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Monthly Archives: February 2012

(Note: For the few of you who have been following my blog, I apologize for the absence. Graduate school can be rough on the schedule sometimes. Thanks for coming back!)

 

Science fiction seems to be a dominant mode of expression in modern American culture. Eight of the twenty top-selling Xbox 360 games are science fiction titles. Four of the top twenty grossing films of all time are SF, and if we add the closely-allied genres of fantasy and super-hero films into that list, it balloons to thirteen. Either way you choose to look at it, the top-grossing movie ever, Avatar, is a SF film. In most brick-and-mortar bookstores, SF sells only slightly behind Romance as the dominant genre. Two of America’s most beloved franchise properties, Star Trek and Star Wars, are SF.*

But we also live in Science Fiction. In the ‘80s, I read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least once a year, and the idea of a technological device that had all of the knowledge of the universe in the palm of your hand seemed beyond imagining. Now, the only thing that separates an iPad from the Hitchhiker’s Guide is that the iPad doesn’t have the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly letters on its cover.**

These are only a few reasons why SF matters. And this is where my English Teacher instincts kick in. When we teach books, we should choose books that speak to our students. And I can think of no better way to reach (some) students than through SF.***

 

Reason #1: SF isn’t really about the future. I have argued this before, and I will keep arguing it. SF is usually not about predicting things, at least most of the time. Instead, Science Fiction is about the author’s understanding of the immediate historical moment, but set outside of the political and social arguments of the historical moment. It allows the author to make a statement about our cultural moment without polarizing the audience. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly wasn’t about the future: it was about the Nixon-era drug war, just as one example.

As a result, SF lets us discuss big ideas without worrying about our immediate cultural, political, or religious climate. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often cited as the first SF text. If it is (and I’m not 100% convinced), it wasn’t an attempt to predict a time when scientists could piece together a living being from dead body parts. It was a meditation on one of the great ideas of literature: does the creator “owe” anything to the creation? This allows us to discuss some of the most interesting ideas in the history of philosophical thought. It also allows us to consider issues of emerging importance: bio-ethics (genetically modified animals, plants, and possibly humans); artificial intelligence (what is humanity’s responsibility to any AI that emerges?); and relationships with the “other” (racial, social, sexual, etc.).

 

Reason #2: SF “expands the circle” of the human: This is an idea that I am taking from Professor Michael D. C. Drout’s audiobook lecture From Here to Infinity (and if I remember correctly, he borrowed the idea as well). SF allows us to see humanity in a variety of places. If we can see the humanity in C-3PO or in a rogue AI that simply wants to be given respect as a thinking being, then it should be much easier for us to see the humanity in the “others” who live right next to us. SF encourages us to see that all living beings have basic dignity. If we can learn to love a Klingon, why can’t we learn to love the person of another race or a different sexual orientation?

 

Reason #3: SF is the only genre that really deals with technology’s role in human life: In most forms of literature, technology is “just stuff.” Rarely does mainstream literature deal with technology in any significant way, except as a prop. Even when technology plays a role (the high-tech equipment in a techno-thriller, for example), it is either used as a neutral object (it is just there to help the characters) or it is a “gee whizz” technology. (“Look at how cool this is!”) As SF/Fantasy writer Marshall Maresca has pointed out to me several times, CSI frequently uses the “Enhance the picture!” technological nonsense (no one can do with images what they do in that show). But never once does anyone in a Tom Clancy novel or on CSI worry about how our society is being changed by those technologies.

But our society does change every time a new technology takes hold. We are not the same culture now that we were before recorded music, before television, before antibiotics, or before the internet. Technology changes us deeply and fundamentally. Romance fiction doesn’t explore that. Neither does the (inappropriately-named) Techno-Thriller genre. Only SF really deals with that. Look at any novel by Asimov, Gibson, Clarke, Dick, etc. They explore how technologies change what it means to be human, or what it means to live in the cultures we live in. Asimov’s robots ask us what it means to be alive. Clarke’s fiction asks us what it means to be human when death is abolished. Gibson asks what it means to live in a world where all of history is compressed into a single, constantly changing technological “present.” Dick asks what it means to be an individual in a society where memories can be altered, pasts can be erased, and civilizations can be created almost out of thin air.

I once had a professor who argued, as many literature professors do, that the value of literature is that it asks us to put ourselves into the place of another, and to contemplate that other’s “humanity.” But technology is one of the things that makes us who and what we are, every moment. To contemplate the humanity of the “other” and NOT consider technology’s role in the other’s life is to get an incomplete picture of humanity. SF is the only genre to completely consider that important piece of humanity: what we build goes a long way to making us what we are.

 

This list could go on much longer. SF is important because it is fun to read (or watch). SF is important because it makes money. There are many more reasons. But these are, I think, the most important—and the most-often taken for granted. But what about you? Do you have reasons that you think I should have included?

 

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*I actually don’t think that Star Wars is SF, but rather mythic fantasy with SF window-dressing. But the fact that it takes on SF characteristics still supports my argument.

**Of course, many of the cooler fans have put “Don’t Panic” stickers on their iPads or Kindle Fires. I have done neither, because I own neither. Yet. If someone wants to send me one, I’d be perfectly happy with that….

***No two students are alike, and your mileage may vary. Personally, I’ve only ever had two students who have revolted at the idea of SF, and both of those students were fundamentalist Christians who found SF to be incompatible with their belief systems.

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I think a lot about geekdom. And since my previous blog (on music geekery), I’ve had a few people engage me in what “geek” actually means. While I’m not a fan of citing Wikipedia, the “geek” page seems to indicate that one of the elements of geekery is a hyper-focus on detail or a willingness to obsess about things. Lars Konzack of Aalborg University, in his paper “Geek Culture: the 3rd Counter Culture”, doesn’t really answer the question but does suggest that the modern educational system that extends well into adulthood creates a culture of experts with specialized knowledge. CNN Living asked, “Are You a Nerd or a Geek?” The pages seem to suggest that being a geek is all about your way of dealing with the wider world, specifically a fascination with information. If you obsess over details, offer your opinion even when it is not asked for, and willingly engage in lively exchanges and intense friendships with others who share your obsession, then you are probably a geek.

But in today’s world of massive informational access (overload?), aren’t we all geeks now? What is the difference between a person who knows every single detail about, say, The Lord of the Rings and a person who knows the names, point standings, and crew of every single NASCAR driver? If someone can obsessively rattle off the names of every producer that Rush, Steely Dan, or Tom Waits ever worked with, what makes that person less socially valuable than the person who can rattle off the statistics of every player for the Atlanta Braves for the last ten years? And gaming has entered the mainstream: I used to be mocked for my devotion to video games, role-playing games, and simulations. My son, on the other hand, was given an Xbox a few years back because NOT playing video games made him a bit of an outcast. And the people who used to mock DnD players are often now obsessive participants in Fantasy Football leagues.

Part of the modern geek culture, I would argue, comes from the easy access we have to information; this same access wasn’t possible twenty or thirty years ago. In the darkest days of geek-prejudice, we geeks banded together because we knew something. We had areas of expertise. We were unlikely to be popular, we typically weren’t terribly athletic, and most of us… well, my group of friends wasn’t going to be gracing the cover of magazines in our youth. If we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the herd, we needed to find areas of obsessive expertise. I found music and history, some of my friends found physics and math, others found film, comics, SF TV shows, or any number of other areas of knowledge.

But today, the depth of knowledge that geeks had some kind of lock on is available to everyone. The easy access to information that our modern technocratic economy has created has made it possible to have obsessive knowledge about everything: knitting, golf, dog grooming, or zombies, whatever your interest… you can show an obsessive level of expertise simply by pulling out your smart phone and surfing for a few minutes.

Most definitions of geekery also suggest that geeks lack basic social graces. We obsess at the drop of a hat. While this might separate the music-geek from the baseball fan, I think that this wall is coming down as well. In the modern era of Twitter-sharing and Facebook transparency, we all feel as if our opinions are wanted and valued by everyone. Hey, let me tell you what I think about The Phantom Menace for the next five hours… and don’t forget to read my tweet about the tuna sandwich I just ate!

(Note: Just look at the act I am currently engaged in. I am blasting out my opinion to dozens of people, many of whom I either don’t know or only know vaguely. And we reward that kind of opinionated transparency. We friend people, follow Twitter feeds, and feel connected to them based more on the quantity of their posts, tweets, and status updates than the quality of the same. The best and yet worst advice anyone ever gave me about blogging: post regularly, even if you have nothing to say. Doesn’t that remind you of the geeky kid in high school who would engage any passerby in a long harangue about the superiority of Shadowrun over Battletech? It doesn’t matter that people don’t care… he just needed someone to listen. How is blogging, or tweeting for that matter, different? We all want someone to just listen. And most geeks, I suspect, feel as if we aren’t being heard.)

We are all geeks now. We carry around a lot of information in our heads, and we have access to even more through the fifty million screens we interact with every day. Embrace it, and live it. You probably are living it already, even if you don’t know it.

And I promise, if you tweet, I will read it. As long as you read mine. It will probably be about Shadowrun.

I can’t help but get the feeling that kids today have a different relationship to music than I did in High School. This is NOT going to be a “what’s wrong with kids today?” whine-fest. I despise those. I’m not complaining about the difference, but there is a difference. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. The texture of life is different now than it was back then, so the experiences we had in the ‘80s (or ‘70s, ‘60s, and ‘50s, for that matter) are different from what people are having now. And one of the key places I see it is in music.

When I was growing up, I had a hard time finding people whose musical tastes were in line with mine. I dug The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But more than any of them, I loved Joy Division. And in my late-‘80s affluent suburban high school, there weren’t many Joy Division fans. The few kids that I knew who had similar musical obsessions tended to get irritated by the way in which I expressed my own obsessions, so I parted ways with them.

In order to find music that I enjoyed, I had to travel by bus (as I had no car and no license) to get to a hole-in-the-wall record store downtown that always smelled vaguely bad and was the only place where I was ever hit by a genuine wave of claustrophobia. And I had to deal with the classic record store employees: the know-it-all who drips with condescension as he informs you that he doesn’t have the record you are looking for; the slightly disjointed young man who treats every record as if it were sick child, in need of constant care; and, importantly for me, The Sage who was willing to bestow vinyl on just the right acolyte. It was from The Sage that I first received Joy Division’s Warsaw demo (on a crappy tape, not vinyl), and it changed me. I get hit with an almost unbearable nostalgia every time I hear any of the songs on that recording. They aren’t the best. In fact, it’s not really a great set of songs. But it changed the way I look at music.

And that, more than anything, is what has changed. The Warsaw demo wasn’t that great, but I had been let into someone’s inner circle. I had to hunt and pick, proving to The Sage that I “deserved” the demo. I didn’t know much music, but the music I knew was intensely analyzed, scrutinized, and deconstructed. My musical knowledge was a mile deep, but an inch wide. Young people today display the opposite: knowledge that is an inch deep, but a mile wide. I don’t know which is better. I don’t know if one has to be better than the other, but they are different experiences. Someone who wants the Warsaw demo now can just go to Amazon and order it. It will get to you in a couple of weeks. No need to cultivate a relationship with the guy who smells vaguely like burning rope, no need to get verbally abused by the weasely guy behind a record store counter. Music is available in ways that have eliminated the hunt and the search. All that you need to do now to get access to entire worlds of music you’ve never heard before is know a web address.

My son is fifteen, and for a long time he was not a huge music lover. He has been forced into very catholic tastes, as he used to listen to psych folk with me, punk and early alternative with his step-mother, polka and big band swing with his grandfather, praise music with his grandmother, and country with his mother. He enjoys music when it is on, and has taken to listening to music in order to fall asleep (something I remember doing all the time, but couldn’t do today). I gave him my fully-loaded mp3 player, and he went from listening to whatever was on to having definite tastes overnight. He didn’t need to pick through old record bins, network with weird guys in a downtown hole-in-the-wall shop, or read fanzines. Whole worlds of music (specialized worlds, but worlds nonetheless) were given to him, fully formed.

One day recently, we were driving somewhere, and my son said, “Dad, I like that Brian Eno stuff, but I’d like something a bit more… I don’t know… rockin’, I guess. Any suggestions?”

I wanted to say, “Nope. Find it yourself.” But that was just an old man being spiteful.

“Look for David Bowie’s Low. I think you’ll like it.” It took me years of searching to run into something as perfect as Low. And after years of searching for something like it, I came to treasure it. And now, with my son asking me just the right question, I had become The Sage. But Low probably isn’t going to change his life, the way Warsaw changed mine. He is going to search the Internet for the album, hopefully not download it illegally, and then move on to something else. But, I guess, that is what kids do. And that is, as they say, what it is.

I can’t map my experience onto his: he has to be allowed to have his own experiences and make his own way, particularly with something as intensely personal as music. Technology has changed how we deal with music. The record store is gone, and maybe that is a good thing. People have easy access to things that they never would have had access to before. Just a few minutes ago I heard Trader Horne, a band I hadn’t heard in years. I heard them on Last.fm, and decided to switch over to the Trader Horne station. In rapid succession, I heard Wooden Horse, Fotheringay, Dr. Strangely Strange, and Fresh Maggots. But since discovering these bands (all since the public availability of the Internet), none of them has made the same impact on me that Joy Division did back then. I found them without the hunt. I stumbled onto them, and that made a difference for the worse.

The Internet has allowed everyone to have The Sage and the Contemptuous Know-It-All in our homes. The hunt isn’t as exciting when it can be done at the same time as cooking a Hot Pocket. But I can’t help feeling a little bit of jealousy every time my son says, “So, Dad… Fairport Convention is pretty awesome, huh?” Yes, they are. And you get to grow up listening to them.

Damnit.

Science fiction is often thought of as being a “predictive” or prophetic genre. H.G. Wells is hailed as a prophet for the many predictions he made, and Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is remarkably accurate in some of its predictions. Gibson’s Neuromancer is seen by some as being a prophetic imagining of the Internet, and when 2001 came and went, 2001: A Space Odyssey was retroactively criticized by some for failing to be accurate. A common trope among stand-up comics is, “It’s the 21st Century… where’s my flying car?”

Both the lionizing of Gibson, Verne, and Wells as visionaries and the criticism of our lack of airborne automobiles is inappropriate. It is not only unfair, but these investigations of SF miss the point. SF is often not about predicting the future. It is instead about understanding the present moment, and doing so in such a way that allows us to step outside of politics and social restrictions. Neuromancer, for example, was less about predicting the future than it was exploring the changes that technology was bringing to the historical moment in which it was written. The book engages a very mid-1980s concern with the rise of Japan as an economic power, for example: Neuromancer opens on an expatriate community in Japan, and explores the fractured multiculturalism of the global economy. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was less about predicting a future drug that would cause split personalities to emerge than it was examining the emerging rhetoric of a “drug war” and the impact that was having on society; those issues were very pressing to a post-Nixon, “War On Drugs” America. And Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is very rooted in immediate, real-world concerns about peak oil and the dead dinosaur energy economy as well as the emergence of bioterrorism, private armies, and economic warfare in a way that creates a neocolonial atmosphere.

In fact, I would argue that the “predictive power” of SF is, at best, a happy accident. And at its worst, the heavy-handed attempt at prophecy is an annoying distraction from the story being told. If I want prophecy, I will read Ray Kurzweil, Peter Newman, or Peter Schwartz. It isn’t that SF writers should be forbidden from trying to predict events. But rather, we as the audience must understand that SF writers are presenting a vision. It might play out, and it might not, but in many cases that predictive vision is not relevant to the story that they are telling us! Because authors are located in their historical moment, they cannot help but comment in some way upon their immediate historical context. And it is that comment that is more important. Gibson’s work was concerned with the intersections consumerism, technology, and everyday culture; Dick’s work was concerned with identity, surveillance, and freedom; Heinlein’s work was concerned with how advances in technology make new cultural modes of organization necessary. For all of them, discussion of “the future” was always meant to cast our thoughts back to the present. They were prophets not in the predictive sense, but in the sense it occurs in the Abrahamic religious traditions. In that sense, a “prophet” is a person who carries a message for people to listen to. It might be a warning of future events, but it might be a message that is meant to guide people here-and-now.

Prophets are in a dangerous line of work. Authors write the stories that speak to people, and prophets often fail to speak to people. When prophets are wrong, we call them fools and cast them aside. When prophets are right a few times too many, we start to get suspicious. No one listens to Cassandra, and professional writers want an audience. SF authors aren’t in the business of making predictions as much as they are capturing the ever-present “now” in ways that guide us toward the future while simultaneously illuminating our current condition. But they are on the very leading edge of that “now,” and they are pulling the rest of us along with them. If SF is prophetic, it is so in the sense that life as it is right now is not how it could be. SF authors are not predicting the future; they are reminding us that the present is not living up to the promises of the past.