Home » Fantasy and the human mind » Fantasy and Science Fiction. The human mind, our modern world.

Fantasy and Science Fiction. The human mind, our modern world.

Credit : Coursea

I am starting another course next week. It is called “Fantasy and Science Fiction. The human mind, our modern world.” It is another coursera course this time from Eric Rabkin, professor of English and of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.

Although the course hasn’t kicked off yet Eric Rabkin has kindly given an introductory talk about the course and what to expect. As usual the notes below are mainly my course notes. In this case these are notes from Eric Rabkin’s lectures.

What I have tried to do this time is to see if I can link as many of my previous MOOC’s with this one. I can see themes from nearly all of them. 


Metropolis Picture credit (freeinsociety.com)

We are mainly going to be looking at Fantasy Literature but fantasy is much broader than that. Fantasy exist in a lot of other media, in the movies for example. When we imagine what the future will be like, as in this still from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, it’s not long before we begin building those cities and they become what we had at first imagined.

In my Digital Culture course we looked at several films representing Utopian and dystopian futures through the medium of film. The short films that we saw examined what might be like to be human in the future and what our environment might be like. I am putting a link to my review of Blade Runner here as well as so far this film has linked into all my courses. I can see it fits nicely here as a dystopian future film.

Fantasy exists in one domain after another. Disneyland is a fantasy place but Epcot Center in Disney World, the experimental prototype community of tomorrow, was not intended to be simply a theme park. It was intended to point the way to the future. City planning has always rested on Utopian fantasies and how we can

(Photo credit : craftcraft.com)

make the best place for people to live and experience their full humanity.

Sometimes we use our fantasy ideas of what the world should be like in the silliest ways. This outboard motor reaches a top power of four horsepower. Exactly why is it streamlined? What air resistance is it trying to evade as the boat puts along? Stream lining is a visual sign of the future. It brings fantasy into the experience of trawling.

Fantasy comes from a Greek root Phantasia which literally means making visible. Comes from phantazein which means to make visible and phanein, to show. That word phanein also gives us the word Epiphany which is a holiday celebrated on January sixth for the showing of the infant Jesus to the Magi.

From the Oxford English Dictionary

The Greek word for fantasy is φαντασία which literally means  ‘a making visible

This word φαντασία or fantasy, has its roots in the word φαίνομαι meaning to show or to make visible. The more general term Theophany has to do with a God showing himself or herself to mortals.

Looking at the Indo-European route that underlies the Greek, we come to the word bha. There are two varieties of bha.

From Joseph T Shipley’s “The origins of English Words : A discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots“.

Bha I : speak. Greek pheme: voice, phasis…aphasia, infant

Bha II: shine; light; bright; hence, appearing. Greek phainein: show…diaphanous, fantasy

Helen of Troy (Picture credit : Wikimedia)

The first one means to speak and from that we get modern word like aphasia or emphatic. The second bha means to shine, light, bright. It gives us words like diaphanous, to shine through and fantasy. There is something bright and shining in fantasy.

Fantasy can be quite personal. In Marlowe’s tragic history of Dr. Faustus, from the end of the sixteenth Century, Faust has a fantasy of being able to make love to Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Having Mephistopheles, a devil, at his beck and call this is possible, but if Helen of Troy were merely Faustus’ personal fantasy, he would not have heard of this ancient  Greek myth nor would we. Fantasies even when personal somehow try to attract a mythic.

Not all fantasies have such a direct link with my Greek and Roman Mythology course. I think it is interesting that the word has it’s basis in Greek and I can already see links between fantasy and Myth, but there is more to come. Certainly looking at The Definition of Myth there are some parallels with fantasy.

Fantasy is also used for trying out new idea. Children play with dolls to try out the social roles that they are going  to have to fulfill as they grow up. Eric Rabkin told a story about how his daughter used fantasy, through playing with dolls, to learn Spanish when she wasn’t confident enough to speak it to her family. I too use fantasy through role play for language training with adults.

(Picture credit: wikimedia)

Fantasy helps us in very practical ways. Fantasy help us in psychological ways too. Fantasies give us an embodiment of all our hopes and fear. For example Cinderella  is a myth of the virtue of obedience. No matter how bad things may be, if you stick to what you should do you will be rewarded. The story of Cinderella exists in virtually every culture in the world even those that have had no contact with each other before they developed their own version of the story of Cinderella. Look at the Wikipedia link from the name Cinderella and scroll down for all the different names, translations and versions.

W.H. Auden comments on what’s called “The Tale of the Great Detective Stories” like those involving Sherlock Holmes for example. Sherlock is a great detective who, no matter what crime has been committed, he is able to understand what went behind it and identify the culprit.  Auden says that the fantasy of the great detective is that hidden guilt will be revealed. We know that’s not true in the real world. We know that people get away with things again and again. One of the attractions  the tale of the great detective is that it allows us to live in a fantasy world in which justice prevails.

The raising of Lazarus (Credit : Wikimedia)

One of those common fears that people have had since time immemorial is the fear of our  immortality and the hope to conquer it. Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus according to the new testament was called forth from the grave by Jesus, a miracle or some would say a fantasy.

Fantasy doesn’t have to be a hopeful thing W.W. Jacobs’ famous short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ from the beginning of the twentieth century tells of  Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son, Herbert.  They are given a talisman, monkey’s paw and told that it will grant them three wishes. The father wishes for enough money to settle the mortgage on their home. The son is then killed in an industrial accident and the insurance money exactly pays off the mortgage. Weeks later the mother wishes that she could see her son just one more time. There is a knock at the door and the father realizes that it will be the corroded corpse of their son. He uses the third wish and when they answer the door no one is there. The point of this story is that no matter how much we want to change fate, if we attempt to do so we may only make it worse. Fantasy does not always tell us the world can be  better and sometimes the hopes can become fears.

Victor Frankenstein (Picture credit ; static.ddmcdn.com)

Perhaps the most famous story of death turning back to life in the modern era is that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Victor Frankenstein  doesn’t  create life he takes parts from dead bodies, brings them together and re-animates them. This is hopeful, a fantasy that has existed ever since the ancients. Victor wants to be a benefactor to mankind but then he realizes that if he makes a bride for this monster and they procreate there would be a race of stronger, smarter, more durable creatures and they would eventually out compete humanity so he destroys the bride, the monster feels bereft and the animosity between them begins leading to the famous killings that make us think of that creature as a monster. It’s the story of what happens when the imagined power  that science and technology can give breaks loose from the bonds of  communal morality. Just to tie this once again to my Greek and Roman Mythology course the book was originally called Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Prometheous, in Greek myth, created man from clay.

Science fiction is one of a large number of fantastic genres. The great detectives, fairy tales and many others are fantastic genres. In 1942, Lester del Rey published a novella called “Nerves“. This is three years before  the first atomic bomb exploded. It’s many years before the first nuclear power plant came on line. In this novella Del Rey imagines civilian nuclear power and worked out the social consequences of a plant melt down.

Just as a child can use dolls or we use fairy tales to imagine an alternative and come to understand what that means for us so science fiction can take a look at science and technology and explore what it means for us. We are all as Alivn Toffler said, immigrants into the future. Science and technology  is changing our world whether we like it or not. The genre that asks itself what would this mean for us and what kind of world we will occupy is the fantastic genre, the genre of science fiction.

A couple of writers that Eric didn’t mention were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I particularly liked the Jules Verne’s novels as a child and my husband (French) swears that Verne’s  is proof of time travel.

(Picture credit : Wikimedia)

Jules Verne’s novels have been noted for being startlingly accurate anticipations of modern times. Paris in the 20th Century is an often cited example of this as it arguably describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts.In his books we can see details of science and technology very much ahead of their time. Another example is From the Earth to the Moon, which is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program, as three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula and recovered through a splash landing. In the book, the spacecraft is launched from “Tampa Town”; Tampa, Florida is approximately 130 miles from NASA’s actual launching site at Cape Canaveral. In other works, Verne predicted the inventions of helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydro-thermal vents that were not discovered until years after he wrote about them. (quoted from wikipedia) There are many pioneers who cited Verne as their influence for creations such as submarines, rockets and polar explorers.

H.G. Wells’ “War Of The World” was a favorite film and I even enjoyed listening to the dramatized radio version of that story. He is famous for his book “The Time Machine” in 1895, and was the first author to talk about lasers, interplanetary war and invisibility, all the things which play big parts in this genre. He is often referred to as the father of Science Fiction.

Some links that I think make interesting reading:-

An article in National Geographic called “8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True”. This is interesting not just because of the things that came true but also reading what people said of him as a writer. He studied people and talked to scientists. He looked at the world and thought about possibilities.

Again from the National Geographic, “H.G. WELLS: 9 Predictions That Have, And Haven’t, Come True

Stephen Hawking: “Time Travel to the Future is Possible”. I think this is interesting because he mentions Jules Verne. I have looked at the theory of time travel as part of my philosophy course. There are a lot of science fiction books and films concerning time travel.

I am adding Leonardo Da Vinci here. It might seem odd to add him in a fantasy post but Science Fiction through art was surely his forte. He was around a lot earlier than our writers but his detailed drawing of planes, diving suits etc were surely a way of expressing possibilities of the future. Here is an article from How Stuff works of his Top ten inventions. 


I am looking forward to this course. The reading list includes some books that I haven’t read since I was very young. There are three on the list that I have never read so I am looking forward to exploring them and viewing the old ones with a new understanding.

Here is the reading list for the course:-

  1. Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales
  2. Carroll — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
  3. Stoker — Dracula
  4. Shelley — Frankenstein
  5. Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems
  6. Wells — The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man, “The Country of the Blind,” “The Star”
  7. Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland
  8. Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles
  9. LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness
  10. Doctorow — Little Brother
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1 Comment

  1. […] Fantasy and Science Fiction. The human mind, our modern world. Credit : Coursea. I am starting another course next week. It is called “Fantasy and Science Fiction.  […]

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