What Stories Were Most Popular in SF Course?

I’ve submitted final grades for my summer Science Fiction class at UC Davis.  I will post some more info about the class in the coming weeks, including a lesson plan or two for any teachers out there looking for suggestions.

Based on the content of the papers and final exams (where student could choose which stories to write about), the most popular stories were as follows:

  • E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”
  • Clifford Simak’s “Desertion
  • Judith Merill’s “That Only a Mother”
  • Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”
  • Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed”
  • Pat Cadigan’s “Pretty Boy Crossover”

Those stories came up the most in answers on the final.  It may be because they overlap with so many of the overarching themes that we discussed:

  • Dystopia/Utopia (Forster, Russ, Cadigan)
  • War and Weapons (Merill, Simak, Bradbury, Russ)
  • Posthuman Life Forms (all of them if you spin it a certain way, but Cadigan and Simak for sure)
  • Gender and Sexuality (Merill and Russ, obviously, but also the mother from “The Machine Stops” and the protagonist of “Pretty Boy,” who some students saw as a “feminized” man).

Oddly, with the exception of Russ, these are all earthbound SF.  Not a lot of “First Contact” alien stories.

Also, just because they were most popular doesn’t necessarily mean they resulted in the best papers.  Had a really strong paper on James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur,” for example.


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Defining Science Fiction: A Writing Assignment

For the first paper of my summer SF class, I had them think about what we mean when we say “science fiction.”  Here’s the paper assignment (for anyone playing along at home):

For the first paper, you will defend a definition of science fiction by using details from your reading.  This essay requires you to use ONE of the stories we’ve read and two outside short essays from popular journalism.

1) Read the two online essays, Quentin Cooper’s BBC article and Charlie Jane Anders’ compilation of famous definitions.

2) Pick one of the definitions on Anders’s list.  Consider how it might or might not support Cooper’s assertion that we cannot “unambiguously” portray science fiction.  You will ultimately agree or disagree with Cooper at some point in your text.

3) Select one of the stories we’ve read on or prior to August 13th.  Use it to provide support for the definition you chose.

Your thesis should be something along the lines of “<PERSON X>’s definition is strongest because it incorporates <ideas x or y>, as seen in the <STORY X>”. Your thesis should not be your own proposed, synthesized definition.

The list of stories they could use included:

  • Poe’s “Mellonta Tauta”
  • Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”
  • Wells’s “The Star”
  • Forster’s “The Machine Stops”
  • Stone’s “Conquest of Gola”
  • Moore’s “Shambleau”
  • Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey”
  • Simak’s “Desertion”
  • Sargent’s “Gather Blue Roses”
  • Waldrop’s “Heirs of the Perisphere”
  • Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat”

Feel free to write your own 3-page response (but keep ‘em to yourself.  I’ve graded enough of them, delightful though they were). ;)

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Vote for Kansas City in 2016 at Worldcon

If you or someone you know is heading to the World Science Fiction Convention in London in 15 days (Aug 14-18), I encourage you to support Kansas City’s bid to host the 2016 Worldcon.  They’ve done a splendid job of planning.

The convention center venue is near the Sprint Center and the Power & Light District.  The area is recently developed with many new restaurants, bars, and an Alamo Drafthouse.  (If you haven’t been to KC in the past five years, you haven’t seen this.)

I’ll also suggest a few literary day-trip options for anyone interested:

  • A Heinlein tour.  Robert Heinlein included many KC landmarks in his works.  You can visit those, and his hometown of Butler (1 hour south).
  • A Doc Savage detour.  Lester Dent’s hometown of La Plata is about 3 hours away.  The local library has a great collection of his Doc Savage and Avenger material, and his home is still standing.
  • A Mark Twain excursion.  If you’re adventurous, Hannibal, MO, is only 4 hours away.  The hometown of Mark Twain has a great new museum and historic buildings, including original Norman Rockwell paintings of Huck/Tom and original sketches from SF classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  The town has some classic kitsch too.

On the non-literary but still legendary front, everyone who isn’t a vegetarian should have Arthur Bryant’s barbecue at least once.  There’s no sauce like it, and no sauce better than it.  Go to the original one on Brooklyn Avenue.

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New Flash Fiction – “Have You Seen Lucky?”

My short story “Have You Seen Lucky?” was recently published by Abyss & Apex.

Dog lovers and Replacements fans should enjoy it.

While you’re there, buy a copy of The Best of Abyss & Apex, Vol. 1 which features great short stories by writers like Jude-Marie Green, Rachel Swirsky, Tim Pratt, and the great Jay Lake.

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Neko Case and Kelly Hogan’s “Droids” is Awesome and Snarky

One of my favorite musical memories is watching these ladies perform back-to-back sets at the legendary Grand Emporium in Kansas City in 2000.   Now, they’re tackling science-fiction fandom and coming up with some pretty funny stuff.

Some people are already saying they think the song is an outdated stereotype of SF culture.  Others are essentially saying “it’s just a joke” and don’t make a big deal out of it.  Actually, it’s better than that.  The timing seems perfect given the recent, thoughtful-but-heated discussion about sexism at SF conventions and in SF publishing (if you don’t know, just Google it–way too many links to post here).  And, the video is darned funny.

I love their list of things they’d like to see in 2091.

I’d nominate this for a “Best Dramatic Short Form” Hugo Award in a heartbeat.

And, if you haven’t listened to Case’s Furnace Room Lullabies or Hogan’s Beneath the Country Underdog, I encourage you to do so ASAP.  Really, all the stuff Bloodshot Records put out between 1995-2005 (including those two great discs) is great.  I’d hate for people to get they idea they just do clever parody songs; both have handled the Patsy Cline/Kitty Wells tradition pretty elegantly.

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11 Musicians Who Each Match A Doctor Who

When Peter Capaldi announced recently that his portrayal of Doctor Who was influenced by David Bowie,  I came up with the following list of doppelgangers:

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My picks are more about thematic connections than physical resemblances, hence a few weird/controversial choices.  I probably thought about this more than I should have, but I’m still sure I left out someone good.  Sorry if your favorite rocker didn’t make the cut.

Also, I haven’t seen every Who episode, so I don’t make any claims to comprehensive knowledge here.  I hope full seasons of 60s-80s material will become more readily available.

More than anything, making this list proved to me that an overtly Bowie-ish Doctor was overdue.

(I did minor edits to photos to make them fit together. I’ll remove content if the rights holder thinks this doesn’t fall within the realm of fair use.)
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KU Science Fiction: A Sketch of Pohl, Gunn, and Harrison

I’m going through all my notes from the Intensive Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.  I found the sketch below in notes from the first Campbell Conference I attended.


Fred Pohl, James Gunn, and Harry Harrison sat side-by-side on stage at the Smith Hall auditorium and talked about their lives in science fiction– from early experiences as science-fiction readers and aspiring writers to their later careers as seasoned professionals.

Not the greatest likenesses in the sketch, but a great memory.

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