Tu/W/Th 01:00-03:30 205 Dwinelle Instructor: Howard Fisher

Session D:  July 3rd-August 11th.

“I’ve seen justice for all genders and classes and sexualities, and it was as alien to me as the extra-terrestrial creatures who practiced it. This image of justice sprang from my own imagination, taking place on another planet, in another time, for a species of people very unlike humans. It took science fiction for me to see a clear picture of what justice could be. And at the end of the day, that’s all it was – fiction.” — Maisha Johnson

This course will trace an American tradition of science fiction writing from the antebellum period to the present. Focusing on films, novels, and especially short stories, the course serves as an introduction to the genre and as an exploration of the insights that science fiction offers as an object of socio-cultural analysis. The course specifically develops students’ understanding of the forms and tropes that define science fiction and connects these to a critical language for discussing matters of ethnic and racial diversity in the history of the United States. With these goals in mind, the course examines the development of a genre while situating works within their socio-cultural and historical contexts.

The central questions that structure the course proceed from the fundamental paradox that attends the genre: How do we imagine something different from what we have? What allows the science fiction story to establish, with remarkable economy, a vision of a world? How do we recognize similarities and locate differences between historical circumstances and the circumstances represented in science fiction? What kinds of desires and fears do the worlds of American science fiction enact? When do they do so critically as opposed to unthoughtfully, and how do we tell the difference? How have indigenous, African, latino/a, and Asian American writers and filmmakers given form to their marginalized experiences and to radical political projects for social justice through science fiction? Is science fiction able to broaden the range of possible ways cultural diversity can be imagined, or only change its guise?

Course Structure:

We begin with famous writers of the pre-Civil War and American Renaissance periods to inquire why the age gives rise to visions of technological advancement, human perfectibility through biological modification, and punished hubris. We will focus on how and why excitement and anxiety about industrialization appears again and again alongside fear of slave rebellion. We will likewise examine works of the same period that give shape to early visions of American black nationalism.

In the second unit of the course, we read works that emerge from the legal and institutional xenophobia of the early twentieth century in the U.S. The fictions read in this unit address questions of demographic transformation and projects that seek to manage it. We will continue to pursue the way that science fiction creates new worlds but will take up the additional goal of describing science fiction’s relation to satire.

We then turn our attention to science fiction after the American Civil Rights movement. Here the course will examine the way fictions of the period generate both post-racial fantasies and visions of interracial harmony. Special attention will be given to how works reflect an increased interest in precisely locating racial and ethnic difference in the mind and/or the body.

The course concludes by bringing a plurality of perspectives to bear on the qualities that fundamentally distinguish science fiction. For instance, how do attempts on the part of indigenous people to disentangle native science from “primitive” knowledge and myth change the scope of the genre? How does a narrator’s insistence on its radical sexual difference present barriers to what a reader can know about a possible world? We consider not only how these works critique contemporary social organizations, but also how they reframe the science fiction genre as a means of enriching the social imaginary. This unit will also address a problem of generic interpretation that arises at the intersections of cultural difference: not all literature that can be interpreted as science fiction is written as science fiction. It may read as such for some people while for others it represents a contemporary lived reality. Thus to read a work as science fiction can be to appropriate its way of meaning or to place it at a distance at a distance from reality. To help us approach these works with care, we will read them alongside critical and theoretical texts by scholars of feminist, Native-American, African-American, and queer studies.


Zainab Amadahy, The Moons of Palmares

Ray Bradbury, “The Other Foot”

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”

Martin R. Delany,  selections from Blake, or The Huts of America

Samuel R. Delaney, “Among the Blobs” and “Aye, and Gomorrah…”

George P. Elliott, “The NRACP”

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook” and The Shadow over Innsmouth

Herman Melville, “The Bell Tower”

Mia Mingus, “Hollow”

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” and “Things of the Future”

Gerald Vizenor, “Custer of the Slipstream”


Change of Mind (1969), dir. Robert Stevens

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), dir. Don Taylor

Monsters (2010), dir. Gareth Edwards

A course reader will be available at University Copy Services, 2425 Channing Way. Course readings are also available on bcourses.