ENGL 231: Possible futures: Resistance & Reimagining in Speculative Fiction

Prof: Paul Watkins
Location: Nanaimo (345.209)
Class Hours: Monday & Wednesday 4 pm  – 5:30 pm
Office Hours: Wednesday 10 am – 12 pm
Email: paul.watkins@viu.ca
Phone: Ext. 2118
Office: 345. 204

“In the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflections of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born.”
–Robin D.G. Kelley

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ENGL 231 examines the speculative fiction genre (1962-2017) vis-à-vis texts and media that amplify the past and present to imagine possible futures—futures that simultaneously warn us and provide an opportunity, like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, to “call past and future to the rescue of the present.” The selected texts and media explore themes of time, identity, gender, technology, and resistance to forms of oppression. At their best, they provide alternative modes for reimagining a better future. We will look at a wide range of work in the speculative fiction genre—amplifying marginal voices—as we move from cyberpunk to the nascent canon of writers and artists working in the genre of Afrofuturism.

Novels:

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Evaluation:

  • Close Reading (750-1000 words) 15%
  • Collaborative Seminar Presentation 20%
  • Short Creative Intervention 10%
  • Research Essay (1700-2000 words) 30%
  • Final Exam 25%

Assignment Breakdown

1. Close Reading (15%): Due Oct 15

For this assignment, you are to write a close reading of no more than 1000 words (from four possible options) on either Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Left Hand of Darkness. A close reading functions to bring out the nature and interrelations of a text in order to illuminate a given passage, page, or work. The act of close reading is an explication: explicate coming from the Latin explicare, meaning “to unfold, to fold out, or to make clear the meaning of.” You may bring in one secondary source beyond the book to inform your answer. Remember that your reading must have a focused critical argument. What essential point are you making about how the given chapter can help us to more fully understand the overall work?

More details, as well as the given passages, will be provided during our meeting on Sept. 17th (and posted to VIU Learn).

2. Collaborative Presentation (20%): Due on Selected Dates

In groups of around three you will present on a specific primary work along with the media and secondary article assigned for that day (please see the schedule below for presentation dates). The group will not simply summarize the material. The presenters should assume that the class is familiar with the material (primary and secondary) since it is required reading. The purpose of the exercise is to identify key ideas from the secondary material and apply it to the assigned text or chapters for that day. The suggestion is to spark discussion rather than tell the class what they should know. Open ended, thought provoking questions are encouraged. Didactic dissection of the text is discouraged. Creativity through media, performance, or whatever else is encouraged but not necessary. Please ensure that such creative ventures are tasteful and serve as learning aids rather than detracting from the material’s focus. All members of the group will share the presentation mark. Presentations will be graded based on clarity, comprehension, class discussion, analysis and (creative or interactive) approach.

There will be a signup sheet on our 2nd meeting together

3. Short Creative Intervention (10%): Due Nov 21

“I sincerely believe that the best criticism is that kind which is amusing and poetic; not the cold mathematical kind… the best article on a painting could be a sonnet or an elegy” (Charles Baudelaire, “What is the use of Criticism?”).

Taking up the above from Baudelaire, you are challenged to think about the material being discussed beyond the typical classroom setting and hermeneutic approach. Through a combination of analytical and creative pedagogies we can create new hybrid spaces that allow for alternative epistemologies and learning spaces. As Baudelaire states, the best way to critique a work might be a poem, or a painting; or perhaps, given the age we live in: a song, a DJ mix, painting, a comic strip, a creative journal, a one act play, a photography project, a podcast, or a blog. There are any number of possible approaches to this assignment: your piece could be prose, drama, visual, musical, dance, culinary, photography, etc., although it should connect to core course themes (some include technology, time, humanism/posthumanism, gender, race, etc.).You could riff off of an episode from Black Mirror or a concept discussed in one of the works. You could even examine an aspect of speculative fiction history (works by women, Afrofuturism, Indigenous Speculative fiction, etc.). This assignment asks you to think a little outside the box and go into the world and listen. After that listening you are called to produce a “creative intervention.”

Through critical creative work and soundings—interventions—we can further develop and help to define interdisciplinary approaches among the bordering fields of literature, music, and theories of multiculturalism and citizenship investigated in this course. By “creative intervention” I mean: to intervene through creative means, using the word as the OED defines as “‘stepping in,’ or interfering in any affair, so as to affect its course or issue.” I am also using intervention as in to be “intermediate”: to be between things, as in this case between the creative and the analytical, the scholar and the citizen. The method of the assignment is itself an intervention against simply writing another paper.

You will be graded on the level of engagement you put into your creative endeavor—although it should be stressed that I am not asking you produce something overly long or too complex given this assignment is only worth 10% of your overall grade. A few pages of material would be adequate. It is for the above reasons that you are required to write a one-page (around 350 words) discussion of why the intervention was conceived as it was. You will be graded on the level of engagement you put into your creative endeavor. I am also very open to the idea of you collaborating with another student, in which case the grade will be shared. More details as well as examples of past assignments will follow in class. 60% of the mark will be for the creative piece and 40% of the mark will be for the analysis.

4. Research Essay (30%): Due December 5

The Research Essay will be around 7-8 double spaced pages in length, not including a Works Cited list. You are required to actively engage with at least threesecondary sourcesin the body of this research paper—corecourse material does not count. Please note that although secondary research is a necessary component of this assignment, your own ideas and engagement with these resources, rather than your ability to perform and incorporate research, will be graded. More detailed instructions, as well as topics, will be provided in class. I will be grading this assignment based on well-formulated and focused arguments. You are encouraged to write an essay on a topic of your own choosing, although it must still be on course material.

5. Final Exam (25%): TBA [Part passage analysis /essay]

Schedule:

Please note that this schedule is subject to change as the term progresses.

Sept 5
Introduction to the course; standards and expectations; general discussion
Screening: Chris Marker, La Jetée

Sept 10 
Lecture: Cyberpunk and Posthumanism
Reading: Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Ch. 1-7)
Group Presentation Sign-up

Sept 12
No physical class. Watch the episode, “Nosedive” (on Netflix) and respond to questions on VIU Learn.

Sept 17 
Reading: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Ch. 8-14)
Discussion of Close Reading Assignment

Sept 19  
Reading: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (15-22)
Secondary Reading: Greenblatt, “‘More Human Than Human’: ‘Flattening of Affect,’ Synthetic Humans, and the Social Construction of Maleness” (VIU Learn)
Group One Presentation

Sept 24 
Screening: Ridley Scott, Blade Runner

Sept 26 
Screening and discussion: Blade Runner
Secondary Reading: Wheale, “Recognising a ‘human-Thing’: cyborgs, robots and replicants in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’” (VIU Learn)

A short analysis of Blade Runner by Steven Benedict


Oct 1 
Lecture: Gender in Science Fiction
Reading: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (Ch. 1-6)
See Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto 

Oct 3 
Reading: The Left Hand of Darkness (Ch. 7-13)
Secondary Reading: Le Guin, “Is Gender Necessary? (VIU Learn)

Oct 8 
Thanksgiving—no class

Oct 10
Reading: The Left Hand of Darkness (Ch. 14-20)
Secondary Readings: Fayad, “Aliens, Androgynes, and Anthropology” (VIU Learn) and Pearson, “Postcolonialism/s, Gender/s, Sexuality/ies and the Legacy of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’: Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutians Talk Back” (VIU Learn) [See the other articles on VIU Learn]
Group Two Presentation

Oct 15 
Reading: Gwen Benaway, “Transitions” (VIU Learn)
Short Essay Due

Oct 17 
Lecture: Residential Schools and Indigenous Speculative Fiction
Reading: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (1-55)

Oct 22
Reading: The Marrow Thieves (56-153)
Discussion of Research Papers

Oct 24
Reading: The Marrow Thieves (154-230)
Secondary Reading: Please read “Introduction” (1-22) and “Calls to Action” (319-338) from Final Report of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (available, here, or on VIU Learn)
Group Three Presentation

Oct 29 
Screening and discussion: Black Mirror, “San Junipero”

Oct 31
Reading: Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” and “Speech Sounds” (VIU Learn)

Nov 5 
Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life” (VIU Learn)

Nov 7
Screening: Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Nov 12-16
READING WEEK—no class

Nov 19
Screening and Discussion: Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Secondary Reading: Mayer, “Girl Power: Back to The Future of Feminist Science Fiction with Into The Forest and Arrival
Group Four Presentation

Nov 21
Lecture: Afrofuturism: From Sun Ra to Black Panther
Reading: Octavia Butler, Kindred (Prologue—The Fire, 9-51)
Short Creative Intervention Due

Nov 26
Reading: Kindred (The Fall—The Fight, 52-188)
Short Essay Workshop—bring your thesis for discussion

Nov 28
Reading: Kindred (The Storm—Epilogue, 189-264)
Secondary Readings: Setka, “Phantasmic Reincarnation: Igbo Cosmology in Octavia Butler’s Kindred” and Donaldson, “A contested freedom: The fragile future of Octavia Butler’s Kindred
Group Five Presentation

Dec 3  
Screening: Jordan Peele, Get Out
Final Exam Discussion

Dec 5
Screening and discussion: Get Out
Secondary Reading: Jarvis, “Anger translator: Jordan Peele’s Get Out
Research Paper Due

 

FINAL EXAM: Dec 14 @ 1 pm in 345.207

 

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Ph.D. Professor. Writer. Musician. A space for riffings on film, literature, and music.

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