How Great Science Fiction Works

Available on Audible

Continuing my blogs about summer reading, I had the pleasure of listening to one of the Great Courses offered on Audible, How Great Science Fiction Works by Professor Gary K. Wolfe. From the title, I went into this thinking it would be more about writing—putting it all together to make it work. Turns out this was more like a survey course you would get in college than a “How To,” but I still found it valuable none the less, as would anyone interested in science fiction.

This course reminded me of when I was cramming for my English GRE before I went into grad school, but focused exclusively on science fiction (an area not well-represented on the GRE). The course traced the history and development of science fiction through time. Mr. Wolfe provided thorough summary along with some commentary. The summary could run a little dry but was always very informative and, for the most part, kept my interest.

Mr. Wolfe begins with the “invention” of science fiction, which he traces back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. He emphasizes that science fiction, a genre which has historically not been kind to female characters or writers, was actually begun by a 17-year-old girl and child-bride. Throughout the course, Wolfe continues to incorporate the many contributions and inroads made by women within the genre. This was one of the strongest and most interesting aspects to the lecture series. The series is also very comprehensive, including modern works released in the last couple years.

Interestingly, many of the highest grossing movies of all time are science fiction or based on sci-fi books, but it is not common for science fiction works or authors to consistently make the bestseller list. Historically science fiction has not gotten the respect afforded to other genres of writing. One of the “ah-ha” moments came when, and I’m paraphrasing from memory, Mr. Wolfe said that literary fiction makes people say, “Ah, yes,” whereas science fiction makes readers ask “What next?” This resonated because I like questions more than affirmations. Science fiction challenges you. Literary fiction reinforces you. Therefore science fiction is better than literary fiction. (That last paraphrase was entirely me.)

While always informative, I wish there were more “ah-ha” moments such as these. For instance, Mr. Wolfe suggests the advent of the space ship in science fiction goes back to the creation of the Titanic. This sort of analysis was more interesting than pure summary and I wish there was a bit more offered in terms of observation and opinion. While the lectures were informative more than insightful, I did realize how broad science fiction can be. Without precisely intending it, my current work definitely fits into the science fiction category, and it helped me shore up some areas in my writing. Overall it was a great listen and I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in science fiction in a college-course type format.