substantive #2: laws of nature

Among all of the fascinating things Heinlein does in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, one of the things I find most striking is his consistent naturalizing of social relations. By this I mean not that he takes established social conventions and backward-abduces their natural character; that's what a certain kind of conservative does, and Heinlein is certainly no conservative. Instead, what I mean is that Heinlein's fictional world is one in which many of the social conventions that exist have the same status as natural laws -- and are treated as such.

Take, for example, Mannie'e explanation to Stu about precisely what Stu did wrong in making a pass at Tish:

Here we are, two million males, less than one million females. A physical fact, basic as rock or vacuum. Then add idea of tanstaafl. When thing is scarce, price goes up. Women are scarce; aren't enough to go around -- that makes them most valuable thing in Luna, more precious than ice or air . . . women are scarce and call tune . . . and you are surrounded by two million men who see to it that you dance to that tune. You have no choice; she has all choice. (p. 164, emphasis added)

Three very interesting things about this.

1) Heinlein apparently has no problem equating women and ice and air; all are commodities, all are desired, all have a market price. Does this celebrate or denigrate women? Mannie -- and Heinlein, I think -- clearly vote for "celebrate."

2) the scarcity of women seems to have provoked decidedly genteel behavior on the part of the Loonies. Instead of teaming up to exploit their scarce resource, they have collectively abdicated any striving to control all of the women's daily actions -- and thereby disempowered themselves as individuals, at least somewhat. The fact that Luna doesn't turn into a situation where women are sex slaves without rights says something quite striking about Heinlein's view of human nature.

3) The Lunar Revolution, as Heinlein presents it to us, is a matter of natural necessity: the moon is losing resources by shipping grain to Earth, and left unchecked that will of necessity produce food riots, cannibalism, etc. The success of the Revolution isn't foreordained, but the need to have some change in the Earth/moon resource relationship is absolute. If the natural trumps the social this completely, both in the case of the Revolution and in the case of male-female social interaction norms, how much freedom do human beings actually have to modify their circumstances?

Note that we can't answer these questions, particularly the third one, for Heinlein's corpus as a whole by reading only this novel. At the very least we'd need his other great revolution story "If This Goes On --" and probably more works besides. But even within the confines of this novel, I think, there's ample material to use in exploring the issues.


reflection on class #2: "all over the place"

For this reflection on class I want to riff on a comment that Jen made in her reflective blog entry: "we really went all over the place during class, didn't we?"

Yes, we did. And that's precisely what we ought to be doing.

One of my pet peeves is what I sometimes call the "stealth lecture." A stealth lecture is a lecture masquerading as some other form of conversational interaction, pretending to be something other than what it is: a dissemination of information from an authoritative center to the subordinate, receptive periphery. A lecture, at least, is an honest form of this kind of thing, with someone standing up and saying, in effect, Here I am, the authoritative source, so shut up and listen to what I have to say about this. But in my years in academia I have found -- more often than I like to admit -- various instructors who appear to run discussions and seminars in their classrooms, but who secretly or not-so-secretly have a main point that they want their students to get out of the text(s) under consideration. Then these instructors shape and guide the discussion so that it goes more or less where they wanted it to go all along, and the point that they wanted to make gets made -- perhaps by one of the students, perhaps by the instructor directly.

This strikes me as disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst. If I'm running a discussion, it's a discussion -- which means that I do not have a pre-planned goal or direction in mind. if I had such a point in mind, I would just say it, preferably at the outset of the session and then spare us all the agony of meandering around until we got where I wanted us to get. If I'm going to lecture, I'll lecture -- and I'm not going to, not in this class (heck, not in most of my classes, since I find lectures a pretty inefficient way to transmit information, and a waste of valuable face time besides). Instead, I'll come into class having read and thought about the text, and then preside over a free-ranging discussion. Going "all over the place" is precisely what I hope we'll keep doing.

Now, this doesn't mean that I don't have certain points I want to contribute to the discussion. I do, obviously. One of them was the importance that World War One played in producing disillusionment among European intellectuals; it had struck me before, but did so especially strongly this time I read the novel. Wells lived in a world we can't inhabit, since we don't think science is going to save us (at least, not the way that late nineteenth-century intellectuals often did). The idea of a disastrous unintended consequence to "progress" strikes us as commonplace and even commonsensical, and nowhere near the deeply shocking scandal that it would have been at that time. Wells, like Nietszche, identified a downside of scientific progress long before it was fashionable to do so. The book plays differently now that his realization has become more commonplace than critical.


substantive #1: a methodological question

Lasswell is pretty clear about what he intends for his "developmental construct" of the garrison state to do:

What, then, is the function of this picture for scientists? It is to stimulate the individual specialist to clarify for himself his expectations about the future, as a guide to the timing of scientific work.

A developmental construct, then, is a very odd kind of vision of the future. Lasswell says it may not even be the most likely expectation, as long as it is a "total" one rather than a mere extrapolation of trends into the future. So the key here seems to be two-fold: a developmental construct is a more or less complete picture, and it is a picture that is both grounded in empirical observation of contemporary possibilities and in a set of values one wishes to preserve. Indeed, part of what makes the garrison state work as a vision of a future to be avoided is that Lasswell is writing to an audience of democratic citizens, citizens who can be expected to react strongly and negatively to the brave new world he's sketching out. Take away either the empirical observations or the audience's value-commitments, and the picture ceases to be as alarming as Lasswell obviously intends it to be.

Lasswell's pretty clear; H. G. Wells, not so much. There's a point on p. 114 when he has his narrator invite the listeners -- including, presumably, the reader -- to take the story as something like one of Lasswell's developmental constructs: "Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race until I have hatched this fiction. Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest. And taking it as a story, what do you think of it?" But at the same time, Wells' novel takes pains to ground the tale of the future of humankind in a whole series of empirical and scientific observations: the discussion of time as a fourth dimension, the detailed descriptions of the machine and the Time Traveler's house, even the mysterious ending-line before the Epilogue which purports to be relating what "everybody knows now."

So here's my question: do these elements of narrative in Wells' novel make his future more or less believable than Lasswell's? Should Lasswell, perhaps, have just written a novel instead?

This semester's blogs

Here are the four class blogs for this semester's social/science/fiction seminar:

Mercury Theatre
In Space No One Can Hear You Blog
Backyard Rocket
We Are The Mice



reflection on class #1: geek cred

For this reflection I want to play off of something that Andrew, a.k.a. "42", had to say at the beginning of class: he jokingly requested that we close the door so that no one would hear us talking seriously about science fiction, suggesting that he was losing "street cred" by the minute by simply being in class. Although he was joking, this got me thinking about two things: the "uncool" character of science fiction, and my own balancing-act in trying to set the proper tone in the seminar.

First, "uncool." Having been chronically uncool my entire life, it doesn't really bother me to be passionately interested in sci-fi wizardry, even though this is often looked down on as the proper province of wimpy nerds and other people who are somehow out of step with what is "really going on." Indeed, I'd actually say -- and this is part of my hunch in designing the course in the first place -- that science fiction sometimes has its finger on the pulse of what is going on better than the supposedly "realistic" treatments of things. Not only does sci-fi usually orient itself towards the envisioning of a plausible future, an orientation that demands careful attention to present-day trends and possibilities, but sci-fi is also one of the few places where we as a culture give our imaginations free reign and permit ourselves to think about things outside of the usual censoring that we use in our daily lives (you know, that little voice that tells you that something's "impossible" or "infeasible" or "absurd"). So I'm happy to sacrifice short-term street cred for long-term geek cred.

Second, the balancing act. It's always difficult to try to set a tone that both celebrates science fiction (through allusions, comments that reveal a certain depth of knowledge and experience, insider jokes, and the like) and invites others into the conversation even though they might not know off the top of their heads the names of the characters on the good ship Serenity, or be familiar with the "even-numbered rule" for Star Trek films. Part of the fun of a course on science fiction is that it creates a space where people who have read a lot of sci-fi can have a safe space to discuss it in detail without fear of ridicule or dismissal, and that's a prerequisite to the kinds of conversations about novels and films and themes I hope to have later in the semester. But if one is not already a fan of the genre, I can see how that atmosphere might be a tad off-putting. I try to balance those concerns, especially on the first day, but I'm never sure how well I do.

Let me just say for the record that not every discussion will demand an intimate acquaintance with genre trivia. It's okay if you (gasp) don't know who Robert Heinlein or Orson Scott Card or Joss Whedon are (yet); we'll get there, and other places besides. If you are not already a sci-fi expert, please don't let the enthusiasm of some of us for our favorite authors and works be off-putting! And those of us that are somewhat exuberant: remember that not everyone in the room has read or seen your favorite work of science fiction multiple times. We need to make sure that our conversations are inclusive, not exclusive.

PS some of my thoughts about the definition of "science fiction" from a couple of years ago can be found here and here.

Yet another repurposing

New semester, new purpose for the old blog! Between being Director of General Education, editing the Journal of International Relations and Development, writing a book on the philosophy of (social) science, teaching the sci-fi seminar, not to mention having a bit of a life outside of my work . . . I find myself with not a lot of time to blog (even over at Duck). So, what to do with this little bit of cyberspace?

This semester I'm going to to try to "reck my own rede" a bit and blog alongside my students in Social/Science/Fiction. That means weekly posts on the books we're reading, weekly reflections, and weekly comments. Oh, and once their blogs are all established, I'll be posting links to all of them.