Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

Barbara Bengels

The Pleasures and Perils of Teaching Science Fiction on the College Level

Science fiction is, by its very nature, a dangerous and subversive sport. Few people take it very seriously—yet how can we not? Alvin Toffler writes in Future Shock, "Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults" (425). In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut has Eliot Rosewater tell an audience of science-fiction writers, "I love you sons of bitches.... You're all I read anymore. You're the only ones who'll talk about the really terrific changes going on.... You're the only ones with guts to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what tremendous misunderstandings, mistakes, accidents, and catastrophes do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die...." So if indeed science fiction deserves study, how might it then best be presented on a college campus in a serious academic course? (I am clearly not of the "send it back to the gutter where it belongs" school initiated by an ardent young fan, Dena Benatan, when she expressed her concern that academic scrutiny would undermine the sf field, making it too self-conscious) (Hartwell 188). What are the perils and pleasures of attempting to teach sf in the classroom? I'd like to address the inherent and unique difficulties of teaching a body of literature that is changing even as we attempt to examine it; I'd like to convey the excitement and sense of wonder that continues to set science fiction apart from any other form of literature.

The problems of teaching sf begin outside the classroom, namely convincing your administrators to allow such a course to be taught at all. I was lucky: I began mine in the 70s when relevance dictated the curriculum. The New York Times had begun its regular science fiction column and perhaps that was mandate enough. I also stressed that mine would be an historical approach beginning with the classics, but this did not save me from polite smiles from my colleagues and downright sneers from the more rigid traditionalists. To this day, almost twenty-five years later, I still constantly feel as though I should apologize for teaching a course that I love and think important; at the very least I go into my justification mode, explaining how many literary gems are included in my syllabus and how intellectually challenging the course is. Never, however, have I felt that it received the respect it deserves—but I know, and my students know, its true worth.

Which brings me to the next dilemma: while some faculty members question the validity of science fiction as a college course, students don't—and they come in droves. Milton courses may be under-enrolled; sf requires multiple sections. This obviously makes for potential ill will. To add to the problem, students frequently request a second semester-course, and so I tried proposing a separate Modern SF course. Absolutely out of the question, I was told. The reason? Obviously because it would entice even more students away from the traditional English courses. I understood the predicament and backed off—but not without a sense of loss. Another infuriating predicament I encountered rose when the sf course—which I had designed and fought for—was temporarily given to an incompetent, uninformed but tenured teacher because students wouldn't sign up for anything else she taught. Science fiction, however, was such a drawing card that they were willing to take the course despite her. (I once tried to introduce her to the various sf critical journals that exist but she assured me she wasn't interested; when I discovered her entire syllabus consisted of Frankenstein, all of the Dune books, and 2001, I quickly saw her point—and fled the scene.)

Once a science-fiction course is officially approved, a new set of problems emerges. For one thing, ordering the textbooks can be a challenge. Science- fiction books are in print today, out of print tomorrow. One of my favorite anthologies, The Road to Science Fiction, in four volumes, edited by James Gunn, is out of print in the USA while it's nonetheless been picked up and translated and will soon be printed in Germany with a new added volume 5. Meanwhile I'm constantly scrambling around trying to find another equally good, inexpensive, comprehensive short story anthology—so far with no success. In any given semester, I may have to substitute one of an author's books for another, track down which publisher has picked up a particular novel, and simply discard a seminal work because it's no longer available.

Two other unique preparation problem exist: in most courses, if I want to read criticism on a work, I know just where to go find it. Frequently, however, there simply isn't any critical material available on a particular sf works. One of my first articles was on a comparison of Olaf Stapledon's Odd John and Sirius. At that time, the mid-1970s, there just wasn't much sf criticism in existence. Even a short time ago when I submitted an article on Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey," there was no need to apportion hours searching with the CD-Rom. In fact, literary criticism wasn't even available through our library's computer two years ago, another little reminder how quickly our lives are being changed by the new technology. Of course, not having much criticism available is a two-edged sword: it allows us to write our own. We've much more opportunity in the field of sf to publish—but therein lies another issue: most of our sf authors are still alive (and I, for one, wouldn't want it any other way.) However, while a critic and scholar may be trying to write the "definitive" work on an author, the author in question may have just entered a new phase in his development as a writer. I know of at least two instances where an excellent scholar was attempting to publish a book on a brilliant and prolific author (Fred Pohl in one case and Isaac Asimov in the other) but each time the "last" chapter was finished, the subject of the book would come out with two new volumes of his own, leaving his biographer-critic in the dust.

When you are finally ready to walk into your classroom and teach your first class, a major problem surfaces almost immediately. Try to define what science fiction is and you'll see what I mean. The patient doesn't lie still on the table while you examine it. It's more productive examining the make-up of a typical class—no homogeneous grouping of English majors here! Not only do I have an audience of very diversified interests, but I also have some students who haven't the faintest idea of what sf is (but they know it sounded easier than Shakespeare). Others think that science fiction is Star Trek and more Star Trek—or Star Wars and Robocop. In fact there are always a few students who go into total shock when they learn that they'll be reading rather than watching sf all semester. I know that for many of these students this will probably be the last English course they take; it is my hope and responsibility that I can get them so excited by science fiction that they'll want to continue reading it even when they're no longer required to do so.

The range of students' experience with sf is phenomenal and while a certain percentage of any given class is there because the course sounded easy and "fun," I always have a few students who aren't merely interested in science fiction, they are true fanatics. It's always possible to find students who wish to share their enthusiasm about a particular area of the field or a favorite author, and since it's impossible for me to know everything about such a vast subject, I greatly appreciate whatever gaps they can help me fill in. I'll never forget, for example, the student who gave the class a demonstration on the original MOOG synthesizer (its co-inventor is a Hofstra professor), showing how sf movies create their other-worldly music score. Obviously one of the greatest pleasures of teaching science fiction is the students you get. They are some of the most interesting, most excited and exciting, most grateful students you can imagine—also frequently the brightest. Let's face it: most people who get turned on to science fiction are open-minded, willing to explore new ideas, highly intelligent, and very creative. (Yes, and sometimes they're very, very weird: as Damon Knight once said, all sf writers started out as frogs. I've had several hopping in and out of my classroom for years.) I've had students who have gone on to be major DC comic book authors, students who have published their first novels—real novels—while still in junior high school, and students who dress in black and dance on the highway at night. Science-fiction fans are a special segment of the population because of their willingness to boldly examine new ideas—and argue about them interminably. There's a special sense of community in the sf world that finds its way right into the classroom; new ideas must be bounced off of one another, making for very exciting classroom discussions: new words, new worlds, new concepts all to be explored together.

Ultimately then, my pleasure in teaching science fiction is integrally tied to the reasons I love reading it: it's really exciting stuff! We live in a science- fiction world and can't open the papers without reading sf stories come true: in the New York Times headlines read "Comet to Hit Jupiter," "Drive-up Funeral Home Gaining Acceptance," "3 Scientists Say Travel in Time Isn't So Far Out"; magazine articles describe freeze-drying your pets, pamphlets offer opportunities to picnic at Three Mile Island. When I'm not reading the news, I'm e-mailing one daughter or listening to another muse that if she could just clone herself, then she could tell her daughter someday, "I know exactly what you're thinking!"

In the twenty-odd years since I began teaching science fiction, the world and its technology have changed enormously. Science fiction, by its very nature, suggests that the future will be even stranger than we can imagine; it makes us flexible, tolerant of what will come; it strives to make us eager to meet that future—or gives us the foresight to avoid it. If I can successfully help my students prepare for the future in which they will live—and get them to enjoy reading as well—all the perils and politics I face are a small price to pay.


Hartwell, David. Age of Wonders. Now York: Walker and Co., 1984.

Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Bantam, 1970.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1972.

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