Science Fiction in the Classroom

Canadian science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer - author of 17 best-selling novels and this year's Hugo Award winner for his novel Hominids - offers his picks for bringing science fiction into the classroom with selections for science, history and literature courses.


by Robert J. Sawyer

I remember it like it was yesterday: my Grade 12 English teacher William Martyn telling my class at Toronto's Northview Heights Secondary School that we were going to study a science-fiction book.

I was thrilled: science fiction back then was an oddball taste and I was one of the few in my class who loved the genre. This was 1977 and Star Wars had arrived in theatres that summer, putting an end to a visual drought that started in 1969 when the original Star Trek went off the air.

Things are different today. Science fiction dominates at the box office, it forms the background for most computer games, there's a 24-hour cable channel devoted to it and it comprises the core pleasure reading for many young people. Instead of delighting just one or two students when introduced into the classroom, science fiction books are now likely to get a more generally enthusiastic reception.

Of course, you don't want to teach just any SF book. I'm the first to admit that, just as the romance genre runs the continuum from Harlequins to Romeo and Juliet, there's a lot of truly awful writing in the science-fiction genre. But there are also some real gems that can be of use in teaching a wide range of subjects.

First, though, just what is science fiction? SF writers themselves argue this question all the time, but here's one good definition: science fiction is a laboratory for thought experiments about the human condition; it lets us examine what it means to be human in ways that we simply can't in real life, because it would be unethical or impractical to conduct the experiments. Using literary devices such as displacement in time or space, or metaphorical others who let us exaggerate or isolate parts of the human psyche, science fiction allows us to see ourselves from odd angles, catching glimpses of truths that might otherwise be hidden from view.

Sounds like quite a useful tool, doesn't it? So here are my picks for science fiction that you could use in the classroom.


As its name suggests, science fiction is a natural for the science classroom. Orillia's Julie E. Czerneda has edited a series of anthologies specifically designed for middle-grade science courses, using original SF stories to illuminate basic scientific principles.

There's a story of mine in her first book, Packing Fraction, which is available with a comprehensive teacher's guide called No Limits: Developing Scientific Literacy through Science Fiction. Three follow-up anthologies collectively known as Tales from the Wonder Zone are also available. They're all published by Trifolium (an imprint of Fitzhenry and Whiteside).

Czerneda's own fiction is also well worth considering in the biology classroom; her work always has a strong grounding in evolutionary science and ecology. Last year she won the Aurora Awards - Canada's top prizes in SF - for both best English novel and best English short story.

For students in higher grades you can't go wrong with novels written by real scientists. Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California; his Cosm (Avon, 1999) has researchers accidentally creating a new universe in the laboratory, giving them a ringside seat as that universe's history unfolds from Big Bang on. (And for students considering scientific careers no one does a better job than Benford at portraying what it's really like to be a working scientist.)

Other scientists who write SF include Vancouver's Alison Sinclair, the Brit Stephen Baxter and the American David Brin.


There's a branch of science fiction called "alternate history" that looks at what our world would be like if key events in the past had gone differently. (See how that qualifies as SF by the thought-experiment definition I gave above.)

Philip K. Dick - whose stories have been made into the big-budget movies Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report - wrote one of the first and best alternate-history novels, 1962's The Man in the High Castle, which shows what North America might be like had the Axis powers won World War II.

Harry Turtledove is the modern master of this subgenre; his most-recent novel is Ruled Britannia (Penguin, 2002), which has a not-so-great Britain under Spanish rule with William Shakespeare writing a revolutionary drama to incite the Brits to reclaim their land.

The most-praised alternate history of the last decade, though, is Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (Bantam, 2002). It examines a world devoid of European influence after a more virulent Black Death kills almost all its population and Islamic teachings become dominant worldwide. The book provides a thought-provoking springboard for all sorts of classroom interaction concerning current events.

For Canadian alternate histories try Arrowdreams: An Anthology of Alternate Canadas, edited by Mark Shainblum and John Dupuis (Nuage Editions, 1997).

French as a Second Language

Teachers looking for easy, short novels in French might try the many young-adult SF books by Franco-Ontario writer Jean-Louis Trudel, including Aller simple pour Saguenal (éditions Paulines, 1994) and Les transfigurés du Centaure (éditions Paulines, 2001).

English Literature

Of course, the most likely place to teach a novel is in an English classroom - where, quite rightly, diversity is very much on the agenda. Nalo Hopkinson is a black woman, born in Jamaica and living in Toronto. Her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner, 1998), very much reflects her Caribbean heritage but is set in a near-future Toronto after an economic collapse. Hopkinson's Jamaican patois is lyrical. (Incidentally, in 2002 Hopkinson won the World Fantasy Award for her short-story collection, Skin Folk, also an excellent classroom choice.)

Other notable writers of colour in the SF field include the Americans Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; either would be appropriate for high-school literature courses. Driving home that SF can be accessible to everyone, the city of Rochester, New York selected Butler's time-travel novel Kindred (Beacon Press, 1998) for its 2003 "If Everyone in Rochester Read the Same Book" program.

Also worth having in an English Literature course are works by Robert Charles Wilson of Concord, Ontario. In particular, try his The Chronoliths (Tor, 2001), a heartfelt exploration of free will versus determinism, dealing with the arrival in the present of giant monuments sent back in time by a despotic future leader trying to show the inevitability of his ascension. And check out his wonderful short-story collection - all set in Toronto - called The Perseids (Tor, 2000). Wilson is a winner of both the Philip K. Dick and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards - the two major juried SF awards in the U.S. He's a consummate prose stylist with a challenging vocabulary, suitable for upper grades.

If you want lively classroom discussions, consider James Alan Gardner's Commitment Hour (Avon, 1998), about a culture in which, after bopping between genders until reaching the age of majority, people must decide whether to be male or female for the rest of their lives. It's a fast, fun read with lots of food for thought. Gardner makes his home in Kitchener, Ontario and is a past winner of the Writers of the Future Grand Prize, the top SF award for new talent.

One Canadian science-fiction novel that needs little introduction is Margaret Atwood's feminist dystopia The Handmaid's Tale (Seal Books, 1986). Of course, the book isn't usually labelled science fiction but it won the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel published in Great Britain during the previous year.

Speaking of awards, a varied selection of excellent work appears in Aurora Awards: An Anthology of Prize-Winning Science Fiction & Fantasy, edited by Brampton's Edo van Belkom (Quarry Press, 1999). And as an excellent secondary source you can't go wrong with van Belkom's Northern Dreamers, a collection of interviews with Canadian SF authors (Quarry Press, 1998).

Finally, if I may be so bold, allow me to suggest a trio of my own books. Most of my science fiction takes place in Ontario in the present day; students respond very favourably to the familiar locations.

Factoring Humanity (Tor, 1998), set mostly at the University of Toronto, tells of the discovery of an alien technology that lets us surf the human collective unconscious the way we now surf the World Wide Web. The book deals with the fallible nature of memory in a family torn apart by charges of abuse.

Calculating God (Tor, 2000), set largely at the Royal Ontario Museum, has an alien and a terminally ill human debating scientific evidence - or lack thereof - for the existence of God. The twist is that it's the human who is the atheist and the alien who is convinced of the reality of a creator.

And Hominids (Tor, 2002) is set in Sudbury and in the corresponding location in a parallel version of Earth where Neanderthals survived to the present day and our kind of humans did not. The novel explores our preconceptions about ethics and gender roles.

It's been over a quarter of a century since my English teacher delighted me by announcing that we were going to be studying a science-fiction book. Here's your chance to delight a new generation of students - while at the same time exposing them to some thought-provoking, scientifically accurate, philosophical literature. May SF in the classroom live long and prosper.

Robert J. Sawyer has won numerous science-fiction writing awards, including a Nebula for The Terminal Experiment (1995) and the 2003 Hugo Award for Hominids. You can visit Sawyer's web site at