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.


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:


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.



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.