I wish I had introduced this earlier so I could get your ongoing reaction to progressing through this story, because not only is it very, very long, but is still in progress. Regardless, it’s something I’ve been interested in sharing. Usually when discussing entertainment that’s current with your students, like an ongoing TV show, or a book/movie/game “you gotta read/watch/play” that’s relevant somehow to a class discussion, it’s probably significant enough that you know what they’re talking about when they mention an aspect of its fiction. But if you aren’t already indoctrinated with a piece of entertainment, it’s not usually fruitful when a student tries to “convert” you unless there’s good reason to do so, because it can be very time consuming. I think this interesting thing to share is something you could potentially get a lot out of regarding how our culture reacts to literature – I remember you mentioning you thought the Twilight saga, in all of its scummy characterization, baffling plot developments, and BOLD liberties it takes with mythological creatures, was nonetheless highly informative in terms of what constitutes certain social phenomena, and this is a bit like that. But don’t feel nervous – I wouldn’t urge someone, especially a college professor, to take their time to read something very long if it were at all like Twilight in caliber.
After this class, I think a little bit differently when I think of sci-fi. The nerdy stuff that excited me, video games, movies, and the like, still come to mind, as well as those influential novels and stories from the 20th century, the pulp comics, the cyberpunk movement of the 80’s and 90’s, etc. However, my perception of what constitutes sci-fi have changed to include stories that are less about the cool technology and space aliens and whatnot and more cerebrally focused on the issues of even minor scientific changes like evolution –stories we read like those of bears discovering fire (thus beginning to evolve), ancient African tribes resisting the forces of globalization, or women founding their own civilization are sci-fi even though as these descriptions suggest they are themed more around the social issues these things create. I have also added a few authors like Philip K. Dick to my awareness of the important sci-fi greats. I still view sci-fi as a genre that can provide some quality escapist entertainment, but I also now look at it in a more scholarly way. Looking back, the most useful thing I’ve gained from this course is understanding characters and story purpose through identifying conflict. It helps me look at texts more critically.
As for my favorite sci-fi narrative, normally I’d say the original Star Wars trilogy, but from the very beginning I already categorized it as fantasy. The Half-Life video game series, especially Half-Life 2 with its heavy dystopian themes, is probably one my favorite sources of sci-fi, as its one of the few first person shooters that engages the player to use their brains and piece together the sci-fi world through their own player-controlled actions. Its “sister” series, Portal, is another quality source that greatly streamlines the intelligent aspect of Half-Life’s first-person gameplay into some challenging puzzles and complex character relations. Most people play Halo just to shoot the hell out of their friends or random people over the internet, but I find its another FPS series with a Starship Troopers-esque narrative universe that I grew fond of from playing it (Halo: Combat Evolved was probably partly responsible for other mediums knocking off and driving the whole Starship Troopers/Aliens-like subgenre into the ground), although it’s not nearly as sophisticated as Half-Life. Although I don’t play it myself, a lot of my friends are dedicated players of the highly popular StarCraft 2, which has a unique, distinguished, and well-designed cast of characters and some intriguing lore.
An unrelated observation: these sci-fi game series all seem to take the exact formula of the Aliens vs. Predator franchise. Just think about it – you have your three factions of human space marines, your ancient race of proud knight-like alien warriors, usually motivated by some sort of religious doctrine, and your swarm of bug-aliens that operate in a hivemind and try to consume or kill everything, all going at each other. Often you’ll have the space marines and the ancient warrior aliens grudgingly put aside their differences to stop the bug-aliens from fucking up everything by killing the Queen of the swarm or something to that effect. Seriously, look around and you’ll find that every popular video game with that theme has this. At least Halo and StarCraft both do, anyway.
Setting is one of the biggest factors that makes Vaster Than Empires, and More Slow work. Perhaps the most important aspect of the setting in this story is the social environment. Le Guin’s purpose was very clear in putting a motley crew of misfits alone with each other on a space ship travelling to a distant planet, settings both far removed from any trace of human civilization. This was in order to help drive home the theme of isolation that presides in the conflict faced by Osden and the rest of the crew. The social environment dictates that they all try to get along for the purpose of their mission but don’t, especially with Osden. This becomes important to Osden’s purpose in the story because it affects what ultimately happens to him. The physical setting of the planet’s forest is important as a psychological factor among our cast of characters. On a personal level, the forest is completely foreign and fully untouched by humans, and embodies the Western cultural view of the forest being a dark place full of untamed danger, the yin to the yang civilization provides, where one can enter and easily not come out alive. This view of the setting is part of what implants “the fear” that consumes the team and drives them further into conflict. The “fear” that results from this setting also is important to Osden’s character development as his empathic abilities enable him to discover the fear is mutually shared not only by the forest but the entire planet, and thus he overcomes his conflict. These events taking place in such a setting are the result of the underlying themes implied by the author – the theme of civilization vs. nature. A man ostracized for seeing through civilized people’s fallacious gestures meant to hide their true tendencies finds belonging in a place free of civilization.
In the advertisements you posted on Blackboard as examples to use, I noticed they all seemed to be trying to appeal to and using (rather blatantly) imagery meant to invoke associations with those highly ambiguous terms of nature and environment. From that I gathered that for this blog I ought to find an advertisement or piece of media of my own, and critically break down the true purpose of its environmentalist façade. I kept this in mind when searching for videos to use, but my first consideration was tempting because I could have Penn and Teller do the critical thinking for me, as you will see:
But then I decided I could have my organic cake and eat it too. The other clip I found was more in line with the other examples, and while it didn’t seem to specifically have any instances of “environment” or “nature” mentioned, it has an aspect that ties into what the first video has that I will talk about. Everyone seems to remember watching this campy old shit, but if even if you didn’t you’ve no doubt seen this flamboyant blue dude’s mug on various nostalgic merchandise. And if there’s one part of this show that seems to have imprinted itself on our pop culture it’s the chant for his summoning by five kids given magic rings by Whoopi Goldberg.
From watching the intro to this rather unfavorably aged Saturday morning cartoon, it is crystal clear the types of antagonists the young heroes will be trying to stop with the help of their vaguely homosexual, green-haired champion of Earth. We see them foiling the convoluted schemes made by caricatures of greedy corporate suits so exaggerated that they hardly appear to be human. Dehumanizing the “enemy” is a common tactic used in propaganda, after all – but how is something with the seemingly good intentions of protecting the Earth comparable to something as harmful as propaganda? It’s illustrative of one the points made in Penn and Teller’s video and one of the things we discussed in class about environmentalism. In class, we talked about cornucopianism and the view that scarcity of resources is a lie to manipulate the public into an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist frenzy. The Penn and Teller video offers a look at the dark side of this campaign where sensationalism and misinformation cause the facts to be overlooked by people (especially middle class Americans) eager to believe they’re taking up a heroic cause by both saving the earth from impending doom and battling the negligence caused by corporate greed. The viewpoint taken by Penn and Teller and their various sources of data seem to take a middle road in this issue, where there are indeed problems like global warming but we are nowhere near the state of things being projected by people who believe (or want to convince us) the world is on the brink of a crisis.
So what does Captain Planet have to do with it? It’s a pretty standard piece of mediocre children’s syndication but was very successful because it took a complex concern with many facets to it and simplified it down to the conventions of a Saturday morning cartoon, allowing kids of basically any race to identify with the “freedom fighters” united against an obvious opponent and a threat that in the context of a simplistic show is very clear (also its pro-environmental message was current for its time and it was one of the earlier instances of a group of protagonists each having control of one of the four classical Greek elements, a formula we would see time and time again in recent American animation).
(Here are links to the other two parts of Penn and Teller’s video, which offer some interesting perspective on the environmentalist movement):
We have a fairly basic but clear connection to Marxism in the characters of the short (emphasis on ‘short’) story The Nine Billion Names of God. One of the aspects of the story Marxism best explains is the unhappiness of the two men we could construe to be our main characters, George and Chuck, the engineers assigned for three months to work with an obscure Buddhist monastery in the Tibetan mountains on “Project Shangri-La.” In the Marxist model of human society, George and Chuck would most certainly be classed at the base of Marx’s pyramid model of post-industrial human society, being technical workers laboring for unremarkable rates (unless the monks happen to wealthy ones) to make money for what could only be material goods that bring short-lived, false and empty happiness. We know this from the way the book describes them watching TV commercials on page 918, and how the ads are “like manna from heaven” and their only “link with home.” By not sharing the spiritual beliefs of the high lama who has employed them, George and Chuck are obviously very removed from the product of their labor, and by being out in the Tibetan mountains far from civilization, they have little with which to fill the void of meaninglessness in their work, making them irritable and miserable for the three months they are there. The high lama, by contrast, is excited by the results of their work, and his status at the monastery puts him at the superstructure atop Marx’s social pyramid. By the time their job is done, George and Chuck could not be more elated to go home and return to their world of consumer goods, no doubt filled with beer, fast food, and reality television. Marxism helps explain the true role of these characters and why the setting they are put into makes their personalities the way they are (consumer-laborer drones unhappy in a job concerned with spiritual pursuits + no material goods to give them relief from their labor = unhappiness).
The novum is distinguished from elements of other fiction genres for having a scientific explanation as to why it exists, or at least having a basis in science. For example, it provides the backdrop for which we can believably become invested in the dilemmas faced by the characters of some of our “future” stories like The Second Variety, Burning Chrome, and Nekropolis, or “otherworldly” stories like Bloodchild, When It Changed and Kirinyaga. This is important because having a logical explanation for why this version of the future has the world in this way or has people living in another world different from ours (for a set of reasons that are almost invariably part of the statement being made by the author) allows us to better understand why these characters act in the way they do. And once again, it ties into the purpose of science fiction stories as thinly veiled social commentary. It essentially allows story to ask, “What sort of issues would arise if X was possible?” - X being the novum, of course – and the author answers in the way the story plays out. For example, in Baby, You Were Great!, we have the novum, a broadcast system of a person’s basic emotions made possible by electrodes in a person’s brain sending signals to helmets worn by audiences around the world. As a result, the story confronts the relationship issues of a woman whose entire life’s emotional experiences have been turned into a reality “show” being followed tirelessly by a whole nation. It uses science fiction to examine the sometimes harshly unsympathetic roads walked by the people in charge of showbusiness and the desire of the common people to get an escapist thrill through even the most simple, direct means possible.
I’ll be doing close-focus reading in The Persistence of Vision, of the fourth paragraph that begins at about the middle of page 807 and the two short paragraphs after it. Our unnamed protagonist has an inner monologue and starts remembering the help he got from Pink upon arriving in Keller. He feels gratitude and attachment to her for teaching him handtalk and expecting little from him in return. He calls her his “special friend,” and admits to feeling possessive of her. Pink and the other Kellerites, with their unbelievably acute perception of others’ feelings, knew the outsider was still subject to his caveman instincts of warding off contending males who are after his mate. So they all took a moment to comfort the protag, letting him know it was a natural reaction not to be ashamed of, and the man whom triggered the protag’s territorial instinct turns his affection away from Pink and on to him. Our protagonist explains how this conflict among male mammals is normally resolved from the point of view of a behaviorist (they fight for dominance until one submits). The Kellerites turn that view on its head by responding to innate human aggression with yielding. Rather than fight back, they roll with the punches, so to speak, making the aggressor’s belligerent strains seem futile. He almost cannot believe how such a simple response succeeds in solving this problem of human nature, so he laughs, the others knowingly laugh with him and everyone is happy. There is no conflict in Keller because there is no jealously because everyone shares the love without any reservations. This passage is how both we and the protagonist come to realize why Keller is a true utopia, and his relationship with Pink is more transcendental than them being lovers in the way we view romantic lovers in our society as exclusive to each other.
This clip from Moral Orel offers a good contrast to the passage and some unsettingly accurate commentary where the male tendency to “lock [her] away in [your] cave and defend with a gnawed-off thighbone,” as Persistance of Vision put it, creates strife and unhappiness, and makes utopia unattainable. Clay Puppington’s depressing drunken rant has a truthfulness that is almost bittersweet.
If you’re not familiar with Moral Orel I could offer an explanation but there’s always Wikipedia for that. If I could sum up as short as I can though it’s a parody and a criticism of religion wrapped in comedy blacker than the blackest black hole the universe ever had.
We never got around to talking about Nekropolis in class, as if we had just skipped over it. I decided for the sake of not leaving out anything on the syllabus I would give it a read and use my response for the concept of the week. After only a few pages, I am somewhat taken aback by the unusual words and names the characters call each other by. Looking at the editor’s foreword/description preceding the story helped clear up a few of the names for me - specifically, “jessed”, meaning bound into indentured servitude, and “harni”, a bioengineered clone. I had to get clarification on the many other foreign-sounding words through context, sort of like when reading Burning Chrome – but whereas Burning Chrome used computer jargon based on preexisting English words, these words sound like they came from another language. I still don’t know what a lot of these names meant, but the way these names were spelled and the way they sounded gave me the feeling the culture being portrayed here was analogous to (or the words are directly from?) Indian or Middle Eastern civilization. Not much later on, my beliefs were confirmed - page 389 describes mourners wearing white standing outside the Moussin of the White Falcon, and white is the color customarily worn in Hindu culture to mourn the departed, unlike the black worn in Western society. The words are still foreign to me, but do not impede in my understanding of the story. I was especially interested in how the dynamic between Diyet and her harni servant played out, and I wondered if after the tender moment they had after the first time in the story the mistress berated her, if her spiteful view of him would turn into one of love. Once she started referring to him by his name, Akhmim, that pretty much confirmed my suspicions. It’s a very intriguing relationship because we cannot always know if he is being fully honest in what he says, due to fulfill his duty of making humans happy, the very thing he was bred to do.
“I like to think of myself as a human being.” This is a quote by Bruce Lee, when asked on whether he considered himself Chinese or American. In terms of race, Bruce considers whether he is one or the other irrelevant. Ought we to answer in the same way if asked whether we are man or woman? Perhaps if we did, there would be no need for words like misogyny or feminism, and “The Other” mentioned by Simone de Beauvoir wouldn’t apply to the sexes. Gender is, like race, just another identifier – and much less clear-cut than being either male or female. Sex is different because it is required for humanity to propagate.
When It Changed presents a society where the need for two sexes to reproduce is gone, and thusly, the women decide to take their leave off a decaying, ravaged Earth and spend six centuries building a colony on a new planet with no men. When the men finally do come back, the concept of “the other” is taken to the utmost extreme – our female protagonists can hardly view the men as human when their kind has not been exposed to men for six centuries.
The Second Sex tells us how women in almost every society throughout history were defined by the men for “the sex”, and were differentiated for it in reference to the man – in other words, viewed as abnormal or substandard. This is like what is happening in the story but with the roles reversed.
Why didn’t the U.S. draft women during the first and second World Wars or the Vietnam War? They could have, but drafting all the women means there’d be almost no one around the homeland to have babies and keep our population up, which would put us in a very disadvantageous position if we’d lost the war. Does this still mean the draft policy during that era was discriminatory?
(“think about it in terms of gender and the complexities that arise due to the way in which our genetic code is not necessarily the same as our behavior” really confused me.)
The literary technique I learned so far I found valuable was the contrast between plot and conflict. As we’ve made clear conflict is the blocked desires of a character – when we normally think of conflict we like to think of a dispute between two different parties, but it can easily be the self (and no one else!) that creates conflict. More importantly, it is conflict that creates instability in order to drive the plot forward. Without conflict you don’t have a compelling story. Whether you like the protagonist(s) or not, ultimately for a story to be good you want to see how the plot goes in regards to how they resolve their conflict. In the same vein, learning the contrast between moral and theme was also helpful to me – themes don’t make value judgments (unlike morals) and tend to be more complex. Of the stories we read this semester on “Robots, Computers, and Science,” there were a few that stood out to me as exemplary of science fiction, due to their themes. Liar!, The Algorithms for Love, and The Second Variety all played on a similar theme – whether there is really a difference between man and machine. It’s the kind of social commentary that science fiction is defined by, and is full of intrigue. It gets down to the kind of tough questions I like examining. Take Your Choice was another interesting, somewhat ominous story that took an unusual twist on sci-fi conventions. It made several stylistic choices that really hit home for me once everything was wrapped up – the protagonist remained a nameless everyman, and the “time travel” turned out to be a ruse. When that, along with the results of the scam pulled all over the world coming up with people consciously choosing annihilation for their fake future, was revealed, it was a real “oh crap” moment that made me think “this is really what we are, huh?”
AEL, good work w/ the theme post and the way in which robots are the new "evolution" of humans. Interestingly, Darwin never said "survival of the fittest," which was a term favored by scientific racism to promote why blacks should remain slaves. Darwin said the much-less pithy "the tendency of organisms with beneficial random mutations to survive to reproductive age." A thing to think about. I love the Mega-Man X connection--I too loved Mega-Man as a kiddo. Good work this week!
Oh…sh*t. And I still hear “survival of the fittest” used completely innocently, the speaker probably totally unawares of its racially charged bakground. How incredibly awkward.
One of the themes implicit in Philip K. Dick’s The Second Variety is the end of humanity on the evolutionary line, not unlike the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. But in this case, the aforementioned space rock is instead nuclear weapons and the species that survived and evolved are robots – both the designs of humans, and built for war. While it not so implicit that the robots pitted against our protagonists are programmed to exterminate all human life, we are given evidence at the conclusion of the story that these robots are more than senseless killing machines. This is a sci-fi story that came from an era where the complete destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had recently shocked the world, and where robotics was a brand new discovery. Dick used that to channel the public’s initial, subconsciously fearful reaction that robots could someday replace us. Themes in fiction are supposed to avoid making value judgments, and while this theme is undoubtedly very grim, it is still examined neutrally in the story. This is evidenced in Major Hendricks final epiphanic thoughts about the nature of the Second Variety. “He felt a little better about it. The bomb. Made by the Second Variety to destroy the other varieties. Made for that end alone. They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other” (Dick, 331). At the very conclusion of the story, Hendricks realizes that, in a way, the machines are “human” after all. Like living organisms, they adapted ways to outsmart their prey. By imitating humans and getting behind their defenses undetected before summoning the hordes of more primitive “species” of robots adapted for overrunning and killing, the numbered “Variety” androids illustrate the possibility that we will be the orchestrators of our own evolutionary replacements, a theme explored often in science fiction. The Second Variety exposes the grim circumstance caused by “survival of the fittest” when humanity is no longer the fittest.
Dick, Philip K. “The Second Variety.” Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.
Elena from The Algorithms for Love by Ken Liu is, in my opinion, the best character we’ve read about so far. Within a story that takes ten to fifteen minutes to read we are told of a deep and multi-layered inner conflict in her worthy of a novella. One of her primary conflicts could fit the very definition of “desire blocked” as we call it in class, and in the text it goes like this: “I wanted something to fill my arms, something to learn to speak, to walk, to grow a little, long enough for me to say goodbye, long enough to quiet those cries” (Liu, 422). She is rendered unable to birth children after her first attempt at having one and it leaves her empty, grievous, and envious of the everyday mothers she sees around her. Part of what puts her at odds with her husband Brad is his incapacity to fully comprehend her desire to raise a child but not birth one out of loyalty for Aimée, who died in infancy for reasons unexplained by the author. So to resolve her conflict, she builds robotic dolls as surrogates, and her revisions make them so close to real humans that her “Tara” model fools Brad into believing she is not a mechanical doll. Elena’s impeccable robotics work is what creates her second major inner conflict. The more she learns to imitate human behavior with robotic algorithms, the more it becomes plausible to her that human behavior itself is algorithmic. The success of Tara on her real-life Turing Test does not make Elena pleased with her efforts, but frightened. “What if our brain cells are just looking up signals from other signals? What if we are not thinking at all? What if what I’m saying to you now is just a predetermined response, the result of mindless physics?” (Liu, 425) She discovers she may have cracked the code for the human brain, and exposed free will as a mere illusion. To solve this conflict, she attempts suicide at least twice – she fails, only creating more conflict with Brad through more lack of comprehension.
Liu, Ken. “The Algorithms for Love.” Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.
In our first discussion last week my definitions of science fiction got grilled a little bit - or perhaps more refined. It was probably good that the first example we looked at in our “Sci Fi or Not?” debate was the original trilogy of Star Wars movies, which was my favorite movie series as a youngster. Seems like a classic example of science fiction, right? It has space battles, robots, laser guns, all the staples of the type of imagery most of us have come to associate with the genre. One of the students in our discussion said Star Wars was not science-fiction and he gave some very good reasoning as to why he believed so. To summarize, he basically described the series as a fantasy story, citing the importance of inexplicable magical Forces (hurr hurr see what I did there) to the plot and its classical themes of good versus evil. He contrasted those centuries-old narrative themes with the themes of the hard science-fiction, the kind of fiction I see as the Star Trek theme, with its plots fixated on logic and problem-solving and its more detailed explanations to the science of its fictional universe. In my mind the comparison likened Star Wars to a fantasy for kids taking place in a magical land, not like the more down-to-earth alternate futures seen in stories like those of Isaac Asimov, with his “humans trying to understand robots (and vice versa)”, or H.G. Wells with his time travel and space invaders and other strange but maybe someday possible things.
Overall he made a very good point about what he defined as science fiction. And when I thought about it, Star Wars did have the thematic elements of an old Arthurian tale, centered on Luke, of the classic farm-boy-turned-hero trope, achieving his destiny and using his nobleness and cool sword to bring peace to the land galaxy. In fact, the very lynchpin of this argument could be traced to the now immortalized phrase used to introduce us to the story – “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” This would seem to imply that Star Wars does not take place in the future, but in the distant past! Star Wars is just a retelling of the story of King Arthur and his Knights Jedi of the Round Table, updated for a new generation in an enticing sci-fi facade.
However, that doesn’t mean I agree that it makes Star Wars unqualified as a piece of science fiction. Wikipedia (a fine website to use when not looking for articles from legitimate institutions to cite for research but for easy summaries of miscellaneous things) describes Star Wars as a “space opera”, which has its own article described as a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes adventure. Star Trek, while less fantastical and more “nerdy”, fits this bill also. Space operas were considered cheap and trite during the era of pulp SF, when there were really big wars going on and authors channeled the public’s fears of annihilation through stories of space invaders and cold, malevolent automatons wanting to destroy the poor heroes. The New Wave of SF occured during the great social change of the 60’s and 70’s, and Star Wars and Star Trek were a part of it. They were stories that proved space operas and science fiction on the whole could be more than cheap entertainment and spawned their own respective multi-billion dollar franchises. They deviated far from what the “pulp” space operas were and for that they were successful. If some people believe that is too far off the formula to still consider them science fiction they could be right, but their definition of SF has to be very limited to what it could be. Maybe only speculative movies like Bicentennial Man are science fiction to you. But while it’s themes are those of fantasy, Star Wars takes place in a universe full of elements that draw inspiration from the SF stories of old. Wikipedia’s neatly bulleted list of science fiction elements are still represented in Star Wars just as expected as from other SF stories.
I got a little tangential with the Star Wars example but that just goes to show how much I revere science fiction. And not just because I am a huge nerd but because modern times have come to accept science fiction as a legitimate literary outlet for scholars to analyze and for our culture to revel in. Already, stories like Star Wars and Terminator are being dissected by the professors succeeding those who did the same to stories like Don Quixote and Beowulf. History repeats itself and science fiction is a piece of history we are experiencing in our lifetimes.
Oh crap. I should probably be answering the second part of questions the prompt is asking me and I am an hour late to posting this entry. I love sci-fi and most of my exposure to it comes from movies and video games because as I said I am a huge nerd. I haven’t been exposed to the real classics like Asimov and Wells because my generation is too ADHD to read books. I like science fiction for the cool alternate worlds and universes it imagines and the larger-than-life stories and fascinating characters.
I think this picture sums how I view science fiction that I both know and don’t know of, depicting imagery of the old science fiction I’m not exposed to but in a medium that has basically defined my life. It is from a video game by the name of EarthBound and it is about kids saving the world from aliens.
I’m excited for this class because I get to learn about the classics that are the predecessors to the SF stories I love, and I can look back further and know where their inspiration came from.
My fears for this class are basically happening right now. I’m going way overboard on the blog post, and I’m getting behind schedule which is what always happens that prevents me from getting good grades.