Wednesday Writers: Bren MacDibble

I can’t over emphasise the part that speculative fiction played in my childhood. One of my favourite memories of my early school years was being part of a program where every week I would receive a new book to read, and the joy I felt upon opening the pages of the “Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were” or reading about Tripods and Triffids will never leave me. Growing up in a small country town, science fiction opened up horizons I never could have imagined, and without it my education would have been sadly lacking. That’s why I am thrilled to welcome Bren MacDibble as she talks about ” The Value of Science Fiction in Education”. I promise to keep you jar nice and clean and sparkling, Bren.

Thanks for inviting me to contribute. You have a fine collection of writers here. I feel like you’ve been capturing us and putting us in little jars on the shelves of your blog. Label my jar: The Value of Science Fiction in Education. It’s a topic I spoke on recently at SCBWI in Melbourne and one I’ve been exploring in a clumsy way for a while. In addition to writing short stories, I work in gifted education and write for children, so every day I stumble on more ideas to support my claim that SF has great value in education.

You’ve no doubt heard of the current trend to make education measurable and accountable which seems to have resulted in (excuse me for over-generalising here) teaching children to sit exams and the narrowing of what is perceived as intelligence.

A picture speaks a thousand words:

A picture speaks a thousand words

The view of Darwinism generally, is that in times of rapid change, overspecialisation leads to disaster. And the human species finds itself currently living in a time when population growth continues to accelerate, a time of rapid technological change, and even climate change is in danger of accelerating. If ever there were a time to raise lateral-thinking children with amazing problem-solving skills, that time is now. It’s not enough to teach them what we know. We have to teach them to reimagine the future. And THAT is where Science Fiction comes in.

I first became interested in Science Fiction as a child in the 70s in New Zealand. And some of that was in part due to the lingering Cold War. I don’t know if that affected people in Australia to the same extent. Maybe you were all busy watching Aussie news or that bizarre Mr Squiggle thing. Over in NZ, the news in the 70s was all about what was going on in the world and we were busily being psychologically scarred by the news about the Cold War. We felt that we were living under the threat of a nuclear war.

What is interesting about the first golden age of science fiction, in the 1950s, is that it coincided with the height of the Cold War. A publication from that time suggested that youths were fearful. They were described as being “plagued by fears of the uncertain future and impending doom, haunted by the possibility that they wouldn’t survive the Cold War.”

The 1950s were a simple time, fast forward to the 2010s and things have only become worse and so much more complicated for our kids. Children are bombarded daily by media and by us teaching them about the importance of protecting our environment, caring for native species, being tolerant towards other people, we drum it into them, and we have to. We need things to change and it won’t change in one generation. Shane L Larson put it so perfectly in his article: The Dreams and Fears of Children, when he said, “Our children are not little rocks, unaware of the world around them. They are highly observant students of the world, absorbing and processing every tiny bit of information they are exposed to within the framework of their own worldview.” Read this article about the startlingly honest dreams of a first grade class and you’ll see that children today have a certain and justified fear of the future.

Recent discussions have pointed out that in modern post-apocalyptic YA, nobody needs to explain the apocalypse. By the time a child becomes a young adult reader they can guess a hundred ways to screw up a planet. No YA reader needed to be told how the worlds of Hunger Games or Uglies got that way. They could easily imagine it happening.

Stephen Hawking has said, “Science fiction is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing a fear of the future.”

What science fiction does is explore possible futures. It allows us to explore the possible pitfalls of current thinking, to experiment with new ideas or technology, it allows us to exercise critical thinking and analysis skills about future problems and ethics.

For instance, when scientists revealed Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep, the media launched into debates about the ethics of cloning. Science Fiction fans were not surprised. These debates had been played out in the stories they’d been reading for the last thirty years. They were prepared for cloning technology in a way few others were.

1984, Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, iRobot, The Terminator, Roadside Picnic, Snowcrash, Blade Runner, 28 Days Later, Outbreak, District 9, I am Legend, Children of Men, The Courier’s New Bicycle, Wall-E, Mars Needs Moms, we could go on naming Science Fiction stories all day that allow people to experience a possible future. But why do we need these stories? Scientists can tell us what might happen given an advancement in any technology, or any major climate change, or the impact of a super virus. But to really understand what experiencing this might be like we need to put a human face on it. We need a narrative. We need Science Fiction.

I know there is more to solving tomorrows problems than SF but SF is my thing, so that’s what you’re getting. I don’t consciously write science fiction to educate though. I write to entertain. And that might sound odd since most of my children’s publications are in the educational market. Sometimes I make comments on the values of current society, but I don’t have any answers. I don’t think any one does. I love that Worlds Next Door created something that could be used to educate as well as entertain by including classroom exercises. Generally, though just challenging children to imagine the future is enough.

Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein both claimed that SF is the literature of change and it is the ability to imagine and cope with changes that will enable children to enter the future with faith in their ability to adapt to new challenges.

The future isn’t a place we’re going to go. It’s a place that we’re going to create. (Nancy Duarte)

Bren MacDibble is a New Zealander who went backpacking 20 years ago and hasn’t made it home yet. Melbourne is the place she hangs out most. During the day she works as a mild mannered wrangler of gifted children for a private organisation, by night she attempts to write extraordinary works of speculative fiction.

Bren is a Clarion South survivor and a member of the SuperNOVA Writers group, she is also a member of the Speculative Fiction Writers of NZ, ASA, SCBWI, Kids Writers Downunder and is a Greyhavener and Hiveminder and… some other things. She recently completed a QWC/Allen & Unwin Manuscript Development Program.

Bren has ten children’s books in the educational market (mostly published by Blake Ed) as well as multiple short stories published in Orb Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways, SHiny, Empress of Mars, Antipodean SF, SciFiDimensions, and children’s magazine publications, and a play at The Australian Script Centre and… some other things.

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Writers: Bren MacDibble

  1. Clare Deming

    Great post, Bren! I’ve thought a lot on the value or purpose of stories and storytelling and why I’m so drawn to it. This is a slightly different take on that idea – but fascinating.

  2. Bren MacDibble

    Thanks, Holly!

    You write to explore ideas, Clare? You’re too young for the cold war influence, but the post 9/11 influence is just as strong, I think.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Writing #1 due by 11:59 pm Sept. 16 | Exploration of Science Fiction & Fantasy 2013-2014

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