Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

James Gunn

Teaching Science Fiction

Science fiction has been difficult to define because it is not an ordinary genre. Unlike the mystery, the western, the gothic, the love story, or the adventure story, to cite a few of the categories to which it is often compared, science fiction has no identifying action or place. Readers do not recognize it, as they recognize other genres, because of some defining event or setting. As a consequence, science fiction can incorporate other genres; we can have a science-fiction detective story, a science-fiction western, a science-fiction gothic, a science-fiction love story, or, most likely of all, a science-fiction adventure story.

The teaching of science fiction has shared that kind of all-inclusiveness. The kinds of subjects that can be taught through science fiction involve all the social and physical sciences, history, ideas, futurology, religion, morality, ecology, reading skills, and many others. In fact, as I looked over the first two-dozen course descriptions sent by SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, my first impression was that they were addressed to almost every issue but the genre itself. Now, with more than two hundred courses, there are too many for easy generalizations. They seem to be as varied as the colleges and universities at which they are taught, and a number seem to address the question of what science fiction is and how to read it, that is, they are genre courses. But I would argue that there should be more.

The reasons for this situation may be many. Obtaining departmental approval for a genre course on science fiction has often been difficult, as opposed to a course on the novel, say, or the short story, or poetry. Science- fiction courses may have to be smuggled into the curriculum under the pretense of serving other, more easily sanctioned purposes. In addition, some teachers may feel unqualified to teach science fiction as a genre, or prefer to use sf for other purposes, or believe that sf should be read and evaluated according to the same criteria as any other literature and thus needs no special instruction.

The validity of the courses is not in question, but their nature may say something about the situation of sf teaching in 1996: in some ways science fiction still may be considered an intruder on the academic scene. In terms of numbers of courses or frequency of courses offered, sf surely outranks the other categories that shared its pulp-magazine origins—the detective story and the western, and certainly the occasional course in the gothic or even the romance. But frequency of teaching may not be a guide to academic acceptance, and the teacher of the detective story or the western may still enjoy greater status, or less loss of status, perhaps because the detective story or western story courses are taught less often and their teachers have no personal stake in them. Most teachers of science fiction, on the other hand, perform their instruction because they feel that sf has something important to offer students, and value themselves in terms of science fiction. Some, like the teachers of the detective story or the western, may earn their sense of self worth from their other areas of expertise.

We might well ask the teachers of science fiction how they feel about that. No doubt we have made some strides toward acceptance since the early days when Sam Moskowitz, Mark Hillegas, Tom Clareson, and Jack Williamson were pioneering the teaching of science fiction, but we may have lost our outsider edge, both with students and our colleagues and maybe even with ourselves. Moreover, I have the feeling that the number of courses taught in this country has dwindled over the past ten or twenty years. Certainly the back-to-basics movement in high schools has diminished the opportunities to teach the science-fiction course there, particularly the mini-courses that were popular in the 1970s. But the loss of the cutting-edge, far-out reputation that attracted students to college courses in vast numbers during that same period has made the teaching, and taking, of science-fiction courses seem less daring in the 1990s.

When he was at Northwestern, Frank McConnell taught sf courses to classes enrolling hundreds of students, and when I spoke with him several years ago at the Eaton Conference, he said that the courses he taught at his California university were just as large. But my experience at the University of Kansas was different: the first course I taught enrolled as many students as the auditorium would hold—165. Then the numbers dropped to 150, 115, 90, 85, and leveled off around 50. Not that numbers are important in themselves. Many teachers wouldn't want any more than 20 students and would be horrified at the prospect of teaching a large lecture class, and clearly the kind of course one can teach is shaped by the numbers enrolled. But those numbers also may provide a clue to the attitude of students toward sf. I have a hunch that a true mass course simply wouldn't draw in most colleges today. A colleague of mine who teaches "the literature of baseball" every few years can attract more students than the science-fiction course.

What I have been advocating for some twenty years is a thorough survey of high schools and colleges to discover how many classes are being taught, whether this is more or less than it was in the 1970s or even the 1980s, and what is being taught in them. Such a survey also would develop a mailing list of teachers that would be of value to almost everyone involved in the field. But although I've often received encouragement, my proposals have finally failed over the twin problems of cost and breadth, as compared with depth, of benefit. When I suggested to twenty sf publishers that they put up $1,000 each and share the results and the mailing list, only Judy Lynn del Rey said she'd do it. Now SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES has taken a significant step toward making my project a reality.

The voluntary responses contained in this issue are, like Jack Williamson's surveys in the early 1970s, valuable as a guide to what is going on but limited to those teachers who had the mailing passed on to them and were willing to take the time and effort to share their experience. I hope this issue, then, will be only the beginning of a continuing series of reports and discussions about the teaching of science fiction.

Meanwhile, let me report on my own experience in the field.

I may have taught more science-fiction courses than anyone else around (if someone else has done more, I hope they will share their experiences). Part of the reason for my sf teaching experience is that the English Department has always wanted me to teach science fiction as frequently as I wished. In fact, the chairman of the Department told me, when I returned to the Department full time in 1970, that some of the younger members of the Department hoped that I would be willing to teach a course in science fiction. I taught a course the first semester and every year thereafter. In 1974 I created my Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, which amounted to the team teaching of two intensive courses in the summer. In addition, I have taught or team-taught several other science-fiction courses, including two seminars in science fiction that the Department asked me to take on. If one includes the teaching of science-fiction writing, I probably averaged the teaching of three science-fiction courses a year over my twenty-three years of full-time teaching and still teach two courses a year in retirement.

All this is not to establish any final authority but to suggest that science fiction was my major field. Although I taught three courses in fiction writing during the regular semester, the Institute sessions and the Writers Workshops in the summer meant that I taught as much science fiction as fiction writing, and maybe more.

When I first considered teaching science fiction I realized that there were various ways to approach it. The first might be called "the great books" course, in which the focus would be on novels and their critical analysis and what made them great. The second might be called "the ideas in science fiction" course, dealing with how sf stories can be used to dramatize contemporary problems. The third would be the historical approach—what is science fiction and how did it get to be that way?

Any of these approaches, or any other, is perfectly legitimate, and I have found myself using all three. I got trapped into the great books approach in 1969 when my son and a friend organized a course, and asked me to be the teacher of record. We agreed on a list of interesting sf novels, but when the classes came around I found myself, presumably present only as an adviser, supplying background and context for the discussions that otherwise would have been limited to expressions of like or dislike or occasional philosophic ramblings into the events of that troubled period.

I told myself that when I taught a regular course it would focus on the historic development of science fiction so that the students would be able to place their sf reading in better context and continue their later reading with greater understanding. That opportunity came sooner than I imagined. The next fall I adopted a reading list of a dozen novels and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and, as a way of organizing my thoughts, set about writing a dozen lectures about the historic development of science fiction that would give the readings meaning.

The next spring an editor for Prentice-Hall dropped by my office and asked if I would be interested in writing a text about fiction writing. I said "No, but I have these twelve chapters about the history of science fiction that would make a good book." That, somewhat delayed by a change of editors, turned out to be Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction.

As the years went by, I became increasingly dissatisfied with teaching science fiction through novels. I won't get into my theories about the ideal length for science fiction, but I did begin to feel that there were only a few science- fiction things one could say about any novel and that the class discussion of a novel had to deal largely with novelistic rather than science-fictional concerns —that is, it usually became a "great books" course. In addition, the earliest possible example of a science-fiction novel was published in 1818, and with the exception of Wells, most examples must be taken from work written since 1950. On the other hand, a teacher can use a group of short stories to discuss many more issues and a greater variety of issues, as well as the historic development from the earliest period of the fantastic voyage.

When Barry Lippman called me from Mentor Books one day in 1975 to tell me he had enjoyed Alternate Worlds and did I have a book I'd like to do with Mentor, I suggested a volume of critical approaches to science fiction and when that didn't interest him, I said I'd like to do a historical anthology. The first volume, The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells, came out so much better than I had imagined, I proposed two more volumes: The Road to Science Fiction #2: From Wells to Heinlein and The Road to Science Fiction #3: From Heinlein to Here. They came out in 1979. Even before I was finished with volume #3, however, I realized that I wanted to include more stories than I had space for, and I suggested that #3 be divided into two volumes. But the then editor (I had five during the entire Mentor experience) suggested that we wait and see how #2 and #3 did. When they sold well, I got the go- ahead for The Road to Science Fiction #4: From Here to Forever, which I decided to devote to the literary uses of science fiction. It was published in 1982.

About half a dozen years ago they went out of print one after the other. One of my Mentor editors had suggested adding an anthology on foreign sf, and I had proposed another on British sf, but when I suggested to a subsequent editor that we go ahead with them, he checked the sales figures of the first four volumes and discovered that they were selling only about 2,000 copies a year each. New American Library had a rule that mass-market titles had to sell 5,000 copies a year to remain in print. The trade paperback criterion was 1,000 copies a year. After considering reprinting the series in trade paperback and proceeding with volumes #5 and #6, the editorial board decided, instead, to let the others go out of print. Since then I have been teaching my course with Xerox copies.

But I have good news for my students and for teachers who have written me over the years trying to obtain copies: White Wolf Incorporated will reprint an updated version of The Road to Science Fiction beginning in September of 1996 with #3 and continuing with the others at intervals of three months. The series will include the two anthologies I proposed to Mentor: The Road to Science Fiction #5: The British Way and, when it is completed, The Road to Science Fiction #6: Around the World.

They had an unusual beginning. Wilhelm Heyne had been reprinting the series in German, and when it reached #2 the editor, Wolfgang Jeschke, inquired through my agents whether I had more than four volumes in mind. I mentioned the two I had discussed with Mentor, and, after some negotiations, Heyne gave me contracts to put together #5 and #6 for them. Now, since Heyne is holding up the publication of #5 until #6 is ready, the English-language editions may be published first.

I had used the first four volumes in my class to address the historical development of science fiction from its earliest prototypes (which also are the prototypes for all literature) to its most contemporary examples, which turned out to be 1979 in volume #3 (the date of publication) and 1981 in #4 (a year before the date of publication of that volume). [White Wolf has an option on a seventh volume that would cover the past couple of decades.]

I also used the class to address the question of genre, that is, what science fiction is and how it got to be that way. The entire semester, I told my classes, was a search for definition. In the process I also explored the approaches of science fiction to theme. The four volumes are organized chronologically; an introduction deals with the development of sf as a genre and headnotes deal with the situation of sf at the time of publication of the story, what the particular story may have contributed to its development, or illustrated, and information about the author and the particular story. I urge students to read their way through the anthologies from front to back, paying attention to the introductions and headnotes. But I organize the class discussions around thematic units and ask the students to re-read the stories according to those groupings.

After the first couple of assignments in which I discuss the variations in mainstream and sf approaches according to social change and differences between the mainstream and sf, the groups work their way through the four volumes in order, although the stories are not taken up in sequence. An outline of the groupings I use is appended below, along with the themes under which I group them. The groupings are arbitrary, of course, and other teachers might prefer to arrange them in other ways, if they felt like trying this approach at all. The point is to address the important issues and methods that sf concerns itself with, as the teacher sees it, and to include all the stories.

With nearly 100 stories to discuss, that takes some doing. It also creates a problem in that the time I allotted (I used Fridays to show lecture films from my series) does not allow time for extended discussion of any story other than Philip José Farmer's "Sail On! Sail On!," which I use for a line-by-line analysis to illustrate sf's reading protocols. Teachers who prefer to spend more time with a story might have to eliminate some stories from discussion or from the reading list.

Discussion still is a possibility in a large class, although some students prefer to sit silently in the back of the room. But frequent written assignments are not, unless one has a teaching assistant, as I did for the first ten years. After that I gave only an essay exam for the mid-term (offering students a choice of four short definitions of sf), an essay exam for the final (asking for a discussion of sf built around several issues, with examples), and a term paper based on a comparison and contrast of two or more sf novels, from a list I provided or that I had previously approved. In place of the term paper I have allowed students to substitute a short story, or, in some cases, other projects. Some students have done art work, for instance; one did a radio dramatization of Fredric Brown's "Arena"; one did a needlepoint illustration of the cover of Alternate Worlds, another a macrame replica of a Mesklinite from Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, and a 1995 graduate student in art, a photographic illustration, in the lost negative process, of a model taken from George Zebrowski's "The Word Sweep."

After my first or second class, I got a telephone call from a student who asked when I'd teach the class again. His roommate, he said, had done a project for my class, and it sounded so fascinating he wanted to do one. I suggested that he didn't have to take my class to do a project. In the early days, I used take-home exams under the assumption that students might be encouraged to do better work. One of my students, however, turned in as a mid-term the first half of Judith Merril's essay "What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?" I dealt gently with him, feeling that I hadn't made clear the necessity to do his own thinking and writing. I told him that I couldn't give him a grade for the mid-term, but he could turn in something original for a grade. He didn't do that, but for the final he turned in the second half of Judy's essay.

The Intensive English Institute sessions in the summer crammed all the short-story discussions into a three-week session meeting for three hours every morning. Steve Goldman would pair novels from a reading list of more than two dozen for brilliant discussions every afternoon for three hours each. The classes in the summer were as large as 22 and as small as 6, but they came from all over the U.S. and from Argentina, Canada, Holland, Denmark, China, Australia, and New Zealand. We had three guest writers for a week each, Gordon Dickson, Fred Pohl, and Ted Sturgeon. It was a great opportunity for a total immersion experience, and many of the students felt transformed by it. One of my favorite memories of that period is the response of the students: the first week they said "this is the most wonderful experience we've ever had"; the second week, "why are you working us so hard?"; and the third week, "how can it be over so soon?"

Later, feeling that some students from distant places might be deterred by having to invest three weeks of vacation time, Steve and I reduced the period to two weeks by scheduling class sessions for both Saturday and Sunday. Since Steve's untimely death in 1991, with the exception of the first year, when Tom Shippey filled in, I have offered the short-story session and the novel session in alternating years. I require familiarity with The Road to Science Fiction, either by taking the short-story course or by previous reading. The novels are those that I consider important to the understanding of science fiction, or, in the case of my own, an opportunity for the students to become familiar with something by their instructor, and to ask questions about the creative process. That applies to Fred Pohl, too, who still is a guest writer for the Institute, and, with Betty Anne Hull, a loyal friend of the sf program here and the Campbell Conference and its awards. Betty is a judge of the Campbell Award, and Fred, of the Sturgeon Award.

The discussions about the novels relate in part to their contributions to the genre, in part to their historic importance, but mostly to the ways in which they go about doing science-fictional things. I try to pair two novels that take similar topics or are different approaches to the same general literary task. In the second week, I ask students to pair off and lead the discussion of the remaining novels. A list of the novels for next summer (we are in the novel sequence) is enclosed.

Steve Goldman and I also taught an "ideas in science fiction" course one summer, as a Kansas Committee for the Humanities program for secondary school teachers. We called it "Prometheus Revisited: Human Values in a Technological World," and put together a Xeroxed book of readings from C.P. Snow's "Two-Cultures" lecture and reactions to it, as well as earlier contributions to the two-cultures debate, and a group of stories that dealt with the conflict between the sciences and the humanities before concluding with several stories that attempted a synthesis, as well as three novels, Greg Bear's Eternity, Gregory Benford's Timescape, and John Brunner's The Crucible of Time. Steve and I also team-taught a course in the science-fiction novel in which we attempted to deal with the particular problems and opportunities of the science-fiction novel and the proper critical approaches to it, including such matters as reading Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy as a series of stories built one on the end of another like tinker-toys, whether it is appropriate to apply novelistic standards to A.E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A, which began life as a serial, and the process by which Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End developed from the novelette "Guardian Angel."

Twice I taught seminars in science fiction. In each case, because students already had the opportunity to take courses in the short fiction and in the novel, I devoted the seminars to critical approaches to science fiction. I put together a Xeroxed text of critical articles and chapters and devoted the first two-thirds of the semester to comparing critical approaches, while students were working on applying their own approaches to a group of novels or themes. In the final third of the semester students were asked to report on their projects. I thought almost all the papers in the second seminar were publishable, and at least a couple have been accepted. I would have liked to have seen them all published, and proposed a book called New Voices in SF Criticism to Borgo Press, but that foundered after the Starmont purchase.

I hope this issue of SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES will be only the beginning of a continuing discussion of sf teaching. I'm looking forward to the reports of other teachers on their experience.


Stories and selections in The Road to Science Fiction. <> = Selection.

Changing attitudes


Rappaccini's Daughter

The Cold Equations; The Diamond Lens

The Engine at Heartspring's Center

The Fate of humanity

The Star; The Machine Stops


Travel—encountering the unknown

<A True Story>; <Mandeville's Travels>

<Somnium>; Mellonta Tauta

<Journey to the World Underground>

<Twenty Thousand Leagues....>

<Around the Moon>

With the Night Mail

Utopias—and getting there

<Utopia>; <The New Atlantis>

<Looking Backward>


<A Voyage to the Moon>

<A Voyage to Laputa>

The Revolt of the Pedestrians

<Brave New World>

Natural mysteries

The Damned Thing; The People of the Pit

The Red One

Travel and adventure

<She>; <The Chessmen of Mars>

A Martian Odyssey; Proxima Centauri

Black Destroyer

The mad scientist

The New Accelerator

The Tissue-Culture King

With Folded Hands

Brooklyn Project

The history of the future

<Last and First Men>

The Faithful; Requiem

What's It Like Out There?

The idea is the thing

Hyperpilosity; Nightfall

Reason; Critical Factor

The nature of reality

All You Zombies——

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale


The future of humanity—man will change

Desertion; Dolphin's Way

The Game of Rat and Dragon

Who Can Replace a Man?

Day Million; Tricentennial

The last (atomic) war

Thunder and Roses

The Million-Year Picnic

That Only a Mother

The Terminal Beach

The Big Flash

Strange phenomena

Mimsy Were the Borogoves

The Sentinel; Kyrie

Social comment

Coming Attraction

Slow Tuesday Night

Aye, and Gomorrah

<Stand on Zanzibar>

Harrison Bergeron

Individual visions

Fondly Fahrenheit

The Streets of Ashkelon

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Masks; Pilgrimage to Earth


<The Left Hand of Darkness>

When It Changed

The Heat Death of the Universe

Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand


Aliens and alienation

Born of Man and Woman

Nobody Bothers Gus

The Dance of the Changer and the Three

The Last Flight of Dr. Ain

View From a Height

The literary touch

The Library of Babel

With a Finger in My I

Rogue Tomato; The Word Sweep

Serious themes

Where No Sun Shines

Angouleme; Uncoupling

The Tower of Ashes

Jeu d'esprit

My Boy Friend's Name Is Jello

The First Sally (A) or Trurl's Electronic Bard

The Ghost Writer

The World SF Convention of 2080

Traditional sf

The Moon Moth; Light of Other Days

Air Raid

Fiction and science; science and fiction

Particle Theory


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