Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Department of English
Spring 2013
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ENG 814: Studies in Popular Genre (Science Fiction)

Professor Scott Michaelson

Tuesday, 4:10-7pm

This is a course devoted to studying the genre of science fiction. What is special or singular about science fiction literatures?  During our term together we will read theory and criticism that tries to answer that question, including basic work in genre theory, as well as Marxist, postmodernist, and post-structuralist readings of SF “proper”.  And the course itself is designed in such a way as to proffer its own definition of science fiction as a compass rose for exploration, transgression, and always-provisional determination of the quadruple boundaries of human being.  Martin Heidegger, in “Building Dwelling Thinking,” refers to this as “the fourfold”: “‘on the earth’ already means ‘under the sky.’   Both of these also mean “remaining before the divinities” and include a ‘belonging to men’s being with one another.’  By a primal oneness the four—earth and sky, divinities and mortals—belong together in one” (Heidegger, Basic Writings 327).  I propose a recoding of Heidegger’s fourfold in line with basic SF themes: “sky” is the realm of the space alien, and “earth” the realm of the animal.  “Divinities” refers to the SF possibility of the posthuman; and “mortals” to our relationship to death, and the dead in general.   When we draw this as a compass rose, we fine the space alien is above us, the animal below; the dead are behind or prior to us, and the posthuman before or ahead of us:

                                                              space aliens

                                                    the dead←↕→posthumans


Heidegger tells us that the fourfold constitutes a kind of “dwelling,” or a “presencing” of our “essential being” (328).  Science fiction, perhaps, has a unique responsibility and destiny with regard to the continual questioning and interrogatation of our own constitution and its four fundamental exclusivities.  To read science fiction, then, is to find oneself no longer certain of one’s place of dwelling.  To read science fiction is to make ourselves originally homeless and orphaned in a complex matrix of possibilities.

We will, regrettably, pass over a number of science fiction’s many possible antecedents (Apuleius, de Bergerac, Swift, Shelley, Poe, Verne, Stoker, etc.). We will instead focus almost exclusively on authors who plied their trade in a world where one was paid ½ to 6 pennies a word (during the “Golden Age” of 1939-55), and where pulp was the medium of necessity.  (For those who want deep historical background on the field and its development, Mike Ashley’s three-volume history of science fiction magazines is recommended: Time Machines, Transformations, and Gateways to Forever.)  

Our list of novels and short stories will include works from many of the giants in the genre: H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Raymond Z. Gallun, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Joanna Russ, Margaret Atwood, Samuel R. Delany, J.G. Ballard, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, and China Mieville.  We also will discuss the two most important science fiction films of the 20th century: Metropolis (1927) and Blade Runner (1982).  Finally, we will set aside one week to read the most important science fiction graphic novel, Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7).

We certainly will talk about contexts for this century of science fiction, as well as the way that reality itself has been shaped by it.  Science fiction has had long and complex encounters with developments in Darwinism, relativity, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and genetics. To take only two examples: physicist Hugh Everett proved mathematically the scientific possibility of parallel worlds in 1956, yet SF author Murray Leinster invented this idea in “Sidewise in Time” in 1934.   And as scholar Colin Milburn notes in his Nanovision: Engineering the Future (Duke UP, 2008), current trends in the science of nanotechnology have been invented by an array of science fiction writers.  Twentieth-century science fiction, too, has been responsible for the wide acceptance of social movements such as Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics and Scientology (and, indeed, Hubbard himself was an SF author before founding his self-help religion).

Each student in the class will write and deliver two oral presentations on particular works, and will also write a ten-page seminar paper.  Fasten your seat belts….we are headed into outer (and inner) space.



Thomas More. Utopia (1516)

H.G. Wells.  Time Machine (1895)



H.P. Lovecraft.  “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931), The Shadow Out of Time” (1935)

Stanley G. Weinbaum.  “A Martian Odyssey” (1934)

A.E. Van Vogt.  “The Black Destroyer” (1939)



A.E. Van Vogt.  World of Null-A (1945/fixup 1948)

Robert Heinlein. Starship Troopers (1959)



Theodore Sturgeon.  More Than Human (1953)

Stanislaw Lem. Solaris (1961)



Ursula K. LeGuin.  The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

Philip K. Dick.  Ubik (1969)



Brian W. Aldiss. Hothouse (1962)

J.G. Ballard.  The Crystal World (1966)


Joanna Russ.  The Two of Them (1978)

Margaret Atwood.  The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)



Kim Stanley Robinson.  Icehenge (1984)

Octavia Butler.  Dawn (1987)


Fritz Lang. Metropolis (1927)

Ridley Scott. Blade Runner (1982)


Samuel Delany.  Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976)



William Gibson.  Neuromancer (1984)



Alan Moore.  Watchmen (1986-7)



China Mieville.  The City and the City (2009)


ENG 820: Postcolonial Live: Critical Approaches to Postcoloniality and Life Narrative

Professors Salah Hassan and Kenneth Harrow

Monday, 7-10pm

In his introduction to Postcolonial Life-Writing: Culture, Politics and Self-Representation (2009), Bart Moore-Gilbert notes that much work remains to be done in providing a “convincing general account” of the subgenre of postcolonial life-writing and in effecting a “satisfactory dialogue between the sub-fields of Postcolonial and Auto/biography Studies” (xiv). This course seeks to further explore these two sub-fields and extend our understanding of auto/biography from a postcolonial perspective. We will be reading and discussing texts that are located at the nexus of auto/biographical writing and conditions of coloniality and postcoloniality. One objective of the course is to develop a fuller and more complex understanding of the historical conditions that have produced what Derek Gregory has referred to as the “colonial present” and that are given textual expression in various forms of biographical, autobiographical and fictional narrative writings.  While the course will begin with later colonial era (1850s-1950s), its focus will primarily address life narratives that represent those globalized conditions that can be understood as postcoloniality (from the 1950s to the present). We will want to bring into focus the political disappointments of postcolonial regimes, the continuities between the colonial effects and the postcolonial aftereffects, and the life-and-death struggles to survive and resist conditions of postcoloniality.  Autobiographies, biographies, and autobiographical fiction are privileged mediums for registering the ways in which particular subjectivities and historical conditions connect. They also provide insights into way that the private worlds of individuals cross over into the public processes of political transformation. We will want, however, to critique the strategies of legitimation, authentication and identification that underwrite life narratives. Especially important to many life narratives and biographical fictions are techniques of mediation by which these texts are delivered to reading publics. Equally important are the critical practices that position life writing as sites of especially significant truth claims that are distinct from the epistemologies that underwrite other narratives modes, notably fictional genres such as oral epic, ballads, stories, and novels.  Ultimately the principal goal of this course will then be to develop critical approaches to both life writing and postcolonial studies, moving beyond the emerging paradigms within these literary fields.


ENG 826: The Making and Unmaking of Memoir

Professor Marcia Aldrich

Wednesday 3-5:50pm

Memoir was once a rather small and quirky production, often what those who had accomplished great things in their life wrote after their careers were over. No longer: memoir has exploded, become a bestseller and the genre of choice for all kinds of voices that are newly arrived onto the literary scene as well as attracting accomplished literary practitioners from other genres such as fiction and poetry. 

A memoir is a literary form that produces a narrated self out of mediated experience. It enjoys a current vogue, a popularity that has led to clashes between public expectation and the genre’s practices of imagination. In other words, memoir has become scandalous. This course will look at historical and literary descriptions of memoir as a genre, read examples of memoir, with an emphasis on contemporary American memoir, and look at current debates about memoir, both popular and theoretical.  Short critical reading responses will be produced, exercises in memoir writing tied to particular memoirs will be assigned, and one longer project, a memoir about reading, about yourself as a reader, about some aspect of your reading history will be undertaken. This last project combines the critical and the personal in ways that are intended to enrich both.

Reading List (at this time)

Critical Text: Memoir, An Introduction, G. Thomas Couser (Oxford University Press, 2012) and amplified by individual articles.

Current Best Seller and Oprah Selection: Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Postmodern/Resistant: Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Graphic (also about identity, reading, relationship to father): Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

Parents/Father: Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude; Parents/Mother: Hilton Als, The Women  

Place: D.J. Waldie, Holy Land, A Suburban Memoir

Mental Illness/Gender: Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted

Animal/Grief: Mark Doty, Dog Years: A Memoir