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!