Reading List for Science Fiction Course (ENGL 451)

Prosthesis' Oświęcim/AuschwitzAfter much deliberation—and with your feedback, both here and twice on Twitter—I have finalized the reading list for my upcoming Science Fiction class. Actually, I finalized it months ago, but I haven’t had a chance to post it here until now.

This list isn’t everything we’re reading; there’ll be short stories, critical essays, other nonfiction works, as well as some experimental writing and film. But the novels below are the texts officially available at the university bookstore or Amazon.

Students: you need not buy the paper versions of these books. You can purchase e-book versions for your Kindle, Nook, or iWhatever. In the case of We3, you can purchase digital copies of the three issues that make up Morrison and Quitely’s graphic novel from Comixology.

I’m excited for the class, and I hope my students are too. All of these novels stick to my original goal of exploring and challenging what counts as “human” in our increasingly inhuman world. And all of them are excellent, provocative reads.

[ Creative Commons photo credit: CxOxS ]

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)

So Many Universes in My Head

I’ve been wondering, how many universes can I hold in my head at once?

I’m talking about fictional universes, of course. And by universe, I mean a world set apart by its own physics and cosmology. So, realist narratives all occupy the same universe (Sherlock Holmes and Tony Soprano exist in the same universe). But Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a different universe from the Marvel Universe, which is a universe separate from the Whedonverse.

Right now, circulating near the surface waters of my short-term recall are a multitude of universes, elements of which I’ve encountered in the past few days: the Marvel Universe, the Gotham City-Batman Universe (which seems closer to our universe than the Marvel Universe), the Harry Potter Universe, the George Lucas Star Wars Universe, George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire Universe, Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood Universe (thanks to my four-year-old), the Shadow of the Colossus Kyozo Universe, Nintendo’s Mario Universe, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper Universe, Gaius Baltar and his pantheistic Cylon universe, and Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls Universe (again, thanks to my son).

Shouldn’t I get confused? Each universe has its own beastiary, its own laws of physics, its own mythology. How do I keep track of them all?

Maybe because what the universes have in common is actually more fundamental than what separates them. As vast as the gulf is between a Jedi Knight and Heffalump, these two universes — and all of the ones above — share the same moral code.

Just look at this painstakingly detailed illustration:

The Moral Universe and Its Subsets

The characters that populate each of the worlds above, no matter how realistic or how fantastic, all operate within the same moral universe. There is right and there is wrong. There is good and there is evil. The more interesting characters are a blend of right and wrong, but nonetheless right and wrong still anchor the two extremes of what is imaginable.

I wonder, then, what exists outside this framing universe? Can someone help me name some fictional universes which operate in an amoral universe, where there is no sense of right or wrong, no judgment of good or bad deeds? What would such a fictional universe look like? Where the hero is neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but something altogether…new?

The sky is falling, but my phones are tapped, so I’m okay and you are too

I caught snippets of the Diane Rehm Show today, and there was a panel of experts discussing the domestic war on terror. There’s the predictable apologist for the Bush administration, spouting the standard refrain that because there’s been no terror attack on the U.S. since 9/11, all that illegal wiretapping and surveillance and profiling and warmongering has paid off. Okay, fine, that’s no surprise, what he’s saying. Typical specious reasoning, Homer Simpson style.

But what got me was one of the callers. First, he said that Robert Heinlein is one of his favorite authors. Red flags go off, right there alone. Then the guy, a marine who, to his credit, is on his way to Afghanistan, says that Heinlein has a quote, something like, You can have peace and you can have freedom, but you can’t have peace and freedom.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s Starship Troopers talking, Heinlein’s most (and there are many contenders) fascistic novel, where his militaristic, kill the motherfragging aliens, and so what if a few humans die, because they were weak and deserved to die urges come to full blossom.

And this guy is citing it as a textbook for American liberty?

I bow before the almighty forces of juvenile literature!