Tag: science fiction (page 3 of 4)

Random Friday stuff

Blogger has finally started to restore posts, but it doesn’t look like everything is back yet. Meanwhile, my partner’s off to Kazakhstan, I’ve got 38 seminar papers and 16 short essays to grade, and my daughter’s become obsessed with Naruto. So, in lieu of posting anything substantive:

  • Rob Farley has some thoughts on the air campaign in Libya;
  • PM’s thoughts on qualitative and quantitative methods deserves more commentary from our academic readers;
  • Al Jazeera chronicles how Saudia Arabia’s new protectorate, the Bahrain’s government, is using its Arab Spring crackdown to systematically destroy rival centers of power;
  • Phil Arena’s three posts on “Rational Choice Apologetics” lay out an important defense of his favored approach–if PTJ someone here doesn’t take the bait, I figure I’ll at least have to write something on the “Tyranny of Soft Rationalism in IR Theory”; 
  • Five months in and I’m still really liking the Decemberist’s The King is Dead;
  • My aforementioned partner just finished John Courtenay Grimwood’s Pashazade, and endorses it as much as I do — and because it’s something like six years old, you don’t have to wait for Grimwood to finish the trilogy; and
  • Grading Interstellar Relations final papers reminds me how Iain M. Banks returned to form with Surface Detail.

“I Don’t Care What You Believe In, Just Believe In It.”

Although reports that he is insufficiently feminist appear to have been exaggerated, Joss Whedon does appear to be insufficiently Browncoat. Or so it would seem since he recently blocked the first fan-based effort to acquire the rights to a television series by nixing Unstoppable Signals’ movement to revive Firefly, the one-season hit space western whose film sequel Serenity just beat out The Empire Strikes Back for Best SciFi Film of All Time at io9.

(If you need more background on the show and its connection to post-9/11 global political culture, start with this and follow the links.)

This latest fan effort to resuscitate the show was sparked after lead actor Nathan Fillon stated in an Entertainment Weekly interview:

”If I got $300 million from the California Lottery, the first thing I would do is buy the rights to Firefly, make it on my own, and distribute it on the Internet.”

Fillon, whose character Malcolm Reynolds is an archetype for outside-the-box machinations against government or corporate powers that be, quickly became an icon for Firefly fandom’s guerilla marketing bloc, who interpreted his dream as a cause and his words as a call to action. A Facebook page was established to gather pledges for a “Buy Firefly” fund in anticipation of the new Fillon-produced show and quickly attracted over 116,000 members and more than $1 million in pledges.

It also attracted some derision by those who thought the idea was a waste of money and time, not least by Fillon himself, who quickly retracted his statement and asked fans to donate to his favorite charity instead, Kids Need to Read. Browncoats took this seriously and many sent money they had planned to pledge to the show to KNTR and well as a variety of other charities. They also hatched a new plan: rather than raise the money for Fillon, they would aim to buy the rights to the show themselves:

Call it what you want… democratic entrepreneurialism, populist production or just plain crowdfunding, we believe it is possible to create the first film company that is owned by the fans and for the fans. And why not? The many are mighty.

But in early March Joss Whedon’s sister, claiming to speak for Joss, tweeted

Guys, no one in the Whedonverse is in support of www.helpnathanbuyfirefly.com. Please save your money!

According to Screenrant:

Tancharoen later amended her statement with a longer message, stating that there were no hard feelings from the Whedon clan, but Joss and Co. weren’t comfortable with fans trying to take direct control of the Firefly rights, and even less with them collecting real money to do so.

In a disappointed show of deference, pledge collections for HNBF shut down and the fans began directing actual donations toward additional charity efforts instead. These have included design contests and merchandise sales to benefit a variety of organizations including the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation, the Dyslexia Foundation and Equality Now. However they also continue to explore the idea of crowd-sourcing fan productions of other TV series’ “to address a genre that is plagued by unjust cancellations and complaints of low profits despite its unimaginable importance to our cultural fabric.”

While Whedon’s position is certainly understandable from a copyright perspective, one must note the irony: this notion of “people’s control” over objects of art is perhaps the logical culmination of the very political sentiment promoted by the show Firefly. And the humani-liber-tarian spirit in this comments thread, collecting fan ideas on moving forward is a fair bit, well, mighty. (At least in one sense of the word.) I especially liked this one:

Firefly seems to appeal to people with a soul. I don’t mean nuthin’ with any religiosity, I just mean folk who got more’n a passing interest in the fortunes of other. Build the good works into the fandom-related activity whereby we sit around the campfire enjoying our collective appreciation through story, and song, and craft. But at the same time, we pass around a cup and do a little takin’-up for those who ain’t so lucky.

And when the morning comes, get our gear on and set out for places what have the aforementioned folks-in-need. Show the world that we can do more than just get frothy on the internetz. Show them that a bunch of shiny people maybe can’t make a big ole difference against all the misery out there … but we sure can try just the same. Like vinyahuinewen said, let’s be Big Damn Heroes.

Beats sittin’ around grumbling about how rotten the world can be.

“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


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.)


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.

If it won’t put me in the middle of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, then I say “Meh.”

Context available through an additional click.


Information, Freedom and “Tron: Legacy”

It hasn’t exactly been getting great reviews: the 1982 version had a plump, red thumbs-up rating of 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas the sequel is at a festering, sickly 49%. Most of the bad reviews fall into the “meh” category: all glitz, no story. But there’s also push-back by those who see some ‘big ideas’ embedded in the film.

Let me use one articulation of Tron: Legacy’s big ideas in particular as my foil – the following is written by a blog commenter at MovieCityNews reacting to a post by David Poland. Murdocdv’s comment was then recycled by Poland on its own post which has attracted some discussion. According to Murdocdv, Tron: Legacy has at least two “big ideas” that should not be overlooked just because they’re packaged in a bunch of largely irrelevant eye candy:

Here are two big ideas in Tron Legacy. First, that intelligent life spontaneously springs into existence without a creator. Two, that information may want to be free, but that doesn’t mean it always should be.

In the movie, original Flynn tells his son of his huge discovery, the ISOs (isometric lifeforms). He has proof that life does not need a creator to exist, it can simply spring into existence. Flynn is the god to this universe, and something is alive he didn’t create. If in reality someone created artificial intelligence in our image which did as it was told, but in that same environment another kind of AI evolved out of nothingness, the discovery would be monumental. As Flynn in the movie says, it would change everything. Coincidentally, from descriptions I’ve read, physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent book The Grand Design argues essentially the same thing for our universe, it simply sprung into being, no creator needed.

The other big idea is that information wants to be free. Sam Flynn demonstrates this idea by hacking into Encom’s systems to upload the latest version of their flagship operating system to the Internet. He does this to carry out the ideals of his father as best he knows them. In The Grid, Programs are information, thus Programs want to be free. But old Flynn has acquired some wisdom through his solitude in The Grid, and now believes that not all programs, not all information, can be free without cost. The Grid is not just a computer simulation, it’s another universe. Old Flynn mentions at some point his work in quantum teleportation, which is how he gets into The Grid via the laser scanner. Clu has figured this out, that the portal isn’t just an exit point for a user representation, but the actual gateway that transforms an existence for representation between our world and The Grid. If people can “beam in”, why can’t programs beam out? Clu wants Flynn’s identity disc because it has all the information on how this process works, and perhaps the bits necessary to get a program into the real world. Which is I think one of the reasons why old Flynn gives Quorra his ID disc, he hopes she can make it out. So old Flynn knows now that not all information should be free, sometimes the costs can be too high.

Without claiming that these ‘big ideas’ redeem the movie (they don’t because all the other criticisms are valid and the big ideas were never properly developed) if you’re looking for political meaning in the film it is indeed the information freedom subtext that I find the most interesting. The film begins as a advocate of that view and ends with what appears to be a moral story about the blow-back effects of information being freed for the wrong purposes, even with good intentions.

I read it, as you might suspect, through the lens of current events. But I also think it’s an impoverished commentary on those events and ultimately took us nowhere. And that may be why murdocdv and the other commenters on that thread have missed another politically important idea portrayed in the film: the anthropomorphication of “information” implied in the notion that “information wants to be free.”

Information doesn’t want to be free, because information doesn’t have wants. People want to be free. Information freedom – at least as understood in human rights law – is not about the rights of bytes. It is about the rights of people to use information to promote their other rights as human beings. This ability implies both access by citizens to information on governments, and control by citizens over information about themselves. It is not about liberating all information per se – quite the opposite, which is why privacy rights activism and FOI activism are so closely related.

But in Tron: Legacy, all this is inverted: programs and ISOs (“information”) exist as individual beings with wants, feelings, fears, the capacity to feel pain, the desire to rebel and resist – attributes we associate with rights-bearers. Indeed, protecting the rights of such beings to be free of tyranny, genocide and oppression becomes the ultimate goal of the film (the harmony of interests between the ISOs and the human race just made it boring, that’s all). In that sense, murdocdv’s “big idea” about creation works counter to the preachiness about information freedom being contingent – it in fact proves and reconstitutes Flynn’s original argument: metaphorically “information” has a life and a mind of its own, and deserves self-determination. It is partly these kinds of unresolved contradictions that make Tron: Legacy incoherent and unsatisfying, despite the remarkable visuals.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


Fun and Grisly Holiday Reading

I finally finished the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy. (I was not expecting that ending, though in hindsight I’m not sure why.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the dystopian premise: the United States is gone. Its successor nation, Panem, consists of an opulent, entertainment-obsessed capital somewhere in the Rockies and thirteen impoverished districts in which inhabitants farm, mine and manufacture. The Districts are kept in line partly through a Tribute system (developed after an uprising 70 years ago in which the thirteenth district was exterminated): every year a boy and girl are chosen by lottery to fight in an elaborate reality TV show for the entertainment of the Capitol. The winner and his or her family receive a life of ease; the losers die horrible deaths in the arena while all of Panem watches.

So far, not a terribly sophisticated plot, but that’s just the first few pages. What’s interesting are the industries surrounding the games: the audience can bet on the winner, there is a system for providing assistance to the favorites, an elaborate set of strategies for currying favor, and each contender works closely with a team of fixers whose professional success is based not only whether their tributes live or die but on how well they can serve the overall goal of entertaining the masses in order to uphold the fragile, fearsome stability of the system. And then there are relationships among the tributes themselves, who can form alliances and develop friendships even though only one of them will survive. And that’s before things turn “political.”

The books, which are currently being turned into mega-films by Liongate deal not just with survival under impossible conditions (for a taste, check out this fan-made video by an actress who hopes for a chance at the coveted role of Katniss). More profoundly, they are about repression and inequality, the socio-political-military-entertainment-industrial-consumer complexes that sustain them, and the continuum of resistance mechanisms by which people along a continuum of core to periphery inch toward revolution. (There’s a lot more to work with here than Collins develops in the books; I hope the screenwriters will make the most of these subtexts.)

The series is pitched as “young adult fiction” in the genre of the Twilight series, although why this is true – whereas Orson Scott Card’s novels, for example, are generally understood as adult fiction – somewhat escapes me (perhaps the sci-fi pedagogy experts on this blog can explain this). The Hunger Games seems far more sophisticated than Twilight (when my daughter was reading it this summer, the adjective she used to describe the book was “complicated.”) Like Card’s Treason, Wyrms, Ender or the Homecoming series’ the characters in The Hunger Games trilogy are young adults, of course, but they are facing very adult situations and more importantly, they are treated as adults by the adult characters and the author in every way that matters. The books are just as brutal (as Entertainment Weekly put it “let’s see the makers of the movie version try to get a PG-13 on this baby”) and – yes – just as complicated as anything cooked up by Card.

In fact, one of the most interesting themes in The Hunger Games is captured pretty well by one of my favorite quotes from Card:

“Sometimes it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.”

Or rather, if you wear too many contradictory identities for too long, it’s very hard to know who you actually are or what you prefer. So Suzanne Collins’ novels are at their root a commentary on the ways in which our subjectivity is mediated by the performances in which we participate – which are constituted by various types of media – to the extent that our various identities are de-stablized by the act of pretending, until ultimately distinguishing the real from the unreal becomes an exercise in blind trust among those we choose as companions. In such contexts, the meaning of political agency shifts significantly and reasserts itself in surprising ways.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


Lego Antikythera Machine and musings prompted thereby

Massively cool.

And here’s the earlier Lego Difference Engine:

Anyway, the juxtaposition of these two computers intersects (oddly enough) with one of the themes in the Steampunk debates I alluded to earlier. Steampunk extrapolates from the real (and imaginary) technology of the Victorian era. Cosma Shalizi identifies that period (i.e., the Industrial Revolution) as the true “singularity,” prompting Patrick Nielson Hayden to remark:

I hope Shalizi will forgive my quoting his entire post, but it seems to me to have resonance with certain recent arguments over steampunk. It might even hint at why SF (and fantasy!) keep returning to the “long nineteenth century” like a dog to its bone.

I’m also reminded of this, from one of Nietzsche’s books of aphorisms: “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.”*

I’m led to wonder why more isn’t done with extrapolations of Roman technology. As Bryan Ward-Perkins reminds us in his excellent book,productivity in the Roman Empire was pretty robust–and likely significantly higher than what Europe would see for the centuries following its decline and fall. Findings such as the Antithykera Machine demonstrate rather advanced technical and scientific skills. I suspect that the later Roman Empire, let alone various periods of Chinese history, might be worth mining for an alternative technological imaginary.**

*I should note that one of the best discussions consistent with Shalzi’s argument remains that found in Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918.

**Beyond the issue of SF potential, the lack of a Roman-era “industrial revolution” is a chronically under-theorized issue in comparative-historical sociology.


The Strategic Impact of Wikileaks

Rob Farley opines at World Press Review on the political/strategic implications of War Diarii:

Perversely, efforts to increase government transparency often have negative effect on actual secrecy policy. For example, the ability of individuals to uncover written notes from government meetings through FOIA requests or through lawsuit discovery has led to the practice of shredding notes following most meetings. Data that does not exist cannot be leaked. We can similarly expect in the future that incident reports of the type leaked to Wikileaks will become less available to potential leakers. The U.S. military collects and correlates this data in order to improve tactical effectiveness. Information about particularly effective methods, about failure, and about enemy capability spreads across units with access to the data. Because of concerns over adverse political effects, however, the military will probably collect less data, destroy more, and further limit access to what data remains.

It all sounds pretty dire, but then again Rob may just be grumpy because of this.

OK, seriously. Read the whole thing here.


The World According to Realists or, “Never Go In Against a Sicilian When Death is On the Line”

In World Politics yesterday we covered the Peloponnesian War, the Melian Dialogue, and the security dilemma as an introduction to realist theory. Students played a version of the 2-person non-iterated prisoner’s dilemma game developed by my former professor Robert Darst, with the winners receiving candy and the person with the lowest possible grade receiving an extra credit point toward their final grade. The students learned that the incentive structure in the game is a powerful causal variable affecting outcomes: when the game is structured so as to reward rational, self-interested behavior, cooperation becomes foolhardy, even if your intentions are noble. Realists would say this reflects the nature of the international system under anarchy.

Then again, game theory also predicts that if you change the parameters of the game you change the possible outcomes. The clip above from The Princess Bride demonstrates the basic idea of game theory, and also how changing the nature of the game is the best way to get what you want. But there’s many a slip between cup and lip – between manipulating perceptions within the context of the same parameters and changing the game itself. Unfortunately, realists are not optimistic about the latter happening unless a world government is established.


Open Thread on “Caprica”


More Weekend Geek Blogging

This just in from the Interwebs. According to Airlock Alpha, the film Battlestar Galactica: The Plan won’t air on Syfy until next year.

“The much anticipated movie, which is a new take on the pivotal events of “Battlestar Galactica,” will tell the story of the attack on the Twelve Colonies from the point of view of the Cylons.

Fans are eagerly anticipating the release and with much reason. The show ended in April, which left a lot of fans wanting more after only four seasons. Edward James Olmos, the director and legendary Adm. William Adama in the series that ran from 2003 to 2009, has said on numerous occasions that when “Battlestar” fans see “The Plan,” “They’re all going to have to go back and watch the entire series again.”

The DVD will still be released Oct. 27, and there’s no word from Syfy that this street date will change.

Also, no projected change in the airdate of the new Caprica series in January. Whew.


Academics say the darndest things….

From a recent article on social-science methodology:

For example, gravity is a trivial necessary cause of revolution, because gravity is simply always present regardless of whether or not a revolution happens.

Clearly, not everyone in my field is a science-fiction fan.

nb: someone has suggested to me that the authors mean “revolution” as in “Venus revolves around the Sun.” But gravity is certainly not a non-trivial cause of such revolution; given the context of the article, I’m pretty sure the authors use the term in the “grab the pitchfork and storm the castle” sense….


The Colonial Fleet Colonizes UN Headquarters

I kid you not. The Chicago Tribune reports the following:

“On March 17, there will be a “Battlestar” retrospective at the U.N. in New York and a panel discussion of how the show examined issues such as “human rights, children and armed conflict, terrorism, human rights and reconciliation and dialogue among civilizations and faith,” according to Sci Fi.

The “Battlestar” contingent on the panel will consist of executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, as well as stars Mary McDonnell (who plays president Laura Roslin on the show) and Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama).

UN representatives on the panel are Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Robert Orr, assistant secretary-general for policy planning, executive office of the Secretary-General.

The panel will be moderated by “Battlestar” fan Whoopi Goldberg.”

Comment away.

P.S. Hat tip to Greg Niermeyer, Polsci 121-A student and bigger geek than me.


Not At All Shiny

On the Report tonight, Stephen Colbert gave a long, funny, monologue about how he is more hip-hop-pop-cultural-savvy than Michael Steele.

Then, in the following segment on Node 3 of the International Space Station, he (and his screenwriters) seemingly demonstrated a surprising lack of cultural literacy. How else to explain their disbelief at the fact that “Serenity” beat out “Colbert” as one of the most-recommended names for Node 3? Watch the clip and tell me if I’m misinterpreting this.

Oh, and you can go here to vote.


Frackin’ Toasters

In the mailbox today, I found my pre-ordered copy of Peter Singer‘s new book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. NPR had an interview with Singer yesterday, which gives you a good sense of his argument and some of the fascinating and frightening changes coming down the pipeline in military affairs.

I was excited to sink my teeth into this before the semester gets started, since I’m eager to update my curriculum on battlefield robots, and since I’ll be blogging in an upcoming symposium at Complex Terrain Lab on the book next month. I’ll save most of my substantive remarks for that forum, and for such time as I’ve actually read the entire book. But based on the first two pages, I have two quick initial reactions:

1) From the very first three sentences, Singer does not disappoint:

“Because they’re frakin’ cool. That’s a short answer to why someone would spend four years researching and writing a book on new technologies and war. The long answer is a bit more complicated.”

I love it – you don’t get a better hook or prose more engaging than that.

2) However I must take issue with a certain assertion in Singer’s very first (and otherwise fascinating) endnote (p. 439), on the etymology of the word “frak”:

“Frak is a made-up expletive that originated in the computer science research world. It then made it way into video gaming, ultimately becoming the title of a game designed for the BBG Micro and Commodre 64 in the early 1980s. The main character, a caveman called Trogg, would say ‘Frak!’ in a litle speech bubble whenever he was ‘killed.’ It soon spread into science fiction, appearing in such games as Cyberpunk 2020 and the Warhammer 40,000 novels. It crossed over into the mainstream most explicitly in the new 2003 reboot of the 1970s TV series Battlestar Galactica. That the characters in the updated version of the TV show cursed, albeit with a made-up word, was part of the grimier, more serious feel of the show.”

In fact, however, the word was used (ok, maybe not quite as frequently) in the earlier show as well – albeit spelled “frack.” According to Battlestar WikiBlog:

“”Frak” is derived from the Original Series expletive, “frack,” a term used in character dialogue far less often (or “colorfully”) than its counterpart in the Re-imagined Series. The Re-imagined Series’s production team said they felt that “frack” should be a four-letter word, hence “frak”. The term “frack” was obviously used in dialogue in the Original Series to comply with FCC and other broadcast decency standards because the FCC has jurisdiction over the content of broadcast TV.”

See also here… I don’t generally encourage using Wikipedia as a primary source (take heed ye Polsci 121 students) but in this case I can’t think of a better place to get a sense of the popular understanding of a made-up word’s etymology.

That aside, I look forward to reading and commenting on the rest. Good stuff.

UPDATE (11:22pm). Having put the kids to bed, am now on p. 14 – if this isn’t a good reason to go buy this book, what is? Singer writes:

“[This] book makes many allusions to popular culture, not something you normaly find in a research work on war, politics, or science. Some references are obvious and some are not (and thus the first reader to send a complete list of them to me at www.pwsinger.com will receive a signed copy of the book and a Burger King Transformers collectible).

How frakking cool is that?


Tuesday Geek Blogging

So this is a spoof of facebook news feed created for the Battlestar Galactica Miniseries. Hat tip to Robert Farley. Also, Season 4.0 was released today, so any of us who didn’t follow the series in real-time from the start now have ten days to quickly catch up on all our episodes before the final season begins on January 16th… Yikes, too bad I’m in New York doing interviews and can’t start until this Friday… Gods help me…


Teaching IR Theory Through LOTR

Picked up my copy of International Studies Perspectives yesterday to discover Abigail Ruane and Patrick James’ article “The International Relations of Middle Earth: Learning from The Lord of the Rings leading the “Pedagogy and the Discipline” Section.

Just another example of why ISP is my favorite IR journal. I read the article with gusto. The piece “overviews how J.R.R. Tolkien’s acclaimed triology is relevant to learing about IR and then presents a number of ‘cuts’ into using LOTR to inform IR teaching of both problem solving and critical theory.” These include relating IR’s three “Great Debates” and what the authors describe as three “waves” of feminist theory to specific characters from Tolkien’s trilogy.

It was certainly the most fun I’ve had reading an academic journal in awhile. (Especially considering I just watched the film with my son for the first time, so orcs, wizards and second breakfast are on my brain.) Much of it was brilliant. Saruman represents Machiavellanism; Elrond Kantianism. Boromir is a defensive realist; Gimli and his absolute-gains-seeking dwarf kin are a bunch of neoliberal institutionalists. Hobbits, it turns out, are constructivists because they live peacefully in a near-anarchy; critical theory is expressed through Treebeard, the Ent spokesperson who is more concerned with the destruction of the marginalized trees by both sides in the militaristic confrontation between good and evil than for the outcome of the battle, and is thus “not altogether on anybody’s side.”

However, I didn’t agree with all the theoretical interpretations. I found the treatment of feminist IR vacuous (plus how could a serious gender analysis of LOTR omit reference to Arwen’s character?) And I wonder if the author’s interpretation of Gandalf as exhibiting “bounded rationality” is correct. Still, the argument is useful for serious students of IR theory, if only because it gets one asking these questions.

Mostly, though, I was left a bit baffled by the pedagogical relevance of the approach described. A pedagogical piece, after all, is not supposed to teach us IR theorists something about IR theory (though it does). Rather, it’s supposed to teach us something about teaching IR (presumably to undergraduates?). Frankly, I have a hard time imagining myself assigning all the LOTR novels in an IR class at whatever level. There would scarcely be time to read anything else; surely other texts matter too.

What if, instead, such a teaching method relied on the films? This seems more plausible, in the sense that I could see myself actually doing it. Yet the roadmap in the article seems heavily focused on the books themselves as texts, many of whose characters never appear in the films. I read the pieces yearning for guidance as to how in practical terms to integrate these ideas without my IR class turning into a class on “Science Fiction and Politics.” (Which don’t get me wrong, I’d love to teach. But which would be quite different than a class in IR per se.)

I wonder if the authors could propose the same or a similar class plan if relying solely on the film versions; or if they can suggest a realistic way to integrate the books into a reasonably conventional IR syllabus; if they could provide context as to what level of course they envision such a discussion in; or concrete examples as to how this worked or didn’t work inthe classroom.

Anyway, I put my ISP down smiling and engaged, yet yearning for some concrete guidance.


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