This page is designed to introduce you to the Dalhousie English Department Course, “Contemporary Science Fiction,” being taught online in Fall 2020.
This course will study science fiction from the Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s to the most recent developments. Such schools and areas as the New Wave, cyberpunk, and postcolonial SF are among the topics that could be explored, as are developments in film, television, and new media.
I’m a professor in, and currently the Chair of, the Department of English at Dalhousie, where I’ve been teaching for <gulp> fifteen years. Before that I held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Notre Dame, after completing my PhD in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. I’ve long had both a personal and professional interest in science fiction (SF): I’ve published research on various SF authors, films, and television shows, and, along with some other professors and graduate students at Dal, I regularly present at Hal-Con (which is pretty much exactly what 14-year-old Jason imagined being a good life…). Also, I am now … a few years older <cough> and scragglier than that picture. Pronouns: he/him.
The What and How of the Course
BOOKS & STORIES
We’ll be reading the following novels in the course:
- Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17
- William Gibson, Neuromancer
- Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz
- Nnedi Okorafor, Binti
We’ll also be reading quite a few short stories. This part of the course is still being designed, but you can expect stories by such authors as: Isaac Asimov; Octavia Butler; Philip K. Dick; Candace Jane Dorsey; Nalo Hopkinson; N. K. Jemisin; Ursula K. Le Guin; “Lewis Padgett” (Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore); and others.
This is a fully online course that is divided into the following modules:
- Intro and SF History, Definitions, and Discontents
- The Golden Age (or, the End of Utopia as We Knew It)
- New Waves: From Outer Space to Inner Space(s)
- The Digital Age
- Expanding Universes: Afrofuturism and African Futurisms
Each of the main modules (2, 3, 4, and 5) will take between 2-3 weeks to complete.
This course will be taught asynchronously within the confines of the regular term. “What the #$%^ does that mean?!” you might well ask! Well, it means that we won’t be meeting at specific days and times in the term, and for the most part you can view the material and work on your assignments as best fits your own schedule. But, some assignments will still be due on certain days, and our discussions will take place on specific (but still flexible) days.
In addition to the readings, each module will consist of several different forms of learning and discussion activities. This element is also still being designed, but these activities will include:
- lecture videos (generally c. 15-20 minute slide shows with voice over)
- professional videos and academic links on the topic at hand
- discussion board activities, both formal and informal
- writing journal entries (often with specific writing prompts, including close readings of passages)
- reading quizzes (designed to test knowledge and comprehension)
- a final written assignment (an essay or, maybe, a more creative project–stay tuned!)
Detailed Course Description (the Why)
Focussing on literature in English, we will read science fiction from the end of the so-called Golden Age in the 1950s through to its most recent incarnations. This period has seen not only the development of the personal computer and the massive changes it brought to daily life across the globe, but also the development and use of even more sinister technologies, from the obvious dangers of nuclear weapons to the ethical dilemmas of cloning and genetic alteration. Likewise, the effects on the global environment of human technologies are being more fully explored. SF has had a significant place not only in responding to these developments, but also in framing the debates themselves.
We will see, generally, the ways in which SF not only comments on the developments and implications of new technologies, but also how it creates fictional worlds that, in part, work as detailed comparative structures to “actual” societies. Science Fiction also plays with language and literary form in ways that can challenge readers of more traditional realist literature, or what science fiction author and critic Samuel R. Delany calls “mundane fiction.” These linguistic and formal experiments can add to the social and political dimensions of science fiction, as we will see throughout the term.
Going Online Together
I’ve long had online components to my courses, but this term is obviously going to look a lot different for all of us. If you find it odd, trust me, so do I. As our department’s message to our students says, “This is a new world for all of us, but one constant is our belief in the importance of literature, writing, and creativity, and our commitment to exploring those fields with you. We’re looking forward to learning with you.” To me, that means also recognizing that we’re in the midst of a lot of personal and social transformation. My goal in this course is not just to teach you about science fiction, but to make sure we can all learn in an environment that takes account of those transformations.
(Image accompanying this section is of If magazine, January 1953 (it’s a total coincidence so many of these are from 1953…))