October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Your Majesty, have you had a chance to look through the etiquette handbook that the Kadarowo so kindly sent to us?”
“Hmm..I may have flipped through a couple pages.”
“Your Majesty! We are meeting with the Kadarowoan Prime Minister tomorrow! This is the first time that any species from Mars has agreed to make contact with us. If you offend him, the entire race may just decide to ignore us and do business with the Americans instead!”
“The Americans? Heavens forbid… Alright, just give me some of the key pointers so that I don’t have to read through the entire stupid thing. It’s over five hundred pages long!”
“Very well Your Majesty, we can start with the greeting process first. When meeting a Kadarowo for the first time, you must never look him in the eyes.”
“Well where the hell am I supposed to look?”
“At his seventy-fifth ear Your Majesty, it is considered to be polite.”
“How in the world am I supposed to find his seventy-fifth ear?”
“You count, Your Majesty. Using your eyes.”
“Don’t get snarky with me, Oxford. I will exile you to Russia.”
“My apologies, Your Majesty. Moving on, you greet the Kadarowos by rotating your left foot in a counter-clockwise motion in their direction. When exchanging hellos, you must never speak above a whisper. Their hearing is extremely sensitive because of their three-hundred and twenty nine ears.” “When the Kadarowo has acknowledged your presence, you are allowed to grasp his antennae, located next to the fifty-second ear, as a symbol of shared trust and unity.”
“That sounds…oddly sexual, Oxford.”
“Your Majesty, don’t be ridiculous! This is all common Kadarowoan custom. I am told that their dinner parties last for several days because of the introduction process.”
“All right, let’s just finish this. I have a pizza party to attend to at six o’clock.”
“We may now move on to the sacrificing of the turtle.”
“What the- Why would we sacrifice a freaking turtle?”
“Your Majesty, I see that you have not looked through the handbook at all. The Kadarowos believe that every introduction to someone new is considered to be a blessing from their Goddess, Shakira.”
“Shakira? Isn’t that the sing-”
“The name is merely a coincidence, Your Majesty. They thank Shakira by sacrificing in her name her least favorite animal, the turtle.” “After we sacrifice the turtle, we must paint it’s shell with the colors of the Kadarowoan flag: Cerulean, Razzmatazz, Pewter, and Yellow.”
“I don’t even know what a Razzmatazz is, Oxford.”
“After we have painted the turtle, we may move on to the process of ‘The Fire Dance.'”
“Okay Oxford, you know what? This is ridiculous! We don’t need those Kadarowos and their stupid customs; they’re too different from us. Also, it’s 6:10. There’s probably no cheese pizza left. I have to go, Oxford. ”
“Your Majesty! But the Prime Minister-”
“Hello Mr. President, this is Oxford. Yes, as we expected, the King believed the “Kadarowoan customs” and has run away. You are now free to continue negotiations with the Kadarowoan people. I expect the money we discussed to be deposited into my bank account by the end of this week.” “It was a pleasure working with you, sir.”
September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
I was miffed.
“The names of the scientists are going to be on the test?”
My honors physics teacher, who I regarded as a generally reasonable man, had lost touch with reality and was resorting to the lowest of low testing methods: rote memorization without purpose.
Memorizing formulas was one thing–those were tools, mental shortcuts we employed to cut through a problem in a timely manner. P=mv, F=ma, W=mg–these facts were full, bloated with the theorems my teacher wrote out on the board when introducing the concepts to us.
But Rutherford, Hooke, Bernoulli–these were empty signifiers, a collection of letters that did no more to better my understanding of how things move about in space than watching Jeopardy did. In my mind, these names were trivia, and nothing more.
Rutherford, Hooke, and Bernoulli may have lived rich lives–to their contemporaries, peers, family, and friends, their names must have been loaded with connotation, each utterance of “Rutherford”–or perhaps, “Ernest”–conjuring up memories and feelings. But to the high school science student, “Rutherford” was associated with one thing: the discovery of the nucleus. We did not have the privilege of knowing Rutherford as a person, only the privilege of knowing his discovery.
And if that was all “Rutherford” boiled down to in our heads, what was the use of knowing that name? His life could have been interesting, but to feign the resurrection of his existence, to pretend that we were paying homage to him by remembering those empty letters when all we understood of them was the discovery, not man, attributed to them, seemed superfluous, almost irreverent. I had a deep appreciation for Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, not for him. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know the guy. I had a lot to thank the guy for–we all did, as students standing on this giant’s shoulders–but the rote memorization of his name didn’t do anything for him.
“These men devoted their lives to these discoveries,” formerly-reasonable physics teacher droned on. “We owe it to them to remember their names.”
But did we? The man was long gone–what did it matter to him if, 75-odd years after his death, students drew a line from his name to the gold-foil experiment on the page of a test?
Hypothetical #1: Suppose Rutherford’s last wish was to have his name go down in history for making a meaningful contribution to science–which element of that wish, the remembrance of his name or of his contribution to science, really matters?
History is important in that it allows us to learn from past mistakes, to build on the knowledge gathered by our predecessors. We learn nothing from the man’s name.
Hypothetical #2: Suppose Rutherford made his meaningful contribution to science in order for his name to remembered, and that was his true last wish.
As unlikely as this scenario is, it begs the question: why do last wishes matter?
Last wishes matter only insomuch that some actor in the present derives utility from them. That actor may be the person making the last wish, comforted by a notion that they have the power to make an impact after they expire. It may be a relative or close confidant of the deceased, comforted by the notion that by honoring the last wish of their loved one, they’re salvaging a part of them by keeping a bit of their corporeal desires alive.
Or it might be a high school science teacher, seven decades after the last wish was made by a man he never met, comforted by the notion that it is important to remember the name of the deceased. He draws reassurance from this via a loosely-drawn syllogism, buried within the depths of his subconscious: if people considered remembering names important, then people might remember his name–and through every utterance of his name that occurs after his death, he might live a little longer.
This syllogism is buried in the back of most brains.
When I was thirteen, someone asked me the name of my great grandfather. With a shock, I realized that I didn’t know it–and I was terrified. Had he lived 80 years to only be forgotten by his great granddaughter, his existence fading into nothingness? Would I be doomed to a similar fate, forgotten by descendants, my life fading into
For that is the most grim notion of all–the notion that the sum of our actions, struggles, relationships, passions, and toil could amount to nothing. Welcome to life, the zero-sum game. Prepare to be overtaken by suffocating depression.
So we erect monuments to individuals, we pepper college campuses with statues, we catalogue gratuitous details of our fellow humans’ lives that far exceed the amount needed to learn anything significant from their experiences. We honor last wishes and memorize Rutherford’s name. We fight the idea, voiced by Andres in Mayflower II, that we exist merely to produce replacements: we strive to prove that we, as individuals, matter–to exert some semblance of control over that great leveling force, the eraser of our identities, the zero-sum despot known as death.
Because when death strikes, our voices are silenced. We can no longer fight to preserve our individuality. Thus, we preserve the individuality of others, rewarding innovation, breakthroughs and fame–and, in turn, striving to accomplish something notable enough that our successors will do the same for us.
Tooth and nail, blood and sweat, we claw our way to meaning.
But this logic is flawed. It’s driven by a desire to be more than just a blink in the timespan world–to last beyond the 80-odd years granted to us by nature. But even if we accomplish something notable enough to warrant a statue, that statue is just a pebble thrown into a canyon. After thousands of years, stone erodes. Names are forgotten. And thousands of years are mere blinks in the timeline of the universe.
Ultimately, we all fade.
But not to meaninglessness.
Our lifespans may be naught but flashes in the perspective of the universe, but in our perspective, they are everything. They are our own universes. They matter, if only to us and our contemporaries. And they will leave legacies, if only ones that are accepted as assumed, attributeless characteristic of the future world. Our very state of existence implies this.
Those who do not know Rutherford’s name still benefit from his breakthrough. Perhaps more significantly, they benefit from all of the miniscule steps taken by nameless shadows of the past that enabled Rutherford to make his breakthrough. The tiniest fraction is still part of the sum–and, as Bradbury notes in A Sound of Thunder–the smallest butterfly a factor in the future of the world.
And it’s okay that we are ultimately all fameless fractions, our limits approaching zero. Long after we die, we’ll–you know–still be dead. And it won’t matter if there’s a hunk of rock out there with your name on it, or a group of students reciting your name to their teacher. With the eclipse of our personal universes comes the snuffling out of our pride and vanity. We’re gone. Dust in the wind.
And that thought is empowering.
If we narrow our perspective to the timeline of our own lives, instead of trying to grasp the strands of infinity, every action becomes more meaningful. With the recalibration of our viewpoints comes the revitalization of the “small things.” Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate the feeling of the sun on your face. Write a thank-you card. Hug someone.
Accept that all of these actions will inevitably be forgotten. But in the present moment, they are
September 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last year, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was published, a novel which follows a small cast of interconnected figures through various spatial and temporal settings, most notably the upper Midwest approximately twenty years after a pandemic has wiped out the bulk of the world’s human population. Largely due to the incredible vividness of that future Mandel presents, Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction novel, and genre fiction titan George R.R. Martin has praised the novel on his blog, even suggesting it should be named best novel at this year’s Hugo Awards. Given that scores of science fiction writers, both excitable young adults and grizzled veterans, likely wish they could somehow travel to an alternate universe wherein their work received such acclaim, one might imagine that these are the proudest moments of Mandel’s burgeoning science fiction career. But there’s a catch: some people (Mandel among them) aren’t quite sure if she has a science fiction career at all.
You see, even Mandel doesn’t quite think of the novel as science fiction; rather, she imagines Station Eleven as literary fiction, and the book’s status as a finalist for the National Book Award, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States, indicates that much of the literary community agrees with her assessment. For many, Station Eleven deserves the label of “Serious Literature.”
I can almost hear some of your groans from across the computer screen, science fiction fans. “Here it is,” you’re thinking, “another author writing science fiction but claiming it’s something else so the literati will indulge. Look at the apocalyptic wasteland; notice all the allusions to Star Trek; for God’s sake, the book shares its title with the pulpy comic books about heroic adventures on a planet-sized spaceship that one of Station Eleven’s own characters writes.” And, to a certain degree, you’re probably right; genres matter economically, and, had the novel been marketed as pure sci-fi, the book probably wouldn’t have enticed the Oprah’s-Book-Club-type readers that have allowed it to soar up the bestseller list, and it certainly would have been ignored by the major literary prizes.
Mandel probably knows the functional value of avoiding a genre fiction label as well as anyone; oddly enough, she has stated that the impetus for writing was partially to avoid the label of “crime fiction author” that she had begun to obtain from her first three novels. No need to take Mandel’s denial of the sci-fi genre title too harshly, then; you can commiserate with your crime fiction peers. Go ahead and call Mandel a traitor – I’m sure there will others to echo your complaints.
However, if you can temper your anger for a moment, I’ll try to explain to you why Mandel’s supposed denial of the genre might not be as simple as it seems right now. As much as a short list of the book’s events and allusions might lead one to believe Station Eleven is directly within the lineage of science fiction, when actually reading the book, the lineage does not seem quite so apparent. Sure, a third of the book takes place in a dystopian future, but two-thirds of it does not; the novel cares about how its characters try to live and construct meaning in the horrific future, but it also cares about how its characters do so in mid-1990s Toronto and early 21st century Los Angeles, each of which occupies a length of the novel comparable to the dystopian future. While some chapters detail dangerous cultists stalking our band of heroes, other chapters focus on the disintegration of a famous couple’s marriage or the death of a middle-aged actor on stage while performing as King Lear. Most of the book reads as a purely realist meditation on the trials and anxieties of celebrity culture, a classic example of literary fiction.
Even in the dystopian future, Shakespeare looms large. His plays keep appearing throughout every portion of the text, including the future; not even dear Captain Picard means as much to the novel as the Bard. For all of the novel’s interest in science fiction, the primary literary figure is not Asimov or Clarke – rather, it is the man who serves as the cornerstone for countless authors who know nothing of metaphysical sciences but can recite countless lines from metaphysical poets.
So, if one is to be fair, Station Eleven can be read just as convincingly as a work of literary fiction just as – if not more – convincingly than as a work of pure science fiction. However, is fighting over what the novel is truly productive? Both communities have recognized it with major awards; the book now belongs to both genres, each of which could stand to learn the value of sharing from the genre of children’s picture books. And perhaps, if we all can learn the importance of sharing, Station Eleven can serve as the rare book that proves real-world literary fiction and science fiction can coexist within one text, that most books aren’t as simple as their shelving designation.
In the harsh future of Station Eleven, a band of musicians and actors come together to form a traveling troupe, dedicating to performing the works of Shakespeare, in order to maintain some semblance of pre-collapse culture. This group, known as the Traveling Symphony, has a slogan, which they have written on their caravan: “Because survival is insufficient.” The source of this quotation, so vital to this group of Shakespeareans that they immediately advertise it to anyone who might see them? Star Trek. In Mandel’s future, the literary culture has, by necessity, been stripped of its silly biases and pointless designations. Star Trek and Shakespeare can exist within the same space, in tandem. Maybe our future can also feature such a productive coexistence of literary and science fiction, and maybe Station Eleven can serve as a guide. I hope so, as long as we don’t have to go through our own devastating pandemic in order to get there.
October 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
Rush is my favorite band in the universe. Not only is their musical ability unparalleled by any major bands of today, the subject material of their lyrics is philosophical, profound, and often deals with fantasy and science fiction. Currently, I’m listening to their concept album 2112, a 21-minute megasuite depicting a man who rediscovers rock music in a dystopian future, only to have his discovery rejected by the priests of the Temple of Syrinx; he then runs off, is shown a vision of the “Elder Race” by an oracle, and kills himself in despair of not living in such a free world. If you’ve read Anthem, by Ayn Rand, this plot should sound familiar, sans the depressing end. In any case, the music and lyrics fuse perfectly in creating the plot of the story. I’d highly recommend spending the time and listening to the track.
Rush has inspired me before; I’ve used quotes from their songs on essays all throughout high school and on all manners of applications. Now, when it comes time to think of a scifi story of my own, they once again pull through. This story would be set in the far future and have the same theme of discovery, but aside from that the message would be entirely different.
It is the year 2504. Earth has become uninhabitable, surrounded by a dense fog of carbon dioxide and methane, its surface temperature upwards of two hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The majority of life is dead of cataclysmic storms and tremendous heat waves. The only exceptions are archaea living near volcanic vents and the colony of ten thousand humans living on the Moon, a colony started by some farsighted scientists which is focused on terraforming the moon so that spacesuits are no longer necessary and the population can increase. Having learned their lessons from the past, the founders of the colony set up an idyllic collectivist society, a society in which the benefit of the individual is subordinated to the benefit of the community. Each member of the colony has a specific job, the people live in peace, and the overall conditions and culture are almost tribal in nature. Unfortunately, these people have forgotten the true horrors of the distant past, and now carry on their society out of habit. There is scientific progress, but a sense of history is lacking.
Obviously, also lacking is a resource supply, since the Moon doesn’t have much to offer on its own. Thus, each month a crew of colonists makes a trip back to Earth to collect things like water, metal ore, and other necessary supplies. Unfortunately, on one of these trips a young explorer falls through a crack in some rock, and a la Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood makes a discovery–more accurately, a rediscovery–of gold, all the gold bullion left behind in the ruins of Fort Knox. Struck by its beauty, he takes a nugget, and mentally notes the location of the mine. As more trips to Earth are required, he continually volunteers, each time taking back more and more gold, until he holds a vast fortune, or what would have been a vast fortune on Earth five hundred years earlier. Eventually, he unveils his riches to the community.
The colony is in awe of this new, shiny metal, and because it lacks the historical knowledge of all the conflicts caused by gold over the years, does not know better than to make any attempt to seize it. A bitter jealously develops, and at some point a good amount of the gold is stolen by the man’s rival and some of the rival’s followers. Naturally, this sets off a violent conflict.
In the midst of this conflict, another resource ship returns, this one bearing another explorer who has fallen through the ruins of the Library of Congress and discovered the history of war on Earth. Meaning to stop the war on the moon, he returns, but is killed in the fighting. Eventually, the moon war is won by the original discoverer of the gold, who establishes a dictatorship and begins to pollute the moon with factories built to produce arms.
This is a pretty depressing view of human nature, I guess. Hopefully we can save THIS Earth so that we don’t even have to resort to the moon.
September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
Our culture seems to have very different perceptions of science fiction and its fans that are based upon the medium within which it is presented. Reading science fiction novels and watching science fiction movies are treated as very different activities, and are responded to in very different ways. My family, a group of generally culturally-typical individuals without strong scientific backgrounds, is an excellent example of this interesting contradiction.
My parents, like many Americans, consider the Star Wars trilogy to be some of the greatest movies ever made, and my family enjoys watching popular science fiction movies such as Avatar. When I was a kid, we would all watch The X-Files together, eventually moving on to spend our Friday evenings watching Stargate: SG1. My mother and sister have read the Harry Potter series many times over, as have a large proportion of my friends. However, neither my family nor many of my friends have an interest in science fiction literature. In fact, they consider it “nerdy” and, to a lesser extent, “masculine.” What, exactly, makes magic, vampires, and Middle Earth more socially acceptable and feminine, and less nerdy, than space battles and futurism, and why is this distinction seemingly more pronounced in literature than in other media?
The answers to these questions are unclear. The masculinity of science fiction is undoubtedly related to the masculinity of science and technology in general; for example, men comprise a significantly greater proportion of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians than do women. Perhaps science fiction movies and television shows are perceived as less masculine and nerdy because they are created and marketed in order to appeal to the greatest number of people. A new book, after all, is not promoted to anywhere near the extent of a movie like Avatar. Or perhaps science fiction is more accessible for uninitiated or casual audiences when it is presented in a visual medium: certainly the visual aspects of exploring different worlds and outer space are part of the appeal of science fiction movies, and this effect may be diminished for some audiences when translated into literature. There are any number of possible answers to the question of why science fiction literature is less socially acceptable than science fiction in visual media, and I hope to further explore this topic through the course of the semester, both from sociological interest and to better understand my own experiences regarding my family.