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How Great Science Fiction Works

Narrated by: Gary K. Wolfe
Length: 12 hrs and 31 mins
4.7 out of 5 stars (146 ratings)

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Summary

Robots, spaceships, futuristic megacities, planets orbiting distant stars. These icons of science fiction are now in our daily news. Science fiction, once maligned as mere pulp, has motivated cutting-edge scientific research, inspired new technologies, and changed how we view everyday life - and its themes and questions permeate popular culture. Take an unparalleled look at the influence, history, and greatest works of science fiction with illuminating insights and fascinating facts about this wide-ranging genre. If you think science fiction doesn't have anything to do with you, this course deserves your attention. And if you love science fiction, you can't miss this opportunity to trace the arc of science fiction's evolution, understand the hallmarks of great science fiction, and delve deeply into classics while finding some new favorites.

These 24 captivating lectures reveal the qualities that make science fiction an enduring phenomenon that has been steadily gaining popularity. You'll grasp the context and achievements of authors like Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, and many more. You'll experience the wonder, horror, and incredible imagination of works like Frankenstein, the Foundation series, Stranger in a Strange Land, and dozens of more recent stories as well. You'll also see this genre's influence in movies like Star Wars and TV shows like The Twilight Zone.

Science fiction can take us places in time and space where no other form of fiction can - outer space, the far future, alternate universes, unfathomable civilizations. The best science fiction expands our imaginations and makes its mark on our reality. And while few writers would ever claim to predict the future, sometimes authors get it almost eerily right: Gernsback describing radar in 1911, Bradbury describing giant flatscreen TVs in 1951, Gibson inventing "cyberspace" in 1984, and so on.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2016 The Great Courses (P)2016 The Teaching Company, LLC

What listeners say about How Great Science Fiction Works

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Informative and enjoyable

If you could sum up How Great Science Fiction Works in three words, what would they be?

Informative and enjoyable

What other book might you compare How Great Science Fiction Works to, and why?

I haven't read anything similar

What does Professor Gary K. Wolfe bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

He is very passionate about the topic. He provides a great deal more detail in the lectures than in the accompanying notes

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

I found the lecture on gender and feminism in science fiction fascinating

Any additional comments?

My to read list has substantially increased as a consequence of listening to this series of lectures.

4 people found this helpful

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Excellent

What does Professor Gary K. Wolfe bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

He reads it very engagingly and naturally with passion and personal involvement.

Any additional comments?

A very well thought-out and thorough coverage of science fiction covering history, major themes and movements comprehensively. I feel like I am well equipped to read science fiction with a sense of context now. If I had been writing down names of authors and stories I would have a long reading list of the major science fiction stories worth reading.

It is also very entertaining. I never read things more than once but in this case I may make an exception.

2 people found this helpful

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Gets it right

Thoughtful lectures spanning the history of SF, alongside some lit crit ideas. While I felt some key works were missed (no consideration of 'Lord of Light' in the lecture on religion), I welcomed the later focus on modern developments in the genre.

Professor Wolfe speaks well and with an obvious passion, making me wish for more. However, I must instead make time to read some of the many books talked about in this excellent lecture series.

1 person found this helpful

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Really interesting - especially the later chapters

Well, I now have a longer reading list than ever. Gary Wolfe is an engaging and enthusiastic lecturer who has given me a much deeper insight into what science fiction is. Although many of the earlier works discussed don't appeal to me, it was still interesting to hear about them and how they influenced the field. Discussions of more contemporary works have certainly had me adding to my 'wishlist.

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Very listenable but not very incisive.

Prof Wolfe is a very engaging and likeable speaker and he obviously knows his subject but these lectures are not very deep at all, the series is more of a history and overview of scfi than it is a critique of the genre that would lead you to an understanding of "How Great Science Fiction Works". Well worth a listen if you are a fan, plenty of recommendations for new reads, but don't expect more than a gloss on a huge and complex subject.

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A highly informative exploration

An excellent series of lectures on the history of science fiction and many of the themes that have been explored in this genre. Gary K. Wolfe provides a lot of interest, information and detail in his lectures, which makes them thought-provoking and informative. Themes such as 'the planet', 'the wasteland' and 'the robot' in science fiction are explored, as are other interesting topics, such as how religion, encounters with aliens and environmentalism are all portrayed in science fiction. I came away from this series with a clearer overview of the history of science fiction and a desire to read more titles!

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A must listen!

Really enjoyed listening to this course. It was well structured and very informative.

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I enjoyed it fully

This is just an excellent series of lectures on the history of science fiction. Both insightful and entertaining all the way through.

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A fascinating overview of Science Fiction.

This is a well structured analysis that explores the importance of Science Fiction. It has stimulated my desire to expand my Sci-Fi library!

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  • Carol
  • 01-02-16

Deserves a Hugo of Its Own

After listening to these 24 lectures by Professor Gary Wolfe, I think the Hugo Awards for outstanding achievement in science fiction writing needs a new category. This course should win Most Interesting History and Best Argument for the Literary Value of the Genre.

The overview starts with the19th century European and American roots of science fiction, through the American-dominated pulp magazine and early novel years, the transformative 80s and 90s, and into the new millennium. The chronological presentation is interspersed with lectures on the different icons and tropes of science fiction: space ships, robots, aliens, apocolypses, and dystopias all get thorough coverage. How sci fi has dealt with religion, history, ecology, and gender also get their own lectures.

There is all kinds of interesting stuff here. There are digressions about the difference between fantasy and science fiction (my favorite distinction was the premise that science fiction has planets--Mars, Arrakis, Barrayar--while fantasy has worlds--Middle Earth, Westeros, Chalion). Dr. Wolfe returns frequently to the paradox that the audience for sci fi books and short stories has always been a fairly small one compared to that for, say, mystery, romance, or even fantasy, whereas science fiction movies have huge audiences and have dominated the box office for decades--think 2001 Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Alien, Independence Day, and Avatar, to name just a few.

In both print and cinematic form, however, Wolfe notes that, in the eyes of Those Who Decree What Shall Be Considered Art (and those who give out the National Book and Academy Awards), science fiction "don't get no respect." His final two lectures are among the best, covering, respectively, the wide range of international and culturally diverse authors and their contributions that have appeared in the last 20 years; and what he considers hopeful signs of increasing recognition that the best science fiction is as good as the best "literary" fiction. He quotes author China Meiville's observation that, while the latter may bring readers moments of "Oh. Yes," good science fiction brings readers moments of, "Oh, wow!"

Dr. Wolfe is very obviously an expert, immersed in and enthusiastic about his subject. There's no dreary droning, no pedantic pomposity here. I suppose if you *really* hate being lectured to, this college-level course will not change your mind. But if you're at all interested in science fiction--or even in literature in general--I can't recommend this course highly enough.

102 people found this helpful

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  • Gnorb
  • 30-06-16

For Scifi Lovers, a Must!

I've never gone through a course so quickly or so attentively. Never once was I bored, nor did I ever feel like I was being talked down to, nor babied. The instructor mentions a ton of stories which he speaks of with such interest and, dare I say it, passion that I can't help but want to read them myself.

(It's important to note that this deals with written scifi literature. Don't expect much talk of film, save for the occasional mention of films inspired by a certain book.)

I can't sing this course's praises enough. I plan not only to go through it again, but next time to take notes and treat each novel mentioned here as a homework assignment, when possible. (It's only fitting that audiobooks will likely be my primary method of consumption.)

20 people found this helpful

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  • Steve and/or Jodene
  • 29-06-16

Doesn't really live up to its title

I agree with other reviewers who have said that this is a good coverage of the history and major themes and subgenres of science fiction, but that it falls short in explaining just how great science fiction WORKS. Professor Wolfe clearly has a wealth of knowledge of, and love for, science fiction, from its earliest days to the present. This lecture series is probably best suited for people who don't have a very complete knowledge of the genre but would like to, rather than long-time fans who are looking for new insights (though it might be good for long-time fans who are only familiar with certain periods, authors, or types of science fiction and want to fill in the gaps in their awareness).

Compared to the similar lecture series by Michael Drout ("From Here to Infinity"), this one is more complete and comprehensive, but (in my humble opinion) a bit less interesting.

19 people found this helpful

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  • Annie
  • 15-03-16

The lecture science fiction deserves

An in depth look at science fiction from many angles, how it got started, throughout the years, the different trends, and where it is now.
As someone passionate about science fiction, I really enjoyed learning more about the genre from someone who both clearly takes it seriously and knows what they are talking about.

16 people found this helpful

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  • AC
  • 06-06-16

Great, But Not What I Expected . . .

Any additional comments?

The 5-star reviewers are right. This is an excellent series. For what it is. However, it wasn't at all what I was expecting.

I feel the title for this lecture series is misleading. The series is less of an analysis of how great science fiction works and more of a history of the genre and exploration of notable themes. A more appropriate title would have been, "A History of Science Fiction: Notable Writers, Works, and Themes."

This series a great resource for identifying important writers and novels that any science fiction fan or writer would or should know about. But science fiction is a broad genre, and this series covers the breadth of the field, so it isn't able to dig very deep and really explain "how great science fiction works;" at least not how I was hoping.

I was expecting a more nuts-and-bolts sort of thing. As a writer, I was hoping this series would focus more on how to write great science fiction. Or at least how it works so I could glean insight for writing. That's the whole reason I came to this series. I wanted something akin to "How to Write Great Science Fiction" and the title gave me the impression that that was more or less what I was getting myself into, but that's not really what this series is about at all.

Each lecture is an exploration of a handful of notable works in the science fiction genre, usually around a theme and selected works that explore it (e.g., "Robots" and "The Golden Age of Science Fiction"). The lectures contain a huge collection of high-level stuff you might find in science fiction, but they don't really explain how these things work or how you can use them in your own writing. It more or less highlights of where they have been used in the genre.

That said, there are a handful of useful nuggets for the science fiction writer in here. I found the lecture on "The Artifact" quite useful. But on the whole, this is more of a history lesson of science fiction through the ages.

A minor annoyance: the musical intro to each lecture. It's only a couple of notes from brass horns with a cymbal crash, but it gets old fast. The Great Courses always has some sort of musical interlude, but I kind of wish they would just stop doing them altogether. Most of them aren't great.

A final minor note: I was pleasantly surprised to see how many movies, TV shows, and video games are mentioned. They don't get much air time, but they do come up. However, I was disappointed that Mass Effect is never mentioned. Video games are barely discussed at all (I think Halo is mentioned once), but I feel like Mass Effect is an important enough work in science fiction (regardless of the fact that it's a video game) to have warranted discussion. Oh well.

178 people found this helpful

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  • Donald
  • 08-06-16

Good History, Low Substance

As a view into historical science fiction this is certainly a pleasant and inviting listen, especially as a strong sci-fi fan. However in trying to describe how good science fiction works I feel rather empty handed.
Overall the general message is that good science fiction is good literature first and foremost. Rather than help me understand what made science fiction great it pretty much lays down a typical axium of good characters and relatable worlds. This, to me, was already kind of a no-brainer and I left feeling at the same level as I came in, only slightly better at literary history.
I suppose had the title of the lecture was renamed as the history or story of science fiction I would not be so critical, but I did spend my credit on a lecture expecting to further understand good science fiction and how they work. It's not a bad lecture, but the title is mildly misleading. A good read, just don't expect to come out feeling like a better writer.

29 people found this helpful

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  • Marc
  • 26-06-16

A wonderful collection, not too incomplete

What did you love best about How Great Science Fiction Works?

As the headline says this is a wonderful look over the history of SF, including some sidesteps towards Fantasy, Gothic Novels, Thriller, Horror and what have you. It may concentrate a bit too much on the very old times (early 19hundreds) and speed up much too much after the late 1960s, there was still good SF written after that (though Mr. Wolfe does mention that).
And sure, with a whole world of SF you can not do justice to all good writers, but it does tickle me that Mr. Wolfe seems to consider almost all important SF to come from the US.
There are a few hints at the world having much more to offer and some "strange, far away land actually providing quite fresh perspectives", but these usually are narrowed down to 2 or 3 authors, as if continents like Africa, Asia, Europe only could come up with less than 10 authors worth mentioning over the last 100 years.
But, again, you cannot suit them all.

What I did like was Mr. Wolfe's neutral approach to different "types" of SF. Most of the time he does not judge a book (or a movie for that matter) by its entertainment factor alone or its "literary importance" or by any other singular parameter. In fact, since Mr. Wolfe wants SF to be seen as its own kind of literature, it has to, it MUST have variants, is must be allowed to be good, bad, nasty and shocking at times.
His approach is FAIR.

There could have been said more about how SF (or maybe even Fantasy) has influenced social life and even science. Mr. Wolfe keeps this topic very short, although even a few of the authors he did mention have had quite some impact on literature/life - but, maybe unfortunately so, not all of them were US authors.

If you want to get an idea about where SF came from, how it developed from entertainment (mostly short) stories into a whole industry - at least as far as Mr. Wolfes view of the history of SF goes, as there are alternative perspectives possible - I highly recommend this course. It is entertaining to listen to, won't expect too much background knowledge and may even give you one or another idea of what to read or listen to next. If you are into "older books". The last 20 years don't seem to have made that big an impression on Mr. Wolfe :-)

7 people found this helpful

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  • Jason
  • 26-03-16

Better Title: History of Science Fiction

I was very excited when I found this course but a little dissappointed by the content, which is more of a history and overview of works with connections to general aspects of science fiction. Nuts and bolts please! Tell me WHY a given example is "Great Science Fiction". That being said I enjoyed it nonetheless; I just feel the title of the course is a little misleading. Buy it. It's worth it.

35 people found this helpful

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  • Doug D. Eigsti
  • 07-11-16

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve

If you have never listened to any of the lecture series from the Great Courses group you owe it to yourself to spend a little time and go through one of these systematic courses. This one on Science Fiction is a serious treatment of the subject that will give even the most familiar fan something to contemplate. hearing these leacures brought me back to the reading experiences of a lifetime of Science Fiction reading. For my, these lectures help to reinforce my own thoughts and opinions concerning Science Fiction—not all of which agree with the Professor. Gary K. Wolfe delivers a systematic series of talks on common Science Fiction themes that are a great aid to help the student in forming one's own opinions and help cement these ideas in the memory. I think that if my friends who do not read Science Fiction could listenn to these lectures they would acquire at least an appreaciation to what Science Fiction readers find appealing in the genre.

Below I have listed, for my own benefit for future revew, the titles of the twenty-four 30 minute lectures. Reviewing them you will find the subject matter that Professor Wolfe tackles in his course.

Lecture / Chapter Topics
1. Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction
2. Science Fiction in the 19th Century
3. Science Fiction Treatments of History
4. Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
5. Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
6. The Rise of the Science Fiction Pulps
7. The Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories
8. The Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
9. The Robot from Capek to Asimov
10. The Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel
11. From Mars to Arrakis—The Planet
12. The Science Fiction Wasteland
13. Invasions, Space Wars and Xenocide
14. Religion in Science Fiction
15. Science Fiction's New Wave
16. Encounters With the Alien Other
17. Environmentalism in Science Fiction
18. Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
19. Cyberpunk and the 1980s
20. The 1990s—The New Space Opera
21. The Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
22. Science Fiction's Urban Landscapes
23. Science Fiction in the 21st Century
24. The Future of Science Fiction

11 people found this helpful

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  • Terry623
  • 24-03-16

misleading title

not actually about craft as the title implies. just a history and survey of the literature. not bad at that but absolutely not a craft discussion. felt scammed

41 people found this helpful