Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Out of this World Reading

PostedTuesday, June 4, 2019 at 2:45 PM

Out of this World Reading

Memorial Day has come and gone, beans are sprouting in the garden, and most schools are winding down another academic year. Libraries and other organizations are publishing their “recommended summer reading” lists. You might be planning to send one home with your students in the last few days.

How many of us have our own personal summer reading list?  It’s that list of all the books we want to read when we have more time. Technology – E-readers and recorded books – make it easier than ever to enjoy stories while travelling or between other hot-weather activities. Although, I confess, I still prefer a book and a comfy chair under a shady maple tree.

One summer, — long, long ago — I discovered science fiction there. And every June, I find myself trying to rediscover it again.

The Mote in God's Eye book coverThat summer began with “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It was a thick book with creamy pages – a monthly selection from the QPB Book Club. Looking for a challenge, I chose it more for its size than anything else and I started reading without any expectations.

Whoa. It was what-if storytelling on a level I hadn’t encountered before. It was an invitation to think about the future and technology and human nature. It was empowering.

It’s been so long ago, I can’t even remember the details of the story now. But I know I spent the rest of that summer reading every Niven and Pournelle book I could get my hands on. The imaginary worlds they introduced me to were varied and challenging, and made me start to think differently about the world around me.

This aspect of science fiction is what Samuel R Delany, a well-regarded writer in the field, called “training for thinking about the actual changes – sometimes catastrophic, often confusing – that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.”

As engineering educators, we have so many opportunities to empower our students to think both critically and creatively about the world. We coach them on the essential skills and habits of mind that will help them throughout their lives. But how often do we give ourselves those opportunities?

Science fiction stories are one way to do that. They can present a scenario that challenges us to think about how it came to be, how it relates to the world now, and what can be done to ensure or to avoid that kind of future.

If you don’t think reading science fiction can make a difference, I’d like to share this story from author and comic book creator Neil Gaimen that appeared in The Guardian several years ago:

“I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. SF had been disapproved of for a long time. At one point I took a top official aside and asked him what had changed? ‘It's simple,’ he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

You can read the full article, “Neil Gaiman: 'Face facts: we need fiction'”, on the Guardian’s website.

If a work of science fiction isn’t already on your summer reading list, I invite you to include one. If you are already a sci-fi fan – please add a comment or send an email with your recommendations.

Photo Credits:

Feature image of the Orion Nebula courtesy of NASA

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