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Science Fiction Lessons

There’s an article in a recent Bottom Line: Personal titled “What We Can All Learn from Popular Fiction” in which the author, Gary Hoppenstand, PhD, editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, suggests that genre fiction can be educational as well as entertaining. He cites books and authors from several fields, including:

Thrillers & Adventure

  • The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – exposes readers to bioengineering.
  • John Grisham’s court novels – offering a glimpse at the American legal system.

Mystery & Horror

  • Stephen King books help readers “come to terms” with issues like alcohol addiction (The Shining) and teen angst (Carrie)
  • Elmore Leonard offers lessons about original thinking and society’s underclass

Romance (JP’s favorite. His “Bah” rhetoric at the romance theme is nothing more than a thin masquerade over a most heartfelt and blissful sigh)

  • Jackie Collins, with her often sexually explicit books, has fostered open communications about a once-taboo topic.


  • Loren Estleman’s books deal with issues of morality

The merits and quality of these lessons is debatable. But this science fiction fan noticed one fiction genre that is conspicuously absent. This, to me, is interesting since Hoppenstand makes a point in the article that lessons can be learned from the books critics love to hate.

Is science fiction still frowned upon by the upper reading crust? Sure, way back when, science fiction was relegated to cheap pulp magazine with scantily clad Martian queens on the cover. And, yes, this contributed to the low-brow image of SF. But does it offer anything besides entertainment? Does any science fiction offer us any valuable lessons besides “Don’t forget your towel?” If so, are those lessons relegated to the “literature” of the sf genre, whatever that means?


About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

19 Comments on Science Fiction Lessons

  1. There’s nothing like finding a Jackie Collins novel at HalfPrice Books where the pages for all the explicit sex scenes are already dog-eared. *blissfully sighing*

    John, does scifi have to be validated by the so-called “upper reading crust” for it have any meaning? Are you afraid that you’ve wasted your time on what other might think of as a pursuit for the young and naive?

    Lessons can be learned from anywhere. In my days, yes, I’m that old (but not as old as you geezers), comic books are considered trash, but nowadays, in this fast-paced post-MTV, Internet-driven pop culture world, I think teachers and academians should be glad that kids read anything at all, “trash” or otherwise…

    If this seems like rambling, blame in on the bottle of Merlot that I drank before writing this up…

    Just for Kevin: Creationism is wacky and God is silly!

  2. John – I would consider Andromeda Strain a Science Fiction book myself. Given the timeframe of both the book and the movie – they had some really interesting tech and other things that were probably not available at the time.

    But on with the topic itself: I believe Sci Fi can offer those stories and probably does. You just may not notice that as the theme as you follow through the story. Anne Rice touches on sexuality quite heavily in her books (although I am not sure I would count a Vampire book as Sci Fi – but still.)

    My overall opinion (even if I fail to live up to that opinion) is that shutting yourself off from a specific area of fiction or entertainment may result in you missing a great opportunity. There is alot to experience in the world of writing and not all of it need to be deemed “literature” to tell a story. Comic books do that – lest we forget that both Spiderman and Superman had a story to tell and for some folks that was the way they learned it…

  3. Vampire fiction is Sci Fi in the way that religion is based on factual events.

  4. Pete,

    While I don’t require the approval of others for my reading choices, it does irk me a bit that the poor reputation that SF garnered so many years ago still seems to exist. Hence my curiousity about what others saw as examples of lessons offered by SF.


    I would also consider Andromeda Strain to be SF. And I agree, all literature has the potentail to offer lessons.

  5. omg, tim and i both used the comic book medium (or is it a genre) to BUTTress our arguments…

  6. John – I too agree about the negative connotation Sci Fi has, and it still has that in some cases – but I think that trend is turning around. With some of the older novels really starting to be respected for having forsight and vision. Also, you do see some Sci Fi make the required reading lists for schools and that is a good thing..

    Pete – Why is it that you feel the need to attack the beliefs of others? I am not defending one structure versus another – but that is an area that is very personal and poking fun at it is considered rude. Try to remember there are two sides to every argument and yours is not always right.

  7. The problem with Crichton is his stories are all about technology run amok. There’s nothing there about the good stuff tech can do. King is King. You might learn how to artfully use several new four-letter words if you read him.

    As for romance novels, who needs Jackie Collins and her ‘explicit’ sex scenes when you have Altered Carbon and Takeshi Kovacs…

  8. Tim, it was not an attack, it was a statement of my opinion. I happen to enjoy Vampire fiction and I can care less if it’s SciFi or otherwise.


    Does it matter what the perception is? Isn’t one of the lesson we teach to our youth is that we shouldn’t care what others think? Think of all the lessons you’ve learn from the SciFi novels you’ve read over the years; if Gary Hoppenstand didn’t think that SciFi has any educational value, then it doesn’t take a freaking PhD to know that he certainly missed out on those very lessons….

  9. Takeshi Kovacs, as in Broken Angels? Is it explicit? I would go buy it if it is… cus I saw it at B&N yesterday, but put it down…

  10. Takeshi Kovaks as in Broken Angels yes. But Altered Carbon is the first book.

  11. you didnt answer the first question, is it like a jackie collins novel…

  12. John wanted a lesson. Here is the lesson from the book of SF, Chapter 1, Verse 1:

    Don’t sticketh thou head to closeth to squishy looking tube things. Thou just mighteth get a face hug and indigestion.

  13. Having never read Collins I can’t say. I would imaginge that two scenes in Altered Carbon would make her blush.

    (Still thinking of real life leassons from SF)

  14. Well, if we are going to be as general as Mr. Backinbowl, I mean Hoppenstand, I would say:

    SF (no particular author) – teaches us to think about the possible ramifications of science and technoloy today, by positing a plausible tomorrow.

    How’s that?

  15. damn, JP, can i have some of what you’re smoking/drinking? no, i’m serious, that’s really good!

    here i am, with my mickey mouse comic book arguments…

  16. JP – I would also say that Sci Fi is using a futuristic theme to comment about current events or tell a moral (which is what the Outer Limits does a very good job at).

  17. SciFi is also often used to illuminate our fears around technology. All that 50’s scifi around nuclear accidents, for example. It isn’t that we’re Luddites at heart, its just that often times fear of losing our jobs to a machine (the themes of many ‘robot runs amok’ sci-fi) or the downsides of advanced technology is real. What’s new and different is often scary.

  18. Gary Hoppenstand // October 5, 2004 at 5:52 pm //

    Wow, such a (at times) negative response to a section in my interview with BOTTOM LINE PERSONAL. In fact, I did speak to the value and importance of science fiction in the field of popular fiction during my interview, but it was cut from the essay blame them). In fact, I’ve taught a SF course at Michigan State University for over eight years now (entitled “Twentieth Century Technological Dystopias in Popular Fiction and Film”) and I am currectly preparing a new textbook for Longman, entitled SCIENCE FICTION: A READER. Because the editor of this essay cut my comments on SF, I have thus been seen here in this forum by some as not considering the genre “worthy.” I consider ALL popular fiction worthy, in one way or another, if only for its entertainment value and the way it expresses reader interests and concerns.

  19. Thanks for the clarifications, Gary. Those darn Bottom Line editors!

    There were no sf classes when I went to college unfortunately. I’m curious to know what stories you will be including in your textbook, assuming by the “Reader” in the title that there will be some.

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