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Molecules & Metaphor: Truth, Lies, & Other Physics

Betsy James,

At any given moment, where do you stand: in reality or imagination? In the molecular world of physics, or in the metaphorical world of “other physics,” culture’s literalized extensions? As humans we are constantly crossing, confusing, and combining the two. When you begin to distinguish molecules from metaphor, does that change how media affect you? 
Speculative fiction or SF—science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, horror and the rest of the “what if?” genres—illuminates, identifies and experiments with the human tendency to see the imaginary as molecularly real. When, as investigators, we read it, write it, watch it, experiment and play with it in various guises, it becomes easier to identify which world, molecular or metaphorical, we’re standing in. We get better at seeing its role in human cultures—including our own. 
This course combines an interdisciplinary lineup of readings from biology, medicine, sociology, and anthropology with a range of writings in and about speculative fiction. Students will examine the gap between hard science and culture’s “extensions” as illuminated in SF, and will work at recognizing cultural projection in popular media and their own work. In assignments that combine reading, writing, graphic and other elements, students will experiment with various forms of rhetoric—alternative history, grant proposal, explorer’s journal, political screed, etc.—that imagine fictional cultures and their extensions, and in so doing will become better able to identify bias and ethnocentrism in their own. 

In this course you’ll read and write short speculative fiction and pertinent works of nonfiction; examine and experiment with maps and diagrams, both realistic and symbolic; explore illustrative and narrative art, including your own diagrammatic thinking. You’ll compose your own short works and critique them as cultural constructs, good writing, and interesting documents.


Required Text: 
The Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer
The Secret History of Fantasy, Peter Beagle 

With selections from: 
Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson 
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan 
When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, Elizabeth Wayland Barber & Paul T. Barber 
The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times
Adrienne Mayor 
How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker 
Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks 
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the 
Human Body, Neil Shubin 
Journeys and Journals: Five Centuries of Travel WritingFarid Abdelouahab 
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren 
We Chose the Islands: A Six-Year Adventure in the GilbertsSir Arthur Grimble 
Twenty Years A-Growing, Maurice O’Sullivan 
Breaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe 
The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves: the Words Behind World-Building, David J. Peterson 
Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, Joseph M. Williams 

Other Readings and Media: 
Scientific and socio-cultural articles, documentaries, movies, etc., paired with short popular fiction. 


Requirements in brief: 
Weekly writing assignments, maximum 1000 words 
Daybook: the filling of 100-page blank 9x12 notebook 
Attendance at pertinent movies and/or conferences 
Midterm paper 
Final Project 


Betsy James is the author and illustrator of seventeen books, and numerous short stories, for adults and children. Among other honors, her books have been named: New York Public Library Best Book for Teens; Voices of Youth Advocates Best Book; Junior Library Guild Selection; Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Book; International Reading Association Children’s Choice; and Tiptree Award Honor Book. She has taught and presented on fiction and speculative fiction for more than twenty years, and leads workshops nationally and in Mexico. She lives in the North Valley. (older readers) (younger readers)