The teaching of science fiction, like the naming of cats, is a difficult matter. It's a problem that has been exercising teachers and science fiction fans alike for forty years. At its heart, I think, the problem lies in the mismatch between the nature of science fiction and the nature of academic literary criticism. Literary criticism, pared down to the bone, is about explicating the patterns in a textual work of art, and the patterns we are first taught to explicate are patterns of imagery: symbols and metaphors.
Enter science fiction, which by its nature literalizes symbolic language. There's nothing to explicate, because the meaning is all right there on the surface, as shiny as a roll of new Sacajawea dollars. This characteristic is one of the things that have led science fiction to be denigrated by academics; because the gold's lying on the ground where anyone can see it, it must not be worth anything.
New generations of scholars and new methodologies of analysis (Marxism, postcolonialism, cultural history, etc.) have reassessed science fiction, to the point that editors Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright can assert, in their introduction to Teaching Science Fiction, "the question central to teaching science fiction is not whether to teach sf but what kind of sf to teach?" (p. 6). And they have assembled an array of possible approaches in the collection's thirteen essays.
The first two essays in Teaching Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid's "Through Time and Space: A Brief History of Science Fiction" and Gary K. Wolfe's "Theorizing Science Fiction: The Question of Terminology," along with the "Chronology of Significant Works," attempt to provide an overview of science fiction's history and terminology. I say "attempt" because what chronology and essays demonstrate is the bewildering—and exciting!—complexity of science fiction, both as a genre and as a conversation. Overviews, while necessary, can do no more than point at the panorama. The remaining essays suggest possible initial attacks, offering a smorgasbord of tools to the teacher of science fiction. Chris Ferns models linking science fiction to a genre already academically respectable in "Utopia, Anti-Utopia and Science Fiction"; the next four essays demonstrate four quite different approaches to teaching science fiction as a historical genre: "Teaching the Scientific Romance" (Adam Roberts), "Teaching Pulp Science Fiction" (Gary Westfahl), "Good SF: Teaching the Golden Age as Cultural History" (Lisa Yaszek), and "Teaching the New Wave" (Rob Latham). Three essays position science fiction against the newer (and more trendy) methodologies: "Postmodernism, Postmodernity and the Postmodern: Telling Local Stories at the End of Time" (Andrew M. Butler), "Teaching Gender and Science Fiction" (Brian Attebery), and "Teaching Postcolonial Science Fiction" (Uppinder Mehan). There are two essays that talk specifically and in-depth about particular and real courses, "Teaching Latin American Science Fiction and Fantasy in English: A Case Study" (M. Elizabeth Ginway) and "Teaching Science and Science Fiction: A Case Study" (Mark Brake and Neil Hook). Finally, Sawyer and Wright offer another overview, this one of the issues and choices that arise in constructing a science fiction course. Teaching Science Fiction demonstrates emphatically how flexible science fiction is, how many different pedagogical approaches it can be adapted to and how rewarding it can be to teach.
Lisa Yaszek's essay is one of the stand-out pieces in the book, along with Atterby's "Teaching Gender and Science Fiction," Mehan's "Teaching Postcolonial Science Fiction," and Ginway's "Teaching Latin American Science Fiction and Fantasy in English: A Case Study." All four of these essays, rather than getting mired in the old question of whether science fiction "deserves" to be taught as "literature," demonstrate ways in which teaching science fiction is exciting and illuminating, especially in synergy with another discipline (cultural history, gender studies, postcolonialism). And finally, a special mention for Mark Brake and Neil Hook's "Teaching Science and Science Fiction: A Case Study," about which I was highly skeptical when I started reading. By the end of the essay, they'd not only persuaded me that the combination worked, they'd made me want to sign up for the degree.
These essays, the ones which talked about using science fiction and another subject in tandem, each to illuminate the other, were the ones that worked best for me. I found the essays which applied more traditional pedagogy to science fiction less inspiring—not surprisingly, since I have just argued that science fiction does not respond well to traditional methods of teaching literature.
My greatest frustration with Sawyer and Wright's collection was their failure to define science fiction at any point in the volume. I understand fully that defining science fiction is difficult at best and impossible at worst, and that the attempt almost always ends with Damon Knight's epigram, "Science fiction is what I point at when I say science fiction." But in a collection of essays intended to help teachers who are new to science fiction and the teaching thereof, the lack of a definition felt like a gaping hole into which, as a reader, I periodically fell—especially when it became clear that the individual contributors were working from quite different definitions themselves, as for example, in Westfahl's essay on teaching the pulps and Butler's essay on postmodernism.
Overall, this collection is a valiant effort at presenting the vast panorama of science fiction—both in its historical forms and its wide-ranging modern manifestations—in pieces small enough, comprehensible enough, and palatable enough to be used by college and university teachers. That it has only mixed success is hardly surprising; the task is an enormous and slippery one, like trying to put the Kraken to bed.
Sarah Monette completed her Ph.D. in English literature in 2004. Her first four novels were published by Ace Books; her next novel, The Goblin Emperor, will come out from Tor Books under the pseudonym Katherine Addison. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Weird Tales, among other venues, and has been reprinted in several Year's Best anthologies. Her short story collection, The Bone Key, will appear in its second edition this year, in the company of a new collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves, both from Prime Books. Her cats are unimpressed by all of this.
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