Synopsis of Class: January 12, 1999

On this first class, we began by discussing the meanings of our names (Dino, from deinos = terrible, monstrous; as in dinosaur, from deinos and saurus = monstrous lizard). I then went over the course syllabus and the class policies, thus setting up the concerns that will interest us over the course of this semester: narrative, gender, ideology, postmodernity, the definition of the human, our contemporary carceral culture, politics and power, the Holocaust, late capitalism, and more. A good part of the class was spent going over last semester's Web pages to highlight the sorts of material that students can expect to find on the Web throughout the semester, particularly the Guide to Terms and the Undergraduate Guide to Critical Theory.

After this introduction to the objectives and requirements of the course, I posed the question: "what is science fiction?" This question led to a fascinating discussion in which we attempted, as a class, to determine the specific parameters of this generic form. The final definition we came up with was the following: "science fiction represents that which is possible (i.e. believably explained) but outside the parameters of our known, quotidian reality." (Thanks to Jill Parks and Kristiana Neff for the first part of the definition and to Craig Stalbaum, Graham Sadtler, and Marcus Knotts for the second part.) Some "believably explained" possibilities for this generic form include: the application of technology in some fictional way or setting (thanks to Levi Haynes for this one); alternate dimensions or parallel universes (something brought up by Andy Grimm at the beginning of class); tales about other planets or alien cultures; a tale set in another time, especially the future; and parapsychology. We also discussed some of the functions of science fiction. I suggested that such stories are often a commentary on the present, even when they seem diegetically to have nothing to do with our present society; indeed, this hypothesis will be a major focus for the course, hence the course's subtitle: "The Space of Contemporary Allegory." Science fiction should be taken as a serious generic form, I argued, because it represents one of the few still viable genres in which one can represent contemporary ideologies or belief systems in a critical way by imagining a space or time that is outside our current ideologies. Margaret Atwood's short short story, "Homelanding," which I read outloud, is a perfect example since it is no more than a description of such quotidian facts as sex, eating, and death but as one might describe these everyday events to an alien culture. The effect is an alienation from our present, known, quotidian reality. It forces us to think about our present in new ways. Science fiction can also posit solutions to our current problems by imagining worlds in which those problems are solved; the introduction of the first black character on television in the original Star Trek series is a good example, since the show attempted, during a time of intense racial struggles, to imagine a a perspective (a bias-free future) from which racism would seem ridiculous. Science fiction thus offers us utopias towards which we can then strive. The other possible plot line, of course, is to imagine a dystopic reality. 1984 and Brave New World, which we will be reading, and Brazil and Gattaca, which we will be watching, are classic examples of this sub-genre of science fiction in which one takes certain elements in our present-day culture and imagines what would happen if they were allowed to take over our lives in an adverse way. The subtitle of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed is An Ambiguous Utopia.

We then attempted to define other related but different generic forms to understand more clearly how science fiction is its own distinct form. Our definition for fantasy was as follows: "fantasy represents that which is impossible (unexplained) and outside the parameters of our known, quotidian reality." I also brought up some hybrid examples: Macaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, for example, is a tale that blurs the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy, since most of the elements in the tale (medieval settings, dragons, a terrible threat combatted by brave warriors) suggests fantasy yet the series also offers scientific explanations for everything in the tale (the dragons, for example, turn out to be the products of genetic engineering). Star Wars is another good example, since it is clearly within the science-fiction genre yet includes certain unexplained fantasy elements (particularly "The Force," may it be with you all). Jill Parks brought up a very good argument at this point: although we now consider something like Homer's Odyssey a fantasy, is it not true that listeners of the tale in ancient Greece would have actually believed the events of the tale? Does this fact entail some new generic category like religious fiction? I suggested that this distinction is a superb one since, in fact, one of the developments that eventually forced fantasy to be perceived as something to be read by children and not adults is the rise of science and empiricism, which led not only to the marginalization of folklore and fantasy but to the marginalization, one could even say the fall, of religion in the nineteenth century. In this new empirical culture, the miraculous events of the Odyssey, or the Bible for that matter, are now considered fantastical precisely because they cannot be proven, tested, seen.

We also defined mimetic realism: "that which is possible but only within the parameters of our known, quotidian (usually present-day) reality" (classic examples include Jane Austen's and Charles Dickens' novels). As this definition suggests, science fiction is, in fact, much more closely related to mimetic realism than it is to fantasy (despite the common alignment of science fiction and fantasy, as in the official title of this course). Indeed, mimetic realism and science fiction both appear at the same time in the evolution of literature; the first science fiction novel (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and the first examples of the realist novel occur around the turn of the nineteenth century. One of the goals of this course will be to explore why this is the case. Fantasy, on the other hand, could be called the oldest of all literary genres, going all the way back to ancient Greece and even earlier into unrecorded history through oral culture and common folklore. One more genre we did not get to is horror, a slippery generic form that can appear equally well as fantasy (unexplained monsters) or as science fiction (believably explained invading aliens or genetic mutants, for example).

At one point, I mentioned Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" as yet one more example of science fiction in which Anderson imagines the electronic networks of phone-message machines and military machinery becoming conscious and speaking to each other, much as in the Terminator movies or Neuromancer. You might want to check out the lyrics on this website.

Next Class Synopsis