Monday, July 8, 2013

Teaching science fiction





A minor dream came true today.

I taught a college-level class on science fiction.  It was for a group of students from China who are visiting the college.  They have a genuine interest in science fiction and I was happy to oblige.

One aspect of them that struck me was that they seemed to be unaware of the "genre v. literary" struggle that goes on in academics.  That appeared to see science fiction as just as valid of a form of literature as any other.  I explained that in America, science fiction is somewhat looked down upon by the intelligentsia, though perhaps not as much as it once was.  Part of this is due to the more garish and commercialized directions the genre took in the past thirty years or so.  On the other hand, it was due to just such a direction that I became introduced to science fiction at all.

Confused?  Am I babbling?  Let me try to straighten this out into coherent form.

My first memory of science fiction was seeing Star Wars in 1977.  I sat with my Dad and watched that enormous Star Destroyer fill the screen in just the opening minute.  From there I was hooked.  I thrilled to the heroics of Luke Skywalker and inwardly marveled at the malevolent presence of Darth Vader, to this day one of my favorite villains.  That point forward, I wouldn't just be a Star Wars nut, I would attack most things science fiction with overwhelming edacity. I would annoy friends and teachers alike with my fixation on spaceships, alien invasions, and monstrous kaiju that might crawl out of Tokyo Bay or a dark Scottish Loch.  If we had a writing assignment, even if it were one as bland and innocuous as "describe your bedroom," you can bet I would find a way to work in robots, a flying saucer, or the like.  "Be real," the grade school teachers would chastise.

That's just it.  For me, these subjects were very real.

After Star Wars it was Star Trek.   I viewed myself as a teen sophisticate by this point.  Star Trek allowed for slow and thorough examination of very human issues such as racism.  What's more, much of the science featured on the shows might actually be plausible as we are now beginning to find.  It was just so much more intelligent than Star Wars (or so I snobbishly thought at the time.) 

Somewhere in those years, Doctor Who joined the mix.  Its special effects were even worse than Star Trek's and that's saying something.  Because of this, however, I believe that the show's writers were forced to come up with engaging and thought-provoking stories.  They were able to take robots with plungers for weapons (Daleks) and make them into something fairly terrifying in their own right.  Plus, the show was British so that automatically gave it an air of elegance.  :)

Sad to say, it was only after being exposed to all of this mass media that I began to pick up the books.  There were the ABCs (Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke) and of course William Gibson...and yes I did keep today's class centered almost entirely on this literature.  But as I remind people, I doubt that I would ever have discovered those books had I not been enticed into science fiction via the magic of film.  Therefore, I probably wouldn't be writing my own stories today.  I wouldn't be trying to take our contemporary situation in society and trying to see where we might be headed in the future.  I wouldn't be looking at the arc of our current technological development and critically thinking about what it is doing to us as human beings.

And I think that's an ability unique to science fiction.  It allows us to examine our condition in a way that let's us look at the world from the outside.  Star Trek accomplished this admirably.  Star Wars did it too, just in a different way...by filling a void in human experience.  That is to say, to grant mythology to a culture that really didn't have any.  More than anything, the genre lets ask "what if?" and feel as though anything is possible.

Well, certainly minor dreams are possible to achieve.  I am living proof.

So...yeah.  Aim high and stuff.




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1 comment:

  1. On Facebook, MPOE said: "Good stuff! My favorites are Vonnegut, Atwood and Orwell. Political Science Fiction? New category? Lol."

    In a way, yeah. And an important one! lol We actually used to teach Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" to our freshmen.

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