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  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 specualtive 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 fiction 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. 

Several of you have requested to do your final review at the end of this week's class, make sure you have everything posted to your blog by Wednesday evening and make sure I have an active link to your blog on the course blog page.

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.

Report on microchips implanted in your hand.

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 and Neil at RCAD 2013
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.  Warning: This is a film many people famously dislike.

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:

Illustration of Harry Ron and Hermione by Mary Grand Pre
This week we are considering the fantasy story directed to an audience of children or young adults as an instrument through which to teach personal and cultural values. These are narratives of application meant not just to entertain but to instruct and to enlighten. The epic tale of Harry Potter is certainly the most well known example of this type of story for most young people today, and if you haven't read Harry Potter, here is your chance. For those who are interested in values education that is somewhat more age appropriate, the recommended work to read this week is Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a compelling tale set in an mysterious Edwardian world that features a deadly competition in magic. 

Alternatively you are welcome to read a story built around students at an elite magical college where many of the students have read the Harry Potter books and are magicians the way you are art students. The book is called The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

You might also consider reading the very interesting and deeply considered alternate worlds tale, The Golden Compass the first book in a trilogy by Phillip Pullman. In this work Pullman attempts to construct a framework in which to demonstrate humanist moral values while simultaneous mounting a serious critique of organized religions. Pullman's story is created as a sort of anti-Narnia and certainly proceeds from different assumptions than those that underlie the work of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.

A fourth option is the series of fantasy stories more in the direct line of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynn Jones, the author of Howl's Moving Castle.

Or you may want to read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle a young adult classic that is just now being released as a movie. First published in 1962 it features a diverse approach to the heroic formula of a young person combating cosmic evil. This is often classified as science fiction but it shares many tropes with traditional fantasy literature.

Prof. Tolkien blows smoke rings
Tolkien once defended fantasy literature from charges of being "escapist" by explaining that readers "escaped" into fantasy literature the way prisoners "escaped" from jail. Tolkien saw the genre we now call fantasy literature as a necessary antidote to modern life. Tolkien's own works were to help propel the genre of fantasy into wider acceptance and popularity. At the same time, they helped to freeze elements of the genre code into place while creating expectations of the genre (the "trilogy" for example) that hadn't existed before. In this week's class we will consider the genre code for fantasy and examine some of the elements, such as the hero's quest, that have come to dominate perception of works of "High Fantasy."

This week's reading assignment is to read a fantasy classic. We will focus on JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, and will generally discuss fantasy as a genre, the myth of the hero and the nature of archetypal storytelling. We will discuss The Lord of the Rings both books and movie. There are a number of other fantasy classics available for reading on the course resource page. Pick one and read it.

Click Here to Go to the First Animated version of the Hobbit by Gene Deitch.

The Illustration at the right is  from Alice in Wonderland  by Mervyn Peake, fantasy author and illustrator. The first volume of his fantasy trilogy about Gormenghast is available to read on the course resource page. It is an interesting alternative to reading Tolkien this week. There is also the wonderful and unexpected fantasy novel by Hope Mirlees called Lud in the Mist. Consult the syllabus for more choices.

If you are interested in an epic fantasy story written from a female point of view you might want to consider The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley who revisits the tradition of Arthurian Romance to tell a story founded in a recreated world of female mysticism and matriarchal power. This long novel follows nicely on our conversation about witches last week because it deploys a very well developed world that creates another position on an important fantasy storyverse. This is unfortunately colored, perhaps irredeemably, by the author's (likely) psychopathic behaviors and sexual assault of children. Her daughter's statement about this can be read here.

click here to go directly to the syllabus assignment for this week

This week we will be discussing the topic of witches and female archetypes in speculative fiction. The featured novel for this week is Aunt Mariah by Diana Wynne Jones. This is a reasonably short novel that has a very interesting version of the archetypal war between men and women. Alternatively you might like to read Equal Rites, the third volume of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and a reasonable first book to read in the series if you haven't read any others.

A book that takes a sort of witches approach to the Arthurian legend is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley which looks at some of the mystic legends that underpin the idea of witches. This is a long novel but a master work of mythic feminism. 

In class we may read several fairy tales both traditional and contemporary and look towards ways to develop better responses to the reading of them. This week's focus will be on improving written responses. Please bring your notebook computer to class. Next class we will begin reading and talking about Fantasy Fiction. The featured text for next week is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. 

Link to this week's assignment on the syllabus

Link to the Gothic Tea Society

This week we will be discussing recent trends in the horror genre and among the most influential, in my view, is what some call The New Weird. 

The term evokes the old Weird Tales Magazine, a pulp magazine in which a range of stories appeared  dramatizing uncanny experience, tales of the monstrous, or experiences with the supernatural. There was an easy mixing of genre in this publication with little attention to whether any individual work would have been considered horror, science fiction or fantasy. Some works appearing there would have elements of all three. 

The New Weird seems to me to imply something of an emphasis on the horrific or uncanny, while "slipstream" a similar term that evolved in roughly the same time period, seemed to place something of an emphasis on the science fiction elements of the story. Both terms reflect interests that were self-consciously literary and whose projects tended to dissolve barriers between genre. While based in genre, works of these types often use surreal and anti-real strategies and don't necessarily rely on the storytelling conventions of realistic fiction. 

Bizarro fiction, a literary based movement with a similar orientation against the conventions of realistic storytelling also emerges in roughly the same time period, especially the years 2007-2008 when these terms become more widely discussed.

The most prominent writer described as embodying The New Weird is the English novelist, China Miéville. King Rat, his first novel which takes place in the old school dub step culture of London is the featured work for this week, Three Moments of an Explosion which is a collection of shorter work is a good alternative Another recent novel of hisRailsea, a reimagining of Moby Dick with steam trains and giant moles. Perdido Street Station, a longer novel is considered one of the major works of The New Weird.

In film, The New Weird might in someways be best represented by Mumblegore, an independent horror genre that parallels many of the same production techniques and approaches as Mumblecore films. The production values include micro-budgets, unknown actors and improvised dialogue.

Here's a link to excellent article about Mumblegore and some of its personalities from the LA Weekly.

The movie, Cabin in the Woods, with its over-the-top deployment of every genre element it can muster is this week's featured movie.  V/H/S (2012), an anthology film from several directors associated with the Mumblegore movement, is an interesting alternative choice. The old school weird movie Freaks by Tod Browning is also highly recommended.

There are a number of other books and films listed on the course syllabus for this week that suggest possible new directions for the genre of horror. We will discuss some of those in specific and the future of horror in general when we meet in class.

In the writing assignment for this week I would like you to create a blog post that discusses what you read for the topic of the New Weird and what you think other future trends in the genre of horror might be and why that trend is developing.

This week we are considering the sub-genres of J-Horror and K-horror as well as supernatural tales from South Asian cinema. This is a type of storytelling often with its roots in traditional ghost stories. The novels and films featured this week often embody a sense of the emptiness of contemporary life, representing a world in which the protagonists are having a great deal of trouble finding their place. A sense of existential crisis pervades these stories, a crisis not only shared among the central characters but a crisis in the fabric of the reality they inhabit.

The reading for this week is Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase. This novel is a ghost story in the manner of traditional Japanese ghost stories in which ghosts are material phenomena, real and tangible in this world, not spectral. It's this sort of ghost that inhabits J-horror and is in part developed out of traditional dramatic forms like the puppet theater, or the Noh theater tradition. The style of these traditional types of ghost stories is well represented in the movie, Kwaidan, which we will see a part of during class this week. Alternatively, you may want to read Kwaidan, the collection of traditional ghost stories or read the novel on which the movie Battle Royale is based by Koshun Takami.
Double Page spread from the third volume of the Battle Royale Manga

The featured movie for this week is Audition by Takashi Miike. The violence in this film is very graphic, you might want to consider any of the alternatives listed on the syllabus.

You can see more details on this week's assignment on the assignment page for this week on the syllabus here.

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