English 334: Science Fiction, Fall 2008

Preview of Final Exam:  Monday, December 15, 11:30-2:30, W-1-53


              This is a blue book exam to be taken without books or notes--except for the one page of notes described below that you are allowed to have with you.  The exam will consist of one long essay question--counting for 30% of the exam grade--and seven commentaries that will count for the other 70%.   The exam will cover the nine major novels studied in the course:  Frankenstein, Sirius, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Out of the Silent Planet, The Left Hand of Darkness, Kindred, A Door Into Ocean, The Stars My Destination, and Neuromancer.  I will not question you directly about any of the short stories or the films (although of course you are free to refer to any of them in developing answers to the questions about the novels).

              Here is the essay question.  For this question you may bring one 8 x 10 page of notes to assist you in writing the essay; the notes can be an out line, or quotations, or a set of definitions--whatever works for you as an aid to your memory in writing the essay.  The notes cannot be a draft.

              Imagine that you are trying to persuade a skeptical friend about the value of science fiction as a form of literature.  Of the nine novels studied in the course, which one would you urge that friend to read and why?  In writing up your reasons for recommending this book you should be able to demonstrate some of the things you have learned from this course about concepts, issues, styles, and ways of reading this genre.  The richer the understanding of science fiction you bring to this discussion of one text, the better the essay will be.  Mere generalizations that you could have written without taking this course (“It’s a great read!” or “The monsters are really cool”) will get a dismal reward.

              Some of the questions in the remainder of the exam will be completely new to you, and others will be inspired by quiz questions and class discussions.  Here is an example about a novel we did not read, to show you the sorts of questions you will be asked.

Sample Commentary Question:

              Discuss the following passage, near the end of Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird, in which Paul Bentley refuses to follow the orders given to him by a restaurant robot.  How does this passage illustrate Tevis’ larger concerns with the relationship between civilization and progress?

              I became aware, looking at his stupid, manufactured face, that I was seeing for the first time what the significance of this dumb parody of humanity really was: nothing, nothing at all.  Robots were something invented out of a blind love for the technology that could allow them to be invented.  They had been made and given to the world of men as the weapons that nearly destroyed the world had once been given, as a “necessity.”  And, deeper still, underneath that blank, empty face, identical to all the thousands of faces of its make, I could sense contempt—contempt for the ordinary life of men and women that the human technicians who had fashioned it had felt.





Past Assignments

Unit I:  Learning to Read (Science Fiction)

Readings part 1: Shippey, “Learning to Read Science Fiction” (pdf) part 2 Shippey "Learning to Read Science Fiction"

Due Friday 9/5

Shippey’s analysis of the experience of reading science fiction argues that the dislike for the genre that many express is caused by the cognitive demands science fiction imposes on its readers.  While Shippey doesn’t claim that the presence of novum defines science fiction, he does suggest that it is a distinctive characteristic, and therefore that the resulting “estrangement and cognition” are necessary aspects of the reading experience.

As you read science fiction this semester, please pay attention to your own experiences of estrangement and cognition.  Since we’ll be reading works from times and cultures that are strange to us, we also will need to distinguish between the estrangement caused by historical distance and the estrangement caused by novum.


Readings all due on Monday 9/8:   Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life” (1998) part 1, part 2, part 3; Stanislaw Lem, “The Seventh Voyage” (1971) ; Magdalena Outan Otaño, “Gu Tu Gutarrac" (1968). All three short stories will be sent to you by email and then will be posted on the Resources page.

We begin with three stories, by a (Chinese-) American, a Pole, and an Argentinian, all of which rely on the malleability of time as a plot element.  These stories take advantage of contemporary theories of physics that relate to time, but rise out of a tradition that dates at least to The Time Machine (Wells, 1895).


Unit II: Not Quite Human--Frankenstein Stories

Readings:  Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (due Friday 9/12) QUIZ #1

                Olaf Stapledon, Sirius (due Friday 9/19)

                Pat Murphy, “His Vegetable Wife” (pdf) (Due Friday 9/26) First published in Interzone in 1986. 

(This scan is from The Norton Book of Science Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebury, eds,  NY: Norton, 1993.)  

Film, “Blade Runner” (on Reserve, due Friday 9/26)

Optional reading: Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (This is the novel on which "Blade Runner" was based.) This novel is supposed to be on reserve in the library, but the library didn't have it and its purchase is in process.  Meanwhile, Laurie can loan it to you from her personal library.

Other relevant readings: Gibson's Neuromancer also features non-human intelligence (i.e, artificial intelligence)


(Mad) scientists are components of: Shelley, Stapledon, Lewis, Slonczewski, and Mieville. 

Alien travelogues are components of Shelley, Verne, Lewis, Slonczewski, LeGuin, Bester, and Gibson.



Mary Shelley

Olaf Stapledon

Pat Murphy

It can be argued that the science fiction genre did not exist until it was named and identified, which happened in the early 1930s.  However, it can also be argued that science fictional works were written much earlier, near the beginning of the Industrial and Scientific Revolution, when the nascent significance and implications of science and technology began to be apparent.  Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley at the age of nineteen, is usually identified as the first science fiction novel.  Published in 1818, it has remained continuously in print for almost 200 years.  The concept of artificial life and intelligence was not new even then, but previously it had belonged in the realm of folklore in stories of inanimate objects animated by supernatural intervention  (c.f, golems,


The original (1931) Frankenstein film can be viewed on YouTube (links below to parts 1-7)

Sirius (e-book):

The Wikipedia article on "Blade Runner" is very informative:

Here is a transcript of the original theatrical release of Blade Runner, which includes translations of non-English dialogue and other useful things.

You can read several of Pat Murphy's short stories at her website,

What is a "Frankenstein Story?"  Here are the notes from our class discussions of 9/24 and 10/1.

Unit III: Age of Discovery- SF Travelogues

Reading:  Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (due Friday 10/3) QUIZ #2

Film: “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” 1954 Disney version (due Monday 10/6) (on course reserve) If you have Netflix, you can watch this film online through their website.  (If you don't have Netflix, you can sign up for a free trial.)

Reading: C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (due Friday 10/10)


Fantastic Journeys are components of Verne, Lewis, Bester, LeGuin, Gibson, Slonczewski, and Mieville.

Social commentary (i.e, criticism) are components of Verne, Lewis, Stapledon, LeGuin, Butler, and Slonczewski.

Utopias/dystopias are components of Lewis, Bester, and Slonczewski


Jules Verne

C. S. Lewis

From medieval times to the present, but especially during the age of discovery, people who traveled to distant lands often kept detailed notes and journals, which, in the form of narrative travelogues, were published, to be hungrily read by people who could not themselves take on the expense and dangers of traveling to places that were as alien to them as outer space is to us.  Many works of fiction, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz are based in the travelogue tradition (a tradition that is alive and well on the Internet to this day). 

Jules Verne, a Frenchman fascinated by science and technology, wrote numerous novels about fantastic journeys made possibly by high-tech vehicles: balloons, a giant artillery shell (in which to journey to the moon), and a submarine.  His work, as well as that of his contemporary, H. G. Wells, who contributed to the science fiction tradition the idea of time travel and space aliens, helped to mark out the territory of science fiction.  For C.S. Lewis, writing 60 years after Verne, the debt to these two pioneers seems evident.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is available as a free ebook at Google Books ( Note: Google books can't be printed and must be read online.  Please keep in mind that your comprehension and ability to remember details of the story will probably be compromised by reading it on screen.

It is available as a download at Project Gutenberg,, also for free. 

Here is a map of the journeys of the Nautilus, in pdf.

Here are the UTube links to the David Attenburough series "Blue Planet, Deep Sea" (thanks to Liz), which gives you an idea of how marvelous the deep ocean really is:

Here are the notes of our 10/20 small group discussion of Lewis.



Here are the paper topics, in rtf.


Change notes: Since I was out sick on Friday, we will discuss Out of the Silent Planet on Monday 10/20, and the Kindred quiz will be on Wednesday 10/22.   After that, the original due dates will continue to be in effect.

Unit IV: Equality and Social Justice--Race and Gender in SF

Readings:  Octavia Butler, Kindred (due Wednesday 10/22) QUIZ #3

Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness (due Weds 10/29)

Joan Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean (due Friday 11/7) QUIZ #4

Connections: Verne, Shelley, and Stapledon address similar social issues..

                Heroic quests are present in Le Guin, Butler, Gibson, Bester, and Mieville.

butler photo leguin photo door ocean cover
Octavia Butler Ursula K. LeGuin A "Sharer" (I couldn't find a photo of Joan Slonczewski)

Several previous traditions shaped the ways that science fiction is employed as social criticism or commentary.  In science fiction, direct commentary is uncommon, though sometimes a character acts as a mouthpiece for the author’s views.  More often, the commentary is more indirect, as with utopian fiction and satire.  In these three novels, the authors provide this critique through novum, plot components, and the interactions between the imagined world and the “real” world.  These three books, all written by American women, reflect the influence of the social unrest and change of the 1960s-1970s, but certainly are about far more than race and gender.  They are richly imagined, and are among the most artistic and thoughtful works (from any genre) of their time.

Resources:  Here is a useful critical essay on Kindred, by Angelyn Mitchell. Also, don't overlook our own Bob Crossley's essay, which appears in the end materials in the edition of Kindred that we are reading.

Maps of the world and journey in Left Hand of Darkness:  map 1; map 2


PAPER #2 DUE 12/8 Click here for requirements and topics. The documents is in rich text format, so any word processor ought to be able to open it.  However, if you have problems, send me an emessage.


Unit V. Punk and Noir Science Fiction

Readings:  Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (due Monday 11/24) QUIZ #5

William Gibson, Neuromancer (due Fri 12/5) QUIZ #6

Note: we will not read UnLunDun by China Mieville, but I highly recommend it as vacation reading.

Optional Film: “Dark City” (Reserve)

Gibson’s novel was quickly identified as the founding work of a science fiction subgenre known as cyberpunk.  The gritty, cynical, world-weary sensibility of cyberpunk certainly has its precursors, though Gibson’s invention of cyberspace—an alien, computer-generated world—wouldn’t have been sensible until personal computers and the Internet had been invented.  (Personal computers and the Internet were invented in the late 1970s, but didn’t come into general use until the mid 1980s, after Neuromancer was published.  This novel played a significant role in the popularization of these new technologies, and its date of publication is often included in chronologies related to the development of this technology.)  Just as Gibson’s (1984) novel owes a debt to Bester’s (1957), so also does Mieville’s (2007) novel owe a debt to Gibson’s.  These three novels represent three stages in a tradition—or perhaps in several overlapping traditions—the next stage of which has yet to be written.


molly and case










Molly and Case

by cpi