Possible Worlds: Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, and Alternate History
Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies
Undergraduate: Level 6
Monday 15 January 2024
Friday 22 March 2024
28 April 2021
Requisites for this module
Possible Worlds is a module on speculative fiction in its many guises. Encompassing science fiction, apocalyptic fiction, graphic novels, and alternate histories, the literature and cinema of possible worlds is concerned with the precarious routes leading to and from our own present, and is characterised by an acute sense of the volatility and contingency of history.
These novels and films typically take as their starting point a hypothetical alteration in the course of events or a change in social or technological dynamics. From there, they extrapolate lines of development leading towards one or more possible worlds. In doing so, they serve to estrange us from the world as we find it and reawaken us to the variability and open-endedness of the human situation.
After an introductory session on the history of science fiction, we will go on to look at nine major examples of the literature and cinema of possible worlds, drawing on a diverse group of modern and contemporary writers and filmmakers: from the pioneering work of H. G. Wells at the end of the Victorian period through the work of key twentieth-century figures such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin to recent science fiction cinema. Topics and themes addressed on the module include, but are not limited to: time travel, alien encounters, evolution, alternate histories, superheroes, science fiction as philosophy, feminist science fiction, utopias and dystopias, and speculative treatments of race, gender, and sexuality.
Module content note: topics may include sexual assault, animal cruelty, suicide, violence, torture (physical and mental), death, abortion, racism and racial slurs, sexism and misogyny, homophobia and heterosexism. Please contact the module supervisor if you have any questions.
This module aims to foster students’ critical thinking and cultural awareness by inviting them to consider how a diverse group of twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers and filmmakers extrapolated from hypothetical alterations in the course of history or changes in social or technological dynamics to envisage lines of development leading towards one or more possible worlds. Through a close consideration of nine key examples of the literature and cinema of possible worlds, students will reflect on what such scenarios can teach us about society, history, politics, technology, race, gender, sexuality, and human nature. Students will acquire or deepen their knowledge of a range of texts, from established classics like H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897) to much more recent works like Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010).
After successful completion of the module, students should be able to:
1. display a detailed knowledge of the literature and cinema of possible worlds, encompassing science fiction, speculative fiction, and alternative histories;
2. appreciate how these works offer insight into the contingency of history and the variability and open-endedness of the human situation;
3. approach their own historical moment from a critical perspective informed by the literature and cinema of possible worlds;
4. demonstrate the knowledge and skills required to engage in intellectual debates around issues raised by science fiction, speculative fiction, and alternative histories;
5. plan, research, and write a critical essay.
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We [1924)] (London: Penguin, 1993)
William Golding, The Inheritors  (London: Faber and Faber, 2015)
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle  (London: Penguin, 2015)
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness  (London: Gollancz, 2017)
Octavia E. Butler, Kindred  (London: Headline, 2014)
Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand  (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004)
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen [1986–1987] (New York: DC Comics, 2014)
Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army (London: Faber and Faber, 2007)
Naomi Alderman, The Power (London: Penguin, 2016)
Further recommended reading will be made available via Moodle and TALIS.
Anticipated teaching delivery: Weekly two-hour seminars
Module materials will be available on Moodle
We will offer a mixture of tailored online, digital, and campus-based teaching where it may be possible and as appropriate, along with personalised one-to-one consultation with academic staff.
The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course.
The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students.
Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list
Assessment items, weightings and deadlines
|Coursework / exam
||Written Assignment (4,000 words)
Exam format definitions
- Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
- In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
- In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
- In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary,
for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.
Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Sean Seeger, email: email@example.com.
Dr Sean Seeger
LiFTS General Office, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Telephone 01206 872626
Dr Doug Haynes
University of Sussex
Reader in American Literature and Visual Culture
Available via Moodle
Of 1048 hours, 0 (0%) hours available to students:
1048 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).
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