Guest Blog: Are Today's Kids Reading Enough Science Fiction?

[Ed. note: the books and movies in this post have been linked using Amazon Affiliates. A portion of the sale of these items goes to benefit Google Lunar X PRIZE education and outreach programs.]

3504484742_915deabdb1.jpgIf you're reading this blog, there's a fairly good chance that you have a passion for space exploration, or at least space in general. (If not, bear with me for the next few sentences.) If you do, and you weren't lucky enough to grow up during the golden age of Apollo or the first Space Shuttle launches, it's probably just as reasonable to assume that your passion was stirred in part by reading or watching science fiction from a young age. How could you not be inspired to help make the tantalizingly-near-future vistas of Arthur C. Clarke a reality, or to dream of sitting in the captain's chair of the Enterprise? And where would you - and your generation - be without such cultural touchstones?

I should start off by noting that the impact of the Apollo Program, and actual space exploration in general, on science education and general space interest cannot be overstated. But as many grownups and politicians grew less enchanted with the space program in the 1970s and beyond, it increasingly fell to fictional accounts of humanity in space to inspire kids and teenagers around the world. Novels such as Robert A. Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel and Issac Asimov's Foundation sold in the millions, and upon its release in 1977, Star Wars became the highest box-office-grossing movie in history. (It wouldn't be topped until 1982, by E.T. the Extraterrestrial.) For a later generation, books like Ender's Game and the re-released Star Wars trilogy--and yes, sometimes even the prequels--filled the role, taking front-and-center positions in the hearts and bookshelves of me and my peers. Even Firefly, short-lived as its TV run was, provided a fresh and realistic-seeming perspective on space.

This decade, though, hasn't seen as many kids turning to science fiction. The most popular young adult book series of the last several years have been, by far, Harry Potter and Twilight, and on the film side, the Lord of the Rings trilogy has been cleaning up. This isn't to say anything objectively against these works, of course, nor to deny that there's been a lot of good general science fiction being produced. However, as much as I loved reading Anathem (for example), I'm not sure how much my 12-year-old self would have enjoyed it.

So, what does this shift in genre reading habits mean for the next generation of humanity and prospective space enthusiasts? At first glance, this seems like it could be a serious crisis. A sci-fi-rich childhood not only raises one's awareness of the possibilities of space exploration and colonization, but primes our imagination for technological progress. After all, Star Trek alone has inspired advances ranging from the Palm handheld to the possibility of quantum teleportation. Yet this is by no means a universally shared opinion. No less a figure than Buzz Aldrin has criticized science fiction as creating "expectations that are far unrealistic" and making space exploration pale in comparison.

Additionally, it's not as if science fiction is the only game in town. Though not many teenagers, unfortunately, read colonization-based science nonfiction, those who do are generally hooked for life. Just ask someone who read the visionary works of Gerard O'Neill, or Gene Kranz's Failure Is Not An Option, or Robert Zubrin's Entering Space, the latter of which was the first book to show me what we could achieve in space today when I found it at the Kennedy Space Center bookstore during a middle-school field trip. And, most importantly of all, there's the actual, real-life space agencies that are proving that space exploration isn't just something to read about in a book, but an opportunity that's taking place every day. This is especially true, of course, for the entrepreneurs and private citizens working on the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

So, what do you think? Does the predominance of Harry Potter over science fiction bode well or ill for the future of public spaceflight support? Does it even make a difference?

briceruss.jpgAbout the author: Brice Russ, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at Ohio State, is a member of the Yuri's Night Media Relations Team and former Director of Media Relations. He also serves as the New Media Coordinator for 4Frontiers and is part of the National Space Society's Public Affairs Committee.

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