The simple answer to this question is obviously, yes! As to ‘why?’, well, I can think of quite a few reasons.
Firstly, any serious appreciation of literature needs to be wide-ranging, and also to look at what excites popular taste as well as whatever ‘critics’ have sometimes arbitrarily decided has ‘literary merit’. If you’re studying say, Victorian novels, you don’t only read Charles Dickens. You look at his contemporaries, such as Wilkie Collins and slightly later writers such as H Rider Haggard and Thomas Hardy, to compare and contrast. You can then go on to trace the development of the novel form, looking at how elements Dickens used persisted, or were dropped, as tastes changed. And of course, noted late C19th writers include Jules Verne and HG Wells who addressed similar issues as Dickens and Hardy, just in a different way.
All of these were commercial, mass-market writers of their day when there was little or no concept of ‘genre’ writing. (A lot of the subsequent snobbery about popular literature can be traced back to narrow-minded academic authorities such as FR Leavis). So, I would argue that any good literature course should include SF&F, to complete the picture of the period being studied, along with other forms of popular literature, such as crime and mystery novels. Wilkie Collins incidentally, arguably wrote the first detective story.
This is all relevant for social science as well as purely literary studies. If you want to know who people were, then you want to know what they think, and just about the best way to find that out is to see what they were reading. All of them.
When it’s taught, SF&F should be judged on its merits as writing, irrespective of personal taste. It is intellectually unsound for anyone to slip seamlessly from ‘I don’t like this book’ to ‘this is a bad book.’ Granted, there is some weak, formulaic SF&F published in just about ever decade. There are weak and formulaic novels, thrillers, mysteries and books of just about every other type. But we don’t reject Jane Austen because of the profusion of trashy Silhouette/Mills & Boon romance novels. SF&F writers frequently know what they are doing, in terms of writing ‘proper’ literature. After all, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien both held highly respected professorships in the English faculties of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Modern writers such as Iain Banks are equally at home in mainstream fiction and SF&F.
There are also good reasons for studying SF&F as a special subject in its own right. It has always been a literature of ideas, exploring the implications of change, be it technological or social, as opposed to stagnation. The SF tradition of asking ‘what if’ goes back to writers like Verne and Wells Thirty years ago Arthur C Clarke was predicting innovations such as the Internet. Writers like Gentry Lee and Jerry Pournelle were well qualified to take up this tradition, having both worked for NASA. SF can be optimistic, seeing technological developments to improve the lot of humanity, to take us to the stars and beyond but this is not merely blue sky speculation. When Kim Stanley Robinson or Ken MacLeod sees mankind colonising Mars, the Moon and beyond, they do so within entirely believable extrapolations of current scientific and commercial trends, positive and negative. The contrasting sub-genre of SF is the post-apocalypse story with ecological awareness running below the surface. Writers such as China Miéville and Michael Marshall Smith show us darker aspects of modern society running out of control. This tradition goes back to the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley. SF&F continues to reflect the social, political and cultural issues of the day as debated by intelligent, informed people. It’s worth reading for that alone, even if you don’t happen to agree with a writer’s personal politics.
A lot of people seem to think that aliens and serious literature are mutually exclusive. Not if you approach them with an open mind, and see such writing as holding up a mirror to humanity, demanding that we look at ourselves from new angles. John Wyndam imagined the benign intelligence of Chocky and the enigmatic hostility of the Midwich Cuckoos back in the Fifties, asking pertinent questions about fear and prejudice. More recently Mary Doria Russell and Ben Jeapes have explored the sometimes catastrophic consequences of cultural arrogance and miscommunication. All these issues remain alive in the real world today.
Fantasy readers are always encouraged to look outside their own culture, taken to a spectacular array of different realms, where societies defy easy assumptions and often challenge them. Writers such as Melanie Rawn, Robyn Hobb and Llyn Flewelling deal with the questions on race, sex and tolerance that perplex the world we live in today. Much of fantasy revolves around exploring the rights and responsibilities of power. The fact that power is based on magic is a secondary consideration. This tradition goes all the way back to JRR Tolkien, as do issues of loyalty and personal moral responsibility that are frequently explored in the genre.
Even the comic end of SF&F makes you think, and quite possibly ask questions about the world and society around you, whether it’s the surreal imagination of someone like Tom Holt or the inspired comedy of Terry Pratchett. For satire and parody to work, the reader has to share the author’s eye for the absurd in the everyday world. When fun is made of something that doesn’t work, it sets us wondering why it doesn’t work, and perhaps, how we could fix it.
So, in summary, SF&F should be studied to complete any course of literature to ensure a fully-rounded picture of popular taste as well as key issues of the day. It can viably be studied on its merits as literature, and one of its merits as a literary form is that it widens the reader’s perspective and encourages an enquiring mind. This is surely one of the fundamental aims of education?