English 26S.02: The Science of Fiction from Sister Carrie to Battlestar Galactica

January 31, 2012


Voices of the Rainforest

The television shows Battlestar Galactica and The Wire would seem not to have much in common at first blush. The former is a science-fiction space opera set during a futuristic war between humans and human-like beings called Cylons, and the latter, a modern-day crime drama set in a gritty, urban Baltimore. But Kevin Modestino A.M. '11 sees enough similarity to make them major elements of his teaching.

A fourth-year graduate student in English, Modestino leads a course titled "The Science of Fiction from Sister Carrie to Battlestar Galactica." The idea to include TV shows arose partially from personal interest, but also from the realization that the popular programs "are trying to use a scientific understanding of psychology, human will, and motivation to plot out very complex social environments that need a broad level of conceptualization," he says.

The course is intended for non-majors, and it has drawn students majoring in physics, biology, and public policy. Students are expected to read and watch a variety of science-fiction genres and learn how to dissect common devices. The main goal, says Modestino, is to teach students who otherwise might not look critically at science fiction how to appreciate what he calls "imaginative work."

"I want my students [to leave] thinking these books and TV shows have a lot to say and are worth their consideration as geneticists or policy advisers…that there's a certain way that imaginative work can think about social and ethical implications of ideas and technologies that go beyond the strict hypotheses that occur in formal sciences and quantitative works."

Kevin Modestino is a Ph.D. student in English, currently at work on his dissertation. He received his B.A. from New York University in English, with a minor in cinema studies, and his master's from Duke in English.


Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser; The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. Le Guin; The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang; Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson; "The Experimental Novel" by Émile Zola; "The Metropolis and Mental Life" by Georg Simmel; selections from The City: Suggestions for the Study of Human Nature in the Urban Environment; selections from We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour and others.