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What Is Speculative Fiction? Course Explores Popular Literature Genres

What is speculative fiction? Get the details on a unique literature course on science fiction, horror, and fantasy works being offered in the fall of 2022 at Saint Leo University.

Are you a lover of Reading? Do you particularly enjoy reading and talking about science fiction, horror, or fantasy genres? Need a fun elective to fill out your credit requirements for graduation?

Saint Leo University’s Department of Language Studies and the Arts is excited to present ENG 319: Studies in Speculative Fiction. This catalog literature course, which focuses on a variety of genres in each of its iterations, will examine some of the wildly popular imaginative works this fall at University Campus. We recently caught up with Dr. B. Lee Hobbs, an associate professor of English at Saint Leo, who is slated to teach the course to get the scoop on this exciting class.

Q: What is speculative fiction?

A: Well, most people already understand what fiction is. Fiction includes stories that are not literally true, unlike the stories of history, but MAY have some inherent philosophical, psychological, or spiritual truths to them. The key word here is "speculative." So, what does it mean when we speculate?

When we speculate or read works that do, we are dealing with a world of ideas that aren't so much concerned with actual, empirical knowledge as they are with both conjecture and the theoretical. When we speculate, we are, effectively, "wondering" about something. Some definitions of speculative fiction emphasize works of fiction that evoke a sense of "wonder" in readers. In truth, speculative fiction, affectionately called “spec-fic,” is a very broad umbrella term for a genre that includes science fiction, horror fiction, fantasy fiction, and strange fiction.

The renowned writer Stephen King once said that he begins his writing process for any story that comes from his mind with the question "what if?" In a sense, much of speculative fiction lives in the world of “what if?” scenarios. This concept could include works that begin with bizarre premises such as "what if people could clone themselves and harvest the clones for personal organ replacement? " Or "what if you could live your life backward, starting first as an old person and ending up as an infant?"

Q: Which students will be eligible to take the course?

A: This course does satisfy a credit requirement for English majors pursuing the literary and cultural studies specialization.

While language studies majors are naturally drawn to this topic, the course was actually designed with everyone at Saint Leo University in mind. If you are a student in any other major, including undecided, consider yourself welcome to taking this course. If you are a staff or faculty member, please consider auditing the course. No prior knowledge is needed; only a desire to read and discuss some very cool stories. If you fit this criteria, then you are eligible to take this fantastic course. If you aren't able to take it in the fall, then keep an eye out for future offerings.

Q: When will this speculative fiction course be offered?

A: The tentative schedule for this speculative fiction class is Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. The specific room location will be determined closer to the start of the fall semester.

Q: What was the catalyst behind offering this particular course?

A: By popular request, mainly. The course has been offered a few times before, and word-of-mouth interest from the students who took it previously has prompted some of our current BA in English degree program majors to keep requesting it. It is an elective course, so it is not required by the undergraduate English program, but it does count toward the elective requirements.

There have always been some students in the course, though, who are NOT English majors who just want to read and discuss science fiction, horror, fantasy, and the "weird" or “strange” fiction.

Q: Why do you think these genres have stood the test of time in terms of popularity?

A: Pure escapism is the go-to simplistic answer. Consumers of culture who habitually divert their minds toward purely imaginative entertainment seemingly do so as an escape from either reality or the drudgery of life's routines. An innate, psychological drive–in the Jungian sense–to hear the continual re-telling of the hero's journey, with different details, is another possibility. Speculative fiction is sometimes defined by its tendency to produce a "sense of wonder" and, in my opinion, has stood the test of time because of its fans.

When there's demand, speculative fiction writers provide the supply. Through a writing technique called "defamiliarization," This genre has always allowed readers a passage into its strange worlds while not immediately knowing quite what to expect until after they are already inside. If a reader has biases, for example, on social issues, then those prejudices will be left at home, so to speak, while they unwittingly enter into a safe–and subtle–way to think about relevant social issues from new perspectives because the settings of these stories are often peopled with characters that don't look like humans or take place in settings that are not of this Earth.

At first, student readers might not see themselves in these stories. Then, at some point, like an epiphany, they do and are able to walk a mile in someone else's metaphorical shoes.

Q: Can you address the current relevance of speculative fiction in pop culture?

A: Speculative fiction has a tremendous amount of cultural relevance right now in the popularity of numerous shows and series. Examples include:

  • The Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin
  • The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • The Outlander series by Diana J. Gabaldon
  • The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan

These are just a few of the many series currently streaming on various platforms. Paramount+ continues to create new, ongoing series from the Star Trek franchise. Disney+ continues to run with its series from its Marvel and Star Wars franchises. HBO Max, via WarnerMedia, continues to produce new installments from its DC Comics, Godzilla, and Harry Potter franchises. For now, there really seems to be no end in sight.

A poster promoting the ENG 319: Studies in Speculative Fiction course being offered at Saint Leo’s University Campus in the fall of 2022 taught by Dr. B. Lee Hobbs; the list of texts students will be studying, which is also included in the blog article, is listed on the poster

Q: How did you select the specific texts for the course?

A: I've never felt that courses such as ENG 319 really benefit from the assignment of the same, exact readings two times in a row. So, I change up the required texts each time the course is offered. Luckily, speculative fiction is a vast genre with a nearly limitless bounty of interesting works to draw from.

Normally, I try to choose equally from each of the major subgenres of speculative fiction by selecting works that aren't normally taught in other courses at Saint Leo University. That means there are usually one or two representative novels from science fiction, such as We by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin; one or two from fantasy, such as American Gods by British writer Neil Gaiman; one or two from horror, such as World War Z by American writer Max Brooks; and one or two from “weird fiction,” such as the surrealistic Ferdydurke by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz.

In addition to novels, I also routinely draw assigned reading selections from short stories, graphic novels, and film. The point of the course isn't to establish or promote a canon of "must-reads" by a handful of award-winning authors. The point is to introduce students to an exciting genre that they might otherwise miss the opportunity to explore in their major's other required courses.

Q: Which texts related to speculative fiction will students be reading in this specific class?

A: I have assembled a nice array of books on the various areas of speculative fiction for this course. These will include:

  • Amazing Stories by: H.G. Wells, Edward Elmer Smith, and Philip Francis Nowlan
  • Astounding Stories: At the Mountains of Madness by: H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010 edited by: Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar
  • A Written guide to Speculative Fiction: Science fiction and Fantasy by Crawford Kilian and Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Speculative Fiction for Dreamers: A Latinx Anthology edited by: Alex Hernandez, David Goodwin, and Sarah Rafael Garcia
  • Women of color in Speculative Fiction by Rebecca M. Marrall
  • Images of the Anthropocene in Speculative Fiction edited by: Tereza Dedinova, Weronika Laszkiewicz, and Sylwia Borowska-Szerzun

Q: What types of assignments do you envision for the course?

A: In ENG 319, students write short, subjective reading responses based on the close reading of a meaningful passage immediately after they complete an assigned reading in a new unit. Instructor-guided discussions based on writing prompts that students select for themselves lead to small teamwork discussions that are ultimately shared with the rest of the class as short, in-class presentations. Afterward, each team's result is summarized and recorded in safe, discourse community spaces online where students can share their insights on other teams' presentations. A short reflection on what opinions have changed since the beginning of the unit closes out each module. There is a final analytical paper that is preceded by a proposal and followed by an in-class presentation. It seems like a lot when described but, in reality, the assignments are short and scaffolded and students have lots of fun with the back-and-forth discussion.

Through these assignments, students will explore how these genres influence and are influenced by the decisions of popular culture, historical and contemporary social concerns, as well as dominant ideology structures.

Q: How do you think this course will benefit students in terms of their perspectives on literature and popular culture?

A: There are several benefits of this course that contribute to our university's core value of personal development. For example, in ENG 319, students read fiction. Pedagogically, we already know that reading fiction (as opposed to non-fiction) provides a kind of mental stimulation that expands students' vocabulary and helps them improve their focus and memory retention. When reading speculative fiction, students put themselves into the minds of the story's characters and ultimately see things from those characters' points of view. Consequently, these new perspectives can both build and exercise empathy, a learned behavior that informs our core value of respect. Reading actively for the purpose of analysis helps develop critical thinking, and the informal verbal exercises in the course always work to help students feel more confident about public speaking. Anyone who is interested in refining these skills should consider this out-of-the-ordinary study of popular culture.

Q: How can students learn more about this course?

A: For more details or any questions about this unique speculative fiction course, please contact Dr. Hobbs at burgsbee.hobbs@saintleo.edu.

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