I've read a lot of young-adult science fiction books lately, but The Lab by Jack Heath is the first one to feel fully science fictional. Instead of taking place in a beautifully described post-apocalyptic world, or a present-day setting where weird things happen, The Lab is full of widescreen craziness. The main character is a genetically engineered superspy, who fights robots. Stuff blows up on every page. It's not a literary masterpiece, but it's the perfect book to get a smart tween hooked on science fiction.
Maybe The Lab is different from other YA science fiction because Heath was a teenager when he wrote it. (In fact, Wikipedia claims he was 13 when he started writing it.) It came out in Heath's native Australia a couple of years ago, but it's only just coming out this month in the U.S., on Scholastic. Similar to Christopher Paolini, the teen author of Eragon, Heath has written a book that's pure wish-fulfillment and genre candy, without any fiber whatsoever.
Here's a typical passage from The Lab:
The bullet went straight into the exhaust valve, and the missile detonated.
Six shielded his eyes with his arm as the blackness of the night was impaled by a ferocious rippling firestorm
Raymond Carver is not looking over his shoulder here. Actually, my favorite sentence in the whole book comes later: "He tested his mind for brain damage." Awesome!
But it's a really fun read, and ideal for kids who aren't particularly interested in introspective coming-of-age stories about outsiders who have to find the strength within, to change their dismal dystopian worlds.
In The Lab, it's an evil future, and 9 billion people live in a walled city, ruled over by an evil corporation called ChaoSonic. There's no government, per se, and mad scientists are literally everywhere. You can't function in society without ID cards and other geegaws, which allow ChaoSonic to track your movements. The main character, Six Of Hearts, is an agent of the Deck, a secret vigilante organization that fights mad scientists and other evildoers. (And every member of the Deck is a playing card. The Hearts are the agents, and the other suits perform other functions. But we pretty much only see the Hearts.) But Six is special, because he's the product of a genetic experiment that spliced human and lizard DNA into a bird embryo. This, we're told at one point, is why Six is always jumping off exploding buildings. Because he has a genetic predisposition to want to fly, even though he has no wings.
There's almost no character development in The Lab, although Six does struggle a bit with the question of whether he's human. But that's not why you would read this book. You read it to watch Six get into and out of a ton of scrapes, and also because the world-building is pretty interesting in parts. When it does slow down, the book fixates on the implications of various schemes to introduce armies of killer robots, or hordes of genetically enhanced super-soldiers. Six is always doing calculations in his head, including his rate of descent when he's dropped off the latest burning building. And he thinks a fair bit about Descartes and other classic philosophers. It's a book that makes being smart seem cool and awesome, because Six usually uses his brain to escape from his various mishaps.
So yeah, if you have a kid in your life who's ready for some YA literature, and he/she isn't really interested in slow, thoughtful books about people finding their place in the world, try giving him/her The Lab. It's basically an action movie on paper, but it could be a nice gateway drug to reading more serious science fiction.