Beyond Bradbury.
August 20, 2011 10:59 PM   Subscribe

SciFi for middle schoolers.

I teach 6th grade and would love to do a (short) science fiction unit.

Any recommendations for short- to medium-length stories that could get kids really juiced? We would be reading these aloud together in class. Bonus points if they are accessible online.

All I have so far are a couple of Bradbury shorts.

My 6th graders thank you!
posted by brynna to Education (42 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I think A Wrinkle in Time was a standard when I was a kid.
posted by sanka at 11:01 PM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Andre Norton wrote science fiction for kids. Her stuff was the SF I read.
posted by angiep at 11:03 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just naming some stuff I remember reading around that age: Anne McCaffrey's "The Smallest Dragonboy", Asimov's "The Feeling of Power", a lot of Bruce Coville.
posted by eruonna at 11:24 PM on August 20, 2011

Stanislaw Lem's Star Diaries are probably not what most students in the US read in sixth grade, but Lem is an important name in 20th-century European literature, and this collection of short stories linked by a main character is one of his most accessible and funniest books. The English translation of the seventh voyage is available free on the author's memorial website. It's a humorous story that features space flight, time travel, paradoxes, and slapstick humor. Give it a quick read if you think it's something your students might like.
posted by Nomyte at 11:25 PM on August 20, 2011

The Girl Who Owned a City may fit in with what you're looking for.

I read it in fifth grade for school, so I imagine it'd be fine for sixth graders.

It wasn't a terribly long book and we moved through pretty quickly.
posted by zizzle at 11:27 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Asimov. Nightfall, The Last Question, and Liar! (from I, Robot) are classics for a reason.
posted by vorfeed at 11:30 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Minority Report, by Phillip K. Dick. A lot of his other short stories would work too, although I was really freaked out by the one involving grey goo. Bonus points if you can get them to think about the ethical conundrums many of his works involve. Aasimov is pretty much universally good in this context, although his themes are somewhat more subtle.
posted by fearnothing at 12:02 AM on August 21, 2011

For this purpose, I'd highly recommend Eric Frank Russell. Not sure which, if any, of his stories are available online, but his collection of short stories Major Ingredients has some great options. Particularly Minor Ingredient; I am Nothing; And Then There Were None; Dear Devil in that order. Though perhaps I am Nothing is a bit dark for that age. Minor Ingredient is just about perfect - really, perfect.

Just wish they were available online!
posted by slide at 12:03 AM on August 21, 2011

I think Terry Bisson's "They're Made of Meat" could be very fought-provoking for young Sci-Fi readers. It has the bonus of being very short, and there is a nice dramatization of it on YouTube for them to watch after they have read it.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:10 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

thought-provoking, of course.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:11 AM on August 21, 2011

I read Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron in 7th grade for English class and thought it was the coolest thing ever.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:43 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (There's a graphic novel version too, haven't read it yet though)
posted by lirael2008 at 12:46 AM on August 21, 2011

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (there's a short story as well as a novel)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin
posted by foursentences at 12:52 AM on August 21, 2011

Short stories that I read and enjoyed at about that age include Philip K. Dick's Beyond Lies the Wub, Frederik Pohl's The Tunnel Under the World, Garry Kilworth's Let's Go to Golgotha!, Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, Robert Sheckley's Carrier, Eric Frank Russell's Allamagoosa, Murray Leinster's First Contact, Frank Roberts' It Could Be You, "Lewis Padgett" (Kuttner and Moore)'s Mimsy Were the Borogoves, and Isaac Asimov's Youth and The Fun They Had. A (very) few of them are available on Gutenberg.  Know your audience, though - I wasn't a particularly sensitive child.

Gutenberg links:
Beyond Lies the Wub
The Tunnel Under the World
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:11 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding Bruce Corville - LOVED him at that age!!

The Giver is good, and kids love Ender's Game too.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:36 AM on August 21, 2011

When the Tripods Came, by John Christopher. Interesting premise and world, and surprisingly affecting.
posted by Maximian at 1:37 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

At that age it was a lot of Asimov and Heinlein for me. Any of Asimov's robot stories are accessible and easily understood. Kind of like primers on how to actually read science fiction. Heilein as well, though his politics are out of fashion.

Maybe Larry Niven? His stories about Known Space are generally easy reads.

PK Dick's early stories were straight up SF as well.
posted by Max Power at 2:44 AM on August 21, 2011

Definitely time to bust out the Heinlein juveniles.

These were deliberately targeted at teenagers--boys mostly, but whatever--and the main characters are pretty much always kids. They're quite engaging, and relatively quick reads.

Though the page mentions that they were slightly controversial in terms of appropriateness at the time, modern audiences would probably find that to be entirely passe.
posted by valkyryn at 3:58 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

This question makes me wonder who the modern equivalents of Asimov/Heinlein etc are.

Futuretrack 5 (and Chocky?) by Robert Westall, another vote for Asimov's The Last Question, A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber, Citizen of the Galaxy by Heinlein (too long for you). These are the stories that stay with me after thirty years.
posted by Leon at 5:10 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stories from Lem's Cyberiad stand on their own very well and provide and interesting stepping off point for discussion of global issues in writing since Lem wrote in Polish and his English translations are spectacular, especially the poetry.

Brave New World by Aldus Huxlely is a quintessential future dystopia but not as dreary as 1984 and offers some interesting "bread and circus" discussions that you can contrast with current culture (3D movies, Prozac, etc). Maybe a little advanced for 6th grade.

I would also be inclined to go through Nebula/Hugo/ winning short fiction or Year's Best collections. There are some great gems in there. That's how I found Sandkings (George R. R. Martin) and The Microcosmic God (Theodore Sturgeon).
posted by plinth at 5:15 AM on August 21, 2011

"Futuretrack 5 (and Chocky?) by Robert Westall"

Chocky is by John Wyndham, which reminds me: if short novels are within your remit, then, well, everyone should read The Day of the Triffids, right? I read and reread The Chrysalids aged 10-14, too; and Wyndham wrote short stories as well, collected in The Seeds of Time and Consider Her Ways and Others.

@Leon: I've read and quite enjoyed some shortish Heinlein-juvenile-esque novels by John Barnes and David Gerrold, but I can't think of anyone I'd describe as a modern Asimov. I was thinking about this earlier, and it seems to me that that style of writing has fallen out of fashion, replaced by more complex and/or more enigmatic short stories, and by longer, more involved novels. (Which I also enjoy, but which don't feel like good answers to this question.) Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places, though.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:41 AM on August 21, 2011

Well, at that age, I was reading Star Wars novels. Not exactly what you're looking for. Actually, sixth grade was the first time I read Hitchhiker's Guide, but I think that's not going to suit either, though maybe you could swing an excerpt or play part of the radio play.

We read (and watched) Harrison Bergeron in sixth grade. My main memory of that is the teacher's futile attempts to mute the swearing in the film. This was a gifted class, so discussions of difference and equality were particularly relevant to us.

We read The Time Machine in the seventh grade, but I don't remember much about it. Seventh grade was also Fahrenheit 451. I remember liking it more than The Time Machine, but not much about how it worked in class. I have a vague memory of it getting a proper discussion going. (Again, gifted kids. I have no idea how typical these choices were. They had us read The Great Gatsby in eighth grade, which shot way over everyone's head.)

Brave New World was ninth grade and it crashed and burned. Most of my class was not sophisticated enough to understand dystopian fiction. Class discussions basically consisted of 'No society would ever be like this.'

I really loved The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, but again it's a novel, albeit not that long. I wonder if it's too long and not sci-fi, but what about The Metamorphosis?
posted by hoyland at 6:02 AM on August 21, 2011

Seconding Harrison Bergeron by Vonnegut. I don't remember how long it is, but I read John Christopher's "The Lotus Caves" in 6th or 7th grade and it's stuck with me for 25 years.
posted by usonian at 6:03 AM on August 21, 2011

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Written for young readers. Can be downloaded from his website.
posted by PickeringPete at 6:39 AM on August 21, 2011

The Jupiter Novels are an attempt to recreate the feel of the old scifi juveniles (in the vein of the Heinlein juveniles) while simultaneously contemporizing them.

Higher Education by Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle

Billion Dollar Boy by Charles Sheffield
Putting Up Roots by Charles Sheffield
The Cyborg from Earth by Charles Sheffield
Starswarm by Jerry Pournelle
Outward Bound by James P. Hogan
posted by anansi at 6:49 AM on August 21, 2011

seconding the Phillip K Dick short stories. I read them to my kids. They tend to be thoughtful (with 'dickian' twists) and often implicitly critical of the cold war themes that dominate a lot of that era's scifi i.e. critical of war and militarism but without any preachiness. (Some of them are available from project gutenberg too!)
posted by at 6:59 AM on August 21, 2011

I would recommend tracking down a copy of the book or copies of the stories contained within:

100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, Editors

It's a collection of 1-3 page short stories and I think will hold the attention of your age group and actually get them interested in science fiction. ISFDB has the table of contents. If you Google the short story names you will find that many of the stories have been transcribed and placed on the Internet already.
posted by dgeiser13 at 7:00 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Jules Verne, always a classic:
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Around the World in 80 Days
From the Earth to the Moon
Five Weeks in a Balloon
The Mysterious Island.
posted by easily confused at 7:39 AM on August 21, 2011

Lots of authors of adult sf have books that are appropriate or were written explicitly for younger readers.

Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong was one of my absolute favourites when I was a kid - though the SF may be too subtle (it's on the border between SF and Fantasy).

Isaac and Janet Asimov have a hilarious set of short stories, novellas and short novels about a robot named Norby.

Vonda McIntyre has a good book for cat lovers with pretty realistic SF elements - about a cat on a space station.

And there are lots of brilliant kid's writers who do SF for kids. Everything by Daniel Pinkwater is great - especially Alan Mendelsohn, the boy from Mars (I made the Green Death Chilli from this book). Sadly, it's out of print, but available in an omnibus with some other Pinkwater novels.

Monica Hughes wrote dozens of SF novels for younger readers, and every one I have read has been excellent. My friend adored the Isis Trilogy, my favourite was Devil on my Back (post-apocalyptic, dome city, class tensions - awesome, I've re-read it so many times).

Sylvia Engdahl also has many excellent young adult SF novels; her first is Enchantress from the Stars, but my SF obsessed best friend (I was just as into fantasy) loved the sequels - The Far Side of Evil and especially This Star shall abide - even more.

Jane Yolen's Pit Dragon Trilogy is excellent - in fact, I just re-read it as an adult. It's more serious in subject matter than some kids SF - slavery/indentured servitude is shown and prostitution are talked about, and there is some violence in the later books (largely against the dragons) - but whether that is too much for your kids depends on the kid (I was just fine with that at that age).

You should also talk to a good children's librarian - they should know more recent as well as classic stuff, and will be able to direct you to quality books to serve different needs - Podcayne of Mars by Heinlein, for example, might be great for a more mature grade 6er who would do better with a rather subtle novel. Good children's librarians really know their stuff - it was the librarian at my local library who put me onto Tamora Pierce (who should be at the top of your list if you want to do a fantasy unit.)
posted by jb at 8:05 AM on August 21, 2011

Seconding Asimov's "The Feeling of Power." (We read that one in a tenth-grade Algebra 2H class, but I don't remember anything that would be inappropriate for younger students working as a class with the teacher.)

Also, Stephen Vincent Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon."
posted by lysimache at 8:14 AM on August 21, 2011

This question makes me wonder who the modern equivalents of Asimov/Heinlein etc are

The modern equivalents aren't equal, but instead weak imitations who needn't be mentioned here.

The Asimov I enjoyed in middle school was his Lucky Star series. Also the Heinlein juveniles, as mentioned above, plus Arthur C. Clarke's short stories in the Expedition to Earth, Reach For Tomorrow and The Other Side of the Sky collections.
posted by Rash at 8:52 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely Heinlein!
posted by radioamy at 9:48 AM on August 21, 2011

I think you should feature some Frederick Brown.

He wrote some really marvelous super short science fiction, such as his famous Answer:

Dwan Ev ceremoniously soldered the final connection with gold. The eyes of a dozen television cameras watched him and the subether bore throughout the universe a dozen pictures of what he was doing.
He straightened and nodded to Dwar Reyn, then moved to a position beside the switch that would complete the contact when he threw it. The switch that would connect, all at once, all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe — ninety-six billion planets — into the supercircuit that would connect them all into one supercalculator, one cybernetics machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies.
Dwar Reyn spoke briefly to the watching and listening trillions. Then after a moment’s silence he said, “Now, Dwar Ev.”
Dwar Ev threw the switch. There was a mighty hum, the surge of power from ninety-six billion planets. Lights flashed and quieted along the miles-long panel.
Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. “The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn.”
“Thank you,” said Dwar Reyn. “It shall be a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer.”
He turned to face the machine. “Is there a God?”
The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of a single relay.
“Yes, now there is a God.”
Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.
A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.

Some of his stuff is available through links from the Wikipedia article I link above, including Earthmen Bearing Gifts.
posted by jamjam at 10:32 AM on August 21, 2011

Lots of good suggestions here. I would ask, as a former 6th grade girl who loved SF, that you make sure you include as much of a balance of female protagonists as possible (or at the very least, stories that don't relegate women to arm-candy or shrieking rescue-objects). Which may be hard with some of the older stuff.

But at that age, when girls are just starting to deal with puberty/sexism all that crap, it really really mattered when we would read something that portrayed women (once again) as stupid or unnecessary, and when we didn't. I remember having arguments with boys who were telling me that women were of course dumber, because all the stories were about men and men had done all the important stuff in history. I knew they were wrong then, but I couldn't prove it and it messed me up.

You can't address all of that in one class, but it would be great if you could give your girl students heroes to identify with.

Here is a short list of feminist SF books, stories, and authors for YA audiences.
posted by emjaybee at 10:58 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Heinlein juveniles may not have aged well in terms of technology (and maybe his politics) but they are still damn good reads and probably, dare I say, necessary for a good grounding in the genre -- the history of it, anyway.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:28 AM on August 21, 2011

Seconding Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", it is online here
"A Sound of Thunder" - Ray Bradbury
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
"Sredni Vashtar" by Saki (H. H. Munro)
Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard
William Sleator
Nancy Farmer
Neal Shusterman
You should also check out the Baen Free Library offerings
posted by gudrun at 12:29 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Star by Arthur C. Clarke
Seconding A Sound of Thunder, Made Out of Meat and Flowers for Algernon.
posted by Jakey at 12:57 PM on August 21, 2011

Since so many people are recommending Anne McCaffery, I'll put in my two pence on her books.

The vast majority of her books are at the long end of medium length. They are also predominantly science fantasy as opposed to science fiction. Most of the Pern series contain no science theme whatsoever - they are set in a mediaeval technology world, and only the knowledge of the wider context makes them pass for sci-fi.

Happily coincident with emjaybee's point though, much of her work is centred around heroines rather than heros. My particular recommendations for you to have science fiction rather than fantasy and thought provoking themes would be:

The Ship Who Won
posted by fearnothing at 12:58 PM on August 21, 2011

Piers Anthony does some great early teen sci-fi.
On A Pale Horse is one of my favorite childhood books.
posted by Flood at 5:00 PM on August 21, 2011

Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall trilogy are short novels - Dragonsong is 176 pages. But yes, they are science fantasy in that science is not part of the story - the first is about gender roles and music - but if you wish to really explore the SF genre, planetary romance is a very important sub-genre and one in which women writers have been very significant. if you stick to Hard SF and classic Sf you may have trouble balancing the gender of authors and characters.

As for my other suggestions - I'm sorry, I didn't notice that you were looking for short fiction in particular. Is there a reason why you want short stories? I just ask because at that age I read almost exclusively novels for both school and pleasure. It's a good age for novels and if the novels are exciting kids don't mind the length. I do strongly recommend Monica Hughes for having relatively short novels (125-175 pages) and for being easy to read while being truly excellent SF.
posted by jb at 5:57 AM on August 22, 2011

Definitely Asimov short stories. The robot ones are best, as Asimov really can't write women. Arthur C. Clarke's short stories are also a treat. I remember Dial F for Frankenstein clearly. And the ending line of Reunion has stuck with me for ages.

Beyond those two, it gets a little fuzzy. Gaiman's short stories are wonderful, but may be a little much in terms of theme for 6th graders. (On the other hand, they may not. I don't know the kids.) Ian McDonald has two books of short stories, some of which I think could be great, some of which I think might be too complex in form.

I remember my eighth grade art teacher reading from a book of short stories. I think it had some Richard Matheson stories in it- I remember hearing the story that turned into the Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It may have been a book of short stories by him, I can't remember.
posted by Hactar at 8:58 AM on August 22, 2011

It's not a short story, but I always found the chapter in A Wrinkle In Time about the tesseract completely fascinating; it's fairly early on too, so it wouldn't ruin the story if they decided to read the whole book later. I'm biased, though, because A Wrinkle In Time (and Madeleine l'Engle in general) were what got me hooked on sci-fi to begin with, largely because WiT was one of the first sci-fi books that I had read that had a geeky female protagonist.
posted by ashirys at 10:37 AM on August 22, 2011

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