Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sharing My ENGL 217: Fantasy Fiction Syllabus

I've radically reimagined my Fantasy Fiction course the 2nd time I'm teaching it here at Fredonia.  In a nutshell, it's organized by trios of major novels from different periods that speak to each other in interesting ways.  We start with Alice, Dorothy, and September, move on to Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Lyra's Oxford, then go to magic school, and close by seeing if Samuel R. Delany, George R.R. Martin, and N.K. Jemisin can help us figure out what we think about "critical fantasy."  So happy that the September 1st issue of Time features Lev Grossman's essay on the 21st C fantasy boom.  My end-of-semester reward will be watching the 3rd movie in The Hobbit trilogy and finally reading the 3rd novel in his Magicians trilogy!  No spoilers in comments, please.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Oasis at the End of the Desert: Neil Gaiman at Saratoga Springs

My family and I left on a road trip to Saratoga Springs right after the girls' last day of school let out yesterday morning to meet up with my two students in a Neil Gaiman/Neal Stephenson Major Authors independent study and attend the Neil Gaiman interview/book signing sponsored by Northshire Bookstore.  It was a 5-hour drive and we only made one unscheduled stop and one wrong turn, so with our head start (Hamburg is about 40 minutes closer than Fredonia via the Thruway to the other side of the state) we managed to beat Alyssa and Elizabeth to the site of the event.  I'm writing this far too early the morning after--while my little ladies, 7 and now 9 and a half (as of yesterday), gifted with far great recuperative powers than me, go for an early morning swim in the hotel pool--so it's going to be rushed, but I thought I'd share some first impressions while they were still relatively fresh.

Gaiman's sense of humor was literally our first impression of him when he finally came onto the stage, after three (yes, three!) sets of introductions and one standing ovation (for the actual guy).  The extended metaphor he offered supplied the title for this post; for those listening on the radio in the vicinity of July 7th, they'll know he was making an in-joke, and they should be able to figure out what it was about from the context, but it was a nice way to acknowledge the 1500+ people in the auditorium and it was certainly much appreciated.

Actually, Gaiman's sense of humor was probably the major tone throughout the interview and indeed the entire event.  At some point early in the radio interview he referred to an off-color joke a 10- or 11-year-old told him when he was 8 that got him in trouble when he repeated it at school--and then, once the taping was over, told the actual joke (accent and all) after some urging from the interviewer and audience (he was worried at first about kids being in the audience, but I can attest that just as the joke went over his head at the time, it was miles over 9-year-old onechan's head, as well; she turned to me after it with an expression between quizzical and baffled and gave me a chance to refuse to explain it to her!).  But his humor was always to a serious end.  Just as the point of that joke was to illustrate how kids experience the world differently from adults (and set up nicely the three or four pages he read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane), he was able to make another point about how writing for comics was viewed in the '90s quickly and efficiently with a sally about calling a hooker a lady of the evening.  And there was more, much more.  But I'm going to take a page from Gaiman and his interviewer, who resolutely avoided spoilers of any kind, and not spoil your own experience of listening to the interview when it goes online at the Northshire Bookstore web site.  Suffice to say it was a real pleasure and definitely worth the drive--even after I found out this morning he's going to be in Toronto in early August!  (Maybe there I'll be able to pass along the invitation to do a reading at SUNY Fredonia that I was supposed to deliver for Writers Ring last night!)

But I can give you more general and personal impressions.  One thing that came to mind the second Gaiman started talking was how much more fun it must be to interview writers than golfers.  When I interview an LPGA golfer, it's usually after they've finished a round and can't wait to practice, or shower, go out to eat, or do whatever they need to do to unwind and get ready for the next round.  Pretty much any question you can think of they've heard a million times before, and many of the original ones you manage to come up with just throw them for a loop, because they don't have a preprogrammed answer to give you.  Not only that, but a good number of athletes aren't all that self-aware or great at putting into words the physical, mental, and emotional challenges they're dealt with--and those that are are often the cagiest about giving too much away to their competitors or the most cautious about letting the media into their heads!  So I end up always feeling like I'm imposing on the golfers I manage to track down and usually botch my questions as a result.  Don't get me wrong--over the years, I've managed to hold it together with Tiffany Joh, Morgan Pressel, Hannah Yun, Mika Miyazato, Paula Creamer, and Ai Miyazato, among others, and put some decent interviews and stories up at Mostly Harmless--but Neil Gaiman not only gave the impression he loved being interviewed but backed it up with a vivid reflection on what he loves about readings and interviews.

Speaking of readings, when Gaiman told us about telling stories to his kids and gave us a sneak preview of his next children's book Fortunately, the Milk, it made me wish I could afford to hire the guy as a designated dad at bedtime.  True, my younger daughter imoto was zonked out from a late night the night before (pro tip:  Japanese women living in America and married to American guys are capable of incredible feats of endurance and conversation among themselves when the wine is flowing) and pretty much was put to sleep by Gaiman's voice.  But, hey, isn't that the point of bedtime stories?  (And imoto did love the CD of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish that we listened to twice as we approached Saratoga Springs that she forced me to buy the paperback on sale at the event to replace the hardback edition we had somehow lost).  Onechan, on the other hand, who was treating the event as a special 9-and-a-half-year present just for her, was enthralled by the excerpt from The Ocean at the End of the Lane and seemed to enjoy the UFO/pirate/dinosaur whimsy of Fortunately, the Milk (just not as much as me).  It's clear Gaiman loves writing for kids (of all ages), but even more gratifying to me--and this is another thing that has already made the trip worth it in my book (even before we go to NYC, see my brother and his family in Connecticut, and swing back to my parents' place in Clinton on the way back home this weekend)--has been the way onechan has (finally, after many failed attempts on my part) embraced his writing!  I left The Graveyard Book in her room early during third grade, but this voracious reader (who's graduated from the likes of the Rainbow Magic and Magic Tree House series to The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and A Series of Unfortunate Events) kept passing it over.  Once she found out we were going to the reading, though, she devoured M Is for Magic ("October in the Chair" is her favorite) and finally seemed open to reading The Graveyard Book and maybe even Stardust.  Bottom line:  Gaiman made a new fan this week.

Speaking of fans, I was a little disappointed at how few of the 1500+ got decked out for the event.  No cosplay to speak of and even very few T-shirts.  Most people were dressed as boring as I was, which made the hours-long wait in the signing line a little less entertaining than I would have hoped.  After hearing Gaiman's explanation for why this is his last U.S. signing tour and experiencing it myself (with onechan and my two students, after the Full Metal Archivist wisely took imoto back to the hotel room right after the interview was done), I can say for sure that he's making the right decision.  Apparently the organizers had said kids can go first, but I missed the memo and wasn't told again until we were literally 5 minutes from Gaiman himself; more important, though, I wanted the SUNY Fredonia gang to stick together, as it was the most f2f time we were going to have during the entire independent study.  When we dispersed at 10:30ish, the line was still going out the door, so Gaiman was going to be there into today.  I just can't see why he should subject himself to that any more, when there's not even a chance to chat with his fans.  Frankly, I was so exhausted by the time we got to him that I forgot to invite him to the SUNY Fredonia campus for Writers Ring, the student group one of my favorite students in Secretary of.  (Ah, there's always Toronto!)  As tough as it was for us, we could try to entertain each other, but all Gaiman could do was sign and sign and sign and maybe exchange a word here or there.  Not just no fun, but a terrible use of his time.  Don't get me wrong:  everyone on that line obviously thought it was worth it and deeply appreciated the chance to meet him, however briefly and impersonally.  But I'd bet most of us would have voted to give it up if the interview period could have been extended an extra hour instead.

OK, the Full Metal Archivist has made it down to the pool, so it's time for me to get ready to move around this morning.  I'm 20 pages in on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and sucked in already....  We'll see how far I can get into it tonight at the hotel in Fort Lee.  More later!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Questions for Neil Gaiman at Saratoga Springs

From Alyssa:

  1. What would be your advice for a young aspiring writer today?
  2. Where do you get your ideas for your stories? Like The Ocean at the End of the Lane for example? What inspired this novel?
  3. Your Sandman series is one of my favorites and what actually got me interested in graphic novels, how was it different to write a story that would later have images created to go along with your words as opposed to just writing a standard story in a novel?
  4. How is it collaborating with other authors? I just read Good Omens and was thoroughly amused reading the excerpts in the back that say how you and Terry Pratchett would call each other and just yell a lot at the excitement of your collaborative work.  Have you ever had any negative experiences with collaborative writing?

From Elizabeth:

  1. What is your favorite part about writing?
  2. Who are some authors that inspire you?
  3. Readers/critics tend to dump you in the fantasy genre.  What "genre(s)" do you consider your writing to fall into?
  4. What is your favorite piece that you have written throughout your career?
  5. Do you prefer collaborating on works or do you like flying solo?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What’s Acceptable in Society

After we watched the clip in class about the community in Indonesia, I brought up the point that the program, which was on the History Channel, an American channel, used a female translators voice in the place of an individual who was biologically female but identified as a male.  I brought up how I thought this was offensive that they choose to use a female translating into English what the individual was saying, how although this person was referred to as a he, they would use the female voice.  Society is so stuck on the gender binary and so scared to step out of their comfort zone and realize that gender is changing.  The media is very cautious to step away from their viewer’s comfort zone in fear of bringing the numbers down.  Society as a whole does have a long way to go in stepping out of  the norm but there should be more resources made available as a whole to make this information known.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Neal on Neil and Neal

Hey folks, sorry for the long absence.  I'm going to be teaching a summer course on Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson this summer from May 28 through June 28 at SUNY Fredonia, so expect a lot more activity here soon!

Here's how I've been pitching it on campus.

Summer Session I

Bring on the "Ne(a/i)ls":
Bruce Neal Simon Will Be Teaching Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson

ENGL 427 Major Writers: Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson

During Summer Session I, we will examine a sample of works from the major fantasy fiction writer and the major science fiction writer of their generation: Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson. We will start by pairing some shorter works that made the writers' early reputations (for instance, Gaiman's Sandman: Season of Mists and Stephenson's "Mother Earth, Mother Board" from Some Remarks). We will then pair Gaiman's (and Terry Pratchett's) Good Omens with Stephenson's Snow Crash as hugely popular and influential experiments in narrative, humor, and apocalypse. Finally, we will pair Gaiman's American Gods with Stephenson's Anathem as mature and major novels. If we have the time (and are completely insane), we will also try to pack in their most recent novels, Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Stephenson's Reamde--you know, for fun (these novels will be optional purchases)!

We will consider such questions as what makes a writer "major"? how do these very different writers speak to each other, to their own times, and to us? what connections and contrasts can we find between their characters and settings, characteristic themes and figures, central beliefs and values, writing styles and narrative strategies, and literary and political projects?

This course fulfills the "major author course" requirement for undergraduates majoring in English or English Adolescence Education.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Spring 2012 Near-Future Science Fiction Schedule of Assignments

You can find my ENGL 216 syllabus at http://www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/sf3/, but just in case the Fredonia site ever goes down, here's the (insane) schedule of assignments for my Spring 2012 Near-Future Science Fiction course.  OK, maybe it's not as insane as it looks, at least for writing assignments:  in addition to ongoing participation on our discussion board, students have to write at least two critical essays (not all four listed!)

T 1/24 Introductions, Overview, Set-up.
Th 1/26 Near-Future? Science Fiction?

The Bad Old Century

T 1/31 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One-Two (1-230)
Th 2/2 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three-Appendix (231-323)

T 2/7 Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, Part I-XI (1-253)
Th 2/9 Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, Part XII-Historical Notes (254-395)

T 2/14 Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, Part One-Two (1-203)
Th 2/16 Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, Part Three (204-288)

The Bad New Century

T 2/21 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Part One-Two (1-110)
Th 2/23 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Part Three-Coda (111-190)
F 2/24 CRITICAL ESSAY I due by 11:30 pm in CE Drop Box on course ANGEL site (attach as .rtf, .doc, .docx, or .pdf document, please).

T 2/28 Butler, Parable of the Sower, 2024-2026 (1-133)
Th 3/1 Butler, Parable of the Sower, 2027 (134-295)

T 3/6 MacLeod, The Execution Channel, Part One-Three (1-184)
Th 3/8 MacLeod, The Execution Channel, Part Four-Five (185-285)


The Corporate Century?

T 3/20 Brin, Earth, Part I-IV (1-218)
Th 3/22 Brin, Earth, Part V-VIII (219-481)
F 3/23 CRITICAL ESSAY II due by 11:30 pm in CE Drop Box on course ANGEL site (attach as .rtf, .doc, .docx, or .pdf document, please).

T 3/27 Brin, Earth, Part IX-Afterword (482-667)
Th 3/29 Stephenson, Snow Crash, Ch. 1-16 (1-138)

T 4/3 Stephenson, Snow Crash, Ch. 17-43 (138-325)
Th 4/5 Stephenson, Snow Crash, Ch. 44-71 (326-468)

T 4/10 Morgan, Market Forces, Prologue-File #3 (1-289)
Th 4/12 Morgan, Market Forces, File #4-#5 (290-441)
F 4/13 FINAL PROJECT PROPOSAL due by 11:30 pm on discussion forum on course ANGEL site (attach as .rtf, .doc, .docx, or .pdf document, please).

The Asian Century?

T 4/17 Gibson, Neuromancer, Part One-Three (1-156)
Th 4/19 Gibson, Neuromancer, Part Four-Coda (157-271)
F 4/20 CRITICAL ESSAY III due by 11:30 pm in CE Drop Box on course ANGEL site (attach as .rtf, .doc, .docx, or .pdf document, please).

T 4/24 McHugh, China Mountain Zhang, China Mountain-Homework (1-208)
Th 4/26 McHugh, China Mountain Zhang, Daoist Engineering-Three Fragrances (209-310)

T 5/1 Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, Ch. 1-18 (1-182)
Th 5/3 Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, Ch. 19-Epilogue (183-359); course evaluations
F 5/4 CRITICAL ESSAY IV due by 11:30 pm in CE Drop Box on course ANGEL site (attach as .rtf, .doc, .docx, or .pdf document, please).

TBA Final Project presentations
F 5/11 FINAL PROJECT due by 11:30 pm in FP Drop Box on course ANGEL site (attach as .rtf, .doc, .docx, or .pdf document, please).

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Spring 2012 Near-Future Science Fiction Course

Here's the reading list for my Near-Future Science Fiction course, organized roughly by when the novels that I'll be teaching next semester are set:

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

Richard Morgan, Market Forces
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
David Brin, Earth

William Gibson, Neuromancer
Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

I'm so psyched that less than a year after waking up with the germ of this course in my head, I'll actually be teaching it.

In addition, the American Studies Film Series next semester will feature near-future SF films.  More on both when the film series schedule is complete and my syllabus for ENGL 216 is online.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Imagine: A Science Fiction Puppet Fairy Tale

South Park dudes, look out! 'Cause a couple of my students have produced an epic science fiction puppet fairy tale called Imagine on a shoestring budget. Check it out:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fantasy as Chick Lit?

No, that's not what Alyssa Rosenberg is arguing over at The Atlantic. Just read it for yourself!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mark Twain's influence on Fantasy Fiction

Fantasy Fiction as a genre has come into its own over the last several decades. Authors like Tolkien and Lewis helped to form the genre, and authors like Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Robin Hobb have helped keep it alive; however, there has been a lot of debate on when and with whom the genre originated. While pivotal authors like Tolkien and Lewis are often given credit, other critics and scholars would argue for an origin found in fairy tales, or even earlier. Instead of focusing on one particular author or body of work as the origin of Fantasy Fiction, I would argue that Fantasy Fiction, like all genres, is more dependent on literature as a whole than some would believe. Authors outside of the genre contribute and impact Fantasy Fiction, because the authors of the genre are constantly influenced by work outside of it. Literary icons, like Mark Twain, contribute to Fantasy Fiction by impacting authors and the general public. Authors do not write from an isolated, independent perspective. Authors write from the perspective of a member of society, influenced by literature as a whole, whether that literature is contemporary or ancient. Anything an author has read influences the work of that author, affecting them on conscious and unconscious levels. Readers who closely analyze Fantasy Fiction can see the influence of Mark Twain. Twain’s influence can be seen in a realist writing technique, as well as topics covered in his books and essays. In Fantasy Fiction, readers can see, immersed among the magic and mysticism, discussions on slavery, opposing cultures and societies, realistic descriptions and understanding of fantasy based worlds, and characters based on a real world understanding of people. Twain’s influence can be seen in genres not his own, because as a literary icon, Mark Twain has impacted our society as a whole, affecting people on a level that defines his literature as iconic, something beyond words on a page.

Mark Twain subscribed to a realistic approach in his literature. Readers can view Twain’s disdain for unrealistic literature in his critique of Fennimore Cooper’s writings, particularly Cooper’s The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Throughout the critique, Twain berates Cooper’s lack of realistic situations and failure to understand or observe real world examples. He mentions examples spanning from an incorrect understanding of artillery to the misunderstanding of how a streambed works. Twain goes on to discuss Cooper’s unrealistic, ridiculous characters and the impossible actions of those characters. Cooper’s characters accomplish feats impossible for any real person, such as shooting the head of a nail at one-hundred yards. In Fantasy Fiction, we can see the impact of Twain’s realistic approach. Authors like Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are products of realistic writing. Fantasy fiction is a genre based on the impossible, on magic and mysticism, on our imaginations; however, the worlds that authors create are based on our own. How can these worlds not be? Authors of Fantasy Fiction take what they know and stretch it with their imaginations. What authors know is a culmination of their own experiences. In Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Jordan creates a world both fantastical and realistic. His magic system follows a set of rules explained in the first book. The rules he uses are understandable by readers; they are realistic, because we can understand and apply them. Even though the magic seen in Jordan’s work is impossible, it is still realistic.

The realism found in Fantasy Fiction does not apply only to the impossible, fantastic components of the literature. The realism in Fantasy Fiction also applies to the characters. Twain was a firm believer in realistic accents and modes of thinking. In Twain’s the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck does not talk like an educated thirty-year-old man, because he is not an educated thirty-year-old man. Huck is an uneducated, backwoods, young teenager. As such, he talks like one. Jordan and Martin utilize a realistic approach in their books. Although the characters of their stories live in a fantastical world, those characters are based on real people, so those characters act like real people. Jordan’s attention to realistic characters can be seen constantly throughout his books. In the first book of Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Jordan creates a scene in which he is able to better define the human qualities of two main characters, forcing actions upon those characters that are believable.

“Be at ease, Lan,” Moiraine said. “Be at ease. Wisdom, you think I can help Master Fitch and the people at the inn? Well, you are right.” Nynaeve started to say something, but Moiraine waved it away and went on. “I can go back by myself and give some help. Not too much, of course. That would draw attention to those I helped, attention they would not thank me for, especially with the Children of the Light in the town. And that would leave only Lan to protect the rest of you. He is very good, but it will take more than him if a Myrddraal and a fist of Trollocs find you. Of course, we could all return, though I doubt I can get all of us back into Baerlon unnoticed. And that would expose all of you to whomever set that fire, not to mention the Whitecloaks. Which alternative would you choose, Wisdom, if you were I?”

-Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World, 257

In this paragraph, readers see Jordan explaining and setting limits on the abilities of his characters. Realistic limits. Despite her ability to utilize the magic of Jordan’s world, the character Moiraine admits she cannot produce an ideal situation that helps Master Fitch with his burning inn and also allows the party of adventurers to escape. Through Moiraine, Jordan also limits the abilities of the warrior Lan, setting a vague limit on the amount of Trollocs and Myrddraal he can kill, even though he is a warrior of phenomenal skill. The reactions of the characters and the decisions each character makes are believable and follow the reader’s understanding of each character.

In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, whether he realized it or not, helped to define the impact and role of African American culture on American society. Toni Morrison discusses the role of African Americans as a contrast to white society in her article Jim’s Africanist Presence in Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s book seems a story based in constrasts: freedom contrasted by slavery, and white culture contrasted by black culture. Morrison discusses these contrasts in her analysis of Jim’s freedom: “Thus the fatal ending becomes the elaborate deferment of a necessary and necessarily unfree Africanist character’s escape, because freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement, the anodyne to individualism; the yardstick of absolute power over the life of another; the signed marked, informing, and mutating presence of a black slave” (Morrison, 309). Twain’s utilization of contrasts, especially in racial and social roles, can be seen in several fantasy books. Robin Hobb’s The Soldier Son trilogy utilizes contrasts throughout all three novels. At the onset of the book, the main character, Nevare Burvelle, is exposed to a post-war world where Nevare’s society has recently conquered and subjugated a society known as the “plainspeople”. The plainspeople are treated as second-class citizens, being extorted and controlled by the society that conquered them. Nevare is entrusted to a member of this society, the enemy of his father, so he might learn to survive and rise above the plainspeople his father helped to conquer. The focus of the trilogy is Nevare’s experiences with the plainspeople, followed later by a forest people known as “specks”. Nevare is forced, through magic, to find a balance between these differing societies, eventually losing the distinction that separated him from the plainspeople and specks.

Fantasy Fiction cannot be understood through a specific origin or starting point. Instead readers must understand Fantasy Fiction as a genre that has come into its own, changing and shaping itself based on literature as a whole. Contemporary Fantasy Fiction authors cannot target Tolkien or Lewis as sole influences, because authors are influenced by everything they see, hear, read, and experience, reflecting those experiences in the literature they write. Mark Twain influenced Fantasy Fiction, because Mark Twain was a literary icon. Authors who read Twain are impacted by him, by Twain’s writing style and influences. Twain’s demand for realistic situations and characters can be seen in the work of successful Fantasy Fiction authors, such as Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, and Robin Hobb. Readers can see Twain’s influence in the characters that seem believable and lifelike, in the systems of magic that can be understood, and in the topics Twain himself covered that have been revisited through a fantasy lens. Although Fantasy Fiction deals in the impossible and the imagined, authors base their worlds on our own, requiring rationalized characters, topics, and situations. As such, literary icons, like Twain, will continue to influence writers and readers, despite the genre.

Bibliography and additional reading:

Hobb, Robin. Shaman's Crossing. New York: EOS, 2005. Print.

Jordan, Robert. Eye of the World. New York: TOR, 1990. Print.

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 2002. Print.

Morrison, Toni. "Jim's Africanist Presence in Huckleberry Finn." Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: a Case Study in Critical Controversy. By Mark Twain, Gerald Graff, and James Phelan. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin's, 1995. 305-10. Print.

Twain, Mark. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." University of Virginia Library. Web. 23 Feb. 2011. .