Sunday, April 15, 2012

Course Review: Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind

It's been awhile since I bought a course from The Great Courses (a.k.a. The Teaching Company), but this one has been on my "wish list" for a couple years. It was worth the wait (and the price--around $40 with my long-term-customer discount). Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature's Most Fantastic Works covers the long origins of science fiction (hereafter SF), its themes, and its best practitioners. I got several ideas of different things I'd like to write about on my own.

The course is from the Literature section of the site and is taught by Eric Rabkin, a lit professor from the University of Michigan. In a way, he and I approach the topic of SF in a similar manner, in that Rabkin focuses on the meaning of SF, how it functions, and what it means for the reader.

The first dozen 30-minute courses cover the field of fantasy or "fantastic" literature, which takes in works by authors such as Lewis Carroll, the Grimm Brothers, Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, and J.R.R. Tolkien. The fantasy section deals mostly with "states of mind," the psychology of fantasy stories, as well as the historical bases of these types of stories, starting with fairy tales. A lot of fantasy is allegory, not too surprisingly. The fantastic elements provide the reader with magical or unreal elements that keep the reader engaged but also serve as symbols. Most of these symbols are familiar to many students of literature: water for redemption or cleansing, forest or garden imagery for the Garden of Eden or a return to innocence, etc.

The second half of the class deals with science fiction. This genre, while it might have predecessors in fantastic works like the writings of Cyrano de Bergerac or even Greek mythology, really has its beginnings with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which includes many of the features and themes of SF as we understand it today, including fundamental limits to knowledge ("there are some things man was not meant to know"), unintended consequences of pursuing those limits, and the central position of a science-minded person who is tempted to "play God." Authors covered in this set of lectures included Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. LeGuin, and William Gibson.

If I have one issue with Rabkin, it is his casual dismissal of the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Yes, they are similar forms of literature with similar origins. Yes, they show up on the same bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. Yes, they are both dealing with "the fantastic" or unusual situations, thoughts, states of mind, or states of being. However, science fiction, however "fantastic," makes some effort to ground itself in science, even if it's made up (warp drive, time travel, immortality, etc.), and science has certain attributes that are consistent. Science is consistent, regular, more or less orderly. We have scientific laws and theories that describe the regular ways in which the world/universe works, and those laws apply to everybody.

Fantasy, by contrast, often has no limits. It is "magical," often without explanation or origin. It is personalized--i.e., only the gifted can access the "mysteries." Think about Gandalf the Grey or Luke Skywalker. By virtue of a wand or a natural affinity, they can access mysterious powers or "the force," which ordinary mortals cannot. Fantasies play fast and loose with actual physical laws much more often. Star Wars, much as I love it, is a fantasy using the trappings of a space adventure, but it is not science fiction. Star Trek, while still on the fantastic side, is closer to science fiction. It tries to be consistent with known science or the sciences it makes up. Magic or fantasy are unlimited: anything can happen. Magical realism is a sub-genre of fantasy because random, fantastic things occur more for dramatic effect than for anything related to the way the universe works or could work.

This is not a particular fault of the course, but my time with NASA (and some science education courtesy of The Teaching Company) has given me a better understanding of how science and engineering work, and I respect their discipline. Fantasy stories are not looking for realism. And even if SF writers/teachers like Orson Scott Card have recommended that fantasies engage in some rules so that they function like technology ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." --Arthur C. Clarke), the technology of magic is not the primary purpose of fantasy works. They are telling different stories from SF writers, who are dealing specifically with how human beings interact with particular technologies, social trends, or other science-based circumstances.

All this said, I enjoyed these classes and learned quite a bit that I hadn't heard before. If such a topic interests you, I recommend buying the class. Another excellent text on the history of SF is Brian Aldiss' Trillion Year Spree. Regardless of how you get your information about SF, it's a subject worth investigating because it's my belief that SF is the most important literature we have for understanding and communicating about the impacts of science and technology upon our society.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Sounds like a very interesting course! I've not thought much about the differences between science fiction and fantasy. They're always labeled so close together as if they were one combined genre. But you bring up some great points. Magic is limited to the select few, but science is open to all.