An archive for pleasure, research, and teaching--please feel free to comment, suggest or contribute.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Books Worth Reading: What is Speculative Fiction?
(Courtesy of Darwin's Orphans)
What is Speculative Fiction?
Books Worth Reading
The kind of fiction I like to read the most, and that I tend to focus on here, falls under the broad umbrella of “speculative fiction.” I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the traditional genre labels of science fiction, fantasy and horror. The definitions that are most often applied to these genres seem so limiting, and they leave out a wide swath of really great books.
All three of these genres have one thing in common: The stories concern elements that do not exist in the so-called real world. In other words, they speculate about what might be possible but, in our everyday experience, isn’t.
In science fiction, the speculations must be grounded in the principles of science; they might not be possible now, but someday they could be, which is why science fiction is often set on future Earth or on another planet. The subjects of science fiction are space travel, dimensional travel, time travel, post-apocalyptic societies and technological innovations.
In fantasy, however, the speculations are usually based on magic and the supernatural. These speculations must follow rules, but they are not the rules of science. Generally, fantasy stories take place in imagined worlds (but not necessarily another planet) or on a fictional historical Earth.
Horror, on the other hand, most often takes place in the present day, in the world in which we live. But it introduces a fantastic or supernatural element, usually a monster of some kind. Horror also differs from fantasy in that it, by definition, should be frightening and dark.
But what about fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of these three categories? For instance, where would Neil Gaiman’s American Gods be classified? It is set in the modern-day world, but with its cast of mythical gods, it shades more toward fantasy than horror, although it does have horrific elements. Or what about David Mitchell’s excellent novel Cloud Atlas? This experimental novel is set in several different times, in the past, present and future, including a post-apocalyptic society. But it doesn’t read like traditional science fiction.
To Read the Rest of the Post
Cory Doctorow (archive)
SciFiDimensions: Cory Doctorow
(This interview is jammed with intelligent speculation about growing police states and terror hysteria. Doctorow is also a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Doctorow is also one of the greatest examples of the creative commons ethos. I just picked up this book for my nephew ;)
Cory Doctorow - Interview with the author of the new young adult science fiction novel Little Brother (April 2008 from Tor Books). In addition to being a freelance journalist and copyright/ technology advocate, Doctorow is one of the co-editors of BoingBoing, one of the most popular blogs on the internet. His personal website is Craphound.
To Listen to the Episode
SciFiDimensions: Review of Little Brother
Boing Boing TV: Make Your Own Little Brother How-To Video
Friday, July 04, 2008
BBC Radio: Pirates
BBC Radio: World Service Documentaries
Nick Rankin takes a journey through history looking at pirates past, present and future.
Nick Rankin travels to Africa to find out how modern day pirates are ruling the high seas.
Nick Rankin explores the world of intellectual piracy - the stealing of ideas.
To Listen to the Episodes
Jeff Vandermeer Interview of Paul Barnett aka John Grant: Science Has Been Corrupted
John Grant and Paul Barnett Agree: Science Has Been Corrupted
by Jeff Vandermeer
How did you come to write Corrupted Science?
The book grew naturally out of a previous nonfiction book of mine, Discarded Science (2006). The earlier book was concerned with notions and hypotheses which over the centuries science had, as it were, deposited by the wayside — from the flat earth to the music of the spheres to Creationism, the luminiferous aether, and beyond. While I was writing it, it became apparent to me that there was a qualitative difference between those notions that were wrong simply because of people's lack of information — their position along scientific history's timeline, in effect — and those that were wrong because people were deliberately making them wrong.
To take a single example, when Ptolemy maintained that the Earth was the center of the universe, this was because he didn't know any better: it was a reasonably logical guess considering the state of knowledge in his day. Centuries later, however, when Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo had shown there was a much better explanation for the behavior of the heavens and the Roman Catholic Church was trying to suppress that better explanation, the Vatican was guilty of deliberately corrupting science. The motivation in this instance was a doctrinal one — much like the motivation for most Creationists/IDers today, now I come to think of it. Of course, there have been lots of other motives that have led people — both scientists and non-scientists — to corrupt human knowledge. Personal gain is an obvious one, as is self-deception, but the various ideological motives clearly are likely to have far wider-scale effects. Just think for a moment of the bad anthropology that was used to justify the Nazis' attempted genocide of "lesser races".
So the subject of the corruption of science seemed to me to be an important one.
What would you really like readers to take away from the book?
That the corruption of science, being more truly phrased as the corruption of human knowledge, is IMPORTANT.
We all suffer whenever someone indulges in the wholesale falsification or suppression of knowledge. The most serious suppression of knowledge at the moment is in connection with global warming, where media and corrupt or just plain dimwitted politicians have conspired in the idiotic pretense that there's still debate within the scientific community about the reality. There ain't. There's debate about some of the details, but the only dissent within the climatological community about the reality of global warming is from a handful of mavericks. All power to those mavericks, but their rather noisy existence doesn't imply that the climatological community is riven with doubt.
Because of the media/political pretense, the most important player in the quest to ameliorate the complete hell that's facing our children and grandchildren, the USA, has done almost completely nothing for what may very well have been the crux years — those years in which something could have been done to stave off the worst.
I thought at least the current crop of US presidential hopefuls had cottoned on to the urgency of the need to take action. Now I discover that two of them — McCain and Clinton — are proposing a "holiday" from gas taxes this summer, to encourage consumers to drive more miles than they might otherwise do — i.e., to add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It's hard to imagine quite how imbecilic one must be to imagine this could be a good thing.
But it's not just at the political level that seeking to corrupt others' knowledge is a dangerous and indeed criminal act. As I say, it affects all of us. Look at a whole list of cases where drug companies have suppressed knowledge of harmful side-effects some of their products can display. I could go on almost indefinitely!
To Read the Entire Interview
Adventures in SF Publishing: Dan Simmons on The Terror
(Lexington doesn't have a cool independent genre bookstore that I can browse on slow days. I like the aesthetic experience of picking up various new books and leisurely deciding on one that I think will be good. Back in San Diego where I grew up that store was Mysterious Galaxy and imagine my surprise when not too long ago I found out that some of their booksellers produce a SF podcast show. Next week I will be back in my homeland and I will definitely make a trip to this independent bookseller and later on the same trip I will be in Portland, OR so I can stop by Powells [again, imagine my surprise when opening my union benefit package yesterday and finding that it includes a discount benefits from this bookseller]! Now, if I can somehow manage to stop by San Francisco's City Lights Books... As for the interview below, Dan Simmons is a powerful, literate writer--I recommend listening to the fascinating historical inspirations that led to his writing The Terror)
Adventures in SF Publishing
To Listen to the Episode
Thursday, July 03, 2008
Todd Gitlin: Eight Strategies We Use to Navigate the Ceaseless Flood of Media
The Fan develops a visceral, emotional attachment to certain genres or celebrities. This attachment requires a choice (I'll pay attention to New Wave and ignore folk music), and it leads to membership in a community of connoisseurs, or believers.
Where the fan works by affirmation, the Content Critic works by aversion. He is on the lookout for all of the crappy songs and biased news, all the ways in which the media fail politically and aesthetically. If the content of the media could somehow be improved, the world would too.
The Paranoid believes that They are programming Us. Television (the usual culprit) is an addiction, a hypnotic agent. If we are at a loss, drifting or suffering, it must be because They--the Government, the Liberal Media, the Media Monopoly, the Zionist Occupation Government--are pushing the buttons. Though it is extreme, paranoia is a warped version of legitimate fear.
The Exhibitionist glories in media exposure--the cast of MTV's The Real World, the painted spectators holding NBC signs at sports events, those who broadcast their intimate lives via 24/7 webcam. Commanding the attention of spectators, the exhibitionist achieves some exemption from the anonymity of the torrent, some power apparently without risk. But because this power is risk-free, it is trivial.
The Ironist knows that media are nothing but weightless contrivances, so she surfs with ease and without committment, amused and aamused to be amused. She can enjoy the spectacle on two levels--as a faux-naive fan (who always liked the smile of that faded star) and as a knowing insider (who knows that the faded star started touring again because she was broke). The media have adopted, or co-opted, the ironist's style, with the glorification of kitsch and ads that wink knowingly while they continue to pitch.
The Culture Jammer, like the critic, believes that images are power. The difference is that he will directly attack those images, defacing or refacing them. In order to redistribute power he's an active transmitter rather than a passive receiver. Whether he's hacking into a corporate site or unfurling anti-consumer banners in the Mall of America, offense has become the jammer's defense.
The Secessionist knows that media steal our time, and therefore our lives and human capacities. Because the media are beyond reform, she does not bother to displace, jam, supplement, or critique them. She rations television, planning one day to get rid of it, and abstains from cell phones and e-mail whenever possible. She knows how the media can seduce if you let your guard down.
Because the media are politically pacifying, life-throttling, mind-sapping, even physically damaging, the Abolitionist refuses to accept their existence as a good argument for their continued existence. Only one valid question about the media torrent remains: How do you launch the revolution to dry it up?
(Source for this is Adbusters July/August 2002)
Watching the Directors: Terry Gilliam
Watching the Directors
Terry Gilliam has an identifiable aesthetic and a constant thematic affection that floats through all his movies - films like Brazil, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To discuss such a weighty filmmaker, we are joined by Duke Senter from the Degree of Separation podcast and veteran of the Tarantino and Kubrick episodes. So sit back and enjoy the mammoth episode with an extra 30 minutes of discussion that the studio wanted to cut and mangle, just like they did with Baron Munchausen.
To Listen to the Episode
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
David Brin: "Star Wars" despots vs. "Star Trek" populists
(From way back in 1999, but I still think Brin's response to Lucas' mythos is relevant to our current situation.)
"Star Wars" despots vs. "Star Trek" populists: Why is George Lucas peddling an elitist, anti-democratic agenda under the guise of escapist fun?
By David Brin
Well, I boycotted "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" -- for an entire week.
Why? What's to boycott? Isn't "Star Wars" good old fashioned sci-fi? Harmless fun? Some people call it "eye candy" -- a chance to drop back into childhood and punt your adult cares away for two hours, dwelling in a lavish universe where good and evil are vividly drawn, without all the inconvenient counterpoint distinctions that clutter daily life.
Got a problem? Cleave it with a light saber! Wouldn't you love -- just once in your life -- to dive a fast little ship into your worst enemy's stronghold and set off a chain reaction, blowing up the whole megillah from within its rotten core while you streak away to safety at the speed of light? (It's such a nifty notion that it happens in three out of four "Star Wars" flicks.)
Anyway, I make a good living writing science-fiction novels and movies. So "Star Wars" ought to be a great busman's holiday, right?
One of the problems with so-called light entertainment today is that somehow, amid all the gaudy special effects, people tend to lose track of simple things, like story and meaning. They stop noticing the moral lessons the director is trying to push. Yet these things matter.
By now it's grown clear that George Lucas has an agenda, one that he takes very seriously. After four "Star Wars" films, alarm bells should have gone off, even among those who don't look for morals in movies. When the chief feature distinguishing "good" from "evil" is how pretty the characters are, it's a clue that maybe the whole saga deserves a second look.
Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames?
* Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn't be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.
* "Good" elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.
* Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.
* True leaders are born. It's genetic. The right to rule is inherited.
* Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.
That is just the beginning of a long list of "moral" lessons relentlessly pushed by "Star Wars." Lessons that starkly differentiate this saga from others that seem superficially similar, like "Star Trek." (We'll take a much closer look at some stark divergences between these two sci-fi universes below.)
Above all, I never cared for the whole Nietzschian Ubermensch thing: the notion -- pervading a great many myths and legends -- that a good yarn has to be about demigods who are bigger, badder and better than normal folk by several orders of magnitude. It's an ancient storytelling tradition based on abiding contempt for the masses -- one that I find odious in the works of A.E. Van Vogt, E.E. Smith, L. Ron Hubbard and wherever you witness slanlike super-beings deciding the fate of billions without ever pausing to consider their wishes.
Wow, you say. If I feel that strongly about this, why just a week-long boycott? Why see the latest "Star Wars" film at all?
To Read the Rest of the Essay
Monday, June 30, 2008
Bradley Denton: "Sergeant Chip"
To the Best of Our Knowledge: Apocalyptic Fiction
To the Best of Our Knowledge
After Kevin Brockmeier reads an excerpt from his "Brief History of the Dead," Jim Fleming talks with Justin Taylor, editor of "The Apocalypse Reader," a collection of 34 short stories abut the end of the world. Taylor says writers have always been fascinated by the subject. ... Also, Anne Strainchamps talks with Kevin Brockmeier about his novel which concerns the dead who have not yet passed from living memory.
Lydia Millet tells Steve Paulson that she lives in the middle of a national park outside Tucson, Arizona, and is always mindful that she is encroaching on the space of the wild creatures when she drives her car. Her novel is called "How the Dead Dream" and considers the current human impact on animals to be apocalyptic in scope. We also hear excerpts from Millet's novel, cited by the National Book Critics Circle as one of the ten best of the year.
Scott Westerfeld writes wildly popular post-apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction for teenagers. He's the author of the "Peeps" series about parasite-positive vampires, as well as "Uglies" and "Pretties," who live in a world where plastic surgery is compulsory. Westerfeld tells Anne Strainchamps the idea for thee stories came from a friend's experience with a dentist in Los Angeles.
To Listen to the Episode
Studio 360: The Big Gondry
The Big Gondry
Studio 360 (WNYC: New York)
Host: Kurt Andersen
Inspired by his [recent] film "Be Kind Rewind," director Michel Gondry created a special exhibit of movie sets at the Deitch Projects art gallery in New York, where people can walk in and make their own movies. So Studio 360's Michele Siegel gathered her co-workers to remake The Coen brothers cult hit, "The Big Lebowski" -- starring Kurt in the title role.
To Listen to the Episode
Saturday, June 28, 2008
CFP: Exploding Genre (Deadline: December 20th, 2008)
CFP: Exploding Genre
Call for Papers
Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture
Deadline: 20th December 2008
Genre has undergone radical transformations since the advent of a media society, in which popular texts are not so much literary but visual. Narrative studies of genre, such as John Cawelti's Six-Gun Mystique (1970) and Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science-Fiction (1979), were quickly overturned by an increasing interest in cinematic, televisual, visual and digital textualities. Studies of different and interrelated media superceded the structuralist interest in narrative. Increasingly generic identity was conceived of as modal, or adaptable between media, consumed and produced by differently situated groups of readers, cultures and audiences.
Genre became differentiated from within itself, no longer identical but constituted at the interface of various media and readers. It was assembled from other genres, a combination of overlapping, discontinuous tropes that played ironically with its own established forms. Postmodernism had broken with both the neo-classicism of the New Criticism and with a historically minded structuralism to produce a new critical view of genre, one that fostered the emergence of hybrid and self-conscious fictions between media. Its readers were no longer seen as isolated but, in their engagement with multiple practices of interpretation, were recognized in distinct communities. Studies like Janice Radway's Reading the Romance: Women, Romance and Popular Fiction (1991) and Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) explored new ways of looking at popular texts within their contexts.
It is with a view to addressing these changes that this issue of Reconstruction will investigate the function of genre in theory and fictions alike. Papers are sought that address the fragmented state of genre theory, spread as it is across studies of new and old media, fan and reading communities, narrative and visual theory. We are interested in the function of genre in different medias, such as comics and games. Why has genre persisted in this age of multi-modal expressions? What makes it tick, travel across media, to return and coalesce in new and old forms of narrative, visuality and intertextuality?
We envisage papers covering a variety of theoretical / discursive positions, including:
- feminist theory
- queer theory
- postcolonial theory
- convergent/transformative media
- new cultural histories
Please send completed essays, multimedial performances, etc. to Helen Merrick and Darren Jorgensen at exp.genre_at_gmail.com by 20th December, 2008. We are happy to consider abstracts and proposals prior to this date. Publication is expected in the third quarter of 2009.
Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture (ISSN: 1547-4348) is an innovative online cultural studies journal dedicated to fostering an intellectual community composed of scholars and their audience, granting them all the ability to share thoughts and opinions on the most important and influential work in contemporary interdisciplinary studies. Reconstruction publishes one open issue and three themed issues quarterly. Reconstruction is indexed in the MLA International Bibliography.