Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts, Edited by Heather Masri

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I just got a copy of Heather Masri’s Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts from Bedford St. Martins as I build a science fiction course for (hopefully) future use. This is a really cool collection.

It is chocked full of fiction–short stories and excerpts–that are introduced by Masri. But that’s not the really slick feature. What I like about the collection is the thematic groups of stories paired with critical essays. For example, the first section on “Alien Encounters,” which includes stories by Wells, Weinbaum, Bradbury, Le Guin, Butler, Egan, and others, is paired with a selection from de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Jung’s The Shadow, and Fanon’s The Face of Blackness.  The “Utopias and Dystopias” section has A. E. van Vogt’s “The Weapon Shop,” Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed,” and more by Zamyatin, Knight, Varley, Ryman, and Hopkinson. With these terrific stories, there are Hannah Arendt’s Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government, William H. Whyte Jr’s The Organization Man, and Jameson’s “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”.

Not everyone will agree with all of the selections, but I believe that this is a useful and well considered turnkey effort toward a theory centric science fiction course.

7 thoughts on “Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts, Edited by Heather Masri

  1. I’m curious: what benefits do you see to a theory-centric SF course? or, maybe the better question: in what context do you see such a course being taught? The reason I ask is that I’m teaching SF here, atm, and it’s pretty much completely theory-free (they got scared by the Suvin essay I had them read). Here, SF is a general education class and I have 100 non-lit majors in my class. As such, I didn’t see any reason to overload them with theory, when the class should be, in my mind, about building some descriptions of science fiction and pointing toward some of the classic novels and stories. Also, I would think that if I had to read Habermas or Arendt when I’d signed up to take a science fiction class, I might be a little angry.

    While this sounds like a cool anthology, I’m not sure how useful it would be.

  2. Hey Andrew,

    I had to think about this for awhile this afternoon before I responded. I appreciate you getting me to think about this more than I did before posting yesterday about the book.

    To answer your first question, what benefits do you see to a theory-centric SF course, I believe that theory should be an integral part, to a greater or lesser extent, in the humanities. For science fiction in particular, theory gives students a variety of approaches to critique and find meaning in a given text that may have implications beyond the text itself for them. Additionally, a theory centric approach provides, to me, a better use of discussion and class time beyond the question “what is science fiction?” Everyone has a definition of SF–a theory of SF–Aldiss, Le Guin, Delany, Gunn, Broderick, Suvin, etc. In a general survey of science fiction, these theories are equally well suited for problematizing the genre so that students have the opportunity to enter that particular conversation with their own arguments. In both cases–theory as point of engagement, or genre theory–we are providing our students a place to begin their critical engagement of texts and a framework that they can build on through their work in the course.

    To answer your second question, in what context do you see such a course being taught, I believe that the argument can be made that a survey of science fiction course, at least at KSU where the class would be about 25 students, can be augmented with a theoretical approach where the beginning consensus would be a broadly based definition of SF that bound the given works together. Then, the concern of the class would be to explore the different kinds of SF that raise important issues about the here-and-now that can be addressed through theory.

    Another approach to this course could be to teach an introductory theory class for English and humanities majors with the assistance of science fiction. In this case, the SF stories would provide the toys in the sandbox for students to try out the theory that they learn.

    I think that it’s good that you got your students to read Suvin regardless of how they felt about reading theory. We should challenge our students to read more theory, and I personally feel let down that we didn’t have more theory at Georgia Tech. I do not ascribe to the belief that merely giving students theory is some kind of progressive or subversive tactic that can revolutionize the current political and economic milieu. However, I do believe that theory provides rigor, counter-intuitive ways of seeing, methods of critique, and a general provocation of thought that students wouldn’t otherwise have in say a general math or science class. In these ways, theory and philosophy can be made to provide students with critical approaches that can be transformed, reworked, and utilized in ways that I cannot anticipate but that might extremely useful for students in their other work in the academy and after.

    Can you email me a copy of your science fiction class syllabus? I would be interested in seeing what plans you have for such a large group of students.

    Jason

  3. Jason,

    I appreciate your comments, but I think we need to make distinction w/r/t terminology. It seems that the anthology you’re posting about originally contains theory essays that are not directly about science fiction (whereas something like Jameson’s “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” or Suvin’s “Cognition & Estrangement in SF” are both theories about science fiction). Personally, if I had to read Arendt or de Beauvoir in class on science fiction, esp. as these classes so heavily attract non-majors, I would have been pretty angry. That said, I think giving students critical essays about the cultural, social, or political dimensions of SF is a useful task (although my students *hated* the three essays I gave them), because, as you said, it gives students a critical vocabulary for dealing with these works (on that front, I wish I had taught “Progress vs. Utopia,” b/c difficult stuff teaches well in a large lecture class, as a means of practicing lecture skills vs. discussion facilitation).

    I agree with your statements about theory and provocation, but, esp. w/ the right texts, SF is capable of doing that all on its own (for instance, my students seemed pretty spun by Sturgeon’s _More Than Human_). Further, I’ve taken my task in teaching SF to be to serve as an introduction into the rich tradition of SF throughout the twentieth century with an eye towards expanding my students knowledge of and interest in literary SF. It just seems that non-SF theory is a distraction from that mission.

    That said, I like the idea of teaching an intro to theory course w/ SF stories as examples, esp. if such a theory course were to take a more Marxist/rhetorical approach (as opposed to a close reading based approach). Cool.

  4. As the old saw goes, those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach theory….

    Really, I can’t imagine what sorts of vulgar “literary” conversations might take place based on theory, except perhaps to bring to bear traditional class analysis, and suggests a hypothetical “trailer park” literary discussion transplanted to the respectable confines of a not-really-respectable large institution, in which full-of-themselves numbskulls lead tattooed orangutans in a sort of bore-fest intended to exalt the numbskulls’ insipid bits of learning to unreasonable altitudes, but more effectively, in a sort of collateral effect, enhancing the impending weekend binge of heroic alcohol consumption, which, according to inevitable scientific laws, will arrive at the ultimate terminus, the cataclysmic black-out, which again returns the orangutans back to the mental sate they had originally fled from in the classroom.

    One might also follow an analytic approach to this, in which the first task is to identify the appropriate response to the phenomenon in question. According to the procedure implicit in this epistemology, there seems to me to be plenty enough material in the Masri anthology to conclude the appropriate response is to express scorn. I would say scorn and elaborate ridicule, but then that other epistemology intervenes, especially appropriate to lost causes, according to which one should save one’s breath to cool one’s porridge.

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