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Strange Horizons

 

OUR LAST BEST HOPE(?)

by James M. Palmer

(originally published in SciFiNow)

 

There has been much talk in these pages and throughout the science fiction community about the literary decline of the genre and the need for outreach. The problem is an aging fan base and newcomers who are only interested in media tie-ins and brain-dead movies. Many people have come up with some brilliant suggestions about what to do, but no one is doing them. I’m here to tell you that there is one group who is trying to make these suggestions happen. The group is called Reading for the Future, a grassroots organization that is trying to get SF into the classroom and into the eager hands of children just like we used to be.

RFF, as it is called, is the brainchild of David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Ben Bova. The movement started with a letter entitled "An Open Proposal to the SF Community," which outlines the need for such an organization and their plans for implementing it. The purpose of RFF is to get kids to read by encouraging every SF fan club to make contact "with librarians and English teachers, to find out their needs and to show them how SF encourages kids." The organization also stresses arranging guest speakers to visit schools, donating books, starting writing contests, and helping area science teachers use SF in the classroom to teach their subjects.

Thanks to the Internet, the word about this grassroots literary evangelism has spread. Several main groups have already formed, with websites that tell interested people who to contact and how to get involved. For the professional writers of SF, what it comes down to basically is survival. It is in the writers’ best interest to support a movement that gets young people to read. Literacy as a whole is declining, especially in SF. The new blood coursing through the genre is only here because of media-related fare like Star Wars and Star Trek novelizations and collectable card games. David Brin is even throwing money at the problem, offering $1000 dollars in prize money for a Webs of Wonder Contest, co-sponsored by Analog. This contest encourages people to create a website that uses SF in the classroom, either in science curricula or another area. These websites are for teachers who need lesson plans, activities, and grading rubrics to use in their classes. The winner will be awarded the prize money at next year's WorldCon in Philadelphia. Last year the prize was divided between winners Andy Sawyer, and SF author and teacher James Van Pelt. 

Whether this is just the balm that SF needs to grow or if the genre is in a fixed, downward spiral, only time will tell. There are those who feel that SF will lose its edge if it is canonized and made acceptable in the mainstream. Others feel that it is already mainstream, and that mainstream society needs to recognize that. There are also more things fan groups can do to help, like starting their own groups, or using a pre-existing club to make charitable contributions to school libraries. Also, SFWA should get off their lazy bums and do something about the atrocious pay scales for the magazines. SF is the only genre that still has anything resembling a thriving body of short fiction, and if they are going to encourage a new generation to enter this field, they had better try to make it look more inviting. It may take a long time to see if Reading for the Future works. Kids grow up, after all, and their continued enjoyment of reading, including SF, will be the true sign of success or failure. But doing something is better than nothing. For more information, contact RFF Utah: and the main RFF site: http://www.sff.net/rff/

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