Science Fiction as the Conscience of Science

My review of Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction ran on Slate’s Future Tense channel today! Here’s a teaser:
Science fiction’s reputation for appealing to the nerdy and anti-social has long suggested that it has more to do with escapism than the real world.

Yet as Ridley Scott’s new Discovery Science show, Prophets of Science Fiction, chronicles, the genre deserves to be taken seriously for its ability to tease out the ethical and moral issues that accompany technological progress. Upon first hearing about Prophets, I expected the director of Alien and Blade Runner to get completely lost in space while discussing Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Philip K. Dick and how their work “foreshadowed” current technologies. Despite the name (we’ll get to that later), I am happy to report that Scott delivered this concept just as efficiently as he delivered that alien baby to the screen: The show successfully brings science fiction and fact into conversation with one another. 

Nerd Discourse and the Digital Humanities

In my talk at Emory yesterday I discussed nerds: the literary nerds David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz, but also the ways in which their particular nerdish styles might tell us something about style and the digital humanities. Natalia Cecire wrote up a fantastic blog post fleshing these ideas out more fully and I think we’re on to something really interesting here. Here’s one really good bit, but I suggest you read the whole thing:
The term “nerdy,” of course, was ripe for questioning. As Ed had remarked in passing (and doubtless explores more deeply elsewhere), Wallace’s and Díaz’s respective nerdy networks were overwhelmingly male. And there’s a way in which DH’s identification with “nerdiness” taps very much into the version of nerd identity—seen also, if differently, in both Wallace and Díaz’s nerdinesses—that manifests as wounded (and defensive) masculinity. I argued in a previous post that the defensive posture at times characterizes discussions of DH, which occasionally even seems to borrow the language of struggle and resistance traditionally used by queer activists, activists of color, disability rights activists, feminists, etc., even while, in many institutional settings, magically turning out to be disproportionately white and male.

 As I’m about to post on Natalia’s blog, I think there’s more fuel to add to the fire here: the question of “serious” literature and gender bias in reviewing and criticism, a question I’ve tackled before.


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!

American Networks, American Nerds

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to speak at Emory University’s new Digital Scholarship Commons next week. If you find yourself in the vicinity you won’t want to miss it. Here are the details:

The Digital Scholarship Commons Presents Ed Finn, Ph.D.: “American Networks, American Nerds”
Wednesday, November 2, 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Research Commons, third Floor, Robert W. Woodruff Library

Ed Finn, a recent Stanford graduate and University Innovation Fellow at Arizona State University, will speak about his network analysis of Amazon consumer reviews of David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz, explaining how these differ from literary critics’ assessments. You can read about Dr. Finn’s work in the New York Times.
This talk explores changing systems of literary reputation in contemporary American fiction through two case studies: Junot Díaz and David Foster Wallace. Long-established models of literary production are changing dramatically as the digital era continues to blur the divisions between authors, critics and readers. Millions of cultural consumers are now empowered to participate in previously closed literary conversations and to express forms of mass distinction through their purchases and reviews of books. The bookselling behemoth Amazon has been collecting such information from its users since 1996, assembling a rich ecology of cultural data. Drawing on Amazon’s archive and a set of professional book reviews, I analyze the literary networks that readers have created for Wallace and Díaz through their collective acts of distinction. Tracing contemporary shifts in critical and commercial reception, I argue that both writers use style as a way to reinvent authorship for a hyper-mediated age. By redrawing the boundaries of dialect and slang in American English, they promote radical revisions to contemporary concepts of literary identity and community.

My Hat’s Off to Thinking Cap

I’m really delighted to announce that Patricia Cohen wrote up my recent essay on David Foster Wallace for her Thinking Cap column this week at The New York Times. Readers can download the full pdf of the essay here. A version of this research that I gave as a talk at Digital Humanities 2011 also got a nod from William Pannapacker in The Chronicle of Higher Education over the summer. I’m very grateful to these writers for covering my work as well as the editors, advisors and one extremely patient spouse who did so much to improve the final product.

Pamphlet #3

I’m very excited to announce that a version of my essay on David Foster Wallace has just been published online as the Stanford Literary Lab’s third pamphlet. Here’s the lead-in:

If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a philosophical issue he grappled with on a deep level as he struggled to combat his own loneliness through writing. To really study this question we need to look beyond the symbolic markets of prestige to the real market, the site of mass literary consumption, where authors succeed or fail based on their ability to speak to that most diverse and complicated of readerships: the general public. Unless we study what I call the social lives of books, we make the mistake of keeping literature in the same ascetic laboratory that Wallace tried to break out of with his intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media, and everyday life.