologically blessed ship inhabitants have towards the lesser developed colonists? It’s a story that drags you along with Mia and raises issues; a perfect blend.

Then there's another Heinlein, Have Spacesuit Will Travel (1958) - to be honest, I could have easily written a Friday Five just on Heinlein Juveniles! High school senior Kip Russell wins an obsolete spacesuit in a jingle writing competition. As he is broadcasting a last message before returning it for a cash prize, he gets drawn into interstellar intrigue between various alien races with only the support of Peewee (the genius preteen daughter of a famous scientist) and the Mother Thing (from Vega 5). Ultimately it is up to Kip and Peewee to defend humanity at the intergalactic tribunal. Fast paced, fun, and, apparently, with a film adaptation in development; this is a classic.

norton The Stars Are OursFourth is Andre Norton's The Stars are Ours! (1954). On Earth of the 26th Century the "Free Scientists" refuse to accept political, racial and religious divisions and are in conflict with the "Nationalists". Dard and his niece Dessie must get the secret of suspended animation to the last scientists on Earth so that they can complete a starship and escape Earth's tyranny and find a new home.

Finally there's A Life for the Stars by James Blish (1962), the second of four Cities in Flight novels. In it, sixteen-year-old farm boy Chris is press-ganged into the city of Scranton, which is about to leave Earth and set up a mining operation. He manages to jump ship and join the city of New York, where he develops his skills, becomes useful, and is ultimately offered citizenship of New York.

What all five of these stories have is the prospect of change (possibly massive change) for the young protagonists. Sometimes our heroes may be highly educated and use that to save the day, sometimes they use their natural intelligence and hard work, but, ultimately, they always win through.

This list also shows that, while many people think (or thought) of science fiction as being a male-oriented genre, it is not just contemporary SF that has brought us female protagonists. Mia, Peewee, and Dessie can all enthuse today’s young readers.

What are your favourite ‘pre-contemporary’ Young Adult SF novels?

Which of the protagonists inspired you?