Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Science Fiction I and II summer 2015

One thing I love about teaching summer school is that it is the only time I get a chance to teach electives.  Over the past ten years, I've been fortunate enough to teach at least one section of Science Fiction, which is one of my all-time favorite classes, which was offered for an elective way back in 2001 with a curriculum I mostly designed (though the first year it was actually taught I was at BSU for grad school and a colleague of mine had to actually teach it!).

Over the years the curriculum was evolved.  I still rely heavily on our excellent textbook, Decades of Science Fiction, but it has also adapted to involve some of the most seminal sci fi films: The Matrix, Alien, The Thing, and Inception.

This year I will be teaching Science Fiction II - with total freedom to construct a new curriculum. I can't wait.

Here is what we go over (or try to) in Sci Fi I.

I break it down into themes -

"What is Out There?" - this examines how sci fi writers ponder the possibility of aliens.  What is great about Sci Fi is that authors tends to use their subjects (such as aliens) as metaphors.  For this we look at the two most prominent ways sci fi authors (or directors) view aliens and their inevitable invasion of earth: the all out assault and the "silent" invasion.

The all out assault is evident in such works as the God-awful Battlefield Earth and the excellent War of the World by HG Wells and in such films as Independence Day or Alien.  This is a metaphor for our own "manifest destiny," where man has found a new piece of real estate with its own inhabitants (such as the New World with the natives) and use their superior technology to wipe them out and take the land for their own.

The "silent" invasion is evident in such works as the classic novella Who Goes There? and in such films as The Thing (which was loosely based on Who Goes There?) or the classic TV series V.  In this case the aliens arrive but they mimic humans.  That is, they look just like us.  How can you tell how is human and who isn't?  This is a metaphor for disease (who has ebola or aids for example?) or extreme political beliefs (how can you tell a member of ISIS or a communist?).

There is actually a third sub-genre here that has become quite possible as of late thanks to Erich von Danikan: Ancient Aliens.  This is evident in the underrated film, Stargate or even The Fifth Element.

Then we examine "The Nature of Reality."

Sci Fi writers (and directors) have always been fascinated by reality.  My favorite writer when it comes to this is Philip K. Dick and his amazing stories "The Electric Ant" and "We Can Remember it for you Wholesale," (which the film Total Recall is based on).  Another classic story in this genre is "Desertion" by Clifford D. Simak.  And there is the greatest novella of all time, Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan.

Some amazing films that focus on this genre are the incredible Inception as well as the original Matrix.

Next we look at "Time Travel."

This is explored in various sci fi stories and novels, such as HG Wells' classic The Time Machine.  There are many excellent stories for this genre: "All You Zombies" Robert A. Heinlein, "Valhalla" by Gregory Benford, "A Little Something for Us Tempanuats" by Philip K. Dick, and the classic "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury.

The films we examine here are the campy but classic Back to the Future, Terminator, and The Butterfly Effect.

Finally, we examine "The Dangers of Technology" / "The Mad Scientist."

This might be the most popular of all themes explored by authors and directions.  In fiction there is the horrifying "I Have No Mouth Yet I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison, "Robbie" by Isaac Asimov, "The Disintegration Machine" by Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Veldt"  and "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "The Flying Machine" by Ray Bradbury.  In the past we have read HP Lovecraft's novella Herbert West: Re-animator.

Movies are numerous too Terminator 2, I, Robot, Screamers, 2001: A Spacy Odyssey . . . to name just a few.

In Sci Fi II, we take a darker tour as we explore the connection between horror/gothic literature and science fiction.

I don't know that we'll have the time to cover all of these, but in a quarter long class, here is what I'd love to explore in Sci Fi II.

Vampires - believe it or not, there is a classic Sci Fi novel that is - arguably- the greatest vampire novel of all time (except for Dracula, of course): I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.  The book is wayyyyy cooler than the Will Smith film.

There is also a great documentary on Vampires via the History Channel that shows how they are a metaphor for disease and death as well.

I think - again - if I had the time, reading I Am Legend (and there is an excellent graphic novel version of it too) would be a must.  Although two excellent short stories come to mind that would be great reading too "A Trick of the Dark" and "Population 666."

Werewolves - this monster was actually born out of another classic sci fi novel: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The werewolf is a great metaphor for the theme of civilization vs. chaos.  Think of Lord of the Flies here.  Without rules and order, will our beastly natures take over? Can they be controlled?

Since werewolves are my personal favs, we'd explore the greatest werewolf novella of all time - The Skin Trade by George RR Martin.

The History Channel has a great werewolf documentary based on the Beast of Gevaudan in France that would be great to watch and examine.

As far as films go, we could watch the classic The Wolf-man, but that would be a little slow for our modern viewers.

My personal favorite is An American Werewolf in London, which is a classic.  But I think the film choice here would be the best modern werewolf film I have ever seen: Dog Soldiers.

Then I'd wind the class down with an examination of maybe the most popular monster (as of late anyway) - zombies.  Again, as with aliens, this is a metaphor for our fears about disease or mob mentality.

Again, there is a great History Channel documentary that examines this - Be warned, though, this one is graphic.

I could use Lovecraft's Re-animator here as it is equal parts Mad Scientist and Zombie fest too.

I have shown 28 Days later here.  What is interesting about that film is that it was the first to use "fast" zombies.  Prior to 28 Days later, zombies were lumbering cadavers that you could easily run from (Think Romaro's classic Night of the Living Dead).  This was a metaphor for mindless behavior and disease.

But with a far more connected world than when Night of the Living Dead was created, zombies now are fast and ravenous.  Think of the panic that resulted with the outbreaks of ebola or the spread of AIDS.  World War Z takes this to another level.

If I didn't use Re-Animator for a text, I'd definitely use David J. Schow's classic zombie tale "Wake Up Call."  What is amazing about this tale is how Schow uses it to explore American consumerism run amuk.  The tale focuses on a man who is depressed because of his massive debt.  He decides to shoot himself in the head to escape from all of his problems.

Then he wakes up (get the title now?) in "Phase 2."  It seems to many people are resulting to suicide to stiff the banks and investors of billions.  The investors contacted scientists and voodoo doctors (hey, remember it's sci fi after all) to develop a way to bring them back to life.  Why? So they can be put to work to work of their massive debts.

Our main character is sent to a metal factory.  Zombies, after all, need not worry about safety equipment and health benefits or even time off.

Of course, they aren't supposed to feel anything or remember anything from their past lives either, but that is not true.

Our main character finally falls into the liquid metal in an attempt to escape his earlier suicide attempt.

Then he wakes up in "Phase 3."  And that's where the story ends.  Brilliant!!!

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