The Science Fiction class for which I agreed to guest lecture is an 8am class, which is earlier than I like to be up and about. Knowing this, I went to bed early on Thursday night. Of course, being a bookaholic of long standing, I needed something to read to put me to sleep. Genius that I am, I grabbed the ARC of Cory Doctorow’s upcoming YA novel Little Brother…
So, I hadn’t really had enough sleep when I got to campus for the class on Friday. Still, adrenaline can make up for a lot…
I was introduced as “Not only a physics professor, but also a world famous blogger,” though I suggested that ought to be “nerd famous” instead. I started off with the hypothetical scenario, which worked pretty well. Overall, the students were split something like 35/35/30 (“Yes,” “No,” and “It’s Too Early to Make Hard Decisions”) one guy suggested that it would depend on age– at 18, he was unlikely to take the deal, because he’d be facing eighty years of missing someone he spent only five years with. One woman in the class made an analogy to pet ownership– we know that we will outlive our dogs and cats, and yet that doesn’t stop us from buying them and forming attachments.
(The regular professor for the class didn’t let me get away with not giving my own answer, which is that I don’t think I’d take the deal. Even though I’m the one who posed the question, I’m skeptical of the idea of a “soul mate” or somebody who is that perfect for you. I didn’t intend for the alternative to be “spend your life alone”– just that you could either have the introduction to your “perfect” match, or go on with life as usual. Most people manage to find happiness all right without a guaranteed “perfect” match, and I think the certainty of their impending death would color the relationship too much.)
As for the story itself, the students picked up all the main points I wanted to hit pretty quickly. They saw the connection with the hypothetical right away, and picked up most of the structural stuff. They caught that the sequential plot line is all stuff that occurred before Louise really learns the heptapod language and learns to see the future, while the future bits all jump around in time. They also noted that the jumping around is disorienting in the same way that being able to see the whole future at once would be. Those are both excellent points, that I hadn’t put in my original notes, so good for them.
I ad-libbed a little definitional thing in the middle, because it occurred to me on the way there, and it’s such a staple of fan arguments. I argued that the story is unquestionably science fiction not because it has aliens or superhuman abilities, but because it doesn’t really work without the science. You could make a sort of “magic realist” version of the same basic story with a character who just happens to acquire that ability for no sensible reason, but as written, the linguistics and the physics are essential. If you take either out, the story falls apart.
I was pleased to see that they all enjoyed the story, and I plugged Chiang’s other stories. The regular professor for the class was even happier, because she said she had a hard time getting them to accept ambiguity early in the term, but they were happy with this story, which leaves lots of things open.
On the whole, I think it went well, and it was an interesting experience. The class probably wound up being a bit more lecture-like than usual for them– students aren’t all that lively at 8am, and I’m more than willing to talk to fill awkward silences. It was considerably more discussion-like than my usual lectures, though, and I think it was a useful experience for me for that reason.