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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

May 14, 2014: Spring 2014 Recaps: Sci Fi/Fantasy

[It’s exam week, the final act of the Spring 2014 semester! So in this week’s series, I’ll recap some of the best of my semester’s courses and conversations, leading up to a weekend post on my summer plans. Add your semester recaps, summer plans, or whatever else you want to share in comments, please!]
On a few ways to parse the differences between two imaginative genres.
As I see it, a class like Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy, which I I taught for the third time this spring, has a couple interconnected but distinct goals. (Toward its content, I mean; I discussed goals for the students’ skills and voices in my preview post.) For one thing, it’s an opportunity to introduce a wide range of authors and works, of examples of what these genres (and related ones like the weird tale) can include and entail. I do that by using two anthologies of short stories alongside our five longer works, so we’re able to read a couple dozen different authors by the end of the semester. But there’s also another layer to the class title, and it’s the way in which a class like this can introduce the genres themselves, and thus help us discuss how we describe and define literary and cultural categories like them.
There are of course no set answers for those definitions, and indeed I stress throughout the class how much the opposite is true: that my interest is in what the students would emphasize, how they can make their own developing definitions part of their final paper work (among other spaces for such ideas). Moreover, I think that such definitions develop at least in part through comparison and contrast, through a sense of what differentiates (in this case) fantasy from science fiction. This semester the students came up a number of interesting ideas about those differences: a sense that science fiction deals more with making the familiar look new to us, while fantasy creates an unfamiliar world and draws us into it; a perspective on the role of black and white/good vs. evil narratives in fantasy compared to gray area/ambiguous narratives in science fiction; and a take on non-chronological/episodic literary structures in science fiction contrasted with more straightforward journey structures in fantasy, to name three examples.
As we came to the conclusions of our class discussions, and specifically to the final conversation about our last novel, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (1989), I found myself articulating a definition of my own that I hadn’t ever quite developed before. It seemed to me, re-reading Simmons’ novel this time around, that he utilizes mysteries in a way that feels common to science fiction: foregrounding the mysteries, making them a primary element to his worldbuilding, and then moving his audience through the novel by gradually revealing more and more information to explain those mysteries. Whereas fantasy, I would argue, often foregrounds heavy expositional worldbuilding, explaining a good deal of its world, and then creates an increasingly mysterious or uncertain journey for its characters (and audiences) within that world. And it’s worth noting that each of these concepts would fulfill distinct human needs: an intellectual desire to grapple with the universe’s mysteries, on the one hand; and an emotional urge to imagine our own unfolding journeys as part of a larger world of meanings, on the other. No wonder these genres are so primal and popular!
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. How was your spring semester?

PPS. After I scheduled this post, my talented student Harrison Chute shared the following salient Orson Scott Card quote: "Science fiction is about what could be but isn't; fantasy is about what couldn't be."

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