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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #5

During my teaching years, I encountered occasional parents who didn’t approve of my introducing science fiction books into the curriculum. I can understand it, especially their concern that English classes should be teaching Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jane Austen rather than tales about rocket ships and time travel. The problem was that teenagers, even the smartest among them, are often turned off by classical literature. The Brothers Karamazov is a powerhouse, but a reader needs a fairly sophisticated level of maturity to appreciate it.

An argument can be made that an English teacher’s primary responsibility is to ignite in the students a passion for reading. Make that happen, and the kids will eventually find Austen and Emerson on their own. One of the worst mistakes I can recall from one of my teachers occurred in my sophomore year. He spent most of our classes reading from A Tale of Two Cities. He was a decent reader but it didn’t much matter. I needed a few years before I could take Dickens seriously again. (I’m glad he didn’t try War and Peace.)

In any case, there are a few books that, in my experience, have worked extraordinarily well with teens. These include Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Man in His Time by Brian Aldiss, any collection by Arthur Clarke, and The Green Hills of Earth by Robert Heinlein.

The title piece for The Green Hills of Earth is probably the most moving short story, SF or otherwise, that I’ve read.

Something else that may be of interest: Over the years, when I’ve asked people attending panels and workshops to name their all-time favorite SF tale, they almost always choose short fiction. Occasionally, they respond with Rendezvous with Rama, or In the Ocean of Night, but almost inevitably, they are short fiction. Ask for five titles, and all five are likely to be short stories. Among the most popular, Clarke’s “The Star,” Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll.” And I can’t resist adding one of my all-time favorites: “Gentlemen, Be Seated.”

I’m not certain why it is that we remember the short fiction most vividly. If we talk of the fiction of Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, and the rest of the team, the titles that show up are almost always novels. Which is why they are, for the most part, referred to as novelists.

It may be that science fiction works best in its shorter version because it is so often based on a surprise. When we learn why the navigator in “The Star” is shocked by what his interstellar finds while examining what’s left after a supernova, the reader is shocked too. A novel can’t manage that kind of jolt. It’s simply too big, and even if that kind of effect can be delivered, it’s still surrounded by a much longer narrative.

Bottom line: If you want to get kids reading, try a good SF anthology.

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