As the star-studded Avengers franchise reaches its high-octane climax and the long-awaited Star Wars episode IX hits the silver screen in December, science fiction has never been more popular or relevant. With such broad appeal, the genre can certainly teach us all a lesson or two.
Way back in 1865, Jules Verne described rocketing to the moon in his novel, From the Earth to the Moon. As early as 1942, Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of Robotics to prevent intelligent machines from harming humans. And in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke proposed a geostationary communications satellite hovering above the earth.
For contemporary audiences, such ideas were completely outlandish. Looking back, however, these far-fetched scenarios have proven remarkably prescient. But how were sci-fi writers able to grasp the real-world future with such accuracy?
Far from being prophesying mystics, these seminal authors harnessed their intelligence and imagination to prompt readers to ask the question, “what if?”. From the novels of Philip K. Dick to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, science fiction invites the audience to predict the future based on what they already understand about the past and the present.
Bringing space-age allegory to the classroom
The ingenious approaches of science fiction have a big impact on children and young people for a number of reasons.
Navigating the vagaries of childhood and adolescence can be tough for any student, never mind having to worry about academic concerns like grades and homework. Every day is a learning curve, and school can often feel overwhelming.
Adopting science fiction in education can be an antidote to the pains of adolescence and the stress of exams. Through vivid allegory, the genre can elucidate a more well-rounded understanding of the factors in play for issues in society (such as sexism and colonialism). In doing so, it can provide valuable lessons in areas as diverse as history, psychology, philosophy, politics, science, sociology, religion, critical thinking, and even economics.
To take one example, Ray Bradbury’s 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles explores themes of what it means to be human, American exceptionalism, and racial segregation in the Jim Crow South — all through the lens of the future colonisation of Mars. Similarly, James Cameron’s 2010 blockbuster, Avatar, directly tackles genocide and environmental destruction in the form of technicolour space-age fantasy.
This indirection and sense of detachment allows science fiction to give students the confidence to ask probing questions within a safe context. Many sci-fi stories are fables for historical or contemporary issues — issues that some students would find uncomfortable to discuss in class or engage with.
Indeed, many students will have unknowingly explored questions of morality, fear, and hubris when reading Mary Shelley’s evergreen 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.
Yes, the classic tropes of the mad scientist and the monster are appealing to children the world over, but the key lesson lies in the novel’s self-reflective narrative: by rejecting his creation, Dr Frankenstein becomes the monster himself.
The idea of the parable is a strong theme throughout science fiction. Ray Bradbury often used the mythological metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when talking about science fiction:
“Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us.”
In this sense, rather than simply predicting the future, science fiction can equip us to prevent it. By portraying tales of doom that have one foot in the real world but are set within in the realm of the imagination, the genre can teach young people valuable lessons about the human condition. Take the success of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series for a sense of how deeply the dystopian resonates with the general public.
For students, the idea that science fiction can inspire change is an empowering one. Rather than resigning themselves to the idea that the world works in a certain way and they have no agency over it, the experiences of inspirational characters in science fiction open new doors of possibility for the next generation.
For many BAME children and their parents, seeing Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) — a box office smash featuring an overwhelmingly BAME cast and strong, autonomous BAME characters — was a profound experience. Through the Kingdom of Wakanda, the film’s fictitious African setting, the film offered young BAME people a glimpse of a more hopeful future — providing a timely counterpoint to negative depictions of ethnic minorities in the media.
Inspiring students to innovate
“The future is not Google-able.”
- William Gibson
As we have seen, science fiction harnesses the power of imagination to provide solutions to societal problems. This idea of “what if” allows us to anticipate the challenges that our species might face in the future. On occasion, it can even lead to major scientific breakthroughs.
One contemporary author, Matthew Kadish, believes science fiction storytelling can help teachers to engage students in STEM subjects and inspire future innovation. As Kadish notes, a number of groundbreaking scientists and inventors were inspired by the boundless fiction of Jules Verne — from the inventor of the submarine, Simon Lake, to the rocketry pioneers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth.
If that’s not all, the word “robot” was introduced by the Czech science fiction writer Karel Čapek to describe a fictional humanoid in his 1920 play, R.U.R. In this case, life may not quite be imitating art, but it is certainly influenced by it.
With such a profound impact on the world of science, it’s little wonder that organisations as powerful as NASA and Intel have hired science fiction writers to help drive future innovation. At this point, science fiction becomes more than just storytelling: it becomes science fact.
Almost every child dreams of being an astronaut. By incorporating visions of far-flung cosmic realms into lesson plans, teachers can harness the power of imagination to help students reach for the stars.