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 io9.com, 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 brainpickings.org for the link.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Writing Rules, and Not Just For Science Fiction

I wanted to post some links to writing rules, because I think teachers often get this wrong. There seems to be an emphasis when teaching writing to emphasize purplish prose, prose that tries to break out of the norm with extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and alternative verbs. Unfortunately, this tends to make prose to read like a baroque menagerie instead of something lean and elegant.

Let's begin by reading Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing.

Then read Laura Miller's A Reader's Advice to Writers.

Both of these writers tend to say the same thing: Keep your writing spare and don't show off. Story matters more than description. Don't try to force style; style should come out of your prose, not be the purpose of your prose.

My favorite rules have to do with dialog. Instead of convulsing with effort to not use the word “said”, to embrace it. The purpose of dialog is to write down what people say, not to elaborate on how people speak. A good writer will get the how across without having to tell us how. So please, no more lines like, he spat, growled, sneered, crooned, or ejaculated. (Please, please, please, avoid that last one.) Keep your prose simple and direct, and let the story tell itself.

Unfortunately a lot of English teachers teacher writing without being writers themselves, which is like teaching a sport without ever having played it. Reading a lot of good prose certainly helps, and this is something most English teachers do well, but how many actually go through the painful process of trying to write good fiction? I'm not trying to be elitist here, but a little experience in that regard goes a long way. Good writing is spare, not fancy.

As teachers, let's try to avoid making our students write parodies of good writing. Let's help them write good, simple, elegant prose. The flourishes and fancy stuff can come later, after they've gotten control of words. Until then, KISS.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Brief History of Science Fiction

Author Pamela J. Dodd did a nice quick history of science fiction in a three minute Youtube video. Enjoy!

Thank You, Mr. Gates

Before I became an English teacher I was an IT (Information Technology) guy. I specialized in Macintosh computers and was pretty good, especially in the early 1990s, at training artists who had spent their entire life doing traditional paste-up to us a computer to do desktop publishing. I was a Mac guy during the demoralizing late 1990s, when Apple was going through a self-induced tailspin. It was a painful time for an Apple fan such as myself.

Bill Gates represented Microsoft then, and to a certain extent still does, although he isn't really involved with their day-to-day operations. I did not like that man during the dark days, but I've recently grown to respect him for certain reasons.

Mr. Gates is perhaps the most important reason “geekiness” or “nerdiness” has become cool. When I was a child, geeks like me worried about getting beaten up simply because of who we were. Mr. Gates, along with the entire technology revolution, changed that image. When a nerd becomes the richest man in the world, even those who despise nerds must sit up and take notice.

I'm also pleased with Mr. Gates's transformation from rapacious capitalist to philanthropist. While as a teacher I think his education reforms are questionable, thank you Mr. Gates for making people like me cool.

And oddly, now it seems Apple is becoming the new Microsoft. Go figure.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What's With the Zombies?

One of the things that I'm curious about with these horror movie tropes that are very popular is how zombies became one of them. I understand where the vampire and werewolf tropes originate from — repressed feelings, especially sexuality — but the zombie thing is another thing entirely. The first two monsters are ancient, but zombies, in their modern incarnation, are very recent.

The original definition, which is hundreds of years old, is a a person controlled or entranced by a wizard to do his/her bidding (and the wikipedia page is well-researched in that regard). The modern idea of zombies didn't appear until the George Romero film Night of the Living Dead as well as the earlier Richard Mattheson novel , which created the idea that zombies were formerly dead people who rise up and search for the flesh of the living. I believe the whole zombie desire for specifically brains concept comes from the Living Dead movie spoof Return of the Living Dead, which turns the whole genre into a rather frightening joke.

But back to zombies: why? I wonder if their general lifeless malevolence, that ceaseless desire to kill the living in the most horrible way imaginable, and the fact that their condition is fairly contagious, makes them a stand-in for whatever anxiety consumes us. Those on different sides of the political aisle often refer to the other side as zombies, giving life to the assumption that people on the other side must be that way because there's some defect in their condition. Thus the zombies become liberals, conservatives, global warming deniers, Macintosh fans, PC fans, etc. That which you fear most, the zombies becomes. (A good discussion of this idea here.)

Of course the zombie apocalypse is a trope that's very popular within the geek/scifi/horror communities. Here is where whatever it is that created zombies, radiation, a virus, gas, Rush Limbaugh (I kid), makes the zombie infestation so strong that society itself becomes overwhelmed. Of all the Apocalypse scenarios, this to me is one of the most terrifying. A nuclear apocalypse is, of course, horrible by definition, but an apocalypse where the living are steadily eaten by the dead, then reborn as a zombie, is a fantasy of gore and death that is truly terrible.

I think what might make zombie apocalypse scenarios compelling is that there's always the possibility of surviving one through cleverness, viciousness, skill with with weapons, luck, or, like Jesse Eisenberg's character in the zombie comedy Zombieland, “cowardice”. There's not much a person can do to survive a nuclear explosion, and, even if you do, what's the point? The zombie uprising tends to lend itself towards geeky fantasies of relying on tools, especially weaponry, and cleverness to survive, hence we have Max Brook's book The Zombie Survival Guide, book of survival tips for that seemingly inevitable rise of the dead.

Zombies also fulfill a cannon fodder fantasy. Anybody who has read a reasonable book on war like All Quiet on the Western Front will come to an understanding that no matter how much the other side in war is demonized, we know that they are normal people like you and me. Every enemy killed is a son or daughter lost, a child growing up without a parent, or a widowed spouse. Zombies seemingly can be eliminated without this problem. While they were people, they're already dead. If these mindless things are not destroyed, then they will never cease their efforts to destroy us. For someone with a penchant for shooting human-sized targets, what could be more satisfying? Your only limitation is how much ammunition you carry.

I wonder what the next monster trend will be? In the meantime, don't bug me. I'm busy playing Plants vs. Zombies.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Getting Controversial With Science Fiction

One of the neat things about science fiction is how easily it lends itself to examining our society in metaphor. One can use this technique to deal with controversial subjects with an elegance that sometimes eludes realism.

Take for example the Twilight Zone tale “The Monster Are Due on Maple Street”. (You can watch parts one, two and three here on Youtube.) This story, and you should watch the episode if you're not familiar with it, is a metaphor for the McCarthyite anticommunist scares that swept over the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was a time when people were hauled off in front of congressional committees where they had to prove they were sufficiently patriotic in order to not be labeled a communist. The fear of being called a communist was so intense that people would often, to the pleasure of the House on Unamerican Activities Committee, name names of people, who would then be accused. And so the circle ran. It was an awful time in American history. People's careers, including my grandfather's and great uncles, were ruined because of these accusations. Senator McCarthy's fall came none too quickly.

Clearly Rod Serling was highly aware of this. He must have had great sympathy for the people who were unjustly hauled off and accused of being unpatriotic. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a very clever allegory of this time. After a strange light flies overhead, the machines and electricity on Maple Street stop working. This causes general unease until a boy relates how these events closely follow the plots of alien invasions in his comic books. Then the unease coalesces into paranoia, and then one after another each neighbor is accused of being an alien. Every idiosyncrasy of each person is exposed to the light of this court of your peers and no person is above suspicion. The story ends with a tragic and sinister note, for after Maple Street descends into a riot, the camera pulls back and we see that two aliens actually have been the puppet masters of the entire scene, allowing humans in their paranoia, to destroy themselves.

Serling avoids any real partisanship here by avoiding the issue of communism entirely, making the paranoia the focus of the story. As the suspicion in the neighborhood increases, the watcher gets a sense of dread, knowing that unless something intervenes onto this simmering pot, it will end tragically. He's making a strong case for acceptance of each other's idiosyncrasies, for the alternative is horrible.

While allegory can be a very clunky thing, this story is a good example of how science fiction can use that technique and deal with a controversial topic. A realistic story of this nature might be accused of being partisan and unpatriotic (then and now), but by taking the paranoia out of its political context, Serling makes a strong point about what it means to be a neighbor. Alien invasion is still a pretty unrealistic thing, thank goodness, but that's the strength of the episode. By making the fear, the MacGuffin, something essentially ridiculous, we're free to see how the paranoia plays out without getting involved with the fear itself.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Greek Mythology Drama

I never thought, when I began teaching, that I'd spend so much time with drama. This isn't the pedestrian kind, where something bad happens and you react, but performances on stage.

Fantasy and science fiction may not be an easy match for stage performances. We tend to think of this genre as relying on special effects a lot. It does tend to, but the truth is that you can put on some great shows with few or even no special effects. If you want some good examples of this in our culture, look at The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. These were very effective shows that relied on storytelling, scripts, and good acting. Sure there were a few special effects here and there, but they were nothing any amateur couldn't pull off with a digital video camera and iMovie.

A great way to start with fantasy-based drama are the ancient Greek myths. These stories are by their nature short and exciting. There are several publications where you can get scripts for plays based on Greek myths, and a quick Google search for “Greek Mythology Plays” will give you many leads.

If you can't find a play that you like and you're handy with writing, write the play yourself. There are dozens of plays that lend themselves to scripting easily. Each can be converted into a fifteen or twenty minute play without too much effort. The favorite stories such as “Demeter and Persephone”, “Perseus”, or “Theseus and the Minotaur” can easily be transformed into play. The last two are traveling plays, and the hero's adventure “on the road” provides lots of opportunities for small roles for students.

One suggestion I have is that you should write the play for your class size, putting in a chorus. A chorus (in the classic sense) can serve a few purposes. You can make them into townspeople and have them provide the necessary exposition. The chorus can also have a flexible number of students. Write the parts and then assign them to how many kids you have for the production. As well, since some words should be spoken in unison, the chorus serves as an excellent role for students who are shy or frightened of performing on stage by themselves.

Plays based on Greek mythology are very easy to costume. All you need are shorts, a white tee shirt, and a white sheet. The sheet should be wrapped around the child toga-style and fixed with a few judicious safety pins. Students should go barefoot.

I have found drama of this kind to be very successful, and there's no better way to teach ancient Greek culture than to put a costume on a kid and have him/her act it out. While teachers are under a lot of pressure to teach to specific tests, a play can be a powerful motivator for student learning. As well, it's a perfect way to teach public speaking skills. Instead of having a students get up in front of a class and give a speech, have them put on a play!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Fantastic Alternative to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

One issue with teaching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that it's already a pretty popular book. When I teach it, something around one-quarter of my students have already read it. This isn't a major stumbling block for me because I teach and analyze it at a level students will not have experienced before, but this can be an issue. As well, for an advanced middle school reader, one who's already slogging his/her way through the Harry Potter series, the book is a little on the easy side.

Let me introduce to you one of my favorite middle-grade fantasy novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. This unsung classic is, in many ways, superior to C.S. Lewis's book while sharing many of its thematic elements.

The book begins with two middle school-aged children, Colin and Susan, who have been sent from London by their mother to spend the summer with her old nurse in the English countryside (shared thematic element #1). The stay in the region of Alderley, which is an area of England rich with old folklore. The two children encounter the magical realm (shared thematic element #2) in their explorations of a nearby hill, eventually encountering an ancient wizard, Cadellin, who lives under the hill guarding a group of sleeping knight, the “Sleepers”, who are fated to awaken during England's greatest need. Unfortunately, Cadellin has lost a magical stone which guarantees his power, the “Weirdstone”, and now is vulnerable.

I will not spoil the ending here, but there are things to take note of in this book. Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the main female character Susan, is brave and intelligent without the sexism that taints C.S. Lewis. (Susan must be a popular name amongst fantasy writers.) The couple that Colin and Susan stay with, the Mossocks, speak in a well-written regional accent which is fun to interpret and speak aloud.

Anybody with an education in medieval fantasy literature will recognize the identity of the Sleepers: they are, of course, King Arthur and his knights. This is never mentioned explicitly, but any clever reader will understand this. That said, the identity of Cadellin also becomes quite clear even though he does not share the exact same name as the eternally famous wizard of Arthur's court. Keeping these references in the background makes the book stronger. The quest to save the Sleepers runs the risk of being cheesy, but Garner stays clear away from any hint of that.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is it's sense of atmosphere and place. On a way C.S. Lewis was rarely able to to, Alan Garner creates an air of menace and foreboding. Strange mists become terrifying and dangerous. At times it seems as if the very boulders might leap up and seize the two young children. As well, the worlds of the magical and classical cross over dramatically. While Lewis always kept Narnia separate from the real world and mostly accessible through overt doorways like a painting or wardrobe, Garner has his magical world become a threat to the real one, forcing Gowther Mossock, the book's equivalent of Professor Kirke, to join in the children's quest.

The most effective section of the book may be the chapters that take place underground. While fleeing an evil witch, a person far more earthy and repugnant than the White Witch, the children find themselves in caves pursued by diminutive but numerous creatures called svarts. Aided by two dwarves (dwarfs?), the four scratch their way through tunnels to the surface in a sequence so claustrophobic it will make any reader cringe. It is a landmark moment of fantasy writing and terrifying. These tunnels are so cramped that if one of the four becomes caught, everyone behind will be trapped and die. Then there's water. (Shudder!)

Lastly, while Narnian mythology seems to be a blend of classical Greek with Germanic folk traditions, The Weirdstone is a heavier dose of Norse lore mixed with Celtic mythology. We are far closer here to Tolkien than Lewis ever got. At the climax of the story, when the heroes are being attacked with absolutely overwhelming force, a terrifying being from the tales of Valhalla appears, assuring the doom of everything dear and good if the main characters fail.

While the ending of the story is fairly predictable, this is no weakness. The heroes prevail but not without great cost, losing a dear member of their company. Lewis's Narnia seems to exist strangely as a place where humans can appear and have adventures, always emerging stronger and more mature. The worst thing that happens at the end is the the children miss Narnia as the deal with the mundanity of the “real world”. Garner's tale is far more realistic with the costs of war, but not so much that a young reader will be turned off.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Interesting Echo: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Harry Potter”

I've talked about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe movie before, but I wanted to discuss an interesting moment in the movie. It begins in London during the air raids of WWII, something the book mentions only in passing. The four Penvesie children survive some bombs that fall near their house and are soon sent away from London, like many other children were, to live in the countryside.

While the bombing scene itself is a bit hackneyed and clumsy, it provides an unneeded basis for Edmund's priggish and self-serving behavior, the scenes that follow it are surprisingly powerful. The children are at one of the major railway stations with their mother along with hundreds of other families. The children have labels hanging from their coats, a necessary step to make sure they reach the correct destination but it also dehumanizes them a bit. Parents, mostly mothers (the fathers are at war), are saying farewell to their children as they are shipped out to the countryside. As the Penvensie's mother mostly keeps a brave face on, the children go into a compartment with strange children, each waiting for their stop. Here they will be picked up by unknown adults and cared for, for better or worse. For some of the children it will clearly be for worse.

Like most effective scenes, it's the human element which is the most gripping. The children are frightened but don't want to show it. The parents are upset but don't want their children to see that. When the train pulls out of the station, we then get a powerful image that echoes strongly (I can't imagine the director wasn't aware of this) the Hogwarts Express. Yet while the train in the Harry Potter series seems to be heading off into true adventure, the fate of the children on this train is much less sure. They will be alone, which is frightening, and their parents will be exposed to danger. As the trains chugs through London of the 1940s, we get an image of a grubby city hunkered down against a terrible enemy sending it's children out of harm's way, and it's surprisingly effective. As an adult with children, I was very moved.

Interestingly the book itself ignores these emotions. That may simply be C.S. Lewis focussing on adventure instead of sadness, but one wonders why the author, himself a veteran of the slaughter of WWI, didn't pay closer attention to some of it.

Two (Movie) Versions of Dune

Frank Herbert's book Dune has been filmed twice: once by David Lynch and the other time by the SciFi Channel (now SyFy because they're embarrassed that play science fiction, but they're not embarrassed to have professional wrestling). Both movies would be effective tools for teaching the book Dune but they have their strengths and weaknesses.

David Lynch's Dune has a baroque visual style that's very compelling. Every scene looks opulent in some way, either with decoration, costuming or architecture. Many scenes feel rusty and gritty, as if the entire future were powered by high-tech steam. As well, the special effects hold up well for model audiences, mostly. There are some moments of cheesy blue-screening but the model effects with the gigantic sand worms are spectacular.

This movie also has a terrific, charismatic cast. Kyle MacLechlan as Paul Atreides is stiff, but he carries the gravity of the movie effectively. Jürgen Prochnow as Duke Leto Atreides, Paul's father, is charismatic and convincing as a man who might one day challenge the Emperor of the galaxy for supremacy. In smaller roles, Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard!), Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Freddie Jones, and Sian Phillips are effective.

This movie falls down for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's incoherent at times. Dune is a sprawling, epic book that has many subplots (“plans within plans”) which are difficult to bring across in a two-hour movie. David Lynch has his characters say cryptic sentences to bring the plot along, but they end up sounding pretentious. As well, David Lynch adds at least one new idea to the book, changing the fighting styles of Duke Leto's forces and the Fremen from a futuristic martial art to a new system of weaponry based on sound. It's actually an interesting idea, and it makes for some cool growling on-camera, but it's a distracting change.

The next issue is, to me, just as distracting. Duke Leto's adversary, the Baron Harkonnen, is played by Kenneth McMillan as a raving psychotic. He's deformed, perverted, and monomaniacal. (I actually don't blame the actor here: the fault lies in David Lynch's direction.) This baron is simply too insane to be a formidable enemy to the obviously cool-headed and intelligent Duke Leto. This distorted portrayal of the Baron is simply depraved, and David Lynch takes this depravity to levels that are completely inappropriate. While the book does make clear that the Baron is a homosexual (for Frank Herbert that's a reasonable justification for his evil) and fat, he's also a brilliant schemer. The movie Baron's two nephews, the Beast Rabban and Feyd Rautha (played distractingly by the singer Sting), serve as little more than nutty accomplices.

This said, the movie is a lot of fun. For a teacher interested in teaching the book, this movie would be effective for it's excellent sense of visual geography. Each planet looks very different. As well, the performances carry the sometimes fragmented script to a satisfying conclusion.

The SciFi Channel version of Dune is an entirely different beast. (Get it? Like the “Beast” Rabban? Oh, never mind.) It's a six-hour miniseries, not a two-hour movie. This gives the movie far more time to take in the sprawling plot, and, to my money, does a far better job. You get the story. There are no leaps of understanding necessary to understand what's going on.

Where the miniseries falls down is in the acting. Duke Leto is played by William Hurt, whose a fine actor but not at all charismatic in the way Duke Leto should be. Instead this Duke seems to mope from scene to scene, as if he's already anticipated his own death and is going through the motions. Paul is played by Alec Newman, a relatively unknown actor who doesn't quite have the gravity to carry his role of savior of the planet Arrakis. Surprisingly, the portrayal of Baron Harkonnen by Ian McNeice is very effective. He plays the villain in an understated, intelligent way that makes the Baron seem like a real threat, not just a dangerous maniac. As well, I liked the plucky actress Julie Cox who played the Princess Irulan. She was intelligent and scheming, just as a person at her level should be.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Do We Live in a Science Fiction World?

One of my favorite scenes from David Lynch 1984 production of Frank Herbert's novel Dune is in the beginning of the movie when Paul Atreides, the protagonist, looks at a book-sized computer. It has a video screen that teaches him (and provides exposition to the viewer).  Check this out.

Here's the unit.

In it you can scan libraries of information. In this case, Paul is looking up different planets.

Look, you can enter search terms.

You can even watch videos on it! 
Does this device, or at least it's concept, look familiar?

Yup, it's an iPad. Sometimes science fiction comes true.

Friday, March 4, 2011

History of Science Fiction Video, Featuring Isaac Azimov, part 2

Here's the second part of those Isaac Azimov videos:

HIstory of Science Fiction Video, Featuring Isaac Azimov, part 1

Here's  the first part video of Isaac Azimov speaking about the history of science fiction. I'm going to post these in two separate blog entries because blogger is having some formatting issues with YouTube videos:

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Teaching Science Fiction Website

There's a great website for teaching science fiction at the college level. This is the website of the Center for the Teaching of Science Fiction. The address is:


If you start with this page, you'll begin with a good essay by James Gunn about the value of teaching science fiction and some of the history of teaching science fiction at the college level. Check it out.

“The Tempest” and Science Fiction

While as a teacher you may be teaching The Tempest as a fantasy novel, or, as it's categorized in the Shakespeare canon, as a romance, the play also has some decent science fiction cred as well. The 1956 classic science fiction movie Forbidden Planet is a really fun remake of the story. In it, the space ship C-57D lands on the planet Altair IV (captained by the late Leslie Neilson) to check up on a colony that landed there twenty years before. All members of the colony are dead except for a Doctor Morbius and his daughter Altaira. Without going into the plot too much, suffice to say the movie is a satisfying retelling of this classic story.

My favorite parts of the movie are the way Ariel and Caliban are transformed into science fiction ideas. Ariel, the faithful, powerful servant, is transformed into Robbie the Robot. Instead of the ethereal and graceful “airy spirit”, we get a clumsy but impressive creation. The most notable scene with him, perhaps, is when Morbius demonstrates to the visiting crew of the ship Robbie's power and limitations. Robbie has the power to lift tons, but his programming makes him unable to hurt a living human being, shades of Isaac Azimov's I Robot books.

Caliban seems nowhere to be found at first, except for a trouble fact the crew of the C-57D are bothered by: the mysterious deaths of all the other members of the expedition. As Morbius reveals more and more about his life on the planet, we learn that Morbius has discovered the remnants of a fabulously advanced civilization that once existed on Altair IV, the Krell. The Doctor has even learned how to harness some of the Krell's technology, increasing his own intellect far beyond what is was. Here we have the science fiction analog to Prospero's magic, advanced alien technology. This a trope used perhaps far too often here, but the presentation of it in this movie, combined with the still impressive special effects of the underground Krell technology, make it work.

But back to Caliban. We learn that the colonists' deaths seemed to coincide with a plan to leave Altair IV, a move Morbius disagreed with intensely. Concurrent with these events, a strange, invisible creature begins wrecking havoc with the landed space sip. An important part disappears, then a crewman dies. After a defensive perimeter is set up around the ship, the creature is halted, but not after its horrifying silhouette appears in a blaze of laser fire. This creature, the ship's doctor exclaims after examining its footsteps, cannot exist. It doesn't follow any known rule of evolution. As Morbius is confronted, the ship's captain realizes that the creature is a projection of Morbius's own personality, his “id” in Freudian terms, amplified by the Krell apparatus inside the planet. This means that the original colonists died because Morbius killed them subconsciously because they disagreed with his decision to leave the planet.

While students may argue or not whether Freud's concept of the “id” actually exists, this movie does present a good basis for that conversation. Caliban here is the unconscious, and what teenager cannot relate to anger or other emotions which cannot be expressed publicly? Caliban too in The Tempest occupies that same emotional space, displaying the savage base desires that Prospero fears. While the “id” creature in Forbidden Planet is far more savage than Prospero's servant/slave, the science fiction setting with it's advanced weapons and scanning instruments seems to allow for the more dangerous foe.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

From Shakespeare to Fantasy Literature

I don't think it's a stretch to call Shakespeare's The Tempest a work of fantasy. In it we have a wizard (Prospero), a monster (Caliban), magic spells, an invisible spirit (Ariel), and a dead witch (Sycorax). Combine all this with some of the most beautiful language ever, it's a perfect book for fantasy lovers.

As well, including The Tempest in a curriculum of fantasy works would have a dual function. It would raise the status of any course of that name, making it easier to sell to a perhaps unwilling administration. After all, how bad could a course be if Shakespeare is in it, right? As well, The Tempest is a great gateway play to get fantasy lovers interested in Shakespeare. If a fantasy lover enjoys the play, then the rest of Shakespeare's are an easy sell.

A great play to go to after The Tempest is Macbeth. Here you have the rise of a king foretold by three strange, magical witches and this same king's death predicted by a confusing prophecy. In the middle are murders galore, madness, and revenge. What's not to like?

What fantasy lover can resist Macbeth's meditation on a dagger in his hand, contemplating the murder of his king in act 2, scene 1?

Is this a dagger which I see before me, 
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. 
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. 
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible 
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but 
A dagger of the mind, a false creation, 
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? 
I see thee yet, in form as palpable 
As this which now I draw. 
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going; 
And such an instrument I was to use. 
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses, 
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still, 
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, 
Which was not so before. There's no such thing: 
It is the bloody business which informs 
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one halfworld 
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse 
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates 
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd murder, 
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf, 
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace. 
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design 
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth, 
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear 
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout, 
And take the present horror from the time, 
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives: 
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

Come on, this is great stuff! The man is half-way already to madness, raving about witchcraft and dreams. The language too shouldn't present too much problem for the average fantasy lover, already used to somewhat archaic language from the like of Tolkien and Howard Pyle.

Macbeth is an especially great choice of a play for someone who likes George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books. These are mostly non-magical fantasy novels (so far, at book 4), focussing on the murder and succession of kings. All the elements of Macbeth are in these novels, except that Macbeth has the advantage of being about 1,500 pages shorter. That's not an exaggeration, by the way; these books are long! And there are still three more coming!