Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Winter Break, and I'm working on my syllabus for my upcoming Short Story: Speculative Fiction course. The class I taught this past semester was incredibly successful, but I wasn't happy with the textbook and I just like to change things up so I'm always learning new things as I'm teaching.

My question this week is: what does fantasy literature offer us? Why do we read it? What big questions does it ask (or answer) for us?

I'm a little frustrated with this question, because I can't hit on any answers that I am really sold on. Last semester I taught that fantasy looks backwards, to our human past, while science fiction looks forwards, towards the future. I still think this is, in essence, true. Much fantasy literature written in English deals with mythology such as the creation myth, the nature of humanity, the fall of humanity from a blissful state into chaos, an epic battle between good and evil. Quest stories deal with coming-of-age issues; princess/prince stories treat issues of gender roles; stories about magic discuss issues of power and responsibility.

Even though I can point to and name these things, however, I am still frustrated that fantasy doesn't categorize itself as neatly as sci-fi. Sci-fi literature deals with concrete social issues: race relations, the impetus to conquer and colonize, different sexualities, the relationship between progress and morality, technology and human values. Most fantasy stories could be shoehorned into one of these categories or another, but I want distinctions that arise naturally from the stories themselves.

Maybe I'm too theme/issue-oriented in the way I teach. Maybe I should stop looking for distinctions between fantasy and science fiction, and just teach it all mixed up together. Maybe, since it's a literature class, I should categorize the stories based on literary techniques I want to discuss, rather than topics and themes.


Friday, November 26, 2010

I've been re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation lately. I'm only up to episode 7 of Season 1, but the experience has been fascinating. Seeing the relationships between Picard, Riker, Troi, Crusher, LaForge, Data, etc. build up again from the beginning is fun. I didn't remember that Picard could be so irascible, or Riker so smug. Re-evaluating my crush on Wesley is good, too; I can see how, as a little girl, he might be dreamy, but now all I see is his awful sweaters and the highly unrealistic way he saves the day all the time. What a Mary Sue! Best of all, the episode I watched today has Data in the role of Sherlock Holmes . . . "Oh Data, you scamp," I say as I shake my head, my face mirroring Riker's shit-eating grin.

The intro to the show, though, is becoming relevant to what I'm writing about lately. It says: "Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

This desire to explore, to seek, to know, is exactly the drive I think I'm beginning to pinpoint in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The trilogy, a beautiful set of books sort of yet not entirely written for children, is a re-writing of Milton's Paradise Lost, which is in itself a re-writing of Genesis and all classical mythology.

The central struggle in PL is between obedience and knowledge. God says, "I'm asking very little here; just don't don't eat from that tree!" Satan, Eve, and to some extent Adam, each respond, "But why?" God's command is that each knows her or his place: Satan's place is in Heaven, under the command of the Son; Eve's place is in the Garden, under the command of her husband; Adam's place is in the Garden, protecting Eve, worshipping God, and not asking the angel Raphael too many silly questions regarding the nature of the universe and Creation.

However, in each character's heart there is a need to challenge this restrictive authority. They don't want to keep to their place in the chain of being; they want the chance to grow, to ascend, to understand. Milton weaves a complex web of rules and rebellions, but the desires motivating Satan, Eve, and Adam are pretty relatable for me. How many times as a child did you ask your parent "Why?" and receive some version of "Because I said so!" or "You wouldn't understand." That was never fun for me; each time I got a pat answer, the resolve in my heart steeled all the more: Someday I will grow up, and find out, and then they'll see.

The pro-Satan reading of PL is a popular one; its most famous advocate was the poet, William Blake, who wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience, the title and subject matter of the poems pointing back to the Edenic conflict. But I'm not sure that Pullman reads PL that way. For him, Satan is not the hero of the epic because he didn't win. But, in Pullman's view, the desire for experience that motivated the first Fall is good; it is what compels us to learn about ourselves and the universe. It is, essentially, consciousness. The restriction of this desire is in itself cruel, wrong, and a restriction of absolute free will. So Pullman rewrites the story.

Pullman's trilogy is more narratively complex than Milton's. For instance, there is no single Satan character. Instead, there are a host of characters who play roles such as Lord Asriel as "the dynamic, powerful rebel," Lyra Silvertongue as "the artful compulsive liar," and Sister Mary Malone as "the apparently-innocent questioner/tempter." But these roles are slippery and unstable. Lord Asriel also performs as Christ-figure, giving his life to save his daughter. Lyra acts as a new Eve, committing a new Fall. Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, is almost satanic in her single-minded avarice and ambition for evil, but even she eventually plays a combination of Mother Mary/Christ as she nurses her daughter back to health and then sacrifices herself for Lyra's safety.

I'm not sure where all this will go; the paper is about how there is a cycle of reading/writing going on, and how each author conceives of the acts of reading and writing, and the essence of the creative impulse. Chaos, the primary matter out of which God created the universe, is going to come in there somewhere; I think it is analogous to Pullman's Dust. But mostly, for now, I just love it when pieces of my life come together, when I find out that the "new worlds" I am exploring are not light years apart like they are for Picard, but just a heartbeat away, sharing space with me, and it's up to me to make the connections.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I’m writing a paper about Philip Pullman’s reading of Paradise Lost in his His Dark Materialsfantasy trilogy. As such, this involves me spending a good deal of time and attention reading Milton. Compared to Spenser and Cervantes, the two other authors we are reading in the same class, Milton is awesome. The other two are interesting, funny, complex, but ultimately I find reading them to be a chore. Reading Milton is uplifting like riding the swings at the fair. I haven’t felt this joy at encountering a new work for a long time. He is a delight to read; it’s like going to C.S. Lewis’s “farther up and further in,” or to the island of Numenor, which is not an inept analogy given that Lewis and Tolkien both read, loved, and responded to Milton. I can’t believe I haven’t read Milton before. Paradise Lost is incredible and has obviously inspired so many authors with whom I’m already deeply familiar. Fantasists and mythopoets, my fun reading, take so much from him; friends have raved about the poem before; how did I miss it?

What makes reading Milton exceptional is that I’ve paired it with two bands—Jonsi and Amiina, both Icelandic groups. Listening to this music (reminiscent of Sigur Ros, especially since Jon Birgisson of Jonsi is the frontman of Sigur Ros, and Amiina has collaborated with Sigur Ros on various occasions) is magical; the sounds are both crystalline and sweeping, creating landscapes of emotion and imagination. As I read about Satan escaping Hell to plague the newly-created Earth, Amiina plays a martial drum behind a minor melody on the saw, and I feel Satan’s desperation, his courage and desire, and I see the terrifying landscape of Hell. As we pull in on the Earth, a pendant orb hanging from a golden chain that crosses the Void, Jonsi’s ethereal voice lifts me into the galaxy and I see the beams of light streaming from far Heaven.

It’s especially interesting that something sensory, almost corporeal, can enrich my reading of a poem that is explicitly concerned with the difference between the material and the spiritual. Pullman plays on this theme with his creation, Dust. Although music isn’t something I can touch, sound waves exist, and as a sensory experience, this music is making my reading so much more vibrant. I don't usually think of reading as being a sensory experience, although it obviously is--seeing is a sense! But reading while listening to music transcends what I sometimes feel as the unmediated text-to-brain, pulling in my imagination through the vehicle of my auditory sense.

I want to find more music that connects to and enriches the experience of reading. What do you listen to when you study or read for pleasure?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Time for a Blog Makeover . . .

This blog is about to change. It used to be my forum (well, one of them . . . ) to figure myself out spiritually and emotionally--to talk about what frustrated, inspired, angered, and entranced me. I enjoyed organizing and presenting my thoughts on life and receiving feedback from friendly readers. It's been good for me; some of what I consider my best writing is on this blog; and though it's been sporadic, it has still catalogued many important experiences and stages in my life.

I'm still figuring myself out, but this online space will instead reflect my process of deciding who I am as a career thinker and instructor. The next two years of my life will be enormously developmental in this regard; I'll be immersing myself in my field as I study for prelims, decide on a dissertation topic, and build a name and a reputation for myself as I publish, present, and otherwise contribute to the world around me. As I push further and further into my career (or is it "farther and farther"?), I'm going to start blogging more about things that factor into that--books, art, teaching, theater, music, and literary criticism.

My personal life, likes, dislikes, momentary enthusiasms and pet peeves, will still make it in here from time to time; I want my work to be integrated with my life, not compartmentalized. No work I produce will be good if it isn't, in some measure, wholistic, engaging me emotionally, spiritually, and physically. At the same time, I feel the need for an informal space for sustained reflection on my reading and writing, and for informal feedback on that reflection.

This is where you come in. Please write back. I don't care if you are a graduate student in English, an undergraduate student in nursing, a happy barista or a career world-traveler, if you like to read Ben Jonson, John Grisham, or Janette Oke, if you'd rather listen to Matchbox 20 than David Bowie, or if you think theater is snore-inducing and/or of the devil. Please tell me your thoughts. They can only challenge, deepen, and help out my own thought processes.