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ENGL BC3215 Victorian Science and Science Fiction. 3 points.

Not offered during 2019-20 academic year.

Although Victorian fiction is best known today for its realist commitment to representing the world “as it really is,” especially in genres such as the courtship novel and the Bildungsroman, Victorian novelists also wrote during an age of enthusiastic scientific inquiry that questioned and revised the very fabric of the reality that realist genres purported to represent. This course will accordingly explore the more adventurous and speculative fiction of the Victorian period that was most closely attuned to these new ways of representing and thinking about reality. How did new scientific developments such as evolutionary theory in biology, and the atomic theory in physics, reshape how writers viewed the relationships between human and animal, self and other, space and time, body and mind? How did departing from traditional realist modes enable Victorian science fiction writers to explore the ethical, social, and political implications of scientific theories in ways that scientific prose may not have envisioned?


In this course we will read major works of Victorian fiction, by such authors as Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others, alongside selections of scientific prose in such fields of Victorian science as biology, physics, mathematics, anthropology, and psychology. Throughout the course, we will understand “science” to include both major developments in the history of science, such as the emergence of evolutionary thought, as well as more eccentric Victorian areas of inquiry, such as phrenology, mesmerism, telepathy, and degeneration. The first three units into which the course is divided each explore a major field of Victorian science alongside a major conceptual category that it challenged and altered: biology and the nature of the human; psychology and the constitution of the self; the physical sciences and the nature of space and time. In each unit, we will investigate how writers’ engagements with these conceptual questions led them to experiment with literary categories such as character, narration, and plot. The course will close with a unit on texts that more broadly address Victorian conceptions of progress, technology, and development.


In addition to these specific thematic and formal questions, we will think broadly about how the Victorians understood the value of science and technology in relation to the arts and to literature, and ask what their answers to these questions can offer us as we navigate similar questions today. What does scientific thinking offer to literature, and what kinds of questions can literature answer that scientific prose cannot? Do technological and scientific progress open up utopian vistas for humanity’s future, or are they more likely to lead to dystopian nightmares? Throughout the course, we will explore the resources that the literary imagination offers for thinking through the social consequences of scientific theories.