“this X-Men in the ocean craziness:” Making the Alien Visible

Early in Lagoon, the Nigerian president wishes that, instead of addressing the alien invasion, he was “watching Star Wars on his high-definition wide-screen television” (84). He thinks, “he’d have made a great Jedi knight. Being a vigilante loyal only the justice was always better than being any king of head of state.” (84). Later, the president seems to have gotten his wish as he convenes with the Elders, who have shapeshifted into “something out of Star Wars” (251). Here, the president steps into a simulation of the SW storyworld, negotiating with aliens according to an understanding of justice not necessarily tied with political minutiae.

Here, Lagoon renders the incompressible comprehensible: the Elders—figures only vaguely sketched by Agu, Adaora, and Anthony after their meetings—become entirely visible and memorable. They do this by taking on the shape of something familiar to the president. As we discuss our final book of the semester, I would like to reflect on how SF renders new, unprecedented, fantastic, or incomprehensible phenomena readable to its audience. Just as the Elders become visible to the president, so too does Okorafor’s text itself become legible to both characters and readers through familiar references. Jacobs, Fisayo, Rome, and Seven discuss the alien motivations in terms of “that old American movie… E.T.,” Troy dismisses Moziz’s plan with a reference to Die Hard, and Agu compartmentalizes his super strength with an analogy to “Okonkwo in the book Things Fall Apart” (75, 88, 174). And in the postchapter, what we might consider three readers of the events in Lagos understand them through comparisons with X-Men, Orwell, and War of the Worlds (302).

With these moments in mind, how does Lagoon participate in, contribute to, perhaps even restructure a media network (SF or otherwise)? What are these references doing? How do they aid in explanation or comprehension as both character and reader interact with the impossible?

“(we fans knew it!!!)”: Fan Participation in the Star Wars Canon

Sean Guynes’ article outlines the expansive canon of Star Wars (SW) in service of an argument that highlights the importance of print literature to franchise production. “Canon” and “franchise,” though different, are both at the mercy of the whims of producers and consumers. In considering the 1991 circulation of Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, I’d like to examine the voices of these so-called consumers: How might fan reactions to a specific installation impact or become reincorporated into an SF franchise or canon?

Hibernation Sickness (HS) was a quarterly SW fanzine (1987-1992) that featured fan-fiction and art—which is another “addition” to the SW canon we may consider. Issue 15 (July/Aug 1991) offers two pages of reader responses to Zahn’s Heir. The responses are largely ambivalent: “The plot is not much,” writes Z.P. Floriam, and the “half-baked girl thing” disappoints, “… but the book treats [Luke] wonderfully” (50). Regardless, Floriam claims—in terms that trouble fan impact in the creation of canon—that Heir is a “dose of SW, and some of our addicts needed it badly” (50). In more outraged language, Melanie Guttierez writes that she “hungered for SO long [to] receive so LITTLE” (51). Contradicting the fan complicity in Floriam’s addiction comparison, Guttierez claims that “WE deserved better than this—hell, most of us have WRITTEN better than this” (51). Here, Guttierez signals the productivity of fans and implies their own skills have been eclipsed in favor of an SF authorial icon. She undermines Zahn’s inherent authority over the canon, though, when she writes: “Hugos must be going cheap!” (51).

What I read here is an awareness of a divide between the producers of a canon and its fans: Zahn’s capital in the industry means little to these fans, who claim their “love” of the SW canon allow a certain authority in legitimizing its narratives (51). This divide is emphasized further when the editor of HS includes a review of Heir from The Associated Press, citing that they wanted to provide a “professional” (i.e. not fannish) review of the book (52). It is notable that, though the review is similarly ambivalent about the book, the language is less florid, less emotional and offended, maybe even less invested.

In light of this implied division, I would like to ask how the audience of a franchise (or fans of a canon) may participate in its formation. Guynes’ cites that Heir was “popular”—and perhaps it was on a scale of profitability—yet fan reactions seem largely disappointed in the installment (143). Does this disappointment matter? Are these readers contributing to a larger formation of a canon informed by multiple actors, which ostensibly includes an audience (Guynes 148)? Or are these fans speaking within the vacuum of HS, exchanging lamentations not considered by content creators? And if it is a vacuum, is that a problem? Can we consider the fictions and forums that inhabit the SW fanzines as a sort of alternate canon—one protected from those only in it “for money, instead of love” (HS 51)?

Sources:

Mrs. Potato Head, a prolific contributor to Fanlore who graciously sent me their full scan of Hibernation Sickness #15.

Fanlore’s Heir to the Empire Page (which includes excerpts from all the above Hibernation Sickness reviews)

Fanlore’s Hibernation Sickness Page

Writing the World Otherwise in Butler’s Parable

This paper examines the utility of writing and reading in Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. In the novel, writing and reading take two related forms: as actual literacy and as a more general means of processing the surrounding world. This second representation informs the format of Parable, a journal in which Lauren Olamina records her impressions and  details of events down to exchanged dialogue. This meticulousness persists, even as Lauren begins the dangerous move north, suggesting that writing serves a survivalist purpose. Regarding Lauren’s journaling alongside her composition of her Earthseed verses, this paper argues that writing and reading serve a utilitarian purpose of imagining the world otherwise. This extends beyond Lauren’s own imaginings and into those of her extra-textual author and readership: in a near-future landscape ravaged by climate change and capitalism, writing and reading at the level of both narrative and the circulation beyond it permit escape and necessary reconstruction.

“clear and whole,” or Nothing Like That: Shevek’s Theory

Last week, Delainy asked us to consider Le Guin’s “indirect reportage:” a stylistic mode within the novel that obfuscates or omits details as scenes develop (121). He brings his reader to the moment in which Shevek at last arrives at his “great theory,” claiming that Le Guin’s overly abstruse, possibly “mystical,” presentation of the scientific discovery “feels… wrong” (121-2).

Where is the science in Shevek’s theory? Le Guin’s partially-hidden physics seems like a departure from the mechanistic construction of Wells’ time machine and Asimov’s robots: though not exactly offering D.I.Y. instructions, there was an articulated accessibility between inventor/assembler and their audience/reader. Shevek’s science, however, is explicitly and necessarily obscured: though he (ostensibly) arrives at a theory of simultaneity, he does so only by accepting its “unprovability” (280). A paradox emerges in his physics when he determines that “he had been groping and grabbing after certainty, as if it were something he could possess” (280). Though he “had been demanding a guarantee” of the certitude of his theory, he now comes to determine that such a guarantee would counterintuitively limit it, “would become a prison” (280). It is through this lack of certainty—a lack of the full, proven, entire understanding of the universe—that Shevek arrives at his totalizing temporal theory of that very universe.

The cyclical logic of this, as Delainy points out, is intentional and, for him, frustrating. Yet, there seems to me something more at work here than a simple omission or oversight of detail. Near of the end of the novel, the so-called “alien” Terran ambassador repeats to Shevek (this time, of his theory of freedom): “I don’t understand—I don’t understand” (350). It is a moment that underscores both the incomprehensibility of the science in the novel, and the fractured, inter/intra-planet solidarity that renders individuals indiscernible to each other. The Dispossessed expresses interest in the obfuscation of certain, solid understanding (of physics, of reality, of others), and it does so not only by stylistically engaging in this “indirect reportage,” but interrogating how these omissions operate beyond science and into every level of society.

Just 10¢ a Day Will Buy You an Understanding of SF Circulation

“It pays to read advertising,” some advertiser in Science and Invention claims, “it will save you time, money and effort. It will help you dress better, eat better, and live better” (404). Alongside stories of “scientifiction” and within the context of American technocratizing, here we find a mechanization of the magazine’s reader. With the help of industrialized corporations, you too can become your most fashionable, healthy, and fabulous self.

Though the language of this advert is not strictly in the genre of “self-help populism… met up with Mechanism,” the accompanying adverts that (over-)populate the pages of Science and Invention imply an automated self-improvement in the reader (Luckhurst 51). Throughout, adverts offer opportunities to “Master Electricity by Actual Practice,” “Be a Radio Expert,” and “Go to School at Home!” because “You Want to Earn Big Money!” (318, 406, 405). Oriented towards learning, these adverts offer a means to an end. Similar to America’s developing “mastery” of “recalcitrant Nature,” the engaged reader of Science and Invention likewise moves through standardized skill development to achieve a productive place in modern society (Luckhurst 51). Yet, at the same time as these adverts offer mastery of some skill, they claim how little effort is needed in the process. “I Will Train you at Home,” writes L.L. Cooke in an advert for electrician training, which is “Quick and Easy to Learn” (312). And the American Technical Society claims that “10¢ a Day will buy The Job You Want,” after submitting their “Self Betterment Coupon” (315).

These adverts (which iterate in Wonder Stories and Amazing Stories) characterize the interpolated SF pulp reader: he (and he is emphatically he) is ambitious and capable, busy—without time for extensive training—and intelligent—able to read through an eight-volume set of engineering guides (417). And he is also mechanized: exchanging minutes and cents for skills, promotions, and raises that all in some way relate to technological advancement. But does this imagined reader reflect reality? This week, as we think of circulation—here, focused on the interaction between a text and its audience—I would like to consider how the pervasive advertisement of the American SF pulp determines (or deters) its own readership.