- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 7 hours and 58 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Recorded Books
- Audible.com Release Date: August 18, 2008
- Language: English
- ASIN: B001EI3IWO
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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The Modern Scholar: From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction Literature Audible – Unabridged
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Top Customer Reviews
My only issues with this series of lectures is the format and some of the content. The lecture is split up along the lines of decades. (30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s) I found this format to be lacking, and insufficient in telling the true history of SF. I wish there was a shorter, more generalized lecture on the history of the overall movement (did we really need the whole plot descriptions of 'Frankenstein' and 'Journey to the center of the earth'? It seemed to waste too much time.) and more specific lectures on all of the sub-genres and how they evolved. Time-travel. Space exploration. Colonization. Fantasy. Cyberpunk. Blah blah blah. How can you classify SF by decades? The Great Courses has the same exact course and they also use the decade dividing criteria and also call on the same biggies of SF like Heinlen and Wells to represent the history of SF. The instructor wasted so much time going over a few plots rather than shorter summaries of many plots. Plus he missed out on mentioning some of my favorites, like Pohl, Card, Haldeman, and Silverberg. Plus, where is any mention of Analog and all of those SF magazines that were hugely influential in what was read and written? He doesn't even mention the various awards and what their effect was.
Overall, a must listen for anyone interested in literature or science fiction. Don't let the above mentioned minor points of discord stop you, if you read one excellent book that maybe you didn't know existed you'll be on top of the game.
If you are a newcomer to SF, this is an excellent and highly articulate survey. A great deal is left out. This is inevitable whenever you have a limitation on the size of presentation. Given an additional ten hours I'm sure he could have plugged many of the holes that exist. Certainly some seminal figures from the earlier years were left out. For instance, women in SF did not begin with Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler. C. L. Moore was not merely the greatest female SF writer of the Golden Age, but one of the best writers of any sort, and the stories she wrote either on her own or with her husband Henry Kuttner are far more interesting than just about anything written by Isaac Asimov. Had Drout had time to cover some of the major themes, he would certainly have mentioned her short story "No Woman Born," which is arguably the first great story about Cyborg, and far more interesting than any of Asimov's robot stories (yes, I have multiple problems with Asimov, not least his ineptness as a writer and the absurdity of his robot stories -- serials of the thirties and forties had the first robots after Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS and they were all used as weapons; clearly one major use of robots is as weapons, which ran into the teeth of Asimov's rather silly laws). A host of really interesting books and authors were left out from the pre-sixties history, like Theodore Sturgeon, Bernard Wolfe, and Henry Kuttner. Clearly Drout's approach is to take representative and key figures rather than take an encyclopedic approach.
I felt a tad uneasy about his introduction of women and SF where he did. It is a tough call about when to do that. His approach seems to imply that it came somewhat after Cyberpunk, whereas in fact it was deeply influential on Cyberpunk. William Gibson has, for instance, acknowledged the influence of Marge Piercy's great SF novel WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME. That novel is one of the greatest SF novels of the past half decade, but one that is curiously omitted from many discussions because she is an acclaimed mainstream writer. What perplexes me about the silence about the book is that it has been deeply influential, far more so than Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE, which while a great book, has probably not exerted much influence on the field. Though I should add that Atwood deserves more consideration as a SF writer, not merely because of THE HANDMAID'S TALE but because of other books like ORYX AND CRAKE and THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD. Clearly it is a judgment call to bring women in after the discussion of Neal Stephenson, but it is one that I would argue with. Gibson clearly read and was influenced by writers like Piercy and Le Guin. I would definitely have inserted women before the Cyberpunk lecture. I do agree with Drout's assertion that serious discussions of sex and gender only began with writers like Le Guin and Delaney. Theodore Sturgeon had written a fascinating novel about gender before them in VENUS PLUS X, but it had no ripple effect. Le Guin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS sent shockwaves around it. For whatever reason, her and Delaney's books (especially TRITON) appeared at times when they had more effect than did Sturgeon's book (though I strongly recommend people reading it).
In general I found myself in agreement with Drout's assessment of writers. I would quibble here and there. While I completely agree with him that Asimov and Clarke's writings have not held up very well (I love Clarke's imagination, but his writing is really weak, with poorly sketched characters and appallingly wooden dialogue) but that Heinlein often has (Heinlein rubs everyone the wrong way from time to time), I was upset that he described STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND without adding that a huge number of literary critics think it is a thoroughly rotten book. For instance, the bland teachings of the main character sound ridiculous, but we are told that their depth can only be understood if you know Martian. The book is filled with cheap cop outs like that and many regard it as one of the worst famous SF novels ever written. I think his assessment of Gibson is fair, though I think he somewhat overrates Neal Stephenson. I think he could have been more penetrating in his analysis of John W. Campbell, especially Campbell's insistence on muting character development and other literary qualities in favor of big ideas. Campbell actually fostered bad writing in many ways, or at least hampered good writing. Heinlein was one of the few who developed an appealing prose style under Campbell's tutelage and I think Campbell is at least partially responsible for the failure of the vast bulk of SF stories from the forties and fifties to stand the test of time.
One thing that I did regret was the short shrift given to SF precursors. There was far more than Mary Shelley and Jules Verne going on before H. G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback. Darko Suvin is the key figure in bringing the serious study of SF into academia, though his book METAMORPHOSES OF SCIENCE FICTION. Yet, most of the book is focused on the pre-twentieth century. Now, I'm sure that Drout knows all about these various figures and could discuss intelligently E. T. A. Hoffmann's tales that impinge on SF (he published "The Sandman," about a mechanical woman, two years before Mary Shelley published FRANKENSTEIN) and Thomas More's UTOPIA as a precursor to SF. I understand that time forced some abridgment. Still, I regret the need for doing so.
Still, if you've read a few SF novels but don't understand where NEUROMANCER or DUNE fit into the overall history of SF, I heartily recommend this series of lectures. They are not comprehensive but are introductory. If you want to go on to learn more about the history of SF, I would recommend two excellent books. They are not currently in print, but they are easily obtained on the used book market. One is Brian Aldiss's THE TRILLION YEAR SPREE (an undating of his earlier work THE BILLION YEAR SPREE). I would also recommend Thomas M. Disch's THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE ON: HOW SCIENCE FICTION CONQUERED THE WORLD. There is also an interesting but difficult to obtain (unless you are willing to drop a lot of money for an aging mass market paperback) book by Kingsley Amis, NEW MAPS OF HELL. It is an older book, but deeply insightful. Although Amis (father of Martin Amis) is a well-known mainstream author, he wrote a couple of SF novels and was a passionate reader in the genre. There is an interesting academic survey in THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. That work contains a really nice chronological list of significant SF works.
If I was a student at Wheaton C, I would be trying to get into one of his courses every year.
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