David Brin’s definition of science fiction.
In education we discuss our nigh-impossible charge, which is to prepare children for a world neither we nor they have experienced. We should be focusing our pedagogical efforts on a genre that explores two concepts all students should be prepared for: exploration and change. As our teacher workforce and student bodies continue to diversify we must adopt literature that helps us critically examine the state of the world around us along with our collective potential. All of our classrooms can be sites of scientific and fantastical exploration.
China Mieville, The City and the City
The above quote is a direct metaphor for those of us who code-switch, consciously projecting specific aspects of our identities in a given moment. The notion of implicit bias has become more popular as we begin to examine the way identity factors into our school interactions. I’ve seen no book handle this with such nuance as China Miéville’s The City and the City. In this award-winning murder mystery, police must investigate crimes that take place in an area that contains two separate cities co-existing in the same geographic space. The cities are separated largely by subtle architectural and clothing differences that are adhered to habitually by residents of both cities and these separations are strictly enforced by authorities. This exploration of borders, a social construct that serves as a significant political issue in contemporary politics, can fuel valuable conversations on identity and migration in our schools. We can also see this book as a push toward mindfulness, as homeless residents and ubiquitous advertising are constants in our communities that are largely disregarded as background noise. The phenomenon of how the cities’ residents perceive one another is also a wonderful metaphor for how we perceive cultural differences.
Robopocalypse was recommended to me by a colleague who insisted that despite the terrible title, the book was an excellent read. I wholeheartedly agree. While I had been introduced to the notion of the Singularity and that of sentient artificial intelligence as a racial issue through the writings of Philip K. Dick among others, I didn’t place that potential conflict within the context of civil rights movements. American history in particular has been one of marginalized peoples fighting for social, political, and economic equality. The battle against the dehumanization of women, people of color, and many other groups has been fought for centuries, and Robopocalypse places that within a new context. It is often hard for students to conceptualize how we used to see black people and women as property, and how that history informs today’s society. The machines that do our bidding today could be coexisting with us in the near future. Computers are already beating us at some of our most cherished intellectual traditions: world chess champion Garry Kasparov lost to computer Deep Blue in 1997, Go champion Lee Sedol lost to AlphaGo just this month, and Tesla founder Elon Musk warns that we should be expecting hyper-intelligent artificial intelligence within the next decade. Robopocalypse gives the fight for civil rights a new face, and is a perfect complement to recent blockbusters like Ex Machina and Her.
Octavia Butler is highly regarded as a literary figure of vital importance due to the way she explored gender and racial politics through her work. Popular fantasy and sci-fi are often disturbingly non-diverse; this is quite troubling for authors in genres where the only limit is your imagination. For that reason, the inclusion of interesting black female characters in Butler’s work were a godsend for many readers. In Dawn we encounter a post-apocalyptic “First Encounter” story of humanity meeting an intelligent alien species that would be classified as raman, to use Orson Scott Card’s Hierarchy of Foreignness. Some man-made disaster has left the earth uninhabitable and humans must rely on the benevolence of our galactic neighbors for survival. We are forced to accept the aliens’ physical and cultural differences (which include three sexes) and confront the idea that something in our evolution has led us to self-destruction. As global temperatures continue to rise, potable water becomes increasingly scarce, and hunger continues to be an issue worldwide, our planetary stewardship only grows in importance.
Despite being the only manga (basically a Japanese graphic novel) in this list, Akumetsu sacrifices nothing in topical weight. This story follows a Japanese vigilante organization, Akumetsu (literally “destroyer of evil”), committed to fighting injustice due to the horrible toll corruption and economic inequality has taken on Japanese society. It is an exciting and bloody exploration of morality, identity, and culture. What truly is an oligarchy and how can such a system be dismantled? Many characters have real-life analogues in Japan which helps the reader to consider the complexity of these multi-faceted issues. It still hasn’t been officially released in English for some reason, but it’s widely available online.
This quote from a 1998 discussion between notable authors Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany illustrates the core behind my love for science fiction. People often have trouble defining the boundaries of the genre; many have given up on the exercise almost entirely. Science fiction is often seen as frivolous; a genre separate from its “literary fiction” counterparts and lacking the seriousness of nonfiction. We need greater recognition of the value of sci-fi and the role it should play in our scholastic curriculum. Each of the works discussed here tackles fundamental ideas of what it means to live together in contemporary human society.
English teachers, I ask that you incorporate more sci-fi into your curriculum. Librarians, bring books into your libraries that include protagonists of all shapes, shades, and perspectives. Other educators, think about the following: how other books beyond 1984 can help us examine polities; how books set in the distant future can help us teach evolutionary biology; what dystopian novels about despotic regimes can teach children about a school’s zero-tolerance policies. We shouldn’t be in the business of fostering mindless containers of knowledge, and science fiction can be an invaluable tool for examining and improving the learning environments we create for our students.
This post is also published as a part of The Synapse at medium.com/synapse/our-schools-need-science-fiction-9316dee9168e.