At the heart of good science fiction lies science itself. I don’t just mean Phasers, photon torpedoes, and faster-than-light travel, I mean Science: an inclination to observe and comment on the world around us, an exploratory spirit searching for the “whys” and “hows” in nature, and that slightly manic gleam in one’s eye that sparks a possibility, a singular “what if” that has the power to change the world.
Far from putting fanciful notions in students’ heads, quality science fiction stories should ignite the imagination and invite questions about the world, what it is, how it could be, and even perhaps how it ought to be. Inadvertent prophets, science fiction writers often strain the boundaries of current human knowledge The dreams that they pour onto the page in rivers of ink often surge forward in waves towards the future, crashing down as real, tangible scientific revolutions. Think of the lunar landings in Verne’s From Earth to the Moon, or Orwell’s predictions of mass-surveillance in 1984.
Science fiction books, as a result, make excellent texts for classrooms. They can spur curiosity in students about science, its history and philosophy, provoke discussions about the nature of the world, and perhaps even inspire students to one day make their own scientific breakthroughs!
Here are a few examples of great sci-fi books for your middle-schoolers. They range from funny and adventurous, to thoughtful and speculative, to brooding and psychological.
1) Girl Genius, by Phil Foglio
“Oh. I’m dreaming again. How disappointing.”
“You work with mad scientists and you’re surprised at a talking cat? I’m the one who’s disappointed.”
If you’re looking for a hilarious, complex plot with an awesome female heroine, an assorted cast of trope-bending characters, and plenty of mad science, Girl Genius is for you. Foglio’s multiple Hugo Award-winning “Gaslamp Fantasy” series (a term he prefers to “Steampunk”, because of the lack of, well…”punk”) is available in its (ongoing) entirety online as a free webcomic, or in serialized print. The fantastic artwork only enhances the complex plot, illuminating a wacky version of 19th century Europe that is simultaneously blessed and cursed with a glut of mad scientists. Our protagonist, Agatha quickly discovers that she possesses “The Spark” of genius that both gives her the knowhow and drive to build automatons, lasers, flying ships and the like, but also renders her prone to violent outburst of madness. And from there, the plot only thickens. Highly recommended for teens.
2) The Giver, by Lois Lowry
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”
What if we gave up all pain, suffering, desire and choice? Would we actually be happier? Lois Lowry’s provocative dystopian novel discusses just that, exploring notions of what actually makes us human, the role we all play in society, and how we deal with history and collective guilt. While thoughtful and introspective, The Giver is still a gripping and exciting read. The themes of genetic engineering, eugenics and euthanasia can also be used to introduce a philosophical bent to any science classroom.
3) Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
“Human beings may be miserable specimens, in the main, but we can learn, and, through learning, become decent people.”
Setting aside Card’s rather inflammatory political opinions, Ender’s Game deserves its place among the sci-fi classics. The multi-award winner resonates with many students, not only for its video-game references, but for its exploration of loneliness, bullying, and what it feels like to be an outsider. And while many sci-fi books casually toss around the concept of alien warfare as a framing or plot device, Ender’s Game is notable in that it examines the ethics of war, why we want to fight the aliens in the first place, and the psychological ramifications of constant combat, both in terms of personal trauma as well as the strain it creates on relationships. An excellent mix of breathtaking battles and boyhood brooding.
If you liked this article, you may want to check out our recommendations for Science Books for Adults, Comics to Get Kids to Read, Games that Teach Language Arts, and Classic Fantasy Books for Preteen Kids (And Their Parents).