Sunday, 27 June 2010

Thesis Update

Seems I haven't written anything directly thesis related on this blog for a while, so here's a bit of an update. The structure of my undergrad thesis on religion in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun has changed somewhat over the last couple of months, as these things are prone to do. Here's a bit of a run down on the evolution of the thesis thus far.

In the early planning stages, once a general thesis topic had been settled on, my supervisor encouraged me to formulate a basic three-chapter thesis plan. After playing around with different ideas, I eventually settled upon the following chapter topics (which I blogged about at the time):
1. The Outsider: The Transcendent God
2. Materialism and the 'Generation Ship' Trope
3. Patera Silk and the Role of the Priest in Science Fiction
Finding that the priest-in-science-fiction area was too broad and too complex to make a coherent analysis of in under 5,000 words (I had earlier thought of focusing my entire thesis around this topic), I soon changed my idea for the third chapter to a study of how Wolfe demonstrates transcendence in Long Sun by opening up an infinite interpretative space within the text itself.

The total word count for the thesis is meant to be between 15,000 and 18,000 words, so I had to stay below 5,000 words for each chapter. However, after writing my first chapter, I found I had written over 9,000 words. I also found that there were two distinct points I was trying to make. So, after a crisis meeting with my supervisor in which he assured me that everything was okay and it wasn't the end of the world if I deviated from my original plan, I decided split the first chapter into two chapters and eliminate the third completely. I still like my idea for the third chapter, but I realised that it wasn't integrally connected to the first two chapters and that it was a massive topic in itself. Perhaps I will give it a more thorough treatment in a Masters of PhD thesis some time in the future. My current plan is as follows:
1. Enlightenment Came to Silk on the Ball Court
2. Propounding a Theology
3. Inverting the Archetype: The Book of the Long Sun and the Generation Starship Trope
The first chapter has two parts: "Patera Silk and the Vironese Faith," in which I critically examine the character of Silk and the Vironese religion in which he was raised; and, "Silk's Enlightenment," in which I examine Silk's enlightenment by the Outsider and the profound impact this has on the rest of the series. I have also split the second chapter into two parts: "The Outsider," in which I examine the qualities Wolfe attributes to the Outsider; and, "The Book of the Long Sun and Gene Wolfe's Catholicism," in which I look at the distinctly Catholic roots of Long Sun and how Wolfe represents Catholicism and Catholic theology in the text. In these chapters I critically engage with Wolfe scholars—such as Peter Wright, whose brief analysis of Long Sun in Attending Daedalus is the subject of some scrutiny—and compare what Wolfe has said about his faith and writing in interviews and articles with what he performs in the text of Long Sun itself. I've written these first two chapters and received positive feedback from my supervisor, so now I'm doing reading and research for my third and final chapter, where I will compare what Wolfe does with the generation starship trope with what other sf authors have done (I have briefly written on this previously), specifically as it relates to the representation of religion and transcendence.

So that's how things are at the moment. I'm more than half way through, which is quite exciting. Oh, and better yet, my thesis now has a title: "Beyond the Whorl: Encountering Religion in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun."

Friday, 25 June 2010

The Dalek: Visiting the Rare Books Collection

The fun continued yesterday when our new library employee saw the Rare Books display near the Music and Multimedia section of the library. Noticing his excitement, Simon, Emmaleigh and I decided to take him upstairs to the Rare Books exhibition room. The current exhibition is on Children's Books and displays a range of rare materials from the library's Lindsay Shaw Collection.

We then showed our friend the large science fiction collection in Rare Books, including many shelves of Doctor Who magazines, fanzines, books, novels, and even playing cards.

He selected some material that interested him and took them to the Rare Books Exhibition Room. Among these was The Dalek Book, which he found particularly enlightening.

The Rare Books website has a virtual tour of our science fiction collection, as well as other previous exhibitions. They're definitely worth checking out!

We've had people come into the office and say, "Oh! It's a TARDIS!" Visitors have also attribute the Dalek to Star Wars or Star Trek. So for those who don't know what a Dalek is, please watch the following instructional video: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Daleks," which was linked to on io9 yesterday.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Religion in Science Fiction posts at Only a Game

I recently discovered some very interesting blog posts from 2009 on religion in science fiction. The series is by Chris Bateman on his blog, Only a Game, and consists of the nine posts:
  1. Introduction
  2. Metaphysics of Science Fiction
  3. Dune
  4. Stargate
  5. Star Trek
  6. Doctor Who
  7. Firefly
  8. Battlestar Galactica
  9. Star Wars
I've recently finished re-watching Stargate SG-1 and I find myself very much agreeing with Chris's analysis of the show. He writes: "From the very onset, Stargate had been tied up in an unsophisticated pulp-novel critique of religion." However, as he goes on to argue, SG-1's mission of removing the Goa'uld, who pose as gods, from power is more closely connected to deposing tyrants and freeing slaves than it is an attack on religion per se. Chris then examines seasons nine and ten of the show, posing the question: "did the later seasons alienate Christian fans?" The answer he arrives at is a definite "yes", and he also suggests that it could have played a role in the show's downfall. He writes: "It is almost impossible not to interpret the Ori as a paper-thin parody of Christianity." It is this Ori storyline that makes the show so incredibly frustrating towards the end—it becomes preoccupied with presenting a simplistic and philosophically naïve attack on religion, and on Christianity most of all. Perhaps at some point I'll write a long, ranting post about it, but Chris pretty well sums up my frustrations. Don't get me wrong, I still loved the show (I really wish they'd hurry up and make the third DVD movie). I also think that Stargate Atlantis was, in many ways, what SG-1 should have remained: simple sci-fi fun, which doesn't take itself too seriously. That is perhaps where Stargate Universe is going wrong; it is attempting to be far too serious for show that should be lighthearted and fun (I mean, the premise based on people walking through wormholes to distant planets, for heaven's sake!). Anyway, I'm getting off-topic...

Chris's post on Battlestar Galactica is also very interesting, and he briefly looks at the original 1979 series, which was heavily influenced by Mormonism, before launching into a study of the show's 2003 re-make. I absolutely loved BSG and think it did a really good job of presenting a fairly balanced look at religious themes in a science fictional setting. I also loved the rather bold ending of the series, which, as Chris notes, came as quite a shock to many viewers:
Religiously-minded individuals were stunned at these metaphysical concessions to the idea of something beyond materialism, while anti-religious atheists were up in arms in the indignant edges of the blogosphere – even though, quite frankly, prophecy and mystical dreams had played an integral part of the storyline from the beginning and something preternatural was certainly required to account for this. It was another of those not-so-rare cases of the dogmatic-corners of the atheist community behaving like a fundamentalist religious subculture – a few angry individuals decrying a story because it did not concord with their personal metaphysical beliefs.
With the range of ideas that get discussed throughout the series, Chris attributes Ronald D. Moore and David Eick with creating a "brilliantly ambiguous mythology", one which I thoroughly enjoyed trying to decrypt as I watched the show fanatically during its run.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Dalek: Our New Music and Multimedia Librarian

Yesterday, Simon, Emmaleigh and I welcomed a new Music and Multimedia staff member to the Matheson Library (Monash University, Clayton). He wasn't quite what we were expecting...

Nevertheless, we set him up at his workstation, and showed him around the Music and Multimedia collection.


I then took the time to give him some one-on-one training in customer service at the Music and Multimedia loans desk.

After a busy morning we went for a walk to the pond near the library.

When it was time for lunch we went to the Den, a popular eatery located underneath the library.

After lunch we went down to the basement of the library and showed him around the processing desks, 16mm film collection and microfiche compactus.



We did, however, expect some difficulties when we encountered stairs...

... but apparently we were worried about nothing.


All-in-all, we are very glad to have such a unique addition to our team. We're sure he'll fit right in.

We received our new co-worker from a friend of ours, Marcus, who recently moved to the UK. A note was included in the parcel stating:
It was a condition of opening this package that you would perform the following tasks:
(1) Inflate the Dalek.
(2) Photograph the Dalek around key locations within the Library.
(3) Upload said photos onto the interweb
So many thanks to Marcus, who clearly has an amazing sense of humour. I wish I could think of things like this! Thanks also to my partners in crime, Simon and Emmaleigh. I'm sure I wouldn't have had the confidence to stand in line for coffee with an inflated Dalek without them nearby laughing at me.

The Dalek used is an "Inflatable Movie Dalek" (based on Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.) made for

Friday, 11 June 2010

Forthcoming anthologies

There are two great looking short story anthologies due out this month, both containing previously unpublished short stories by Gene Wolfe.

Stories: All-New Tales. Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. Headline, 2010.

Early reviews of this collection have been overwhelmingly positive, with the LA Times claiming it is "breaking fantasy from the genre ghetto." According to Crime and Publishing, "This anthology grew out of Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio’s frustration with the boundaries that genre has placed on writers." That sounds fantastic to me! The stories I love most are always those which challenge genre boundaries and create imaginative blends of established genre conventions. The anthology's warm reception isn't a huge surprise, given it has such an amazing line-up of authors, including Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, Michael Moorcock, Tim Powers, and many other big names. Wolfe's contribution is called "Leif in the Wind." The full table of contents is online at SF Signal. Stories is due out on 15 June (BookDepository).

 Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery. Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders. Eos, 2010.

I haven't seen any reviews of this anthology yet, but again the authors all seem to be quite big names from the fantasy genre. Wolfe's story is titled "Bloodsport." I am also very excited to see Bill Willingham has contributed a story called "Thieves of Daring"—I absolutely adore Willingham's Fables comic book series. Check out the full table of contents is online at SF Signal. The Swords & Dark Magic trade paperback is due out on 1 July (BookDepository). A Limited Edition hardcover will also be available from Subterranean Press.

UPDATE (15/6/2010): Seems I missed another one coming out soon...

Gateways: Original New Stories Inspired by Frederik Pohl. Edited by Elizabeth A. Hull. Tor, 2010.

This anthology is a tribute to Pohl, and includes many great authors, including Neil Gaiman, Greg Bear, and Cory Doctorow. Wolfe's story is titled "King Rat", and I don't believe it has been published elsewhere. The full contents is available on Pohl's fantastic blog. The hardcover book is due out on 6 July (BookDepository).

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Review: The Sorcerer's House (2/2)

In part one of my review of Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House I gave my first impressions of the novel. This second part of my review focuses on the questions raised in the book and by the book's ending—ones that I found particularly interesting or perplexing—and my own interpretations of them. Many spoilers follow these pretty pictures...

Tor-Macmillan, 2009.PS Publishing, 2009. (Limited Edition)

[[spoilers follow]]

The final letter of the The Sorcerer's House, which purports to be from George to his wife Millie, is surely misdirection. It seems fairly certain that Baxter is the letter's real author and that he has assumed George's identity—the style of the letter matches Baxter's, and it seems unlikely that George would have such a dramatic change of character. The question remains, then, what happened to George? Did Baxter kill him, or let him live in faerie? Given their conflict, and Baxter's jealousy over his brother's wealth (and wife), the former seems more likely.

I am also fairly certain that Ted, Doris's (presumably) late husband, holds some significance. It seems probable that he is the sorcerer Ambrose, whose ring Baxter comes to possess early on in the story. It would also explain the initials on the handkerchief Ted leaves for Doris at the end: TAG - Ted Ambrose Griffin. I am far from certain of this interpretation though, and there are other ways in which Ted could be significant.

For a while I was quite perplexed by the sheer number of identical twins in the book. One character claims that twins run in families, though this is only true for fraternal twins, not identical twins. Wolfe surely is aware of this, because the occurrence of fraternal twins in The Book of the New Sun hints at the blood relationship between Severian and Agia. It seems likely, therefore, that some form of magic is at work in The Sorcerer's House which has caused so many identical twins to be born. We are told that Mr. Black likes twins, so perhaps it is for this reason that he marries Margaret (a twin), and then somehow, magically, ensures that the children she bears him are also twins. I also found the use of the 'evil twin' idea quite amusing, and I spent a good portion of the book trying to figure out whether Baxter or George was the 'evil twin'.

The theme of pairing is surely significant, and it has been discussed on the mailing list that the 44 chapters of the book seem to mirror each other (1 to 44, 2 to 43, 3 to 42, etc.). The occurrence of threes is also frequent, usually because of the triannulus, which brings Baxter three fish (three times?), three sources of money, etc. Numbers certainly seem to play a major role in the text. Now I feel I have to re-read it, counting everything!

The book's biblical references were very interesting, and they suggest another layer of meaning to interpret. According to a local folk tale, Nicholas the Butler is the servant who brought Herod the head of John the Baptist. The name "Mary King" also rings with Catholic significance. I haven't been able to figure out what it all means though, or what, if anything, Wolfe is trying to say by it.

Overall, The Sorcerer's House definitely calls for a re-reading, and that is one of the reasons I found it so enjoyable. For now, however, my time is being chewed up by reading for my thesis, so my further investigations into The Sorcerer's House may have to wait till the end of the year.

Review: The Sorcerer's House (1/2)

I thought I would post my brief review of Gene Wolfe's latest novel, The Sorcerer's House (2010), in two parts: the first shall be a general review of the book, and the second part will look at the book's ending and some of the questions we are left with—it will be full of spoilers, so don't read on to part two if you haven't read the book, or don't intend to.


The Sorcerer's House is a stand-alone novel written as a series of letters, most of which are from the protagonist, Baxter Dunn, to his twin brother George. Baxter is an ex-con, who upon his release from jail found himself in possession of a large and mysterious house. Baxter is an interesting character, and I really enjoyed Wolfe's use of a person who is so intelligent in some ways (Baxter has two PhDs and is frequently making allusions to nineteenth-century literature and ancient history) and rather stupid in others (relationships, for instance). Even though I found him to be quite unlikeable, he still kept my attention. At first I was unconvinced by the construction of the novel as a series of letters, it seemed a bit contrived, but I eventually got used to it and came to understand why such a format was chosen. I suppose it is also quite believable that someone with two PhDs could be driven to write so many long, descriptive letters.

In his introduction to PS Publishing's limited edition of the book, Tim Powell notes that the novel slowly draws the reader in to a fantasy world. At first, the house just seems large and empty, if perhaps frequented by squatters, but as the story progresses, stranger things start to happen. The house constantly seems to be growing—new rooms appear regularly—and fantastic creatures such as dwarves and werewolves start to appear. Eventually we are introduced to the realm of faerie, which I thought was a lovely touch to the story.

Overall, it was a remarkably 'easy' read, for a Wolfe novel. I found the same thing with An Evil Guest (2008), but The Sorcerer's House was ultimately more satisfying. While I enjoyed An Evil Guest, I also found it to be a bit too much of a puzzle—there are numerous hints at what is really going on in the story, but we are not given enough evidence to properly decode and understand the book. Perhaps Wolfe decided to address his readers' frustration, for his latest novel seems much more candid. Wolfe sets up a great many mysteries throughout the book, but goes on to solve many of them explicitly in the text itself. Yet there are also some questions that remain, and it is this balance of resolution, explanation, and mystery that I really enjoyed. The narrator, of course, is very unreliable, and does not always seem to make sense of what is happening around him. So even in the end, when so much seems to have been explained, we can still search through the book to discover more questions, and, if we're lucky, more answers.

After reading a book I don't want to feel completely left out of the story, as though everything important has been happening in the background but I haven't been observant enough to notice. I want to be surprised by revelations and satisfied by conclusions. But I also want to be left with a sense of wonder, with some questions to solve myself, and then be driven to go back and re-read the book to unlock its greater depths. The Sorcerer's House achieved this balance for me, and I found it a very satisfying novel.

Also of interest...