2020-2021 Kaplan Scholars Courses
Alternative Americas: Science Fiction and Speculative Futures
As a genre that posits a reality beyond what we currently know or experience, science fiction allows us to imagine alternate ways of being, forms of technology and knowledge, and human futures—both utopian and apocalyptic. This course will trace how and why science fiction in the Americas has emerged as a mode of narration with which to confront contemporary crises. Placing science fiction texts created by Caribbean, Native American, African American, and Latin American artists into conversation with one another, we will explore how these artists turn to stories about zombies and robots, time travel, utopias, and apocalypse (among others) to confront long histories of colonialism, slavery, and racism, and to create speculative or hypothetical futures that posit alternatives to those histories.
To understand what is at stake in imagining alternate worlds and futures for Native, African American, Latinx, and Asian American writers, we will examine novels, stories, films, graphic novels, video games, and other media and will draw on methodologies from literary and media studies, art history, critical race studies, and more. Questions we will consider include: How does science fiction engage the colonization of the Americas? How do science fiction genres draw on and transform contemporary science, both as a possibility of freedom and to critique a field that has been used to constrain some peoples’ freedoms? What alternative Americas do these artists envision, and how do they differ from present or historical realities?
Sample Readings and Media
Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17 (1966)
Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom (2016)
Nnedi Okorafor, Binti (2014 )
Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (2017)
Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God (2017)
Rebecca Roanhose, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (2017)
Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010)
Lysley Tenorio, “Monstress” (2012)
Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You (2012) or How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010) or Third Class Superhero (2006)
Ken Liu, “The Paper Menagerie” (2011)
Karen Tei Yamashita, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990)
Franny Choi, Soft Science (2019)
Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, eds. A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction From 25 Extraordinary Writers (2019)
Samuel Delany, “About 5, 750 Words”
Daniel Heath Justice, “Indigenous Wonderworks and the Settler Colonial Imaginary”
Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises”
Art by the following Indigenous artists: Santiago X (architect/Indigenous futurist), Andrea Carlson (painter), Elizabeth LaPensée (game designer), Debra Yepa-Pappan (mixed media)
Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Danis Goulet, Wakening (2013)
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival (2016)
Greg Pak, Robot Stories (2003)
Alex Rivera, Sleep Dealer (2009)
Jules Law is Professor of English literature and a specialist in nineteenth-century British literature. His most recent book is The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel (Cornell 2010). He is currently working on a book entitled Virtuality in the Victorian Age. He has received numerous teaching and public-service awards, including the Charles Deering McCormick Professorship of Teaching (2007) and the Centro Romero Community Leadership award (2008).
Juan Martinez is Assistant Professor of creative writing and contemporary literature in the Department of English. He is the author of Best Worst American: Stories, and his current work explores the fantastical in the coast of Colombia. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, McSweeney's, TriQuarterly, Mississippi Review, NPR's Selected Shorts, and The Perpetual Engine of Hope: Stories Inspired by Iconic Vegas Photographs.
Kelly Wisecup is Associate Professor of English and a co-director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. She researches and writes on Native American literatures, early American literatures, and science and literature in the Atlantic world. She has taught courses on protest and the Native American novel, colonialism and disease, race in the early Americas, and science and literature. She is the author of Medical Encounters: Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures (2013) and is currently working on a book on early Native American literatures and their relations to colonial sciences of collecting.
The Orient. The word conjures images of mystery, attraction, and danger: exotic belly dancers and hookah pipes, men with swords on horses on sand dunes, magic carpets and genies in a lamp. It also designates a direction (the East), and even a directionality (orienting oneself). How have ideas and images of an “elsewhere” helped Americans and Europeans orient themselves? How do those ideas correspond to an actual place, and how has United States and European intervention contributed to shaping that place and the lives of the people in it? Furthermore, how have people living in the so-called Orient engaged with such images? This course explores this process of orientation and re-orientation in art, literature, film, and other mass media. And it examines it as tied to particular moments in the changing geopolitical relationship of the Middle East to the West—including its eighteenth-century apparition as an imperial competitor, its nineteenth- and twentieth-century existence as a colonial holding, and its post-WWII emergence as a region of strategic importance to the United States, and of geopolitical importance to the global oil market, the “War on Terror,” and new revolutionary social movements.
Our study begins with the modern emergence and transformation of the idea of the Orient in European and American imaginations, from its colonial beginnings in nineteenth-century paintings, ethnographic studies, stage productions, universal expositions, and twentieth- and twenty-first-century film, novels, and contemporary art. At the same time, we will look at art, literature, film, and cultural productions produced by people living in or from the Middle East in order to explore the ways that they countered or engaged with these representations to represent themselves as well as the West. By examining this rich history, we ultimately ask: how can we re-orient our relationship to the Middle East, its peoples, and their ideas and claims?
Hannah Feldman is Associate Professor of Art History and core faculty in Middle East and North African Studies as well as Comparative Literary Studies. Her research, teaching, and advising center on late modern and contemporary art and visual culture. Her first book, From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France (Duke, 2014), has been reviewed in over ten national and international publications, including Art Journal, Art Bulletin, and The American Historical Review.
Rebecca Johnson is the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies, and Assistant Professor of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, as well as core faculty in Middle East and North African Studies. Her research focuses on literary exchanges between Arabic and European languages in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history and theory of the novel, and studies of transnational literary circulation and translation. Her first book is Stranger Fictions: A History of the Novel in Arabic Translation, 1835-1913 (Cornell University Press, 2020).
Kirsten Scheid is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut. Her research and teaching interests are the anthropology of art, materialities and imaginaries, aesthetics, art historiography and theory, modernization and cosmopolitanism, affect, power, and elites. From 2019-2020, she was the Clark/Oakley Fellow at the Clark Art Institute and Williams College. She co-curated "The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener" (Beirut, 2016) and "Jerusalem Actual and Possible: the 9th Jerusalem Show" (Jerusalem, 2018). Her scholarly and popular essays can be accessed at Academia.edu.Back to top