Sarah Herbe: Focusing on a Theme

Sarah Herbe has a recently minted doctorate, and teaches at the University of Salzburg.

I am lucky to work and teach in a department with a strong research focus on the fantastic (the Department of English and American Studies, University of Salzburg). When I ask students about their reading habits, even in introductory classes to the analysis of literature, many of them state a preference for fantastic literature. Some years ago I was given the chance to teach a whole seminar on “Genetic Engineering in British Science Fiction”, which coincided with the topic of my PhD thesis. Some of my senior colleagues warned me that “students don’t like science fiction”, and it turned out in our first session that what most students knew about fantastic literature was more Harry Potter and Twilight and less science fiction. And while some had at least read Brave New World, most of them associated science fiction mainly with Hollywood movies and not so much with the written word.

Also, our departmental research focus is not really reflected in our compulsory departmental reading list so far – Dick’s “Impostor” used to be on there, but not any more. Instead, we have Wells’ “The Country of the Blind” and Frankenstein, but that’s about it. So in class we spent the first few sessions not only with a rough overview of the development of the genre, but also trying to find a shared understanding of the term science fiction. And while trying to define science fiction is of course a never-ending exercise, it made students aware of the problematic concept of “genre” as such and provided us with a basis for the reading of the primary texts I had chosen for the seminar (Brave New World, parts of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Paul McAuley’s Fairyland and Brian Stableford’s Designer Genes). For most of the students, reading these texts was their first real contact with science fiction literature. Some of them struggled with the texts, not least because they were unused to the style of writing and the “science” content. But ultimately the thematic focus on biotechnology involved everyone’s interest and there were heated discussions about the presentation of and attitudes towards biotechnology in these texts.

While not all students may have been converted into avid science fiction readers (someone complained on their feedback form that there was “too much science fiction” and not enough film for their taste in that seminar), they all stayed until the end of the semester and enjoyed seeing connections between science fiction and “the real world” that they had not expected to be there when we started. Now let’s see how that seminar on “The New Weird” I am suggesting for next semester turns out!

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