MIND MELD: SF/F Stories For English Lit Class
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Last week I attended my son’s high school’s open house. In the English Literature class we were informed that the kids had started reading the Arthur Miller play The Crucible which the kids would enjoy because, in the teacher’s words, “It’s got witches and adultery.” Many SF/F stories have those elements (if not in the same form) but, of course, there is nary a SF/F book on the agenda for the year. And in any case, stories can be interesting to teenagers without either or both.
Here’s what they said…
My list is by no means extensive or complete, but I thought of stories that contained elements of North American–Mexican, Appalachian–folklore, or that discussed current events and issues–struggles with religion in everyday life, culture clashes and war, discrimination–in ways that weren’t preachy.
Elizabeth Moon: “Knight of Other Days” — one of my favorite stories by Moon. When I first read it, I got the sense of a subtle Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-type tale, grounded in the setting of a Texas border town. The blend of history, mystery, influence of Mexican culture, and legend of the Knights Templar combine to form a multi-layered tale.
Terry Pratchett: Small Gods, Jingo, Feet of Clay — religion, culture clash/war, discrimination, set in a world different enough from ours to qualify as fantasy yet similar enough to equate to everyday life, news headlines. One of Pratchett’s many writing gifts.
Manly Wade Wellman: John the Balladeer tales, esp “Vandy, Vandy” — the Southern/Appalachian folklore, and the sense of how events in history can take on a fantasy spin when some details are scrambled and others are associated with magical intervention. And in “Vandy, Vandy,” there’s a witch! Well, a warlock. And a King, of sorts.
There are, of course, any number of science fiction/fantasy books that are already taught to students, who are so inured to their inclusion in canon that everyone’s forgotten that they are indeed science fiction and/or fantasy. From Beowulf to Brave New World, we’ve been teaching these books, quietly assuring the children that it’s okay to read these, because they’re literature. Shakespeare has A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth… hell, even Hamlet has a ghost in it, and it’s one of the most highly-regarded works of literature in the English language.
But that’s obviously not what you mean, so I’ll suggest a few titles I think worthy of inclusion. Why not pair a reading of The Canterbury Tales and the selected works of John Keats with Dan Simmons’ Chaucer- and Keats-inspired Hyperion? How about delving into complex issues of gender and economics with Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed? Wouldn’t high school students much rather be reading Slaughterhouse Five or Cat’s Cradle or just about anything else by Kurt Vonnegut, than just about anything they’re currently reading? Let them eat up Ender’s Game! Let them feast on Foundation! Let them devour Dune! Can you imagine how much more you’d have enjoyed high school if they’d let you read Beggars in Spain instead of Ivanhoe?
Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, War of the Worlds and Time Machine all have the pedagogic benefits of being (a) short, (b) readable, (c) out of copyright and available free online in the US [although in the UK, the Wells titles remain in copyright until 2017] and (d) brilliant. They also cover three of the most significant iterations of key SF themes: monsters and scientists; alien invasion, war and destruction; time travel. They have all also been widely translated into film and other media, to which young students are less likely to be hostile than can be the case with books. I choose to see this as a good thing, pedagogically: not least because the differences between the original texts and their myriad adaptations can become an interesting class discussion point in its own right.
I would be very sad indeed if any of the sf stories in my hypothetical high school English class syllabus bounced off students in the way that some of the stories I was assigned in high school bounced off me. I have been thinking a lot recently about which stories, once considered classics of the genre, might over time have devolved into interesting-but-flawed oldschool sf. Alas, many of my faves as a kid have passed their sell-by date. Nuclear war in 1970? Didn’t happen. Colonies on Mars alongside ancient canals? Please. Helpless women in need of rescue? Computers the size of warehouses? DIY spaceships? And where’s the internet?
When my daughter was a teen, I tried to turn her on to Heinlein, who was one of my favorites growing up. (There’s still a lot of RAH I really like – just not the late stuff). He bounced off her. Maybe it was his politics, sexual and otherwise, or maybe it was that some of his stuff was in desperate need of footnotes. Dad, what are slide rules? But getting her to read him and some of the other Golden Agers was like getting her to watch black and white movies. Do you realize how hard it is to convince people of a certain age to look at black and white movies of any kind, but sf movies in particular? Kids these days! Don’t get me started!
This is all by way of explaining why my list may tend to be more contemporary than some of the others here. It isn’t that I don’t still love the old masters, but I’d want my imaginary seventeen year olds to be excited by the stuff they read so that they go straight from English class to the library or Amazon.com for more terrific stories that map onto their world. So here are ten titles in no particular order which I believe combine a sense of wonder with teachability and high literary achievement. In time, of course, some of these also will pass their sell-by date, but then that is the fate of all sf, no?
- James Tiptree Jr. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”
- Bruce Sterling “We See Things Differently”
- Ursula LeGuin “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas”
- Robert Silverberg “The Pope of the Chimps”
- Connie Willis “Even The Queen”
- Ted Chiang “Story of Your Life”
- Maureen McHugh “The Cost To Be Wise”
- Daryl Gregory “Second Person, Present Tense”
- David Marusek “A Wedding Album”
- Nancy Kress Beggars In Spain
I think I’d pick three different types of reads to show the depth and breadth of science fiction and fantasy. First, I’d pick a lighter read that has some weight to it, something pretty relatable to give them an easy introduction to the field. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins fits this bill nicely. Although The Hunger Games deals with some serious, adult themes, it has young protagonists and is an easy read. More importantly, it’s compelling. The ease with which teenagers would absorb the novel could be used to launch into more serious topics like what it means to rebel and how close societies can be to cruelty, strife, or even outright collapse. It also provides a strong example of how adding tension can carry a reader through a story.
Next, I would introduce them to something that merges bold science fictional elements with strong, three dimensional characters. I’d pick something from Robert Charles Wilson, my favorite science fiction author. Something like The Chronoliths, a story about pillars that begin arriving on Earth from our own near future. The specfic elements of The Chronoliths are well reasoned, but Wilson also has a gift for populating his stories with real characters with emotions that move beyond the page. I think Wilson’s writing also provides good examples that it’s still possible to push boundaries in science fiction. Chronoliths revisits the well worn topic of time travel, but does so in a fresh and compelling way.
Lastly, I think I’d choose something a bit more dense to show the literary side of the field. And who better for this than Guy Gavriel Kay? The Lions of al-Rassan is one of my favorites of his, and it shows—as do all Kay’s works—how beautiful the written word can be, even in a place that some might not expect it: in epic fantasy. The Lions of al-Rassan is a story of two men who are at first on opposite sides of a brewing conflict, but as the story plays out they begin to question the wisdom of their paths. It’s a story steeped in religion, in custom, and in emotion, and Kay’s ability to marry poetry with prose are on full display.
I’m baffled at the idea that witches and adultery are a special draw for the teen reader, especially since The Crucible has none of the former and only mentions of the latter. Perhaps the teacher was searching for relevance and found McCarthyism too out-of-date (hah, it never is), but wouldn’t it have been more sensible to point out the themes of peer pressure and bullying? But, enjoyable or not, a work like The Crucible isn’t simply meant for casual reading. It’s a play and it’s meant to be watched. If you’re studying it for English Literature, you should be at a level where you’re learning to analyse and not merely enjoy.
Books assigned for English Literature may fall into two categories. There are books appropriate for a reading list: they can be read for a better understanding of a particular culture, historical era or genre as well as for pure entertainment. Then there are books that form the core of an English Literature syllabus: they must be sufficiently complex to permit a certain level of analysis so that the techniques of criticism and storycraft can be taught and tested.
The definition of SF/F is another matter. Children’s books often have fantasy elements, but do we consider The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, or Watership Down by Richard Adams to be fantasy because they have talking animals, one set very anthropomorphised and the other not? Literature of a certain era may have supernatural elements. Do we include The Turn of the Screw by Henry James or The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde … or even Beowulf? What about the socio-political commentary in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Animal Farm by George Orwell, and the dystopias Nineteen Eighty-Four, also by George Orwell, and A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley?
A side question – should there be a focus on young adult SF? Would that include works like The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham which have child protagonists and antagonists but deal with adult themes?
To simplify the question and the answer, let me state what I would want a work of SF to accomplish if it were to be chosen for an English Literature class, either reading list or core syllabus. I would want it to demonstrate the origins of the genre, revealing the longstanding tropes and traditions which still shape contemporary works. I would need it to have an additional layer of psychological or socio-political significance so that the traditional forms – for example, myth, quest, utopia/dystopia, alien encounter and colonisation, technology and the definition of human, etc. – are used to tell a larger story. Above all, it must be a well-written, well-structured work that does not fail when subjected to the same literary scrutiny given to non SF texts.
Here is my list. The first section focuses on the origins of the genre. The titles of the first and second sections and all previously mentioned works are or were assigned or recommended texts for English Literature by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC).
The third section contains my own personal choices and I do not consider it to be definitive as I have a lot more reading to do.
1) Frankenstein, Mary Shelley; Dracula, Bram Stoker; Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson; The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien; The short fiction of Ray Bradbury, especially ‘Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed’, and some of his other ‘rockets and robots’ stories.
2) My Bones and My Flute, Edgar Mittelholzer; Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes; A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
3) ‘Exhalation’, Ted Chiang; Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis; Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson; The Weird, eds Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Disclaimer. I have never taught English Literature.
The purpose of education is to teach the youth the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and, as they grow, to teach either a trade or to train them in the liberal arts (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy). Additionally, education must instruct the youth in the Christian faith and classical virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, prudence), as well as teaching enough Civics and history to allow them to be productive and honest citizens of this Republic, able to serve as jurors, voters, or soldiers, wisely and bravely, as the need demands.
Unfortunately, the Progressives of over a century ago usurped the educational industry, and created an establishment similar to the Established Church of England, in that the schools became the primary conduit not of education, but of indoctrination in progressive dogmas, and, later, various lunatic dogmas of the Politically Correct, communism, feminism, sexual liberation, environmentalism, and most of all the doctrine that all philosophy is meaningless and all ethics relative, and human life not sacred.
Given this, when I am asked what science fiction and fantasy I would recommend to educate and instruct the youth, I take the question as being akin to asking what superhero comic books or fairy princess Disney cartoons I would recommend to educate and instruct the youth. But the purpose of science fiction and fantasy is to entertain, not to instruct. When art becomes didactic and pedagogical, it often loses its savor.
The question, for that purpose, is remarkably frivolous. At a time when children are not reading Euclid’s Elements is not the time to ask if they should be reading E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol. Let them first read Plutarch’s Lives, or Jacobus de Voragine’s Lives of the Saints, before they read Doug Adams’ Life, The Universe and Everything.
Ah! But there are three other purposes to education I have not mentioned. In regard to these other purposes of education, the question is not frivolous at all.
The first unmentioned purpose is the training of the passions so as to form and shape the character of the young so that their emotions will tend to fit the stock responses to stock situations.
Young men must learn to love what is loveable and hate what is hateful, to seek honor and flee shame, and above all to be honest; young women must learn femininity, decorum, chastity, and above all to be honest. Both must learn to love their country and their homes, to respect and obey their parents, and to revere God. They should adore the sublime beauties of nature and abhor modern art. In a Republic they must also learn respect for their fellow citizens, to fear the law, and Christian charity to the poor and weak.
If dear reader, you read this last paragraph and conclude that I am joking, or mad, or stupid, or deformed with unforgiveable evil, I draw your attention to the fact that you yourself have been trained in a certain stock response, but one which is less useful to civilization and civility that the list of stock responses I give. You have been conditioned, with your own willing participation perhaps, to regard emotion as superior to reason, and selfish emotion or self esteem as superior to everything, to regard honor as bluster, honesty as narrow-mindedness, sexual roles as oppression, religion as superstition hiding a dark impulse toward tyranny, obedience as craven and old-fashioned; and as for chastity, you probably have not heard that word spoken in a year, or in a decade, or ever and then only to hear it mocked.
If the concept of decency, the concept of the sexes treating each other virtuous and honestly, is literately unthinkable to you, if you cannot imagine it without giggling, without sneering, or cannot imagine it at all, then the conditioners have conditioned you well.
Dear reader, the idea of using the institution of educational instruction (which is the mechanisms used to pass the legacy of civilization to the next generation) openly and deliberately to pass along the Christian and classical virtues, our history, our way of life, as well as the theory and practice of civics and citizenship, no doubt strikes you as unconstitutional, if not appalling.
This is because you are indoctrinated in the idea that an educational establishment is like an established Church, and can only teach those things the state approves; and that the state, for reasons of public amity and Constitutionally limited government, cannot meddle in affairs of religion or indoctrination of the virtues. I draw your attention to the paradox involved: the theory of limited government places religion and virtue beyond the public sphere. But if education is placed within the public sphere, and made compulsory, tax-supported, then the youth cannot be educated in the fundamental things (things like virtue, wisdom, faith, good character) which education properly so called is meant to plant in the next generation. This means that by definition education cannot educate.
It can only regiment and indoctrinate.
It can only condition the subjects (not students) like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate when their master, Caesar, proffers them a treat, and to growl and bark at everything else, including (ironically) a real education.
This brings us to the second unmentioned purpose to education. It is the duty of every man of good will to rebel against the educational establishment as it currently stands and to subvert the current form of society and government, so as to abolish eventually, by slow increments or sudden revolution, the current Progressive program of compulsory indoctrination, and the cult of the culture of death.
The watchdogs of the establishment, O my revolutionary brothers and sisters, are slow-eyed and stupid, and we may be able to smuggle in the form of literature and entertainment works of art which subvert the paradigm, and rescue the next generation from the present age of darkness.
The third and final unmentioned purpose of education is merely to instruct the young in the culture and the history of their forefathers. Here science fiction and fantasy clearly has a role, for it is useful and necessary to teach the young to read and appreciate older books, including science fiction books, which have influenced the culture, or which have merit in their own right and may otherwise be forgotten.
At this point, it were easy enough to make a list of works of science fiction and fantasy which fill these three pedagogic, subversive, or preservative purposes:
Let us take the preservative purpose first. There are works of SFF which every literate person in the West should read at least once. Fantasy and Science Fiction cannot be understood except against the background of the ancient literature from which they sprang, and of which they alone are heir (for mainstream literature has betrayed the ancient traditions). Therefore, I recommend the high school students be required to read
- The Illiad by Homer
- The Oddesy
- Antigone by Sophocles
- The Orestiea of Aeschylus (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides)
- The Aeneid of Virgil
- Scipio’s Dream by Cicero
- The Divine Comedy of Dante (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradisio)
- Orlando Furioso by Ariosto
- Faerie Queen by Spencer
- Paradise Lost by Milton
- Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caeser, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Tempest by Shakespeare
- Le Morte de Arthur by Mallory
- Idylls of the King by Tennyson
- A Christmas Carol by Dickens
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
- Jungle Book and ‘With the Night Mail’ by Kipling
- 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, From Earth to the Moon, Around the World in 80 Days, Master of the World by Jules Verne
- War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells
- Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
- Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury
- The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
- A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
For the purposes of subverting the dominant establishment, unfortunately I have far fewer books to recommend, since science fiction writers tend to be almost comically sheepish in their conformity to fashionable correctness, men like Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, John Brunner, and J. G. Ballard.
But here and there, astonishing rebels rear their ungainly heads crowned with horns that they shake in defiance at the reaches of middle heaven:
- Phantasies by MacDonald
- Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. I would also include his Voyage of the Dawn Treader, except that frightened parents may not be willing to let their softbrained children read such dangerous literature.
- Smith of Wotton Major and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.
- A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
- THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by G.K. Chesterton, as well as BALLAD OF THE WHITE HORSE.
- Past Master by R.A. Lafferty.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr.
- ‘Scanners Live in Vain’, ‘ The Dead Lady of Clown Town’, ‘ Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ by Cordwainer Smith
- Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
- ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, ‘ The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘The Library of Babel’, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ by Jorge Luis Borges.
- ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolfe as well as his Short Sun trilogy
I will pause to mention one oddity, because it both belongs on this list and not. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in the American version is conformist to the dominant paradigm. But the original British version, which ends in the beginning of reformation in the young sociopathic hooligan, is subversive; as all tales of redemption and reformation are.
Books which indicate the proper stock responses to things both fair and foul are more likely to be found in boy’s adventure fiction, girl’s romance paperbacks, or ballads and epic than in anything written after 1950. For the purposes of answering the question, the list above will serve for this as well.
Let me explain the including of what seems an oddity, namely, the pulp adventure fiction A PRINCESS OF MARS. I include this only because a young man of my acquaintance resolved ever to treat young ladies chivalrously, politely, and in a manly fashion only because of this book, and he rejected the cult of mutual sexual exploitation which the modern society seems to think normal or healthy. His stock response toward honor had been correctly trained.
I would have included Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein, or Farmer in the Sky as an example of decent boy’s adventure fiction, except that the stock responses recorded in the book and passed onto the reader are the opposite of what is right, proper, normal and real. In the climax of Have Space Suit, for example, the hero Kip observes the trial of the vicious man-eating aliens called Wormfaces guilty of attack again Earth, and when the superhuman judges of an even more advanced race ask if any will speak on their behalf, Kip ponders whether he should plead for mercy for those who attacked his world, dismisses the idea with contempt, and hopes for their total obliteration. This is the exact wrong response to teach the young. Pitilessness is not a value for civilized men to teach their young. (Ironically, Kip and all the Earth are placed on trial in the next chapter, and the expected outcome, that the superhuman judges would condemn Earth for being as aggressive, pitiless and warlike as the Wormfaces, and like them obliterated, does not come about. Kip is never punished nor upbraided for his genocidal barbarism.)
Likewise, the final scene in Farmer consists of a discussion of how population growth leads to hunger, famine and war, and how societies rise and fall in a dismal and unalterable cycle of ponderous historical forces no one can control. Fatalism is likewise not a civilized value.
However and finally, certain science fiction books can be used to teach the youths science. To this end, I suggest only those authors who are loyal to John W Campbell Junior’s notions of realistic or ‘hard’ science fiction, who include both informative and entertaining ‘infodumps’ in their works. Let me mention specifically the book just named: Have Space Suit, Will Travel. It has the most crisp and well written description of how a spacesuit of the future (at the time it was written) might be.
But even less scientifically accurate works contain reams of information about astronomy and physics of which the general public is sadly uninformed or underinformed. I have read news articles by writers who did not know the difference between a star and a galaxy, or thought that a light-year was a measure of time. Since I am not the only one here being asked this question, and since I am confident wiser heads than mine will answer along these lines, I will not list the books best suited to teaching the basics of science.
I will close with an observation that some science fiction works teach more science than some so called nonfiction works, such as Cosmos by Carl Sagan, which at times seems more concerned with teaching science-worship rather than true science.
Since science-worship and not true science is part of the dominant paradigm of this present age of darkness, it is exactly this kind of nonsense science fiction is in an unique position to subvert, in order that truth be smuggled in to the hungry young past the watchful dragons of our present political masters.
If science fiction could teach the young true science, that is, true skepticism, rather than the gape-mouthed gullible emotionalism they are current taught, the world would be changed and much for the better.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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