I never could get my dad to teach a science fiction and philosophy course. I never could get why he didn’t. Given that he was a pioneer in the field of philosophy of sport, why not boldly go into the teaching of philosophy through science fiction?
It’s not like he wasn’t qualified. As my brother Marc and I put it on Facebook days after his death on May 31, 2018, and later during the celebration of his life at the Hamilton College Chapel on September 8, 2018, he was a “relentless reader of mystery, fantasy, and science fiction.” Beyond that, he was the inventor of Philosophy Man, who starred in many a bedtime story for us (and is probably the only superhero to ever get into an argument with a bank robber over Zeno’s paradox). Much later, Dad’s “Doggie” stories for his grandkids Kayla, Jake, Chika, Zak, Maya, and Travis often included counterfactual, hypothetical, and speculative elements, alongside the riddles and jokes he always enjoyed testing out on the kids in the family.
And it’s not like he wasn’t good at passing on his enthusiasm for science fiction. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s under our dad’s influence, Marc and I fell in love with movies like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, and Tron; we got hooked on arcade and home video games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command, Galaga, and Defender (we even pooled our lawn mowing and allowance money to purchase an Atari 2600—sadly, mere weeks before the 5200 was released!); and the entire family bonded around TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Mork and Mindy, and The Greatest American Hero. Dad would sometimes even get up really early, well before Marc and I would run to catch the school bus, to watch Star Blazers with us.
Admittedly, he did have his limits (and I’m not just referring to the time he took Marc and me to a reshowing of 2001 in a nearby movie theater and the film literally caught on fire!). Even though my mom was (and remains) an avid reader of mystery and detective fiction, and even though she enjoyed (and enjoys) some science fiction movies and TV shows (I’m pretty sure she got into Twin Peaks and Lost with him), she persistently resisted my dad’s science fiction and fantasy book recommendations. No matter how many times he talked up Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion, she never picked it up. And my brother? During his teen years at least, forget about him reading books that weren’t about military history or fictional soldiers of fortune! Nope, growing up it was on me to read the books that piled up in his office, my parents’ bedroom, and soon enough my own bedroom—and devour them I did: here’s a list of the authors he recommended to me.
I’d like to think the lengths I would go to in order to feed that hunger, the sheer volume of my science fiction and fantasy reading beyond those original sparks (including Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, Walter Simonson’s Thor run, and Marvel’s other ventures into science fiction like Rom: Space Knight and Power Pack), and the depth of my curiosity, interest, and pleasure in it more than compensated for my mom’s and brother’s decision to take other reading paths. But maybe in my dad’s mind it was that one for three success rate in his own family (a good batting average, but a terrible free throw percentage) that made him hang back from ever offering a course in science fiction and philosophy at Hamilton.
Whatever the reason he eschewed formal teaching, Dad continued to school me in science fiction after I left Clinton in 1991. Even as I learned more about such SF movements as New Wave, cyberpunk, Afrofuturism, and cli fi that were largely absent from his bookshelves while I was growing up, I still trusted his judgment. Through him, I encountered for the first time Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice—to name the most memorable of his many recommendations. And—thanks in no small part to the influence of my friends and colleagues Jeffrey Tucker, Shannon McRae, and Jeffry Iovannone—even as I engaged (and shared with Dad) the works of Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Neil Gaiman (among others: for a list, click here), I’ve continued to follow most of the authors he first exposed me to.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Dad is the #1 reason I’m lucky enough to be teaching my sixth version of ENGL 216 Science Fiction this coming fall and my fourth version of ENGL 217 Fantasy Fiction the following spring—being chair of the English Department at the State University of New York does have its privileges! (The #2 reason, by the way, is my mom’s advice from back when I was in high school: “whatever you do, don’t become a philosopher!” So I double majored in English and Math at Hamilton, took Intro to Philosophy with Russell Blackwood [where every week we were assigned a one-page paper requiring us to relate a different excerpt from Alice in Wonderland he provided to the philosophical issues he was introducing us to that week], and the rest is history.)
I have to say, though, that I consider myself even luckier and more privileged to have been asked by Marianne Janack to participate in this inaugural issue of Book XI that’s helping map out the future of science fiction. I can’t thank her or her students enough for the chance to make the final selections from the many wonderful submissions they pored over and sifted through. Although I’ve graded many creative projects my students have opted to do over my decades of teaching, I’ve never played this role before, so I appreciate the opportunity to reflect upon what I learned from the experience and share a few notes about the stories and poems I selected.
Probably the main thing I learned is about my own biases, assumptions, prejudices, preferences, and tastes. When I’m grading my students’ creative projects, I’m reading for potential, for effort, for evidence of engagement with the texts, tropes, and issues we focused on, for the quality of their attempts to synthesize all their different experiences in class and online that semester, and, above all, with an eye on helping them keep developing and improving their writing. I never really understood how constructively and generously I approach my students’ work until I started reading through the finalists’ stories and poems with my judge’s hat on. In the process, I realized, too, that for most of my life I had been reading well-recognized science fiction classics, award-winning writings, anthologies edited by pros I respected, or works that came highly recommended from trusted and well-informed family, friends, and colleagues.
Now the shoe was on the other foot and nothing seemed to meet standards I hadn’t previously been aware of holding. And hold onto them I did, to the point where I found myself turning into “that guy”: bothered by implausible or undeveloped world-building, tinny dialogue, cliched characters, and infelicitous narratorial phrasings; annoyed over apparently careless or thoughtless or (worst of all) naively unknowing deployments of classic tropes and conventions; and sent through the roof by poor, innocent typos…. What I came to realize about myself is that as critical as I am of stereotypes about science fiction that those who refuse to read it refuse to let go of, of literary snobbery that holds science fiction to be mere “genre fiction,” of sci fi status anxiety over this unfair situation and accompanying overcompensation, I’m as complicit as anyone in the perpetuation of that situation. Somehow, putting on that judge’s hat turned me into a chimera cloned from the DNA of Harold Bloom and Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons!
Eventually, I got so concerned over what a merciless reader I was becoming that I asked my colleague Eric Schlich (author of the amazing short story collection Quantum Convention) how he approaches judging new creative work. His advice, which I decided to take, was to trust in works that drew me in—even if I had problems with them or suggestions for improving them. Over time, and multiple readings, I started to relax my grip on some of my pet peeves, grudgingly admit that I was judging many of the finalists’ works too harshly, and slowly develop some core questions to guide my selection process. What did it mean for a work to draw me in? Was I losing track of time while reading it? Was I compelled to keep thinking about it after I finished it? Could I discern some thoughtful relationship between the way the story was told or the poem was structured, what was happening in the story or poem, and how it relates to readers today and to our world?
“Back to Creativity 1.0,” by Soramimi Hanarejima, met all the criteria implicit in these questions with style, charm, and originality. It managed to simultaneously play with the classic definition of science fiction as the “literature of ideas” and invent a new, hybrid form for the exploration of certain ideas about creativity and doubts, all in a richly and suggestively developed world and in a satisfyingly meta manner. Moreover, it subtly and cleverly engaged one of the major themes that emerged from many of the finalists’ works: an interest in issues raised by human enhancement, posthumanism, transhumanism, and dehumanization.
Laura Denton’s “Amalgam” grew on me with each reading. I’m sure my dad would have appreciated and enjoyed the way in which it responds to everything from Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series in a caper story that’s also a meditation on self-knowledge and friendship. Nevertheless, I was troubled with its ending and even more troubled by my inability to improve on it, despite repeated attempts to imagine how to take advantage of time slowing down with increasing gravity, particularly within a black hole’s event horizon. I’ll leave that to you, and instead point to the way in which the story engages the second major theme to have emerged from this crop of finalists—an interest in AI/robot consciousness—and the concomitant problem of anthropomorphism and issue of how to imagine and represent the “other,” the alien, the future, the unknown, the new—bounded as we are by our own experiences and standpoints.
Riam Griswold’s “Wander,” goes all the way back to R.U.R. and Asimov and all the way up to Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars trilogy in its exploration of how resistance enters a near-future world disturbingly close to ours. Kudos to this story for the ways in which it depicts human responses to humans with disabilities and their impact on the emergence of robot consciousness. I would love to see illustrators and animators influenced by Akira and the many incarnations of Ghost in the Shell take a shot at adapting this story.
Hal Y. Zhang’s poems “new mass” and “Only Found in Dreams” are not only powerful manifestos of resistance, moving meditations on pain and complicity, and stirring hymns to art and imagination and science. In addition, their proximity to the other works in this issue create intertextual lattices, fractals, and interstices where “impossible fruiting tigers” lurk. I haven’t read as much science fiction poetry as I should, but for those who want to continue your explorations, I recommend works by RIT’s Danielle Pafunda and UB’s Margaret Rhee.
David Charpentier’s “A Coagulant Matter of Proficiency” reads like a distillation of the atmospheres of a classic Twilight Zone episode, a random Philip K. Dick novel, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. It’s a heady brew, but better for you than most near-future corporate dystopian parodies of self-improvement and bodily enhancement.
Finally, I invite you to come for the lyricism of Odin Halvorson’s “What Made the Sand,” but stay for the questions it raises.
I really wish my dad had a chance to read these works and that I had a chance to talk about them with him. I really wish he had taught a course on philosophy and science fiction. These are pretty small regrets in the greater scheme of things, and for that I’m thankful. I’d like to believe there are a sufficiently large number of other timelines in which other Dads and other mes are happily permutating along. Who knows?
Hamburg, Clinton 5/31/19