ENGL 546 A: Topics In Twentieth-Century Literature

Utopian Writing and Contemporary Science Fiction

Meeting Time: 
TTh 1:30pm - 3:20pm
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Tom Foster
Tom Foster

Syllabus Description:

English 546A

Tom Foster

Winter 2021

Course description


Topic: Utopian Writing and Contemporary Science Fiction


Format: I am currently planning to conduct this class synchronously, over Zoom.


Required texts:

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 2000-1887 (Oxford Classics)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, Herland, and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics)

Joanna Russ, The Female Man

Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

Nisi Shawl, Everfair

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future

Short stories and critical essays available as pdfs on the Canvas site

Suggested only: Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent, The Utopia Reader, 2nd edition


Description: This course will trace the history of utopian writing as one central determining feature of the development of science fiction as a genre.  The course is designed to provide students with an introduction to the study of science fiction, but it is also intended for students more generally interested in the place of utopian thought in contemporary criticism, theory, and political culture.  We will begin with Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the “literature of cognitive estrangement,” a definition grounded in but also transformative of the utopian tradition.  I will primarily refer to Claeys and Sargent’s Utopia Reader (2nd edition) to define the historical tradition of utopian writing, along with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a late 19th-century critique of capitalism which established or reestablished the popularity of utopian fiction in the U.S. and England.  In addition to the debate about utopianism and socialism generated by William Morris’s review of Bellamy, we will read Gilman’s Herland (1915) as a direct feminist response to Bellamy and Edward A. Johnson’s Light Ahead for the Negro (1904) as a direct African American response.   A key question here will be the extent of the ethnocentrism of the utopian tradition and its usefulness for feminist, anti-colonial, and anti-racist projects.  What does utopian thought’s investment in a relation to futurity offer such projects?  As time and student interest permits, we will end this section of the class by considering the function of the idea of utopia in contemporary theory, especially queer theory, including debates about heteronormativity as reproductive futurity; the ontological turn in speculative realism or new materialism, with its attempt to think through objects and irreducible alterity, in relation to utopian attempts to imagine an “other place” or time; and theories of utopia as grounded in reading and affect, including fan fiction.  Throughout this section of the course, we will read shorter examples of 20th-century science fiction and critical or theoretical sources (Sargent, Jameson, Bloch, Munoz, Edelman, Shaviro, Harman, Sedgwick).  The rest of the course will focus on four (ambiguously) utopian novels: Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, a metafictional reflection on feminist utopian desire; gay African American writer Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a radically-estranged far-future novel that dramatizes the disappearance or fragmentation of cultural norms and centered subjectivities; Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, a steampunk alternate history narrative set in the Belgian Congo, about the founding and survival of a utopian intentional community in Africa, by a Black feminist writer; and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, a near-future novel about climate change and possibilities for responding to it.   Other critical questions may include the relation between utopia and dystopia and the limits of the utopian/dystopian polarity; how to imagine the future of gender, sexuality, race, and colonialism; alternatives to reproductive futurity; network societies, post-industrial economies, and the social and political implications of computer-mediated communication; and the relation of utopian and science fiction to models of “organic fantasy” (Okorafor) and indigenous futurisms (Dillon). 


Assignments:  I am planning to give students three options:  first, to treat the class primarily as a readings class and to produce three short reading reflections over the course of the quarter; second, to write a final paper using the conventions of the conference paper, a report on a new research project; and third, to write a longer final research or seminar paper.    

Last updated: 
October 23, 2020 - 10:12am