With the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin this past week, many social scientists have expressed their feeling about impact her work had on their lives. I joined in, tweeting that I had always placed her at the core of my hypothetical class “Social Theory through Science Fiction”. So had Dan! He graciously asked me to write up my own version of a syllabus focusing on social theory and science fiction.
I tried to come up with my version with a couple of things in mind. First, I have stuck to mostly newer books. This is partly because that is what I have read recently and partly because many of the “classics” written by old white guys have issues. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War comes immediately to mind. It’s an interesting concept for critiquing war and the military-industrial complex, but the portrayal of future Earth where large portions of the population have voluntarily altered there sexual orientation in response to population pressures is…uh…problematic. Second, with a few exceptions, I have mostly left out the specific sociology readings. We could probably debate those forever. I wanted this to be about science fiction.
Finally, while I always imagined the class being called “Social Theory through Science Fiction”, I think we can do better. My best so far is, “Grokking Society”. Here goes!
It’s good to travel in company that does not keep the boundaries between sociology and other knowledge cultures too high, especially when it comes science fiction!
For someone like me who has worked on utopia, dystopia, and eutopia for some time, science fiction is an essential part of the trade, especially in east central Europe and Eurasia. During my last trip to Europe’s last university in exile, European Humanities University, I joined a workshop on creating curricula for a second year seminar in the social sciences. Without batting an eye participants suggested pairing Arendt’s reflections on judgement with Zamyatin’sWe, on whose backcover Ursula Le Guin declared “the best single work of science fiction yet written”. Were this discussion in Vilnius, then, we might not consider it exceptional. But it is in America.
I haven’t taken science fiction as far as I might, but I have been revising a book manuscript on superhero sociology for some time. I also contributed to a recent volume on female superheroes, in which I developed an idea of how Elektra, of Marvel Comics and associated films, could be helpful in cultivating critical capacities. But superheroes are different from science fiction.
The following is an invitation from Annette Lareau to a Class & Culture Mini-Conference at the Eastern Sociological Association meetings this year. She has organized a dinner along with the conference. This would be a great opportunity, especially for students! The dinner information is in the comments below.
January 20, 2018
Dear ESS Class and Culture attendee,
Anyone attending ESS is welcome to attend the sessions for the ESS Class and Culture Mini Conference. There is not any special registration; you can just show up to the sessions. If you would like to attend the dinner, however, you need to register in advance.
All are welcome to join an informal dinner to continue the conversation including those attending the Class and Culture Mini Conference. The conference begins Friday morning and ends early Saturday afternoon. The dinner will be on Friday February 23rd, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.
Following a delightful conversation on Twitter, I’m happy to announce a call for guest posts on the topic of sociology (or social theory) and science fiction! Have you taught a work of science fiction in one of your classes and used it to illustrate some interesting concept or debate in sociology? Let us know how it went! Are you fascinated by the parallels between a work of SF and a work of social theory? Tell us!
To submit, send a short summary of what you’d like to write about to me at this email address with the subject “Sociology & Science Fiction.” Assuming it makes sense to me, you’ll then submit the full post, and I’ll queue them up here. For some examples of the sorts of things I’ve written like this in the past, check out theseoldposts – but I’m sure you all can do much better!