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2015 Science Fiction Research Association Conference Wrap-Up June 29, 2015

Posted by Jason W Ellis in Computers, Conference, Research, Science Fiction, SFRA.
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Stony Brook University, Charles Wang Center

The Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) held its forty-sixth annual conference on June 25-28, 2015 at Stony Brook University in the Charles B. Wang Center. Our theme this year was, “The SF We Don’t (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.”

As I detailed in a previous blog post, I presented on the SF that we don’t see (any more) on the Apple Macintosh computing platform and Voyager’s Expanded Books of the early-1990s.

Other voices that stood out in my conference-going experience included keynotes by Vandana Singh on Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Tho Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and climate change, and M. Asli Dukan on “the white fantastic imagination” and “the invisible universe.” Jessica FitzPatrick and Steven Mollmann presented on postcolonial superheroes and SF. Lisa Yaszek, Isiah Lavender III, and Gerry Canavan gave excellent presentations on Afrofuturism. Keren Omry, Alan Lovegreen (my colleague from City Tech), and Hugh Charles O’Connell  questioned the relationship of capitalism and the future. Alexis Lothian (who tweeted much of the conference with me and others with the #sfra2015 hashtag) gave us a compelling view into “Queer World Building, Digital Media, and Speculative Critical Fandom.”Donald “Mack” Hassler chaired a session on gender with compelling papers by Marleen S. Barr and Rosalyn W. Berne.

Doug Davis gave what I thought was the best presentation of the conference on “The SF We (Usually Don’t Talk About but) Always See, or Can We Use Science Fiction Genre Theory to Read Canonical Literary Texts?: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person.” Doug’s co-panelist Brad Reina presented a different tact on approaching eBooks in his paper: “Electronic Literature in The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson and the Present and Future of eBooks.” I learned a lot (and took a lot of pictures of slides/names) in the China SF session on Saturday afternoon featuring interesting papers by Hua Li, Cara Healy, Quiong Yang, and Nathaniel Isaacson.

The SFRA Awards Banquet on Saturday night ended what I consider to be a very successful conference. While some of us encountered challenges to reaching Stony Brook on Long Island (the Long Island Rail Road, Newark/JFK/La Guardia Airports, ferries, car rentals, traffic problems), I think that sharing of ideas and the valuable conversations made the difficulties recede far into the background. The warmth of the camaraderie and the welcoming inclusivity at SFRA overcomes any hurdle. Additionally, Stony Brook–a sprawling campus surrounded by trees and populated by bunny rabbits–has a surprisingly science fictional side in some of its buildings’ architectures, including the Charles Wang Center (pictured above) and the Stony Brook University Hospital (pictured below).

After the conference was over, I caught a ride back to Brooklyn with Mack and Sue Hassler and Adam Frisch. We had lunch together after Y joined us at Wilma Jean’s Restaurant. We all squeezed back into the rental car, dropped Adam off at the airport to fly back to Sioux City, and then, Mack, Sue, Y, and I drove to Coney Island to enjoy walking along the boardwalk and sharing each other’s company.

Next year, we will cross the Atlantic Ocean for the forty-seventh conference and meet to discuss “Systems and Knowledge.” Forming a joint event with the Current Research in Speculative Fictions at the University of Liverpool, we will meet on June 27-30, 2016 in Liverpool, England. For me, it will be like going home, and I can’t wait!

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Stony Brook University Hospital

My SFRA 2015 Conference Presentation: The Cyberspace Deck as a Mechanism: Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy as a Voyager Expanded Book June 25, 2015

Posted by Jason W Ellis in City Tech, Computers, New Media, Science Fiction, SFRA.
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The presentation that I will be giving tomorrow afternoon at 1:00PM at the annual Science Fiction Research Association Conference (this year at Stony Brook University on June 25-27, 2015) will be nothing like the title and abstract that I submitted earlier this year, but that’s a good thing. Over the past several months, my reading and research has focused on one small corner of that original abstract: The Voyager Company’s Expanded Book Edition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1992). I began to see the cyberspace deck as an important image and mechanism connecting Gibson’s fictional world with our contemporary shift from written to digital culture.

Above,  you can watch a demo video that will accompany my presentation as a backdrop to my talk, and below, you can find my paper’s abstract, useful links, and my works cited list for reference. I will have handouts of this information available at the session tomorrow, too.

Title:

The Cyberspace Deck as a Mechanism: Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy as a Voyager Expanded Book

Abstract:

Instead of focusing on the epistemology or ontology of cyberspace, this paper explores the cyberspace deck in William Gibson’s fictions as a mechanism of inscription. It does this by charting Gibson’s inspiration in the Apple IIc, his comparison of it to the first Apple PowerBooks, and the publication of his cyberspace deck-infused fictions as the Voyager Company Expanded Book edition in 1992. Through discussing these connections, it addresses other issues of importance for the current shift from written culture to digital culture, such as the effect of reading on screens as opposed to print, and the effect of digital culture on the human brain.

Useful Links:

Conference Demo Video (embedded above): http://youtu.be/fU8K2DuTfeE

Google Glass, iPad, PowerBook 145 Demo Video: https://youtu.be/-XrIqLdx3EU

Mini vMac Emulation Software: http://gryphel.com/c/minivmac/index.html

Emaculation Emulation Community: http://www.emaculation.com/doku.php

Works Cited

Casimir, Jon. “Voyager Seeks to Improve Thinking.” Sydney Morning Herald (23 May 1995): n.p. Web. 18 May 2015.

DeStefano, Diana and Jo-Anne LeFebre. “Cognitive Load in Hypertext Reading: A Review.” Computers in Human Behavior 23 (2007): 1616-1641. Web. 22 June 2015.

Gibson, William. “Afterword.” Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. n.p. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

—. Burning Chrome. New York: EOS, 2003. Print.

—. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1987. Print.

—. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1989. Print.

—. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.

—. Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

—. Package. Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Markley, Robert. “Boundaries: Mathematics, Alientation, and the Metaphysics of Cyberspace.” Configurations 2.3 (1994): 485-507. Web. 23 June 2015.

Matazzoni, Joe. “Books in a New Light.” Publish (October 1992): 16-21. Print.

Mazlish, Bruce. The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Print.

Sellen, Abigail J. and Richard H.R. Harper. The Myth of the Paperless Office. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Virshup, Amy. “The Teachings of Bob Stein.” Wired (April 2007): n.p. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, Literary Characters, Online Persona, and Science Fiction Scholars: A Polemic, Dec. 9, 2008 April 9, 2014

Posted by Jason W Ellis in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction, SFRA.
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This is the thirty-eighth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” 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. 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.

In 2008, I began my Ph.D. work with Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler. Ultimately, he directed my dissertation and we became friends.

On the advice of friends in the SFRA and of having read Mack’s first Political Science Fiction collection while at the University of Liverpool, I wanted the opportunity to study at Kent State University and work with him.

This is the third and final artifact that I produced during my coursework independent study with Mack focused on Philip K. Dick, postmodernism, play, parody, and performance. As an invested SFRA member and its then-publicity director, I was concerned about the chilling effects a troll and his sock-puppets wreaked on our email list at that time. Ultimately, Mack helped me steer the independent study in that direction to theoretically grapple with online discussions in real life (RL).

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

9 December 2008

Literary Characters, Online Persona, and Science Fiction Scholars:  A Polemic

Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.

–Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918)

This essay’s objects of study include the community of Science Fiction (SF) scholars, of which I am a member, as well as our practices of online communication and discussion.  In September 2008, the normal intermittent conversation on the email list of a long established, professional organization of SF scholars was disrupted, or derailed, which might be a better description, by the controversial, inflammatory, or perhaps unexpected emails of two list participants with different originating email address–one a dues paying member of the organization, and the other a non-paying email-only list member.  However, these two seemingly separate persons are in fact two online personas or characters created and operated by the same individual.  The real world person responsible for these personas is clearly playing with character and online identity engineering.  For the two personas, he constructs identity and narrative of self through verbal wit and word play that has its antecedents in literature, or what I call Pulp Media. This online, or New Media, practitioner of online persona engineering largely caught the SF scholar community woefully unprepared to meet his persona on the page, or rather on the screen. Instead of engaging the personas within cyberspace on the email discussion list, which often carries conversations about marginalized identities and the alien Other, many list participants chose to react against the list personas. Why did these scholars, arguably some of the most engaged persons dealing with issues of Otherness, attempt to expel, rather than embrace, the Othered personas?  Can SF scholarship overcome a privileging of literary texts, and expand their work to the realm of daily practices and the real world of science fictional technologies (i.e., the Internet) that facilitates their professional work?  Or, is SF scholarship divorced from the present through its overemphasis on the future or alternate worlds imagined in its traditional objects of study?

I approach these questions first through a discussion of literary character and persona.  Then, I employ psychology as a bridge between literary character and online identity or persona. In this paper, I argue that character in Pulp Media is replicated in New Media with the recognizable exception being the proliferation of persona narrative construction online, which results in the necessity of reflective revision of our practices in cyberspace, including our supposedly isolated forums of discussion.

The online personas on the SF email list are indicative of the doubleness of character in literature.  Obviously, writing the self and creating doubles of character in literature have a long history in literature.  The touchstone work is Saint Augustine’s Confessions (397-398 AD), in which he attempted to reflect on his life, memory, and self.  However, he realized that memory and self change over time and his record of self in the Confessions can be best thought of as a representation of self as recorded through the lens of memory.  Other forms of doubleness take on a more fictional aspect such as that in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and her characters: Victor the creator, and his created Monster.  However, the Monster also doubles humanity, because he falls in love, or desires companionship of a female mate.  Even though he is called the Monster, he is in fact very much human–one that is isolated, alone, and ostracized as the Other.  A more emphatic and explicit form of doubling takes place in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).  The title’s namesakes equate to one person with a schizoid personality–a person split into different, and even competing identities. Though, as different as Hyde is from Jekyll, there still remains the underlying core of humanity and human identification. Still much later works, such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), continue to feature doubled characters.  In this case, the Replicants, android workers of the future, double humanity, and it is the ambiguously human characters who doubt their own humanity and fear the possibility of being the Other.  In these examples, there is a crisis of identity, because the division of self obviously destabilizes what is assumed to be a unified identity or sense of self.

These crises exist in written form as literature and as words written by persons, each with a unique mind, and literature forms a corpus of evidence for the mind and its machinery.  Therefore, the early developments in the scientific study of self and identity came to rely on this evidence.  Sigmund Freud relied on classical literature (e.g., Oedipus Rex), and his love of British literature (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamlet) to develop his theories of self and pathologies of mental illness.  The significance here being that there is an interconnection between Freud’s work on the mind and the pathology of mind, and literature. Freud’s theory of self established that our mind, and its underlying workings, is divided between the surface conscious mind–ego, and the subsurface unconscious mind–the superego and the id. Despite this division of mind, normal persons supposedly present an integrated sense of self or identity to the world. Further developments in the pathology of a unified public self was made by Eugen Bleuler, who extends Freud’s work with his categorization and naming of the schizophrenias, which included the now distinct pathology known as dissociative identity disorder, or the explicit division of self into distinct personas.  Following this work, violations of the unity of self in daily life are perceived to be indicative of disease or illness, and necessitating treatment or institutionalization. However, this phenomenon is presented in literature both before and after Freud and Bleuler’s work. Doubleness of character, doppelgangers, and literary personas in literature are high literary markers, and there is a profusion of such literary/psychological devices in literature following the wider popularization of psychoanalysis.  I do not mean to say that one necessarily follows from the other, but instead, there is an ever presence of human minds creating literature, which obviously leaves psychological traces embedded in the work. However, there must be a conscious as well as unconscious injection of these themes into literary works, particularly following the increase in awareness of mental disorders and key psychological concepts.  With that being said, doubleness pervades literature, and there is a recursive operation at play following the dispersal of the Freudian theory of mind.

This pervasion is clearly evident in the doubleness inherent to the New Media, which derives in part from its literary and pathological precedents, but it also has to do with the material conditions of plugging one’s self into the network.  William Gibson, hovering over his Hermes 2000 typewriter, envisioned the physical jacking into cyberspace, a neologism of his creation that has since stuck, in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. There is a separation between the meat (i.e., body) and mind.  The meat confines the potential of self unleashed within the “consensual hallucination” within the computer network.  This is made more visually real a decade and a half later in the Wachowski Brother’s film, The Matrix (1999), when the human characters jack-in to the computer world they leave their weak bodies behind in Baudrillard’s “desert of the real,” and become the Übermensch within cyberspace.  The characters, including Case in Neuromancer, Neo in the Matrix, and Hiro Protagonist in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), each invent spectacular online identities with special powers and abilities that contrast, more or less, with the material reality of their bodily identity.  Is this not true of many persons of imagination that enjoy SF, comics, and video games as a way to leave, or at least ignore, the confines of material reality and explore the potential and promise of the undiscovered country of the imagination with their doubled selves?

One such imaginative space, perhaps with the most potential for invention, is the Internet and its New Media technologies.  New Media has made possible a proliferation in the engineering of self and creation of persona–a doubling that occurs purposefully as well as incidentally.  Playing with character was largely confined to print, and it was not allowed in real life due to the pathology of a split identity.  The New Media proliferation of self and character experimentation has resulted in new possibilities as well as problems.  The possibilities include trying out new attitudes and beliefs in the relative protection of cyberspace, which is one of the themes of Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora (1998), albeit with digital beings that switch mental perspectives, which we might conceive as being central to identity. Another New Media possibility is the making connections and linking into new circuits and communities within the sprawling network.  This empowers the building of self through community and interaction that might otherwise be a challenge (e.g., geographically or demographically), or danger (e.g., a transgendered person talking with other transgendered persons in a community with groups openly violent to such persons).  Additionally, some persons create multiple online identities or characters as protection or to remove prejudice within online communities (e.g., a girl pretends to be a guy to avoid harassment, or a college-aged woman uses only her first initial and last name on email correspondence to avoid gender bias).  In contrast to these possibilities is the central problem and holdover from the real world–the assumption of a unified sense of self.  Even within cyberspace where doubling is essential to any interaction with the network, there remains the awareness of illness when there is a violation by others of an appearance of unity of self. There may be a sense of betrayal when the ruse, if you want to use that word, is uncovered. Other ways of responding to such a situation of online persona creation is deception.  There is the assumption of dealing with an individual behind the online persona or avatar, and that this is a one-to-one ratio. When one person has a chorus of voices, characters, or personas, this may lead to the feeling that there is deception–that one is hoodwinked.  However, the fact remains that New Media enables and in some cases, such as Blizzard’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, encourages such multiple persona creation.  The technological assemblages of the Internet and New Media is built on multiplicity, copy-and-paste, and the passage of bits unencumbered by the realities of the persons corresponding with those bits of data. Nevertheless, there still exists for many the knee-jerk reaction of our real world conditioning that a violation takes place when the assumption of unified identity is breached, even in such an environment as cyberspace.

The reaction of many of the participants, myself included, on the SF scholar email list strongly indicates that old habits die hard. Evidence for this comes from the fact that list participants overwhelmingly reacted against these Othered personas rather than engaging the play and internal logic of the two characters. There were exceptions, but it would probably have required a unanimous positive response to avert the ensuing chaos on the list.  Some of the not-so-positive responses to the personas, but more so the person behind the personas after the performance was uncovered, included calling him a “worthless clown” and “troll,” who pursues “juvenile antics.”  However, the following responses are more indicative of the interrelation of psychology to persons:  “kook,” “disturbed little creature,” “needs psychological help,” “loonie,” and “he is clearly undergoing some sort of emotional meltdown.” The online persona creator is no longer a human, but a “creature,” suffering an “emotional meltdown,” and “in need of help.”  Psychology, the science of self that originally derived its models from literature, comes full circle when brought to bear on an individual who exercises literary practices of character and persona creation in a New Media email list.  However, these same scholars whose slings and arrows amount to popular expressions of Freud would not consider Shelley or Dick “kooks.” Also, their scholarly engagement of Shelley and Dick’s characters and literary personas would be probative and deductive rather than invective.  It would be an embrace rather than a reaction or rejection of these practices of character and persona creation.

In this spirit of embracing the Other, one list participant offered, “There may be ‘irrational exuberance’ but exuberance can be used productively.” Another sage called the emails “great fun” and a kind of “cyberhockey” with words flying around like so many pucks. Perhaps the person behind the email list personas took the postmodern to heart, and not in his studies but in his practices as an academic.  I contend that these personas are forms of “transgressive parody,” or what Patrick Novotny describes as:

Parody in the postmodernist aesthetic is the transgression of aesthetic and representational norms. The postmodernist parody of aesthetic representation has been frequently carried to an extreme of self-negation, the playful celebration of the fragmentation and decomposition of the subject. With the collapse of the modern aesthetic tradition and the “implosion of metanarratives,” postmodernist discourse transgresses and disrupts the received assurances of traditional aesthetic forms and problematizes the boundaries and limits of representation. (100)

Novotny’s work reveals that postmodern parody is much more than comic imitation.  Instead, the email list online personas transgress the norms of the list and academic discourse in order to challenge and potentially break down the metanarratives of SF scholarship in order to arrive at something new. In a sense, the chaos incited by the email personas, as Henry Adams wrote in a different context, “often breeds life” (249).  It seems evident that the person behind the personas self-negates through the creation of such elaborate online identities, but perhaps a recursion takes place in which the self-negated subject of the personas’ operator then in turn takes on these new and engineered identities.  The ways in which the personas disrupted the email list and the normal list conversations sent ripples through the list community.  I cannot peer into the mind of the personas’ operator and see his intentions for his acts of transgressive parody, but it is obvious from the list conversations and this paper, as something created as a result of the events on the email list, that the email list personas’ transgressions and disruptions have resulted in a change of course into uncharted territories.

In our first trespass into these new areas, we should collectively reflect on what it is we do as SF scholars supposedly concerned about the plight of the alien Other.  The email list personas came from within our own member ranks, but the unexpectedness of the transgressive parody, something assumed to be relegated to the realm of literature, took center stage while many list members gawked at the intrusions from the (assumed) margins.  In this spectacular example, the persona creator, who pushes the boundaries and possibilities of New Media and community norms, is the outsider on the SF discussion list, because he is using New Media technologies in ways that many list members are unaccustomed to, or unwilling to acknowledge as constructive or at least inventive. We each write our identities online in a variety of ways, which are not far removed, and in fact overlap each of our email list personas.  Some of these include:  our professional websites display our professional histories and curriculum vitae; we post copious amounts of data on identity profiles on Facebook and MySpace; we blog about our personal and professional lives; we use Twitter and email to communicate and bounce ideas off one another; and we join virtual guilds and fight for honor in World of Warcraft.  The examples are too long to be fully listed here, but it is obvious that we construct identities online whether we intend to or not.  The mere act of communication builds some sense of identity in our own minds through our action to communicate and in the minds of our audience by what we have said.  Cyberspace and the New Media facilitate the writing of ourselves–in whatever way that we may choose to do so–and the creation of persona or personas in the digital domain. We must resist our assumptions, including the outmoded sense of a unified self, and make our best effort to connect with new technologies and the possibilities that they engender, especially when they are so interrelated with our own practices and SF objects of study. It is time for us to agree to bridge our professional practices to the seemingly far shore of our daily practices as human beings.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Henry.  The Education of Henry Adams:  An Autobiography. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1918.

Novotny, Patrick.  “No Future! Cyberpunk, Industrial Music, and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Disintegration.”  Political Science Fiction.  Eds. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox.  Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 1997.  99-123.

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 April 2, 2014

Posted by Jason W Ellis in Conference, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction, SFRA.
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This is the thirty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” 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. 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.

This example of Recovered Writing is an essay that I wrote for the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) Conference in Arizona. I delivered the paper on June 26, 2010 on a panel moderated by my dissertation advisor Donald “Mack” Hassler and with my wife Yufang Lin (who presented a paper evaluating Avatar in terms of postcolonial theory). I wrote about our experience at the Arizona conference here.

This paper is one that I had hoped to return to and publish on, but I can’t figure when I could do it at this point. So, I offer it to you to read and think about.

James Cameron’s Avatar and the Machine in the Garden: Reading Movie Narratives and Practices of Production

Jason W. Ellis

In an earlier essay, I argued that Cold War autonomous technologies and fictional robots replace humanity in the so-called American garden, the idyllic pastoral imaginative space that continues to carry a hold over the American imagination according to the respective work of Leo Marx and Sharona Ben-Tov. At that time, I could not find a work or example counter to the paradox presented by Marx and Ben-Tov, which is that in choosing to embrace technology and industrialization over agrarianism at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we, meaning Americans, have continued to move further away from that ideal while retaining a trace of affection for it. Furthermore, Ben-Tov demonstrates that we continually try to return to the garden through technological means, which paradoxically keeps us away from the garden. For Marx and Ben-Tov the emphasis is placed on the narrative itself–the stories about the intrusion of the machine into the garden. I, on the other hand, believe that it is equally important, to consider the confluence of story and the production of that story, and the way those two things relate to the emblematic machine in the garden. I argue that Avatar, on the level of narrative, re-inscribes and challenges the concept of the machine in the garden. The humans and their machines invade Pandora’s idyllic garden as part of an imperialistic expansion of capitalistic rapaciousness. The tranquility of the pastoral scene is disturbed and broken by the technological ends of industrialization. Concurrent with this narrative, Cameron presents an alternative in which Pandora complicates what Marx calls the “pastoral ideal,” which he locates “in a middle ground somewhere ‘between,’ yet in a transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and nature” (23). Pandora is those things, an in-between space, but it is also, as I will show, a fusion of the pastoral and the technological into a third way, a techno-ecological possibility for hope in a sustainable world–something we are far from achieving on Earth. Despite these possibilities, I will conclude by arguing that the practices of making this film, the techno-scientific methods and practices of contemporary science fiction filmmaking undermines, in part, Cameron’s best intentions to run counter to internalized narrative constraints.

To begin, Leo Marx writes that “The pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery, and its has not yet lost its hold upon the native imagination” (3). This is true still today and it is re-established in Avatar. Cameron himself says in an interview that the film has “a garden theme with teeth and claws” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). Jake Sully, a warrior from the human “Jarhead clan” or Marines, guides the audience through the film’s fictional world with the aid of his sense of wonder fueled by his bodily escape from the confines of a wheelchaired existence. Through Jake’s exploration in his remotely controlled, Na’vi-human spliced avatar, his remote controlled organic embodiment, we discover that Pandora is a lush environment, and its flora and fauna share many similarities to life on planet Earth while having significant “cognitively estranging” differences such as extra appendages, exotic colors, bioluminescence, etc. Furthermore, the life on Pandora is unified through its rhizomic network of plant and animal life that either connects into what the Na’vi call their goddess, Eywa (call this an established or emergent deity as you will), a world totalizing essence that enables what I call a dynamic homeostasis. Pandora, prior to humanity’s arrival, seems to be idyllic and senrene, life going about doing what it does, the Na’vi living and dying, creating stories and myths, living their lives through their own social reality as they saw best while acknowledging the significance of the greater world: the planet itself, of which they are each contributors, collaborators, and codependents. They live off the land, and the land sustains itself on the practices shared by the Na’vi and apparently all life on Pandora.

Then, the humans arrive on Pandora and the story re-establishes the American myth of remembering the idyllic garden while encroaching on that garden with the technological artifacts of industrialization. Delivered by interplanetary starships, the humans set to work strip mining Pandora of what ultimately becomes the unobtainable precious element, named with slight tongue in cheek, Unobtainium. The humans demarcate their space from the surrounding idyllic garden of Pandora, only going out to take the minerals so desperately sought to assuage the troubled economy back on Earth while occasionally attempting to negotiate with the native Na’vi inhabitants for the so-called “rights” to mine the Unobtainium beneath Hometree, the megalithic old-growth tree that is home to the Omaticaya clan. The corporate-led humans and their military goons go out in heavy machinery that literally rips, burns, and blows-up the Pandoran jungle and sacred sites on their way to Hometree. These machines rupture the natural world orchestrated by the goddess Eywa. This is not to say that the natural environment is not valued in some way. The corporation is concerned about its image back on Earth. The corporate fear is that by killing human-like lifeforms will make the company look bad, which will, in turn, effect the bottom line and the stock price. Corporate conscience is thus dependent on perception back home rather than any moral or ethical compass. The Unobtainium must be obtained at almost any cost.

Jake Sully, to be sure, is an interesting hybrid character in the film. He is our guide to this eruption of human machines in the Pandoran garden. He learns the circuits of the human conquest while discovering the circuits of life on Pandora. Jake’s hybrid or cyborg existence bridges the human and Na’vi divide. However, he is, with his avatar, another technological machine entering the garden. As a Harawayan cyborg, he does represent the possibility of emancipation of historical modes of domination through technology, but it is also the case that his avatar is as much a symptom as a cure to the machine intrusion into the garden.

Regardless of Jake’s problematic status as imperialist and appropriator of the Na’vi’s myths, he also represents the audience’s admission to an alternative possibility, not in opposition, but in resolution of the nature-technological divide. I contend that Jake and Pandora itself are hybrids that achieve this resolution. His avatar brings him closer to the nature of Pandora, but it is initially only through the apparatus of the avatar remote control technology that he can step away from humanity into the interconnected real and social worlds of the Na’vi. Human technology allows him to see the possibility of love and connection on the other side of the divide, but it is the Pandoran technology-like organicism, that allows Jake to transcend his human body and its technological assemblages to cross the divide in the final scene to become fully Jake of the Omaticaya people. The queue, which the Na’vi and seemingly all other animal life on Pandora appear to have, is a braid of neural tissue that facilitates a link between minds, to the goddess, and to the planet. It is an organic version of the jack from The Matrix. Besides living as one with the planet, the queue and the rhizomic network of plant life on Pandora, enables a kind of sharing–of emotions, memories, and relationships–that leads to cooperation, not domination

Cameron’s Pandoran fusion of the natural world and the network into an organic vision of sustainability and cooperation between life and planet challenges the pastoral ideal described by Marx. It taps into the artificial division of objects and subjects in modernity described by Latour. It is a different way of thinking about hybrids and cyborgs. Everything about Pandora concerns the proliferating hybrids of Latour. Under the surface of the first human-centric narrative, which divides the world artificially into objects and subjects, the Pandora narrative reveals how these things are blurred. The organic network brings together the Na’vi with the rest of the life on their planet. The social intermixes with the natural, and vice versa. And, all of this is accomplished through the network, or what the Na’vi consider Eywa.  Eywa is a planetwide cyborg and a system of social relationships in which the social extends beyond the Na’vi. Haraway insists “that social relationships include nonhumans as well as humans as socially . . . active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonders” (8). Eywa and the life of Pandora are inextricably intertwined in an unimaginably complex social relationship, and they “trade in signs and wonder” on a daily basis, but most visually evident in the rearguard response by Pandora at the film’s conclusion. It is, from the human perspective, the hybrid and socially interconnected features of Pandora that represent a third way, a different and revitalizing possibility for life beyond industrialized exploitation of the land and people.

For these reasons, Avatar is a science fiction film that challenges the theories of Marx and Ben-Tov. The narrative of the Na’vi and their planet Pandora demonstrates a hybrid possibility for nature and the social. However we may want to conjecture how Pandora came to be the way it is, the bottom line is that it exhibits the characteristics of the things that have in the past been purified as object or subject. Furthermore, Ben-Tov, building her own theory of the artificial paradise, says, “Unlike the texts that Marx surveys . . . science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history” (9). Avatar does revert to the sense of hopefulness that Marx describes in relation to the desire for the mythical idyllic garden and American pastoralism. But, as I said above, the film provides an alternative to Marx’s machine in the garden narrative. Yes, it is tempered with hope, but it is hope in new way that fuses the pastoral with technology and the social with nature. Avatar, as a result of its hybrid embedded narrative, is a counter example to what Ben-Tov characterizes as science fiction’s attempt “to create immunity from history,” which “reveals a curious dynamic: the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden. Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox: the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, man-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (9). The Na’vi/Pandora-centric narrative challenges this mode of thinking. Pandora represents a natural world that also enjoys and makes use of abilities that we would otherwise characterize as technological in nature. Homeostasis, networks, and dynamic load balancing are all technical concepts on Earth, but they are developed and put to use in the natural world of the imaginative Pandora. Avatar draws back from what Ben-Tov sees as the replacement of nature with technology. Instead, it is the hybridization of these two artificially separate things. Or, is it?

The curious thing about Avatar is how immersive the experience can be. I saw it three times: once on IMAX 3D and twice on RealD digital projection. Each time that I watched the film, I found myself falling into the experience and its world, but I could not avoid thinking about how Avatar’s seemingly natural environment was made. Cameron took green screen and computer generated imagery (CGI) to all new levels. He effectively schooled George Lucas about how to populate an entirely artificial environment with believable, human-like alien characters. Cameron himself said in an interview, “it was exciting when we rounded that corner and we knew we had true human emotion captured and performed by nonhuman characters” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). The keyword here is captured, and he goes on to use the word preserve. Using state-of-the-art computer and film technology, much of which he and his subsidiary companies produced, Cameron captures, preserves, and transforms a performance into something radically new. He takes the behaviors, actions, facial expressions, and voices of real people, acting in what is called a “spatial volume,” or a space demarcated as corresponding with some place on Pandora but existing in our world, and stores, manipulates, and creates new imagery and actions that look real but not of this world. A specific example would be the development of the banshee flight scenes. Within the spatial volume, he moves toy-sized banshees through their flight paths, the actors perform on gimbals their flights synced to the flight paths, cameras record the movements and facial expressions of the actors for computer translation, and then finally, Cameron walks through the spatial volume alone with a virtual camera, an Apple iPad sized device that acts as a window into the virtual Pandora environment all around him, to record the scenes he wants for the film. These methods, all reliant on technology, re-inscribe the machine in the garden, or film tech into virtual Pandora. If the Pandora-centric narrative is the garden, despite its elegant resolution of the nature/social and pastoral/machine dialectics, then the way in which Pandora is developed within the memory banks of computers and rendering farms is the re-introduction of the machine into the idyllic pastoral environment. Ben-Tov may not be entirely correct about the way in which science fiction narratives, the subject of her work, represent our inability to restore the pastoral through technology, but she is definitely correct when we step back and consider the way in which an inventive pastoral science fiction narrative is constructed with technology for mass consumption. What this means is that we also need to consider the means of production of science fiction in various media, along with their stories, because the practices and methods of creating science fiction are themselves becoming more science fictional. The meta-narrative of making science fiction is a largely neglected aspect of meaning making that I believe will attract more critical attention as virtuality becomes more established in film production. It may one day be all that we have left when actors perform, in effect, under erasure, and the filmic simulations proliferate.

 

Works Cited

Avatar: Making a Scene.” Fox Movie Channel. Hulu. Web. 21 April 2010. Online Video.

Ben-Tov, Sharona. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

Cameron, James, writer and dir. Avatar. 20th Century Fox, 2009. Film.

Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.
FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience
. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964. Print.

 

Curating a Conference Backchannel with Storify: 2013 SFRA/Eaton Conference in Riverside, CA April 14, 2013

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SFRA-logoWhile I was unable to attend this year’s Science Fiction Research Association Conference, held in conjunction with the biannual Eaton Conference this year, in Riverside, California, I was able to follow along with the goings-on thanks to Facebook and Twitter. As you might know, I am a big fan of Storify as a digital curation tool, so I thought it would make it easier for me to catch up and create an archive of the tweets made during the conference with the hashtags #sfra or #SFRAton (thanks to Glyn Morgan for that one). Unfortunately, I found it too time consuming to try to incorporate #eaton posts, because it is a widely used hashtag by different communities. A word of advice to all future conference organizers: plan ahead by researching available hashtags by seeing what’s unique and unused in the Twitterverse (at least as long as Twitter is a viable backchannel tool–otherwise, go with what works best!).

If you have never used Storify before, you should check it out. Simply go to storify.com and either create a new account or login using your Facebook or Twitter account. Choose to “Create a new story,” and then search among the different social media and web options in the right column. In this case, I searched for #sfra and #sfraton under Twitter. I then loaded all of the publicly available tweets and choose to add them all to my Storify Story (in the left column). Finally, I reordered the tweets chronologically and added a title and description before choosing to publish the Storify Story. What I did is very basic. Storify’s power comes from the ability to intermix/remix tweets with links, photos, and your comments added within Storify. It would be great if other SFRA members who attended the conference to create their Storify Story that includes more comments or photos from the various events.

Follow the link below for my Storify curation of the conference and many thanks to all of the SFRA members who diligently reported on the awesomeness of this year’s conference!

[View the story “2013 Joint SFRA/Eaton Conference in Riverside, CA” on Storify]

2013 SFRA/Eaton Conference Schedule is Available Online January 21, 2013

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The 2013 SFRA/Eaton Conference at the University of California at Riverside will take place from April 11 to April 13, 2013. The conference schedule is now online here.

If you are not committed to going for a presentation or panel, you should check out the awesome lineup of papers, panels, and author readings. If all of the special guests can attend, the awards banquet on Saturday night should be a blast, too. The SFRA/Eaton Conference is well worth your time and money, because it brings together the best SF scholars and fosters the best conversation, collaboration, and collegiality.

I really wanted to attend this year to revisit Riverside (a wonderful city with a great university and library collection) and see my many SFRA friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw my paper prior to the deadline for personal reasons. Sadly, this will be the first meeting that I have missed since my first SFRA conference in White Plains, New York in 2006.

For everyone going to the SFRA/Eaton Conference, I wish you all a fantastic and energizing meeting, and I hope to see you all down the trail!

2013-2014 SFRA Executive Council Candidate Statements Online, Ballots Sent by Email on Sept 17 September 10, 2012

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Immediate Past President Lisa Yaszek sent out the 2013-2014 SFRA candidate statements . You can find them here or pasted below.

After serving as the SFRA’s first publicity director and current vice president, I am now running for president (as you can also see below in the list of candidate statements). I have contributed to our current initiatives–some of which are still being implemented, and I would very much like to see these through under my watch. I hope that you will support me in that goal with your votes.

Good luck all around–we certainly have a very strong selection of candidates in this election!

2013 SFRA/Eaton Conference Deadline for Abstracts is Sept 14! September 2, 2012

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I just sent Melissa Conway my paper abstract for the 2013 joint SFRA-Eaton Conference [the CFP is here].

Have you sent your abstract in yet? If you haven’t, you only have until September 14 to send your abstract. The earlier-than-normal SFRA deadline is due to the fact that the joint conference will be held in April instead of late-June, early-July. So, don’t hesitate. Take some time this Labor Day Weekend to send your abstract to the conference organizers.

I’m looking forward to returning to Riverside and to discussing Science Fiction Media with you there!

Session Call for Papers, SFRA 2012, “The Neuroscientific Turn in Science Fiction” March 12, 2012

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As you might already know, the 2012 Science Fiction Research Association conference in Detroit, Michigan [official conference site here] is rapidly approaching!

The deadline for submitting paper abstracts is April 23, but I would like to see if there is any interest in a special session before the final deadline.

Below, you can find my call for papers for a special session titled, “The Neuroscientific Turn in Science Fiction.” Read over it and if you would like to submit an abstract, send it to me by April 6 and I will bundle it with others for the conference organizer Steve Berman. Thanks!

Science Fiction Research Association Conference 2012

Detroit, MI

Session Call for Papers

“The Neuroscientific Turn in Science Fiction”

At SFRA 2011 in Poland, I participated in a well-attended session on brain-related topics in science fiction. I presented my paper on a cognitive approach to science fiction, in which I argue that science fiction arises as an evolutionary byproduct that acclimates us for a rapidly changing present and prepares us for an uncertain future.

This year, I propose another session or sessions for the 2012 SFRA conference in Detroit with an emphasis on brain and mind topics in science fiction with the tentative title, “The Neuroscientific Turn in Science Fiction.”

Topics may include, but are not limited to: brain hardware vs. mind software, narratives that focus on the physicality of the brain, ontological and epistempological problems arising from brain surgery or physical injury, the spectrum of human experience as a result of different brain development and impairment, human brains and experience vs. other brains and experience, hard neuroscience in science fiction, what is the history of brain-related stories in SF?, etc. Papers on any SF medium that address this topic are welcome. I intend to talk about the relationship of Philip K. Dick’s health problems and his development of brain disorders and damage in his fiction.

If other SFRAers are interested in presenting a paper on a brain-related topic, please send me your paper abstract and contact information, and I will forward these to Steve Berman in the session proposal. The deadline for submitting an abstract for this session proposal is April 6. Please send to dynamicsubspace [a] gmail [d] com.

The Postnational Fantasy Reviewed in SFRA Review 298 March 3, 2012

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The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics, and Science Fiction, a collection of essays that I co-edited with my friends and colleagues Masood Raja and Swaralipi Nandi, received its first review in the SFRA Review 298 by Rikk Mulligan available online here.

About the book, Mulligan writes, “As part of McFarland’s series of critical explorations in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F), this collection of twelve essays analyzes works ranging from novels and short stories to films and computer games, through the combined lenses of postcolonialism, nationalism, globalization, and cosmopolitanism and the theories of SF/F criticism.”

He goes on to make the following recommendation: “Overall these essays are engaging and encompass a variety of concepts that consider not only a multicultural (or semi-homogenized) global postnationalism but also preserve space for Creole and Mestizo identities as dynamic hybridities. . . . This collection does lend itself easily to in- terdisciplinary work and situates well with similar volumes such as Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), Hoagland and Sarwal’s Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World (2010), and from outside SF, Singh and Schmidt’s collection, Postcolonial Theory and the United States (2000). Given the number of shared sources and similarity of arguments, these essays would provide a valuable resources for an upper level literature seminar that uses SF/F to frame issues of globalization and nationalism in an American, Transatlantic, or Regional Studies approach.”

In addition to discussing some of the other essays in the collection, I was happy to read his comments on my essay, ” “: “Jason W. Ellis plays with expressions of cosmopolitan and individual identities in his elaboration of character creation and player choices available through the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Ellis mixes Kant with transnational systems of communication and interaction to argue for the ability of virtual interactions to move individual players (and fans) toward a cosmopolitan consciousness and interaction. (He did leave me wondering about the role of trans-faction groups in the game, such as the Earthen Ring, and their effects on cosmopolitan identity.)”

I wrote my essay included in the collection, “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future: Race, Nation, and World of Warcraft” about 2.5 years before the book appeared, so I was not able to accommodate the changes made to the game with the Cataclysm upgrade (Blizzard released Cataclysm while we were in the editing process so I could not make any changes to my essay). I wish that I could have wrote about The Earthen Ring that Mulligan references, because it does have cosmopolitan potentiality.