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Monday, July 25, 2011

Teaching Science Fiction: The Definition

Today was one of the more surprising days in the American Literature course I am teaching this summer.  What surprised me wasn't their responses to the assigned reading (the first 68 pages of Haldeman's The Forever War, one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time); rather, I was surprised at how they defined science fiction when I asked them to do so (prior to my actual lecture on the topic of definitions).  None of them approached the genre via its tropes.  That is that no student said science fiction was defined by the prevalence of robots, spaceships, common themes (space wars, AI gone wrong, etc.), or other common features often associated with the genre even when the product in question is internally everything but science fiction.  While they didn't quite get the definition "right" (insofar as there is a "right" definition), a number of students suggested very compelling and rather sophisticated ways to explain how science fiction functions as a genre.

The two primary examples were extrapolation upon technology and speculation upon real world "things."  I am, of course, paraphrasing their arguments, but it's quite unusual, in my experience, to speak with anyone who isn't rooted in SF culture and receive an explanation of the genre that tries to get at its functions rather than its tropes.  To think of SF as an extrapolative genre doesn't necessarily get at the heart of what makes SF such a potent literary form, but it comes pretty close (which is that the supposed "extrapolative" elements are more accurately envisioned as adaptations of the present transplanted into advanced, if not futuristic, settings in which some cognitive shift has taken place -- think of this as a merger between Suvin's cognitive estrangement and the common (and wrong or simplistic) critical association of SF with "future history").

I've been wondering all day why my students didn't fall for the trap I had set up for them (a humorous trap, not a cruel one).  I expected that they would provide the cliche answer, but instead they gave me something that seemed to wave hands at all the SF icons that permeate their entertainment lives.  What would compel them to think differently?  Was it the fact that I mentioned, however crudely, Suvin's cognitive estrangement the week before?  Was it the fact that we didn't talk about SF as a genre until after we had read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and two science fiction short stories ("The Comet" by W.E.B. Du Bois and "Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler)?  Whatever the reason, I'm quite pleased with their responses.

I suspect that most of you don't teach literature courses, let alone courses with science fiction in them.  If I'm wrong, perhaps you could de-lurk and throw in your thoughts on the subject.  I know high school students are being exposed to more and more science fiction in schools and in the real world, but I can't imagine high schools are going through the definitions and theories of SF with such students.  Granted, talking about HS is kind of pointless when my students are overwhelmingly juniors and seniors at a university.

And with that, I'll shut up.

(I may make this part of a series of posts about my experiences with teaching SF.  We'll see.)

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