Tyler Harper '14: Shattering Sci-Fi Stereotypes
The assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College researches human extinction in science-fiction literature.
As an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College in Maine, Tyler Harper '14 researches the evolving ways in which science fiction writers have depicted human extinction, and how the concept has changed since 1796, when scientist Georges Cuvier proved that species extinction was in fact possible. And the roster of courses Harper is teaching this academic year and the next precisely reflects those interests: There’s “Catastrophes and Hope,” which looks at narratives of ecological disaster; “Climate Fiction,” which examines representations of climate change in contemporary literature, comics, and film; and “Extinction,” which looks at the way key historical developments beginning in the 19th century have informed how writers, thinkers, and artists imagine species extinction.
Harper—who earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from New York University with a dissertation titled “The Specter of Extinction: Environmental Nihilism in British Science Fiction (1800–1945)”—credits Haverford with sparking his interest in sci-fi.
“My first encounter with science fiction in an academic context was in one of [Associate Professor of English] Asali Solomon’s courses, where she assigned Octavia Butler’s short story ‘Bloodchild,’” says Harper. “It was an early experience that really opened my eyes to sci-fi as a genre with intellectual merit that could be studied as seriously as we study romantic poetry or literary modernism.”
Harper came to Haverford intending to major in English, he says, “but the initial plan was to go the medical school or law school route after college.” By his sophomore year, though, he’d decided to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature. “Asali Solomon, [Associate Professor of English] Raji Mohan, and [Professor of English] Christina Zwarg, as well as [Professor of English] Michael Tratner at Bryn Mawr, were all influential mentors who spent a great deal of time both in and outside of the classroom helping me prepare for grad school and a life in academia. Their courses and mentorship were a big part of my desire to teach at a liberal arts institution.”
What follows is an edited version of a story that originally appeared on Bates News, the online companion to Bates Magazine.
Why sci-fi? With a literary canon that includes books by L. Ron Hubbard, and with movie titles like Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, science-fiction in America is a “heavily stereotyped genre,” Harper says. “We’re often used to thinking of sci-fi as entertainment or as beach reading.” Plus, it’s a genre that’s frequently “coded as both white and male,” he says.
For a liberal arts professor, stereotype is a door waiting to be kicked open. “One of the joys of teaching science fiction is getting students to see sci-fi differently—as a genre that not only engages with big ideas but also that includes some great works written by marginalized voices.”
A sample lesson: Harper says that he’s always loved introducing students to the novel Dawn, by Octavia Butler, the first Black female science-fiction writer to reach national prominence.
One of Butler’s earlier works, Dawn poses the “big questions that I find tend to excite students. Questions like: Is the fear of otherness innate? Or is it learned? Can it be unlearned? And, is the exploitation of nature or other species ever justifiable?”
In class, he’ll lead an exercise in argument-mapping to “break down the various worldviews presented by a novel or film and look at who is presenting those views, how they clash, and how they’re reconciled.”
The exercise “gets students to slow down, look past the aliens and the spaceships, and really confront the profound and topical questions about the environment and our place in it that a novel like Dawn conveys.”
Imagining Extinction: British science fiction writers of the 1800s and early 1900s, such as Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and H.G. Wells, imagined that the natural world was the prime threat to human life.
In their works, “nature was reimagined as not only a threat to the species, but a threat to the very moral vision that informed Western thinking about humanity in general,” Harper says. He calls this “environmental nihilism”: “the threat of meaninglessness posed by the recognition that nature is completely indifferent to human existence.”
In Britain during the early Romantic era—the late 1700s into the early 1800s—these initial extinction narratives also tended to “imagine threats to the species as arising from absolute catastrophes that could not be avoided or prevented,” he explains.
Later, particularly in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries in the mid-1800s, the threat of extinction was reimagined as “something that could be mitigated by human ingenuity and power, something we might be able to prepare for politically, technologically, scientifically, and so on. This view still informs contemporary reflection on human extinction.”
The idea that nature was the major threat to humankind changed after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan: “Human extinction was now recognized as something that humans might bring about,” says Harper.
Now, climate change: A legacy of 19th-and early 20th-century science fiction is today’s belief that “we can confront the threat of climate change with large-scale technological solutions, like geo-engineering,” Harper says.
However, clinging to a magic-bullet solution, he says, merely “becomes a way to avoid thinking about climate change as a political crisis.” Today’s science fiction can address this avoidance and reinforce the politics of the climate crisis by imagining the “ways different groups of people are more or less implicated by environmental violence.”
In other words, writers of climate fiction can show us new worlds after climate change and raise the question: Who gets to live in these new worlds?
Any catastrophe, whether it threatens extinction or not, “impacts different racial groups unequally and acts on different communities in different nations unequally,” he says. “It’s imperative that we think about a problem that seems fantastical but is in fact quite pressing.”
Do we survive? “I remain an optimist,” Harper says. “But I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to thinking about human extinction is that there are people with tremendous power and wealth who take the question of human extinction very seriously. You have people in Silicon Valley building compounds in New Zealand in preparation for a coming climate catastrophe.”
Harper adds, “We have, especially in academia, a duty to think seriously about this as well and to draw attention to the oversimplifications that we see in a news item, for example, about Elon Musk wanting to establish a human colony on Mars as a backup if Earth were to become uninhabitable.”