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 na├»ve, 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.