Tag: science fiction and politics (page 2 of 2)

Friday Nerd Blogging

My daughter loves the Game of Thrones story as told to her orally by my brother on a boat in Bali this summer. Yet she remains curiously unwilling to read the books or watch the HBO version with me. Apparently she might find it too hard on her stomach – puzzling, given her affinity for the eminently stomachable Hunger Games trilogy… perhaps to capture the teen sci-fi market George R. R. Martin should consider a final installment:


Interstellar Relations Syllabus

If you’re interested in how the syllabus turned out, you can read it here.

I must say that I am very much enjoying teaching the class so far. Thanks to everyone for their comments and suggestions.


Syllabus Bleg: Science Fiction (Updated)

I could use some help. As I did in the spring, I’m teaching a seminar on “Science Fiction and Politics.” I’m working on some significant changes to the syllabus. The class will now meet twice a week, which has implications for its flow, and I want to teach some different works. But I’m flailing a bit about some aspects of the syllabus, particularly with respect to (1) short readings to pair with books and (2) some specific assignments. A rough outline follows, including some notes about the kinds of pieces I’m looking for. A major issue concerning the latter is that I generally want supplemental readings that are short.

1. No Class.
2. SF, Popular Culture and Politics: Jutta Weldes, “Popular Culture, Science Fiction, and World Politics: Exploring Intertextual Relations,” in Weldes, ed. To Seek Out New Worlds: Exploring Links between Science Fiction and World Politics, pp. 1-27; Iver B. Neumann and Daniel H. Nexon, “Introduction: Harry Potter and the Study of World Politics,” in Nexon and Neumann, eds. Harry Potter and International Relations, pp. 1-25. Recommended for non-genre fans: Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century, pp. 12-53.
3. Collins, Hunger Games I: paired with something on the structure and organization of empires, preferably with examples drawn from Rome.
4. Collins, Hunger Games II: paired with something on social roles, role theory, and/or performativity.
5. Banks, Player of Games I: K.M. Fierke, “Links Across the Abyss: Language and Logic in International Relations,” International Studies Quarterly 46 (2002): 331-354.
6. Banks, Player of Games II: paired with something about ritual and social order, or perhaps gender and social order.
7. Stross, Halting State I: Vernor Vingee, “Technological Singularity”
8. Stross, Halting State II: Plato, The Republic (selections)
9. Schmitt, Political Theology: paired with a short piece on securitization theory?
10. Moore, Watchmen I
11. Moore, Watchmen II
12. Heinlein, Starship Troopers I: Harold D. Lasswell, “The Garrison State,” The American Journal of Sociology 14,4 (December 1943): 627-650.
13. Heinlein, Starship Troopers II
14. Ender’s Game I
15. Ender’s Game II
16. Todorov, Conquest of America [might be moved before Ender’s Game]
17. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus I [Parts 1-2]
18. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus II [Part 3]
19. No Class: Film. Perhaps Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell: SAC (the compilation of the “Laughing Man” episodes), or Ghost in the Shell 2.0?
20. Le Guin, The Dispossessed I
21. Le Guin, The Dispossessed II
22. Herbert, Dune I
23. Herbert, Dune II: paired with a piece on jihad and/or religious warfare and/or religion and politics
24. Film.

As should be clear, I have one moveable film slot and I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m also curious about other suggestions for pairings (but keep in mind that I am not sadistic enough to pair Fifth Head of Cerberus with anything, as they’ll have enough trouble making sense of the narrative as it is).

One option that I’m considering is to open with some kind of cliched genre SF, e.g., Foundation (or at least the first novella or two). My current inclination is to keep the readings for session 2 but assign something to watch, such as an episode of ST:TNG (Darmok?) or Farscape. What I’m looking for should be (1) accessible on its own and (2) complete with all the “bells and whistles” of stereotyped SF: spaceships, strange aliens, energy weapons, etc.

Last year our readers provides excellent feedback. Let’s make that a trend!

UPDATE: Trend underway! I should clarify some things about the course and comment on some of the excellent suggestions. I’ve benefitted from PTJ’s extensive experience teaching a similar (and better) version of the class; as I’ve had one semester under my belt, I’ve also learned a bit.

Providing related nonfiction helps ground the students in terms of discussing and analyzing SF. Works we might think of as “meh” or of dubious quality can provoke terrific discussions. Even some of the students who consume science fiction lack contextual knowledge that our readership unwittingly assumes.  Standalone SF episodes are much more difficult to follow than people who’ve watched the series realize.

For example, I showed “33” last year as a means for talking about the notion of “the exception” — although we also discussed jus in bello issues and compared “33” to Watchmen. I may put it back on, but the students were really, really confused about the characters and the setting. For some of them, that overshadowed the whole experience. Similarly, Bank’s Culture universe is pretty difficult to feel comfortable in if one begins with Look to Windward. Despite the fact that it doesn’t tackle the kind of broad thematics of that book, Player of Games provides a much better introduction to the Culture.

I should also note some of the meta-themes in the course, although one nice aspect of teaching this kind of class is that the students take it in unexpected directions.

  1. The relationship between politics, roles, and games. This carries across a wide variety of the literature and bridges works that deal with different themes.
  2.  Sovereignty and the exception. Although this also cuts across a number of works, Watchmen, Starship Troopers, and Enders Game constitute the “core” of this discussion. Related, of course, is “guardianship.”
  3. The status of the “Other” in politics in general, and imperial relations in particular. 
  4. Technological shifts and politics, particularly around the idea of the “singularity” but extended out much more broadly to issues of political change. 

I eliminated a number of works that were in the previous semester.  The most difficult one to cut was Julian Comstock. I am close to pulling the trigger on a CJ Cherryh — likely Downbelow Station or Cyteen, both of which would integrate nicely. Due to their length, though, I need to think hard about how to make it work. Either gets at core themes of the syllabus, and it would allow me to add another female author.

Thoughts? Keep the ideas coming, please!


International Women’s Day Film Fest: The lady characters helping and hindering the cause.

The 15th Century take on Shrek

A friend of mine linked to a fabulous post by Lindy West at the Guardian “The Five Most Pathetic Female Film Characters of All Time”. Okay, not the most inspiring International Women’s Day post. But if I’m honest with you, I think she’s spot on with her list (although I haven’t seen Twilight so I can’t really judge that… but it seems to confirm everything I’ve heard about Bella.)

There is nothing worse than a horrible female companion/character/lead in a film. I find it like being on a long car ride with a whiney companion. And that’s the very least damage they do. At worst, they confirm stereotypes and just simply send the wrong message to young girls or women about what they need to do to be saved by some moronic hero.

At the end of her post West invites readers to list the characters that are letting down the female gender. So I thought that I would make a quick list (in no particular order) in between marking essays. Since I think today needs to be about empowerment, I’ve also listed those women at the end that I think are relatively kick-ass and do their thing for the cause.

It’s an interesting thought experiment (or at least a fun distraction) to think about what makes a good female character. I’m not sure I have a definitive list, but I would certainly want a certain degree of self-reliance, an ability to think under pressure (and not, say, faint), an ability to work well and communicate with others and not be overly whiney. I don’t think women have to be violent in order to be awesome, just have some witty talk and a normal freaking brain.

Also – I’m sure I could come up with more on both sides, but here are a few that pop into my mind (from the world of film at least – I’m well aware that several Duck contributors would find the lack of Buffy on this list to be disturbing.) I would be interested in hearing other people’s lists. Or perhaps other ideas of what makes a good female role-model.

Lady Losers (Boo!)

Dale Arden – Flash (AH-AAA!!!) Gordon

The fact that this woman could walk and breathe at the same time, let alone with that gigantic 80s hair astounds me. Pathetic dialogue and ‘cheerleading ‘ while your paramour is trying to football fight his way through Ming’s army of doom IS NOT HELPING.
Having seen only clips of the series, I’m not sure if any of the other Dales were any good, but I have my doubts. If I was Flash I probably just would have stuck with Ming’s daughter.

Okay, this poster is rad.


Okay – I’m certain that this is going to be the most controversial one up here, but seriously, she is a total let-down. It’s like the adventures of naked, sexy Pearl Heart in space. Maybe it’s because I watched it for the first time n the 1990s, but I was expecting a lot more from “The Queen of the Galaxy”. Sure, I get that the was about free love and seeing Jane Fonda naked in the 1960s, but really.

Mareen O’Hara as Lady Margaret in the Black Swan.

O’Hara did work the beach curls.

Maybe it’s because I can’t stand a film of Sabatini novel without, as a minimum, Errol Flynn or Olivia De Havilland in a starring role, but I just thought this film was pretty bad. Captain Blood is all kinds of awesome – and De Havilland manages to put some kick into an otherwise kind of flat character (although movie enhances her character’s role). But this film is just kind of creepy and rapey. And despite O’Hara’s attempts to be feisty, she comes off as lame. Her character is helpless and annoying. Or maybe I just can’t the fact that no one even bothered trying to put on a British accent.

Clever, but not clever enough to avoid silver lamé!  .

Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian – Robin Hood

The 1936 film takes a character that has plenty of potential to be useless and turns it into someone who was pretty kick-ass for the Great Depression. She bests Robin at conversation and masterminds his escape when his ‘Merry Men’ can’t get it together. She doesn’t swoon, faint or cry. She changes her mind through reason and debate. When she spends a little while in the dungeon, she remains stoic and determined. Sure she’s not fighting her way out with a broadsword, but I’m going to give her my pre-1945 award for being pretty kick-ass.

Eowyn – Lord of the Rings

Sure she’s kind of winey and moany and in love with a guy who is going for the hot elf princess. (Isn’t that always the way?) But she WANTS to kick ass. They literally have to forbid her from going out to fight. And she STILL manages to go out and kill the King of the Nazgul. Basically this woman is all kinds of awesome – and she gets Faramir in the end. Niiiice.

Princess Leia – Star Wars 

I feel that I almost have to put this up out of obligation – although I thought she kind of got wussified by Return of the Jedi. However, she is an amazing character in the first film. She’s a career woman (diplomat), rebellion leader and pretty gung-ho. She withstands torture and only gives up information when the lives of others are threatened. And she can pull off that hair-bun look while shooting-up some baddies.

EDIT: Looking at this list, I think most of my heroines could safely be described as liberal feminists (well, 12th Century liberal feminists for Marian). Could film ever produce a critical/stand-point feminist? Maybe I just haven’t seen enough ‘good’ movies. Anyone have any ideas on this?


Science Fiction and International Orders – Live Blog [UPDATED]

[podcasts of ProfPTJ and DHN’s contributions to the afternoon sessions are now up:

PTJ: https://kittenboo.com/blog/2011/02/21/science-fiction-and-international-orders-ptj/

DHN: https://kittenboo.com/blog/2011/02/21/science-fiction-and-international-orders-dhn/

Also: the sci-fi author part of the session is available to listen to here.]

Okay things are getting underway here at the LSE. I have never live-blogged before, but I’m told there is a first time for everything. Professor Chris Brown is just starting the introduction.

Please note that I am trying to be as accurate as possible. I think there will be a pod-cast to check this up against later. However, I hope that the participants will feel free to correct or respond to what is, no doubt, my mangled and convoluted interpretation of their thoughts.

Of course having technical difficulties with the internet – working on it. EDIT: appears to be okay now. Fingers crossed.

1:32pm John Courtney Grimwood is starting by reading from his lastest book on a 15th Century world where the Mongols are the major world power. So far it is about a woman who is being forced to marry someone she really doesn’t want to in Venice. He’s reading very quietly so it’s a bit hard to make out.

1:39pm It’s a big theatre and not full, but at least 100+ here. A good turn out for Thursday afternoon.

1:42pm  Paul McAuley is speaking more generally about science fiction. “It’s not of any use if you want to know what’s going to happen in North Africa next week… it’s not in the prediction business. It’s about what might happen…. It doesn’t offer definitive answers.”
– It’s about taking a current trend and pushing it as far as it can go.
– Wrote two books about a scientific utopia, and wrote them backwards(?)
– Inspired by robots, and the images that robots have sent back to earth. (shows covers to explain)
– Talking about the different moons of Jupiter. States that Io is probably not a nice place to live.

1:52 pm – Turning into something of a geology /astronomy lesson but it’s all very interesting. McAuley it talking about how it inspires him. Moonscapes, etc. 
– What is interesting is the idea of inserting a human figure.
– One of the most powerful things that science fiction is to apply human emotion and feeling to outer-space landscapes. It gives reality and meaning to places we haven’t been to yet and can’t yet reach.
– When he created his book, he started about thinking of a figure in a landscape. Where are they from? How did they get there? Effects of living in an artificial landscape – a domed city – and the potential for death in a hostile environment if they left it.
– Antarctic station – environment where human survival is only possible, or significantly enhanced by technology.

*** I hope this is making sense. He’s really interesting. Ken McLeod up next…

1:59pm Made his society like academia – reputation based. Each of the different societies on the different moons. ie) “Kudos” based society, where you are ranked by the social good, and feeling of goodness that you help others feel.

Cityscapes – kind of random. His cities, inspired by real landscapes – extrapolated from features of moons of Jupiter. Astroturf, chestnut trees and a river in an incredibly harsh environment.

2:02pm Ken MacLeod is talking about how international events have inspired some of his writings.

– Talking about the stand off between NATO & Russia at the airport during the Kosovo intervention.
– Resteration Game – set in science fictional year of 2008. Wanted to write a sci-fi novel, but set in a different present. Sci-fi is often set in the unknown future where you don’t have a date.
– Set in a place Krasnia (?) inspired by Southern Ossetia. What if someone played a game as a means to organize the next ‘coloured revolution’ in the former Soviet Union.
– Written just before 2008 – and before invasion, after which ‘everyone was an expert on Southern Ossetia’.
– Going to read a segment of his novel…

2:11pm Novel is about a girl who is researching about “Krasnia” – a region that isn’t a state, but a region. Revolutionary movement there. Apparently the CIA is interested in the region because it is close to an oil pipeline in the Caucuses. Difficulty in researching an obscure area (apparently people say to him that they can relate to this passage on the difficulties on researching/writing a paper. It’s quite funny – “Even the Wikipedia entry for Krasnia was a ‘stub’!”

Going into questions. I will post some of the interesting ones. Going to the audience before Nexon and PTJ have a crack at it.

2:28pm Two questions of note:

1) Audience member notices that all three have female protanists. Is this the “Buffy Effect”. *laughter*
Grimwood says his females are strong and he’s drawn to writing female characters
McLeod states that his character could kick Buffy’s ass. (But notes that he has numerous characters.)
McAuley “Science fiction is equal oppoprtunity”

2) PTJ – Questions authors about the politics of their characters. “How much do you sit down and say ‘I want to make points about capitalism, balance of power’. Or is that something that just comes with characters, development of the plot.

Grimwood answers – it’s coincidental. Doesn’t always know what’s going to happen with book until the second draft. Acknowledges that once inspired, you can often find resonance with current events.
MacLeod – He’s funny. Explaining that he was inspired by a youtube video. Four men in black on a landing strip with a plane coming at them. Says the looked like Presbyterian terrorists. Realized that the Presbyterian church’s hierarchy would be very good for a terrorist movement.
McAuley – Character are aware of politics. Talks about everyone’s characteristics and motivations. So there was some strategy in developing them. . One character – trained to be a spy, someone else, has to develop his own point of view.

2:37pm Nexon: Asks about how writers go about creating their worlds.

Grimwood – Look for coherence. Sees and hears what he puts down on the page. Says that he always has a “stranger” character that goes into a society. The character is the guidebook to the world.

MacLeod – With Sci-Fi, you don’t just project future as a diagonal line going up. It’s a wavy line going up and down. Different period, economic cycles, wars, etc. One American Sci-Fi writer (did not catch name) used a spreadsheet to work out an algorithm which determined that World War 6 would kill 5 billion people.

McAuley – Problem with science fiction is that everthing, everyone has a logical explanation, motive, or else it doesn’t exist. He doesn’t see present like this at all. It’s a series of largely frozen accidents. Ie: everyone used a worse piece of technology than a better one (VCR vs Betamax). Ultimately, takes in information – much is now sent to him via social networks. Tries to filter it somehow. Much of writing a novel is a happy accident – that you find the fact that you needed. But this gets back to what Grimwood said about consistency.

2:50pm Iver Neumann – How do you situate yourself in a globalized world? How do you situate yourself to the implied readers. It’s going to read differently to someone who is in Uganda or Moscow. For example, with Grimwood’s book about Mongols, notes that when he toured Kazakhstan that Gengis Khan is seen as a great military leader – so book would read different there?

McAuley – Answers, but not sure that I follow his point?

McLeod – With the first novel “I suspect the implied reader was me.” *laughs*. Noted how a Polish audience had a different take on his book than the British one.

Grimwood – notes that any work that involves translation usually means that he will get a different set of questions received.

McAuley – Says that as a leftwing Marxist, his work has been interpreted differently in America. Says that American fiction has gone into a different direction – more angry, cranky (if not tea-party-ish). About how you can save the world by, once again, imposing American values on it. It is the biggest market though.

Grimwood – has had “American translation” of books. Everyone has different knowledge and you can’t take that for granted.

PTJ – Says that IR academics have a similar problem. Couldn’t have a book titled “Stopping Asians at the Elbe” because no one in America would know what that meant.

Chris Brown ends the session – 10 minute break and we will be back!


Second Session – Professor Barry Buzan is now chairing.

3:10pm Okay – second section is starting – Prof PTJ is up first.

He’s using an iPad – brilliant!

Social science – three kinds of criteria 1) systematic 2) public criticism 3) aims to generate worldly knowledge

Sci-Fi shares two of these in common – systematic, worldly. It’s about creating a plausible kind of reality which people work out.

With Sci-Fi, must build a coherent world, it has to make sense. And it shows what a world may look like if you apply a certain set of rules or ideas. (I’m sure I’ve messed this argument up – I’m sure PTJ will correct me!)

Once social science gives up on the fruitless project of prediction, what we’re doing is sketching out as academics is also plausible worlds.

What Sci-Fi and Social Science can do on their best days is to help us expand our knowledge by looking at the implications of various ideas.

[*Edit*: Clarification from PTJ: “My point about not predicting was to think in terms of possibility rather than probability.” (That’s what I took away from it – but don’t think it showed up in text. He was speaking wicked American fast!)]

Nexon up next


Like PTJ, does not want to think about this in terms of prediction. It’s counter-factualism that tells us something about the present.

Both use ideal-typical models; both use counterfactuals. (ie: what would have happened if George W. Bush have been elected? Would there have been a World War II without Hitler) Use these questions to ask or illustrate things about the present.

Sci-Fi – asks counterfactual questions like, what if the South had won the Civil War? Or if the Ottoman Empire was still around?

Often sci-fi is about projection – what would the implications of a certain type of technology be for humanity, human nature, human society.

This means that sci-fi always contains theories of economic, social or political relations. Because must think about how these would be altered with introduction of new factors. It is a genre of literature where the audience must evaluate the level of the macro-level world order.

This is why implicit theories in sci-fi is interesting and relates to IR. ie: Nexon’s reference to MacLeod’s account of another author statement plotting his future history based on long-cycle theory that human development goes up and down and in waves.

Some of these are horrifically bad theories – and in fiction that I like!

But IR has to look at things – what would Europe look like without the Reformation. Often use statistical regression techniques – but this is a kind of counterfactuals.

IR scholars might offer some sci-fi writers some theories of human relations, etc. But sci-fi writers are better at asking questions. More imagination and they pay attention to things that scholars don’t, like character.

Buzan adds that they also sell more books!

3:26pm Neumann starts with a confession that he has probably read the least sci-fi.
Starts off talking about religion, political theology. He disagrees with Weber’s idea that we live in de-mystified times.

Battle Star Galactica was produced (in the 70s version) by a Mormon – religion is throughout.

Governments like straight-line predictions: linear projections. He’s involved in some of these prediction exercises with the Norwegian government. So how do we get away from this? Senarios.

This is what science fiction does. The only difference is that our scenarios have no literary value whatsoever.

Nexon adds: We’re the wrong people to get up here. I think we all probably share a way of viewing social scientific work as that it should be eye-opening. And that’s not appreciated by everyone.

Questions up next….

Question on prediction (which has been a very common theme)

PTJ – to predict something, you have to assume a closed system. And that’s not realistic. So think less in terms of prediction and more in terms of possibility.

Question: Should authors also be writing things that have cognitive dissonance? (ie: a society where we can’t make a logical leap as to where everything came from.)

PTJ – this kind of sci-fi is represented in the alien contact sub-genre. It’s about confronting the non-human.

Nexon – if you introduce contingency, you want to have a coherent narrative about unexplained events. Telling a narrative has a plausibility requirement. With IR, if our theories are too simplistic, they also suffer from plausibility problems.

To tell a story in the social sciences means to tell a quasi-determined story. Here’s how we got from A to B.

Question: People talk about social responsibility of academics; do authors have a social responsibility? Just beauty?

PTJ – I instinctively recoil at the morality of theory question. In America, realism is a critical theory. (Liberalism is dominant – liberal attitude, un-thought and dominant in the US.) Realism is a critical theory. Ie: If you bomb Iraq, they may not turn out to be Americans. They may end up ‘different’ . So bringing up that possibility might be a good science fiction novel. When realists are working in non-realist environment, there is a real critical-political function.

Nexon – there are moral responsibilities, but that may be because he just spent a year in government. You are morally responsible for trying to anticipate consequences. How do you work this out and reconcile this with your own moral responsibilities. What is morally productive, look at theories and claims being made and then to assess. Even the notion of creating a great work of beauty is an aesthetic claim.

Barry Buzan notes that the problem with Sci-Fi is that the politics are often backwards looking. Anachronistic. There are far too many empires. They don’t imagine the future.

Question: Relations between Science Fiction and Social Science

Nexon: Much of present history in IR may as well be fiction. It’s very poorly done. Likes work that cites literature, and literature in

PTJ – World Systems Theory – has removed itself from IR. Danger with IR is that it can focus in too much. That it we lose the big picture.

Buzan – What has been the effect on your career of using science fiction in your work?

PTJ – You cannot, as a young academic, make this your primary gig. It can be something you do, a parallel project, but you have got to have work that isn’t about pop-culture that can’t be
Well there goes my International Relations and comic books project proposal out the window.

Nexon – Patrick’s answer is correct. We’re supposed to be all about this interdisciplinary approach. But the only disciplines we’re not supposed to reach out are the humanities. So okay if you hook someone up to an MRI machine and ask them questions about conflict, but not to look at cultural studies. So, not your first project, but something that is going to be on the side.
He does note that he was able to use Harry Potter for tenure – but it was well reviewed.

Grimwood – states that academics are more respectful than he thought they would be. [EDIT: “My point on academics being more respectful was that I thought this until they all admitted they couldn’t put this stuff on their CVs”] Blame the tenure system! Not us! :-) (SC)

Okay that’s it – will probably write a summary and try to fix this up later for clarity. Right now, I need a drink! *Phew!* Hope you enjoyed!


Science Fiction and International Orders

Today at the LSE there are two fabulous (read: fabulously nerdy) events on Science Fiction and IR. Even better, it’s full of ducks! The event was organized by Chris Brown and features Dan Nexon and Prof PTJ.

The first event, chaired by Chris Brown, features three prominent Science Fiction authors: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley, Ken McLeod. The second event features several prominent academics who will be discussing the implications for IR. Chaired by Barry Buzan, it features our two ducks and Iver Neumann.

My only regret is a lack of female voices. So, in an attempt to rectify this, I will (read: attempt) to live-blog these events here at the Duck which start at 1:15pm GMT (8:15am EST – you’ll have to work the rest out for yourselves).

It promises to be an entertaining (read: fabulously nerdy) day! (There may be a pod cast of both events as well. I’ll post ’em if they got ’em.)


Glen Beck updates Schmitt

Today in my SF class the students discussed Schmitt’s Concept of the Political in the context of Watchmen and the Battlestar Galactica episode “33.” So when links to this Glen Beck video started filling up my twitter feed, I thought I might post it as an example of Schmittian conceptions of politics. But then I realized it was something far more profound: the necessity of theorizing the “frenemy.”

Discuss. Or not.


Interstellar Relations: notes for Watchmen (book) and Akira (film)

Of possible interest to some Duck readers, I reproduce notes that I posted on my class blog in preparation for our next section. Comments and suggestions welcome.

  1. The narrative of Watchmen enjoys, at best, a quasi-linear relationship to time. Events in the past and present intermingle. At the same time, Moore gives significant space to Dr. Manhattan’s relationship to space-time. It might be interesting, in this context, to skim the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entries on God and Time and Time.
  2. Themes common to Watchmen and Akira include (but are far from limited to): nuclear and non-nuclear apocalypse, urban decay, and the implications of transcending human-ness.
  3. We are again the realm of the nuclear and post-nuclear imaginary. If you cannot place yourself in the mindset of the Cold War nuclear standoff–let alone the 1980s–you may find it difficult to make sense of the settings and motivations. Some helpful context might include: the Doomsday Clock (and also here), the decline of New York City, and Kitty Genovese.
  4. Some read Watchmen as not “merely” a rumination on the superhero genre, but on readers’ relationship to (and complicity in) comic-book conventions. Watchmen itself contains multiple examples of text-within-text, e.g., Tales of the Black Freighter and numerous inserts on the history of superheroes.
  5. Watchmen plays with our expectations about ethics and morality, particularly with respect to consequentialist, deontological, and “virtue” ethics (see also, and). Some of the characters make what (at first glance) might seem surprising choices (given what we “know” about them) when confronted with moral dilemmas. Consider also how their actions and choices align with concerns about ethics, values, rights, and duties in foreign policy.
  6. Keep in mind that elements of Watchmen‘s narrative are conveyed by a character (Rorschach) who is sociopathic.
  7. Scott Eirk Kauffman has written some very smart things (be sure to scroll down to get to the relevant stuff) about Watchmen over the years; his posts are particularly interesting because they call attention to what he calls “visual rhetoric,” and should lead you to think about issues of composition and perspective not just in Watchmen, but also in Akira. (nb: A word of warning, SEK is even more foul-mouthed than I am, and quite left wing, so caveat emptor).
  8. Viewers of Akira often find one of its most disturbing (or silly) elements to be its violations, mutilations, and deformations of the human body. Is there a common thread here, or interesting points of comparison with not only Watchmen, but A Canticle for Leibowitz?
  9. In Watchmen‘s alternate universe, Richard Nixon is President of the United States. What other counterfactual conditions obtain in its political order? And can we get any mileage out of a comparison of the political systems represented in Watchmen and Akira?
  10. When in doubt, fall back on depictions of human nature (or its varieties).
  11. As always, we will return to these works in future classes.

Course: Interstellar Relations — The Politics of SF

I’m teaching a seminar on science fiction and politics next semester, which I am really, really looking forward to. PTJ’s been teaching a similar course for years, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity offer it. Given the discussions of the SF genre in general, and steampunk in particular (e.g.), that have been making the rounds, I thought it might be interesting to see get feedback on the syllabus from our readers.

I’ve designed the syllabus to capture a number of major (inter-related themes), including: shifting imaginaries of apocalypse/post-apocalypse, states of exception, encountering the other, liberalism and empire, and games/society/subjectivity.

But one of the things I’m most looking forward to is seeing what unpredictable routes the students take the class.

Warning: I’ve cribbed a lot from PTJ, including the major blogging assignment(s)

As the embed doesn’t work so well, try this alternative.


This Movie is Every Kind of Sick.

If you need a little stomach-turning yet intellectually provocative weekend fun, go watch District 9 while it’s still in theatres. Only check your disbelief at the door. (I mean seriously. If two of your teeth fall casually out of your rotting mouth in the space of ten seconds, you’re not about to get through storming a fortified secret biolab with the rest of them intact, are you now? And since when can humans and aliens understand one another’s languages without a universal translator?)

If you’ve not seen it (and chances you have, I’m usually late to these things since my typical night out to movies still in theatres involves children too young to watch people bite their own fingernails off) Rob Williams sums it up pretty well: “Think ‘Blair Witch Project’ meets ‘Aliens’ meets ‘Borat.'” Aliens arrive at earth to be cast into apartheid-like conditions policed by a sprawling and corrupt private security firm. The rest is a commentary on the Weberian state, emnification processes between in-groups and out-groups, the grimy reality of slum conditions, and the similarities between medical science and voodoo cannibalism. Oh, with a good old-fashioned adversity-makes-a-real-man-of-you hero narrative.

Students who saw it ahead of me raved about it: “Professor, you have to see this film, I watched it and all I could think about was your class!” And true it’s chock full of provocative themes straight out of a human security textbook (though you would think given the context that the political semantics might be slightly more sophisticated).

Sharmini Brooks says the film is full of cliches and it is. (I mean, we get that it’s a play on different kinds of apartheid. Did it really have to be set in Johannnesburg to make that point – wouldn’t any megacity do?) But maybe so. Eric Conway-Smith of the Global Post sees the film as a commentary not on the many forms of institutionalised exclusion American audiences (especially human security students) could read into the plot, but literally about actual living conditions in South Africa’s present-day slums.

I think the most interesting subtext is not about slum life or social exclusion or even identity and interests and liminality and man’s inhumanity to prawns but about the media Panopticon. The mockumentary format of the early and final scenes implies that the non-mockumentary parts have been cobbled together by news cameras constantly watching everything… it’s an eerie effect when you can’t even barf in privacy. Where must one go for a little respect anyway, off-planet?


Science Fiction, Popular Culture and the Concept of Genocide

Claims of “genocide” abound in policy discourse. So do misunderstandings about the concept.

Some recent examples. In the last two years, Russia claimed that Georgia’s attack on Tshkinvali was “genocide;” US House of Representatives accused Iran of inciting genocide in response to Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments about wiping Israel (as it is currently politically constituted) off the map; and Gideon Polya apparently discovered a correlation between countries experiencing “war, genocide and occupation” and the failure of those countries to win Olympic medals.

These examples demonstrate both the political salience of the “genocide” label as a catch-all term for “evil-doing,” and the general lack of understanding of a relatively narrow term which connotes a set of actions aimed to destroy national, political, religious or ethnic groups, not to describe all the other horrors against individual human beings of which Mankind is capable, and certainly not all forms of deadly political violence. At the heart of this misunderstanding is a confusion about the distinction between group rights and individual rights.

Popular culture often doesn’t help. So I argue in my new essay “The Enemy We Seek to Destroy,” just published in Adam Jones’ collection Evoking Genocide. The article analyzes narratives about “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” in the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and focuses particularly on the Federation’s understanding of ethical conduct vis a vis a truly genocidal enemy, the “Borg.”

Excerpts from my essay are below the fold.

Star Trek, a cultural phenomenon that encompasses the original TV series, five spin-off series, ten feature films, and numerous books, comics, games, magazines, and fan websites, has long been understood by cultural theorists as a political commentary on contemporary world affairs. Those of us who have followed it closely see it above all as a morality play. Episodes routinely discuss timeless issues of what it means to be a person; whether good can triumph over evil; the relationship between emotion and reason; the meaning of free will; and the nature of justice.

As a young person, and later as a budding human rights theorist, I perceived in Star Trek a commitment to liberal individualism and a respect for cultural self-determination. In that sense, the “United Federation of Planets” – the cosmopolitan organization that dispatches the Starship Enterprise to its distant realms – opposes violations of both individual and group rights. Growing up, the show was a constant touchstone for my emerging ethical and political consciousness. In several episodes, the Enterprise encounters planets where genocidal practices are in place. Each case is treated as the outer limit of the non-interference doctrine (the Prime Directive), which might be read as an early articulation of the norm of humanitarian intervention.

Against this background of appreciation for the show’s moral universe, I later found myself, somewhat to my surprise, disillusioned by a particular episode, one in which the Federation itself contemplated genocide against an alien collectivist culture. The Borg are a cybernetic race who evolve through assimilating organic species, and their technological distinctiveness, into their own cyber-collective – linking individual “drones” to a single collective consciousness. In the fifth season episode, I, Borg, the Enterprise encounters the crash site of a Borg scout ship, along with a lone Borg survivor. At the insistence of the doctor, Beverly Crusher, the drone is taken aboard for medical treatment – although the inclination of the other officers is to shoot the drone, since “the collective will come looking for it.” (In fact, the Borg have engaged the Federation previously, with the goal of assimilating Earth’s entire civilization into their collective. Picard was once abducted by the Borg, which possibly explains his no-holds-barred attitude.)

When the drone recovers consciousness, Captain Picard hatches a plan to introduce an “invasive programming sequence” into the drone’s subroutine. When the drone interfaces with the Borg collective, Picard hopes that the computer virus will “infect the entire collective” and “disable their neural network,” in effect shutting down their brain, and eliminating them as a threat to the Federation. Over the course of the episode, however, the crew is forced to reconsider this plan, as the Borg drone, now severed from the collective, begins to function as an individual, evoking the sympathy of the crew and respect for his rights.

What immediately struck me about this sequence is that, while the characters eventually come to view harming the individual Borg as wrong, the idea of genocide (as a crime against a collective) is never fully critiqued. Most of the officers accept with very little discussion that eradicating the Borg collective as such is an appropriate course of action. Crusher is alone in questioning the policy of genocide. Other officers concur with Picard: “We’re at war”; “They’ve attacked us at every encounter.” But even Crusher appears implicitly to accept the crew’s argument that exterminating the Borg as a collective could be justifiable on grounds of self-defense. Her disagreement focuses on whether exterminating individual Borg non-combatants is ethical. She does not concur with Picard’s argument that individual drones lack rights. Were collective rights her reference point, Picard’s argument about the Borg collective consciousness would not have been “convenient,” but would rather underscore the atrociousness of targeting that civilization-defining consciousness.

Subsequent to this scene, the morality of destroying the Borg collective as such is evaded. The ethical debate in the episode (for in Star Trek, there always is one) centers only on whether the “invasive program” would violate the rights of Borg drones as individuals. Dr. Crusher does argue on behalf of the Borg prisoner: “When I look at my patient, I don’t see a collective consciousness. I see a living, breathing boy who has been hurt and needs our help.” But this is reminiscent of protections for wounded prisoners enshrined in humanitarian law. She also continues to question the ethics of “using” an unsuspecting individual to destroy his people, though increasingly the targeting of “the people” itself is lost in the discussion.

Crusher’s claims are validated as the episode progresses. The drone, now separated from the collective, begins to exhibit individual traits, and becomes increasingly identifiable as a person. Thus, while early on Picard had used classic genocidal rhetoric in encouraging his crew not to become too attached to “it,” he eventually comes to view the prisoner as an individual worthy of respect, protection, dignity, and choice. In many respects, the episode is a study in the power of dehumanization to enable atrocity, and of rehumanization to restrain it. But rather than transforming Picard’s understanding of the Borg collective, this newfound sensibility simply provides him with a different set of concerns to weigh against the supposed moral viability of genocide. The goal of eradicating the collective continues to hold sway throughout the episode, but it becomes difficult to justify forcing the individual drone to return to the collective like, as Crusher puts it, “some sort of walking bomb.”

In fact, it seems that the ability to view the drone as worthy of rights at all is contingent on viewing him as distinct from the Borg, rather than as an individual of a sentient race that ought not to be exterminated on principle. This is perhaps best exemplified by Picard’s statement, when he finally concludes that it would be wrong to bring the plan to fruition: “To use him in this manner would be no better than the enemy we seek to destroy.” Destroying the enemy “as such” is not questioned – only the use of a sentient individual as a tool for this purpose. This is thoroughly inconsistent with the rules of war in liberal international society, as well as the rules of engagement in the Star Trek universe. There, one does not seek to destroy one’s enemies, but merely to defeat their military forces, and perhaps transform them into allies.

To my mind, the Borg episodes in general, and this one in particular, engage a range of ethical questions relating to the concept of genocide (or xenocide?). First, are genocidal strategies appropriate against an enemy bent on committing genocide themselves? That is, is genocide justifiable if committed in self-defense? If so, what is the burden of proof for demonstrating that defense against genocide is impossible with less draconian methods?

Second, if an entire society is mobilized (as the Borg arguably are), does treating that society as a military objective constitute genocide, or would it be consistent with the laws of war that permit targeting military objectives? (That is, is it only genocide if the targets are non-combatants, or is the reference point the existence of the collective entity itself?) Are the laws of war obsolete when defeating an entire military would, essentially, require the destruction of an entire society? Is destruction of a civilization as such acceptable, even appropriate, if the destruction takes place through non-lethal means and is carried out so as to liberate “oppressed” individuals from a cultural context inimical to their own individual freedoms? And how should a military officer respond, when given a command that could be deemed profoundly unethical?

“I, Borg,” and Star Trek more generally, offers an opportunity to meditate on these issues. Indeed, as a multimedia phenomenon, it promises (and often delivers) a careful, nuanced grappling with some of the important political problems of our day. In this instance, however, I think the show missed an opportunity to educate viewers about the nature of genocide both as concept and as crime: as something distinct from war, and from questions of individual human rights. Apparently, even the most liberal ethical narrative can accommodate genocidal thinking within certain parameters. This should give us pause.


Spoiler Alert: My Take on the New Sar Trek

It’s not going to get on anyone’s list of top ten IR movies, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean I’m disappointed, exactly… more like a little shell-shocked.

Lawyers, Guns and Money doesn’t have a peekaboo function, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, so my reactions from seeing the film only once so far are hidden safely below the fold.

Foreign policy subtext – decidedly post-Global War on Terror. The original Federation always was presented as a metaphor for liberal internationalism ala Western Hemispheric U.S. hegemony; during the Cold War this meant as opposed to a totaliarian Klingon empire (read, U.S.S.R. / “Islamofascism”); the spin-off series’ kept this up to some extent with various other collectivist threats to secular humanism, the scientific progress valorized by space exploration pitted against the forces that would pull humanity back into the Dark Ages. But in this new variation Starfleet is explicitly described in UN-esque terms, as a “humanitarian, peacekeeping armada,” and the only enemy in sight is someone angry at the absence of (human?) security for his own people.

Battle scenes – awesome. The producers have learned a lot from Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars about how to make ships look as if they can actually maneuver in space / how to think about what space environments can actually do to human bodies (if not what black holes can do to flimsy starships).

Suspension of disbelief – required. Anyone familiar with Star Trek will immediately recognize the multitude of chronological errors, gaps, and inconsistencies in character development. (Like how Chekov isn’t supposed to show up until the second season of the classic series. Or how Spock was supposed to be serving under Pike during this period, not writing simulations at Starfleet academy.) Of course, the screenwriters explain much of this away through a plot twist in the end.

Even so, they can’t rely on that for everything. Since when, for example, do pregnant family members travel on starships with their husbands? I’ll tell you since when – since Galaxy class starships were introduced in the 24th century. Not early on, 35 years before the classic series. And how about the fact that Spock, while capable of love affairs, would never ever ever have one with a student, simply for ethical reasons?

Ultimately, the movie has been created not to satisfy the curiosity of older Star Trek fans but to rebrand the Trek universe to appeal to a 21st century crowd – one with a greater insistence on glamorous battle-scenes, a more human-security focused foreign policy imaginary, a post-feminist gender sensibility, and little pickiness about getting (fictional) facts straight. This is what makes it cinematically brilliant, but also why a few of us may leave theaters slightly shell-shocked this month.


No Clone of Star Wars

My son and I finally saw Clone Wars this weekend. Afterward, I went back through some of the reviews I’d been ignoring during the past month of moving and settling in. No one seems to think the movie was great, but people are disappointed for different reasons. David Germain of the AP writes:

You’ll know you’re in a different galaxy within the first seconds of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which substitutes the Warner Bros. logo and theme music for the familiar 20th Century Fox searchlight and fanfare. Whether because of its cartoony format or its relatively lightweight story, “Clone Wars” definitely is not an event.

From the NY Times:

“Expectations were set so low by George Lucas’s lousy trilogy of “Star Wars” prequels that the latest from the Lucasfilm factory, a feature-length digital animation called “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” comes as something of a surprise: it isn’t the most painful movie of the year!… No more than a pretext for exploding robots and light-saber duels, the plot concerns the efforts of Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano, his neophyte sidekick, to secure a fragile alliance by retrieving Jabba the Hutt’s baby son from the double-crossing clutches of Count Dooku, blah, blah, blah. Exploding robots!”

Well yes, this film was definitely made for children not grownups. Yet for what it was worth, I thought it not that bad. I may have been less critical because I saw it with my six-year-old, and therefore wore a firmly six-year-old mentality during the film: had I come as an adult, as I did to the prequels, I’d have been more disappointed. I also didn’t try to compare it to the other films – it was clearly designed to be of a different style and caliber: filler, really, to give depth to the often disjointed political story told in the other films. Yes, anyone who was hoping for special effects or character development at the level of the feature films will be let down. But here are three ways in which I thought this film actually exceeded the others in sophistication:

1. Gender Constructions. The original trilogy was ridiculously sexist, with Leia the only important female character, whose role is largely to serve as a big-breasted incentive for the boys to fight well. And in the prequels, though Padme starts off with some spunk, she morphs into little more than a waiting, weeping wife archetype by Revenge of the Sith, standing by lovingly while (among other things) Anakin commits war crimes and then abandoning her infants and her government to die of a broken heart. Women in these films are there primarily to inspire and validate the masculine heroes, and to provide eye candy for the audience. But in Clone Wars, we watch Anakin develop a reluctant but close and platonic bond to his young, wise-cracking female Padawan. Ahsoka combines multiple opposing gender archetypes by being a skillful warrior, a reckless neophyte, and a generous caregiver – the sort of Starbuck-esque female lead that is strikingly absent from the original movies. And then there is Asajj Ventress, Count Dooku’s assassin, who has her own history leading to the dark side and who gives Obi-Wan a run for his money. Watching male Star Wars characters relate to a female as something other than a prize to be protected was quite refreshing, particularly given the complex female characters in other science fiction media such as Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: Voyager.

2. Battlefield Tactics. The prequels, and to some extent the original films, were heavy on grand political maneuvering and light on issues of logistics and tactical decision-making, but in Clone Wars we get to watch first-hand what every day life fighting an insurgency looks like (OK, it’s a cartoon version, but still…) through the eyes of a rookie Padawan wannabe, rather than through seasoned Jedi omnipotents who never mis-step. No, the fight scenes were nothing breathtaking; and no, not horribly instructive (I had to remind my son as we were leaving that in the real world, one would be rather out of breath after ten minutes of handfighting not to mention with broken knuckles), but there is something refreshing about watching day to day life in the military, in between grand appearances in the Imperial Senate. And it leaves one recognizing that half the story of Anakin’s obsession over Padme and subsequent fall must be chalked up to his status as a shell-shocked veteran experiencing various forms of PTSD.

3. De-Emnifying the Evildoers… At Least, a Little. One of the key breaks with the archetypal Star Wars narrative we see in this production is the humanization of (some) of the bad guys. In this case, Jabba the Hutt. Whereas we previously knew him as the quintissential nasty, greedy, good for nothing slime-ball, in this film we come to know him as a loving father. By getting to know and identify with his son, the innocent and helpless little Hutt-let with whose rescue Anakin and Ashoka are charged, we are reminded that even the bad guys have children, and that even a stinky little larva can be worthy of protection by honorable soldiers. This narrative chips away at the earlier good-and-evil, with us or against us, black-and-whiteness of the original Star Wars, which has always struck me as an extremely nationalistic, conservative narrative relative to its counterparts in other series’.

This is in some ways a continuation of Revenge of the Sith’s opera-house scene, where we begin to understand, through the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise, that the Sith too have an ethical logic to their politics and are not simply evil. However, Clone Wars doesn’t take this too far… in the end, the Sith are the Sith, irredeemable, unstoppable, and beyond the pale. I wonder if in the CTV series this Fall some character development will take place among those characters at well, to shed further light on the complex motivations of the different sides in the war? One thing’s for sure… my son and I will be watching.

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