When it comes to teaching science fiction, educators find themselves with an amazing opportunity. The book you choose can provide a compass for students to navigate how to behave with decency in a tumultuous world. That’s because, no matter how fantastical these tales appear, the novels and short stories reveal something about real and persisting societal ills.
Of course, it’s not always the big-picture stuff. More often than not, science fiction focuses on an individual’s growth. In fact, authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Shelley, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury have all penned novels that empower students to view their own creativity as an integral form of intelligence.
Our science fiction book recommendations and accompanying classroom activities aim to help you navigate a new and exciting adventure in your classroom. We hope you and your students enjoy the ride.
Defining the Science Fiction Genre
We made some pretty lofty assertions in that intro. That means we need to answer a question. What is science fiction, exactly?
If the stacks of PhD dissertations covering this topic provide any indication, whittling down the genre to a bite-sized description proves difficult. No matter what, it’s important to note that the authors in this list are not classified this way because their books contain flying saucers and extraterrestrial encounters.
For our purposes, this literary genre involves humanity and its struggle to create a more habitable environment for present and future generations. If the pages contain little green guys with space helmets and ray guns—great! But those intergalactic inclusions are not necessary. That said, the following science fiction book recommendations and lesson plans involve three pillars:
- An exploration of identity and change that must happen from within
- A question of how new technologies impact our society positively or negatively
- An assessment of how the actions we take in the present may shape life for our descendants
Science Fiction Book Recommendations and Classroom Activities
Description: In publishing this novel back in 1953, Ray Bradbury created a world that holds a mirror up to the present day. The story follows the evolution of Guy Montag, who lives in a future where the government employs firefighters to hunt down and burn books. The houses (and often the people) who harbor that contraband also go up in flames. As Montag sees the heinous truth behind these acts, how will he evolve as a human being?
Why We Love It: Literature sharpens the mind, inspires deeper imagination, enhances creativity, and sparks social change. But even if we don’t have to watch the pages vanish in a hot blaze, these works often go ignored. The novel establishes how crucial literature is to a healthier and more empathetic society.
Classroom Activities for Fahrenheit 451: It might amaze your students to learn there are thousands of banned books. New titles are added to the list each year. Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Judy Blume, and Mark Twain stand among a gallery of beloved authors whose books have been forbidden. Ask your students to read a banned book and speculate why those in power sought their removal.
How High We Go in the Dark
Description: Sequoia Nagamatsu has written perhaps the most relevant novel for post-2020 life. Set in a future where a rampant virus continues to ravage the world, the author tells interconnected stories about what it means to look for meaning in a chaotic world.
Why We Love It: The novel’s imagination is unmatched. The stories take readers through a world where a pig develops human speech, a comedian works in a theme park for sick children, and a woman searches for a new home planet alongside her granddaughter.
Classroom Activities for How High We Go in the Dark: This one calls for a creative writing assignment. Have your students study the universe Nagamatsu designed and write a short story that can take place within that setting.
Description: In this semi-autobiographical novel, Kurt Vonnegut uses his experience as a prisoner of war to explore what it means to be a decent human being living in an indecent time. The story blends the brutal nonfiction of World War II (chiefly the fire-bombings of Dresden) with otherworldly fiction that comes to life by way of intergalactic travel.
Why We Love It: At Advancement Courses HQ, the ELA teachers consider Mr. Vonnegut a most wonderful role model for human interaction. (Sue us.) But beyond our personal affinity for the mustachioed maestro, this book provides a keen example of how the perils of real life influence the fantasticness of fiction.
Classroom Activities for Slaughterhouse-Five: Have your students write vignettes that contain both true and imagined elements. These details may be autobiographical or not. As Slaughterhouse-Five remains one of the country’s most frequently banned books, an activity involving censorship might also be appropriate.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Description: The book that made author Ursula K. Le Guin a household name, The Left Hand of Darkness follows the trials and tribulations of Genly Ai, a delegate who visits an alien planet called Gethen. Once he arrives, he learns that the inhabitants can choose (and change) their gender at will. How will he adapt to something he doesn’t fully understand?
Why We Love It: Genly encounters a civilization that abides by a different belief system. In an eye’s rapid blink, the character finds himself surrounded by a society he doesn’t understand at first. We love this novel because the author espouses the need to adapt our thinking in light of new information.
Classroom Activities for The Left Hand of Darkness: The book contains rich descriptions of an environment that no one has actually seen (i.e., a fictional planet that never existed before Le Guin manifested it on paper). The author goes into lush detail that helps readers truly see the nuances of this setting. Based on these details, have your students draw the planet depicted in the book. The illustration may come from an individual scene in the novel, or be a general interpretation.
Description: Frankenstein has remained a staple in the science fiction world for more than 200 years. Mary Shelley’s story follows the brilliant but unstable scientist Victor Frankenstein, who uses limbs and organs cut from multiple corpses to bring an eight-foot-tall creature to life. At first the “monster” seeks human connection, but his disposition takes a violent turn when everyone he encounters mistreats him.
Why We Love It: How we treat others, despite where they come from or what they look like, defines our humanity. Need we say more?
Classroom Activities for Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s novel has inspired countless works of art in film and theatre. In these, the creature often appears as a square-headed, green-skinned creature with bolts protruding from either side of his neck. However, the novel’s description is nothing like most of Hollywood’s visual interpretations. Have your students draw a creature that mirrors Shelley’s original words, which describe a yellowish, translucent skin that shows arteries and muscles beneath it. The author goes on to describe glowing, watery eyes, black lips, and large, bright white teeth.
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Description: Perhaps the funniest novel on our list, this science fiction classic elevates the time travel subgenre in a remarkable way. Author Connie Willis tells the story of Ned Henry, a future historian equipped with the technology to whip through the circuits of time and space. That power comes at a price, of course. As Ned jumps from century to century, and time lag takes its toll, how will the present evolve? Will the characters we care about continue to exist?
Why We Love It: The book tells a serious tale with grand humor that helps readers digest some of the heavier parts of the narrative.
Classroom Activities for To Say Nothing of the Dog: Ask your students the classic time travel question: What place and era would they enjoy visiting most? Once they figure out their ideal trip, have them use critical thinking and imagination to describe what they experience and how that ripple effect may impact the present day.