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Science Fiction

Course Overview

Do you enjoy speculating about what might be? What the future might bring? What might be “out there”? What it means to be human? Or…maybe you just enjoy good stories! Welcome to Science Fiction, where we will be exploring all the above questions through the lens of one of literature’s most fascinating genres, one that is both wildly imaginative and profoundly thought-provoking. We will begin with a brief overview of the history of science fiction—from Frankenstein to the present day—before moving on to a selection of short stories, films, and novellas that reflect a wide variety of subgenres. We will be reading many classic sci-fi authors such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, and Octavia Butler. One of the thrilling aspects of reading speculative fiction is to consider the potential of humanity and technology, and that question of potential will be a guiding inquiry throughout the semester.

Course Content

Unit 1: Intro to Science Fiction

In our introductory unit we will work to define science fiction as a genre, examining its history in our culture and literature as well as charting where science fiction falls under the broader category of speculative fiction. We will then explore the concept of futurism, considering how the science fiction of the past has predicted the advancements of today. In this vein, we will read a novella published in 2001 to see how much of its “futuristic” details seem more like real-life in 2022.

Unit 2: Time Travel

One of the earliest science fiction novels is H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), which ushered in our ongoing cultural obsession with the trope of time travel. And who can blame us? The ability to go back and have a “re-do” at history is very tempting, and having a peek into the future could also be quite helpful! Of course, along with the benefits of time travel, many authors have also imagined the possibility of malignant side effects. Whether it involves technology in the form of time machines, moving through time while exploring space, or beings possessing an innate “gift” to temporally shift, time travel is one of the most popular sub-genres of science fiction.

Unit 3: Worlds Beyond

Space—the final frontier. Probably the most common perception of science fiction is that it involves stories set in space. Ships that can move at warp speed, unusual alien beings, helpful (or not so helpful) computers and androids, human colonization of other planets or solar systems—these tropes have all reached mythic status in the genre due particularly to the mid-20th-century obsession with the space race and it’s resulting inclusion in our popular culture. Of course, not all science fiction is set in space—far from it!—and some stories of “Other Worlds” don’t even involve space travel. Nonetheless, the Final Frontier remains hugely influential in our cultural imagination, and in this unit we will consider what effect our obsession with fictional tales of space exploration have had on the actual science of astronomy and space research.

Unit 4: Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Lives

Another early topic for science fiction writers was the possibilities of robotics and artificial intelligence. One might argue that this subgenre, more than any other, reflects the evolution of technology in our reality. Where once artificial beings and cognizant computers were mere imaginative fiction, now robots play a very real role in our everyday lives, and most of us can talk to AIs whenever we choose to. (“Alexa, please play “Mr. Roboto.”) In addition, stories about AI and virtual reality require us to think deeply about metaphysical ideas such as: What rights, if any, do non-organic beings have? What constitutes “reality”? and the classic What does it mean to be human?

Unit 5: Afrofuturism 

This subgenre is having a big moment right now, as made clear with the wild success of Marvel’s 2018 film Black Panther and its 2022 sequel. Afrofuturism explores the intersection of the African diaspora with science fiction elements such as technological advancements and space-age aesthetics. We will end the semester with a novel from the queen of Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler, one of the first published Black science fiction authors, and the first Black woman in the genre.