Pleasures of Reading, Thinking and Conversing in Science Fiction Age

May 11, 2018

Thanks to Dr. John Reynolds, HMU alumnus, for today's post.

How malleable the notion of science fiction is! What strange places one ends up in when exploring such a seemingly simple question: "Is Star Wars science fiction?" The question grew out of reflections on and discussions about Alissa Simon's blog post “What is Science Fiction” from April 27, 2018. Originally, I planned on exploring important differences between science fiction and fantasy, and I thought that Star Wars would make an excellent cultural artifact for further conversation, especially with the approach of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be with You) and a stand-alone Han Solo movie arriving in theaters near the end of May.

I enjoy the passion found in diverse commentators on science fiction who disagree on the classification, value, and influence of Star Wars. They form a community as diverse as the vision for the Star Wars universe. Some find the films and franchise a threat to the genre of authentic science fiction and a disintegrating influence on culture. Others find it part of a benign or even beneficial paradigm shift in our cultural habits concerning narrative, entertainment, and culture. Some scholars and fans make strict distinctions between hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Some adamantly refuse to acknowledge Star Wars as science fiction, citing numerous scientific and technical deficiencies, while others find a home for it in the category of soft science fiction. Those who commend the soft science fiction of Star Wars tend to align it with the ongoing idea of myth. Such mythic identification links the characters, plots, and themes with ongoing archetypes that continue to fascinate human beings across time and cultures. In an older online posting found on The American Prospect, Cara Feinberg captures this sense of interest while exploring the question "Is Star Wars Art?" She explains how the 2002 Brooklyn Museum's presentation of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth "examines the mythological roots of the now legendary film saga that explores themes of heroism and redemption and the triumph of good over evil through the creation of characters that exemplify chivalry, nobility, valor, and evil...." Likewise, I recall Joseph Campbell making such claims while being interviewed by Bill Moyers about the power of myth and the hero's journey in the late eighties.

A few tangential opinions about science fiction provide additional insights about fans and science fiction that go beyond limited concerns involving just Star Wars. Along with the exploratory and predictive functions of science fiction, Jason Sanford asserts that it actually helps create the future, as he winsomely explains how those techies who brought us the Motorola flip-phone were clearly Star Trek fans. In a style reminiscent of Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if..." comedy, one interesting post describes "11 Habits That All Sci-Fi Readers Have In Common," ranging from "[l]ooking for the real science behind the fake science fiction," to "[c]orrecting people on the differences between sci-fi and fantasy," and “[c]oming up with plans for when the aliens arrive". A formal study of reading habits suggests that the genre of science fiction texts may entice its readers to be less skillful interpreters of texts. I suspect that the potentially bad influence depends much more on a given reader's willingness to read any genre thoughtfully. Although my sample size is relatively small, I have known several high school English students who are as critically adept at analyzing Austen and Shakespeare as they are at evaluating android and space stories. Is such science fiction a foe to those of us who deeply value the Great Books and Great Conversation traditions? I think not. When I think of how much one of my current students enjoys discussing traditional literary texts alongside science fiction stories, I am inspired to assert, "It is a universe truthfully acknowledged that technological, sociological, psychological, and spiritual forces need careful balancing."

An even more extensive demonstration of discussing science fiction thoughtfully comes in Adam Roberts' The History of Science Fiction. Roberts carefully examines the contemporary popularity of science fiction and offers a strange point of origin for it in the Protestant Reformation: Adams asserts that his "core argument is not just that SF begins out of the Reformation; it is that the fierce cultural climate of that time shaped SF, wrote its DNA in ways that manifest substantively even into the 21st century." Roberts provides a striking contrast to the well-worn arguments about science fiction's origin in nineteenth or twentieth century. He notes that his own research that yielded his book's first edition led him to see science fiction

"as a distinctly Protestant kind of ‘fantastic’ writing that has budded off from the older (broadly) Catholic traditions of magical and fantastic romances and stories, responding to the new sciences, the advances in which were also tangled up in complex ways with Reformation culture."

As I reflect on his thesis, I cannot help but think of the root meaning of Catholic as "whole" or "universal." Roberts first provides a helpful summation of his view of a classic Catholic vision of human beings in relationship to the universe:

"To an orthodox Catholic imagination a plurality of inhabited worlds becomes an intolerable supposition; other stars and planets become a theological rather than a material reality, as they were for Dante - a sort of spiritual window-dressing to God’s essentially human-sized creation."

In contrast, he shows how he conceives of the Protestant Reformation vision:

"[The] cosmos expands before the probing inquiries of empirical science through the 17th and 18th centuries, and the imaginative-speculative exploration of that universe expands with it. This is the science fiction imagination, and it becomes increasingly a function of Western Protestant culture. From this SF develops as an imaginatively expansive, and materialist mode of literature, as opposed to the magical-fantastic, fundamentally religious mode that comes to be known as fantasy."

For me, this provides a powerful way for reading the texts of Francis Bacon and surfacing, not only his methodology, but also imaginative vision for scientific purpose. I'm finding motivation to re-read him along side of Dante to further explore these strange contrasts: a rather strong material-spiritual dialectic is at work in comparing these two authors. To clarify his personal position on these two streams of influence, Roberts also gently assures us that he does "not mean to suggest a priority of value or merit of one mode over the other," and that he equally enjoys reading fantasy and science fiction.

Clearly, there is much more to explore in Roberts' expositional history of science fiction, but it offers interesting connections for consideration about the nature and popularity of Star Wars and a host of other modern popular fantastical films. Roberts notes that "[t]he level on which Star Wars works most effectively is precisely as visual myth." By this, he suggests that the appeal of Star Wars and its legacy functions to give audiences a grand sense of imaginative connectedness to our ever-expanded sense of smallness in a really big universe - much in the way he envisions the Catholic imaginative tradition. In this line of thought, even more than the Reformation's break from visual and sacramental ways of imagining the world, our society's increasing secularization leaves many of us hungry for ways to re-enchant our connections to nature, the world, and the larger universe. Awareness of such hungers helps us appreciate Roberts' assertion that "SF is now the most popular form of art on the planet because it has colonised visual media." Star Wars was essentially the first film to break open and popularize this experience of visual myth. Even the current excitement about Avengers: Infinity War resembles the visual myth experience and can be traced back to the influence of Star Wars.

If I understand Roberts correctly, we benefit from becoming increasingly aware of how we get so enamored by the power of visual myth and large-scale spectacles because such self-awareness serves as an important part of understanding our collective and individual assumptions about our identities. Otherwise, we lose sight of many important not-so-visual concerns for pursuing human flourishing. Perhaps, this is Socrates with a lightsaber admonishing us to know ourselves? Consequently, many of the resources for sharpening our visions of the present and the future come from understanding the influences of the past more clearly and deeply, and we benefit from conversing about and reflecting on these influences. With a healthy dose of optimism, Roberts finds a glimmer of hope related to this concern as he opines that the two heroes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens "are, respectively, a competent and brave woman, and a man of Nigerian heritage," and that "[e]ven as it cycles through the comforting old tropes and features, this new Star Wars is proving what SF has always known, that this is a mode of art intensely hospitable to diversity." Indeed, from the urban centers to the outer rim of our society, many ideas related to Star Wars have some surprisingly powerful ways of sparking diverse and thoughtful conversations about past, present, and future visions of human flourishing.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”  – Yoda

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What Is Science Fiction

April 27, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a three-day conference hosted by the Great Books Council of San Francisco. The event, which took place at Asilomar, offers four discussions focused on one play, one work of non-fiction, one of fiction and a handful of poems. The wonderful selections were further enriched through discussion. The selected fiction was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Though this story is set on a distant planet and in a distant future, I connected with many of the issues raised in the text. Personally, I feel that Le Guin brilliantly demonstrated what it is like to meet a culture very different from your own. It included political frustrations, tensions between genders, misunderstandings of all kinds, economic interests, and an epic journey. To be honest, the setting could be nearly anywhere and at any time because she addressed so many universal societal issues. However, in moving the narrative outside of “earthly” restrictions, Le Guin allows for dynamic debate, divorced from possibly hurtful particulars. So, in part, science fiction allows for an emotional detachment in a way that actual events or specific names and places would not allow.

More than that, though, science fiction allows the reader to examine the consequences of what we often call “progress”. In last week’s blog, HMU Fellow in Ideas, Matt Phillips wrote about one of the benefits of writing in a noir style. He writes: “Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.” In a similar fashion, science fiction provides a palette for understanding unknowns. As science progresses at light speed, it moves far past the average citizen’s grasp. There is no way to keep track of each scientific study or each new technological platform. Science’s broad reach affects our daily lives in demonstrable ways, but more often than not, understanding a new device arrives as an after-effect. Regulators and lawyers struggle to keep abreast of changing technologies. We even struggle to name new technologies, which we often base off of natural phenomena such as “cloud computing” or “website”. The science fiction writer is tasked with thinking in terms of possibility. What if faster is not better? Or, what if faster is greatly better? What are the possible outcomes of gene-therapy? Or, who should have access to such potentially powerful tools?

Science fiction, however, does not predict futures. It simply explores them. In the preface to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin writes:

“This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only be the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

“The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed  Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted – but to describe the reality, the present world.”

In a recent report on genetic technology, NIH Director Francis Collins claims: “When something truly significant is discovered its consequences are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term." Simply put, it is difficult for the non-scientist to understand the scope of the continual scientific evolution. Therefore, the science fiction writer designs and creates a thought experiment meant to discover potential outcomes. The evolution of science fiction seems natural to me, as humans progressively depend upon and live with technology. Excited by new capabilities, we are also curious about implications. For example, what if anyone could alter their own genes; should they?

In another article, new types of data are being used to identify poverty and restructure impoverished areas. I found it particularly interesting to see the diverse groups necessary to discuss such implementations. The article mentions:  “a coalition of homeowners, renters, people with the experience of homelessness, nonprofit developers, community associations, religious institutions, policy experts, and university faculty” who will discuss human rights issues in such a difficult transition. I can see how science programs (such as STEM or STEAM) benefit society. I also firmly believe that ethics courses are as necessary as science. I believe that this is another benefit of science fiction: it is almost a category between the two, uniting science with fictitious outcomes in which we can ask ethical questions. It is authors like Le Guin who question our understanding of progress. I do not mean to imply that we should not embrace technology or change. In fact, rather the opposite. I embrace science, science fiction and ethics as all necessary parts of my education.

In addition to excellent discussions, the group at Asilomar listened to a keynote speech by Corie Ralston, current director of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology. Not only is she a scientist, but she also writes science fiction. She gave a wonderful presentation that included a short history of science fiction, but also a hopeful future for the genre. Her website describes a deep-rooted love of science, nature, creative thought and reading. She writes: “If writing is a way to emotionally understand our world, then science is a way to practically understand our world. And science is more than that to me: it is a way of exploring and creating and learning how to think. It uses the best of our human nature. It is a continual source of awe.” I could not agree more.

Thanks to the wonderful folks of the Great Books Council of San Francisco for welcoming me into their discussions!

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Plutarch's Idea of Leadership

October 21, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Leadership has been on nearly everyone's mind as of late. Unfortunately, it is not a Great Idea in the Great Books canon. However, there are many categories that touch upon ideas of leadership, such as Government, Man, Constitution, and Virtue and Vice. There is very little agreement about what makes a good leader. In fact, the only point of nearly universal agreement among Great Books authors is that some sort of government is necessary for the life of a state. The authors tend to talk about government through a specific lens, such as religion or family or state. As a result, Mortimer Adler decided to split this idea of leadership and government into categories. In other words, researching leadership will take you through a number of Great Ideas. Combining a group of Great Ideas as they pertain to leadership or government may be very instructive.

Perhaps the lack of holistic instruction in the form of leadership is due in part to a lack of imagination. It is ironic that sometimes I find history (and historical fiction) to be as difficult to identify with as science fiction. Science fiction is a relatively new 'genre'. H.G. Wells really inspired the field of science fiction that we know today (though works such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein existed prior to Wells). When he published War of the Worlds in the 1890s, he explored a path for scientists to discuss potential futures as related to the advancement of science. In other words, in combining two previously unlike entities he created an entirely new entity. Or, an entirely new lens. This is important for the current discussion, since we are attempting to discover a way to enlighten leadership through universalities. Plutarch offers one enlightening experiment that discusses leadership from a variety of perspectives.

In Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch compares two successful leaders of different societies. He gives a full account of one leader, then another, and then compares the two based upon their birth, education, actions, events, environment, and government style. His combination of virtues depends upon the success of the civilization. He defines this success in a number of ways: longevity, certainly, but also through moral and virtuous actions of the citizens and sustainable structures that supported these citizens. (I intend “structures” to include both physical and intangible elements, such as city development in combination with legal and cultural developments too.) In each case, however, Plutarch focuses on the behaviors in which the leader was not focused on himself, but on the people. So, even though their laws may seem odd or harsh to a contemporary reader, the leader earned respect from their community for having attained a level of safety, peace and prosperity, not for themselves, but for the survival of a race.

From a contemporary standpoint, it can be really difficult to understand virtue as demonstrated by some of these leaders and their corresponding societies. We almost have to think in terms of science fiction – as something that stretches beyond current possibilities. Lycurgus, a Spartan king included in Plutarch's Lives, as an example, created an insular society completely independent (and undesirable) to outsiders by replacing the currency. Plutarch writes, “[Lycurgus] commanded that all gold and silver coin should be called in, and that only a sort of money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was very little worth; so that to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen”. This change also affected foreign trade and travel. Without traveling merchants or any immigration, Sparta became insulated, safe and constant. They maintained peace because no one desired goods or money. In this case, the science fiction aspect relates to how he used technology to completely eradicate wealth. Plutarch writes, “It was certainly an extraordinary thing to have brought about such a result as this, but a greater yet to have taken away from wealth, as Theophrastus observed, not merely the property of being coveted, but its very nature of being wealth”. I simply cannot imagine how we could remove wealth or make it meaningless in today's society, in the globalized society. I find it more likely that we will be able to populate Mars with potatoes (as in The Martian), than to eradicate the idea of wealth. I am quite sure that this is due to my short-sightedness. (Star Trek's government also disregarded the importance of wealth. A topic to be discussed on a future blog, I hope).

My point is that perhaps it is due to a lack of imagination that some societal problems persist. I enjoy Plutarch's experiment and gain much from his manner of writing as well as the historical comparisons he offers. The biographical note claims that “[Plutarch] states that his original intention had been to instruct others, but in the course of writing he discovered that more and more it was he himself who was deriving profit and stimulation from 'lodging these men one after another in his house'”. I believe that there is much profit to be gained by exploring two unlike entities, comparing, contrasting, allowing for context and measuring results as we alone would measure them. It is important to answer these questions for ourselves through thorough investigation. Plutarch, therefore, challenges both my imagination and my understanding, which leads me to, at the very least, a better understanding of leadership.


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It's Back and Better Than Ever

June 3, 2016

Thanks to Sue Durkin, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The Great Books Chicago weekend, advertised as “a weekend of conversations and culture,” is back and its return was glorious. I was fortunate enough to be one of the seventy participants spanning from California to Toronto who converged in the Windy City to discuss the benefits and detriments of living in utopian societies. The texts used to prompt the discussions were the quintessential dystopian novel, Orwell’s 1984, and the Great Books anthology, Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions.

The weekend started with a Thursday evening flight from my warm-weather home of Arizona to beautiful, chilly Chicago. At the Phoenix airport I dutifully waited my turn to present my documents and submit to x-rays of my belongings and my sock-shod body. Cameras and security personnel watched and followed as I moved along. I understand and accept that each of my encounters and interactions in the airport was for my own good and for the safety of all. But my utopian-soaked mind couldn’t help but think, “What are we willing to give up personally for the benefit/betterment of society? Do all of these measures make a better, happier society?”

Upon arrival at the downtown Chicago hotel, I was immediately struck by the similarities between the look of the hotel and the images described in the utopian writings I came to Chicago specifically to discuss. Looking up at the building’s interior, I was struck by the uniformity; each floor and each room seemed the same. Each room had a perfect view of other doors on all other floors; perfect for knowing when your neighboring occupants were coming and going. The impression was beautiful, yet industrial, with a dash of familiarity. People were enjoying adult beverages in an area on the main level, the same area where my fellow participants and I had our communal breakfasts each morning. Again, through the filter of 1984 and the other readings, I pondered, “Does sameness increase satisfaction? Why do we feel more at ease when we can keep an eye on everyone else?” Indeed, the simple, routine flight and lovely, comfortable hotel provided a perfect prime for the conversation pump.

As advertised, this weekend was equally about culture. Participants were treated to a sampling of the culture that is interwoven throughout Chicago. On Friday, the clouds lifted and we took a river cruise to observe and appreciate Chicago’s amazing architecture. An evening at the Pinstripes restaurant followed, where engaging conversations and delicious food were enjoyed by all. On Saturday, participants were offered a glimpse into the Gilded Age (a utopian age for some) with a tour of the Dreihaus Museum. This grand former residence brought our imaginations back to the turn of the century, especially with its current exhibit featuring the costumes of Downton Abbey. These costumes served to transport us to the early 1900s in a way that was truly unique. But wait, there’s more! Saturday was capped off by an evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert of works by Mozart and Strauss. Beautiful music delivered in an equally beautiful turn of the century building. It was truly an ideal evening.

Throughout the weekend, the discussion participants met in the historical building on Wacker Drive that is home to the Great Books Foundation. After registering and receiving our assigned groups for the weekend, we gathered for an introduction and outline of what participants should expect for the weekend from Joe Coulson, President of the Great Books Foundation, and a memorable rendition of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by the incomparable Gary Schoepfel. These gatherings, sans the dulcet tones of maestro Gary, were repeated prior to each session and served to focus our attention on the upcoming discussion. The ability to conduct our discussions in the Wacker building provided a perfect, nay ideal, setting. Unlike previous years, discussion groups were comprised of the same participants and leaders for every discussion. This change enabled participants to get to know each other better, make better cross-discussion connections, and to dig a little deeper with each other as the weekend progressed.

As with all Great Books Council discussion weekends, the stories take center stage and this weekend was no exception. We gathered two times to discuss six selections taken from the anthology, Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions and one time to discuss Orwell’s 1984. The pieces from the anthology ranged from Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” to “Utopia” by Wislawa Szymborska. The authors challenged our ideas regarding what we consider perfection to be… Is it more appealing to live an unknown, unsure, but free life? Or is the safe, known, secure, but costly life a better option? What are you willing to sacrifice for your happiness? Is the happiness of the whole worth the misery of the one? Can a utopian society tolerate individual thought and expression? As we walked through these selections, and one path led to another path, the three days of discussions prompted more questions. Good literature coupled with good discussions can be life altering. At the end of the weekend, I was left with some questions that will inform and shape future decisions... Are we resigned to giving away our power and as a result losing touch with our potential to be truly happy? What am I willing to give away of myself, my freedom, my potential, my talent, and my curiosity for what someone calls the greater good? Hmmm...

Yes, Great Books Chicago is back. Suffice it to say, the impact that the readings, discussions, culture, art, and comradery that makes up the sum total of Great Books Chicago, left this participant richer for having attended. No, TSA did not wave me through the line with a wink and a nod as I returned home to Phoenix, but I came away from the weekend appreciating the entire experience and looking forward to what next year will bring.

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