Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Common Errors in English Usage and More Science Fiction-Related Materials

Research Paper Assignment

Because this is a compressed eight-week course, the research assignment needs to be done in an efficient manner. It is urgent that students be in frequent communication with the professor about their research, letting him know about questions and problems they have, leads they’d like to explore, etc. This sort of communication is a central part of the research process.

STEP ONE: Choose one of the following books to research and sign up for it in the second week activities within the threaded discussion: “Sign up for research topic.” Check first to make sure that no one else has chosen your topic. If someone has, choose another topic. If you have questions, be sure to correspond with the professor about them. If you have another book you’d like to research, check first to make sure it is practical. Only a small minority of books have any extensive amount of scholarship published about them for you to draw on.

STEP TWO: Borrow and read the book(s) chosen as soon as possible.

STEP THREE: (simultaneously with Step Two): Identify scholarly articles and books and other research materials about your book, using The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database at This database is confined to SF scholarship, and is much more efficient than the MLA International Bibliography. Note that you have to search for your author as a SUBJECT, though an AUTHOR search may turn up relevant nonfiction by that author. However, the MLA International Bibliography also analyzes individual chapters in books made up of separate articles, so you should use it as well. The electronic version is available through the library. Go to the DDLS page at and scroll all the way to the bottom, and click under “Databases” on “Humanities” and scroll down on the next page tht loads to find MLA. (Pro Quest, often recommended for other classes, is not particularly useful for this one.) If you need assistance with library resources, please refer to the DDLS course page ( or contact Beth Lindsay at or phone her at 509-335-7735. Write up a preliminary annotated bibliography of items that look useful, using MLA bibliographic style, with a sentence or two for each one explaining why you think it might be useful. Post the annotated bibliography in Activity 3, in the “Document” entitled “Annotated Bibliographies.” Look especially for recent bibliographies or checklists on your topic and use them. Remember to track down sources that recent writers seem to cite as important.

STEP FOUR: The professor will comment on your bibliography and make further suggestions for research. It is crucial to act on these promptly. Meanwhile order the books you need through DDLS. You should order copies of articles from journals by ordering them through Iliad at .Iliad can supply both articles in journals WSU lacks and use interlibrary loan services to supply others, though there will be a longer delay for the latter, and you should not depend too heavily on such materials for your research, since you have so little time.

STEP FIVE: As you read, take notes addressing the following questions:

  1. What kind of SF is this? (Draw on Palumbo and Landon.
  2. In what ways is it typical of its type? What other books you have read does it remind you of? How?
  3. What makes it unique?
  4. What are its outstanding qualities?
  5. What are the chief topics addressed by scholars who have written about it? What are the main controversies surrounding it? Characterize the various sides in any debate and try to understand their arguments.
  6. What perspectives or theoretical approaches seem to be used by these scholars?
  7. How useful is the scholarship? What did you learn from reading it that could help you in teaching about this work?
  8. Are there aspects of the work which seem to have been inadequately discussed? Can you explicate these yourself?

STEP SIX: Create a study guide aimed at a high school reader, drawing on the research and your own knowledge to introduce and explain the work without summarizing the plot or making it possible to substitute a reading of your study guide for the book itself (in other words, don’t use Cliff Notes as your model). You can use ideas from my own study guides, but feel free to try different approaches that you think would be useful.

STEP SEVEN: Your paper will consist of an introduction answering the questions above and any others that you deem pertinent, the study guide you have created, and a bibliography (this time NOT annotated) of sources cited in your paper. Submit your paper in Activity 6 in the “Document” entitled “Submit Research Paper.”

STEP EIGHT: Read and make constructive comments for improvement on the papers of other students in the class.

STEP NINE: Taking into account the professor’s comments and those of your fellow students, revise your paper. All papers must be revised and must address the concerns raised by the professor. Submit the final revised version in Activity 8 in the “Document” entitled “Final Draft of Research Paper.”

Papers will be judged on usefulness, clarity, thoroughness of research, and quality of writing.

Topics for Research


  • Brian Aldiss: Helliconia Winter
    Aldiss realized as he was writing the third volume of his Helliconia trilogy–which had been built around ecological and evolutionary themes–that a nuclear winter theme would fit into the book he was writing, and it became much more of an anti-war statement. It is a sort of counter-epic, structured in just the opposite order of most such works. Very little has been written about it except by Aldiss himself, but it’s worth tracking down what there is. One important article about it is available only in French. Deserves the sort of praise for its ecological awareness that has been lavished on Frank Herbert’s Dune.
  • Octavia Butler: Dawn (Volume I of her Xenogenesis trilogy)
    Butler is particularly interested in biology, sexuality, reproduction, and questions of freedom and its limits. (Butler now lives in Seattle).
  • Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous With Rama
    Although there may appear at first to not be much scholarship on this classic “giant artifact” novel, it is covered in almost every discussion of “hard” SF and in general discussions of Clarke. Famous for depending on “awe and wonder” rather than character for its effect, combining Clarke’s peculiar combination interest in hardware with transcendence. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY STACIA MISNER.
  • Samuel R. Delany: Triton (retitled Trouble on Triton)
    A satirical utopia stressing personal freedom and choice written partly in response to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and drawing on Delany’s own experiences living in a commune and in an experimental marriage in the 1960s. Should be read in conjunction with his autobiographical volumes about that period The Motion Of Light In Water: Sex And Science Fiction Writing In The East Village 1957-1965 and Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love. Not for the squeamish–Delany is gay and into S&M (though the novel is much milder than the memoirs). Hint: there is a mailing list about Delany where the novel has been discussed, but read the book first–people talking about it tend to give away the ending:
  • Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle
    The most famous of all alternative-history novels, in which Japan and Germany win World War II and conquer the U.S. Discussed in any survey of alternative history fiction. Hint: look for “alternate history” rather than “alternative history” as a subject. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY AMY LAPTAD
  • Philip K. Dick: Ubik
    Considered by some to be Dick’s masterpiece, this is a work filled with his trademark satirical ambiguity and confusion about the nature of reality.
  • Thomas M. Disch: 334
    A grim portrait of a dangerous urban future which wrestles with many of the ethical issues we are only confronting seriously today. Discussed in most examinations of Disch’s fiction or in scholarship on urban SF.
  • Harlan Ellison: selected short stories.
    Ellison is one of the most influential short-story writers in the field. Identify a couple of his most-discussed stories and compare them. Identify which volumes the stories appear in by using the “Locus Index to Science Fiction” at Ellison’s stories are as often fantasy as they are SF (he objects strenuously to being labelled a science fiction writer). His work is often dark and shocking, but brilliant. He can be quite verbose in discussing his own work.
  • Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
    Huxley’s anti-utopia is still widely read and influential. Place it in the tradition of utopian and anti-utopian science fiction. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY LIV LEID.
  • Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness
    LeGuin’s most-discussed novel, an early attempt at exploring gender roles and ambiguity, highly controversial in some circles.
  • C.S. Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet
    The first volume of Lewis’ Christian SF trilogy, which continues with Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Now rather dated, but Lewis is still popular with young Christian readers. If you’ve already read the first volume, you may wish to discuss the somewhat more interesting Perelandra instead.
  • Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time
    Many non-SF readers don’t recognize this as SF at all: a fierce attack on the medical establishment’s treatment of mental patients with elements of a future utopia. Included in most discussions of 1970s feminist utopias.
  • Joanna Russ: The Female Man
    A fiercely funny, highly experimental examination of gender roles by one of SF’s most uncompromising feminists, now retired from the faculty of the University of Washington. Discussed in almost every survey of feminist SF.
  • Robert Silverberg: Dying Inside
    Moving portrait of a man slowly losing his telepathic powers, by one of SF’s most influential and popular authors.
  • Olaf Stapledon: Sirius
    A sensitive love story of a girl and the super-canine she is raised with by one of SF’s most original thinkers. Not as widely discussed as some of his other works, but a better-constructed novel. Stapledon’s consistent themes are evolution and challenging traditional morals.
  • Theodore Sturgeon: More Than Human
    Sturgeon is famous for his sensitivity to character and especially to his depiction of children and adolescents. This is an unconventional approach to the future evolution of the human race with an emphasis on emotion rather than the flexing of super-powers.
  • James Tiptree, Jr.: Selected short stories
    Alice Sheldon, writing under this pseudonym, produced some of the most powerful short fiction ever in the field. Choose two of her most-discussed stories and compare them. Identify which volumes the stories appear in by using the “Locus Index to Science Fiction” at There is an award for feminist SF named after her.
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five: or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death
    Vonnegut has written many SF novels which he has persuaded his publishers not to label as such, thus breaking out of the SF ghetto into a wider audience. This anti-war novel about the Dresden bombing incorporates classic SF elements and is still widely read and discussed. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY GUY SMURTHWAITE.
  • H. G. Wells: The Time Machine
    Wells’ first science-fiction novel, enormously influential; discussed in any survey of time-travel fiction. THIS TOPIC HAS BEEN SIGNED UP FOR BY MELISSA WEISE.


Terminator vs. Terminator

Nuclear Holocaust as a Video Game

Paul Brians
Professor of English
Washington State University
Pullman, WA 99164-5020

The following piece was written in 1991 for a proposed special issue of a journal which abandoned the idea so many months later that the article had lost its immediacy. I didn’t feel like revising it according to their suggestions for publication as an independent piece because their consultants’ views of the Terminator films differed drastically from mine. I am no longer doing research in this area, but I think the article may still be of interest to some readers, so am posting it here.

This article has been translated into German: Terminator vs. Terminator: Nuklearer Holocaust als Videospiel.

Translations of this article also available in Czech and Dutch.

Copyright Paul Brians 1995
You can write me at:
Home Page

Back in 1984 I participated in a conference on war in fiction at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Part of the program was a screening of Philippe de Broca’s 1967 antiwar classic King of Hearts . It struck me as sadly irrelevant to the mood of young people in the eighties, so I skipped the session to take in the latest hot flick in a downtown theater: The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though I am not a fan of “action” movies, I hoped to learn something about what was exciting contemporary audiences.

What I experienced surprised and angered me. It was not the relentless, brutal violence and manipulative terror—these I expected. But I was taken aback by the way in which the predominantly youthful audience gleefully rooted for the Terminator, whose purpose was after all the total extermination of the human race through the murder of the destined mother of its future savior, John Conner. I don’t think my experience was unique. David Edelstein, reviewing the film for the Village Voice, noted that when the Terminator appeared “the audience whoops and applauds.”1 I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Terminator had villain written all over him in bold block letters; but audiences who gleefully cheer the monstrous slasher Freddie in the Nightmare on Elm Street films cannot be expected to shift emotional gears just because the target is enlarged to embrace the entire human community.2

The popularity of the Terminator concept is also evidenced by the popularity of several series of comic book adaptations featuring plenty of graphic violence.3 Schwarzenegger’s signature line “I’ll be back!” became a catch phrase widely and humorously quoted, but more as a promise than a threat: there is more exciting action to come.

My second reaction was to a disturbing subtext I perceived in the film itself. It struck me immediately as a survivalist fantasy arguing that nuclear war is inevitable and that our only hope lies in gathering skill in using personal violence to fight the wars which lie beyond Armageddon. Those crazies who busily stockpile food and ammo, expecting to fight indifferently the Russkies, their neighbors, or the U. S. Army had seen their vision endorsed by Hollywood.

Wrestling with my emotional revulsion against this message and the audience’s reaction, I was inevitably struck by a seeming contradiction. If the film was preaching survivalism, why was the audience cheering for its own annihilation?

Critics are routinely contemptuous of films such as this (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is another good example) because they simultaneously seem to reject violence (the war which threatens human sur vival) and glorify it (the battles after the war).4 But on the simplest level this is not necessarily a fatal contradiction. A gory tale like The Iliad or The Song of Roland can both revel in and deplore war without raising such cavils; and only pacifists are prone to equate personal violence with worldwide warfare. Not that The Terminator is likely to join anybody’ s canon of masterpieces, but the common wisdom is that if a good deal of killing is morally acceptable to prevent even greater amounts of killing.

No, the contradictions embedded in The Terminator are more complex, and much more threatening. Most of humanity is about to die, and there is nothing whatever we can do about it. Why is this an acceptable subtext for an escapist entertainment?

There are several possibilities. Spectacular screen violence is so appealing to adolescent audiences (especially but not exclusively males) that they may not even notice the context in which that violence is embedded. Certainly most viewers of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome seemed to miss entirely its anti-nuclear war message, although it was much more prominent than the same message in The Terminator. But it may also be the case that the audience did absorb on some level the prophecy of doom delivered by the film but found it attractive and exciting out of the sort of adolescent nihilism that fuels the immense popularity of heavy metal bands and super-violent comic books. Today’s rebels without a cause are mostly comfortably well-off youth whose restlessness scorns idealism or radicalism and glories in images of destruction for its own sake. Kids often amuse themselves with violence these days, though their rebellion is actually quite trivial and easily domesticated and marketed, of course. Another possibility is that such films are just another vehicle for adolescent bravado: viewing the fall of civilization is the cinematic equivalent of an exceptionally terrifying roller coaster ride: the only relevant question is can you take it?

I suspect that each of these explanations has some truth in it; but I am convinced that there is another dynamic at work here which has deep connections with the way Americans have mythologized nuclear war. When they have not simply repressed the threat from consciousness as they usually have the next most popular attitude has always been fatalism. From the early days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki onward, it was commonly accepted that atomic bombs could, and one day might, “destroy the world.” By far the most commonly expressed sentiment about nuclear war is “If the bomb goes off, I hope I’m at ground zero.”

Given the relatively trivial numbers of these weapons in existence during the early years of the cold war, the power of this mythology is impressive. Of course governments encouraged such attitudes by assuring their citizens that nuclear weapons are so apocalyptic as to make the most insane enemy blanch at the thought of attacking another nuclear power. But such reassurance entails its own subversion. Clearly in the atomic age it makes no sense to feel safe because our enemies are terrorized. The Cold War was not called a “balance of terror” for nothing. Forced to think about the prospect of annihilation, people resorted to a standard psychological mechanism familiar in connection with thinking about death: accepting it as inevitable and putting it out of mind as much as is possible.

The popularity of Dr. Strangelove is probably to be attributed at least in part, paradoxically, to its comfortingly nihilistic message: our leaders are insane, there are no effective controls, we’re all doomed, so we might as well have a good laugh before we go. Although it is a fine film in many ways, Dr. Strangelove is one of the most profoundly disempowering tales ever spun about nuclear doom. Similarly, much of the appeal of On the Beach resides in the relentless way in which death marches across the globe, sparing no one. Depicting nuclear war as universal extinction is the next best thing to not thinking about it at all. We manage to live with the prospect of our personal deaths because we know death is universal and inevitable. Applying the same mechanism to reacting to the arms race, we manage to muddle on, released from responsibility. Nuclear war as a problem has been defined out of existence. It has become instead a fact of life.

The problem is, of course, that nuclear war is not the same thing as death; and while young people in the eighties were flirting with apocalyptic imagery, an accelerated arms race was making a real apocalypse ever more likely.5

Another striking political message of The Terminator is an apparent endorsement of the National Rifle Association’s position on gun control. When a gun dealer explains the required waiting period for certain weapons, the Terminator short-circuits the process by shooting him dead on the spot. Obviously when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

Several critics have commented on the anti-machine message delivered by the film. Karen B. Mann lists the the malevolent technology which dominates the world of the film and embodies the reality of the threat symbolized by the Terminator: ” hair dryers, electric curlers, Walkmans, TVs, radios . . . the essential telephone answering machines, technology dominates meaning relationships and transactions in the film.”6 America’s love/hate relationship with technology is broadly satirized throughout the film, and cleverly alluded to in the name of the dance club where Sarah takes refuge from Reese: Tech Noir. On one level The Terminator is a descendant of such anti-technological satires as Chaplin’s Modern Times or Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. The politics of this sort of satire are Luddite rather than Marxist. The shallowness of The Terminator’s satire is revealed by the fact that the machine is ultimately defeated by other machines (a point even more clearly made in Terminator 2).

But The Terminator is more specifically about nuclear technology. Its basic premise that the defence network Skynet has launched a nuclear war in an effort to annihilate humanity seems borrowed from The Forbin Project .7 Both films mythologize nuclear weaponry as a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster: a misbegotten creation which turns on its creator. Their ancestry includes countless tales in which scientists have “gone beyond the limits of what man was meant to know” and which in the post-Hiroshima era have almost always been parables of atomic-age anxiety. But The Terminator is ultimately not truly an anti-nuclear war film precisely because it accepts the inevitability of such war, never suggesting that it might be in any way preventable. The arms race and the holocaust in which it logically culminates are givens, and mighty convenient givens for generating an exciting sense of impending doom and destruction.

Lillian Necakov, looking for progressive elements in the film, perceives Sarah Conner as an unconventionally assertive and powerful woman.8 Other feminist critics object. Margaret Goscilo asserts that Sarah “is a mere conduit of male power and supremacy between her son and her lover.”9 And Vivian Sobchack argues that the film justifies men’s refusal to take responsibility for child-rearing.10 According to Sobchak, Sarah is a strong, self-sufficient single mother who has not been truly abandoned because the dead father of her child still exists in a future and is forever returning to impregnate her in the past. Sarah’s strength exists only to absolve men of their responsibility to women and children.

In The Terminator, Sarah certainly doesn’t strike me as a pillar of strength; but Necakov was probably on to something; the next two thrillers made by James Cameron and his wife Gale Anne Hurd feature unmistakably powerful heroines. The heroine of Aliens is a courageous, skilled, and intelligent woman who destroys vicious monsters from space when the male soldiers have been wiped out because their macho attitudes got in the way of effective combat; and The Abyss features a brilliant, tough, and domineering female scientist.

Not that these characters are models of feminist correctness. They are also both physically attractive, and the latter might almost have been designed by a male masochist fantasizing the ideal dominatrix. Tough women are very hot stuff currently in a variety of popular media ranging from female body-builder competitions to comic books featuring leather-clad female assassins. It’s clear that contemporary male taste in erotic fantasy embraces models radically different from the traditional passive, submissive one.

Even so, Lindsey Brigman, the ruthless woman scientist in The Abyss, has to learn humility and tenderness from her sensitive, less assertive husband. Yet she does not surrender her competence or courage. It is notable that in this film husband and wife take turns risking their lives to save each other. The Abyss is an equal-opportunity, interracial, anti-military, pro-working class thriller. While certainly not a progressivist tract, The Abyss marks a large step in the continuing shift of Cameron’s films from the reactionary politics of The Terminator.

Thus I looked forward with great interest to the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. How could Cameron’s new politics be reconciled with his old themes? Would the subject of nuclear war be more prominent in the sequel? I was pleasantly surprised by the answers to both these questions.

I am not going to pretend that my generally positive reaction to the film is shared by everyone. Stanley Kauffmann, writing in The New Republic states that “The surprise is that a picture made to be exciting for 136 minutes is so unexciting most of the time.”11 Ralph Novak in People magazine found it “shamefully sadistic, achingly dull and totally predictable,” claiming that ” it rehashes the far superior 1984 original.”12

In contrast, Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Cameron has made a swift, exciting special-effects epic that thoroughly justifies its vast expense and greatly improves upon the first film’s potent but rudimentary visual style.”13 Reviewers for the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle agreed.14

Clearly there is no point in insisting that a film that bores some viewers is in fact engrossing. Some viewers prefer the first film simply because they like the meaner, tougher Schwarzenegger in an unambiguously violent setting. I suspect that certain critics who prefer the first film are drawn to it by its anti-technological bias and repelled by the high-tech gloss of the computer-created special effects of the second one. It isn’t considered sophisticated to enjoy expensive dazzle and flash, and the first film is redeemed in their eyes by its low-budget grunginess.

But Cameron always wanted to make The Terminator a special effects film; he was prevented from doing so by a modest $6.5 million dollar budget.15 The success of the first film enabled him to make the sequel into the film that he had wanted to make all along, reportedly the most expensive ever made.16

Terminator 2 reworks a number of elements from the first film. Both open in a scene of future combat. A pair of time travellers—an assassin and his adversary—arrive naked amidst powerful electrical disturbances (which in Terminator 2 are even more strongly reminiscent of the scene of the creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster). The toughs Schwarzenegger confronts at the beginning of each film—punks in the first, bikers in the second—are the sort of convenient, disposable scum that serves as cannon fodder in all sorts of cheap men’s fiction. In both films, it is not revealed until well into the plot that the character which seems to be trying to kill Sarah is actually trying to protect her, though the extreme efforts at building suspense on this point in the second film were utterly vitiated by the massive publicity touting Schwarzenegger as the good guy in Terminator 2. The assassin in both films is shot for the first time just as he’s about to kill his victim. Even trivial details are repeated. Schwarzenegger drives a cop car in both. He slices open his arm in both. In The Terminator a truck driver is forced from his truck; in Terminator 2 a helicopter pilot is similarly forced from his vehicle. The little girl playing at shooting in the dismal future of The Terminator is echoed in Terminator 2 by the scene at a gas station in which a boy and girl pretend to shoot at each other, shouting, “You’re dead!”

But if in some ways Terminator 2 is more a remake than a sequel, in other ways it is a reply to the first film. Almost as if Cameron had been reading his feminist critics, the new Sarah Conner has lost every ounce of her early cute freshness and become a wiry bundle of nerves, bones and muscles. We first see her as she does chin-ups in her cell, looking nothing like the Lisa Lyons model of female body-building. She rages, claws and smashes through obstacles with a fearsome energy that is completely determined by her nightmare visions of the nuclear war to come. Unlike Ripley in Aliens, Sarah displays no motherly affection for the child she is so frantically trying to protect. She wants to save him because she has nightmares about the death of other children. When we are once tricked into thinking that she will at last hug him, she actually gives him a quick check for bullet holes and bawls him out for risking his life to rescue her. As an object of the male gaze, Sarah is a pretty startling sight.

Of course one could make out a case that, as is the case with other Cameron females, this is gender-bending to excuse male violence and insensitivity, telling men, “See, some women are like that too.” But Cameron seems to anticipate this objection by giving Sarah the widely-quoted speech in which she hails the CSM-101 as a better man than any of her other male partners. She may be less nurturing toward her son than the cyborg, but she appreciates his nurturance and loyalty. The fact is that Sarah is as sympathetic as she is disturbing because hers is the moral vision that informs the film, and that vision consists of a determination to prevent the nuclear holocaust which seemed so inevitable in The Terminator. Lindsey’s ruthlessness in The Abyss was “bitchy.” Sarah’s is heroic.

Terminator 2 constantly argues with criticisms of The Terminator. You didn’t like all that killing in the name of saving lives in The Terminator? Okay, we minimize the killing. You object that assassination is a lousy way to improve the world? This time around John gets to make just that point to his mother when she finds that she can’t cold-bloodedly shoot the scientist destined to create the robots who are destined to destroy humanity.

Most importantly, from my point of view, Terminator 2 rejects the nuclear fatalism of The Terminator. The point of this film is to prevent the nuclear war looming in the near future. Cameron explains his intentions an interview contained in Don Shay and Jody Duncan’s book on the making of the film:

I’ve tried to make people think about the unthinkable nuclear war. We have to if we don’t, we’re screwed. I believe that. So if I can sugar-coat it with a big epic action thriller and get people into the theaters and get them thinking about something that they wouldn’t otherwise, then maybe that does some good other than just making all of us a lot more money.17

As Oliver Morton notes, “Terminator 2 ‘s structure is an explicit denial of The Terminator’ s. Whereas the point of The Terminator is to reach that final scene and make the preceding film a necessary consequence of its ending, the point of Terminator 2 is to reach an ending in which neither that film, nor its predecessor, were necessary in the first place.”18

Of course this is contradictory, but contradictions are inevitable in any time-travel story that does not follow (like Woody Allen’s Sleeper ) the inexorably forward-pointing arrow of time. They succeed only by ignoring their own illogic, or like Terminator pointing it out only to dismiss it. Excessive literalism is fatal. After leaving the theater we may realize, for instance, that if the nuclear war has really been averted, John should not exist, since he is a product of that war. Sarah’s efforts to save his life could be seen as threatening his very existence. But both films discourage such speculation by keeping the diverting action going and letting the characters express their own bewilderment at the contradictions built into their story.

It’s no use carping as many critics have about Terminator 2′s logic. What is of some use is noticing the limitations of its attitudes toward nuclear war. For all its virtues, this film has some amazingly stupid things to say on the subject. The problem is not, as some have argued, that its vision of such a war is understated; it contains the most carefully researched, accurately depicted portrayal of a nuclear explosion in any film yet made.19 Its scenes of carnage put The Day After to shame. The only film to focus more closely on the effects of nuclear weapons in a graphic way is Shohei Imamura’s story of the Hiroshima bombing, Black Rain.

But its conscientiousness does not make Terminator 2 a smart film about nuclear war. The first obvious problem is that it uses that hoariest of bad science fiction film clichés: the crucial scientist whose elimination can save the world. The fact that the scientist is a brilliant, sympathetic black man may prevent us from noticing the cliché for a while, but it’s there. It’s true that the storyline does not really require his death–only the destruction of the microchips he’s been studying; but the point made by this variation on the myth is the same: science is the product of irreplaceable individuals, so one can uninvent a device by killing its inventor. As applied to the atomic bomb, this was early on proven a fallacy when the Soviet Union developed its own bomb (though Americans long clung to the myth that it couldn’t have done so without stealing our secret formulas). As the anti-nuclear-disarmament crowd never tires of repeating, you can’t uninvent the bomb. Terminators may be prevented: they don’t exist yet. Bombs do.

I stated earlier that the apparent contradiction that violence is used to prevent violence is not necessarily fatal. However, the problem with the tension between these two kinds of violence in Terminator 2 is that they do not seem to inhabit the same stylistic universe. Sarah’s visions of Judgment Day are overpoweringly horrific, her reactions to them intense and moving. The violence perpetrated by the two Terminators is cartoonish, often comic. The antics of the liquid-metal T-1000 strongly resemble those of the old comic book character Plastic Man (though today’s kids might think of him as an unusually supple Transformer). The Terminator was a pure escape film because the future nuclear war was barely sketched in, obviously only an excuse for the depiction of exciting action. In structure it was little more than a car chase film combined with the excitement of a shooting gallery where the targets keep bobbing back up after being hit.20

But Terminator 2 uses a technologically more advanced narrative metaphor: it is a video game. A kid—John—is at the controls. The targets pop up left and right, but the harm done them never seems serious. The cops are at worst kneecapped, and the T-1000 is as indestructible as a typical videogame adversary, continually reassembling himself for another round. The metaphor is underlined when, just before he meets the terminators, we see John playing the old anti-missile defence game “Missile Command” in a videogame gallery. Atari is listed in the credits; and of course Terminator 2 is also literally a videogame that you can play in your local arcade or at home on your Nintendo.21 (It’s also a rock video. Guns and Roses’ video of “You Could Be Mine,” contains scenes from both films.)

The entertainment and the sermon clash. There is little effort to reconcile them. By emphasizing the seriousness of the nuclear threat, Cameron has revealed to the thoughtful viewer the moral bankruptcy involved in trivializing violence in the rest of the film. By devoting by far the greatest part of the film to exciting chases, shootings, and explosions, he has undermined the earnest anti-war scenes. The net result is likely to be that the viewer’s appetite for mayhem is satisfied without his or her awareness of the danger of nuclear war being effectively aroused. Many action films present moralizing rationales for their mayhem of course, but it is rare for that rationale to be given the sort of emphasis and weight that Sarah’s visions have in Terminator 2.

The most important problem exists in both films, and that is the myth that nuclear weapons have a mind of their own. Skynet, as many have noted, is a version of SDI. Richard Corliss calls Terminator 2 “a Star Wars movie that is anti-Star Wars.”22 In fact, the term “hunter-killer” used in both films is taken directly from SDI plans for “hunter-killer” anti-satellite weapons. The Skynet myth reflects the (wholly justified) notion that nuclear weapons threaten their possessors as much as the enemy. As a metaphor it has great power. But it is also disempowering because it removes humanity from the equation. The fact is that nuclear weapons don’t cause nuclear wars: people do. Defense labs and the scientists who work in them are easy targets, but the real menaces are the politicians who have refused to accept responsibility for holding the whole world hostage at gunpoint and the voters who have elected them.

But in the event, the film may prove to be wiser than it at first seems. It became clear in 1991 that the U.S. and Soviet governments had finally gotten sufficiently afraid of their nuclear arsenals to start disposing of them. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union and the threat that missiles and bombs would fall into the hands of angry, vengeful Ukranians, Moldavians, and Latvians to precipitate the current anti-arms race in which both sides are frantically trying to match each other in the number and size of the weapons they can throw away.

It was Terminator 2’s misfortune to reach the screen just as its earnest sermon against the threat of nuclear annihilation was seeming more than ever irrelevant. Of all the problems threatening the world at the moment, imminent all-out nuclear war is not one. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in third-world countries poses different (and very serious) sorts of threats; but it is difficult any longer to imagine some fanatical dictator triggering a world-wide exchange of such magnitude that it could be called a nuclear holocaust. We need new myths to wrestle with that problem.


1“Cling to Me.” November 13, 1984, p. 62.

2Cameron acknowledged the appeal of his villain in an interview with David Chute. “. . . you love to root for the bad guy; you want to see him get up again, you want to see him dumbfound the poor cops.” ” Three Guys in Three Dimensions,” Film Comment, February 1985, p. 59.

3 Young readers write in comments such as this, from a twelve-year-old enthusiast: “This comic is probably the best I have ever read because, and this is gonna sound morbid as hell, people die. I mean you don’t see them being ten inches away from an explosion and be okay.” Other fan comments: “I like the guns they use. I also like the part where the kid says, ‘You just bought a one way ticket to hell! my man.’ I really like the Plasma rifle.” Issue no. 11 of The Terminator . Chicago: Now Comics, August 1989, pp. 28-29. Publication of the Terminator comic books was taken over in August 1990 by Dark Horse comics, which produced a decidedly slicker and even more violent product for an evidently expanding market.

4Peter Fitting reads The Terminator as not as a frivolous nuclear war film, but as a fairly thoughtful metaphor for modern urban wastelands. See “Count Me Out/In: Post-Apocalyptic Visions in Recent Science Fiction Film,” CineAction! Winter 1987/88, p. 48.

5For more on the popularity of nuclear war imagery among eighties youth, see my article “Americans Learn to Love the Bomb,” New York Times, July 17, 1985, Section 1, p. 23, col. 1.

6“Narrative Entanglements: The Terminator, Film Quarterly, 43 (Winter 1989-90), p. 19. See also J. P. Telotte, “The Ghost in the Machine: Consciousness and the Science Fiction Film,” Western Humanities Review 42 (1988), pp.249-258. A more interesting discussion of this subject which includes Terminator 2 is Oliver Morton’s “A General Theory of Terminators,” The Modern Review 1 (Autumn 1991), pp. 32-33.

7Harlan Ellison saw in The Terminator the influence of his story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in which a misanthropic computer launches Armageddon, as well as others of his works; but although Cameron acknowledged some indebtedness (under the threat of a lawsuit), the parallels with The Forbin Project seem much more striking. See Max Rebeaux. “Harlan Ellison vs The Terminator: No More Mr. Nice Guy,” Cinéfantastique 15 (October 1985), pp. 4-5, 61.

8 The Terminator: Beyond Classical Hollywood Narrative,” CineAction! Spring 1987, pp. 84-87.

9“Deconstructing The Terminator ,” Film Criticism 12 (1988), p. 46. See also Elayne Rapping. “Hollywood’s New ‘Feminist Heroines’.” Cineaste 14 (1986), pp. 4-9.

10“Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange,” Camera Obscura 15 (1987): 29-31.]

11Beagles, Black Harrowers, etc.” August 12, 1991. p. 28.

12“Terminator 2.” People Weekly July 8, 1991, p. 13.

13“In the New ‘Terminator,’ The Forces of Good Seek Peace, Violently,” New York Times July 3, 1991, p. C11. Maslin makes several important criticisms of Terminator 2, but she does not deny that it is exciting.

14Kenneth Turan. “He said He’d Be Back.” Los Angeles Times , July 3, 1991. pp. F1, F6. Mick LaSalle. “‘Terminator 2’ Is the End-All.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 1991, p. E1.

15See David Chute’s interview with Cameron, cited above. Cameron had thought up the idea of a shape-changing villain in working on the first film, but had to use “a more traditional kind of robot” because of budget constraints. See Shay, p. 29.

16This claim, repeated endlessly and uncritically in the press seems dubious. I would like to see the $20,000,000 figure adjusted for inflation and compared to the budgets of some of the old massive Bible epics.

17P. 19.

18“A General Theory of Terminators,” p. 33. A third film in which the threat is renewed is a very live possibility, of course, but it is worth noting that Randall Frakes’ novelization ends with a scene which confirms that the looming holocaust has been successfully averted. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. New York: Bantam, 1991, pp.237-240.

19The filmmakers studied old atomic bomb test footage in preparing the scene. See Shay, p. 113.

20It should be noted that the Terminators in both films are amazingly inefficient killing machines. They often move with glacial slowness at crucial moments and when aiming at their more important targets and miss most of the time. These are not “smart weapons.” But I wouldn’t make too much of the point. Their clumsiness is necessary to prevent them from annihilating the entire cast in seconds and wrecking the movie.

21Arcade game by Midway; Nintendo game by LJN, which also makes a hand-held Game Boy version. There is also a pinball game featuring a gleaming silver skull, by Williams. See Anonymous. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day: T2.” Electronic Gaming Monthly 4.12 (December 1991), “Masters of the Game” section, pp. 4 – 5 and Anonymous. “Terminator Pinball Wizardry” and “T-1000 Video Games Sweepstakes.” T2 (The Official Terminator 2: Judgment Day Movie Magazine. New York: Starlog Communications International, 1991, p. 4.

22Half a Terrific Terminator.” Newsweek July 8, 1991, p. 56.


Anonymous. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day: T2.” Electronic Gaming Monthly 4.12 (December 1991) “Masters of the Game” section, pp. 4 – 5.

Anonymous. “Terminator Pinball Wizardry” and “T-1000 Video Games Sweepstakes.” T2 (The Official Terminator 2: Judgment Day Movie Magazine. New York: Starlog Communications International, 1991, p. 4.

Brians, Paul. “Americans Learn to Love the Bomb,” New York Times July 17, 1985, Section 1, p. 23, col. 1.

Chute, David. “Three Guys in Three Dimensions.” Film Comment, February 1985, p. 55, 57-60.

Corliss, Richard. “Half a Terrific Terminator.” Newsweek July 8, 1991, p. 56.

Edelstein, David. “Cling to Me.” The Village Voice, November 13, 1984, p. 62.

Elayne Rapping. “Hollywood’s New ‘Feminist Heroines’.” Cineaste 14 (1986): 4-9.

Fitting, Peter. “Count Me Out/In: Post-Apocalyptic Visions in Recent Science Fiction Film,” CineAction! Winter 1987/88, pp. 42-51.

Fortier, Ron, writer. Thomas A. Tenney, artist. The Terminator no. 11 (August 1989), pp. 28-29.

Goscilo, Margaret. “Deconstructing The Terminator ,” Film Criticism 12 (1988): 37-52.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “Beagles, Black Harrowers, etc.” The New Republic August 12, 1991. p. 28-29.

LaSalle, Mick. “‘Terminator 2’ Is the End-All.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 1991, p. E1.

Mann, Karen B. “Narrative Entanglements: The Terminator,” Film Quarterly, 43 (Winter 1989-90): 19.

Maslin, Janet. “In the New ‘Terminator,’ The Forces of Good Seek Peace, Violently,” New York Times July 3, 1991, p. C11.

Morton, Oliver. “A General Theory of Terminators,” The Modern Review 1 (Autumn 1991): 32-33

Necakov, Lillian. “ The Terminator: Beyond Classical Hollywood Narrative,” CineAction! Spring 1987, pp. 84-87.

Novak, Ralph. “Terminator 2.” People Weekly July 8, 1991, p. 13.

Rapping, Elayne. “Hollywood’s New ‘Feminist Heroines’.” Cineaste 14 (1986), pp. 4-9.

Rebeaux, Max. “Harlan Ellison vs The Terminator: No More Mr. Nice Guy,” Cinéfantastique 15 (October 1985): 4-5, 61.

Shay, Don and Jody Duncan. The Making of T2: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange.” Camera Obscura 15 (1987): 6-35.

Telotte, J. P. “The Ghost in the Machine: Consciousness and the Science Fiction Film,” Western Humanities Review 42 (1988): 249-258.

Turan, Kenneth. “He said He’d Be Back.” Los Angeles Times , July 3, 1991. pp. F1, F6.


Last updated December 17, 2013

Syllabus for Online Graduate-Level Science Fiction Course

Teaching Science Fiction in High School Classes

Developed by Paul Brians

Note: this course is no longer being offered. The syllabus is being made available for people who may want ideas about how to teach such a course.

Course Overview

      Note: This is a preliminary syllabus provided to help potential students get an idea of the course ahead of time. Changes may be made before the course actually begins. Because this is a compressed course taught in half the usual time, and is offered at the graduate level, students should expect to set aside adequate time to do the work. Considering it as approximately the equivalent of a half-time job should be adequate. Because it is a discussion course, students are responsible for setting aside the time to work on it consistently. This is not a “flex-time” course which can be done at leisure.

Although the general public thinks of science fiction (SF) primarily as a phenomenon of escapist movies and television shows, there is also a large body of fine written SF which qualifies as good literature by any standard. This course seeks to familiarize students with written SF as literature rather than as a pop culture phenomenon. Students will learn the history of written SF, study specific major works (both novels and short stories), and become acquainted with literary criticism in the field.


When you have completed this course, you will be able to:

  • identify outstanding authors and works which may be recommended to students, encouraging them to explore beyond Star Wars novels and other pop series
  • locate scholarly sources to support the study of works of SF
  • design and create materials to help students understand works of SF


Course Outline

Assignments for Week One (Due 9:00 AM, June 23)


      1. Donald Palumbo: “Science Fiction” (DDLS reserves).
      2. H. G. Wells: War of the Worlds

(if you do not get your textbooks in time, use the online edition at to get your reading done by the assigned date


        1. John J. Pierce: “The Prophet Wells ” (DDLS reserves).
        2. Brian Aldiss: “H. G. Wells” (DDLS reserves).

Heads-up: On July 7 you will turn in an annotated bibliography of books, articles, and other resources that you intend to use in researching your topic. Use MLA style documentation, and for each item, explain how you think it will contribute to your research project. Correspond with Prof. Brians now to negotiate your topic and begin searching for sources right away.

Course Work

Assignments for Week Two (due 9:00 AM, June 30)

        1. Sign up for research topic.
        2. Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
        3. Gary K. Wolfe: “The Frontier Myth in Ray Bradbury” (DDLS online reserves)
        4. Walter M. Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz
        5. Paul Brians “The Long-Term Effects of Nuclear War,” in Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction.
        6. Brooks Landon: Science Fiction After 1900, Chapters One and Two

Course Work:

      1. Contributions to online discussion of both The Martian Chronicles and A Canticle for Leibowitz, including responses to related study guides and supplementary readings.
      2. Contribution to online discussion of assigned chapters in Landon.

Assignments for Week Three (due 9:00 AM, July 7)

    1. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris
    2. Study Guide for Solaris
    3. Istvan Scicsery-Ronay, Jr.: “The Book Is the Alien: On Certain and Uncertain Readings of Lem’s Solaris (DDLS Reserves)”
    4. Brooks Landon: Science Fiction Since 1900: Chapter 3
  • Read Veronica Hollinger’s “Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999.” Course Work
    1. Post annotated bibliography for research paper in “My DDP”.
    2. Contribute to discussion of Lem’s Solaris.
    3. Contribute to discussion of Brooks Landon’s book, Chapter 3.
    4. In the threaded discussion called “Science Fiction Criticism” identify two or three of the critical works that Hollinger discusses which interest you and briefly explain why.

    Assignments for Week Four (due 9:00 AM, July 14)

    1. Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner
    2. Landon, Chapter 4
    3. William M. Kolb: “Blade Runner: Film Notes” (in DDLS reserves)


    1. After reading the novel view Blade Runner the film, preferably the director’s cut, using the Kolb article to guide your note-taking.

    Course Work

    1. Contribute to discussion of Blade Runner including comparison of the book with the film.
    2. Contribute to the discussion of Landon, Chapter 4.

    Assignments for Week Five (due 9:00 AM, July 21)

    1. Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed
    2. Study Guide for Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed
    3. Ursula LeGuin: “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” (DDLS reserves)
    4. Tom Moylan: “Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed” (DDLS reserves)

    Course Work

    1. Contribute to discussion of The Dispossessed following the guidelines in the syllabus for online discussion.

    Assignments for Week Six (due 9:00 AM, July 28)

    1. The selected stories from the Norton Book of Science Fiction which are discussed in the study guide.
    2. The study guide for the Norton Book of Science Fiction

    Course Work

    1. Submit research paper.
    2. Contribute to discussion of short stories and respond to the contributions of others.

    Assignments for Week Seven (due 9:00 AM, August 4)

    1. William Gibson’s Neuromancer
    2. Study guide for Neuromancer
    3. Landon: Science Fiction After 1900, Chapter 5
    4. Lance Olsen: “Who Was that Man?” (DDLS reserves)
    5. Nicola Nixon: “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” (DDLS reserves)

    Course work

    1. Contribute to discussion of Neuromancer and cyberpunk
    2. Continue to revise your research paper, corresponding with the professor about what you are doing.

    Assignments for Week Eight (due 9:00 AM, August 11)

    1. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
    2. Study Guide for The Handmaid’s Tale
    3. Raffaella Baccolini: “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler” (DDLS reserves)
    4. Joanna Russ: “The Image of Women in Science Fiction” (DDLS reserves)

    Course Work

    1. Contribute to discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale, drawing on the study guide and the Russ article
    2. Submit final draft of research paper



Note: Editions of SF read may vary; any edition will do.

Brooks Landon: Science Fiction After 1900: From Steam Man to the Stars. New York: Twayne, 1997.

H. G. Wells: War of the Worlds

Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles

Walter M. Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner

Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed

Ursula LeGuin & Brian Attebury, eds.: The Norton Book of Science Fiction.

William Gibson: Neuromancer

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale


Course Work and Grading

Written assignments

Readings and Discussion (50%)

Contributions to the online threaded discussions will be judged by the following criteria:

      1. They must be made in a timely fashion.
      2. They must demonstrate a careful and thoughtful reading of the assigned writings, including the study guides and supplementary critical and historical material.
      3. When discussing fiction, they must attempt to answer at least some of the questions in the related study guide (but please don’t write answers to all the study questions; leave some room for other students to contribute).
      4. For each assignment each student is also expected to respond to one or more of the points raised by another student, saying more than “I agree” or “I disagree.” Offer examples, additional arguments, counter-arguments, comparisons, related ideas, do comparisons.
      5. Contributions should not read like book reviews giving purely personal reactions; they should focus on what you have learned or think you can teach others about these texts.
      6. Try to think of ways you could use what you have studied for this assignment in the classroom and sketch out possible approaches for teaching.
      7. Posts should act as the opening comments in an ongoing discussion, not seeking to close off debate with the last word, but inviting responses. It is perfectly legitimate to ask questions or ask for clarification of points you don’t understand.
      8. Contributions should whenever possible bring in useful comparative material from other readings, films, discussions with students, etc.

Responses to other students’ posts in the online threaded discussions will be judged by the following criteria:

      1. Students are expected to take part continuously in discussion by making responses over the course of a week, not logging in just once a week to do everything at once. The due dates are final deadlines, but students are encouraged whenever possible to do their work earlier so that others have plenty of time to respond.
      2. You must go beyond merely agreeing or disagreeing to make substantial points.
      3. You must express yourself in civil language, avoiding insults and dismissiveness.
      4. Your posts should contribute to ongoing discussion, helping to develop ideas and themes raised in the original posts. Whenever possible try to tie together different viewpoints or make comparisons.
      5. Responses should not be made constantly to the same individual or small group. Try to spread responses around. If challenging or difficult posts have been made, try to respond to them rather than choosing easier ones.

Research paper (50%)
Research projects will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

      1. Topics should be chosen from the list provided by the professor, or developed in correspondence with him.
      2. The choice of topic must be made by the end of the second week of the course and research must proceed in a timely manner.
      3. Students must continually correspond with the professor about their research, trying out ideas, asking questions, etc.
      4. WSU library resources must be used; papers may not draw solely on Web resources. Students must display knowledge of the major SF research sources highlighted in the course bibliography.
      5. Papers must display an ability to draw on scholarly sources to prepare to teach the fiction being studied.
      6. Papers must be written in standard formal English. For writing tips, see Paul Brians’ Web publication Common Errors in English.
      7. For citations of sources, use MLA style as explained on the Purdue University OWL pages.
      8. The final grade will depend heavily on the extent to which the final draft is revised and improved in response to comments by the professor and other class members.

Tips for Collaboration and Netiquette


You are expected to master the basic material covered by the course, be prepared by reading the assigned material (and re-reading material you’ve read before), meet deadlines, actively participate in the Bridge discussion activities, and collaborate with fellow class members to achieve the course objectives. Appropriate professional behavior demonstrating respect for classmates and instructors is expected. Questions of academic dishonesty will be dealt with in accordance the Washington State University Academic Integrity Standards and Procedures.

Late Policy

Since your interaction with your classmates is crucial to this class, any posts made after one week beyond the initial due date for an activity will not be counted for grading purposes.

Science Fiction Film Syllabus

Welcome to English 340: Science Fiction Film. This is a class in the history of SF film, with about half the examples being featured dating from before 1968, when the modern era of SF film began with 2001: A Space Odyssey. We will not proceed in strictly chronological fashion, but by exploring certain themes, starting with the  “wonder city of the future” and “the monster.” The films are chosen for their historical importance and influence.


This class has very little outside reading assigned compared to the typical English class. Your “homework” is primarily done in the Tuesday afternoon lab sessions from 4:15-7:00. Almost all writing for the class is done in class, including writing assignments done in these lab sessions.


The experience of viewing these films in their original aspect ratio and at a large screen size is crucial, so the films are shown from DVD in a theater-like setting rather than as “videos” on small television monitors. The viewing for the class is done in the Tuesday lab sessions.


For both of these reasons, to pass the course you must be registered in the lab as well as the lecture section. If you are not yet registered in the lab, you must either add it now, or drop the course.


Every student will do one individual 15-minute oral presentation based on SF film from the list at the end of this syllabus. Look at that section now and try to choose a film that interests you. Sign-up sheets will be posted in the classroom on the second Monday of the semester.


Required Textbooks (do not substitute other editions):

John Scalzi: The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (readings include critical material not available in other editions)

Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)

Ted Hughes: The Iron Giant



Warning: Some films shown in this class contain nudity and graphic violence and may be offensive to some viewers.


Course schedule:


August 21:

Georges Méliès: Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) (DVD 624) (shown in class)

Introduction to science fiction in film. Recommended Web reading before next class: (The Missing Link: Méliès) all four pages; click on “continued” links)


August 22: 

View Metropolis (1927) (DVD 437)


August 23:

Discussion of Metropolis


August 28:

Presentation: The City of the Future


August 29:

View Metropolis (2002) (VHS 20663). Japanese anime remake directed by Rin Taro


August 30:

Discussion of anime version of Metropolis; view premier episode of Futurama. Note: to be read by September 12: Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (the entire novel, including the preface), plus the articles on the following pages: 214-224, 251-261, 313-331.


September 4:

Labor Day Holiday


September 5:

View Brazil (1985) (DVD 771)


September 6:

Discuss Brazil


September 11:

Discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the essays on pp. 214-224, 251-261, 313-331.


September 12:

Student report. View Frankenstein (1931) (DVD 756) & The Frankenstein Files


September 13:

Discussion  of Frankenstein

Student report


September 18:

Student reports


September 19:

Student report

View The Thing from Another World (1951) (DVD 847)

Read before class John Campbell’s story: “Who Goes There?” online in Griffin Course Reserves. Read also before class Susan Sontag’s The Imagination of Disaster in electronic reserves on Griffin.


September 20:

Discussion of The Thing from Another World


September 25:

Student reports


September 26:

Student report

View The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) (DVD 574)

Read before class Peter Biskind: “Pods, Blobs, and Ideology in American Films of the Fifties,” online in Griffin Course Reserves.


September 27:

Discussion of The Day the Earth Stood Still


October 2:

Student reports


October 3:

Student report

View It Came from Outer Space (1953) (DVD 655)


October 4:

Discussion of It Came from Outer Space


October 9:

Exam 1


October 10:

Student report

View Forbidden Planet (1956) (DVD 617)


October 11:

Discussion of Forbidden Planet


October 16:

Student reports


October 17:

Student report

View: Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb  (1964) (DVD 307)


October 18:

Discussion of Dr. Strangelove


October 23:

Student reports

Note that you have the novel Blade Runner to read before October 31.


October 24:

View 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (DVD 496)

Read before class the source story, “The Sentinel,” by Arthur C. Clarke online in Griffin Course Reserves.


October 25:

Discussion of 2001: A Space Odyssey


October 30:

Student reports


October 31:

Student report

View Blade Runner (1982) (DVD 6) Read the source novel before class: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner)


November 1:

Discussion of Blade Runner


November 6:

Student reports


November 7:

Student reports

Presentation: The Roots of Star Wars, or Why Princess Leia Fights Like a Girl


November 8:

Exam 2


November 13:

Student reports


November 14:

Student report

View The Thirteenth Floor (1999) (DVD 738)


November 15:

Discussion of The Thirteenth Floor


November 20-22:

Thanksgiving vacation, no school.


November 27:

Student reports


November 28:

View The Abyss (1989)


November 29:

Discussion of The Abyss


December 4:

Student reports


December 5:

Student report

View The Iron Giant (1999)  (DVD 643). Read before class: Ted Hughes: The Iron Giant


December 6:

Discussion of The Iron Giant

Course evaluation


Final Exam

Monday, December 11, 3:10-5:10 PM

Note: you must be present and take the final exam to pass the course. Absolutely no early tests. Plan your travel now to be on campus until after this exam.



Exams:                                                             60%

Daily writings                                                 20%

Oral report                                                      20%



Attendance at all classes is expected, and is measured by the daily writings turned in at each session. The topics for each day’s writing will be announced in class. Some of these will be quiz-like, aimed at testing your knowledge of that day’s film; but others will be more informal. More than five of these writings missing will result in an immediate F for the course, regardless of examination grades. Save these five permitted absences for emergencies like illnesses, etc. No additional excused absences will be granted.


Walking out of class without prior notice is insulting to whomever is speaking and to your fellow students. It is not acceptable to take a quiz and leave, or do your own presentation and then walk out before other people’s presentations.



Doing a daily writing for another student is cheating. The student doing the writing and the student whose name appears on the writing will be given F’s for the course and their names reported to Student Conduct.


Students with Disabilities: I am committed to providing assistance to help you be successful in this course.  Reasonable accommodations are available for students with a documented disability. Please visit the Disability Resource Center (DRC) during the first two weeks of every semester to seek information or to qualify for accommodations. All accommodations MUST be approved   through the DRC (Admin Annex Bldg, Rooms 205). Call 509 335 3417 to make an appointment with a disability counselor.


How to Do the 15-Minute Oral Report


1) Look over the list of possible films to report on at the end of this syllabus. These titles have been carefully chosen to fit one or more of the following criteria:


1)    They are important either because of some technical or stylistic innovation.

2)    They have been influential on other filmmakers or on society generally.

3)    They are considered “classic” films by critics and scholars, who have provided enough material for you to draw on for your report.

4)    They are available in the Holland Library collection.


Only one student can report on each title, so consider several possibilities.


2) Look up several film titles which interest you in the index in the rear of the The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies (the main textbook for this course). Read what the Guide has to say about these films and narrow your selection. Almost all of the films are discussed in the Guide, but if yours is not, ask me about it.


3) In class, sign your name next to the film you intend to report on. If your favorite is already taken, choose another. If you don’t recognize a title, try looking it up in the Guide or ask me about it.


4) At the same time, write your name on the “Student Report Date Sign-Up Sheet” for the date on which you intend to give your report. Do not put more than one name on a blank. Follow your name with the name of the film you will be reporting on.


Note: I would especially appreciate it if students reporting on versions of Frankenstein would sign up for September 13 or 18.


5) Look to see whether your film title has an asterisk following it on the sign-up sheet. If it does, that means the film is based on a story or novel which you are required to identify and read. Reports which ignore the print sources of films will receive lower grades. If you have trouble identifying the title or tracking down a copy of the book contact me. To do this successfully, you will need to begin working on your project right at the beginning of the semester, and not wait until just before the date it is due.


6) Go to Media Material Reserves in the library on the ground floor (downstairs from the entrance), check out your film and view it, taking notes. Also draw on “extras” on the disk: documentary features, director commentaries, etc. We try to have “director’s cuts,” “expanded editions,” etc. in the library so that you will have these extra sources to draw on, but if you have a superior edition from another source you may want to use that. The films are on reserve to guarantee they will be available for you. You can either view them  in MMR or take them home overnight; but be careful to return them the next day. There are stiff fines for keeping them too long. You can check out the films as many times as you need to. Again, if you delay doing this until the last minute you may find that someone else has your film when you need it; start early.


7) Use the online bibliography which you will be shown in class to look for articles and books about your film.

Borrow the materials you need, read them, and take notes. If an article you need is not in the library, contact me immediately and I will help you get it.


8) Prepare your report. Each one must last fifteen minutes and incorporate one or two short scenes from the film lasting a total of no more than five minutes.


You can use PowerPoint if you wish, or other presentation software, but you must bring your material to my office in 202H Avery an hour before class to be installed on my laptop. Do not bring other laptops to class. Presentations must be capable of running on a Macintosh laptop running System X.4. Computer-based presentations are not required. You may also speak from written notes on paper. If you would like technical help and advice, just ask me; but do so well in advance of your report due date.


Scenes can either be run from the laptop (again, you must come to my office before class and get your disc cued up) or run over the university system. Note that the distributed video system is often hard to control and cannot display full DVD resolution. If your film is available only on VHS tape you will have to use the university system.


If at all possible, choose scenes which begin at a chapter point that can be easily cued up. We do not want to take class time fast-forwarding through chapters to find a scene.


If you have the skills to rip a scene out and put it on a DVD-R, that can be useful. There is equipment for doing this in the library, but you cannot reserve it ahead of time and it is popular; so you need to start early to guarantee you will have access to it.


Here are the criteria by which your report will be judged:

  1. The clips (totaling 1-5 minutes) should be chosen to illustrate useful points. They should not be just spectacular scenes which speak for themselves. You must discuss the clips you present, explaining what makes them interesting or impressive. Analyze the clips, focusing on aspects like character development, lighting, costume, dialogue, editing, special effects, etc.
  2. Your report should concentrate on objective points of interest and is not highly subjective. You should concentrate on conveying information, including the critical and scholarly reputation of the film, and not merely giving your own opinions. Reports which consist mainly of expressing your dislike for a film mean that the individual did not begin your work early enough to make sure a film was chosen whose virtues could be understood. These are reports, not reviews.
  3. Your report must specifically draw on the scholarly and critical print sources. You must cite by author and title at least two print sources and explain something useful that they said about your film. In a very few cases, there are not enough print sources and you may use alternatives with my permission; but you need to consult with me well in advance of your report date to get help doing this.
  4. If your film is based on a book or story, you must discuss how it relates to that source. If your film is a sequel or a remake, you must have viewed the original and discuss how the new film differs from and resembles the original.
  5. Do not spend time summarizing the plot. No more than two or three sentences should be devoted to plot. Tell us what kind of film it is, but don’t retell the story.
  6. Concentrate on some of the following points in discussing your film: themes, symbolism, similarities and differences to other relevant films, narrative structure, characterization, acting, photography, editing, lighting, sound, music, continuity, historical significance, influence, social issues (gender, race, politics, militarism, etc.).
  7. Make it interesting. Think about the kinds of reports you enjoy listening to and try to make yours equally clear and captivating.