I wish I knew how it would feel to be free goes an old Nina Simone classic. How does speculative fiction help students think about freedom? What would we do if we could reshape society and start all over again?
Summer is here, and the opportunity to expand and reboot how we teach and live grows nigh for many educators. This is a good time to think about notions of freedom. Like the courageous students who participated in the Freedom Summer project in 1964 and fought for the right of African Americans to vote in Mississippi, this summer may also be a moment to reflect on how you can bring discussions of freedom into the classroom.
Science fiction, fantasy, and other types of speculative fiction can be escapist, but this genre of literature can also take you into the heart of the matter relating to freedom and whether or not human civilization can exist without some form of tyranny.
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Escapism, Oh My!
Here are a few sci-fi stories to expand your imagination, provide some summer time escapism, and maybe get you thinking about how to bring the power of speculative literature's exploration of freedom into your classroom.
The book, Daemon, and its sequel, Freedom, both written by Daniel Suarez, explore what would happen if an artificial intelligence (AI) created to run an online game ends up taking over the world. And just as they would in a virtual gaming world, humans who choose to play along with this AI can level up and are rewarded with game points and special powers that can be used in the real world.
Yet, on a deeper level, these two books are about whether humans have lost the right to govern themselves due to their greed and mismanagement of the earth's resources. The books create a scenario in which a world controlled by an AI can appear like a more attractive alternative to one run by humans.
Ursula Le Guin's 1974 classic has deep philosophical roots. In her imagined future, Le Guin tells the story of an emissary to a capitalist, militarized government from a planet that has created an anarchist society. In contrast to the world government, the people from the emissary's planet have found a way to share resources and deal with intransigent behavior without any form of governmental oversight.
Le Guin invites us to question our assumptions about the apparent inevitability of a top-down government as the only way humans can enjoy the benefits of civilization. While the emissary's planet does not have the material wealth of the capitalist government, the people there do enjoy a sense of liberation that seems unimaginable.
Starhawk invites us to imagine life in a future matriarchal society. Written by Starhawk, this story takes place in Western United States, and the society is run by five women elders. While the eastern half of the United States has been taken over by patriarchal, Christian fundamentalists, these women rule with the consent of men, and share a pagan, nature-oriented belief system. Much like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, The 5th Sacred Thing encourages the reader to question current gender inequalities in politics and society.
Written by Dan Simmons, this tale imagines a future in which St Peter's basilica is moved from the Vatican to another planet, and the Catholic Church becomes a universal religion across the galaxy, thanks to an alien life form that causes a form of reincarnation. Sounds crazy, but Hyperion is one of the most literate science fiction books in recent memory.
In this book -- and its sequels -- a form of medieval Christendom has been extended beyond the earth, bringing along with it all of the hierarchies and power politics of the European Middle Ages. It also questions the role of faith when it encounters an incomprehensible exobiology that fulfills our religious hopes for eternal life.
The Silo Saga
This series of books, written by Hugh Howey, tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world in which humans live out their existence in gigantic, windowless, self-contained structures, a sort of silo for a future humanity. Why humans have been put inside these silos and who put them there is slowly revealed in this fascinating trilogy.
Despite their imprisonment, these humans, after generations of silo living -- and with very little awareness of what the outside world is like -- have adapted and have found their own forms of happiness and reasons for living. The series encourages readers to think about what freedom means when the outside world appears frightening and life inside is all one has ever known.
Science fiction and fantasy allows our imagination to question what we take for granted, and serves as a great way to think about the limits and possibilities of freedom. What speculative fiction books inspire you to reimagine the way we live? Please share in the comments section below.