How Great Science Fiction Works

Course No. 2984
Professor Gary K. Wolfe, Ph.D.
Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies
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Course No. 2984
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What Will You Learn?

  • Examine how science fiction deals with the past, predicts the future, and which predictions have come to fruition.
  • Compare science fiction treatments of utopia and dystopia, and how remarkably similar these two seeming opposites can be.
  • Plunge into the treatment of famous science fiction icons, including the planet, the spaceship, the robot, and more.
  • Explore how science fiction has reflected and advanced politics, environmentalism, religion, gender, race, and more.
  • Study science fiction works from the 1980s - 90s to see how the genre was reinvented, and how it reflected those decades.

Course Overview

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.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction
    Kick off your adventure into science fiction by clearly defining what science fiction is, and more importantly, what science fiction is not. Learn how science fiction is distinguished from - yet often confused with - other literary genres such as fantasy and horror. Take a look at the concept of the monster" through horror, fantasy, and science fiction to help define the differences in the genres. Explore what is often considered the first science fiction novel: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." x
  • 2
    Science Fiction in the 19th Century
    Look at some of the most important names in 19th-century science fiction, including Poe, Verne, and Wells. From the books and stories they penned, the 20th-century science fiction story emerged. Explore select works from each author, gain the context to better understand their writings and lives, and learn how they influenced what we know as science fiction today. x
  • 3
    Science Fiction Treatments of History
    We commonly think of science fiction as dealing with the future, but there is a fascinating subset of science fiction that looks at the past. Learn how science fiction writers often mix real-life history with fiction and invoke mechanisms such as time travel to explore alternate histories - looking at how the world might have been different had history gone another direction at pivotal points in our past. One illuminating example of this approach, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, was recently turned into a series by Amazon. x
  • 4
    Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
    The concept of alternate histories enables vast possibilities. Discover how many science fiction stories tackle massive timescales, taking us from the very beginning to the very end of the universe, and any time and place in between. Examine the ideas science fiction writers proposed about evolution, anthropology, physics, religion, mythology, and more, and see how these concepts influence their view of both modern times and the far future. x
  • 5
    Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
    One intriguing theme presented in science fiction is the concept of utopia and dystopia - and how remarkably similar these two seeming opposites can be. Explore the fundamental questions of "Can our lives be better?" and "Can our lives be worse?" Take an in-depth look at some of the most poignant portrayals of utopian and dystopian societies and the social contexts that inspired them. x
  • 6
    The Rise of the Science Fiction Pulps
    Science fiction battled a long-standing bad reputation, born out of the pulp era" in history. Survey the rise of pulp science fiction through serials, magazines, and short stories at the turn of the 20th century and through the 1950s. You'll gain an appreciation of the obstacles the genre had to overcome through this period in history as Professor Wolfe highlights key authors who contributed to - and helped remedy - the pulp reputation." x
  • 7
    The Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories
    After World War II, science fiction took a turn for the better. Learn how one pivotal magazine called Astounding Science Fiction helped change the tide on science fiction. Review the specific works, writers, and editors who contributed to the resurgence of the science fiction. Uncover some of the little-known gems that shaped modern science fiction by reflecting society's struggles, anxieties, and fears to capture a whole new audience. x
  • 8
    The Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
    Science fiction is known for distinguishing elements: artificial intelligence, time travel, aliens, outer space, and more. Delve into one of the more iconic components of science fiction - the spaceship. Learn how the spaceship is portrayed in some of the most famous stories, as well as lesser-known works. Consider how stories of space exploration parallel and reflect the realities in which they are written. x
  • 9
    The Robot: From Capek to Asimov
    Robots are a common theme in science fiction, but why? Professor Wolfe introduces you to Karel Capek, who adapted the word robot" from a Czech word meaning "forced labor." Witness the evolution of this concept in science fiction throughout history - including the introduction of the android, existential questions about the nature of cyborgs, and the consequences of robots who think." x
  • 10
    The Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel
    In 1950, the New York Times ran an article claiming that science fiction had graduated from pulp fiction to respectable hardcover books. Learn how this remarkable validation was brought to fruition, and see how television and radio helped propel the popularity of science fiction novels. Examine influential authors of novels during this decade, with an in-depth look at Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and Arthur C. Clarke. x
  • 11
    From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
    A key differentiator between fantasy and science fiction is that fantasy stories often take place in worlds, while science fiction stories take place on a planet. Thus, the theme of planets is common among some of the great science fiction works in history. Explore the use of planets - whether being discovered or already colonized - in a variety of works. Focus on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, which uses accurate scientific data, and take a deep dive into Frank Herbert's vision. x
  • 12
    The Science Fiction Wasteland
    Not all science fiction predicts technology-driven modern futures. Look at the stories over time that foreshadowed a desolate and bleak future, ravaged by environmental issues, plagues, or cataclysmic events. Examine the five components of apocalyptic stories, the various paradoxes the wasteland-style novels predict or reflect, and some stellar examples from this often bleak subgenre. x
  • 13
    Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
    Science fiction includes war stories - which often respond to real-life wars. Ascertain how authors such as H. G. Wells took the subgenre of invasion tales to a new level by reflecting current anxieties such as annexation through fictional tales of intergalactic attacks. You'll also learn the truth behind The War of the Worlds hoax. Dig deep into themes such as genocide and extermination and how they are depicted in science fiction novels including Orson Scott Card's Ender Game, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. x
  • 14
    Religion in Science Fiction
    A number of science fiction stories tackle the concept of religion, which is often at odds with the concepts that define science fiction. Delve into how science fiction approaches religion, from parody, to reimagining familiar biblical stories and characters in the scope of science fiction, to confronting existing religions and inventing new beliefs. You'll also explore the opposite scenario, in which science fiction is used by religious writers to reaffirm religious beliefs, such as C.S. Lewis with his Space Trilogy. x
  • 15
    Science Fiction's New Wave
    In order to truly make a mark on the literary world, science fiction needed to develop a substantial body of work. In the 1950s and 1960s, see how authors such as J. G. Ballard defined and contributed to the New Wave. You'll also visit the anthologies of Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison to discuss whether they helped transform science fiction or reflected an existing shift that would have occurred regardless. x
  • 16
    Encounters with the Alien Other
    Aliens are another icon and staple of science fiction. Often depicted as hostile and representing the unknown other" as well as our fears about ourselves, aliens have been examined (and have examined us) in a variety of stories. Journey through the portrayal of aliens in important works by Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell, Jack Finney, Larry Niven, Stanislaw Lem, and Karen Joy Fowler." x
  • 17
    Environmentalism in Science Fiction
    Here you'll revisit the idea that science fiction often deals directly with the consequences of human actions, whether through robots who take over the world or massive storms produced by climate change. Starting with a common theme in many science fiction novels, bugs, Professor Wolfe walks you through works that feature - and often correctly predicted - environmental concerns and ramifications. x
  • 18
    Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
    One stereotype science fiction still hasn't fully shaken off is that it is a predominantly male genre. Originally, the audience was assumed to be male because science fiction often featured similar themes of exploration, war, and domination that characterized the Western genre. This idea was so prevalent that female science fiction writers were often only successful when writing under a male pseudonym or gender-ambiguous nom de plume. Look at how far the genre has progressed, with famous authors such as Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood, and consider how much work remains to be done. x
  • 19
    Cyberpunk and the 1980s
    Gibson's Neuromancer and the movie Blade Runner (based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) together formed a gritty, corporatized view of the future that set the standard for science fiction to come. Throughout the 80s, the concepts of corporatization took hold in science fiction, while at the same time, with real-life technological advances, authors began to investigate the concern that we are not changing technology - it is changing us. Delve into the question, Are we already living in the world cyberpunk writers predicted?"" x
  • 20
    The 1990s: The New Space Opera
    Space operas - mega-adventures that span galaxies and many pages - introduce complex and layered narratives with complicated characters who are often not immediately likeable. Professor Wolfe traces the components that comprise a space opera, differentiating it from a regular series. Consider how these new space operas relate to - and differ from - classic space operas, and see how modern television and movies have captured mainstream success with the concept. x
  • 21
    The Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
    The artifact in science fiction is typically a manufactured item with value, power, or mystery, which can be as small as a subatomic particle or as immense as the wormhole from the 2014 film Interstellar. Many science fiction stories grow around the search for an artifact, the protection of an artifact, or the quest to discover what meaning or use the artifact has. Explore how science fiction giants such as Arthur C. Clark, Larry Niven, Algis Budry, Gregory Benford, and others make use of the artifact. x
  • 22
    Science Fiction's Urban Landscapes
    While many science fiction stories take place in post-apocalyptic wastelands, deep in outer space, or on other planets, another common setting for science fiction is the futuristic city. Compare two different interpretations of urban landscapes, looking first at the flying cars and enormous glass and steel buildings some stories envision, then the gritty, dark dystopia the cyberpunk era introduced. Also consider how depictions of the future cities address and reflect environmental issues, overpopulation concerns, draughts, and other current anxieties. x
  • 23
    Science Fiction in the 21st Century
    Shift your attention to how science fiction grew through the last century into this one. Uncover how the genre has developed from having highly similar plots, audiences, and even authors, into a diverse field with international appreciation and ownership. Tour novels and stories featuring characters of all shapes and colors, written by authors of varying ethnicities, nationalities, and genders. Learn how they were received at the time of publication, and see the impact they had on later writers. x
  • 24
    The Future of Science Fiction
    Speculate with Professor Wolfe to consider how science fiction may be evolving in the future, as this genre is gaining popularity, acknowledgement, and recognition as an art form worthy of literary respect. Science fiction writers are topping the best-seller lists, and many works of literary fiction now seamlessly weave in elements that half a century ago would have been dismissed as science fiction. As more people realize that science fiction stories reflect the same struggles, characters, and emotions we are familiar with in literary fiction - simply in unfamiliar environments - he shares his predictions of what this fascinating genre will continue to deliver. x

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Your professor

Gary K. Wolfe

About Your Professor

Gary K. Wolfe, Ph.D.
Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies
Dr. Gary K. Wolfe is a Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University’s Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies. He earned his B.A. from the University of Kansas and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Dr. Wolfe has earned many awards, including the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in...
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Reviews

How Great Science Fiction Works is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 78.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting review of Science Fiction Literature. This is a fun course going over the evolution of Science Fiction Literature. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the future of science fiction, we see science fiction becoming more mainstream. Today there are authors using science fiction tropes whom you would never think of as being science fiction authors. This trend will continue in the future. I remember telling a friend that the movie Charlie (based on Flowers for Algernon) was Science Fiction and she was horrified but the operation that gave him his increased intelligence was pure Science Fiction so that was justified. I recommend this course to anyone who loves Science Fiction or has a curiosity about the genre.
Date published: 2017-01-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Encyclopedic Review of Science Fiction Professor Wolfe has a masterful command of the science fiction literature, its history, its development, and its influences on both movies and popular culture. However, his presentation is dry- I find my mind wandering to other activities of the day while listening. The information is good and I would recommend the course to others who are interested in the history and development of science fiction. But I could not recommend it as a source of "the most influential science fiction stories/novels, and why, " which is what I often look for in a course such as this (i.e. I could not recommend this course as a source as why I would recommend this science fiction book or that).
Date published: 2017-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A enjoyed the various approaches to Sci-Fi themes I really enjoyed the professor and his narration was excellent and interesting. I enjoyed the approach he took to breaking down the vast field into topics - the alien (excellent lecture by the way), the artifact (in many ways a very interesting topic from 2001 a Space Odyssey onward), the urban setting, the planet vs. world idea, the topic of international Sci Fi (and this lead me to many authors that I have now bought via Kindle to read, which I had never considered), and space opera, and the future of Sci Fi. An excellent series and I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even a fleeting interest in Sci-Fi. One of my better buys and it was in the Audible format.... which cost me less than $20.00 to purchase. The one problem with purchasing the audible (audio) version is no pdf book and no streaming. In this case, probably okay - but he covers so many authors and titles, if you want to follow up and read the short story, novel etc. it might well pay to buy the audio and get the pdf book that comes with the TGC version.
Date published: 2016-12-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Started out well, but a disappointment I viewed this lecture series via The Great Courses Signature Collection on Amazon. I was SO looking forward to this series of lectures. At first, I was not disappointed. Lectures 1 - 7 were wonderful. Lecture 8 was disappointing because, instead of ‘The Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon,’ lecture 6, ‘The Rise of the Science Fiction Pulps,’ was repeated. (Perhaps this was an issue with Amazon.) Except for that, there was clear sailing to lecture 14, ‘Religion in Science Fiction.’ I feel that a presentation in which more varied interpretations of religion in science fiction were explored would have strengthened the lecture series and given it more balance; so too for many of the remaining lecture topics. To paraphrase Nigel Kneale, a science fiction author not (I believe) mentioned: ‘fashionable terms’ of the academe alone cannot fully explain the genre. I also found, as have other reviewers, the paucity of references to science fiction in film and television to be a weakness. Much of science fiction’s greatest impact has been through these media. To focus exclusively on one medium of expression, literature, to the exclusion of other media does not facilitate a comprehensive and holistic assessment of the subject. Overall, a disappointing end to a good start.
Date published: 2016-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Misleading Title is the Only Problem This is one of those fascinating niche courses that the Teaching Company offers its customers from time to time. It is a well-organized survey of the history, development, and evolving themes in the area of written science fiction. I wish I could italicize the word "written" because this course gives very short shrift to the cinema world of S.F. Which is a bit of shame, because I'm sure most fans got their start watching SciFi in the movies and television as I did. As a long-time reader of science fiction, I was very impressed with Professor Gary Wolfe, who is at the top of his game explaining the stories, authors, and themes in this genre as it developed from the early 19th century writings of Mary Shelley to the current day. He is clearly a SciFi fan as his knowledge of the topic borders on the encyclopedic. I was particularly impressed with his explanation of the themes behind the stories of my favorite novels, showing me insights that I had not considered. Wolfe also introduced me to a variety of books and authors I had not previously considered. The course guidebook is a useful aide to the materials in the classes. I must admit that, having read science fiction since the 1950's, I was prepared to be disappointed but I turned out to be very delighted with this little gem. Caveat: Aside from the misleading title, it might help to know a little bit about the subject. You don't have to be a fan of science fiction to watch this course, but it certainly helps.
Date published: 2016-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course, Misleading Title This fantastic course is a masterful, well-organized, highly detailed survey of the history, development, and major themes and styles of written science fiction. It is not, however, a guide to understanding how a "great" science fiction story is constructed. And as other reviewers have pointed out, the course largely covers only written works, with occasional nods to science fiction movies and television shows, and hardly any mention of games. But with those caveats . . . From the pulp era to the punk era and beyond, Professor Wolfe offers a tour-de-force of the science fiction literary genre, citing numerous stories, books, authors, and editors as examples of the historical development of science fiction and its various styles and themes. As combined fan, student, and critic of science fiction with encyclopedic knowledge, Professor Wolfe has much to share, and his lectures are a joy to listen to (I have the audio version). With both clear and understandable discussions and great subject matter depth, this course could satisfy anyone from the occasional science fiction reader to the deeply immersed lifelong fan.
Date published: 2016-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science Fiction any fan of science fiction should enjoy this course as well as learning of books we've not yet read!!!
Date published: 2016-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How Great Science Fiction Works I enjoyed watching this as did my wife. I had thought it was going to be more about the process, the how to write science fiction so was a bit disappointed in that it was not. Also my reading really was more in the Isaac Asimov era so I was disappointed that it did not cover more on him. I had not read much science fiction past that era. Nonetheless, it was very interesting and informative.
Date published: 2016-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Opened up Whole Vistas I have been a sci-fi reader for decades. This course opened my eyes to several underlying themes and to early sci-fi. I was introduced to a number of authors I hadn't heard of but whose works are outstanding.
Date published: 2016-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really Informative I am totally impressed with this course! Professor Wolfe is knowledgeable, informative, and presents his material very well. I have listened to many Teaching Company courses and this one ranks in the top 5%. Well done!
Date published: 2016-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview For Newbies and Veterans I read a lot of SF and fantasy as a kid, but haven't for decades and wanted to see what I'd missed back then and more recently. This was a really perfect presentation that would tell almost any reader much they wouldn't know about the history of the genre and its greatest writers. I also appreciated in-depth discussion of some of my favorites. I'd love to hear something similar on fantasy. I made lots of notes about books to get for years into the future.
Date published: 2016-07-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nice survey Brings the history of science fiction and its themes into perspective. Tends toward hard SciFi. I might have been nice to see how similar themes play out in the more fantastical forms of imaginative fiction.
Date published: 2016-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How Science Fiction Works Having been a science fiction fan in my youth (I own every Robert Heinlein book), I was eager to see what Dr. Wolfe had to say about writing Science Fiction. I am a novice writer who is trying to find my "niche." The course is really a history of the great sci-fi writers throughout the past couple of centuries. I haven't finished the course yet, so I'm not sure about its value to me as a prospective writer. However, I am thoroughly enjoying the journey. I recommend all the Great Courses having to do with writing, especially: Writing Great Fiction, Writing Creative Nonfiction, How to Publish Your Book, and How to Write About Anything.
Date published: 2016-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Introduction to written American & English SF Apart from such minor cavils as the awkward, misleading title of the course (and the embarrasingly tacky credits that precede each lecture) this course as much to recommend it. Another reviewer doubted that Wolfe could have read all the books he discusses; he has been the primary SF reviewer for Locus (the monthly magazine that covers the field) for countless years; based on these reviews, which I've been reading since he started, and on his essays and books, I'd venture that he's read all the books he discusses and many more. The misleading title doesn't state that the course covers only written SF and almost exclusively by American and British authors, which limitation understandably disappointed purchasers who expected wider coverage. The organizing principles of the course appear to be two. First, about seven of the lectures address the "icons of SF" Wolfe discussed in his first book (the robot, the alien, etc.) These lectures are intermingled into what amounts to a history of SF (narrowed as stated above) from its inception (more or less, with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) to very recent works like The Three-Body Problem. Wolfe's selection and organization of texts is superb; almost every story and book he discusses offers many rewards to prospective readers and played an important role in the development of SF. His lecture style is clear, very engaging, and (unlike those in many other GC) unpretentious. One point potential purchasers should note: the title is misleading in yet a third way. Very little of Wolfe's commentary concerns how SF works (except indirectly). By far the greatest percentage of it consists of well-narrated, detailed plot summaries of selected works. For readers new to SF, this approach should be great; not only can they identify topics and periods of interest but actual texts to seek out; Wolfe's commentary puts the works into various perspectives (historical, cultural, literary) sufficiently to enrich the reading of the texts. But for readers who, like myself, have read SF their whole lives and who wanted to learn how it works, this course may come as a disappointment. For me, the plot summaries, both of books I've read and book's I've not read, consumed so much of most lectures that the little time left for analysis offered thin gruel. This is hardly Wolfe's fault. At the risk of repetition: this may be the most misleadingly titled course offered by TGC. A more accurate title would have been "An Introduction to Written Science Fiction of the Western World." The GC title, which makes the course sound like literary analysis (which it is not). may put off purchasers who would jump at the course Prof. Wolfe actually presents. One only hopes all purchasers will read enough about the course to realize what they're really getting and make a decision based on that information, not on the title.
Date published: 2016-05-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent review of SciFi in print media only Professor Wolfe presents an entertaining and extremely comprehensive coverage of the field, limited mostly to science fiction in print media only. I was very disappointed that SF movies and TV series received only passing mention, except for those that were based on published literature (such as "2001", based on Arthur C. Clarke's works). Several reviewers made mention of this shortcoming, but these reviews were apparently written after I purchased the course. I'm not sure that I would have bought it if I knew SF films and TV series were essentially not covered. Even the classic serials of the 1930s-1950s (?) such as "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers", as well as their modern remakes, were not mentioned. It's almost as if the large number of very good science fiction movies and TV series that have been made in recent years do not qualify as serious works, which would be ironic, since the early science fiction stories appearing in pulp magazines and paperbacks generated a similar response. Professor Wolfe has an informal and conversational speaking style that was easy to listen to, at least early in the course. However, as the lectures got towards the end, the mind boggling array of unknown (at least to me) authors and works became a bit overwhelming. As other reviewers mentioned, it is difficult to imagine that he could have read and absorbed all of these works. I think that less emphasis on cataloging the myriad works that are available in print (and he still didn't cover them all, for instance Michael Crichton), with more coverage of other media (films, TV, and as one reviewer mentioned, even video games) would have been helpful.
Date published: 2016-05-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A History of Science Fiction I liked this course, I liked this course in a way that I have not liked others I have taken with the Teaching Company. This course made me want to contact Professor Wolfe and have a conversation about science fiction. There were other genres and niches I wanted to discuss with him, particularly a series of animated productions from Japan titled Legend of the Galactic Heroes, based on a novel series that had seized Japan by storm in the 80s and early 90s. There's also growing markets in India regarding science fiction that might have been a neat conversation to have with the professor. I have wanted to ask questions before, but this was the first one I wanted to have a conversation with purely based on the course lectures. Unfortunately, I must agree that this course was not entirely as advertised. I had expected an exploration of common tropes, their use in fiction and film, and overall some of the pitfalls they can succumb to when the authors are not being careful. I expected a lot of history and an exploration of the classics of science fiction in its literary pantheon, but I had not expected that to be all their was. "How Science Fiction Works" suggests a breakdown of mechanics, but ultimately that is not what this was. Had this course been titled "A History of Science Fiction" then I would have had no complaint on those grounds, though I would have appreciated more than a gentle teasing of science fiction outside of the US, UK, and occasionally France and Germany. That strikes me as a missed opportunity, though I understand some of the reasons why. Wolfe is an engaging professor, his knowledge of the material has an almost surreal quality to it. Almost as if a science fiction fan who had spent his years dreaming and reading about the stars through the pages of pulp and dime novels was suddenly granted the capability to make a career out of it. He has a love for this material, a love that made my own more tame curiosity-driven interest burn a little brighter. I do recommend this course whole-heartedly to anyone actually interested in learning about how science fiction evolved through time. Where to go from here? Well, Professor Voth's History of World Literature is a classic in the literary courses. It has left a large impression on me, and his magnetism about the broader field of literature is similar to Wolfe's in this course. For an exploration of myth and literature there are several great courses for this, one of which was King Arthur. Professor Armstrong has a passion with the facts that will blur the lines of reality, myth, and literary fiction. Towards the more practical end, there are several writing courses offered by the teaching company if that was what ultimately pulled you to this course. Given the nature of science fiction, writing great fiction is another recommendation. Lastly, if you were ever curious about publishing a book, and learning more about the process that has led to the publication of some of your favorite works in the modern era, Professor Friedman's course is wonderful to take.
Date published: 2016-05-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Journey to a galaxy far away! I have been hoping for the last several years that the Teaching Company would do a course on science fiction literature. I had made requests and recommendations for that topic to be included as a new course. So when they released this course less than a year ago, I saw my hard work pay off. How Great Science Fiction Works did not disappoint me. It is structured both chronologically and thematically. With the starting point of modern science fiction literature being the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 181, it traces the development of the genre through the 19th century novelists of Poe, Verne, and Wells, the pulp magazines of the 1920’s and 1930s, to the literary giants of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, concluding with the genre in the 21st century as is currently stands. The course breaks from the narrative into the thematic, looking at certain recurring motifs and storylines in well known novels. These include the Spaceship, the alien artifact, the depiction of planets, environmentalism, religion as well as war and genocide. Theses lectures are something of a what’s what of the greatest and, in some cases, not as well known science fiction books. If you are ho[ping for there to be discussions about the films of science fiction, you will be disappointed. This course looks at the literary tradition of science fiction. However, mentions are made to Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, and a few other classics science fiction television show and films. I think that it could have been given a better title. “How Great Science Fiction Works” does not have a great ring to it. I recommend this course to those science fiction enthusiasts as well as anyone with only a passing knowledge of the genre. The professor offers some great titles to read and will expand your horizons of the genre even further.
Date published: 2016-04-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Course pertains 99% to WRITTEN Sci-Fi; not movies CONTEXT: In this course, it appears implicitly that the WRITTEN form of Sci-Fi is the only “valid” form as there is only a casual note of Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight Zone, or Outer Limits. For a science fiction buff, I’m astounded that these significant cornerstones were just casually mentioned in chapter-20. Most of my friends, relatives, and associates know these 4 profusely, and few of them know (or care) anything about what the good professor mostly talks about in WRITTEN form – starting from the 1920’s. In summary, this is an in-depth analysis of the history of WRITTEN science fiction from the intellectual point of view. If you have a bookshelf with a thousand sci-fi books, then this course is for you. Yes – there were a FEW casual mentions of some movies. EXPECTATION: I was expecting an expose behind all the characters in these 4 science fiction giants and why we viewers came to like-hate some of them….plus some of the remarkable parallels in humanities these thought-pondering and story telling subjects have revealed. COURSE TITLE: If the title of the course indeed was “How Science Fiction Works” – then IMHO, there should be at least ONE (1) lecture on our human psychology and exactly WHY we are drawn to science fiction – what “works” and what “doesn’t work” (without crutching on the evolution pollution). If that was implicit – then it should be EXPLICIT. Yes – in the last chapter there is a one-liner to that effect. For this course title, I think it is reasonable to explicitly differentiate how Sci Fi differs from other fiction: that is – what Science Fiction IS and what it IS NOT. I’m certain there numerous examples of Sci Fi failures with some discussion why it failed – in contrast with why others are so successful. For what “works”, I was also hoping for a summary PERCENTAGE of Sci Fi by topic; for example: dystopia-50%, alternate history-20%, bad-boy extraterrestrials-10%, global disaster-5%, etc to show exactly who really has original thought. HUGE MISSING CHUNK: Sci Fi video games are an ENORMOUS chunk of our culture – and not even mentioned. Action video games like the Deus Ex series, Mass Effect series, Half-Life series, Fallout series & others - clearly do an expose on Sci Fi. This is like entering the most fascinating book you've ever read -- and taking part of it – being responsible for various endings depending on the decisions you make. THAT, my friend is ultimate Sci-Fi. Though many shoot-em-up games are for kids, there are numerous games for adults. The clientele for buying video games has grown up - now is age 30. I'm a 67-year old "kid" -- retired computer tech. I will die from YOUNG age -- not from OLD age. Before retiring last year, most all my coworkers leveraged their computer tech skills for Sci-Fi video games (as I did). In comparison, we find TV and going to the moves UTTERLY BORING as a sack of cement. One of my pals said "if you're not into a good Sci-Fi action video game -- then you're ALREADY dead". Some purely adult non-combat Sci-Fi PUZZLE games are so complex, it would be utterly IMPOSSIBLE for kids to figure them out (Myst series). If you are impatient, then forget it. I can't verify this but I was told that in 2011, the video game industry made more $$$ than the movie industry -- with the Writer's Guild now creating the stories. With megabucks at stake, they positively *MUST* get a straight-A. Serious Sci-Fi? I put my money where my mouth is: my custom-built machine is $9.5 gran and I'm in great company. Perhaps a more ACCURATE title for this course should be: How Great WRITTEN Science Fiction Works -or more accurately- The History of WRITTEN Science Fiction Professor Wolfe is an excellent speaker and knows his material well. He is so skilled at reading a teleprompter, you wouldn’t know it. However there are such FEW graphics or photos shown (because it IS about written material) that the AUDIO (not video) course would suffice – unless you want to see the professor walk back and forth a million times with “bill-yuns” of hand gestures. I took 2 pages of typed notes for future reference & reading. Yes – I would recommend this course. BTY-Doc, the necktie should reach & cover the belt buckle…else Dilbert.
Date published: 2016-04-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Survey Gary Wolfe’s How Great Science Fiction Works would be better titled A Survey of Science Fiction. He discusses dozens of books by many authors, offers plot summaries, and examines various themes such as spaceships, religion, artifacts, and feminism. One would have to be exceptionally well read in the genre not to discover through Prof. Wolfe some unknown author or work. If you’re new to sci fi and want an extensive overview of the topic, this course will fulfill your needs admirably. When however a teacher must cover a large subject in a limited time, he either has to go wide or go deep; he can’t do both. A survey of Russian literature that would introduce a new reader to Turgenev might not satisfy a different reader wondering why 19th century Russian novelists, unlike their English counterparts, devoted so much attention to religion and philosophy. So those who yearn for a deeper analysis of sci fi may be somewhat disappointed. For example: if you wonder what the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey symbolizes, Wolfe’s “it seems to have inspired early Man to use bones for tools and weapons” contains about as much insight as “Moby Dick is a whale that seems to have inspired the interest of a commercial fisherman.” If you wondered how the Kirk/Spock incarnation of Star Trek could preach universal tolerance while featuring black skinned villains prone to mindless violence, you won’t find the answer here because Star Trek is a TV series and therefore barely merits mention. Want to know why almost every English professor considers Thomas Hardy’s works literature but Isaac Asimov’s just fiction? Wolfe concludes his lectures with the generous claim that “science fiction can be as artful and accomplished as any other kind of fiction.” Why then does sci fi never win important literary awards or generate shelves of criticism? Wolfe suggests it’s the victim of ignorance and prejudice by highbrow critics. I find this unconvincing. Surely it must in part have to do with the fact that Dickens’s “thin gruel” has layers of association and metaphorical references whereas LeGuin’s “gichy-michy ration” lacks any meaning outside her novel (and not much within it). I say again: this is a very fine survey course and well worth a purchase for those interested in a wide ranging perspective. It’s led me to read several books/short stories of which I had previously been unaware. Just don’t expect too much.
Date published: 2016-04-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A fine genre history and themes course, mistitled This is an impressive course, and Professor Wolfe's knowledge of the genre is encyclopedic. As others have noted, it's hard to imagine how he could have read so much. At times, and more the case in some lectures than others, it's very heavy in plot summary. That may be largely unavoidable, especially in the case of the more obscure works, but a few of the lectures began to drag just a bit as a consequence. I really appreciated the way the course managed to provide both a history of the genre and a focus on some of its major themes and icons (the planet, the artifact, etc.). The icons lectures were quite innovative. I also appreciated Professor Wolfe's discussion of the texts in their cultural contexts. My biggest issue--and I suspect this may be more the fault of the marketing people at Great Courses--is that the title is not descriptive of the course! I was expecting it to delve into those attributes of SF that make it appealing--the pleasure of the text. The great SF theorist Darko Suvin was one of the pioneers of this endeavor, and I was expecting at least a nod to him and others--the theorists and critics such as Tom Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, Damon Knight, et al, who explored those questions. There were some tantalizing hints of this in a few of the lectures, but they were never fully realized or became as prominent as the course title would suggest. Nor was there much attention given to narrative except in the lecture on the New Wave. It seems picky to say this, given just how comprehensive the course is, and it's easily the best SF -related course in the Great Courses catalog, but at the end of the course, I still felt it was not quite delivering what the title promised.
Date published: 2016-03-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Could anyone read this much in a lifetime? For starters, I enjoyed the course. What I found most astonishing is the "catalogues" (reminded me of a sci-fi version of Whitman) of authors that the Professor rattles off many times in each lecture. As a casual reader of sci-fi I had only heard of and read a few of them, but I kept thinking --- if this prof did nothing but read sci-fi since the 1st grade, could he have read all the books/authors he refers to? At least he suggested some titles I might want to try. Well worth your time.
Date published: 2016-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Looked forward to each lesson I really enjoyed this course. The instructor not only knew his subject but actually came off as liking science fiction. Where called for, he did present the laws science fiction has been prone to, but even then he used the context of the colorful (maybe some other adjectives would be better) editors/owners of the pulps. 24 lectures could have easily been 36..however in 24 lectures he was able to organize his presentations to cover authors old and new, themes, and some key books/stories and why they are worth reading.
Date published: 2016-03-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Sci-Fi, Weak Lit This is a generally enjoyable romp through the history, sub-genres and icons of sci-fi such as one might find on a good sci-fi channel (sadly none exist). It is not a college lit course with emphasis on plot, characterization and the like. I found this to be something of a lost opportunity to explore literature and the art of writing through the lens of science fiction. I've been privileged to see this done in both comic and vintage film courses by exceptional instructors. However once you accept the course on its own terms it is an entertaining experience not unlike a visit to an ice cream parlor. The Professor has created a nice standalone series of lectures that only rarely reference each other, though this causes some repetition. If there is a particular subject that interests you, you can jump straight to that lecture and not be lost. In my case I'll probably jump past the eco-feminist lectures if I re-watch the course, because I'm old, male, grumpy and not Bernie Sanders. One way to watch the course might be to string together the lectures that cover the history of the genre. These would be 1, 2, 6, 7, 10, 15, 19, 20, 23 and maybe 24. Any fan of science fiction will enjoy this course. For more liberal home school families, this might be a nice, light addition to a lit course and a counterpoint to more 'classical' works. More conservative folks will probably find some lectures a bit offensive and might want to preview the course.
Date published: 2016-02-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth waiting for Many years ago I bought Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind. As an inveterate SF reader for most of my (at the time) 6 decades of life, I was expecting to enjoy reviews of books I had read and perhaps some I had not read. However, it seems that the purpose of the course was to convince the professor's academic colleagues that imaginative stories were worthy of serious consideration. The course was loaded with the arcane jargon of literary criticism and whenever a book cover was shown, it was the dullest one possible. It took all the joy out of the subject matter. THIS is the course I was looking for and it was worth the wait. This course was FUN to take. Inevitably there will be authors that get left out for reasons of space, but some of the omissions were hard for me to fathom. Jack Vance in particular with his unique auctorial voice (many times parodied) and longevity deserved at least a mention. Prof. Wolfe mentioned that Connie Willis has won more awards than anyone else. If awards are a criterion, then certainly Poul Anderson and Mike Resnick are worthy of mentioning. Harlan Ellison, the enfant terrible of the field (before he became a curnudgeon), is only mentioned as an anthologist, not a multiple award winning author. Nevertheless Prof. Wolfe covered a great deal of territory in an entertaining manner. I will refer you to the other reviews for more on the content. One reviewer mention having difficulty viewing the course on Kindle. I watched it using the Kindle app for iPad and had no problem.
Date published: 2016-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More than I expected! I used to love science fiction but before attending theses lectures, I didn't realise how vast were the different themes it covers! The teacher puts everything in context, he gives multiples examples, he is gifted to tell just enough of the stories to entice us! He is very knowledgeable!
Date published: 2016-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science and our paranoid imagination Video download Dr Wolfe's HOW GREAT SCIENCE FICTION WORKS is a long list of interesting book summaries, divided thematically or historically to explain the evolution of sci-fi as a genre, especially since the 19th Century. His summaries are enriched with plenty of biographical and sociological details, not to speak of more ideological concerns such as gender, race, multiculturalism and environmentalism. This is not as heavy as it sounds. Wolfe always keeps a light touch. I never felt bored by material included for purely academic reasons. The sheer accumulation of plot ideas and concretely described story situations make a deeper impression than literary theory alone could. _______________ How you feel about the whole package depends on what you are seeking BROADER READING LIST: Very helpful, with many out-of-the-way suggestions. Still, obvious choices were left out for reasons I could not fathom. Michael Crichton's novels, for example, are completely excluded. Why? What membership rules did he break? HOME TEACHING OR TEEN EDUCATION: This is an obvious choice if you encourage anyone interested in writing or fiction generally. Note that most of us first encounter sci-fi through films and TV series, and yet this course is limited to books. When feature films are mentioned, "dumbing down" complaints are sure to follow. SCIENCE AND OUR PARANOID IMAGINATION: The genre as a whole expresses both individual creative genius and collective anxieties. Wolfe goes into many archetypal situations. In multi-generational space voyages, for example, passengers might forget why the odyssey started, create new religions or evolve unheard-of social hierarchies. Unusual diseases or exotic psychological illnesses are also possible. BEYOND THE COMMERCE / ARTS DIVIDE: Commercial fiction is concerned with a single hero/heroine solving high-stakes problems within tight deadlines. Many sci-fi classics ignore these limitations. IDEA-BASED STORIES: More than any other literary genre, sci-fi is concerned with ideas in a universe where all is not as it seems. It appeals to readers willing to sacrifice depth of characterization for wider vistas suggested by astronomy, history, robotics, sociology and anthropology. At what point is our humanity threatened? These issues require a bigger canvas in terms of characters, time limits and physical setting. __________________ PRESENTATION is very good. Wolfe speaks eloquently and fluently. Pictures of authors are nice, but this is an idea-centric course. So audio versions are all you require. Overall, as Dr Wolfe repeats in every course, standards have risen well above the "boy's adventure" standards of the 20's and 30's. Definitely worthwhile for the niche audiences listed above.
Date published: 2016-02-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from How Great Science Fiction Works I have only just started this course and have already learned some things I was not aware of before. I anticipate learning a lot more.
Date published: 2016-01-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Love the Course - Kindle App doesn't work For the first 10 lectures I enjoyed watching this course on my Kindle. Suddenly the Kindle app quit working and even with a restart of the Kindle, the next lecture I attempted to watch quit in the middle of the course. I had to resort to watching the lecture on my laptop. I hope that Great Courses looks into fixing the Kindle app. There were several feedbacks on Amazon that the app is not working. But I do love Professor Wolfe's course and how he breaks down some of the great books in the Science Fiction Genre. It has pointed me to some new books for me to read.
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How Great Science Fiction Works What a hoot! I have enjoyed this course greatly. I am a tangential reader of science fiction, and love these literature overviews. I was looking forward to an overview for general context and lots of short summaries of stories to build my "to read" list. The course did not disappoint. My list is good for several years of reading.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love this course I am a long-time reader and student of science fiction, particularly the stories and books produced during the Golden Age and the 1950s and 1960s. Most courses that I have seen and taken have been more concerned with later science fiction, but not this one. This course traces the influential works of writers from the very beginning of the magazines, not to mention the fathers and mothers of s-f like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. While not all of my favorite authors are covered (it would take a longer course to do that), this one does discuss the writers and works that have made the most impact, in my view at least, on the field. A great product.
Date published: 2016-01-28
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