Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Syllabus for My Non-Existent SF Course

This is another reclaimed post; I wrote it for a thread on the Straight Dope Message Board back in 2000 and forgot about it for a decade. I obviously haven't taught this or any other course, but, if someone wants to throw enough money at me, I could be persuaded. Also, looking at this a decade later, I doubt there would be time to discuss these works more than very superficially, and it's a very heavy reading load, too. (That 15-week semester might also be unsupportable, as well.) Perhaps it's best that I stayed in the private sector.

Assumptions: one semester at a reasonably good school (i.e., you can expect the students to read one longish book a week), on the university level. I'm assuming a 15-week course, and that I'm just covering genre SF (i.e., post-Gernsback and mostly US).

Week 1: Introduction, etc. Start in on short fiction.

Week 2: Short fiction of the '40s and '50s. Depending on what's in print, I'd use Silverberg's The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1 or Healy & McComas's Adventures in Time and Space or maybe one or more of James Gunn's The Road to Science Fiction series.
Necessary texts:
"Fondly Farenheit" by Alfred Bester
"And He Built a Crooked House" and/or "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein
"A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
"Microcosmic God" and/or "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon
"Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith
"The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin

Week 3: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Week 4: The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov

Week 5: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Week 6: Short Fiction No. 2: The '60s and '70s. Possibly using Dangerous Visions or Again, Dangerous Visions (both edited by Harlan Ellison) as a starting point.
Necessary texts:
"Aye, and Gomorrah" by Samuel R. Delany
one or more short J.G. Ballard pieces, perhaps "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race"
one or more early Roger Zelazny stories, most likely "A Rose for Ecclesiastes"
"Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven
"The Deathbird" by Harlan Ellison (though there are several other, equally good choices from this author)
"The Fifth Head or Cerberus" or "The Death of Doctor Island" by Gene Wolfe
"The Man Who Walked Home" by James Tiptree, Jr.
one or more John Varley stories, probably "The Persistence of Vision"

Week 7: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Week 8: Dune by Frank Herbert

Week 9: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Week 10: The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed by Ursula K. le Guin

Week 11: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and Ringworld by Larry Niven

Week 12: Gateway by Frederik Pohl (or possibly Man Plus, also by Pohl)

Week 13: Startide Rising by David Brin and/or Ender's War by Orson Scott Card

Week 14: Neuromancer by William Gibson and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Week 15: Short fiction No. 3: the '80s and '90s. There's no one book that could cover this; it would have to be a Kinko's-style packet.
Necessary texts:
"Sandkings" by George R.R. Martin
one or more stories by Lucius Shepard, probably "Fire Zone Emerald"
"Swarm" by Bruce Sterling
one or more stories by Greg Egan, including "Luminous" and/or "Oceanic"
something by Connie Willis, possibly "Fire Watch" or "The Last of the Winnebagos"
something by Greg Bear, probably "Blood Music"

And then the final exam. I can see varying the list from year-to-year (maybe swapping in Childhood's End or 2001 for the Clarke selection, adding an early Heinlein novel, varying the short story selection, etc), but this is what I'd use as a framework to present the post-war history of (mostly American) SF.

(If I had a whole year, I'd start with theory -- using Brian Aldiss's Trillion year Spree -- and take the first four weeks or so to do the 19th century, starting with Frankenstein and moving up through Poe and the various other proto-SF writers to Verne and Wells.)


Anonymous said...

Personally, I wouldn't be able to lead 3 hours of discussion on Lord of Light, Gateway, or Man Plus, but I can see it for the others.

It's a good course for the objectives "Students will be able to discuss texts that SF fans regard as touchstones of the genre" or "Students will be familiar with the history of SF from the 1950s to the 1990s." That's solid domain knowledge.

Do you think it would be a sharper course if it also aimed to teach some set of skills related to editing / marketing in the genre, based on that domain knowledge? I can well imagine a school being interested in an adjunct instructor who brings that to the table.

Ben Towle said...

I took a really great SF class in college that actually overlapped a lot with the material you've selected here. As I recall (this was late 80s) though, it was arranged thematically rather than chronologically. There was actually a textbook for it that was a collection of short stories, plus (much as you have here) a novel or so a week. There's a paucity of female SF writers in general, but I wonder if the nearly all-male line-up here plus some of the dodgy older stuff (like the rape-y Stars My Destination) wouldn't make women disinclined to sign on.

Anyway, a great post. I'd take this class!

Ben Towle said...

Ok, just to nitpick a little: A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem... where be they?

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Ben: I'd sign up. And then I would do what I once did in a class when I was 20, and constantly say, "what about the women" like a broken record for the entire term, presenting reading lists based on college library holdings in order to demonstrate "not only there, but available".

Johan Larson said...

Here's the list I came up with, with the goal of giving a view of the science fiction field in 10 novels.

1. precursors: "War of the Worlds", H.G. Wells
- suggested alternate: "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", Jules Verne
2. the pulp era: "Galactic Patrol", E.E. Smith
(Not technically a pulp work, but a very good one with clear pulp heritage.)
3. Campbell's influence: "Double Star", Robert Heinlein
4. that sense of wonder: "Rendezvous with Rama", Arthur C. Clarke
5. sliderule fiction: "Mission of Gravity", Hal Clement
6. juveniles: "Rite of Passage", Alexei Panshin
7. alternate history: "The Man in the High Castle", Philip K. Dick
8. the pessimistic seventies: "334", Thomas Disch
9. plug me in, hard: "Neuromancer", William Gibson
10. the latest fashion in rapture for geeks: "Marooned in Realtime", Vernor Vinge

skidspoppe said...

Great list. Ironically, I'm looking at syllabi for a class I *am* putting together so if you don't mind I'll add this to my research. It's interesting to me to see the different takes on a field.

elfs said...

I'd swap "Wang's Carpets" for either of the Egan stories, because one of Egan's major contributions to the field is the posthuman narrator. "Wang's Carpets" not only has that in trucklots but it delivers that numinous sensawunda that Egan brings when you get what he's up to. "Oceanic" is a good tale, but it's too weighed down with Egan's bugaboos about sexuality.

Andrew Wheeler said...

I should remember by now that it's always the posts that I drag out of mothballs and toss out into the world because I'm rushing off somewhere that attract comments and interest. (I still don't know why, but the pattern is clear.)

Thanks for all the comments -- I'm well aware that it's a problematic list in several ways, but it was my attempt to put together a decent syllabus for a course about the commercial genre of SF ten years ago. (And as to the question of where the women were: for the first few decades of that history, they were mostly doing other things, unfortunately, and kept out either actively or passively most of the time. SF was a very boyish genre for a long time, much to its detriment. But you all know that already -- and there should have been more women writers, and more stories about women, certainly starting with the '70s.)

Luckily for you all, there's no chance I'll inflict this on young minds at any point, so it will remain idle list-making, which is always enjoyable.

Glenn Hauman said...

So where's your syllabus for the comics course?

Charlie Stross said...

Hmm. "Startide Rising" is weak -- if you want space opera, how about "The Player of Games" by Iain Banks (or maybe "Consider Phlebas" -- but *that's* weak -- or "Use of Weapons")? Or something by Greg Bear -- "Queen of Angels", or maybe "Anvil of Stars" if you *really* want to mash your thumb on the space opera button? Alternatively: "Schismatrix" by Bruce Sterling, the novel that prefigured the New space opera by a decade ...

Louis Bright-Raven said...

It's been twenty years since I took my SF as Lit course, but from memory, we covered:

Shelley, Poe, Verne and Wells as "proto-SF". I'm thinking there was someone else in that grouping also, but I no longer remember who.


Olaf Stapledon's LAST & FIRST MEN


Stanislaw Lem's SOLARIS


Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR.

That's the stuff I remember having for certain. I *think* we may have also had a Damon Knight and a Theo Sturgeon short fic in there also, but I cannot swear to it.

Now, I'm sure you think that must suck, because hey, where's the Asimov, the Clarke, the Bradbury, the Ellison, the Heinlein, et. al.?

They were excluded because in the instructor's opinion, by the time you reached university, if you were at all a true SF fan, you already read all of THAT stuff, and it would be a waste of everyone's time to simply discuss that which you already know about. So, we got Lem and Lessing and Stapledon instead. And honestly, I think the course was all the better for it.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Louis Bright-Raven: I'm not sure I agree with that argument in your last paragraph -- there are Shakespeare survey courses at the college level, and those don't avoid Hamlet just because everyone's read it once already. Hell, I had Jane Eyre in three separate courses.

Any book that's not good enough to be read twice isn't good enough to be taught in the first place -- I think your instructor was showing veiled contempt for that end of the genre.

The course you took looks more like "Lit as SF" to me than the reverse; many of those books had very little to do with each other, even if they are all good books.

Louis Bright-Raven said...


It's been too long for me to remember what the structure and connection between his choices were, but there was a methodology to it. And by no means did he dislike or have a contempt for any of those other authors. Outside of the class, you wanted to talk about them, he could go on about them for hours with praise.

We also had two other professors who also offered the same course with a different syllabus that had Asimov's Caves of Steel, Clarke's "The Sentinel", Bradbury's Martian Chroinicles and Fahrenheit 451, Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness among the reading material. And the friends I had who were taking that version of the class told me they hated it. Why? Because to them they were repeating that which they'd already had, and there was no point, and that the professors 'sucked all the fun out of the material'. (Now, what *that* meant, I cannot honestly say. Perhaps they just treated the material too dryly, too academically, in their presentation?)

So what I think may have happened was my professor changed his syllabus after having done the Asimov et. al. syllabus in an earlier semester and finding his students weren't engaging in the class to the level they should have been, and took the initiative to try something else, rather than any personal taste.

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