By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: The Great Courses
Narrated by: Professor Gary K. Wolfe
(REVIEW IRONICALLY WRITTEN THE DAY AFTER DONALD TRUMP’S ELECTION AS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.)
“How Great Science Fiction Works” is a rapid-fire exploration of what Professor Gary Wolfe argues is great science fiction. No work of science fiction has achieved the heights of great literature represented by authors like Dostoevsky, Austin, Dickens, Nabokov, Roth, and others. However, Wolfe shows that science fiction fires imagination by taking readers outside the boundaries of day-to-day human’ existence.
Rarely does a work of science fiction create characters that evoke deep emotion in a reader, or understanding about the individual. Though one may feel a passing sympathy for the plight of Frankenstein or shed a tear for the fate of a child and his father in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, a reader moves on to think about the story’s societal implication.
Science fiction creates characters in alternative realities. The societal outcomes of imprecisely understood scientific discoveries make science fiction work. Adding action to an alternative reality, enhances a work of science fiction, but not in the same way as a murder of a pawn broker in “Crime and Punishment”. Science fiction’ actions are not focused on a character’s individual insight but on revealing more about an alternative reality based on partly understood science. Science fiction’s action is not to evoke individual emotion like revulsion, love, guilt, or hate in a reader. Character development is not a primary objective of science fiction writers (not to suggest these authors are incapable of eliciting those emotive qualities but character development is a secondary objective). Science fiction drives to illustrate societal change from discoveries that go beyond current scientific proof or knowledge.
Names of science fiction writers and their stories are spread throughout the lectures, some well-known and others less famous. Few readers have not heard of Shelley, Verne, Orwell, Herbert, Wells, Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov. For the non-science fiction amateur, tidbits of information are offered by Wolfe. Information like Asimov’s “Foundation” series being based on the history of Gibbons’ “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Also, Wolfe recounts the “War of the Worlds” to explain that, contrary to myth, there is never a city-wide panic caused by Orson Wells’ 1938 telling of the tale in a radio broadcast.
For knowledgeable fans, Wolfe resurrects vintage science fiction stories like “Slan” (a book about a race of super beings) by A. E. Van Vogt and the development of space-ship science fiction by Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Of course, no lecture series on science fiction is complete without robot and cyber science stories. Karel Capek, a Czech writer, and later Isaac Asimov, are early writers in those categories.
Another category noted by Wolfe is planetary exploration and earth invasions (noted above in Wells narration of “War of the Worlds”). Wolfe suggests WWI and the earlier Franco-Prussian war leads to apocalyptic science fiction stories. The advent of mechanized murder is first recognized in the 1870-71 war.
Professor Wolfe surveys the field of science fiction from its beginning with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” through today’s authors. Wolfe describes some science fiction that slips in and out of fantasy with thematic cohesiveness that ranges from religion, to science, to philosophy.
L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction’ writing leads to the pseudo-science of Dianetics that morphs into a religion called Scientology; attracting famous people like John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Wolfe reflects on science fiction’s history and how category’ markers mature as it grows. What is meant by markers are discoveries; i.e. like an alien artifact on earth, an imaginatively created alien planet, or an invading alien force that precipitates human actions or reactions.
Moving on to the sixties, Wolf notes science fiction addresses nuclear war and its destruction of civilization. In the seventies, nuclear war fears are replaced with stories about environmental destruction caused by insecticides, tainted food and water, and other disasters. “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi is noted as a modern science fiction writer that raises issues of global warming and writes about the exploitative use of the Colorado river by Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona. At the end of his lectures, Wolfe speculates about science fiction’s future.
Wolfe offers a lot of information about the origin and growth of Science Fiction and recounts interesting stories drawn on new scientific discoveries that are only imprecisely understood by experts in the field; let alone, society at large. Though this genre of fiction may not reach the level of Pulitzer Prize recognition, it certainly entertains its readers. Fans of science fiction and dabblers in the science of the 21st century will be entertained by Professor Wolfe’s lectures.