The Sci-Fi Challenge is an activity we have used in teacher workshops. Selections from nine stories (classic sci-fi, sci-fi/fantasy, children’s stories) are provided to teachers working in pairs or small groups, who then choose one or more passage to analyze according to the following directions.
What to Look For
- Read one of the passages provided.
- Science fiction should be a blend of entertaining storytelling and some level of science fact⸺either proven, possible, or probable. Science fantasy usually relies more heavily on storytelling and improbable science and technology.
- Think about the passage you read in terms of science, science fiction, and science fantasy.
- Discuss several of the questions below with your partner or group. Share your conclusions with the class.
- Is the passage science fiction or science fantasy?
- Is there scientific fact included in the passage? Does the science (or technology) presented seem probable, possible, or impossible?
- Does the passage make mistakes in the science facts or concepts it presents? If so, what is improbable, impossible, or wrong with the science presented?
- Does the fiction reflect science fact or knowledge even though it is not meant to be realistic (i.e., is the Sun represented as hot, stars as spheres, etc.)? Can the fiction be used to introduce science fact?
- If alien creatures or places are presented, are they believable? Do the aliens reflect their environment? For example, a planet with high gravity and a dense atmosphere would be unlikely to support tall, thin, fragile lifeforms.
- If the story takes place on Earth in the future, is it believable? Are conditions presented as better or worse? Would you want to live there?
- Would it help to know when the story was written and who wrote it? If the story was written before 1960, the science and technology presented or proposed may seem dated. Is there evidence that the story was written pre-1960? pre-1900? If an author from the past made predictions about the future, are they accurate? Give examples.
- Does the author’s point of view reflect misconceptions based on when he/she wrote? How would you rewrite the passage to reflect current knowledge?
Due to limited space, three passages are provided. Spoiler Alert: The book titles, authors, and dates of publication follow these passages. Try your hand at analyzing the following excerpts based on the directions above.
SELECTION ONE, CONTEXT: The author breaks away from his story to put his voyage to another celestial object into perspective.
If he had watched attentively, the observer would then have seen other molecules in the mass behaving like the central star: condensing in a constantly accelerating rotary motion as it had done, and gravitating around it in the form of countless stars. A nebula had been formed. Astronomers now count nearly five thousand of them.
Among these five thousand nebulae there is one which men have named the Milky Way. It contains eighteen million stars, each one of which has become the center of a solar world.
SELECTION TWO, CONTEXT: Earth is about to be destroyed and refugees are fleeing in an old spaceship.
And the next day we all went away, Father and Joe, and Sarah, and Pattie, and lots of other families, and left the Earth far behind.
When we could undo our seat belts and look out of the windows, the world looked like a Chinese paper lantern, with painted lands upon it, and all the people on the ship looked at it, and some of the grownups cried.
…Sarah and Pattie stood at a porthole all day long, and saw the world shrink and shrink and diminish down till it looked like a round cloudy glass marble that you could have rolled on the palm of your hand. Pattie was looking forward to going past the moon, but that was no fun at all, for the ship passed by the dark side, and we saw nothing of it.
The journey was very boring. It was so long. The spaceship was big enough to frighten us when we thought of it flying through the void. Joe kept telling Pattie not to worry. “Heavy things don’t fall down in space,” he told her. “There’s nowhere for them to fall; no gravity.”
But the ship was small enough to frighten us too, when we thought of spending years inside it.
“We are on quite a small planet,” he told us all. “More like the moon than the Earth. We are orbiting a bright sun, but we are orbiting much more evenly than the Earth; there will be less difference between one season and another here. The soil here seems fertile, though, as you all know, the plant life here is crystalline and might act on our digestive systems like ground glass, so we can only eat what we can grow from Earth seeds. It seems there is no life in the waters of this planet except algae and suchlike, and the jellyfish we have all seen.”
SELECTION THREE, CONTEXT: The author chronicles his journey from the Earth to the Sun.
I perceived very distinctly, as I had formerly suspected in traveling to the Moon, that it is indeed the Earth which turns about the Sun from East to West, and not the Sun which turns about the Earth; for I saw in succession France, the foot of the boot of Italy, then the Mediterranean, then Greece, then the Bosphorus, the Euxine Sea, Persia, the Indies, China and finally Japan pass across the hole of my box, and some hours after my elevation the whole South Sea passed by and left in its place the Continent of America. On my way I passed, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, several worlds like ours and I felt myself deflected whenever I reached the spheres of their activities. However, the rapid vigor of my upward flight overcame these attractions.
I passed near the Moon which at that time was between the Sun and the Earth, and I left Venus on the right hand. As touching this star, the old Astronomy has so preached that the planets are spheres which turn around the Earth that modern Astronomy dare not doubt it. And yet I notice that as long as Venus appeared on this side of the Sun, around which she turns, I saw her as a crescent; but as she continued her orbit I noticed that in proportion as she passed behind the Sun the horns drew together and her black belly became golden. This alternation of light and darkness showed very plainly that the planets, like the Moon and the Earth, are globes without light of their own and are only capable of reflecting what they borrow. Moreover, as I continued to rise, I made the same observation in the case of Mercury.
Selection 1: From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne, 1865.
Selection 2: The Green Book, Jill Paton Walsh, 1982.
Selection 3: A Voyage to the Moon: with Some Account of the Solar World, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1656 and 1662.