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Lasers, Aliens, & Black Holes Studying Society Through Science Fiction (SOC090)

"Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions.” -Eileen Gunn, Smithsonian Magazine (May 2014)

Science fiction can offer exciting, fascinating stories. But science fiction-- by imagining worlds so different from our own-- also offers a kind of mirror that can help us both understand and evaluate the real world. The overall goal of this course is to give students the opportunity to think widely, deeply, and collaboratively about the society in which we all live through science fiction novels, films, and stories, as well as classic writings in social theory.

Course Content

We will pursue this goal through two very different kinds of texts: classical social theory (written by social scientists) and science fiction novels and films (written by, well, novelists and screenwriters). Why bring these two together? First is simply the intellectual challenge of it. What better way to push ourselves to think widely, deeply, and collaboratively about society than to try and get our heads around such completely different kinds of writing. But on another level, science fiction stories and non-fiction theories of society have a lot in common.

"Science fiction helps us think about possibilities, to speculate - it helps us look at our society from a different perspective." -Mae Jemison, physician, NASA astronaut, and first African-American woman in space

Science fiction's speculation about possibilities is what makes it such fertile ground for studying society. We'll explore science fiction and social theory in their own terms, as well as how they speak to each other in interesting and important ways.

Course Goals

Students who take this course can expect to get out of it:

  • a broader, deeper understanding of how social systems operate
  • a greater appreciation for the complex relationship between individuals and institutions
  • expanded knowledge of the causes and consequences of culture and norms
  • an increased ability to think critically
  • better collaborative discussion skills
  • knowledge of core texts in social theory
  • some great sci-fi stories!
Course Format

This course does not center on lectures, presentation slides, or the memorization of terms and concepts like many traditional high school classes. Instead we'll work in a seminar format, meaning everyone sits around a single table together and discusses the readings and topics assigned for the day, pose and answer questions, compare and contrast different readings, evaluate ideas, and so forth. The professor will facilitate this discussion, but ultimately the direction of the course, and the responsibility for rich discussion, lies with the students who take it and not the professor.

Course Homework & Assignments

Homework outside of class will include a fairly heavy amount of reading, including several science fiction novels and short stories as well as shorter excerpts from classic writings in social theory.

There will also be a number of writing assignments, leading up to each student writing their very own science fiction short story, which they'll also annotate with information and analysis about how the story speculates on the possibilities of our social world.

Professor Ziad Munson

Lasers, Aliens, & Black Holes is taught by Professor Ziad Munson. The average student rating for the overall quality of the course the last time he offered it (in 2015) was 4.93 out of 5.

Dr. Munson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Lehigh. His research and teaching focuses on social movement mobilization and political violence. He is the author of The Making of Pro-Life Activists, a study of recruitment and mobilization in the American pro-life movement (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and Abortion Politics, an examination of the century-old history of the abortion debate (Polity, 2018). He is also the author of various articles on social movements, religion, terrorism, and civil society. His latest research project focuses on understanding the political geography of America’s suburbs, particularly the dramatic changes that have occurred in conservative politics. Munson received his BA from the University of Chicago in 1993 and his PhD from Harvard University in 2002. Beyond his professional work, Ziad enjoys cooking, hiking, playing soccer, and-- yes-- reading science fiction novels.

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Ziad Munson
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