English 448: Special Topics in American Literature (Speculative Fiction Cautionary Tales)

Course description

In my own analysis of the genre of speculative fiction, Plagues, Apocalypses, and Bug-Eyed Monsters, I explore the subset of SF texts known as cautionary tales and propose what I have called the Nightmares Model as a way to understand them. This model helps readers think through the texts’ implications for the reciprocal relationship between contemporary American culture and popular media texts. That model provides the organizing structure for this course as we experience and analyze a small selection of both classic and current cautionary tales.

Our goal is not to replicate the analysis in Plagues but instead to hold a semester-long conversation about the genre using the Nightmares Model as a guide to begin the discussions. Because speculative fiction is historically a genre that includes multiple media, the texts in this course will mix print novels and short stories with graphic novels, films, and episodes from television shows. Some of these I’ve worked with extensively while others are relatively new to me.

The foundational image of this course is that of conversation. Sometimes texts are direct and obvious responses to those that came before; sometimes that response is less explicit. But within our contemporary American cultural context, there are identifiable strains of conversation regarding what we fear. Our task this semester is to trace those connections and conversations to see where they lead. We will not be searching for the definitive interpretation of any text we encounter. Rather, we will be looking through them for the common themes and connections among the ways we as a culture discuss and debate what we fear through popular media.

Course Texts (by Sub-Category in the Nightmares Model)

Nuclear War

Robert Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory”

Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”

Information Technology

E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

Pamela Sargent’s “Utmost Bones”

Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I, Robot (film)


Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain

Steven Bratman’s “Deletion”

Power of the Individual

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (film)

Vernor Vinge’s “Cookie Monster”

Greg Bear’s “Blood Music”

Power of the State

V for Vendetta (graphic novel)

Monsters, Aliens, and “Other” Beings

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game

Michael Swanwick’s “Slow Life”

Walter Jon William’s “Green Leopard Plague”

X-Men 2


Wolf Read’s “Between Singularities”

Paul Chafe’s “The Guardian”

Science Fiction Scholarship

Nicolas Pethes’s “Terminal Men: Biotechnological Experimentation and the Reshaping of ‘the Human’ in Medical Thrillers”

Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”

Fall 2011 Syllabus: English 448


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