histories of the past, the future and the present


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


Steampunk – ok I think I get it



My partner asked me to define steampunk and I got stuck when he said, ‘so, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea‘. I realised I couldn’t offer a ‘clear’ ‘definition’ and wasn’t sure how the genre wrote its own history, so… I got my hands on Henry Winchester’s Steampunk… easy to read, lots of direction on how to explore the genre (across genres), beautiful art, thank you thank you…

‘Push past the artificial boundary of time to ask the real questions: What does it mean to be human? What are we going to do with all this technology? How can we create the future we want and need?’
James H. Carrott (quoted p.14)

Fiendish SchemesSteampunk is such a wide and varied term that it’s quite difficult to nail down, but in a nutshell it’s a way of looking at the future based on the collective imagination of the past. The past in question is generally defined as the period of Queen Victoria’s rule in Britain, from 1837 until 1901. During this time the Industrial Revolution caused huge social and economic change, and steam-powered factories and vehicles completely changed the face of the Western world. However, steampunk doesn’t just take ideas from this period – it also raids other parts of history, such as Wild West conflicts and 1930s Art Deco.” (p.10)

the adventures of langden st ives“As we look back through time, it’s easy to see things that we could now consider ‘steampunk’ – the design of the submarine in Disney’s movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), or the premise of Ronald W. Clark’s novel Queen Victoria’s Bomb (1967), in which a nuclear weapon is created during the Victorian Era. But steampunk as we know it today began primarily as a form of literature in the early 1980s. Its analogue, mechanical nature was intended as a riposte to cyberpunk’s tales of the digital and the binary, and a big part of steampunk’s attraction remains the way in which it rejects sleek modern technology in favour of something more primitive.” (pp.10-13 (pictures only on pp.11,12))

Fullmetal Alchemist“There remains a great divide in the steampunk world between those who simply embrace its unique aesthetic, and those who delve into its rich literary trappings. It’s best summed-up by Reginald Pikedevant’s humorous song ‘Just Glue Some Gears On It (and Call it Steampunk)’, in which he states that: ‘Calling things “steampunk” to try to sound cool makes you look like a bloody fool!’ It’s an incisive view into what steampunk has become to some people, transferred from a well-informed and meaningful discourse into the mere act of applying a layer of fake brass to an everyday object and, indeed, gluing some gears on it.” (p.14)

Perdido street station“The Industrial Revolution changed everything in the Victorian era – including fashion. The sewing machine was arguably as important an invention as the car or the steam engine, and huge factories could pump out hundreds of items of clothing a day. It became critically important for the ruling classes to be well dressed. However, this revolution was contrasted with a prudish attitude towards what women could wear….” (p.21) “The Victorian era saw the beginnings of a shift in gender politics towards women.” (p.21)

the court of the air“Of course, if you dress in a purely Victorian style you’ll be mistaken for someone from the nineteenth century. The word ‘punk’ was added to steampunk for a reason, and the late-1970s movement pioneered both music and fashion. Key to the latter was the idea of recycling items found in charity shops, and customizing second-hand clothes with rips and badges. It parallels the steampunk movement nicely as both are based on ideas of taking something from the past and retrofitting it to create something modern and eye-catching.” (p.24)

Leviathan“Despite being such an aesthetically-based movement, steampunk’s roots lie primarily in literature. It plucks elements of classic novels by Dickens, Shelley and Wells and stirs in modern facets, or says what could have only been whispered in Victorian times. Steampunk is, in a way, a set template onto which authors can apply their own ideas and build upon those of others. One author may write about the role of women in Victorian society by creating a superpowered heroin, whereas another may comment on the class system by envisaging a race of clockwork robots who do humans’ dirty work.” (p.32)

Reeve's Infernal DevicesApparently, the phrase was coined by K. W. Jeter, who “forwarded a copy of Morlock Night to the influential science fiction magazine Locus, accompanied with a letter. ‘Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself,’ he wrote. ‘Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steam-punks”, perhaps.'” (p.44)


the city of lost childrenOne thing that does interest me is the apparent importance of cities to this genre. Hadn’t put two and two together there. Certainly, Winchester places the subtitle ‘Cityscapes’ at the forefront of his whole discussion; in this he writes: “Our journey begins a long time ago, in a place familiar yet different: London in the Victorian age. It was a time of great change, of tectonic shifts that changed the face of the earth. But this isn’t London as you or anyone remembers it. This is a London that’s been mutated by the obsessions of the modern age. It’s a London in which empires never fell, in which vampires came to occupy the throne, in which steam powers just about everything.” (P.9)

Further on, he notes: “Victorian London is the setting for the vast majority of steampunk, but it’s not the only one – some stories take place in a far-flung, post-apocalyptic future, whereas others take place in an alternative version of the present day. alchemy of stoneAs a genre it fits broadly into science fiction, which predicts tomorrow based on today’s technology, but the twist is that it’s predicting tomorrow based on yesterday’s technology. Steampunk also pulls in many other genres, such as the romance, mystery, adventure and horror novels, all of which are blended to create interesting and exciting tales.” (p.32)

“Strange cities certainly took a hold on steampunk in the early 2000s. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) applies Darwinian thought to the evolution of cities themselves….” (p.50)

“Metropolises are an ideal setting for steampunk illustrations and artists can go to town (literally!) on background details.” (p.97)

‘The punk in steampunk is partly nineteenth century adventure, which was not self conscious, crossed with twentieth century characters who are self-conscious.’ Tim Powers
(quoted p.42)

Reference: Henry Winchester (2014) Steampunk: Fantasy Art, Fiction, Fashion and the Movies. London: Flame Tree Publishing

NB websites the book refers us on to include:






http://www.steamwords.wordpress.com (though Winchester notes that KW Jeter is more active on Twitter @kwjeter)

http://www.nealstephenson.com / @nealstephenson

Also note, The Libratory Steampunk Art Gallery (in Oamaru) http://www.localist.co.nz/l/giznva

Zombies and global mass culture


In his analysis of zombie narrative – and of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, in particular – Gerry Canavan asserts that “the figure of the zombie now lurks at the very center of global mass culture.” (p.431)

He explains: “Steve Shaviro suggests in a 2002 special issue of Historical Materialism on “Marxism and Fantasy” that our preoccupation with the zombie originates out of the zombie’s relationship with contemporary global capitalism…. Remorselessly consuming everything in their path, zombies leave nothing in their wake besides endless copies of themselves, making the zombie the perfect metaphor not only for how capitalism transforms its subjects but also for its relentless and devastating virologic march across the globe.” (p.432)

Canavan reminds us that we must think about “the problems of subject position and identification that arise when speaking about the “universal residue” (Shaviro 288) called the zombie. The zombie’s mutilation,” he explains, “is not one that we easily imagine for “ourselves,” however that “we” is ultimately constituted; the zombie is rather the toxic infection that must always be kept at arm’s length. Because zombies mark the demarcation between life (that is worth living) and unlife (that needs killing), the evocation of the zombie conjures not solidarity but racial panic. To complicate Deleuze and Guattari’s proclamation in A Thousand Plateaus, then, the myth of the zombie is both a war myth and a work myth (425); one of the ways the State apparatus builds the sorts of “preaccomplished” subjects it needs is precisely through the construction of a racial binary in which the (white) citizen-subject is opposed against nonwhite life, bare life, zombie life—that anti-life which is always inimically and hopelessly Other, which must always be kept quarantined, if not actively eradicated and destroyed.” (p.433)

Canavan refers us to “Vivian Sobchack’s approach to sf in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film,” to establish some generic distinctions for his analysis of The Walking Dead; drawing on Sobchack, he writes: “In contradistinction to the Suvinian approach to sf prose, for Sobchack the important genre distinction to be maintained is not sf-vs.-fantasy but sf-vs.-horror, a divide she finds to be hopelessly muddled by a blurred and indistinct “no-man’s-land” between the two populated by hybrid films (in our case, zombie cinema) that arguably belong to both modes (26–27).
The horror film,” Sobchack says, “is primarily concerned with the individual in conflict with society or with some extension of himself, the sf film with society and its institutions in conflict with each other or with some alien other” (30). It is for this reason that we find a key distinction between horror and sf to be the question of scale; we expect horror to take place in a small and isolated setting (perhaps, as in Night of the Living Dead, as small as a single farmhouse) while sf expands to fill large cities and nations, even the entire globe. We might think, for instance, of England after the Rage outbreak in 28 Days Later, or how in the recent Marvel Zombies and DC Blackest Night [-p.434] storylines in superhero comics the zombie outbreak swells to fill the entire cosmos, even the entire multiverse. If we accept Sobchack’s genre definition, we find that the zombie subgenre starts out in horror in its earliest film formulations but winds up in sf in its later ones; while “horror” entries in this hugely prolific subgenre certainly remain, the most popular and influential mode of zombie narrative (especially during the Bush-era “zombie revival” period on which I focus) has been the “zombie apocalypse”: the large-scale zombie pandemic that leads to the rapid total breakdown of technological modernity and transnational capitalism on a global scale. To put this another way: For Sobchack the local scale of the horror film is concerned with “moral chaos”—the disruption of the natural order—while the broader scale of sf film lends it to “social chaos” (30). Unlike horror’s Monster, sf’s Creature is unparticularized and uninteriorized; it does not hate, nor seek revenge, and does not even “want” to hurt us. It just does (37). The sf Creature is an eruption that is only disruption—and it is for this reason that the sf film is so often preoccupied with the reaction of society to catastrophe (on the one hand) and to a dispassionate, spectacular aesthetics of destruction (on the other). In the end, Sobchack’s division between horror and sf comes down to the difference between terror and wonder (38). If in the horror film we feel “fear,” in the sf film we feel “interest.” In the horror film we find we want to close our eyes and look away, and the excitement is in forcing ourselves to watch; but in the sf film the narrative pleasure comes precisely in anticipating, and then seeing, what will happen next.
And so, having discovered the zombie right at the intersection of these two modes—the zombie is both local and global, personal
and depersonalized, symptom of moral chaos and cause of widespread social breakdown, grossout consumer of flesh and spectacular destroyer of our intricately constructed social and technological fortifications….[Canavan’s analysis of The Walking Dead begins]” (pp.433-434)

“In such a story the fear of “moral chaos” of the early outbreak will necessarily give way to “interest” in the way society changes in the wake of the zombie disaster—and so it’s no surprise that Kirkman uses the same “waking up from a coma” trope as 28 Days Later to “skip” the initial outbreak and get immediately to the postapocalyptic breakdown world.” (p.435)

“The rotting zombie corpse inevitably suggests the psychological horror Julia Kristeva called “abjection,” the disturbing of the boundary between object and subject.” (p.441)

“…we find the zombies allegorizing the racial forms of exclusion and extermination that already surround us. Zombie narratives are ultimately about the motivation for and unleashing of total violence; what separates “us” from “them” in zombie narrative is always only the type of violence used. They attack us (like “animals,” “savages,” or “cannibals”) with their arms and mouths; we attack them back with horses, tanks, and guns.
In The Walking Dead—as in any zombie narrative—the tools and technologies of empire are continually borrowed for the purpose of priming precisely this sort of violent colonialist fantasy. Swords and guns, tanks and trucks, repeated references to the brutal physical and sexual violence of slavery and to the cowboy or “frontier” imaginary (especially through the ubiquitous riding of horses and Carl’s cowboy outfit and mannerisms) are all employed in a bizarre postmodern pastiche of the history of U.S. imperialism, as different moments of its empire collide into a single simultaneous instant in the face of an essentially inimical and totally implacable racialized threat. There are few moments in the series that suggest this pastiche as well as the splash panel at the end of issue 12, when Rick and his group discover the abandoned jail in which they will make their home through the bulk of the series. The jail is drawn so as to visually double a frontier fort (and, for that matter, a modern military base); these locations collapse into a single spatial imaginary, with only the polarity of “inside” and “outside” reversed.” (p.443)

“Whatever else might be said about The Walking Dead, or about zombie narrative in general, its uncritical relationship to a particular pre-feminist narrative about the need to “protect” women and children cannot be glossed over. “Proper” control over wombs, and anxiety that they will somehow be captured, polluted, or compromised, is a kind of Ur-myth for the apocalyptic genre in general and the zombie sub-genre in particular; speaking broadly, the function of women in most apocalyptic narratives is to code the ending as “happy” or “sad” based on their continued availability to bear the male protagonist’s children when the story is over. This theme is so common in the zombie subgenre as to constitute one of its most ubiquitous and most central ethical clichés: the question of whether or not one should decide to “bring a child into” a zombie-ridden world at all—and, as is common in many such apocalyptic stories (as in, for instance, Cormac McCarthy’s 2009 novel The Road), the death of Rick’s wife and daughter, the moment the circuit of reproductive futurity is cut, is the moment that basically all hope is lost in The Walking Dead.” (p.444)

Under the heading ‘Zombie Ethics’, Canavan explains: “So while in zombie narrative the “enemy” who is killed is always first the zombie—who is unthinking and unfeeling, and can be killed without regret—as the story proceeds the violence inevitably spreads to other, still-alive humans [-p.445] as well. Anyone outside the white patriarchal community, anyone who is not already one of “us,” is a potential threat to the future who must be interrogated intensely, if not kept out altogether. Even those inside the community have to be surveilled at all times for signs of treachery, weakness, or growing “infection.” This is the second way in which the zombie infects us, besides the obvious; they infect us with their vulnerability, their killability make us “killable” too. One’s position in the state of exception is, after all, never secure; the class of dangerous anti-citizens, bound for the camps, tends only to grow. In this way zombie narratives make the latent necropolitical dimensions bound up in both “survival” and modern citizenship explicit….” (pp.444-445)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Gerry Canavan (2010) ‘We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative. extrapolation 51(3)Fall; pp.431-453

Using speculative fiction in the classroom


I agree, Leith Daniel! …

“The mistake many teachers make is to choose a film with a theme, or – worse – a subject, almost identical to the novel they’ve studied. And so there’s no intellectual effort required on the part of the students to see the theme or even values. You’ve essentially given the students the answer to a test before the subject’s been taught. And often, this is then reinforced by having the students study a text a which overtly deals with the issue in its plot. You’re not only handing the answer over to the students, you’re telling them the answer is in the plot and not the construction of the film itself.” (p.45)

Ref: Leith Daniel (2011) bugs, Buffy, and Santa’s Giant Sack: why speculative fiction is the best fiction to use in the English classroom. English in Aotearoa 74 July. pp42-49

Note I think there is also a copy available at: http://fablecroft.com.au/swancon-edustream

Is Anne McCaffrey’s work absent from the classroom?


Her fans still love her, but I’m just wondering,… is Anne McCaffrey’s work absent from the classroom? In 1984, Sharon Liddell wrote:

“Anne McCaffrey’s works, both science fiction and fantasy, are popular and exciting. Teachers will also find their literary quality is excellent.”

She explained: “Anne McCaffrey is one of those overnight successes we hear so much of. Suddenly, in the eighties, the public has discovered McCaffrey, primarily through a series of fantasy books. McCaffrey’s fantasies of the planet Pern have a hard science fiction background. The inhabitants of the planet are the descendents of an abandoned earth colony, but their off-planet origins and their advanced technology have been forgotten. Before the decline of the culture, scientists genetically engineered “dragons” from a small flying lizard native to Pern. These dragons are designed to protect the inhabitants from spores which migrate from the moon once every four hundred years. The current culture is feudal but not the medieval feudal system of Earth’s history.” Liddell)

I bring it up, because Barbara Bengels writes that she has found SF to be particularly useful for introducing key elements of literature in her literature class.

Specifically, she writes that she has “found Science Fiction to be the perfect vehicle for helping freshmen become aware that, despite what their families may have taught them, they are not the center of the universe. Because my focus in my first year Introduction to Literature courses is point of view, I have used three SF works which I’ve found to be particularly successful: ‘Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson to show how first person narration allows the author to withhold key information, ‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril to show how an author can have the benefits of first person narration while actually using third person, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Urula K. Le Guin to demonstrate the use of multiple first person narrators. ‘Born of Man and Woman’ is the first work I ask them to write a paper on, having them analyze why Matheson has chosen to tell this particular story from this unique point of view.” (259, Bengels)

There is some really great fantasy and SF… among them Anne McCaffrey’s body of work… so I’m just wondering how it could be used in the classroom… and whether or not it is?

References: Sharon Liddell (1984) ‘Recommended: Anne McCaffrey’ The English Journal, Vol. 73, No. 7 (Nov., 1984), p. 89  Barbara Bengels (2005) Using Science Fiction to Teach Point of View Extrapolation; Summer, 46(2); pp259-267

The cyberpunk genre and world city theory


“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

Theorising cities…


Carl Abbott explains that: “World cities are characterized by concentrations of international banks, multinational corporate headquarters, and supporting experts. Decisions are made about the allocation and use of capital on a world scale and transmitted through hierarchically organized institutions and communication networks housed in smaller and secondary cities. …

Anthony King (1990, 7) has explored the ways in which the world city system emerged from the linked development of colonialism and industrial capitalism, finding colonial cities “instrumental in creating the space in which today’s capitalist world-economy operates” by introducing western values, capitalist business organization, and industrialized systems of production. Geographers such as Paul Knox and Peter Taylor have worked to develop precise measures of the degree to which specific cities are engaged internationally and the patterns of influence among such international cities (Knox and Taylor 1995, Taylor 2003, Taylor and Lang 2005).

Other scholars have focused on the internal consequences of the world city system. Saskia Sassen’s Global Cities (1991/2001) remains one of the most detailed presentations. She has described New York, London, and Tokyo as a sort of three-headed capital of the world economy, “centers of finance . . . [and] for global servicing and management” (1991/2001, 324). Sassen’s work is also representative in its attention to the internal consequences of world city status, including the rearrangement of land uses in the service of corporate elites and the emergence of a supporting class of low paid service workers to tend the everyday needs of that elite. She is among a number of scholars (Ross and Trachte 1983, Savitch 1988, Beauregard 1989) who have examined the inequities of dual labor markets for elite workers and support workers, the costs of office core expansion, and the assimilation of immigrants as phenomena exaggerated by the intensity of change within world cities.” (125)

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

Reference is made to:

King, Anthony D. 1990. Urbanism, colonialism, and the worldeconomy: Cultural and spatial foundations of the world system. London: Routledge.    Beauregard, Robert, ed. 1989. Atop the urban hierarchy. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.    Knox, Paul, and Peter Taylor, eds. 1995. World cities in the worldsystem. New York: Cambridge University Press.    Ross, Robert, and Kent Trachte. 1983. Global cities and global classes: The peripheralization of labor in New York City. Review 6:393-431.    Savitch, H. V. 1988. Post-industrial cities: Politics and planning in New York, Paris and London. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.    Sassen, Saskia. 1991/2001. The global city: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.    Taylor, Peter J. 2003. World city networks. London: Routledge.    Taylor, Peter J., and Robert Lang. 2005. U.S. cities in the world city network. Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program. www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/20050222_worldcities.htm.