Saturday, August 21, 2010

Story volunteers for Aug. 25

According to my notes, here are the folks who are launching our class discussion of this week's stories.  Let me know, please, if I'm misremembering.
  • Griffith, "It Takes Two": Mark Penner
  • Watts, "The Island": John Harris
  • Fowler, "The Pelican Bar": Adam Warnock
  • Johnson, "Spar": Jordan Staggs
  • Kelly, "Going Deep": Laura Jacobs
  • Black, "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown": Elizabeth Pratt
Remember, no summaries necessary; we've all read the stories.  Talk instead about what strikes you as interesting, unusual, surprising, or worth unpacking within the stories.  Pose a question or two for your classmates.  No outside research required, though you're certainly welcome to do some if you're curious.

And of course, you needn't wait until our class meeting to start the conversation.  You could start with a blog post -- a new post, please, not merely a comment attached to this post.  Each story deserves at least one thread of its own.

Watching the SyFy Network as I Type

I was first introduced to science fiction through the book series Animorphs. I was a third grader who loved animals and one of the covers caught my attention (it was a girl morphing into a grizzly). This series introduced me to space travel, aliens, time travel, and alternate realities. The series is so important to me that I still have all of it stored in my closet.

I can't really articulate how I define science fiction. Generally, I would say that it is a What If engine (or, if it's written by Grant Morrison, a WTF engine), where a mostly plausible change is made to the world as it should be so that it becomes the world as it might be.

Today, I mostly enjoy comics. The Eternals, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-men are my favorites. I also highly recommend anything Green Lantern or Booster Gold. Warren Ellis's Supergod is weird and gross and makes me swoon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

An odd little tale.

I hope you've read The Pelican Bar already because I have to say this is one of the oddest bits of science fiction I have ever read. We often think of space opera, steam-punk, cyber-punk, or military SF when we think of science fiction. This leaves a gap in our collective definition of science fiction. That's why The Pelican Bar blindsided me when I read it. The story seems like it's more of conspiracy nut bait, something that happens in a dystopian present, than it is science fiction. Then I realized, after finishing the book, that I've forgotten one of the basic elements of science fiction, the exploration of the sciences. We're all familiar with the SF works that deal with physics, astronomy, engineering, and biology, but there is a gap that most of us miss, psychology. The Pelican Bar is an exploration of psychology, of what happens to the human mind when subjected to certain stresses and situations. We see a teenager grow and learn in an environ that most of us, and her especially, have never been subjected to. It's sobering to realize what the protagonist goes through, but you also realize that she has grown and is probably better for it.

In short, sometimes that which doesn't seem like it's SF, actually is.

Science Fiction: A Love Story

I truly started enjoying science fiction when I saw my first Star Wars movie. Ever since I have wanted to be able to control the force and have my very own lightsaber. My definition of science fiction mainly relates to technology. I believe that science fiction is a type of fiction that is dominated by either present or future technology. This includes Star Wars where there is space travel and lightsabers but it also stretches to the steampunk genre where to the occupants of the story the technology is futuristic (zeppelins, machine guns).

Like I said earlier, my appreciation for science fiction bloomed from watching my first Star Wars movie. Ever since, I have watched many science fiction movies (currently, my favorite is Inception) and I have read quite a few science fiction novels.

A couple of science fiction texts that I am currently interested in are the steampunk writings of George Mann who wrote The Affinity Bridge and David Moody's Hater trilogy. I have also read a couple of Star Wars novels.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Post Humanism

I also got "into" Sci Fi because of Star Wars. I thought it was great when I was younger; they were always my favorite movies to watch when I had to stay home sick. Which was fine with my mom because she's in love with Harrison Ford. But that may be another discussion... Some of the books that I've read that could be categorized as SF are Ender's Game, which is an all time favorite of mine, 1984, A Wrinkle in Time, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Frankenstein, and His Dark Materials trilogy.

I think a definition of sci fi, aside from the "what if" factor that seems to be prevalent throughout these posts and our class discussion the other day, is fiction about how we interact in a world that has been dramatically effected by some type of scientific development.

I previously mentioned in my post Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Interestingly enough I'm taking a course this semester on Post-humanism and one of our required texts is Frankenstein. There have been all sorts of criticisms and analyses published concerning it and how it ties into Post-humanism, etc. Two of these authors are N. Katherine Hayles and Elaine L. Graham. In Hayles's introduction she writes about the Turing test which is sometimes called the "Imitation Game." (Sorry to those of you for whom this information is a repeat.. which it may be all of you). Turing, a mathematician, devised this game to test when artificial intelligence had reached human intelligence. A human would go into a room where there was just a computer terminal and talk through the computer to someone. During phase one, the person would have to figure out if they were talking to a man or a woman by asking questions and they would be trying to mislead them. During phase two, the person would have to decide whether they were talking to a computer or a human being, both of whom would be trying to convince them that they were speaking to a human. If the computer succeeded, according to Turing, then artificial intelligence was equal to if not greater than human intelligence. Hayles argues however that as soon as you enter that room you deprive yourself of your senses and desires and needs, the things that are quintessentially human, and by entering into that room you have made yourself post-human.

One of the definitions on Wikipedia for post humanism is:  cultural direction which strives to move beyond archaic concepts of "human nature" to develop ones which constantly adapt to contemporary technoscientific knowledge. The posthuman is traditionally a concept that comes from Science Fiction, futurology, contemporary art, and philosophy. (Again, wiki). I just thought that it was a pretty awesome tie-in as I sat here reading my Post Humanism homework for tomorrow morning!

My Views of Sci Fi

I like a lot of the definitions given for Sci Fi so far. Of course, the idea of it being the genre of "what if?" seems pretty spot on and I really liked the idea that somebody else gave in class of it being about scientific development and how those developments affect the world in which they exist. Going deeper into that, I feel like Sci Fi is often an attempt to warn of the dangers of scientific development. This is not always the case, but it seems to be a common trend. It explores the ramifications of what all of the possible scientific advancements and "what ifs" could lead to. These worlds often seem to serve as metaphors for our own world. This idea of cautionary tales also lends itself to aspects of sci fi that do not pertain necessarily to scientific advancement. Stories of alien attacks often seem to be a metaphor for fears of the unknown, or even racial tension and wars between two different countries.
Personally, I actually have very little experience with Science Fiction, especially Science Fiction literature, hence the lack of a fun title. Most of the Sci Fi that I've been exposed to is filmed. This includes movies and television. I am an avid television watcher, and I'm a huge fan of all things Joss Whedon. A lot of Whedon's work, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, would probably be considered more Fantasy than Sci Fi, but both had clear Sci Fi elements. However, I would definitely consider some of Whedon's other works, such as Firefly, Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog to fall into the Science Fiction category. Other shows that I've watched that include Sci Fi elements include Lost, Heroes and Doctor Who.
Besides these examples, here are a couple of other things I immediately thought of when asked to name some examples of science fiction: Orwell's 1984, works by H. G. Wells, and even the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, or the show based on the books, True Blood. These books are another work that would probably be widely considered Fantasy, but the main background of the story is that vampires have just come out in the open because of a brand new scientific development of synthetic blood that makes it no longer necessary for vampires to feed on humans. That seems pretty Science Fiction-y to me.

Beating a dead horse

So reading over everyone else's posts, it's kind of funny to see how many of us started loving SciFi because of our exposure to Star Wars. My mom is kind of a Star Wars nerd, so we've been watching the movies at my house since I was little, playing different video games based on it, and she always has some random fact about it. I love watching scifi movies, and love reading scifi books even more. I love James Rollins, who wrote Amazonia, which I mentioned in class. I've also read Sandstorm by him (another novel about antimatter in Saudi Arabia), and am looking forward to reading more by him. My favorite scifi movie is probably Starship Troopers, embarrassingly enough. As for what defines what science fiction is, i agree most with the "what if?" aspect, and the advanced or alternate technology.

How I learned to love the Sci Fi

I feel that science fiction is media revolving around alternative realities, ideas, or technologies in the past, present or future. It tells what would happen if... and creates a new world around those possibilities.
Initially, I was not much of a Sci Fi fan, although I watched Star Wars repeatedly with my brothers as a child. When I was a senior in high school, however, my favorite teacher told me I needed to read a book called Feed by M. T. Anderson and that book really got me hooked. From there I read numerous stories by Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, and Robert Heinlein.
Some of the science fiction I would recommend:
Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, the Firefly T.V.series, and the movie Sunshine

Of Zombies and Unicorns

I feel that "What If?" is one of the best definitions of Science Fiction. It covers almost every aspect of the genre, which is hard given how diverse it is. However, Fantasy also falls into this definition. The Fantasy/Science Fiction divide is a subtle one, but I think there is an important distinction. Science Fiction is typically more grounded in reality, dealing with things that could have or might still happen (thank you for the cell phone, Star Trek). Science Fiction tends to follow the laws of physics, or comes up with rational reasons for the exceptions (gravity isn't working because we have antigravity fields). I realize that there is a great deal of middle ground, unicorns could be genetically engineered and zombies can be created either with Voodoo or disease, but the general distinction holds true. So, I suppose a more specific definition would be, "Considering the workings of the universe, what if...?"

I have a bit of Science Fiction experience. I was raised on Star Wars, my entire family is a bit obsessed. My 3 year old twin brothers watch atleast 2 or 3 episodes a week (they probably know more about the Star Wars' universe than our own). I've always loved SciFi books, when I was little I was obsessed with L'Engle and K.A. Applegate (Animorphs rocked, Remnants ended depressingly). And The Giver was excellent, one of the best books in the genre for that age group. I'm currently trying to finish all of the Orson Scott Card books (have yet to find a library with a complete series).

Science Fiction FTW

We all have an idea of what science fiction is. I like the idea of the "what if" factor behind the genre. Whether it is vampires, alternate history, space/time travel, etc...they always seem to ask "what if" this were reality. One aspect of science fiction I enjoy is "what is". There are many "if's" created in science fiction that are now reality such as traveling to the moon and robotics.
Less than a year ago, it occurred to me I had never read a science fiction novel. I gave this strange little book titled Dune a shot, and the next thing I knew I was finished with the series. I've read Ender's Game, Foundation, and other classics of the genre. I signed up for this class not only because of a personal interest in science fiction, but also because I have only read classic science fiction texts. This class will give me the oppurtunity to read newer science fiction texts instead of just the classics. On a side note here are some of my favorite sci fi films and series: Alien, Aliens, The Terminator, Avatar, and Battlestar Galactica.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!"

I'm sure I could go on and on about science fiction and how it contains motifs of advanced technology, space and time travel, etc etc. But since no one mentioned it in class earlier, I decided to point out instead the massive shift in real-life society that has been caused by the genre. Everything from comic books to movies to short stories in the science fiction world have created just that; totally new worlds. New places and people and technologies for people to explore and get completely immersed in, which many do. I know I'm guilty of being one of those overly-obsessed members of the Sci-Fi and fantasy fandom who wishes she could try her hand at extracting info from people's dreams or working on a starship, and would fall over dead from excitement at the mere sight of Nathan Fillion out on the streets. I'd argue that Sci-Fi/fantasy have created an entire new society in our own world.

That being said, my experience with science fiction has stemmed from early exposure to the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS, thanks to my stepfather who shares my love for all things geek. Since then I've been hooked. I go to the movies at least once a week. I've written more fanfiction that I'd care to admit and I've been actively involved as a member and creator of various online text-based roleplay sites based on Star Wars, Harry Potter, DC and Marvel comics, Firefly, X-men, The Host, Twilight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney-verse, and other original fantasy/Sci-Fi worlds.

Some interesting pieces of science fiction I've run across in my life include but are definitely not limited to The Circle Trilogy (Black, Red, and White) by Ted Dekker (which is apparently a series now including Green, though I didn't know that), The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, and the Maximum Ride, Daniel X, and Witch & Wizard series by James Patterson. Now I realize I sound like I love kiddie books, haha. Well my favorite book ever is The Hobbit, but I assure you I like all kinds. I am currently reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which might be a new favorite... Anyway I've rambled long enough.
Also, the link in my post title is my favorite YouTube video of all-time, so I thought I would share. :)

3.00*10^8 m/s

The best definition I have heard for Science Fiction is that it is the genre of "What If?" Almost any science fiction that you read has a "what if" behind it, or even many "what if's". Everything, from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to the strip that Howard Tayler penned for today's Schlock Mercenary update has a "what if" behind it. Examples of this "what if" include Ringworld by Larry Niven, the Honor Harrington series by David Weber, the Admiral Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and the list goes on. I have read, or seen all of these, except for Doctor Who. I enjoy them and that's one of the reasons I took this class. I enjoy reading about "what if's." Heck, I enjoy coming up with them and writing them myself. Maybe one day you'll see one of mine in a book somewhere. If I can learn not to ramble so much.

A couple of links for you.

AT&T's sf ad campaign

Regular TV viewers doubtless have seen this AT&T commercial that begins in the future, then "rewinds" to show how the couple got there.

A more recent AT&T commercial in the same campaign is also sf: Whether her cell-phone download is fast or slow leads to different lives for an aspiring dancer, in two parallel universes.

Come to think of it, AT&T's current slogan, "Rethink Possible," is a pretty good summary of the sf enterprise.

Black swans

The upcoming Darren Aronofsky movie Black Swan seems to have nothing to do with Bruce Sterling's story "Black Swan," on our syllabus.  The movie's title comes from Tchaikovsky, the story's from the management theories of Nassim Nicholas Taleb -- though there are lots of other black swans.  Enough for a paper devoted to them, probably.

My Experience with Science Fiction

I believe a reasonable definition for "science fiction" would be a genre (literary, cinematic, etc.) based on advanced technology and societies that we have yet to achieve. Whether it be the destruction of one society by another, more advanced one or simply the story of an especially advanced society, almost all science fiction works somehow include how people function as a society with advanced, almost magical technology. My experience with science fiction has been mostly through movies including, but not limited to, Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, and Inception. I look forward to this semester giving me the opportunity to read recent science fiction novels and short fictions since I have mostly limited my literary interests to broader fantasy and action books. A few examples of science fiction texts I can come up with are The Time Machine, The Host (by Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series), and George Orwell's 1984.

Ray Bradbury's biggest fan?

I would be remiss if I did not mention at the outset of our class a raunchy music video that has gone viral in the sf community this week.  A warning before you click: If this were a movie, it would be R-rated, including the title.  If adolescent sex comedy is not your taste, please avoid this video.  It is not a required text.  OK, all that being said, here's the link. 

The writer-performer is New York comedian Rachel Bloom, whom Saturday Night Live probably should hire immediately.

Questions to ponder: What assumptions are made, in this video, about the sf audience?  To what extent have geeks/nerds become sexualized across pop culture, and what's behind this trend?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fall 2010 syllabus

UH 300-002

Strange New Worlds: 21st-Century Science Fiction
Fall 2010
3-5:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Nott Hall basement computer-lab classroom (up the ramp)
Teacher: Andy Duncan
I can be reached via e-mail (and via Facebook).
All students in this class must be enrolled in the University Honors Program.

• Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2009; Night Shade Books, 2010)
• Cory Doctorow, Little Brother (2008; Tor, 2010)
Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Euros Lyn (2006; Doctor Who: The Complete Second Series, BBC Video, 2007)
Doctor Who, “Blink,” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Hettie MacDonald (2007; Doctor Who: The Complete Third Series, BBC Video, 2007)
• Duncan Jones, Moon (2009; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2009)
• Ian McDonald, River of Gods (2004; Pyr, 2007)
• Cherie Priest, Boneshaker (Tor, 2009)
• Jonathan Strahan, ed., The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 4 (Night Shade Books, 2010)
• Handouts, online materials or reserve-room materials as announced.

Course Description: Many of the tropes of science fiction -- computers, space travel, cloning, genetic engineering, cyberspace -- have become commonplaces of daily discourse and daily life. Yet science fiction persists and thrives as a literary genre, a sociological movement, a marketing category, an extrapolative and speculative way of thinking. This interdisciplinary seminar is designed to deepen your understanding of 21st-century science fiction in all its modes.

Course Objectives: By semester’s end, students will be more sophisticated consumers of science fiction wherever they encounter it, from the aisles of Barnes & Noble to the headlines on CNN. They will be better able to speak and write about it with depth and insight and to understand how science fiction engages with the world, and vice versa. No prior obsession with science fiction is required.

A Technology Note: Your teacher lives in the mountains of western Maryland and interacts with the class in real time via webcam with the exception of one in-person visit per semester, generally for the final class meeting. Student conferences during the rest of the semester are encouraged; they will take place via phone, e-mail, or Facebook, as the student prefers.

Attendance Policy: Attendance and class participation (in class and online) are required. After two absences, your final grade will be lowered one letter for each subsequent absence. After five absences, you will receive an F for this course. Arriving late or leaving early counts as half an absence. In case of illness, injury or crisis, let your teacher know as soon as possible. Don’t just vanish.

Papers: You will write two non-fiction papers, each at least 2,000 words long, on topics of your choosing that are approved in advance by your teacher. Papers should specifically illuminate one or more of the texts being discussed in this class, but they may extend their focus beyond those texts as well. More detailed paper guidelines will be provided later in the semester. You will lead a five-to-10-minute class discussion of each topic as you are working on it. Papers handed in late will be docked one letter grade for each day they’re late. Papers more than a week late will not be accepted and will receive a zero. Format Requirements: Both your papers will be handed in electronically. Send them as PC-compatible Word attachments to my e-mail address. Papers must be in 12-point Times New Roman, double-spaced, with ragged right margins and page numbers in the upper-right corners. Papers that don’t fit this format will be returned unread for correction.

Blog: Each of you will receive (and accept) an invitation to join Blogger and the class blog at Here our class discussions will continue beyond Wednesday class meetings. Participating on the blog – through original posts and replies to others’ posts – is an important part of your semester grade, so get in the habit of visiting daily and contributing frequently. The minimum class requirement is three posts per week per student, at least one of which must start a new topic or thread, and at least one of which must be a response to a classmate’s post. More frequent posts are highly encouraged. Also chiming in from time to time may be invited guests from the world of science fiction publishing (as opposed to the science fiction world, which we all inhabit).

Other Assignments and Expectations: You will keep up with all the reading and will participate in all class discussions, orally and online. You will lead at least one class discussion of a text that has been assigned you.

Grade Formula:
• Two 2,000-word papers @ 20% each: 40%
• Two 5-to-10-minute informal presentations on paper topics @ 10% each: 20%
• Blog participation: 20%
• In-class participation: 20%
We will follow the UA guidelines for plus-minus grading.

Disabilities: In accordance with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, your teacher, the University Honors Program and the university are committed to providing appropriate support for students with disabilities, including learning disabilities. Any student who wants to request disability accommodations need only contact UA’s office of disability services at 348-4285 and get the paperwork to me.

Academic Misconduct: Academic misconduct includes all acts of academic dishonesty and any knowing attempt to help another student commit academic dishonesty. Academic dishonesty includes, but is not limited to: (1) Cheating – using or attempting to use unauthorized materials, information or study aids. (2) Plagiarism – representing words, data, works or ideas as one’s own when they are not. (3) Fabrication – presenting as genuine any invented or falsified evidence. (4) Misrepresentation – falsifying, altering or misstating the contents of academic documents such as schedules, prerequisites and transcripts. Cases of academic misconduct will be turned over to the University Honors Program for disciplinary action that could be as severe as suspension from the university.

Schedule of class meetings, reading assignments and due dates. All texts will be discussed on the days listed. This is a living document, subject to change. Any changes will be announced in class and via the class blog.
Aug. 18. First class meeting. Getting acquainted.
Aug. 25. In Strahan: Griffith, “It Takes Two”; Watts, “The Island”; Fowler, “The Pelican Bar”; Johnson, “Spar”; Kelly, “Going Deep”; Black, “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” (106 pages total). Last day to drop without a W grade.
Sept. 1. In Strahan: Swanwick & Gunn, “Zeppelin City”; Broderick, “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide”; Sterling, “Black Swan”; Genge, “As Women Fight”; Baxter, “Formidable Caress” (102 pages total).
Sept. 8. In Strahan: Ryman, “Blocked”; Swirsky, “Eros, Philia, Agape”; Kessel, “The Motorman’s Coat”; Monette & Bear, “Mongoose”; Reed, “Before My Last Breath”; Wilson, “Utriusque Cosmi” (102 pages total).
Sept. 15. Doctorow, Little Brother.
Sept. 22. Paper-topic discussion.
Sept. 29. More Strahan and/or the latest at, TBA.
Oct. 6. Jones, Moon. First paper due by start of class.
Oct. 13. Priest, Boneshaker.
Oct. 20. Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl.
Oct. 27. World Fantasy Convention. No class. Last day to drop with a W grade.
Nov. 3. McDonald, River of Gods.
Nov. 10. McDonald, River of Gods.
Nov. 17. Paper-topic discussion.
Nov. 24. Thanksgiving Eve. No class.
Dec. 1: Final class meeting. Moffat, “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink.” Semester wrap-up.

No final exam. Second paper due 9:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6 -- at the end of what would have been our final, had this been one of those classes.

About your teacher: My collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories (2000) won a World Fantasy Award, as did my story “The Pottawatomie Giant” (2000). My novella “The Chief Designer” (2001) won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best science fiction story of the year. I contributed essays to the Hugo Award-winning Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003) and the Stoker Award-winning Horror: Another 100 Best Books (2005). With F. Brett Cox, I co-edited the anthology Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic (2004). I have taught at the Clarion and Clarion West writers’ workshops (2004 and 2005, respectively). I am on the 2010 Philip K. Dick Award jury. Works published in 2009 included the second edition of my non-fiction book, Alabama Curiosities; a new supernatural novelette, The Night Cache, from PS Publishing; and a new Appalachian fantasy, “The Dragaman’s Bride,” in the Ace anthology The Dragon Book. Upcoming in 2011 are a new collection, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, from PS Publishing; and a new story, “Slow as a Bullet,” in Eclipse Four, from Night Shade Books. My own blog is