Jul 20, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

While television shows like Friends and The Office once dominated watercooler conversations, they’ve been superseded by everything from West World to Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, the names of techies like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are as well-known as their movie star counterparts. The takeaway? Geek culture has ascended in status, and students are increasingly likely to cross paths with it during their time in college -- both in and outside of the classroom.

Still not convinced that fantasy and sci-fi are for you? Read on for a closer look at why all college students should give these genres a go. 

From Subculture to Mainstream

A recent Futurism article examining the rise of science fiction in college curricula posits, “Is sci-fi fodder only for paperback novels, Kindle downloads, comic books, video games, and big budget movies? We watch The Matrix, Star Wars, The Avengers, Star Trek, and so many other big sci-fi films up on the big screen and on our tablets and smartphones—should we leave them there? Is there room for serious sci-fi study and discussion in the classroom?”

While some of the more buzzed-about works mentioned above may not be high art, one needs only to dig a bit deeper to find science fiction novels that indeed qualify as literature, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

At the same time, books like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings earn equal acclaim in the fantasy genre.

They'll Make You Think...And Blow Your Mind

Jean Seaton recently described George Orwell’s 1984 as “a handbook for difficult times.” While the book may have been written nearly 75 years ago about a future then 40 years to come, it was startlingly prescient of where we are now.

“Reading 1984, George Orwell’s claustrophobic fable of totalitarianism, is still a shock. First comes the start of recognition: we recognize what he describes….Orwell opened our eyes to how regimes worked….But now we can read 1984 differently: with anxious apprehension, using it to measure where we, our nations and the world have got to on the road map to a hell Orwell described. Prophetic? Possibly. But stirring, moving, creative, undeniable and helpful? Yes. A book published on 8 June 1949, written out of the battered landscape of total war, in a nation hungry, tired and grey, feels more relevant than ever before, because Orwell’s 1984 also arms us,” contends Seaton.

Other science fiction books claiming spots in the make-you-think category? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and, of course, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Of taking a popular science fiction class, meanwhile, a Harvard student told The Crimson, “Because SF takes place in unusual worlds where new things are possible, societies or situations can be set up to ask fascinating ‘what if’ questions.’...While these questions initially seem interesting but not necessarily useful, they can be thought experiments which argue positions on modern issues, or at least present those issues as needing to be addressed.”

In addition to spurring critical thinking, science fiction and fantasy books are also heralded for their power to spur curiosity and creativity.

They Draw on Real Science...Or Predict Its Development

While science fiction doesn’t necessarily out to predict the future, it sometimes ends up doing exactly that. Furthermore, many writers use new scientific developments as launching pads when world-building. 

Astrophysicist Jordin Kare told Smithsonian magazine of the impact of science fiction on his career trajectory, “I went into astrophysics because I was interested in the large-scale functions of the universe, but I went to MIT because the hero of Robert Heinlein’s novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel went to MIT….Some of the people who are doing the most exploratory thinking in science have a connection to the science-fiction world.”

Sophia Brueckner, who has taught a college class entitled “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” insists that these books have very real value for scientists working with emerging technologies -- and not just as fodder for career inspiration. “With the development of new biotech and genetic engineering, you see authors like Margaret Atwood writing about dystopian worlds centered on those technologies. Authors have explored these exact topics in incredible depth for decades, and I feel reading their writing can be just as important as reading research papers,” she says.

Electric Literature recently highlighted science fiction books that predicted the future in terms of technology, including Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes.

Ultimately, there are many good reasons to pick up a science fiction or fantasy tome,  One last one every fantasy and science fiction enthusiast will stand by when recommending  Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae? They’re also a whole lot of fun. So if you haven’t yet embraced your inner alien, asteroid or AI, you’re missing out by holding out.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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