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How Great Science Fiction Works – A Course in SF by Gary K. Wolfe

If you’ve ever wanted to take a course in the history of science fiction, The Teaching Company has just released How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe, as part of The Great Courses series of video and audio lectures. Members of can snag a copy for just one credit. The 24-lecture series lists for $149.95 to $269.95 at The Teaching Company, but as fans of that company knows, it’s best to wait for their regular sales. The course comes with a 215-page pdf ebook that works as a textbook.

Wolfe’s knowledge of science fiction literature is wide-ranging and insightful. Each 30-minute lecture follows a theme, usually covering 2-5 books, that builds towards a complete history of the genre. Wolfe has written several books about science fiction, reviews for Locus Magazine, and edited the Library of America’s American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s.

There are a total twelve hours of lecture, which is much shorter than a standard semester. And the number of books discussed far exceeds what a required reading list for a graduate course would require. I’d be curious which 10-12 books Wolfe would expect his students to read in the course of a regular semester.

Wolfe easily convinces me that I need to read the books I haven’t, maybe a quarter of the list, and go back and study the others more carefully. He ties the genre together, almost in a holographic fashion, showing how science fictional ideas emerged through the decades and centuries, to evolve patterns over and over again. Many cherished concepts in modern science fiction novels, that new readers think of as recent mind blowing ideas, were already explored by H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon in the years 1895-1937.

The following novels are among those discussed. Because I like to judge works by date, I’ve put them in order of publication, but they are grouped by theme by Wolfe’s lectures. Some titles are mentioned in more than one lecture.

  • 1993 – Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • 1993 – Ring by Stephen Baxter
  • 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • 2006 – The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • 2011 – Osama by Lavie Tidhar
  • 2015 – Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
About James Wallace Harris (9 Articles)
James Wallace Harris is fascinated by the concept of science fiction, its history and execution. Jim searches for science fiction where writers use scientific knowledge to explore the possibilities of what reality could exhibit beyond our current observations or extrapolates on what reality could unfold in the future. He delights in stories with original speculation that offers philosophical thought experiments which entertain our sense of wonder. Jim studies old science fiction to understand how people of the past imagined the nature of their existence.
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1 Comment on How Great Science Fiction Works – A Course in SF by Gary K. Wolfe

  1. Mark J. McPherson // March 1, 2016 at 4:35 pm //

    Thanks for the heads up on this! I’ve listened to a few other “Great Courses” where the lack of visual reference made things a little hard to follow (physics) but that doesn’t seem likely to be a problem with this title and hopefully Audible users can download the pdf of the course materials. A good line-up, most, but not all, I’ve read. Personally, I’d like to see more Lem and the Strugatsky Brother’s “Roadside Picnic” included but there’s no accounting for taste. I know it’s essentially a literary history of SF, but the cited works suggests it may be a little long on the pre and early history.

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