Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

David N. Samuelson

Adventures in Paraliterature

Having taught science-fiction texts and courses for almost 30 years, I don't know if it can be done. I care about helping students become conscious of how they read for enjoyment or enlightenment and why they do or don't enjoy what they read. My aim is to get them to read sf as a kind of literature (used as a description, not an honorific), worth examining as texts and cultural phenomena for what they contribute to our language and our understanding of ourselves. Refusing to equate "literature" with "classics" of the Western (or any) tradition, I do not limit its application to psychological realism, nor do I see "culture" and "class" as approbations. In high school, college, and graduate school, I studied enough psychology, anthropology, economics and science to reduce for me the normative value of those words.

Part of my job is to show students the sf tradition and its offshoots in various contexts, each contributing to the meaning and effects of particular texts. I want them to see how their reading of sf and its visions of alternate futures is conditioned not only by style and conventions (in literature, audio-visual media, and life), but also by science, fantasy, social assumptions, and psychological role-playing. Part of my problem is my lack of a steadfast focus. I rarely restrict my teaching to one thing. My publications mostly concern sf, but I have never sought to build an academic empire, nor have I become overly dependent on it.

I've always been too busy learning something else, working up over 30 new courses in 30 years and coping with major committee and advising loads in an educational system requiring faculty to teach four courses a semester, unless released for research grants or official duties. Regularly teaching critical theory and practice now, at undergraduate and graduate levels, I treat it partly as an extension of other courses in writing. In Fall 1996 I will offer my fourth approach to contemporary literature with "Postcolonial Literature of Britain and the Commonwealth." What unifies my teaching, aside from my personality, is that whatever I teach, reading and writing are the core.

Before I had a science-fiction classroom of my own, I introduced into a Comparative Literature course in Folklore and Mythology Zamiatin's We and Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz as modern treatments of myth. In Twentieth Century English Literature, my "respectable" field (buttressed by seminars in Joyce and Yeats), I find it productive to place sf texts on reading lists and timelines, and to use books by Wells, Huxley, Brunner, Burgess, and Lessing which at least border on sf. I have also taught an undergraduate seminar on Wells and Huxley, at which Brian Aldiss gave a brief talk. I have even taught three times a graduate seminar in Twentieth Century English Literature, "Prophetic Voices," confronting those writers (plus Aldiss, Clarke, and Stapledon) with oracular texts by more canonical authors: H.D., Eliot, Forster, Graves, Greene, Ted Hughes, D.H. Lawrence, Shaw, D.M. Thomas, Woolf, and Yeats. It also features films like Things to Come, Lost Horizon, 2001, Orlando, and Brazil.

In 1969, my fourth year at California State University, Long Beach, nobody raised objections to an "experimental" course in "Science Fiction and Speculative Fantasy." Enrollments in the 1970s were high, as was student interest in many things opposed to staid convention. Our campus accommodates few large classes, which is just as well since I enjoy interacting with students, and reading voluminous if relatively informal writing assignments. I chose not to limit myself to lecture mode, with student assistants and multiple choice exams. Enrollment in my sf class has rarely exceeded 30, since I actually expect students to read a lot of texts and to write seriously about what they read.

The "experimental" rubric was dropped after a few years, leaving "Science Fiction" as a senior "Topic in English." To gain a separate catalog listing and address the educational level of most enrolling students, I moved it to the sophomore level (we had and have few lower division literature courses). Not content just to teach sf, I had also set up a Future Studies program, which began and ended with an integrated set of summer workshops. A later offshoot was an American Studies class connecting space exploration in fact and fiction with Turner's Frontier Thesis.

I added a freshman class in "Modern Fantasy" (from Tieck and the English Romantics), a graduate class in "Modes of Fantasy," and an interdisciplinary upper-division pairing of "Utopian Dreams" with a history course in "Utopian Realities." By 1990, my focus on "hard sf" differentiated science fiction from fantasy and utopian literature. I never restricted the readings to hard sf, which is historically limiting and includes few examples of good writing, but I did emphasize the role of science in the readings. I also taught a section of "Science as Literature" and came to direct our Technical and Professional Writing Program.

Many of my sf students have been non-English majors taking the course out of interest, but I never tried for General Education credit, for fear that it might be the only college literature course a student took. Given their varied backgrounds, however, I never required formal literary critiques of all the stories and novels they read. Students could concentrate on other elements, such as the plausibility of fictional science and technology, propagandistic elements in extrapolated societies and lifestyles, and/or psychological issues from unbalanced narrators and psychoanalysis to myth and symbol. Personal responses could also supplement, not replace, analyses of what they read. The assigned readings offered purchases for all these approaches.

Short story anthologies have varied considerably over 27 years, but historical textbooks have always been limited. I have tried to bend to my purposes volumes 1 and 2 of the SF Hall of Fame, Fiedler's In Dreams Awake, Gunn's Road to Science Fiction, Donald Lawler's Approaches to Science Fiction, Moskowitz's "Masters" collections, Silverberg's Mirror of Infinity, Spinrad's Modern Science Fiction, and Sargent's Women of Wonder. Most anthologies approach or seek to revise an sf "canon," but I never restricted readings to "great books" or a canonical history, though I often included examples of "proto-sf."

Paperbacks are always plentiful, but rarely of all that I want at a given time. I have had students read 19th-century writers (Shelley, Bellamy, Poe, Verne, and Wells), and writers who were not Anglophone (Calvino, Čapek, Lem, Merle, and the Strugatskis). Lacking a fixed agenda, I could try dozens of different writers, albeit in different semesters. The usual suspects included Asimov, Bester, Clarke, Clement, Heinlein, Herbert, Miller, Pohl, and Sturgeon for "modern" sf, and Aldiss, Ballard, Bear, Benford, Budrys, Delany, Dick, Disch, Gibson, Le Guin, McIntyre, Russ, and Vonnegut for more recent work. Except for short stories I was not able to use Tiptree, Butler, or many other writers whose work I respect. For historical purposes, however, I have included Gernsback, "Doc" Smith, even "John Taine," among pre-moderns, and Carol Hill, Marge Piercy, and Lawrence Sanders as contemporary "outsiders" or "fellow-travelers."

Special circumstances have dictated importing Solaris from Canada and getting Bantam to reprint Delany's Nova in my year of leverage as author of the Language and Literature section of the U.S. Academic Decathlon, addressing their theme of space flight. That severely limited reading list also included Asimov ("The Martian Way"), Clarke and Kubrick (the film 2001: A Space Odyssey), Heinlein ("Universe"), Miller ("Crucifixus Etiam") and Le Guin ("Vaster than Empires and More Slow"). Anonymously, indirectly, and distorted by the nature of multiple-choice exams (which I almost never use in the classroom), some version of my teaching surely reached its largest audience ever by this means.

Pursuing the chimera of "hard SF," I have used less obvious figures like John Cramer, Niven and Pournelle, Preuss, and Slonczewski. The hard sf booklist tends to solidify into examples of world-building, forecasting, social speculation, and challenges to ruling scientific paradigms. In a given semester, few well-written examples of each are in print, preventing too much "hardening of the categories." Compromise candidates of dubious scientific hardness but artistic merit have included books by Delany, Le Guin, and Lem and the films 2001 and Bladerunner. Sf anthologies with a science edge are also rare, but the doubly misnamed Great Science Fiction by Great Scientists was a useful supplement to the canonical SFRA Anthology, which happens to include my severely cramped essay on Delany's "Driftglass." I have planned to use Shippey's Oxford anthology but I would be unlikely to touch either the Le Guin-Attebery Norton or the Hartwell-Cramer Ascent of Wonder.

Outside seminars and classes focused on writing, which I treat as workshops, I employ lecture-discussion mode (defined as 25-45 students), accompanying formal lectures with printed outlines. Handed out if new, these outlines are usually—in this day of tight department budgets and personal computers— incorporated into a lengthy syllabus in a sizable packet sold in the bookstore. Most students follow formal lectures better if they don't have to work out the structure as they go along. More commonly I ask questions or talk off the cuff, with some notations on paper or in my head to give my remarks form. Students usually pay more attention if they have a chance to interrupt with questions or possible objections, but they may need to be pushed into it.

Panels and small discussion groups can serve that purpose, or explorations of writers or texts culminating in reports to the whole class on something everyone is not reading. A long and various reading list may be divided among panels, so that nobody can read all of it but the most ambitious diehard. If a class is an introduction to a topic, its success should include students' exploring further in the subject when the class is over. Thus I never attempt to completely define or surround a subject, rather encouraging students to extend their knowledge in their own way.

I have given a "final exam" the first day, with comprehensive topics to work on all semester, and instructions to prepare a paper in various stages for my feedback during the semester. I sometimes require research papers, most of which are disasters, except that the student has to do some independent work. The centerpiece of student performance in my reading classes is usually a cumulative journal, which the student can supplement and revise as the term proceeds, and which depends mainly on written analysis, not necessarily in essay form. Not examples of "free writing," journals for me require details of reading and support for generalizations, but both subjective and objective responses are welcome. I wrote up an early incarnation of this class for Jack Williamson's anthology, Education for Tomorrow, but the form has modulated considerably over the years.

Much of what I have written here is cast in past tense, because it is five years since I taught "Science Fiction." A budget crisis made my department reduce non-essential courses, and only eight students enrolled for my Fall 1995 offering, enough for a graduate seminar but not a lower division elective. Alternating sf and fantasy courses through 1991-92 insured a higher profile, but students are more serious now about getting required courses and getting out (sometimes neither is easy to do in a downsized university). Serious sf study has always been plagued by fans' disinterest in literature and literary readers' disinterest in sf, but I have managed to cope with that, in the classroom as well as in print. What I may need to get sf back in the schedule on a regular basis is the General Education label I previously avoided. To satisfy an interdisciplinary requirement, for a student's second literature class, "hard sf" can provide a bridge between the sciences and the humanities. If so, that will bring me full circle to C.P. Snow and my B.A. Honors Thesis at Drew University (1962), on what then passed for the "criticism" of science fiction.

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