Teaching Science Fiction

Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979

Teaching Science Fiction: Unique Challenges

(Proceedings of the MLA Special Session, New York, December 1978)

Participants: Gregory Benford (speaker); Samuel Delany (speaker); Robert Scholes (speaker); Alan J . Friedman (respondent); and John Woodcock (moderator)

Transcribed and edited by John Woodcock

With all due respect to T. S. Eliot, I believe that an argument can be made that January is the cruelest month. The holidays of the winter, solstice are behind us, but the winter itself lies ahead. In January teachers, who are beginning a new semester as well as a new year, find themselves particularly subject to the clash of memory and desire that Eliot placed later in the year. But January is cruelest of all to those of us who are returning to teach courses in SF. Few courses combine such high hopes, on the part of both students and faculty, with such a variety of teaching challenges.

How do you discuss Einstein Intersection with someone who is suffering from generalized math anxiety?

How do you describe the reading experience in SF, the word-by-word process by which literary meanings are made, to the English major whose experience with mainstream fiction — or mundane fiction, to use the liberated term — has emphasized other areas of exploration?

How do you handle the classic literary question of realism in a way that is meaningful for works that are fantastic, or predictive, or both?

How do you get any point across to a class with students from two dozen different majors?

The questions go on and on. This morning we're going to address briefly three of them: the problem of scientific content, the problem of reading one's first book of SF, and the problem of realism.


Gregory Benford

I'm going to give you my impressions derived from about five years of teaching courses in which I've attempted to infuse some physics into SF, or the other way around, and mention some difficulties and some escape hatches I have discovered and used.

The primary difficulty is in finding the right approach. Every time I give a course like Physics and SF I get the most motley group you can possibly imagine — people who think it's a gut course, engineers who want to argue with you about Larry Niven, humanities majors who want to find out what H. G. Wells really meant, and so on. Under these circumstances I have found the best approach generally is to begin by trying to talk about physics as a life, or science as a life. One problem with this is that it's hard to find images of the scientist in fiction that hold up. But you can go to "conventional" fiction, you can look at C. P. Snow's novel The Search, which I think is a rather good book about the career in science. Or you could use Fred Hoyle's SF novel The Black Cloud, which is heavily laced with science and also gives a picture of the way scientists think and work — the way it's really done, as opposed to the lab-smock image that you get out of commercial television. One thing I would not recommend is using novels of the pseudo-SF sort, books that blatantly construct theories which don't exist to explain phenomena which don't exist, and so on. Incidentally, if you do use a conventional sort of book, you might want to begin with a contrasting pair — for instance, read The Double Helix by Watson one week and The Autobiography of Albert Einstein the next — to make the point that in fact scientists differ greatly in the way they see science and the scientific career. You go from the kind of street-wise manner of Watson and his solve-it-at-whatever-cost technique with Crick, to the grand aesthetic principles of Einstein. That kind of bath of cold water right at the beginning is very useful to show students that science is not a monolith as it's lived or in fact as it's described.

Now you can go from this very soft approach to illustrating what you might call scientific habits of mind, and I'd go back to some of the standard SF pieces, such as Godwin's "The Cold Equations," where you see society's institutionalized delusions set against the overwhelmingly, absolutely neutral point of view of the universe.

The next stage might be that of literary analysis. This involves getting the student who has read problem-solving stories but never thought about them, or the student who has read sociological SF but hasn't looked at the problem-solving story, to examine a few of these stories in detail and see what makes them work. The engineers in the course particularly like discussing an author's tricks and ingenuity and factual errors, and in a good discussion of this sort you can use one part of the class to educate the other. My engineers inevitably notice that Larry Niven's Ringworld, for example, is actually unstable, and won't work the way it's described. You can use that to kick off a discussion involving the basics of mechanics and of literary credibility. You can do the same with the Poul Anderson stories about low-gravity planets. Suppose a low-gravity planet; what do we think is going to change? You might even go back to the source that Anderson himself used, Stephen Dole's Habitable Planets for Man, the first book on this subject, which describes how you change a planet's parameters and influence its life, its possibilities for future life forms, and so on. This book, published in the early 1960's, fits very well into a discussion of consistency, which I think is a very important stage of understanding SF.

Now we come to the really tough part, which is when you're actually called upon to teach a course in a physics department using SF. One problem right off the bat is that there is no text or, as far as I know, even the prospect of a text. Two people have signed contracts to do such a text. One of them is standing in front of you, and the other one is now the editor of Analog. Neither of us seems to have the time to write one of the bloody things, but I would refer to you two articles which would be of some help. One of them is by Stanley Schmidt, in vol. 41 (1973): 1052ff. of the American Journal of Physics. The other one is an article by me, in the December 30, 1976, New Scientist, about the educational possibilities of science in SF. Until you get those articles, I might mention several points. First, you ought to know your basic physics and things like classical mechanics, so that you can make simple blackboard arguments and derivations at the drop of a hat. Second, believe it or not, the hardest thing to do is to convey to the humanities students the fact that there really is a kind of scientific literary scheme in these stories, and that you can start with a dynamic law and end up with some kind of truth which can be made manifest in a story. If I had to name one point to attempting this difficult educational task, it is that the existence of solved problems in a fictional matrix motivates students to learn physics a lot better than taking the canonical introductory textbook course.

I'll give you a couple of examples. We read, let's say, Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, in which there are some clear cheats, the notable one being the fact that if you run a spaceship into a star you cannot simply transform to another reference frame, à la Einstein, and show that it's the star that gets gobbled up instead of the spaceship. Anderson knew this was a clear cheat, but you can use it to bring your students to the point where they understand that a relativistic reference frame doesn't mean that you can wipe out real physical effects. We have also read Jerry Bixby's "Holes Around Mars," which appears in Asimov's Where Do We Go From Here? It's a story in which you land on Mars and you notice that there are holes in all of the hills and the mountains, and people stumble around for about 5,000 words wondering, "Why are these holes here?" At night they hear mysterious whizzing noises, and finally one of the moons on Mars comes through like an express train boring holes through the mountains of Mars, which is the reasons that Mars is riddled. It is so implausible that the most benighted humanities major will begin to have doubts. So what do you do? Well, first you can start out with the inverse square law. You can deduce Kepler's third law with amazing ease and then you can talk about things such as: if the satellite were at this altitude, how fast would it go around, and what happens to the energy, after all? How come it keeps boring holes and never crashes into the planet? Asking questions like these leads to some highly motivated learning of physics.

It also leads to a discussion of the important aesthetic question of how much you can cheat on the facts in fiction. There are virtually no cheat-free stories, including my own, and playing the game of finding the error in a story seems to motivate a lot of students to engage in physics who otherwise sit there and stare. I think some of them get a certain amount of malicious glee out of nailing big-name writers on details like this. It's an introduction to criticism, and to physics, too. I highly recommend this and the other methods I've mentioned as ways of getting your students to respond with the proper spirit to physics, and to science in general. This all requires a certain amount of labor and ingenuity from the instructor, but in my experience it's well worth it.


Samuel Delany

Universities are filled with people who simply won't read SF. These folks suffer from nothing worse than snobbism, and their affliction doesn't really interest me. But there are many people, both in universities and out, who honestly can't read SF, which is to say they have picked up several SF stories and tried to read them, only to find that much of the text simply didn't make sense to them. Frequently these are very sophisticated readers of literary texts. Several times now I have had the chance to work with such readers reading SF texts slowly, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, checking on what has been responded to and what has not been. When you read an SF text in this way with such readers it becomes clear that their difficulty is almost entirely in their failure to create the alternate world that gives the story's incidents all their sense. While these readers have no trouble imagining a Balzac provincial printing office, a Dickens boarding school, or a Jane Austen sitting room, they are absolutely stymied by, say, the most ordinary contemporary SF writer's "monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteriod belt of Delta Cygni." But the failure is not so much a failure of the imaginative faculties as it is a failure to respond word by word to the text. Let's examine that failure with this particular textual fragment.

Monopole magnet. First of all, most of the readers I worked with had no idea what monopole magnets might be. Monopole magnets happen not to exist — as least as far as we know. All magnets that we have ever discovered or created on Earth are dipole: they have two poles, a north pole and a south pole. If you put like poles together they push each other apart; if you put unlike poles together they draw one another. For this reason the very mention of monopole magnets means that in this universe a completely new kind of magnet has been discovered. And this suggests in turn that there may be a whole new branch of electromagnetic technology (every electrical motor, electrical generator, and transformer would be an example of electromagnetic technology), which would then have to be reconceived in the world or worlds of this particular SF universe.

Monopole magnet mining operations. I had one reader who, besides not knowing what monopole magnets might be, assumed that whatever they were, the mining was done with the magnets rather than for the magnets, even though a term like "gold mining operations" or even "uranium mining operations" would not have created the same confusion. Needless to say, this reader would be perfectly lost in any further mentions of the goings-on in these mines.

Monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt. Another reader, already as confused as the others over monopole magnet mining, thought that an asteroid belt was "a ring of stones around the world." Well, if you substitute "sun" for "world" you might describe it that way. When I questioned this reader further, I discovered the mental picture the reader had was that the stones "were not very big, maybe a few feet or so across" and that they were "packed together" so that they were only "a few feet or few inches apart." For this reader the mines were "probably tunnels that went from stone to stone. Maybe the stones were even in the tunnels." And what about the word "outer?" Over half these readers thought "outer" meant that the mining took place on the outside of this wall of stones rather than inside it. And Delta Cygni? Maybe that was "an area of space" or "a planet. " Patiently and repeatedly I had to explain to these readers, several of whom incidentally had published books and/or articles on various literary subjects, that the asteroid belt in our own solar system was a ring of stones that went around the sun at a greater distance than our Earth and that, though a few of the stones were as large as a mile of even 10 miles in diameter, most of them were much smaller, pea-size or dust-size. I also had to reiterate that even the dust-size ones were hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. They had to be told that Delta Cygni was a star, a sun, in the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan), the fourth star named in the constellation. "How do you know that it's the fourth one?" Because delta is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and there's this astronomical naming convention....

Nor was it a matter of simply saying these things once; they had to be repeated and questioned and repeated again. "What do you mean, a sun? I thought you said a star?" They had to be told that "outer asteroid belt" was the writer's shorthand way for, first, reminding you that our sun has only one asteroid belt, and at the same time suggesting that Delta Cygni might be a star with two asteroid belts — one farther out than the other. "Well, how much farther out?" There is no way to be sure, of course, but one can make a safe guess that it may be many millions of miles. "Many millions of miles?" They had to be told that it was in this outer asteroid belt rather than in the inner one that these mining operations were going on. "But how does the writer know there are two? How do you know?" These readers were all perfectly capable of negotiating a 19th-century novel, whether it was written by a Russian count on a family estate outside of Moscow, or a tubercular parson's daughter living with her sisters on the edge of an English moor, or an ex-printer in Paris who, having penned nothing but pot-boilers until age 30, decided to try his hand at something more ambitious. Yet for these same readers a sentence like "The stars are suns, many with planets like our own" does not call up a clear concrete visualization laid out to the proper scale of the planetary, stellar, and galactic organization of the universe. Rather, it is simply a muzzy and confusing statement associated with the vast and impossible complexities of "all that scientific stuff" which they have tried to avoid all of their lives.

In the 19th century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Doctor Challenger stories are some of the clearest examples of proto-SF, was surprisingly aware of this problem. He talked about it in, oddly enough, one of his Sherlock Holmes tales. In one Holmes story — the same one, incidentally, where we learn that Holmes takes cocaine — Dr. Watson is astonished to learn that his friend Holmes, who can infer so much from cat hairs, heel prints, and plaster scratchings, does not know that the Earth moves around the sun, that he is ignorant of "the entire Copernican theory of the solar system." Holmes explains, however disingenuous that explanation sounds today, that while cat hairs, heel prints, etc., affect his present life and livelihood, it makes absolutely no difference to him at all whether the Earth moves around the sun or the sun moves around the Earth. Therefore, he doesn't have to know such facts, and what's more, even though Dr. Watson has informed him of the truth of the matter, he intends to forget it as quickly as he can. If Holmes' explanation is true, what we can say with fair certainty is that he would be as lost in the monopole magnet mining operations of that outer asteroid belt as any of our 19th-century novel readers.

But the inability to visualize scenes on the astronomical level does not exhaust the imaginative failures of these readers. Though perfectly comfortable following the social analysis of a Balzac, a Jane Austen — or even a Durkheim, Marx, or Weber — they are completely at sea when they come across the description of a character who, upon going to the drugstore to purchase a package of depilatory pads, "inserted his credit card in the purchasing slot; his bill was transferred to the city accounting house to be recorded against the accumulated credit of his primary and secondary jobs." Such a sentence suggests a whole reorganization of society along lines of credit, commerce, computerization, and work patterns. Certainly, from a single sentence no one could be expected to come up with all the details of that reorganization, but by the same token one should be able to see at least a shadow of its general outline. And that shadow should provide the little S-F frisson that is the pleasure of the SF vision. The readers I worked with, however, responded to such a sentence: "But why didn't he pay for it with the money in his pocket?" And they were very surprised when I told them that the character probably carried no money. "But how do you know?" Such readers, used to the given world of mundane fiction, tend to lay the fabulata (the "narrative elements") of SF over that world, and come up with confusion. They do not yet know that these fabulata replace, displace, and reorganize the elements of the mundane world into new worlds. All the practice they have had in locating specific areas of the given world that mundane fiction deals with has given them no practice at all in creating imaginative alternates. The hints, the suggestions, the throwaways, and even, sometimes, the broadest strokes by which the skillful SF writer suggests the alternate world do not come together for them in any coherent vision, but only blur, confuse, and generally muddy the vision of the given world they are used to. Reading SF texts with these readers, I was able to bring them to a point of understanding for the particular texts we read. But their feeling that they were now better prepared to read more SF was about equally mixed with the feeling that the complexities of SF were even more daunting than they had dreamed of till then.

Once one knows a language, it is almost impossible to imagine somebody else not knowing it. No matter what indications a person gives that he/she understands us not at all, on some deep level there always remains in us the insistent suspicion that this person is only fooling, or lazy, or malicious. The conventions of poetry, or drama, or mundane fiction, or SF, are in themselves separate languages. Once you learn one of these languages so that you are comfortable with the text, it is very hard to conceive of someone else not knowing this language, especially when the texts are written in English, presumably the language you both speak. Like most languages, the SF language is best learned early and by exposure, but some of my adult readers found it a bit deflating to realize that their twelve-year-olds were frequently at home in the magnet mines and in the centralized credit economy in a way that their parents were not.


Robert Scholes

I want to second what Chip Delany was saying about his experience of teaching science fiction. I couldn't agree more that the problem is an imaginative problem. I was billed as someone who was going to speak about future realism here, and that is an interest of mine, but it correlates with this other interest, which is the failure of imagination in contemporary American culture [laughter], and I just want to be sidetracked for a minute to say something about that and about possible ways of dealing with it in courses using SF texts in educational institutions.

It occurred to me as I sat on the platform here that I was sitting next to the two writers who have written the best two episodes I have ever read involving an erotic connection among three people [more laughter]. When this happens in mundane literature, you get usually either pornography — something on which the label "orgy" sits comfortably — or comedy. In Greg Benford's The Ocean of Night, and in Dhalgren or Babel-17 by Delany, you get something else: you get a human situation described with what seems to me to be extraordinary fidelity to our understanding of how human psyches work and how emotional and erotic relationships work. And I tried to confront, as I was sitting here, the question of why should this be. Why should SF be the place where this strange literary phenomenon has occurred? Why not in John Updike or someone you would expect to accomplish this? The best answer I could come up with is that it has something to do with liberating the imagination and rethinking the cultural codes that govern behavior and imagining — being able to encode in words this kind of experience which has rarely been, encoded in words before. I think that's the crucial thing. The phenomenon that Chip Delany was talking about, the phenomenon of the too great assimilation of the mundane way of reading, is the major problem you confront when you teach SF to literary students. I am an English teacher and I teach SF primarily as literature. But I see literature as aspiring to be critical of culture, and this is something that I am not sure that some of our mundane writers, even the most admired ones, are always doing. My great interest in SF comes from the ability of SF works, sometimes even works which in some respects are rather casually constructed or trivial, to nevertheless reimagine things and present us not only with images that reflect on the culture we're living in but also with possibilities for the future that we have to begin thinking about at the present time.

One way we might try to deal with this problem is to confront the fact that students enter SF courses with some training in reading conventional fiction mundane fiction — and with a heavily encoded sense of their own immediate culture and literature. Thus we should begin a course not with works that put their name to remote worlds, but with works that reimagine the students' own world, the backward-looking or alternate history type of SF — with books like Moore's Bring the Jubilee, which imagines that the South won the Civil War, or Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which imagines that the Germans and the Japanese won World War II. Books of this kind force the student to confront the fact that history is a sequence of events which were not inevitable and which, if some things had gone differently, would have led to a quite different cultural situation in the present. Such a confrontation would help to open up our students imaginatively, before we take them to the study of greater ranges into the future, the reaches of space, or radical psycho-social alternatives. I think this might be a more effective way of dealing with that particular problem that Chip mentioned, and that I also feel is acute. We know how to fill in the gaps in a mundane fiction. To learn how to fill in the gaps in a fiction which is set somewhere we haven't thought of is an art that does have to be learned, and it means unlearning some of the regular processes of decoding fiction that we normally go through and that we expect our students to go through.

You can do a lot of things with SF. You can use it, as Greg Benford does, to teach physics. I think it should be immensely useful to teach the social sciences. I myself teach it as literature, and I think that teachers of modern literature should deal with it as such. Rather than keeping it ghettoized in "the science fiction course," they ought to include strongly imagined and carefully wrought works of contemporary SF in the same course with the other modem texts that they are going to teach. There you would have to confront the problem of reinventing a little bit differently, and you might have to choose your works rather carefully so as not to make too big a problem for yourself, but it seems to me that the one thing one doesn't want to do is to say, this is really not literature, it's some special sub-cultural form which is fun to study by itself or can be used to teach physics. Sure it can, and it can be used to teach a lot of other things. It is also important literature, usefully critical of contemporary culture, and in many respects the thing we need more of than we need of most other kinds of fiction at the present time.


Alan J. Friedman

I'm a physicist who at the moment is spending all his time trying to learn about learning. There's an importance to the teaching of SF for what we are learning about learning that I'd like to discuss briefly in the context of these three presentations.

Much to our dismay, the two-cultures gap is still with us; C. P. Snow's complaint is still very much alive. We're not calling it that, though. We're calling it "Back to a core curriculum," and "We should reintroduce a distribution requirement," and "Maybe the 'relevance' of the Sixties is now out." One aspect that I particularly am concerned with relates to Gregory Benford's question about what people know about science. For scientists it's most discouraging. In 1974, Andy Fraknoi conducted a small but fascinating survey that began with the question: "Can you name any living astronomer?" Only 14% of the people could come up with any valid name. Even that turned out to have been anomalously high, since the survey was done about the time that a certain comet was coming by, and "Kohoutek" was the name most people came up with. Otherwise, apparently, the number of people would have been reduced to about 5%, with the commonest name, curiously enough, being that of Fred Hoyle, whom I think people were able to name not because he's an astronomer, but because he writes SF!

You see the same ignorance on the other side, though. I work a lot with science students; and while they might be able to name more living novelists than Fraknoi's people could astronomers, I don't think they have read any more novels than literature students have read astronomy articles. For most science students, novels in the range of, say, Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses are totally impossible, as is SF beyond the level of Star Wars, or any mundane fiction that strays beyond the bounds of 19th-century realism.

So there's the question: if we think this gap is a terrible thing, what do we do about it? In spite of Greg Benford's enthusiasm, I'm not sure all of you are ready to jump into learning the laws governing decaying orbits. There are, however, very probably, good physicists at your institutions who would be very flattered if you asked them to sit in on your class and explain a few points, or even give a lecture. They might even get hooked and start doing it themselves, and — wonder of wonders — they might some day invite you to come to a physics class to talk about literary methods of dealing with reality and imagination.

Greg also mentioned the fun of nailing people, of finding the weakness in SF's science. There is a more positive way to look at what Greg called "cheating" — and if he'd said that in a roomful of scientists he would have been stoned: we don't call it "cheating," we call it "hypothesizing"! The process of creating an SF story in which you have to bend things a little bit to make your story hold together is, according to Jacob Bronowski, precisely the same process you use in science to create a new theory. The act of creating a new axiom in science, says Bronowski, is precisely the same as the act of creating a poem or a novel or a painting. The product may be different, but the act of creation is the same. And you can use SF to get across this idea, which is startling to most literature students, and to most science students, too.

I like what Chip Delany said in his presentation about how SF can get us into attitudes. The attitude of Sherlock Holmes in not wanting to know about the Copernican theory is surprisingly widespread among students in both science and literature towards the other culture. There is almost a pride in saying, "Oh, I don't know anything about math" or "I got out of taking the comp. lit. course." SF gives us the means for discussing the question of attitude. Where I'd like to modify what Chip said is in regard to the methods of teaching science with which you can avoid some of that tiresome repetition he complained of. I'll get to those in just a minute.

Professor Scholes described SF as a possible antidote to the failure of imagination. The concept, for instance, that history itself may not be inevitable, that it may be subject to re-invention, or deconstructionn is not easy to get across to either literature or science students, and Professor Scholes has convincingly demonstrated that SF gives us a marvellous resource with which to try to do that.

I do have a theoretical overlay which explains, to me at least, why SF can indeed be such a successful tool for teaching both literature to science majors and science to literature majors. This theoretical overlay is based on the work of Jean Piaget. To brutally reduce the idea I have borrowed from him, it is that, whatever you are trying to teach, people will learn it much faster and better if they can manipulate it — preferably physically, but cerebral manipulation works, too. If we want students to appreciate something about a concept in physics or in the design fiction, we need to let them design some fiction, we need to let them manipulate some physics. The best thing about SF as an educational tool is that it can be manipulated. It invites you to manipulate it, to manipulate science, to manipulate literature. If you listen to science students telling each other about literature, they're telling each other plots. But if those plots are SF plots, the students begin almost immediately to manipulate them. It goes something like: "I read a neat story somewhere about people who changed their sex every month. I wonder what it would be like if they only changed it once a year. Or if someone else could change your sex without your consent once a year." You see, you have manipulation of an idea. That's something we don't permit students to do enough of in introductory science courses — or, as far as I can tell, in introductory literature courses, either. But SF almost forces you to do this, to look back at the story and ask yourself "what if ... " and to reinvent the story for yourself — all this being the manipulation which Piaget says encourages people to learn something about unfamiliar topics. And that's why I'm so hopeful that SF may help us in closing the two-cultures gap.

Audience Response and Discussion

Question no. 1: In all this talk about literature and science students and the two cultures, haven't we forgotten about possible third, and fourth, cultures? I mean the general students. I'm in a university where we don't have the luxury of science students or literature students. They're mainly business majors — and this obviously presents certain problems, because they come to SF courses with neither the science nor the literature.

Delany: One of the things I've found helpful in working with general students is that it's very easy to get them to reread SF, easier than with mundane fiction. In most courses I've taught, rereading has been important, and I've found that it is amazingly easy to get your students to read a story twice, three times, even four times, to the point where you can do really detailed analysis. It's very hard to do that in the ordinary literature class.

Scholes: One thing I'd suggest as a way of catching their attention is to include works that focus on social institutions such as business — something like Pohl and Kornbluth's Space Merchants, for instance.

Woodcock: There are some anthologies that might be good. Greenberg and Olander did one fairly recently on business — Tomorrow, Inc.: SF Stories About Big Business (Taplinger, 1976).

Question no. 2: I'd like to supplement the discussion by disagreeing with some of the partialness I've been hearing - You can do a lot of things with a book of SF. You can teach business with it, or stabilize a chair with a short leg, or celebrate your graduation by burning it, or whatever. But I'd like to support very strongly the idea that, whatever else you do with it, you really ought to be teaching it as literature. Not only as literature, because if literature is of interest to us, it's because it's not a self-contained system that has no relation to other things. But at least we should be teaching it as literature. One reason is that, as has been suggested today, SF can teach people to read - and by that I mean a radical process of thinking. This is possible because some SF is formulaic, and that makes it easier to see how the manipulations work than is the case with, say, most Victorian novels.

Another point: it's not only science and literature students who are surprised when they find out that the other culture thinks by creating striking images. Scientists are surprised when they find out that scientists think that way! This is because science education is based on a post hoc analysis of the structure of science. They don't work their way through caloric, phlogiston, and so on. They start out with the notion of entropy as fundamental, and build up their theories from there. So the impression most science students get is that there is a coherent order simply being discovered - but, of course, that's not the case at all.

Finally, I don't think that looking for cheating would be quite as interesting a job for us in the classroom as it was made to sound here, in part because Greg supported it so nicely. I think that by looking for cheating you reduce the literature to its content, and you lose some possibly very important complexity. I want to know, for example, when an author has been discovered to have a hidden cheat, whether he stupidly did not understand how something worked, or whether he knew it worked that way but hoped that his audience would think of it the other way, or whether he hoped that his audience would realize he was consciously trying to change things. To put it in terms of mainstream literature where we do understand this, sometimes we forgive an author for using, say, a racial stereotype. If that's not his interest and he himself has no reason to be sensitive to it, that's not the subject of the story. Dickens, for example, is constantly doing this — and we don't go along constantly saying "Aha! You see, he's deformed reality! People aren't really like that!" We say Dickens is a realist [laughter]. But nobody is really a realist. The point is to understand how literature projects the world. If we're going to talk about science as something that really works in the world and understand how science can project the world, and we're going to use SF to do this, we are still going to have to use literary methods to analyze these formulae of science that we're getting those pictures from.

Delany: I'd like to take exception to the idea, that we've had both from the podium and now from the audience, of teaching SF as literature. This is a very loaded statement, because it can mean so many things. Literature itself is a set of codes, a set of encoded values, and you really do have to question them. On a more practical level, it comes down to something like this. Most of the poetry teaching in the early half of this century in America, we now feel, was trivial; because the students supposedly understood stories, when you gave them poems you gave them Longfellow's and James Russel Lowell's narrative poems, and you dealt with them as though they were just stories, analyzed them according to their plots and characters, and so on — which is not the way to teach poetry, narrative or not. A poem is generically distinct from fiction, and has to be dealt with as such. I think if you go into an SF story after you have read, say, a John Cheever story and look for the same kinds of things, and assume it's going to work the same way, you're going to have very unhappy and confused students. SF is generically distinct from mundane fiction. The particular way the fictive world works, the way the fictive subject works, and their interplay is going to be very, very different in SF.

Scholes: I completely agree. My project of incorporating SF into literature necessarily assumes that literature changes when you do that.

Friedman: And there are differences within the genre that are enormous. You can't read Einstein Intersection and Tau Zero the same way. Even though they both talk about Einstein, they are as different as any two works of fiction can be.

Question no. 3: It is very clear that the panel has given a serious indictment of the way students, from high school on, are being taught science, politics, relevance, whatever. You're saying that all these students are coming into college without knowing anything at all about the culture they live in — nothing! I found myself stunned. Chip, were you teaching an underprivileged class that had no money, and didn't know about credit cards?

Delany: I'd been teaching people all of whom owned credit cards themselves. That's what makes it so stunning.

Benford: You're right, it is in large measure an indictment of the educational system — all being teachers here, we can speak openly of this [laughter]. And you are right, they don't know, to large measure, the culture they live in — mainly because, basically, it ain't taught. Big pieces, chunks of it, are simply beyond view. You'd think they'd know enough about organs by now, or about Kepler's law, but they don't. They're just sailing along with Newsweek or something.

Question no. 4: I've got the opposite problem with my students. They don't have any trouble with monopole magnets, but the world of Jane Austen is completely beyond them. They just can't believe that when two people meet they don't automatically jump into bed. I think this is a problem that is not limited to SF. Chip, you were talking as if the 19th-century were somehow more accessible?

Delany: It is — to people who've just come from studying the 19th-century novel.

Question no. 5: I'm more than willing as a literary teacher to take the advice given here and concede that SF is another genre, but I'd like to leave this particular conference with some assurance from the panel that I ought not to, as I now do, face my SF classes with a red face — my only excuse for teaching it being that perhaps by teaching something accessible like SF I might ultimately be able to induce the student to be interested in Chaucer, who is more worthy, but might not otherwise be of interest. It seems to me that scientific fudging by writers is systematic, not only in physics, but also in monopole magnets or the erotic triangles. These are all altering reality in conceptually exciting ways. This is what any literature must do. But I wonder if science isn't really, in consequence of what the panel has said, a red herring, as much a red herring as any other reality that is transformed experimentally for the sake of conceptual experiment. It would be as sensible to teach the geography of the South Pacific from Erewhon or the works of Jonathan Swift as to teach modem astrophysics from the SF works which intentionally and knowingly alter it. So why is it that SF is not as good as Jane Austen? Why must the point of teaching it be to induce someone to go and ultimately read Jane Austen? Why is Tau Zero not as good a novel as the 19th-century classics? Is it not because, though ostensibly about the Special Theory of Relativity, that novel is in its real literary sense about the return to Eden, and sin, and the state of grace, and those things are treated better in other literature than in most SF? Should I not be red-faced? [A bristling of hands from the panelists.]

Woodcock: Who wants to take on a red face and a red herring?

Scholes: I'll go first. I'm glad you brought up erotic triangles [laughter]. It seems to me that the triangle as a figure here is a beautiful instance of a concept inhibiting other perspectives. When we say triangle, we mean a relationship of jealousy and bitterness between wife, husband, and lover, let's say, in which only one side of that triangle gets activated at a time. The instances I've referred to in the books of Benford and Delany are not triangles in that sense. They are a new figure in a new erotic geometry. And that, I think, is a speculative and a literary achievement which Jane Austen will not give me [laughter]. I admire Jane Austen immensely. I also admire many SF novels with the same intensity, though I recognize that they do rather different things. They don't exclude one another from the realm of literature. In Roland Barthes' phrase, which I misappropriate in some ways, Jane Austen is now a "readerly" text. We can't write Jane Austen. We can write Benford and Delany.

Delany: What you're asking, it seems, is: should SF be taken seriously as literature? And what is being assumed here is that the way literature is traditionally taken seriously is a good thing. First of all, this has grown up historically as an appropriate response to the innate worthwhileness of the literary text. This is precisely the kind of code I was talking about, which you really do have to question. One French scholar, Michel Foucault, has suggested that most of the critical interpretative methods that we use with literature today are basically habits of thought left over from verification procedures once applied to writings that were suspected to be authored by saints, and were therefore holy writs! These methods have been tagged on to literature for pedagogical reasons and for many others, as well. So that all of this has to be teased apart, and you have to find out exactly what you're doing when you ask a question like this. Interest, to a great extent, is in the eye of the beholder. An SF text is interesting because you can look at it in an interesting way. And one reason for it to be interesting is that it might refer to an area of experience, either imaginative or real, that you haven't seen dealt with elsewhere.

Friedman: I don't think it's fair to take one work of SF, like Tau Zero, compare it to Jane Austen, and then make an indictment against reading any SF. But to answer your question, I think, yes, if you want your students to read Jane Austen, it might be good to start them out reading some 19th-century SF. This will allow them to do manipulation, which they will not find as easy to do in Jane Austen. If you want science students to read SF, an excellent way to do it, which has both practical and theoretical justification, is to start them off reading H.G. Wells. It can work the other way, too. There are mundane potboilers around today that students will read before they will read SF, and that you could use to lift them up to a point where they could read good SF.

Question no. 5: But still, that's being engaged in a kind of trickery ...

Benford: That's pedagogy, not trickery [laughter].

Delany: This is one of the reasons I keep coming back to the idea that SF is a separate genre. You wouldn't have this Tau Zero versus Jane Austen argument if we were discussing, say, a sonnet and a short story, or a ballad versus a play. If you look at it that way, there's simply no competition between an SF and a mundane work, just as there's none between, say, Paradise Lost and Hamlet.

Question no. 6: I love SF, but it's my observation that to some extent it means poor writing. How much is a certain conception of the SF reading audience, as determined by editors and publishing houses, responsible for this? I've heard that SF writers sometimes get letters back from editors saying, "You have an interesting idea here, but you write much too well. Muck it up, and send it back."

Benford: Maybe that's true, or used to be, but I don't feel anything like it. My limitations are my own.

Delany: I don't think an editor would use those exact words, "muck it up," but I can conceive of an editor getting a book and reading the first three or four pages and thinking, well, the style is too complex and/or sophisticated for my particular kind of SF adventure stories at DAW Books [laughter] — or at Ballantine. But here's a slightly different accent to this particular kind of rejection than the one you're talking about. There are so many ways in which editors can be awful that they don't usually bother with that one [laughter].

Question no. 7: To the gentleman who was speaking of SF as a road to literature, I might suggest certain classic works of literature, which, although they don't fit conveniently in the category of SF, contain important elements of SF in them — a work such as Faust, Part 2, which has a scientist who creates a human being, a homunculus, and where you get treatment of all the implications of creating a human being, one created without a soul. And then there's George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methusaleh, in which an artificial placenta gives birth to an 18-year-old child, and you have a world in which people 100 or 200 years old just sit around and do mathematical problems. Works like these might make a convenient passageway from SF to more conventional literary works.

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