I could use some help. As I did in the spring, I’m teaching a seminar on “Science Fiction and Politics.” I’m working on some significant changes to the syllabus. The class will now meet twice a week, which has implications for its flow, and I want to teach some different works. But I’m flailing a bit about some aspects of the syllabus, particularly with respect to (1) short readings to pair with books and (2) some specific assignments. A rough outline follows, including some notes about the kinds of pieces I’m looking for. A major issue concerning the latter is that I generally want supplemental readings that are short.

1. No Class.
2. SF, Popular Culture and Politics: Jutta Weldes, “Popular Culture, Science Fiction, and World Politics: Exploring Intertextual Relations,” in Weldes, ed. To Seek Out New Worlds: Exploring Links between Science Fiction and World Politics, pp. 1-27; Iver B. Neumann and Daniel H. Nexon, “Introduction: Harry Potter and the Study of World Politics,” in Nexon and Neumann, eds. Harry Potter and International Relations, pp. 1-25. Recommended for non-genre fans: Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century, pp. 12-53.
3. Collins, Hunger Games I: paired with something on the structure and organization of empires, preferably with examples drawn from Rome.
4. Collins, Hunger Games II: paired with something on social roles, role theory, and/or performativity.
5. Banks, Player of Games I: K.M. Fierke, “Links Across the Abyss: Language and Logic in International Relations,” International Studies Quarterly 46 (2002): 331-354.
6. Banks, Player of Games II: paired with something about ritual and social order, or perhaps gender and social order.
7. Stross, Halting State I: Vernor Vingee, “Technological Singularity”
8. Stross, Halting State II: Plato, The Republic (selections)
9. Schmitt, Political Theology: paired with a short piece on securitization theory?
10. Moore, Watchmen I
11. Moore, Watchmen II
12. Heinlein, Starship Troopers I: Harold D. Lasswell, “The Garrison State,” The American Journal of Sociology 14,4 (December 1943): 627-650.
13. Heinlein, Starship Troopers II
14. Ender’s Game I
15. Ender’s Game II
16. Todorov, Conquest of America [might be moved before Ender’s Game]
17. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus I [Parts 1-2]
18. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus II [Part 3]
19. No Class: Film. Perhaps Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell: SAC (the compilation of the “Laughing Man” episodes), or Ghost in the Shell 2.0?
20. Le Guin, The Dispossessed I
21. Le Guin, The Dispossessed II
22. Herbert, Dune I
23. Herbert, Dune II: paired with a piece on jihad and/or religious warfare and/or religion and politics
24. Film.

As should be clear, I have one moveable film slot and I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m also curious about other suggestions for pairings (but keep in mind that I am not sadistic enough to pair Fifth Head of Cerberus with anything, as they’ll have enough trouble making sense of the narrative as it is).

One option that I’m considering is to open with some kind of cliched genre SF, e.g., Foundation (or at least the first novella or two). My current inclination is to keep the readings for session 2 but assign something to watch, such as an episode of ST:TNG (Darmok?) or Farscape. What I’m looking for should be (1) accessible on its own and (2) complete with all the “bells and whistles” of stereotyped SF: spaceships, strange aliens, energy weapons, etc.

Last year our readers provides excellent feedback. Let’s make that a trend!

UPDATE: Trend underway! I should clarify some things about the course and comment on some of the excellent suggestions. I’ve benefitted from PTJ’s extensive experience teaching a similar (and better) version of the class; as I’ve had one semester under my belt, I’ve also learned a bit.

Providing related nonfiction helps ground the students in terms of discussing and analyzing SF. Works we might think of as “meh” or of dubious quality can provoke terrific discussions. Even some of the students who consume science fiction lack contextual knowledge that our readership unwittingly assumes.  Standalone SF episodes are much more difficult to follow than people who’ve watched the series realize.

For example, I showed “33” last year as a means for talking about the notion of “the exception” — although we also discussed jus in bello issues and compared “33” to Watchmen. I may put it back on, but the students were really, really confused about the characters and the setting. For some of them, that overshadowed the whole experience. Similarly, Bank’s Culture universe is pretty difficult to feel comfortable in if one begins with Look to Windward. Despite the fact that it doesn’t tackle the kind of broad thematics of that book, Player of Games provides a much better introduction to the Culture.

I should also note some of the meta-themes in the course, although one nice aspect of teaching this kind of class is that the students take it in unexpected directions.

  1. The relationship between politics, roles, and games. This carries across a wide variety of the literature and bridges works that deal with different themes.
  2.  Sovereignty and the exception. Although this also cuts across a number of works, Watchmen, Starship Troopers, and Enders Game constitute the “core” of this discussion. Related, of course, is “guardianship.”
  3. The status of the “Other” in politics in general, and imperial relations in particular. 
  4. Technological shifts and politics, particularly around the idea of the “singularity” but extended out much more broadly to issues of political change. 

I eliminated a number of works that were in the previous semester.  The most difficult one to cut was Julian Comstock. I am close to pulling the trigger on a CJ Cherryh — likely Downbelow Station or Cyteen, both of which would integrate nicely. Due to their length, though, I need to think hard about how to make it work. Either gets at core themes of the syllabus, and it would allow me to add another female author.

Thoughts? Keep the ideas coming, please!

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