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The Time Machine: A Tale of 635,972 AD

October, 1895

Following my repast and confessions to the gentlemen that weekly gather in my home, I retreated to my bed and sank into its luxurious linens and flannels without further instruction for my servants. I slept, as they say, as one dead.

I awoke early with a troubling thought on my conscience that has compelled me to make this entry in my journal. Possibly the last entry, as I shall be too busy in the coming days to write overmuch, so consumed do I expect to become with my work.

The thought is simply this: I did not tell the gentlemen the full tale of my journey to the future. Indeed, my adventures with the Morlocks and the Eloi were only the most trying of my experiences. There was one experience that came before it and, whilst it may not have been quite so dramatic, it was, in its way, much more thoroughly troubling. I left it out simply because it is so unbelievable – much less believable than the carnivorous beasts of 802,701. Nevertheless, as a scientist I consider it my duty to record my experiences for posterity, and so herein I shall do, though I rather suspect this shall be discounted as the ravings of a man disturbed. I am not so certain they are wrong, truth be told.

During my headlong progress into futurity, I at length became fatigued and parched with thirst. I resolved to stop, albeit briefly, to see if I might secure refreshment in some far-flung future date. I moved the levers of my time machine until I came to a complete stop. The dials read 635,972.

My machine rested upon a flat green, mowed and manicured to precise length by a device of unknown but doubtlessly mechanical provenance. It was an altogether pleasant location – birds twittered calmly in the branches of geometric trees, a road of smooth and multicolored flagstones ran by to my left, and the sun shined merrily upon the countryside. I stepped out to go exploring.

No sooner had I journeyed ten paces than I was challenged by a denizen of this distant era. I might say he was a man, but he was the most wretchedly deformed man I have yet laid eyes on. His skin was black as pitch, his ears distended into massive discs planted upon his head, and his face elongated and unusually tan, the pigment of his skin for some reason having drained from his visage. He wore red breeches with white buttons and overlarge yellow shoes. He was horrifying to gaze upon – not human by any stretch of the imagination save one: his speech.

“Hey!” he called, quite merrily, “wanna come inside my Clubhouse?”

I was taken aback, but good manners enabled me to accept his hospitality. I feel I did little more than grunt affirmation, but the creature took it in side. “Well all right! We’ve got to say the magic words! Say it with me now: Meeska-mooska-Mickey Mouse!”

Perplexed, I consented to recite the odd phrase. As I did so, a structure materialized from the ground itself – a large, red domed house with a kind of tower at the center that was fashioned to basically mimic the physiology of my host, who identified himself as “Mickey Mouse.”

From the structure and various outbuildings emerged other bizarre anthorpomorphic forms – man with the face of a duck, a woman-mouse, a woman-duck, and various dog and cow people as well. They each introduced themselves to me by name, chanting in unison. It was all choreographed, as a stage play might be. For reasons I could not ascertain then and cannot now, it disturbed me greatly, though none of the creatures spoke to me in anything other than friendship.

I hesitate to speculate upon what dark path led mankind to this juncture.

I hesitate to speculate upon what dark path led mankind to this juncture.

I was invited inside. The furnishings appeared sparse, but at a word any manner of thing would emerge from a door in the floor – a promise, I felt, of what mankind’s future industry might bring us. I was offered water, which I drank with thanks, but very soon some manner of problem developed. The glasses, it seemed, were each of a different shape and color, but the proper trays upon which the glasses were meant to be stored had gone missing. This caused great tribulation among my strange hosts, and they insisted on questing out from their abode to find them. It seemed strange to me that apparent adults would suffer such distress over so minor an inconvenience, but I have since come to believe that this was a side-effect of their life of effortless comfort: as technology coddled them, smaller and smaller impositions upon their comfort were seen as greater and greater tragedies.

I assented to join the search, again acutely aware of how hospitable they had been and how little desire I had to offend creatures that could summon structures from the very earth by voice alone. Before departure, their leader (Mickey) chanted before a great machine. This had the effect of causing the machine to eject a small disk from which, later on, my hosts were able to summon up all manner of odd objects – a series of pillows, a length of ribbon, a bowl of dog food, and so on. These were employed to solve “problems” later on, though none of these problems were any more complex than the kind that could easily be solved by an eight-year-old of our present day. Surely this was evidence of the waning intelligence of man! I was disheartened.

Conversation with these degenerate creatures was virtually impossible. The art of free exchange of ideas was extinct, evidently replaced with the banal presence of plenty afforded them by their wondrous machines. Their stares were of the blankest sort when I asked how “Toodles” functioned or asked what had ever become of England or, indeed, of Europe as a whole. Were they alone in the world? Were there cities? Were there other “clubhouses” to see? No answers were forthcoming. The only thing they would say is “We’d better ask Professor Von Drake!” This professor (a duck-creature with a notably German accent – you can imagine my skepticism) insisted that the machine could answer my questions. I looked at it, massive, all-powerful, and felt deep terror in my bones. When they said it was time to “stand up and do the hot-dog dance” my revulsion could no longer be concealed.

I departed with haste and resolved never to return unless, by guile or force, I might destroy this machine that had so un-manned my distant descendants. So it is now that I pack several sticks of dynamite, a revolver, and a sledgehammer into my time machine. If the Toodles might be destroyed then, perhaps the Morlocks might never have diverged from the Eloi. Perhaps the future of mankind need not be so bleak.

Time grows short. I must make ready.

The Dark Path

I had a brief Facebook exchange with some friends regarding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road recently, and it got me thinking about apocalyptic literature. Now, I should preface this by saying I’ve only read parts of The Road and never the whole thing, primarily because it is such an upsetting book and I don’t particularly relish reading something so bleak. Then again, on the other hand, it is truly beautifully written, so I find myself coming back, reading a bit, and then putting it down with a shudder. This demonstrates it as a work of true and raw power, if nothing else.

It also draws me to reflect upon what, if anything, is the purpose of post-apocalyptic literature as a whole. It is very much in vogue these days (though primarily as interacting with the uninspired trope of the zombie apocalypse. For my thoughts on this, see here.) and this shouldn’t be seen as accidental. It’s a reflection of our cultural insecurities, ultimately, as evidenced by our perceived status as ‘top of the world’ and the added realization of the vulnerability of that status. You can see the same thing happening to literature written in cultures in similar situations, such as HG Wells’ apocalyptic visions during the height of Victorian Britain, the rash of numerological fears in ancient Rome (they had their own version of the ‘2012’ myth), and others, as well. We fear the end because we see no way to go any higher or any further. When you can’t go up anymore, the only way to go is down.

Is this all we get?

But what, today, does wallowing in our own self-destruction provide us? It’s ghoulishly fascinating, of course, but is that all it is? Is the idea to just sit there and grimace as we watch our society torn down by barbarism and nod sagely, saying to ourselves ‘it had to happen?’

God, I hope not.

Stories that lead us nowhere but to human extinction are upsetting and miserable. Far be it from me to forbid the use of tragedy (it’s a trend in scifi that could use a bit of disruption), but the unhappy ending isn’t wholly my problem. My problem is that the hopeless apocalyptic tale is, essentially, bad tragedy. Tragedy is supposed to be a lesson. You should emerge from the experienced as enriched as you are harrowed. I find nothing enriching about witnessing the end of the human race with no hope for survival.

The subtext of a wide variety of apocalyptic stories I’ve read is that we, humans, are so broken, flawed, and miserable that we can’t help but screw ourselves over even in the midst of devastation. This is partially true, of course –  we humans are miserable bastards sometimes and often do stupid, short-sighted, or cruel things. It is not, however, universally true. Stories that portray humanity without that goodness, nobility, resourcefulness, and perseverance that characterize a good bit of our history are lying to us just as thoroughly as those that portray us as  exclusively possessing those traits. Presenting the apocalypse just as an excuse to jeer at the meanness of human experience is not terribly enriching, or at least I don’t find it so. It is powerful, of course, and horrifying and all the rest of it. I, however, find tales of redemption all the more powerful, though.

If you’re going to lie to me anyway, I’d rather the lie be sweet than sour. Maybe, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I am still an optimist. Or, perhaps, I just won’t cede reality to the pessimists just yet. The world will yet turn; we may yet be saved. Take the tales of the apocalypse as warnings, but not portents. Our future is not yet written in stone.

The God Particle

As you’ve likely heard by now, there’s been big news in the particle physics world this past week. CERN managed to discover a Higgs boson particle. Why is this a big deal? Well, my physics knowledge is fairly basic, but from what I gather, the Higgs boson is the particle that gives things mass. In essence, it is the thing that makes physical matter possible. This, as you can imagine, is a HUGELY important little particle. Without it, the world as we know it would not exist. Hence, it’s been called ‘the God Particle’.

In the Higgs boson, science fiction authors across the world suddenly have new and interesting ways to envision the future. Already, folks have been discussing the applications of the Higgs, and this is just the beginning. The Higgs boson gives hard sci-fi authors ways to explain FTL travel, antigravity, teleportation, and a bunch of other things without having to resort to the discovery of ‘handwavium’ on some distant world or the use of wishy-washy science babble to explain wild concepts. This is a really cool time to be writing hard scifi.

(Note to self: start writing more hard sci fi) 

You watch: the future will show spaceship cockpits to look exactly like this. Just to spite us all.

It’s always interesting to see what science fiction sees as the technology of our future. It is almost always colored by what they thought, at the time, was the Next Big Thing. In Asimov’s Foundation series, for instance, he present nuclear power as the gateway to things like hyperspace travel, personal energy shields, advanced industrial cutting equipment, and host of other things. Heck, they even irradiated their dishes to clean them. Today, such advances seem either irresponsible or ridiculous, mostly since we know a good deal more about nuclear power than we did and know that it wouldn’t be terribly useful in many of those applications, and mostly because the average person doesn’t want to die from radiation exposure.

Earlier than that, HG Wells used balloons to explain time travel in The Time Machine, theorizing that travel through time wasn’t substantially different than any other kind of travel–we simply lacked the technology to move forth dimensionally at will, just as man kind lacked the capacity to move in the third dimension at will until the advent of the balloon. Likewise, in War of the Worlds, the Martians arrive here in ballistic capsules that are fired from Mars to Earth from, presumably, very large cannons. This would demonstrate the Victorian era’s skepticism towards rocketry as a useful science. Oh, how wrong they were.

But, of course, this sneering down our nose needs to be accompanied with a fair amount of humility. We’re also probably wrong, you see. Predicting the future is never a good gamble, and what we think will be the Next Big Thing today might very well be a complete bust. Likewise, that gadget we’ve left by the wayside or decided to ignore (e.g. nuclear fission) might, in fact, be the very thing we find solves a myriad of problems in years to come. There is simply no way to tell, since science isn’t the kind of field that obeys deadlines or gives up its secrets easily. This is, ultimately, why I think all avenues of scientific research should be pursued. Someday, when we least expect it, the silliest thing we can imagine will wind up being the most important thing in the world.

I mean, c’mon, if I told you in 1982 that, in thirty years, they’d find a little particle that makes everything around you ‘actual’ and it was only found by creating a giant racetrack for subatomic particles at a cost of billions of dollars, you’d be skeptical. Then you’d probably watch something on Betamax, just for irony’s sake.

Pockets in Time

I'm writing this entire post in 13 minutes, FYI.

Having a very busy week; no time to put together a proper post. So, instead, I’m going to treat you to some ramblings.

Say you could freeze people in time; even yourself, if you like. What happens? See as all of our activities are accomplished in time, it is plausible to say that we (or whoever trapped in the bubble) could do nothing whatsoever while thus frozen. Nothing could be done to you, either, seeing as nothing is capable of changing without occupying some period of time. To borrow HG Wells’ term, you can’t have an ‘instanteneous cube’.

If you’ve ever been confused by the definition of time as the ‘fourth dimension’, this mental exercise I feel is a good way to wrap your head around it. You can’t lack ‘time’ anymore than you can truly lack width, depth, or height. To do so ‘breaks’ the world. It violates the rules of existence as we understand them.

Of course, the ‘as we understand them’ part is the real kicker. Maybe there is a way, somehow, to ‘delete’ some dimension of existence. We could become two-dimensional people, if you like. Even more interestingly, perhaps we could change these dimensions–create bubbles of slow-time, fold space to reduce distances, and so on. There is some evidence to suggest that such things become possible on the quantum level, and the dialation of time is widely supported as a result of travelling closer and closer to the speed of light. What we do with this, well, who knows?

All I know is that I could use a gadget that lets me do it. I could use an extra hour here or there, lately.

Mass-ive Effect?

My friend, John Perich, recently drew my attention to this article by Kyle Munkittrick regarding the importance of Mass Effect and its universe on science fiction overall. As a science fiction author, someone deeply involved in the tropes and subgenres of science fiction, and as a lifelong fan of the genre, the article rubs me the wrong way. Mass Effect, while I expect it is a fine game with a well-realized world and excellent storyline (my critique is in no way directed at the game itself), the authors claims seem to indicate to me a certain ignorance of science fiction in general that bugs me.

The author’s central thesis is this:

Mass Effect can and does take ideas to a new plane of existence. Think of the Big Issues in your favorite series. Whether it is realistic science explaining humanoid life throughout the galaxy, or dealing with FTL travel, or the ethical ambiguity of progress, or even the very purpose of the human race in our universe, Mass Effect has got it. By virtue of three simple traits – its medium, its message, and its philosophy – Mass Effect eclipses and engulfs all of science fiction’s greatest universes.

In essence, it is his claim that the Mass Effect world has managed to effectively supplant all preceding science fiction by virtue of its scope and philosophy. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. I can say this without ever having played the game, and the reason I can do this is simply because all of the things pointed out by Mr. Munkittrick as being unique and special to the game have not only been done before, but done before multiple times and done very well. Apparently, because the game does all of them at once, this makes it automatically superior to any individual exploration of various aspects of this theme, which, to my mind, is sort of like saying WalMart is automatically superior to any other store since they sell all the things the other stores do collectively. If we are approaching literature in the same way we approach the purchase of bath towels, then I suppose the argument might stand. Literature and, indeed, all art, is not to be so quantitatively assessed. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through the claims of the article one-by-one.

The Medium

In this portion of the article, the author puts forward the idea that Mass Effect, by virtue of being a video game, grants the work a kind of special power. This isn’t altogether untrue, of course – you, in a video game of this nature, have unparalleled control over the path of the storyline, something like those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books of old. This, of course, facilitates a level of engagement that is altogether different from that of a book (it also dilutes authorial control and symbolic and thematic resonance, in my experience, but I haven’t played Mass Effect, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt by saying it is an exception to this phenomenon).

More specifically, however, the author makes three claims. First is this:

The first advantage, setting, involves the portrayal of alien species and alien worlds with ease. Novels require descriptions, comics require painstaking drawings, films and television require either hours of expression deadening makeup or expensive CGI. In a video game, rendering an asari or a hanar requires the same amount of work as a human. Want a cast of thousands? No problem. Need a mob of hundreds of individuals representing fifteen different species rendered inside an colossal ancient space station? No sweat.

Because *nobody* has ever bothered rendering thousands of CGI aliens before…

So, if I can paraphrase, the argument is that novels use exhausting words to convey meaning, comics have to actually draw things, and film costs lots of money to make this diversity possible. Video games, however, do so effortlessly, somehow, as though the programmers and graphic artists and game designers of these games haven’t spent years and years of work fashioning this environment with every bit as much effort and work as your average novelist, artist, or movie producer.

Furthermore, and more importantly, this is supposed to be somehow novel or unique. Nevermind that it’s been done before, and often. You would have an awfully hard time matching the diversity inherent in Banks’ Culture novels. Furthermore, if you want to talk non-humanoid, bizarre lifeforms and marginalized humanity, there are plenty of choices to pick from, not least of which are the humans of Stephen Baxter’s novels, which at various times in his 4,000,000 year chronology shows humanity being conquered by the Squeem (an aquatic, collectively intelligent species of fish) and the Qax (a species of intelligent marshland – yeah, you heard me) or being completely embarrassed and marginalized by the god-like Xeelee.

The second and third points in the Medium argument circle around the fact that you can control the main character’s choices and even form, which increases engagement in the work. This I won’t bother to contest – it’s true, no doubt. This fact, however, doesn’t make Mass Effect some great contribution to science fiction unless, for some reason, you lack the attention span or capacity to focus on challenging things like ‘books’ to bother seeing what else is out there or what other characters you can identify with. I’m not certain if this argument is the intention of the author, in that it seems to assume that our modern culture can’t or won’t support artistic mediums wherein we cannot control and shape characters ourselves. It strikes me as a cynical and depressing view of modern audiences.

The Message

In this segment of the article, Munkittrick presents the central message of Mass Effect as this:

Mass Effect has a simple message: human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things.

This is fair enough – a theme often explored by science fiction, and has been hit upon by many, many authors through the years. Munkittrick, however, is primarily focused upon Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar: Galactica, and a brief aside to Starship Troopers (though I’m thinking he means the movie, though, since Heinlein’s message for humanity is rather more in keeping with Mass Effect’s) and Ender’s Game.

This narrowness of scifi allusions tells me, first of all, that the author doesn’t really know enough about science fiction to appropriately assess how important a contribution Mass Effect is likely to make to the genre. Those five works are, essentially, sticking your toe in the shallow-end of what scifi can and has done. I, and I’m sure every scifi writer and fan, are pretty damned tired of having everything we read or have done being compared to Star Wars and Star Trek. Quite simply, the marginalization and racism against humans in Mass Effect for the purpose of, to borrow the author’s phrase, “destabiliz[e] the player’s sense of confidence in his or her own skin,” is an old storyline. For reference, think of The Time Machine (1895), War of the Worlds (1897), Planet of the Apes (1963), Childhood’s End (1953), Battlefield: Earth (1982), Excession (1996), and so on and so forth. Granted, not all of them do *exactly* the same thing, but I think that’s a sufficient crosssection of work to demonstrate how ‘done’ this storyline is. It’s a perfectly good storyline, mind you, but not a landmark one.

The Philosophy

The philosophy under discussion is ‘Cosmicism’, which is basically the idea that humans are too insignificant to understand or construct true meaningful existence in the universe. It is, as the author points out, posited by HP Lovecraft. He also claims that Mass Effect is the only work since then to bother with this postmodernist take on human existence. This is, of course, false (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perhaps the most prominent work to approach the same material, as did Childhood’s End and a lot of Clarke’s other work, as does, on a thematic level, much of the cyberpunk subgenre – or the good stuff, anyway).

In any event, the author proceeds to present a wide variety of storylines that have analogs in other works and all tie this into postmodern thought. This isn’t especially novel, since the other works are also tying it into postmodern thought, because that’s where they got the idea, and HP Lovecraft and the creators of Mass Effect aren’t the only two artists to consider such things. Now, Munkittrick is clearly a big fan of Cosmicism and a devout postmodernist, so the praise he heaps upon Mass Effect I feel, to some extent, is due to his discovery of a video game that simulates his own worldview or, perhaps, allows him to entertain questions he likes entertaining. To state, as he does, that “Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity” is simply not true except, perhaps, for the word ‘blockbuster’. I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘blockbuster’, exactly. I would think that Neuromancer does and it, indeed, has such heavy postmodernist themes that it should least qualify as intellectual precedent.


I don’t want to sound as if I’m getting down on Mass Effect – I’m not. What I’m reacting to here is the willingness of some people, who seem poorly read in science fiction, to make assessments that this science fiction property they just discovered is going to change the genre forever. It’s disingenuous to the genre and to the artists and authors who have worked so hard to advance it. I’m not going to get into how I find Cosmicsm an interesting but ultimately pointless endeavor, or point out how all the ‘aliens’ you can ever imagine are really just humans in different clothing or symbols of concepts humans deal with and that, therefore, giving a franchise crap for having ‘too many humans’ is like criticizing language for using too many words – no, that’s just me spouting my own version of the Good News just as this article is doing here. Instead, this is just me saying:

Before handing things awards, do some more research.

Laughing From the Mountaintop

My Technology in Literature class wrapped up discussion of HG Wells’ The Time Machine recently. Every time I read the work, the thing that most interests me is the simple explanation the Time Traveler gives at the very beginning regarding the feasibility of time travel. In essence, he suggest that we already do travel in time–when we remember something or dream of things past–but we cannot remain for any period of time. Thus, we are as constrained in travel in the fourth dimension just as primitive man was in the third (i.e. you can jump up and down or fall of a cliff, but you can’t remain or travel freely through the dimension of height without the assistance of technology).

Wells envisions the solution to this problem pretty simply–the Time Machine works rather like a railroad engine. It can go forward and in reverse, it has a throttle and brakes, and the ‘engineer’ manipulates the whole process with a pair of simple levers. On the whole, it seems even less complicated than driving a car.

Many have been the time-travel tales since then. However, we have envisioned the process differently. One does not

Some theories of time travel are more plausible than others...

travel through time in the same way as we walk down the street or fly to Atlanta; the devices involve some kind of sudden leap or jolting transference. The process is instantaneous, or nearly so. We go there in Deloreans or weird tubes (12 Monkeys) or telephone booths or even hot tubs. I sort of doubt, however, that time travel (assuming it’s possible) would work that way. I kinda think that Wells, for all his antiquity, had the better theory.

Consider this: How has all travel, thus far, functioned? Air, sea, space, or land, we move progressively across space. Now, granted, that’s space, and we’re talking time. Time, though, isn’t supremely different than space. We can’t define what makes up space anymore than we can time (ask a physicist sometime about ‘what space is made of’ and get ready for some weird, mostly theoretical stuff). The primary difference, though, is that we are better able to  perceive of space than we are time. Perhaps, for this reason, time travel is beyond us–we just aren’t smart enough to ‘see’ it as it is.

Not a Straight Line

The average person on the street sees time as an arrow–we proceed from point A to point B along the minutes and the hours and so on. This is why time-travel stories are so concerned about ‘altering the past to destroy the future’. We are, arrogantly, considering time to be a single path of causality and that, if we change something back then, then we will necessarily alter something right now. Time, though, isn’t a line or an arrow. It’s a dimension, like width, depth, and height. If you could travel through time, you could go sideways as well as back and forth. You could even, perhaps, look at time from a different direction.

The Mountaintop of Boethius

Oddly enough, much of my knowledge of theoretical physics has been supported by existential philosophy, and vice versa. I don’t claim to be an expert in either, but I can readily see the connections. Thus, my reading of The Consolation of Philosophy in my freshman-year western culture seminar fundamentally changed my perception of what time travel might consist of.

In this work, there is a part where Philosophy is trying to explain to Boethius how it is that God can be omniscient while, at the same time, mankind can be given free will. I don’t have the text in front of me right now, but in summation, Boethius asks how it could be that all of his actions and the results of these actions could be known to God and, yet, he might still have command over what he does. Couldn’t he then do something God didn’t expect and upset the whole divine apple-cart?

Philosophy’s answer goes like this: God is not part of the flow of time as Boethius or, indeed, as any mortal sees it. God looks upon the world from a mountaintop, and beneath Him is spread all that Was, Will Be, and Is, existing for Him as a kind of eternal Present. He is able to perceive of all time simultaneously. Thus, He can look down at what any one person is doing now, see how it relates to what they have done, and then see how it will lead to what they will do. Presumably, when taking quantum physics into account here, God would be able to see the outcomes of all possible outcomes of all possible actions, viewing them simultaneously, and thus be omniscient without really interfering with an individual’s decision-making process. This idea is echoed in Grendel’s discussion with the Dragon in Gardner’s Grendel, as well as the Architect of The Matrix: Reloaded.

How does this connect to time travel? Well, it makes the device needed to make it happen both monstrously more complex than any other we’ve seen, but also simpler in operation. All that is needed is to be able to see time as it is–as a kind of dimension across which we may travel in any direction–and then make the machine go there. It’s not an instantaneous jump or a lightning-bound explosion, it’s more like a stroll down from a mountain.

The thing is, though, it’s the kind of stroll only a God seems to be able to make.

Anyone for Recreational Essay Writing?

I just finished my syllabus for my Technology in Literature elective this coming semester. Students will have to write two short research papers and, just for fun, I thought I’d post the assignment here and see what folks think of it. Heck, if you like, go ahead and write the papers (don’t you dare send it to me to grade, though–I’ve got enough of that already). Anyway, here we go:

The overall focus of this course is the portrayal of science and technology in literature and how those portrayals illuminate the concerns and hopes of humans living in a certain era. It tells us a lot about how they thought, what they believed, and also can tell us some things about how we have changed, if at all, from those times. In class we will be discussing certain individual works from certain time periods and analyzing them closely, but we won’t be able to fully explore everything. Your task, in two short research papers, is to expand upon our class discussions and deepen your understanding of one or several of the works we are studying, bringing in outside sources and other contemporary works to develop a unique and compelling thesis regarding the cultural and, perhaps, even scientific significance of your chosen work.

 Accordingly, your precise topic is left to your discretion. I will provide suggestions below, but you needn’t be bound by them—if you can come up with a different topic that interests you more, please explore that. In general, however, you are writing an in-depth literary analysis of one or more works from either the first half (for paper 1) or the second half (for paper 2) of the twentieth century. All papers should incorporate at least 6 sources (including the primary sources), be 6-8 pages in length (approximately 1700-2400 words), feature double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, have numbered pages, stapled, with a works cited page in MLA format. A rough draft for each paper is allowable, but is strictly optional. If you wish to receive your rough draft back in time to make revisions for your final draft, be certain to submit it a week or more prior to the due date. Papers may be handed in at any time during the semester up until the due date. Late work is not accepted.

 Topic Suggestions

Paper 1 (pre-1960)

  • How did the idea of British world supremacy influence HG Wells’ Time Machine?
  • Is The Time Machine  racist? If so, why and how? How is it related to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”?
  • How does Asimov’s opinion of the Soviet Union affect the themes inherent in Foundation?
  • Does the Galactic Empire in Foundation symbolize Ancient Rome? If so, why does Asimov choose Rome as the analog? If not, what does it symbolize instead and why?
  • Is Heinlein aware of the fascist undertones to his society in Starship Troopers? What is his attitude towards fascism as depicted in the book? How does it differ, if at all, from the kind of fascism demonstrated by the Nazis in 1940s-era Germany?

 Paper 2 (post-1960)

  • Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace in Neuromancer represents a kind of ‘wild frontier’, in a sense (Case is a ‘cowboy’, those who operate in the matrix are apart from society, etc.). What is the meaning of this metaphor? Where does Gibson think the ‘matrix’ (what we now know as the Internet) will lead us?
  • Explain and explore the role of religion and spirituality in Neuromancer. What does it mean? Why does Gibson include it?
  • In Snow Crash, why does Stephenson choose to use the Mafia as protagonists and how does this differ from other late-20th century depictions of the mob and why?
  • What is the symbolic significance of Hiro and Raven’s shared heritage in Snow Crash? What, if anything, is Stephenson trying to say about the future of America?
  • In Banks’ Culture, he shows us a ‘perfect’ symbiosis between man and machine. How does Banks choose to portray this symbiosis? Why?
  • Explore the significance of gender roles in The Player of Games and how does this parallel the changing understanding of those roles in late 20th century Western culture.

Well, enjoy!

Wonder Vs Terror

So, recently my attention was drawn to this diagram floating around the internet that traces the history of science fiction. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. I agree with much if not all of its suggestions (it gets a bit muddy towards the end there, but that is to be expected) and, in particular, I am drawn to the two words that are crouching atop its very beginnings: Fear and Wonder. Since I like the word better, I’m going to talk about them as Wonder and Terror.

Speculative fiction of all types derive their power, chiefly, from those two basic human emotions. Interestingly, they both primarily relate to what could be and not what is. Wonder is being stunned by something new you had never imagined before and Terror is dreading the manifestation of the same thing. These emotions led to the creation of pantheons of Gods, endless cycles of mythology, sea monsters, HG Wells, Jules Verne, the drawings of DaVinci and so on and so forth. Wonder and Terror–what could be and what we hope won’t be.

These emotions are the engines of human progress. They have brought us from the bands of nomadic hominids staring up and a night sky and led us all the way to this–the Internet. The endless tales we have told one another throughout the aeons regarding what we wonder and live in terror of have inspired humanity to strive for change and avoid the many pitfalls our progress may afford us. Though we haven’t been successful in all our endeavors, we still try. We try because we can’t stop wondering and we can’t stop quailing in terror at our collective futures.

The balance of these forces change, as well, as time marches on. Our relationship with technology and progress–whether we live in awe of its possibilities or in fear of its consequences–is in constant flux, dependent not only on the power of the technology itself, but also upon the mood of the society itself. In the times of Jules Verne, for instance, science was the great gateway to a better world–the engines of technology would wipe away the injustices of man, clear up the cloudy corners of his ignorance, and lead him to a bright new tomorrow. That tomorrow wound up being the early 20th century, with its horrifying wars and human atrocities, and so we read the works of Orwell and Huxley and even HG Wells, who cautioned us against unguarded optimism and warned of the terrible things to come. The cycle was to be repeated again, with the optimism of the 1950s (Asimov, Clarke) giving way to the dark avenues of writers like Philip K Dick and even William Gibson.

Where do we stand now? I’m not sure; I’m inclined to say this is a dark age for speculative fiction. We look to the future with pessimism, not optimism. Our visions of apocalypse (zombie or otherwise) are numerous and bleak. With every era there are your bright lights of hope–the Federations of Planets and Cultures–that say that yes, one day humankind will rise to meet its imagined destiny with wonders of glorious power, but for every Player of Games  there seems to be a World War Z or The Road. Perhaps I’m wrong.

This coming spring, if all works out (and it looks like it might), I will be exploring this idea in much greater detail in a class I’ll be teaching on Technology and Literature. I’ve been wanting to teach this elective for a long time, and I can’t wait to see what I can teach but, more importantly, to see what I’ll learn in the process.

So you wanna conquer the Earth?

There’s a lot of stories of alien invasion out there, from HG Wells on up to Battle for LA and probably a whole heap-load of cable TV shows and specials that I haven’t seen piled atop the dozens and dozens of ones I have. There was even a special on the Discovery Channel’s show ‘Curiosity’ that had experts discussing the ins and outs of what a likely alien invasion would look like.

All of it is a colossal bunch of nonsense.

Don’t get me wrong–I think those movies and books and such are great fun, it’s just they usually don’t make a whole lot of sense. The aliens are almost always caught holding the idiot ball and certain humans are perfectly defended by Plot Armor to the point where one really has to ask yourself: What were the aliens thinking?

Points in Case:

War of the Worlds

The Plan: Use Tripods and chemical weapons to gas/kill all humans before attempting to alter earth into a more suitable habitat.

Well, seeing how it was written around the turn of the 20th century, we have to cut HG Wells a little slack. We don’t have to cut the remakes as much, however, and the alien plan here is monstrously inefficient. Tripods are great weapons, but as tools of planetary conquest they are rather inefficient. How long, exactly, to those things expect to be wandering around the Earth before they kill every human? It’s going to take a damned long time, if it’s even possible at all. Also, they get wiped out by the flu? Guys, c’mon–it’s an alien planet. Seal up them tripods, will ya? Use Purell or something.

Independence Day

The Plan: Use massive flying saucers and overwhelming air power to obliterate all major human power centers, then (presumably) invade with ground forces en masse.

You know, not actually such a terrible plan. Of course, it is going to be massively costly for the aliens themselves (as every air war we’ve ever fought has told us, air power only goes so far), but they’d probably win.

Oh, wait–I forgot that Jeff Goldblum has a Macbook Pro. Shit. They’re screwed. (how is it that the Macs are compatible with the alien mothership again? They weren’t compatible with anything here on Earth at the time, soooo…)


The Plan: Sneak around naked and scare children. Then, when everybody’s freaked out, use short-range nerve gas dispensers to kill the people. Avoid squirt guns, lakes, pools, sprinkler systems, human tears, blood, etc….

Three words for this plan: What. The. Fuck.

Stupidest alien invasion ever. Seriously, what were they thinking? Was the alien high command sitting around and saying ‘Hey, Bill, that planet over there–you know, the one comprised almost entirely of deadly poison–what say we invade while naked. Sounds fun, no?’

Also, aliens who can traverse the void of space didn’t think to bring a power drill to remove cellar doors? Seriously? Did they do any recon at all, or did they just jump in blind? Gallipoli was better planned than this nonsense.


The Plan: Act all friendly to human kind and gradually draw them into a fascist regime with you guys as leaders. Kill off rebels slowly and quietly to avoid fuss.

Pretty good plan, actually, and it mostly worked. Of course, it went the way all fascist dictatorships go–down the tubes. There’s only so long lizard people in masks can rule a place before everybody hates them enough to overthrow them. Look at Lybia.

Don’t get me started on the reboot of V. That show made so little sense that I’m still trying to figure out if their plan was only dumb or both dumb and logically inconsistent.

How to do it Right

If you are a super-advanced alien species who’s eyeing Earth, there is probably a much more efficient way to handle humanity than depicted in the movies. The challenges of taking on the whole human race sprawled across the entire planet are pretty significant. Conventional warfare–attacking with tripods, flying saucers, raygun-infantry, etc.., is going to be really costly and take a long, long time, no matter how awesome your technology is. There are easier ways, folks. Mostly, how you go about handling things is largely dependent upon what you’re there to do.  I think all purposes for invasion fall under a couple basic categories: Resources, Colonization, Conquest, and Genocide.


Ah, the Earth is a beautiful jewel in the vastness of space, filled with plentiful resources your species needs to survive and/or get rich. But how to get them? Here are some simple, practical ideas:

1) Buy Them: Granted it doesn’t make a precisely riveting movie, but why not just buy the stuff you want from unscrupulous human businessmen? Surely you have something they need and, chances are, the stupid humans aren’t going to realize the value of their algae/seawater/topsoil/bacteria anyway. Make a deal. Dump a thousand tons of gold in their backyard that you harvested off some airless rock somewhere and make a killing. Give them the formula for transparent aluminum, for crying out loud–does it really matter? The idiots are going to blow themselves up in a few decades anyway.

2) Steal it: This may come as a shock to you, Alien High Command, but most of planet Earth isn’t watching the stars for invaders. You could probably sneak on down to somewhere in Siberia, build a mine, suck whatever you need out of the ground, and be gone before anybody knew any better. You could probably do this over and over again, actually, and never get nabbed.


Yeah, the Earth looks like a pretty good place to live. Beats the depths of the void, at any rate, and you need somewhere to flop. Contrary to popular alien belief, however, you really don’t need to kill all the humans to do this. It’s pretty simple, really. Just do the following:

Step 1: Blow up something big and important. Cut Italy in half. Blow up New York…the state, not the city. Cover Africa in darkness for a week. Make it rain in the Sahara.

Step 2: Announce your demands to the UN. You plan on moving into central Australia and staying there as long as you damn well please. Anybody have a problem with that, and threaten to make Pangea a reality again.

Step 3: Set up shop and play the diplomacy game like everybody else, except this time you are the only folks with rayguns and orbital bombardment capabilities.

How do we know this works? Well, the Romans did it–over and over and over and over. Worked every time. Soon as you start giving the earthlings your firewater, universal vaccines, and hyperspace viaducts, why are they going to complain? If they do, you blow up their holy sites–simple, see?


A little more intensive than Colonization. You don’t so much want to live on Earth as subjugate it to your will. Whether or not you stay really depends on how many slaves the humans can provide you with. Now, the above method for colonization should probably work fine in this instance. Barring that, however, you can try this:

1) Wholesale kidnapping: You’ve got spaceships, teleporters, tractor beams, etc.–how hard is it, really, to get yourself some human slaves? Beam them up, Scotty, then take off.

2) Genetic tampering: Some clever nanotechnology, perhaps some unique biological compounds intoduced into public drinking supplies, and bam–a very suggestible human race. You just need a little patience.


Say you just don’t plain old like human beings. You want the bastards dead. Well, stop futzing around and just do it, already. You don’t need to use flying saucers (well, at least not in the atmosphere), and you probably don’t even need nukes (though you probably have access to them or their equivalents in spades). Divert an asteroid, watch Bruce Willis and his buddies screw up royally in their ham-handed attempt to stop it, and watch the fireworks. Done and done.

If that fails, try controlling the weather.

See, conquering the Earth isn’t that hard. What’s your excuse, Ming the Merciless? Flash? They guy doesn’t even wear a shirt! C’mon!