Honors 1820W-23, Vanderbilt University (2019) — an interdisciplinary undergraduate seminar on science and science fiction. Taught by Jay Clayton (English) and Robert Scherrer (Physics and Astronomy).
This class will explore the relationship between science and science fiction. Drawing on classic works of scientific writing and SF, we will examine the distinctive modes of imagination and style in the two activities, as well as their social and cultural influences. What are the ground rules for introducing original ideas in each field? How are ideas embedded and developed in a SF story in comparison with their presentation in a scientific article? What roles do prediction and falsification play in each? Fiction will range from the origins of the genre in Wells to the “golden age” of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Bradbury to new wave fiction, speculative fiction, Afro-futurism, and emerging twenty-first century writers, and will include readings from exemplary works of science writing. No scientific background is required, but scientific concepts will be introduced and discussed.
English 8410, Vanderbilt University (Spring 2017). Graduate Seminar in Victorian Prose and Poetry: “Science, Science Fiction, and Popular Genres in Nineteenth-Century Literature.” T 12:00-2:30 (Curb Center, Yamada Room). Professor Jay Clayton.
This reading intensive course focuses on British and transatlantic writing during two moments in which both genre distinctions and disciplinary boundaries between science and literature were being recast in decisive ways—one in the decades just prior to the Victorian age, when science and technology were very much a part of the larger culture, not a separate sphere reserved for specialists; the other at the fin de siècle, when “racial science,” eugenics, and imperialism were closely intertwined. In each period, we will read foundational works of scientific culture alongside British and American popular fiction, which powerfully shaped public attitudes toward science and society. We will also read some neo-Victorian fiction from the late-twentieth century to explore how alternative history can revise our understanding of the past.
The first part of the course will focus on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, 1831), Poe’s “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” (1843) and “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844), Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (1839), and the growth of scientific disciplines. We will then fast-forward to the second half of the century when disciplinarity was more securely established and mass market fiction was similarly being cordoned off from serious literature, developments that I argue are closely related. Texts will be drawn from utopias such as Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888), and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890); science fiction and horror stories such as Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” (1899); H. Ryder Haggard’s imperial romance, She (1887) and Pauline Hopkins’s inversion of colonial romance, Of One Blood (1903); and two stories from colonial India, Jagadish Chandra Bose’s “Runaway Cyclone” (1896) and Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein’s “Sultana’s Dream” (1905). Neo-Victorian fiction will include Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter (1998), and stories by Andrea Barrett and A. S. Byatt,.
Assignments: In lieu of the traditional research paper, students will be encouraged to create digital media or digital humanities projects, a conference paper (potentially, in one’s own field), or a general interest feature piece for a venue such as Public Books or The Los Angeles Review of Books.
English 3720, Vanderbilt University (Spring 2017). Undergraduate seminar on Literature, Science, and Technology: “Frankenstein’s Future: Robotics and Cloning in Science Fiction and Film.” TR 9:35-10:50 (ESB 320). Professor Jay Clayton.
How do the futures literature and film imagine shape public attitudes toward science and technology? What is the human in an age of artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, and synthetic biology? How do science fiction and films influence public policy concerning scientific research? This course focuses on fictions and films about artificial life from Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and James Whale’s iconic 1931 film of that novel, through Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), to classic robot stories by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and others, to twenty-first century dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004). Films will include adaptations of many of these novels, as well as Blade Runner (1982), A.I. (2001), Her (2013), and Ex Machina (2015).