Using Science Fiction to Understand Biological Concepts

Tamsen K. Meyer and Cheryl H. Powers
1994 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute

Integration of disciplines that involve science, social issues, and literature is an increasingly attractive alternative in curriculum development today. Science fiction has great appeal to many students who do not necessarily think of themselves as readers nor as the stereotypical "math/science student." The following is a resource list of science fiction short stories and novels that might be used either as an interdisciplinary teaching unit for teachers, an enrichment exercise in your biology course, or possibly a summer reading list for students entering your course the following year. It also can serve as a starting point for students to create their own science fiction stories if only selections from these novels or short stories are read. Students can demonstrate their understanding of complex biological concepts by writing their own short science fiction stories on topics such as "The Day Diffusion Stopped." What a difference a gene makes: food in the future, medicine in the future, eugenics revisited, and restoring extinct species are possible genetics ideas that could be developed.

Readings are listed by title rather than author because titles seem more useful. Titles were submitted by several Woodrow Wilson participants. A content summary is included for most of the selections and if there is a film version of the book, the notation FVA (film version available) is added in the following bibliography.

Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton. 1969. New York: Knopf, Random House. A returning space capsule releases an alien virus on the earth. FVA

The Beast, Peter Benchley. 1991. New York: Random House. Coral reef ecology is disturbed and a giant squid picks man as his new prey.

Blade Runner, The, Alan E. Nourse. 1974. New York: D. McKay & Co. In a future of increased human longevity, doctors struggle to cope with problems of overpopulation, hereditary disorders, and virulent new diseases. FVA

Boys from Brazil, The, Ira Levin. 1976. New York: Random House. Dr. Mengele attempts to produce cloned copies of Adolf Hitler, but in order to do so he must reproduce the environmental factors which made Hitler the evil genius that he was; deals intelligently with the fashionable subject of cloning. FVA

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley. 1946. New York: Harper and Bros. Reproductive technology as imagined in the 30's - this famous satire about a technologically stratified world six centuries in the future helped define 20th-century humanity's view of itself. FVA

Clan of the Cave Bear, The, Jean Auel. 1980. New York: Crown. Human evolution at the level of the Cro-Magnon/Neanderthal junction. FVA

Congo, Michael Crichton. 1980. New York, Knopf: Random House. Animal behavior, primate evolution: near future thriller of African exploration involving a tribe of talking gorillas.

Deathworld Trilogy, Harry Harrison. 1974. Garden City: Nelson Doubleday. Coevolution and adaptation: mysteries of a planet where every life-form appears to be implacably hostile to human colonists.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick. 1968. Garden City: Doubleday. After World War Terminus, the Earth is an underpopulated wasteland where people keep electronic animals as pets; killer androids come from off-Earth where most economic activity takes place. Filmed as The Blade Runner.

Dorsai, Gordon R. Dickson. 1976. New York: Dow Books. Themes of human development and the purpose of life; originally published as The Genetic General.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey. 1968. New York: Ballantine. A well crafted tale of a planet threatened by spores from space which can only be defeated by taming fire-breathing dragons; first of Dragons of Pern series.

Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965. Philadelphia: Chilton. Planetary environment and system of cultures much like that which would be present on earth if earth had no water. FVA

Earthclan: Startide Rising, David Brin. 1987. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday. Genetic manipulation, origin of man: intelligent dolphins and chimpanzees cooperate with man in the exploration of space.

Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card, 1985. New York: Tor, A Tom Doherty Association Book. Interstellar war, aliens and genocide.

Fantastic Voyage, Isaac Asimov. 1988. New York: Doubleday and Co. Microminiaturization is used to explore the human body; written originally as a screenplay for the movie of the same name. FVA

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. 1980 (1818). James Kinsley and M.K. Joseph eds., Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Gothic horror story about a medical student who creates an artificial man; first English science fiction novel. FVA

Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut. 1985. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence. An observant ghost haunts the Galapagos Islands for a million years and watches as the descendants of a few marooned humans devolve into a new species - furry, finned, and small of brain; a sadly funny Darwinian fable.

Genesis Quest, Donald Moffitt. 1986. New York: Ballantine. A species of intelligent starfish in another galaxy use genetic engineering to recreate the extinct human race.

Human Error, Paul Preuss. 1985. New York: Tor. Scientists produce a biochip or living microcomputer.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton. 1990. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. This fictional account of a theme park featuring dinosaurs cloned from DNA in mosquitoes fossilized in amber lends itself to many interesting discussions of genetic engineering, ethical issues, and chaos. FVA

"Last Question, The," Isaac Asimov. 1959. Nine Tomorrows: Tales of the Near Future. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Themes of artificial intelligence and definition(s) of intelligence.

Mortal Fear, Robin Cook. 1988. New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons. Eyedrops accelerate the aging process.

Mutants: Eleven Stories of Science Fiction. Robert Silverberg, ed. 1974. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. Anthology of collected works.

Plague Dogs, The, Richard Addams. 1977. London: Allen Lane, Rex Collings. Issues of animal experimentation, epidemics.

"Rendevous with Rama," from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur Clarke. 1985. London: Octopus. Ecosystems necessary for terraforming are described.

Ringworld, Larry Niven. 1970. New York: Ballantine. Complex artificial world is the main focus of this popular book.

Science Fiction Adventures in Mutation, Gorff Conklin, ed. 1956. New York: Vanguard Press. An anthology of collected works.

"Sound of Thunder, The," Ray Bradbury. 1966. Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction, Terry Carr, ed. New York: Doubleday. Ecology, human impact on the environment.

Sphere, Michael Crichton. 1987. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. The discovery of an ancient spacecraft deep in the ocean is the focus of a scientific probe.

Time Machine, The, H.G. Wells. 1931 New York: Random House. Ecological splitting of society leads to human evolution. FVA

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne. 1908. London/New York: J.M.Dent. Underwater adventures with sea creatures, technology of sea exploration.

Watchers, The, Dean Koontz. 1987. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. Ethics of genetic engineering and issues of animal welfare.

West of Eden, Harry Harrison. 1984. New York: Bantam Books. Imagine a world where dinosaurs did not die but survived to develop their own civilization; their culture comes into conflict with an emergent human race.

An excellent resource for short summaries of works of science fiction is: The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, David Pringle. 1990. Grafton Books, London; Collins Publishing Group.

Numerous anthologies of science fiction short stories are available in libraries and science fiction magazines have many interesting short pieces. Omni, Amazing Stories, Fantasy in Science, and Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact are four that are recommended.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of science fiction that could be used at the secondary level. Hopefully, teachers will use this as a springboard to generate their own annotated bibliographies that might also include favorite biological literature (books, poems, stories, and essays) and film resources that are not science fiction.

A sample writing exercise that might be done after students have read The Andromeda Strain:

Support the truth of these quotes as demonstrated by events in the book:

  • "The survival value of human intelligence has never been satisfactorily demonstrated."
  • "Increasing vision is increasingly expensive."

In the acknowledgments Crichton states, "We can expect more crises on the pattern of Andromeda." How much truth exists in the novel? What evidence do you see to support his prediction? (Thanks to Susan Terry for these questions.)

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