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Podcast script 35:

 

mySF Project podcast, number 35

 

Review of Exploring Genre: Science Fiction by Barabara Stanners

 

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Index:

Introduction
Relationship to The Science Fiction Handbook
Thematic section and familiar texts
Using the text
Podcast 36
Resource list

 

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Introduction

Podcast 35 reviews Exploring Genre: Science Fiction by Barabara Stanners, published in 2009 by Phoenix Education, one of a series exploring genre by the same author. Previous titles looked at 'the journey', Romanticism, Horror and Crime Fiction. These titles are sold through the Australian Association for the Teaching of English bookshop, with a link here.

Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (Stanners, 2009) is aimed at Australian school year levels 9 to 12 and cost, in mid-September of 2010, just a shade under forty Australian dollars. With a mottled green and deep blue soft cover below a shiny robot face peering at a cluster of galaxies held in one robotic hand (with references to a Metropolis Hamlet contemplating the jester's skull), it is an attractive A4 book with a strong binding. This Australian text has 158 pages with a surprising one page Bibliography.

Relationship to The Science Fiction Handbook

This commentary on Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (Stanners, 2009) relates to Podcast 30 of the mySF Project, published in February of 2010 that advocated the use of The Science Fiction Handbook  by Booker and Thomas (2009) for upper secondary studies of Science Fiction. While The Science Fiction Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) is a challenging and insightful text of great use to any SF secondary teacher, the same can not be said of Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (Stanners, 2009), although there are elements that can be used productively, if a teacher-librarian can be talked into the purchase without a close inspection of the text.

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Many SF critiques start with a definition of Science Fiction. Luckily, Stanners (2009) has avoided the long and tedious arguments about the nature of the genre itself and has instead offered a few brief comments and then twenty-five definitions, including this from Sam Moskowitz,

Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the 'willing suspension of disbelief' on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy (Muskowitz in Stanners, p3).

Unfortunately, as with the vast bulk of secondary sources noted by Stanners, no citation for the quote is given.

From the grab-bag of definitional quotes Stanners moves to the evolution of SF and SF conventions, including a very useful page and a half from the online Guardian Newspaper, quoting Margaret Atwood on why Science Fiction is needed, as an 'outering of human imagination' (Atwood in Stanners, 2009, p11).

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Thematic sections and familiar texts

Stanners breaks SF into major categories, including Robots, Cyborgs and Aliens lumped together, Exploring Time and Space, Dystopic SF, Postmodernist SF and then a special section on Responding and Composing to an in SF.

The featured texts and authors have several novels likely to be found in Australian secondary school book rooms as well as some not often found in recent criticisms. The texts are a useful blend of novels and films and most are within the right censorship classification for this age range.

Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey (2001), Wells' The Time Machine (1898), Zemeckis' Contact (1997), Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Herbert's Dune 1965), Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Schaffner's Planet of the Apes (1968) and Lucas' Star Wars (1977) are all covered. It is quite a good bet that a few of these are found in high school multiple copies and their DVD stores.

 Of more interest are short pieces published in full, such as Ray Bradbury's 'The Dragon' (1955), David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' (1969), Louis MacNeice's 'Prayer Before Birth' (1966), Miroslav Holub's 'Brief Thoughts on a Test-Tube' and an analysis of the Australian Stop-Frame Steampunk animation Lucas' The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005). While Holub's work is used elsewhere by Stanners in another text for secondary students and can be found in the New South Wales Higher School Certificate syllabus, the inclusion of Bradbury's and Bowie's short works is a welcome surprise, accompanied by some strong notes and response questions.

Additionally, Stanners includes three short stories in full near the end of the text, a bleak Post-Apocalyptic 'Breakfast' by James Herbert (1989), an anonymous SF 'Cinderella', and Ray Bradbury's sad and dislocated 'The Pedestrian'. These three come in the final, Responding and Composing section and are accompanied by ten analysis questions, all requiring reference to at least two texts studied.

Stanners' Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (2009) includes several suggested response tasks per section, as well as one essay task, usually weighted at about 20% of the unit total and ranging from 800 to 1,200 words in length.

For the section on 'Robots, Cyborgs and Aliens' (a strangle conglomeration that misses much of recent discussions of the cyborg in SF) there are eleven questions as well as seven pages of text devoted to Metropolis (Lang, 1927). In another section Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968) has twelve responses listed as well as a longer essay response to the cult status of the film.

Unusual in recent SF overviews, Stanners also covers John Wyndham's 'cosy catastrophe' The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) with a fine essay with thirteen questions for the text as well as an extended response of one thousand words. As this short novel may still be found in only a few high schools it is more likely to be covered in the film versions, the Village of the Damned (1960), the Children of the Damned (1963) and Village of the Damned (1995). Stenner's discussion of Wyndham's Cold War context and more delicate ethical sensibilities will be lost in the film versions, especially Carpenter's recent adaptation. However, there are electronic versions of this text by Wyndham and others and that may suit the stronger readers in a Year 9 and 10 class, as well as save the school for hard copy texts.

Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (Stanners, 2009) devotes six pages to Herbert's Dune (1965) within the section on World Making. Stanners supplies several strong ideas for students to analyse world making texts and to create their own. During my school holidays I listened to the Audible recorded lectures by Professor Drout (2008) who also accords Dune (1965) and later Herbert texts pre-eminent status in SF world building. While there are the customary mistakes in expression and few citations offered (more on this, later), the attention to Dune (1965) with six pages, five questions and an extended response is suitable for many high schools, especially where the students aged from Year 9 and above prefer the meatier volumes with uncountable follow-up readings.

Most texts dealt with by Stanners receive around six pages of usually unsourced comment with questions and responses required, except for the Dystopian SF Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, given seven and a half pages of comment with two, personal responses in diary form required, based on John Savage's experiences. As a teacher of this text to Year 12 students it is not strongly recommended except for those with some grounding in Shakespeare as well as an interest in evolution, Ford and Eddison's mechanised scientific states, and social engineering. Even the feelies, the constant drug-taking and the supremacy of the young will not help weaker students tackle this text.

Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) is also given seven pages of commentary running into a much more valuable analysis of the Steampunk The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (Lucas, 2005), given four pages with no focus questions for students.

The last section of Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (Stanners, 2009) may well be the most valuable shared in an English staff room. The Responding and Composing section presents three stories, includes ten analysis questions and attempts to cover most aspects of the texts, theme areas and sub-genres discussed. Stanners includes ideas for a Wordle word cloud or concrete poem shape and includes several web references for follow-up activities, though none of these are cited correctly.

As noted in the first part of this discussion, asking a teacher-librarian to purchase Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (Stanners, 2009) would require that some sections of a trial copy not be seen. One of these is the Bibliography. This single page follows no citation scheme found in any secondary school and misses the vast bulk of the texts and critics named by Stanners. What is more, there are glaring errors in the formatting with a sans serif title cited incompletely above a serif title in another font size.

Picking up the text in most of the sections discussed above, reading the A4 pages with their black margin borders would find the reader stop short with a quizzical expression. Some paragraphs do not make sense. Some whole sentences are repeated a few paragraphs apart and there are several problems with expression in every essay.

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Using the text

The frequent errors of citation and expression mean that English teachers would have to photocopy one of the essays, white-out errors, correct the text by hand and then re-copy the pages obviously created for ready photocopying. This is a great shame as some of the commentaries are interesting, well researched and suitable to the age range.

Of course, a reference text aimed at English teachers with incomplete or no citations at all cannot be used with students, as teachers spend so much of their time arguing against copy-and-paste essay writing.

Stanner's choice of texts is mostly predictable but some, such as the poems (that may only just be included within SF and are mystifying given the large number of SF poems honoured each year in the Rhysling Awards), the Bowie song and the inclusion of the Steampunk animation are welcome and can be used with caution.  

The price of Exploring Genre: Science Fiction (Stanners, 2009) is similar to the excellent The Science Fiction Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009), which was strongly recommended for upper secondary school use. Stanners' text is designed for Australian secondary students and linked to curriculum, including some useful questions and response tasks linked to the texts covered and to the genre, but it would be hard to argue for this attractive text when discussing purchases at a staff meeting. 

It is suggested that teachers wait for a second edition of this text. The next edition might be the correct version rather than the earlier draft that seems to have slipped from a computer and somehow made it to print. Perhaps the second edition will also find a sub-editor.

Thanks for listening to Podcast 35. Thanks also to SlowAlan for the musical segues as well as the podcast opening and closing music.

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Podcast 36

Podcast 36 looks at the recent SF film, Moon, directed by Duncan Jones. This text is very suitable to secondary students and relates directly both to a discussion of human identity (always an important theme for students) as well as contributing intelligently to debates on genetic engineering. top

If you want to find out more about the mySF Project and its blog site, aim for www.pataphysics.net.au/mysf_project. You can also send an email to michaels@pataphysics.net.au.

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Resource list

Atwood, M. (1985). The Handmaid's Tale. McClelland and Stewart.

Booker, MK & Thomas A-M. (2009). The Science Fiction Handbook. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bowie, D. (1969). 'Space Oddity'. Philips Records.

Bradbury, R. (1951). 'The Pedestrian'. The Reporter Magazine.

Bradbury, R. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. Ballantine Books.

Bradbury, R. (1955). 'The Dragon'. Esquire Magazine.

Carpenter, J. (Director). (1995). Village of the Damned. Screenplay by David Himmelstein. Based on the novel by John Wyndham. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

Drout, MDC (2008). The Modern Scholar: From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction Literature. Discussion of Herbert's Dune is found in Lecture 8 of 14: 'The World Builder'. Recorded Books from lectures given at Wheaton College.

Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. Ace Books.

Herbert, F. (1965). Dune. Chilton Books.

Herbert, J. (1989). 'Breakfast'. From the collect5ion Scare Care, edited by Graham Masterton. Tor Books.

Huxley, A. (1932). Brave New World. Chatto and Windus: London.

Kubrick, S. (Director). (1968). 2001: a Space Odyssey. Written by Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Warner-Brothers.

Lang, F. (Director). (1927). Metropolis. Written by Thea von Harbou. Universum Film.

Leader, A. (Director). (1963). Children of the Damned. Written by John Briley. Based loosely on the novel by John Wyndham. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

Lucas, A. (Director). (2005). The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. Written by Mark Shirrefs and Anthony Lucas. Australian Film Commission.

Lucas, G. (Director). (1977). Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope. Written by George Lucas. Lucasfilm.

MacNeice, L. (1966). 'Prayer Before Birth', from Collected Poems. Edited by ER Dodds. Faber & Faber.

Rilla, W. (Director). (1960). Village of the Damned. Based on the novel by John Myndham. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

Schaffner, F. (Director). Planet of the Apes. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle. Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. Twentieth Century Fox.  

Stanners, B. (2009). Exploring Genre: Science Fiction. Phoenix Education: Putney, Sydney. 

Wells, HG. (1895). The Time Machine. Heinemann: London.

Wyndham, J. (1957). The Midwich Cuckoos. Ballantine Books.

Zemeckis, R. (Director). Contact. Based on the novel by Carl Sagan. Warner Brothers.

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