Literature of Horror, Fantasy & Sci-Fi

Course Blog for LMST345 Ringling College of Art

You should have an appointment time to meet with me this week or during exam week for your individual review. If you do not have an appointment, please email me for one right away. Please post all your blog entries and complete the online course evaluation before coming for your conference. Here is a link to the syllabus assignment for this week. 

We finish the semester with a laugh, or at least I hope so. This week I have asked you to listen to the original radio version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or alternatively, to some Firesign Theater, the masters of absurdist audio. As with the other genres we have studied this semester, reading comic uses of genre codes serves as an excellent way to become more aware of those codes, their limits and often their absurdist qualities. This week's featured film is Idiocracy an increasingly popular cult favorite that uses tropes of science fiction and the rhetorical figure of exaggeration to make visible a number of the inherent contradictions and fallacies of our current cultural assumptions. This highlights one of the larger roles that science ficiton plays in our society and reminds us that science fiction is really never about the future but always about the present.

The recent television series Braindead, available for streaming is also an excellent near future sci-fi parody of current politics. 

Next week I will begin meeting you indivdiually for your final reviews. Please remember to post on your blog any responses to works you have read this semester. Be sure to complete the online course evaluation. 

Here is a link to the assignment page in the course syllabus.

Photo of Margaret Atwood  by Rannie Turingan
This week we are considering the way in which the mainstream of literary writing has embraced the impulse of speculative fiction and sometimes its genre codes and markers as well. Its the quality of writing that makes such works literary, but often these works provide many unexpected pleasures because they are free of the expectations associated with specific genre. There are two basic types of literary speculation, one in which the writer is writing within the codes of genre but has literary pretensions or at least a literary result. This writer is usually associated with the genre but creates work that crosses over into the literary mainstream. Such writers as Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, or William Gibson are writers of this type.  The second type is when the writer is usually associated with mainstream literary work but chooses to use some of the tropes or codes of specualtive genre in a work. Such writers might include Doris Lessing, Michael Chabon or Margaret Atwood.  Atwood's novel, Oryx and Crake is this week's spotlight novel. In class we will read some short fiction by Italo Calvino and Stanislaw Lem, who in part, defy even the two categories I have just put forward.  Next week will be our last general class session when we will be discussing satirical science fiction, and the future of speculation.

Here a link to this week's assignment on the syllabus.

Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, 2003
     Imagining a future relies on understanding and making use of one's placement in the present. Although there have always been individual authors who picked away at the edges of the genre, or even sometimes at its center, from marginalized positions of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or residency in the third world, our ideas of what constitutes tomorrow have often been based on non-inclusive assumptions. Over the last two decades the readership and the authorship of science fiction has become more diverse. This week we inquire into the effects of that increased inclusion. Has science fiction changed as it has become more diverse? Have the assumptions that have governed the creation of science fiction conventions changed as well? Have the conventions or tropes of science fiction shifted to accommodate a more diverse audience?

This week the suggested novel is the first of series of works by Octavia Butler in her Xenogenesis novels and is entitled Dawn. In class we will read "Bloodchild," a short story by Octavia Butler.

Here is the link to the week's assignment on the syllabus.

The recommended reading for this week is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, a classic of cyberpunk. Alternatively you might read Neuromancer by William Gibson or if you need something shorter, you might try Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic."  Cyperpunk ficition often takes place in "cyberspace," a term invented by Gibson. It also features characters whose bodies are modified or enhanced by mechanical means, cyborgs, in other words. The cyperpunk heroine is one of the character types of this ficiton that has become ubiquitous in speculative fiction generally; she is the alpha female, often dressed in black, body modified with armaments or weapons, working as a bodyguard. She is the perfect prototype for the new woman of the 21st century and we now see her in popular storytelling of all types, such as the best seller, The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo. She remains a staple of William Gibson's fiction where she made her debut, although she is no longer a character of the future but a character of the present just as his novels are no longer science fiction but mainstream.

We will also consider some of the variants of cyperpunk like Steam Punk and Diesel Punk. There is a list of Steam Punk novels on the syllabus page. A good place to start might be The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers or the Victorian supernatural romance novel, Soulless by Gail Carriger.

Here is a link to this week's assignment on the syllabus.

Image from the play, Rossum's Universal Robots, from the novel by the Czech author of speculative fiction, Karel Capek, in which the word robot makes its first appearance.

D.C. Comics Mulliverse
By the 1960s, writers and fans of science fiction were getting a taste of legitimacy as the genre drew serious consideration from both social commentators and literary critics . Writers like Ray Bradbury, Isacc Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Kurt Vonnegut emerged from science fiction into the mainstream of literary conversation.  Novels and stories became increasingly less about high adventure and space opera and more about the application of modern literary technique to speculative storytelling.  Science fiction began to be about issues in anthropology, psychology, biology and sociology as much as problems in physics and engineering. Writers from the space opera and military science fiction sub-genres like Robert Heinlein begun to emphasize social or political speculation admidst the romantic conventions of genre storytelling. Some writers like Philip K. Dick became increasingly paranoid and dystopian in profound opposition to the heroic idealism of magazine science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. Some writers like Brian Aldiss and others of the British New Wave movement became more formally experimental. All these sub-groups began to influence each other and works evolved that hybridized genre conventions. 

This week we are looking at the way science fiction has become the fiction of ideas. The recommended reading for this week is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursulla K. LeGuinn  Another recommended text is Samuel R. Delaney's Babel 17, a short novel that is full of interesting ideas about language and culture. There are a number of other alternate choices on the course resource page.

Here is a link to this week's page on the course syllabus with a list of alternate choices.

Next week we will be discussing Cyberpunk and Steam Punk.

Space Opera is the sub-genre of science fiction that was originally developed from the high adventure tales of the 19th century, especially the pulp western and sea story. Using the conventions of these genres transplanted into outer space settings, this form of science fiction dominated the types of stories published in pulp science fiction magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. Space Opera was generally staged in large scale societies and across galactic distances. There are intergalatic empires, space pirates, ray guns, and faster-than-light spaceships. The plots and dialogue are often melodramatic and the prose purple, but these large canvas high adventures are still often the way fans first encounter the genre. This was true for the first wave of science fiction fans in the 1920s and 1930s and it is still true today for fans who first experience science fiction through space operas like Star Wars or Serenity.
By the 1940s, space opera was giving way to science fiction with more serious focus on future technologies, character development, and the fiction of ideas.

One of this week's suggested novel is Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, a romantic adventure on another planet. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the best writers of space opera and she is still adding to her long-running story of the Miles Vorkosigan family which remains quite compelling in its adventure and social complication.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, one of the relatively unknown and terribly underread classics of Science Fiction is the alternate choice. In this novel Bester creates one of the most memorable anti-heroes of science fiction, Gully Foyle, who is about as nasty and impossible a hero as you will find anywhere. Essentially a retellling of The Count of Monte Christo, the 19th century novel of high adventure, this work captures all the excitement of space opera with deeper development of ideas and characterization.

The other main force in 1950s Science Fiction was fiction that dealt with the possible realities of interplanetary exploration, especially within the solar system. Interest in human exploration of the planets in our solar system has recently been renewed.  The novel The Martian by Andy Weir and the subsequent movie of the same name is an example of how those speculations, which adhere closely to scientific fact, are being dramatized for today's audiences.
There has been a revival in space opera and an interest in creating high adventure science fiction that makes the most of the expansive possiblities of super scale societies as it also makes use of the conventions derived from the western or the sea story. Joss Whedon's Serenity or Firefly series is space opera of this type. More recently the sapce opera that begins locally and enlarges cosmically is well-represented by the Wachowski siblings' Jupiter Ascending.

The English writer Alastair Reynolds is particularly adept at this in his short stories and his large canvas novels about Revelation Space. The SciFi Channel has been recently exploring this type of science fiction with The Expanse a series taken from the novels by James S.A. Corey, the pen name of the team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. This series combine aspects of the noir detective story with interplanetary adventure.

If you are interested in the fusion of space opera and romance novel conventions consider some of the work by Catherine Asaro. 

Here is a link to the syllabus assignment for this week including a list of alternate readings.

As for the issues of writing strong women for television and movies these remarks by Joss Whedon are very relevant and on the mark:

Amanda, Anthony and Neil
The focus of this week's class is new urban fantasy, the type of fantasy that has evolved in the post-Tolkien period and especially the type of literary fantasy that has evolved since the 1970s. While many of the codes of fantasy became the foundation for endless sword and sorcery trilogies, tetraologies, septologies, etc., mythic fiction, archetypal storytelling, began to blend the fantastic with the mundane, the extraordinary with the ordinary. Writers of contemporary urban fantasy took some of their inspiration from such earlier writers of the fantastic such as James Branch Cabell and Charles G. Finney. Magic Realism which was an idea that emerged from the reading of Latin American Fiction was also an influence. Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is associated with bringing Magic Realilsm into epic form also brought this narrative approach into film. Magic Realism in film is now fairly widespread and is at the stylistic center of such films as Big Fish and Pan's Labyrynth.

Not entirely distinct, magic realism and contemporary fantasy, in part. overlap sharing a certain similarity of narrative effect. John Crowley's Little, Big together with John Barth's, Giles Goat Boy were two major contemporary novels to represent urban fantasy at an epic scale. The Canadian writer Charles de Lint has also created a body of work that reminds us that myth and archetypal experience can be important ways in which to experience and understand contemporary reality. Neil Gaiman, who has become one of our most popular living authors, has often represented traditional mythological perspectives in the context of everyday life. In his stories frequently there is a very thin membrane between reality and the lands of fairy and his protagonists are frequently crossing that borderline. 

This week we will look at the way Gaiman questions assumptions and deflates various forms of hierarchical thinking in his work. This week's featured novel is Neil Gaiman's Ananzi Boys, one of his best written stories. Alternatively, you could read his most recent short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

As a featured film for this week, I suggest watching M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water.

Here is a link to the assignment as described on the course syllabus.

Neil Gaiman NPR Interview

Another alternative work for this week is Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker  which is available for free from his web site. Here is a link to the pdf:

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