BIS 393C Special Topics, Winter 2006
Redesigning Humanity: Science Fiction and the Future of the Body


Joanne Woiak
jwoiak at
Office hours: T & Th 6:30-7:30 and by appointment

Course Description
From Frankenstein to Brave New World to Gattaca, fictional works have speculated about the artificial creation and manipulation of human life. We will interpret science fiction texts (SF) that portray such sciences as evolution, eugenics, genetic engineering, reproductive technologies, and neurobiology. Our critical reading will focus on significant themes that these stories develop about science and its social contexts, and our thematic analyses will be aided by reading scholarly articles on history and bioethics, as well as popular science writing by journalists, critics, and scientists themselves. Our goals are to use SF to explore differing attitudes towards biology, biomedical research, and biotechnologies, and to engage in informed discussion about the controversial social and ethical implications of these sciences today. We will read bioethical perspectives based on feminist and disability rights critiques, religious beliefs, and political values. We will see that for some writers of fiction or non-fiction, revolutionary developments in biotechnology inspire optimism about improving society, enhancing human abilities, and expanding the possibilities for control over quality of life. Others express unease about altering human identity and social relations, devaluing diversity and equality, and narrowing the scope of choice and power. SF continues to shape public debates about the uses of science and the social construction of such concepts as human, normal, natural, healthy, or perfect.

Homework (4 total)                               25%   
Essay 1 (3 pages), due Thurs Feb 2        20%
Essay 2 (5-6 pages), due Thurs Mar 9    35%
Participation & quizzes                            20%

Readings: We will read 5 novels, some short stories, and a variety of other texts that provide contextual information and perspectives. In class we will watch a number of fiction and non-fiction videos to complement the reading. You must do all the required reading before class begins and be prepared to discuss your ideas, queries, and opinions. This is principally a discussion course. You must consult the course website regularly for readings, supplementary texts, and updates to the assignments.

Goals & policies
    1. Even if you’re not already a fan of science fiction (SF), I hope that you will learn to enjoy and appreciate the techniques and goals of this literary genre that is so ubiquitous in our culture today. The stories we will read explore topics and issues more profound than just ray guns and space travel; they use character, plot, and exotic settings to produce emotional impact, comment on familiar social and ethical issues, and examine human nature. Reading these novels should be fun, but we are also looking for the critical perspectives they provide on science and society. The course is geared towards interpreting these texts as commentaries on biotechnology, but you should feel free to bring up other aspects of the texts that seem important.

    2. This course follows the interdisciplinary approach called “science studies,” which evaluates scientific theories and applications in their social and political contexts. You are expected to acquire only the most basic understanding of the sciences involved. The SF scenarios we read should encourage critical thinking about the hopes and anxieties raised by new biotechnologies, and make us better informed citizens who can participate in public debates about such controversial topics such as genetics and eugenics, cloning, neuroscience, and human experimentation.

    3. This course is designed to sharpen your skills in critical textual analysis, written and oral communication, and the synthesis of knowledge gained from diverse fields of study. The reading and writing loads will be heavy. Your participation grade will be based on evidence of preparedness and the quality and consistency of your contributions. Participation includes expressing your own thoughts about the texts, as well as constructively responding to classmates. Missing class will prevent your involvement and thus affect your grade adversely. You may be required to complete small-group work, in-class writing, and surprise quizzes. These cannot be made up if you were absent. In your written work, I expect accurate, complex, and subtle interpretations of the texts. You will receive feedback aimed at helping you to write strong thesis statements supported consistently by textual evidence and citations. I encourage you to come to office hours or contact me by email to discuss essay ideas or other problems.

    Submitting work: All written assignments will be collected at the start of the class period. Work will not be accepted via email. Late essays will receive a grade penalty of 5% per day. Extensions will be considered in cases of emergency or if requested well before the due date. Late homework will not be graded, and in-class work cannot be made up. Keep copies of all submitted work for your protection. No extra credit or paper re-writes will be permitted.

    Documentation of sources and academic integrity: When writing an essay, all direct quotations, paraphrases, information, interpretations, and opinions taken from another person’s work must be identified. Every essay submitted for this course must have a bibliography listing all sources consulted and copious citations (either footnotes or in-text) to indicate where facts or ideas have been borrowed. All work submitted for evaluation and course credit must be an original effort. Plagiarism means presenting the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own, for example by turning in someone else’s work or failing to document material you have quoted or borrowed. It is a serious offence and punishable under the provisions of the University’s Student Conduct Code. If you are unsure about your use of sources or are having other difficulties with your writing, please come to my office hours or make an appointment with the UWB Writing Center (425-352-5253, UW2-124). Any evidence of plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental, will result in a grade of zero for that assignment. Additional sanctions may also be imposed by the University administration. You are responsible for understanding all aspects of University regulations regarding academic integrity.

     Incompletes: In accordance with University policy, I can give an incomplete only if the student has been attending class and doing all the major assignments until within two weeks of the end of the quarter, and if proof has been provided that the work cannot be completed because of circumstances beyond the student’s control.

    Disabilities: Please let the instructor know if you need accommodation of any sort. I can work in conjunction with Disability Support Services to provide what you require, or we can work it out between us if you prefer.

    Communication: All requirements and policies of this course are outlined in this syllabus. Any changes to the schedule and readings, as well as any handouts and announcements, will be posted on the course website. It is your responsibility to get updated information from the website. The best way to get hold of me reliably is via email. You may also use the course email list for questions and discussion.

Critical reading strategies
Elements of Fiction

1. Plot: What events and actions occur in each chapter? Is there a central conflict in the story? Is the story plot-driven? Is the plot resolved, or is the ending left indeterminate? Has the story been told as a chronological narrative, starting in the middle, or using flashbacks? Does the author use foreshadowing, create suspense, or withhold information?

2. Characters: What are your initial impressions of each character, their main traits and actions, relationships? Is there a clear protagonist? Are the characters complex or flat, and does the author establish the characters by showing or telling? Do they remain stable or undergo radical change? What are the characters’ motivations? How does the author’s use of different character types or voices (e.g. gender, race, class, disability) impact on the story?

3. Setting: In what place, time period, and social circumstances does the action occur? How does the author establish the overall setting? Is any information withheld, and if so why? How is setting important to the meaning or development of the story? Is there movement between specific settings, and if so how is this significant?

4. Point of view: Is the narrator a major or minor character in the story (first-person point of view), or is the narrator outside the story (third-person)? Is the narrative perspective omniscient or limited? Does the point of view change during the work? What is the narrator’s tone of voice? Is the narrator unreliable, and if so how does the author indicate this?

5. Writing style (literary analysis): Is the author’s manner of expression elaborate or plain, in terms of sentence structure, word choice, and figurative language? Do any particular words or patterns stand out? Does the author use dialogue effectively? Are there significant examples of literary devices such as metaphors or imagery?

6. Themes (thematic analysis): A theme is a general concept or doctrine, whether implicit or asserted, that a work of fiction incorporates and tries to make persuasive to the reader. Thematic concerns in fiction are usually expressed through a combination of elements including character, action, setting, images, allusions, and symbols (a symbol is an object or event that signifies something beyond its literal meaning). Identifying recurring themes is a way of deciding how to interpret a work. To state a major theme should require at least a full sentence (e.g. “Human beings are more than just the sum of their genes”).

Interpreting Science Fiction Texts

1. Context: Who is the author, what else did he or she write? When and where was the work written and published? Texts are shaped by their social and cultural context, which for our purposes might include:
history of the sciences in that period
cultural attitudes towards science
politics and values
social roles of men and women (gender)
attitudes towards people with disabilities
class structure of the society
ideas about racial differences
religious beliefs
literary, artistic, and philosophical currents
2. Questions relevant to the major themes of this course:
Which scientific disciplines, theories, or technologies are represented in the text? How much attention is devoted to details of the science, and why?

What messages does this text convey about the development and uses of bioscience and technology? Is the tone of the story predominately positive, negative, or ambivalent? What ethical concerns are raised? Is there commentary on the social responsibilities of scientists? Is there depiction of other people in power who choose to use or abuse science/technology?

In the fictional world depicted, what modifications to the human body and mind have taken place? How and why did these changes happen? How do the characters react? Were they affected because of their own choices or other people’s decisions? What value judgments are implied about the modified individuals? Does the story use change/difference to comment on some aspect of human nature or the human condition?

How is the setting depicted in the story different from and/or similar to the real world (in which the author and/or reader lives)? How has redesigning the human body influenced the ways people in the fictional society live their lives, interact or conflict with each other, and think about themselves? What political, economic, religious, or cultural changes have occurred? What about family structures? What has happened to categories such as class, race, gender/sexuality, or normal/disabled?

How do the themes developed in this story compare with other works of science fiction we read for this course, or other works you are familiar with? What makes this a work of science fiction? How does this text contribute to your definition of and opinions about the genre?

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Send mail to: jwoiak at
Last modified: 1/07/2006 9:37 PM