Course Planning: “Historicizing Speculative Fiction”

I have had an abiding love of speculative fiction for about as long as I can remember. I have a memory of my father reading the stories of Tolkien and Lewis to me and my younger brothers, and, at some point, I started reading ahead on my own to complete my first of many read-throughs of The Lord of the Rings. I started reading The Wheel of Time in elementary school and was deeply disturbed by descriptions of the blight. I picked up A Song of Ice and Fire sometime in middle school, mostly because I was drawn to the cover art. I also read a lot of bad speculative fiction in those days and am retroactively pleased with my youthful dissatisfaction with certain books.

I say all of this by way of prologue.

First year students at Brandeis (my undergraduate institution) took a “University Seminar in Humanistic Inquiries” course. These courses are designed as seminars on a coherent topic that begins establishing transferable skills and lays a foundation for further progression in college. If I’m being honest, I don’t recall my section of this course being particularly successful (I got into my third choice, after my top choice taught by my future adviser filled up before I enrolled), but I like the idea of the course.

Truman State offers “Self and Society” seminars that work toward the same end while also promoting multi- and inter-disciplinary thinking. One of the myriad of things that has been consuming my time this semester is that I was offered an opportunity to design and offer a course. The remit of these courses have to meet a certain level of disciplinary background, they are also a space that can allow for professors to create courses based on their areas of interest, outside the usual disciplinary constraints. The course I pitched, and that I am now designing to be taught next semester is “Historicizing Speculative Fiction.”

I read speculative fiction as a historian, which makes sense given my professional training and areas of expertise. One of my pet peeves about speculative fiction is when the world itself is undeveloped, while, by contrast, I will often overlook narrative or character issues if I have fallen in love with a creative world. When I proposed the course, I explained that while these genres of literature have their roots in myths and legends, these invented worlds are reflections of real world issues. Thus, the course description:

In this section, we will use speculative fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy stories—to approach the issues of Self and Society. Once framed as niche interests, these stories make up some of the biggest pieces of intellectual property in the world today. Such stories might seem like simple entertainments featuring wizards and elves and dragons, but these worlds and the ideas we bring with us to talk about them reflect very present concerns about society and our place in them. So step through the wardrobe with me and let’s see how we can use these stories to better understand ourselves.

My idea for the course is to build a series of thematic units each built around one novel, or a primary and a back-up that could be substituted in future iterations. These novels are supplemented with short stories, essays about popular culture, and selections from other authors. These units are interchangeable by design, such that each time the course is offered I can swap units in and out. For the first iteration, I have chosen four units: World-building and historicism (P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn), Power, Language and Authority (Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan), The Environment (Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower), Self, Society, and the Worlds we Create (Susanna Clarke, Piranesi). You can see the core reading list at the end of this post.

The core reading list is intentionally diverse, with the intent being to break students away from the expected canon for a course like this and to introduce them to the range of creative stories that exist. I won’t say that it was easy to craft this reading list. My personal tastes in fantasy stories run to very long books and extended series, and I can’t reasonably set the four books of The Dandelion Dynasty and expect the students to actually read them all, even though it might be the most perfect series for this course. However, I have also been greatly enjoying the excuse to read short stories in preparation for the course—more than once this semester you might have found me weeping in my office because of something I had just read. But I also have more to do still, since I would like at least one short story to fill out the unit on the environment.

The other work-in-progress for this course is the list of assignments. Some of these are going to be straightforward (e.g. book reviews and a course journal), but I am also concocting some creative assignments designed to get students to make students engage with the course themes in different ways. For instance, one assignment is going to be an “Inventing Utopia” group project where the students will work in groups to design their own utopias and present them as a poster presentation.

One thing I want to be particularly careful about with this course is striking a balance between sharing with the students all of these things that I think are particularly great without overloading the students who are in their first or second semester of college. I am beyond excited to be teaching this course, but if my enthusiasm leads to a course that is packed to the gills with amazing books and stories, then it won’t allow any space for the analysis and reflection where the actual learning happens.

Core Reading List

Introduction

  • Excerpts from Arthur stories and Beowulf
  • Nibedita Sen, “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”

Unit 1: World-building and historicism

  • P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn
  • Selections of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin
  • Adam Serwer, “Fear of a Black Hobbit” (the Atlantic)
  • Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Unit 2: Power, Language, and Authority

  • Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
  • Ken Liu, “Paper Menagerie”
  • Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds”

Unit 3: The Environment

  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Appendices to Dune

Unit 4: Self, Society, and the Worlds We Create

  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
  • Rebecca Roanhorse, “My Authentic Indian Experiencetm
  • N.K. Jemisin, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”

Alternate Units

  • Orientalism: Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
  • Colonialism: undecided
  • Epic Journeys: Neil Gaimon, Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Gender: Ursula le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness