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BioE 24 - a history of biology in science fiction - syllabus
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BioE 24: A History of Biology in Science Fiction

Out of respect for your fellow classmates, follow public health guidelines. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that the person who breaks quarantine or ignores the biological safety protocols is a jerk who endangers the rest of the crew.


Course Format: 1 hour of discussion per week        

Instructor: Terry Johnson, 418 HMMB

Office hours: by appointment

You may access the syllabus as a document using this link.

Image by Nathan Anderson

Images by Karl Fitzgerald, David Moscoti, and Nathan Anderson

The science fiction of a particular period often reflects the cultural struggles and anxieties of that time, while drawing inspiration from contemporary scientific discovery. In this course, we will examine fiction (primarily English-language short stories, novels, radio plays, television, and film). We’ll consider the actual biological science behind them (as it was understood at the time that the text was written), the ways in which authors apply and extrapolate science in their narratives, and to what ends. We’ll also discuss a few trends in science fiction, how these trends have changed over time, and explore why.

In fiction and in history, we are likely to discuss some content that could be disturbing, relating as it does to issues such as identity and consent. Our goal will be to approach these issues respectfully and with maturity.

To get a passing grade in this class:


A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” - Frederik Pohl


“The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed.” - William Gibson


“You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So we can believe the big ones?"

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

- Susan and Death, Hogfather


Introduction

8/26 - Introductions, ground rules

Read before class:

Come prepared to discuss:

The Beginning

Other recommended readings: A True Story, Le Micromégas, One Thousand and One Nights, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Time Machine

9/2 - Frankenstein I

Read before class:

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Come prepared to discuss:

9/9 - Frankenstein II

Read/listen to before class:

Come prepared to discuss:

Invasion!

Other recommended readings: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Andromeda Strain, Ender’s Game, Starship Troopers; Childhood’s End; They Live

9/16 - The War of the Worlds

Listen to/read before class (I know, it seems like a lot, but most of these are very short):

Read if you want to learn more:

Come prepared to discuss:

9/23 - Who Goes There? / The Thing

Read, listen, or watch at least one of the following before class:

Additionally, read:

You may also be interested in reading or listening to The Things, a short story from the alien’s point of view, but it’s not required for class.

Come prepared to discuss:

Note: The Thing (film) contains many scenes of body horror, and The Things (short story) takes the point of view of the alien that is deliberately causing that body horror.

New Wave

Recommended readings: Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Slaughter-House Five, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Martian Chronicles; 2001: A Space Odyssey

We aren’t going to cover any of the New Wave texts this semester, but I didn’t want to neglect it completely. Everything above is worth checking out!

Cyberpunk, Biopunk, and the Corporate Dystopia

Other recommended readings: Oryx and Crake, Snow Crash, Aliens, The Windup Girl, Autonomous, Blade Runner, Fringe

9/30 - The Evaluators

Image by Tomer Hanuka

Read before class:

Come prepared to discuss:

10/7 - Neuromancer I

Read before class:

Extras:

Come prepared to discuss:

Note: Neuromancer contains several scenes of graphic violence, and a body committing violence without the consent of its mind.

10/14 - Neuromancer II

Read before class:

Come prepared to discuss:

10/21 - Neuromancer III

Read before class:

Come prepared to discuss:

10/28 - Alien (1979)

Watch/read before class:

Come prepared to discuss:

Note: Alien contains one seriously gross scene, some violence, and several instances of body horror. Also flashing strobe lights in the last half hour.

The Next Generation

11/4 - No class - election

11/11 - No class - administrative holiday

11/18 - Last class meeting / evaluations / Student’s Choice

Watch/read before class:

Come prepared to discuss: