There is the assumption that science fiction propagandizes for the gleaming gadgetry that it depicts. It’s true that science fiction often endorses the scientific endeavor and worldview. It’s further true that the science fictionists of the 1940s and 1950s tended to pine for the space age that began in 1969. But even at its giddiest and wonkiest, science fiction remembers the lesson of Frankenstein. It remembers that our monsters develop ideas of their own; that they wind up haunting us and even hunting us; that our innovations—however seemingly benign—however fenced and fail-safe—threaten to escape our control and our comprehension. This course traces the genealogy of this machine anxiety. Our guiding questions will be: What are machines? Does the artificially intelligent “machine” cease to be a machine? Are machines “natural” or “unnatural”? Are they heretical? Are their dangers inherent? How do they change us?
Our course epigraph might paraphrase Winston Churchill: We shape our machines; thereafter they shape us.