MIND MELD: Speculative Fiction Books That Should Be Assigned in School
I hated being force-fed books in school because they rarely suited my tastes in speculative fiction reading. Today’s generation, however, has a much better chance of being assigned genre books in school. The following question was asked of this week’s panelists:
Read on to see their what books should be on every high schooler’s radar…
The trick, of course, is finding books teenagers will love, which also reveal the diversity of the genre and its literary aspirations. And “high school” is a broad range–what’s appropriate for an eighteen-year-old is not always what’s right for a fourteen-year-old. But assuming for a moment we’re talking about a senior-level AP class, I’d want Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads (which I imagine would be challenging to get past the parents, with its discussions of syphilis and slavery, but well worth it); Ted Chiang’s Stories Of Your Life And Others; Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (I’m going on rep for that one, as I have not read it yet, but it’s on my list); Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (Which I would use, among other things, to talk about didactic literature, and I’d want to assign it in concert with Black Beauty, frankly); Christopher Barzak’s One For Sorrow; and a nice anthology in which there are a lot of fun stories in which stuff blows up, because this list is way too damned depressing already.
The two novels I’d try with my students would be Robert Sawyer’s WWW: Wake, which should score highly with the internet generation; and Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, a time travel adventure. (In my experience, time travel almost always worked well with students. I’d be inclined also to recommend Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine, except that there’s a religious dimension that would cause problems with some parents.)
SF, in my view, is more effective at shorter length, so I’d want an anthology. A good one to start with: Fast Forward II (edited by Lou Anders). I should also acknowledge that I may not be objective on this last one since I have a story in it.
During my years as an English teacher (1963-73), I had a great deal of success using Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles to demonstrate to reluctant kids that reading can be a great deal of fun.
The answer to this question is perhaps less academic for me than most, insomuch as my alter ego is a college professor and I teach an introduction to science fiction and fantasy literature class fairly regularly. I think the books that I use in there are some that I would teach in a 10th grade class as well. They are accessible to those who don’t already read in the genre and they are intriguing.
Some of the books I like from the last ten years are Scott Westerfield’s Uglies, Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire. Each does some interesting things with character, plot and offer a variety of kinds of readings and a variety of learning opportunities. These books have some sophistication and do not dumb down to students, and they are terrific stories. Clearly I’m always reading in the genre and looking for more possibilities.
I also have some favorites that are older than ten years. On the top of that list is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, Elizabeth Moon’s Once a Hero, and Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring.
I’d put the following science fiction and fantasy books in the syllabus:
- Red Moon. First published as written by David Michaels, 2000; re-issued as written by David Michaels & Daniel Brenton, 2007. One of the great instructive strengths and delights of science fiction is the “real” explanation of a perplexing, major event or phenomenon. Red Moon does this for the question of why the Soviet space program collapsed in the late 1960s without reaching the Moon, after such a promising start.
- Edward Maret by Robert I. Katz, 2001. A re-telling, roughly and sagely, of The Count of Monte Cristo, in a deep space environment with androids and all kinds of fine science fictional things and memes. An excellent example of a classic story in s-f clothing.
- The Unincorporated Man by Dani & Eytan Kollin, 2009. A body revived after centuries in suspended animation is a science fiction nugget worthy of any class. In the hands of the Kollins, it gives a tour of economics worthy of Looking Backward and The Space Merchants.
- Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer, 2007. Alien transmission from space – another important science fiction staple – handled with the style and savvy Sawyer brought to his 1999 Flashfoward, now a fine series on ABC TV.
- Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt, 2009. A great time travel story, showing students some of the mind-bending paradoxes of the genre, and also how shorter works can be expanded into novels.
- The complete Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, 1997-2007. Even though the first book was published a tad longer ago than 10 years, the balance of this masterpiece series was published within the 10-year period stipulated, so I included all the books in the series. In other words, it’s fair to say the series was published in the past 10 years. And the lessons in sheer, imaginative character development and story telling are too good to pass up.
As an SF reader I was very fortunate: at school in London in the 1980s I studied John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, John Cristopher’s The Death of Grass and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach alongside all the Dickens, Hardy and Shakespeare. But the last ten years have served up several titles that I’d also happily see on any teacher’s reading list — my syllabus might include M John Harrison’s Light (2002), or Ken McLeod’s Learning the World (2005), or Matthew de Abaitua’s The Red Men (2007). All three are well-paced reads to excite young minds, but are also intelligent and thought-provoking with plenty of themes to discuss. But for the purposes of this Mind Meld today, however, I want to stir things up in the classroom by nominating Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch (2002).
“A comic fantasy? One part of a series that has almost 40 books in it? What are you thinking, Bradley?! Go to the headmaster’s office at once!” Sorry sir, but this is a masterful piece of writing, with a theme of civil unrest for us to discuss, believable central characters, and an unusual time travel-based framing structure. There are good reasons why it received the Prometheus Award in 2003, had a place in the BBC’s top 100 “Big Read” survey of the UK’s favourite books, and was nominated for a Locus Award.
Pratchett first introduced us to the characters of Sam Vimes and his watchmen in 1989’s Guards! Guards! Over the years Vimes has sobered up, married into the nobility, and been promoted to commander. He’s one of the Discworld’s most important characters and the Watch are Pratchett’s finest creations. Despite authentic character flaws, Vimes is a dependable cop trying to keep the peace in a world gone mad, cynical but morally upright, wry and tenacious with the intelligence to play at politics if he has to. Night Watch is the seventh book to feature him prominently, and Pratchett masterfully ensures that it’s not just another police procedural – Vimes is flung back in time to meet his own younger self during the days of revolution in his beloved city.
To my mind this is the most fully accomplished of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork novels, with excellent characterisation and an eye for sophisticated narrative techniques. The magical time travel conceit means there’s no need to be versed in Discworld continuity (although it helps if some of the character names are familiar – class swots should be encouraged to go and read all the supporting material) but there is plenty for a 21st century reading group to talk about: political assassinations and the effect of the state running a secret police, the relationship between the regular police and the military, the ways in which rebellions escalate and how demonstrations can turn to rioting and bloodshed.
And it manages to do all that while being a good laugh, too.
The primary criterion is how the students get access to the title of my choice – student purchase, school media center library, my purchase? Many other considerations follow: will this book help me teach to the mandatory tests? will non-creationist, sexually active but not married, non-Christian or gay characters offend the parents of my students? will a lack of significant characters of color be a bore for my class which is mostly kids of color and / or of latino and / or asian heritage? if the protagonists are female will the boys be anxious? if the protagonists are all male will the girls roll their eyes? if I use an sf/f work in this free unit of my syllabus will the students who don’t care for sf/f complain (yes! they will!)? will my student(s) in wheel chairs or with other challenges, feel left out by a novel’s all able protagonists?
With Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold (2008 – f ), I could teach a useful class unit on reading, writing and researching – particularly if this were an English-History team taught course — (compare and contrast this history of Abercrombie’s setting with that of Italy during the period of the warrior pope, Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia; what is the role of the Poison Master’s apprentice as a character in the novel?, etc.)
But I wouldn’t be allowed to teach Best Served Cold, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Mercy (2008 – f ), the final volume in her Imriel cycle, even though Carey’s BDSM elements are fairly muted in this one. I like this novel because it provides a perfect fantasy process by which a nation can literally lose its mind and memory for a period of time – great research, essay and discussion material. An Abercrombie or Carey novel would be perceived by the powers that ultimately control my classroom as lacking the elements that are the focus of our syllabus – proven works of ‘value’ that go with teaching to the mandatory state and national tests.
I might be able to teach Sherri Tepper’s The Margarets (2008 – sf) or The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2007 – sf). These provide some optimism as to future homo sapien survival. Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009 – sf) I would be able to teach – it will soon be on the school media center bookshelves. But, I don’t want to bombard my students with even more pessimism about the future than they’re already seeing.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt (2002 – sf), is a perfect novel for an inter-disciplinary unit taught with members of the science and history faculties, but it contains extended sections of meditative speculation that would drive my attention deficient students mad, sending us back to where we started – with books you are forced to read in high school English class and now hate with a passion.
So, The Brief Wondrous Life of Dr. Wao (2007 – meta sf/f) by Junot Díaz it is. The novel won the Pulitzer for literature. The text employs compositional devices, scholarly forms, linguistic and grammatical diversities. Copies were added instantly to school media centers and public library collections of young adult fiction. It’s musical, rhythmic and vocal, thus reads easily. It presents a variety of young protagonists, contains comedy and tragedy, violence and pathos. There’s a mysterious island, the Dominican Republic, from where many of my students’ families emigrated, ruled by the Dark Lord, Rafael Trujillo, in comparison with whom Sauron’s a pussycat. There’s a focus on geek culture — Dungeons and Dragons, sf/f novels, comics, sf/f movies, computers, the place these hold in all our lives — it’s a great introduction to Lord of the Rings. It’s got the eternals – family, sex and death.
Most of all, its got copious fukú.* All students, everywhere, are deeply versed in fukú.**
*The novel contains footnotes explaining the elaborate curse system of fukú.
** So are their teachers.
When I was at school the books (that I remember) I had to study were Animal Farm by George Orwell, Brighton Rock by Grahame Greene and Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare. Animal Farm is good, I recommend it. Brighton Rock is about violent gang warfare (not sure why that’s good for school?) and a bit of a trudge. And Henry IV is terrible. Of all the Shakespeare why did we have to study that one? No magic or witches or speculation or explosions or spaceships.
So what would I recommend? It’s not an easy decision; the book needs to be entertaining but deep enough to provoke more discussion. It’s got to be not too long, a book that everyone can finish. And obviously for a literature lesson, the writing needs to be pretty good too.
Some of my favourite books of the last few years are probably just too long: River Of Gods, The Gone Away World, Anathem, The Baroque Cycle.
Some are too grim: The Road by Cormac McCarthy has amazing writing, but there’s not enough to discuss and too much scope for depression.
Some were published years ago: for example I read a lot of classic and great apocalyptic SF last year.
The book that comes to mind which covers all the requirements is Air by Geoff Ryman: great story, great writing and enough technological speculation and questions asked to keep a class talking for weeks. How will technology change poor parts of the world? Rather a big topic for discussion.
I’d also like to suggest a short story, “Magic For Beginners” by Kelly Link. Ideal for teenagers I reckon, with plenty to discuss about being outsiders and friendship and what is real, and what isn’t.
Much better than Henry IV Part 1.
This is an interesting question, and I’d be keen to know what actual teachers are assigning nowadays, if they are in fact using much genre fiction of recent vintage. When I was a kid, the science fiction selections in English class were limited mostly to the classic dystopian books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, and the focus was always on what sort of heavy social and political messages the stories conveyed.
If I were planning a syllabus for a high school course and wanted to select very recent genre fiction, and could only choose a single book, I might pick Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days. A collection of short fiction, all set in mid-21st century India, this book is jam-packed with startling ideas and highly evocative language. I think it could make students think about how the world is rapidly changing around them and what things might be possible in a time frame that will occur well within their own lifetimes.
If I had a chance to make genre fiction the entire focus of a course for a school year and could pick more than one book (and if I didn’t have to worry too much about who might be offended by my choices), I would plan the syllabus around the notion of these being the genres of “Big Ideas” and expose students to a wide range of the exciting writing that’s been going on in recent years. Some items I might select include:
- Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, for being a mind-blowing and highly entertaining image of the world after nanotechnology becomes all-pervasive. It has everything: great characters, engrossing plot and tons of wild super-science. I might invite students to compare this vision of the future to that of earlier periods in sf, such as the Golden Age, the New Wave and the cyberpunk period.
- Hal Duncan’s Vellum, for its mythic aura, its seamless welding of elements of both sf and fantasy, and its challenging premise. I can imagine students being both thrilled and confounded by this one.
- Greg Egan’s Incandescence, for the intensity and rigor of its hard science. More than anyone else nowadays, when I think of hard sf, I think of Egan. He manages to take very difficult sf premises and focus them around a very human story.
- Jay Lake’s Mainspring, for its dazzling concept and richly entertaining storyline. Of all these selections, the kids in my class would probably dig this one more than anything due to its relatively high fun factor. It would also be a good jumping-off point for discussion of world-building.
Not all of the books in my syllabus are marketed as science fiction or fantasy, but they do contain elements of the genres. My goal, in the class, would be to break down the preconceptions of genre, and to show my students the diversity that exists out there.
Here are the books I would choose:
- Gossamer by Lois Lowry
- I Was a Teenage Fairy by Francesca Lia Block
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
- After Dachau by Daniel Quinn
- The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley
- Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
- Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
- City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
- Fray by Joss Whedon
It’s not common knowledge that I have a background in modern philosophy, and therefore I’m really familiar with how to read dense scholarly texts. The techniques I was taught in high school that helped with this were by an English professor, Mr. Silverman, who taught us the importance of knowing how to read for critical analysis. After getting to college, I found that this was a prep school sort of thing, and plenty of my class mates didn’t get trained on.
Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy is a great example of a text on how to read fantasy. I’m told that James Gunn’s Reading Science Fiction or Paul Kinkaid’s What it is we do When We Read Science Fiction are also a good texts on the subject, but in any case, anyone wanting to teach F/SF ought to have such a book to give students a road map.
The next step is the books. I’m partial to letting students choose themselves, but then you’d get a dozen Harry Potter and Twilight essays, and that makes for lax standards. By the same token, giving all the students the same books would be awful, so what I’d do is give them choices from a range of books, and allow an extra credit for essays about books not on the list. Ducking out on picking specific titles, I’d give them the full range of the nominees for Hugos, Nebulas, Tiptrees, Carl Brandons, Lambdas and the World Fantasy Awards. Students could pick from the last ten years there.
OK, but if I *had* to pick books, I’d want to give two each of fantasy of science fiction. For science fiction, I’d assign Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and Ian McDonald’s Brasyl. For Fantasy, I’d assign Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Cat Valente.
My goal would be to give one YA novel and one adult novel in both fantasy and SF to the students. Uglies talks a lot about teen experience, and Un Lun Dun inverts the classic “destined hero” trope. I think Brasyl would be the most difficult of all the novels, but I believe in challenging students. Brasyl talks about what science and technology might mean outside of a European context, which is important in and of its self. It also delves into entertainment, reality TV, sports obsession, and time travel. Orphan’s Tales, In The Night Garden is absolutely one of my favorite books in the world. Like Un Lun Dun, it’s all about turning ideas one might have about fantasy on their heads. Like Brasyl, it’s not an easy read at first, but it’s sucked in everyone I’ve met who’s read it.
At the end of the class, I’d want students to come out with a sense of what fantasy and science fiction can do that non-speculative literature can’t, how to read books with that in mind, and how to find books in the genres that they’d enjoy.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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