In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to recommend five books based around a common theme. These lists aren’t intended to be exhaustive, so we hope you’ll discuss and add your own suggestions in the comments!
Most writers are, one way or another, trying to get some kind of message across, so it’s no surprise to discover that teachers and pupils are a common theme in fiction. No surprise, also, to discover that the process often goes wrong.
Below are a five of my favourite takes on the perils of education.
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
A blocked writer tries to recover from a torrid love affair by teaching a computer how to read and interpret fiction. The computer is called Helen, and a touching, but inherently doomed relationship evolves. The more Helen learns about books and the world, the less she understands, and she ends up deciding to shut herself down.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
Ged studies magic at a school for wizards on the island of Roke, and turns out to be a quick and talented pupil. In fact, he’s too quick, and creates through his spells a rent in the fabric of reality, through which a shadow creature escapes, which he must eventually pursue and confront. Knowledge is power, but it’s also incredibly dangerous, as any of us who experienced a chemistry lesson that went wrong will confirm.
Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens
Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall boarding school for unwanted children has to be the template for the horrible, abusive teacher, and it seems to me as if every bad teacher since—for both in fiction, and in real life there, have been many—have used aspects of the ghastly Squeers.
Apt Pupil by Stephen King (originally published in Different Seasons)
A promising young lad rides his bike up to the doorstep of a neighbour, and on into the horrors of the old man’s corpse-filled cellar, the even greater horrors of Nazi Germany, and a concluding shoot-out which ends in his death. Which just goes to show once again that a good education isn’t necessarily a good one.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Not sure who’s the real teacher in poignant novel about boosting human intelligence—it might be better said that Algernon the mouse and Charlie Gordon, who both undergo dramatic improvements in their cognition, and then suffer equally dramatic declines, are autodidacts. At the end of the day, the one thing we can learn from even the most brilliant teacher is that the best way to find out about the world is to act and think for ourselves.
Although my novel The Summer Isles is essentially an alternate history, it’s also very much a book about teaching, and how good and positive messages can be turned into lies. The narrator, Griffin Brooke, is catapulted from being a schoolteacher in a small midlands city to professor at an ancient Oxford college in Britain in a changed 1930s. However, no one seems to notice his incompetence, and, until the events of the story begin, his key influence in the life of the young man who became the dictator of Britain is both all-pervasive yet unacknowledged.
Ian R. MacLeod is the acclaimed writer of challenging and innovative speculative and fantastic fiction. He has won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the World Fantasy Award. His novel, The Summer Isles, is a pastel-hued yet chilling alternate vision of England. In it, the country has become a nightmare since Germany’s victory in the Great War, which we see through the eyes of a man whose life lies close to the heart of the dark history.
MacLeod grew up in the West Midlands region of England, studied law, and spent time working and dreaming in the civil service before moving on to teaching and house-husbandry. He lives with his wife in the riverside town of Bewdley.