Saturday, July 9, 2011

Monsters and the Imagination

I've just finished reading the book River Monsters which is a companion to the Animal Planet TV series of the same name. Most of these “monsters” are large catfish which have bit people on occasion. None of these are creatures which actually feed upon people, but most have taken a chomp from time to time.

One of the thing's that struck me about this book and its subject is how easily the human psyche allows itself to believe in the danger of nature. It's as if we as people are able to create tales of monsters from fragmentary sightings of beasts and an occasional bite. It doesn't help either that rivers are usually murky, and any glimpse of a large fish is likely to be incomplete. The author, Jeremy Wade, makes a fairly convincing case that these large fish are basically just that, large fish that happen to be somewhat hazardous because of their size.

There are, of course, animals that are somewhat dangerous. I personally find the idea of salt water crocodiles pretty chilling, a beast that can attack you in the water or crawl up on land and get you. They do attack people and, I believe, kill a few people a year. Then, of course, there are sharks, our great bugbear of the water. Interestingly the most deadly animal by far is the mosquito, a creature that hardly makes a grown man flee in terror. Next up are bees, and I know I have a couple of nests of them on my small bit of property. My children still play outside without hazmat suits.

While I don't want to minimize that harm that some of these creatures have done, it's amazing how outsized our terror towards these creatures has become. We kill so many more of these beasts than they hurt us the fear does seem a bit weird. On the other hand, without this fear, what would the SyFy channel do for original programming?

Monday, June 27, 2011

What is a Geek?

A great article on what it means to be a real geek. This is good news for those of us actually born with the stigma of geekishness, as opposed to all those darn posers.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Great Articles On Science In Science Fiction is a great website for fans of science fiction and other geeky movies. These days it's one of the most quoted websites for movie quotes. Recently one their writers, Andy Howell, did an interesting rant of the science in the 2009 Star Trek movie. He points out what's nonsense, what makes sense as a plot device, and what actually works. Give it a gander. There's also a good followup on the article too.

I like a good analysis like this. It goes beyond the whole, “That sucked,” or, “That was stupid because…” reactions and gets into the nitty-gritty of the movie.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Speaking, Finally

I will be speaking at the Desmond Fish Library in Garrison, NY on Saturday, at 2 PM on June 25th. This will be my first public speaking engagement, and I'll be discussing the ideas in this blog and my upcoming book, Teach the Fantastic. Here's a link to the site.

My apologies for the lack of recent updates. The end of school year stress tends to take a toll on my creativity.

Is This What a Tesseract I Like?

When I teach A Wrinkle In Time, I want to convey the experience of a tesseract to students. This video comes pretty close to my ideal.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Realistic Science Fiction or Didactic Thinking?

I'm working my way through Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I say “working” because the book really requires work. It doesn't hold my interest the way other novels do, but I do appreciate its value as a text that has influenced people. I'm going to offer some criticisms on it, keeping in mind that I'm only on page 129 out of 1074. Since I haven't gotten too far into the novel (and the plot moves slowly), I'll stick with what I've read.

The characters have some serious problems. The protagonists all seem to share one characteristic, which is the inability to care about other people. That's not a poke in Ayn Rand's eye; it's something she makes very clear. This quality, a lack of sympathy towards one's fellow man, is a lynchpin of her philosophy. She believes that a person's only purpose is to be true to that one person and what he does; all other things are secondary and superfluous. “Altruism”, or living one's life for others, is a crime against oneself.

The problem with this concept, and like many flawed philosophical ideas it has a few grains of truth, is that mankind is not just an individual animal, working for personal goals. Evolutionary scientists have made fairly clear that early man was able to survive because he lived in hunter-gatherer and then later agricultural communities. While people may have been motivated partially by a notion of personal achievement, it was the community itself which enabled human beings to thrive. Ayn Rand rejects this idea of man being a communal animal, instead populating her novels with heroes who completely reject this notion.

As a teaching tool, Atlas Shrugged can be an interesting springboard into the conversation of the individual verses society. Where do the responsibilities of the individual end and where do those of society begin? While I personally find the idea that human beings have no responsibility to others amoral, that is an important question for a young person to figure out.

I would also wonder how questions of class might figure into this. Atlas Shrugged seems populated mostly by the wealthy, those least in need of altruism. Someone who grew up poor would not have most of the advantages of her heroes, and for this very reason might reject this philosophy. After all, if a society has no responsibilty towards its people, what place is there for public schools and colleges? What chance would a poor person have of succeeding?

I think a follower of Ayn Rand might be able to say  that a society has no business doing these things. It's up to the individual to make whatever he/she will out of his life. Yet this philosophy would also seem to stack the deck against the poor, so I don't think it would work well as real policy. After all, the first three words of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution are “We the people…” which suggests that a secure society cannot be establish by individuals working for their own purposes, it has to be an expression of a common purpose. Within that framework people, of course, can work for their individual goals (“…the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”), but the nation  as a working communal structure must come first.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Technology and Its Literacy Minuses

I sometimes wonder as we charge full-speed into the techno-utopia that is our electronic future whether we understand what kind of future we are creating for ourselves. I remember in the 1990s when the internet was first hitting critical mass it was being hailed as a creator of literacy, a thing that required people to type which would, at the same time, force people to engage with text. That seemed exciting at the time, until the first time I saw somebody do Instant Messaging. I was struck by how sloppy the writing was with it. Little did I know that that type of writing would soon become the established norm for the internet.

This is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with sloppy writing; I do it myself from time to time. What concerns me is that the sloppy writing which people, especially young people, are doing now is becoming the established norm. Facebook English is becoming standard internet English. As a teacher I can only fight that so much, and railing against it isn't going to make any difference. What's happening right now is a deep cultural trend, and one which I am not encouraged by.

I do hope that improved writing begins to prevail in general internet writing. This may be a utopian dream, and I'm certainly not going to hold my breath, but I do hope so. I find myself very discouraged reading comments off a news article or even reading the posts some of my friends make on some of the websites we share. I know going on a rant will serve little purpose besides making people uncomfortable and making myself unpopular. In the end, all I can do is to just keep writing well and hoping perhaps something will stick.

I'm not feeling too positive this morning. Maybe I need another cup of coffee.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Great On-Line Resources For Teaching Science Fiction-Inspiring Science

I bring your attention to some great on-line links for getting young people interested in science. These links deal specifically with the science of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) and the possibility of life on other planets.

First: a good Fresh Air interview on Life on other planets.

Next: a Science Friday interview about the discoveries of exoplanets.

Both of these are discussions on the cutting-edge science of planets outside our solar system. Both are fascinating, and a great resource for young people interested in writing science fiction.

Interview With Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman is one of the country's leading science fiction writers. He's the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning author of the novels The Forever War, Worlds, Forever Peace, Camouflage, as well as others and numerous short stories. I spoke to Joe on Wednesday, May 4th by phone (he lives in Gainesville, Florida) and had an enlightening hour-long conversation with him about science fiction, the history of science fiction, writing and teaching. The following is a summary of the different conversations we had. Since I didn't directly record the conversation, I'm summarizing Joe's responses.

A special thanks to Gay Haldeman, Joe's wife, who helped set up this interview. She and Joe knew me slightly as a teenager when we were fellow members of the Daytona Beach Science Fiction Association. They were very kind to agree to speak to me. As well, most of Joe's responses are paraphrased.

What was the first science fiction book or story you read which impact on you? What was it about that story which affected you?

When Joe Haldeman was nine years old he received as a Christmas present the book Rocket Jockey by Philip St. John, a pseudonym of Lester Del Rey. This was the first novel he had ever read and spent the entire holiday rereading it three or four times. When Joe Haldeman returned to school he read the book in class, but was caught by his teacher. The teacher took the book from him. Joe thought he would never get the book back, but instead his teacher returned the book along with a few Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov novels. It turns out the teacher had a seventeen year-old daughter who also loved science fiction and had a trove of novels to share. Joe and his then girlfriend Gay joined a science fiction club in the early 1960s.

Did you enjoy fantasy literature?

Joe never cared much for fantasy; when he was 24, he read The Hobbit in Vietnam, which he liked and wanted to read the other books after he returned from the war. Unfortunately he never related much to the faeries and dwarves. He does, however, love the genre of magical realism and counts Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of his favorite writers.

When did you seriously consider becoming a science fiction writer? Why did you choose science fiction as opposed to realistic fiction?

Joe only writes realistic novels, although they exist within a SF universe. When a senior in college, Joe wrote two stories for writing class which he ended up getting published later; after the Vietnam War, he wrote a mainstream novel (War Stories) on Vietnam which also got published. He eventually dropped out of Graduate school to write, but went to Iowa to participate in the writing program there (and to use up his GI Bill money). Joe has written some non-fiction and may continue to. Joe was a different kind of reader as a child than the kind of reader that responds to more traditional fiction. He always responded to more symbolic/melodramatic stories.

Joe counts himself lucky that his stuff got published: He refers to Sturgeon’s law, (and here I paraphrase) which is that 90% of science fiction is crap, but then again 90% of everything is crap. The corollary to this is that in the science fiction world much of the crap gets published anyway. In the literary fiction world people can go for a long time without getting published, even never getting published, but the science fiction world is so hungry for material that a lot of stuff which should not get published does.

What do you think science fiction as a genre has to offer society?

In science fiction you can create and describe situations that can’t exist on earth. The science fiction novel essentially serves as a simulator for different possibilities, and within the novel you can see how these possibilities play out. You can try any sort of social experiment within a science fiction novel. Serious “realistic” fiction does this within a mundane context, but science fiction allows you to go beyond the confines of the mundane world.

What issues are important to you, and how do they come out in your writing?

Joe's says (with a laugh) that his most important motivation to keep writing is money and employment. He’s not the kind of writer that has an agenda or major themes which he feels he needs to work. He just always has a story he wants to put to paper. Joe does write more and more complex novels as time goes by; the major difficulty with this kind of novel is that while they’re fun to write, the reader can’t see the work that goes into making it. It has to look effortless.

How do you write? What are your habits?

Joe initially would get up very early, 3:30–4AM, write, eat breakfast, then begin the day. Since his illness his schedule has changed. He sleeps later then answers e-mail before breakfast. After eating, he bicycles to a local coffee shop (one of twelve) and spends time writing longhand. In the afternoon Joe types up what he wrote that morning. Joe feels that computers are untrustworthy; they have a bad effect on writers. On a computer there’s no such thing as a first draft, which takes away the ability to see where changes occurred. Joe uses the computer, especially for final drafts but doesn't count himself as totally comfortable with them; he had already written 8–9 books before they came out as a serious writer's tool.

Do politics influence your writing? Do you ever write as a reaction to something or some issue that bothers you?

Joe is suspicious of evanescent politics, the politics of the moment. Like many people that grew up in the 1960s, he’s a liberal and cynic; Joe likes to think he’s fair-minded but knows that like any human he carries around with him a boatload of prejudices. He thinks teachers, writers, and preachers are in a good position to analyze their own emotional baggage. They also need to because they have such influence on young people. The main reason Joe likes being a teacher is that he likes exhorting and having gabfests with kids. That’s what motivates him to teach.

What trends do you see in science fiction now?

Joe was partially a part of the science fiction New Wave with an intense interest in stylistic details; he has some sympathy with post-modernism. Joe is is also interested in how the personality of the author inserts himself into the content of the text, often when he/she is not aware of it.

Why do you think science fiction and fantasy literature in general has had a “gutter” reputation?

Science fiction got its gutter reputation by deserving it. The writers in the 1930s were making florid stories that had little to do with science or ideas. H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most prominent writers of the period, wrote crap but in a genius way. One way science fiction writers, Joe included, felt proud of those early writers as well as later writers in the field was how they could write one thousand words a day and make an honest living by their writing, as opposed to being a “serious” writer who needs to hold down a 9–5 job or marry rich in order to support himself in his craft. A person pumping out adventure novels and making a living at it is a serious writer; a person who studies what kind of writing has cultural significance then writes similar types of work to impress people does not take their writing very seriously. Most writing that tells a story may be done in a light-hearted way or style, but that doesn’t mean that a prolific writer of popular novels isn’t serious about his craft.

How do you think science fiction should be taught in schools?

The first question Joe asks is, “Should you teach it at all since it's a source of fun?” which is half a joke. Sometimes Joe feels too old about the kind of jokes he tells his students, and the worst thing is having to explain a joke to a group of young people. An older teacher can’t expect students to come as equals, but yet you have to make some sort of uneasy truce with them for the teaching process to work. Joe keeps teaching not to make little science fiction writers but to share what he knows and learned to younger people. He’s concerned sometimes that the students will have trouble learning from an “ancient person” such as himself.

What books do you think teachers should teach, consider different levels like college, high school and middle school?

Since Joe focusses on teaching young people 18–25 years old, he doesn’t have an opinion on secondary school. When he teaches writing science fiction at the college level, he has students read right out of the recently printed science fiction magazines; this way the students have to read it and come up with their own thoughts, and there are no on-line papers for them to plagiarize. Using new stuff can level the playing field for the students quite well. They see stuff that’s just been printed and there isn’t the intimidation factor about it like there might be when dealing with works by some of the “old masters”. The students feel free to take apart and criticize their works as equals; they can see the literary quality in a work (or not) without offending the canon. 

How has being a teacher affected your writing?

He’s sure it does except he can’t think of an example. One thing that does happen is that you see a student making a mistake that you might have done recently, and you will remember not to do that mistake yourself. 

What is the experience like to discuss the big ideas of science fiction?

Do you discuss the ideas or craft? Students, especially the MIT students he teaches, are not very interested in writing; most take the course because they need a humanities course and this course sounds more interesting than 19th Century British Literature; Many students don’t want to get too deep into craft, but that’s how he starts conversation; He hands out the magazines with the recent stories and have the students look for problems: mistakes prick up their ears and get them interested. New stories can get them involved and critical without having to worry about offending the author.

Joe Haldeman jokingly counts himself as the worlds “expert” in teaching SF to MIT students, but he notes that class psychologies at other colleges can be completely different. He guest teaches at the University of Florida at Gainesville in the writing classes. Unfortunately they don’t know science well so they can’t have in-depth conversations about the science in science fiction stories; these students also can’t have discussions about post-modernism either because they don’t the life experience or enough knowledge about literature to discuss that topic either. These students do like the craft though and enjoy talking about the prose.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Violence and the Media As Commented on by Suzanne Collins

During my Easter visit to my in-laws I just finished the two sequels to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. These are very well-written books with gripping plots. While I was left a bit disappointed with the ending of Mockingjay, both books certainly construct a frighteningly intelligent dystopia. The reader can't help but cheer the main characters to fight against it.

The two main ideas that gripped me with these three novels, and this becomes increasingly clear in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, is the relationship between the media, spectacle and violence. There is almost no violence un these books that does not take place in front of the camera, at least until the third book, and even in Mockingjay, our Heroine Katniss is part of a military squad whose main purpose is to engage in light combat and be filmed.

Now I'm the first person to admit that I enjoy some violent fare every now and then (especially first-person shooters), but I think it's also true that violent media can get a bit overwhelming. The Hunger Games novels makes it clear how violent entertainment can also be a way to control a population. This isn't just with the annual choosing of young people to fight in the Hunger Games, a process designed to demoralize the subjugated districts in the novel. The fact of the game itself becomes an all-consuming phenomenon; even if a resident doesn't want to watch the games, he/she can't help but because it's televised so widely. It becomes the overriding culture of the moment.

I'm reminded a little of the Superbowl. This annual game is always one of the biggest media events of the year, and, let's face it, it's kind of violent. The Super Bowl certainly isn't Roman Colosseum-level violence — we thankfully haven't gone to that level of depravity — but the game isn't gentle. Now I'm not trying to condemn the Superbowl here; all I'm saying is that there does seem to be something in the human psyche that desires this kind of experience, a mass-level hyper-competitive spectacle. Thank God we have something like the Superbowl, actually. While players do get hurt, at least their well-paid participation is by choice. The losers do walk off the field sadly, but at least, unlike in ancient Rome, they get to walk off the field.

I'm reminded also about stories I heard about the early years of the Civil War, where families would picnic and watch the battles unfold. Whatever the cause of this, we do seem to be a society that enjoys watching violence. Where does it come from? Frustration with modern life? The necessary suppression of the id by the superego? Whatever the cause, it's a part of human civilization. The good part about books like The Hunger Games and its sequels is that it points out the unsavory aspect of this, while also reminding us that we're participating in the spectacle by reading and enjoying the book.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why The Popularity of Utopias and Dystopias?

The latest YA novel craze is dystopian fiction. This sub-genre of science fiction has knocked vampire-relationship fiction off it's pedestal, which had pushed to the ground boy-wizard-goes-to-school-and-fights-enemies fiction. I find this trend interesting because it's really a turn from fluffy style fiction (sorry Twilight fans) to a fiction with ideas.

I may get in trouble for saying this, but vampire fiction to me was always about sex and abstinence. The cravings of the vampire were a metaphor for, well, you know. I understood the popularity of these books for that reason but never related to them. Dystopias come from a more universal place. I can't imagine anybody with some sort of political bent hasn't heard a news item and felt a cold chill about the direction the country is heading. Who hasn't worried about what would happen to our countries of one's political foes seized power? Hence the popularity of dystopias.

The best dystopic fiction takes a trend happening currently and projects it as guiding principle for an invented society. Some examples of this are Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale which is about elements of the religious right taking over an America, depleted after nuclear war. Margaret Atwood speculated what would happen if the religious right took control of what remained of America, giving it a plausible premise of post-nuclear chaos, and the repression that would occur.

From another point of view is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World which is about a world taken over by industrialization yet people are controlled not by the repression and secret police of The Handmaid's Tale but by their own pleasure principle. People are genetically engineered for certain jobs, with their abilities and especially intelligence modified for menial work or more advanced tasks. Yet everyone is somewhat satisfied by the ready and legal availability of drugs as well as a tradition of easy recreational sex.

Interestingly, I think Brave New World has been quite prophetic in the sense that it portrayed a society willing to give up much in exchange for pleasure. I consider how our society has given up communal life to a large degree in exchange for the pleasure of the virtual world. This began with television (or maybe radio), but western society has done a remarkable shift in its willingness to participate in public life. The “front porch” where we used to participate in neighborhood life is no longer our actual front porch, it's the internet and especially websites like Facebook.

In this vein, M.T. Anderson's YA book Feed is about a world where corporate advertising, especially internet advertising, has become a dominating factor of life. Approximately three quarters of young people have a “feed chip” surgically implanted in their skulls which enable them to receive advertising at all times based on their location and what they're actually thinking. As well, the young people in the book have developed a jaded attitude towards life in general; the book begins with a complaint about how a visit to the moon “sucked”.

Feed is a creepy vision, made much more frightening when one considers that this is actually happening with the location-based applications on most smartphones. Even in the last couple of days it has been revealed that Apple Computer stores the location of every iPhone user on a file which in turn is backed up to your local computer with iTunes. Does Apple actually read this file and learn exactly where every user of an iPhone has been? The company is mum about this so far, but suffice to say, this is a troubling corporate trend. (Disclaimer: I was an IT technician specializing in Apple computers in the 1990s.)

The Hunger Games novels are another YA dystopia based on control because of the scarcity of natural resources. The remnants of the United States are broken into twelve districts (there was a thirteenth, but it's fate after a rebellion is a mystery). The population is controlled with laws, police, and especially a years event called the Hunger Games. This is a government sponsored battle to the death between randomly chosen young people (although the poor tend to have a greater chance of being chosen, of course). The fight is the media event of the year with the explicit point that if the government can take any young person in the flower of their youth, they can doing anything to the captive districts. The story in itself is quite reminiscent of the myth of Theseus, who went to Crete with the tribute of fourteen Athenians in order to kill the cruel Minotaur that was to devour the young people. In this story, young Katniss can't defeat the evil government itself, but she can come to a surprising and self-sacrificing personal triumph.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Politics in Science Fiction

Is it possible for a science fiction author to write a political novel without espousing a political point of view? Is that even a reasonable question?

Ursula LeGuin's book The Dispossessed poses a situation that seems to come out of the left/right debate of the middle twentieth century. It poses a situation where you have a planet named Urras with a moon named Anarres which is large enough to have its own atmosphere. Anarres can support life, although it is desert-like and resource-poor when compared to Urras. Approximately two hundred years before the events in the book take place, an anarchic worker's revolution took place on Urras, which has a culture and economic structures similar to modern earth, although the technology includes space travel, including travel to other planets, aided by an alien race called the Hain.

The story is about a physicist Shevek who grew up on Anarres, which had developed an anarchic/communist culture similar to that idealized by the twentieth century socialists and communists. He has developed a grand unifying theory of physics, which is radical enough that it threatens the bureaucratic systems that have grown on Annares. LeGuin makes quite clear that as Anarres matures, it's moving further and further away from the idealistic revolution that spawned the colony, and while in the early days of Anarres's history someone like Shevek would have been warmly embraced, now he is a problem.

Shevek eventually makes the short trip to Urras, an act nobody from Anarres has done for over one hundred years, in order to promote his theory. There he encounters a society much like modern America: exciting, creative, competitive, and at times decadent. Much of the difficulty Shevek encounters is in dealing with an individualistic, property-owning culture, quite different from the communal one he grew up in.

Clearly LeGuin's sympathies are with the revolutionaries on Anarres (as are mine).  She poses a flawed paradise on a barren planet where people live in as best an egalitarian paradise as one might imagine, a place where people are not values by how much property the own but by their contributions to society. Yet she also describes Anarres as clearly a culture in decline, retreating from its original revolutionary fervor to the creation of the very bureaucracies it rebelled against, albeit with a different flavor than what might be found on Urras.

The question then becomes: Does LeGuin's political bias become an obstacle to the creation of a good novel? I would argue not. She makes a good case for the anarchic society on Anarres without turning the book into a polemic. One can disagree with LeGuin's sympathies, but one cannot say she poses a black/white situation in her novel. Anarres is clearly flawed, while Urras has a level of dynamism and creativity that Annares seem to lack.

Robert Heinlein's book Starship Troopers is another novel that discusses politics overtly. While Heinlein is personally associated with a more libertarian philosophy (whether this is his actual philosophy I'm not sure about), his novel about the military of the future has been popular and controversial. While the plot of the novel revolves around an interstellar conflict with a species of intelligent insects, the controversial section is about how society has changed because of the war. Heinlein poses a different view if citizenship than the current one. Since the war is so critical world society as a whole, what Heinlein proposes as full citizenship revolves around service to the government, and specifically military service, although society is required to find a place for anyone to serve, regardless of ability. It's a more limited and exclusive concept of democracy, revolving around implicit criticism of today's democracy where, “… people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.”

What people mostly react to about the book is whether it, through its specific necessity of military service to gain full citizenship, is a realistic or even morally appropriate requirement. After all, this means the person must risk his/her life in order to gain suffrage. Heinlein makes the point that this new was made after the fall of the western democracies, when veterans were a leading force to forge this new government. Whether this requirement is a moral one is best left to the reader, or course, but it does need to be said that the way Heinlein extolls the necessity of violence and the efficient way it solves problems can be troubling.

Yet these issues make a book interesting. Part of the appeal of Starship Troopers is that it's more than just a book about war; it's also a book about ideas. Whether you agree with Heinlein's point of view or not, it's a fun read, and the book makes you think. That's not a bad thing at all.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Teacher's Job Is To Making Life Difficult

One of the things I believe about science fiction is that it should be challenging. This is why I tend to get down on the Star Wars-type space operas; they're not particularly challenging. The hero fights the villains in spectacular ways, at the end there is a showdown, and then the good guys go have a party. The engagement is in the action, and that's fine for a certain level of entertainment (and I likes me my stupid entertainment every now and then), but what we should be teaching in schools is something high-level than that.

This is why I believe in science fiction and fantasy works as something to be taught in the classroom. These works should challenge students to think. They should engage the intellect and make you consider that which you haven't considered before. They should be hard.

During the last couple of months I've been teaching the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing to my eighth-graders. After we learn the play, we perform it in the original language to the community. To be clear, this is hard. Students need to memorize many, difficult lines of Shakespeare. Students will need to speak these lines in a convincing manner. They will need to act on stage, speaking lines completely artificial in a way which must convince the audience that it's natural.

What's the goal of this? In the end, it's to show students what the literate life is about. It's about making much-loved classics alive. It's about cultivating a love for great works by showing young people that they are certainly not dead. Not only are they relevant, but these great works can be translated into modern settings easily, and they work. Now the goal of the teacher is to makes great works relevant and not approach them in a boring fashion (a mistake too often done). Yet once that hurdle is overcome, then miracles can happen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Great Poster for “Much Ado About Nothing”

Two amazing women have helped to make a gorgeous poster for my upcoming play Much Ado About Nothing. The first is the photographer Lori Adams, who generously donated her time to photograph my students. The second person is my lovely wife Kirsten who designed the poster for the play.

Here is the poster. You may click to make it bigger.

Gorgeous, isn't it! The characters are, from right to left, Benedick, Beatrice, Don Pedro, Claudio and Don John (Dame Joanna).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

An Excellent Article About, Well, Me!

The news website just published a very complimentary article about my upcoming play Much Ado About Nothing. It's a great description of the kind of teaching I do and my philosophy about teaching Shakespeare.

Contrary the perceived focus of this blog, I love teaching Shakespeare. It's my second favorite subject to teach. Sometimes I find myself just getting drunk on the language, it's so rich and beautiful.

The performance will be on Friday, April 8th, at 7 PM. Admission is free.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Science Fiction Television

While one could easily complain at the quality of science fiction that might be on television at one moment, it cannot be argued that there has been a lot of good science fiction over the years. As a teacher, short videos that last a period are great tools for instruction and television shows fit that bill pretty well. I wanted to give a quick list of quality science fiction shows that you can pull from. Some are appropriate for middle school ages but others are more edgy and appropriate for high schoolers.

The  Twilight Zone was a series of short shows, each lasting approximately 23 minutes. These shows, each one with a different cast and story, were always a complete more tale told within the confines of a short science fiction or fantastic environment. These shorts are often very well written and highly appropriate for both middle school and high school. You can buy the DVDs, but many of the original episodes are available for free to watch on

The Outer Limits was a series of strong science fiction shows that were on at approximately the same time as The Twilight Zone. The format was similar but the stories were an hour long and the themes were a little more science fiction-based. If you could call The Twilight Zone science fiction lite, The Outer Limits was science fiction full-body. As well, The Outer Limits were less based on morality than The Twilight Zone (which could get a bit tiresome), instead putting the emphasis on the story ideas. There was also a more recent Outer Limits series, filmed in color, which is also available on Hulu. The older episodes are readily available on DVD.

One cannot discuss science fiction on television without mentioning the king of all science fiction franchises, Star Trek. While the original series (ST:TOS if you're a geek) played for only three seasons from 1967–1969, since 1980 there have been four other Star Trek TV series based on the original show, twelve movies, and a little-known animated series from the 1970s. The premise is simple: a star ship travels from solar system to solar system, encountering new civilizations and dealing with moral and science fiction-type problems. The exception to this was Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which took place on a space station. While the show could suffer from bad writing, especially in the later series a certain type of bad writing called technobabble, Star Trek was also remarkable for its ability to express science fiction topics to a mainstream audience. While the movies were more adventures than explorations of concepts, they also could be loads of fun for viewers, except when they were very, very bad. To be safe, stick with showing the popular episodes. A good list can be found here, but for my money, show the episodes “The Doomsday Machine,” “The City on the Edge of Forever” (with Joan Collins!), “The Trouble With Tribbles”, “Balance of Terror”, and “Arena”.

The television show Battlestar Galactica has an odd genesis. It was originally aired in the late 1970s with a promising premise, the remains of mankind fleeing from their enemy on a fleet of ragtag space ships, protected by the last remaining warship, the Galactica, from their enemies the Cylons in a quest for the legendary planet of Earth. Unfortunately the show never lived up to its promise and was more cheesy and silly in the special way only art from the 1970s could be. That said, the special effects were excellent, and the show did develop a cult following. In 2003, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick reimagined the series in what has become one of the most successful reboots of a series ever. This new series took the sad premise of genocide seriously, making the series one of the most effective television dramas ever filmed. The Cylons became, instead of an alien species, an artificial intelligence made by the humans, a sort of Frankenstein's Monster returned to destroy its creator.

One of the things that made Battlestar Galactica successful was the fact that it posed a dark scenario for the survivors and did its best to portray how humans would react to it. They make bad decisions, people get killed (including major characters), difficult compromises must be made, and through all this the people must survive. While this show is mature and suitable for high school students, it's a fabulous example of ambitious science fiction. As a recommendation, watch the series opener, the first episode (33), and the beginning of season three. The season three episodes were ambitious in that they posed a situation like the Iraq War making the humans the “Iraqis”. Most of them were living on a planet and were captured by the Cylons, putting the humans in the position where they're becoming urban rebels, suicide bombers, and terrorists. This turn of events was even more powerful because it was broadcast while the actual war was at its height, making it a powerful editorial on the conflict.

There are other science fiction series which can be discussed, but these are a good jumping point. Other suggestions are Babylon 5, Stargate SGU, and some of the later Star Treks, especially the best of the Star Trek, the Next Generation episodes.

I find television to be an effective way to explain science fiction concepts in a short package before I introduce the class to the actual novel we'll be teaching. That way they can get comfortable with the fact that the plot is about an “idea”, instead of being just a storyline.

Incidentally, the original Star Trek episodes were recently remastered with an update of the special effects. While remastering of classic shows can lead to some disasters, for a good example of that check out the “Han Shot First” controversy from the remastered movie Star Wars: A New Hope, this remastering just improved the low-budget 60s-era special effects. Episodes are available for individual purchase on iTunes for $2.00 each.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fantasy Quests As Spiritual Development

It's probably not a big leap to consider the whole concept of the quest in fantasy literature as a metaphor. The question is, what is it a metaphor for?

The hero's quest as a story is something that has existed in literature for literally thousands of years. You see it frequently in Greek mythology with the stories of Theseus or Perseus. The hero has to go on a journey against great odds to either find a treasure or defeat a creature or some other powerful foe. During the quest the hero will be tested on many occasions, and by the time the hero reaches the goal of his quest, he has grown to a point where he is “ready” to face it. When the hero accomplishes the object of his quest, he returns from whence he came a different person, risen in status as well as wisdom. (Please note: I'm using the masculine gender as a shortcut, not as an assumption that women can't go on quests. I personally think it's neat when women go on quests.)

We all know the general structure, something Joseph Campbell outlined very neatly in his writings about heroes. The question though is thus, what is the deeper significance of the quest? Why do we as human beings find the quest story so compelling, and what does that say about us?

The quest as a structure is a metaphor itself for the life struggle. It is a metaphor for the journey through life and the development we must all go through in order to function as a fully developed adult. It is, if you will, a spiritual journey, a path of growth from someone young and brash (and often impetuous and stupid) to an older person imbued with wisdom as a result of the quest. The journey then becomes the teacher, the guru, and the obstacles that a hero must face are the mental obstacles within us that keep us from achieving wisdom.

Let's take a couple of popular examples. We'll start with Katniss Everdeen's story in The Hunger Games. Here we have the quintessential proto-hero; she's daring, independent, skilled, reliable, and charismatic. She begins her her's journey with a stunning act of selflessness, taking the place of her younger sister in the “Hunger Games”, a yearly battle to the death of twenty-four young people, two from each district in the dystopic remains of the United States, broadcasted to everyone. Katniss has almost certainly given herself a death sentence, for only one person from the games will emerge alive. Yet as this brave young lady goes on her journey, which begins as she is shipped out of her impoverished home district and brought to the wealthy Capitol Region where she learns about how the larger country which she lives in works, changing from a provincial attitude from one of greater understanding. During the games themselves, Katniss becomes acutely aware through her own actions and how they are viewed by the outer world. She gains a wisdom not just about combat but about how society sees people like her and where she fits in it.

Let us take a different sort of quest now, a quest not for selfless reasons but to satisfy that deep desire that lives in every person's soul, the desire for treasure. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is a satisfied little creature, content to live in his hobbit hole and whittle away the time eating cakes and tending his garden. Then appears in the first few pages the wizard Gandalf who invites the diminutive hero to join on a quest with twelve dwarves to seek treasure. This treasure of course isn't just sitting around unguarded; it's the hoard of the great and powerful dragon Smaug who stole it from the dwarves many years before. Bilbo somewhat unwillingly agrees to join the dwarves. He's not particularly interested in the treasure but is moved by Gandalf's and the dwarves entreaties to join as the group burglar. After many adventures in their journey, some proving Bilbo's worth as a companion, the thirteen (Gandalf is on an “errand”) reach the dragon's treasure. Yet even after the treasure is obtained, the danger sadly isn't, for every group of beings who live nearby now want it, which begins, to Bilbo's horror, the war of the Five Armies. At the end of the battle, Bilbo is disgusted by the whole affair and saddened by the deaths of friends. He returns home richer but content that the small pleasures of home, good cooking, his pipe, quiet nights, good friends and neighbors, are that which makes a man truly rich.

Interestingly, when we meet Bilbo again in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, we find that he hasn't changed much in terms of his physical surroundings. Bilbo has grown more cantankerous, clearly through the influence of Gollum's ring, but he hasn't splurged on anything despite his wealth. His home, Bag End, is still the same hole. His friends are the same as they've been. The only real difference is that he's taken in his young cousin Frodo, an act of generosity the former Bilbo may not have been able to do.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Speaking Engagement

I will be speaking at the Desmond Fish Library on Sunday May 15 at 2 PM on the subject of teaching science fiction and fantasy literature in the classroom. This will be an excellent time to discuss this topic and for people to share what they know and love about this type of literature.

More on this as the date gets closer.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Space Opera

Space opera is a branch of the science fiction genre. It's distinguished from “hard” science fiction, by its focus on adventure, melodrama, and romance in a science fiction setting (according to wikipedia, which actually is a very good source of information for all things geekish).

Space opera is the fun side of science fiction. This is where heroes leap into tiny space ships and hurl themselves at faster-than-light speeds to land another star system before lunch. This is where space fighters zoom through the air, dodging each other like 1940s Messerschmidts and Spitfires. This is where heroes leap from floating city to floating city, sometimes zapping bad guys with their laser gun, sometimes fencing with a medieval long sword.

The great part about space opera is how much fun it is. I remember as a boy, pouring through Edgar Rice Boroughs's John Carter, Warlord of Mars books and absolutely loving them. They were pure adventure, where a man from Earth magically appears on the surface of the dying Mars and eventually becomes its greatest champion, marrying the voluptuous space princess Deja Thoris. Of course, once they were married, our hero spent the rest of the books rescuing said princess from the nefarious forces of evil. Ahh, such is the genre; nobody ever has a relaxing day. Everyone's just so busy fighting the forces evil.

I think space opera is a genre that's there as fantasy fulfillment. It exists as a world for derring-do, for heroes to be heroes. The trouble is when people start taking space opera seriously as real science fiction, which is where Star Wars come in. Science has little bearing in the worlds of George Lucas, with a couple of exceptions. The world of Luke and Leia is one of adventure, where evil is always lurking close by (or at least a nearby star system), waiting and planning. When I was young I absolutely loved space opera.

But of course that changed. It's not that my taste gradually got more sophisticated. I still love sitting down in front of the TV and watching The Empire Strikes Back with my six year-old son. What happened is that I personally got tired of a universe set up specifically for the adventure. I learned that when there's a lot of violence, there's also blood and death (and I don't know about you, but death just takes away from the fun of a good battle). I learned that it takes a lot of farmers to support a few aristocrats, and the farmers' problems might be more real than any warrior born from nobility.

That's what makes a science fiction movie like Wall-E so successful. It's about a very common robot doing something very common, collecting garbage. When he meets the robot from the future, Eve, he's smitten. And even Eve isn't so uncommon. She's built to be a tough probe droid, with one arm functioning as a powerful laser cannon, but her slick iPod looks are really just a function of when and where she was built. These two electronic protagonists then discover that despite Earth's pollution, it can still support life. The rest of the movie is a struggle against the vested interests who want to keep the remains of humanity shut up in a large space ship.

Now Wall-E is a kids' movie at heart, so it breaks certain conventions of reality that might be a problem in a more sophisticated movie, but it does deal with the very real issue of our planet getting more and more polluted. The adventure comes out of that, as opposed to space opera where the entire universe seems structured around adventure.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Independent Animated Science Fiction Video

Take the time to watch this science fiction video called “The incident at Tower 37” by filmmaker Chris Perry. This is a great “short” to show your class. It's appropriate even for middle school and younger ages.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Great Essay on the Waning of Nerd Culture

Did you know that we are now in the decline of Nerd culture? All that stuff which used to be verboten and embarrassing, like knowing obsessive details about Star Trek trivia (guilty!), memorizing stats off the D&D Monster Manual (also guilty), being able to recite speeches from Blade Runner (not guilty, although I'm ashamed of that!), are now acceptable parts of internet culture. If you don't believe me, read this rant about it by Patton Oswalt, best known as the voice of Remy the rat from the Pixar movie Ratatouille.

Worth showing to your students then talking about.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Science Fiction At Its Best And Least

A lover of science fiction should  check out Duncan Jones's 2009 movie Moon. This movie is pure science fiction without any of the silliness which accompanies most science fiction these days. The plot is very simple: Sam Bell is at the end of his three-year contract with Lunar Industries to harvest helium-3 from the dark side of the moon. The communications setup is damaged, so he can only speak to his family from a time-delay arrangement, bouncing the signal off an antenna on one of the outer planets. The only thing he can communicate with on a real-time basis is GERTY, his Hal-like computer companion. With two weeks to go on his contract, there is an accident at one of the harvesters. Sam goes to investigate, against company instructions, and makes a startling discovery.

No, I'm not going to spoil it, but suffice to say, the movie takes its idea to a very satisfying conclusion. Moon seems to hail from the science fiction of the 1970s, and I don't mean Star Wars. Moon is more in the vein of Silent Running or 2001, A Space Odyssey with its slower pacing and visual style. As well, the special effects are mostly “practical”, which means that they're done with models and miniatures, which gives the movie a much grittier feel than if the effects were done with computers. You can actually see the particles of dust everywhere. That may seem like a minor point, but nothing makes a special effect look real better than good, old-fashioned dirt.

As well, Moon also adheres to something called “science” with it's conventions. What I mean is that you don't get some of the silly scientific inconsistencies that tend to pop up in movies of this genre, like sound in space, space ships acting like they're flying in an atmosphere, or hyperdrives. (Hyperdrives I can accept as a necessary deus ex machina, but when you put them together with all other nonsense, the movie gets silly.) The only place the movie doesn't follow science conventions is in the space base where the main character moves about as if he's on earth with earth's gravity. Due to the low budget of this movie, made for an astounding $5 million dollars, I can forgive this.

If you want to see a movie with astounding special effects of zero gravity, watch Apollo 13. Yet here the word special effect should be used wisely, because the zero-gravity scenes in this movie aren't all effects; they're real weightlessness done on the Vomit Comet, a special airplane designed to briefly create a zero-gravity environment.

The unfortunate problem with Moon is that the language is, at times, rather adult, which makes it inappropriate for middle schoolers.  That said, a high school teacher looking for a good “hard” science fiction movie need look no further. Even better, if you have a Netflix account, it's available for live streaming.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Link to Trends in Science Fiction and Fantasy

One of my favorite websites is, which is a site dedicated to science fiction and fantasy in literature and movies. Besides the usual news and rumors about upcoming movies, there are some good essays abut science fiction trends. Those I enjoy the most.

The only problem with io9 is that it's a Gawker Media site. That means it's occasionally NSFW (Not Safe For Work), which means it's also NSFK (Not Safe For Kids). The language is fine, but sometimes the media links can get rather raunchy. It's a good resource for information, but I might not share it with my students, especially middle school students.

I also get jealous of the profiles of published authors, because I'm still trying to get my book published. Argh!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Visions of the Future: A TV Show Starring Isaac Azimov

I adore Isaac Azimov. As one of the early greats of science fiction, he took the science part very seriously. In 1992, he filmed a TV pilot about trends in technology and where the human race was heading, called Visions of the Future. Unfortunately this was never aired, but the footage of the pilot is now available.

Thanks to for the link.