When I was heading into my sophomore year of college I had the opportunity to teach preparatory high school English lit for my first real job (I was a regular substitute and homeroom teacher alongside my role as an administrator).

I taught students some of the work of two American authors: Edgar Allan Poe and Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut was a bit more of a fun read than Poe, though he had nothing approaching Poe's poetry years (EX. You can clap along to most of Poe's Poe-try, it's really something in action especially if the poem is of bad quality).

But compared to the Gothic fiction and horror of Poe that is somewhat grounded in its imagery, Vonnegut goes really out there in the world of true science fiction. The story I mainly taught in class for my short teaching stint was Harrison Bergeron, arguably the author's most famous short story. It is set in a clear and well explained dystopia, where everyone is forced to be equal by various imposed handicaps. The title character Harrison, is one of the most perfect people to ever exist, and doesn't jive well with the government of this society.

I don't want to spoil it since it's a quick and worthwhile read, but the picture painted of the dystopian society and of Harrison himself are both very clear, and the story ends up with a slightly different critique than one might expect from the synopsis. Many of Vonnegut's works and their science fiction contemporaries are worth the level of scrutiny I spent on "Harrison Bergeron." Unfortunately, in my personal experience, science fiction has not been something broached in academia as much as I would like.

The concept of the "sci-fi ghetto" is quite real in academic circles I think, especially in a college's literary canon. Often, the required literature courses in college academia will focus on early 19th to 20th-century literary fiction, while science fiction will be relegated to elective courses. This tends to be true in high school education as well, going by my personal experience.

So why does Vonnegut factor into this divide? Well, it's a matter of quality. In the 19th and early 20th century, there were separate literary circles for more traditional 'literary' fiction that might be seen in The New Yorker and more pulpy fiction, concerning horror or science fiction that would be published in Weird Tales.

This distinction is easily read as classist, that there is a "high-fiction" and a "low-fiction" for different social strata of people. The go-to defense for this literary divide was just simply pointing out the difference in writing quality, saying that low-fiction was of a lower standard of writing in a grammatical and syntactical form (which it often was, unfortunately). Which brings us back to Vonnegut, because alongside other breakthrough sci-fi authors (Octavia Butler, David Mitchell, etc.) he had a distinctly American and highly qualified literary style one could imagine in The New Yorker or Story Magazine easily.

It's just that he wrote about time travelling aliens instead of, you know, suburban couples being mean to each other.

The explanation for his simplistic yet high-quality of writing came from his journalistic background, a trait he shares with many great American authors like John Steinbeck and Hemingway himself. Kurt Vonnegut worked briefly as a journalist while studying at the University of Chicago for his graduate degree in anthropology. This led to a very accessible and straightforward style in his writing, present in Harrison Bergeron and in his arguably greatest work Slaughterhouse-Five. And by being a science fiction writer, Vonnegut wrote about subjects in a way that none of his contemporaries could. Science fiction described (sometimes bluntly and inelegantly) a broad picture of society and culture, while classical fiction could only imply it.

As future science fiction author Michael Crichton noted in his 1969 review of Slaughterhouse-Five, "No one else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelists."

Sidebar: Michael Crichton was a published columnist in The New York Times by age 14. I just wanted to point that out because it's intensely frustrating since I'll be regulated to self-publishing online probably for the rest of my life. But I digress, back to not intensely frustrating myself by talking about other authors.

Time travel and aliens could now be a part of literary fiction with the breakthrough of Slaughterhouse-Five it seemed. Vonnegut changed things with the massive success of his novel by making science fiction a viable form of mainstream literature by being critically and commercially successful. And yet he didn't make a difference at all it seems if we look at our curriculum.

"So it goes."

To be fair, the integration of science fiction and literary fiction has gone smoothly in a creative sense. There are many high quality authors who have written science fiction, who are regularly recommended for awards and accolades -- authors like Emily St. John Mandel, David Mitchell and Cormac McCarthy. But despite authors generally embracing science fiction tropes and settings for use in their work, there are still great pains taken to distance science fiction from the mainstream of literature.

Science fiction is even one of the most popular settings in young adult literature today, and yet books like The Hunger Games and the Divergent series will be described as "dystopian fiction" while embracing the traditional elements of science fiction in every other way. It's even downplayed in filmic adaptations, such as the adapting out of matter replicators, which are fairly often mentioned piece of world-building in The Hunger Games' first book.

And academia has not changed, as my only academic encounter so far with science fiction was when I taught a class on Harrison Bergeron.

At my alma mater, which I generally feel positive about, did not try to integrate science fiction into any literature classes, which may just be a personal preference on the part of the English literature professors (science fiction would more often pop up in film classes, as the genre has much more weight in a film sense). I did see a class on science fiction offered (regretfully, I was unable to sign up for it) but you could graduate without taking this class, and it wasn't an English class it was a film class. To finish with an English major, you had to take at least three classes focusing on Shakespearean and Victorian literature, which is a requirement for every English major in America I imagine, much like viewing Citizen Kane is for film majors.

And that is detrimental to the fostering of new voices and perspectives on literature in academia. There are so few tenured positions for aspiring professors and post-graduates, and so many aspiring professors and post-graduates who have all written a thesis concerning Shakespearean literature. And part of that is the refusal to legitimise science fiction as an American art form. If there is nothing taught on science fiction in undergraduate studies, aspiring literarians might be forced to study a certain type of literature because it's all they know from a critical perspective.

Feedback loops are generally a bad thing, but especially in a learning context -where the idea is to push for new knowledge or at least expertise in any field of study. So why neglect things that are meant to be studied just because no one has studied it before?

Back to Vonnegut, and back to Michael Crichton's review of Slaughterhouse-Five. The review, which in fact does not explicitly endorse or decry the novel, goes on to point out Vonnegut's unique perspective, "The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong." Crichton, who also makes a puzzling analogy on why Slaughterhouse-Five is not science fiction, unintentionally strikes at why we won't look at science fiction in a critical academic context: it casts a wider net than classical fiction, and it represents a huge swath of experience by representing a story about a culture rather than a singular person.

This can be best seen in more widely read science fiction like George Orwell's 1984: political factions will swear up and down that it represents a future created by the other side. It's polarising and very easy to fight about. Oftentimes, the fights are very ugly and present no clear winner. It's the antithesis of critiquing literary fiction, because you are critiquing the inner life of a singular character or a small set of characters. You're not critiquing society itself, as Vonnegut does in all of his novels -- more so then focus on the journey of his protagonist.

Heck, in a lot of ways, 1984 doesn't qualify as science fiction because it focuses so much on Winston Smith's personal journey rather than the minutiae and day to day of Oceania and The Party. Which explains why 1984 gets taught in classrooms and I, Robot doesn't.

I think it is unhelpful (to understate the issue) to ignore the factionalism of science fiction studies by refusing to acknowledge it in any academic sense at all. Science fiction takes great leaps in painting a picture of an imagined society similar to our own in beautiful and hideous ways. It's expression much like any novel about the private life or the journey of the archetypal hero-protagonist, it is just broader. Sometimes they fail, but there is plenty of literary fiction that fails in the same sense that we still study regardless.

Case and point for literary fiction that feels purposeless: Ethan Frome is essentially not an interesting novel, and it doesn't matter how good anything else Edith Wharton has written or what it purports to say about society in the 1900s. It's a prosaic bore. It's overwrought angst in a time period that we're disconnected from in a setting that makes no sense to us with characters we don't relate.

There are books with aliens and ray-guns that say the same things about the cyclical and trapping nature of modern society and poverty, so why can't we read those instead?

But the ignorance of sci-fi asking the same questions is crazy! Like many great American novels, science fiction asks most of the same questions: instead of looking inward, we look around. That's what Vonnegut's stories should inspire, at least that is what I said to my students. Society deserves as much scrutiny as we do, but we have to at least have the conversation in the first place. It's a good intermediary between abstract English theory and concrete literary themes and tropes. And if studied, it works as a great compliment to literary fiction. The stories we write about ourselves and the stories we write about each other go hand in hand to help us deeply understand our world.

How to solve our problems by looking inward or around us. Isn't the purpose of literature to make us fuller human beings? Doesn't science fiction help us do that in its own weird way?

I would hope that if I ever pursue a graduate degree, I could examine the many number of big questions science fiction poses in an academic context. But we have to stop being scared of even saying the words "science fiction," as it seems to be the case. There's no reason to be apprehensive about a descriptor, and if we are -- we have a lot to examine on why we're afraid of science fiction.

You can read more by Connor Mannion here.