Understanding American Culture through Science Fiction

As a self-proclaimed "nation of futurity," it is perhaps no surprise that science fiction (sf) stories have been deeply embedded in American popular culture since the beginning of the twentieth century. Who has not heard about sf franchises like Star Trek or Star Wars?

However, as we will quickly discover together, sf is not only about and/or always set in an imagined future (Star Wars being a prime example). As a mode of fantastic storytelling, sf essentially asks a simple yet thought-provoking question: what if? What if alien beings made contact with us tomorrow? What if all electronics ceased to function from one day to the next? What if we developed means of prolonging our life spans indefinitely? Sf stories then go ahead and speculate about how we as human beings would react in (and to) those imagined scenarios—how our values, our behaviors, and our actions would change (or would not change).

By introducing that which is weird, strange, and/or as-yet unknown, sf stories trigger a cognitive shift that creates a world alternative to our everyday life. The intellectually stimulating estrangement thus created lays bare the democratizing spirit, the allegorical intentions, and the educational potential that are deeply rooted in sf. Even so, "what if"-scenarios always bear an imprint of the historical moment that brought them forth and/or imprints of any historical moments that preceded them.

This undergraduate seminar will introduce students to science fiction storytelling in American culture, with a focus on audiovisual media. The reciprocal relationship between socio-cultural context(s) and text(s) will provide the basic means for gaining a deeper appreciation of the many different meanings hidden in science fiction and how they have been used to comment on American culture—its issues, challenges, and contradictions.