Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror: An SWSC Crash Course in Speculative Fiction

From outside, the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington looks more like an enormous abstract sculpture than a building. Its walls are a collage of curving, rainbow-colored steel panels, often described by locals as looking like the remnants of a smashed guitar, with a set of 1960s-era monorail tracks running through a groove in its side. Go inside, and things look hardly less surreal–you’ll see a flying police cruiser from Blade Runner suspended above the ticketing area, a screen playing clips of David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and David Lynch’s Dune on repeat, and, recently, a life-sized sculpture of a Minecraft player sprite near the entrance to its movie theatre. It’s a bit dizzying to experience, not least because the building’s architecture makes finding your way around a bit of a challenge. But once you do manage to get your bearings, make your way to the building’s Southmost corner, where you’ll find what you’ve been looking for: a place the museum staff calls their “Hopes, Dreams, and Fears” wing.

The Hopes, Dreams, and Fears wing is made up of three exhibits, one exploring the genre of science fiction, one of fantasy, and one of horror. The association isn’t coincidental: together, these three subgenres traditionally comprise what scholars refer to as the genre of “speculative fiction,” or sometimes “genre fiction”–in other words, fiction in which things happen that cannot happen in our own world. And in entering each of these exhibits, you really do feel as though you’re stepping into a world apart from your own. In the sci-fi exhibit, you find yourself surrounded by an unearthly soundscape as you make your way through the interior of an alien spaceship; in the fantasy exhibit, the sound of fluttering fairy wings guides you through a maze of stone walls and knotted tree trunks; and in the horror exhibit, pools of dim light illuminate a miniature Gothic chapel, a witchy-looking wicker sculpture, and glass cases full of rusted weapons, severed heads, and creepy dolls.

The immersiveness of each exhibit is impressive. But the effect wouldn’t work nearly as well if the museum’s visitors didn’t recognize just what each component of these rooms was trying to evoke. When we think of sci-fi, of course we think of outer space and the distant future. When we think of fantasy, of course we think of castles and wizards. When we think of horror, we can practically rattle off a list of its stock characters–vampires, werewolves, zombies, mummies. The conventions of these genres have become so ingrained in our minds that we hardly question why we associate fantasy with medieval Europe, or sci-fi with space, or horror with Gothic aesthetics. For that matter, we might not even question what makes a text a “sci-fi,” “fantasy,” or “horror” story to begin with. Is a scary story always a horror story? Is any story set in the future “sci fi”? Approximately how many dragons need to be present for a text to qualify as fantasy? 

Needless to say, there are answers to all these questions (well, maybe not the one about the dragons). But they require us to go back–way, way back–and trace how sci-fi, fantasy, and horror came to be what they are today. Fortunately, over the next few weeks, the SWSC is going to do just that.

The SWSC Speculative Fiction Crash Course isn’t your typical literature course. For one thing, we’re not college professors, you’re not getting academic credit from this, and you can’t suck up to the TA to get a better grade on the midterm (sorry). But you will learn about the origins of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, their early precursors and influences, the roots of their tropes and conventions, and the effect they’ve had on culture and society. We’ll explore how the Romantic literature of 19th century England laid the groundwork for the modern genre of speculative fiction, and how new media in the 20th century allowed it to flourish. And by the time we’re done, you’ll be able to sound like more than just a garden variety nerd when you talk about your favorite genre books and movies–you’ll sound like a smart nerd. And isn’t that what we all really aspire to be?

We’ll get started with our first installment in the coming days. And don’t worry: the final quiz is open book.

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