I had a strange conversation with a teacher the other day. We were discussing the kind of comprehension texts that she felt were appropriate for kids in grades six and above.

“No fantasy or science fiction, please,” she said. “That’s fine for little kids, but when you get to a certain age, it’s time to grow up. They need serious texts.”

By “serious texts”, she meant texts like essays on women in development (an actual comprehension topic, I kid you not), or natural wonders of the world, or great scientific discoveries. None of these are bad topics, mind you, but they’ll be read as textbook essays, studied for their grade value, and forgotten in a few weeks.

The conversation highlighted one of the pervasive tragedies of Pakistan’s education system:

imagination is a liability.

The reality, of course, is the complete opposite. Without imagination, we’d still be living in caves and scratching raw pictures of dinosaurs and wolves on the walls. Now we live in carefully constructed homes from materials we may never have discovered if someone hadn’t imagined something different. Back then, we were probably sharing our dreams across an open fire. Today, we share them in books.

The greatest works of science fiction and fantasy have been written for both enjoyment and reflection. Reading behind the words and understanding the author’s intent is a part of any good comprehension, but science fiction, in particular, is a rich source of objective critical analyses of the world we live in, and, hands-down, the most effective way to teach difficult lessons to kids.

I strongly believe that everyone should read at least one epic fantasy or science fiction novel in their life.

Here are three reasons why.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

This is the ultimate classic. George Orwell’s 1984 comes close to defining the perils of fascism, but Animal Farm’s value lies in the simplicity of the story. It’s a tiny book that a ten-year-old will easily read with great enjoyment. Reading it as an adult, it’s impossible to miss the cautionary analogy of trying to construct an artificial society, and the pitfalls that come with it. The animals have taken over the farm, and they fully intend, in the beginning, to be fair and equal towards all animals. They are determined not to make the same mistakes as the human farmer did. Or so they think. Eventually, the hierarchy settles into old, familiar patterns, except that it’s worse than the natural social order. The animals believe this is the best of all worlds, so they meekly accept their place in the ladder without resistance.

One by one, the good intentions topple, the hunger for power turns into a hunger for absolute power, and their first commandment, “All animals are equal”, turns into “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

A colleague of mine, reading this for the first time, learned that Orwell wrote Animal Farm to describe Stalin’s devastating and brutal rule of the Soviet Union. It’s far more than that, however. It’s a story that warns against dogma, isolation, intolerance, and apathy.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert wrote several sequels (five, in fact) to his original, brilliant story, none as powerful as the first. Published in 1965, Dune has been declared the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Yet, while it has a cult following, its popularity fails to meet today’s standards of, for instance, The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Attempts to adapt the book for film or television have failed because it’s regularly reduced to the dimensions of a soap opera: rich families fighting for supremacy in a far-off future. In fact, Herbert created a complex, detailed future based on the social, psychological, and economic trends of today’s world. The world of Dune is a galaxy of planets, each ruled by a great family, and all fighting each other over the galaxy’s resources. Sound familiar?

Mankind in Dune has evolved mentally to an astounding degree, surpassing anything technology could have achieved. One the one hand, these abilities are celebrated—we have brilliant minds, why not let them evolve? On the other, humans are still fighting over the same things—land, economic superiority, slavery, and domination—analogised by the planet Arrakis and the most valuable commodity in the universe, melange.

The most prescient part of the book is the protagonist Paul Atreides’ rise to power on the wings of a guerrilla army trained to wage jihad for an ideal. Towards the end of the book, this army is beyond his control. Again, sound familiar?

Dune is an astonishing epic that mirrors the power of today’s corporate entities and the destruction they will bring to humanity.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Like Animal Farm, The Chrysalids is a small book, easily consumed in a single sitting. Like Dune, it has a select following and is generally unknown to the larger population. The Chrysalids, published in 1955, is a tale of a vague, unknown community in an unnamed country, set in a post-apocalyptic future. The community is deeply religious, deeply fundamentalist, built on fuzzy memories of an advanced civilisation, scattered and destroyed by a vengeful God for evolving beyond the confines of religion. Though not explicitly stated, the book implies that humanity was wiped out by a nuclear holocaust. The descendants of that lost civilisation believe that, in order to survive, they must stamp out “mutations” of any kind, both physical and mental (not à la The X-Men. These are subtle mutations such as telepathy or physical deformities). They aspire, above all, to normality.

The story follows the persecution of a small band of mutants—young men and women with abilities that the community believes to be unnatural. The punishment for being a mutant is death.

How or whether they survive is something you’ll have to read for yourself. If you do, you’ll learn about the dangers of fundamentalism, the damage intolerance brings to a society and a people, and the insane torture man is capable of inflicting on fellow human beings.

What passage from a textbook could offer so much value?

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About Sabahat Quadri

Sabahat Quadri is an instructional designer and a content developer at Knowledge Platform in Islamabad, Pakistan. A graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, she is also a graphic designer, an author, and an editor.


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