A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!
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A few years ago, I taught an upper division literature course on American space opera. There were a couple reasons I chose that angle over many other possible science fiction topics I could have taught: It gave me an excuse to teach Ann Leckie, Tobias S. Buckell, and Star Wars. The course was marked as “American...
A few years ago, I taught an upper division literature course on American space opera. There were a couple reasons I chose that angle over many other possible science fiction topics I could have taught:
It’s that last piece I will talk about here.
For many people who have studied science fiction at the graduate level OR read academic research on the genre for kicks, the idea of “space opera” as the silly genre that nobody takes seriously is probably familiar. Darko Suvin, one of the major lit theorists in SF, basically dismissed the entire genre in his presentation of the concept of “cognitive estrangement,” though I recall that this was a result of his definition rather than an explicit dismissal.1 Plenty of other theorists of the genre have done the same, either intentionally and directly or by simply defining the genre, as Suvin essentially does, by excluding certain kinds of SF expressions. The result, whether intentional or otherwise, has been the near exclusion of the largest and most significant subgenre of science fiction from academic and critical discourse. While it is mentioned here or there and individual texts are certainly analyzed and recognized, there are only a handful of barely notable written works on the genre.
Don’t believe me? Look at the references section on the Wikipedia page for space opera. Most of the work that explicitly focuses on space opera comes from encyclopedias and non-fiction collections. There are a handful of works that focus on specific themes or concepts in SF/F that happen to be related to SF. The rest? Writing from outside of traditional academic discourse: blogs, newspapers, review websites or magazines, convention organizations, and so on. There’s also an OED entry, which is fun. And don’t get me wrong: Gary Westfahl’s edited collection, Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction, and The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction are important books, but they are not explicitly about the development of space opera, its influence, all of its themes, and so on, though both have sections that briefly do that work.2 Effectively, a lot of the work of exploration space opera involves reconstructing the subgenre from adjacent work. I’ve used I.F. Clarke’s “Future-War Fiction: the First Main Phase, 1871-1900” (Science Fiction Studies) for this purpose. There are, of course, exceptions. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction happens to have a pretty solid page on the subgenre, and that is effectively an academic site of a kind. There’s even Jerome Winter’s Science Fiction, New Space Opera, and Neoliberal Globalism: Nostalgia for Infinity, which most people have only read because they got a review copy or their library forked out $120+ for a copy. Beyond that, the field is largely quiet.
The fact that much of the work on space opera comes from outside traditional academic discourse does say a lot, though. The broader science fiction community has largely accepted space opera into its ranks, so it isn’t surprising that a lot of people in that world would write about it. But it also reveals that this should be a significant field of inquiry for scholars. Basically, I ask the same questions today that I asked back when I was building my space opera syllabus:
As a field, we probably need to do a lot of growing up. There’s no reason to dismiss any of the genres involved in SF/F anymore. If they have cultural value, academics need to be able to consider them in full detail. And that means making space for people to do that work, rejecting perspectives that dismiss certain kinds of SF/F as “not serious enough,” and supporting and encouraging scholarship on those “not serious” components of the genre.
Or I’ll just have to do it all myself and damn the consequences.
What do you all think about this? Am I missing crucial works of scholarship on space opera? Is the exclusion of the genre from significant study as big a problem as I think it is? Let me know in the comments.
The new semester at Bemidji State University started just two weeks ago, and it opened with a brand new view of the lake. Yup. I got a new office! It’s a lot larger than the last one, and I get to look at this every single day: It’s pretty awesome, right? And for those wondering about...
The new semester at Bemidji State University started just two weeks ago, and it opened with a brand new view of the lake. Yup. I got a new office! It’s a lot larger than the last one, and I get to look at this every single day:
It’s pretty awesome, right? And for those wondering about the pole: I’m pretty sure that is a bird nest stand of some kind. Hopefully, we’ll see some birds in it next spring. Maybe some bald eagles!
I’ll have more to say about the semester in a few weeks. For now, I’ll say that it’s a wee bit complicated…
Also: here’s a picture of the pacific coast in California. No reason. I just think it’s pretty.
A little over a year ago, we lost my grandmother, Merle Crawford. She was a quirky and jovial lady. The kind of person who could meet anyone at a grocery store and turn a chance encounter into a meeting between old friends. You can read a bit more about her life in the obituary I...
A little over a year ago, we lost my grandmother, Merle Crawford. She was a quirky and jovial lady. The kind of person who could meet anyone at a grocery store and turn a chance encounter into a meeting between old friends. You can read a bit more about her life in the obituary I wrote for her in the Mountain Democrat, the local newspaper for Placerville, California.
One thing that I often mention about my grandmother is the impact she had on me as a geek. While I certainly watched a lot of genre programming as a kid,1 there are two things that led to my passion for SF/F (and related genres):
So to celebrate the massive influence my grandmother had on my life in a very specific way, here’s a list of 5 SF/F/M (for mystery) movies and TV shows I love because of my grandma:
Enemy Mine is one of those films that probably hasn’t aged well but still holds a special place in my heart because Dennis Quiad and Louis Gossett Jr. are just…perfect. My grandmother loved it, I think, because of its very obvious allegory for racism in the U.S., which she witnessed as an immigrant from South Africa. It would be fair to say that my grandmother had complicated feelings about the end of Apartheid. I think there are two major reasons for this: First, she grew up in a white household that didn’t support Apartheid. Second, she moved to the U.S. before Apartheid had ended, and so her experiences of home came through occasional conversations with relatives and even less frequent trips home; she stopped going back in the 2000s (I think) because, from her perspective, it just wasn’t safe for her.2 These experiences probably turned her on to SF/F programs that tackled issues of prejudice and hatred.
To this day, I consider Enemy Mine to be an incredible film that doesn’t really pull punches when it comes to its message. Yes, it’s about prejudice and American racism. Yes, it’s about war and hatred for others. But it’s also a story of fatherhood, love for people who aren’t like us, and survival. Maybe my grandmother made me watch it because she hoped I’d learn lessons from it. If so, it worked. If there’s one thing my grandmother tried really hard to instill in her children and grandchildren, it was respect and love for people. I won’t claim to be good at it, but you can certainly pin some of my desire to see a more equal world on my grandmother’s clever film choices.
Look. I know that Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982) is largely considered to be the best Star Trek movie of all time. Hell, it’s considered one of the best science fiction movies of all time. But my first Star Trek wasn’t Wrath; it was The Voyage Home.
There are two things you need to know about this film’s influence on me:
My grandmother, as it happens, loved this film because she thought it was hilarious (it is) and because I think she was always more of a Trekkie than anything else. She grew up in the era of the original series, and I imagine she saw the hopeful vision of original Star Trek as something to aspire to. Today, we are much more critical of that vision (as we should be), but for my grandmother’s time, it offered something that probably had a lot of personal value as someone who truly loved people: hope. Plus, Spock wearing a towel on his head makes it really hard not to laugh, and my grandmother loved a good laugh.
You’re probably sensing a theme in the selections on this list. After all, Alien Nation is yet another obvious take on civil rights and racial issues in the U.S. The opening episode even goes so far as to feature Sikes, the head detective played by Gary Graham, standing on top of a car shouting at a group of human parents about why segregating schools is a garbage idea. In a lot of ways, Alien Nation is not subtle. That is except in the slow change of Sikes, who goes from being the scifi equivalent of your racist white neighbor who tolerates your existence but really doesn’t want to be your friend to being someone who, while imperfect, really tries to accept and respect people.
Needless to say, these were ideas that my grandmother probably experienced (as a child) in South Africa from her admittedly privileged position; they were also certainly ideas that came up while she lived in California. Alien Nation is not just a narrative about Jim Crow through the metaphor of aliens; it is also fundamentally about refugees and immigrants, and it’s not a coincidence that the show is set in Los Angeles or that the aliens (called Newcomers) arrive as refugees / laborers (an idea that District 9 would borrow for a more gory take from an explicitly South African perspective).3
In a lot of ways, my grandmother was deeply disappointed with what happened to the United States after 9/11. Alien Nation was a show that tried to tackle the darkness of the past to remind us about who we could become if we ignored history. Sadly, we became precisely what Alien Nation often vilified.
I confess that I have yet to watch every episode of Columbo. By the time I was born in 1983, my grandma was re-watching this show in syndication. And it’s only recently that I’ve started getting the collections so I can watch everything.
That said, if there’s one thing my grandma loved to watch on a regular basis, it was mystery shows. Back in the day, there wasn’t much quality SF/F television, but network TV in the U.S. had mystery television on lock. My grandma devoured shows like Murder, She Wrote and Matlock. When she discovered the wonders of Netflix, she spent a lot of her twilight years consuming every murder mystery show (especially the British varieties) she could.
Columbo, however, was a staple. I think my grandmother always liked the kind of bumbling detective act, especially as it was brought to life by the late and great Peter Falk. Columbo was like Monk, but iconic in a way that few shows ever have the fortune to become. Oh, and it was good. The show basically popularized the inverted detective story in TV (the audience knows who committed the crime and watches to see how they will get nabbed by the protagonist), and Falk’s performance was both amusing and delightful. Truly, the show was a phenomenal piece of work, and I still love it to this day. All because of my grandma.
Also: you can thank my grandma for my love of shows like Law & Order. Without Columbo, I’d probably still be watching cartoons. To be fair, cartoons are awesome!
It’s another show about mysteries and murder and other detective-y things. Except Diagnosis: Murder, as the title suggests, involves a doctor and his son (played by the great Dick Van Dyke and his actual son, Barry Van Dyke). I have a lot of fond memories of watching this show as a kid, lying at the edge of my grandmother’s bed. In fact, I have a lot of fond memories of Dick Van Dyke, which made picking a Dick Van Dyke thing for this list really difficult. So I went with the memories.
The thing about mystery shows is that they share so much in common with the kinds of programs my grandmother liked. Alien Nation is about police detectives who solve various crimes, all on the backdrop of the integration of two completely different cultures. Star Trek IV involves a bit of its own kind of cosmic mystery mixed with espionage and comedy, but with spaceships and whales. Even shows like Quantum Leap, which my grandmother absolutely adored (I think because she wanted to marry Scott Bakula), featured mystery narratives.
Diagnosis: Murder fits right into all of that, and it is one of those shows that encapsulates a lot of the childhood I had when I was with my grandmother. While there’s a lot to dislike about my childhood, the influence my grandmother had on me will always be present, especially through the shows and movies she shared with me (and through the messages she imparted through them). You might call it “wholesome” content or just “good stuff with good lessons.” Diagnosis: Murder tried to bring back some of the family friendly flare from shows my grandmother grew up on, and so it’s no surprise that she gravitated to it so easily. And it should be no surprise that I would still love this show to this day.
So there you have it. There’s much more I can talk about, but I’ve got re-runs of Columbo to watch…
What favorite shows or movies did your grandparents shove into your brain? Tell me in the comments. I’m curious!
I’m currently re-reading Robert E. Cumming’s introductory chapter from Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom, entitled “What Was a Wiki, and Why Do I Care? A Short and Usable History of Wikis.” This is one of the readings for my class on digital rhetoric, and it serves as a handy introduction to the invention...
I’m currently re-reading Robert E. Cumming’s introductory chapter from Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom, entitled “What Was a Wiki, and Why Do I Care? A Short and Usable History of Wikis.” This is one of the readings for my class on digital rhetoric, and it serves as a handy introduction to the invention of wikis, the reactions to them in the “ancient times,” and some of the key concerns about their impact on knowledge production. Basically, it’s some nerd shhhhh.
That said, it has got me thinking a lot about the role of wikis in our culture and, more importantly, just how much has changed since I was a kid. While there are still people running about saying you should never use wikis, for the most part, even academics have softened on them. A lot of you probably remember when that wasn’t the case. Hell, I remember when that wasn’t the case for me as a teacher. Mind you, I was never the type to outright fail a student for using Wikipedia, but I did strip away points.
Today, most of the teachers I know tell their students not to use Wikipedia as a primary source. But as a starting point for research? Have at it!
And as I prep for another introduction to wikis “conversation” for my digital rhetoric class, I’m thinking a lot about how digital technologies have seeped into our everyday lives while most of us didn’t notice it happening. Today, I’m deep in the digital rhetoric well, a consequence of social media activity and teaching a lot of composition. I might not have noticed way back when, but I am fully aware now even if I can’t figure out where the shift took place.
Cummings’ article attempts to put a pin on this shift. Folks who have studied or followed the history of Wikis are familiar with the study in Nature on the accuracy of Wikipedia compared to Encyclopaedia Britannica. While the study only looked at scientific pages on both sites (obviously), it concluded that accuracy levels were fairly similar. At the time, Britannica revolted, which is understandable given that encyclopedia work was effectively their domain, and Wikipedia was offering the same type of material for free.
In addition to the Nature study and the backlash, countless articles were written about how Wikipedia is bad for us. Too many inaccuracies (eh, not quite true). Too much emphasis on low effort learning (probably true). Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, even remarked that university students complaining about receiving poor grades after using his website as a primary source didn’t have a leg to stand on. Some people misinterpreted this to mean “even Wales says his site is full of bad info,” but Cummings rightly notes that Wales was really pointing out that college students should be researching on a deeper level. And, well, I agree. Casual users are not likely looking for in-depth analysis; they’re on Wikipedia to find a quick fact (a date, info about an event, etc.). Students, however, are supposed to be conducting research and learning. And there’s only so much you can learn from the cliff notes (which, yes, are perfectly fine to use in a lot of contexts).
Basically, all of this hubbub amounted to…nothing. Because Wikipedia is clearly here to stay, and it has become such a staple of our everyday lives that it’s almost hard to believe that there was a time when nearly everyone within higher education was screaming NO WIKIS at the top of their lungs.
And I’m here thinking about how we got here, but more importantly, how so many technologies we use on a regular basis showed up, were attacked, and wormed their way in anyway. Cellphones, MP3 players, social media, self-driving cars (OK, so there’s still work to be done there), and so on and so forth. Technology, it seems, has this profound ability to seep and seep and seep, and those who push hard against it constantly end up looking like angry people screaming at clouds in fields of despair. I’m sure if you’re one of those “history of technology” people, the story is more complicated and goes back centuries. For me, I’m just having one of those weird “OMG, what is all this stuff around me and how did it get here” moments.
All that said, I don’t want to give Wikipedia a total out. While it has changed how we think about knowledge production and has irrevocably changed our society, I share the same concerns as many digital rhetoric scholars and critics about how we measure responsibility for these tools. To pull a quote from Cummings:
The Nature study showed Wikipedia as generally accurate or at least not substantially less accurate than online encyclopedias produced under the traditional print paradigm. True, if Seigenthaler’s false biography had been posted on Encyclopedia Britannica Online, while he might not have had legal recourse, there would have been a clear author and editor to hold accountable. Wikipedia could not provide this. Instead, Wikipedia relies on those invested in a knowledge community on a volunteer basis to provide edits, and the failure of that system is aptly noted in Seigenthaler’s case since one Wikipedian looked at the article after its first post and merely corrected a misspelling, leaving the false content in place. In essence, all that the Wikipedia model could offer Seigenthaler is the opportunity to join this knowledge community and continually monitor his own biography on Wikipedia. Hardly a workable solution.
Responsibility, in other words, is probably the biggest issue for sites like Wikipedia. Who is responsible for what is written on the site? Who can be held accountable? How do you have “responsibility” when knowledge can be produced by dozens of people, most of whom are likely contributing to the project honestly?
Wikipedia’s response has been to entrench the authority of knowledge production into the hands of a few. “Oversight” is one such entrenchment designed to solve a problem but which produces new problems of its own. Initially, the idea behind Wikipedia was to help democratize knowledge (using consensus to provide neutral accounts of things)(this is largely my interpretation). But restricting power into the hands of a few means you run into a lot of the same issues that arise in other systems of knowledge. The biggest “obvious thing” here is the accurate criticism of gender bias among Wikipedia’s editorial staff. Curiously enough, Wikipedia has a page about this, and the Wikimedia Foundation (i.e., the managers of Wikipedia) agree with the criticism (neato).
Good luck, I guess. If the last decade of Internet activity has taught me anything, it’s that you should never underestimate a certain segment of our digital world when it comes to sabotaging good natured efforts to make our society more equitable. But I’m a bit of a pessimist…
All of which is to say that I’m fascinated by how society has changed while remaining deeply skeptical of those changes. When I discuss wikis with my students, the potential issues are always part of that conversation. That’s part of what I’d call my pedagogic approach: I do not simply introduce the technologies and ask students to study them; I want us to consider how society has changed as technology envelops our everyday lives. For wikis, I am always thinking about how they change knowledge production, what impacts they have on how we understand information and truth, and what we can do to integrate them into our lives while mitigating the harm they might do to our culture.
And so here we go…another day teaching digital rhetoric!
With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a quote to ponder:
While no one wants to undergo an operation from a physician who has just referenced the procedure on Wikipedia, similarly we all want surgeons to share their knowledge from procedures among themselves. There are as many possibilities for knowledge creation on wikis as there are authors and audiences. The key lies in shared definitions of truth: it is very unlikely that a wiki created by disgruntled Wal-mart employees will produce the same types of knowledge claims as a wiki created for astronomers. But as long as there is an agreed-upon scope for any particular wiki, there is no reason not to apply this tool of networked consciousness to almost any endeavor.
I’m a fan of snakes. Most of you already know this because I don’t exactly keep it secret. Snakes are just…cool. They don’t behave like other animals, come in a wide range of sizes and colors (and shapes, even if all snakes are tubular). And like a lot of snake people, I have my favorites....
I’m a fan of snakes. Most of you already know this because I don’t exactly keep it secret. Snakes are just…cool. They don’t behave like other animals, come in a wide range of sizes and colors (and shapes, even if all snakes are tubular). And like a lot of snake people, I have my favorites. Some favorites are snakes I actually keep. Some favorites are snakes I will probably never keep. But they all have one thing in common: I think they are pretty darn awesome.
With that in mind, here are my five favorite snake species!
Bullsnakes are probably the coolest North American colubrid. They are a subspecies of the gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) and are, unfortunately, often mistaken for rattlesnakes even though they look quite different.
Part of that mistaken identity is their distinct personalities: loud, vocal, and hungry. One of the reasons I love these snakes is their attitude. When a bullsnake isn’t happy with you, you’ll know it. See for yourself:
That noise you hear is the air being pushed over a little flap in their throats. Some people believe this is a form of mimicry because it sounds similar to a rattlesnake. Whatever the reason for this adaptation, it is certainly an intimidating display for a snake that is essentially harmless. Sadly, their general look and their attitude is one reason they are regularly killed by people who don’t know any better.
The hairy bush viper is one of two species of snake that look suspiciously like legless dragons. The other is the dragonsnake (Xenodermus javanicus), which, in my opinion, looks less like a dragon than the hairy bush viper.
Like many snakes in less-researched parts of the world, we don’t know a whole lot about the hairy bush viper, which hails from Central Africa. They are venomous, as the name “viper” suggests. As far as we know, their bites can be fatal without first aid and antivenin treatments, featuring a combo of neurotoxins, cytotoxins, and fasciculins that can lead to severe hemorrhaging of internal organs and other less-than-exciting consequences. In other words, I will never keep these snakes as pets.1
But they are just so cool looking, right?2
Check out the new video from Tinley Park NARBC, Oct. 2019! “TINLEY PARK NARBC! (October, 2019)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5km_o2OxyM –~– RAINBOW BOAS IN THE WILD! (are we keeping them correctly?) ADVENTURES IN ECUADOR (2019) The Ecuadorian Adventures continue! Rainbow boas have always been popular, but with every new morph, they are gaining in popularity even more.
Of all of the boa species, the rainbow boas are by far my favorites. And for good reason. The best representative of the species is the Brazilian rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria cenchria). The Peruvian variation (Epicrates cenchria gaigeae) is also quite stunning, though it may just be a locality of the Brazilian and not a subspecies of its own. Other variations lack some of the bright oranges and reds, such as the Colombian rainbow boa (Epicrates maurus), which is the second most-kept rainbow boa in the pet trade.
If you want to see just how beautiful these snakes are, check out these pictures of Furiosa (a Peruvian) and Santiago (a Colombian):
My dream is to have a breeding pair or trio of every rainbow boa subspecies currently known. Unfortunately, only two of the subspecies are readily available in the pet trade, meaning finding the others will be very difficult. Sadface.
The Michigan DNR’s 60-Second Snakes video series talks about identification tips and information about Michigan’s snake species. This episode features the northern ring-necked snake. Learn more about the ring-necked snake: http://bit.ly/ring-neckedsnake. A special thanks to Nature Discovery (http://bit.ly/1IcfFlb) for the opportunity to film their live educational snake specimens.
Tiny and beautiful. Ring-necked snakes are probably my favorite snake to encounter in the wild. They’re mild-mannered, dainty, and darn cute. And they don’t get nearly the love that they deserve. One thing that is particularly neat about these snakes is their coloration. All of them have brightly colored bellies ranging from yellows to dark red (largely locality based).
While they are less common than the garter snake, a lot of North Americans have encountered them in their gardens or on trails. I stumbled upon one for the first time in Santa Cruz, California while on a tour of UCSC!
Here’s a picture of one of the many I encountered in Florida:
This is Scully, my Okeetee corn snake.3
Ain’t she cute?
Pretty much everyone has heard of the corn snake. They’re one of the three most commonly kept snake species, and for good reason: they’re awesome. Of all the common species in the pet trade, this is my favorite snake because of their inquisitive and calm demeanor. They’re just fun to be around because they’re always interested in what’s going on. If there’s a snake species most closely linked to a dog, it’s the corn snake.
Also: wild-variety corn snakes are seriously some of the most beautiful creatures you will ever see. They come in clay gray with maroon saddles, variations of orange and red, contrasts between white, orange, and red, and on and on. They’re just beautiful!
And there you have it. My five favorite snakes. What about you? Do you have any favorites species? You don’t have to love them as much as I do; appreciating from afar counts! Let me know in the comments!
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