Speaking of metaphysics,

by Carl Dyke

I’ll be leading a ‘reading circle’ in the Fall semester with the title “Classic Science Fiction.” This is part of my university’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which is to foster a culture of reading. The format of these themed reading circles is for small groups to read a few books of mutual interest together. As I conceive it the idea is not to force yet more scholastic spinach down the kids’ throats but to show them cool stuff they can get at by reading, in an informal environment of exploration and discussion. Because it’s a required course and only one credit, tune-out is a danger.

As usual the reading list can’t be long enough to adequately represent the field. And what is that field? Threads run back through Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Thomas More and Genesis, but imaginative world-building is probably not enough. Sticking to a more conventional definition, Shelley, Verne and Wells might be obvious starts if they weren’t so stuffy to contemporary eyes. I was just looking at some E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith thinking that doing some pulp would be fun, but found it too crude without redeeming imaginative value, which might also be said with less justice of van Vogt’s old Null-A stuff. I seem to be drifting toward the obvious choices for a boy of my generation: Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert. The first three times I read Childhood’s End I thought it was awesome. The last time I found it disappointing and gave my copy away. James W. Harris says the same about Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. What does that mean about assigning them now? Does classic mean good? Are these guys classic, or just familiar to a cult of pimply mavens?

What makes sci-fi classic? Is it a time period (say, 1880 to WWII, Early Classic; post-war to Vietnam, Late Classic), a set of genre questions, rankings, even a sensibility? On the late side of the period, if that means anything, I’d like to include Ursula LeGuin – probably Lathe of Heaven or Dispossessed – and don’t feel too odd about that, but how about Octavia Butler? I love her work and consider it a brilliant development of the classic tradition of meditation on what it means to be human (Wells, Stapledon, Pohl etc.) but she’s obviously not in the classical period. I’m also wondering if I can get away with slipping in some Vonnegut, at least “Harrison Bergeron” and maybe Slaughterhouse-Five. I feel ok about leaving Card out because Ender’s Game is already read in a lot of high schools, as of course are Brave New World and 1984 last I checked. How about Douglas Adams?

So, a bit of a quandary. Even if I decide ‘classic’ means anything I want it to, what are the four or five books it would be really cool to read with a dozen college students?

Friends, any thoughts?

23 Responses to “Speaking of metaphysics,”

  1. I think college kids would enjoy discussing

    -Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein
    -The Cyberiad, Lem

  2. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War.

  3. Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man

  4. Hi Gary! This post is paying off already, because although I’ve heard of Lem I haven’t read him, and a little research convinces me I want to. Thank you, that book is now on the short list.

    Oddly enough, although I read and loved loads of Heinlein when I was a teenager, I didn’t really get into SIASL. He already had a tendency to get preachy and that one struck me as a straw too many. But it’s been a long time and I feel I ‘should’ do some Heinlein – would you say more about why you think the kids would like it?

  5. John, another two I hadn’t read, although I’m about halfway through Demolished Man now. What do you like about Haldeman?

  6. P.s., I’ve now ordered copies of both Cyberiad and Forever War. John, what I read about the latter suggests a resemblance to one of my very favorite sci-fi novels, Armor by John Steakley. Have you run across it?

  7. Philip Dick is classic by now surely? You could read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) and compare/contrast with the film adaptation Blade Runner (1982), which is classic in its own right and which most of the kids have probably seen.

  8. That’s a good call. I could especially see doing that if I go with a thematic what-is-human list. I actually doubt most of these kids have seen the movie, or any movie more than 15 years old (excepting Caddyshack for the golfers), but I can give it to them as homework.

    You notice though that we’re already at five great suggestions in the comments on a five-max reading list, not counting the stuff I mention in the post. So any thoughts anyone has on principles of selection will be welcome for discussion!

  9. Lem’s CYBERIAD is perfect for a group read, Carl. Each chapter is basically a stand-alone fable in an ongoing saga. Another good choice, if anything goes, would be any one of Gardner Dozois’s YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION collections, which have much more current themes than the old-school stuff from the middle of the last century, and each student could pick one of more short stories that interest them.

    Can’t resist mentioning one of my favorite neo-classics, sure to interest cultural anthropologists and the ecosophically-minded: Amy Thomson’s THE COLOR OF DISTANCE (PK Dick Award finalist in 1996) where humans meet Tendu, utterly adept at bioengineering their rain-forest world. It might be called an educated person’s AVATAR..

  10. Philip K Dick was my first thought too. That said I’ve not read most of the books on the list. I didn’t even know that there was a classic satirical Czech sci-fi novel called War with the Newts. It looks brilliant.

  11. Philip K. Dick is great. Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a wonderful novel about contact with the Other (in this case, a species without gender)- the reader finds himself (herself) constantly constructing gender for the characters, when that is in fact, not supported by the “facts”. Excellent opportunity for discussions on the social construction of gender (and the non-social construction of gender).

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is great too, a commentary on the fragmentation of the hypermodern.

  12. Obviously I’m going to have to do some Dick.

    Duncan, War with the Newts is awesome, with much the same style of patient, extended dry satire as The Good Soldier Švejk, leading me to wonder if they’re characteristic of Czech letters more broadly.

    Mark, I’m excited to check out The Color of Distance, although for this course if I’m going to stretch that far out of period for bioengineering themes I’ll almost certainly stick with Octavia Butler’s Adulthood Rites. Then again I might pair them and/or split them for a thematic discussion. I also agree that breaking up Lem would be great for group reading and I like your anthology suggestion for the same reason. It may be I can use that device to knock off some of the ‘classic’ authors I feel should be represented but maybe not with full novels.

    Jacob, the problem with LeGuin is that she offers too many great options. I like Lathe of Heaven because of its provocations about simplistic problem-solving, and specifically what it does with the race problem and situated Othering. I thought that would segue well with Butler. And Dispossessed, while slow enough I probably won’t use it, offers an intriguing account of functional anarchism that doesn’t require everyone to be selfless saints. But Left Hand is terrific too for the reasons you say. It’s in play. I’d love to but not sure I’d dare to pair it with Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, which is a tough read for beginners.

    I love Snow Crash but decided to draw a hard line at cyberpunk, since that’s definitely post-classical and could easily be a reading circle of its own on another occasion.

  13. Hi, Carl. Haldeman is particularly good in The Forever War because he is a Vietnam vet and the story is an amplification of themes from his own experience that have, since he wrote the book, reemerged in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is talking about soldiers recruited to fight an interstellar war against aliens about whom very little is known, a war that because transportation is limited to sub-lightspeed not only seems to go on forever. The society on whose behalf they are fighting changes dramatically while they are in transit from one battle to another. The standard heterosexual male warrior hero has to come to grips with fighting alongside women, gays, then mostly gay clones, on behalf of what gradually becomes, though not until the very end, a planetary group mind. Loss of friends and lovers through injury, death, and the random chances of assignments are depicted realistically. At the end (plot spoiler warning), the war itself seems to have been a colossal mistake. Lots of stuff to talk about here.

  14. I’m no expert, having read more Middle Ages history and less S/F than I would actually like, but you might be interested to know that another medievalist faced a similar problem a little while back and generated some discussion on his blog here.

  15. Cool! That’s quite a list. Intellectually satisfying, but practical? Even with the preponderance of short stories I wouldn’t like my chances of getting more than a couple students to actually read any significant fraction of it. This being my next challenge, after figuring out what to suggest we read – the actual reading. How many classes have we taken in which the professor blithely pontificated about his dead voles and the students picked up just enough to game the tests?

    It’s funny – I’m pretty much all the way off topic now – when I came out of grad school I thought a class was a reading list, a schedule of topics and a collection of assignments. That is, I thought a syllabus was an accurate description of what was going to happen. Pretty quickly I realized I could get a class to go like that for me, but not for the students. My syllabus is a first bid in a semester-long negotiation over the contours and process of a complex social relationship – a draft treaty, in a sense. Now I watch colleagues, administrations and accreditation bodies desperately adding verbiage to increasingly bloated syllabi to try anticipate, capture and control everything that actually does happen in classes and I have to laugh. The students don’t read them, because they know it’s all a fantasy and the real description of the class will be ongoingly emergent.

  16. I second Philip K. Dick and Left Hand of Darkness. Another thing to consider is that in the world of “classic” sci-fi, the novella is a much more potent force than it is in general literature. James Tiptree Jr and Jack Vance have written some very good ones.

  17. I like The Dispossessed because it’s not just anarchist world-building–she also tries to see where the flaw in that particular world would be, which gets at some of the questions about Human Nature that might be interesting. The other thing I love about that book–and the reason I read it to begin with–is a line in there somewhere about how work is one of the enduring, satisfying pleasures of life.

    Another recommendation: Sherri Tepper, “The Gate to Women’s Country.” Really excellent.

    Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, is quite entertaining, IIRC, as well.

    If you’re going to read Stephenson, I’d recommend “The Diamond Age” rather than “Snow Crash,” but that’s me.

    If you do Heinlein (or Vonnegut, for that matter), the rampant sexism should provoke some lively discussion.

  18. I agree about Dispossessed. I think it was you first told me to read it! But in terms of conceptual development and dramatic action it’s deadly dull, so maybe not the best candidate for a course whose first purpose is an invitation to reading.

    Tepper’s great, and Women’s Country is one of my favorites. I may slip it in if I end up giving the students a choice among thematic lists, as I increasingly feel I might. I’ve not come across Willis, so I’ll pick that up. Stephenson’s out, just because I had to draw a line somewheres and that’s one.

    You’re right about the sexism of the classical canon. I’m fighting through that with Demolished Man right now, what with its casual workplace sexual harassment, mooning but philosophical thwarted best friend/love interest, and improbably hysterical, waifish and pneumatic damsel-in-distress central plot point. Heinlein’s a little better; there’s no mean spirit in his sexism, just that geek reverence for the special Wisdom of the Feminine that’s so mirrored by lots of second-wave feminism. I think Vonnegut’s a little different yet, but I’ll have to post this now and come back to it because my battery’s bonking.

  19. Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, is actually a possibility for your reading list, for both the thematic thing and for the sexism angle. The world-building isn’t all that SF, in many ways, but it’s interesting how he imagines machines replacing people, and then, when the machines are destroyed (IIRC), people actually get excited about fixing them. His picture of Management Culture is prescient as well. And his treatment of women is heinous: The Wife is portrayed as a harpy who is only interested in her husband for the status he provides, and of course there are no women engineers or managers. It contrasts in interesting ways with Anette Bening’s character in American Beauty, whom I liked a whole lot more the second time I saw the flick (though I still think the whole thing is overrated and still think it has some severe problems).

    While I don’t have strong opinions about Heinlein (because I didn’t find the things I read particularly compelling and never bothered to read more), a lot of people have a lot of problems with his treatment of women. That Wisdom of the Feminine thing makes me barf. (Side note: one of the best books I’ve seen on that is Thomas Laqueur (sp?) Making Sex: he writes about how the change from the notion of the human body as a single kind of thing (with male/female variants) structures things differently than the victorian notion of the Male or Female Body, i.e., opposite sexes, therefore opposite beings. At its most extreme, one might forget that males and females are the same damn species.)

  20. I was thinking of Player Piano. It’s true that the wife is an unsympathetic character, but so are all those frat-boy engineers who have so thoroughly bollixed up the world by making it in their image. There’s a critique of virility as part of a larger critique of tyrannical power and irony about human frailty in Vonnegut that I find sympathetic and deeply humane. The thing about Anita is that she’s clearly given very little to work with by a sexist culture and plays the hand she’s dealt. Paul explicitly understands this about her, which embeds at least an implicit critique of patriarchy in their dynamic. But the ways she’s blocked and twisted by those blockages are just subsets of a more comprehensive stiffling of humanity which is Vonnegut’s theme. I think there’s a lot to talk about there.

    Laqueur’s a fave. Apparently historians who actually specialize in that period are irritated by him because ‘it’s more complicated than that’ (like feudalism, concepts of sex actually varied enormously from place to place) but I find him good to think with.

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