Teaching SciFi to Japanese high school students
June 23, 2010 3:52 AM   Subscribe

What English-language science fiction books would you recommend I teach to Japanese high school students?

I'm in my first year of teaching advanced reading to kids at a high school here, and may be given some creative freedom in the books that I teach them in the future. I have a long fondness for science fiction, and would love to expose them to some of the best English has to offer.

The kids in these classes are either returnees (they lived in an English-speaking country for a significant amount of time) or their English ability is much better than the average student's. We teach them much in the same way we'd teach an English lit class in the US - essays, discussions, creative projects and the like - but we give them a little more time to read the book so as to deal with vocabulary issues, explore the culture, etc.

They've just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, some of them have been exposed to 1984 and Brave New World, and the list I'm compiling would be more for the next academic year, starting in April 2011. So no hurry.

I have some ideas of my own, but I'd like to hear what the Hive Mind comes up with, especially those with more experience teaching reading to teenagers.

Many thanks!
posted by MShades to Education (36 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Frankenstein is crucial for background. It's short, but my foreign students liked the Veldt, also by Ray Bradbury. Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? is also great. It's also nice to watch Blade Runner later to study the transformation of book to film. The Handmaid's Tale or other Margaret Atwood stuff is fun to teach as well.
posted by acidic at 4:02 AM on June 23, 2010

The Man Who Folded Himself
posted by Paragon at 4:03 AM on June 23, 2010

Childhood's End.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:03 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

It seems no discussion of teens and SF on Metafilter is complete without a suggestion of Card's Ender's Game. In addition, for some reason, reading your question immediately made me want to go old school and recommend John Wyndham, in particular Chocky or The Day of the Triffids.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:08 AM on June 23, 2010

Starship Troopers: Discussing Heinlein's view of the relationship between citizenship and society in Japan might be interesting.

The Man in the High Castle: Alternative history, etc.

Neuromancer: Cyberpunk and more contemporary SF.

I haven't read it, but Cory Doctrow's "For The Win" is very contemporary, with gold farmers in MMORPGs and the like. It's also written as a juvenile/teen book, so it should be accessible for that audience.
posted by chengjih at 4:28 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anything by John Brunner. Hell, everything by John Brunner.
posted by flabdablet at 4:36 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Stranger in a Strange Land seems required, here.
posted by rokusan at 4:37 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ask the students what they want to read. It will be a lot easier to get them excited if they have input. Their choice might not be your choice.

When I taught some adults for a baito a long time ago, they selected the script of the movie Ghost, with Japanese translation on the opposite page. I thought it was absurd but it was the only thing that worked with that particular group. Your students sound more worldly, but still, you might be surprised by what interests them and what doesn't.

Really listen to your students and respect their opinions.
posted by vincele at 4:42 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Piers Anthony has a lot of really good sci-fi books - and they are written directly for the high school age group.
On A Pale Horse
A Spell For Chameleon
are two great ones.

Boys of that age generally love Piers Anthony, however, he isn't exactly considered literature.

If you are looking for sci-fi literature, the I would suggest
Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep (which is the original blade runner story, and the book is so much better than the movie),
Neuromancer (which is credited with imagining the internet 20 years before it happened),
The Hitch Hiker's Guide (bring a towel),
and Isaac Asimov's great works The Foundation and The Fantastic Voyage
posted by Flood at 4:44 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is Frank Herbert's Dune too long? If not, that's a winner. It is also a great one for comparison between book & film, and would complement Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream...
posted by handee at 5:07 AM on June 23, 2010

Starship Troopers: Discussing Heinlein's view of the relationship between citizenship and society in Japan might be interesting.

This might work particularly well if you tell them that ST was an inspiration for Gundam (that's what Wikipedia says, anyway).
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:07 AM on June 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What you're looking for here is something where, once the students get the English, they can get the story. So anything that depends too heavily on references to American culture or other English language works is going to be counter-productive, because you'll need to spend almost as much time explaining the story as the grammar. You're really starting from ground zero here. So Stranger in a Strange Land is probably out, because it's actually pretty heavy--the religious stuff is likely to go straight over their heads--and Neuromancer, with its fairly heavy reliance on slang and neologisms, is also probably a bad idea.

Early Heinlein and his juveniles are probably what you're looking for, e.g. The Star Beast, Space Cadet, Red Planet, Double Star, Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, etc. Take a look at the bibliography and look for things marked with an asterisk. These are pretty much straight-up adventure stories which require little in the way of prior knowledge or sophisticated insight to appreciate. Given the cross-cultural context, this seems important.

You may find some of Isaac Asimov to be valuable for the same reasons, and he's got plenty of short fiction, which can be useful in these settings. How about I, Robot or the Foundation trilogy? Indeed, rather than being dependent upon other works, Heinlein and Asimov created many now-familiar science fiction tropes, a number of which have made their way into Japanese culture too.

It isn't exactly science fiction (okay, it's not science fiction at all), but depending on how well they know their European history you may get a lot of mileage out of Horatio Hornblower. Truly a classic of English literature, and written in an accessible, engaging style.
posted by valkyryn at 5:11 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I recommend "The Fresco" by Sheri S. Tepper (even though most, if not all of your students won't know what the word "fresco" means, but they can find out). One of the good things about this novel is that it is the kind of science fiction that is equally enjoyable to science fiction fans as it is to people who do not habitually read science fiction. For people who are really into science fiction, however, I recommend "A Fire Upon The Deep" by Vernor Vinge. And if your students are up for a challenge, there is an astonishingly brilliant anthology called "The Stories Of Your Life and Others" by Ted Chiang. Your Japanese students might also find it interesting that some of the best SF (arguably, the very best SF) has been written by a person of Asian descent. SF is not a European monopoly.
posted by grizzled at 5:14 AM on June 23, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is recent, esteemed, gives you Stuff To Think About, and was actually written by a Japanese-born author.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:34 AM on June 23, 2010

First of all, spinning off a couple suggestions above:

- Hornblower is a great suggestion in that it's both engaging and action-packed, but you might need to put together a glossary for all the naval terms (but then you might need to do that for native English speakers, too). It's not science fiction, as said above, but it's worth mentioning that Horatio Hornblower was an influence in the characters of both Kirk and Picard -- yes, both of them!

My suggestion of the twelve books would be Lieutenant Hornblower -- it's one of the best books, it's completely standalone, and it's one of the meatiest in terms of discussion issues. There's a lot of action, but the central mystery of the story is whether or not the titular character attempted to murder the captain. Of course it's much more complicated than that, but I bet Japanese teens would have very different things to say about the moral issues than American or British teens. You can also talk about narrative technique and how Forester uses the narration of a supporting character to both develop and obscure the nature of his hero. And if you're into that kinda thing, there's a miniseries adaptation.

- Ted Chiang is mindblowing but his style is completely accessible.

And for my own suggestion, Extras by Scott Westerfeld. It's technically the fourth book in a series, but it's less a direct sequel than "same world, a few years down the line." It's set in a post-dystopia-post-apocalyptic future Japan, but it's written by a Western author, so your students could discuss how he chose to portray a future version of their society vs. how they would have done it. Plus, you know, fun story. Westerfeld is a great writer and many of his other books would also be suitable.
posted by bettafish at 6:11 AM on June 23, 2010

PK Dick, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep".
posted by JJ86 at 6:17 AM on June 23, 2010

Ursula Le Guin's "Wizard of Earthsea"
posted by alicat at 6:34 AM on June 23, 2010

The Man in the High Castle, by P.K. Dick. However, being an alternate history novel wherein Germany and Japan have won WWII and rule the world, I think you should double check it first to ensure there is nothing in it that might upset your pupils.
posted by nicolin at 6:39 AM on June 23, 2010

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Simple but mind-blowing, although I believe it starts with some, er, dated stuff about contemporary nations so maybe check that out first.

Something by H. P. Lovecraft. "Mountains of Madness" or "Call of Cthulhu" maybe. If the former you can possibly use the upcoming movie as well.

Some robot stories (with the three rules, etc.) by Asimov.

Some of Lem's Tichy or Cyberiad stories. Surreal and ingenious.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Old-fashioned? Yes. Completely awesome? Also yes.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. WW2 content, but nothing directly related to Japan IIRC, and if you get just one kid hooked on Vonnegut you will have done a great good.

War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Just because.
posted by No-sword at 6:53 AM on June 23, 2010

I'd like to second the earlier suggestion of Orson Scott Card's Enders Game. The language is easily comprehensible though the story itself is wonderfully rich.

And what about Kurt Vonnegut? Slaughter House Five or Cat's Cradle come to mind. There's plenty of fuel in these books for class discussions, plus they are just great pieces of science fiction that have worked their way into the wider English literary cannon.
posted by Wiboda at 6:54 AM on June 23, 2010

Hmm. You may want to think about the fact that most of these titles seem to be by men and about men, or boys. Do talk to the girls in the class about what they like to read, Anne McCaffrey comes to mind as fantasy with strong women characters that both genders enjoy.
posted by Idcoytco at 7:23 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thirding Ender's Game. It's accessible, fun, boys and girls will both like, it's about education, demonstrates a few different ways to run a society, etc.
posted by mearls at 7:51 AM on June 23, 2010

What about the English translation of something they might have already read in Japanese, like Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you're just looking for quality Sci-Fi it's hard to go wrong with Banks, it would be great fun discussing the origins of the ship names.
posted by ecurtz at 8:11 AM on June 23, 2010

Seconding Vonnegut.
posted by chicago2penn at 8:20 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure whether your question precludes sci-fi works translated into English. If not, I can't strongly enough recommend Solaris, and indeed Stanislaw Lem generally. I've only ever read the english translations - but my experience with them has been uniformly wonderful. He (or his translator(s)) is a great prose stylist.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 8:47 AM on June 23, 2010

I'm assuming that fantasy is also okay here.

The anthologies New Skies (science fiction) and New Magics (fantasy), edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. If you're familiar with the genres, you should recognize some of the authors in the Table of Contents, and be surprised by others.

Depending on your curriculum structure, you might consider short novels, often called novellas or novelettes in SF publishing. There's a tradition of publishing a shorter work in one of the pro markets like Analog or Asimov's, before getting a publishing deal to make a novel out of that piece or several (sometimes called a fix-up). Start with Gardner Dozois's Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction Novels. The volume includes the novella version of Nancy Kress's "Beggars in Spain," a novel I also recommend below.

Now, some novels:

Land of Mist and Snow by James Macdonald and Debra Doyle. It's an alt-historical fantasy set during the American Civil War. It's an epistolary novel, which might make for some interesting English class discussion. This is a novel of high adventure, beautifully told.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. Another alt-history, this one set in 19th century London, mixing science fiction (mostly time travel) with all sorts of fantastical devices: werewolves, cloning, body switching, Egyptian magic. It also features some of the British Romantic poets, and an evil clown on stilts leading an army of beggars. Some good discussions could be had about the effects of one's choices, and on what makes us who we are. This one blew my mind when I was in high school.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. A piece of near-future science fiction where children are genetically engineering to be geniuses and not to need sleep, with unintended side effects. Lots to talk about in this book, including the question referred to in the title -- how much do the privileged in a society owe to the beggars?

Burn by James Patrick Kelly. Far-future science fiction, set on a planet where people, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, have intentionally tried to avoid certain technologies. How should we make decisions about inviting complexity into our lives? Also involves a surprising take on eco-terrorism, where the environmentalists are the ones trying to destroy the trees.

Gun With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. A lot of the science fictional elements are related to biotech -- nerve swapping, genetic modification of humans and animals, and mood-enhancing drugs -- but there are also some interesting cultural speculations. It's possible that the sexual content in this book may be too much for a high school class, so give that some thought.

You should also check out MeFite jscalzi's space novels, especially Zoe's Tale, which is told from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl.

Good luck!
posted by straw man special at 9:32 AM on June 23, 2010

I read The Martian Chronicles (another Bradbury) in 6th grade and remember being totally dazzled. It was my introduction to the genre and made a really big positive impression on me.

I would think high school students who are not native speakers would still find it interesting and approachable from a reading level perspective.
posted by Saminal at 9:58 AM on June 23, 2010

Try not to overthink this decision. People above are recommending some classics in sci-fi, but just as you wouldn't point an elementary student to Shakespeare to learn English, you shoul aim your sights at something accessible, if only to get them started.

I would recommend several of Stephen King's more sci-fi short stories, like "The Jaunt." Then you can work up to something like "The Tommyknockers."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:59 AM on June 23, 2010

Yes, it is good to start with Stephen King, as Coll Papa Bell coolly states. There is a reason why Stephen King is the second bewst selling author in the world (following only J.K. Rowling - speaking of whm, please do not assign Harry Potter to your students, it is too juvenile to be worthy of high school students). In my own opinion the best novel with which to start reading King is The Dead Zone. Wonderful novel.
posted by grizzled at 10:28 AM on June 23, 2010

I apologize for my sloppy typing.
posted by grizzled at 10:29 AM on June 23, 2010

Best answer: Frankenstein is essential reading to understand modern science fiction from a native English speaker's perspective, tho the archaic language may pose a problem - and if you want to open up the floor to fantasy novels as well, the Hobbit is essential to understand most of Western heroic fiction. (Everyman has greatness thrust upon him, the value of teamwork and importance of the individual, the redeemer who returns in a time of need, quests, magic swords, a beastiary of Western creatures, like elves, dwarves, goblins and dragons.)

Lieutenant Hornblower is also an excellent suggestion.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:37 AM on June 23, 2010

China Mieville

He's got fantasy, steampunk, lovecraft, etc etc, mixed into his work.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 11:55 AM on June 23, 2010

Response by poster: These are some fantastic ideas! And the best part is that there are some great-sounding books being named that I haven't read yet either... Keep 'em coming!!
posted by MShades at 4:06 PM on June 23, 2010

My suggestion isn't really sci-fi but I was reminded of it by Day of the Triffids - How I live now. It's a YA novel but when I read it recently I could not put it down. What would make it interesting is that it was adapted for radio in 2007, which gives you the option of listening to it or even getting your students to act it out themselves.
posted by Wantok at 2:44 PM on June 24 [+] [!]
posted by Wantok at 8:45 PM on June 23, 2010

Seconding Martian Chronicles - it's short stories, and each one will offer the class good stuff to discuss.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:38 PM on June 23, 2010

Best answer: SF can be really, really difficult for non-native speakers who are just getting used to reading novels in English. It'll require a lot of scaffolding, because the checks that you usually use to make sure that you're still making sense of a story don't work well in SF, and the subtle clues that the author uses to tell you about how a culture (etc.) is different ("show, don't tell") don't work so well when the reader's home culture is extremely different. Also, many students (in my experience) have trouble telling when they're running into words that have been coined by the author, and find that frustrating. (These reasons even make relatively unambitious worldbuilding like Harry Potter frustrating for Japanese readers that I've taught, never mind things like Dune. Traditional fantasy is often slightly easier simply because many students already have the basic vocabulary due to exposure to RPGs and anime as kids, even if they're not very nerdy.)

Anyway, I'm not saying not to do it. I would just start with things that have relatively straightforward plots and don't rely on extremely subtle worldbuilding. :) I would run screaming from stylemonkey writers like Mieville or Lethem, even at a SELHI. They're great writers, but not appropriate for any English learner who's not already reading at a graduate-school level.
posted by wintersweet at 10:38 PM on June 24, 2010

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