Once mostly the province of nerdy young men, science fiction has become a central part of our culture's myth-making engine, engaging children and adults of all nations. 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 Star Wars romps to the profound explorations of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Mary Shelley. A key element in all 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 of all ages 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.
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."
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.
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.
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 Jim 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.
Who will keep fandom going, and run the cons later, when we all want to kick back and be Big Name Fans? 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?
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 further meet 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 and art contest in area schools, culminating in a grand awards ceremony at the local con.
This kind of thing has worked already — at Worldcon in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and every year in Salt Lake City.
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.
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 begins with meeting English teachers and/or librarians and finding out their needs. What else can fan orgs do?
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 members.
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 and science prosper. This is not so much a prescription as a call for people to think about how the literature that is most about foresight and hope can somehow influence both young people and society at large.
Many efforts are being made to link science fiction to educational curricula. See this classroom guide, Science Fiction Curriculum, Cyborg Teachers, and Youth Culture(s). If you're planning a field trip, click here to learn more about the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.
Here are some great teacher resources:
Slowly, some universities are becoming reputable centers for scholarship of and about science fiction. David Brin regularly deposits copies of his works — including all foreign editions — to these institutions as a small way to help them create useful collections.
For some other excellent academic SF links, see the list Georgia Tech put up at their site.
A person is behooved to help pass success on to those who follow. So, after writing the same answers, over and over, to many letters David Brin receives from would-be writers, he put it all together here.
At Scoop.It, Brin has compiled articles and websites which illuminate how science can be taught in the classroom (or at home) in interesting and fun ways.
Brin's other Scoop.It compilation is of articles and websites of online resources for teachers and parents interested in teaching science fiction (in a classroom and elsewhere). Plenty of answers for students learning any branch of science!
Of course, you're welcome to use the stories David Brin has posted on this site to create your own educational, nonprofit materials.
This website also has excerpts of the beginning chapters from all David Brin's novels. Feel free to recommend and read them. Just click the appropriate link on the books page and follow the link to the excerpt. And feel free to use these Brin-created book discussion guides (pdf).
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 demand! 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 efforts include encouraging more science fiction writing and reading, publishing a trove of advice for new writers on this website, and promoting science fact and fiction reading on my blog, Contrary Brin. Recently, I created a series that Avon Books published in 2000 — the Out of Time series — 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.
Moreover, SFWA recently established the Andre Norton Award for excellence in young-adult science fiction and fantasy as a way of emphasizing its importance. Their nominees and winners make wonderful additions to any bookshelf.
Heady stuff! But these and a myriad of other subjects are probed at the literary end of science fiction. In fact, some 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 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, isn't it worth adding to your arsenal of tricks and tools, ready to offer that hard-to-reach kid? What can be more relevant to bright minds, in their rapid-pulsed flux, than a literature that explores ideas and change?
MIT researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner argue that the mind-bending worlds of authors such as Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke can help us not just come up with ideas for new gadgets, but anticipate their consequences. Science fiction can be used to inspire a new generation of inventors and tinkerers to think about the technologies of the future.
Although Scotty, the chief engineer on Star Trek, frequently protested that he "could not break the laws of physics," film and tv series popularizations are well known for breaking physical laws. Physics World considers books that explain the physics behind them as a new way of learning about science. But it's a complicated relationship between science and sci-fi.
This NSTA paper discusses the advantages and challenges of using science fiction movies and TV shows to introduce scientific concepts to an elementary classroom. It includes two instructional episodes, using scenes from movies, to engage students in critiquing science as presented in the films.
Science fiction can be like the stick that a wary traveler pokes into the ground ahead of him, to see where snakes and quicksand may lie. The degree to which we escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, for example, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight "Big Brother" to their last breath. Since then, many other dystopian novels rocked the public's conscience or awareness and generated their own calls and alarms to prevent their nightmares.
Any science fiction fan knows the genre generates more questions than it answers. How is Science Fiction defined? What's the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy? David Brin has compiled some of the more interesting answers to these questions and more.
Grab the popcorn! From Star Wars to Star Trek, from Brin's The Postman to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 and Frank Miller's 300, here's a compilation of David's unusual and frequently amusing articles on movies and TV shows.
Naturally David Brin recommends his books and shorter fiction. But he finds these books inspiring and well worth recommending to readers of all ages. From classics to the newest releases, science fiction offers fiction to enthrall every reader.
Ada Twist's Big Project Book for Stellar Scientists, by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos, by Stephanie Roth Sisson
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe
The Everything Kids' Science Experiments Book, by Tom Robinson
The Elements Book: A Visual Encyclopedia of the Periodic Table, by DK and The Smithsonian Institution
Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh and Melissa Sweet
Never Too Young: 50 Unstoppable Kids Who Made a Difference, by Aileen Weintraub and Laura Horton
My First Human Body Book, by Patricia J. Wynne and Donald M. Silver
Movies can captivate kids' attention — and they can be used to illustrate basic science concepts in the real world. From Apollo 13 to The Right Stuff, from Lorenzo's Oil to Awakenings, from Contact to Gattaca, historical and science fiction films can be used to pique student's interest — and entertain.
Also: Here are some science-based lesson plans for teachers, using popular movies and other film resources to illustrate science.
NASA has a page offering "ship-building lessons" for would-be explorers, including access to their Space Educators' Handbook. Students will learn to sketch and analyze science fiction rockets and robots found in movies, comics or novels. Or see this essay from their blog describing how to design a rocket in 6 easy steps.
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!). Learn More
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form. Learn More
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore. Learn More
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages. Learn More
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research. Learn More
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy. Learn More
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 300 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings. Learn More
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others. Learn More
All the Ways in the World to Reach David Brin
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"Brin's canny sensitivity about the complexities of human nature transcends gender barriers in a novel that is not so much about 'women's issues' as the necessity for change and variability. As in Earth, the author demonstrates his ability to empathize with all his characters. This complex and gripping tale belongs in most libraries."
— Library Journal
"Brin slathers a sober and hard-edged landscape at one turn, and in the next pinpoints with pixel clarity the humanity all jumbled up in the epic action. There are no mutant cockroaches or other absurdities. We are in the Oregon mountains, crawling through bracken, or hiding in the snowdrifts because a sniper has pinned us down. On every page we see the dirty, lined, broken faces of hardscrabble existence, but we also see them light up at the simple gesture of receiving a piece of mail from a long-lost loved one. And we see mythopoesis right in our faces."
— SF Site Reviews
"Brin is a physicist of note who has been a NASA consultant, and he knows how to turn the abstractions of particle physics into high adventure.... He excels at the essential craft of the page-turner, which is to devise an elegantly knotted plot that yields a richly variegated succession of high-impact adventures undergone by an array of believably heroic characters."
— Thomas M. Disch, EW.com
"Thanks again for being part of our "kick-off" program for the KPCC Crawford Forum science series (broadcast on our NPR station). The audience loved it, and we all learned a lot — you certainly do have a lot of fans! We hope we can have you with us again at some time in the not too distant future."