Eric S. Rabkin – Science Fiction, the Literature of Technological Imagination

Title: Science Fiction, the Literature of Technological Imagination
Lecturer: Eric S. Rabkin
Producer: The Teaching Company
Duration: 8 x 45 minutes
Media: Audio only

This fairly short lecture series by Michigan University professor of literature, Eric S. Rabkin, is an attempt at covering the entire science-fiction genre in roughly six hours, from its dimmest origins when no one knew about science fiction, to the modern film industry. As you will have noticed, I quite enjoy good science fiction, at least when it comes to novels (there are good movies too, but not that many), so some academic scrutiny of the genre feels appropriate, especially since I, for various reasons, missed the Science fictions classics course being run this semester.

The series starts out very strongly, discussing Shelley’s Frankenstein, various works by H.G. Wells (such as The Time Machine) and Jules Verne. Since I have never encountered these works from a literary point of view, the first three lectures are extremely interesting, shedding new light with almost every word. He then goes on to discuss pulp novels of the earl 20th century, which, to be honest, is of only academic interest to me, since pulp is not my preferred type of literature.

He then covers the expansion of the genre beyond what was published early on, mentioning authors I am very well acquainted with, spending much time on especially Robert A. Heinlein, but moving on to Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin, authors who in various ways did things no one had done before, and, in Le Guin’s case, in a way which was appreciated by non-afficionados. After a lecture on modern science-fiction film, he finishes with a brief review of what he calls New Wave and Cyberpunk (discussing Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and others), again authors who expanded the genre.

Let me start by praising the lecturer by saying that his technique is absolutely brilliant. Again, I marvel at the skill of The Teaching Company’s chosen professors. Indeed they are claimed to be picked not only on the grounds of academic merit, but also based on teaching excellency, and in my experience, this is more than just advertising. It is actually true for most lecturers.

That being said, I am not that fond of the contents of the series. As I have said, the beginning was very good, but the series gradually degraded into being quick summaries and reviews of books I have already read. Sure, here and there he mentions ways of interpreting things I was unaware of, but a more general discussion of the genre would have been much more interesting. I do not know how this is perceived by those who have not read the books he talks about, but I assume that the problem is even worse for them. I am also a bit disappointed that he mentions only a few authors active today, largely leaving out the two last decades seems somewhat inappropriate to an overview.

I also feel that this is not good because he leaves out much of what modern (meaning what is published now) science fiction is about. His definition of the genre proposed early on in the series is not only to my disliking, but it also feels old and very narrow. Wikipedia has a fairly good article on subject and I recommend it. I think the most important thing is that science fiction is a means by which the author can say something relevant to us now by using things that do do not exist (yet, in some cases), which would have been very difficult to say otherwise. In this I agree with the professor, but his demands on science fiction being epic (in the sense of saving-the-world epic) is just not true today. His idea of plausibility holds true, but using mumbo jumbo language is not plausibility to my mind (he argues that it makes it sound plausible, which somehow would render it science-fiction, something I strongly disagree with).

I have gained something important from this lecture series, though, and that is the urge to read more analytically when it comes to books published in a context unfamiliar to me. For instance, I have realised that I have often missed the point of novels because I was too uneducated about the zeitgeist out of which they came, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne being the obvious examples. It is difficult to appreciate Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War if one does not connect it with the Vietnam War and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Even if the connections might be obvious, feeling them when reading is a different matter from realising it in hindsight.

Conclusively, since it is a fairly brief series of lectures, I recommend it to those of you who either do not know very much about science fiction or to those very interested who would like to get a bit more background. Those of you in between are better off investing your time elsewhere.

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  1. Scott’s avatar

    I am an amateur science fiction literature fan and I found this series very enlightening. You are correct that having Dr. Rabkin enlighten the potential reader as to the allegorical content makes the reading much more powerful and engaging. I also agree that it is not for advanced science fiction enthusiasts but most courses published by The Teaching Company (while usually very good) are mostly geared to the ‘introductory’ level for greater mass appeal and consumption. I wouldn’t expect many Teaching Company courses to be very appropriate for advance academic content on any subject. But they do a great job at serving their intended audience.

    I would also recommend ‘Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literatures Most Fantastic Works’ which is also taught by Dr. Rabkin. A two-part series, most of the second part deals with science fiction as well.

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  2. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Of course, The Teaching Company aims towards introducing subjects to people, but I think this series is more basic than most, perhaps because it is so short. I do not criticise, mind you, although it would have been nice with a more in-depth coverage of literary aspects of science fiction.

    As for your recommendation, I have noticed that there is such a series and I will see what I can do about it. It definitely seems interesting and I’ll try to have a look.

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  3. Xhakhal’s avatar

    I think I’d like to listen to this, actually, even if I’ve read embarrassingly little sci fi in my life. Despite the drawbacks, it sure does sound interesting – and it’s in audio too :)

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