How Great Science Fiction Works: A college course for science-fiction fans

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How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe Great Courses audiobook reviewHow Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

For years I’ve been a fan of the GREAT COURSES audiobooks, which I usually pick up at my library or at Audible. These are a series of college-level lectures devoted to a specific topic and delivered by an expert in the field. A couple of months ago they released a set called How Great Science Fiction Works. Our teacher is Gary K. Wolfe, a professor of Humanities who received a BA in English from the University of Kansas under the tutelage of science fiction writer James E. Gunn and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago. Wolfe (no relation to Gene Wolfe) is well known in the fantasy and science fiction community as a critic, editor, biographer, and all-around expert.

How Great Science Fiction Works contains 24 lectures that each last about 30 minutes. They are:

1. Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction — Wolfe discusses the concept of the “monster” and gives Mary Shelley the credit for writing the first science fiction novel in 1818. He discusses the inspiration and themes of Frankenstein, and talks about the role of rationalism and science in the genre.

2. Science Fiction and the 19th Century — Wolfe describes what science fiction is and how it differs from other genres, most notably fantasy. (Simply put, science fiction is about the possible while fantasy is about the impossible.) He describes some of its earliest influences (Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne) and talks about how they inspired the first market for science fiction stories — the magazine Amazing Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Award is named.

3. Science Fiction Treatments of History — This lecture is about how history and the future is explored through the subgenres of alternate history, historical fiction, and time-travel stories. He takes a close look at works by Connie Willis, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick.

4. Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction — Beginning with Wells’ The Time Machine and bringing in works by Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter, and others, Wolfe discusses how these authors have dealt with the challenges of writing about deep space and deep time and the purpose of humanity in such epically large and unknown vistas. He makes the excellent point that one of the goals of science fiction is to enlarge the imagination and create a sense of wonder, yet a successful writer must also tell a story that can touch us on a human level.

5. Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares — Wolfe examines a range of utopian and dystopian literature including Yevgeny Zamyatin, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, Anthony Burgess, Frederik Pohl, John Christopher, and Sinclair Lewis. He mentions more modern dystopias, too, such as UGLIES, THE HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT, Ready Player One, and THE MAZE RUNNER.

6. The Rise of the Science Fiction Pulps — Here we learn about the first pulp magazines such as Argosy, Amazing Stories, and Astounding. We learn of the contributions of writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Edmond Hamilton, and editors such as Hugo Gernsback to the pulp tradition. Many modern readers look back on these stories with contempt, but as Wolfe explains, these stories were a source of income for many writers and they were written quickly with the simple intent to entertain readers who would be “pulping” the low-cost magazines after consumption. Nobody expected that we’d still be reading those stories today.

7. The Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories — When John W. Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding, he ushered in the first Golden Age of Science Fiction when he discovered and published Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner and insisted that they focus on world building and characterization, not just monsters, action and gadgets. He also eliminated clumsy infodumps and insisted that authors deal with the social and economic effects of science fiction technologies. Other notable magazines were Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. After World War II, Donald A. Wollheim (from whose initials we get the DAW imprint) started anthologizing science fiction stories in hardback form, which meant that they were now available on bookstore shelves, not just pulp magazines. This introduced the genre to a mainstream audience.

8. The Spaceship as Science Fiction Icon — Using works from Murray Leinster, Robert A. Heinlein, Cordwainer Smith, Gene Wolfe, Robert Reed and Kim Stanley Robinson, Professor Wolfe discusses the concept of a spaceship as habitat and society (rather than just vehicle).

9. The Robot: From Capek to Asimov — Lecture 9 is all about robots — historical ideas and imagery, various types of robots, androids and cyborgs, and philosophical questions that robots raise about humanity, artificial intelligence, consciousness, and the mind-body problem.

10. The Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel — Around 1950, science fiction graduated and gained some respectability by moving out of the pulp magazines and juvenile section (e.g. Heinlein) to hard cover novels competing with mainstream fiction genres like mystery.

11. From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet — This lecture explores some of the famous planets of science fiction literature including Frank Herbert’s Dune and Mars as depicted by Ray Bradbury and Kim Stanley Robinson. Wolfe shows us how planets can be seen as new frontiers in which authors can comment on real human concerns such as racism, environmentalism, immigration and multiculturalism. In this lecture I learned that Jack Williamson coined the term “terraform” in 1943.

12. The Science Fiction Wasteland — Apocalyptic scenarios are popular in science fiction and Wolfe explores a variety of wastelands including those created by Mary Shelley, Jack London, George R. Stewart, Walter M. Miller, Cormac McCarthy, and Neal Stephenson. While wastelands seem inherently pessimistic, he makes the case that they can actually be optimistic. He also shows us how world events, such as WWII, have shaped the trajectory of science fiction.

13. Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide — War stories have always been popular, but stories about invasions from space represent some of our unique fears. In this lecture Wolfe discusses some of these fears and again highlights the importance of historical events and advances in military technology on the development of science fiction. He takes a close look at The War of the Worlds, Ender’s Game, Starship Troopers, and The Forever War (warning: there are spoilers for these books).

14. Religion in Science Fiction — Here Wolfe looks at how science fiction approaches the nature of religious faith, most notably Christianity, and invents new religions. He also talks about how religious people have contributed to both science and science fiction. Authors whose works are discussed include Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Robert A. Heinlein, Octavia Butler, James Blish, Mary Doria Russell, and C.S. Lewis.

15. Science Fiction’s New Wave — Science Fiction began to change in the 1960s with the New Wave movement. Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, J.G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison started pushing the genre further away from its pulp origins by experimenting with new styles and challenges. This did not come without some controversy.

16. Encounters with the Alien Other — Aliens are another science fiction element that fill us with a sense of wonder but also represent our anxieties. Wolfe examines this from a psychological perspective and discusses the works of Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell, Jack Finney, Larry Niven, Stanislaw Lem, and Karen Joy Fowler.

17. Environmentalism in Science Fiction — Science Fiction has been talking about environmental concerns such as pesticides, toxic waste, drug-resistant microbes, pollution, extinction and global warming for decades, but these issues haven’t appeared regularly until more recently. Wolfe talks about how hard it is to write an interesting but realistic ecological thriller that doesn’t sound like “hysterical fear-mongering.” Books by John Brunner, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sherri S. Tepper, and Kim Stanley Robinson are discussed, as is Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent work for children and teens which, when paired with children’s fiction that depicts post-apocalyptic wastelands, may encourage them to be concerned about the environment.

18. Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction — In all of the previous chapters, Dr. Wolfe has been careful to keep mentioning female science fiction writers right along with the men and not in a way that sounds “token” or condescending. He devotes this chapter to the rise of feminism in science fiction. Along the way he talks about how science fiction came to be viewed as a male-dominated genre, how things began to change in the 1960s, and how, even though there are so many popular and successful female science-fiction writers these days, discrimination, stereotypes and sexism still unfortunately exist.

19. Cyberpunk and the 1980s — Thanks to the movie Blade Runner, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and rapid advances in computing, the dark edgy coolness of cyberpunk took root in the 1980s. Wolfe talks about how technology changed science fiction and how it may be changing humanity, too.

20. The 1990s: The New Space Opera — Space Opera, with its numerous gadgets, unscientific battle scenes, cardboard characters, and colonialism got a much needed facelift in the 1990s. Writers such as M. John Harrison, Lois McMaster Bujold, Dan Simmons, Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, C.J. Cherryh, Peter F. Hamilton, and Alastair Reynolds helped Space Opera shed its militaristic and Amerocentristic tone and updated it with more modern political and literary sensibilities.

21. The Artifact as Science Fiction Icon — Perhaps no element in science fiction evokes such wonder and awe as the unknown artifact or, more cynically, the “Big Dumb Object” (BDO). Think of the alien objects of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendevous With Rama. This lecture explores this particular trope. I laughed out loud when, right after discussing Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Wolfe off-handedly mentions that a problem with BDO stories is that the wonder wears off fairly quickly and sequels rarely satisfy, a point I have made in my reviews of that series.

22. Science Fiction’s Urban Landscapes — Futuristic cities are a common setting in science fiction, and the use of such urban landscapes are one of the major way that the genre distinguishes itself from fantasy. This lecture explores some of these cities (e.g., John Brunner, Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and E.M. Forster) and talks about how these depictions are another way that the genre often addresses real-world concerns such as poverty, pollution, and over-crowding.

23. Science Fiction in the 21st Century — Science fiction has changed so much over its relatively short lifespan. Some of the most obvious changes have already been mentioned in previous lectures. Another recent development is the recognition that science fiction can no longer be thought of as a white American/British man’s genre. Modern science fiction includes authors, settings, characters and cultures from all over the world. This lecture features the works of such authors as Nnedi Okorafor, Lavie Tidhar, Cixin Liu, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, Nalo Hopkinson, Karen Lord, Tobias Buckell, Zen Cho, Samuel R. Delany and more. Some of these authors are “new” to the genre, but some have been there all along and are only now being “rediscovered” as science-fiction readers have begun to demand more diversity.

24. The Future of Science Fiction — What does the future hold? Wolfe looks forward to further shedding science fiction’s “pulp” perception as modern writers continue to focus on character and style, and as genres begin to blend. There is some evidence that this is happening. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin recently became the first science fiction writer to win the National Book Award. In this lecture, Wolfe points out many of the “literary” writers who are writing science fiction, sometimes without even realizing it!

I enjoyed How Great Science Fiction Works and even though I am more knowledgeable about the genre than the average person, I still learned quite a bit of useful information, especially about the people involved in the creation of the genre. I also added several books and stories to my TBR pile. I especially appreciated how Wolfe included female writers in each chapter without calling attention to them in a way that suggested that their love of science fiction was unusual and how he emphasized that women and people of color have always been involved in science fiction, even if they have not been the genre’s “gatekeepers.”

Dr. Wolfe has such an engaging voice and it’s probably impossible not to be caught up in his enthusiastic tour of science fiction. The only thing I’d caution readers about is that Wolfe often tells the plot of the books he discusses. He has a reason for doing this, of course, because he’s trying to make a point, but there were a couple of times when he was telling the plot of a book I haven’t read yet and I had to do this:

Other than that, I think How Great Science Fiction Works is both a wonderful introduction to the genre for newbies and also a glorious celebration for those of us who’ve been reading it for decades. I highly recommend this course to all fans.

Published January 8, 2016. Robots, spaceships, futuristic megacities, planets orbiting distant stars. These icons of science fiction are now in our daily news. Science fiction, once maligned as mere pulp, has motivated cutting-edge scientific research, inspired new technologies, and changed how we view everyday life – and its themes and questions permeate popular culture. Take an unparalleled look at the influence, history, and greatest works of science fiction with illuminating insights and fascinating facts about this wide-ranging genre. If you think science fiction doesn’t have anything to do with you, this course deserves your attention. And if you love science fiction, you can’t miss this opportunity to trace the arc of science fiction’s evolution, understand the hallmarks of great science fiction, and delve deeply into classics while finding some new favorites. These 24 captivating lectures reveal the qualities that make science fiction an enduring phenomenon that has been steadily gaining popularity. You’ll grasp the context and achievements of authors like Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, and many more. You’ll experience the wonder, horror, and incredible imagination of works like Frankenstein, the Foundation series, Stranger in a Strange Land, and dozens of more recent stories as well. You’ll also see this genre’s influence in movies like Star Wars and TV shows like The Twilight Zone. Science fiction can take us places in time and space where no other form of fiction can – outer space, the far future, alternate universes, unfathomable civilizations. The best science fiction expands our imaginations and makes its mark on our reality. And while few writers would ever claim to predict the future, sometimes authors get it almost eerily right: Gernsback describing radar in 1911, Bradbury describing giant flatscreen TVs in 1951, Gibson inventing “cyberspace” in 1984, and so on.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. Ooooh! I’ll have to check this out to inform my teaching. I just wrapped up a version of a scifi class that I was very happy with.

    • This would be a great book for you, Kate. Since you’re knowledgeable already, you can listen at a higher speed. That’s what I did, so each lecture was only about 20 minutes that way. Nice for a commute.

  2. Oh, wow. I have to listen to this!! Thanks, Kat!

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