TODAY'S TOPIC: TOMORROW
"I was wondering if there was a meeting place between science fact and science fiction," says George Diamond, professor of English at Moravian College. "I've been interested in science fiction for many years, and I've taught special topic courses in it." This time, he was trying to create an upper-division course for Moravian's Learning In Common (LinC) curriculum. But what stumped him, at first, was melding science fiction with the U1 category mandate to examine the impact of science and technology on contemporary society. And then an answer came to him. "Before my students can know anything about science fiction, they have to know about science fact," professor Diamond explains. So it came to me to put the science fact first, and the science fiction afterwards."
The result is the course he's titled "Prophets of Doom and Gloom? Science Fiction, Science Fact and the Contemporary World." The class is a unique exploration of the work of some great science fiction creators, and the ways in which their cautionary tales diverge from or overlap with the reality we live in. But before delving into classic fiction like Brave New World and 1984, the class commences with lectures discussing the science and technology that shapes our world. The lectures feature guests from Moravian faculty and elsewhere. Professor Diamond chooses the topics (with characteristically intriguing titles, such as "I never met a cyborg I didn't like."), and lets the guest speakers interpret them however they choose. "I just tell them that I want my students to get the idea that each of these is a tremendously complex field, that there are things out there they know nothing about," he notes.
After this grounding in reality, the class moves on to explore science fiction short stories, novels and films. The written works vary widely, with authors as diverse as from Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood. The series of films includes the 1927 silent movie Metropolis, 1970's offerings Network and Sleeper, and recent dystopian thriller Children of Men. The Novels and films are discussed in a panel format; there's also a panel that professor Diamond calls "the big synthesis," in which the students discuss one aspect of contemporary life as it relates to the science fiction works. Other coursework includes essay exams and a five-page term paper. In addition, the students are required to maintain a twenty-page journal during the course. "I have them try to identify things which have to do with science fiction or science fact. Somebody could write about the iPhone coming out, for example. People lined up the night before to get one. But is the iPhone making modern life better?"
Professor Diamond's students tend to become very engaged in the class, he says, adding that they sometimes surprise him with their creativity. Like one student who reported on a music video based on Metropolis, or another who created a schematic of William Gibson's complex novel Neuromancer. "I don't know how he did it, I was just amazed." Ultimately, professor Diamond hopes his students not only come to understand some of the trends that shape today's society, but gain an appreciation of a literary form that so often warns us not to let science and technology undermine human values. "I hope they gain an interest in science fiction from the class," he says, "and I believe it's often the case that they do."