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.
In 24 captivating lectures, How Great Science Fiction Works reveals the qualities that make science fiction an enduring phenomenon that has been steadily gaining popularity. Exploring the greatest works, as well as many lesser-known yet highly influential novels and stories, you’ll grasp the context and achievements of authors like Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many more. You’ll experience the wonder, horror, and incredible imagination of works like Frankenstein, the Foundation series, The Martian Chronicles, Earth Abides, Stranger in a Strange Land, Neuromancer, The Left Hand of Darkness, Doomsday Book, and dozens of more recent stories as well. You’ll also get a glimpse into how this genre has influenced mainstream popular culture in movies such as Metropolis, Star Wars, and Blade Runner and TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek.
Leading you on this insightful journey is Professor Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University’s Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies. Professor Wolfe has been nominated five times for the Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Convention and has won numerous other awards for criticism and scholarship. He has authored many books, essays, and articles, and he cohosts an award-nominated weekly science fiction podcast. You won’t find a more engaging, knowledgeable, and passionate professor for this multifaceted subject.
What Defines Science Fiction?
Professor Wolfe begins by defining what science fiction is, and more importantly, what it is not. In distinguishing science fiction from fantasy—a genre with which it is frequently confused—the key difference is that a science fiction story should be possible: things that we might actually create, places we might actually go, societies that might actually evolve, given our present understanding of reality.
Fantasy, on the other hand, traffics in magic and the supernatural—events that are impossible according to that same understanding of reality. As Professor Wolfe says, “You can stand in King’s Cross Station in London all you like, looking for Platform 9 ¾, but you’re not going to get to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. But build a rocket ship and you can get to the moon or Mars, or even to Pluto or a remote comet.” Hogwarts is a fantasy setting, while Mars is (usually) a science fiction setting.
Similarly, science fiction and horror also often get lumped together due to the sometimes dark and scary themes of much science fiction. However, a similar distinguishing principle applies: when the “horror” is rooted in real science, then it can and should be considered science fiction. You will take this concept a step further as you explore the various types of monsters in both science fiction and fantasy, starting with Mary Shelley’s scientifically created creature in Frankenstein. Her novel is considered by some to mark the birth of modern science fiction, since the monster is created not by magic, but by science as understood in Shelley's time.
Trace Science Fiction’s Evolution from Pulp to Pop Culture
By the 1860s, a robot-like “steam man” and other inventions began to appear in popular “dime novels,” which eventually gave way to “pulp” magazines (so-called for the cheap paper they were printed on). Several of these featured early science fiction stories like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Martian tales, and eventually the first pulp devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories, appeared in 1926. While such magazines reprinted classic tales by Poe, Verne, and Wells, they also did a lot to give science fiction its reputation as a sensationalist, mass-produced kind of writing. Pulp writers often didn’t consider themselves serious authors, and sometimes said they didn’t expect their stories to last much beyond that month’s magazine. Trying to eke out a living by churning out stories for very low pay, they simply didn’t have the time for literary pretentions, leading the literary world to regard such fiction as “besotted nonsense” or worse. Yet a few very influential authors and editors sought to develop a new, more mature kind of science fiction, leading many fans to regard the 1940s as a kind of “golden age” during which many of the techniques and themes of modern science fiction were developed. These included:
- developing complex, layered, and relatable characters
- promoting the notion of competence, knowledge, and problem-solving over traditional heroics and brute strength, leading to what some have come to call the “competent man” motif in science fiction
- presenting the setting as a “lived-in” world rather than a generic future
- ensuring that the science of the story should be accurate and defensible in terms of contemporary understandings of science and technology
- exploring the social and economic effects of changes in the future
- developing common future settings that could be used for multiple stories, and that could evolve over a series of stories
As the pulp magazines fell into decline, paperback books and hardcover science fiction anthologies were picking up steam and reaching a wider audience. In the 1950s, science fiction began to develop a substantial book market. This new “golden age” of science fiction novels helped further define the literary standards of the genre.
Mainstream media started paying attention to science fiction as well. One of the most famous radio broadcasts in history was Orson Welles's adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds in 1938. Space Patrol debuted on television in 1950, followed by science fiction staples such as The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Science fiction had been a part of the movies since the very beginning, with early classics by Georges Méliès and Fritz Lang, as well as later Hollywood blockbusters like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Alien, and E.T.
In the 1960s, the “New Wave” movement challenged science fiction to embrace more experimental literary forms and explore “inner space” as well as outer space, while the 1970s saw the rise of important feminist voices and the 1980s the rise of computer-savvy cyberpunk and its various offshoots like steampunk. Older forms were updated and given new literary complexity with the New Space Opera of the 1990s, and the post-2000 era has seen a blossoming of science fiction worldwide, with new and more diverse voices and, finally, a measure of literary respectability as more traditional literary writers took up science fiction themes.
How Does Science Fiction Reflect Our Hopes and Anxieties?
An important factor in the popularity of science fiction is how authors reflect real-world concerns in fictional societies, from Ray Bradbury's 1951 Fahrenheit 451 responding to fears of censorship and political intolerance to Paolo Bacigalupi's grim portrayal of future “water wars” in the American Southwest in 2015's The Water Knife. Such books provide a warning and call for vigilance to avoid these bleak futures, balancing more optimistic visions of new worlds to explore, new technologies to develop, or even new ways of being human.
Few science fiction writers would ever claim to be predicting the future, and serious science fiction stories are almost always really about the world in which they were written. But sometimes writers get it almost eerily right—Hugo Gernsback describing radar in 1911, H.G. Wells coining the term “atomic bomb” in 1914, Murray Leinster describing the Internet in 1946, Ray Bradbury describing giant flatscreen TVs in 1951, William Gibson inventing “cyberspace” in 1984, and so on. Whether scientists and engineers, many of whom had been science fiction readers, were directly inspired by the fiction they had read, or whether writers were simply extrapolating logical extensions of the technologies of their time, there is no doubt that the world we live in now reflects much of the science fiction of yesterday.
Whether you’re a die-hard fan, a casual reader, or you just want to understand what all the fuss is about, this course will provide an enjoyable look at why this genre is so influential and important to our society.