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.

A side note on the term Urban Fantasy: I use it to denote fantasy with a contemporary setting. I didn’t list it as Contemporary Fantasy, because in English Department parlance Contemporary usually denotes time of composition (Contemporary Novel, Contemporary American Literature, etc.) not the setting of the tale, so that Tolkien, for example, would be included in Contemporary Fantasy, but I definitely didn’t want to include him and his nostalgic brethren in my class. Since I made this choice, Ellen Datlow and John Clute have both told me I’m wrong to use Urban Fantasy in such a broad way. Meanwhile, to further complicate matters, the term has become a werewolf/vampire marketing juggernaut of fearsome proportions. But once a course title makes it into the schedule of classes, it has a certain institutional inertia to remain as it is. My apologies to Ellen and John for persisting in my folly.

These are compressed summer classes, 15 weeks scrunched into 5. We meet 4 days/week, two-and-a-quarter hours/day. The long sessions allow me to show movies, the movies give the students time to read the books. In each class, we discuss 5 films and 5 books in 5 weeks. The science fiction class is a brisk historical survey typically beginning in the fifties with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, proceding decade by decade with such pairs, ending with a very recent science fiction film I believe deserves more attention (this year it was Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer), and whatever science fiction novel made the biggest splash in the previous year (this year it was Boneshaker). The Urban Fantasy is similarly built around pairs of movies and books, beginning with the mythic Pan’s Labyrinth and Neil Gaiman’s The Anansi Boys and wandering increasingly weird paths until we’re in Kelly Link and Being John Malkovich country.

Really long books are out. No Hyperion. No Dune. 500 pages is about the absolute limit, but if they like it well enough, the length is not usually the issue you might think. And if they don’t like it, 200 pages is too friggin’ long.

There is a science-fictional quality to the whole enterprise for me. The university always puts me in the same windowless classrooms, and it occurred to me while teaching The Forever War recently, that I could easily be on a starship where I’m older each year, and my crew is always the same age.

To teach a novel or a film, I have to read or view it multiple times, taking the thing apart and putting it back together again to see how it works. I can’t think of a better way for a writer to spend his time. So before I even step into the classroom, there’s a return for me. Reassuringly I’ve found that good craftsmanship usually pays off in reader response. And respond they do. And that’s when the real fun begins.

Probably the most delightful thing I’ve learned teaching these classes is that this literature, shelved and marketed and adored in its own ghetto, but spurned by the general public and especially English Departments [insert boos and hisses here] is indeed for everyone. Well, a diverse group of middle class college students anyway. And I’m not talking about the science fiction usually embraced by English Departments like Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, and Vonnegut. In fact, if a writer has ever objected to being identified as a science fiction writer—as both Atwood and Vonnegut have—I make it a point to honor their squeamish desires to leave their literary reputations unsullied by keeping their sorry asses off my syllabi. I am considering bending this rule for Vonnegut’s 1959 Sirens of Titan to replace the now lamentably out-of-print Stars My Destination. I think back in those days, Vonnegut didn’t mind what you called his stuff, as long as you published it.

Over the years, I’ve taught Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson, Maureen McHugh, Robert Charles Wilson, Connie Willis, Jonathan Lethem, Cormac McCarthy, Cory Doctorow, Nalo Hopkinson, and Cherie Priest in the science fiction class; Tim Powers, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, China Miéville, Sean Stewart, Thorne Smith, Peter Straub, and Haruki Murakami in the Urban Fantasy class. Films shown include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dr. Strangelove, Them, Alien, Starman, Galaxy Quest, Brother From Another Planet, Blade Runner, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978), Star Wars, The Children of Men, Sleep Dealer, Terminators 1 & 2, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show in science fiction; Edward Scissorhands, The Rapture, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, Donnie Darko, Pan’s Labyrinth, Harvey, Let the Right One In, and Stranger than Fiction in Urban Fantasy.

In each class, students also review a film of their own choosing, which is often where I get ideas for new films on the syllabus. In recent years, these have increasingly been small films available on Netflix streaming and other internet byways and foreign films. They don’t have a problem with small budget art if it’s interesting and smart.

Their judgments usually don’t conform to the stereotypes of their generation, who supposedly have the attention spans of gnats and won’t like anything that doesn’t feature several explosions every few minutes. This summer’s science fiction class, for example, screened both 2001: A Space Odyssey, which only a few had seen before, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which they had all seen multiple times. They adored 2001. Everything about it—the models, the music, the minimal dialogue, the ideas. They even liked the light show. On the other hand, they dismissed T2 for having too much pointless action, especially chase sequences that went on way too long to no real purpose. In other words, they didn’t like it for the reasons Hollywood says they should.

Teaching the fifties is something of a challenge. Supposedly they are blind to black and white films, but the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers wins them over every time. They need some help with cultural references from an alien world, like what the significance is of the two leads having recently been to Reno, Nevada. They’re amazed to hear about the quaint divorce laws of the time.

For the 50s novel, I’ve used at different times, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. They always get into Bester’s marvelous antihero Gully Foyle and the planet-hopping future we thought we’d have. They’re pleasantly surprised with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. “I was afraid it was going to be nonstop battles,” one student said, “but there was hardly any of that. Instead it was this really interesting story of this soldier’s life.” Imagine.

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, however, was a serious flop. I included it that year because I’d been asked to lecture on it at a local library as part of a Big Read program. It’s the official national Good Science Fiction Novel. They’re supposed to like it. It’s clearly good for them, with a Strong Message. Lots of messages actually once you start looking. Some of them might bear a little critical scrutiny. The didacticism begins to grate, the characters to implode under the weight of such baggage. The class could live with that, sort of, but then one of the brilliant young women who frequently show up in my classes asked, “Is it me, or is this guy totally sexist?” (Never a complaint leveled at Bester, by the way). I let them hash it out for a while, and they made a pretty strong case that it wasn’t just her but him. I did share with them the plot of the 2001 Bradbury short story entitled “Fore” which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, even though the story’s neither fantasy nor science fiction. Here it is—Man finds distraught buddy at his driving range banging balls, and asks what’s wrong. “My wife cheated on me,” friend says. Man leaves him at driving range, drives to friend’s house, rings bell. Door opens; he slugs friend’s wife in the kisser. End of story. Ha. Ha. I was in a plane when I read it, or I would’ve thrown it across the room. We had an interesting discussion about why a nice guy like F & SF Editor Gordon Van Gelder would publish such a story. Perhaps to get Ray’s name on the cover? It had a certain ironic resonance with the themes of Fahrenheit 451.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—my usual sixties choice—is one of the most consistently successful books in the science fiction class. One unexpected side effect is that it inevitably damages the reception of Blade Runner if I show it later. The art majors particularly like the Blade Runner look, but the movie leaves out the most interesting parts of the novel—the animals, the religion, the mood boxes, the nuanced complexity of the androids. And trying to turn it into a love story is fraught with peril they perceive right away. The “love scene” between Rachael and Rick in the film one student described as feeling like date rape—she is supposed to be a slave, after all. They also responded strongly to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, with many choosing it as their favorite book in the course. But for some, alternate history that weird pushes their SF boundaries a little too far—not necessarily a bad thing—and I’ll definitely teach the book again. The very notion of alternate history led to an interesting discussion about the nature and purpose of fiction, that any sort of world is a fictional possibility.

From the 70s, Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and Dispossessed have both been successful, though the shorter Lathe was more popular. The didacticism of both bothered some. In general, I’ve noticed that mainstream critics will embrace didactic SF, when they would find such overt preachiness bothersome in mainstream fiction. Is this to make amends for its alleged escapism?

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War has been one of the most successful novels in recent years. They have no trouble understanding the time dilation science at the heart of the plot, and they like its relentlessly unromantic view of war. The sweet ending gets the cheesy accusation occasionally—one of the sharper barbs in their critical arsenal—but they’re willing to concede our hero has definitely earned it.

The film Alien always does well with its dark, gritty future, but once the alarms start going off, there’s not much to talk about except the cat and Sigourney’s tush. A chase in space is still just a chase. I’ve tried both the 900 lb. science fiction gorillas of the decade, and their failures were cataclysmic and interesting. I think the students were embarrassed by their youthful experience of both. I’m speaking, of course, of Star Wars and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Star Wars left them gagging on its cheesiness. “I remembered it as being so much better,” was the consensus, edited for a general audience. I tried to salvage it by explaining what a game changer it was at the time, but they weren’t having any of it. The Force business especially made them cringe. My other misguided experiment was screening The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The consensus in this case could be summed up as, “I was way too loaded to remember—this was what I was watching?” They didn’t want to talk about it.

The next stop on the syllabus should be a no-brainer, right? The eighties-early nineties. Cyberpunk. Gibson. Neuromancer. I loved those books. I was first told about them by enthusiastic undergrads who were devouring them. Something called the internet happened between now and then, however. For my students now, there’s too much dissonance between Gibson’s cyberspace and the one they grew up in to track what the hell he’s up to. They don’t care if he did coin the term, he just gets so many details wrong. The anachronistic carbon paper and Soviet agents in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? don’t bother them. They can bracket out such details, but Gibson’s cyberspace cowboys just can’t ring true. Friend Brett Cox who teaches an SF class in Vermont reports the same result.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is experiencing a similar premature aging of the once hip. Though my students liked Y.T, a strong female character, they weren’t impressed with Stephenson’s Metaverse either. Tellingly, one bright fellow said he’d been talking to some older guys, meaning in their thirties, who had totally been into Snow Crash when they were young. Ouch. All other Stephensons are too damn long, though I love The Diamond Age.
The hands down successful novel for cyberpunk has actually been Haruki Murakami’s 1984 Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. Instead of Japan-saturated America, we’re in America-soaked Japan, plus that unique surreal space Murakami is so good at.

As for film, the 80s are a problem child again. The various alien-as-messiah flicks like Starman, E.T., and Brother From Another Planet are too cheesy, and The Terminator is stale. I usually come back to Blade Runner.

As for recent science fiction, they typically respond as fans would. They adored Briar, Cherie Priest’s Mom-on-a-Mission in Boneshaker. They liked Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother the year before. Interestingly, Oprah notwithstanding, they were least taken in recent years with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Too damn dark. Everyone loves the father-son story and the gorgeous writing, but the world doesn’t hang together, and the ending makes zero sense with the rest of the novel. Science fiction film has been rich in quality choices in recent years—Children of Men and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were especially effective.

They are wide open to books and films from other cultures. Not turned off by subtitles, they really liked the Mexican film Sleep Dealer, with its third world perspective. The Spanish Pan’s Labyrinth and the Swedish Let the Right One In were among the most popular films I’ve shown in Urban Fantasy. A project I’ve set myself is to explore Latin American science fiction for inclusion in future courses.

In the Urban Fantasy class, Thorne Smith’s 1926 Topper was a surprising success, an experiment in teaching one of Neil Gaiman’s influences. They responded to the wry humor and the sexy ghosts. The critique of empty conformity proved surprisingly up-to-date. China Miéville’s brilliantly executed The City & The City was the favorite book this summer. The Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In was the favorite film. Both of these use conventional genre elements to construct unconventional commentaries on their subjects. One is a noir tale of a divided city whose halves actually occupy the same space and whose citizens “unsee” each other; the other, the tale of a vampire who, as she puts it, has been “twelve for a very long time.” One of the more successful books in the class has been the heady, enigmatic Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. They like its metaphoric, elusive nature and its strong cast of characters. I try to include a short story collection in this class, usually Jeffrey Ford or Kelly Link because I think they’re doing some wonderful things with the short form. There are usually a few enthusiastic students, but in general the short story is a tougher sell, as it is with the larger reading public. If you figure out why, let me know. In both courses I would like to include a sampling of some of the quality short fiction available online in abundance.

Science Fiction likes to call itself a literature of ideas, and my students definitely respond to the ideas. What is it to be human? Who are we, and what will we become? How will the world change? How could it have been otherwise? But in fiction, it’s the characters, Stupid, and writers who know that, from Bester and Heinlein to Miéville and Murakami tend to have their ideas discussed with the greatest passion.

In short, what I’ve learned teaching science fiction, full of dark futures and human folly, is that the future is in the hands of a bunch of smart, sensitive, open-minded, curious, talented, caring young people. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it gives me hope.

3 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned Teaching Science Fiction

  1. What a perfectly wonderful lecture. Wish I could have seen it first hand!

    It’s funny because just the other day I was talking to my girlfriend about The Time Before The Internet, William Gibson, and the summer of my 11th year spent soldering together a head-mounted display and glove interface for my computer. She looked at me like I was out of my mind.

    “Wait. You people actually thought that’s how the internet was going to be? Seriously? That you were going to plug your heads into the computer and walk around inside it?”

    “Yep. We also thought the Soviet Union’s socio-economic instability would inevitably lead to nuclear exchange.”

    “What the hell was wrong with you?”

    So, I feel for Gibson. But at least he wasn’t so off the mark as to predict that Pan-Am would take us into space. 😉

  2. Great lecture. Makes me want to look into these authors and books. I’ve been a long time away from SF and this makes me want to get back into it.

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