Sunday, 19 December 2010

More on Gene Wolfe's upcoming Home Fires

Just a couple of quick updates on Gene Wolfe's upcoming stand-alone novel Home Fires, due out in January 2011.

First, Lawrence Person has written an insightful review of Home Fires on his blog. The book sounds like it will be an interesting read, although perhaps not one of Wolfe's most most significant novels. I particularly look forward to the plays on genre that Person identifies: "Homes Fires is science fiction novel as romance novel as mystery novel as spy novel, and any given scene may be fulfilling the expectations of any of those genres." Person also notes that the novel's protagonist, Skip, is a "deeply honest, good-hearted and dependable" character, much like Patera Silk in The Book of the Long Sun.

Also, PS Publishing is doing a limited edition printing of Home Fires: 300 jacketed hardcovers, signed by Wolfe, and 100 traycased hardcovers, signed by Wolfe and Alastair Reynolds, who wrote the introduction for the PS Publishing edition. The cover (below) looks fantastic.

The PS Publishing cover of Wolfe's Home Fires. Art by David Gentry.
    

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Gene Wolfe: upcoming novels and a recent interview

I've been a bit slack blogging lately. Mostly because I'm still waiting on the results of my honours thesis, and I don't really want to go near my thesis or anything related to it until I have received said results. However, I just thought I'd post some recent Gene Wolfe news and links that may be of interest.

First off, Wolfe has a new book coming out in January titled Home Fires, the official blurb of which runs thus:

Gene Wolfe takes us to a future North America at once familiar and utterly strange. A young man and woman, Skip and Chelle, fall in love in college and marry, but she is enlisted in the military, there is a war on, and she must serve her tour of duty before they can settle down. But the military is fighting a war with aliens in distant solar systems, and her months in the service will be years in relative time on Earth. Chelle returns to recuperate from severe injuries, after months of service, still a young woman but not necessarily the same person - while Skip is in his forties and a wealthy businessman, but eager for her return.

Still in love (somewhat to his surprise and delight), they go on a Caribbean cruise to resume their marriage. Their vacation rapidly becomes a complex series of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates who capture the ship for ransom. There is no writer in SF like Gene Wolfe and no SF novel like Home Fires.

Although the only (early) review I can find is not glowing, I am still really looking forward to this book. The reviewer groups it together with An Evil Guest and There are Doors as some of Wolfe's lesser works. However, I absolutely loved There are Doors - it's my favourite of Wolfe's stand-alone novels - and I certainly didn't mind An Evil Guest. Also, the premise of Home Fires sounds very interesting, and I look forward to seeing how Wolfe treats the gender and relationship issues that look like they will play an important part in the book.


C.S.E. Cooney recently interviewed Wolfe for Black Gate - it's a great interview that is certainly worth reading. A week earlier Cooney wrote a Live Journal blog post asking if anyone had any questions they'd like Wolfe to answer, so I posted a question in a comment. I had to sign in to post, so I just used my Twitter account, although I should probably have used Facebook or at least signed my name to the comment (although my real name appears if you open my Twitter profile), because when Cooney came to asking my question, it ran thus:

Cooney: "The second guy – I… didn’t get his name, actually. I only have his LJ handle.”

Wolfe: “What is it?”

Cooney: “Um… Silk4Calde.”

Wolfe: [Gene started to laugh.] “Say no more! I know where he got it.”

So, that was kind of embarrassing! Funny though - in an oh-my-gosh-I-feel-like-such-a-dork kind of way. Anyway, I asked what Wolfe was working on at present, and he said he was writing a new book called The Land Across, which he summarised thus:

There’s a young man. His father is dead – or he believes his father is dead. He’s grown up all over the world, because his father was in the State Department. He has written a travel book about Austria. English is his cradle language, but he picked up others – some German, French, and Japanese – when he lived in those countries.

He decides to write another book about a different European country, “on the other side of the mountain,” from Austria. This country is a surreal Balkan nation, formerly under the Communist government, anciently invaded by the Turks, completely fictional.

The young man is arrested as soon as he enters this country. His passport is taken, his luggage is taken. The police there bring him to the house of a man they do not like – this is the kind of thing the police do – and explain to him that he is to live in the man’s house. He must sleep there every night; should he escape, his host will be shot. And they give him as a little hint:

“If you don’t like the food, you can threaten to escape.”

And it goes on from there.

Sounds rather interesting! And a bit like his most recent novel, The Sorcerer's House, although perhaps more sf and less fantasy.

Anyway, I had better get back to working on this article on late-nineteenth-century Australian utopian literature. Thesis results will be released on Friday, and after that I'll be back posting more regularly - I have a lot of Wolfe's fiction still to read!
    

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Researching nineteenth-century Australian utopian literature

While eagerly awaiting the results of my honours thesis (due out on 2 December), I have been continuing my research on early Australian utopian literature. I am currently working on converting the paper I gave at the recent Utopias conference (see here, here and here), entitled "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870–1900" (mp3 available for download), into a publishable article. This involves increasing the word length from around 3000 to over 5000, going over my old research (most of which was done two years ago), and confirming bibliographic details. It was the latter of these that has been causing me some grief over the last few days.

The first difficulty came when I noticed that one of the texts I discuss in the article, The Battle of Mordialloc; or, How We Lost Australia (1888), had different authors listed in different catalogue entries. The confusion came about because the text was published anonymously. The short book is most commonly ascribed to Edward Maitland, an English author and spiritualist who served as a commissioner of Crown lands and police magistrate in New South Wales for some years, although several listings instead ascribe authorship to one Herbert Ainslee. After some digging I discovered that Ainslee was a fictional creation of Maitland, first appearing as the protagonist of his novel The Pilgrim and the Shrine; or, Passages from the Life and Correspondence of Herbert Ainslie, B. A., Cantab (1867). The introduction to The Battle of Mordialloc claims the body of the book was based on manuscripts of Ainslee's - this must be why the text has been ascribed to the fictional character, although it is also the reason why authorship can be traced back to Maitland. The book itself is a mildly interesting dystopian novel about the invasion of Australia by Chinese and Russian forces, but in addition to being rather racist (which is depressingly common in nineteenth-century Australian literature), it is also kind of amusing, since the invasion takes place on Cup Day, when all of Victoria's citizens are too busy betting on horses for the Melbourne Cup to pay attention to anything else. The entire text of The Battle of Mordialloc can be read online at Reason in Revolt: Source Documents of Australian Radicalism.

The other bibliographic inconsistency I came across concerned The Future of Victoria by "Acorn". In his bibliography of Australian literature, Lyman Tower Sargent notes that the National Library of Australia card catalogue suggests the author is one James Oakes, although I can find no evidence supporting this (there was a journalist in Boston called James Oakes writing under the pseudonym "Acorn" during the late nineteenth century, but I can find no evidence he ever lived in Australia). But there is a further problem with The Future of Victoria's bibliographical details: Sargent, in his bibliography and a related article, says it was published in the 1880s, while the NLA (and all other libraries) date it in the 1850s. This threatened to be very problematic for me, since I am only writing on texts published between 1870 and 1900 - if it was published in the 1850s it would fall beyond the purview of my article (which focuses, in part, on the impact of Darwin's Origin of Species on Australian utopian literature). I did, however, successfully determine a short window in which the text could have been published: 1872-1873. The first clue: the copy of the text held at the State Library of Victoria has "Presented by the Author April 16th 1873" inscribed on its title page, thereby ruling out publication after that date. I also had a look at the copy held at my library, in the Monash University Library Rare Books collection, which has the previous owner's initials and the date 11/77 on its cover. I then asked one of the staff members in Rare Books, Stephen Herrin, if there was any way I could determine when the book's printer, Wigney and Summerscales, were operating in Ballarat. "Wigney and Sumerscales?" he says, "They're one of mine!" He reaches to the bookshelf next to him to grab his book, The Development of Printing in Nineteenth-Century Ballarat (2000). In one of the appendices at the back of his book was a list of Ballarat printers and the years they operated - Wigney and Summerscales only ran from 1872 to 1875. I could hardly believe my luck! Now I have successfully determined a brief window in which the book could have been published, and I can discuss it in my article. The Future of Victoria has been digitised by the State Library of Victoria and can be read online.

Fortunately, I haven't had this much trouble with all the books I discuss in the article. Another couple of the anonymous ones, A New Pilgrim's Progress, Purporting to be Given By John Bunyan, Through an Impressional Medium (1877) and An Agnostic's Progress from the Known to the Unknown (1884), both pastiches of Bunyan's book, are easy enough to attribute to Alfred Deakin and Catherin Helen Spence respectively, since both have (embarrassingly) confessed authorship. Now I just have to re-read a few more of these old (and, for the most part, incredibly boring) utopian novels so I can finally finish this article, which has been in the works for almost two years.
  

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Long Sun Whorl spotted on Andromeda

I have a love / hate relationship with Andromeda (2000-2005). I think it's that some of the characters (Trance and Rommie) are fantastic, while others are infuriatingly annoying (Hunt and Tyr), and the writing quality really fluctuates. Although it could be as simple as: love Lexa Doig / hate Kevin Sorbo (to be fair, it's his character that I find repulsive and creepy, not necessarily the actor himself).

Anyway, I've been watching through the entire series on DVD with my wife, and the other night we came to the final episodes of season four: "The Dissonant Interval" parts one and two. In these episodes I was pleasantly surprised to find a cylindrical generation starship called the Arkology, which was remarkably similar to the Whorl described by Gene Wolfe in The Book of the Long Sun.

Sometimes the show's special effects can be pretty good (that is, when I'm not shouting: "They've recycled that footage like a hundred times already!") and I think they pulled off the long sun thing quite well:

Telemachus and Louisa watch the long sun set
There were, of course, some major differences between the generation starship on Andromeda and the one described by Wolfe. The Arkology, for instance, was not made out of a hollowed-out asteroid, although it is attached to an asteroid at one end, which it harvests for raw minerals. The main body of Arkology's cylinder does rotate, but I don't believe it is connected to the ship's gravity emulation, which seemed to be based on the same mysterious and unnamed technology as the other ships in the series (this, of course, makes you wonder why the cylinder rotates at all, if not to create a gravity-like effect from centripetal forces). The scale of the ship was also much smaller than that of Wolfe's Whorl, and unlike the Whorl's long sun, which simulates day and night by rotating a "shade" over part of the sun, the sun of the Arkology narrows to a thin beam at night.

External view of the Arkology generation starship
Andromeda's depiction of a cylindrical generation starship illuminated and heated by a long beam of light, with people living on the inner surface of the hollow ship, got me wondering what other sf has described starships with "long suns" like that of Wolfe's Whorl. There were certainly none described in any of the other generation starship stories I read recently.

Does anyone know of any other TV shows, films or novels that describe cylindrical starships with long suns? Or was Wolfe the first?

Images from the Andromeda season four DVDs, available, for those in Australia, from EzyDVD and JB Hi-Fi, with the complete series coming in December 2010. They are reproduced here solely for the purposes of criticism and research (fair use).

   

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Podcast: "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870–1900"

I blogged in September that the keynote presentations from Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe, the fourth national conference on utopia, dystopia and science fiction, held by Monash University in Melbourne in August 2010, had been made available online as podcasts (in mp3 format).

The university has now uploaded the rest of the papers presented at the conference (with permission of the authors/presenters), including my own paper, "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870–1900" (abstract below) (click here to download the mp3). However, the sound is rather soft and some of the questions asked after the paper has been presented are almost inaudible. Also, I sound terrible - but doesn't everyone think that when they hear recordings of their own voice?

As I mentioned earlier, you should check out the papers given by John Clute and Kim Stanley Robinson, which were fantastic. Some others worth listening to: Andrew Milner's paper on a couple of influential Australian dystopian novels, Tamara Prosic's paper on ecology and Orthodox Christianity, and Tom Moylan's paper on Robinson's Science and the Capital series. My wife read the paper by Adam Brown, "'Our World is ending, but Life Must Go On...': Post-Apocalyptic Dystopias in Contemporary Children’s Films," and she sounds lovely, as always.



THE VICTORIAN CRISIS OF FAITH IN 
AUSTRALIAN UTOPIAN LITERATURE, 1870–1900
[abstract]

During the nineteenth century, advances in geology and evolutionary theory brought traditional religious beliefs into question, igniting what has often been characterised as a ‘war’ between science and religion. Some of the most diverse treatments of religious themes in Australian utopian literature come between 1870 and 1900, during the ‘Victorian Crisis of Faith.’ This paper will briefly examine the approaches to religion and science in some of the utopian writing from this period, looking at how different Australian authors have envisaged, or hoped, the relationship between science and religion would unfold in the future. Topics such as Darwinism, secularism, church reform and spiritualism will be addressed in an attempt to demonstrate that this literature displays a vast array of approaches to contemporary scientific and religious issues. It will be my contention that an examination of this utopian literature supports modern historical scholarship, which contests the stereotypical ‘science versus religion’ dichotomy and observes a more complex relationship at work.
  

Friday, 22 October 2010

Done! The thesis is submitted!

I submitted the final, printed copies of my honours (undergraduate) thesis on religion in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun this week — what a relief! As proof, I present a photo of the finished product:


The introduction ended up being as long as the first chapter, since I covered a lot in it, briefly examining the history of religion and "scientism" in the sf genre, and introducing Wolfe and his work. The first chapter was largely concerned with deciphering the text. I argued that Silk's enlightenment by the Outsider is central to the series and is intended to be understood as a genuine spiritual experience (rather than a "cerebral accident" or a download of information), and that the series is, first and foremost, about Silk's spiritual journey. The second chapter examined the Outsider in greater detail, and I argued that he is literally and distinctively the Catholic God in the text (as opposed to some amorphous monotheistic deity) and that Wolfe uses his depiction of the Outsider to propound a distinctively Catholic theology. I also examined how Wolfe expresses his deviations from traditional Catholicism and even engages in a critique of the Church through his representation of the Vironese Faith (a "bad religion" that borrows heavily from Catholic ritual and the Church). The final chapter compared Wolfe's use of the generation starship trope to those of authors such as Heinlein, Aldiss, Harrison and Simak. I argued that, while retaining many traditional aspects of the trope and its archetypal treatment, Wolfe radically inverts its meaning and treats faith and religion in much more complex ways than his predecessors, using the trope to create a distinctly Catholic story.

In the end I managed to keep to the word limit (an upper limit of 18,000 words) by relegating the stuff I'd written on Chesterton to an appendix, which doesn't contribute to the word count proper (so that kind of felt like cheating, but it was what my supervisor recommended!). The finished product totaled 80 pages. My copy is now sitting on the shelf and I won't touch it again until I have my results (early December, I think) lest I discover typos — no matter how many times you read something, some wicked and evil typo will always elude you.



What now? On the day I submitted my thesis I got an email from Charles Sturt University accepting me into the Master of Information Studies (Librarianship), which I will complete part-time off-campus over the next three years so I can become a fully-fledged librarian.

After that I'll probably work while doing a PhD part-time. Currently I'm thinking of studying Wolfe's short fiction, with each chapter examining a specific story, but I haven't yet decided how to tie the whole thing together yet, what the overall point will be.

In the immediate future, however, I'll be working on a couple of articles for possible publication (if I'm lucky) based on my honours research and on the paper I gave recently on Australian utopian literature. Also, my wife and I are members of a feminist reading group at Monash, and we intend to run a symposium on female superheroes in comics, prose, TV and film some time next year, so there's organising to do for that (and I have to work on a paper to give).

And this blog will certainly live on — although I must change it's subtitle from "musings of a science fiction obsessed literature student," since I am not, sadly, a literature student any more (at least I won't be for the next few years). I've still got a lot of Wolfe left to read and I find that blogging about what I read keeps me thinking. At an honours thesis-writing workshop that ran earlier this year, one of the academic speakers stressed the importance of writing regularly, whether in a personal journal, for study, or for a blog, just to keep the words flowing smoothly. Sounds like good advice to me!
       

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Recent Wolfe acquisitions: Letters Home and Sir!

I have been fortunate enough to have received a few scholarships during my BA, including the Faculty of Arts Honours Scholarship, of which I just received my final installment. Since every other payment had gone immediately on living expenses and whatnot (and perhaps a few study-related books), I decided that this time I had to get something by Wolfe (whose work is the subject of my honours thesis). I have an wish list of Wolfe books that includes limited printings, rare chapbooks, and signed first editions, so I picked a couple of items from this list and purchased them a couple of weeks ago. They were:

LETTERS HOME

I had been wanting this book for years. Letters Home is a collection of Wolfe's letters to his mother written during the Korean War, in which he served as general infantry. The first edition, hardcover book is one of 250 signed and numbered copies printed in 1991 by U.M. Press. It is 185 pages long and includes an introduction by Wolfe and a few pages of photographs. It came with a small, 12 page paperback companion volume titled "A Wolfe Family Album," which includes a selection of Wolfe's photos from his childhood through to the 1980s. Two photos jumped out at me: a beautiful wedding photo of Gene and Rosemary Wolfe, and a photo of Wolfe, Frederik Pohl and Robert Silverberg at a house party in Melbourne, I'm guessing during Aussiecon 2 in 1985.

Wolfe has written very little about his experiences in Korea, although they have certainly influenced his fiction, with grisly war scenes playing major roles in The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun. I had to get a copy of Letters Home after reading Kim Stanley Robinson's brilliant introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe (2009). In it, Robinson discusses Wolfe's frequent urge, in his fiction, "both to conceal and to reveal at once." He claims that this is also evident in the letters Wolfe wrote during the war, in which "he wants to be able to tell his mom what is happening to him, while at the same time wanting to protect her from any too vivid knowledge of the worst of what he is facing. He wants both to tell and not to tell" (vii). Since this thought-provoking (and sometimes infuriating) concealment is part of what I love about Wolfe's fiction, I couldn't resist buying this volume. I will read through it over the summer and probably blog about it again when I'm done.

   


SIR! (OCTOBER 1965)

This is the first dirty magazine I've ever bought. After convincing my beautiful, loving wife that I only wanted it "for the articles," I now have Wolfe's the very first short story publication (or first paid publication, rather, since he had two short stories published in the Texas A&M student magazine). The story, "The Dead Man," was printed in the October 1965 issue of Sir!, an old men's magazine, although it has also appeared in the short collection Young Wolfe (1992) and the special Gene Wolfe issue of Weird Tales of Spring 1988 (#290). I have not read the version printed in Young Wolfe (which is still on my wish list), but the one in Weird Tales is a slightly revised version of the original (no major changes, mostly just changes in word choices and grammar). In Sir! it appears with a full-page illustration of the (dead) protagonist climbing out of the alligator's den, with the deceased woman lying at his feet. There is also, on the first page of the magazine, a great little bio of Wolfe at age 34, living in Ohio; click on the black and white strip (below right) for a better view.

       

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Gene Wolfe: New Wave author?

I've been wondering lately, while writing the introduction to my honours thesis, to what degree can Gene Wolfe be considered a New Wave author?

THE NEW WAVE

The New Wave movements in sf came about in the 1960s, largely as a response to the increasingly stale and repetitive hard sf tropes pervading the genre. New Wave authors brought some much-needed stylistic changes to the genre, offering more literary writing with more complex narratives, characters and writing styles. They also brought the 'soft sciences', such as sociology, psychology and philosophy, to the foreground of their writing, often downplaying or omitting altogether the traditional 'hard science' themes of Golden Age sf. With these new focuses came some of the critical attitudes that the genre needed, and New Wave sf tended to draw into question the scientific optimism and positivism that filled the earlier pulps.

The movement originated in Britain, specifically in the pulp sf magazine New Worlds while it was edited by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock and the writers he published, including J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Thomas Disch and Samuel R. Delany, championed this new style of sf. The New Wave movement was strongest in the 1960s and 1970s, after which point it became a thing of the past. Although the movement had ended, the style continued, and the New Wave undoubtedly had a lasting impact on the genre, opening it up to become the complex and rich genre we know today.

From left: Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Mike Kustow and J. G. Ballard.
Photo from the Ballardian. Circa 1968.
GENE WOLFE AS NEW WAVE AUTHOR

In an interview with Larry McCaffery Wolfe was asked if he was aware of New Wave authors writing in the 1960s while Moorcock was editing New Worlds. He responded:
I was not only aware of what they were doing but I even placed one story in New Worlds. What was happening with the New Wave was that a lot of SF authors with literary backgrounds, rather than scientific backgrounds, were applying what they knew in their works in just the same way the people with engineering and scientific backgrounds—Heinlein, for instance, or Asimov—had applied those backgrounds earlier. ... Alot of experimentalism was handled in such a way that it alienated readers, many of whom were raised on the pulps and didn't give a damn about "literature" in any kind of elevated sense. I was personally sorry to see it not catching on since some of what it was trying to do certainly struck a responsive chord in me. When Harlan Ellison put together his Again[,] Dangerous Visions, he included three stories by me, so I was associated with the New Wave. It was a time in which a lot of people were yelling at us for what we were doing, and we were yelling back at them. Actually, at various times I was put into both camps by different people, which was fine with me.
Wolfe certainly made good use of the new styles advocated by the New Wave, especially in The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is, by his own admission, very much a New Wave text, especially the novella "'A Story' by John V. Marsch." With his complex characters, unreliable narrators, non-linear narratives and erudite fusions of different genres, not to mention his focuses on mythology, religion, philosophy and theology, most of his work would seem to fit within the broad range of New Wave styles and themes.

Gene Wolfe. Random photo I found at Aussiecon Four.

Nevertheless, in an interview with Lawrence Person Wolfe expressed a good deal of hesitancy when discussing his association with the New Wave:
I don't think I was heavily influenced by the New Wave. If I was a part of it, I was only a very remote, peripheral person. I suppose the epicenter of the New Wave was J. G. Ballard, although you might dispute that, and certainly I was at a great distance from J. G. Ballard. ... belonging to a literary movement doesn't consist so much in using a certain set of techniques, as it consists in running with a certain set of people, and only to a very small degree did I run with that set of people.
Yet in spite of his unwillingness to be closely associate with the New Wave, Wolfe certainly emerged within the movement. As he said, he had a short story, "The Green Wall Said," published in New Worlds in August 1967 — so clearly Moorcock thought Wolfe was sufficiently 'New Wave' to be published in his distinctive magazine. Furthermore, Wolfe had three short stories published in Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions anthology in 1972, a follow up to his remarkably successful Dangerous Visions anthology of 1967. Both of these volumes were essential to the New Wave movement in America. The Wolfe stories published by Ellison were "Robot's Story," "Against The Lafayette Escadrille" and "Loco Parentis," collected together as "Mathoms From the Time Closet."


Wolfe doth protest too much, methinks. As my supervisor said when we were discussing this, you can't get much more New Wave than New Worlds and Again, Dangerous Visions. We eventually settled on the word "originated": as in "Wolfe originated within the New Wave movement of the 1960s."

I would love to hear other people's opinions on this. Does Wolfe's distance from the New Wave clique of authors mean he wasn't part of the movement? Can he still be considered one of the New Wave authors? Please feel free to comment below!



For more on the New Wave, I would recommend reading:

Damien Broderick. “New Wave and backwash: 1960-1980.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelshon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Edward James. “From New Wave to Cyberpunk and Beyond, 1960-1993.” Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

And, of course, the "New Wave" entry in John Clute and Peter Nicholls's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

  

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Utopias Conference podcasts and other random things

I recently blogged about the fourth Australian conference on utopia, dystopia and science fiction, titled Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe (see Day One, Day Two and Day Three). I was just informed that audio podcasts of the keynote addresses have just been uploaded to the conference webpage. I would strongly encourage listening to the papers by John Clute, Kim Stanely Robinson and Tom Moylan — they were fantastic.



Thesis progress: almost there! Everything has now been written and looked at by my supervisor except for the conclusion, which will be quite short (and I have some great ideas for it, too, so there shouldn't be any problem there). I've been re-reading it and making some minor changes today and I'm really happy with how it's turning out. The only problem is that it's several thousand words over the word limit, so there may be some frantic word cutting ahead. The final submission date is 25 October, so we're getting close!



While checking some details on Michael Moorcock and New Worlds for the introduction to my thesis, I discovered that Moorcock has a Doctor Who book coming out next month! It's titled Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles and the hardcover edition is set to be released on 14 October, according to BookDepository.co.uk. It will feature the current (eleventh) Doctor and Amy Pond (yay!) as they join a group called the Terraphiles that are obsessed with Earth and its history. Apparently it will also involve some of the characters from Moorcock's other work, which should be interesting. Check out the awesome cover below.




And finally, I just had to post this hilarious YouTube video I discovered via the Evil Librarian Supervillain blog. Enjoy!


UPDATE: The above video is probably best enjoyed when it has been contextualised, so check out these recent commercials that have become a YouTube hits: Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, Old Spice: Questions and Old Spice: Did You Know.
 

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Aussiecon 4 in review

So. I finally have time to write something about Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, held in my home city of Melbourne, 2 - 6 September. Since all the days have now blurred together, I'll just go through, what were for me, some of the most interesting aspects of the convention.

ACADEMIC TRACK

The academic track, convened by Andrew Milner and Helen Merrick, brought a diverse range of papers on many interesting topics. I heard some fascinating papers on: myth and history in Neil Gaiman's Sandman; the progeny of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; Doctor Who and the 'coolification' of nerds; Doctor Who and fairy tale; and speculative science in the writings of Johannes Kepler.

Evie taking questions after her paper
Evie, my wife, delivered a fantastic paper entitled "Science Fiction: The Language of Bioethics Philosophy," in which she examined the (mis)use of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Andrew Niccol's Gattaca in bioethical debates on cloning, genetic engineering and genetic discrimination. People really enjoyed it and it sparked some good conversations afterwards. Evie has her own blog, too.


On the last day of the con I presented my paper on generation starships in science fiction, which was quite well received. Question time was far less terrifying that I had anticipated and overall it was a very positive experience.

Me presenting my paper

PANELS

There were some fascinating panels during the convention. I attended "Creating believable space travel" and "Hand-waving, rule-breaking and other dirty tricks of hard sf," both of which included panels of hard sf authors and scientists, including Gregory Benford. There was a great panel on copyright in the 21st century, which had Cory Doctorow as a panelist. A panel titled "Capes and skirts: the plight of female superheroes" was very heated, with two of the panelists discussing the objectification and mistreatment of women in comics, while the other (male) panelist became (unnecessarily) very defensive — much arguing ensued! There was, however, a very good panel on the history of women in Australian sf, which included panelists Lucy Sussex and Helen Merrick. There were also some great academic panels covering the environment and climate change, race in sf and feminism.

From left: Tom Moylan (m), Jonathan Cowie, John Clute, Glenda Larkin, Kim Stanley Robinson

I particularly enjoyed a couple of the panels that John Clute was on. One was "How to Review," which was both insightful and fun, since Clute's approach to reviewing was the opposite to the approaches taken by the other two panellists, John Berlyne and Dirk Flinthart. For instance, whereas Berlyne said that he was writing to tell readers whether or not to buy and read a particular book (without giving away any 'spoilers'), Clute adopted a more literary approach by reviewing books in more critical terms, examining how they work (and giving away 'spoilers' freely). Personally, I much prefer Clute's reviews, but I understand the need for both. Another interesting panel was on "slipstream" fiction and sf/f genre conventions. Again, Clute was at odds with the other panelist, G. David Nordley, but Clute clearly had a better understanding of genre and how it works (I have no idea why Nordley was selected for the panel). Clute said that genre is pure until you actually look at texts, since no text conforms perfectly to a single genre. Quite true. He also said that most near future sf could now be considered 'slipstream', since so much now plays with genre tropes and distinctions, traversing and transcending traditional genre boundaries.

From left: John Clute, Ian Nichols (m), G. David Nordley

HUGO AWARDS

The Hugo Awards Ceremony on Sunday evening was brilliant. Garth Nix did a fantastic (and hilarious) job as Master of Ceremonies and Kim Stanley Robinson did very well announcing that there had been a tie for best novel (China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi both won). I was very glad that our very own Shaun Tan won the Hugo for best professional artist, that Moon won best long form (film) and, most of all, that StarShipSofa won best fanzine. This was the first time a podcast had won a Hugo award, and you must head over to the StarShipSofa website to see Tony C. Smith's reaction during the live video podcast of the Hugo award results (fast forward to 40:00 to see him react to winning the award). I was, however, disappointed that Dollhouse's "Epitaph One" didn't win best short form (TV), since I strongly believe it was much better written than any of the Doctor Who specials nominated. (In fact, Dollhouse got the most primary votes out of the five nominees, but after the preferences were counted — with everyone who voted for a Doctor Who episode preferencing another Doctor Who episode — the three Doctor Who specials claimed the first three places and Dollhouse came fourth. Grr. That doesn't seem fair!)

RANDOM STUFF

On our way to one of the panels my wife and I got lost and ended up attending an impromptu game show! Paul Cornell hosted an absolutely hilarious game of "Just a Minute," a BBC radio comedy game show, featuring a great panel which included Patrick Nielsen Hayden, China Miéville and John Scalzi. I stuck around until it finished, even though it meant missing a couple of the panels I had intended on going to, because it was just so much fun!

The "Just a Minute" group

Kim Stanley Robinson's guest of honour speech was brilliant. Originally planned as an interview of Robinson by Sean Williams (who could not make it), it ended up being Dr. Kim Robinson interviewing sf author Stan Robinson, and it was great! There was also an on-stage conversation between Robinson and Robert Silverberg, where they discussed archaeological hoaxes, the New Wave of sf, and whether or not it is advisable to write in the nude. A very funny conversation indeed!

Robert Silverberg and Kim Stanley Robinson

There were relatively few costumes or TV/film-centric events, but there were a bunch of people wearing Star Wars outfits. I couldn't resist getting my photo taken with this group of stormtroopers! I believe there was, at some point during the con, a Star Wars event with choreographed lightsaber battles — I'm sorry I missed it!

Me with three stormtroopers!

Another highlight was the screening of Shaun Tan's new short film The Lost Thing, due for release in November and based on the picture book of the same title. Introduced by Tan, who discussed it's making-of, The Lost Thing was absolutely beautiful and amazingly done.

LOOT

I picked up some great books from the dealer's room and I was able to get many inscribed. Among them:
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo's Dream (paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • John Clute, Canary Fever: Reviews (first edition, paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • China Miéville, The City & The City (paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm (signed)
  • Shaun Tan, The Bird King and Other Sketches (first edition hardcover, launched at the con) (signed & inscribed)
  • Lucy Sussex, A Tour Guide in Utopia (signed & inscribed)
  • Gregory Benford, Timescape (paperback) (signed)


I also picked up some other cool things, like an issue of Postscripts with the as yet uncollected Gene Wolfe short story "Comber" (2005), some issues of The New York Review of Science Fiction with Wolfe-related articles and reviews, and some pulp magazines, including Aurealis #2, the cover of which is the first piece of artwork that Shaun Tan sold.

CONCLUSION

I've come away from Aussiecon 4 with not only a nice stack of beautiful books and another conference paper to add to my curriculum vitae, but with quite a reading list. Towards the top of this list is now Robinson's Galileo's Dream, Miéville's The City & The City and Benford's Timescape — I've only read short stories and non-fiction articles by these authors, but after having met them I really want to read these books. I'm currently reading selected reviews from Clute's Canary Fever and I am constantly finding myself jealous of his amazing vocabulary and lyrical writing style. Attending the con also introduced me to authors who I now, having met them in person, have absolutely no desire to read — as tempting as it is, I won't name them.

The convention also introduced me to the sf/f fan scene for the first time — previously I had attended academic conferences relating to sf/f, but never a con. Now I'm tempted to go to Perth in Western Australia next year for Swancon Thirty Six / Natcon Fifty and if the 2014 WorldCon does end up being held in London (and I hope it does!) then that would provide a wonderful excuse for my wife and I to visit the UK!
    

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Utopias Conference, Day Three

The third day of the Utopias conference, Changing the Climate, was a great end to a great conference. I was thrown in the deep end when I was asked to chair a session immediately after the opening keynote, but it went quite smoothly and wasn't as difficult as I anticipated (I had never chaired before). There were a couple of fantastic papers presented in the session I chaired, including one by David Blencowe, a PhD candidate from Monash University, who discussed the representation of utopia and revolution in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch in his paper "Catastophic Intentions: Benjamin and Bloch on the Nature of Revolution."

After lunch there was a launch for the two latest volumes of the Ralahine Utopian Studies series, with a speech by one of the series editors, Tom Moylan. The latest volume of the series, titled Tenses of Imagination: Raymond Williams on Science Fiction, Utopia and Dystopia, was edited by Andrew Milner, co-convener of the Utopias conference.

I attended a couple of very interesting papers in the afternoon, both on Christianity, utopianism and ecology, including one entitled, "Of Bodies and Souls: Ecology and Orthodox Christianity," which was particularly insightful, as the presenter looked at recent statements from the Eastern Orthodox Church that call harm to the environment a 'sin' and unpacked the theology that underlies such statements.

In a session chaired by Kim Stanley Robinson, John Clute gave a perfect keynote address to close the conference. His paper was titled "Truth is Consequence," and he discussed the failure of "fantastika" (sf/fantasy/horror) to predict the problems we are now facing with climate change. Peter Nicholls, co-author of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, joined us for John's keynote and the end-of-conference drinks, so my wife and I got to express our appreciation of both John and Peter's work on the encyclopedia, which has helped us with every sf essay we've written.

During the end-of-conference drinks I got another chance to chat to Kim Stanley Robinson, who is just a really nice guy, and when you get him talking about Gene Wolfe, he sounds just like any other Wolfe fan. He told me about his experiences writing the introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe and how it was the fruition of 35 years reading Wolfe's work. I had also given him a copy of my list of uncollected Wolfe short stories (since we had discussed his short fiction a few days earlier) which he really liked, expressing a hope that they could be put back into print in one form or another (to which I wholeheartedly agreed).

So that was the end of the Utopias conference! The next day? Aussiecon 4! (Which I still haven't had a chance to blog about!) Right now, I have to finish cutting down that paper I'll be presenting on Monday...

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Utopias Conference, Day Two

Another fantastic day at Changing the Climate, the fourth Australian conference on utopia, dystopia and science fiction. The opening keynote today was by Tom Moylan on climate change and the fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson, titled "N-H-N': Kim Stanley Robinson's Dialectics of Ecology." After morning tea I attended a series of papers on Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy (which Robinson himself also attended).

After lunch I presented my own paper, titled "The Victorian Crisis of Faith in Australian Utopian Literature, 1870-1900," based on some research I undertook during a 2008/2009 Summer Research Scholarship at the Australian National University. I was, of course, quite nervous, but the whole thing went really well. I kept the paper within the allotted 20 minutes and endured the 10 minutes of question time quite well, glad I had spent the last few days revising the material I was speaking on, although the questions really were actually really good.


After my paper, Andrew Milner, my honours supervisor, spoke on Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957) and George Turner's The Sea and the Summer (1987), in a paper titled "From the Beach to the Sea: Two Paradigmatic Australian Dystopias".

The day ended with a fantastic keynote address by Robinson on "Utopia in the Age of Climate Change," in which he discussed his fiction and what he called his addiction to writing utopias. His paper ended with an environmentalist calls to take action on climate change and for the sciences and humanities to combine their efforts in battling global warming. Afterwards I descended into a moment of fannishness and asked Stan to sign a copy of The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010), which he signed "from a fellow Wolfean"! Oh, and I also got this photo:

Me, John Clute and Kim Stanley Robinson
    

Utopias Conference, Day One

Yesterday began a crazy eight days (it's Aussiecon 4 soon, yay!) with the first day of Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe, the fourth Australian conference on utopia, dystopia and science fiction, held at the Monash University Conference Centre in the Melbourne CBD (on Collins Street).

The conference opened with a keynote address by Kate Rigby (Monash University), then concurrent sessions of papers ran throughout the day (with breaks for lunch and afternoon tea). The final keynote was a Q&A with Deborah Bird Rose and Marshall Bell, an indigenous painter.

My wife presented a paper written by a friend of ours, who unfortunately could not make it to the conference. The paper, titled "'Our World is Ending, But Life Must Go On...': Post-Apocalyptic Dystopias in Contemporary Children's Films," examined the recent films 9 and Wall-E, and Evie presented wonderfully.

Following Evie, there was a really fascinating paper titled "Virtual Catastrophe: Games, Play and Environmental Disaster in Online Games and Cyberpunk Fiction," which opened with a hilarious trailer for EpicWin, and proceeded to discuss calls for environmental activism in recent online games, such as Evoke.

The highlight of the day was talking to John Clute and Kim Stanley Robinson about Gene Wolfe during the afternoon tea break. Both John and Stan (as they introduced themselves) have written on Wolfe, with John publishing a selection of Wolfe-related essays in Strokes (1988) and Stan writing the introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe (2009). We had a great chat about The Book of the Long Sun and I told them about my honours research on the book. We also talked about Wolfe's unique writing style and the kind of interpretative debates that surround it, as well as Wolfe's unwillingness to confirm or deny interpretative theories (such as John's own theory of the Autarch as Severian's mother - if you don't know about this, read Strokes!). All in all, a fantastic day indeed!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Joss Whedon Keynote at the Melbourne Writers Festival


Last night my wife and I went to see Joss Whedon's keynote address for the Melbourne Writers Festival at the Melbourne Town Hall. It was done in Q&A format and towards the end of the evening some questions were taken from the audience. It was a fantastic night and the extraordinary excitement of the audience was amazing. There were even some people wearing Jayne hats.

When asked whether or not he would ever return to writing television, Whedon answered that he would never turn his back on television — which is a huge relief. Given the premature cancellations of all his recent shows (especially the amazing Firefly) I was afraid that we wouldn't be seeing any more Whedon TV, thankfully that shouldn't be the case. There certainly were, however, many comments made regarding "Satanic" and "evil" television networks, and the threats posed to the stability of society by massive corporations (which is very much a running theme in Whedon's writing, something I hadn't fully realised before last night). He also spoke about the differences in writing for film, television and comics (I am thoroughly enjoying the Buffy Season 8 and Angel comics), and even mentioned writing a novel (I don't know if he was serious, but I sure hope he was!!). I'm also getting really excited about the Avengers movie he'll be writing and directing (due for release in 2012) — he spoke a bit about how they're really letting him do whatever he wants with it, which certainly sounds promising! He said that many superhero movies now are becoming postmodern and deconstructive (The Dark Knight, Watchmen, etc), but that there is still work to do in constructing really good modern superhero movies before we begin to deconstruct them. A good point, I thought.

There is an article on Gizmodo.com.au on last night's MWF keynote and it goes through some of the things Whedon said, with some great quotes as well. The Australian radio station Triple J interviewed him last night as well, and there's also a great little interview on the Sydney Morning Herald website, as well as an article. Whedon will also be appearing in Sydney tomorrow night (29 September 2010) for another Q&A at the Sydney Opera House.
    

Friday, 27 August 2010

Come to the Aussiecon 4 Academic Program!

Not long now until Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Melbourne over 2-6 September. The convention program has just been uploaded to the Aussiecon 4 website. It will be the first convention I've been to and I can hardly believe how much will be happening!

There is an academic stream running throughout the convention, with an amazing variety of papers being presented. Each paper will be around 20 minutes with 10 minutes of question time. My paper, on the generation starship trope in science fiction, will be presented on the last day of the con, Monday 6 September, at 12:30pm. The title and abstract of my paper is below, along with the mini-bio that will be published in the full program. My wife will be giving a paper on the use of science fiction in bioethical debates on Sunday 5 September at 2:30pm.



Kendal, Zachary
Adrift: The Generation Starship in Science Fiction

The generation starship, an interstellar space habitat that travels at sub-light speeds, is a common science fiction trope. This paper will trace the development of the trope from Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1941; 1963) and Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (aka Starship) (1958), through to more recent stories such as Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996) and Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder Trilogy (ongoing). Particular attention will be paid to the treatment of religion, where a loss of social memory has led the ship’s inhabitants to ritualise and mythologise its creators or governing artificial intelligences, which are revered like gods. I will argue that generation starship stories have often been used to argue for the superiority of “science” over “religion,” insofar as scientific enlightenment liberates the ship’s inhabitants from subservience to false religion. However, more recent renditions of the trope, such as Wolfe’s, have overturned these conventions and offered fresh approaches to idea of the generation starship.

Bio

Zachary Kendal is currently completing his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree at Monash University. He is writing a thesis in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies on the subject of religion in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, and has been in receipt of a CLCS Honours Scholarship. He lives in Melbourne and works at the Monash University Library.
          

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Doctor Who Nerdiness

While it isn't my favourite sf television show of all time, I do seem to blog about Doctor Who more than anything else I watch. See, for instance my two recent blog posts on the inflatable Dalek, which has become my library department's mascot (part 1, part 2). I think, perhaps, it's because there's so much wonderful, nerdy Doctor Who paraphernalia out there. Traditionally, my wife and I get something Doctor Who related for my father-in-law each Christmas, and when we walk in to Minotaur there are multiple large bookcases dedicated to Doctor Who books, magazines, audio books and radio shows, action figures, toys, and so on. And now I have this on my desk at work:


I stumbled upon the DeviantArt gallery of CyberDrone and found some absolutely brilliant cutout templates for the different incarnations of the Doctor and the TARDIS. Above is the assembled cutout of the Eleventh Doctor's TARDIS (I claimed I wanted to test the blue toner in our recently-fixed printer), but there are also templates for the Classic TARDIS, the 1980s TARDIS and, amusingly, the First Doctor's Black & White TARDIS. I was perplexed by the Pink TARDIS until I realised that it was actually based on the Doctor Who episode "The Happiness Patrol".

There is, in fact, an insane amount of Doctor Who related craft out there. There are, for instance, a huge number of knitting patterns, from the classic scarf worn by Tom Baker's Doctor, to dolls based on David Tennant's Doctor and stuffed plush TARDISes. You can even make a Robotic Dalek Pumpkin!

I'm not quite sure what gives Doctor Who this massive appeal. Sometimes the writing of the show drives me crazy! Although I did love the episode "Amy's Choice" from the most recent season — there were hardly any plot holds at all! Overall I enjoyed the most recent season (Steven Moffat's) much more than the previous ones (that is, Russell T. Davies' run). Perhaps its cult status comes primarily from having been around for so long.

For those interested in Doctor Who, Gabriel McKee has written a great series of blog posts on religion in the latest (fifth) season of the show. McKee, author of The Gospel According to Science Fiction (2007), maintains his own blog, SF Gospel, which is also worth checking out.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Harry Harrison's Captive Universe

In his book on Harry Harrison, Leon Stover praises Captive Universe (1969) as "Harrison's literary masterpiece", and it certainly is an engaging and quite well written novel. It is only a short novel (under 200 pages) but it provides a very interesting treatment of the generation starship trope.

As I discussed in my post on Clifford D. Simak's "Spacebred Generations", most generation starship stories address the problem of keeping the mission of the multi-generational voyage on track for centuries or millenia of travel. In most of these stories, after many generations have passed the current inhabitants are left with no conception of the ship's original mission or purpose. This "forgetting" results in the ship drifting aimlessly through space, with the mission incomplete.

Harrison's solution to this problem is a lot like Simak's, although Stover incorrectly claims that Harrison was the first to use it. In order to keep the mission on track, the creators of the generation starship in Captive Universe keep the ship's inhabitants enslaved by religion. As in Simak's story, the ship's inhabitants are kept ignorant and subservient by the artificial religions constructed by the ship's designers. Harrison, however, is much stronger in his message and his condemnation of the unethicalness of controlling a population through theocracy and of the generation starship idea in general.

There are two populations on board Harrison's generation starship: the Aztecs of the valley, who live within the main body of the ship, which is designed to look like Earth, with a fake sun and painted sky; and the Observers, who live in the corridors of the ship, observing the Aztecs and ensuring that their artificial world is running properly. The Aztecs and Observers both operate as theocracies, with the Aztecs fearfully worshipping a pantheon of terrifying gods and the Observers worshipping "the Great Designer".

The Great Designer, we discover, was a powerful ruler on Earth who ordered the construction of the starship as a testament to his great legacy. In order to keep the ship's main inhabitants ignorant of the ship's true mission he indoctrinated them in Aztec religion, establishing a powerful theocracy run by the priests of the village. By his decree, the Observers, themselves enslaved in a religion which worships him as "God", maintain the artificial valley and ensure the operation of a two-headed vengeful (mechanical) god called Coatlicue, who kills any villagers attempting to leave the Valley. Furthermore, to ensure the Aztecs retain unquestioning loyalty to their fabricated religion and false gods, the Great Creator genetically engineers the inhabitants of the two Aztec villages to be stupid (apparently there is a 'stupid gene' and a 'genius gene'). When the ship reaches its destination, however, the inhabitants of the two villages are to intermarry and procreate (otherwise taboo), thereby activating the dormant genius genes which otherwise stay suppressed within each village. Thus, a new generation of genius children would be born, ready to learn about Earth and the Great Creator and his empire and carry this knowledge to the planet they colonise.

The novel's protagonist, Chimal, is a child born out of wedlock from an inter-village couple and is therefore very intelligent and inquisitive, questioning things that everyone else takes for granted. He eventually discovers the true nature of the ship, the Aztec religion, and the Observers that go about their rituals unseen by the villagers. He learns from the Observers that none of the gods worshiped by the Aztecs exist, and that their entire religious system is only a tool to keep them ignorant of the true nature of the ship and its mission. He soon, however, questions the Observers' unrelenting belief in the Great Designer, such that, later in the book, when one of the Observers declares that the Great Designer was "God," Chimal responds:
Not God, or even a black god of evil, though he deserves that name. Just a man. A frightful man. The books talk of the wonders of the Aztecs he created to carry out his mission, their artificially induced weakness of mind and docility. There is no wonder—but a crime. Children were born, from the finest people in the land, and they were stunted before birth. They were taught superstitious nonsense and bundled off into this prison of rock to die without hope. (148)
Thus, the evilness of the Great Designer is emphasised through his enslavement of the Aztec people to an oppressive religious system. Chimal continues his tirade against the Great Designer, criticising his indoctrination of the Observers:
this monster looked for a group to do the necessary housekeeping for the centuries-long voyage. He found it in the mysticism and monasticism that has always been a nasty side path taken by the human race. Hermits wallowing in filth in caves, others staring into the sun for a lifetime of holy blindness, orders that withdrew from the world and sealed themselves away for lives of sacred misery. Faith replacing thinking and ritual replacing intelligence. (149)
In his essay on Aldiss's Non-Stop (aka Starship), Fredric Jameson stressed that in stories such as Aldiss's, the elements of the shipboard culture presented in the story "always come before us as signs: they ask us to take them as equivalents for the cultural habits of our own daily lives, they beg to be judged on their intention rather than by what they actually realize, to be read with complicity rather than for the impoverished literal content." One has to wonder, therefore, whether Harrison is not only criticising religion for being oppressive and unenlightened, but also criticising religious education (that is, the raising of children to believe "superstitious nonsense") as inherently unethical.

Whatever his motivations, religion certainly does not come off well in Captive Universe. It is regarded as "a nasty side path" that keeps people from properly understanding the world through rational and scientific means. Faith is presented as the opposite of thinking and ritual the opposite of intelligence. Chimal could almost be breaking through the fourth wall and speaking directly to religious readers when he shouts:
Don’t you realize the ritualized waste of your empty lives? Don’t you understand that your intelligence has been dimmed and diminished so that none of you will question the things you have to do? (149)


On a lighter note: above is the cover of my paperback copy of Captive Universe, and I just have to say that the picture on the cover is absurd. I'm quite sure the artist didn't read the story and was just told to go with an "Aztecs in space" motif. Okay, the ship does like kind of cool and the artist did get the cylindrical shape right, but, leaving aside the ridiculousness of crafting an intricate solid gold starship, we are specifically told in the novel that the ship was made from a hollowed-out asteroid. I am fairly certain that there are no golden Aztec-themed asteroids hurtling through space.

While the cover for the first paperback edition (top) features the sandy feel of the Aztec valley and the vultures mentioned occasionally in the story, I'm not quite sure what is going on in the other cover (middle, and here). It looks like a scene from a completely different novel. The covers below, taken from Harrison's website and a fan blog, feature the two-headed serpent god Coatlicue, an automatic heat-seeking sentry robot. The German cover (right) is particularly dreadful.


Page numbers refer to the following edition:
Harrison, Harry. Captive Universe. 1969. New York: Ace-Berkley, 1984.
    

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Clifford D. Simak's "Spacebred Generations"

Clifford D. Simak's short story "Spacebred Generations" (1953), also known by the title "Target Generation" and collected in Simak's Strangers in the Universe (1956), is presented, in many ways, as a possible solution to the problems involved in a multi-generational voyage. In Wilcox's "The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years" (1940) and Heinlein's "Universe" and "Common Sense" (1941) something goes terribly wrong onboard the generation starship which causes a ship-wide "forgetting." This forgetting of the ship's purpose is, in many generation starship stories, accompanied by the development of a religious system that ritualises and mythologises the ship, its creators and its mission. In Wilcox, this forgetting seems to be caused partly by the bad planning of those who made the ship and set it on its journey and partly by the protagonist's bad judgement; in Heinlein, a catastrophic mutiny is the cause. This pattern is also followed in Aldiss's Non-Stop(1958), published after Simak's story, where a devastating virus wipes out most of the ship's population. In all these cases, the forgetting results in the potential failure of the mission, as the ship's inhabitants do not know how to fulfil the ship's purpose.

In "Spacebred Generations," Simak offers a clever solution to this problem: the builders of the generation starship intentionally created a shipboard culture of ignorance to keep the population peaceful, accompanied, of course, by a religious system which allows them to feel comforted. According to Simak, only by forgetting about Earth and human history could the ship's population survive the journey without terrible psychological trauma.

The story's protagonist, Jon, comes from a family which has been passing down a "heresy" from generation to generation. This heresy involves teaching the ability to read (considered taboo) and handing down the Letter and the Book, to be opened and read only in case of emergency. This emergency takes place at the beginning of the story when the cylindrical ship ceases its rotation, stopping the centripetal forces that emulated gravity and replacing them with an artificial gravity working in a different direction (thereby changing the direction of 'gravity' in every room in the ship). The ship's inhabitants also realise that instead of perpetually moving, like they used to, the stars not appear stationary.

Understanding the seriousness of the situation, Jon reads the mysterious Letter, which contains instructions to enter a locked room and use a learning machine. Once he has used this machine, Jon receives a vast amount of knowledge, coming to understand the true nature of the ship. He then realises that there was "No divine intervention. No myth. Just human planning" (15). He also realises that the ship's entire culture was planned by its creators:
It was planned on Earth. … Every step was planned. They planned the great forgetting as the only way that humans could carry out the flight. They planned the heresy that handed down the knowledge. They made the ship so simple that anyone could handle it—anyone at all.
     They looked ahead and saw what was bound to happen. Their planning has been just a jump ahead of us every moment. (21)
She ship's creators designed the entire religious system of the ship, including the heresy passed down through Jon's family, as a means of keeping the society ignorant and subservient. They put their faith in the blind observation of religious rituals and laws to see their mission completed successfully, and their faith turns out to be well placed. Religion, in this story, is not simply depicted as ignorant and unscientific, as it is in Heinlein's and Aldiss's, although it certainly does prove to be this too. Rather, religion becomes a useful tool for controlling the population through ignorance, superstition and ritual. It is also, however, acknowledged as a comforting and peaceful force—it is only when the religious system falls down that violence and murder begin to occur (apparently for the first time in generations).

A very positive aspect of this story, in my opinion, is its representation of women and marriage. In Heinlein's "Universe" and "Common Sense," the depiction of women is terrible (as I explained in my blog post on those stories). In Aldiss's Non-Stop, the protagonist argues with his wife throughout the first chapter and is completely unconcerned for his wife's wellbeing when she is kidnapped by a rival tribe (in fact, he soon forgets about her entirely, and develops a romance with another woman—we never find out what became of his wife!). In Simak's story, however, Jon and his wife Mary are very much happy and in love. When Jon has locked himself in the ship's control room in order to find a safe, habitable planet for the ship to land on, he is left without food, since everyone else on the ship has turned against him. Mary, however, risks her own life to bring him food and water, supporting and trusting him when no one else will. He is overjoyed when he sees her, relieved that she is safe and well. (I'm not even sure I've read the words "My darling wife" in a pulp sf story before). He teaches her about the ship and its true purpose and they spend the rest of the story together. I thought this was a much better portrayal of marriage than Heinlein's or Aldiss's.

Something I found very amusing about this story, published in Hugo Gernsback's Science-Fiction Plus (August 1953), was the story's scientific footnotes. Gernsback was always very concerned about the scientific plausibility of stories published in his magazines, frequently rejecting stories for containing too much fantasy (or "fairy tale" as he liked to call it). Simak seems to be pandering to this glorification of science and fascination with technology by the inclusion of these footnotes, offering scientific explanations for things such as "hydroponic gardens" and the automatic operation of the spaceship.

Particularly painful is a footnote on "educational devices" which praises Gernsback's 1925 novel Ralph 124C 41+, apparently the first story to suggest such a learning machine, as a "science-fiction classic" (14). For a more accurate description of this novel, read this review by Steven H. Silver.

To anyone that has this story in its solo publication or in Strangers in the Universe, I would be interested to know: are any of these footnotes are preserved? Please leave a comment on this post if you know.

Page numbers refer to the original Science-Fiction Plus printing.