Do tell

Okorafor is a graduate of the Clarion workshop, but that doesn’t seem to stop her from flouting the old workshop maxim “show, don’t tell.” Okorafor tells all the time. Within pages of introducing Adaora we learn that she has a Phd in marine biology and a dead father. The book’s full of this kind of direct exposition. What’s at stake in the maxim “show, don’t tell”, and can we think about how the other writers we’ve read thus far have succeeded or failed at following it? The maxim itself is often taken to be an imperative towards reservation, subtraction, minimalism: A restrained style that has currency within a narrow but influential site of literary production.
To my mind the novel’s cinematic origins (which DFarin pointed us to in their post) speak to the nature of its exposition. The novel moves forward almost in episodes; I think it would have worked well as a TV series. There are moments that would strike me as a contrivance in fiction that was attempting to align itself with a narrow literary tradition. We learn Agu’s rapist superior is Lance Corporal Benson and suddenly the man is on TV. For a television show this would be something to roll with, for a “literary” novel this would be grounds for pause.
Never Let Me Go is concerned with aesthetic experience. The Dispossessed and Parable of the Sower are concerned with the potentials enabled by text in their own ways. I think it would be interesting to think about the influence of the visual media format vis-a-vis the themes that get taken up in this book. I think catskills is right to point us to the post-chapter as a moment where the novel thinks through its effects.
I don’t mean to caricature Lagoon here. The novel is certainly also full of moments which are uniquely textual. But I do think that considering the way this novel is not compelled to hang its hat on its textuality is a useful avenue for understanding what the book is up to, and that it furthermore casts a light on a lot of the other books we’ve read this semester. I think it is along these lines that we might begin to answer question of why this book gets to have a happy ending.

Star Wars fandom and corporate citizen science

Eyewire is a “game” produced by Princeton in which players map actual neurons. Researchers select actual 3D visualizations of neurons which the “players” are to trace through a visual interface. The same neuron is sent out to multiple players and as each player completes the “puzzle” of mapping the neuron a composite image of their assessments is made, which is then double checked by more established players. The wikipedia page says “These players have the power to extend branches, remove erroneous segments (nicknamed ‘mergers’), and flag cubes for further review. This end result is volumetric reconstructions of complete neurons.”

I raise the example of Eyewire because it serves as an interesting metaphor to think through the project of Wookieepedia itself. In the history of the Star Wars EU the various competing efforts to map the continuity of the universe have all been on shaky footing. Paradigms emerge, like the canon hierarchy of Leland Chee’s Holocron continuity database, but these paradigms are themselves shakily established and short lived. Wookieepedia catalogues how Chee waffled on whether there was one Star Wars continuity, and after the sequels started Chee’s hierarchy for the canon was discarded altogether.
Because the franchise is in the end at the mercy of capital, at whatever the wealthy overlords decide to do with the IP, the cottage industry of Star Wars exegesis must settle for observing rather than casting judgement. Wookieepedia is like the connective white matter of the Star Wars universe, which allows the contradictory strains of the mythos to sit next to one another. But it is in fact this white matter which becomes the object of study for the owners of the IP. The producers of the media dip into the network of reception when creating new works (with profit of course being a selecting factor) and the dialectic continues.

In class I’d like us to consider both the formal features of this body of work and the material circumstances of its production to think through the differences between this kind of inward facing fandom, where the consumption of the work is itself a kind of alienated production, and the more outward facing fandom we’ve seen from sci-fi zines.

Messianism and SF

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed are both works which self-consciously conceptualize writing as a form of messianism. Le Guin’s ansible, a technology which allows people separated by space-time to become contemporaries, operates as an ambiguously utopian theorization of the ends of literature. In a non-trivial way the ansible allows for the resurrection of the dead. Likewise, the Earthseed book in Parable of the Sower is a holy text which is aimed at offering its adherents a place “among the stars;” it is a text which seeks to inaugurate a teleology towards an astral eden through the molding of entropy, the single phenomenon which lends the forward motion of time to our theories of physics. In this paper I take up the messianic conceptions of the temporal modalities of literature offered in these two works and place their respective political contexts in conversation. I inform this comparison of political contexts with the reception of these works in fan-zines.

A novel encyclopedia

In the 7th printing of the SF fanzine Maya the Dispossessed was reviewed by Christopher Priest (the guy who wrote the novel the Prestige, the basis for that Christopher Nolan movie where David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla and Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play like everybody else.) He lauds Le Guin for her serious engagement with political theory and physics, her fully fleshed out worlds, her characters, her plot, but at the end of his praise he writes “For all this, though, the Dispossessed is not a great novel. It is an extraordinarily good one in many respects, but . . . there are two major failings. . . narrative drive, and emotion.” His complaint is essentially about the book’s scale, he elaborates “it (the book) is like a landscape photographed though a wide angle lens. . . there is too much for the eye to see. . . A single image, correctly chosen, can sometimes convey more real and pertinent information about a landscape than a panoramic view.”

In this visual metaphor we can situate this critique from the early reception of the Dispossessed within the discourse of the gaze. Le Guin, Priest claims, is too discursive; she does not do enough to aim our attention and thus her novel is not “great.” The gendered coding of this critique I think can be put in conversation with Le Guin’s “American SF and the Other.” There’s also a lot of material in Maya 7 that indicates a kind of precarity felt by SF fandoms at this moment, and I think it would be useful to read Priest’s formal preference here in relation to these conditions.

In Maya 08 we can see fan letters responding to this review. They indicate the extent of Le Guin’s stature within SF fan communities in the early 70’s. Many of those that wrote in had read multiple books by Le Guin and other reviews of her work. One of the few women that wrote in offered a first hand account of a lecture Le Guin gave and Le Guin’s rude treatment during the Q&A that followed.

Also within Maya 7 we find an article where the editor expresses anxiety about academia’s interest in SF, showing concern that the authority carried by academics would materially upset the fan community’s place as a site of discourse within the ecosystem of SF. In Maya 8 we also have letters responding to that piece, including one response from an academic.

Drugs, technology, and capitalism- not yet starring Bradley Cooper

In a 1901 edition of Strand magazine Wells’s the New Accelerator found itself in the same volume as the Hound of the Baskervilles and a series of cute reader-submitted photographs including a guy in a chicken costume, somebody’s dog, and a bird’s nest made over a doorway. In 1926 Wells’s story found itself recontextualized in a magazine which, more than offering fantastically entertaining stories and dog pics, was aimed at a working class with aspirations for upward mobility through technological industries. To read the New Accelerator in Amazing Stories a reader would have to flip past an ad encouraging readers to go into radio -”Short hours. BIG Pay”- and another for the booklet “How to Work Wonders With Words” promising to offer readers the skills necessary to be upwardly mobile among professionals “In 15 Minutes a Day.”

Wells’s story is in this volume not as a curiosity but as a part of an imaginative enterprise which saw technology and technological professions as a way to disrupt the particular orientation towards time produced by wage labor, in this case the technologies of the growing pharmaceutical industry. But the pharmaceutical technology we find in this story does not offer utopia, it in fact furthers the one-dimensionalisation of time. The next step for the story’s professor after making the accelerator is to make a retarder, which allows people to check out of their lives. This choice between intense attention and dissociation operates along the axis of value, some time spent is valuable and some time is not, and the non-productive time is not worth experiencing at all. The accelerator also accelerates the unequal distribution of capital. The accelerator is to be sold at an expensive price, which means that those able to take advantage of its effects would already be those with access to capital. In thinking further about the implications of this story it’s also worth considering the horrific effects of the accelerators and retardants already in circulation in the early 20th century – I’m thinking here of the opioid addicted Freikorps and a Nazi war machine running on little chocolate flavored doses of Meth.