Science Fiction

Zap! Pow! Rayguns on Mars!

In 1898, a novel was published that gave us the first example of the ray gun, of the flying car, and consisted of an adventure on Mars that would presage much of the pulp science fiction to come. The book was called Edison's Conquest of Mars, and starred none other than Thomas Edison, rocketing to the red planet with his buddy Lord Kelvin to kill the aliens from H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. It sounds like a joke, or something Philip José Farmer would come up with in his more delerious moments, but it was a real book "authorized" by Edison himself as a sort of promotional tool— Thomas Edison as product placement. The man was clearly ahead of his time.

For a run down of the book's contents, we turn to Zapato Producations Intradimensional's hilarious blow-by-blow. Apparently the book was not a great work of literature, nor was it ever particularly popular. But as a novelty, you can't beat Thomas Edison and Lord Kelvin rescuing Aryan ur-babes and committing genocide on evil Martians.

Full text online or buy the book.

Ideas vs. feelings vs. genres vs. science vs. America vs. Britain vs. the world

No Reading Versus Watching today because I've been swamped and now I'm off to see Manu Chao kick ass in Prospect Park. But I have plenty for you folks to read instead.

Right now on the Internet there are two dramatically different discussions happening. On the one hand, we have an article in the Globe and Mail that argues (absurdly) that men don't read books because books are about feelings and men like ideas. In response we have an (even more absurd) response from Bookslut's Michael Schaub saying that men do too like books with feelings and further, books about ideas are lame and only read by graduate students who get stoned and read Pynchon. (Suddenly my respect for Bookslut as a critical organ plummets.)

On the other hand, SF writer Charles Stross recently said that British SF is better than American SF and further, SF/Fantasy/Horror have all gotten too trashy (this is a new development?) and his daddy can beat up your daddy or something like that. To which Chad Orzel responded with "an oh-so-scholarly 'Well, fuck you, too.'" Stross isn't entirely clear on what he thinks more SF should be like, but if his own novels are any judge, I'd hazard that he wants more pages and pages of boring, essayistic explanations of possible scientific advances espoused by two-dimensional characters.

And as for Michael Schaub? Well, if he wants to read Amy Tan, more power to him. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the best novels have ideas AND feelings (among other things), and I'll bring up the Wet Asphalt Favorite Example™ Moby Dick as my case and point. Further, again and again I'm disapointed at the level of discourse going on among people who should be smarter than this. I mean, seriously, everyone, grow up already.

Reading Versus Watching: Science Fiction Picture Show

The problem is that the very things that appeal to the core of this subculture are the selfsame things that turn off those outside of it. Consider, for example, that staple of Sci Fi, Star Trek.

Neal Stephenson on "Beowulf" writers versus "Dante" writers

While I'm finishing up this week's Reading Versus Watching column, go read the second question in this interview with Neal Stephenson conducted by SlashDot. In it he talks about the traditional division between popular ("Beowulf") writers and literary ("Dante") writers, and towards the end mentions how they seem to be converging these days.

Of course, what Neal Stephenson doesn't mention is the fascinating flipside of the situation as he outlines it, which is that while fans of Dante fiction, the high culture taste makers also known as literate readers (ourselves included) don't pay much attention to the stuff readers of Beowulf fiction like, it's even more telling that Beowulf readers don't pay any attention to the stuff that Dante readers like. I mean, I like Neil Gaiman as much as the next guy, but he's hardly of the same caliber as, say, David Foster Wallace or Colson Whitehead. But you'll never see Wallace or Whitehead swarmed with 18 to 32 year old males who want their autograph. I'd be willing to bet that not as many of their fans are overweight computer programmers willing to shell out fifteen hundred bucks on a leather trenchcoat so that they can look like Neo from The Matrix, only to shoot the whole project in the foot by capping off the look with a pair of ten dollar faux leather velcro sneakers, or worse, sandals, that their mom bought them at payless when they were fifteen. Which is to say that as much as we like the idea that there's no division between patrons of "high" and "low" culture, in modern day America, the fact of the matter is high culture has become valued by bohemians with refined tastes whereas the patrons of "low" culture are a bunch of overfed hayseeds. What's interesting in this is that all of a sudden good taste is, and has been for some time, disconnected from socio-economic status in America, giving the lie to many Marxist culture studies analyses imported from Europe. I mean, alright, I'm generalizing, but it seems to me that we've reached a cultural moment where it is no longer sufficient to either view the state of things as a polar spectrum and it's also no longer good enough to collapse the one end into the other and say it's all the same thing. There are differences here, and they are important, and they need more teasing out than these simple sorts of analyses can offer is, I think, the point. --J F Quackenbush