How Great Science Fiction Works : The Great Courses: Genre Fiction

  • by The Great Courses
  • Narrated by Professor Gary K. Wolfe
  • Series: The Great Courses: Genre Fiction
  • 12 hrs and 31 mins
  • Lecture

Publisher's Summary

Robots, spaceships, futuristic megacities, planets orbiting distant stars. These icons of science fiction are now in our daily news. Science fiction, once maligned as mere pulp, has motivated cutting-edge scientific research, inspired new technologies, and changed how we view everyday life - and its themes and questions permeate popular culture. Take an unparalleled look at the influence, history, and greatest works of science fiction with illuminating insights and fascinating facts about this wide-ranging genre. If you think science fiction doesn't have anything to do with you, this course deserves your attention. And if you love science fiction, you can't miss this opportunity to trace the arc of science fiction's evolution, understand the hallmarks of great science fiction, and delve deeply into classics while finding some new favorites.
These 24 captivating lectures reveal the qualities that make science fiction an enduring phenomenon that has been steadily gaining popularity. You'll grasp the context and achievements of authors like Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, and many more. You'll experience the wonder, horror, and incredible imagination of works like Frankenstein, the Foundation series, Stranger in a Strange Land, and dozens of more recent stories as well. You'll also see this genre's influence in movies like Star Wars and TV shows like The Twilight Zone.
Science fiction can take us places in time and space where no other form of fiction can - outer space, the far future, alternate universes, unfathomable civilizations. The best science fiction expands our imaginations and makes its mark on our reality. And while few writers would ever claim to predict the future, sometimes authors get it almost eerily right: Gernsback describing radar in 1911, Bradbury describing giant flatscreen TVs in 1951, Gibson inventing "cyberspace" in 1984, and so on.


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Deserves a Hugo of Its Own

After listening to these 24 lectures by Professor Gary Wolfe, I think the Hugo Awards for outstanding achievement in science fiction writing needs a new category. This course should win Most Interesting History and Best Argument for the Literary Value of the Genre.

The overview starts with the19th century European and American roots of science fiction, through the American-dominated pulp magazine and early novel years, the transformative 80s and 90s, and into the new millennium. The chronological presentation is interspersed with lectures on the different icons and tropes of science fiction: space ships, robots, aliens, apocolypses, and dystopias all get thorough coverage. How sci fi has dealt with religion, history, ecology, and gender also get their own lectures.

There is all kinds of interesting stuff here. There are digressions about the difference between fantasy and science fiction (my favorite distinction was the premise that science fiction has planets--Mars, Arrakis, Barrayar--while fantasy has worlds--Middle Earth, Westeros, Chalion). Dr. Wolfe returns frequently to the paradox that the audience for sci fi books and short stories has always been a fairly small one compared to that for, say, mystery, romance, or even fantasy, whereas science fiction movies have huge audiences and have dominated the box office for decades--think 2001 Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Alien, Independence Day, and Avatar, to name just a few.

In both print and cinematic form, however, Wolfe notes that, in the eyes of Those Who Decree What Shall Be Considered Art (and those who give out the National Book and Academy Awards), science fiction "don't get no respect." His final two lectures are among the best, covering, respectively, the wide range of international and culturally diverse authors and their contributions that have appeared in the last 20 years; and what he considers hopeful signs of increasing recognition that the best science fiction is as good as the best "literary" fiction. He quotes author China Meiville's observation that, while the latter may bring readers moments of "Oh. Yes," good science fiction brings readers moments of, "Oh, wow!"

Dr. Wolfe is very obviously an expert, immersed in and enthusiastic about his subject. There's no dreary droning, no pedantic pomposity here. I suppose if you *really* hate being lectured to, this college-level course will not change your mind. But if you're at all interested in science fiction--or even in literature in general--I can't recommend this course highly enough.
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- Carol

Great, But Not What I Expected . . .

Any additional comments?

The 5-star reviewers are right. This is an excellent series. For what it is. However, it wasn't at all what I was expecting.

I feel the title for this lecture series is misleading. The series is less of an analysis of how great science fiction works and more of a history of the genre and exploration of notable themes. A more appropriate title would have been, "A History of Science Fiction: Notable Writers, Works, and Themes."

This series a great resource for identifying important writers and novels that any science fiction fan or writer would or should know about. But science fiction is a broad genre, and this series covers the breadth of the field, so it isn't able to dig very deep and really explain "how great science fiction works;" at least not how I was hoping.

I was expecting a more nuts-and-bolts sort of thing. As a writer, I was hoping this series would focus more on how to write great science fiction. Or at least how it works so I could glean insight for writing. That's the whole reason I came to this series. I wanted something akin to "How to Write Great Science Fiction" and the title gave me the impression that that was more or less what I was getting myself into, but that's not really what this series is about at all.

Each lecture is an exploration of a handful of notable works in the science fiction genre, usually around a theme and selected works that explore it (e.g., "Robots" and "The Golden Age of Science Fiction"). The lectures contain a huge collection of high-level stuff you might find in science fiction, but they don't really explain how these things work or how you can use them in your own writing. It more or less highlights of where they have been used in the genre.

That said, there are a handful of useful nuggets for the science fiction writer in here. I found the lecture on "The Artifact" quite useful. But on the whole, this is more of a history lesson of science fiction through the ages.

A minor annoyance: the musical intro to each lecture. It's only a couple of notes from brass horns with a cymbal crash, but it gets old fast. The Great Courses always has some sort of musical interlude, but I kind of wish they would just stop doing them altogether. Most of them aren't great.

A final minor note: I was pleasantly surprised to see how many movies, TV shows, and video games are mentioned. They don't get much air time, but they do come up. However, I was disappointed that Mass Effect is never mentioned. Video games are barely discussed at all (I think Halo is mentioned once), but I feel like Mass Effect is an important enough work in science fiction (regardless of the fact that it's a video game) to have warranted discussion. Oh well.

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- jett

Book Details

  • Release Date: 01-08-2016
  • Publisher: The Great Courses