As summer winds down and students troop off to school, we found ourselves thinking about the many different types of learning in SFF. One of the most fun aspects of genre is that writers who choose to tell coming-of-age stories and campus stories have so many more options than writers of realistic fiction—where your litfic author has to choose between, say, high school and college, or public, private, and parochial school, a genre author’s options are a lot cooler. Hey, how about if your teenage protagonist learns how to fly when he becomes a goose? That can totally happen in SFF! Want to send your characters to boarding school? Why not make it a magical boarding school? A summer internship in an office can make for lackluster reading, but what if you up the stakes by apprenticing your character to aliens… who are fighting a battle to save the universe?
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Learning by some form of transformation goes hand-in-hand with a dearth of genre fiction–and so do disguises! Of course, some transformations are disguises in and of themselves–such as changing your students into animals, as The Once and Future King or The Magicians would have it. Merlin’s more naturalistic brand of teaching imbues a young King Arthur with a great deal of wisdom, while a similar exploration for Quentin Coldwater was decidedly… less useful on that front.
Literal and permanent transformations often lead to an elevation of consciousness, like Binti’s transformative experience in Nnedi Okorafor’s eponymous novella, or David Bowman’s transformation into the Starchild in 2001. And then there are types of transformative learning that involve passing down one person’s experience to another; the Bene Gesserit of the Dune series have Reverend Mothers that are imbued with the knowledge of all women who held the position before them, and the metacrisis of the Doctor-Donna on Doctor Who seemed to give Donna Noble access to all of the Doctor’s knowledge as a Time Lord (though that proved deadly).
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To some degree, most epic quests have a degree of learning-via-travel: go forth, save the world, pick up a few fighting tips and camping skills on the way! But some feel a bit more like legit gap years than others. Foremost among these? Westley’s transformation into the Dread Pirate Roberts. Our boy had gone into the world to seek his fortune, but what he got was something else: an education. And let’s be honest: his fencing skills (and cool mask) were probably way more interesting to Buttercup than plain ol’ money would’ve been
Then there are the hobbits, who might never left the Shire if not for that pesky ring. They had the whole wide world to learn about, even if it was slightly—ok, more than slightly—traumatic. Arthur Dent learned about towels, flying, and large swaths of the galaxy when Ford Prefect whisked him off-planet. You could make a pretty good argument for Arya Stark’s time at the House of Black and White as her gap year away from Westeros—no longer a child, not a fully fledged assassin quiteyet. And when Syenite, in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, sets out on her mission with Alabaster, she learns just how much she didn’t know about her world. And what was the voyage of the Dawn Treader if not a really excellent semester at sea?
Link to the rest at Tor.com