Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Fantastic Voyage from Homer to Science Fiction

ENGL 016.402


Tales of voyages to strange lands with strange inhabitants and even stranger customs have been a part of the Western literary tradition from its inception. What connects these tales is that their voyages are not only voyages of discovery, but voyages of self-discovery. By describing the effects these voyages have on the characters who undertake them, and by hinting comparisons between the lands described in the story and their own society, authors use fantastic voyages as vehicles for incisive commentary on literary, social, political, and scientific issues.

In this course, we will explore the tradition of the fantastic voyage from Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest examples of this type of narrative and a model for countless subsequent voyage narratives, to modern science fiction, which appropriates this narrative for its own ends. We will determine what the common stylistic elements of voyage narratives are, such as the frame narrative, or story-within-a-story, and what purpose they serve in conveying the tale’s messages. We will see how the voyagers attempt to understand and interact with the lands and peoples they encounter, and what these attempts tell us about both the voyagers and their newly-discovered counterparts. Finally, we will ask ourselves what real-world issues are commented upon by these narratives, what lessons the narratives have to teach about them, and how they impart these lessons to the reader. Though this course is primarily dedicated to literature, we will also watch several seminal sci-fi films to determine how cinematographic techniques can inform narratives of fantastic voyage.

This course is meant not only for sci-fi fans who would like to become better acquainted with the precursors and classics of the genre, but for all those who wish to learn how great works of fiction, far from being intended solely for entertainment and escapism, attempt to improve upon the real world through the effect they have on the reader. Readings and discussion are in English; an additional discussion group devoted to the original French versions of Cyrano, Verne and Boulle may be formed, as well, given sufficient interest.


Texts and Films

- Homer, The Odyssey (8th century BCE)

- Lucian of Samosata, A True Story (2nd century CE)

- Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

- Cyrano de Bergerac, The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon (1657)

- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Part Three: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan; Part Four: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

- Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870)

- H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)

- A Trip to the Moon (Dir. Georges Méliès, 1902)

- Karel Čapek, War with the Newts (1936)

- Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes (1963)

- Planet of the Apes, (Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)

fulfills requirements
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major