the readings

This class is a way to stop taking language for granted. Each story we read estranges us from some basic property of language and makes us see that it’s not as mundane or obvious as we’d thought.

Here are the stories that make up the heart of the course. I select 12 from this list each semester. Next to each I’ve linked (or will soon link) my comments about how the story makes language seem strange.

If you’re not Emory-affiliated, some of the stories will be firewalled. You can probably find them in your own library or bookstore.

How I chose the readings

Science fiction? Not all of these stories are quintessential sci-fi; they’re not all about science or technology, space travel or aliens. But they are all sci-fi by Philip K. Dick’s (1981) definition: they create and explore alternative worlds in order to defamiliarize our real world.

[T]he essence of science fiction [is] the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.

Letter used as the preface to The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 1.

Each of the stories in my list has given me this shock of dysrecognition, and my goal is for students to experience it too.

That said, if you prefer to categorize some of these stories as speculative fiction rather than sci-fi, I have no objection. In fact I thought about calling the course ‘Language & Linguistics in Speculative Fiction,’ but Emory has a 30-character limit on course titles. 🙂

Language/linguistics? Many people, I’ve found, expect a course called Language & Linguistics in Sci-Fi to be all about constructed languages—Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, etc. Conlang courses are great, and I’ve posted some information about them here.

But the primary goal of my course is not to analyze individual languages. Rather, I want to read stories to help us think about ‘big-L’ Language: what language is (technology, biological reflex, magic, art?); how language mediates our perception, memory, agency and identity; how language makes us human.

These are questions about philosophy of language, and this is why you’ll see references to Chomsky, Austin, Saussure, Lakoff and others in my comments on the readings. Good sci-fi stories are an extraordinarily effective medium for thinking about philosophical questions. Here are a couple reasons why, as laid out in the lovely book Philosophy through Science Fiction Stories (De Cruz, De Smedt & Schwitzgebel 2021):

  • A story helps you imagine. It helps you recognize specific consequences of a hypothetical that you might have otherwise missed: ‘If you just try to sit and think about [a principle] abstractly, you’ll fail. To make progress you need to think narratively… begin to write a mini-fiction. That’s why philosophers so often use thought experiments.’ (p. 5)
  • Unlike a traditional thesis essay, a story can explore an idea and its implications without adopting a stance. It can ‘present the complexity of things’ and then ‘leave things unsettled’; it can ‘speak with the same multivocality in which the world speaks to us’ (p. 7).

This reminds me of something George Saunders wrote about Chekhov’s ‘Gooseberries’: ‘The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it.’ (A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, 2021, p. 336, emphasis added) Replace happiness with language, and that’s pretty much why and how I teach these stories.

Pleasure and community. Finally, the stories on this list are all stories I think are good. They’re well written, with evocative descriptions and interesting stylistic and narrative choices. They ask big important questions. The characters are flawed and relatable and dealing with familiar problems: family relationships, love and sex, grief, regret, envy, indecision and hope. 

In other words I like these stories, and I like talking about them with other people. This is important because another major goal of this class is to experience and share pleasure.

Pleasure is important not just at an individual mental-health level but also at a societal level. We’re living in a time and place where our civil rights are being taken away, life expectancies are falling, and we feel ourselves growing numb and hopeless in reaction to constant reports of mass shootings, police brutality and war. How do we respond; how do we resist?

It’s essential to take action, of course: call legislators, protest, vote, volunteer, donate, poke holes in potatoes. But I think it’s just as essential for each of us to know what we’re fighting for. Imagining the world you want to live in, and then doing something small to make that vision real, can be a source of profound pleasure as well as an act of fierce resistance.

This class is one realization of my vision. It doesn’t satisfy any gen-ed or major requirements or count toward my teaching quota—we join this community for its own sake, for pleasure, and in so doing we briefly turn our backs on the culture of transaction and credential-accrual that dominates elsewhere. We’ve agreed to spend time together every week reading good stories, paying them the close attention they deserve, thinking hard about language and being willing to be surprised by it, learning how to imagine alternatives, and listening carefully to each other and the texts. As long as we do this, we are not numb and there is hope.

For more about pleasure, resistance, reading, imagination, community and hope, see:

  1. 1975, Epoch anthology; also in various Le Guin story collections. ↩︎
  2. 2015, also in the collection Falling in Love with Hominids ↩︎
  3. 1994, also in the collection The Birthday of the World and Other Stories ↩︎
  4. 1998. Starlight 2. Also in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others ↩︎
  5. 1983. Also in the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories ↩︎
  6. 2003. Also in the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories ↩︎
  7. 2012. In the collections Report from Planet Midnight and Falling in Love with Hominids ↩︎
  8. 2018. Ploughshares 44(1). Also in The Best American Short Stories 2019, ed. Anthony Doerr. ↩︎
  9. 2013, Akashic Books. ↩︎
  10. 2015, Subterranean Press. Also in the collection Exhalation. ↩︎
  11. 2019. Also in the collection Liberation Day ↩︎
  12. 2011, Del Rey. ↩︎