Monday, October 21, 2013

What to take on a wild ride through the weird...

Hello folks! Mark here for a quick post. This year I had the chance to revise my teaching schedule by turning what had been a one trimester (twelve week) elective into two different trimester classes offered once per year. Over the years my Sci Fi Lit course has grown popular with my non-traditional, non-honors track students who were looking for a way to meet their junior-senior year reading course requirement. I wrote the class originally to give those students an alternative to the American/World Lit sequence and to allow myself a chance to teach some of my favorite genre stories.

I have had a nice run. When Jackson's LOTR films came out, I managed to scam a COUNTY-wide field trip for a special early showing of each movie. I took eight hundred kids, from about 12 schools to the theater for three years straight for a five buck thrill. I still get emails from kids who went with me, some of them from other schools, remembering the experience and wondering if I was going to try and pull off another coup for the Hobbit films. Sadly, those days are over, but one of the by-products of those times have been full classes every spring. Yes, I do use the LOTR films in my class.  In fact I use quite a few films, novels and short stories in the class. That is one of the cool things about our genre: when done right, or at least energetically, our stuff translates nicely to film.

I teach the class with the view that most of my students are reluctant or non-readers. Many of them are, however, pretty decent visual learners. Whereas some may see "watching the movie" as a cop-out, in my Sci Fi class I use film to introduce as many of the great stories as I can in addition to the assigned readings. I take my group as deeply into the literary qualities of those film-stories as I can. So far, the results have been favorable. So favorable that, as I mentioned above, I now have to schedule and plan for two classes. I had seniors who took the class as seniors asking for another offering. Hence, Fantasy Lit's creation this year. I like it because I get most of the honors kids for three years, but lose most of the rest after their sophomore year. At times I feel like I lose touch with the pulse of the regular dealing with the divas and their college bound attitudes and expectations. The class is structured just enough for sanity, and I get the satisfaction of taking kids on a semi-wild ride through the weird.

I have only twelve weeks for this course, so I needed to make some decisions on what to read, what I could afford to buy, and how difficult to make the readings. Long just doesn't work in this case. I tried reading Dune the first year I taught Sci Fi. Nope. Had more success with the mini-series spaced with selected chapters. Anyway, I knew I had to find about 8 weeks of material to add to what I have used from Fantasy in the past. My term will consist of a short fiction unit with stories from Cherryh, Tolkien, LeGuin, McCaffery, McKillip, and some of the bits I can glean and pc from my old copies of Lin Carter's Year's Best Fantasy--loved some of those old stories. Again, I'm limited by ability, time and a conservative base. For novels, I intend to read A Wizard of Earthsea, a detailed synopsis of Tombs of Atuan and all of The Farthest Shore. I love the other books in Ursula's sequence. They are on heavy rotation with the interested set after we do the units. I'm adding McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and adding back The Hobbit. We are going on a full on excursion to Middle Earth this year. I'm even planning on using the fan films Searching for Gollum and Born of Hope  in addition to several stand alones that I use for various archetype studies. Anyone here remember the cartoon 9, Watership Down?, The Iron Giant, and the campy but still fun Willow?

What I'm getting at with this rambling piece of self-congratulations is a question: If you were blessed with the chance to teach a course like Sci Fi lit or Fantasy lit, what would you use? What would be your rationale for your choices? As you can probably surmise, I'm a bit on the side of the old tried and true with my tastes. Would you make different choices? Let me know what you think.


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Great post, Mark!

In addition to many of the titles you've already mentioned, I would definitely use Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME, especially this semester since the movie's coming out in two weeks. Eeeeeeeee! I can't wait to see it on the big screen.

ENDER'S GAME is one of my all-time favorites, in part because of the way it approaches interplanetary warfare, but mostly because of the psychological manipulation involved in turning a young boy into a ruthless military commander. It's a disturbing story, and there's a lot of fodder for discussion and reflection.

I'm very curious to see whether they'll do it justice in the movie.

Unknown said...

Very interesting article! I'm a big fan of fantasy, but generally more in book form. Book-wise I would recommend any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels because his humour and use of language is just superb - the drawback there is that they haven't been translated all that well to the screen.

As for films, there is one that, in my opinion, no fantasy course should ever be without. 'The Princess Bride'. It has action, true love and rodents of unusual size. what more could you possibly ask for?

Terri-Lynne said...

I'd love to take this class--or help teach it. Fun and interesting, the best way to learn.
Karin--Ender's Game. Yes. That would be an amazing addition to your list. I fear that the movie can't possibly live up to the book. There is one line that Harrison Ford delivers over and over again in commercials: If you succeed, you will be remembered as a hero.
And the tag-line: The future must be won.
The big thrill (IMO) in the book was when Ender realizes it isn't a training game, but actual war. That it isn't all simulation, but real. By what I've seen, even if they've tried to get at that, it's not going to come as any surprise to movie-goers who've not read the book.
We'll see. I can't wait to see the movie, but this is one of those I'm going to have a hard time putting into separate brain-files.

Frauke--Rodents of unusual size? I don't think they exist. ;)
PB is second--very CLOSE second--only to Billy Elliot as my most favorite movie of all time. I think the movie did the book justice, no surprise there considering Goldman wrote both book and screenplay.

David Hunter said...

Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword has much to commend it, not least because it provides a different take on the Norse/Celtic theme to Tolkien with a very different style and tone (though similar in the latter to The Children of Hurin) and contains sex that isn't graphic but is definitely present.

Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. should be next up because not only is it an excellent reworking of Mallory, with notable additions such as the three women who accompany three knights on their various adventures, but also shows that 'proper' writers can indulge in fantasy (and indeed Steinbeck regarded it as his best book -- in my opinion he was not wrong).

Then a series of shorts: Howard's The Tower of the Elephant (I would say The Queen of the Black Coast but only if one was keen to immediately discuss Howard's typical 1920s attitude to race), Leiber's Ill Met In Lankhmar, Vance's Turjan of Miir, Gaiman's Snow, Glass, Apples. Essentially some of the roots of US fantasy and its current outcome.

Then some first chapters/prologues: Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone, White's The Once and Future King, Harrison's The Pastel City, Pullman's The Golden Compass. Some British takes on fantasy that aren't Tolkien-derivatives, just to give a flavour of the styles and settings.

Returning to novels, were it in print or available online, I'd then throw in Saunders' Imaro, not because it's especially good (although it's not bad) but as an example of typical sword and sorcery style, but it does have a unique setting and was the first (and remains one of the few fantasy novels) whose hero is not white and whose author isn't either. As it's not in print though, I'd probably get a whole load of artwork of famous characters from fantasy and then match them with their descriptions as written to see how well they match up.

To finish I'd let them listen, and read along with if they liked, (but silently) to Christopher Lee's superb reading of The Children of Hurin so they could realise just how effective an audio book can be.

Terri-Lynne said...

(From Mark, who's having trouble posting)
Ender’s Game serves as the “big book” for Sci Fi Lit. I marry it with viewing the Dune films and talk about the evolution of the hero, using Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as a template.

The Princess Bride is a great story/film, which is done to death by our middle school staff.

David Hunter said...

Re Enders Game:

Ben Kingsley was interviewed by Andrew Marr at the weekend and, when discussing his character in the film, he made what I thought was an interesting point: when art deals in archetypes it is much more likely to resonate than if it deals in stereotypes. Now that may seem obvious but quite often I think people fail to draw the distinction between archetype and stereotype when it comes to characters. In fact as we move increasingly towards 'complex' characterisation there's a real danger of losing archetypes completely.

I think it's partly why a lot of 'proper' (ie stage-trained Shakespearean) actors are attracted to certain blockbusters in a way you wouldn't have expected - because a lot of the characters have a Shakespearean quality to them.

As a side note, I was also recently made aware that the author of Ender's Game has some fairly dubious views on society. Personally I don't think an author's personal beliefs should impact on how one views his or her work, but what was I thought a little strange is that a number of people who appear to believe that the author's beliefs are inextricable from their books were prepared to make a special exception in his case.