Scottish Studies Profile: Dr William Donaldson

Course flyer for Dr Donaldson's Science Fiction and Fantasy class; image of Octopus planting Saltire on the Moon courtesy of Animal ABC by Susan Rennie, published by Itchy Coo Books
Course flyer for Dr Donaldson’s Science Fiction and Fantasy class

During the past three semesters Dr. William Donaldson, author of Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland, and The Jacobite Song, has been teaching in the Literature Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here he reports on his latest venture, a course on Science Fiction and Fantasy for intermediate level students.

Forgetting Ray Bradbury …

Teaching Literature at M.I.T. is an interesting business. The students are the cleverest in the U.S. and a joy to teach; but they are physicists, mathematicians, engineers, and their interests lie well beyond the bounds of Eng. or any other kind of Lit. They all have to take some Humanities, Arts and Social Science subjects, however, “to stop us becoming Evil Scientists”, and literature is a key component.

Teaching SF in such a setting is bound to be challenging, but the problems of fashioning a manageable course, especially when SF is linked with Fantasy literature—as has often been the case in recent years—would be problematic anywhere. When does one start, for example? Most courses seem to pick up the theme somewhere in the 19th century and continue to the near present. But one could begin with the late Renaissance and trace the line of descent through Johannes Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac and Jonathan Swift, or start, indeed, in Classical antiquity where the robot theme—a recurring preoccupation of later SF—was already in place (as we are reminded by Hephaestus’s mechanical handmaidens, or the giant Talos who guarded the Isle of Crete).

Even within the historically recent past, there has been huge diversity in style and content, ranging from “hard” SF to sword-and-sorcery fiction, presenting difficult—perhaps insuperable—questions of coherence. How does one produce a sequence of mutually illuminating texts for some of which the central posit is the triumph of the advanced physical sciences and the positivistic world view that goes with it, while others proclaim the romance and efficacy of magic?

A simple representative sample might be one way to do it, a survey of the conventional top of the pops, starting maybe with Wells’s Time Machine, or Frankenstein—that classic text of transgressive science and a frequent starting point for such courses. We’d need some Asimov, and Heinlein, maybe, with some Frank Herbert, perhaps; then some Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ to cover the gender angle; and probably a Samuel Delany as well; William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer, is a must have, then something recent to show the contemporary scene. But what about Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and much else)? Can we seriously omit Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, or Margaret Atwood, and what about John Wyndham? Already the field begins to look impossibly crowded. And meanwhile, oh lord, we have forgotten Ray Bradbury.

So, for the M.I.T. course I decided to slice the material a different way, adopting a central core of American texts—mindful of where we were—classics that simply couldn’t not be in, including Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (the defining space opera, out of which Star Wars and Star Trek were later quarried whole); Walter M. Miller’s Cold War apocalypse A Canticle for Leibowitz, and James Blish’s Black Easter (which had the additional advantage of taking magic seriously, providing a useful link, therefore, with the “and Fantasy” part of the course). The remainder was made up of Scottish texts which gave us a detailed look at a specific national tradition, offering a compact body of material which might also—with luck—turn out to be coherent.

So in went Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Neil Gunn’s The Green Isle of the Great Deep, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Iain Banks’s The Bridge, and Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction. These were very different works in terms of tone, audience, style and period, and yet certain key preoccupations did seem to emerge: the pursuit of freedom in its many forms was celebrated in all of these texts, and nearly all featured—with what came to seem almost monotonous regularity—descents into hell of one kind or another.

The Lost World involves a flight through space and time from the stifling conventions of middle-class Edwardian life into the unimaginable horror that stalks the past. Lindsay’s novel leads its characters through a series of fantastically testing moral dimensions on the planet Tormance, “the residential suburb of Arcturus”, to the discovery that God is the devil, pleasure a delusion, and the ultimate reality is pain. The earthly characters in The Green Isle discover God is missing and heaven has been transformed into a totalitarian hell by an impersonal and pitilessly misapplied social science. Lanark involves a succession of hells, each contained within the previous one and each more terrible than the last: Unthank within Glasgow, and the Institute within Unthank. The ghastly refrain “man is the pie that bakes and eats himself” runs through the novel as its protagonist realises “that Hell was the one truth and pain the one fact which nullified all the others”. In The Bridge, The Barbarian—projection of the narrator’s subconscious—rapes and murders his way through a sequence of obscenely warped fairytales before going on to harry hell in a grisly parody of Classical and Christian sources. A principal character in Ken MacLeod’s Star Fraction flees to the chaotically libertarian spaceport of Norlonto, a classic seeming Hobbesian free-for-all where he is met by a reception committee of pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and similar shady characters, only later realising that the community he has just left, the rigidly Christian Beulah City, with its puritanical snooping and repressive conformism, more closely resembles hell …

Graph demonstrating accumulating essay word count over time courtesy of MIT student Emma Mckinney
Graph demonstrating accumulating essay word count over time courtesy of MIT student Emma Mckinney

By this stage in the semester the kids are wandering about like ghosts, up half the night nursing ailing experiments, and Connie Willis’s light but beautifully executed Nebula and Hugo-winning Doomsday Book with its time-travelling Oxford historians seems a good place to stop.

Next time, we’ve got to have more Fantasy. Some Gormenghast maybe? Or Michael Ayrton’s forgotten masterpiece Tittivulus? And some SF poetry. And some short stories—perhaps “Flowers for Algernon” and “Build up Logically”—to vary the genres a bit. And we can’t go twice without some Vonnegut. And, oh lord, where are we going to put Ray Bradbury?

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William Donaldson

William Donaldson
Department of English
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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