Teaching in fiction, or how I learned to stop worrying and love cryptology

Here’s an idea to make school more fun, and the world a more considered place: let’s embrace the teaching potential of fiction. As a species we love stories in all forms, so much so that we go out of our way to consume them at every opportunity. So if we’re doing it anyway why not make the most of it?

The truth is we expose ourselves to all kinds of ideas every day, fans of the speculative genres in particular. Be it watching Eastenders, catching Koyaanisqatsi at the cinema, reading Joyce or just relaxing with some light reading, we absorb, process and reflect on a huge amount of information. And the best thing is we don’t even realise we’re doing it.

I just finished Neal Stephenson’s Cryptopnomicon, and the truth is that I’m pretty sure I know more about applied mathematics and cryptography now. Sure, I can’t remember every detail, but the explored example of working out when a bent spoke will knock a bike chain off has stuck with me. A problem is presented, the relevant element identified and the problem then worked through clearly. It’s the application of scientific method. In a book. An exciting book with sex, guns and everything.

It’s far from unique as well. The Smithsonian has a great article on the theme, looking to the future. They point out that Jules Verne was writing about solar sails, Ursula K. Le Guin was running thought experiments with society (actually, I think every author does that, but that’s another post) and William Gibson coined cyberpunk. They point to scientists and thinkers inspired by the science fiction and fantasy they read. The learned in a world burgeoning with ideas. It doesn’t matter that most won’t come true. These minds flourish because of the plethora of hypotheses, the stimulation of ideas.

So here’s the thing: Why do ‘proper’ or ‘serious’ ideas have to be presented by scientists at a lecture? If the idea is in a story or on a powerpoint slide the idea is just as valid.

The science of fiction

Here are a few examples off the top of my head, cases where fiction has taught me things. Real, valuable and important things about our world today.

The classic example: Arthur C. Clarke was an early voice proposing geostationary satellites. No punchline here. He thought about it and wrote a letter describing what a good idea it might be. He also grappled with the potentially senseless and/or incomprehensible nature of alien contact in 2001 and Rendezvous With Rama. What if we can’t just have a chat with the aliens and what does that mean for us as a species?

Newton and Einstein: These two crop up in all sorts of science fiction. Maybe it’s the alienating influence of war objectified as a real time-dilation effect The Forever War? Maybe it’s the moral compunctions of duty and the ethics of preserving life from The Cold Equations. Whatever it is, readers of science fiction are ahead of the pack when it comes to understanding the science.

Space travel and astronomy: Yes, as a community science fiction readers are less likely to be thrown by phrases like Lagrangian points or the Oort cloud, have a handle on the significance of various stellar bodies and can likely be quickly provoked into emphatic discussions regarding the most viable forms of space travel.

Fantasy as allegory

Of course it’s not all science fiction. In the same way horror allows us to explore our fears and insecurities fantasy offers endless angles on society and life. 

History: You know that Tolkein and George RR Martin borrow from world history, right? They’re also far from alone. You don’t even need orcs and magic, Robert Harris and Philip K. Dick both postulated a world where Germany won World War II. These stories allow us to examine the truths of the world through a lens and ask ourselves how much of it we want to repeat.

Satire: Little word, huge topic. Terry Pratchett is prime here. He deconstructs the absurdities of today’s world and hand it back to us, dissected and labelled with helpful notes and gags to stop us getting morbidly depressed. The Discworld series is a taxonomy of modern life, one concept at a time. Find me a pithier reduction of education anywhere than, ‘Pushing the boundaries of ignorance.’ 

Satire (again): How about Douglas Adams on monetary theory? Obviously, this in no way casts the recent financial crisis as the absurd outlay of an incomprehensible system:


In fact there are three freely convertible currencies in the Galaxy, but none of them count. The Altairian Dollar has recently collapsed, the Flainian Pobble Bead is only exchangeable for other Flainian Pobble Beads, and the Triganic Pu has its own very special problems. Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles along each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu. Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change. From this basic premise it is very simple to prove that the Galactibanks are also the product of a deranged imagination.

Stories for life

So there’s my hat in the ring. We know reading is A Good Thing and that it helps people develop literacy. I know all sorts of things because I read them in books. It’s also fun. Let’s applaud the real ideas and theories in stories. Learning doesn’t have to be boring. If you get it right it doesn’t even feel like learning.

For my next trick I'll show you how to teach statistics, probability and set theory using the Premier League.