Underneath the spaceships, extraterrestrials, and techno bling, these new young adult science fiction novels feature complex characters exploring the question of what it means to be human. Set them on the launch pad of social studies, technology, and literature classes, and blast off into discussions touching on politics, culture, science, the environment—the possibilities are limitless.
Bird attacks ground flights nationwide, leaving Reese Holloway and her debate partner David Li stranded in Phoenix, AZ, in Malinda Lo’s Adaptation (Little Brown, September 2012; Gr 9 Up). As the two head home in a rental car, a bird flies into their headlights, triggering a near-fatal crash. Twenty-one days later, Reese and David wake up in a top-secret military hospital, mysteriously healed of their injuries through highly-classified medical treatments. Forced to sign confidentiality agreements, they are taken home to San Francisco, CA, the city under martial law like the rest of the country.
Reese, plagued by headaches and lingering questions about her recovery, suspects she is under surveillance. When enigmatic Amber Gray crashes into her life on a runaway skateboard, the teen finds herself in a full throttle search for the truth, uncovering government conspiracies, extraterrestrial life, and even unexpected romance. Lo’s thriller, a fresh take on classic sci-fi tropes, matches quick plot turns with thoughtful exploration of Reese’s hesitantly emerging bisexuality in a subtle, yet powerful, play on the idea of being alien.
Political science and sociology classes will enjoy discussing the government cover-up theme, echoing current headlines. “Outside the White House every morning, protesters pace back and forth. Written in large, hand-lettered block capitals, their signs declare, ‘Birds don’t destroy planes, people do,’ and ‘Tell us the truth, President Randall!’ But perhaps the truth is greater than the conspiracies detailed online. Perhaps the real issue is not whether the government orchestrated the plane crashes, but instead do we trust our elected officials?…Democracy, at its root, is based on the faith that our representatives have our best interests at heart. If we as a nation no longer believe that they do, that may be even more disturbing than the idea that aliens are among us.” Questions about the motivations and interests of our elected officials are sure to resonate in this election year.
Tom Raines, 14, forsakes the obscurity of virtual reality (VR) gaming parlors for the chance to be someone important, in S. J. Kincaid’s Insignia (HarperCollins, July 2012; Gr 7 Up). Set in a future where the Indo-American Alliance and Russo-Chinese Alliance fight a corporate-funded war between unmanned drones in outer space, Insignia features an entertaining cast of teens training to fight remotely from the Pentagonal Spire military academy, their VR prowess enhanced by neural processors embedded in their brains.
Fast-paced action and engaging humor complement deeper themes ranging from the ethics of global mega-corporations to the very nature of war. “’It’s always about money, son. War is expensive. We cut costs wherever we can. That’s why all our shipyards are in space. That’s why Combatants need sponsors. The fact is, the only people in this country who can afford to pay taxes to support the military are the very people powerful enough to avoid paying them.”
Pertinent to discussions of political science, economics, and technology, Insignia also lends itself to the study of world history as the teen combatants’ calisthenics classes occur in VR-produced Greek and Arthurian battles to get the adrenaline flowing. Compare Insignia’s VR warfare with the growing current use of unmanned drones, and consider the nuanced relationship of man and machine.
Khemri is one of ten million superhuman princes running the galaxy in Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes (HarperCollins, 2012; Gr 9 Up), a rollicking space opera set in the far distant future. Psychically connected to the Imperial Mind and assisted by a phalanx of priests headed by his Master of Assassins, naïvely conceited youth assumes he will be chosen as the next Emperor. Completing a year of Naval Academy training and tapped for the secret Adjustment Service, Khemri is stripped of his augmented mental abilities and physical strength, and sent off to prove himself in the Fringes of the galaxy, where humans rebel against Princes and fend off space pirates. There he meets Raine, a human girl who challenges all his assumptions.
Nix weaves humor, often at Khemri’s expense, into a fast-paced coming-of-age story, set in a fully-formed world of the future. Packed with cybernetic gizmos, strange characters, thrilling spaceship battles, and even duels, A Confusion of Princes ultimately considers the questions of what it means to be human and how one’s identity is formed.
Point technology classes to Nix’s inventive array of systems and weapons, and spin literature classes off into the classic sci-fi worlds of Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, to whom Nix dedicates the book. Ask students to re-write the relationship between Khemri and Raine from Raine’s perspective as a human defending her territory on the frontiers of the galaxy. An multiplayer online game (MMORPG), Imperial Galaxy, based on the book is in the works.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin,” opens Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (Random, 2012; Gr 10 Up), a coming-of-age tale with crossover appeal. Julia, 11, lives in southern California with her parents, their humdrum lives dramatically changed when Earth’s rotation suddenly begins to slow. As days and nights gain hours, environmental catastrophe looms, gravity increases, circadian rhythms are disrupted, and food supplies are threatened. Culture disintegrates as tension develops between “clock timers,” the majority who stick with 24-hour days, and “real timers,” renegades who live by the sun, off the clock, and increasingly off the grid.
Against this surrealistic backdrop, Julia ventures through middle school, negotiating the pitfalls of puberty, shaky self concept, beckoning relationships with boys, and fickle friendships. Walker weaves thought-provoking passages throughout the story, told in Julia’s voice as a young adult looking back on her adolescence. Consider the shift in the girl’s perception of the events: “We kids were not as afraid as we should have been. We were too young to be scared, too immersed in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.” How might the story be different if told in the present tense, rather than in retrospect?
The Age of Miracles will appeal to science classes, with topics including the nature of gravity, the delicate interdependence of environmental factors, and even astronomy. An unexpected solar eclipse plunges the city into darkness, spreading panic: “We were, on that day, no different from the ancients, terrified of our own big sky.” Use this passage as a springboard into mythology and legend as means of explaining natural phenomena.
Sociology classes will enjoy discussing the growing conflict between the “clock timers” and “real timers,” considering the underlying perceptions of such divisions: “There was no way around it: The real-timers made the rest of us uncomfortable. They too often slept while the rest of us worked. They went out when everyone else was asleep. They were a threat to the social order, some said, the first small crumbles of a coming disintegration.” When Julia’s grandfather disappears, she travels with her parents to an isolated village of real-timers to look for him. “We’re the realists. . .You’re the dreamers,” they are told by one of the residents. How does this deep cultural division compare with the political factions currently evident in the United States? What role does point of view play when reacting to frightening cultural shifts? Introduce The Age of Miracles with the book trailer.
The classroom suggestions above reference a number of Common Core State Standards. The list below is a sampling.
RL.7.6 Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.
RL.8.3 Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
RL.8.9 Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.
RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
RL.9-10.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
W.8.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
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