I like to assign science fiction in my introductory college composition classes. The main reason is that I enjoy reading it myself and I’ve learned that students do, too. But I’ve got other, more pedagogical reasons. One is that science fiction empowers students who aren’t strong writers or readers but have strong skills in the sciences: the science majors can explain the science to the humanities students, and the humanities students can reciprocate by explaining the literature. Another more lofty reason is that science is important in today’s society, and I’d like all the students—even the science-averse—to see that there’s an accessible way to think about science without mastering equations.
Over the years, I’ve assigned a number of science fiction novels, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Dennis Danvers’s The Watch, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and M.T. Anderson’s Feed. But perhaps my favorite SF text to use in introductory composition classrooms is Pat Murphy’s Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell.
There are two things that make this novel so effective in the classroom. First, the students enjoy puzzling out the who-dunnit mystery at the heart of the plot, so they are quickly drawn into the novel and the reading experience without needing me to prompt them. Second, one of the main characters, Max Merriwell, is a writer who gives writing workshops aboard the ocean-going cruise ship on which all the characters are sailing.
In his workshops, Max ruminates on the nature of writing and the function of writing techniques, and he assigns writing exercises to his fellow passengers. His workshops not only offer clues to the mystery, but also function as explicit commentary on the writing techniques that Pat Murphy herself is using in the novel.
I bet you can tell where this is going . . .
Yep, I have my students perform the same writing exercises that Max asks his fellow passengers to perform. In doing these exercises, the wall between readers and characters collapses in interesting ways. The exercises give students another means to enter into the novel and to draw the novel out into their own lives. In doing the exercises, students discover ideas and techniques they can use in narrative or personal essays. And they gain insights into literary techniques, insights that they can use in literary analysis papers.
Another thing that absolutely tickles me about the collapsing of the walls is that the novel itself is about collapsing walls—walls between fact and fiction, between literary genres (the book reads like a cross between a mystery novel and science fiction), between hard physics and Eastern philosophy, between authorial and scientific creation, and more. If the book has a flaw, it is the ending, which some students find abrupt. But even that ending becomes a virtue, because it prompts a critical evaluation that reflects the students’ engagement and investment in the text.
I can’t tell you as much as I would like about how well this text works in the composition classroom, because I’d reveal too much about the mystery at the novel’s heart. Suffice it to say that, the more you unpack the text, the more pedagogically useful purposes you discover. (To tantalize you further with the possibilities of unpacking, I’ll just mention that Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell is the third novel in a nonconsecutive trilogy by Pat Murphy: the first novel was supposedly written by Max using a female pseudonym; the second was supposedly written by Max under his own name; and the third is written about Max—and his pseudonyms—by Pat Murphy.)
If you’re searching for an engaging, thought-provoking, wall-collapsing novel to read either for your own enjoyment or to assign in a composition classroom, check it out!