“Do not try to out-geek the professor”

Feb 9, 2012

Social/Science/Fiction preliminary course outline
SIS-419.B01, Summer session 2012
Professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

This course will meet Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:00pm-4:10pm, from 21 May until 28 June, excluding the Memorial Day holiday on 28 May.

Course Objective and Description
Social science has the explanation of society as its explicit goal. Social scientists often try to achieve this goal by studying historical situations in order to elucidate the impact of various factors on outcomes, in the hopes that those impacts can then be extrapolated to other cases. Authors of science fiction engage in similar strategies, although their methods are often more speculative and their conclusions more metaphorical. This commonality of orientation and approach forms the impetus for this course. Is social science a form of science fiction? What, if anything, distinguishes imaginative constructions from scientific constructions? Is science fiction a form of social science? Can an engagement with works of science fiction enhance our understanding of political and social relations? These and other related questions will be explored through readings of various science-fictional texts (including films).

This semester’s course will be entirely focused on a single recurrent theme: the cultural politics of alien encounter, and what that tells us about the boundaries of the human. I phrase it this way to avoid the misperceptions that a) this is a class about the actual or potential existence of extraterrestrial life; or that b) this is a class about actual contact between humans and extraterrestrials. It is neither. Instead, our subject will be confined to the various ways in which non-terrestrial others—aliens, some of whom look suspiciously like members of our species—have been envisioned and imagined, and how the relations between humans and those aliens have been depicted. As we shall see, the human/alien interface is a very productive site for the investigation of a number of topics of extreme social and political relevance, and those connections between “fact” and “fiction” will inform the bulk of our conversations.

Three important points about this class, by way of a negative definition of our enterprise. 1) It is not a “science fiction appreciation” class; it is not a science fiction fan club. While I presume that many of you will probably be fans of the genre, the class is not simply a forum for displaying our fanaticism to one another. 2) It is not primarily a literature class. The artistic merits and literary styles of individual authors and texts may figure into our discussions from time to time, but I do not expect them to be central issues of concern. 3) It is not simply an excuse to read and watch science fiction for credit. If you peruse the assignments detailed below, you will discover that this class demands as much—if not more—work than other seminars. Granted, you may find some of the work more enjoyable because of the subject-matter, but that should not distract from the seriousness of the endeavor.

Do not try to out-geek the professor, either. He has been attending both Star Trek and Star Wars conventions since before you were born.

Learning Outcomes
And the number of the counting shall be three. By the end of the semester, you should be able to:

1) describe and discuss, with appropriate examples, the range of meanings that “alien encounter” has in our present cultural imagination:
2) explicate some suggestive parallels between these fictional alien encounters and actual social and political events; and
3) reflect critically on what our ways of imagining alien encounters say about our humanity and our human social and political arrangements.

As per usual, you will demonstrate how well you have achieved these outcomes through a variety of course components and assignments, which will be specified in the final syllabus although they are not specified in this preliminary course outline.

Daily Schedule of readings and films
Note that books are assigned for the date that they will be discussed in class, and films are assigned for the day that they will be shown and discussed in class.

21 May: genre boundaries. Movie: K-PAX

23 May: eliminating the Other. Novel: Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

(28 May: challenges of encounter. Movie: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Since this is Memorial Day, we won’t actually have class, so you need to go watch this film on your own and be prepared to talk about it at our next class session)

30 May: understanding the Other. Novel: Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead.

4 June: bounding the human. Novel: Frank Herbert, Dune

6 June: the natural and the artificial. Movie: Blade Runner

11 June: ambiguities of communication. Novel: Michael Flynn, Eifelheim

13 June: ramen diplomacy. Novel: Chine Mieville, Embassytown

18 June: problems of perfection. Movie: Serenity

20 June: I am an Other. Movie: District 9

25 June: intervention. Novel: Iain M. Banks, Look to Windward

27 June: first contact. Movie: Contact

Note that I would actually have preferred to assign Serenity on 11 June, Eifelheim on 13 June, and Embassytown on 18 June, but there are technical and logistical reasons why I have to move both films to the week of 18-20 June and both novels to the week of 11-13 June.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.