ALAN v28n2 - Taming the Alien Genre: Bringing Science Fiction into the Classromm

Taming the Alien Genre: Bringing Science Fiction into the Classroom

Katherine T. Bucher and M. Lee Manning

"Ten minutes to transport!"

After checking my personal laser defense system for the third time, I patted the pouch on my belt where Guardon had packed his latest communication gear. Although I'd left Central Command Space Depot for other stations, planets or star systems many times, I knew this trip was different. Sure, Commander Norlock had assured me that my protective suit would easily withstand any remaining radiation on Earth. But the radiation wasn't the only thing that I was worried about. The reports from our satellites had shown unknown moving shadows beneath the radioactive clouds circling the abandoned planet but our sensors hadn't been able to penetrate those clouds. Now, my two companions and I would be the first beings to set foot on Earth since the so-called accident. I wondered how much help a Sensenoid from the outer galaxy and a Fractum from Station B would be if we ran into Trouble.

Did the above scenario pique your interest or turn you off? Transporting readers to a world where science makes dreams and sometimes nightmares come true, science fiction stories appeal to many middle and high school students. Paperbacks, comics, and magazines combine with movies, television shows, and computer games to provide young adults with an opportunity to escape from the difficulties of every day life and to enter imaginative worlds of possibilities- worlds where readers or viewers can experience events based on known or imaginary science ( Ochoa & Osier, 1993 ).

Unfortunately, many teachers do not share their students' enthusiasm. In the young adult literature classes that we teach, both preservice and inservice teachers continually remind us that science fiction is their least favorite genre. "I'm too practical for science fiction; there's no life on other planets so why even think about it?" "I just can't relate to these science fiction books." "There's too much scientific information and I couldn't understand the strange world the author describes." These are typical of the comments that we hear whenever these teachers start reading science fiction books. We know, however, that, if teachers are not exposed to science fiction, they will be unlikely to read, recommend, or teach science fiction titles to their own middle school and high school classes.

This attitude seems to prevail in spite of national figures which, on the surface, show an increased interest in what Publisher's Weekly calls the combined SF/fantasy category of books. According to the annual figures compiled by Publisher's Weekly which were reported in the June-July 2000 issue of Science Fiction Chronicle , there was a significant increase in the number of SF/fantasy bestsellers in 1999 when compared to the previous two years. This resurgence of interest has been driven, for the most part, by the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series, which is fantasy rather than science fiction. However, there were also increased sales of science fiction titles, triggered by the 1999 release of a new Star Wars movie and the anticipated 2000 release of an X-Men film with accompanying books ( Rowling Dwarfs 'Adult' Titles in 1999's Best Selling books," 2000 ).

Definition of Science Fiction

Although science fiction is often considered part of the genre of fantasy literature, some writers label the broader category "speculative fiction" and break it into fantasy and science fiction ( Card,1990 ). Science fiction is nothing more than literature that is based on current science as well as trends and technology ( Ochoa & Osier, 1993 ). Orson Scott Card is a writer of both science fiction and fantasy, and the only author to win both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award two years in a row for the best science fiction novel ( Ender's Game, 1986; Speaker for the Dead , 1987). Card provides the following way to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy: "If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it's science fiction. If it's set in a universe that doesn't follow our rules, it's fantasy." ( Card, 22 ) He goes on to say that, while plot devices such as time travel can be found in both fantasy and science fiction, if the story contains metal, plastic, and/or heavy machinery, it is science fiction; and the reader can assume, until told otherwise, that the known laws of science apply. If the story contains talismans or magic, it is fantasy; and the reader must rely on the author to describe the natural laws that exist in this fantasy world ( Card, 1990 ). Using this explanation, Card identifies five possible settings for science fiction novels (Figure 1). In addition, science fiction may contain elements of time travel, space opera, alien invasions, post-holocaust worlds, alien worlds, alternative histories or realities, and gadget science fiction ( Jordan 1995 ).

Thus, the opening scenario of this article illustrates many of the characteristics of science fiction. Set in our universe in a post-holocaust future, it relies on machinery, gadgets, and science, not magic or sorcery.

Reluctance to read or to teach science fiction

Traditionally using a paperback format, science fiction publishing began in earnest in the 1950s with authors such as Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury ( Louvisi, 1997 ). Perhaps because much original science fiction is still published in paperback, some teachers dismiss science fiction as unworthy of any serious reader's time. Other critics point out that the stories are plot-driven or setting-driven (rather than character-driven), almost to the exclusion of believable and likeable characters. In addition, as George Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier ( 1993 ) indicate, literary science fiction demands a high level of scientific accuracy with the errors and inconsistencies found in many science fiction books ruining the credibility of the story. Still other readers may see the scientific information as detracting from the story. Then too, many science fiction books have lurid, pin-up style covers or contain steamy sex scenes. Finally, fearing censorship challenges such as those raised because of the wizardry in the Harry Potter books, some teachers may be reluctant to use novels that present alternative worlds, challenge the supremacy of life on Earth, or present alternatives to contemporary religious beliefs.

On the other hand, there are those individuals who maintain that science fiction can be a means of opening student minds and imaginations. Anne Devereaux Jordan ( 1995 )stated that, "science fiction for both adults and young people has developed into a sophisticated literary form worth reading and worthy of study" (17). Because good science fiction is alive, vibrant and exciting, its use may yield unexpected dividends ( Hughes 1992 ).

Its appeal comes from its imagination and vision of the past, present, and future. Imagination comes into play as science fiction challenges readers to first imagine and then to realize the future of not only the novel they are reading but, in juxtaposition, the world in which they live. Well-written science fiction both warns and teaches readers to build the future they want, based upon logical and knowledge, and does so in a pleasing and entertaining manner ( Jordan 1995 ). It is this emphasis on imagination and an escape from the demands and practicalities of the real world that appeals to many readers. No longer just "the good versus the bad," current science fiction reflects many topics such as future worlds, super-intelligent mechanical and human beings, time travel and altered historical events, robots, DNA experiments, nuclear holocaust and survival, toxic wastes, and germ warfare. In fact, a strength of science fiction is its diversity and appeal to a various reading and grade levels.

Selection and Use of Good Science Fiction

It can be very difficult for teachers to select and recommend good science fiction, especially if they, individually, do not enjoy reading novels in the genre. Fortunately, there are many resources that teachers can use to aid in the selection of quality science fiction titles.

First, there are awards and annual best books lists which feature science fiction. The two of the most prestigious awards are the Nebula Award, which is given by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and the Hugo Award, which is presented by the World Science Fiction Convention. Although the Hugo Awards ( ) are given in more categories, the Nebula Awards ( index.html ) have been called the academy awards of science fiction ( Card 1990 ). Annual lists of both the Hugo nominees and the Nebula winners can usually be found in the June issue of Science Fiction Chronicle; the Science Fiction and Fantasy Newsmagazine (DNA Publications, P.O. Box 2988, Radford, VA 24143-2988; http:// ). Also, this magazine issue usually contains information on the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction published in Great Britain, as well as brief listings of a variety of other award winners and nominees such as the Prix Aurora Award ( ) for Canadian science fiction and fantasy. In addition its publisher, DNA Publications, produces a number of other magazines devoted to science fiction, including Weird Tales, Aboriginal SF , and Absolute Magnitude .

Another excellent source to help teachers identify outstanding science fiction books is the annual best books list published in the April issue of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) magazine (Scarecrow Press, 4720A Boston Way, Lanham, MD 270706; ). Featuring fantasy and horror as well as science fiction, this annotated bibliography consists of excerpts from the reviews of highly rated titles that were published in VOYA in the previous year (June to April). One outstanding feature of this list is that, in addition to identifying the suggested grade level for each title (middle school through senior high), the reviewers rate each title for both popularity (1P to 5P) and the quality (1Q to 5Q) of the writing. Included on the list are adult-marketed titles that the reviewers recommend for young adults.

In 1999, Science Books and Films , a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science ( http:/ / ), began to include science fiction reviews. With background in the pure and applied sciences, its reviewers are qualified to evaluate the scientific as well as the literary qualities of the novels ( Gath 1999 ). Subscribers can view a database of reviews on line as well as in the traditional hard copy periodical format.

Other professional resources are available to aid in book selection. One helpful source is What Fantastic Fiction Do I Read Next? edited by Neil Barron ( 1998 ). Featuring over 4,800 fantasy, science fiction, and horror titles, this well-indexed volume includes best books of the 1990s. Suzanne Elizabeth Reid's ( 1998 ) Presenting Young Adult Science Fiction provides the historical background of science fiction as well as individual chapters on authors such as Orson Scott Card and Octavia Butler with biographical information and bibliographies of their works.

Naturally, the Internet has become the home to a number of excellent sites with information on science fiction. Many of the Web-based magazines or "Webzines" can be located through SF Zines WebRing ( ). Additional information about science fiction and a categorized list of links to sites throughout the world can be found at Science Fiction Resources Guide SFRG ( http:// SFRG ).

Reviews and information on the major science fiction awards can also be found on the Internet. Author Orson Scott Card ( osc/ ) and Omni magazine fiction reviewer Ellen Datlow ( http://www.omnimag. com/fiction/datlow/ reviews/index.html) both have large databases of reviews at their Websites. In addition to information on science fiction award winners, The Internet Speculative Fiction DataBase ( http://www. ) indicates sources of reviews and contains information on both published and forthcoming books.

For information on science fiction authors, a good starting point is the SFF Net site ( ). With more than 1,200 members, the web site of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America ( ) provides news, reviews, and information on writing speculative fiction. Promoting their publications, major science fiction publishers such as Del Rey Books ( http:// delrey/ ), TOR ( , HarperCollins ( ), Voyager ( ), and Penguin Putnam/Ace ( ) also provide information at their Web sites.

Individuals who wish to evaluate individual science fiction titles on their own should apply many of the same standards used to evaluate any work of fiction. While the plot, setting and characters might be simpler in science fiction that in other genres, simplicity does not imply poor quality. Contrived plotting, stereotypical characterization and ineptly portrayed settings are weaknesses in any work of fiction ( Harris 1992 ). As Jordan ( 1995 ) maintains, good science fiction must be believable. Readers will be skeptical and fail to believe the setting or events if the science fiction does not present a logical world or if the story shows poorly-research and flawed science. A discussion of this important part of science fiction writing can be found in an installment of the National Public Radio Program Talk of the Nation: Science Friday , which appears on the Web at . Figure 2 provides some additional suggestions for evaluating science fiction.

In addition, when selecting a science fiction book to use in a classroom, teachers must consider their purpose for using the work and the context in which it will be used. Certainly, a novel which is taught for its literary concepts is judged differently than one which is taught for other concepts such as ecological or social awareness. Teachers must also determine whether the book meets the materials- selection standards of the local governing bodies for the school Many of the early work of science fiction might appear sexist by today's standards, but the introduction of strong female characters has led to the inclusion of sexual situations which might cause difficulties in many classrooms ( Harris 1992 ).

Suggested Science Fiction Titles for Young Adults

To assist teachers in identifying current science fiction titles for adolescents, we have selected the following titles published within the last five years. In addition to some of our personal favorites, there are award winners, titles from best books lists, and titles recommended by young adults.

Anthologies provide good introductions to the science fiction. Edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, Armadeggons (1999) contains 12 end-of-theworld stories. Absolute Magnitude (1997), edited by Waten Lapine and Stephen Pagel, is another excellent collection of science fiction short stories. Finally, a blend of history with current personalities is found in Past Lives, Present Tense (1999) edited by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough.

Two of the recent Nebula Award winners have featured strong characters who must evaluate their own moral views of right and wrong. In the 1998 winner Forever Peace (1997) by Joe Haldeman, a U.S. soldier fighting a remote-controlled war realizes that there is a way to bring universal peace to the world. Octvaia Butler's 1999 winner Parable of the Talents (1998) continues the Earthseed series with a story told by Lauren and her daughter of survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

Popular realistic fiction writers sometimes create books in the genre of science fiction. In The Dark Side of Nowhere (1999) by Neal Schusterman, 14 year-old Jason finds out that his parents and classmates are part of an alien invasion force. Star Split (1999) by Kathryn Lasky tells the futuristic story of thirteen- year-old Darci, an underground movement, and unauthorized cloning. Science fiction authors often speculate about the effects that war has on people. In John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began (1996), Australian teenager Ellie and six of her friends return from a winter break camping trip to find their homes burned, their families imprisoned, and their country occupied by a foreign military force. Providing another perspective on the story that was told in Ender's Game , Ender's Shadow (1999) by Orson Scott Card presents the story of Bean, a classmate of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, in the battle for the future of earth against the invasion of an insectile race of Aliens called the Buggers.

Movie tie-ins remain popular. One of the best is Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace (1999) by Terry Brooks, who is well-known for his Shannara fantasy titles. Another is Barbara Hambly's Star Wars: Planet of Twilight (1997), which features a kidnaping, plague, and a daring rescue mission.

There is plenty of science for the hard-core science fiction reader in several recent novels. Stephen Baxter's Moonseed (1998) charts the development of a geological lubricant that will lead to the destruction of Earth. An artifact from another dimension becomes the object of desire for several civilizations in our galaxy in Iain Banks' Excession (1997). Finally, Antarctica (1998) by Kim Stanley Robinson pits radical environmentalists against the corporations who are mining the wealth of the south pole.

Many readers enjoy the humor found in some science fiction novels. Kathy Mackel's A Can of Worms (2000) tells what happens when fictional stories about aliens become true. In Anonymous Rex: A Detective Story (2000), Eric Garcia writes about a world in which dinosaurs secretly make up 5% of the population. Wearing a human costume, Velociraptor Vincent Rubio, a down-on-his-luck dinosaur private eye, investigates a case and unmasks a number of famous "humans" who were really dinosaurs.

Finally, technology can play a central role in science fiction. The Christian science fiction novel Fatal Defect: A Genetic Thriller (1998) by Jefferson Scott features a computer war and terrorists with a lethal botulism plague. In Leo Frankowski's The Fata Morgana (1999), technology comes to an island that has been isolated for thousands of years.

Science fiction books can be a welcome addition to many middle and high school classrooms. Unfortunately, while they appeal to many middle and secondary school readers, teachers are not as familiar with these materials as they are with realistic and historical fiction and may be unsure about selecting these materials for classroom use. The solution to this possible dilemma is for educators to become familiar with the resources for selecting science fiction, to identify criteria to use when evaluating science fiction, and to read current, recommended science fiction literature.

Works Cited:

Barron , N. What Fantastic Fiction Do I Read Next? A Reader's Guide to Recent Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 1998.

Card , O. S. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy . Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.

Gath , T. "Exploring New Worlds: Finding Science in Science Fiction." From: Science Books and Films 35/3 (1999). Online at Accessed July 26, 2000.

Harris, J. "How to Tell the Schlock from the Good Stuff in Science Fiction." The ALAN Review 19.3 (1992): 38-40.

Jordan , A. D. "Future Reading: Science Fiction." Teaching and Learning Literature 4.5 (1995): 17-23.

Hughes, M. "Science Fiction as Myth and Metaphor." The ALAN Review 19.3 (1992): 2-5.

Louvisi , G. Collecting Science Fiction and Fantasy . Brooklyn, NY: Allicance Publishing, 1997.

Ochoa , G. And Osier, J. The Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, 1993.

"Rowling Dwarfs 'Adult' Titles in 1999's Best Selling Books." Science Fiction Chronicle June-July 2000: 8.

Reid , S. E. Presenting Young Adult Science Fiction. Farmington Hills, MI: Twayne, 1998.

Young Adult Literature Cited:

Banks , Iain M.. Ecession . New York: Bantam, 1997.

Baxter, Stephen. Moonseed . New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

Butler , Octavia. Parable of the Talents . New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998.

Card , Orson Scott. Ender's Game. New York: TOR, 1985.

Card , Orson Scott. Ender's Shadow. New York: TOR, 1999.

Dann , J. and Dozios, G. (Editors). Armageddons . New York: Ace, 1999.

Frankowski , Leo. The Fata Morgana . Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1999.

Garcia , Eric. Anonymous Rex: A Detective Story . New York: Villard, 2000.

Haldeman , Joe. Forever Peace . New York: Ace, 1997.

Hambly , Barbara. Star Wars: Planet of Twilight . New York: Bantam, 1997.

Lapine , Warren and Pagel, Stephen. (Editors). Absolute Magnitude . New York: TOR, 1997.

Laskey , Kathryn. Star Split . New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Mackel , Kathy. A Can of Worms . New York: Avon, 2000.

Marsden , John. Tomorrow When the War Began . New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1996.

Robinson , Kim Stanley. Antarctica . New York: Bantam, 1998.

Scarborough , Elizabeth Ann. (Editor). Past Lives; Present Tense . New York: Ace, 1999.

Scott , Jefferson. Fatal Defect: A Genetic Thriller . Sisters, Or: Multnomah, 1998.

Shusterman , Neal. The Dark Side of Nowhere . New York: Tor, 1999.

Katherine T. Bucher is an Associate Professor of Educational Curriculum and Instruction, and M. Lee Manning is a professor of Educational Curriculum and Instruction. Both teach at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.

Reference Citation: Bucher, Katherine T. and Manning, M. Lee. (2001) "Taming the Alien Genre: Bringing Acience Fiction into the Classroom." The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 2, p. 41.