18 May 2011

Teaching with The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction


I wrote a bit about The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction back when it first came out, and then a few weeks later I was tasked with having to create a syllabus for a "Special Topics" course in our Women's Studies program that I called Gender & Science Fiction. I knew I wanted to start the course with a variety of short stories to give the students some experience in reading SF before we plunged into novels, but I couldn't find an anthology that was eclectic enough for my needs. Then I remembered The Wesleyan Anthology, and took a look at its table of contents to see how well it would fit. Bingo, I had one of my textbooks.

The students will present their final papers on Friday, and I wanted to take a moment here to say that the anthology actually worked even better than I thought it would, and try to explain some of the reasons I think that is so.


What I didn't realize from a quick glance at the table of contents was how well the stories would fit with each other. As I said in my original post about the book, I was familiar with 95% of these stories before the book arrived on my doorstep. Some of those stories, though, I hadn't reread in over a decade -- in a few cases, two decades -- and so until I was selecting which ones to teach, I didn't have a strong sense of how well the anthology was edited.

From a teacher's point of view, the book is a treasure trove, because for each story in it there are other stories that make for productive comparisons. Additionally, most of the stories are very accessible to readers who don't have a lot of experience with SF. I can demonstrate this by showing some of the ways I put the stories together.

Here are the stories I used in the order I assigned them (if you want to see the full syllabus in all its deeply imperfect glory, it's here):
Pat Cadigan, "Pretty Boy Crossover" (paired with Edmond Hamilton's "The War of the Sexes")
Robert Heinlein, "'All You Zombies--'"
Kate Wilhelm, "Forever Yours, Anna"
Alfred Bester, "Fondly Fahrenheit"
Greg Egan, "Closer"
Philip K. Dick, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"
Pamela Zoline, "The Heat Death of the Universe"
Fritz Leiber, "Coming Attraction"
Samuel R. Delany, "Aye, and Gomorrah"
Frederik Pohl, "Day Million"
Robert Silverberg, "Passengers"
Leslie F. Stone, "The Conquest of Gola"
Stanley G. Weinbaum, "A Martian Odyssey"
Joanna Russ, "When It Changed"
James Patrick Kelly, "Think Like a Dinosaur" (paired with Godwin's "The Cold Equations")
Carol Emshwiller, "Abominable"
John Kessel, "Invaders"
There's no way to really summarize all of the ways those stories work together, but it goes beyond the obvious (e.g., time travel with the Heinlein and Wilhelm stories) to the rich resonances between the Egan, Leiber, Delany, Pohl, and Silverberg stories, to the way the Stone story really shows some of the limitations of the Weinbaum (which is, yes, a classic beloved of people who first read it when it came out in 1934, but was for us the most tedious story we read all term; preparing for the class, I suddenly remembered why I'd never finished reading it before in all the times I tried).

"Pretty Boy Crossover" proved to be a great starting point. It's an evocative and affecting story, very efficiently written, but none of its speculations or extrapolations are so bizarre as to give a first-time science fiction reader a headache. The story has held up very well over the years, despite significant developments in the sorts of technology at the heart of the tale, and I found it even more impressive when I read it this time than when I last read it eight or nine years ago. It's a story that's long been close to my heart, because I first encountered it in Dozois's Fourth back when I was a young SF reader. It seems to me about as perfect as a short story can be.

Though the editors of the anthology did not include "The Cold Equations" and some of them thought its connection to "Think Like a Dinosaur" should be de-emphasized, the two stories fit together perfectly for our purposes, especially because they allowed us to talk a bit about how readers interpret themes and moral positions from texts -- everyone in the class thought "The Cold Equations" was ghastly in a different way from "Think Like a Dinosaur", but they struggled to explain exactly why. (Though one student did say "Think Like a Dino" had "scarred me for life," which we told Jim when he beamed into our class via Skype. Jim, being the nicest man on Earth, did not do what I would have done, which would be to smile broadly, cackle, and say, "I'm so glad!" Instead, he apologized to her and said he hoped she was okay now. This is why Jim has friends and devoted followers, and why I have ... well, we don't need to go into that now ... but the food here at the asylum isn't as bad as I was led to believe...) The class had what I thought was a great conversation about how we discern (or think we discern) an author's intention within a story -- why did it seem to them, I asked, that "The Cold Equations" was written from a desire to come up with a situation in which it would be "acceptable" to kill an innocent young woman while they intuited somewhat more interesting and less misogynistic motives to "Think Like a Dinosaur". From the first moments we started talking about the stories, everybody seemed  to have that same sense of them, and it was interesting to probe where such a sense came from, especially because "The Cold Equations" is still able to incite lots of controversy.

The students read "Abominable" (one of Carol Emshwiller's most delightful stories, which is saying something) while I was in NYC interviewing the author, which was fun (both the interview and having students read her story). And then I used Kessel's "Invaders" on the final day of class before exams week because though it doesn't have anything specifically about gender in it, it is a fine story for opening up a conversation about science fiction, escapism, seriousness, and morality. I didn't want to end the class with us just feeling like we'd had a good exploration of gender and/or science fiction; instead, I wanted us to think about some things I tend to think about obsessively: why do we read anything in the first place? What relationship do our imaginary worlds have to our real worlds? "Invaders" is one of the best stories to help spark a conversation about such topics.

The stories in The Wesleyan Anthology proved to be an excellent entryway into the rest of the term -- we continued then with a bunch of Tiptree stories, mostly from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, which proved somewhat less effective than I had hoped, because I had underestimated the effect of reading a bunch of Tiptree stories at once on young and idealistic undergraduates. "Her life was interesting to learn about," one of them told me, "but these stories are the most depressing things I've ever read." After that came Delany's Babel-17, which is plenty of fun, and not generally depressing, so the students liked me again.

The Wesleyan Anthology's greatest weakness, as discussed previously, is its three haphazard selections from after 1995; I fixed this problem by also assigning David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best SF 14, a good book for our purposes because its stories are mostly core science fiction and there are quite a few that do something interesting with gender. Because of snow days and sick days, I had to cut out more of these stories than I would have had we had the amount of time I originally planned on, but it was a useful book nonetheless.

I'll talk about the novels we read in a different post, as well as the way the students used the novels they had some free choice with. (I want to chronicle what I can from this class right now because it's unlikely that I'll get to teach it or another like it again in the near future -- Special Topics in Women's Studies only runs in the spring of odd-numbered years, it's likely they'll want another topic next time, and I'm not going to be able to afford to keep working as a adjunct teacher much longer, at least if I want to, you know, ever buy food.)

If teachers are wondering how well The Wesleyan Anthology works in a real classroom, I'm happy to say it's a winner. It includes far more material than we were able to use, but not so much material that it is overwhelming or feels like a huge waste of paper. The stories are well balanced, full of resonances and echoes among each other, and there are enough different types of stories that the anthology gives a teacher quite a lot of possibilities for ideas, styles, and themes to explore.

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating and helpful stuff. I taught the Tiptree volume in an upper-level class here (Temple U) last Fall and asked the students, "Can one legitimately call these feminist stories? There's not much hope of liberation in 'em." And several students said, "Sure you can: their pessimism makes them all that more effective as Calls to Action!"

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  2. We talked a bit about Tiptree as feminist, and came to similar conclusions, but this was a group of students where the vocal ones, at least, had a real resistance to anything that was "bleak" or "depressing". I wish I had had China Miéville's remarks on the subject from his recent Socialist Worker interview at hand!

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