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.