Thursday, May 02, 2013

Essay: Teaching Science Fiction

Julia Rios posed a question the other day: What would you consider the most important texts to teach in a class about SF/F? (Strangely enough, I didn't see the fantasy part, and interpreted it as limited to just science fiction.) Assume the reader is unfamiliar, and that you are limited to 5 novels/novellas and 5 novelettes/short stories.

There were, of course, the standard disclaimers (scope, audience, agenda, etc.), but what Julia was asking was really a person question: if you were given a chance to create a curriculum, without limits aside from the parameters above, what texts would you select? It's your choice on which particular topic to select, whether it's the classics, gender, colonialism, etc.

Again, I neglected to notice the fantasy part, so as I pondered the question, I limited myself to science fiction (despite the fact that I believe fantasy and science fiction aren't that different from each other).

What appeals to me are stories that tackle human nature so if there's an agenda behind my selection, is that. And since we're given limitations of 5 novels/novellas and 5 novelettes/short stories, I want to juxtapose them and show readers how the form of one interacts, and how different (or similar) it is to the other.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I'd start with Le Guin's short story: it's brief, concise, and there's lots of elements for the reader to parse out. It's a dystopian story but that's left for readers to decide (and an important question is whether they would want to live in such a world). The Dispossessed, on the other hand, is its opposite: it's probably a more difficult read but Le Guin is more direct here. You have two supposedly utopian/dystopian societies, but is that really the case?

"Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card and Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

There's three points I want to highlight by this selection. The first is the story itself: do the ends justify the means? Is ignorance truly an excuse? Is there such a thing as an innocent killer? The second is the format: in the transition from novelette to novel, what were the elements that were added? Does this enhance the story or detract from it? And then there's my third point: knowing Card's homophobia, how does this change the way you react to the text or shape the way you read it?

Foundation by Isaac Asimov and "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang

In the first pair of texts, what's discussed is society; in the second, the individual, and how they are manipulated into their role. For this choice, I wanted to transition to determinism. Foundation is an interesting choice for me because it's really a bunch of short stories rebranded as a novel. Would the readers consider them as short stories or novels? The way society is manipulated in the stories is also an interesting talking point. "Story of Your Life," on the other hand, shifts from the larger society to the individual (and it's a stark contrast from the detached point of view of Asimov to the very personal story that Chiang chooses to employ). And Chiang brings up several important points, especially language.

"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu and "Spar" by Kij Johnson

What I like about these stories is that they're modern and they're very personal. Liu's protagonist rebels against prevalent society, and the narrative is told in such a way that it's viewed from different perspectives. Which is apt given the omniscient, single view a lot of stories have. And it's a story that revolves around society. "Spar" also requires reading the text beyond the surface, and digging deep into it. It's also a story where there's an implied society (whether the protagonist or the alien), as opposed to being at the forefront. And in both pieces, there's a return to the individual, although the choice of perspective differs.

The Next Continent by Issui Ogawa and "The Pelican Bar" by Karen Joy Fowler

I chose The Next Continent because it's society viewed from the lens of the Japanese, and makes different assumptions while still retaining the sensibilities of utopian science fiction. On the other end of the spectrum is "The Pelican Bar," and it's a story that some might question whether it's science fiction, but also why for me genre boundaries are more interstitial than set in stone.

What would your curriculum look like? And perhaps more interesting is to ruminate this question with fantasy in mind as well (maybe a future blog post?).

1 comment:

David E said...

"And then there's my third point: knowing Card's homophobia, how does this change the way you react to the text or shape the way you read it?"

That's an interesting question. I recall reading Norman Spinrad's excellent book of SF criticism SCIENCE FICTION IN THE REAL WORLD and his essay on ENDER'S GAME. He saw an underlying theme of homophobia in it long before Card's public anti-gay statements. I recall thinking he might be reading too much into it at the I think he was just more perceptive than me in his reading of the novel.