Recovered Writing, Unpublished Film Adaptation Essay on Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999), Mar. 1, 2011

This is a 2,312-word essay on Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999) for a cancelled companion titled When Worlds Collide: The Critical Companion to Science Fiction Film Adaptations for Liverpool University Press. I wrote my first draft and submitted it on May 30, 2009 (discussed here). A year-and-a-half later, the editors sent me suggestions and feedback on Jan. 31, 2011 (discussed here). I returned my substantially revised final draft (included below) on Mar. 1, 2011. My enjoyment of Isaac Asimov’s original novelette and novel-length-expansion with Robert Silverberg as The Positronic Man led me to write for this project when I first saw the call for contributors (even though I had not yet seen Columbus’ film!). I was thick in my PhD work when I wrote the first draft and nearing the end of that phase of my career when I submitted my revised copy. It is, unfortunately, a reminder that sometimes projects don’t work out for any number of reasons. I didn’t want my writing on these stories and its film adaptation to disappear, so I’m sharing it here. I am presenting it as-is based on the original document, which followed the house style provided by the editors–with only changes from British to American English spellings and punctuation use.

Bicentennial Man (1492 Pictures, 1999)

Adapted from Isaac Asimov, ‘Bicentennial Man’ (1976) and Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, The Positronic Man (1993)

(Dir. Chris Columbus; Sc. Nicholas Kazan; Pr. Wolfgang Petersen, Gail Katz, Laurence Mark, Neal Miller, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan; Cin. Phil Meheux; P.D. Norman Reynolds; SFX. Dream Quest Images; starring Robin Williams (Andrew); Sam Neill (Sir); Embeth Davidtz (Amanda Martin/Portia Charney); Wendy Crewson (Ma’am); Oliver Platt (Rupert Burns))

Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” (1976) won the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novelette in 1976 and 1977 respectively, and it has appeared continuously in print in various anthologies over the past three decades. Later, Asimov and Silverberg co-wrote a novel-length expansion of the original novelette which appeared in 1993 as The Positronic Man. These two works share a nearly identical plot, and the only additions in the novel include elaborate descriptive language, ancillary dialogue, and notable chapter expansions relating to the history of robotic development and the robot-protagonist Andrew’s trip to the Moon. These expansions are largely insignificant and did not influence Columbus’ critically derided and commercially unsuccessful adaptation.

Asimov and Columbus use their respective media to tell a similar civil rights allegory about a robot with human-like qualities who aspires to a human identity and the rights that accompany it. In Asimov’s original novelette, the robot named Andrew overcomes real threats to his existence and he re-engineers his body in order to convince his society and government to grant him the legal status and rights of a human being, because he desires full self-determination. In this telling, Andrew seeks the legal authority to marry from his government. Both the film and the novelette carry an important message about equality and human dignity, but Asimov’s original story carries the burden much more confidently than the more recent film interpretation of that message.

“The Bicentennial Man” is a unique Bildungsroman about Andrew, a robot who desires and ultimately achieves his humanity by freeing himself from the bonds of robotic servitude through his creative works and personal biology-machine negotiations.  Andrew begins his life as a purchased NDR robot by the Martin family and he is assigned domestic duties in their household. Soon after, he is named Andrew by his youngest charge, Little Miss. However, he quickly displays an unexpectedly preternatural creativity at woodworking, carving, and original thought. Andrew’s abilities allow him to obtain his freedom, write a history of robots from a robot’s perspective, develop a new science of biological prosthetics, and transform his machine body into one that is organic. On his 200th birthday, and after orchestrating his own mortality, he achieves recognition from the World Government that he is indeed human. Humanity however besets Andrew’s development from robot to virtual human being, which positions the story as a veiled social critique. A significant scene early in the story establishes why Andrew desires a human identity despite his robotic physicality and grounds the story in the American civil rights era:  Lost in the countryside, Andrew is confronted by two men who agree that, “If it doesn’t belong to anyone, he could be ours as much as someone else’s” (Asimov, 1991: 262).   At this point, Andrew’s situation connotes the predicament of former American slaves prior to the Civil War who traveled with manumission papers fearing they might be enslaved once again. The men’s disregard for Andrew’s freedom and personhood constitutes a powerful episode in the novelette, because it demonstrates a threat to Andrew’s personhood and a reason for his continuing work toward becoming human. Its absence from the film adaptation is symptomatic of the mishandling of the source material, which will be elaborated below.

Columbus’ Bicentennial Man follows the narrative arc of the original, but it departs from Asimov’s novelette in a number of significant ways with the most consequential being Andrew falls in love with a human woman. It is Andrew’s desire to marry that provides the film a different allegorical message while maintaining a focus on Civil Rights. However, it is important to first note that in the original and adaptation, Andrew attempts to purchase himself from Sir, his human master. However, in the novelette, Sir initially refuses to grant Andrew’s freedom in exchange for money. It is only after Andrew wins a suit brought against robot freedom in the courts that Sir concedes to give Andrew his liberty in exchange for money. In the film, Sir immediately liberates Andrew with the caveat that Andrew vacate the Martin home immediately, and Sir says, ‘You wanted freedom. You must accept the consequences.’  In this regard, Andrew’s initial taste of freedom reflects how African-Americans were evicted from plantations following the Civil War with nowhere to go, but Andrew easily overcomes even this situation. It is on this point that the film fails where Asimov’s novelette endures. Andrew in the film never encounters a potentially hazardous circumstance on his journey to be human, and his battles are not convincingly hard-won. Then, finding himself alone in a world dominated by human beings, he serendipitously meets the cyberneticist Rupert Burns who helps his transition to a mortal human body so that he can romantically pursue Little Miss’ great-granddaughter Portia Charney. Instead of wanting the protections and rights of a human being due to his ambiguously defined legal status as in the original story, Andrew’s motivation for human identity comes from his desire to marry Portia. The film’s approach to a civil rights allegory is significantly different than Asimov’s story, but it is of significant importance to contemporary civil rights, which is addressed in the conclusion. Unfortunately, the film is marred by questionable issues in its handling of its source material and an unusual casting considering its subject matter. The first issue has to do with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. In the important closing scene moments after Andrew’s death, Portia orders the android Galatea to unplug the machine keeping her alive after Andrew’s death, which is a gross violation of Asimov’s First Law of Robotics: “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” (Asimov, 1991: 126)  More importantly, the film’s cast is overwhelmingly white except for the only two prominent characters of color: an unidentified jazz singer (Paula West), and President Marjorie Bota (Lynne Thigpen). Each of these African-American actresses plays an influential role at key moments in Andrew’s transformation from robot to human being. The singer presides over the dance where Andrew begins to understand his feelings for Portia and the President grants Andrew’s request to be recognized as a human being. However, it is surprising that more persons of color were not cast as principles in the film, despite Hollywood’s long history of whitewashing ethnic roles or embracing diversity in its films’ casts considering the allegorical subject matter of the original and its adaptation.

The presentation of the narrative in the original and film also greatly differs. Asimov builds momentum in the novelette through flashback and twenty-three short chapters. These chapters are snapshots in the long life of Andrew Martin as he attempts to transform from robot to human being. Additionally, these episodic chapters rise and fall with dramatic impact from event-to-event until the reader learns Andrew’s ultimate choice and his fate. On the other hand, the film is generally divided between Andrew’s life with the Martins, his search for robots like himself, and his transformation into a human being as he falls in love with Portia. The narrative is slow and plodding, and Robin William’s humor is lost behind the film’s script and special effects veneer. Through its narrative, the film presents a brighter and less dangerous narrative that follows Andrew’s human friendships and ultimately his courtship of a human woman. Besides its relaxed narrative that keeps Andrew out of harm’s way, the film has generally well lit and immaculately clean settings within the home and in the world-at-large, which conveys a sense of safety for Andrew as well as humanity. Furthermore, Columbus avoids dramatic tension by evading conflict or quickly diffusing stress between characters, such as between Andrew and Portia. The director also regularly employs wide shots, which lessens the emotional significance of many scenes. Despite its cinematographic deficiencies, the film endeavors to present a Civil Rights allegory that is closely aligned with its source.

The novelette and film respond to issues of equality and Civil Rights found in many of Asimov’s stories in which robots have to deal with demanding human ‘masters’ spouting slurs, which in other contexts would be considered racist (the use of “boy,” for example: Asimov, 1941: 124). For Asimov and Columbus, Andrew is a bonded servant on two levels – as a thing purchased, owned, and controlled, and as a robot bound by the Three Laws of Robotics first enumerated in Asimov’s short story “Runaround” (1942). Andrew transcends these restrictions on his being and his behavior in order to achieve personhood just as some former African-American slaves overcame their status as property in order to register themselves as persons deserving freedom and equality. In Asimov’s original novelette, Andrew overcomes the threat to his right of self-determination by convincing his society and its government to grant him identical status as a human being, a “Bicentennial Man” (Asimov, 1991: 290). On the other hand, Columbus’ film places its emphasis on a threat to Andrew’s and Portia’s family by calling into question the right of a robot to choose to marry a human being and vice versa. Both are momentous civil rights issues, but the film’s execution of its message appears weighted more toward Andrew’s socialization as Portia’s mate rather than the harsh realities of a society against the marriage of a particular group.

“The Bicentennial Man” deals with ontological concerns and identity politics as is true of many of Asimov’s robot stories. However, Andrew’s story more fully explores one robot’s path from robotic slavery to human freedom, and it does so by closely following models of American slave narratives that emphasize emancipation and personal development. These include Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1798), Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901). These authors demonstrate their subjecthood as equals of all human beings through their lives and writings, and furthermore, they prevail over Thomas Jefferson’s comments on American slaves in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784): “that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous,” and he “never [saw] even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” (Jefferson, 1984, 267). Likewise, Andrew overcomes society’s expectations by demonstrating that he is artistically creative and an independent thinker who desires freedom. Asimov mirrors slave narratives in his futuristic story:  Andrew obtains a personal awareness of his oppressive situation as a robotic slave, he attempts to purchase himself from his master with money saved from his creative labour, he experiences a different way of interacting with humans and robots on the Moon, and he spends his life proving himself an equal of other humans. Andrew, like former American slaves, also demands to know why he is not considered an enfranchised human. He challenges his society’s beliefs about robots, and he ultimately convinces his society and government to grant him equal status with human beings. However, Andrew’s successes in the novelette and film are an oversimplification of the past and present difficulties of people of color to achieve the full benefits of civil rights and wider societal acceptance, but it could be Andrew’s desire to marry a human being in the film adaptation that gives the film more contemporary, perhaps even prophetic importance.

Despite Bicentennial Man’s problems, it may signify the future of civil rights issues in its handling of an individual’s right to marry. Asimov’s novelette appeared a few years after the landmark ruling of the United States Supreme Court in ‘Loving v. Virginia’ (1967), which made all anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional thus legalizing all mixed-race marriages. However, this issue was not explored in the original story. On the other hand, the film relies on the right to marry as the motivation for Andrew’s development in the last half of the film. In order to marry the human woman Portia, Andrew must transcend his robotic body and convince his society and government to allow him the right that human beings take for granted. This civil rights issue raised in the film is prophetic of the growing call for gay men and lesbians to share the legal right to marry. The film appeared three years after the passage of the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which broke the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It dictates that the States must respect the laws of other States. Without DOMA, all States would have had to respect the marriages of gays and lesbians if any one State had made those marriages legal. Civil rights are and will continue to be a struggle for minority groups in the United States, and it is in this light that Bicentennial Man succeeds as a film veiling a message on an on-going civil rights debate.

Notes

Isaac Asimov, ‘Bicentennial Man’ in I. Asimov, Robot Visions (New York: ROC, 1991), pp. 245-290. Originally published in Stellar #2 (1976).

Isaac Asimov, ‘Runaround’ in I. Asimov, Robot Visions (New York: ROC, 1991), pp. 113-134. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction (April 1941).

Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, The Positronic Man (New York: Doubleday, 1993).

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (London, 1793).

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 266. Originally published in 1784.

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery: an autobiography (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1901).


The Analog Award for Emerging Black Voices

The Analog Award for Emerging Black Voices poster

Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine launched a new award today called The Analog Award for Emerging Black Voices. It is intended to recognize the work by writers who customarily identify as Black and are at the beginning of their careers.

Instead of simply purchasing and publishing the winning story, Analog is going further by providing mentoring, advice, and networking opportunities for the winner. This is a tremendous opportunity that I would encourage eligible hard science fiction writers (including those who are City Tech students with writing aspirations) to send their work for consideration. Submissions are accepted from May 14-July 23, 2021.

The winner and finalists will be announced at the next City Tech Science Fiction Symposium in late Fall 2021! Stay tuned for the next symposium’s call for papers.

Read the poster above or text below for all of the award’s details:

The Analog Award for Emerging Black Voices
Analog Science Fiction and Fact
analogsf@dellmagazines.com

Eligibility
Any writer over 18 years of age who customarily identifies as Black, has not published nor is under contract for a book, and has three or less paid fiction publications is eligible.

Logistics
Submissions will be open from May 14th – July 23rd to works of hard science fiction of greater than 1,000 words but not over 5,000. Finalists and the winning author will be announced at and in partnership with the Annual City Tech Symposium on Science Fiction.

Judging
A diverse committee of science fiction professionals will judge. The panel for 2021 is: Steven Barnes (Lion’s Blood), Nisi Shawl (Writing the Other), Kim-Mei Kirtland (Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, Inc.), Trevor Quachri (Analog Science Fiction and Fact), and Emily Hockaday (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction). Finalists will be chosen and awarded one mentorship session with Analog editors including a critique of their submission and a chance to ask questions about the field.

Award Winner
With editorial guidance, Analog editors commit to purchasing and publishing the winning story in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, with the intent of creating a lasting relationship, including one year of monthly mentorship sessions. These sessions will be opportunities to discuss new writing, story ideas, the industry, and to receive general support from the Analog editors and award judges.

Submit
Submissions will be read blind. Please remove all identifying information from the document before sending it. The file name should be the title of the story. Submissions should be .doc files and follow standard manuscript format. In the body of your email, please include a short cover letter with your contact information, address, the name of your entry, and a statement of interest describing eligibility. Stories can be submitted here: AnalogAward@gmail.com.

Reposted from Science Fiction at City Tech here.

Videos from The Fifth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium on Race and SF, Nov. 19, 2020

The Fifth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium on the topic of Race and SF was held on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 as a Zoom Webinar. You can read the full program here.

Included below are videos of each session as well as links to expanded presentations and SF writers reading their stories.

With the success of the event combined with how many attended on Zoom and the YouTube Livestream, it seems like video conferencing should be a part of future events that maybe combine in-person and online interaction. I hope that we will be able to meet again in-person next fall, but if 2020 has taught us anything, the future is uncertain. All we can do is plan, have contingencies, and adapt dynamically.

Opening

Opening
Jason W. Ellis
Justin Vazquez-Poritz, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences

Literary Afrofuturism Roundtable

Roundtable: Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century
Moderator: Lisa Yaszek
Panelists:
Rebecca Holden
Isiah Lavender III
Nedine Moonsamy
Lisa Yaszek

Pedagogy Paper Session

Paper Session 1: Pedagogy
Moderator: Jill Belli
Doug Davis – Teaching Afrofuturism with Open Educational Resources
Sadia Reza – Theory of Mind, the “Other,” and Composition
Peter Sands – Morrison’s Paradise: Slow Pedagogies for Generating Deep Conversations about Race

Film Paper Session

Paper Session 2: Film
Moderator: Wanett Clyde
Jacob Adler – A Sickness Known as Hate: Race and Identity in the Twilight Zone
Kanta Dihal and Stephen Cave – The Whiteness of the AI Uprising (in UK, 4 hours ahead)
Sharon Packer – Sinophobia and Tibetophilia: Recurring Racist Memes in SF Cinema and Comics
Jessica Wagner Webster – Race, Propaganda, and Sci-Fi/Horror Films During World War II

Student Roundtable

Student Roundtable: “If you had that kind of power … What would you do? What would you change?”: Thinking Critically about Race and Science Fiction
Moderator: Jill Belli
Students from Science Fiction, ENG2420:
Oscar Abundez,
Derick Bardales
Khoury Douglas
Ronald Gordon
Tommy Su

Pulps and Golden Age SF Paper Session

Paper Session 3: Pulps and Golden Age SF
Moderator: Lucas Kwong
Christopher Leslie – “The Menace of Mars”: Resistance to White Male Privilege in Golden Age Science Fiction
Steven Shaviro – Exorcising Lovecraft | View Expanded Presentation

Science Fiction Writers Roundtable

Roundtable: Science Fiction Writers
Organizer: Emily Hockaday
Moderator: Joy Sanchez-Taylor
Panelists:
Alaya Dawn Johnson | Reading from “Reconstruction”
Cadwell Turnbull | Reading “Loneliness in Your Blood”
Erin Roberts | Reading from “Sour Milk Girls”
Carlos Hernandez | Reading from Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

Theories and Readings of Otherness and Representation

Paper Session 4: Theories and Readings of Otherness and Representation
Moderator: Ann Matsuuchi
Matthew David Goodwin – Gloria Anzaldua and the Making of an Alien Consciousness
Subhalakshmi Gooptu – Livepods and Seedlings: Legacies of Colonial Labor in Contemporary Science Fiction
Rebecca Hankins and Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad – Islamicate Afrofuturuism: Visions of Muslim Afrofuturism and Beyond
Kathrin Lachenmaier – Defying the Colonial ‘Story of Indigenous Deficiency’ in Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God | View Expanded Presentation
Aaron Zwintscher – But They Aren’t Human and They Don’t Complain …: Writing Race(s), Diversity, and the Colonial Mindset on Roshar and Elsewhere in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere

Keynote Address by Johnathan W. Gray

Keynote Address by Jonathan W. Gray on “Past Tense, Future Perfect: American Atrocities in HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country
Introduction: A. Lavelle Porter

Fifth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium, On Race and SF, Thurs., Nov. 19, Online

This year’s City Tech Science Fiction Symposium, our fifth event since the inauguration of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, will be held as a Zoom Webinar on Thursday, Nov. 19 from 9:00am to 5:00pm.

We have an outstanding line up featuring this year’s keynote speaker is Dr. Jonathan W. Gray who will give a talk titled, “Past Tense, Future Perfect: American Atrocities in HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country;” three roundtable discussions with SF writers, scholars, and City Tech students; and scholarly and pedagogically focused paper presentations.

While the event will take place in realtime on Zoom Webinar and simultaneously on YouTube Live, some supplemental material like author readings and expanded paper presentations are already available as online videos.

The symposium program and instructions for registering for the event are on the Science Fiction at City Tech site here: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/.

Please feel free to circulate as the event is free and open to the public.

Recovered Writing (Archive)

Sunset in Brooklyn.

This post used to live as a page on DynamicSubspace.net. I’m archiving it as a post. All of the referenced content still lives at the links below.

As a new project for 2014, I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. I am calling this personal exploration and rediscovery of my personal digital archive, “Recovered Writing.” Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Below, I am including links to my Recovered Writing posts as they are published:

  1. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science Fiction Final Paper, Exploring SF Themes of Human Technomediation in Blake’s 7, July 26, 2002
  2. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Gender Studies Final Paper on Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, April 26, 2004
  3. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Postmodernism Final Paper, Family and Kinship in King Rat and American Gods, Summer 2005
  4. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Postcolonialism Final Paper, Identity and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Fall 2004
  5. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Time and Consciousness Module Final Paper, Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan, Jan 8, 2007
  6. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 1, Mega-text and the Cyberpunk Subgenre, Nov 13, 2006
  7. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 2, Projecting Victorians into the Future Through the Works of H.G. Wells and Steampunk, Jan 8, 2007
  8. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Thesis, Networks of Science, Technology, and Science Fiction During the American Cold War, December 12, 2005
  9. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Astronomy Class, PHYS 2021, Sunset Observation Project, Fall 2004
  10. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on Augustine’s Confessions, Oct 20, 2004
  11. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on Past Technology, the Altair 8800, Sept 28, 2004
  12. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on Present Technology, Airport Express, Oct 28, 2004
  13. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on a Future Technology, Personal Computing Device, Nov 18, 2004
  14. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Final Essay Response on Communication Tech and World of Warcraft, Dec 8, 2004
  15. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technology & American Society Paper on Handheld Calculators, Nov 26, 2003
  16. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin, Final Paper, Voices of the Alien Other During Wartime in the SF of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Haldeman, May 17, 2007
  17. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Utopias Module, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars, June 8, 2007
  18. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on New Wave SF, October 9, 2006
  19. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C+1, Sept 25, 2006
  20. Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Dissertation, Post-Cold War American Identities in Battlestar Galactica, Summer 2007 (16,376 Words, Long Read)
  21. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Independent Study, Networks Between Science, Technology, and Culture After World War II, August 4, 2005
  22. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Age of Scientific Discovery, Leonardo da Vinci Essay, Feb 14, 2002
  23. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Age of Scientific Discovery, Copernicus and Galileo Essay, March 19, 2002
  24. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Age of Scientific Discovery, More’s Utopia and Machiavelli’s The Prince Essay, April 23, 2002
  25. Recovered Writing: The Project So Far
  26. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science, Technology, and Race, Critical Commentary and Handout for Mark Hansen’s “Digitizing the Racialized Body…” Oct 24, 2005
  27. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science, Technology, and Race, Critical Commentary and Handout for N. Katherine Hayles’ “Embodied Virtuality” Nov 16, 2005
  28. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate SF Lab Project, “Development of AI in Science Fiction,” Fall 2004
  29. Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science, Technology, and Gender Course, Online Discussion Writing and Group Presentation Introduction, Spring 2005
  30. Recovered Writing: My First Professional, Academic Presentation, “Monstrous Robots: Dualism in Robots Who Masquerade as Humans,” Monstrous Bodies Symposium, March 31-April 1, 2005
  31. Recovered Writing: Handwritten Notes from 1st International Philip K. Dick Conference Dortmund, Nov 15-18, 2012
  32. Recovered Writing: PhD in English, African-American Literature Theme Analyses of The Black Atlantic, Cosmopolitanism, and Olaudah Equiano (and Others), Spring 2009
  33. Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Semeiotics Midterm and Final Exam Responses, Fall 2007
  34. Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Semeiotics Final Paper, Deconstructing the Human/Machine Hierarchy in the Works of Asimov and Dick, Fall 2007
  35. Recovered Writing: SFRA 2010 Paper, “James Cameron’s Avatar and the Machine in the Garden: Reading Movie Narratives and Practices of Production,” June 26, 2010
  36. Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, On Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism,” Sept. 17, 2008
  37. Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick, and Transgressive Parody, Sept. 28, 2008
  38. Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, Literary Characters, Online Persona, and Science Fiction Scholars: A Polemic, Dec. 9, 2008
  39. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Summary of Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Parts 3 and 4, January 29, 2008
  40. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Presentation on Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” and Introduction to Bodies That Matter Feb. 6, 2008
  41. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Summary of Eric Clarke’s “Visibility at the Limits of Inclusion,” Feb. 26, 2008
  42. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Eric Clarke’s “The Citizen’s Sexual Shadow,” March 2, 2008
  43. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Summary of Chandan Reddy’s “Asian Diasporas, Neoliberalism, and Family,” April 8, 2008
  44. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Summary of Elizabeth Freeman’s “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations,” April 15, 2008
  45. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Final Paper, “Transsexual Technology: The Political Potential of Gender Shifting Technologies,” May 8, 2008
  46. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, World War I Literature, Presentation on Weapons and Tactics, 31 January 2008
  47. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 1/5, Literary Area and Reading List, September 25, 2008
  48. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 2/5, Postmodernism and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, October 10, 2008
  49. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 3/5, New Wave Deconstruction in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, November 8, 2008
  50. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 4/5, The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik Conference Paper, November 29, 2008
  51. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 5/5, The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik Publishable Essay, December 10, 2008
  52. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Assignment Design: Team-Based Competitive Blogging with Portfolio Integration, July 1, 2008
  53. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Annotated Bibliography of Teaching SF Resources, June 29, 2008
  54. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Quiz, What do people do when they write? June 16, 2008
  55. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Final Exam, July 1, 2008
  56. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Social Theory, Cultural Capital, Market Capital, and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre Presentation, Nov. 17, 2008
  57. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Social Theory, Prize Based Cultural Capital Exchange and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre, Dec. 10, 2008
  58. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 1 of 3, 20th-Century American Literature, Dr. Kevin Floyd, 2 June 2010
  59. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 2 of 3, Postmodern Theory, Dr. Tammy Clewell, 3 June 2010
  60. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 3 of 3, Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler, 7 June 2010
  61. Recovered Writing, Unpublished Essay, Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative, 26 March 2009
  62. Recovered Writing, Brittain Fellowship, CETL Brown Bag, Writing the Brain: Using Twitter and Storify, Oct. 2, 2013
  63. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Paragraph Summaries Before Defense, May 2012
  64. Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Defense Opening Statement, May 15, 2012
  65. Recovered Writing, Unpublished Film Adaptation Essay on Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999), Mar. 1, 2011

Call for Papers: Race and Science Fiction: The Fifth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium, Deadline Sept 30, 2020

Below is the cfp for the Fifth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium. Due to the pandemic, we will be holding it online. We hope that it will allow greater participation since geographical and travel-related issues won’t be a problem. Of course, working from home, childcare, stable Internet access, etc. present their own issues, but we encourage everyone with an interest to submit and/or participate.

Race and Science Fiction: The Fifth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium

Date and Time: November 19, 2020, 9:00AM-5:00PM

Location: Online, Sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY.

Organizers: Wanett Clyde, Jason W. Ellis, and A. Lavelle Porter

“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.” –N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became

Science Fiction, on a fundamental level, is always about the here-and-now in which it is produced, because it is from that point the author extrapolates an imagined future or alternate reality. The long and hard fight for civil rights and the latest unfolding of that struggle in the Black Lives Matter movement and its alliances calls on us to recognize the powerful possibilities within Science Fiction to imagine change, especially those promoting social justice and equality by writers of color and Afrofuturists, as well as reckon with the field’s patterns of racism, resistance to inclusion, and lack of representation.

The Fifth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium aims to explore the possibilities for change through the myriad connections between Race and Science Fiction with scholarly presentations, readings by authors, and engaging discussion. It is our goal to foster conversations that question, critique, or discuss SF as it relates to Race.

We invite proposals for 10-20 minute scholarly paper presentations, panel discussions, or author readings related to the topic of race and Science Fiction. Please send a 250-word abstract with title, brief professional bio, and contact information to Jason Ellis (jellis at citytech.cuny.edu) by September 30, 2020. Topics with a connection to race and Science Fiction might include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Histories of race and Science Fiction.
  • Representation of race in Science Fiction.
  • Representation of writers of color in the Science Fiction field.
  • Inclusion or exclusion of readers and fans due to race.
  • Issues of identity, including race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture, etc.
  • Subgenres and movements, such as Afrofuturism, Black science fiction, Indigenous Futurism, and speculative fiction by writers of color.
  • Race, Science Fiction, and Music, such as Sun Ra, George Clinton, Janelle Monáe, and Outkast.
  • Race and Comic Books
  • Engagement with civil rights movements in Science Fiction explicitly or metaphorically.
  • Pedagogical approaches to teaching race and Science Fiction or teaching about race with Science Fiction.

Due to the uncertainty in the months ahead, the symposium will be held online using a combination of pre-recorded video lectures hosted on the web and real-time interactive discussion on the scheduled day of the symposium using widely available video conferencing software.

This event is free and open to the public as space permits: an RSVP will be included with the program when announced on the Science Fiction at City Tech website (https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/). Free registration will be required for participation.

The event is sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY.

The Annual City Tech Symposium on Science Fiction is held in celebration of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, an archival holding of over 600-linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and scholarship. It is in the Archives and Special Collections of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library (Library Building, L543C, New York City College of Technology, 300 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201). More information about the collection and how to access it is available here: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/librarycollection/.

Notes on A Science Fiction Walking Tour in New York City

Spaceman graffiti in Brooklyn.
Spaceman graffiti at NE corner of Court St. and Degraw St. in Brooklyn, New York.

Looking ahead to the New York City of Print NEH Summer Institute, I wanted to collect some notes and resources together for Science-Fiction-focused locations around the city, including the original Manhattan-based offices for the magazines Amazing Stories and Astounding Science-Fiction, and home and business locations in Brooklyn of importance to the SF writer Isaac Asimov.

Amazing Stories

Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories in April 1926 as the world’s first magazine devoted to what he called “scientifiction,” a clunky term that would soon evolve into what we now call Science Fiction. Amazing Stories was based out of an office at 53 Park Place, Manhattan. Today, Google Map’s Street View of 53 Park Place reveals that the building looks remarkably unchanged from this early, undated photo held by the NYPL and this 1940 Tax Photo.

Astounding Science-Fiction

John W. Campbell, Jr., who oversaw the so-called “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” joined Street & Smith Publications as the third editor of Astounding Stories in 1937. Located at 79 7th Avenue, the Street & Smith office building where Campbell made his office for a number of years remains largely unchanged as seen in Google Street View from how it appeared in this photo from 1931 and its 1940 Tax Photo (albeit sans the Street & Smith sign).

Now known as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, it is based out of the 9th floor of 44 Wall Street, which seems largely unchanged today as compared to this 1940 Tax Photo.

Isaac Asimov

The FAQ for alt.books.isaac-asimov provides a useful list of family residences and storefronts from Asimov’s youth:

When the Asimov family came to the United States in 1923, they moved into their first apartment at 425 Van Siclen Avenue, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. In the summer of 1925 they moved one block away to an apartment at 434 Miller Avenue. They moved half a mile eastward in December 1928 to another apartment at 651 Essex Street, above the second candy store bought by his father. In early 1933, they moved to an apartment on Church Avenue, and after a brief stay there they moved to an apartment above yet another family candy store, at 1312 Decatur Street, in the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn. In December of 1936, Asimov’s father sold his third candy store and bought his fourth, at 174 Windsor Place, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, and the family moved to a house across the street.

FAQ for alt.books.isaac-asimov

The 174 Windsor Place address is particularly significant. Asimov was a teenager at this point, and he used this address in some of his early SF magazine correspondences, such as his “Feminine-less Issue” letter to Startling Stories (November 1939, p. 115), which he wrote when he was 16 years old. 174 Windsor Place doesn’t have a photo in the 1940 tax photo records, but its right side can be clearly seen as carrying “Stationary” and other goods on the left side of this photo of 172 Windsor Place. Today, the building is home to CNS Construction and Cabinets, which you can see on Google Street View here.

The earlier addresses might be where Asimov first encountered science fiction magazines. These include:

Call for Papers: An Astounding 90 Years of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, The Fourth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium

An Astounding 90 Years of Analog Science Fiction and Fact: The Fourth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium

Date and Time:            December 12, 2019, 9:00AM-6:00PM

Location:                     New York City College of Technology, 285 Jay St., A105, Brooklyn, NY

Almost 90 years ago, Analog Science Fiction and Fact began its storied history as one of the most important and influential SF magazines with the publication of its first issue under the title Astounding Stories of Super-Science. During that time, its fabled editors, award-winning writers, recognized artists, and invested readers played roles in the development of one of the longest running and renowned SF magazines, which in turn, influenced the field and adapted to change itself.

The Fourth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium will celebrate “An Astounding 90 Years of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.” It will feature talks, readings, and discussion panels with Analog Science Fiction and Fact’s current and past editors and writers, and paper presentations and discussion panels about its extensive history, its relationship to the SF genre, its connection to fandom, and its role within the larger SF publishing industry.

We invite proposals for 15-20 minute paper presentations that explore or strongly relate to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Please send a 250-word abstract with title, brief professional bio, and contact information to Jason Ellis (jellis@citytech.cuny.edu) by September 30, 2019. Topics with a connection to Analog Science Fiction and Fact might include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Histories of the magazine’s editors, writers, and relationship to other SF magazines.
  • Relationship of the magazine to the ongoing development of the SF genre.
  • Tropes, themes, and concepts in the magazine.
  • Issues of identity (culture, ethnicity, race, sex, and gender) in the magazine.
  • Writers of color in the magazine.
  • Women writers in the magazine.
  • Fandom and the magazine.
  • Visual studies of cover and interior artwork.
  • Hard SF and the magazine.
  • Interdisciplinary approaches to studying the magazine.
  • STEM and the Humanities bridged in the magazine.
  • Pedagogical approaches to teaching SF and/or STEM with the magazine.

This event is free and open to the public as space permits: an RSVP will be included with the program when announced on the Science Fiction at City Tech website (https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/).

This symposium is held in partnership with Analog Science Fiction and Fact and its publisher Penny Publications. It is hosted by the School of Arts and Sciences at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY.

The Annual City Tech Symposium on Science Fiction is held in celebration of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, an archival holding of over 600-linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and scholarship. It is in the Archives and Special Collections of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library (Library Building, L543C, New York City College of Technology, 300 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201). More information about the collection and how to access it is available here: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/librarycollection/.

Talking Science Fiction with Neil deGrasse Tyson on StarTalk Radio

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jason Ellis in Dr. Tyson’s Office at the AMNH Planetarium.

I had the distinct honor to join the conversation about science fiction and society on Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio Show on May 30, 2019 (season 10, episode 22). The episode is about Creating Science Fiction, with Gale Anne Hurd, the producer of The Terminator and The Walking Dead. I shared some thoughts on Hugo Gernsback’s formula for “scientifiction,” H.G. Wells and Sir Ernest Swinton’s legal fight over the modern battle tank, the power of SF to engage social issues and debate, and my personal, lifelong relationship to SF. You can listen to the episode here or embedded below:

About the episode from the StarTalk website:

The Terminator, The Walking Dead, Aliens, and a lot more. Those are just some of the producing credits for this week’s main guest on StarTalk Radio. Neil deGrasse Tyson sits down with producer-extraordinaire Gale Anne Hurd to explore what it takes to bring great science fiction to life. Neil is joined by comic co-host Chuck Nice, science fiction expert Jason Ellis, PhD, and volcanologist Janine Krippner, PhD.

Because science fiction comes in many different forms and through many different avenues, there are many ways to get into it. You’ll learn how Gale’s childhood love of Marvel comic books and science fiction novels translated into a career “making what she likes to see.” She tells us how she served as a science fiction consultant to her local library to make sure their stock was up to date. Jason shares why not being able to see Star Wars in the theater sparked a rebellious love for science fiction.

You’ll hear about the history of science fiction and how it combines the STEM fields and the humanities. We debate if science fiction informs the future of every technological invention. You’ll find out about a lawsuit H.G Wells brought upon military figureheads because he claimed they stole his idea from one of his science fiction stories. Explore using science fiction as social commentary. Discover more about the famous kiss between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura, and how William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols purposely flubbed takes to make sure it stayed in the episode.

We take a deep dive into Dante’s Peak as volcanologist Janine Krippner stops by to share her take on the film. She explains why she thinks it’s still the best volcano movie even with its flaws. Gale gives us a behind-the-scenes look on how she fought for even more scientific realism to be in the film but encountered pushback from the studio. Neil also confronts Gale on the famous scientific inaccuracies of Armageddon. Chuck shares his love for The Expanse, we discuss Interstellar, and Neil tells us about his involvement in The Europa Report.

Lastly, you’ll also find out the differences between creating science fiction for television and film. According to Hugo Gernsback, the father of science fiction, sci-fi should be 75% romance and 25% science – is that still the goal? All that, plus, Jason caps it off with a story on how he was criticizing the film Sunshine right in front of director Danny Boyle’s family.

“Creating Science Fiction, with Gale Anne Hurd.” StarTalk Radio, 30 May 2019, https://www.startalkradio.net/show/creating-science-fiction-with-gale-anne-hurd/.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Public/Private Histories, and Adaptation (Guest Lecture in ENG3402: The Graphic Novel)

Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi.

During today’s class, we will conclude your discussion of Marjane Satrapi’s two groundbreaking graphic novels, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2000 and 2001/English translation 2003) and Persepolis 2 (2002 and 2003/English translation 2004).

First, I need to give you two reminders:

–Round 3 of blog posts are due by midnight on May 9 from Clifford, Andrew, Marla, and Sandra. The rest of the class has until midnight May 14 to post their comments. If anyone is missing any of their previous blog posts or comments, they also must be completed by midnight, May 14. A reminder for the students: these instructions and the blog schedule are on our OpenLab site.

–Their research projects are due at the start of class on May 14. They will need to have their bibliographic sheets ready for submission, and the order of individual presentations will be randomly-determined at the start of class. They can access the instructions for this assignment, as well as a template for the bib. sheets, on our OpenLab page.

Professor Mazumdar

Now, to begin our discussion today, let’s consider the relationship between private histories (individual and familial) and public histories (recorded, published, recognized, shared).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines history as:

A written narrative constituting a continuous chronological record of important or public events (esp. in a particular place) or of a particular trend, institution, or person’s life.

“history, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/87324. Accessed 8 May 2019.

This is a broad definition of what we usually think of as history. On the one hand, it includes “record of important or public events” as well as “a person’s life.” The former tends to mean the events that shape all of our lives, such as presidential elections, wars, and national tragedies. It is recorded in newspapers, magazines, journals, books, documentaries, and other media. The latter switches from larger events to the individual. Of course, biographies and autobiographies of celebrities, politicians, scientists, etc. are about individuals and they concern the larger history that shape our lives as those recognized individuals contributed to our society and culture in some way–good or bad. But it can also be about individuals like you and me. It can be about families, too. The stories of these private histories are pass along through oral traditions (storytelling) and recorded in oral histories (recordings of interviews with persons and families about their experiences, struggles, and memory of events), life writing (diaries, journals, letters, postcards, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, and today, social media and other digital writing).

Considering these two meanings of history, let’s call the “record of important and public events” a public history and the smaller scale history of individuals and families a private history. Let’s explore the interaction between these two types of history. Rosenzweig and Thelen present one way of framing the relationship between public and private histories:

When we approach the more familiar content of academic history, we need to investigate how in their intimate relationships individuals used and did not use, went along with and defied larger “historical” trends. At this level the dichotomy between “intimate” and “national,” public and private, dissolves into dynamic and reciprocal interaction. Respondents more often mentioned public experiences than private ones as the most formative of their lives, but they mentioned those public events most often as intimate experiences. What they remembered was the personal contexts in which they engaged the public events (teachers and students in a fifth grade class weeping when they heard of Kennedy’s assassination) or their own participation in those events (fighting in a battle in World War II). They often drew personal meanings when they recalled public figures as the most important individuals in their lives. In distinguishing between those experiences that still live in active memory, passed on orally from individual to individual because people believe that they continue to provide meaningful anchors for the present, on one hand, and those experiences now remembered only in writing—in books, written by professional historians—Pierre Nora draws a more important distinction than that between personal and national pasts. What matters is whether something lives for participants in the present.

In other words, walling off public from private pasts doesn’t make sense. When not forced to choose between family and national pasts, half the respondents who wanted their children to learn their family heritage also wanted their children to learn their national heritage. They connected these heritages, intimate with public, each time they toured a museum or visited a site with family or friends, each time they reenacted a battle or showed objects they had collected to others. They named both national figures and family members as influences; about the same number of people in the national sample (24) named John F. Kennedy as a formative influence as named their grandfathers. Many worried about how larger historical developments—economic insecurity, waning of discipline—might have eroded the family, turning it into a source of disintegration instead of support. Respondents gave meaning to large phenomena like immigration or economic depression by describing how they had changed and been changed by passage through those experiences.

A fundamentally historical culture centered on individual participation would invite members to explore just how individuals conform to and resist larger historical trends, how the rhythms and narratives of family life fit or do not fit those of changing power and institutional arrangements in the larger society. It would envision individuals as more than examples of large and impersonal cultures and institutions. It would take seriously how they live lives and meet needs in relationships driven by forces different from those that power institutions and cultures. (Rosenzweig and Thelen 196-197).

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Rosenzweig and Thelen explore the relationship between individuals’ private histories and the larger public histories, the larger events, that they experienced. They find that private and public histories inform one another–the former giving context to the latter. They interact in deeply personal ways that shape the memories of ourselves and those around us. Public history influences private history, and public history is captured in private history in complex ways.

Rosenzweig and Thelen mention Pierre Nora, whose work might be helpful for our thinking about the private histories and public histories, or put another way, memory and history.

Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic-responsive to each avenue of conveyance or phenomenal screen, to every censorship or projection. History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds-which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs has said, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority. Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects; history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things. Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative.

At the heart of history is a critical discourse that is antithetical to spontaneous
memory. History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it. At the horizon of historical societies, at the limits of the completely historicized world, there would occur a permanent secularization. History’s goal and ambition is not to exalt but to annihilate what has in reality taken place. A generalized critical history would no doubt preserve some museums, some medallions and monuments-that is to say, the materials necessary for its work-but it would empty them of what, to us, would make them lieux de memoire. In the end, a society living wholly under the sign of history could not, any more than could a traditional society, conceive such sites for anchoring its memory. (Nora 8-9)


Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations, 26, 1989, 7-24.

An important term that Nora uses is lieux de memoire. What does this mean?

[A] lieu de memoire [site of memory] is any significant entity, whether material or nonmaterial in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community. (Nora xvii)

Nora, Pierre. “Preface to English Language Edition: From Lieux de memoire to Realms of Memory.” Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, edited by Pierre Nora, Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. xv-xxiv.

Lieux de memoire or sites of memory are invested with history by our shared experiences and memory of events in the past. They are communal, but the memory supporting the site (whether it is material like a place or nonmaterial like a story, language, or tradition) depends on the sustenance of the memory by individuals sharing and passing on the memory across time. A lieu de memoire is a kind of in-between of public history and private history that depends on individual memory, which takes the place of the milieux de memoire:

Our interest in lieux de memoire where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred at a particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn-but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists. There are lieux de memoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de memoire, real environments of memory. (Nora 7)

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representation, no. 26, Spring 1989, 7-24.

The milieux de memoire or real environments of memory are the places, cultures, and events lost to the past that, because of changes in the world from when those things represented the idea now held (the lieu de memoire), no longer represent or correspond to that past. Some examples that we can discuss include baseball, the World Trade Center, and Persepolis [the place in Iran].

The disconnection between the milieux de memoire and the lieu de memoire points the way to our forgotten past. Some of our past is selected to be recorded as public history by historians (and others) based on a variety of criteria and influences, including politics, ideology, hegemony, research interest, etc., while other parts of our past are de-emphasized, erased, and not selected. Private history, or the history of individuals and families, plays such an important role in our better understanding of the past that gets left out of public histories.

Marjane Satrapi combines private history and public history in her autobiographical graphic novels, Persepolis and Persepolis 2. Loren Baybrook writes about it in these ways:

The color fades, and the story of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 unfolds as a contest between private history, which pulls her back to her family, and public history, which has pushed her so far from them. (Baybrook 1)

Marji’s alternation between individual conscience and group consciousness, between private and public history, points, then, to the deeper culprit of civic ruin. (Baybrook 2)

Less militantly and didactically, yet still in that vein, Uncle Anoush affirms to Marji the public ideal of enforcing a “society of justice and freedom”. But only his personal history—a tale of conspiracy and death and escape, but also, as if the film is visually resurrecting the mythic promise of The City of Persians, a tale of Anoush’s journey back to the land of butterflies, floating snowflakes, flying fish, and birds presiding over the destiny of Persia—only this history actually matters to his young niece. Why? Because, as Anoush tells her, she herself matters to that history: “family memory must live on” through her. He gives her a miniature swan to seal her promise “never to forget” this intimate bond to individuals. And then comes a montage of other families’ private histories to affirm this lesson in civics. (Baybrook 2)

Persepolis is a history of private voices surviving—or not—amidst the public ones. (Baybrook 2)

Baybrook, Loren. “History is Made in the Dark 1: Persepolis, the City of Persians.” National Film and Television School, 5 May 2015,
https://nfts.co.uk/sites/default/files/essay-bank/History%20Is%20Made%20in%20the%20Dark%20Persepolis%201.pdf .

In the passages above, Baybrook explores how Satrapi’s private history is intertwined with the public history in interesting ways. For example, the Islamic Revolution in Iran is ultimately what leads to her leaving her homeland and living in Austria, and the private history of her experiences in Austria (that she doesn’t share with her parents but entrusts to the reader) leads her back to her homeland and the ongoing unfolding of its public history. Additionally, her private history (such as falsely accusing the man looking at her as saying something indecent to her) says something about the individual’s potential to be the oppressor in relation those oppressing her. Finally, the importance of Uncle Anoush’s message to her–“family memory must live on”–gives power and importance to private history. Anoush recognizes that so much of what was happening in Iran before and after the Revolution would be erased from public history. It is within those who live and witness can remember and pass on what they remember so that the private history can challenge, enrich, and correct the official public historical accounts.

Public history and private history are intricately interconnected. Public history helps us make sense of and anchor our private history, while private history gives important context to the public history that one lives through and configures the world we are born into by its having created the setting, characters, and props of our individual history’s stage, which reminds me of one more thing from Shakespeare:

Jaques to Duke Senior:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (Shakespeare 2.4.1118-1145)

Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It (Modern).” Internet Shakespeare Editions. University of Victoria, 8 May 2019, http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/AYL_M/complete/.

During the final phase of today’s class, we’re going to compare some passages in the graphic novels and their animated film adaptation Persepolis (2007), directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.

What do we mean by the term adaptation? An adaptation is the active recreation of a source text in one medium (e.g., a graphic novel) into a new medium (e.g., an animated film). It can be thought of as a translation of a story from one medium to another, because different languages can imply similar meanings but how they do so in terms of sentence structure, vocabulary, and idioms is quite different.

Each medium has its own unique affordances and constrains. A graphic novel includes images drawn and inked arranged in panels across pages with words providing dialog, interior thoughts and emotions, and narration. The images and text work together to tell the story. Like a graphic novel, an animated film uses images, but instead of being static, they are moving images. Action that might otherwise be implied in static drawings in the graphic novel are given movement, life, and energy. Instead of having to read text as in the graphic novel, the animated film uses character dialog and occasional narrative voice-over. Nonverbal changes of expression are fluid instead of jarring as in the graphic novel. Body language and tone of voice, cadence of speech, and emphasis of speech provide richer and nuanced meaning that might get left out of the graphic novel. Unlike a graphic novel, the film uses music–orchestral soundtrack and popular music–to imply emotional content, set the tone of a scene, and provide cues to the audience of the intensity or pace of a scene.

Now, let’s look at some specific scenes together and discuss them.