As summer winds down and students troop off to school, we found ourselves thinking about the many different types of learning in SFF. One of the most fun aspects of genre is that writers who choose to tell coming-of-age stories and campus stories have so many more options than writers of realistic fiction—where your litfic author has to choose between, say, high school and college, or public, private, and parochial school, a genre author’s options are a lot cooler. Hey, how about if your teenage protagonist learns how to fly when he becomes a goose? That can totally happen in SFF! Want to send your characters to boarding school? Why not make it a magical boarding school? A summer internship in an office can make for lackluster reading, but what if you up the stakes by apprenticing your character to aliens… who are fighting a battle to save the universe?
Best of all, these narrative choices allow the characters to learn in a variety of different ways! We’ve gathered some of our favorites into a loosely organized roll call below—let us know which ways of learning are your favorites!
Transformation and Disguise
Learning by some form of transformation goes hand-in-hand with a dearth of genre fiction–and so do disguises! Of course, some transformations are disguises in and of themselves–such as changing your students into animals, as The Once and Future King or The Magicians would have it. Merlin’s more naturalistic brand of teaching imbues a young King Arthur with a great deal of wisdom, while a similar exploration for Quentin Coldwater was decidedly… less useful on that front.
Literal and permanent transformations often lead to an elevation of consciousness, like Binti’s transformative experience in Nnedi Okorafor’s eponymous novella, or David Bowman’s transformation into the Starchild in 2001. And then there are types of transformative learning that involve passing down one person’s experience to another; the Bene Gesserit of the Dune series have Reverend Mothers that are imbued with the knowledge of all women who held the position before them, and the metacrisis of the Doctor-Donna on Doctor Who seemed to give Donna Noble access to all of the Doctor’s knowledge as a Time Lord (though that proved deadly).
There’s always the transformative experience of stepping into someone else’s shoes as well. Many stories with monarchs and peasants feature journeys where one participant learns “how the other half lives.” Death from the Sandman series has her own extreme version of this, human once a year….
- The Once and Future King by T.H. White
- The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
- 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
- The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
Sometimes the best answer is the simplest. While other SFF students apprentice themselves out, travel the world, or transform into creatures great and small in their quest for a good education, there are other characters who simply go to the library.
Hermione Granger’s entire approach to life can be summed up in this passage from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:
“Harry—I think I’ve just understood something! I’ve got to go to the library!”
And she sprinted away, up the stairs.
“What does she understand?” said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
“Loads more than I do,” said Ron, shaking his head.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.”
Let’s be real: Harry’s great, but he would have been screwed without Hermione’s dedication to study. It’s her careful and wide-ranging reading that shores up all of Harry’s Chosen One-ness and Ron’s pluck, and both of the boys know it. While Hermione is probably the most library-prone of our students, I want to highlight a few more. In the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Sunnydale High library wasn’t just the Scooby Gang’s source of learning about their foes, it served as their HQ. And even after they graduated, they all just set up operation in Giles’ magic shop, which was more than half bookstore. And in what may be the single greatest SFF example of Book Learnin’—Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is largely about the invention of “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” an interactive book that is supposed to nudge the reader toward a more interesting and productive life. Ideally it would be attuned to the owner’s environment, but when Nell, a poor, working-class girl, receives a Primer meant for an aristocrat, class-critiquing shenanigans ensue. And of course, it’s the Doctor’s fateful visit to a planet-sized Library that introduced Whovians to River Song in “Silence in the Library.”
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
- Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
- The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
If you lack the access to a library or the time to pore over a book, streamline the process by uploading knowledge straight to your brain! All you need is a willing neural pathway—either through mental conditioning or an actual port drilled into your head—and the necessary information or skills already burned onto some sort of disc. Because that’s all it is—data.
It’s the first pleasant surprise for Neo in The Matrix, once he gets unplugged from the massive simulation that he believed to be his entire existence. “I know kung fu” is one of the film’s most iconic lines, as he learns that his human brain, tricked by the Matrix’s chemicals and cables, can be adapted to fit his needs as a rebel—and within a matter of seconds, to boot:
And yet, as we acquire the means to break down information into smaller and more flexible chunks, the temptation to specialize our learning processes degrades the value of such knowledge. Consider the Actives from Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse: They start out as “Dolls,” blank slates imprinted with entire personalities—ostensibly wiped clean at the end of an engagement, except that they begin developing their own personalities, however incomplete. By the time of the series finale “Epitaph Two: Return,” set a decade in the future (2020), in a dystopian world where the Rossum Corporation is attempting to forcibly wipe people.
Not unlike in The Matrix, the former tools of this empire have become its enemies, using its technology against it: They upload various skills onto USB flash drives, which they wear around their necks until they’re needed. But “tech-heads” like poor Tony above are only so advanced: Their brains can’t contain every necessary bit of data—combat skills, languages, intel—all at once without going insane, and they can’t download a new skill without removing another. Whether emotions such as mercy or love are included in that list is up for debate, but at any rate, they’re both incomplete people and subpar computers.
But as far as simulations go, you can’t forget the best example of this trope: the Command School from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. On its surface, its use of simulations seems like the perfect, painless way to teach shrewd command skills and a cool head in hyper-realistic battles. But therein lies the rub—the only way it succeeds is if the trainees believe that it’s a simulation, with no more stakes than a virtual reality video game.
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
- Neuromancer by William Gibson
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
- The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan
- He, She and It by Marge Piercy
- Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi
Where would we be without bards of old? Many of humanity’s oldest tales were initially passed on in song, as rhythm and rhyme could make these epic tales far easier to remember. So it’s no surprise that J.R.R. Tolkien used this device in Lord of the Rings when he was hoping to impart a Middle-earth legend, background for his world and our fellowship of heroes. And who can forget Mr. Nancy in American Gods, regaling a hall full of deities with a story about how he once stole Tiger’s balls?
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- Spellsong Cycle series by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
- Shannara series by Terry Brooks
- Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
There really is no substitute for on-the-job experience—after all, you learn by doing (or seducing, or killing). Living in the household of the City of Elua’s “whoremaster of spies,” Phèdre nó Delaunay hones not only her abilities to entertain and bed most of the noble class, but also her knack for drawing secrets out of her clients during pillow talk. Similarly, it’s one thing for Assassin’s Apprentice FitzChivalry to learn combat skills and his way around a knife, but it’s in the name—you don’t become an assassin until you actually kill someone, preferably the prince from the neighboring kingdom. And as the Dragon’s apprentice (by force and ancient custom), Uprooted‘s captive Agniezska quickly realizes that book learnin’ is not for her, as her fledgling magic spills over that of her master and his dusty tomes. But once they must leave his tower for the ominous Woods, Agniezska learns to harness her magic against an ancient evil encroaching on her home.
It’s also the perfect safe space to make mistakes. How else would Death’s apprentice Mort find out that you’re not supposed to save people if he didn’t create an entire alternate universe after sparing a princess from the afterlife? Or The Traitor Baru Cormorant, fresh out of school and thrust into the thankless role of Imperial Accountant on a nation exhausted from countless failed insurrections, who devastates the latest uprising through currency. If only she kept her arrogance in check behind her self-made mask, she might have caught on to the political machinations whose flames she unintentionally stokes. …OK, maybe not so “safe” a space, but valuable lessons abound nonetheless.
The most fortunate apprentices are the ones who get to level up. Take Steven Universe’s eponymous half-human/half-Crystal Gem child, who gets to follow the Gems around on missions instead of going to conventional school (with seemingly no one questioning this arrangement). At least once an episode, the Gems find a Gem Shard or Gem Monster, defeat it, and then “bubble” it to contain it so it can’t hurt others. And guess whose special gift is bubbling? Adorable, enthusiastic, undaunted Steven finds his place.
- Mort by Terry Pratchett
- Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
- Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik
- The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
- The Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
- The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
- The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
- The Glasswrights’ Apprentice by Mindy Klasky
- Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger
Taking a Gap Year
To some degree, most epic quests have a degree of learning-via-travel: go forth, save the world, pick up a few fighting tips and camping skills on the way! But some feel a bit more like legit gap years than others. Foremost among these? Westley’s transformation into the Dread Pirate Roberts. Our boy had gone into the world to seek his fortune, but what he got was something else: an education. And let’s be honest: his fencing skills (and cool mask) were probably way more interesting to Buttercup than plain ol’ money would’ve been
Then there are the hobbits, who might never left the Shire if not for that pesky ring. They had the whole wide world to learn about, even if it was slightly—ok, more than slightly—traumatic. Arthur Dent learned about towels, flying, and large swaths of the galaxy when Ford Prefect whisked him off-planet. You could make a pretty good argument for Arya Stark’s time at the House of Black and White as her gap year away from Westeros—no longer a child, not a fully fledged assassin quite yet. And when Syenite, in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, sets out on her mission with Alabaster, she learns just how much she didn’t know about her world. And what was the voyage of the Dawn Treader if not a really excellent semester at sea?
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide series by Douglas Adams
- A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
What kinds of learnin’ did we miss? Share in the comments!