Summer Teaching: Twenty-First Century Fantastic

I will be teaching a new literature course this summer at VCU, May 23-June 23. The class meets Monday through Thursday 10:30 am-12:45 pm. It is listed as English 215-004 Textual Analysis. As with previous summer classes we’ll read a book (or the equivalent) a week, paired with a movie. In previous years, I’ve taught a survey of science fiction from the fifties to the present, as well as an urban fantasy class organized along genre lines with pairings of similar books and films.  This time out, I want to tour the fantastic as it is now.  I’ve gone about this as a working professional in the field, selecting texts that have made the most significant impact in recent years.  They are all also wonderful works of art.

We’ll start with Pan’s Labyrinth (film) and Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.  Of the many interesting first novels in the fantastic of late, hers most charmed me.  The film has been a favorite in the urban fantasy class.  Both works use traditional mythologies in modern settings to great effect.  Their narrative techniques are an artful blend of myth and metafiction.  Both feature delightful heroines who reinvent the myth they inhabit.

Next will be Children of Men (film) and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.  Both are buried under awards.  Future England, future Thailand—the dystopian future is alive and as scary as ever.  The loving attention to both world-building and character in both works belies the notion that there’s somehow a conflict between the two.  What didn’t occur to me before I chose the pair is the eerie resonance of their final scenes.

It used to be in sf that space was the place, but in the twenty-first century, place is a more complicated concept, and those ftl drives get harder and harder to spin up (or swallow).  The next pair— Inception (film) and The City & The City—tell stories in worlds of their own devising, worlds the inhabitants themselves help create, worlds that then shape them into who they are.  Or something like that.  I’ve gushed about the Miéville novel before.  It too is buried under awards.  I’m less sure of Inception, but it was the most noticed sf film of late (available on DVD).

Those of you who had the pleasure of hearing Kelly Link read at VCU recently know that one of the most exciting developments in the recent fantastic is the emergence of exceptional short fiction writers.  For this class we’ll read Kelly’s Pretty Monsters collection, paired with the Swedish film Let the Right One In. Both stories and film do marvelous things with monsters and children who love and fear them.  Meanwhile they play compelling narrative hell with genre expectations and perspective.

Finally, we’ll go online.  Not only is the short form enjoying a renaissance, it’s increasingly doing so online.  Awards nominees and recommended reading lists are now filled with titles from publications such as Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons.  I’m still working on a final list—there are so many to choose from.  (Suggestions are welcome).  I’m pairing these stories with what I’ll call the Netflix film, the film that gets a wide distribution because it’s streamable.  I’ll show Sleep Dealer, the timely Mexican sf film about immigrant labor.  We’ll see what effects this digital migration is having on the emerging fantastic.

I’m totally psyched.  Registration starts Monday.  Love to have you.

Urban Fantasy Ends Run

As I blogged previously, I’ve been teaching two classes during the summers at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I described them in some detail in a talk I gave at the Library of Congress last August.  I started with a Science Fiction class seven years ago and added an Urban Fantasy class five years ago.  I have loved doing them, and they have both been quite successful.  I jinxed myself, apparently.  Due to all the variables universities are heir to, I’ll only be teaching one class this summer.  The rubric is now the innocuous Textual Analysis with a general course description one might park a moth-balled space shuttle inside of with room to spare, so I’m toying with various conflations of the two courses.  I may borrow a page from Andy Duncan’s book and teach a sampling of the very recent sf and fantasy—there’s so much good stuff to choose from.  I believe I’ll read some of it now.


I was recently prompted to write Nancy Kress after reading her interview in Locus. I was struck by how similar our writing processes are, and how similarly we speak of them. I could have written her description of her process, including the apologetic disclaimer that it’s scarcely a process at all.

In short, I start with almost nothing, a character who’s scarcely a character, since she hasn’t done anything yet (though this one just became female). She may have an interesting voice, be in an interesting place, or be faced with an interesting situation. Then we see what happens next, what she wants to do about it. However many pages later—6 or 400—the story ends.  I’m leaving out lots of details from this recursive, revision intensive journey that I suppose crawls right out of my unconscious onto the page in some weird dance with the paper people I hang out with.

The guys with the real process make outlines, write detailed character sketches, know the ending before they begin the journey.  I know good writers from both tribes, though I have no statistical survey and there are certainly many hybrids.  The Planners are perhaps more prescriptive.  The Vagabonders tend to apologize for their meandering ways.  Why the disclaimer? I’m sure I pass this insecurity onto my writing students of the same ilk at the same time I’m trying to persuade them to have faith in their process. The ones who like to make outlines and detailed character sketches and so on before ever getting underway suffer from different self doubts.

I make outlines, maps, floor plans and such on the fly, as needed.  The outlines are more often of where the story’s been than where it’s going.  Revision of the past propels the story into its future.  I see the ending along the way.  Some journeys are scuttled.  Though often, if one traveler hooks up with another, they manage to get the whole thing going again to a place neither had imagined before setting out.

No matter what sort you are, trust your process.  Whatever works.  Have a good time.  Set out.

What I’ve Learned Teaching Science Fiction

I was recently asked to speak at the Library of Congress at an SF lecture series hosted by Colleen Cahill and Nate Evans on the subject of my teaching in SF.  It’s nothing fancy, a lunchtime lecture, but I enjoyed reflecting on the classes I’ve had, the  hundreds of minds I’ve poisoned with evil genre literature.  A few friends have asked me what I said, so here it is:

What I’ve Learned Teaching Science Fiction
A Talk Presented at the Library of Congress, August 5, 2010

I finished teaching the most recent versions of these classes I’ll be talking about just a week ago. It’s been humbling after a summer of assigning homework to my students, to then be faced with homework of my own. First let me say that I had prepared a breathtaking Power Point presentation with slow dissolves that would’ve made your teeth ache with envy, but my dog ate my jump drive, and all I have are these few crummy paper pages.

As those who know my fiction may have noticed, I’m excessively fond of epigraphs, so I’ve appended one to this talk with my apologies to T. S. Eliot and J. Alfred Prufrock, Hamlet too, I suppose. For those of you who might not know, John Clute is the author of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and knows everything:

I am not John Clute, nor was meant to be;
Am an adjunct faculty, one that will do
To swell enrollment, fill a section or two.

I suppose I should apologize to John too, but he’s a friend, with a good sense of humor.

It’s been my good fortune for the last seven years to teach a science fiction literature course every summer at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. For five years, I’ve  taught an Urban Fantasy class every summer as well. Most of my students are seniors, from a wide range of majors. While there’s always a fan or two in every class, the vast majority are, to use the snobbish fan term, Mundanes, those who never browse the Science Fiction & Fantasy ghetto at Barnes & Noble or attend conventions where people don costumes or filk. Many of them aren’t big fiction readers of any sort. They’re looking to graduate, to become doctors, artists, engineers; they need credits. “Science Fiction? Urban Fantasy? Why not?” they say. “I’ve learned plenty of useless shit already.” In a fluke this last summer, no one in the science fiction class knew that was what they were signing up for. The class schedule just said “Readings in Literature.” One of the best classes I’ve had in a recent years, as it turned out. Continue reading

I’ll be speaking at the Library of Congress

I love saying that.  People are so impressed, as well they should be—with the library not me.  As part of the What IF… Science Fiction & Fantasy Forum series, I’ll be speaking on “What I’ve Learned Teaching Science Fiction.” The lecture will be held Thursday, August 5 at 12:10 pm in the Pickford Theater in  the Madison Building of the Library of Congress.  Please come.  I promise it will be wildly entertaining and brief.  I spoke in this series a few years ago and found them a very congenial bunch.  Any former students out there who’d like to tell me what I should’ve learned by now, keep it clean.

Summer School Ends

And none too soon. I’m giving a talk at the Library of Congress next week entitled, “What I’ve Learned Teaching Science Fiction.” More about that later, but what I learned this summer is not to put so much new stuff in the middle of the syllabus. Worn to a frazzle, I am. Hence my silence here for some weeks now. Still, it was a wonderful experience as always, getting to meet bright young people and teach them something about the literature I love. The honors for favorite movie in the Urban Fantasy class was a tie this year, between Let the Right One In and Donnie Darko. The favorite book was Miéville’s The City & The City, with Empire of Ice Cream and Anansi Boys a tie for second.  Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction were invited to leave in equal measure.  They resist the notion of metafiction as a fantasy device, and Stranger Than Fiction fell to the cheesy accusation.  Fair enough.  Peter Straub’s lost boy lost girl didn’t charm them as it did me, and was the least favorite.  In a departure from previous years, feelings didn’t run so strong one way or the other on Kafka on the Shore, though I suspect more than a few might not have finished it.  I do need to find a shorter book, though once again I loved rereading it.

The finals are read.  The grades turned in.  Now where did I put that glass of wine?

Science Fiction class concludes

They were a terrific bunch, very likable and smart and thoughtful.  These kids today.  I didn’t always feel at the top of my game, especially on bad hamstring days, but they usually had something interesting to say.  Their unfavorite book, by a wide margin, was Snow Crash—even worse than Neuromancer in years past.  Forever War was once again the class favorite, though Boneshaker was a strong second.  They were quite enthusiastic about Boneshaker the first day we discussed it, when a construction worker accidentally set off the wrath-of-God alarm system, ending that discussion.  When we returned the next day, the spark had gone, but I would definitely teach the book again.  One thing the class especially liked about the book was Briar, a strong female character.  The one thing most liked about Snow Crash was the character of Y.T., another strong female character.  Some of the best papers were definitely on Boneshaker.  They liked the book better than I did (I wearied immediately of the sullen whiny adolescent boy), so I learned a lot about it from them.  I love it when that happens.  Monday Urban Fantasy begins, and I’m spending the weekend with Anansi Boys.  We’re practically old friends.  Throw me in that briar patch, Neil!

The SF movie verdict is in.

The envelope please.  Every year I ask my students to vote on their favorite and least favorite items on the syllabus.  We watched the last of the films, and the somewhat surprising winner was 2001: A Space Odyssey.   The clear loser?  T2.  So much for the conventional wisdom that these kids today require non-stop action and will reject Kubrick’s glacial pace like a bowl of cold oatmeal.  Second place went to Sleep Dealer, which pleased me.  It’s a very smart film.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show was beloved by fans, but as is often the case with fans, they weren’t eager to articulate the sources of their affection.  While Body Snatchers was nobody’s fave, it was still a success with most of the class.  I also just read their papers in which they review an sf film of their choosing.  A particularly good paper on Repo Man has me reconsidering that cult gem for the problematic 80’s.

The 70’s and beyond…

It seemed like such a good idea—to include the most watched sf movie ever made—The Rocky Horror Picture Show—but I discovered that watching a movie in an inebriated state, throwing food, and shouting ritual responses are poor preparation for any critical appreciation of a film.  It’s become inseparable from its ritual.  There was a small but quiet group of loyalists, but for the most part, the movie tanked.  I identified with Eddie.  Looks like its back to Alien next year.  The Forever War, however, was successful once again.  This is an excellent class, their papers were quite good, and they’re not afraid to talk and disagree.  We screen T2 today, and who doesn’t like the Governator?  My classroom is next to the stairwell, so the noise doesn’t carry fortunately.  We can blow shit up to our heart’s content.  I’m showing the superior theatrical cut.  Cameron’s restored scenes in DVD release are mostly plot-bloating cheese, especially the dopey ghost-of-Kyle scene in the mental hospital.  Then on to Snow Crash, a book that’s growing on me, especially the incisive descriptions of the burbscape.  I do wish Neal Stephenson would follow Miéville’s fine example and write something of a teachable length!

Science Fiction class off to a rocky start

First of all, the department changed the course number, and the class was listed in the schedule of classes as simply “Readings in Literature.”  No one knew they were signing up for a science fiction class.  A couple were pleased.  Some were stunned.  Some are gone.  To make matters more complicated, the first book on the reading list, The Stars My Destination, is out of print (even though according to the bookstore Random House took the order and only told the store last minute).  Scrambling to rearrange the schedule, I’ve had to front load the movies, so we’re barely underway and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey—all of it.  Fast-paced it ain’t.  So a week has gone by, they’ve watched two movies, and I barely know them except for their names.  They turn in the first paper on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? when we return on Tuesday.  I’ve read the novel close to a dozen times now and still enjoy it and find new things in it.  Here’s hoping my students liked it too.