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 4.5 out of 5 by 75.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from More catalogue than course On the odd occasion that the lecturer discusses science fiction, its evolution, and its place in our culture, this is a terrific series. Alas, that is the minority, and most of the course is just a list of books with plot synopses. I added a lot to my reading list, but learned very little
Date published: 2019-07-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from taking sci-fi seriously kudos to the great courses for looking beyond “classic” literature and offering an in-depth study of a particular genre, especially one than tends to be easily dismissed by everyone outside it. professor wolfe does a good job of covering the history and development of science fiction, from its fuzzy beginnings down to the present day, as well as the broad range of themes and concerns that make scifi so distinctive. he also doesn’t shy away from discussing the warts: he fully acknowledges the disposible nature of pulp era stories, the tendency to focus more on action and setting than character, and the racial and gender biases that have been so prominent until quite recently. in short, he covers science fiction sympathetically but honestly, and that’s exactly what you want. the difficulty in a course such as this one is in striking a balance between telling the broader story of science fiction on the one hand, and summarizing the contents of individual stories on the other. when the course strikes this balance, it’s quite interesting. unfortunately some lectures have a tendency to feel like little more than a catalogue of summaries: “so-and-so wrote this novel, in which this happened; and then there’s that novel, in which that happened; and then another story…” this i feel is less effective because the various details start to blur together in your head, and you can feel like you’ve looked closely at a whole bunch of trees without really having enough of a sense of the forest. it must be said that as a presenter the professor is fairly low-key. he does do a perfectly decent job, and on the rare occasion when he gives his frank opinion it can be quite entertaining, but by and large he’s a capable rather than an exciting speaker. i did the video version of this course, and while the set is quite attractive, the audio would be more than sufficient. this course will be most useful to people who have already read some science fiction and want a better sense of the overall landscape, and to people who are curious about science fiction and are looking for suggestions as to where to start. unfortunately many of the summaries include substantial spoilers, which the professor couldn’t avoid but which will nonetheless affect actual reading. if you’re not intending to read science fiction on the other hand and just want a overview of the genre, the course will still be interesting, but it may feel like something is missing.
Date published: 2019-06-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyed it very much The course title makes no sense, but the course material was for the most part quite interesting. I like structure & history, this course provided both. I've read SF for a long time but never had a clear picture of its evolution as a literary form until now. Many reviewers cited the lack of coverage of movies & other visual media. Given the 24-lecture constraint (which I assume was imposed by The Teaching Company), I think the professor was wise to confine his few comments to movies based on notable written works. A course just on SF movies would be great and hopefully TTC will give us one soon. In fact you could do a whole course just on SF movies derived from literature, and the ways in which the movies did or did not reflect the source work. Categories would range from adaptations mostly faithful in both letter & spirit (John Carpenter's "The Thing"), to adaptations largely faithful but deviating in one or more crucial points (1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still", and if you know the movie but don't know what crucial point I'm referring to, read the source story, "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates), to "adaptations" that are nothing more than a ripoff of a famous title and bear no resemblance to the source ("I, Robot", "Starship Troopers", and Professor Wolfe to his credit casts scorn on both of those execrable movies). Since practically every reviewer had some personal nit to pick, I can't resist adding mine. Vonnegut does not belong in this course. All SF fans know that Vonnegut himself repeatedly and tediously rejected the label of science fiction for his works. He was an annoying man, but he was right. "Cat's Cradle", discussed in lecture 14 on religion in SF, is social satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, as were almost all of Vonnegut's works mis-labeled as SF. However, what could be more fun than a giant argument over whether a given work is SF! There should be a whole course on that topic too. Margaret Atwood could teach it (joke). If you like SF, the very least this course will do for you is offer you some previously unsampled authors to look into. That alone would have been sufficient recompense for me, though I got much more out of it.
Date published: 2019-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful! This is a fun class and teaches a student quite a bit. I truly enjoy this course and would recommend it to anyone novice or expert. The professor is well-read and has keen insight into the nature of science fiction! Fun, fun, fun!
Date published: 2019-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent It was all that I expected. Worthwhile for a prospective writer.
Date published: 2019-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview This is the most recent course I've bought and I could not be more satisfied. I have enjoyed SciFi for years and this added so much information on background, influences of the authors. The professor was excellent, interesting, and entertaining. I'll be widening my reading from now on.
Date published: 2019-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Understanding Sci-Fi's place in the Literary World Lately, I've noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find older science fiction novels in bookstores both large and small. Once popular titles that I read years ago are no longer being re-printed. Nevertheless, from humble beginnings, science fiction has developed into a very interesting literary genre and I wanted to find out more. Professor Wolfe covers a lot of ground in the course and outlines many more books than I have time to read. However, he does pause and reflect on the important authors and titles. In 1934, Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote "A Martian Odyssey", a seminal work that casts alien beings as benevolent; a stark contrast to what had been published before his short story. I found a collection of Mr. Weinbaum's stories on eBay, and have enjoyed what I've read so far. Another find was Daniel Keyes' "Flowers of Algernon". I thought it was well written and creative, a combination that is hard to find in any genre. Several years before taking this course, I read Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven", published in 2014. I was not expecting Professor Wolfe to talk about this book, which was a National Book Award finalist. And that sums up the point of the course - the best science fiction is as good as any literature written today. If you decide to take this course, I'm certain you will find a few new titles to search for and explore. My sixth review (Video Streaming).
Date published: 2018-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent survey of themes and history of SF I'm on my 2nd pass through the course. I found the presentation to be insightful, and the organization to work well in covering the diverse range of ideas in SF. It discussed many SF stories and novels I had read, some I had forgotten about, and put them in context of what else was going on in SF and the world at the time. I found the information added to my enjoyment and understanding of the literature and the authors. I also got a good list of novels I had not read to check out.
Date published: 2018-12-01
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