“More human than human is our motto,” Eldon Tyrell famously expresses in the 1982 cult classic film “Blade Runner.” That’s also the focus of Dr. Jared Hegwood’s 1102 and 1114 English classes, “More Human than Human: Science Fiction and the Human Condition.”
The class poses a couple of complex questions: What makes a person human, and what about humanity do we uncover through the exploration of science fiction?
Hegwood is no stranger to fiction. Nor, for that matter, is he a stranger to self-exploration.
A prolific writer, Hegwood earned his doctorate in English with a primary specialization in creative writing from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. There, having learned and written in the school’s prestigious Center for Writers, he produced a short collection of self-reflective works titled “Somewhere I Have Never Travelled,” which also served as his dissertation. The collection features stories that were, Hegwood admits in his introduction, both “therapeutic” and deeply introspective.
To some degree, it’s that same level of introspection Hegwood wants his students to experience when they explore science fiction.
“I think it’s necessary for adults to engage in that sort of thinking,” he said. “Exploration is at the core of the thing we call a soul.”
Having only taught the class once thus far, in the spring of 2014, Hegwood said he’s excited to teach it again. Especially, he said, because of the types of students it draws in.
“It got quite a mix,” he said. “Of course, you have the geeky sci-fi guys, and you know, bring them in, we’re glad to have them. But it also gets a lot of young women, too.”
According to Hegwood, many of the young women drawn to the class weren’t naturally inclined toward science fiction. They did, however, take profound interest in anther portion of the class: philosophy and how science fiction reflects the human condition.
“We talk robots and space travel, and they just sort of roll their eyes,” said Hegwood. “But when we start bringing in women’s studies topics, when we start talking about Simone de Beauvoir and feminism and existentialism, they suddenly see it all in a different light.”
That link is crucial, claims Hegwood, because existentialism is at the core of science fiction.
Existentialism is the term used to describe the works of various 19th– and 20th-century philosophers who claimed that all philosophical thought begins with acting, feeling human beings. Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian who extolled the virtues of separating perceived reality from the truth of the senses, is generally accepted as the father of modern existentialism. He, alongside Beauvoir, a famous feminist and existentialist, and Karl Jaspers, a German psychiatrist and philosopher, are half the scope of Hegwood’s class.
There’s little doubt that the concept of existentialism is important in this day and age, when notions of bettering the “individual self” have become the focus of a generation. There’s also a strong argument for increasing society’s emphasis on science education, given that the first off-Earth settlement is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2026 with the launch of the Mars One program.
But why is a science fiction class necessary?
Because we’re obsessed with it.
In 2015 alone, two of the top three highest grossing movies have been science-fiction themed. Of the highest grossing franchises of all time, three of the top five are labeled science fiction.
While you won’t find Hollywood complaining any time soon, that obsession isn’t necessarily a good thing, some “nerd culture” icons say.
Simon Pegg, who reprised his role as Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in 2013’s “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” said in May of 2015 that Western society’s love affair with science fiction was a “kind of dumbing down” because it takes away cultural focus from more important world issues.
Alan Moore, author of the famous superhero graphic novel Watchmen, said similarly of caped crusaders that he believed society’s “embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th-century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence.”
But that obsession, despite the claims of Pegg and Moore, has also led to undeniably good things. “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” (of which, Hegwood is an avowed fan) – both staples of modern storytelling – are also exemplars of the reasons why we love science fiction. Sci-fi can be fantastic, it can be unimaginable, but it can also teach us by setting the stage for future innovations.
“I strongly disagree with Pegg’s and Moore’s claims,” said Hegwood. “Adults have to be able to think in those terms as well. Just think about the innovations we’ve taken from things like ‘Star Trek.’”
Holding his smart phone aloft, Hegwood smiled. “I never thought as a kid that I’d be holding a tricorder in my hand,” he said, making reference to a famous piece of “Star Trek” communications tech. “This is better than a tricorder. It does so much more. Where did those ideas originate?”
In Hegwood’s mind, there’s nothing wrong with people getting into the minds of superheroes and space captains. On the contrary, he argues that people need science fiction for that very reason – because they see themselves in it. Especially in the darkest times.
“Today, you see the prevalence of dystopian, post-apocalyptic science fiction,” he said. “The world is a dark place, but even in a grim future, people see themselves, and they see themselves alive. There’s a sort of faint hope to that, I think.”
That’s why the other half of Hegwood’s class belongs to true science fiction masters: Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells and Warren Ellis, among others. Because at its core, science fiction – like the human condition – is all about hope. As for its prevalence in Western culture, Hegwood said he isn’t worried about sci-fi disappearing anytime soon.
“I don’t think it’ll ever end,” he said. “I don’t foresee there ever being a time when we stop imagining the future and our place in it, or when we stop questioning who and what we are. The day we stop being challenged, the day we lose the ability to hope in that way, is the day we die.”
As long as we hold on to that hope, to that need for exploration, Hegwood believes our species will most definitely live long and prosper.