Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Survey of Science Fiction?

Every time someone comes into the bookstore and says they are teaching a class on Science Fiction, I get excited. And just about every time I talk to them, I end up sad and disappointed. Either they have a very narrow and skewed vision of what science fiction is, or they have very little real experience with science fiction literature, and probably know less than their students. 

I'm not trying to be catholic or anything... but words have meanings. Even words used to described science fiction.  When you say "Speculative fiction is real, and Science fiction is not..." I get concerned. When you say "Hard SF... Like Robert Heinlein" I get REALLY concerned.  I know there's plenty of back and forth discussions about terms and labels and meanings... but there are some very real, and useful classification systems that have proven to be valuable in creating a shared language to talk about science fiction, or have at the very least have been beneficial in terms of sparking debate and critical dialog.

So instead of bitching about the dearth of quality Science fiction course work out there, I'll try and do something about it.  I  am about to embark on a full set of course work and syllabus, modeled after various English lit programs, designed to convey a complete view of Science Fiction Literature..... A Science Fiction Certification program, if you will. Get this certificate and you should be able to confidently, and competently teach an Science Fiction class. Or at least argue about it online in a really well informed manner.

The beginnings of any English degree is usually the dreaded "Survey" Course:
British Lit 1600-1800, followed by British lit 1800 - 1920. Followed by Modern British Literature.  I'm sure all you English majors remember the bane of the Norton Anthologies, and the undergraduate reading lists...   Survey courses are usually not terribly exciting stuff...

Except... Most people don't have a sense of science fiction as a literature.  They have a sense of the pop culture and movie bits... but science fiction lit is mostly invisible...

First first stop is to gather together all of the "Written as text books" anthologies, and examine how and why they were organized.  I'm leery of a straight chronological overview...  its all well and good to start out with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne... but I don't think they are the best place to START talking about science fiction... The history and prehistory might be a good upper division specialty course, but I don't think it should be the first thing a modern reader with no genre experience should be presented with. Science fiction is a populist literature about the present.  It should be fun. Not dusty and dry and unrelated to the contemporary reader's life.

I remember when The Norton Anthology of Science Fiction first came out there was a huge outcry from SF grognards. "Where was Heinlein" and "This is focused to much on contemporary writers" where the two big complaints I remember.  Looking back, these two things seem to be one of the books strong points, and not weaknesses. (sorry Bob... its true... Your work doesn't age very well.  I'd slot Heinlein into two different SF courses:  "Golden Age"  and "Juvenile and YA SF")

Anyway... That's where I want to start... Anthologies that serve as a Survey of Science Fiction Literature:

  • There was The Norton Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Ursula K. Leguin.
  • There was Age of Wonders edited by David G. Hartwell
  • and There's the Weislian Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Arthur Evans and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay

Who else has attempted to create a "survey course" framework for Science Fiction, via Anthology?  I'd love to hear about any others out there... either contemporary, or older ones.... Getting a sense of the different frameworks to present the genre is what I'm looking for. Barring an actual anthology, I'd love to see course syllabi and reading lists from teachers who have attempted this on their own.

Please pass this query around, and make any recommendations in the comments or send me an email, if you prefer. Right now I'm focused on presenting SCIENCE FICTION... but I'll consider ancillary course work in Fantasy and horror fiction down the line. :)

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