Fall 2011 Course Description for ENGL 451: Science Fiction

Stelarc Third HandOften dismissed by its critics as low-brow pulp, science fiction is nonetheless a rich, dynamic literary genre which deserves our attention. In this class we will move beyond the stereotypes of science fiction in order to examine novels, stories, comics, films, and videogames that question the global commodification of culture, the fetishization of technology, and the dominant ideologies that structure race, gender, and class relations. Drawing upon works from North America, Europe, and Asia, we will ultimately challenge what counts as “human” in our increasingly inhuman world.

(Amplified Body Diagram courtesy of Stelarc, 1995)

12 thoughts on “Fall 2011 Course Description for ENGL 451: Science Fiction”

  1. What better place to brainstorm some of the possible texts I’d teach in this science fiction course than on this very post, in the comments?

    So, I could do some of the predictable, canonical texts of the genre—Butler, Dick, Gibson, Le Guin, etc.—(and I probably will) but this is also a chance to highlight some of the outliers, or at the very least, some of the names that aren’t often found on science fiction syllabi.

    What might some of these texts be? Steven Gould’s Jumper (1992), Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3, and more, which I’ll add here as I think of them.

  2. How about Lem’s Solaris? It really plays with the conventions of human-alien interaction.

    It might also be interesting to read failed science fiction. Things that have been predicted but that have not come to pass. Something akin to Paleofuture. In this vein, something dealing with nanotech could be pretty interesting. I like Linda Nagata’s The Bohr Maker. And I’m wondering to what extent we could call something like the Baroque Cycle (with its emphasis on science and counterfactuals) “science fiction.”

  3. My current english 101 teacher recommended I look into this course as she thought I would be interested. I vote Ender’s Game or another Orson Scott Card Book!!!!

  4. Looking forward to seeing the reading list. Other suggestions would be one of Lem’s Cyberiad/robot short stories. Other authors I would suggest are Jeff Noon for interesting insights on race, culture, drugs and reality, Greg Egan (early short stories) for fetishization and commodification of the self, Roadside Picnic for what it means to be human/alien, Bruner’s Stand on Zanzibar or Aldiss’ Non-Stop. So many novels make it a challenging reading list for a course.

    Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled or Give Me Liberty? Tetsuo the Iron Man. District 9. Solaris and Stalker films.

  5. I’m signed up for your class, and I have a confession–I’ve never read Dune. I hope it’s included in the class!
    I Am Legend and Ender’s Game are both great suggestions. And what about Akira?

  6. I took a course with the same catalog number under Professor Rutledge and really enjoyed it, but I was sort of disappointed that there was no opportunity to contrast higher-thought SF with more pop-y Sci-Fi, because I thought that there would be good value, especially for writers, in seeing where they differ.

    It might be useful to examine a classic pop novel, like part of The Lensman series, which is an early member of SF’s most recognized sub-genre the space opera. It’s also certainly the inspiration for many current Sci-Fi works.

    A novel from the Culture series might also provide a valuable look at Space Opera and pop-focused texts within the genre. Though they may be a bit long for a class.

    Considering recent eco-focused themes in science fiction and the success of Avatar, The Color of Distance is a relatively little-known SF novel (among pop-Sci-Fi readers) that is an excellent exemplar for how to deal with those themes.

    Considering the theme of moving beyond human, surely Last and First Men needs to enter consideration? Besides providing an excellent example of an uncommon format, the novel deals with those themes directly.

    Another text that deals with the questioning of humanity vs inhumanity and technology is the video game Deus Ex which I consider to still be one of the best video games ever published and is well-known for its engagement with the themes you mention. Besides which, it has the bonus feature of being usable on both Macs and PCs, making it accessible to everyone.

    I know cyberpunk has its own very occasional course, but I’d think a Gibson short story, perhaps one of the ones from the Burning Chrome collection, would fit in nicely.

    Ex Machina is a well-written graphic novel that places commentary on what it means to be human (not just when integrating with technology, but when dealing with the opportunity to act) side by side with current political issues and hides it under the cover of super-heroics. However, the more interesting themes are harder to find without reading the entire 50-ish run series.

    Transmetropolitan is another graphic novel that deals with the themes you want to cover, but once again, while they exist throughout, it’s way harder to find them without going over the whole run. Also, the series may be more difficult to teach than others.

    Karl Schroeder is one of my favorite SF authors and his novels regularly deal with trans-human themes or living alongside technology. Ventus is closer to your listed topics and is interesting as a fantasy/SF hybrid, but Permanence is better written.

    Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End might also be a good candidate.

  7. Professor Sample,

    I talked to my dad, who is a huge consumer of anything science fiction, and he emailed me this list of some of his favorite sci fi books–both traditional works from the “canon” and more current, maybe experimental texts? Personally, I’ve read very few of these, but you might be familiar with some and could consider teaching them in the course if you haven’t already compiled the syllabus. Also I have no idea which are novels and which are short stories, so have fun looking them up!:

    “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison
    “Nightfall” by Asimov
    “The Toynbee Convector” by Bradbury
    “Contact” by Sagan
    “Frankenstein” by Shelley
    “9 Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke
    “A Canticle for Lebowitz” by Walter Miller
    “Neuromancer” by William Gibson
    “The Diamond Age” by Neil Stephenson
    “Snow Crash” by Neil Stephenson
    “Islands in the Net” by Bruce Sterling
    “Lord Valentine’s Castle” by Robert Silverberg
    “Macroscope” by Piers Anthony
    “There Will Be Dragons” by John Ringo

    I’m realizing some of these might actually be fantasy…I don’t know. But hope this helps!

  8. Professor Sample,

    I throughly enjoyed your course HNRS 353. In light of a widened view of “texts” as inspired by that class, I would suggest Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese anime movie about people who have had parts of their bodies, including parts of the brain, exchanged for mechanical parts. The main character, Mokoto Kusanagi, is an almost completely mechanical soldier, and thus very literally owned by the state. Other characters in the series have varying levels of modification, resulting in a world where hacking can result in memory modification. In one scene in particular from the movie, Kusanagi questions what it means to be human, and if she can still be considered such when she is mostly mechanical.

    Apparently the original form was a manga, though I would say from anecdotal evidence that the movie is more well known. However, that is an option as well if you prefer graphic novels.

    I hear this is classified as “Cyberpunk,” but I would consider that a sub-genre of science fiction.

    I’m surprised no one mentioned this already, although the mentioning of Akira does make me happy.

  9. I would love to study some of Michael Crichton books. My favorites include Jurassic Park (of course), Congo, and Timeline. I must admit that I would enjoy studying Dune in a college course, as well as Ender’s Game. I’ve never read I Am Legend, but would welcome the opportunity to do so.
    For the record, I’d rather not explore the failed science fiction.

  10. Maybe it is already on your list, but I have to make a case for Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” as a fascinating look at future human settlement on Earth, as well as discussions of what it means to be human (R. Daneel Olivaw and all the debates he brings up). Also it’s hard to talk about robots in SF without talking about Asimov, since he essentially invented the concept as we know it (and I believe is credited in the OED for coining the term “robotics” though he didn’t realize it at the time).

  11. Just wondering how much of your material I can get away with stealing for my Intro Course, and kicking myself because I just realized We3 was a Grant Morrison project and wishing I had at least read it before making my booklist. Also, when I read the post discussing the dad list, I expected some old, hard science fiction then read the list and realized that I am officially of “dad” age.

Comments are closed.