Category Archives: blogging

What is Science Fiction Good For?

An excellent question that I attempt to answer in my debut post as a blogger for the Huffington Post:

The New Yorker just released its first special issue devoted to science fiction, including contributions from genre giants like Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury as well as rising “literary fiction” stars like Junot Díaz and Karen Russell. As writers at Wiredand io9 have noted, the issue marks a new level of mainstream interest in science fiction, giving a whole cadre of New-Yorker-obsessed “serious readers” license to take genre fiction, well, seriously. But what about science fiction in universities? In her contribution to the new issue, Ursula K. Le Guin argues that in the past “quite a few science-fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre, perhaps because ghettos, like all gated communities, give the illusion of safety.”
In fact, science fiction has been sneaking into all sorts of new neighborhoods. The U.K.-based New Scientist has launched Arc, “a new magazine about the future,” while the venerable MITTechnology Review released a special issue of science fiction featuring Cory Doctorow, Joe Haldeman, and others. Ridley Scott’s television series Prophets of Science Fiction explores the power of fiction to both advance and complicate our ideas about the future, and Stephen Hawking is hosting the Science Channel’s Stephen Hawking’s Sci-Fi Masters.

Getting Past Dystopian SF

Another post up on Slate last week:

What should we expect from science fiction? In a recent Smithsonian article by IO9’s Annalee Newitz, author Neal Stephenson criticized the dystopian cynicism that currently pervades the genre. Instead he calls a more optimistic, realistic approach—fewer zombies and man’s folly-style catastrophes, more creative inventions and solutions. In the spirit of being constructive, he’s also taking action. The first step is an anthology of optimistic, near-term science fiction, forthcoming from William Morrow in 2014, that will tackle this challenge head-on. Smithsonian describes the project, Hieroglyph, as a plan “to rally writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, ‘get big stuff done.’”

Multitasking

It’s been a busy month around here. I spent a fantastic week visiting the New America Foundation in DC and getting to know the people behind ASU’s Future Tense partnership with NAF and Slate Magazine. There has been a lot of action back at the office too, and I’ll be posting shortly about my upcoming trip to Emory. But for now I wanted to mention that I wrote up a short post for Open Culture last week to promote another ASU project, the very cool 10,000 Solutions. Check it out and share your bright idea!

Writing in the Real World

It’s been a summer of major changes in my life: completing grad school and moving on to my first job as a fellow at Arizona State University. As I adjust to a new position where I am “doing” almost as much as I am “thinking” (for a very word-based, university definition of doing), the impossible has occurred. I’ve begun to miss the abundant time I used to spend just sitting at the keyboard, writing. And think about writing. And fiddling.

I still do a fair amount of sitting and fiddling in the new job, of course, but my full agenda there does not include any special time for research. There is no gilt-edged appointment in my office Outlook calendar. I need to make that time myself, and I’ve begun to wish I was a faster writer. I mean, I’m fast enough at drafting proposals, emails and memos, but I don’t have the prodigious speed that some academics seem to have for polishing off whole essays in an evening. I can barely read whole essays in an evening.

So my ambitions for this year are to practice the arts of making time and of thinking through problems on the go. It’s dawned on me that my new slate of responsibilities is not a temporary condition, and that the period of graduate navel-gazing is done forever.

The positive side of this new reality is that I am actually starting to enjoy working on my own stuff once again. It’s still a challenge of will to revise dissertation work for publication, but I am really starting to look forward to some new projects and fresh directions. Who knows, maybe I’ll even put more time into this blog?

Farewell, Leland

Blogger is ending its support for FTP publishing of blog files. That means that my blog can no longer be hosted on Stanford’s servers in its current form. Ergo, we’re back here. Assuming this works. Further bulletins as events warrant.

A Very Finite Summer

Since I’m working on the changing nature of reading and on contemporary American literature, it seemed almost obligatory for me to check out Infinite Summer, a massive blog-based reading group organized around David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest. The reading group’s pace is quite reasonable by grad student standards–75 pages a week–but in the true spirit of studentdom I started weeks late and have been struggling to catch up.

That means I haven’t yet really delved into the culture of the online exchange, but I am curious to see how things are going over there. From my brief perusal of the site so far, it seems the basic structure is for a few authors to post on their reading experiences, and the rest of the community is left to hang out in the comments. This works well for your average blog, but it seems a little limiting for a book discussion group, which would really work better with a forum architecture. Maybe there is one and I haven’t found it yet?

The site’s structure does seem to emulate the deceptive orderliness of Infinite Jest, with its footnotes and acronyms.* There are guides and summaries and a schedule, but I find the site disorienting as a whole, as a place to talk about the book, much as Infinite Jest ends up being disorienting. Readers quickly realize that the acronyms are explained inconsistently, at random, in medias res; that they’re thrown in and out of numerous plot-lines like hapless tennis balls; that the end notes and gestures toward structure are deeply satirical and philosophically agnostic about the whole idea of knowledge. Hence, on the site: the conversation goes on through a Twitter tag, comments, Tumblr, Facebook…and I just found the forum. They do have one after all.

I guess this isn’t a bad way to honor Wallace’s passing, but is it a good way to talk about his book? Obviously I’m thinking of a different kind of conversation, one where people lean forward around a table and interrupt each other, whereas Infinite Summer is a beast that can only exist online: an imaginary space full of people zooming in and out, talking about the book or not, employing various means of intellectual transportation.

I love the idea of this online reading group, so my question isn’t meant to be hostile, merely inquisitive. I’ll report back when I’ve learned more (and, say, actually read more than a handful of posts from the various zones of Infinite Summer).

* Acronyms, while cryptic, always imply a bedrock of rational thought, convention and informational structure, however ludicrous that implication might be.

The New Open Culture

My good friend Dan Colman has recently moved his great site Open Culture to its new Internet home, the one it should have had all along: www.openculture.com. I wrote a few blog posts for Dan back in the day (far fewer than I’d actually said I would, alas), and I love the site.

If you’ve never seen it, be sure to check it out, especially his incredible, expanding archive of free high-quality podcasts, lectures and more–including a great list of free audio books.