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Education in SF

Entry updated 3 October 2022. Tagged: Theme.

Arguably, many sf works project the aura of a classroom, as writers undertake to explain their fantastic worlds' new Technology and other features at length by means of instructional Infodumps. A common pattern in Utopian novels is to pair naïve newcomers with longtime residents assigned to show and describe how their society functions, as seen in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888) and Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; exp as fixup 1925; rev 1950), among many others; even some recent novels employ the device, like Arthur C Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997), wherein a revived Frank Poole is guided by a linguist through the transformed world of 3001. Clarke also concludes his later novels with appendices explaining the science behind his predictions, further suggesting that an sf novel can also function as a sort of textbook. Other works bolstered by substantial real-science appendices include some later editions of Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (April-July 1953 Astounding; cut 1954) – incorporating his essay on the planetary setting, "Whirligig World" (June 1953 Astounding) – and Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006).

Despite its propensity for pedagogy, however, one might also maintain that sf as a whole has devoted relatively little attention to imagined educational institutions, though Dacre Balsdon's mild Satires on university life, beginning with Have a New Master (1935), are sometimes disguised portraits of Oxford, and Vernor Vinge's "Fast Times at Fairmont High" (in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, coll 2001) presents a Near Future dose of future shock in a California high-school setting. There are, of course, stories which add sf elements to depictions of present-day schools, such as My Science Project (1985), Real Genius (1985) and Bruce Coville's My Teacher Is an Alien (1989) plus its sequels; Alien-infested teachers are also featured in the film The Faculty (1988). In Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), a man from the future allows the slacker protagonists to use Time Travel to prepare a presentation that will enable them to graduate from high school; the series Smallville (2001-2011) relates the high-school experiences of a young Superman (and eventually, several other DC Comics Superheroes); Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth (2007) depicts a group of college professors who discover that one of their colleagues is a secret Immortal; and another immortal professor lurks within a British university in Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987). John Barth's vast Satire Giles Goat-Boy, or The Revised New Syllabus (1966) has a future university background, though again little education takes place, and a subplot of Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End (2006) centres on the Library of the University of California, San Diego. The stories of Zenna Henderson (herself an elementary school teacher) frequently involve contemporary teachers facing unusual challenges, such as a troubled child who creates a seemingly magical box in "The Anything Box" (October 1956 F&SF); the first Doctor Who storyline "An Unearthly Child" (23 November-14 December 1963) begins with two teachers investigating the oddities of a pupil who is the Doctor's supposed granddaughter.

In Isaac Asimov's "The Fun They Had" (December 1951; February 1954 F&SF), children subjected to the future norm of computerized home schooling learn, wonderingly, about a past golden age of interaction with fellow-pupils in classrooms with real human teachers. A much earlier example of such remote learning forms the framing device of Harry Stephen Keeler's "John Jones's Dollar" (August 1915 Black Cat), in which a professor addresses his globally scattered university class via television link (see Communications).

But schools of the future tend to be presented primarily in works aimed at young audiences (see Children's SF): an episode of The Jetsons (1962-1963) involves Elroy Jetson's Robot teacher, and in two Comic-book adventures of Superboy the lad is taught how to use his Superpowers by a Robot teacher from the planet Krypton. Space Stations function as schools in the Television series Space School (1956) and the animated series Galaxy High (1986) featuring human teenagers who attend a Space Station high school inhabited and staffed by Aliens. A recurring subplot of the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) involves the school set up by Keiko O'Brien to educate the space station's youngsters. Robert A Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky (1955) features high school students in a survival class who, as their final test, are teleported (see Matter Transmission; Stargates), unsupervised, to a distant planet; Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968) features such a coming-of-age ordeal on a "civilized" colony world which proves hostile; coursework for the fifteen-year-olds of a superior civilization in R A Lafferty's Aurelia (1982) includes "World Government" of some primitive planet, the unfortunate Aurelia being assigned to Earth. An earlier Lafferty tall tale, "Primary Education of the Camiroi" (December 1966 Galaxy) offers a similarly bizarre children's syllabus – "Quadratic religion ... Complex defamation ... Construction of viable planets" – to the bewilderment of Earth's PTA observers.

Lafferty's tall tale echoes the tendency of both serious and spoof Utopias to feature educational quirks and accomplishments. In the long title story of Aston Forrest's The Extraordinary Islanders: Being an Authoritative Account of the Cruise of the "Asphodel", as Related by her Owner (coll 1903), small children are trained to instantly calculate square roots of eight-digit numbers. H G Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905) indicates repeatedly that appropriate schools and schooling are at the heart of the utopian state, though little scholastic detail is offered. Children in an ideal society on Mars in Henry Wallace Dowding's The Man from Mars, or Service, for Service's Sake (1910) learn from moving pictures and display walls. In the hermaphrodite utopia of Ledom in Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960), small children join in the creation of remarkable if not exactly innovative statuary.

Stories of adult classroom education are relatively rare, though Clifford D Simak's "Kindergarten" (July 1953 Galaxy) concludes with the protagonist and his woman friend beginning their learning course in the vast titular establishment constructed on Earth by seemingly benevolent Aliens. The childlike Charlie Gordon's classes at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults in Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966) are more therapy than education.

Precisely two sorts of educational programs are common in science fiction: institutions modeled on West Point that prepare future astronauts, and forms of basic training for future soldiers (see Military SF). Perhaps the most familiar example of the former is in Robert A Heinlein's Space Cadet (1948), which inspired the television series Tom Corbett: Space Cadet (1950-1955); DC's Tommy Tomorrow, in a 1962 comic book story, became one of the many young heroes who have attended similar institutions. Other related works include the television series Space Academy (1977) and a series of young adult novels that take place at Star Trek's Starfleet Academy. Heinlein also contributed a model for stories about training space soldiers with Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959), the basis for the film Starship Troopers (1997); another film involving the training of military recruits is Edge of Tomorrow (2014). The novelty of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; much exp 1985), which became the film Ender's Game (2013), is that very young people are being prepared for a space war with aliens by means of staged battles between teams of students. The tradition is of course much older: military drill and mock battles on London's commons are the most heavily emphasized aspects of an "ideal" children's education glimpsed in Rudyard Kipling's "The Army of a Dream" (15-18 June 1904 Morning Post).

Advanced educational toys from the future occasionally disrupt contemporary lives: see Toys in SF. The paucity of stories which are centrally about future schools may reflect an expectation that scientists will someday devise ways to provide people with knowledge that does not require traditional education, as in Stephen Leacock's spoof of H G Wells in "The Man in Asbestos" (in Nonsense Novels coll 1911), where education is inserted through the digestive tract. So-called "knowledge pills" that more or less instantly impart knowledge are somewhat more common in jokes than in sf, though L Frank Baum's learned Woggle-Bug of Oz did devise such pills in The Emerald City of Oz (1910) so that his students could focus their energies on sports, and Larry Niven made Alien education pills central to his "The Fourth Profession" (in QUARK/4, anth 1971, ed Samuel R Delany and Marilyn Hacker). Further tales of ingested education, which like Niven's make play with the since discredited notion of absorbing memory-laden RNA, include John Sladek's black comedy "The Transcendental Sandwich" (in The Steam-Driven Boy coll 1973), Diane Duane's Star Trek novel Spock's World (1988) – here providing easy fluency in the Vulcan language – Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden (1989) and Melissa Scott's Mighty Good Road (1990).

Rapid learning by transfer of information into the sleeping brain is a common sf device whose first Genre SF appearance may be in Hugo Gernsback's already-cited Ralph 124C 41+, where the sleep-learning Invention is termed the "Hypnobioscope". Far better known, though, is the "hypnopaedia" of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Later sf examples, sometimes invoking Hypnosis and not always requiring sleep for the process, include: the "sleep machine" which is one of the Nexialist educational techniques in A E van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle (fixup 1950); Theodore Sturgeon's "The Incubi of Parallel X" (September 1951 Planet Stories), where the device is called a hypnopede; the "Education tapes" which instil first the ability to read and, later in life, specific vocational skills in Isaac Asimov's "Profession" (July 1957 Astounding); the "Electromechanical Educator" which develops a child into a precocious prodigy in George O Smith's The Fourth "R" (1959; vt The Brain Machine 1968); the "hypnopedia speaker droning away under the pillow" for trainee officers in Robert A Heinlein's above-cited Starship Troopers; the never-remembered "closed classes" of Robert Sheckley's The Status Civilization (1960), in which Earth's children are conditioned into such total and indeed supererogatory adherence to the law that police are unnecessary; the knowledge-imparting "cerebrostyle" or brain-writer ("the only known substitute for experience [...] and a sight faster") of Theodore Sturgeon's above-cited Venus Plus X; the "Deep hypnopaedia" that undoes the protagonist's anti-violence conditioning in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962); the Subliminal, Computer-mediated "Speedlearn" process in the Prisoner episode "The General" (3 November 1967); rapid learning of Russian via electrode links in Donald Kingsbury's The Moon Goddess and the Son (December 1979 Analog; exp 1986); and sleep-learning tapes for Esperanto and physics in the Red Dwarf episode "Me²" (21 March 1988). The doctors of James White's Sector General Hospital (see Medicine) gain needed expertise from "educator tapes" containing the memories of renowned physicians of the same species as their current patient. Similarly, people in Gregory Benford's Galactic Center novels learn or refuse to learn from the implanted personalities of deceased individuals, termed "aspects"; the titular "imprinter" device of Steven Gould's Helm (1998) instals not only education and physical skills but also a ghostly recorded personality. And Cyberpunk novels are filled with characters who garner new information from chips, implants, and other devices directly attached to their brains.

Finally, in stories about Post-Holocaust societies, a crucial requirement for the projected re-establishment of civilization is education. Thus, in George R Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), the hero Ish's unsuccessful efforts to interest young people in formal education signal that humanity is heading toward a bucolic future without technology. Conversely, the protagonist's discovery of a museum in Poul Anderson's Vault of the Ages (1952) helps to restore lost knowledge about the past, though the benefits of taking possession of the Museum of Man in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950) are more ambiguous. Similarly, the written information preserved by monks in Walter M Miller, Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; fixup dated 1960 but 1959) eventually inspires a rebirth of technology. Knowledge also tends to be lost and rediscovered on isolated colony planets (see Colonization of Other Worlds): "Teaching Rhymes" preserve cryptic information and advice whose meaning slowly emerges in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (fixup 1968), while the data-crystal from Earth that is decoded during the action of Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (1982; vt Geta 1984) proves a mixed educational blessing, being a detailed history of War and Weapons. In the film Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), a concluding scene in a classroom filled with human and ape children offers hope that the cataclysm previously depicted in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) might somehow be avoided. As in countless graduation speeches, in other words, sf regularly acknowledges that education is the key to humanity's future progress. [GW/DRL]

see also: Community; SF in the Classroom.

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