Adventures in Teaching: Space Opera Course Recommendations?

In the upcoming fall semester, I will be teaching an upper division modern science fiction course on American space opera.  That's right.  A whole entire course just on American space opera.  Though I have a few ideas for texts to teach, I realize that space opera is a massive field and that I would be remiss not to poke the infinite knowledge of other science fiction fans for works I might otherwise have missed or which might serve my needs better than the things in my head.

With that in mind, I'm looking for space opera recommendations!  As of right now, I'm strongly considering teaching E.E. "Doc" Smith, Joe Haldeman, Tobias Buckell, Alfred Bester, Samuel R. Delany, Lois McMaster Bujold, and C.J. Cherryh.  I have a lot of titles, but I'm not sure what I will choose to focus on just yet.  Given the scope of the course, I may be limited in how much I can actually explore.

So what am I looking for?

1) Short stories, novellas, and novels (no longer than 400 pages) which could reasonably be described as space opera OR playing in the space opera sandbox.  The stories should in some way engage with the course description:
Coined by Wilson Tucker in 1941 as a pejorative, the science fiction subgenre of “space opera” has become a staple of science fiction narrative, most popularly envisioned in film by the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. But far from mere visual spectacle or adventure, space opera’s history suggests a complicated relationship between the subgenre and the contemporary culture in which it is written. From its roots in the often paranoid and sometimes blatantly racist narratives (e.g., “Yellow Peril” stories) of what I.F. Clarke calls “future war fiction,” to its development as a legitimate subgenre in the pulps and the Golden Age via writers such as E.E. “Doc” Smith and Alfred Bester, space opera has always been in conversation with its time. It reinforces contemporary values or, as science fiction is apt to do, it critiques or deconstructs those values. 
This course will explore the development of American space opera from its literary origins in late 19th-century “future war fiction” and the “Edisonades” to its codification as a subgenre in the pulps via writers such as Edmond Hamilton and E.E. “Doc” Smith. From there, the course will trace the legitimization of space opera as a subgenre in the Golden Age and the political blowbacks to its imperialistic and/or “conservative” themes or narrative tropes in the New Wave (Samuel R. Delany, et. al.) and New Space Opera periods (Tobias Buckell, C.J. Cherryh, et al.). 
Readings will consist of serialized fiction, novels, and critical readings on science fiction, history, or relevant literary or cultural theory. Students will be expected to keep up with the readings and to regularly participate in class discussion. Written course requirements will include two short essays, a group discussion panel, weekly discussion questions, and one final essay.
2) Specific requests:
  • Stories which are considered precursors to traditional space opera
  • Stories which helped define the subgenre
  • Stories which pushed against the traditional form (particularly works form the New Wave)
  • Significant works of New Space Opera
3) Short Story Oddities:  though this course privileges American space opera, I may be able to fit relevant works of other non-US movements into the course (British Boom, etc.).

4) Non-fiction:  essays (academic or otherwise) which explore space opera as a genre or which explore specific works of space opera (w/ their space opera-ness as central).

There you go.  Recommend away!

Ideological Rigidity (With a Side of Genre)(Adventures in Teaching)

Several semesters ago, I experienced what I'm going to call the indoctrination of young Americans.  No, I am not necessarily referring to a specific political indoctrination, though one of the examples I will describe below falls along a left/right political spectrum.  Rather, I am talking about the odd absence of critical thinking skills among college-age (or transitioning high school/college) students, whether derived from a neutered public education system or something else entirely.  What I've discovered through my teaching in Florida is a hard shift to ideological rigidity, by which students verbally or mentally refuse to consider the multiple sides of issues about which they have already developed an opinion.

I don't want to suggest that this is an absolute ideological rigidity, though; there are always exceptions.  However, when this rigid view of the issues rears its ugly head, it proves devastating to the ability to develop a relatively sound argument.  In most cases, those with the most rigid ideological stances were less able to imagine counterarguments, even when the most obvious ones were available by a quick Google search, more likely to assert claims without evidence or reasoning, and less willing to engage with stances contrary to their own.  Granted, what I'm saying is largely anecdotal, so take what I present here for what it is.

To demonstrate what I mean, I'd like to provide the following examples:
Example #1:  Eating Dog Debate
I have a tendency to intentionally stick students in groups in which they have to argue positions with which I know they personally disagree.  Part of the reason I do this is to force them to use their brains to consider the other side of the aisle, as such discussions are necessary, I think, to understand the complexities of any given position.  It is also about respect.  You cannot possibly have a civil debate if you are incapable of showing respect to the other side (where respect is reasonable, of course).  In all fairness, my desire to have civil debates in class is born from my increasing disinterest in the quality of ordinary conversation about just about anything.  Even when discussions about relatively pointless subjects spring up, such as which science fiction TV show is "the best," the discourse surrounding that topic has a tendency to veer towards rhetorical violence.  My class debates, unfortunately, have not helped instill confidence in me that civil discourse is possible as a norm.  Anywho.

In this particular scenario, I put students into two groups:  one would argue that eating dog was wrong, while the other would argue the opposite (they were reading this essay).  One of my students emphatically said he would not take part in the debate because he thought eating dog was wrong.  When I asked him why, he couldn't say.  That's just what he thought.  I pressed him further, and he still could not say.  He just believed that eating dog was wrong.  Only after I reminded him that I didn't expect him to believe that eating dog is right by the end of the debate did this student reluctantly join in the discussion with his group.

The result of the debate was about what I expected after discussing the issue with that student.  The group with the most people set against eating dog found it nearly impossible to imagine the counterargument about why eating dog might be a good idea (note:  I don't actually agree with this, but I can understand the arguments people make in favor of eating dog).  They struggled with basic facts such as nutritional value, cultural differences, food taboos, and so on.  The opposite group also struggled, but they were more ready to argue from cultural value than their pro-dog-eating counterparts.  After all, when you get right down to it, dogs serve all manner of purposes in our society, even beyond the basic function as a companion species.  But they are also food sources in many parts of the world; as Foer notes in his essay (see above), we willingly exterminate millions of dogs every year, which means their potential nutritional value is wasted.  But the pro-eating-dog group couldn't think about these issues, though the anti-eating-dog group had its own problems (responding to arguments with emotion-driven claims).  But because the who was tasked with exploring the value of dog as a potential food product couldn't argue the position with which they were tasked, they lost the debate by a mile.
Example #2:  Drilling for Oil
In another case, I put the same class of students into two groups:  one arguing that we should drill for oil in state parks, and one arguing the exact opposite.  This time, I intentionally stuck people into groups where they would be arguing from their own position on the issue, though there were a couple of students who didn't care either way.

The result?  Pretty much the same thing.  When challenged by their opponents on the matter of the environment, the pro-drilling group seemed unwilling to recognize the valid points lodged against them.  Instead, they repeated the same claim over and over or dodge the question entirely.  They had no response to the very real problem posed by drilling in general -- namely, that it does not have a track record of safety, and so assurances that damage to public parks would be kept to a minimum fell on deaf ears.  The anti-drilling group, however, didn't have a response to the legitimate concern regarding the economy.  They were certain that the nation would simply have to find other means of producing energy and that this could be achieved without any serious impact on the economy.  When it was pointed out to this group that we had already reached a point at which a slow shift toward renewable fuels would be impossible, they resorted to the dodging/repetitive tactics.

The latter group won the debate, largely because they backed up their claims with evidence more often than their opponents.  However, both groups demonstrated a degree of intransigence that made debating the actual issues somewhat impossible.  Neither group was willing concede that the other might have a point or that we might actually have to address these issues to avoid simplistic solutions to real-world problems.  And that stubbornness, I think, produces an environment where honest discussion is not possible.  Just as in the first example, when it came time to think from the perspective the other side, both groups ran into a wall.

...which brings me to my last example:
Example #3:  The Israel-Palestine Allegory (w/ Aliens)
I've talked about my science fiction allegory lesson plan before.  The great thing about this particular debate-style lesson is its ability to turn otherwise peaceful individuals into imperialists when the mix of students is "just right."  I think this has more to do with the fact that I never tell them this is an Israel-Palestine allegory until after the debate has ended, thus giving them a little more freedom to roleplay.

I won't talk too much about the details of this particular lesson; however, I will say that when the student composition is less optimal (made up of more politically withdrawn or sometimes socially conservative individuals, in the broadest sense), the debate doesn't go well.  Part of the problem with the setup is it requires students to consider the political and social implications of what they're saying.  In the less optimal groups, the group playing faux-Palestine frequently falls prey to a game of concessions, while the faux-Israel group largely remains fixed in its imperialist position.  Nobody seems capable of or willing to consider that the opposing arguments are frequently inadequate to the task of assuring the faux-UN that violence will be curtailed by planethood.  This happened when I first ran the debate, too, though it was the faux-Israelis who fell aparter after having been walked into a rhetorical trap by the faux-Palestinians -- in desperation, the faux-Israelis doubled down on the imperialist rhetoric ("we own you").

While I love running this little experiment, I do find it quite troubling how easy it is for students to fall into prescribed roles when the parameters allow for it.  It doesn't occur to some of them that what they're actually saying is quite disturbing, or that they are failing to address the very real problems set before them in an attempt to "hold the line."  This goes to the problem with debates in general:  that we assume debates are about "winning" in some assured, absolute sense, and not about honest discussion of the issues and the subsequent potential for knowledge transmission.  The only real win in a valid debate is the recognition that both sides have something worthwhile to contribute, and the real solution lies somewhere between A and B (not always, obviously).  So instead of negotiating as a means for getting to a peaceful solution, the faux-Israelis and faux-Palestinians either play a win/lose game OR fall into the trap of their prescribed roles.

Unfortunately, this is so common in my experience that trying to address it within the context of a composition class is difficult.  There is only so much time to point out that you have to address counterpoints in a proper argument, and you must do so respectfully and reasonably.  The desire seems to be to hone in on one's particular position, protect it like dogma, and reject anything that might threaten the purity of the position, whatever it may be.  And that's not good for the development of debating skills, since it precludes the possibility of honest discussion between people who don't agree.  Without that discussion, individuals are easily trapped within their own rhetoric (a charge lobbed against people of either political stripe who only watch one right/left news network -- the bubble, as it were).  I'm not suggesting that one must concede points to the other side by default; there is such a thing as an invalid counterargument, after all.  Rather, these teaching experiences have made me think that perhaps what will help us most is a good dose of basic argumentation and logic from the formative writing years on.  If you make ideological hard stances an impossibility in the daily function of our language, then you neuter the desperation to maintain the line.  You create a better dialogue.

There are a lot of other examples I could talk about, but I've gone on long enough here.  Now it's your turn.  You may not teach people, but you certainly interact.  How do you see ideological rigidity operating in your daily life?

American Literature Syllabus: Suggestions Open!

For those that don't know, the syllabus I had designed for an American Lit. survey course got rejected.  The reasoning behind that rejection makes sense, and I've been told point blank that if I want to teach that same course in the Spring (under a World Literature heading), it'll happen.  But that means I've got to put together an entirely new syllabus.

As of this moment, I am thinking about framing this survey course with the loose theme of "American identity."  I want to have as wide an exploration of this question as possible, both to show the breadth of such concerns within American lit and to avoid having too narrow of a focus (i.e., one segment of identity).  There are a number of novels, short stories, and plays I am considering for the syllabus, including some that I've taught before (such as Black No More by George Schuyler).  But I'd like to expand my focus.

This is where you come in.  Which novels, short stories, or plays would you suggest for a syllabus loosely concerned with "American identity"?  So long as the work is written by someone from the U.S. after 1900, it qualifies.  Genres are not relevant, though I always include a little science fiction (sometimes fantasy) in my syllabi (I'm currently thinking about teaching One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, for example).

So have at it!

(Note:  I am interested in canonical work as well as work by various ethnic or minority groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, LGBT folks, refugees (and related categories), women, and so on and so forth.  I deliberately write my syllabi to include a range of different groups to show my students that the "canon" is not really a representation of American literature as a whole and that these other literary "groups" are important.  Understand that I can't fit everything in.  I feel bad about that every time I teach a survey course.  I want to cover every single group imaginable, but I can't.  16 weeks just isn't enough time :( ).

Teaching Rambles: A Very Non-Traditional “American” Lit Syllabus (Nuevo Mundo!)

This fall, I am teaching a survey course in American Literature.  While I think my previous syllabi for this course have been non-traditional, this time I am opening up the flood gates.  Instead of teaching what we might call "American Literature," I am deliberately challenging the very idea of a single, identifiable "American" anything.  And if I get this syllabus approved, I will have one of the most intense, awesome fall teaching experiences ever...

Now without further delay, here is the list of texts I intend to teach (some publication dates are missing):
A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes: Stories from Latin America edited by Thomas Cochlie (various -- see shorts section)
The Assault by Reinaldo Arenas (1990/1992 -- Expatriate from Cuba)
Flight by Sherman Alexie (2007 -- Native American) 
Distant Star by Robert Bolaño (1996/2004 -- Chile)
Crick Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge (1970 -- Trinidad)
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (1972 -- Canada) 
The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (1946 -- Guatemala)

"Paint Your Face on a Drowning in the River" by Craig Strete (1984 -- Native American)
The Imposter by Rodolfo Usigli (1938 -- Mexico)

Short Stories
"The Man to Send Rainclouds" by Leslie Marmon Silko (1967 -- Native American)
"The Reptile Garden" by Louise Erdrich (2008 -- Native American)
"A Long Story" by Beth Brant (1985 -- Native American)
"A Lamp at Noon" by Sinclair Ross (1938 -- Canada)
"The Loons" by Margaret Laurence (1963 -- Canada)
"The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges (1940 -- Argentina)
"Waiting for Polidoro" by Armonia Somers (? -- Uruguay)
"The Last Voyage of the Ghost by Gabriel García Márquez (? -- Columbia)
"The Age of Vengeance" by Isabel Allende (? -- Chile)
"The Doll Queen" by Carlos Fuentes (? -- Mexico)
"The Plagues" by Moacyr Scliar (? -- Brazil)
"Story-Bound" by Ana Lydia Vega (? -- Puerto Rico)
"The Gift" by Rosario Ferre (? -- Puerto Rico)
"Journey Back to the Source" by Alejo Carpentier (? -- Cuba)

"The Repeating Island" by Antonio Benitez-Rojo (Caribbean)
"In Quest of an American Identity" by Earl E. Fitz (American Question)
"Regionalism as a Shaping Force" by Earl E. Fitz (American Question)
"The Dialectics of Our America" by Jose David Saldivar (American Question)


Update:  I thought I'd toss out some statistics so you'd see how my syllabus holds up in terms of its gender split, etc.

Male authors:  13 (fiction); 4 (non-fiction)
Female authors: 9 (fiction)

In all honestly, I had a hell of a time trying to find female authors in Central and South America who fit all my criteria.  I intentionally tried to avoid pre-1900 and post-2000 works, though there are a handful here.  That unfortunately meant that a lot of the important Central and South American female writers (at least from my research) got bumped out.  From there, it all went downhill, as almost every female author from that region either didn't have anything in translation, their works didn't fit the political/cultural/social concerns for my course, or the translations I could find were for novels that were too darn long.  I think the longest novel I have on my list is 287 pages.  One author I had to drop from the novel list was Isabel Allende, whose The House of the Spirits is over 400 pages long.  I selected a short story by her instead.

I say all of this as a semi-plea to any of you who are familiar with the literature of the area.  In particular, I would like to include a few women from Central America (you can see I have none whatsoever).  I just can't seem to find any of them, either because they don't exist, have been ignored, or haven't been translated.  Granted, I could be very wrong.

Book Suggestions for “American” Lit Syllabus (a terrible title…)

If you don't follow me on Twitter, then you are unaware that I am attempting to teach a somewhat unusual American Lit survey in the fall.  Basically, I am not teaching the traditional American canon (i.e., the greats of U.S. literature).  Instead, my course will offer a broader interpretation of "American" to include works from U.S. writers and writers from the Americas at large -- North, Central, South, and the Caribbean.  Essentially, this course will be designed to challenge the traditional canon in almost every way; even the U.S. texts I select will offer a challenge.  While I am familiar with a great deal of work from these regions/areas, there is always the possibility that I've missed something I should seriously consider for inclusion -- hence, this post.

If you have a suggestion for a short story, play, or novel that is from one of these regions, please leave a comment.  I am also open to suggestions for U.S. works written by traditionally marginalized groups (Native Americans, people of color, etc.).

So suggest away!

P.S.:  Translations are more than welcome (and expected, considering the range I've selected).  As long as I can get it in English, it's open game.

Teaching Rambles: If You Could Teach It…: The Space Opera Edition

One of the things I hope to do one day is teach a class on Space Opera.  Thus far, that opportunity has not arisen just yet, but the future is bright (as they say).  For this teaching-related post, though, I'd like to offer a suggested reading list for two different Space Opera courses and then get feedback from the wide world of SF/F.  I should note that I will conflate Military SF with Space Opera, in part because I'm not wholly convinced that they are always distinct categories.  For the sake of this post, I will use a slightly modified definition from Brian Aldiss' (italics mine):
Colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, often but not always optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes...
The problem, of course, is that so much fits into this definition.  To avoid that, I will put emphasis on "very large-scale action" and take that to mean "multi-planetary action."

Since I mostly teach American literature courses right now, I'm going to make two lists -- one for an American literature course and one for a British literature course.  However, I am also wide open to the possibility of a World Lit-style course, so if you have suggestions for space operas written by people outside the traditional science fiction zones, please suggest them in the comments.

Here goes:

American Space Operas
The Skylark of Space by E. E. Doc Smith (1946)
Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (1959)
Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell (2007)
Dust by Elizabeth Bear (2007)
The January Dancer by Michael Flynn (2008)

British Space Operas
Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1972)
Canapus in Argos by Doris Lessing (1979-1983)(not sure which book I'd pick)
Consider Phlebus by Iain M. Banks (1987)
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton (1996)
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (2000)
Light by M. John Harrison (2002)
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross (2003)
Natural History by Justina Robson (2004)

Of course, teaching all of these books in a single semester might be difficult.  Sacrifices suck... I've also not included short stories, which are likely to replace certain novels (such as Bujold, who has written many shorts in the Vorkosigan Saga, thus opening up space for more space operas).

So, what would you change in my lists?  What am I missing?


Note:  I am not pleased by the overwhelming number of men on my lists.  Due to my definition, many of my favorite female authors simply didn't fit, which exposed a critical gap in my reading.  If you have recommendations for significant space operas written by American and British women (other than the ones I've already named), please let me know so I can start filling those gaps in my reading.

“You Haven’t Read That, Teacher?” and Other “Not a Real Field” Fallacies (Teaching Rambles)

I just had a rather strange short conversation with a fellow about The Iron Heel by Jack London.  That conversation went something like this:

Guy:  Is that Jack London?
Me:  Yup.  The Iron Heel.
Guy:  I've never heard of that one.  I wonder if I have it on my reader.  (checks)  Yup!  I'm currently reading The Sea-Wolf.  It's a post-apocalyptic book.
Me:  I've never heard of that one.  Cool!
Guy:  Why are you reading The Iron Heel.  A fan?
Me:  I'm teaching it.
Guy:  Are you an English major?
Me:  Yup.
Guy:  And you're teaching a book you've not finished?
Me:  Yup.
Guy:  Good luck. (turns away as if annoyed)

I don't know anything about this individual.  Perhaps he's an England major or just an avid reader or a philosophy major or whatever.  But it was clear from his tone that he found it rather distasteful that one might teach a book they haven't read yet (if I didn't plan to read the book at all, then I'd deserve the tone -- keep in mind he had no idea when I planned to teach said book).

Of course, he might think this because many people don't know much about literature courses --
particularly, surveys, in which you have less freedom for selection (thus, we end up teaching a few things we haven't read simply because much of the study in any major literary field -- American, British, etc. -- has moved beyond standard canonical studies).  But we don't select books in a vacuum (I don't, that is).  When I select books, my criteria focuses first on my own personal readings, and second (and most importantly) on the critical literature.  In the case of The Iron Heel, I selected it because it fit into the themes of the course (Dystopia and American Anxiety) and because it appears in great detail in much of the critical literature on dystopian writing.  In other words, I know what this book is about, I know about its themes and issues, and I know much of the major interpretations of the work as they relate to the theme in question.  This isn't a book I'm reading blindly.  It's a book that I've practically already read, minus the fact that the actual pages have never flitted before my eyes.*

And, surprisingly, this is not unusual in academia at large (I know many people who teach introductory courses in their fields who effectively teach from knowledge obtained elsewhere than the books they assign -- the same happens in a lot of introductory college argument classes, since the general information rarely changes, though the structures and pedagogical practices do).  Part of the problem is the assumption that all humanities courses are entirely and utterly subjective, and that we come to literature simply from some ingrained interest or feeling about a work.  This is false.  Literary studies are far more than just "reading books and responding to them."  It is a tradition and a body of research that transcends the limits of the page.  That literature has remained a major field of study for centuries is a testament to its validity as a scholarly field (the same is true of much of the humanities, including philosophy, religion, and so on).

I can't say for certain, but I suspect this false perspective derives from the teaching practices in the K through 12 system (everything prior to Uni for non-U.S. folks).  Much of my evidence is anecdotal, though I think the shocking percentage of students I've taught who don't even know what "literary analysis" means is credible enough (at least a third of all students in the few literature classes I've taught, if not slightly more**).  In other words, if we teach literature not as a discipline of study on par with the sciences (in terms of its academic output, not necessarily in terms of its applicability to the everyday world), we might curb some of the misunderstandings that contribute to the nationwide attempt to devalue and defund literary study (and other humanities fields).

If this narrative sounds familiar, it's because a very similar narrative was used by literary scholars to disregard genre fiction -- one of my major fields of study.  Just as those scholars didn't understand the value of science fiction, so too do many universities and a portion of the public often fail to understand the value literary studies.  Some of that is undoubtedly because the people within my field have failed to convey the message about literature to the general public in a way that attracts interest and understandng (in particular, an answer to the question "Why should we take you seriously?").  There is already a small movement in genre studies to convince scholars to attempt to bring their work to the masses, and no insignificant amount of push back by scholars from the old guard.***  I'm not sure if it will succeed, though McFarland Books is largely considered by many faculty to fulfill that role, more or less.****

Maybe what literary studies needs is a Neil deGrasse Tyson to play Literary Populist for everyone who doesn't become an English major.  What do you think?


*As a general rule, I do not fill my syllabi with works I have no read.  The only works I will include that fall in the "I know everything about it, but I haven't read it" category are those works that I feel are crucial to the theme I am trying to explore.

**This statistic is not meant as an insult to students or to education at large.  There are a lot of reasons why students don't know X, Y, and Z, just as there are a lot of reasons why schools often can't teach those subjects.

***I still recall attending a PCA/ACA conference wherein the keynote declared in his speech that genre studies must reframe itself for everyday folks if it expects to survive.  Some people were quite unhappy with that speech.

****Despite the image as a pop academic press, McFarland has released a great deal of scholarship that otherwise would get ignored in presses associated with universities.  It's sad, but true.  Most of the major work on Battlestar Galactica and other major television and film franchises from the last 20 years can be found in McFarland's catalogue.

Teaching American Dystopia: The Reading List

I'm teaching a course called "Dystopia and American Anxiety" this spring.  The idea came to me while brainstorming with friends on Facebook.  Because dystopia is a genre the frequently plays upon our fears and anxieties, it seemed fitting to put together a course specific to the American side of the skill.  The following is the reading list for the course:

The Iron Heel by Jack London
The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson
Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Short Stories
"A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation" by Oliver Bolokitten
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
"The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi
"I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison
"Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler

Non-Fiction (critical texts, newspaper articles, and excerpts from various books)
"Theses on Dystopia 2001" by Darko Suvin
"Evidence against the views of the abolitionists:  consisting of physical and moral proofs, of the natural inferiority of the Negroes" by Richard H. Colfax
"Introduction:  Dystopia and Histories" from Dark Horizons by Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan
"New Maps of Hell" from Scraps of the the Untainted Sky by Tom Moylan
"The Dystopian Turn" from Scraps of the Untainted Sky by Tom Moylan
"Overpopulation Threatens World" by Ralph Segman
"Overpopulation Called Deadlier Killer Than A-Bomb" by Unknown
"Monsanto's Harvest of Fear" by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
"Farewell Address" by President Dwight D. Eisenhower
"Interview w/ Noam Chomsky" by David Barsamian
"Profits of War:  The Fruits of the Permanent Military-Industrial Complex" by William Hartung
"The Delicate Balance of Terror" by Albert Wohlstetter
"Soviets to Renew Testing A-Weapons; Kennedy Sees Nuclear Holocaust" by Chalmers M. Roberts
"Smart Machines, and Why We Fear Them" by Astro Teller
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Thanks to everyone who helped with suggestions!

Adventures in Teaching: The Dystopia Lit. Syllabus Reading List

My "The Dystopian Tradition and American Anxiety" syllabus is finalized and submitted to the English department for approval.  Good news, no?  In the meantime, I'd like to share the reading list for this course, just so everyone can see what I've assigned for these poor little undergrads to read.  There are still a few gaps, which I will mention at the end.  If you have any suggestions for historically relevant essays and the like to fill those gaps, please let me know in the comments.

Here it is:

The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson
Make Room, Make Room! by Harry Harrison
The Iron Heel by Jack London
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The Female Man by Joanna Russ

Short Stories
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster
"The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi
"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut (with a screening of 2081)
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
"Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler
"I have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison
"The Funeral" by Kate Wilhelm
"A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation" by Oliver Bolokitten (excerpts)

Historical Documents
"Evidence against the views of the abolitionists:  consisting of physical and moral proofs of the natural inferiority of the Negroes" by Richard H. Colfax (1833)
"Overpopulation Threatens World" by Ralph Segman
"Overpopulation Called Deadlier Killer Than A-Bomb" by Unknown
"Monsanto's Harvest of Fear" by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address
"Interview w/ Noam Chomsky" conducted by David Barsamian (excerpts)
"Profits of War:  The Fruits of the Permanent Military-Industrial Complex" by William Hartung

Critical Readings
"Theses on Dystopia 2001" by Darko Suvin
"Introduction:  Dystopia and Histories" by Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan
"New Maps of Hell" by Tom Moylan (excerpts)
"The Dystopian Turn" by Tom Moylan (excerpts)

The Gaps
Historical readings I need:

  • An anti-socialism propaganda piece from pre-1909
  • A reading on nuclear war fears (such as a newspaper article articulating the terror of nuclear war); alternatively, a really good short film about the nuclear scare / red scare would be great (from the era, mind you)
  • A reading on the fear of AI
I'm am unfortunately short on the following
  • Work by people of color
  • Work by women
Note that all fiction works have to be by Americans (broadly defined) and must in some way address a real world social fear (nuclear holocaust, governments gone wrong, feminist utopias/dystopias, and that sort of thing).  Random dystopias won't work for the course.  I've carefully selected all of my readings to reflect some sort of serious anxiety in American culture, from the 1800s anti-abolitionists to contemporary concerns over the environment and corporate control.  But if you've got a suggestion for a short story by a woman or a person of color that would fit the bill, please don't hesitate to suggest it in the comments.

And that does it.  What do you think?

Adventures in Teaching Literature: Dead German Skulls

Several weeks ago, I taught William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying in my Survey in American Literature course. Of all the texts I've taught since the summer before last (when I started teaching literature courses), this one may have been the most difficult.  For those unfamiliar with the book, it is told almost exclusively in a stream of consciousness manner, spanning across more perspectives than you can count on a single hand, each one intensely personal and subjective.  The plot, insofar as it has one, follows the Bundren family as they make their journey to the birthplace of their deceased mother so that they might bury her there.  In other words, As I Lay Dying is a "dark" book that isn't so much a story as a radical de-centering of experience -- multiple minds, multiple experiences, and multiple reactions.

But the book itself is not what I want to talk about today; rather, it serves as the context.  What I
want to talk about is skulls.  At some point at the end of our discussions of Faulkner's novel, my students managed to get us onto the subject of "darkness" (tonal).  Specifically, they were comparing Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts," both of which have been described as dark comedies.  My students didn't quite agree with this, noting that much of the thematic content of As I Lay Dying is difficult to make fun of even when a comic genius is involved (I'm paraphrasing their arguments, of course).  "Miss Lonelyhearts," however, seemed rather amusing in retrospect.  They thought that while much of the story hadn't seemed funny when they were reading it, West's narrative had, in fact, grown on them.  I suspect part of this has to do with exposure to Faulkner, which is such a contrast to West that it's hard to fully argue that "Miss Lonelyhearts" isn't at least half funny.

It was at this point that my one and only Russian student matter-of-factly stated, "When I was a kid, we used to play with the skulls of dead Germans."  I can't recall the exact context in which these words were spoken, unfortunately.  What interests me about this announcement isn't whether it makes sense in my recollection of events, but rather how it was stated:  as if there is nothing strange about playing with dead German skulls.  In subsequent conversations with this student, she provided considerable detail of the catacombs in which she and her friends would play (somewhere in the Eastern edge of what was Soviet Bloc territory -- I cannot recall where at the moment).  Apparently these bones and skulls were left there after the war; nobody bothered to pick them up and bury them (or do whatever you do with the bones of dead Germans).  And so, my Russian student grew up playing with the skulls of dead Germans.

Think about that for a minute.  Imagine what it must have been like growing up in a world in which playing with dead German skulls is just plain normal.  A hard world to imagine, no?

Excuse me while I file this in one of the weirdest teaching experiences I've ever had, right alongside the time one of my students said that whenever they thought of me, they imagined me as the woman being chased by the werewolf in Michael Jackson's "Thriller."  (Among other weird moments, of course.)