Lecture Summaries


Aug 29, 2017: Course Introduction

The paradox of science in modern life: science ≠ mythology, but it often functions in public discourse (such as science fiction) as if it were mythology


Science is a common topic in modern discourses:for example,

* arguing that the “scientific method” isn’t so unique: “There is no scientific method,” James Blachowitz,New York Times July 4, 2016

* arguing that science is faulty or biased (“controversies” on climate change, evolution, vaccines, and GMOs, etc.)

* or invoking science with regard to political/social issues:“Beyond burkinis: why science suggests ALL clothing  should be banned,” Dean Burnett, the Guardian, Aug 25, 2016


Towards our central issues in this course:

why do people invoke science?

why do people invoke science when they aren’t really

talking about science?

(Some of your goals in this course: to identify when people are really talking about something other than science, and why.)


In this course we will discuss

-- how and why science is powerful and effective, by differing in essential ways from other forms of discourse

-- the limitations of science and how those are essential to the effectiveness of science

-- ways in which science is invoked to support (non-scientific) narratives

Our primary venue for this last point will be SCIENCE FICTION


A conflict:  Literature causes readers’ internal response to external events, while science is about reliable description of external events (often while avoiding reliance upon internal responses) 


Science fiction is often called a "literature of ideas" But even though the narratives revolve around science, it is still fundamentally about internal/emotional responses to

science/technology/change. Therefore at heart, science fiction is not about the ideas of science but about our response to science and related topics.


We will examine the role of rhetoric, arguments, and narrative in science and in science fiction, and the way rhetoric is used in science fiction to give the illusion of science.

(Very important: we will emphasize that while rhetoric and argument are all used by scientists, science relies on external evidence in a fundamentally different way than other forms of narratives).

Because of this we will focus on novels and stories where scientific discovery and exploration are primary, and where attitudes about science are foregrounded.


Q: What is science?

Linus Pauling: "Science is the search for truth."  But what is truth?


Better: A description (not a definition):

Modern science is an efficient method to discover reproducible and reliable causal relations in the natural, external world.

Or, “Science is a limited search for  reproducible truth


How did we get to this description of science?


Science is not the search for the answers to all questions.

Some questions are difficult or impossible to answer.

Scientists often find it useful to instead ask related  questions.


Q: What is the function or usefulness of science? Of intelligence?

A: As a survival trait, intelligence is (partly) the ability to characterize your external world and have an internal model that  predicts what will happen in the external world.

Summary: Our first clue as to the nature of science is the survival utility of human intelligence*: the ability to develop internal models that predict the future behavior of the external world.


    has internal models (theories)

    makes predictions

    deals with external world (atoms, rocks, stars) rather than the internal world


How has science become mythologized?

Science has been so successful in answering some questionsthat people wrongly assume it can/ought to answer all questions.



Sept 5, 2017: What is science?


A whirlwind tour of the development of science


The epochs                                                              The players:

Ancient Greeks                                             Pythogoras




Belief & Logic: Christianity as                  The Scholastics (e.g., Aquinas)

State Religion


Beginning of modern science                     Francis Bacon




What is truth? How do we know something is true?

Before we begin, let’s distinguish between:

Engineeringpractical applications of knowledge

Philosophyusing logic and argument to find “truth”

Natural history – passive observations of the natural world

Natural philosophy applying logic and argument to the natural world

Modern science = ???

Note: these are not rigorous definitions, but starting points for  discussion

To explain how science is different, let’s see how and why it arose.


Ancient Greek philosophers:

Pythagoras (569-475 BC) father of numbers; discovered pleasing musical notes in small number ratios; believed everything related to mathematics; argued orbits of planets must be circles (most perfect geometric figure)

Plato (427-347 BC) (Socrates’ student): dualism: perfect, ideal (but imperceptible) forms vs. accessible but imperfect shadows”; believed knowledge of external world is innate (hence only have to look inward, through reflection or logic).

Both Pythagoras and Plato believed one could understand the external world (e.g. motion of planets and stars) strictly through internal means.

Aristotle  (384-322 BC) Platos student   very influential

- straddled both argument and empirical observation

- made endless observations about the natural world and human institutions. Some observations very keen, others sloppy.

-       also made many statements about the world not grounded in observation.

- wrote influential treatises on rhetoric (methods of arguing) and logic, most famously the Organon (Instrument)

--Gravity: objects fall because they seek their natural place; heavy objects fall faster than light objects

--The cosmos: Earth is corrupt, imperfect while the celestial sphere is perfect, unchanging

Aristotles epistomology: the four causes (really, parts of an explanation)

Material (the material that makes up an object)

Formal (like Platos ideal forms; the blueprint)

Efficient cause (who made object or caused event); closest to modern notion of cause

Final cause (purpose or teleology)

Aristotles deductive logic: syllogisms


Next, the rise of Christianity.

In its early days, Christianity was seen in the Roman empire as a new, weird religion and sometimes suppressed. In 313, the Emperor Constantine made all religions, including Christianity, fully tolerated in the empire.

Starting around 381, Theodosius I started to suppress non-Christian religions.

including Christianity, fully tolerated in the empire


Why does this matter to our story? Greek and Roman religions—and most other religions—focused on practice. You worshipped/made sacrifices to/pledged loyalty to a god/goddess and the god rewarded you.


Christianity differs.  Although it has strong practical culture, too, under the apostle Paul it came to emphasize ideology that is, “salvation” comes not from what you do,  but from what you believe to be true.

As Christianity developed, its beliefs became more  and more technical. The Council of Nicea (convened by Constantine) developed a specific creedal statement.


How do you sell a religion which requires not just practices but also acceptance of some rather far-fetched and specific statements to a society of Greco-Roman pagans? Philosophy!


St. Augustine imported (via Plotinus) Platonic philosophy into Christianity. Platonic philosophy gave the Church a framework in which to justify and expound the theological statements necessary for salvation.

As Europe converted to Christianity, the need for powerful tools for dealing with ideas, especially ideas that appeared contradictory, did not lessen.  In the 12th century, the writings of Aristotle (Plato’s most famous student) were reintroduced to the West.

Aristotle wrote incisively upon logic and rhetoric, tools the Scholastics and other theologians and scholars needed.  He also championed many ideas inimical to Christianity, such as an eternal universe  (no creation moment). At first he was

seen as heretical…but his rhetorical tools were too enticing to ignore.

In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas tamed Aristotle’s philosophy for safe use by

Christian theologians. Aristotle’s other writings on natural history were also a big hit.


Scholastics 1100-1500 AD. A school of philosophy in the late middle ages. 

Scholasticism:a mode of argumentation, based in part upon Aristotle. Used to:

discern correct beliefs from false + used  to resolve apparent contradictions:

different statements in the Bible, or between Aristotle and the Bible .


Scholastics worked to reconcile written texts using deductive logic and syllogisms borrowed from Aristotle.


Other “ancient authors” became celebrated, in particular Claudius Ptolemy (100-170 CE)

Almagest (“the greatest”) a work about the geocentric model of the heavens and, importantly, how to fit the parameters, and Geography, a detailed discussion of Greco-Roman knowledge of world geography, including the data and how terms are defined


But then came challenges:

1492:Columbus accidentally “discovers” the New World, which contradicted Ptolemys Geography.   At the same time Copernicus questioned Ptolemys geocentric cosmos

(the Almagest).

1572: Tycho Brahe discovers a New Star (nova)  which contradicts Aristotles statement that the celestial sphere is perfect and unchanging.

Francis Bacon: (1561-1626). Wrote Novum Organum (New Instrument) as a response to Aristotle. Rejects pure deductive reasoning in favor of  inductive reasoning: making hypotheses from observed examples.  Introduces his Four Idols (like idolatry) or false approaches to arguments


Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) Made methodical, deliberate investigations into mechanics & astronomy. Was able to show through such investigations

-- Aristotle was wrong about mechanics and gravity (more later)

-- Ptolemy was wrong about astronomy

His main contribution was deliberate, quantitative, and exhaustive experimentation.


Isaac Newton (1643-1727) Invented calculus, made rigorous combination of mechanics (physics) and mathematics. Postulated universal laws – no division between Earth and the celestial sphere


A funny thing happened on the way to modern science: The search for truth is difficult

Logic and argument (beloved of the Greek philosophers, adopted by the medieval Scholastics) are useful but they are not enough.

Also: relying on authority (Aristotle, Ptolemy) is not enough

Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”  You can fool yourself, but it’s hard to fool “Mother Nature”


Aristotle made many (passive) observations of the natural world, as did Ptolemy.

Galileo went further, into active, deliberate, and systematic experimentation


Science narrowed scope of inquiry from all truth to investigations of

                        -- reproducible phenomena

                        -- external, material world

Logic and argument were supplanted by

              --empirical and reproducible observation and experiment


The focus of science is deliberately narrow and limited. This limitation is very hard from some people to accept. 

Carl Jung:  “For all ego-consciousness is isolated; because it separates and discriminates, it knows only particulars, and it sees only those that can be related to the ego. Its essence is limitation, even though it reaches to the farthest nebulae among the stars. All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night ."


Science cannot and does not find all “truth.” Instead it can only address “falsifiable” statements.  Falsifiability: a statement is falsifiable if it is possible to prove it false (Karl Popper).

I say:  Science is:  trying to prove something is false and failing so many times you accept it as true. (An oversimplification, but it illuminates how science works.)


A description (not a definition): Modern science is an efficient method to discover reproducible and reliable causal relations in the natural, external world.

Key elements:

(1) Natural, external world:  an focus on thing and events that affect our material life (food, health, transportation, physical defense, etc.).

(2) Causal relation (reduction to asking only Aristotles efficient cause): when I know if...then, I can control the material life.

(3) Reproducible and reliable. If it is not reliable, its not very useful

(4) Efficient. We have stripped away all unnecessary questions (e.g. purpose) 


The trouble with science:  Science is hard! Science is often treated as if it were irreproducible (e.g. from authority figure). No wonder science is sometimes confused

with religion!


What do scientists want?  Scientists interested in convincing novelty:

     -- new observations or theories

     -- but must be able to convince others of their ideas

This requires:

     -- reproducible recipes: in principle, anyone can duplicate

     -- outward skepticism towards authority

     -- inward skepticism of ones own ideas


A theory is a narrative or related narratives that help us to

(a) organized established empirical facts and

(b) make predictions about observations or

experiments not yet carried out. 

Some fields of science (physics) have more formal theories than others (biology). 

A good theory will

(a) explain a large of already known facts

(b) within as simple a framework as possible

(c) make predictions about future facts


Science and rhetoric

Scientists are (generally) mistrustful of heavy reliance upon argument and rhetoric alone.

Nonetheless, theories and other narratives are needed to shape and guide inquiry.


Naēve realism: science is just the facts and rhetoric and culture play no role in science

Naēve idealism/rhetoricism: science is all culturally determined

Here culture = assumptions from politics, tradition, religion, etc.

Ideally, through skepticism and experimentation, science can reduce the influence of culture.Nonetheless, culture can have strong influence:

-- Limiting or directing the questions

-- Masking unquestioned assumptions

-- Rhetoric and argument overwhelm skepticism

Science is not culture neutral: science is guided by narratives and metaphors and

those narratives are influenced by culture.

Nonetheless, science is  not just a product of culture.

Observation and experiment can and often do contradict cultural assumptions.

If this were not true, we would not have so many surprising scientific results:

heliocentric solar system; age and size of the universe; quantum mechanics; natural selection, etc..


Controversies in science vs. culture.  Sometimes  controversies in science are really

collisions between scientific narratives (theories) and cultural narratives


Narratives about science:

Narratives about the nature of science

    *  science is about the real world

    *  science is a product of culture  

Narratives about change in science

   * science is smooth and continuous; builds upon past

   * science has discontinous revolutions ;  old ideas completely overturned


Ongoing exercise:  When you notice narratives about science, in news items, in op-ed pieces, even in movies and TV shows,  can you identify the narrative about science?I will be asking each week if anyone has found examples.



Introduction to Close Reading

Close reading is where we carefully read a section of text, almost word for word, and where we pay close to attention to exactly how things are said (and what is left unsaid) and what is implied it also illustrates how fiction works, for example as a sequence of mysteries.


What you should do:

Close read the opening pages of our novels. When you find what seem to be important passages, mark them and then go back and read closely.

When you encounter statements in the media (in news items, op-ed  pieces, even movies and TV shows), pay close to attention to what is being said and what is left unsaid.


As practice for next time (Sept 12).

Read online Letter 1 from Frankenstein (available through Gutenberg.org). What issues does this set up for the rest of the novel?  In particular, what expectations does the letter write (Walton) have?


Tuesday, Sept 12, 2017: What is science fiction?

My approach:  Descriptive (how science fiction is actually used) not prescriptive (how it ought to be used)

Genre: A distinctive class or category of literary composition.

(Alt definition):  A bundle of conventions (tropes).

Examples:  Mysteries, Detective fiction (American variety of mystery), Romance, Westerns, Science fiction, Childrens literature, Fantasy, Horror

Trope: A familiar and repeated image, theme, setting, or event; a convention.

            Examples of tropes:

Mystery: the eccentric detective

Detective fiction:  tough, hard-drinking private eye investigating partners death.

Romance:  poor but worthy woman +   rich but distant man

Western: lone gunslinger avoids people, drawn unwillingly into protecting someone vulnerable

Childrens literature: orphans

Fantasy: wizards; dragons; ordinary person with hidden extraordinary ability powers

Science fiction: alien invasion; robot or computer rebellion; hyperdrive; the future; alternate history 

            Function of tropes:

       Shorthand in story; familiarity for reader

       Intrinsic appeal:


Tropes can be stale clichesl they can also be reinvented.  Examples:

       Inversion of usual quest in Lord of the Rings

       Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


Definitions or descriptions of science fiction

                        The term Science Fiction

scientific romance (H. G. Wells c. 1895)

scientifiction (Hugo Gernsback 1915)

science fiction (Gernsback 1929)

SF = science fiction or speculative fiction or science fantasy or structural fabulation;

sci-fi (coined by ?  Robert Heinlein 1949)


Central problem in a definition or description: how to accurately differentiate from fantasy

Oxford English Dictionary: science fiction is imaginative fiction based on postulated

scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes, freq. set in the future or on other planets and involving space or time travel” (basically a list of tropes!)

Ben Bova (author and editor)  : [stories] in which some aspect of future science or high technology is so integral to the story that, if you take away the science or technology, the story collapses. (Hard SF)


2 discussions by:  James Gunn: change” and Kim Stanley Robinson: counterfactual history

James Gunn

Tradition literature:     literature of continuity

Fantasy:                      literature of difference

SF:                              literature of change

Fantasy occurs in a world not congruent with ours or is incongruent in some significant way.

SF: Some significant element of the situation is different from the world with which we are familiar, and the characters cannot respond...in customary ways...a changed situation requires analysis and a different response.

Central question: how did we get there from here?


Kim Stanley Robinson

 Science fiction is the history that we cannot know

Mainstream literature (present-day and historical fiction): factually possible-- could be happening/have happened, is connected to our present world

Fantasy is counterfactual and impossible; disconnected from our present world

SF is counterfactual but potentially possible;contiguously connected to present world

through plausible history.


SF only requires change of history while fantasy requires change of history AND

change in laws of physics, etc.   Sense of potential historical change is important.


More differences between SF and fantasy

SF and fantasy differ broadly in

-- attitude towards cultural narratives

-- demands on the readers participation

Science fiction can be disruptive and subversive; fantasy tends to be normative (supporting traditional narratives). A common science fiction trope is  nontraditional social relations and attitude, e.g. towards race, gender, sexuality.  SF has the potential to break with  cultural narratives, although it doesn't always.


Reading science fiction

SF readers actively engage in constructing narrative world  and deciphering the story.

SF readers  invited to question the plausibility/possibility of the narrative world.


Next we will look at history of science fiction and SF subgenres using 2 lenses:

       developments in literary fiction (classicism → modernism  postmodernism)

       Blooms anxiety of influence


Very brief history of literary fiction

Classical/romantic: traditional plots. Protagonists encounters obstacles, either overcomes or fails. Cultural narratives frame stories (social class vs. merit). Emphasis on plot and character.  Austen, Dickens.

Modernism: Themes of alienation from society and the self.  Cultural narratives are corrupt and irrelevant; replaced by existential paradigms.  Emphasis on mood, style, disruptive narrative techniques.  Joyce, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Camus.

Postmodernism: Skepticism towards metanarratives; nothing means anything. Fragmentation of society and self.  Emphasis and celebration of incongruities, sense of play. Beat poets, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco.


The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Harold Bloom, 1973)

Bloom: tension for and against previous poets (precursors). Six strategies but they fall into two camps:  Extension and correction, and Reversals and subversions:



History of science fiction


Proto-SF: Mary Shelley (1818).  Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.

Jules Verne (1828-1905), voyages extraordinares. First universally acknowledged science fiction author. Set up genre expectations of technical accuracy + didactic explanations

H. G. (Herbert George) Wells (1866-1946). Unlike Verne, tightly plotted novels + 

significant social commentaries, particularly on class structure.

Verne on Wells: "I sent my characters to the moon with gunpowder, a thing one may see every day. Where does M. Wells find his cavourite? Let him show it to me!"

Main concerns: anxieties about class, biology, and their boundaries.


The Pulp Age (1920s-1930s): Hugo Gernsback founds Amazing Stories (scientifiction)  in 1926.  Sloppy science, sloppy stories, glorious adventures, often space operas.

E.E. Doc Smith, Lensman series;  A. E. van Vogt, Slan (1940).


The Golden Age (1940s).  John Campbell, editor Astounding Science Fiction  (became Analog in 1960) 1937-1971.  Conscious emphasis on consequences of science and technology, not just adventures. Classical narratives (overcome obstacles to success).

The Golden Age Giants

Robert Heinlein, (1907-1988).

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). Ph.D in biochemistry.

Arthur C. Clarke 1917-2008. British.  Predicted commuication satellites in 1945.


1950s. Introspection. New emphasis on character and social commentary, on style and mood in writing.  Beginning of modernist themes. Subversion of Golden Age.

Damon Knight, Theodore Sturgeon, Frederick Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, Algis Budrys.


1960s-70s: The New Wave: More sophisticated modernism. De-emphasis of science,

emphasis on character, writing. social effects. Michael Moorecock, J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison,  Robert Silverberg, Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ,  James Tiptree Jr., Samuel R. Delaney, Phillip K. Dick.

1980s: Cyberpunk: Computers and information age. Asian culture. Postmodern themes: fragmentation, tribalism, doubt of meaning.  Rebelled against New Wave.

Neuromancer,  Bladerunner (movie). William Gibson, Bruce Sterling. 


"Humanists" e.g. Kim Stanley Robinson, 3rd generation of New Wave, Humanists took

New Wave program further, more literary but with nuanced view of science.

Late 1990s – early 2000  Resurgence of hard SF and space opera, especially in Britain, Australia.  Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, Paul J. McAuley.


SF subgenres

Hard SF :  Narratives in which detailed  or rigorous arguments about science and/or technology are central to plot and/or theme.  Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Larry Niven, Steve Baxter.

Space opera :  Fast-paced galactic adventure stories. Derivative of hard SF, but science and technology often gobbledygook.  E. E. Smith, A. E. van Vogt; Star Wars, Star Trek.

(Soft SF): Narratives which downplay arguments about science and / or technology. Emphasis on psychology, sociology, and character. Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Cordwainer Smith.

New Wave : Downplayed science, frequently subverted standard tropes. Strong influence of modernism in literature. Experimental techniques. Sexual themes and disturbing images. Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Phillip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss.  3rd Generation New Wave from 1980s-90s often called humanist SF.

Feminist SF: Joanna Russ, Ursula K. LeGuin, James Tiptree, Jr., Sherri Tepper, Octavia Butler, Suzi McKee Charnas, Karen Joy Fowler (+ Connie Willis)

Cyberpunk : computers + influence of Asian culture. Postmodern paradigms: fragmentation /tribalization, incogruities, sense of play. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling.

Utopia/dystopia : Utopia  (good place) = desirable social order;  dystopia (bad place) = undesirable social order. Utopias difficult to make interesting; LeGuins The Dispossessed is called an ambiguous utopia. 

Dystopias: Zamyatins We, Orwells 1984, Huxleys Brave New World, Atwoods The Handmaids Tale.

Alternate history :  Narrative set in present day or in past, but with changes to our history.


Next: Part 1: How to read SF  (I use ideas from Samuel R. Delaney)

(A)            Language functions differently in SF than in mainstream literature. Statements metaphorical in mainstream literature can be literal in SF.

(B) The reader has to fill in more gaps than usual. This is  part of the enjoyment of SF.

Fiction draws us in by setting up mysteries. In mainstream fiction the mystery is plot and character  In SF there is another dimension—the mystery of setting.


Example: Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick, in Years Best SF 24.

"It was hot coming down into the valley. The sun was high in the sky, a harsh white dazzle in the eternal clouds, stong enough to melt the lead out of the hills. They trudged down from the heights, carrying the drilling rig between them. A little trickle of metal, spill from a tanker bringing tin out of the mountains, glinted at the verge of the road."

Example from Delaney: I was working in the monopole magnet mining operations

in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni

(C) The SF reader tries to fill in the answer to the question: How did we get there from here?


Part 2: Rhetorical strategies in talking about science

There a number of rhetorical tools SF authors use to discuss or incorporate science and technology

(1)         Technobabble (or gobbedygook). Using technical and scientific words randomly or without context.

(2) Skating fast over thin ice.  Dont go into detail.Dont justify. Just assume it works. 

(3) Extrapolation or reversal.  Of current scientific trends or ideas. (Also of cultural trends and ideas)

(4) Argument by analogy. Arguing from known scientific facts and principles to hypothetical science.

(5) Combination of two existing fields into a new one

(6) The Gadget.

(7) Miracles and limitations.  Limit story to one (or a very few) miracles or bending

of known science. More believable if you include rules or limitations:

       most science and technology have limitations

        constraints can lead to more interesting plot


Part 3: How is science used in SF?

(0) Exotic setting = a long time ago/in the future, in a galaxy far, far away

(1)  As  marker of change, but not a central change itself.

(2) Science or technology as symbol. Many SF symbols deal with either anxieties or boundaries or limitations.

(3) Science or technology as theme.

Simplistic: Science is dangerous. Or Science as hero.

More nuanced: unintended consequences of science and technology or the dangers of relying too much on technology or a single technology.

(4) Science as  point of view, as a way to know the world.

(5) Science as plot.  A central issue or puzzle: how do we solve this problem?


How to analyze an SF story

(1)  Ask: how is reader introduced to science in story?

(2) Note science talk. Ask: what strategies are used by the author to talk about science?

(3) What role does science and technology play in the story?

(4) Finally, what is larger narrative about science (if any) is there?


Frankenstein is about danger of science without responsibility.

The Time Machine is about ultimate futility of knowledge.

The War of the Worlds draws analogies between cultural, technological, and biological invasions


Accuracy of science in SF

Science in SF is usually wrong. Does it matter?

* verisimilitude enhances willing suspension of disbelief

* functions as allusions in literary fiction: rewards to knowledgeable reader.

The more integral science is to the story, the more important the verisimilitude.

Next Sunday: e-mail out your drafts to your small group  and a copy to me!


You will meet in small groups to give peer feedback on your papers on Timescape

E-mail me final drafts by Midnight, the following Friday

(Book discussion leaders will discuss in two weeks)