Today I am starting a series of posts called Courseware. This came about from a classic thought experiment from film school. “What movies would I use if I was teaching the class?” It’s actually something I would talk about with my buddies somewhat frequently for whatever reason. The thought train that brought me around to applying this to SF books started with the recent Tim Powers book.
See there actually is a Science Fiction as Literature class at the Community College of Rhode Island where my wife works. She took it when she was a student and enjoyed it even though her reading lists skews much more towards horror and supernatural. I know some other people who’ve taken it as well and everyone enjoys it. Unfortunately, it’s permanently in the 10am timeslot, effectively ruining it for anyone with a day job. The class as taught has a lot of short stories and one novel, The Anubis Gates by the aforementioned Tim Powers. I’ve read it. Good book.
So in thinking about how to structure a SF-F class, the first thing I realized is that the subject is way to broad to cram it all into one class. This is why I expect this to be a series. We did the same thing back in film school too and seperated Intro to Film Analysis from Intro to Film History. Let’s split it up here. Today is Intro to Sci Fi and later we’ll hit Intro to Fantasy. Let’s also assume it’s a once a week thing. Back when I was in college, my school was transitioning from a three credit system to a four. For a once a week class, it’s not that different, just an hour longer. Ideally, that gives the class maximum time to talk shop and read excerpts from the books being discussed.
The next ground rule is one book every two weeks for a six book total. When I was working nights, I’d polish off six to eight in two weeks but not everyone has that kind of time. Even now with the day job and the toddler, only doorstop size pagecounts take two weeks or more. This also gives ample time for discussions and such. A lot of the discussions would revolve around the background of the genre, the societal influences on the work and other works surrounding the ones chosen.
Specific to Intro to Sci Fi, the books I’ve chosen are going to skew modern. The reason for this is accessibility. I could go back to the very first sci fi book, Frankenstein but have you actually tried to read it? I have. Gah it’s not easy. The language is very dated and it’s not a very easy read because of it. Think of this as Sci Fi for newbies. We’re not trying to scare them off, we’re trying to rope them in. Things like the Foundation Trilogy and Ringworld are classics, but for a newbie could be like throwing them in the deep end without telling them which way is up.
I also want to showcase sci fi at it’s best. As a genre we’re concerned with the future of all people, not just the all too unfortunate demographic spread the old guard wants to cling on to for some reason. Only two of the six are written by white guys and four of the six have people of color and/or women as the protags. If we want to encourage the genre to be all encompassing going forward, one of the best ways to do it is by talking about the books that showcase it.
Without any further ramblings, the courseware for Intro to Science Fiction.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This is a near future book that takes place in a world saddled by environmental collapse. Too much genetic engineering has killed off biodeversity and engineered plagues are a very real threat. One protag works for Big Agriculture skulking around Bangkok looking for hidden foodstuff. The other is a genetically created human. Oil and petrols are restricted to the government and the super rich. When I first read this book, I felt it was a touch creepy that I could see the world really going down this path. For an introduction to the genre, familiar real world problems and technologies only a step or two away from what exists now can ease new readers into it. There’s a lot of room to open up the discussion to how sci fi can talk about things in a different way than plain old literature can
Arctic Rising by Tobias S Buckell
I debated making this the first book as it is another near future book. Arctic Rising doesn’t have such a bleak outlook on the future. I also thing it has a more international feel to it even though both books so far take place outside of the US. Again, global warming is screwing with the earth. The nations boarding the arctic circle find themselves a lot more powerful all of a sudden with new resources opening up. The last icebergs on earth have formed a new geopolitical entity part of no nation. Anika Duncan is a bad ass airship pilot working for the UN thrown into a big mess. There’s a lot of politicking and action rolling around in this. Discussion could veer towards sci fi and thriller tropes interacting together.
Merchanter’s Luck by CJ Cherryh
I specifically wanted this book to follow Arctic Rising because Buckell has said how it hit home with him growing up in the Caribbean. Sometimes tradition in our genre isn’t a bad thing and can create fascinating stepping stones across different generations of writers. Bam. There’s a lot of discussion from this right there. The book itself stands alone but takes place in a larger universe created by Cherryh. I would definitely brush up on the other books in the world to tie it together. Sprawl is often a key part in sci fi.
On Basilisk Station by David Weber
Want to talk sprawl? Honorverse time. On Basilisk Station is the first of the (currently) thirteen book series tracking naval officer Honor Harrington from her first posting out of the academy. I’m horribly out of date on my Honor books, but the last I read she was an Admiral in two different nations. I first read this when I was maybe twelve and was my first non-Star Trek foray into space opera. Even though this was first published in 1992, there is a Cold War feel to the start of this series. Discussion could start off with the historical analogues of the cold war and the Manticore-Peep war in the making and space opera tropes here as compared to well known space operas on television and film (ie Trek and Babylon 5)
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
I couldn’t run an intro level science fiction anything without including Scalzi. He purposely writes science fiction that is accessible without needing a huge background in the genre. Old Man’s War may be more well known and what propelled him onto the scene, but Fuzzy Nation has the ethics of human-alien interaction. The OMW series has a lot of alien interaction but is mainly concerned with curbstomping them until book three. Which makes sense in the context of that series. Fuzzy is wholly concerned with the ethics of alien and sentience. Kind of self explanatory where the discussion would be going with that.
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
This is the most recent of all the books I’ve chosen, not even a year old. The premise here is a reverse of what Scalzi was doing in Fuzzy Nation. In Tao, humanity is the “lesser” species while the Prophus and Genjix, two factions of an ancient species, are the advanced race shepherding us along. It turns out the aliens crashed on earth before evolution even gave us fish. They piggyback on humans and animals, sharing the same bodies. It turns out all of human history has been influences by their war. Roen, an out of shape IT guy, gets a secret agent in his head by accident and is part of the war all of a sudden. I think it’s important to look at the trope of “advanced civilization interacting with a lesser” from the other direction.