Watchers of the Skies: Science Fiction from the Middle Ages to the Postmodern


Science fiction. Literature. We often think of these two categories as fundamentally separate, even if the occasional author may seem to cross over from one to the other. But the main theme of this course will be that the best of “genre” science fiction takes up the same questions that great literature has always taken up. What does it mean to be human? What is our place in the universe? What do life and death mean—biologically, spiritually, or otherwise? In fact, science fiction seems much better equipped to examine some of the newer problems that human beings have had to face; for example: What does it mean and what comes next now that we have the power to change our environment irreversibly and on a massive scale? Or now that we have the power to tamper with and even eradicate our own species? Our method in this course will be to read some of the classic works of genre science fiction alongside more canonical or “mainstream” literary texts in search of possible points of contact—literary texts including but not limited to medieval romance, Romantic lyric poetry, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the 20th-century short story, and the postmodern novel. Although we will not be reading widely in SF’s sister genres in speculative fiction—fantasy, horror, etc.—we will spend quite a bit of time discussing the relationship(s) between all of these genres and “the literary” as manifested, for instance, in the phenomenon of magic realism, as well as in contemporary “slipstream” movements that blur the boundaries dividing the genres from the mainstream. Authors to be considered include H. G. Wells, Borges, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jonathan Lethem, China Miéville, Junot Díaz, and Sarah Lawrence’s own alumna Alice Sheldon or “James Tiptree, Jr.,” among others. As the course will emphasize the major role that science fiction has played in the proliferating media of the last century, we will also take some time to consider SF film (including Ridley Scott's Blade Runner), television (such as The Twilight Zone), and even rock opera. After all, the scope of SF aims to be as wide as the universe.