The Science in Science Fiction


Science fiction involves much more than one eyed-aliens, shiny robots and fantastical spaceships. In fact, many of the most outlandish pieces of science fiction have their basis in scientific facts. At the heart of a science fiction novel is the question, “what if?”  What if we lived on another planet? What if robots had human characteristics? What if a strain of bacteria grew and infected the world?

While many of these scenarios may seem crazy, they contain an element of possibility. Because a great deal of science fiction is rooted in science, it can be used to bring literature out of the English classroom and into science and technology classrooms.

Benefits of Teaching Science Fiction

Not only does science fiction help students see scientific principles in action, it also builds their critical thinking and creative skills. As students read a science fiction text, they must connect the text with the scientific principles they have learned. Students can read a science fiction text and non-fiction text covering similar ideas and compare and contrast the two; for example comparing George Orwell’s 1984 with Stalinist ideals in the Soviet Union. Students can also build their creative skills by seeing scientific principles used in a different way, possibly creating science fiction stories of their own or imagining new ways to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned.

Getting Started with Science Fiction

If bringing science fiction into the classroom sounds like a good idea, the next step is finding pieces of science fiction to use with students. If teaching physics, focus on comic books. As superheroes jump across buildings, fight their enemies and try to save the world, they are using many of the principles of physics. Comic books also have a place in the chemistry classroom. For example, students can analyze the properties of kryptonite and compare them to other chemicals, or discover the properties of water as they read about Aquaman. Even when they defy the principles of physics or stray from the laws of chemistry, students can learn and discuss the consequences if people could defy the same principles in real life. Shows such as Dr. Who and Star Trek incorporate the principles of physics through time travel, teleporting and moving through space.

Biology classrooms also have the ability to get in on the science fiction bandwagon. A large number of young adult novels, such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Trilogy, the Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie and Feed by M.T. Anderson consider what happens when society alters a human’s biology and controls the brain and elements of the environment. These same novels also have a place in the technology classroom, helping students consider possible dangers of their growing dependence on technology.

Popular short stories and novellas, such as Flowers for AlgernonSupertoys Last All Summer Long or Metamorphosis also contain elements of biology for students to explore.

Science Fiction in Other Subject Areas

Not all science fiction is limited to English and science-based classrooms either. Many science fiction novels have a place in the social studies classroom. Controlling governments play a central role in some science fiction stories and novels. For example, the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, involves a main character who does want to follow the laws of the government. Others, such as Jack Finney’s Time and Again or H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, focus on time travel and the theoretical dangers of changing aspects of the past. Reading science fiction in subject areas other than English and science boosts students’ critical thinking skills even more, encouraging them to make connections between subjects and understand how what they are learning in science has the potential to affect governments, cultures and how history plays out.

Reading science fiction takes students beyond the textbook definitions of the scientific principles and facts they are learning in class. It gives them a chance to see science in action and helps them understand how much of science is unexplored. Scientists are coming up with new ideas and discoveries on a daily basis. While many of the elements contained in science fiction novels may seem outlandish, a lot of them could also become a reality. Science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson have predicted the future and inspired scientists to imagine the unknown. Teaching science fiction could inspire your students to do the same.