histories of the past, the future and the present

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Brian Roberts:

“Where history-writing has a strong narrative structure there is a keen sense of continuity associated with the underlying application of ‘story’. Here, the use of Past-present may be discerned – often held together by some assumptions or themes based on the continuity or revival of traditions and roots. This is found particularly where there is a reliance on ‘national stories’, past heroes, symbolic past events, group or national character, victories and setbacks, and myths which simplify the complexities of historical circumstances to sustain the overall moral and story. Finally, history-writing can bear some comparison with science-fiction writing, since it may draw conclusions about what is to happen. While the future has an obvious part to play in science fiction, the wider movements through time, including drawing on ‘history’, have been major distinguishing features of the literary genre.
“History-writing, generally, has not been immune from making parallels with the present when making history. Of course, its very practice is set within the vantage point of the present. It also provides conceptions of the future again, especially in providing commentary and conclusions where continuities are outlined, verities assumed and predictions may be offered. In short, there are histories of the past, the future and the present. Time perspectives are in complex combinations within forms of history-writing.” (p.99)

Ref: Brian Roberts (2004) Biography, Time and Local History-Making. Rethinking History 8(1)March, pp.89-102

urban change questions

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These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

Buffy’s character

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In his analysis of the Buffy Thanksgiving Special (and its treatment of race, empire, colonialism, etc.), Dominic Alessio listed some of Buffy’s characteristics and dispostions. I find this interesting because I’m curious about what makes for a successful superhero. Anyway, as well as pointing to “her extraordinary martial abilities,” (p.731), Alessio describes Buffy in the following way: “Buffy’s humour, resourcefulness, physical strength, leadership abilities, bravery, and loyalty to her friends and family, when coupled with her good looks and cutting-edge fashion sense, are seen as appropriate and attractive role models for young American women. Shattering restrictive female stereotypes as she does, Buffy the hero is subsequently seen to reverse the historically patriarchal paradigm of woman as victim. In fact, it is often Buffy in the series who has to come to the rescue of her male friends Giles and Xander.” (p.731)

A couple of other interesting statements from his argument include:

“Like many successful works of its kind in the genres of horror, fantasy, the gothic fairy tale, and science Žfiction, BVS has developed into an imaginative and entertaining vehicle to address an intricate variety of contemporary social, ethical and philosophical dilemmas.” (p.731))

Not only are all of Buffy’s friends of an apparently middle class socio-economic background (a possible contributing reason why Faith, the working class Slayer, was never entirely accepted by the Scooby Gang), but most of the characters in the series are white. The only major exceptions to this rule of generally omitting non-white characters appear to be Kendra (a black slayer who appears brie y in three episodes and is then killed off) and Mr Trick (an evil black vampire who appeared in Season III as the right hand man of the demonic mayor of Sunnydale and who in turn dies too). Consequently, the BVS Thanksgiving Special episode “Pangs” (Season IV, Episode 8), which was aired on 23 November 1999, deserves further consideration.” (p.732)

“While the English watcher Giles and neutered vampire Spike do not seem to have any problem with empire (the British are apparently unabashed imperialists like the Romans), the American characters by contrast, whose very national existence and origins is owing to a war presumably fought in the name of independence from an imperial and undemocratic tyranny, seem to have some problems now in getting to grips with their own imperial epigone.” (p.736)

“It appears as BVS, like much early American science Žfiction writing, is more like a reworking (albeit a very successful one) of an old myth: “Science Fiction brought the nationalist narrative of America’s westward expansion into the present and on to the future. It allowed the pioneers of the previous century to trade their Winchesters for ray guns and their covered wagons for rocket ships, modernising the myth of American hegemony.”” (p.739)

Ref: Dominic Alessio (2001): “Things are Different Now”?: A Postcolonial Analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The European Legacy, 6:6, 731-740

The cyberpunk genre and world city theory

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“The cyberpunk genre developed contemporaneously with world city theory, and its authors have most often set their stories in the global cities of Tokyo, New York, and London. These are the nerve centers, control centers, information nodes—the places you need to be to stay in touch, to be part of the action. Whether your work as a cyberpunk protagonist is legitimate or illegitimate, these are the places where the bosses live and operate. Cyberpunk cities are fast-paced and often dangerous to individual characters, but they are the centers of economic and social change. They are places of motion, change, and opportunity that are exciting and deadly at the same time—the bigger and faster the better for plot twists and vivid action.

Here is one example of many: William Gibson opens All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999, 4) with squatters in the dark corners of the Tokyo subway system, one of whom is also plugged into commanding knowledge of the global communications matrix. …” (125)

world cities—in theory and in fiction—are places where communication not only drives the plot but takes over the very fabric of buildings and infrastructure.” (126)

Ref: Carl Abbott Cyberpunk Cities : Science Fiction Meets Urban Theory Journal of Planning Education and Research 2007 27: 122

What do utopias and dystopias offer?

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Space travel is another standard ingredient in science fiction. With space travel, humans have a freedom unknown to us now, and some of our world’s problems are solved by having other planets and galaxies to explore. For example, overpopulations and cultural differences can be reduced if humans can colonize other planets. In [Anne] McCaffrey’s The Doona series, the planet Doona allows ‘misfits’ to develop a new society and at the same time to relieve congestion and pollution on Earth through the colonization of Doona. Science fiction’s optimism can usually be found in stories that include space travel.

Equally optimistic and pessimistic are science fictions set in the future. Science fiction contains utopias (perfect worlds that don’t exist) and dystopias (the worst of all possible worlds). …[science fiction] writers suggest that whether we have a utopia or a dystopia in the future depends on the actions of the science fiction readers. Our actions today will result in the future being a utopia, dystopia, or a combination of these two. Utopias and dystopias allow science fiction writers to point to certain problems and extrapolate from them….” (15)

Ref: Robin Roberts (1996) Anne McCaffrey; A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT

Cyberpunk – an introduction

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Looking at how science fiction can be used to teach and consider urban theory, Carl Abbott describes “the subgenre commonly known as cyberpunk science fiction (Warren et al. 1998). Emerging in the 1980s, a set of writers tried to integrate “the realm of high tech and the modern pop underground.” Continuing to quote SF writer Bruce Sterling (1986, xi, xiv), cyberpunk combined “visionary intensity” with attention to cultural minutia and “willingness to carry extrapolation into the fabric of daily life.” It blends ideas about the potential of information technologies with nighttown visions of urban life and a hard-driving rock-and-roll sensibility. The early cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s is a circumscribed subgenre in which the plot lines and sensibility of the down-and-out detective story are used to tell stories that posit direct machine-brain interactions that often lead to ventures or adventures in virtual realities. The heroes are computer hackers, weary cops, marginal musicians, and streetwise young women. Their opponents are corrupt executives, crooked cops, and psychopathic enforcers. There is careful attention to the details of daily life: language, fashion, architecture, drugs. The telling is always fast-paced. And the lines blur. Some of the human protagonists are cyborgs with physical and neural enhancements. Sometimes the computer network spawns its own self-aware intelligence. In the 1990s, the genre lost some of its distinctiveness, contributing much of its sensibility and many of its coinages to the field at large. Some writers added nanotechnology and the manipulation of biologically coded information to electronic data systems. The shared interest is to explore the implications of information based or programmable technologies.

The influences on this sort of science fiction are multiple. Literary cousins and progenitors include William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, with their marginal heroes and interest in altered states of consciousness. More direct influence is the noir approach to crime novels and movies that is closely associated with California. One of the most curious spin-offs is Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music (1994), which follows all the conventions and plot elements of the classic noir detective story but takes place in a near-future Oakland of designer drugs and sentient genetically engineered animals. The mob enforcer is a young punk kangaroo who throws a mean punch. If you look closely at cyberpunk stories, you’ll also see the shadows of Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, and especially Thomas Pynchon, whose novels walk the edge between the mainstream and the fantastic.

William Gibson, an American transplanted to Vancouver, is the best known of the cyberpunk writers. Starting with Neuromancer in 1984, he initiated a long series of overlapping novels and stories about “console cowboys” and “street samurai” who move back and forth between cybernetic and material underworlds. John Shirley […is another author in the field]. Neal Stephenson (who still writes in longhand) has contributed Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1996). Bruce Sterling has been a key figure as writer, anthologist, and advocate. Names on the margins include Linda Nagata, Nicola Griffith, and Pat Cadigan.” (124)

Ref: Carl Abbott Cyberpunk Cities : Science Fiction Meets Urban Theory Journal of Planning Education and Research 2007 27: 122

The ‘shared universe’

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Science fiction also has developed the form known as the ‘shared universe,’ which can be either open or closed. A shared universe describes a setting and characters created by one another, but then written about by other writers. The proliferating Star Trek books provide one example of a shared universe; there is much professional and amateur writing about the characters of the television show. Shared universes have also been created as anthlogies or book series, and a variety of writers create stories or books in a common setting. When characters and setting are copyrighted, the original author ‘owns’ them. For example, Isaac Asimov created a new idea of robots and certain characters that have since been written about with his permission by other writers.

[Anne] McCaffrey participates with other writers in a version of the shared universe. She and other writers, such as S.M. Sterling, expand her brain ship concept.” (13)

Science fiction writers,” Roberts continues, “have a tradition of collaboration, where authors work together to create new characters or settings. McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough collaborate on The Powers series. No other genre involves as much collaboration and emphasis on the shared universe as science fiction.” (14)

Ref: Robin Roberts (1996) Anne McCaffrey; A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT