The fine fellows over at SFSignal ask the musical question
If you were creating the syllabus for a high school (junior or senior) English Literature course, what SF/F stories do you think should be included?
I answer the question with more than my usually curmudgeonly charm here:
And writers who treat the question with more respect than I do no doubt give wiser answers than yours truly. Enjoy.
(My answer below the cut.)
The question is frankly a very difficult one. Let us analyze it.
The purpose of education is to teach the youth the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and, as they grow, to teach either a trade or to train them in the liberal arts (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy).
Additionally, education must instruct the youth in the Christian faith and classical virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, prudence), as well as teaching enough Civics and history to allow them to be productive and honest citizens of this Republic, able to serve as jurors, voters, or soldiers, wisely and bravely, as the need demands.
Unfortunately, the Progressives of over a century ago usurped the educational industry, and created an establishment similar to the Established Church of England, in that the schools became the primary conduit not of education, but of indoctrination in progressive dogmas, and, later, various lunatic dogmas of the Politically Correct, communism, feminism, sexual liberation, environmentalism, and most of all the doctrine that all philosophy is meaningless and all ethics relative, and human life not sacred.
Given this, when I am asked what science fiction and fantasy I would recommend to educate and instruct the youth, I take the question as being akin to asking what superhero comic books or fairy princess Disney cartoons I would recommend to educate and instruct the youth. But the purpose of science fiction and fantasy is to entertain, not to instruct. When art becomes didactic and pedagogical, it often loses its savor.
The question, for that purpose, is remarkably frivolous. At a time when children are not reading Euclid’s Elements is not the time to ask if they should be reading E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol. Let them first read Plutarch’s Lives, or Jacobus de Voragine’s Lives of the Saints, before they read Doug Adams’ Life, The Universe and Everything.
Ah! But there are three other purposes to education I have not mentioned. In regard to these other purposes of education, the question is not frivolous at all.
The first unmentioned purpose is the training of the passions so as to form and shape the character of the young so that their emotions will tend to fit the stock responses to stock situations.
Young men must learn to love what is loveable and hate what is hateful, to seek honor and flee shame, and above all to be honest; young women must learn femininity, decorum, chastity, and above all to be honest. Both must learn to love their country and their homes, to respect and obey their parents, and to revere God. They should adore the sublime beauties of nature and abhor modern art. In a Republic they must also learn respect for their fellow citizens, to fear the law, and supply Christian charity to the poor and weak.
If dear reader, you read this last paragraph and conclude that I am joking, or mad, or stupid, or deformed with unforgivable evil, I draw your attention to the fact that you yourself have been trained in a certain stock response, but one which is less useful to civilization and civility that the list of stock responses I give. You have been conditioned, with your own willing participation perhaps, to regard emotion as superior to reason, and selfish emotion or self esteem as superior to everything, to regard honor as bluster, honesty as narrow-mindedness, sexual roles as oppression, religion as superstition hiding a dark impulse toward tyranny, obedience as craven and old-fashioned; and as for chastity, you probably have not heard that word spoken in a year, or in a decade, or ever and then only to hear it mocked.
If the concept of decency, the concept of the sexes treating each other virtuously and honestly, is literately unthinkable to you, if you cannot imagine it without giggling, without sneering, or cannot imagine it at all, then the conditioners have conditioned you well.
Dear reader, the idea of using the institution of educational instruction (which is the mechanisms used to pass the legacy of civilization to the next generation) openly and deliberately to pass along the Christian and classical virtues, our history, our way of life, as well as the theory and practice of civics and citizenship, no doubt strikes you as unconstitutional, if not appalling.
This is because you are indoctrinated in the idea that an educational establishment is like an established Church, and can only teach those things the state approves; and that the state, for reasons of public amity and Constitutionally limited government, cannot meddle in affairs of religion or indoctrination of the virtues. I draw your attention to the paradox involved: the theory of limited government places religion and virtue beyond the public sphere. But if education is placed within the public sphere, and made compulsory, tax-supported, then the youth cannot be educated in the fundamental things (things like virtue, wisdom, faith, good character) which education properly so called is meant to plant in the next generation. This means that by definition education cannot educate.
It can only regiment and indoctrinate.
It can only condition the subjects (not students) like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate when their master, Caesar, proffers them a treat, and to growl and bark at everything else, including (ironically) a real education.
This brings us to the second unmentioned purpose to education. It is the duty of every man of good will to rebel against the educational establishment as it currently stands and to subvert the current form of society and government, so as to abolish eventually, by slow increments or sudden revolution, the current Progressive program of compulsory indoctrination, and the cult of the culture of death.
The watchdogs of the establishment, O my revolutionary brothers and sisters, are slow-eyed and stupid, and we may be able to smuggle in the form of literature and entertainment works of art which subvert the paradigm, and rescue the next generation from the present age of darkness.
The third and final unmentioned purpose of education is merely to instruct the young in the culture and the history of their forefathers. Here science fiction and fantasy clearly has a role, for it is useful and necessary to teach the young to read and appreciate older books, including science fiction books, which have influenced the culture, or which have merit in their own right and may otherwise be forgotten.
At this point, it were easy enough to make a list of works of science fiction and fantasy which fill these three pedagogic, subversive, or preservative purposes:
Let us take the preservative purpose first. There are works of SFF which every literate person in the West should read at least once. Fantasy and Science Fiction cannot be understood except against the background of the ancient literature from which they sprang, and of which they alone are heir (for mainstream literature has betrayed the ancient traditions). Therefore, I recommend the high school students be required to read
- The Illiad by Homer
- The Oddesy
- Antigone by Sophocles
- The Orestiea of Aeschylus (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides)
- The Aeneid of Virgil
- Scipio’s Dream by Cicero
- The Divine Comedy of Dante (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradisio)
- Orlando Furioso by Ariosto
- Faerie Queen by Spencer
- Paradise Lost by Milton
- Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caeser, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Tempest by Shakespeare
- Le Morte de Arthur by Mallory
- Idylls of the King by Tennyson
- A Christmas Carol by Dickens
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
- Jungle Book and ‘With the Night Mail’ by Kipling
- 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, From Earth to the Moon, Around the World in 80 Days, Master of the World by Jules Verne
- War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells
- Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
- Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury
- The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
- A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
For the purposes of subverting the dominant establishment, unfortunately I have far fewer books to recommend, since science fiction writers tend to be almost comically sheepish in their conformity to fashionable correctness, men like Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, John Brunner, and J. G. Ballard.
But here and there, astonishing rebels rear their ungainly heads crowned with horns that they shake in defiance at the reaches of middle heaven:
- Phantasies by MacDonald
- Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. I would also include his Voyage of the Dawn Treader, except that frightened parents may not be willing to let their softbrained children read such dangerous literature.
- Smith of Wotton Major and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.
- A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
- The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, as well as The Ballad of the White Horse.
- Past Master by R.A. Lafferty.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr.
- ‘Scanners Live in Vain’, ‘ The Dead Lady of Clown Town’, ‘ Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ by Cordwainer Smith
- Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
- ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, ‘ The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘The Library of Babel’, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ by Jorge Luis Borges.
- ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolfe as well as his Short Sun trilogy (On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles. Return to the Whorl).
I will pause to mention one oddity, because it both belongs on this list and not. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in the American version is conformist to the dominant paradigm. But the original British version, which ends in the beginning of reformation in the young sociopathic hooligan, is subversive; as all tales of redemption and reformation are.
Books which indicate the proper stock responses to things both fair and foul are more likely to be found in boy’s adventure fiction, girl’s romance paperbacks, or ballads and epic than in anything written after 1950. For the purposes of answering the question, the list above will serve for this as well.
Let me explain the including of what seems an oddity, namely, the pulp adventure fiction A Princess of Mars. I include this only because a young man of my acquaintance resolved ever to treat young ladies chivalrously, politely, and in a manly fashion only because of this book, and he rejected the cult of mutual sexual exploitation which the modern society seems to think normal or healthy. His stock response toward honor had been correctly trained.
I would have included Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein, or Farmer in the Sky as an example of decent boy’s adventure fiction, except that the stock responses recorded in the book and passed onto the reader are the opposite of what is right, proper, normal and real. In the climax of Have Space Suit, for example, the hero Kip observes the trial of the vicious man-eating aliens called Wormfaces guilty of attack against Earth, and when the superhuman judges of an even more advanced race ask if any will speak on their behalf, Kip ponders whether he should plead for mercy for those who attacked his world, dismisses the idea with contempt, and hopes for their total obliteration. This is the exact wrong response to teach the young. Pitilessness is not a value for civilized men to teach their young. (Ironically, Kip and all the Earth are placed on trial in the next chapter, and the expected outcome, that the superhuman judges would condemn Earth for being as aggressive, pitiless and warlike as the Wormfaces, and like them obliterated, does not come about. Kip is never punished nor upbraided for his genocidal barbarism.)
Likewise, the final scene in Farmer consists of a discussion of how population growth leads to hunger, famine and war, and how societies rise and fall in a dismal and unalterable cycle of ponderous historical forces no one can control. Fatalism is likewise not a civilized value.
However and finally, certain science fiction books can be used to teach the youths science. To this end, I suggest only those authors who are loyal to John W Campbell Junior’s notions of realistic or ‘hard’ science fiction, who include both informative and entertaining ‘infodumps’ in their works. Let me mention specifically the book just named: Have Space Suit, Will Travel. It has the most crisp and well written description of how a spacesuit of the future (at the time it was written) might be.
But even less scientifically accurate works contain reams of information about astronomy and physics of which the general public is sadly uninformed or underinformed. I have read news articles by writers who did not know the difference between a star and a galaxy, or thought that a light-year was a measure of time. Since I am not the only one here being asked this question, and since I am confident wiser heads than mine will answer along these lines, I will not list the books best suited to teaching the basics of science.
I will close with an observation that some science fiction works teach more science than some so called nonfiction works, such as Cosmos by Carl Sagan, which at times seems more concerned with teaching science-worship rather than true science.
Since science-worship and not true science is part of the dominant paradigm of this present age of darkness, it is exactly this kind of nonsense science fiction is in an unique position to subvert, in order that truth be smuggled in to the hungry young past the watchful dragons of our present political masters.
If science fiction could teach the young true science, that is, true skepticism, rather than the gape-mouthed gullible emotionalism they are currently taught, the world would be changed and much for the better.