See a kid curled up with a novel about space aliens instead of swinging on the jungle gym at the park and one word will probably pop into your mind: geek.
Maybe that young bookworm will grow up to be a billionaire (many of the biggest names in business were dedicated sci-fi fans in their youths), but many of us associate a love of sci-fi with social awkwardness and getting pushed into your locker a lot.
Instead of a sure, straight road to social isolation and nerdiness, parents should think of science fiction as a great way for kids (and adults) to build mental strength, weather uncertainty, and imagine better futures, experts argue.
Predicting the unpredictable ...
"Science-fiction writers don't know anything more about the future than anyone else," admitted celebrated sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson in The New Yorker recently. "Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen."
Why? "By presenting plausible alternative realities, science-fiction stories empower us to confront not just what we think but also how we think and why we think it. They reveal how fragile the status quo is, and how malleable the future can be," Eliot Peper pointed out on the Harvard Business Review site.
Science fiction nudges us not just to imagine other worlds, but also to face up to the fact that the world as it exists today isn't fixed. Alternatives are possible. Maybe even inevitable. The status quo can feel like an all-enveloping fog around us. Sci-fi (and global shocks like the one we're living through) part that fog, reminding us empires fall, tech advances, certainties crumble, and nature regularly dishes out corrections to our hubris. Unpredictability is the only thing that's predictable.
.... and coping with it when it arrives
But reading about distant imagined worlds isn't just a lesson in intellectual humility, according to Clark University English professor Esther Jones. It also helps us prepare to deal with the shocks our unpredictable future will inevitably deal out.
"Young people who are 'hooked' on watching fantasy or reading science fiction may be on to something. Contrary to a common misperception that reading this genre is an unworthy practice, reading science fiction and fantasy may help young people cope, especially with the stress and anxiety of living through the Covid-19 pandemic," she argued on The Conversation recently.
Sci-fi isn't nerdy escapism. Inhabiting alternative worlds help kids cope with real-world stress. By presenting challenges like environmental degradation and economic exploitation, or dealing with difference in the context of distant worlds, sci-fi gently leads readers to recognize and think through these problems.
Pondering climate change is a nerve-racking bummer. Wondering if your favorite space hero will save his planet from cascading ecosystem collapse caused by runaway dilithium mining could really get a 12-year-old mind humming.
That imaginative distance "gives readers an avenue to grapple with complexity and use their imagination to consider different ways of managing social challenges. What better way to deal with the uncertainty of this time than with forms of fiction that make us comfortable with being uncomfortable, that explore uncertainty and ambiguity, and depict young people as active agents, survivors, and shapers of their own destinies?" Jones asks.
Her closing plea to parents is simple: "Let them read science fiction." This is solid advice not just for those with kids, but for anyone, including business owners, hoping to build their capacity to roll with whatever crazy punches the world will throw at us next.