Thursday, August 31, 2017

When I taught science fiction

There are any number of reasons why I miss my home. One of them is books.

The books I would teach, I mean. Don't get me wrong, just about everything I teach involves a book or two given that composition is my discipline, but it was different at Saint Joseph's College. Not only did the Core program allow me to teach many volumes included in the Great Books canon, I also got to teach bona fide texts of science fiction, obviously my favorite genre.

Elysium, I tell you.

As the waning but humid days of August are upon us and school is back in session, it dawns on me that I am unlikely to teach these books ever again. So, with no small degree of sadness, I thought I would blog a post that looks at each one of these books and how they fit in the curriculum.

Feed by M.T. Anderson
Titus and his teen friends go to the Moon to party and all they got was a stupid hack.
In this future, everyone has a implant in their brains that grants them constant connection to the Internet. Imagine a nonstop Facebook or Twitter feed in your mind, hence the name. But what happens when it all goes wrong? As with any text, one of my main questions to students is one of authorial exigency. Why did the writer feel compelled to write the text in the first place? Well, we were lucky enough to have M.T. Anderson appear via Skype to answer just this question. He said that he wrote Feed to address the subject of literacy. What happens when we stop reading and writing and just get the Internet delivered into our heads? I also found it interesting how many students grew frustrated with the language of the book. Anderson wrote much of it in the vernacular of a teenager in that future, meaning he made up quite a bit of slang. The students didn't know how to interpret a lot of it. I asked them then how they think they might sound today to generations past?
This book prompted many questions of just what technology may be doing to us. If nothing else, it allowed me the opportunity to lecture on transhumanism.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This is of course a classic of dystopian fiction. Huxley, "The greatest writer in English of the 20th Century" according to the Chicago Tribune, deftly paints a future where all humans come about through genetic engineering, are placed at birth in a caste system, and are subsequently amused to death by drugs and media. The number of questions raised by this text number in the thousands. Is science the answer to everything? Exactly what comments is the writer trying to make on Communism, the "assembly line" model of living, and how a society should be ordered (if it should be ordered at all)? I knocked out quite a fun lecture on this one as well, attempting to sell students on the Brave New World while feigning being stoned on soma the whole time (it was really Mike and Ikes). My edition of the text has a nifty introduction by Christopher Hitchens, but if you're an audio learner, the audiobook is available on YouTube.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Another dystopian classic. In this future, reading is illegal and books are burned by a totalitarian government. The people dispatched to do this burning are ironically called "firemen." One of these firemen, a man named Guy Montag, meets a former English teacher who dares to still read. Montag's life is changed. This stranger he barely knows is infinitely more intriguing to Montag than his wife of many years who just sits at home and watches TV. How can Montag go back to his old life upon encountering this sage?
Those English teachers. Always causing trouble. But I digress...
This is a cautionary fable by a masterful writer. I would mandate it be read by all college students nationwide. What happens when technology advances to a point where reading is no longer required? Why would anyone make reading illegal? What book would you memorize in order to preserve it?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I realize that many genre purists might find this to be a dicey inclusion. Isn't this really gothic horror, brought about as the result of a ghost story? Well it's a definite yes on the horror aspect and a better-think-about-it on the ghost story contest. At the same time however, others point to Shelley's masterpiece as an early example of science fiction. Think about it. The very title is synonymous with the phrase "science has gone too far." Just because we can, does that mean we should? Victor Frankenstein's creation is a cautionary reminder for anyone who dares to go too far. By the way, I was asked if it bothers me that so many people call the Creature from the book "Frankenstein" when that's really the name of the creator. I told them that the English professor in me is quite cheesed at it, yes. However, the kid in me who loves monster movies thinks it's A-OK. Speaking of which, I'll show you just how sci-fi Frankenstein can be. Go right now and watch Toho's Frankenstein Conquers the World...

I know these books will always be with me as both a reader and a writer. I hope that I am given the opportunity to teach one of them, any one of them, again. Failing that, I hope that I can create the opportunity to teach them. If nothing else, I hope that this post may prompt someone who has yet to read any of these science fiction books to check them out and give them a try.

Might want to try memorizing the book while you're at it. The way things are going, the firemen might show up any day now.

Until next time, my best.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets


  1. On FB, JordanL said: "Like the time Jordan DeLong and I force fed you Soma? Good friggin' times."

  2. On FB, Alexis said: "One of the best core lectures I mag add."


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