January 18, 2000
Volume 52, No. 17
David Bright leads 'Hell'-ish new sci-fi course
Travel to the land of the dead and back again; adventures in remote or fabulous places with monsters and marvels; and the dream of traveling to the stars--these three themes have been popular since the beginning of Western art and literature. Indeed, flights of fancy are at the center of "Hell, Nowhere and Outer Space: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Homer to Star Trek: Voyager," a new freshman seminar course taught by classics Professor David Bright.
"The course arose out of a combination of professional and personal interests," explained Bright, who first taught the class last semester. "I've taught classics for 35 years, including many courses on Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, both of which make extensive and crucial use of encounters with the dead and travel adventures in the middle of nowhere."
On the personal side, Bright said, "I've enjoyed science fiction, both books and movies, for many years. That pastime has exercised growing influence on how I see the classical texts. So it was a natural step to think of combining these themes into a seminar and carrying the readings forward into modern science fiction."
In the course, Bright approaches topics from many angles, ranging from religious to literary, social to artistic and scientific. "The treatment of these themes has varied greatly over the past three millennia, and part of what began as fantasy has evolved into science fiction," Bright said. "Science plays part of the role formerly reserved for religion. Social commentary adds bite to tales once intended simply to amuse. Movies and TV take on great visual possibilities."
Bright's academic goal for their trek through literature and film was to enhance students' reading, writing and analytical skills, and they were given wide-ranging topics to explore. Class session titles included "Hell and Other Tourist Spots," "Liars Club in Session" or "Beauty and the Borg: Technology as Hell and Salvation."
Students began the academic adventure by reading excerpts from The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Initial discussions were aimed at understanding how contact with realms generally considered inaccessible to mortals can assist in understanding the here and now-and may reveal alternatives beyond the normal human experience.
The travel experience continued to Lucian's tale of a trip to the moon in Satirical Sketches, then leapt forward a millennium to follow Dante into the Inferno. After another jump to Gulliver's Travels, the students eventually landed in the modern science fiction writing of Ursula Le Guin. En route, they paused for film screenings of Alien--billed by Bright as a "three-in-one special: hell, space travel and the edge of nowhere"--and Apollo 13 ("stranger than fiction").
Bright asked students to watch Alien with one eye on the course themes. "When can an act of heroism be meaningless?" he asked. "Is death clearly distinguished from other states of existence? How important is travel to the film? If the film is a journey that starts when the ship stops and ends as travel resumes, what kind of trip is that?"
Freshman Amy Meyer is leaning toward a science major. Though it doesn't relate to her intended focus of study, she found the course enlightening. Meyer discovered that many of the most famous classic pieces were very much ahead of their time. "They broke the mold or set a precedent," she said. "I suppose you could relate [the works] to the futuristic literature of today. We write about unexplored, unknown territories. For us, this is often space. For writers of classic literature, the unknown happened to be their own planet.
"Of course, both genres deal with death as an unexplored territory," she said. "But as we now accept that hell isn't a tangible place, it isn't as prevalent in modern literature."
The professor said his first experience with teaching "Hell" was extremely satisfying. Bright believes the course is a great opportunity "to teach some favorite works and also to stretch my range of knowledge and teaching capabilities with the exploration of new material. Meanwhile, the students are developing a variety of academic habits and mulling over important questions about the human condition," he said.
"The course isn't just about other people's voyages into the unknown--it's a journey for each of us individually."