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.


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.