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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: How Great Science Fiction Works

How Great Science Fiction Works is a survey course for science fiction, easily my favorite fiction genre. I audited this course hoping to find themes or maybe even discover great books I haven't already read.

Not surprisingly, I've already read a ton of the books referred to in the lecture series. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, when he discusses a book, most likely I know what it's about, and can recall the primary themes of the book. On the other hand, there's only a handful of books he's mentioned that were new to me, and I would want to follow up on.

The worst part of the series is that he doesn't really explain what makes a particular work great. He covers the plot but doesn't explain, for instance, that Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun was interesting because it was one of the early examples of the unreliable narrator in science fiction. Further disappointing me was that the themes he chooses for the lectures are usually surface detail: Robots, Spaceships, etc. rather than the themes I would choose to organize a course on science fiction about: "Science Fiction as the literature of ideas", "Provoking the sense of wonder", etc.

The last lecture of the series redeems the series, as he captures one of the differences between the literary genre of fiction and science fiction. "Literature" usually provokes the "Ah yes!" reaction of recognition, while "Science fiction" tries to provoke the "Oh my!" reaction as the author extrapolates (usually to the extreme logical conclusion) the initial premise of the setting, plot, or idea. There's room for both types of fiction, but the best novels or stories would ideally involve those. As such, the lecturer points out that good science fiction is actually really hard to write as it needs to provoke both reactions in the author, while literary fiction as a genre doesn't have to provoke the sense of wonder in order to win awards in the traditional fields.

As a survey of the genre, I think the course has some merits. But for me, it just wasn't fun enough to recommend to anyone else.

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