To See Ourselves

October 10, 2015

When I was in elementary school, the Salem-Keizer school district used the Holt Basic Reading System textbooks.  In the earlier years, the curriculum seemed to include one or two science fiction stories per year.  In third grade, I read Asimov’s “The Fun They Had,” which I hated.  My father had been reading me science fiction novels written for adults since I was five or six, and I was not generally impressed with the unsophisticated stuff in the textbook.

In fifth and sixth grades, there were more science fiction stories, and each of the accompanying workbooks had a one-page exercise that was supposed to teach us about science fiction as a genre.  I remember completing it in fifth grade; I had to identify which elements typical of the genre were found in each of the three SF stories we had read that year in Riders on the Earth* (“A Visit to Mars,” the complete novel “The Forgotten Door,” and another story whose name I forgot long ago).  I was surprised to realize that all three stories involved metal telepathy; in fact, in the first and third stories, telepathy was the main topic of each narrative.  I was rather disgusted that they wouldn’t give us harder science fiction than that to read.

The next year, there were three more science fiction stories in the text, and as the school year was almost over, I looked at the workbook page devoted specifically to the science fiction genre that we had that year.  (Our teacher rarely actually assigned pages out of the published workbook, but I did this one on my own initiative.)  As I had been struck by the fact that all the stories we had read the previous year had been dumbed down and written specifically for child audiences, I realized that in sixth grade we had read “The Feeling of Power,” “To Serve Man,” and “All Summer in a Day.”  Those are all darkly ironic stories, penned by three of the leading figures of twentieth century science fiction:  Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, and Ray Bradbury, respectively.  (“The Feeling of Power” also taught me how, at a really fundamental level, the standard algorithm for multiplication actually worked.)  Finally, in a book aimed at middle school students, SF was being taken seriously.

This all came to mind again the other week, when my daughter asked me if I had read “All Summer in a Day.”  I told her I had, and I suggested that she ought to read the two other stories I remembered alongside it.  I think she appreciated the seriousness of the subject matter, although I don’t know if she was as affected by the last lines of Asimov’s story*** as I was:

Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don’t need a computer to tell me so. The computer is in my own head.

And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.

*The title of the textbook, as well as the one for the next year, To See Ourselves, came from “Riders on the Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold,” Archibald Macleish’s short essay on how the space program had changed our perceptions of humanity’s role in the cosmos.

** Apparently, these stories produced an outcry from a sizable number of conservative Christian loons.  It led to lawsuits and boycotts, and the textbook series was dropped by the publisher after only a few years in print.

*** “The Fun They Had” has a similar title drop at the end, but I thought its attempt at dramatic irony was basically unsuccessful.