My online science fiction class at Marylhurst University (LIT215E/CMS215E) has gotten off to a lively start with another batch of great students this summer. I teach this class pretty much every other year, and I’m always finding ways to tweak the syllabus. This time around our main texts are Robert Silverberg’s excellent Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964 which we’re using in tandem with Volume One (the 2006 issue) of Jonathan Strahan’s annual Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series. These two volumes provide us with a nice variety of science fiction stories across the last century of the genre. While we can’t read every story for the class, these two books allow us to hit most the high points in the Golden Age from Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke to some of the standout newcomers to the field, like Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi. We also read just three novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which started it all; H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898), which isn’t my personal favorite of his works but which introduces the important SF theme of alien invasion; and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Dispossessed (1974), which helps us tackle both utopian themes and feminist/gender themes.
To give the students time to read Frankenstein, our first week’s discussion taps into a discussion of the two most culturally prominent SF franchises by reading David Brin’s somewhat dated but still relevant 1999 article “‘Star Wars’ despots vs. ‘Star Trek’ populists”. I like this piece especially since it allows even those students without much interest or experience with SF to jump right into the fray. Also, I’ve found people tend to feel pretty passionate about both of these franchises. We also do a bit of work exploring the line between SF and contemporary technology by reading an interview with noted futurologist Ray Kurzweil and a slightly paranoid rant against the merging of humans with machines by Eric Utne.
This time around I’m also including a lot more films than I have in the past. This seems important since at least in film and television SF seems to have become accepted as virtually mainstream, whereas SF novels are still somewhat consigned to the genre ghetto except when authors who are already considered “real writers” employ SF tropes in their “serious” work. This is the only way to account for the different cultural reception of Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin for example. Yes, Le Guin has achieved broad literary acceptance, but this is often presented as being “in spite” or her being an SF author. Okay, I know, I know, saying that genre writing isn’t “serious” literature amounts to fighting words in some circles, but the (perhaps) disappearing divide between “high” and “low” art is probably an issue for another blog post. Scratch that – it’s an issue for a series of blog posts. I’ll get on that.
So, anyway, we’re watching the following films:
- Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), dir. Robert Wise
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), dir. Stanley Kubrick
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), dir. Nicolas Roeg
- The Matrix (1999), dir. Andy and Laura Wachowski
- A Scanner Darkly (2006), dir. Richard Linklater
- Children of Men (2006), dir. Alfonso Cuarón
- Moon (2009), dir. Duncan Jones
- Hunger Games (2012), dir. Gary Ross
I know I’ve probably opened up a whole can of space worms by publicizing my selections here, but before you reply with your own suggestions (which I welcome), just remember that this list is not supposed to represent the “best” of SF film. It’s merely a collection of some interesting films that span a lot of years (skewed toward the present, admittedly). I also wanted to touch on a wide variety of themes and trends in SF.
As always, I’m reading and viewing alongside my students as the term progresses. No matter how many times I read Frankenstein, I always find new things to ponder. I’m also excited because as I wrap up my current project on Edgar Allan Poe, I’m starting to consider attempting a longer academic work about science fiction. Specifically, I think it might be interesting to perform psychoanalytic readings of Golden Age stories and novels. I plan to take copious notes this term and see where this idea leads me.