How Great Science Fiction Works

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Comprehensive! I bought this course as a treat for myself and I was not disappointed. Dr. Wolfe has given me so many reading recommendations to follow up on! The coverage of the history of the genre right up to the present was great and Dr. Wolfe covered many major evolutionary changes in the field for example the New Wave and the increasing number of women writers.
Date published: 2020-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How Great Science Fiction Works I bought this course a month ago and liked it so much that I bought another copy as a gift for a friend (of 40 years) who grew up in the Golden Age of Science Fiction and has his father's and his own pulp magazines; e.g., the John Campbell publications. He and I both love what Gary Wolfe has provided in his course.
Date published: 2020-07-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A Tedious Laundry List, Nothing Re How It Works I was really looking forward to listening to this one. I grew up on science fiction--late 1950s and all of the 1960s. So I had fond memories of it. Further, I'm now a writer and editor and I'm interested in the mechanics of "how it works." (I've bought other Great Courses) on similar topics--screen writing and story telling, for instance--that are really good. But this . . . First, many of the lectures consist mostly of lists. Which pulp magazine under which editor published a series of stories. Which movies were inspired by which stories by which authors that (again) appeared in which magazines. On and on it goes. If you want to do your own work, buying anthologies containing the stories, watching a video, and then comparing them, I guess that would get you closer. But rather than selectively choosing a limited number of stories (or novellas or novels), these are lists of five or 10 at a time. After a brief pause, there's another list. And another. As a side note, I suspect that many people, like me, are more familiar with some eras in science fiction than others. I'm familiar with the late 1950s and the 1960s, so a brief mention of an author may be sufficient for me. But science fiction of the 1990s is alien to me (pun intended); simply mentioning some authors or better known works from that decade does nothing for me. If you're most familiar with the 1990s, then you may be lost when the lecturer dispenses his list of authors and stories from the 1960s. Second, the lectures don't address how science fiction works beyond noting--as most commentators do--that science fiction is grounded in science or at least what might be possible, in contrast to fantasy which isn't grounded in science. There's nothing addressing, say, plot structure, Or characterization (or lack of it, as demonstrated by a lot of early science fiction). As other reviews have noted, the lectures deal largely with print while giving short shrift to television, movies, and other media. One nice element of the screenwriting course I bought is that it compares how the same story was presented on television and on film. That same approach should have been used here: How does great science fiction work in books versus television or movies? Or: He mentions that some movies (The Thing, for example) have been made multiple times. How do they differ? What worked in one that may not have worked in another? Those other lectures I mentioned--screen writing and story telling (and others, too)--also contain excepts of the movie, TV show, or stories to demonstrate how a good script or story works. There's none of that here. On the positive side, the lecturer seems to know his stuff. And he's a good speaker with a pleasant voice. But that isn't enough to overcome the many failings outlined above.
Date published: 2020-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best Great course, one of the best. I own many Teaching Company courses, more than 20, and this is one of the best.
Date published: 2020-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much better than expected ! Where do I start? This course brought back so many memories. I started reading SF in the '60 and I knew most if not all the classics discussed by Professor Wolfe and was encouraged to read them again. At this time I have finished half the course and am looking forward to the remaining lectures. I will certainly miss them when I have finished watching them. I really never expected them to be so interesting. Professor Wolfe is excellent in my opinion. He really knows his subject. He is the kind of guy you would like to invite over for dinner just so that he could relate all the anecdotes he wasn't able to include in the course. Highly recommended !
Date published: 2020-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Riveting! Having read Ted Chiang's superb recent collection of short stories, "Exhalation", I found myself drawn back to the world of science fiction that I loved so much as a teen. But I didn't know how to start again? What to read? Professor Wolfe's course is the perfect place for all that information. It's a compact history/analysis of science fiction with a quick look to the future of the field in the last lecture. Very enjoyable; I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2020-02-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Misleading title but still a good course This course was not what I expected. It is more a literary criticism and history of sci-fi than a course about the building blocks of great sci-fi. There is nothing wrong with that as a concept but why not title this course 'Great Science Fiction' only instead of adding the how ti works tag. This course will add to your reading list and will inform you about the writers but it will not help you write better sci-fi - though you will probably appreciate the genre more.
Date published: 2020-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How Great is SciFi? I used to blog reviews of Sci-fi luminaries and knew about Wolfe being a Scifi editor before I got a hold of his course and began watching his lectures. He covered most of what I knew, explained much I had suspected, and gave me new authors & new works to contemplate for the future. My only regret is that he could have given a broader survey of more recent works to round out the experience. But he would have had to add another half dozen lectures to do it right.
Date published: 2020-01-10
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How Great Science Fiction Works
Course Trailer
Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction
1: Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction

Kick off your adventure into science fiction by clearly defining what science fiction is, and more importantly, what science fiction is not. Learn how science fiction is distinguished from-yet often confused with-other literary genres such as fantasy and horror. Take a look at the concept of the "monster" through horror, fantasy, and science fiction to help define the differences in the genres. Ex...

31 min
Science Fiction in the 19th Century
2: Science Fiction in the 19th Century

Look at some of the most important names in 19th-century science fiction, including Poe, Verne, and Wells. From the books and stories they penned, the 20th-century science fiction story emerged. Explore select works from each author, gain the context to better understand their writings and lives, and learn how they influenced what we know as science fiction today....

31 min
Science Fiction Treatments of History
3: Science Fiction Treatments of History

We commonly think of science fiction as dealing with the future, but there is a fascinating subset of science fiction that looks at the past. Learn how science fiction writers often mix real-life history with fiction and invoke mechanisms such as time travel to explore alternate histories-looking at how the world might have been different had history gone another direction at pivotal points in our...

34 min
Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
4: Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction

The concept of alternate histories enables vast possibilities. Discover how many science fiction stories tackle massive timescales, taking us from the very beginning to the very end of the universe, and any time and place in between. Examine the ideas science fiction writers proposed about evolution, anthropology, physics, religion, mythology, and more, and see how these concepts influence their v...

34 min
Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
5: Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares

One intriguing theme presented in science fiction is the concept of utopia and dystopia-and how remarkably similar these two seeming opposites can be. Explore the fundamental questions of "Can our lives be better?" and "Can our lives be worse?" Take an in-depth look at some of the most poignant portrayals of utopian and dystopian societies and the social contexts that inspired them....

32 min
The Rise of the Science Fiction Pulps
6: The Rise of the Science Fiction Pulps

Science fiction battled a long-standing bad reputation, born out of the "pulp era" in history. Survey the rise of pulp science fiction through serials, magazines, and short stories at the turn of the 20th century and through the 1950s. You'll gain an appreciation of the obstacles the genre had to overcome through this period in history as Professor Wolfe highlights key authors who contributed to-a...

32 min
The Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories
7: The Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories

After World War II, science fiction took a turn for the better. Learn how one pivotal magazine called Astounding Science Fiction helped change the tide on science fiction. Review the specific works, writers, and editors who contributed to the resurgence of the science fiction. Uncover some of the little-known gems that shaped modern science fiction by reflecting society's struggles, anxieties, and...

33 min
The Spaceship As a Science Fiction Icon
8: The Spaceship As a Science Fiction Icon

Science fiction is known for distinguishing elements: artificial intelligence, time travel, aliens, outer space, and more. Delve into one of the more iconic components of science fiction-the spaceship. Learn how the spaceship is portrayed in some of the most famous stories, as well as lesser-known works. Consider how stories of space exploration parallel and reflect the realities in which they are...

32 min
The Robot: From Capek to Asimov
9: The Robot: From Capek to Asimov

Robots are a common theme in science fiction, but why? Professor Wolfe introduces you to Karel Capek, who adapted the word "robot" from a Czech word meaning "forced labor." Witness the evolution of this concept in science fiction throughout history-including the introduction of the android, existential questions about the nature of cyborgs, and the consequences of robots who think....

32 min
The Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel
10: The Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel

In 1950, the New York Times ran an article claiming that science fiction had graduated from pulp fiction to respectable hardcover books. Learn how this remarkable validation was brought to fruition, and see how television and radio helped propel the popularity of science fiction novels. Examine influential authors of novels during this decade, with an in-depth look at Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl a...

31 min
From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
11: From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet

A key differentiator between fantasy and science fiction is that fantasy stories often take place in worlds, while science fiction stories take place on a planet. Thus, the theme of planets is common among some of the great science fiction works in history. Explore the use of planets-whether being discovered or already colonized-in a variety of works. Focus on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, ...

33 min
The Science Fiction Wasteland
12: The Science Fiction Wasteland

Not all science fiction predicts technology-driven modern futures. Look at the stories over time that foreshadowed a desolate and bleak future, ravaged by environmental issues, plagues, or cataclysmic events. Examine the five components of apocalyptic stories, the various paradoxes the wasteland-style novels predict or reflect, and some stellar examples from this often bleak subgenre....

31 min
Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
13: Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide

Science fiction includes war stories-which often respond to real-life wars. Ascertain how authors such as H. G. Wells took the subgenre of invasion tales to a new level by reflecting current anxieties such as annexation through fictional tales of intergalactic attacks. You'll also learn the truth behind The War of the Worlds hoax. Dig deep into themes such as genocide and extermination and how the...

31 min
Religion in Science Fiction
14: Religion in Science Fiction

A number of science fiction stories tackle the concept of religion, which is often at odds with the concepts that define science fiction. Delve into how science fiction approaches religion, from parody, to reimagining familiar biblical stories and characters in the scope of science fiction, to confronting existing religions and inventing new beliefs. You'll also explore the opposite scenario, in w...

33 min
Science Fiction's New Wave
15: Science Fiction's New Wave

In order to truly make a mark on the literary world, science fiction needed to develop a substantial body of work. In the 1950s and 1960s, see how authors such as J.G. Ballard defined and contributed to the New Wave. You'll also visit the anthologies of Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison to discuss whether they helped transform science fiction or reflected an existing shift that would have occurr...

30 min
Encounters with the Alien Other
16: Encounters with the Alien Other

Aliens are another icon and staple of science fiction. Often depicted as hostile and representing the unknown "other" as well as our fears about ourselves, aliens have been examined (and have examined us) in a variety of stories. Journey through the portrayal of aliens in important works by Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell, Jack Finney, Larry Niven, Stanislaw Lem, and Karen Joy Fowler....

30 min
Environmentalism in Science Fiction
17: Environmentalism in Science Fiction

Here you'll revisit the idea that science fiction often deals directly with the consequences of human actions, whether through robots who take over the world or massive storms produced by climate change. Starting with a common theme in many science fiction novels, bugs, Professor Wolfe walks you through works that feature-and often correctly predicted-environmental concerns and ramifications....

33 min
Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
18: Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction

One stereotype science fiction still hasn't fully shaken off is that it is a predominantly male genre. Originally, the audience was assumed to be male because science fiction often featured similar themes of exploration, war, and domination that characterized the Western genre. This idea was so prevalent that female science fiction writers were often only successful when writing under a male pseud...

31 min
Cyberpunk and the 1980s
19: Cyberpunk and the 1980s

Gibson's Neuromancer and the movie Blade Runner (based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) together formed a gritty, corporatized view of the future that set the standard for science fiction to come. Throughout the 80s, the concepts of corporatization took hold in science fiction, while at the same time, with real-life technological advances, authors began to investiga...

32 min
The 1990s: The New Space Opera
20: The 1990s: The New Space Opera

Space operas-mega-adventures that span galaxies and many pages-introduce complex and layered narratives with complicated characters who are often not immediately likable. Professor Wolfe traces the components that comprise a space opera, differentiating it from a regular series. Consider how these new space operas relate to-and differ from-classic space operas, and see how modern television and mo...

29 min
The Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
21: The Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon

The artifact in science fiction is typically a manufactured item with value, power, or mystery, which can be as small as a subatomic particle or as immense as the wormhole from the 2014 film Interstellar. Many science fiction stories grow around the search for an artifact, the protection of an artifact, or the quest to discover what meaning or use the artifact has. Explore how science fiction gian...

29 min
Science Fiction's Urban Landscapes
22: Science Fiction's Urban Landscapes

While many science fiction stories take place in post-apocalyptic wastelands, deep in outer space, or on other planets, another common setting for science fiction is the futuristic city. Compare two different interpretations of urban landscapes, looking first at the flying cars and enormous glass and steel buildings some stories envision, then the gritty, dark dystopia the cyberpunk era introduced...

28 min
Science Fiction in the 21st Century
23: Science Fiction in the 21st Century

Shift your attention to how science fiction grew through the last century into this one. Uncover how the genre has developed from having highly similar plots, audiences, and even authors, into a diverse field with international appreciation and ownership. Tour novels and stories featuring characters of all shapes and colors, written by authors of varying ethnicities, nationalities, and genders. Le...

30 min
The Future of Science Fiction
24: The Future of Science Fiction

Speculate with Professor Wolfe to consider how science fiction may be evolving in the future, as this genre is gaining popularity, acknowledgement, and recognition as an art form worthy of literary respect. Science fiction writers are topping the best-seller lists, and many works of literary fiction now seamlessly weave in elements that half a century ago would have been dismissed as science ficti...

31 min
Gary K. Wolfe

SF has become so diversified in the last several decades that I don’t think any one theoretical approach can account for what it does in all its varieties.


University of Chicago


Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies

About Gary K. Wolfe

Dr. Gary K. Wolfe is a Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies. He earned his B.A. from the University of Kansas and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Dr. Wolfe has earned many awards, including the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, the Eaton Award from the Eaton Science Fiction Conference, the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Non-Fiction, the Locus Award for Non-Fiction, and the World Fantasy Award for criticism and reviews. He has been nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Convention, twice for his nonfiction and three times for the podcast he co-hosts with Jonathan Straham. A reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991 and the Chicago Tribune since 2013, and author or editor of a dozen books, Dr. Wolfe also edited the 2012 Library of America's American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s and edits a series of monographs on science fiction authors for the University of Illinois Press.

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