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Tag Archives: Culture

(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.

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.