Saturday, September 13, 2008

On Researching/Teaching Willis: Student Perspectives on Doomsday Book

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I experimented last spring with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. Unfortunately, some students didn't get their work in back in May, so I've been sitting on the last two post-group research/teaching project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, was simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These were not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it. So here's the next-to-last such set of them.

Two teams gave presentations on Connie Willis's Doomsday Book.


Clark leads off the first team's response:

Generally, public speaking is something I’m not too crazy about, but the environment in out classroom this year actually made it fairly easy to field our questions, and let our opinions be heard. I was also luckily paired up with a partner that I got along with, and was well versed in the topic of time travel, as he’s actually a philosophy major. Throughout our meetings, my time spent with the novel, and the presentation given on the last day of class, my knowledge on the topic of time travel has basically skyrocketed.

Being able to present on a novel that dealt with this specific subject was also something that I feel helped our discussion go pretty smoothly. Really, any way you look at it, most people have some interest regarding the subject, and are probably willing to give their take on the idea as a whole. Also, who hasn’t thought about where they would most like to travel to if they were given a time machine of their own?


Jessup concludes:

I learned a lot from teaching the class on the first book of Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. I’m a philosophy major and have never done much critical reading of fiction before. Critically reading fiction is very different than critically reading the philosophy papers that I am used to. In a work of fiction, there are literary elements that you just don’t see in the world of academic papers. I had a hard time finding the major themes within the book but a very easy time trying to find questions to ask the class. In the papers I am used to reading, the writing is normally straightforward and they make sure you don’t get left thinking “how did that thing work?” or “I missed some hidden message” like I was getting from most of the books in this course. I do read a lot of fiction, mostly high fantasy, but I had never read them critically before. I feel that this teaching assignment made me grow as a fiction reader in that I now understand better how to find the questions that may make the plot more interesting, the characters more human, and the book more fulfilling.

I really enjoyed this assignment as a whole. I plan on eventually becoming a philosophy professor and this assignment really let me get into a professor’s shoes for a day. It really let me see what I was in for. This assignment also let me work on my group project skills. I would have preferred to work alone because I usually do, but being forced to work with someone that I wasn’t really familiar with really allowed me to grow as a student in academia. I think that being able to work with any one at any time is a very important skill to have and doing assignments like these are really helpful in building your ability to do so.


Faith concludes:

When I first began researching for teaching the class on Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, the first realization I had was how different preparation for teaching was from researching for a paper. When you are obtaining information for teaching, you have to convert it from pure research into something that will hold class attention. In addition to being able to hold class interest, it was more important to memorize the facts you learned while researching. Nothing irritates me more than a professor who does nothing but read from notes or a text all class period long, so I tried to remember that while I was working on my lesson plan. I wrote brief reminder notes to spark memories of things I learned instead of writing them all out, so I wasn’t even tempted to just read from notes.

Another thing I felt was important to teaching was involving the students in discussion as opposed to just giving a lecture. I found this much easier said than done. Maybe it was that end of semester trance we fall into, but it seemed really hard to get any sort of reaction out of students in the class. There were a few students who did respond, but it seems like it is always those few students and I who have anything to say. Needless to say I was very grateful to them for not leaving me hanging out there like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

In researching this novel, I gained a lot of knowledge about time travel. I learned that not only is it a question of Physics, but also a prominent discussion in Philosophy and Literature as well. To me this reinforces how Science Fiction can become Science not-so-Fiction given time. The amount of research out there on time travel was staggering. I also got frustrated trying to understand the physics aspect of it when my concentrated areas of study are English and Philosophy. It was hard to wade through all of it without ending up focusing just on time travel and ignoring the novel, when after all, the novel was what I was supposed to be teaching. So, I decided to just briefly touch on the scientific aspects and provided just enough information to compel students to learn more without teaching an entire class on the Grandfather Paradox, Einstein’s Time knots and the Butterfly effect.

Finding a way to relate this book to the theme of the unit was the one easy part. “Histories of the Future” was obviously reflected in this novel since the plots were both in history and the future. The hard part was relating it to something that was happening when the book was written. With the Cold War over, and Bird Flu, SARS and Anthrax yet to come, authorial intent was somewhat hard to identify. This is often the fault with authorial intent, so I didn’t dwell too much on it and decided to take my focuses elsewhere.

I learned a few things in class from the students. Although the discussion wasn’t exactly on topic, we began discussing comic books during a lull in class conversation. I had no idea that comic books were actually Science Fiction. However they never interested me much and I have very little time for them, so I never really gave comic books much thought. To me superheroes were for kids and guys, not for 32-year-old English majors. I felt grossly uninformed and a bit silly with my lack of comic book knowledge, but I guess that’s what I deserved for stereotyping.

In the end, I feel that teaching a class was a very important experience for me. I have always had a deep respect for teachers, but never realized just how difficult it can be. The hardest part isn’t necessarily coming up with the lesson plan, but involving and interesting students. I learned a lot from the experience, and I am now especially glad to have changed my career goal to Library Science because while I respect and admire professors, I don’t envy them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Try This Fun Search

Head on over to the SUNY Fredonia online library catalog and type in "science fiction." We're an official repository of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so we get dozens if not hundreds of new novels a year. The collection's basically taken over the 3rd floor of Reed Library. Check it out when you're in town!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dan Simmons Hates Hamilton College

Or at least it appears that way, as the following line from Ilium

I feel like I'm in the crucible of oral exams at Hamilton College, my undergraduate alma mater. (528)

gets contradicted repeatedly in Olympos, where the character in question's B.A. is from Wabash.

For shame, Mr. Simmons, for shame!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Neal Stephenson, Structuralist

Got this off fimoculous, it's a video of a lecture by Neal Stephenson called "The Fork: Science Fiction versus Munane Culture" at Gresham College.

Watch, learn, comment!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

American Otaku and American Imperialism

I found pretty amazing the juxtaposition between this Wired article on the popularity of otaku culture in the United States and this American Prospect article on the ways in which the new Iron Man movie tiptoes around the comic book's legacy of wrestling with the legacy of Vietnam and the tradition of American imperialism. It raises questions for me about the relation between different popular media, how their fans interpret and respond to them, and their larger political ramifications in the U.S. But above all it makes me wonder to what extent Americans' consumerist culture and subcultures might constitute a critique of imperialism, an extension of it, or a new phase of it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On Researching/Teaching Stephenson: Student Perspectives on Snow Crash

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.

Two teams gave presentations on Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.


Gary gets the ball rolling for the first team:

I presented on Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson. An excellent book that I really enjoyed reading. It is one of the few books that I have actually laughed out loud while reading. The opening with the Deliverator, and the memo on toilet paper use are pure gold. What I liked most though is that the writing didn't get stuck focusing on just characters or just plot. I think there was a good mix of character driven story and plot growth. Most of the characters seem multi-dimensional and the plot doesn't quit as it did in some of the other books we've read.

I also loved the world in the novel. It almost seems like a real life internet to me. Each of the corporations and Burbclaves controls a small section where they have absolute power. They can say who can come in and what is allowed there, just like moderators on a website. I really like the way that this fits with the Metaverse. In the Metaverse people buy land area and can do whatever they want with it. The biggest difference between the Metaverse and reality is in one you use the highway to travel between sites and the other you use the Street, and also in one you can die.

In the end I thought Snow Crash was an exciting and funny read. Its action scenes are great, it dialog scenes are deep, and neither seem forced for the sake of creating the other. I would recommend it to anyone who loves the internet, cyberpunk, or books.


Chris continues:

Personally, I enjoyed Snow Crash. I thought Stephenson did a great job of creating a universe that responded to other authors such as Gibson while still being distinct and interesting. His universe was evocative and stylized, and when reading it, I came across three basic parts of the novel that I came to enjoy. The three major aspects of the book I liked were: the technology, the interesting characters, and how the story was thought-provoking but humorous.

Concerning the technology, I loved the various machines and software that the author had created. This, I must admit, was more of a superficial reason for me liking this novel. I “oooo'ed” and “ahhe'd” at the technology shown, just like some kid going to the zoo and watching the animals. The robo-dog and goo gun were good examples. The goo gun wasn't quite as flashy, but it was an interesting item, that definitely could get some real-world use. And of course, the Metaverse was extremely interesting. This technology could revolutionize entertainment and communications, creating a real gap between physical and digital life.

The characters were also interesting. Of course, Hiro Protagonist was an odd character, but interesting. His odd mix of hacker, samurai, and (at least from our time) lowly pizza delivery boy was humorous, but showed many interesting concepts in this world. The idea that someone could be a celebrity online while unknown in real life is something that is rare today, but becoming more commonplace. Also, his mixed ethnicity created some an attachment to our time, in that the racism in our world has not disappeared, even in this novel's time, when people can be anyone they want in the Metaverse.

I also liked the female characters who came into the story, especially Y.T. and Juanita. Y.T. was another odd character; a valley girl turned skateboarder with some overactive hormones. Y.T.'s sexuality was an odd aspect of the character, and made me question why she was so sexual. Was it just the hormones (most likely), or just some weird idea of the author's? Either way, she was our eye into the skateboarder culture, which was an extension of our times. As for Juanita, I really identified with her. She was a strong woman, but instead of being cold or mean, she was realistically made, as she was simply hard to get close to. And her strength was a personal toughness, as she was able to live on her own, and withstand pain with ease.

And finally, I enjoyed how the novel remained funny without becoming purely entertainment. The suburbs, for example, didn't fit the glitzy world outside of them, and made a mockery of the escape of whites to the suburbs in the US in the 1950s. The lack of a central authority was humorous also, but also pointed out how, in normal life, a city block can be its own country, with a different culture and way of living. The racism was an example of the world wouldn't change on some levels, but still mocked the way we stereotype people.

I loved this book. It was funny, serious, original, and stylized. Its humor, characters, and technology captured my mind, and refused to let go. Yet, it still had meaning within its humor and characters, and made it so that I was both wiser and happier when I stopped reading the novel.


Ross concludes his team's reflections:

Upon researching Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, I made two major discoveries. One is that Stephenson’s creation was ahead of its time, that his ideas influenced later technology. Just as William Gibson’s Matrix pre-dated the modern internet, several of Stephenson’s concepts have, in time, become a reality. The second is the sheer size of the novel’s fan base. While running searches on Google, I came across entire archives of information related to Snow Crash and collections of essays with diverging perspectives of specific themes within the book. Simply put, the process was not very difficult.

A particular piece of writing that I read presents an opinion which I had never considered before. Basically, it calls the entertainment value of Snow Crash into question. It accuses The Metaverse of being boring and tame. “There is little consistency in his [Stephenson’s] method,” says Matthew Hutson, author of the article. “Why is it that one’s avatar can’t be taller than one’s real body but one’s avatar can be a huge penis?” Hutson uses this example to contrast Snow Crash with Gibson’s Neuromancer. In Neuromancer, he points out, people “can fly or swim around through grids of data and break through sheets of ice.” He asserts that while Stephenson’s conceptions are merely “mildly imaginative,” Gibson’s are “drastic,” “far-fetched,” and “risky.” The Metaverse, he concludes, is “largely more boring than real life.”

In my opinion, The Matrix and The Metaverse are not really that different. Aside from the corporeal and dimensional laws that are present in Snow Crash and absent in Neuromancer, each portray a similar experience of jacking in. One still travels through data and uses code to crack code in either story. Additionally, the height limitation on avatars does not constitute an adequate argument for The Metaverse being “more boring than real life.” It is true that a denizen of The Metaverse cannot create an avatar that surpasses their own height. Regardless of this, a person’s actual body is unable to be taller than itself and is also incapable of being a giant penis. Logic tells us that, at least in this respect, the Metaverse has more going for it than reality.

This is but a small bit of the contemplation that resulted from my research. Having been a fan of Snow Crash for some years now, I was surprised to learn of its devoted following and its impact on popular culture. Indeed, before taking this class I would never have thought that it would be required reading in a college level course.


Jared kicks things off for the second team:

Coming into Snow Crash I was completely unfamiliar with the impact it had on technology and the computer science industry. I had not heard of the author or book outside of the class and I was pleasantly surprised by the satirical tone the author presented. The book read more similarly to a comic book or manga than the more serious science fiction such as Foundation or Neuromancer. I had assumed that this book must exist as an outcast in the world of science fiction as science fiction is so often criticized as an illegitimate genre not meant for the serious reader. Unfortunately it is this false pretentiousness that legitimizes many subpar works and drives readers away from such gems of literature as Snow Crash.

As I read I kept in mind that it has been criticized as sloppily written due to the pace quickly changing from action to a slower, more reflective mood. Looking back on the book I cannot understand what this criticism means. I can imagine what a choppy pace would read like but I fail to understand how Snow Crash fits into that criticism. Realizations such as this force me to question if I am a more simple minded reader than the critics. Regardless I had a fun time reading Snow Crash if for no other reason than to spite those who criticized it for being satirical.


Alex concludes:

I loved Snow Crash. The book was recommended to me a few years ago by a friend, and I had liked it at the time, but it didn’t really seem like anything special. So it sat on my shelf gathering dust for a couple years, and after I finished I was really glad to have revisited it.

There were two things in particular that I found especially interesting about Stephenson’s novel: A, the overwhelming influence of Sumerian myth in the plot, and B, the satirical style of the novel (something I actually didn’t get the first time I had read it). The Sumerian mythos present in Snow Crash is the story of Inanna, a goddess of sex and war. Juanita is strongly associated with Inanna in the story, doing many things similar to Inanna, such as heading directly to the “underworld” (L. Bob Rife’s giant raft) and confronting Enki (Rife) and stealing the Me (stealing Rife’s work and becoming a “neuro-lingustic hacker”). The part that got me most about the satire aspect of Snow Crash was the fact that I had missed it the first time around. Stephenson pokes fun at almost everything--from pizza delivery to the government to religion to the internet to the mafia--it’s all there, and it’s pretty funny. One of the best parts of the novel is the very beginning, probably one of the best openings to a novel I’ve read. It goes on for three pages and it’s just epic statement after epic statement about the Deliverator, his car, and living life under the mafia.

One thing that did bother me a little bit about Stephenson’s style was that his characters were fairly flat, and very similar. They don’t have much emotional reaction to their surroundings--the most that we get is Hiro and Juanita’s relationship, and while it’s interspersed throughout the novel, the bulk of it is at the end, and it’s not deep to the extent that other writers have made such relationships out to be. The rest of the novel is mostly butt-kicking. The fact that most of the characters seem to be James Bond analogs seemed to send somewhat mixed signals to me, as it’s hard to get a reading on some of the moral implications of the characters' actions. For example, the sex (rape?) scene between Raven and YT--YT is clearly too young, but she can’t really do anything about Raven’s advances, and even almost welcomes them, and doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction to them after the deed is done.

Despite its James Bond Clones, I really did enjoy the book. It’s an excellent example of satire and of cyberpunk, and I’ve since recommended it to many of my friends.


Editor's note: Among the many useful Stephenson/Snow Crash pages out there, I'd particularly recommend fUSION Anomaly's Nam-Shub of Enki and George Landow's students' Snow Crash site.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On Researching/Teaching Simmons: A Student Perspective on Hyperion

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.

Due to the illness of another student, there was a team of one teaching Dan Simmons's Hyperion.


Paul writes:

Hyperion for me was an extremely hard read. There were so many things going on at once inside the book that I was easily lost in the stories for hours trying to work my way out of the literary references and solid character development. Yet that was the best part of the story for me, and consequently, the best part of presenting the book. These little hints of other science fiction and literature made the pilgrimage of these 6 people very interesting and made presenting the book a lot of fun.

In my junior year of high school I was “forced” to read the book Heart of Darkness, which at that time I thought was monotonous and uninspiring. That being said, when I was first reading father Hoyt’s story I was reminded of Kurtz in Conrad's novel. That uncanny resemblance I initially disregarded as my mind playing tricks on me. Then as I continued to read I stumbled across bits of Beowulf in Kassad’s story and further in the book I found hints of Neuromancer in Brawne’s story.

So when I had to research to present the novel I enthusiastically jumped at looking to see if Simmons had intentionally placed those works of literature in Hyperion. What I found was not shocking, that he not only intentionally placed those stories into Hyperion but he placed many more works in the novel (For example, the Consul’s story was a combination of Romeo and Juliet). I really enjoyed seeing this because it creates an environment in which you feel comfortable in and, consequently, can feel as though you are participating in the story-telling aspect of the novel.

This was by far my favorite part of the whole story, watching this all-star team of literature walk to fight this God-like creature. I absolutely fell in love with this aspect of the novel and I think many people, once they find these literary allusions, will fall in love with it too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On Researching/Teaching Asimov: Student Perspectives on Foundation

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.

Here's the team that taught Isaac Asimov's Foundation.


Anonymous begins:

In preparing for the group project about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation I learned many things about the books, the author and his influence on science fiction literature. I was particularly interested in the way he put his story together, which was unlike anything, especially in the sci-fi genre, I had read before.

Originally I found Foundation to be kind of a boring book in comparison with the other books assigned for the class, but as I got further into the novel I became enthralled with the story. Asimov’s style is a little dry and I think the descriptions of both the characters and settings in Foundation are a bit flat, which is not surprising when considering the subject matter of his books. The political part of this story is what made the book so interesting, and the allegories for the fall of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages that followed are spectacular.

After gaining some background knowledge of the genre and the time period of Asimov’s writing I can see why the books are so influential in the science fiction genre. Apparently most science fiction writers of his time were concerned with writing space-adventure, a type of story Asimov himself rejected. His stories are more scientific, political and social. Also, he has written over three hundred books, a number which I found unbelievably impressive, and a huge number of articles, columns, and short stories.

Another interesting thing I read is that Asimov has a strange view on the destiny of humanity, which is reflected in his stories. In Foundation, and I am told this theme shows up repeatedly in his work, Asimov toys with the idea of mankind reaching a God-like state because of their achievements in science. Hari Seldon is a prime example of a character reaching a God-like status in his books, as he is almost completely omnipotent. He can tell the future of a society, but is incapable of predicting the future of an individual, which, as far as Seldon and his plan are concerned, is inconsequential. The conflict between individuality and destiny is an important theme in this book.

I am pleased with my group’s decision to research Asimov and present Foundation to the rest of the class. It’s no wonder that his storytelling is so influential to other science fiction stories.


Eric adds:

Isaac Asimov has an asteroid named after him--the 5020-Asimov--discovered March 21, 1981. This is only one of the many awards that Isaac Asimov has received. There’s a good reason why Asimov is regarded so highly. He is the author (and/or editor) of over 500 novels, and his legacy of science fiction and science fact is a legendary part of the sci-fi movement.

One of his most famous novels is Foundation, the first book in a trilogy (originally--it later became a series of 5 books). Asimov based his book loosely around the fall of the Roman Empire, and he makes a reference to many events from the historical time period. An interesting fact to point out is the inclusion of a pocket calculator in the novel. At the date of publication, 1951, the pocket-sized calculator was not a technological achievement yet, and would not be for another 20 years.

Asimov was born to Russian parents and raised under the Jewish religion. No one knows when he was actually born, not even himself, and he is quoted as saying that he celebrates on the second of January. He became an advocate for science fantasy during his 19th year, after discovering science fiction fandom. He earned a degree in biochemistry (a doctorate) from Columbia University.

Asimov doesn’t write science fiction that deals with aliens, either. His form of science fiction is a human-based one, where either the problem at large is robots or people themselves. Another little tasty tidbit: Asimov has a cameo in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Unfortunately even people must die, and Asimov died on April 6th, 1992.


Megan concludes:

Foundation... I had expectations for the novel that were probably unreasonable. It came to me overhyped from my boyfriend (I think he tried getting me to read it after we were dating about a week.) That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, cause I did. I just didn't enjoy it on the level I feel like I was supposed to.

Firstly, maybe because I'm an English major and a fan of thorough character development, Asimov's style didn't appeal to me. Hardin and the merchant guy were the only characters that felt real to me, and they were in essence the same character. The story was fun but not impressive; in many points it was predictable and boring even. The theory of psychohistory was interesting, but seemed an awful lot like sociology, so I don't know.

The main thing that grabbed me from the book was the concept of a cycle of Empires. The Galactic Empire is in a fall, much like the fall of the Roman Empire or British Empire which was going on around the time Asimov wrote the novel, and America's was on the rise. The idea that all Empires follow a certain pattern and that there will be a darkness in between the rise of the next Empire is fascinating. Perhaps he was even saying WWI and WWII were the dark age between the fall of the British Empire and the rise of the United States (who knows? just a guess). I like that view of history though because it suggests that history is predictable and not random. Which obviously is what psychohistory is all about.

From a theoretical stand point I think its a cool novel. But the story, characters, and writing style didn't really do it for me. I'm glad I read it though, it gave me something to think about.

And as a response to the teaching part of the project, it's different trying to talk about a novel from a significance stand point instead of from a literary point of view. I like it better.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Researching/Teaching Butler: Student Perspectives on Parable of the Sower

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.

Here are two of the three team members on Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.


Carolyn begins:

After reading this book it was immediately clear to me that there were certain topics that were considered main themes of the book. Religion and Earth Seed was the main focus of the book from what I could tell. I find it extremely interesting how people react so differently in drastic situations. This book was interesting because it gave us all different types of people to observe. We had Lauren who was a firm believer that Earth Seed was going to save the world, or at least start over basic humanity again. There was the older generation in Lauren’s neighborhood who seemed to be so stuck in the past referring to the “old days” before the change. Rather then accept that they had to take action, or at least precaution, they had rather focused on maintaining some sense of stability in the neighborhood and not reacting to what they had to have known was coming in the end.

I found I was comparing myself to Lauren throughout a lot of the book, trying to determine if I would be able to react the same way she did; in a way it sort of helped me to rationalize some of her behavior. The only thing that differs from Lauren and I is the fact that she turned to religion as her crutch in the book and I really don’t think that I would react in the same manner. It’s hard for me to judge because I doubt that I will ever seriously be part of that type of world, but at least as far as I can tell I think if anything I would separate myself more from any ties to religion I have now. A lot of people turn to God in desperate situations and pray that he can get them out of that when in fact its something I believe you have to do for yourself. If you can’t depend on yourself to get you out of whatever chaos you’re in, then you can’t depend on anyone. Also, Lauren was just so stuck in her ways, almost closed-minded, which was a characteristic that reminded the readers that Lauren was in fact only a teenager and wasn’t really able to grasp the full concept of what was going on around her.

I found the book really interesting and out of the books that we’ve read so far I think it was really the easiest read we’ve had. At least for me I was able to put myself into the main character's shoes and was able to really understand, question, and criticize what was happening.


Jessica concludes:

I am really happy that teaching the class the novel that we read was part of the assignment. While teaching the class Parable of the Sower, I learned even more than from just reading it. Our group received so much feedback; it turned out to be a great discussion. Our group was a little nervous at first, but the presentation flowed very smoothly.

One part of the discussion I found myself thinking about quite a lot was “sharing.” This is when Lauren, the protagonist in the novel, shares pain with people that are suffering. The class thought about, “What if the society was full of ‘sharers,’ how would the new apocalyptic society deal with this?” This is because they could slow the society down, or bring the entire hope of the society down as well. The thought of enslaving them even came into my mind (as sick as that is); however, it was interesting to get different perspectives on what would happen to this society. The discussion opened my eyes to new ideas about the subject, when I did not think there was that much significance about sharing when I first read it.

Also another idea that was interesting that I have thought more and more about after teaching it, is could this apocalyptic world really happen? Would there be a drug that could make people act in a way of violence? Would we have to live in gated communities? I did not think twice while reading the novel that any of these factors within the book could possibly happen in the real world; however, getting the other students’ perspectives on the novel made me think otherwise. If our economy was destroyed, and millions were homeless or dead, I think that there would be this competition of life that Lauren and her group, and even the rest of the apocalyptic world, had to go through.

Also while reading Parable of the Sower, I was in Lauren’s head the entire time because it was her journal that we were all reading. She had so much hope and so much faith that they would get through this time, and their world would go back to what we live everyday. That the world would go back to its “normalness.” However, while having the discussion with the class, many people felt that really Lauren was naïve, and getting the world back to normal was a very slim chance. It gave me an entirely new perspective on the book. The entire time reading it I was on “Team Lauren.” I knew that she was so smart and would get her group out of the debacle they were in. However, while having the discussion with the class I realized and spoke out that Lauren, as intelligent and beyond her years as she was, she was still just a kid. She was only 18 at the oldest in the book. She still had the hopes of a child, and would not take no for an answer that they would make it out of this situation alive.

I learned a lot while teaching the class this book. I even learned a lot while getting my group’s perspective on the novel. Each of these class discussions opens my mind to other ideas that I never thought of before, and that is something I really look forward to. It always makes me think, “Did the author plan for us to think this way or that way?” It is just interesting to get different points of view on an idea that was so concrete in your brain while you were reading you were not up for interpretation, but during the class discussion it really opened my eyes to different ideas. I would not have changed anything about our presentation; it went great.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

As a last hoorah for this blog I figured that we (although there aren't many members I suppose) should recommend some science fiction for each other to look into. For any of the students who took this class and do not hate sci-fi for making you read it, I would be interested in any suggestions. I am a huge fan of Philip K. Dick first and foremost. I am also into Alfred Bester, Michelle Houellebecq (sort of sci-fi, check out The Elementary Particles) Douglas Adams, and recently I have discovered Stanislaw Lem and want to read more of his stuff. Italo Calvino has some work that is considered sci-fi and he is just amazing.

p.s. Would you mind recommending some fantasy for me, Prof. Simon?

World of Warcraft as a dumbed down version of The Matrix

Let me begin by saying that any MMORPG could have been used to illustrate this point but I chose WoW for its ridiculous popularity and rampant takeover of everything. I believe that the majority of people who play World of Warcraft do so for the escape that it offers. Much like Case turns to The Matrix and feels elated to leave himself behind, so do WoW players tire of the series of sex cravings and identity crises that we call life and find solace in the game. Unlike The Matrix, though, you can only do and be so many things in WoW. In The Matrix you can move in any which direction, in WoW you have your average everyday physics only it is totally vicarious. A vicarious relationship with a poorly rendered model that has limited feature customization. Your activities in WoW pretty much boil down to mashing a few buttons (as a former player I know that most classes eventually start spamming one attack because it works best,) moving great distances by holding forward and saving up fake money so that you can spend it and then start saving up for a replacement of whatever you just bought. I believe that WoW, in the long run, is very similar to working in factory only you are spending money to do it rather than making it. Now after all of the hearty criticism I have to conclude that when I played Wow I had a fucking blast. My question is, WHY IS THIS GAME FUN? That question has no answer because logically it totally sucks. It is pretty colorful, though.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Researching/Teaching McHugh: Student Perspectives on China Mountain Zhang

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching-project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.


Angel writes:

I presented on the novel China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh. I decided to start my work by searching for easy facts pertaining to the novel. It was difficult to find information on the author. Worse yet, it was hard to find information on the novel itself.

What I did find were pointless blogs and random reviews. I started to base my research off of this. The blog by the author was pointless, and connecting this to the novel, I realized, it too, was pointless because it lacked a plot. Ironically, I found it interesting because why would someone write a book where nothing happens? I chose to focus on this feature of the work to see how others felt on the subject.

Stemming off from the idea of no plot, came the question of the point of multiple narrators that sounded identical. I also found this interesting. I did not understand why a writer would choose to have different perspectives, if they were going to end up with the same voice. Focusing on these ideas was useful because the students in the class pointed out valid reasons.

Although it comes up often in class, I thought more about the idea of what classifies a novel as science fiction. I wanted to be able to point out any facet that appeared in the text that could place it into the science fiction category. This made me read more clearly than I would have otherwise. I was forced to consider what mindset a writer must be in when writing a novel of this sort.

I thought more about the concept of what makes something a science fiction work as a result of this project. The writing style was a detail I focused more on because of its lackluster quality. This was an element I would not have focused on if I had not been preparing a presentation. Doing this work made me take a more in depth look into everything contained inside the novel, including the way it was crafted.


Alex adds:

To be honest, I do not understand why this book is being taught in a course with other, better-known, science fiction novels. It was extremely difficult to locate any external sources on the book or the writer, Maureen McHugh, minus things like and Wikipedia (which I refuse to use in a project of any kind). The writer herself, who had a blog, did not discuss the book, though I did learn a great deal about her various pets. This made it extremely difficult to do the project as specified in the rubric and made us work more outside the box with our presentation.

The book itself, I found to be highly straightforward. I was able to follow it without too much trouble and went at a pretty fast pace while reading. I found it interesting that the writer decided to center the novel around China as the world’s superpower and not the conventional United States, though I wasn’t really fan of the McHugh’s “plotless” way of writing. While I understand that the book was to be more of a glimpse into the future, I was not very impressed with the lack of action. Any time a character came close to feeling something it would shift to a different narrator.

We reverted almost solely to the text and what we believed McHugh was trying to say within it, without any actual proof. At first this was a daunting experience, but then we realized that this opened more windows than it closed doors. We were able to use the text to our advantage, forming our own ideas of what we thought the writer was getting at, as opposed to telling the class what she meant. It greatly helped the discussion since we were able to keep prying and digging deeper.

Angel and I tried to focus on the characters and places and their effect on the overall feel of the novel. We noticed a strange consistency with many of the characters. They all “sounded” the same. Their dialogue, minus that of the true Chinese, was amazingly similar. So similar that, at first, I thought it was just poor writing on the part of McHugh. The class, however, opened my eyes to the idea that it represents how connected they all are. Even though they are hundreds of miles away (some being on Mars) they’re still connected by the Chinese superpower.

The places themselves were also a key example for us. Each place had its own separate feel, but at the same time they were all connected to China. Even Baffin Island, which wasn’t a part of the Chinese empire, was loosely attached, made clear by the easiness of Zhang’s initiation. One of the big things we made sure to talk about was the change of New York City, probably the world’s current leading city, and its downfall into just one more place under the power of communist China. I found this point especially interesting, given my own personal wish to one day live and teach in the city.

The project, though at first difficult to accomplish, came together well and I think we did a very good job. I was thankful that the class was responsive and helpful in our discussion and that we were able keep a steady flow of different answers. As I stated before, I just wish there had been more information on the writer and the novel out on the internet. I think that it would have made it easier for Angel and I to follow the rubric and its specifications.


Editor's note: Nothing against my students' research efforts, but there might have a been a few things of interest from and on McHugh (and CMZ) here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Not to mention what you can get through academic databases.... But their overall point is well-taken: close reading works!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Why, Thank You, Nalo!

It's official! Award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer Nalo Hopkinson will be giving a reading/lecture at SUNY Fredonia on Monday, April 21st. And she'll be making a special appearance in our Science Fiction class the following day, which we're moving to a new room to accommodate Saundra Liggins's African American literature class and any other Fredonians who want to attend.

Many thanks to the Dean of Arts and Humanities John Kijinski, the Pride Alliance, the Science Fiction Fantasy Gamers Guild, and the Mary Louise White Fund--not to mention the amazing Ms. Hopkinson herself--for making this visit possible. And to Jeffrey McMinn, Textbook Manager at SUNY Fredonia, who will have about 25 copies of her newest novel, The New Moon's Arms (which, by the way, was recently shortlisted for the Nebula and Aurora awards) and her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring (which won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest in 1997 and recently was one of the 5 finalists among the books selected for the Canada Reads program).

Here are the details:

Monday, April 21, 4:30 pm, Thompson W101: Reading/Lecture on race in science fiction; free and open to the public

Tuesday, April 22, 2 pm, McEwen G26: Class Visit; free and open to SUNY Fredonia students, faculty, and staff

And a bit of a bio:

Born in Jamaica, and raised in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and the U.S., Nalo Hopkinson has lived in Canada since her family moved there in 1977 when she was 16 years old. The author of four novels and two short story collections, she has branched out into essays, editing, and art in recent years.

Spread the word!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Thursday, April 3, 2008

How Big Was Asimov in Japan?

...Particularly in the immediate post-war decades. Because although I suspect his original Foundation trilogy was intended not only a thought experiment in how Europe picked up the pieces after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire but also as a thinkpiece on where the U.S. stood to stand after the decline and fall of the British Empire, it's occurred to me both times I've taught Foundation that it really was Japan that picked up on the whole "how to win friends and influence people through trade in high-tech miniaturization" vibe towards its end (and in the beginning of its sequel).

Not being an Asimov expert, I'm ashamed to admit that I'm probably as influenced by South Park's "Chinpokomon" episode (video/script/commentary) as anything here. And I don't have time to do any real research on the question of how much influence Asimov's 1940s stories and early 1950s novels may have had on Japan's trade and technology policies (or, for that matter, on those running the American post-war occupation of Japan). But wouldn't it be weird/neat if the answer was, "lots"?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Reading Robots Historically

Here are a couple of posts by a former student of mine, Dave Lester, that will be of most use for my students when we're reading Marge Piercy's He, She and It after spring break, but illustrate so well the "significant distortions of the present" and "histories of the future" ideas that structure our syllabus that I had to link to them here on the eve (well, late afternoon) of spring break!

p.s.--Dave, if you happen to come across this post, I'd love to hear your thoughts on my call for a video game studies summer camp over at Citizen of Somewhere Else.... I'm sure this will be of absolutely no interest to my current students, which is why I'm addressing this p.s. solely to you.

p.p.s.--speaking of robots....

p.p.p.s.--and uprisings....

Monday, March 17, 2008

On Researching/Teaching Gibson: Student Perspectives on Neuromancer

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching-project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.


Here's one from Anonymous #1:

I really enjoyed reading through Neuromancer. I have always been a big fan of the cyberpunk subgenre, though I never read this particular book before. Now knowing the “true origins” of cyberpunk, it has really given me a newfound appreciation towards what it has become. The many different pieces of the world that make up the plot had definitely grabbed my attention.

Being a film enthusiast, the similarities of cyberpunk to other genres had really been a point of interest for me. When you mentioned the similarities between cyberpunk and film noir, I immediately began to compare and contrast the two genres, remembering different multimedia that represent both genres the best. This in particular definitely motivated me to read this book carefully.

In conclusion, I found Neuromancer to be a good, if challenging read. Remembering the general structure of a Quentin Tarantino film, I was able to hang on for the ride William Gibson set out. I generally find it hard to get into a book, but I really enjoyed Neuromancer. Let’s just hope the world doesn’t turn out to be in such bad shape a few decades from now…


And from Anonymous #2:

I'm not going to lie: Neuromancer gave me the hardest time while reading it. I'm not a big fan of books with a lot of action and very limiting dialogue since I'm more likely to skip paragraphs of detail to get to the main plot. Of course, when you skip all of that detail in Neuromancer, you get lost really quickly. Add the fact that you're thrown into this world and are expected to say "yes, and..." to everything that is thrown at you regardless if it makes sense or not, it's a tough book for someone to get through. I was forcefeeding it down by page 20 and I was choking by the time the first section was finished.

I had high hopes for Neuromancer, too. I had seen Johnny Mnemonic, I had read great reviews for it on Amazon, and I'd had it on my wishlist for at least 6 months before joining this class. I was sorely disappointed in the overall writing style and most, if not all, of the characters. I'm not a person who can just accept every character personality or fact of the world without saying "why?" Whenever I asked "why?" to the book and found only silence, I wanted to throw the book across the room and forget about it.

However, I'm not saying that Neuromancer is a bad book. While the writing, to me, has a lot left to be desired, the plot line is quite interesting and the concepts behind it are alluring. What would happen if we were being watched by a super computer? Are Wintermute and Neuromancer merely representations of divine beings? How far will people go to live forever? Could an AI unit really schedule your life out so you can help them evolve? Is it really that easy to manipulate chance? If written by any other author, Neuromancer would have been a better read for me.

I've always been interested in cyberpunk--ever since I watched The Fifth Element, I've been interested in futuristic novels and movies and anything that has interesting gadgetry or aliens or robots thrown everywhere. While I don't claim to own many cyberpunk novels (vampires are my main genre), I do enjoy finding movies and such to get my cyberpunk fix.

In our in-class discussion, we went over what can be constituted as "cyberpunk". Most people concentrated on the dystopian/cyber/future part of the genre, but overlooked one simple word: "punk." Punk isn't just about the music or the fashion (although I've found that the wardrobe of what could be considered punk or gothic is usually thrown into the details), it's about sticking it to "the Man". Most people will think that "the Man" means the leader of whatever country or group that the hero is apart of. However, the "man" is anything oppressive and what is overcome doesn't even have to be a person, it can be a social concept in the world. The world doesn't have to be dystopian, it doesn't even have to be as technologically advanced as we imagine it to be. It merely needs an oppressed society and a hero who is willing to break rules to fix at least his place in that society.

In conclusion, Neuromancer was a hard book to read, but cyberpunk continues to be one of my favorite genres. People need to remember that cyberpunk has the word "punk" in it and isn't indicating the attire of the characters. And characters being roped along by faceless AI units is a bit closer to the concept of "God" than anyone really realized.


And here's Lauren Picariello:

During the course of our study of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, I actually found myself relating to the character of Case in some ways. His generally apathetic attitude towards the outside world and events around him reflects how ignorant I was about government when I was younger. I knew it affected my quality of life and society I was accustomed to, but I never took the time to think about how any of my actions could affect it. Case has a basic, but limited awareness of his surroundings and only seems to concern himself with what immediately involves him instead of the bigger picture. As the novel’s plot develops, Case begins the see the internal workings of the grungy social structures of the century he lives in.

Furthermore, I believe the technology presented in the novel isolates Case’s character from his real feelings in the same way that today’s modern nuclear family has suffered deterioration due to new technological gadgets that enable more independence for younger and younger generations. The most basic example is the cell phone: children have it to be in touch with family, but use it primarily to be in touch with their peers. At their leisure, they can communicate with their friends whether they’re on a family vacation, at the dinner table, or in the middle of math homework. In the past, parents had say over when their kid was allowed to use the phone. In this day and age of expansion, communication is becoming more and more limited to instant gratification.

What I saw in Case was a need to get high, a need and dependency on drugs to feel more alive and “human.” While energized by ‘hexagons’ (and various other drugs), Case has sharper realizations that I thought went beyond the normal line of sight coming from an average citizen of Chiba City. An example of this is shown when he returns to where he and Molly are temporarily staying (having previously had surgery and modifications to his organs), once again hopped up on drugs. His sudden rush of urgency and need to be in touch with his surroundings is the sense of wonder I felt when I took the time to investigate what was really going on outside my shallow perception of the world. To be personally involved in the issues of the world like Case was with Wintermute--even if it wasn’t on a face-to-face basis--opened up more opportunities to express myself not only as my own person, but as a freethinking member of the world.

I personally enjoyed Neuromancer because of its complexity. I know it was difficult for many people to get through, and it was definitely a challenge for me as well. However, I found having to re-read paragraphs satisfying due to the numerous interpretations one could take from each, and the chance to re-experience that one specific scene in a book is like watching a different angle on the scene unfold. Also, when I read I pay very close attention to the details but can unfortunately miss the bigger picture. If you were to ask me about several of the sub-plots, I’d honestly be able to provide an accurate but vague description. Ask me about a specific scene, and I can discuss it at length. This is what kept me so engaged in Gibson’s work. Not only that, but I’m a huge fan of the cyberpunk genre (I own Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner, The Matrix trilogy, Steamboy, Appleseed, and other anime titles) and was fascinated to discover that Gibson was the “creator” of cyberpunk.


So there you have it! Coming soon: learning analyses on Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Butler's Parable of the Sower.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Like Neuromancer, China Mountain Zhang, Fahrenheit 451 and countless others, Parable of the Sower contains a common theme that helps to make science fiction such a human genre. Each of these novels depict a world in which massive organizations drastically oppress the individual. In Fahrenheit 451 for example, this overpowering force is represented by the government, while Parable of the Sower portrays it as organized religion. As the stories progress, they begin to express similar sentiments. Ultimately, they attempt to propose possible ways in which a single person can maintain their identity in a world that is dominated by authoritative figures. They comment on society's lack of interest in human beings as human beings and suggest that perhaps the fate of mankind belongs in the hands of man. I may as well go ahead and recommend The Stars My Destination. It is a late fifties sci-fi novel written by Alfred Bester and it deals with the same sort of material that we have been focusing on in class. It is also just really great.

Apocalypses Then, Again

Just a quick follow-up to my previous post. One way of thinking about the multiple apocalypses in the science fiction we've been reading so far this semester is to consider the dominant literary mode in which the authors choose to write, what consequences it has on their representation of pre- and post-apocalyptic life, and what connections it might have to the historical era in which they were writing. So what do you make of the following list:

Earth Abides: American primitivism
Fahrenheit 451: American pastoralism
Neuromancer: the American sublime
China Mountain Zhang: American beauty (or is it urbanism?)
Parable of the Sower: American realism

Do you agree I've got the dominant literary mode of each work pegged? Or is it reductive to try to isolate one mode for each--after all, each has multiple strands and participates in multiple traditions--so maybe it would make more sense to try to analyze the relations between the various literary modes in each work before trying to compare and contrast across works and time periods. But then the complexity of the task starts to risk being paralyzing rather than invigorating. We have to start somewhere. Why not keep it simple at first?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Apocalypses Then

As we come to the close of the "Distortions of the Present" unit of the course, it would be worth reviewing the different imagined futuristic apocalypses in the five novels we've read, comparing and contrasting them, relating them to their authors' times and our own, all the while digging into the etymology of "apocalypse" and traditions of apocalyptic and post-apocalytpic writing. Given how sick I am, though, I am in no condition to do this today. So this will just have to be a semi-open thread! Students can feel free to comment here or on the course discussion board; everyone else, have at it here!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Cybergrunge Revisited

I had to miss class Thursday--my older daughter had a stomachache (or so she's been complaining for the past week) and with my wife in Buffalo for work/school, the only doctor's appointment I could get was right in the middle of it (doc couldn't find anything physically wrong with her--yay! boo for how easily manipulated I am by a 4-year-old). So I gave out a silly little handout based on my Cybergrunge post here and and failed to explain it well on our course ANGEL space, and most people mostly didn't know quite what to do with it. What I was hoping would happen was that people would analyze the setting, characters, plot, and style of China Mountain Zhang and Neuromancer, not just describe them. What I was hoping would come out of that analysis is the recognition of features of the novels that could be related to the musical movements of punk and grunge. But a 8 1" x 1" boxes on an 8" x 11" piece of paper don't really lend themselves to that, even if I had explained the task well in handwriting that was halfway legible. (My apologies, but my daughter got bored while I was making it and wandered out of the office to the downstairs front entrance of the building before I noticed she was gone. Yup, another father of the year moment. So in my defense I was a bit freaked out and rushed while finishing it up. And, yes, I did find her, ok?)

Still, those who could read my handwriting and took the time to comment on my proposed distinction between cyberpunk and cybergrunge had some neat ideas. Here's the neatest one so far (people are still dropping them off in my mailbox):

Gibson and McHugh took their basic settings and ideas based on popular culture of their decade. The '80s is about punk and going against the man which Gibson shows in Neuromancer. The '90s were a bit more depressed and introverted; it was the decade of grunge and Kurt Cobain. I expect China Mountain Zhang to be about that.

Yeah, this is my basic idea, too. Think Johnny Rotten vs. Kurt Cobain and you get something of the contrast between Case and Zhang. Think the loud and fast DIY aesthetic of punk of the Ramones and the Clash vs. the slow and sad/loud and angry dialectics of Nirvana and Pearl Jam (and, for that matter, early Radiohead) and you have something of the contrast between the plotting and pacing of Gibson's and McHugh's writing.

You can do more with this--like point out that the '80s were also the era of elite as well as "underclass" drug use (think cocaine and crack epidemics), urban crime and government corruption (even by supposed anti-big government "revolutionaries"--anyone remember Iran/Contra?), the heightening and then end of the Cold War (although the line from "evil empire" to the fall of the Berlin Wall is less direct than many today would want to convince you), and the culture wars--in order to complicate the contrasts between the decades and the movements. (Yes, kids, the '80s weren't just about "going against the man" and punk was one of many musical/political responses to the events and tensions of the decade. I can tell you because I was there! Now I feel like Ish. And not in a good way.) And if you go far enough you might also find interesting similarities between the decades, musics, writers, and subgenres I wanted to get you thinking about. Feel free to do that on your own!

As for my analogy proposed in my update, Beeblebrox is right to suggest it stinks, but mostly, I think now, because I got it backwards. It's not:




. (Made you nostalgic for the SAT, didn't I? Or did you not take them before they got rid of analogies?)

Wait, maybe it's both. I'll just lay out both ways of thinking through these analogies and let you decide if they help at all!

For the first, I was thinking of how dramatic and exciting Gibson makes Neuromancer and linking it to the excitement that early existentialist writings sparked among mid-20th C intellectuals. A kind of despairing, desperate excitement, but one that was self-consciously challenging the big ideas of the West (God, rationality, metaphysics, ontology, yadda yadda yadda) and writing in the heroic mode about becoming over being and making meaning over finding it and challenging dogma and authority and yadda yadda yadda. Whereas their successors, the postmodernists, took that kind of yadda yadda yadda/"been there done that" blase attitude to all that, taking a kind of cool, ironic pleasure in demonstrating that we live in a world characterized by various instabilities (of language, meaning, identity). Which to me captures something of the difference in the tone and atmosphere of McHugh's writing when compared stylistically to Gibson's.

For the second, though, I started thinking about characterization and quickly realized that Zhang is going through a fairly fundamental existentialist crisis, as the "Baffin Island" section dramatizes and thematizes quite well (just think of his response to the Arctic landscape as akin to the existentialists' crises of meaning and metaphysics). China Mountain Zhang really is a classic bildungsroman--it really does tell the story of Zhang's becoming, even as it interweaves it with other characters' lives and developments. On the level of characterization, Gibson is much more postmodernist--it's hard to tell what, if anything, Case and Molly have learned about themselves at the end of Neuromancer; the biggest character development is the merging of Wintermute and Neuromancer, and Gibson leaves for the rest of the Sprawl trilogy an exploration of what they become.

So it's no wonder why the analogy isn't clarifying, although I wouldn't go so far as to say it's complete b.s. (A little joke there for those who know my initials.) Would you?

Is that zeitgeist I smell?

Well in response to Dr. Simon's Cybergrunge movement, I have to say, you really freaked out my morning. Envoking the spirits of Sid Vicous, Kurt Kobain Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-François Lyotard in a smoke (or is that zeitgeist?) filled room discussing whether "Cogito ergo sum" or because everyone else does, got me stumbling through philosophy text books and burning myself on "too weak for philosophical thinking" coffee. Well, here's what came out of my brain. Postmodernism, without totally frying the minds of non-philosophy taking classmates with Kant's Copernican Revolution, et. al., is according to allabout " difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist's premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist." ( Wheres as (shamelessly copied from the evil Wiki-Gods)"Existentialism tends to focus on the question of human existence — the feeling that there is no purpose, indeed nothing, at the core of existence. Finding a way to counter this nothingness, by embracing existence, is the fundamental theme of existentialism, and the root of the philosophy's name. Given that someone who believes in reality might be called a "realist", and someone who believes in a deity might be called a "theist", therefore someone who believes fundamentally only in existence, and seeks to find meaning in his or her life solely by embracing existence, is an existentialist."( Now, if somebody could please tell me where I was going with this, I'd sure appreciate it because I've just imploded. Oh, take that, my prettys, and apply them to the texts, see if they fit and get back to me...PLEASE...I need another pot of Coffee cause Derridas drank it all. And yeah, Bruce you didn't clarify anything for me. In fact, I tried to clarify it myself and got even more confused. But like one of my favorite teachers once said "you don't go to Philosophy looking for answers". I guess I should have listened.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


No time to elaborate on this idea, but reading the opening of China Mountain Zhang for class tomorrow prompted this attempt to coin a term to counter the attempt by one of McHugh's blurbers to enlist her in the cyberpunk movement....

[Update: This analogy will probably not clarify anything for anyone, but it works for me: cybergrunge is to cyberpunk as postmodernism is to existentialism.]

Monday, February 25, 2008

I was thinking recently of the way identity is approached by Gibson, thinking specifically of the desperate need to escape or transcend it that seems to have taken hold of Mankind in his novel Neuromancer. Though this desperation seems to have manifested itself in many forms within the novel's society, for example, with inorganic prosthetics, the one that I believe to be the most central to its story is the incorporeal experience of jacking into The Matrix. Jacking in essentially removes the limitations that physicality creates. The Matrix shares the idea of an examined, edited, and perfected persona made possible by the modern day Internet and makes it a living, breathing reality. One goes online and, temporarily at least, no longer has to live confined to a solitary existence. They coalesce with this gargantuan world of information data and can technically be anything that they desire. This could be interpreted as a sexual thing. All of these people becoming a commune to elevate themselves from their restrictive forms certainly sounds a bit like intercourse to me. I may be way off, what do you guys think?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Significant Distortions?

Today I have seen two websites that really made me think, are Gibson and Bradbury really distorting the present or are they just writing a contemporary fiction piece?

When we think about distorting something in class we rarely think about distorting animals. However i was browsing the internet today and came across something quite interesting. You remember the metal hound that attacked Montag in 451, right? Well take that concept one step further and you have this:

Also i found something that related to the Gibson's concepts of feeling through the direct interactions of two people's nervous systems. Introducing iCyborg:

If you look at all four of the distorted animals you'll find that some of them are really quite shocking, and that one of them actually has moving parts. Even thinking about the possibilities Warwick has presented is shocking and awe inspiring. While looking at this some of you might seem a little uneasy or even angry. This then begs the question, is the technology that Bradbury and Gibson present in these novels really that far in the future? While it is impossible to find a working mechanical dog that functions in the ways that Bradbury's does, we do have a blueprint for a creating one in Lisa Black's artwork. And while we cannot currently interact between computers in our current state, Warwick believes that we do have the ability and the technology to interact with them if we only try.

Interesting stuff, huh?


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hey Kids, Warren Ellis Is Giving out a Free Post-Apocalyptic Comic Book Online

Freakangel. 'Nuff said.

Gibson's Chiba, My Chiba: On the Image of Japan in U.S. Cyberpunk

Reading the first chapter of William Gibson's Neuromancer made me nostalgic for Chiba. Not the Chiba of Night City and Ninsei--a kind of "historical park" to the origins of the Yakuza, a "deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself" (11)--but the Chiba of my wife's parents, of the 5-square-block area around their home my children and I know as well as anywhere we've ever been. The Chiba of the Don Quixote department store, the Tsutaya video store, the Book-Off secondhand store, the grocery stores and the combinis, the play parks and the elementary schools; the Chiba that's connected to the downtown bus and train station/shopping district by a ten-minute bus ride or half-hour walk, that's even closer to the Yamada Denki discount electronics store and the public library and a little farther from the discount shoe store--and that's even a long walk from the shrine we go to for New Year's and the cemetery we visit to clean the gravestone of my wife's grandmother, our older daughter's namesake. While it's true that there are areas still basically controlled by the Yakuza, and that the relationship between Chiba and Tokyo might well be analogized to the contrasting images of Jersey City and New York City, I don't need the excellent analysis by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in Control and Freedom of the related orientalisms of Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell to convince me that Gibson's Chiba--and his Japan in general--is quite significantly distorted from its reality in the 1980s, much less today.

In a sense, though, I'm not just nostalgic for the real Chiba, but also for the image I got of it from Neuromancer, many years before I ever visited Japan. Nostalia is weird.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Across the Pond

As we move from Stewart and Bradbury to Gibson this weekend, it's probably a good thing to reiterate the U.S.-centricity of my course and attempt to contextualize it with this review essay from The Times Literary Supplement and its focus on British sf. It picks up on and runs with many of the central concerns of the opening of the course.... So reading this and thinking about your experience in the course so far, what do you see as the strengths and limits of my design?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Notes on Fahrenheit 451

Here's something I posted at Citizen of Somewhere Else not too long ago. To make up for monopolizing the panel I was on with Professor Parsons, I've encouraged him to consider the first hour of class tomorrow all his!


My university is participating in the Chautauqua/Cattaraugus counties' version of The Big Read, with their focus on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. As the last person in the department to teach our Science Fiction course, I'll be contributing to a panel discussion on "Fahrenheit 451 as Novel" with my colleague Dustin Parsons early this afternoon. The goal is to get the audience thinking and talking, so I'm aiming for short and sweet.

Here's my talk's outline (with page numbers keyed to the 50th Anniversary Edition):

I. Where It Comes From

  • A. History: Fascism, McCarthyism, The Great Depression (132, 150-154), the Bomb (158-162)
  • B. Literature: Dystopias, American Pastoralism (140-145, 157), World Literature (150-153), The Martian Chronicles (Grand Master Edition 31, 108, 180)

II. How It Is Relevant Today

  • A. Postmodernism and New Media: Entertainment (81-82, 84, 87), Information (61), Knowledge (105-108), Wisdom (75, 82-86, 163-165)
  • B. Democracy and Capitalism: Mass Culture (54-55, 89, 108), Diversity (57-60), War (73-74, 87, 158-162)

Here are some suggestions for further reading. First, a few novels:

  • Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection (1967)
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (1991)
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)

Then, a few links:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Significant Distortions of the Present in Earth Abides

If you google "significant distortion of the present," the Samuel Delany idea that I'm using to structure the first half of my science fiction course this semester, you'll come across two provocative review essays from Science Fiction Studies that analyze Delany's SF theorizing. They provide two slightly different perspectives on it, reflecting the evolution of Delany's own thinking from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s:

Patrick Parrinder: science fiction "uses the future as a convention to present a significant distortion of the present."

Kathleen Spencer: the function of SF is to create "a significant distortion of the present that sets up a rich and complex dialogue with the reader's here and now."

For more--and more recent--considerations and extensions of Delany's idea, check out Jeffrey Tucker's A Sense of Wonder and Madhu Dubey's Signs and Cities. What I'll do here, though, is start a list of the ways in which it is relevant to George Stewart's Earth Abides. Feel free to add to it!

  • Connie Willis, in her 2005 introduction to the edition of the novel we're reading in class, argues that all the post-apocalypse novels and short stories of the early Cold War years "were at least partly prompted, if not by 'nuclear dread' as Thomas M. Disch believes, then by an uncomfortable post-Hiroshima awareness that humankind's residence on Earth might be only temporary." She situates Earth Abides as part of a "vibrant, ongoing conversation among [post-apocalyptic] authors, not only being inspired by one another but also expanding on, arguing with, making fun of, going off on a tangent from one another."
  • I see the novel as also looking back to the immediate post-W.W. I era, literally (check out this PBS documentary, this Stanford University overview, and this recent book on the Great Influenza--and for a broader perspective, see William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel) and figuratively (from H.G. Wells's Outline of History to Madison Grant's Passing of the Great Race to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," many writers in the 1920s were speculating on the past and future of humanity and civilization), but through the lenses of new developments in the natural and social sciences, particularly in ecology and sociology.
  • Even more broadly, I would suggest that Stewart is putting his novel in dialogue with mid-20th C accounts of the "discovery of the New World" and the apocalyptic consequences of the Columbian exchanges for the descendants of the earliest settlers of the Americas.
  • I think you could find many places where the novel engages contemporary concerns about the effects of segregation and racism, urbanization and suburbanization, and capitalism and the culture industry on the American people, particularly through those who Stewart imagines would most likely survive not only the "Great Disaster" itself, but also the "Secondary Kill," not to mention the ways in which the community the SF-area survivors he focuses on develops over the generations.
  • It's worth looking into the characterization of Em over the course of the novel and more generally at the ways in which Stewart engages issues of race and cultural difference for insights into the strengths and limitations of early Cold War liberalism in America.

In class in a couple of minutes, we'll get into more specifics on these ideas. After class, we'll see if any students want to add to this list!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Pet Peeves

I have certain pet peeves when it comes to attempts to define science fiction. Here are a few:

1) Definitions that aim to exclude science fiction writers or subgenres you don't appreciate;

2) Definitions that aim to exclude your own works from science fiction just because you don't want to be labelled as a science fiction writer;

3) Definitions that seek to elevate science ficion over other non-elite genres; e.g., "science fiction is that branch of fantasy which does not suck (because it's so much more, like, rational, progressive, logical, systematic, relevant, etc.)";

4) Definitions that attempt to prescribe what future science fiction writers should attempt to do.

I have a few more almost peeves, but these are less about definitions than about origins and lineages, so I'll save those for another post.

What are your peeves?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Is Earth Abides Science Fiction?

This question was in play when Stewart's novel first came out in 1949 and it's one I'm putting in play for us here.

Think of all the other novels, films and tv shows, and more that are definitely post-apocalyptic but may or may not be science fiction: recently, Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Brian Vaughan's comic book series Y: The Last Man; not so long ago, Stephen King's The Stand or the tv show The Day After; roughly contemporaneously with Stewart, all the authors Connie Willis mentions in her 2005 introduction to the new edition. Which would you consider science fiction? Which not? And why?

Just to get us thinking about defining science fiction, why we do it, and what's at stake in it....

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Agree with 99% of This

And that's rare! Check out Clive Thompson's piece in Wired on science fiction as simulation and thought experiment and see if you can find the 1% I disagree with!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Welcome to sf@SF

sf@SF is starting off as a course blog for the students in my spring 2008 version of ENGL 216 Science Fiction, but it will eventually include anyone affiliated with SUNY Fredonia who wants to post their writing on science fiction here. It replaces sf@SF 1.0, which was a neat experiment, but too much work for the students in my spring and summer 2005 science fiction courses who chose to design their own web sites on a few of the authors we read. This semester, students have the chance to become co-authors of this blog and post here instead of, or in addition to, participating in the discussion board of our course ANGEL space. And, after each student team has lead a discussion on the author and novel of their choice, I'll be posting essays from each team member that use his or her research and teaching as a springboard for further reflection.