Enjoy the journey

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Dear Sam,

It’s me — Or rather, it’s you…  It’s us?… Ugh, point is, it’s Sam.  Your future self, that is, not quite 6 years down the road.  Hope you are enjoying your 14th birthday so far.  I should really know whether or not you are enjoying it since I experienced it, but it’s been a while, so I can’t quite remember the details.

I also hope you have digested that I am writing to you.  It’s weird, I know.  I’ve seen, learned, and experienced things you haven’t.  I’ve made it out of middle school (just half a year left — you can make it!).  I’ve completed high school.  I’m a sophomore in college.  A lot can and will happen in the next few years.

However, if you think I’m about to divulge any of that, you are gravely mistaken.  See, this a journey you should make on your own.  I know that you enjoy surprises.  I also know that, unfortunately, you will remember every detail I share with you, even if I urge you to push it from your mind immediately, and even if you wish to do so.  I hate to disappoint, but that means this is going to be a letter of ambiguity and clichés.

At this point, I know West Middle School is quickly losing whatever glamour it ever possessed.  But let’s be honest, nobody loves middle school, and West legitimately looks like a prison, so what could you expect?  Besides, you’re about to begin four fantastic years at Cherry Creek High School.  A student body of 3500 may seem intimidating now, but if you make an effort to meet new people and try new things, you’ll find your niche.  Trust me.

As much as you’re ready to leave the universal “awkward phase” behind with middle school, I hate to break it to you, but you’re gonna have to wait a couple more years.  If it’s any consolation, I can promise you that you will not top out at 5’1″ and 90 lbs, you will not be in braces forever, you will not have a soprano voice forever, and you will not receive the children’s menu at restaurants for the rest of your life (but again… give it a couple years).

When people ask you what your favorite school subject is, you’re that one kid who says, “I like everything.”  When people ask you what you want to do when you grow up, you’re that one kid who says, “I have no idea.”  These same questions and these same answers will crop up more and more in the coming years, and when people eventually start to ask where you want to go to college, you will respond “I’m not sure.”  And all of that is totally OK.  As much as you may feel pressured to make decisions on these topics, your open mind will shape your identity and life for the better.

Now, as for why you’re receiving this letter on your 14th birthday, there are a couple of additional reasons.

First of all, today, October 9, 2012, your little brother turned 14.  I know, I know, this seems really sentimental, especially in light of the fact that 9-year-old Sean is a uniquely annoying little bugger.  He may use his creativity for evil now, but he turns out to be a pretty swell kid.  Smart, funny, and a surprisingly great friend for someone over 5 years younger than you — crazy as it sounds now, you’ll miss him when you’re off at college.

Speaking of college, I’m sure you’re dying to know just where you end up.  I’m equally sure you already know that I’m not going to tell you.  However, I will tell you that you’ll love it.  And you know that Foundation series Dad recommended to you for winter break reading, the one by the Russian guy, Isaac Asimov?  Yeah, you’ll definitely want to read those books.  They belong to the genre of science fiction, which you haven’t really explored yet.  And once you’re at this wonderful college, there will be a certain seminar you’ll want to take that is kind of related.

Now that you’ve learned very little about your future, I’m left with one last cliché:

Don’t worry about it.  Enjoy the journey,
Sam (B5)

On the Alleged Marginalization of Science Fiction

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the enduring traits of science fiction fandom is its perception that its favored genre is treated unfairly. English departments sneer at it, the mainstream segments of the film and literature industries dismiss it, and people who enjoy it are denigrated as “nerds”; so the popular opinion goes. Is this perception accurate, though?

I would characterize myself as a science fiction fan. After all, a fair amount of my childhood was spent reading novels by Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and other noteworthy science fiction authors, and many of my favorite television shows, like The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Firefly, fall squarely within the genre. Yet I have never experienced or witnessed the marginalization that the mainstream supposedly inflicts upon science fiction. Many of my close friends in high school were even more into the genre than me; I have yet to attempt to make my way through the many iterations of the classic British show Doctor Who, but I had friends who had seen every episode. My grandmother watched most of the iterations of that other classic science fiction show, Star Trek, when they first aired. Hollywood hasn’t dismissed science fiction since the phenomenal success of Star Wars 34 years ago. Finally, lest the charge that English departments sneer at science fiction is allowed to stand unchallenged, one of the first classes I took at Vanderbilt was an English class. Its assigned reading list included William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

I don’t doubt that science fiction was relegated to the margins of film and literature in the past. An interviewer once asked The Twilight Zone‘s creator, Rod Serling, if the amount of work he was putting into the show meant that he had given up on writing anything “important” for television. Other incidents like this one pepper the history of science fiction, and they have left an impression on writers and readers alike. That said, in the past three decades or so, it seems to me that science fiction has moved much more into the mainstream; it may very well be that the perceived marginalization of science fiction is, in 2011, little more than the shadow of a phenomenon that has long since vanished.

Richard W.

A Scientist’s and a Sociologist’s Impressions of Science Fiction

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

I called the scientist and began by asking what science fiction, if any, he had read growing up. He recalled that he had read and watched some science fiction, mentioning Asimov and Captain Video, but that he sometimes became frustrated by the inaccuracies of the science portrayed by the genre. During the conversation, he mentioned that he felt more moved by his mother’s descriptions of Einstein’s theories than by science fiction. He felt that the factual basis of real science made it, in many ways, more exciting than science fiction. Now, his opinion is not meant as an affront to science fiction but as a suggestion that real science find its way into popular culture. For instance, how often does one search PubMed to brush up on recent medical advances?

The sociologist began by telling me he had also not read much science fiction growing up. He was far too engrossed in reading history. He completed The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples at a rather young age. He, like the scientist, had his curiosity satiated by learning about the facts of the real world.

I do not believe that science fiction inherently has a responsibility to be realistic and accurate, and I do not think the scientist or sociologist expects this from the genre either. The fictional nature of the science is itself responsible for some of the greatest benefits of the genre. The fictional aspect allows the reader to explore places and scenarios inaccessible in the real world. Science fiction also offers opinions on the challenges that might be faced by our society as it advances technologically. Nevertheless, I think it is important that science fiction not displace an individual’s fascination in his own world. If science fiction is the only means by which a person fulfills his scientific curiosity, he will miss out on the exciting science of the world that he inhabits. Just to reiterate, this is not meant to diminish the value of science fiction.  Rather, it is meant to suggest that the fascination elicited by the scientific elements of science fiction can, and should, be sought after in the science of the real world as well.


Social Sci-Fi

September 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Most of my friends and family have no real opinion about my nascent love of science fiction, and for my part I mostly keep to myself about it. It’s a system that works very well. I can count on one hand the number of people that I know for sure would willingly sit down and watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me. Of those, one is a person whom I introduced to the franchise (read “younger brother”) and the other is a guy who I’m pretty sure had watched every episode of TNG before I became a fan. At least I know for sure that he’s seen every one of them as of this post.

I mention my relationship to Star Trek not because I believe it’s the be-all end-all of science fiction, but because it’s arguably the best-known and most easily accessible science fiction for the uninitiated. (We’ll leave Star Wars off the table.) Even people who think sci-fi is for losers are likely to have heard of it; some may even have come across the phrase “Live long and prosper,” or references to a “Vulcan nerve pinch” (more on that a little later.) And let’s face it—watching something on television at least has the potential to become a public experience. When was the last time you and a buddy picked up two copies of a novel and tried to keep pace with each other? Unless you’re holding a book in your hand or telling someone that you’ve decided to severely narrow the number of jobs that actually require your degree (read “have just announced that you’re majoring in English”), you’re more likely to be asked about your favorite TV show than your favorite author.

Among my peers, very few could identify the name “Isaac Asimov” if they saw it on a book that I was holding. It would take a second question—“What’s it about?”—before I could be properly assigned my due place in the taxonomy of people who read in public. But say “Star Trek” and they immediately start contorting their fingers.

Which brings us back to the Vulcan nerve pinch. One time, in an informal setting at church, we were talking about SEC football. My antagonist in this story was a Georgia Bulldogs fan—one of my closer friends, actually. (I’ll call him Ronaldo.) Ronaldo started naming SEC football teams and had stumbled through a good number without mentioning the Commodores. After reminding him of this, I reached up my hand, made the VU sign (thumb, pointer, and middle finger extended, with the other two folded into an open palm) and said “go ‘dores.” Ronaldo interpreted this as my attempt at a Vulcan nerve pinch. I interpreted his hysterical laughter as well-meaning and eventually got my explanation across.

But who the heck starts a nerve pinch by lifting their arm over their head, then ends it without pinching?


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