Teaching Science Fiction

I was a big science fiction fan when I was young.  I may have read every science fiction book in the Rosemead, CA public library at one point.  I subscribed to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for many years.  Even years later, after I had a Ph.D. in English, I continued to read some science fiction novels, though not as voraciously as in my earlier years.  However, I never imagined teaching a science fiction course.

In fall 2002, I had been at my current institution for a little more than a year.  I was running a new writing center and teaching a section of basic writing.  Two weeks into the quarter I got a message from the English Department that  Dr. Steve Whaley, a long time member of the department, had passed away suddenly of a heart attack.  He had been teaching a general education science fiction course that now had 31 students and no instructor.  Did I want to take it over?

It turned out that I was the only member of the department who had read any of the assigned books.   They gave me his folder of materials for the course and some of the texts.    I decided to do it.

The folder was full of old quizzes, a lot of them on mimograph.  Dr. Whaley had been teaching this course for a long time.  I got a sense of how he ran the course day to day, but there was no hint of what he was trying to accomplish with it.  He had ordered a number of books, including the following:

  • Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clark
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology, 1988

However, there was no schedule of readings, and I did not know why he had chosen these particular books.

The first meeting with the class was tough, as one might imagine.  I had to tell them that their professor had passed away.  Dr. Whaley had spent the first week lecturing and showing videos about science fiction, so they had not actually started reading yet.  I told them to start reading Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

To tell the truth, I had not thought of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a science fiction book until I saw it on Dr. Whaley’s syllabus, but it clearly is.  Ursula Le Guin calls science fiction a “thought experiment,” and others have noted that science fiction asks a “What if?” question.  In this case, the book asks, “What if one could suppress the good side of human nature and indulge the bad side simply by taking the appropriate drugs?”  Dr. Jekyll wants to indulge in the base pleasures of the lower class parts of London, but he wants to remain a respectable member of society at the same time.

There was a student from Africa (who claimed to be a prince) in the class who had never heard of the book.  Thus, when he discovered that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were THE SAME PERSON, he was immensely surprised!

It turned out that A Wizard of Earthsea is also about an individual split into good and evil parts.  Earthsea is fantasy, but the rules of magic are more rigorously observed in this book than are the laws of physics in most science fiction novels, so it is a good vehicle for talking about genre differences.  These books worked well together.  Clearly Dr. Whaley had had a plan.

Childhood’s End is also a very teachable novel.  It is typical Clark, but more self-contained than the sprawling 2001 series.  Some complain that science fiction is unsophisticated because it hits you over the head with big ideas.  Childhood’s End certainly does that.  It asks, What if technologically sophisticated aliens showed up and solved all of humanity’s problems?  What if they did this just as humans were about to enter space, but would not allow human space travel?  In the resulting utopia, what would happen to human creativity and drive?  And what purpose do the alien overlords actually have in doing all of this?

It turns out that undergraduate students enjoy being hit over the head with big ideas.  This book is always popular, though not with all members of the class.

It’s a general education course, so most of the students are not English majors.  I run the class sessions like dorm room bull sessions.  Every major has something to contribute.  Psych majors are doing character analysis, physics majors are  calculating orbits and relativity effects (very relevant to Haldeman’s Forever War), engineers are talking about the strength of materials, and business majors are costing things out.  I create reading questions to help them stay focused, and I fall back on them if the discussion lags, but it rarely does.

The short story anthology Dr. Whaley was using was full of classic stories.  I had read many of them in the original magazines when I was young.  I don’t use it anymore because it is expensive, and some of the stories are somewhat dated, but I enjoyed choosing from it the first time I taught the course.  I switched to a newer anthology, Visions of Wonder, but next time I am going to use The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois.  This covers 2008.  In winter, I will be teaching an honors section again, so I will give them the option of writing a short story.  This anthology will give them a very good idea of what the current market is like.

Over the years, I have found that classic science fiction novels from the 1950’s and 60’s are more teachable than current novels.  Writers like Clark, Phillip K. Dick and Alfred Bester tended to paint in big ideas with a broad brush, with just enough detail to allow the reader to fill in the rest with his or her imagination.   Current science fiction novelists try to create whole worlds with all the complexity of a fully imagined society.  There are lots of minor characters, lots of subplots, lots of intricate technology, cultural practices, etc., and many novels are trilogies or more.  The earlier novels are shorter and more efficient at big idea delivery.

However, next time, I am going to try two new ones.  Actually, I have been teaching one newer novel for quite a while: Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  To quote from my syllabus

Snow Crash is a fast-moving, wild and crazy book, set in a future where everything is privatized and there are no laws.  The CIA has become the CIC, the Central Intelligence Corporation.  The cops are private too. There are the Meta-cops, and The Enforcers.  If you are arrested, they might take you to a Hoosegow (pretty nice, you have to pay extra) or a franchise of The Clink (pretty terrible).  Fast food is provided by Uncle Enzo’s Pizza, which is owned by Nova Sicilia, i.e. the Mafia, which is no longer a criminal organization, because there are no laws.  People live in “burbclaves” which are gated communities with lots of rules.  You might live in a franchise of “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong,” (pretty high tech) or if you are a racist you might live in “New South Africa,” or if you like the old south, “White Columns.”  Justice is provided by “Uncle Bob’s Judicial System.”  Into all of this chaos and order someone has introduced a computer virus so lethal that if a programmer sees it, his or her mind is scrambled like an operating system shutdown, or “Snow Crash.”  Along the way it turns out that this virus was originally written in Sumerian cuneiform and was responsible for the story of the tower of Babel.  It also turns out that Judaism, and to a certain extent Christianity and Islam, are essentially anti-virus protection written against this virus.  The main characters are a hacker named Hiro Protagonist and a 15-year-old female skateboard “Kourier” named Y.T. (for “Yours Truly”).  Her mother works for “Fedland” which is what is left of the U.S. government. A good part of the action takes place in the “Metaverse” which is cyberspace.  In many ways, this book is what the Matrix was trying to be.

That is always a popular book.  However, this time I am going to teach his newest book Anathem, which takes place in an alternate universe where all academics are sequestered in co-ed monasteries studying philosophy, mathematics, and some physics, some aspects of physics being too dangerous to study.  When the rulers of the secular world outside the walls encounter a problem that requires academic expertise, they can call a monk out, but the monk can never return.  Suddenly, one monk after another is being called out.  Something strange is afoot.

My daughter describes this book as starting out like a combination of Harry Potter and Gene Wolf’s Shadow of the Torturer, and ending up like a new version of Snow Crash.  It should be great fun.

I am also planning to teach Excession, by Iain M. Banks.  This takes place in the “Culture” universe.  The Culture is a society of immense ship minds, vastly powerful machine intelligences who give themselves names like “Not Invented Here,” or “Sleeper Service.”  Humans live aboard these ships, but do not control them.  The Culture is like liberal humanism writ large.  They are oh so ethical.  One of the races within their space is the Affront, who are squid-like creatures who like fighting, war, oppression, torture, male-chauvinism, bear-baiting, dog-fighting, drinking, carousing, etc.  The race that was trying to mentor them got disgusted and called them an “affront to civilization,” and they kind of liked the sound of that, so they became the Affront.  The Culture would like to annihilate them, but that wouldn’t be ethical, so certain political conflicts are set in motion.  Also, there appears to be an object in the universe that is older than the universe, and this is causing strange occurrences and odd ship behavior.

This one should be great fun as well.

Most science fiction is about ethical and moral concerns created by new technologies.  Many of our students are actively involved in developing and implementing new technologies.  I think it is good for them to think upon the implications, and that makes this an important course.  I also want them to enjoy the reading and the discussion, so much so that they continue to read and discuss science fiction long after the course.  Since many students write me to tell me what they have been reading, it seems to work.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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4 Responses to Teaching Science Fiction

  1. Jim says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you. Also, I noticed that you provided the students of a detailed synopsis of a reading in the syllabus, which would not have occurred to me to do, but could certainly confer some advantages, by giving them a starting point.

    • guitarsophist says:

      I always tell students why we are reading a particular book. If it is a long book, I try to create a little motivation by giving them a synopsis that creates interest, but leaves a lot of questions to be answered. It’s more like a book jacket blurb, I guess, than a synopsis.

  2. Victoria says:

    I fondly remember my sci fi/fantasy course in college. We read (among other things) ACC’s The City and the Stars, a collection of short sci fi stories, ULeG’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, and…I can’t remember what else. The instructor did *not* want to be teaching the course because it was not “his” genre, but he was a good sport and, I realize in retrospect, tried to be a responsible teacher. He was also extremely sexy, which is probably partly why I remember the course so well! [rolls eyes, hey, I was 18]

    I remember doing a very B-grade paper on Omelas. I knew it was a B-paper while writing it. But I just could not see any other way to look at the story than that Omelas was a horror, because “consent” is such a central concept to legitimate sacrifice.

    • guitarsophist says:

      It is hard to figure sexual attractiveness into one’s pedagogical theory, outcomes assessment, or whatever. I guess it’s there though, an uncontrolled, or unfathomable variable. Does the Faculty Center give a workshop? Probably not. I have to rely on wickedly brilliant course design and great earnestness.

      This course is a lot of fun, for me, and apparently for the students. I got into teaching it in a rather unhappy and roundabout way, but I am happy I did.

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