My 8th grade social studies teacher, Mr Koba, was one of the best teachers I ever had. He was one of those teachers who wanted to engage students and foster their creativity. I suspect, in part, this was because he was a musician and was in touch with his creativity in a way that other teachers may not have been. He was always coming up with projects to help us learn about history, anthropology and social studies through interaction as opposed to absorption.
In particular, one project has stuck with me. We were studying archeology and Mr Koba divided the class into two teams. Each team was responsible for creating the story of a made-up culture. We then had to make actual artifacts, including a ‘Rosetta stone’ that would allow someone to translate the culture’s written text. Once the artifacts were made, we had bury them in a plot of land in a way that made sense historically and spatially.
After the artifacts were buried, the other team would then undertake a dig to find and record the artifacts. The archeologists would then have to analyse the artifacts in order to come up with an understanding about the culture they had discovered. These findings would be presented to the other team where they would be validated.
As the leader of one team, I was responsible for developing the story of our culture. In many ways, I see now that it was very much like writing a science fiction novel. In both, I had to create a new world in enough detail and with sufficient coherency that someone else could understand it. In the case of this project, all that were available were some physical objects in relationship to one another, along with some text , to tell the story. In a novel, the tools are even more scant, simply words in relationship with each other and the hope that there are sufficient shared references between the author and reader.
In science fiction, this task is harder because the references are not so obvious. So-called realistic fiction relies on a belief that we share a common reality. While there is room to question this assumption about realistic fiction, science fiction has even less hope of shared references. Like an archeologist confronted with an artifact from a long gone culture, the science fiction reader is confronted with a world that is, by definition, outside of what they know. The Culture of Iain M. Banks or Neo Tokyo of Akira have relationships, rules and things that we do not have.
Thanks to Mr Koba and his archeology project, I started to understand what it takes to create and communicate a story to others in a practical way. If we made the right artifacts and buried them in the right way, the other team could, with an effort, understand what it was that we had created.