Science fiction has long captured the imagination of the general populace. Recently, this has become more apparent with the upsurge of science fiction films, both at the cinema and on home video screens. Since science fiction seems to be increasing in popularity, this unit will attempt to focus on its literary form—the novel.
The unit is designed to encompass an entire year for an eighth-grade class. Clearly, the novel is not presently taught in the middle school, but most middle schools in the city stress the reading of books for the purpose of book reports. The unit thus hopes to provide some meaningful integration of students’ outside reading within the English curriculum. Science fiction as a literary form is generally a high-interest commodity and can generate numerous discussions, as will be demonstrated later. The unit also has provisions by which a wide-reaching grade level applicability can be attained. With these provisions, I hope anyone wishing to use the unit may do so from the seventh to twelfth grade.
The overriding theme of the unit focuses on today’s student and his emergence as a stranger into the world of tomorrow. This long-range goal of the unit challenges the student to assess his present, accept his past, and search for his future in light of readings, discussions, and short exercises both written and oral, which will attempt at once to both enlighten and expand the student’s consciousness.
A two-pronged scheme of study is contained within the unit. The unit first focuses on the novel as a genre and serves as a basic introduction to the novel, which for too long has been foreign to the middle school student. Basic concerns of the novel such as theme, plot, characterization, setting, and conflict will be studied. Those works read will be studied both individually and collectively within the scope of these literary concerns.
The second scheme of study within the unit is a multi-dimensional look at the world of tomorrow. Futuristic concerns of students will be elicited by reading each novel in terms of communication, societal freedoms and restraints, environment, social protaganists and antagonists, economic concerns, occupational choices, moral distinctions, family structure, and technological advances.
Science fiction, although readily holding the interest of the reader and viewer throughout the ages, has frequently come under attack as an escapist form of literature which is steeped in myth, fantasy, and imaginary utopias. Thus, on the surface, science fiction does not appear to be a readily viable vehicle with which to introduce the world of tomorrow to today’s student. The arguments arise that science fiction can all too readily cloud the young reader’s logical view of future reality, which all too often seems to be some sort of utopian existence that is purely imaginary. Since the early instances of science fiction, however, more readers have solidified their allegiance to the form by recognizing that science fiction can, in many cases, become science fact. The imaginary cloud that science fiction authors are often accused of creating quite regularly becomes astute vision and a clear picture of what the future holds for man kind.
One such author who has experienced uncanny success at predicting what future years will be like was H. G. Wells (1866Ð1946). As early as 1899 in
When the Sleeper Awakes
, Wells foresaw such technological advances as air conditioning, video recordings, automatic doors, portable television sets, aerial bombings, and war between armed aircraft. In the same work Wells made other predictions that as yet have not become reality. Consider automatic clothes-making machines that can measure size and produce instantly; moving conveyor roadways; pleasure-cities which are designed to placate the masses; and super cities which encompass all of Earth’s population in groups numbering in the tens of millions. Are these predictions so unbelieveable that any one of us can deny their possibility?
Jules Verne (1828Ð1905), another early author of science fiction, proved to be a man of vision also as can be seen from the following predictions which proved to be successful after the publishing of
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
in 1873. The
is an example of a self-propelled submarine capable of diving underwater, maneuvering underwater, and moving at high speeds beneath the surface of the sea. Apparatus such as electrical clocks, generators and motors, stoves and heating coils, and electrical lights and searchlights were accurately forecast by Verne. Also, in connection with the setting of the novel, Verne foresaw the development of underwater aqualungs capable of sustaining life beneath the sea for hours at a time, wetsuits practical enough to enable divers to work on the ocean floor, and submarine warfare whereby a submarine could destroy any surface ship without ever being noticed. Some predictions that Verne made in
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
that have not yet materialized but certainly are not outside the realm of possibility include seaweed cigarettes, underwater air guns which use glass electric shells that shock their prey, the utilization of the ocean as the source for all mankind’s food, and the discovery of the lost continent of Atlantis.
Hugo Gernsback (1884Ð1967), the father of modern science fiction, was a master of predictive science fiction. His novel,
(1925) is one reason for this distinction and is a chief reason why the top literary award in the science fiction field is named after him. Some successful predictions from
include television, remote-control power transmission, televised phone calls, transcontinental air service, solar energy in practical use, sound movies, synthetic milk and foods, artificial cloth, voiceprinting, tape recorders, and spaceflight.
also makes numerous other predictions which, given time may or may not become reality. Their range is immense, and such a range is testimony to the marvelous genius of Gernsback. These predictions for the future include instantaneous translation devices, complete weather control, thought recorders, stainless steel streets, invisibility machines, antigravity machines, and aircabs. Gernsback believes that in the year 2660 A. D. it will also be possible for instruction to be absorbed by pupils while they sleep via thought waves; that restaurants will have special rooms to stimulate appetites via hunger gases; and that through the use of special radium solutiors humans can be brought back to life provided their bodies have been perfectly preserved. Of course, communication with alien beings from other worlds will be possible.
Two other noteworthy modern writers of science fiction have developed extensive predictions for the future of mankind and have had the vision to give us the approximate dates when such inventions and social adjustments will arise. Robert A. Heinlein (b. 1907), in a collection of stories entitled
The Past Through Tomorrow
originally published in the 1940s, predicts a gas shortage for cars will result in the creation of a system of mechanized conveyor roadways which will stretch between cities and move people at speeds up to 100 m.p.h. sometime near the year 2000 A. D. (We could all benefit from this vision immediately!) Heinlein also believes the planets will be settled (2000), the weather will be controlled (2070), humam longevity will be attained through selective breeding and organ transplants (2125), and suspended animation for the purpose of space travel will be perfected (2125).
The Forever War
(1975), a Hugo and Nebula award winner of 1975, was written by Joe Haldeman (b. 1943), who looms as one of the best young writers of science fiction.
The Forever War
mentions numerous predictions for the not-too-distant future which should be of some genuine interest here. Haldeman predicts the use of laser weapons (1996), the burning of cities on Earth during food riots which results in the United States assuming control of the world food supply, thereby establishing a world government (2004), homosexuality encouraged for purpose of birth control (2023), half of the world’s population lives on welfare-type government payments (2023), and the eventual substitution of marijuana for tobacco, which is distributed free by the government as a universal pacifier (2023). Haldeman goes much further in
The Forever War
to predict such extraordinary occurences as the regrowing of amputated limbs from their stumps and the establishment of individual force fields (2189), the eradication of most diseases and the making of all conventional weapons obsolete by virtue of a power (the “stasis field”) which makes radiation, electricity, light, and magnetism inert (2458), and the Earth as populated by ten billion individuals all cloned from the same person and all telepathically linked through their brains (3138).
As strange and bizarre as some of the predictions above may seem to us now, the writings of Gernsback, Heinlein, and Haldeman cannot be dismissed when viewed in light of the work by Verne and Wells. All these authors pointed toward their worlds of tomorrow and their writings contain a firm basis for such predictions. A ready parallel can be drawn between the thinking of these and other writers of science fiction and the lives of our students. Our students, too, may develop bizarre and strange goals for themselves, but if they are cultivated to examine the basis for their thinking, if they are taught to examine their past and present as a basis for their future, they will learn to adjust their future goals in a more responsible and carefully executed manner.
Science fiction draws heavily from three literary forms which permeate literature: the myth, fantasy, and utopias. As in most fiction, science fiction makes frequent use of myths. Many myths have, of course, originated in the Bible. Writers of science fiction recognize that their audience is aware of many biblical myths and are often able to utilize them effectively in an effort to lend plausibility to their work. Thus, when Mike returns in Heinlein’s
Stranger in a Strange Land
, the episode recalls the Second Coming of Christ. Also, when Estraven sacrifices himself in LeGuin’s
The Left Hand of Darkness
, we have a socially representative character dying for the whole of society—much akin to the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.
Certain mythical defenses against mortality also permeate science fiction. Reincarnation is notable in science fiction; and such a revival is seen as bringing the dead back to mortality or even elevating the dead to immortality. Another tactic used often is the prolongation of life by moving a character unchanged into the future. Wells accomplishes this in
The Time Machine
. The prolongation of life can also be attained in science fiction by the mesmerizing of a being while at death’s threshold—a device frequently found in vampire stories. In this instance, however, the character will suffer a breakdown of personality and moral fortitude and will become an instrument of evil, unlike Wells’ Time Traveller who suffers no such degradation. Lastly, science fiction also combats mortality by making great use of the creation of life from unliving materials.
Science fiction and fantasy are not one and the same, but they do share a likeness. Science fiction is generally fantastic, as it usually presents at least one postulate which does not conform to the laws of reality at the time in which it is written. Fantasy, on the other hand, possesses a structure that is totally fantastic; reality has become the exception rather than the rule. Science fiction and fantasy are different categories of literature, but in order not to blur their differences it is necessary to define science fiction by what is contained in it—its elements; fantasy is generally explained by how it presents what it has in it—its structure.
The third major narrative form from which science fiction borrows is the utopia. Utopias have arisen in literature since Plato and have continued to the present. Early utopias were utopias for only some of the people; the elite manipulated the general populace in
(c. 380 B.C.) and the economy was based on slave labor. Christianity changed later utopias such as Thomas More’s (1516) because of its emphasis on communitarianism. Here, ideal communities were structured based on a humanistic sharing. The economic base of these utopias depended upon cleverly devised schemes since their creators rejected the employment of slaves. The third phase of utopias arose in response to the industrial revolution. Many writers, such as Edward Bellamy in
(1888), relied on technology to create machine slaves that would work for and benefit the general citizenry. Bellamy’s novel is a classic of science fiction, and at the time stood as a perfect utopia which combatted any moral concerns Plato’s structure would have contributed; and it saved the author the duress of devising elaborate schemes to provide for an economic base, as those authors did in the second phase.
Science fiction writers of the twentieth century, however, realize that technology may make an eventual slave of all mankind. Thus, in the fourth phase, utopian literature actually becomes dystopian and predicts a gloomy future for humanity. Aldous Huxley’s
Brave New World
(1932) is a classic example of this phase. Dystopia has generally become the rule for science fiction in this century; the projections it makes based on current trends have helped to awaken mankind’s consciousness. He must use his technology, ingenuity, and common sense for the purpose of averting possible future disaster. Those writers of the fourth phase who continue to postulate pure utopian existence in their writing have had to create basic changes in the evolutionary process of mankind and develop races of superpeople in order that their utopias survive.
Science fiction has several themes which recur throughout the bulk of its literature. These deserve some mention here. It should be noted that these themes can be divided into two categories of origin: biological and physical. Those themes of biological origin deal with human beings and considerations of race and sex. Those of physical origin deal with time and space.
Imaginary universes populated by unhuman beings are the chief proponent of the biological-oriented themes. This desire to transcend normal experience is best manifested through the teleportation of a character or characters to the imaginary world. Science fiction writers make great use of both mental and physical teleportation, but the end result of characters escaping from present physical restrictions remains the same. Although this moving of matter through space by a mental process or by some incredible mechanical device provides a wish-fulfillment for the character, it often gains him a great deal of misfortune, although the plot of the novel will invariably benefit.
The technique of time travel in science fiction serves a distinct purpose for the author because it allows the displacement of the story’s setting. Time travel may be either forward or backward, but certain problems of causation must be encountered when it points toward the latter. Also, alternate timestreams and alternate universes are popular motifs of science fiction. An alternate time-stream postulates the changing of a particular outcome of a key event in history which subsequently gives us the same world with a few added twists. Alternate universes are universes that are complete and coexistent with our own, but yet they are not the same. A primary purpose of the alternate universe is the leverage it affords the author to create a multiplicity of settings.
The use of imaginary beings in science fiction is widespread, and the alien encounter is a very popular tack utilized by many authors. Imaginary beings are generally of two types: artificial creations such as androids and robots; or aliens, products of a diverse evolutionary process. Androids are constructed or grown artificially from protoplasmic materials; robots are made from metal and plastic; and cyborgs are constructed from a combination of the two. All serve an important function in science fiction whether they are slaves to mankind (third-phase utopia figures) or useful ploys the author adopts to make the reader raise questions about his own humanity and his function in the universe.
Questions of sex and race are more prevalent in modern science fiction but have their roots in the very first writings. Sexual attraction between male and female protagonists had been present in many early works but generally it was just an attraction. Later science fiction written from the 1950s to the present, makes greater use of sexual encounters. Some are even consummated, although sometimes such liasons may exist between a human and a non-human. In the case of race, the mere fact that science fiction is innundated with foreign beings leaves little room for hostility between human races. There is very little or no racial stereotyping in modern science fiction; the question of rights for an individual becomes raised to a higher degree in science fiction when the rights of aliens are in question.
Science fiction has high interest, is easily readable, and can be necessarily meaningful for today’s student. Action drama with clear plot lines and characterization makes science fiction literature accessible for the middle school or high school student. The great growth of science fiction film and its ensuing popularity provides a stepping-stone for introduction to the more serious treatment it deserves in its literary form. More important, science fiction enables today’s student to start thinking about his world tomorrow; a world in which he will be as much a stranger as the Time Traveller was in the year 802,701 A. D. We, as teachers, owe our students the opportunity to at least imagine their world of tomorrow and prepare them to meet its challenge.