Wednesday, August 31, 2016

August 31, 2016: Fall 2016 Previews: Intro to Sci Fi and Fantasy

[The Fall semester is just around the corner, so this week I’ll preview some of the courses and plans for which I’m excited as a new semester gets underway. I’d love to hear your own upcoming courses, plans, work, or whatever else has you excited for Fall 2016!]
On two telling changes in the revised version of a classic work of American science fiction.
Along with the other two fall classes I’ve already discussed this week, I’m also gearing up to teach for the fourth time one of my favorite courses on one of my favorite subjects: the Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy class that I created back in 2007 in response to student demand. This course offers a number of distinct pleasures (I hope for the students, but certainly for their professor!), but one has been the opportunity to read and re-read authors and works for which I might not otherwise have found the time and space in my schedule. A case in point is Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), a seminal science fiction text that I had last read in junior high before putting it on the syllabus for that 2007 pilot version of the course (and for each of the three versions since). Among my many revelations in returning to Bradbury’s book was the fact that it had been significantly revised for a 1997 edition, with the two most significant changes reflecting two complex and critical issues not only with this particular text but in the genre of science fiction overall.
The most striking revision was to the dates in which Bradbury’s series of interconnected short stories are set. In the original 1950 text, the brief opening story was set in 1999, the first full story in 2000, and the stories continued forward in time from there, an obvious use of the still-distant millennium as a symbolic complement to Bradbury’s futuristic tales of rocket expeditions to Mars and the alien (in every sense) culture they encounter there. By the time of the 1997 revision, however, it was clear that such events were not going to take place in the next few years, and so the dates were pushed 30 years further into the future, with the opening stories set in 2029 and 2030 and so on. On the one hand, the revision made perfect sense, as Bradbury was seeking to imagine and predict a period a few decades in the future, and the change both allows the new edition to reflect his purposes and goals and helps 21st century readers imagine our own futures. Yet at the same time, the change makes it far more difficult for those 21st century readers to engage with a key aspect of Bradbury’s original book—its reflection of mid-20th century visions of the future and the millennium. Science fiction is always straddling that line, reflecting its moment and yet imagining futures that may or may not come to pass, and this revision of Martian Chronicles illustrates yet perhaps also blurs that issue.
The majority of science fiction also offers commentary on its own society through the lens of those imagined futures, however, and on that note too the revisions to Bradbury’s book do complex and somewhat troubling work. One of the more striking stories in the 1950 Martian Chronicles is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which uses communal hopes and dreams of Martian settlement to comment on race and Jim Crow segregation in the mid-20th century South. The story has some issues to be sure (notably with stereotypical dialect and characterizations), but it also adds historical and cultural issues to the book that would be largely absent otherwise. Which means that they are absent from the 1997 version, which replaced “Way” with “The Wilderness,” an interesting standalone story from 1952 about gender and pioneer communities but one that has nothing to do with the themes and subjects of “Way.” Again, I understand the change, and perhaps it produced a book that was more a part of the 1997 moment of its publication (although of course race and all its interconnected American histories remain just as relevant in the 21st century as they were in 1950). Yet the revision also makes it literally impossible to read and analyze fully Bradbury’s engagement with the America in which he wrote and published his book, a key goal of his as of so much science fiction.
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this course? Other previews or plans you’d share?

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