6 SFF Alternatives to Traditional Education

As summer winds down and students troop off to school, we found ourselves thinking about the many different types of education found in SFF. One of the most fun aspects of genre is that writers who choose to tell coming-of-age or 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. 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!



Doctor Donna learning through transformation disguise

Learning through transformation goes hand-in-hand with a wide swath of genre fiction. Some transformations are temporary disguises–The Once and Future King and The Magicians both transform students into animals. While Merlin’s naturalistic brand of teaching imbues a young King Arthur with a great deal of wisdom, Quentin Coldwater’s journey was decidedly… less useful on that front.

Permanent transformations often lead to an elevation of consciousness, as with Binti’s transformative experience in Nnedi Okorafor’s eponymous novella, or David Bowman’s transformation into the Starchild in 2001. And then there are metaphysical transformations that involve passing one person’s experience to another: Dune Reverend Mothers are imbued with the knowledge of all women who held the position before them; Doctor Who’s melding of the Doctor-Donna seemed to give Donna Noble access to all of the Doctor’s knowledge as a Time Lord (though that proved deadly).

There’s also the less literal “transformations” that come from stepping into someone else’s shoes—stories where monarchs and peasants switch places to learn “how the other half lives.” Death from the Sandman series has her own extreme version of this, becoming human once a year….

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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.

But a quick educational upload may not always be a good thing. Consider the Actives from Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse: they start out as “Dolls,” blank slates imprinted with entire personalities for use at the discretion of the Rossum Corporation. Though the Dolls are wiped clean at the end of an engagement, they begin developing their own personalities and eventually rebel. As in The Matrix, the former tools of the empire become its enemies, using its technology against it: the Dolls upload various skills onto USB flash drives, which they wear around their necks until they’re needed. Their human 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, the tech renders the Dolls both incomplete people and subpar computers.

The Command School from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is similarly operating under morally grey principles. On the surface, its use of computer 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.

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Music and Songs

music learning

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 poems and songs in Lord of the Rings to create the background tales of Middle-earth—Peter Jackson even included a nod to it in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, when the dwarves arrived in Rivendell.

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?

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The Traitor Baru Cormorant

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 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. …okay, 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.

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Taking a Gap Year

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—okay, 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 sets out on her mission with Alabaster in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, 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?

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Book Learnin’

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, she’s far from the only one to gather strength from books. 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. 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.”

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Originally published in September 2016.


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