DAVID BRIN: books that teach science

Using Science Fiction To Help Turn Kids on to Reading... And the Future!

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Once mostly the province of nerdy young men, science fiction has become a central part of our culture's myth-making engine, engaging girls, women, and adults of all ages. Yet the breadth of SF and its ultimate importance can be difficult for a non-aficionado to grasp. After all, isn't it just spaceships, lasers, and childish stuff?

Well, no it isn't. As with any branch of human storytelling, science fiction offers a spectrum of quality and depth, ranging from shallow Star Wars romps to the dark, serious explorations of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Mary Shelley. A key element is fascination with change and how human beings respond when challenged by it. In other words, there is no genre more relevant to this rapidly transforming world we live in, where citizens are called upon to contemplate issues that would have boggled their grandparents: environmental degradation, the extinction and creation of new species, cloning, artificial intelligence, instant access to all archived knowledge, and the looming prospect that a coming generation (perhaps the very next one) may have to wrestle with the implications of physical immortality.

Heady stuff! And you'd never imagine that any of it was under serious contemplation, if your idea of "sci-fi" came from shoddy movies! But these and a myriad of other subjects are probed at the literary end of science fiction. In fact, some of the kids in our classrooms are wrestling with concepts at the very cutting edge — embedded in tales they devour between colorful paper covers. Books that explore the edges of tolerance, like those of Octavia ButlerOctavia Butler and Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.). Books that ponder biological destiny, penned by Greg Bear and Joan Slonczewski, or the physical sciences, by Robert Forward and Gregory Benford. Books designed by Julie Czerneda and Hal Clement to revolve around teaching themes. And those by Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury that instruct almost invisibly, because the authors were teachers at heart.

Shouldn't you be aware of this? Moreover, if high-end science fiction provokes wonder, thought, and a sense of vigorous involvement with the world, can it be worth adding to your arsenal of tricks and tools, ready to offer that hard-to-reach kid? Especially as an alternative to the violent fare in video games and the vast wasteland of TV? What can be more relevant to bright teens, in their rapid-pulsed flux, than a literature that explores ideas and the possible consequences of change?

As Professor Jim Gunn puts it: "Science fiction is the literature of change, and change is the only constant in our world. Hence the only literature that is 'realistic' is science fiction-any literature that doesn't include and assertively confront the human response to change is historical or fantasy.' Or else (I might add) such literature may be engaging in omphaloskepsis... greek for "navel contemplation."

(Actually, there is room for a great many approaches to literature and many people who like SF read very widely. t is arguable, however, that high-end SF is the most truly "American" genre.)

I can't offer a tutorial on high-quality SF in this short space. So let's present the next best thing: a short list of ways to help teachers, librarians and others bridge the gap between simpleminded sci-fi images that are so popular in movies these days, and real literary Science Fiction where ideas foster debate about present-day situations and consequences, encouraging readers to engage in truly exploratory adventures of the mind.

[image from Gravitas Publications]

Use Web-based sites to create useful curriculum aids

A new effort has begun, and it is aimed at creating online resources for teachers wanting to bring good science fiction into their classrooms as a way to excite topic-specific interest among students.

Author Julie H. Czerneda's book, No Limits: Developing Scientific Literacy Using Science Fiction, was specifically designed to help teachers combine great stories with science curricula. She has since developed this program much farther, with added titles.

A number of teachers have already used classic SF stories and novels to illustrate topics that are already in a teacher's official study program. A teacher in Barstow, California, created a teacher's guide using my novel, The Postman, to elicit class discussions on issues in both literature and civics. Other teachers use stories to illustrate points in physics, chemistry, history, etc. When their materials — study guides and question sets — are distributed on the Web, they become a permanent help to teachers everywhere. To encourage this new kind of shared teaching resources, I sponsored a contest in conjunction with Analog Magazine. Alas, the contest is now in hiatus. But it may be renewed at a later date. But there remains a valuable resource page. Here are just a few examples of items listed on that resource page.

Also see: Lesson plans relating to SF.

And this is just the beginning. It is hoped that a whole series of curriculum-related materials will become available, coordinated through the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction, the Science Fiction Writers of America, and the Science Fiction Museum.

[image from eHow]

Create new and better books for kids to read

Consider this quandary. Science fiction images and adventures are more popular than ever, especially with young people. Yet very little high quality science fiction is aimed straight for the vast market of adventure-minded teens. There is a market! Witness the success of Star Wars novelizations. Still, these factory-made series are missing something. Their exploits often follow the same hackneyed plot style. While the brightest teens soon graduate to reading more challenging books for grownups, many are discouraged by a scarcity of good, intelligent tales written just for them.

My own effort has been to create a new kind of series that takes young protagonists from here and now out of their comfortable world in 2001, throwing them into exhilarating quests across space and time, sent on dangerous missions in order to save the future. Avon Books published the first three volumes of the David Brin's Out of Time series in 2000, featuring wholly original science fiction adventure novels, each one by a respected author of proved ability and vision — Nebula Award winners Nancy Kress, Roger MacBride Allen, and Sheila Finch, hopefully paving the way for more to follow.

Moreover, SFWA has recently established the Andre Award, for excellence in young-adult science fiction and fantasy as a way of emphasizing its importance.

[image from Certification Map]

Create grass roots activism

Finally, there is the issue of what today's science fiction fan community might do to help.

Fans are a special breed-millions strong-who maintain a belief that the future is a place that can be explored with brave adventures of the mind, adventures that may even help us avoid errors, the way George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and others gave warnings that helped divert us from dangerous paths.

The rest of this note is addressed to these aficionados of strong literary science fiction:

We've all heard about declining literacy in America. Sherry Gotleib tells that when she first opened the Change of Hobbit bookstore, in L. A., it thronged when the local junior high let out. Over time, these customers stayed loyal, but weren't replaced. In the store's final years, Sherry's average customer was gray-flecked or balding, and the few teens who showed up focused on media or comics.

Who will keep fandom going, and run the cons later, when we all want to kick back and be Big Name Fans? If the readership declines, your favorite authors might have to get day jobs.

Polls show an aging of the SF readership. Science fiction themes are popular in films, comics, and games, but the genre's literary heart faces demographic collapse. Worst of all, countless kids forget how to say the most beautiful word in any language: "Wow!"

(According to Professor Gunn, some of this demographic situation may be turning around; "There are signs that the teaching of science fiction is picking up again, that young people are beginning to read imaginative literature again, and that the early efforts of organizations such as "Reading for the Future" may be bearing fruit at last!")

That is where it all finally comes around. No altruism is more effective than the kind that begins at home. Each of us lives near some school where bright kids now languish-bored, bullied, or unmotivated. Who among us can't recall facing the same crisis once in our own lives? For many, it was science fiction that helped us turn the corner. Science fiction welcomed us home.

As a community of science fiction fans and professionals, shouldn't we make it our chief socially-responsible activity to help expose another generation to a love of "the good stuff?" [With a love of "the good stuff" comes the belief that a problem is something to solve, that the future is in our hands, that what we do now matters, that fans working together can create a better world?]

Ever since Greg Benford, Greg Bear, and I first raised these questions, a number of SF-oriented clubs and fan groups have focused their con-auctions, fund-raisers, and charity drives toward raising SF literacy in their own communities. In many cases this meant "adopting" a local junior high school English teacher and/or librarian, finding out their needs and doing some of the following:

  • Recruiting guest speakers to visit classes or school assemblies, giving inspirational talks about science, writing, or history... anything to fire enthusiasm and imagination at an age when these are precious, flickering things.

  • Donating funds to buy SF books and sponsoring a reading club, and/or writing contests, to encourage a love of SF and the creativity that helps produce more of it.

  • Persuading bookstores to offer prizes and discounts for teens.

  • Holding a special session at every local con, to which teachers are invited for free, to share ideas with fans and pros, then carefully using one-day passes to attract some of the brightest local teens to the con.

There is self-interest operating here. Authors who give talks often acquire new fans. Local conventions that sponsor a SF club may soon have new con-com members. If your charity auction sends $500 to the "Special Wish Fund," you'll get a thank-you note; but hand the same amount over to a stunned librarian and the photo will make your local paper!

Some committees, such as the Baltimore-based Worldcon, have organized nationwide contests for SF-related stories, essays, and artwork created by teens across North America, with awards and prizes to be presented at their convention... and now, Junior Memberships in the Science Fiction Writers of America! Others — in the Northeast especially — have followed suit. But this is only just the beginning.

[image from Drawn and Quarterly]

Hold a teacher/librarian mini-convention

One thing local conventions can do:

Most fan organizations have in their charters a major provision for "outreach and education." Yet this seldom gets priority. Here is a relatively painless approach, already tried with success at several conventions, offering a win-win situation for all: the Saturday morning SF-education mini-conference.

It starts by simply gathering all the routine "SF/youth/education" panels into a cohesive group, then making a real effort to invite area teachers and librarians to attend that part of the con for free. (With reasonable upgrades for those wanting to stay.) Some teachers can then be recruited to help adjust next year's program to their needs. In a year or two, the mini-conference can be granting credential credit with momentum all its own. Moreover, it can be a money-maker for the convention, as attendees convert their free half-day memberships and tell their friends! Later, corporate sponsorships become a real possibility.

With teachers and librarians on board, you can generate great projects that involve kids in creative ways; for example, running a science fiction reading/writing/art contest in area schools, involving several grade levels, culminating in a grand awards ceremony at the local con. (With reasonable con memberships available to the winners, their parents, friends....)

This kind of thing has worked already! At Worldcon in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and every year in Salt Lake City. Experienced fan groups stand ready to help through the Reading for the Future network.

If nothing else, running a focused "SF & Education Miniconference" sure beats scattering the usual youth- and education-related panels all over the weekend. It seems worthwhile to focus some effort on the future, since that's what SF is all about.

So there it is. A general outline of some efforts that are currently underway, to use the most American form of literature-Science Fiction-in the cause of helping kids learn. So far, it is only a rough outline, with some sincere efforts being made along the way. This letter is not so much a prescription as a call for people to think about possibilities: how the literature that is most about foresight and hope can somehow influence both young people and society at large to do the one thing that separates humans from all other creatures of Earth, Sky or Sea....

[image from silicon republic]

Outreach at the University level

One bold move, at one of the few SF friendly campuses, has been undertaken by the University of Kansas, under the leadership of eminent author and professor James Gunn. A position of "Coordinator of SF Projects" will be established, enabling many proposals to start getting some attention. Included (we hope) will be some of the ideas described above, along with:

  • A speaker's bureau to connect SF authors with events ranging from a library in their area to high-paying gigs across the world.

  • A consortium of SF-friendly universities, to coordinate programs and counter the hostility towards this genre that seems to infest so many lit departments.

  • Education programs in conjunction with the SF Museum and Hall of Fame.

  • A web-centered resource center to help volunteers, teachers, librarians and others stay connected and use new ideas that are all aimed at this positive end.

Fund-raising projects and conventions, particularly world conventions with funds remaining after bills are paid, might consider donating a portion of them to the Christopher Gunn Assistantship at the Kansas University Endowment Association, for the continuing support of this coordinator position.

The positive end of helping a positive, assertive, problem-solving civilization raise enthusiastic and bold generations. Not just this one, or the next generation, but many more culminating in the stars.

Think ahead....