Emily Foster

Undergraduate Discipline

Literature

Undergraduate Courses 2021-2022

Literature

Science Fiction and the Victorian Novel

Open, Seminar—Spring

We tend to assume that science fiction is a fairly new phenomenon—that the spaceships and sandworms of our favorite, fantastical brand of genre fiction could only be inspired by our most recent technological advances. In this class, we’ll explore the prehistory of science fiction by examining Victorian texts and 21st-century science fiction texts side-by-side. We’ll investigate science fiction’s origins in 19th-century experimental realism and study the ways in which the speculative fiction of the early 21st century stems from the fictions of the Victorian period. This class will be structured by theme; and within each theme, we’ll read a pair of novels: one Victorian, and one contemporary science fiction. We’ll begin with Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (a female precursor to Dracula) alongside China Miéville’s Embassytown in order to explore themes of racism and xenophobia. We’ll compare the terror caused by Le Fanu’s vampires to the uncanniness of Mieville’s aliens, who hear with their wings and speak through two mouths. The course will go on to explore the study of the Victorian Gothic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the 21st-century Gothic in Pulitzer Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. We’ll then read Gaskell’s North and South to examine the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s in juxtaposition with our own Technological Revolution: a revolution-gone-haywire, as depicted in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Last, we’ll study alternate history narratives: Before Philip K. Dick asked—“What would have happened if Germany and Japan won the Second World War?”—19th- century authors like Edmund Lawrence and Joseph Méry asked similar questions about the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars. We’ll be reading excerpts from Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, as well as the graphic novel Watchmen, to compare these more modern forms of speculative fiction with 19th-century “what if” narratives. We'll also be reminded that science fiction is a 19th-century invention by discussing the science-fiction milestones—such as  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau—that continue today to exert their cultural and literary influence.

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