First Class, Defining SF, and a Book on Books
First day of my Science Fiction course. About a third of the students said they were regular science fiction readers, which is /much/ larger percentage than my previous SF course, which was about 1/10. It'll be interesting to see how this difference plays out in the classroom.
We started off by talking about what science fiction is. Three students offered suggestions: that it's set in the future and usually in space; that it's usually about science and/or technology; and that it's a work of fiction that offers something new and tries to provide a rational, scientific explanation. Fairly standard definitions, all good in their own way and all problematic as well. And that's the point. The science fiction community (authors, critics, scholars, fans) don't agree. SF Scholar and critic James Gunn has an acendote, which I should have shared in class, about inviting SF Damon Knight, influential SF book reviewer and critic, to his class to define SF. Knight argued that there is no significant difference between SF and fantasy, and Gunn insisted that there is a fundamental difference. I then offered five definitions to get us started (that link also includes Heinlein's rules for a “Simon-pure science fiction story,” which we didn't discuss today.
We then looked at my Reading SF Handout, and discussed the protocols of reading SF. in short, that SF requires different reading protocols than other literary genres (see, for instance, Tom Shippey's "Hard Reading: The Challenges of Science Fiction" in the Blackwell A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed). I then introduced Darko Suvin's concepts of the novum and cognitive estrangement and gave them one last definition of SF: "SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment." What else would you expect from theorist working in the tradition of Russian Formalism? We did unpack the idea, though I expect we'll need to return to it. But, again, that's my goal for the course, to unpack these definitions while also adding (and unpacking) additional ones.
I brought along the first episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex just in case, but the above took most of our time and a brief run down of the course and course site took care of the rest, so we'll watch Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex "Section 9" Thursday as well as discuss their first reading.
And pleased to say that the beautiful and inexpensive Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700 arrived today. I'd ordered it while at MLA. How could I pass up a book with chapters like "Dimensional Thinking"? From the U of Chicago Press Web site:
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Cormack, Bradin and Carla Mazzio Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Designed by Joan Sommers. Distributed for the Joseph Regenstein Library, The University of Chicago. 144 p., 75 halftones. 9 x 11 2005
Paper $15.00sp 0-943056-34-9 Spring 2005
What might it mean to use books rather than read them?
This work examines the relationship between book use and forms of thought and theory in the early modern period. Drawing on legal, medical, religious, scientific and literary texts, and on how-to books on topics ranging from cooking, praying, and memorizing to socializing, surveying, and traveling, Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio explore how early books defined the conditions of their own use and in so doing imagined the social and theoretical significance of that use.
The volume addresses the material dimensions of the book in terms of the knowledge systems that informed them, looking not only to printed features such as title pages, tables, indexes and illustrations but also to the marginalia and other marks of use that actual readers and users left in and on their books. The authors argue that when books reflect on the uses they anticipate or ask of their readers, they tend to theorize their own forms. Book Use, Book Theory offers a fascinating approach to the history of the book and the history of theory as it emerged from textual practice.
book history | print culture | science fiction | teaching