Thursday, November 03, 2005

Spring Teaching

As I mentioned earlier this week, I expected to be teaching composition this coming spring and was looking forward to revising my "practices of memory" theme. To my surprise, I was told I'd been assigned a science fiction course, and to my greater surprise, there doesn't seem to be anyone else qualified to teach it (the few who can are in non-teaching positions or are needed to teach something else). So, in the middle of everything else this week, I needed to quickly come up with a course description as registration has already started. While I've taught science fiction once before, I wanted to significantly revise the class. Among other things, I'm going to include more short stories, bring in film and TV, and finally stop thinking about including comics and start using them.

I still haven't decided upon all the short stories and the films, but here's what I've settled on so far:

  • Dawn by Octavia Butler

  • Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

  • Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow

  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd or The Watchmen by Alan More and Dave Gibbons

  • Short stories by Isaac Asimov, Pat Cadigan, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, H.P. Lovecraft, and Joanna Russ

  • Blade Runner

  • Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind

  • and episodes from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Dawn and Starship Troopers are the only two novels I'm carrying over from the previous course, though I may, in the end, decide to roll Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or Neuromancer back into the course. I'd never read Dawn before and wasn't overly impressed or unimpressed by the novel, but I found that my students loved it and it taught extremely well, so I'm more than happy to keep it on a syllabus while dropping novels I love Androids or Neuromancer. My students also really liked Starship Troopers, even those who consider themselves pacifists. In fact, a couple of students mentioned how they really liked the novel despite the fact they didn't want to like it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, in addition to just being a great novel, is openly Catholic in a non-preaching sort of way, and a first-year experience survey a few years ago found that students want religion addressed more openly in the classroom, which makes sense for a Jesuit University. In response to that survey, I planned on using Canticle in my earlier class but the bookstore didn't order it and I'd tried to squeeze in too many books, so it got cut by default. I used some of Miller's Catholic science fiction short stories instead, and they went over so well that I'm running with the novel this time around. What excites me most about the novel, however, is that it follows the Order of Leibowitz (a religious order tasked with preserving books and knowledge after nuclear war) some 800 (?) years after its founding. The novel's divided into three sections (with about 1,200 years between the first and the third) that correspond to manuscript, print, and electronic culture. Literally. In the third section, as nuclear war is about to break out again, radio, TV, bullhorns, and other electronic broadcast/amplification provides an almost constant background hum in the book, and a some of the narrative is told in the form of TV and radio broadcasts written in a telegraphic style. When one considers that the book was written in 1959, a year after Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue and a few years before McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy, Havelock's Preface to Plato, and Goody and Watt's "The Consequences of Literacy," you can start to understand why I get so excited by this book. I consider this book, along with Naomi Mitchinson's Early in Orcaida two modern novels that ought to be taught in any orality & literacy/media ecology literature course (note, btw, that we start reading Mitchinson in my introduction to literary studies course in a couple of weeks).

I think Ghost in the Shell is going to be the biggest challenge, not because it's a comic (manga, actually), but because I don't fully understand it after having read it three times. It's got heavy doses of the whole cyberpunk alterity aesthetic going, which, technically, I'll refer to as "cognitive estrangement" in class. I understand the themes well enough and, and part of learning to read science fiction is to learn how to deal with the cognitive estrangement, how to encounter, file away, and later figure out "novums" (new datum). And while Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex aren't exactly the same (see my entry Ed Dorn, Graphic Novels, and Anime if you didn't follow the earlier link, watching some select SAC episodes will help the transition into the manga.

As for V for Vendetta or The Watchmen, I'm torn (and, as I said, I may use something else instead). I think The Watchmen is better, but V's interesting within the context of a post-9/11 world, and would also serve as an interesting counterpoint to Starship Troopers, which many critics wrongly decry as fascist -- V would show us a real fascist government as a point of comparison. And there is, of course, the fact that V for Vendetta hits the big screen on March 17 (it was supposed to have been this Friday, Nov. 4, Guy Fawkes Day, to honor V's series of London bombings (which include blowing up the Houses of Parliament -- shut down by the fascist government) and use of a Guy Fawkes mask to hid his identity).

Lovecraft may seem an odd duck in the list of short story authors I'm planning on including, but Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos is deeply inspired by his interests in science, especially astronomy, and physics. Most of the monsters of the mythos, are aliens, and magic is often described as "non-Euclidean mathematics." (See, for instance, At the Mountains of Madness, "The Dreams in the Witch House," "The Colour Out of Space," and even "Call of Cthulhu"). I'm not yet sure which, but we'll read a short story or two to as a way to discuss the generic boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

When teaching science fiction, I like to begin by introducing three definitions, science fiction as the literature of change:
“Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger.” - James Gunn
science fiction as "What If" literature:
“Science fiction is What If literature. All sorts of definitions have been proposed by people in the field, but they all contain both The What If and The Serious Explanation; that is science fiction shows things not as they characteristically or habitually are but as they might be, and for this “might be” the author must offer a rational, serious, consistent explanation, one that does not (in Samuel Delany's phrase) offend against what is known to be know.” -- Joanna Russ
and science fiction as
fabril literature:
“A revealing way of describing science fiction is to say that it is part of a literary mode which one may call 'fabril'. […] Fabril literature (of which science fiction is now by far the most prominent genre) is overwhelmingly urban, disruptive, future-oriented, eager for novelty; its central image is the 'faber', the smith or blacksmith in older usage, but now extended in science fiction to mean the creator of artifacts in general-metallic, crystalline, genetic, or even social.” - Tom Shippey

I also spend the first few days talking about how to read science fiction, and that means talking about issues like cognitive estrangement, novums, and "science fiction thinking." And major topics we're going to touch on this spring include intelligent machines, alien contact, urbanization, race, gender, unexplained phenomena, utopic and dystopic futures, the virtual and the real, media ecology and orality-literacy, and what it means to be human.



At 7:32 PM, Blogger lisa schamess said...

Hey! Can I steal your syllabus? I'm waaaaaay over in Washington, DC.

Pretty please?

(Don't forget The Matrix.)

At 2:28 PM, Blogger John said...

Feel free. And I'll post a link to the course once I've more fully developed it.


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