Course No: 350:654
Index # - 12548
Distribution Requirement: A5
Thursday - 9:50 a.m.
Science Fiction and Cultural Capital
First christened in the lowly milieu of the pulpwood magazine, the genre of science fiction has lately approached the highest precincts of literary prestige, with novelists who have written science-fictional texts winning the Nobel prize (Lessing, Ishiguro) and SF authors achieving the hardbound solidity of Library of America publication (Dick, Le Guin). But SF’s status is far more complex than this image of upward trajectory implies: it is at once a highbrow niche, a nerdy subculture, and a genre of mass-market transmedia entertainment. This course studies key moments in the history of print SF’s evolving status, by way of shedding light on the history of literary status itself over the last century.
The course does not expect students to be or become SF specialists. It emphasizes the broad theoretical and literary-historical themes raised by the study of science fiction: genre, prestige, canons, readerships, media. The course challenges simplistic understandings of “the canon” and of the opposition between high and low culture as they play out across the last century. Against the widely current idea that the evaluation of texts in an academic context is the same as the social privileging or exclusion of authorial identities, we consider the science-fiction genre’s relation to the variant forms of cultural capital which shape social destinies in our modernity, from everyday print literacy, to technical expertise, to “omnivorous” cultural fluency. All of these forms of status-conferring knowledge or display, reproduced and transmitted in distinctive institutional settings, are of special consequence to the shape of SF.
Our moments of focus may include: the pulp era (Gernsback, Campbell, the Futurians); the British New Wave and/or American Dangerous Visions; Le Guin and the anthropological turn in SF; some tiny corner of the Star Wars empire; Never Let Me Go or its ilk; the arrival of Octavia Butler; the New Weird. In scholarship our readings will include classic and recent work on SF alongside selections from literary theory and the sociology of culture that help us theorize genre and status more generally.
The major assignment of the course is an article-length research paper. Some preliminary writing will be due at midterm, and the last class session will be devoted to presentations of work in progress.