Unlikely Academia, or Why We All Want to Go to Hogwarts

In a very splendid piece of writerly news, my novelette Follow Me Down will appear in Unlikely Story’s upcoming Journal of Unlikely Academia, a collection of stories devoted exclusively to strange and fantastical institutions of learning.

Yes, that means every wonderful thing you think it does: complicated lessons in magic, syllabaries of untranslatable runes and long-forgotten languages, tomes of alchemal wisdom, hidden passages to hidden libraries, sacred objects of divination…

As my third pro-rate sale, this qualifies me for full active membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (be sure to visit my snazzy new updated SFWA profile in the coming weeks!) and I truly do not think I could have conjured a better hat trick! Seriously, for a proud Ravenclaw, and long-time scholar at Jordan College, what could be finer?

(The answer is nothing could be finer. Check out Unlikely Story this August and discover how the experts navigate supernatural pregnancy at the New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics!)     

So, this has me thinking. What is it that appeals to us about these magical schools? What exactly causes us to want to gallivant around Lyra’s Oxford with only our daemons as company? What’s so thrilling about finally having puzzled out, by long and scientifically rigorous processes, what Hogwarts house we empirically belong to? (before Pottermore, children, we did it the old-fashioned way, by the blood-tainted sweat of our fevered brows!).

The secret, powerful bastion of knowledge seems to be an ever-renewable story concept. There are always new school stories in speculative fiction, strange places to learn strange things. There were, of course, a rash of fantastical school stories trailing in the wake of Harry Potter, some of them entertainingly derivative, some beautiful, some painfully sloppy. But long before readers rushed to the post-Hogwarts succor of  Rick Riordan’s  The Lightning Thief,  or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there were books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea , and even Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to school us in things unusual.

Part of the reason the schoolroom remains such a wet well for telling speculative stories has to do with the nature of speculative fiction itself. Speculative Fiction is all about rules. It’s about acclimating the reader to a special set  of laws that govern the universe of the story.  Who becomes a ghost and why? How much blood to make a spell work? Which carefully selected fourteen year-olds will pilot our giant battle-robots?

School is a natural setting for learning new rules. In an almost literal sense, a writer can sit her reader down and say “Listen up! Pay attention! There’ll be a test on this!” School settings are an ideal place to dump exposition, install important plot devices, and world-build. The fantastical school is, in a lot of ways, specially formatted for a wide-eyed protagonist to uncover  and explore it.

But it’s not just the story opportunities they offer writers that make school stories appealing. Such stories always seem to find an effusive audience, no matter how many times writers write them.

I suspect that a larger part of the draw for readers-we bookish, we nerdy, we asthmatic few- is the bright, shimmering meritocracy that is school itself.  School is a place for learning the laws of the universe, but it’s also a place for learning new skills, for testing previously untested powers (magical or otherwise). It’s a place where, if you are clever enough and quick enough and skilled enough, and hard-working enough, the world will unfold like a paper fortune-teller and reveal to you its secrets.

The true nerd ever suspects that there is some radiant untold truth she has yet to set eyes on waiting just behind the curtain. In a small way, she really believes in great, powerful books she hasn’t read, and great powerful tables of elements with which she is not familiar, and great, powerful maps of places she has never heard of. Because the world is always full of strange new things to know.

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