I just finished my syllabus for my Technology in Literature elective this coming semester. Students will have to write two short research papers and, just for fun, I thought I’d post the assignment here and see what folks think of it. Heck, if you like, go ahead and write the papers (don’t you dare send it to me to grade, though–I’ve got enough of that already). Anyway, here we go:
The overall focus of this course is the portrayal of science and technology in literature and how those portrayals illuminate the concerns and hopes of humans living in a certain era. It tells us a lot about how they thought, what they believed, and also can tell us some things about how we have changed, if at all, from those times. In class we will be discussing certain individual works from certain time periods and analyzing them closely, but we won’t be able to fully explore everything. Your task, in two short research papers, is to expand upon our class discussions and deepen your understanding of one or several of the works we are studying, bringing in outside sources and other contemporary works to develop a unique and compelling thesis regarding the cultural and, perhaps, even scientific significance of your chosen work.
Accordingly, your precise topic is left to your discretion. I will provide suggestions below, but you needn’t be bound by them—if you can come up with a different topic that interests you more, please explore that. In general, however, you are writing an in-depth literary analysis of one or more works from either the first half (for paper 1) or the second half (for paper 2) of the twentieth century. All papers should incorporate at least 6 sources (including the primary sources), be 6-8 pages in length (approximately 1700-2400 words), feature double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, have numbered pages, stapled, with a works cited page in MLA format. A rough draft for each paper is allowable, but is strictly optional. If you wish to receive your rough draft back in time to make revisions for your final draft, be certain to submit it a week or more prior to the due date. Papers may be handed in at any time during the semester up until the due date. Late work is not accepted.
Paper 1 (pre-1960)
- How did the idea of British world supremacy influence HG Wells’ Time Machine?
- Is The Time Machine racist? If so, why and how? How is it related to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”?
- How does Asimov’s opinion of the Soviet Union affect the themes inherent in Foundation?
- Does the Galactic Empire in Foundation symbolize Ancient Rome? If so, why does Asimov choose Rome as the analog? If not, what does it symbolize instead and why?
- Is Heinlein aware of the fascist undertones to his society in Starship Troopers? What is his attitude towards fascism as depicted in the book? How does it differ, if at all, from the kind of fascism demonstrated by the Nazis in 1940s-era Germany?
Paper 2 (post-1960)
- Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace in Neuromancer represents a kind of ‘wild frontier’, in a sense (Case is a ‘cowboy’, those who operate in the matrix are apart from society, etc.). What is the meaning of this metaphor? Where does Gibson think the ‘matrix’ (what we now know as the Internet) will lead us?
- Explain and explore the role of religion and spirituality in Neuromancer. What does it mean? Why does Gibson include it?
- In Snow Crash, why does Stephenson choose to use the Mafia as protagonists and how does this differ from other late-20th century depictions of the mob and why?
- What is the symbolic significance of Hiro and Raven’s shared heritage in Snow Crash? What, if anything, is Stephenson trying to say about the future of America?
- In Banks’ Culture, he shows us a ‘perfect’ symbiosis between man and machine. How does Banks choose to portray this symbiosis? Why?
- Explore the significance of gender roles in The Player of Games and how does this parallel the changing understanding of those roles in late 20th century Western culture.
Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”
If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ’I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in. Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful. You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.
This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).
Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer. When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.
The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.
Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.
So, recently my attention was drawn to this diagram floating around the internet that traces the history of science fiction. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. I agree with much if not all of its suggestions (it gets a bit muddy towards the end there, but that is to be expected) and, in particular, I am drawn to the two words that are crouching atop its very beginnings: Fear and Wonder. Since I like the word better, I’m going to talk about them as Wonder and Terror.
Speculative fiction of all types derive their power, chiefly, from those two basic human emotions. Interestingly, they both primarily relate to what could be and not what is. Wonder is being stunned by something new you had never imagined before and Terror is dreading the manifestation of the same thing. These emotions led to the creation of pantheons of Gods, endless cycles of mythology, sea monsters, HG Wells, Jules Verne, the drawings of DaVinci and so on and so forth. Wonder and Terror–what could be and what we hope won’t be.
These emotions are the engines of human progress. They have brought us from the bands of nomadic hominids staring up and a night sky and led us all the way to this–the Internet. The endless tales we have told one another throughout the aeons regarding what we wonder and live in terror of have inspired humanity to strive for change and avoid the many pitfalls our progress may afford us. Though we haven’t been successful in all our endeavors, we still try. We try because we can’t stop wondering and we can’t stop quailing in terror at our collective futures.
The balance of these forces change, as well, as time marches on. Our relationship with technology and progress–whether we live in awe of its possibilities or in fear of its consequences–is in constant flux, dependent not only on the power of the technology itself, but also upon the mood of the society itself. In the times of Jules Verne, for instance, science was the great gateway to a better world–the engines of technology would wipe away the injustices of man, clear up the cloudy corners of his ignorance, and lead him to a bright new tomorrow. That tomorrow wound up being the early 20th century, with its horrifying wars and human atrocities, and so we read the works of Orwell and Huxley and even HG Wells, who cautioned us against unguarded optimism and warned of the terrible things to come. The cycle was to be repeated again, with the optimism of the 1950s (Asimov, Clarke) giving way to the dark avenues of writers like Philip K Dick and even William Gibson.
Where do we stand now? I’m not sure; I’m inclined to say this is a dark age for speculative fiction. We look to the future with pessimism, not optimism. Our visions of apocalypse (zombie or otherwise) are numerous and bleak. With every era there are your bright lights of hope–the Federations of Planets and Cultures–that say that yes, one day humankind will rise to meet its imagined destiny with wonders of glorious power, but for every Player of Games there seems to be a World War Z or The Road. Perhaps I’m wrong.
This coming spring, if all works out (and it looks like it might), I will be exploring this idea in much greater detail in a class I’ll be teaching on Technology and Literature. I’ve been wanting to teach this elective for a long time, and I can’t wait to see what I can teach but, more importantly, to see what I’ll learn in the process.