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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (8/8/16) 5:37pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  How Great Science Fiction Works [audiocourse], Middlemarch, Norwegian Wood
Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>

How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe [audiocourse]
This is a Teaching Company audiocourse about the themes and history of science fiction.

It's one of the best courses I've heard from the Teaching Company in some time. A lot of this, I chalk up to how the course is structured. It pulls a bit of a magic trick, frankly, splitting the difference between a chronological re-telling of the genre's history and a theme-by-theme longitudinal view of the field. It kicks off with some information about the earliest origins of sci-fi, which Professor Wolfe pins to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in xxxx, though he talks extensively about other, earlier candidates. And from then on, the general shape of things is to march forward in time, and whenever a big and important topic newly appears in the chronology, he jumps away from the chronology and dedicates a whole lecture to that one topic, tracing it from its origins to the current day. Then it's back to the chronology, detailing some significant phase like the golden age of dime-store novels or the British new wave. He also dedicates a few lectures to so-called "icons of science fiction" -- concepts that have been in sci-fi since nearly the beginning, like aliens, spaceships or mysterious artifacts.

The overall effect is that you wind up with a good sense of how everything pieces together chronologically, but you haven't gotten lost in a slew of meaningless dates. In my experience, if a course is just a nonstop "this happened and then this happened and then this happened", none of it has any weight, and none of it really sticks in my head. Here, you get a great overview of the concepts and history of the genre, and it puts you in a good position to put any new work you encounter into context.

The structure also ensures that the course covers a nice variety of topics, from stolid, traditional sci-fi concepts like mechanized dystopias or alien artifacts to more recent topics in the field like how gender is constructed or how technology skews our perspective of reality.[1]

The instructor is a good speaker, enthusiastic about his subject, and happy to make the course serve partly as a massive "recommended reading" bibliography. The course has made it painfully obvious to me just how little science fiction I've read, and how many classics I should queue up just to get the vaguest overview of the literary genre.

All in all, it was well worth my time. Even the familiar material was full of unfamiliar details. I have vague memories of Frankenstein, for example, but I think I'd forgotten that it was basically written by a teenager on a bet.[2] Very little of the course feels like filler -- the closing lecture begins with the usual whining about sci-fi literature being held in contempt by the authors and critics of literary fiction, but even that segues to a useful discussion about how both styles have drawn on each other in recent decades.

Again, this was one of the most helpful courses I've listened to in recent memory, and I highly recommend it.

Middlemarch by George Eliot
This is the classic Victorian novel about a wide variety of characters in a small English town, loosely centered on the construction of a new hospital there, and all the small-scale political and personal conflicts that go along with that project.

Let me be as plain as possible: this book defeated me. It was a degree of difficulty that I just couldn't hack. It was the Dark Souls II of 19th-century British novels.

A lot of it was the cultural context. Keep in mind, I'm not a good reader. I get winded trying to keep up with the context of, say, a Jane Austen novel -- and Middlemarch goes way, way beyond that, with writing that's much more urbane and politically aware. Once upon a time (and that time was 'college'), I was conversant with, say, what "The Catholic Question" was, and what exactly Parliamentary reform was in various parts of the 19th century.

And keep in mind that, with its 1871-ish publication date, this is firmly in the Victorian era, when "triple decker novels" became all the rage -- big long books. I'd argue that, say, Dickens is easy to read, but just the sheer *volume* can make it intimidating -- set an unread copy of Bleak House on your desk, and you've got to take a few deep breaths to steady yourself. And the intimidating length (heh heh) means that there are tons of characters, and locations, and events to mentally keep track of.

And it doesn't help that Eliot is shooting for something for something almost like The Wire, in terms of depicting a whole community, and showing the entire complicated system at work as it grinds people through its gears. So not only are there a lot of pages, and not only are there a lot of characters, but there's also a dizzyingly elaborate graph of relationships, responsibilities, and occupations.

In spite of all of this, I still caught some glimpses of the story.

If I had to pick one headline that would neaty summarize most of the plot threads in Middlemarch, I'd go with "Idealistic Newcomer Causes Slow-Motion Train Wreck". A young girl goes against all her friends' advice and marries a geriatric researcher. A promising doctor comes to Middlemarch to help set up a new hospital, and to reform local, frankly-criminal medical practices. A banker quietly goes about keeping a blackmailer at bay with what he hopes to be a minimum of fuss. And so on. They are so brightly optimistic, every one of them.

And then, it all goes to naïveté-powered hell. Time and again, we see characters who thoroughly understand airy and/or erudite things -- Dorothy and her austere religious studies, or Dr. Lydgate and his medical researches -- but who just don't get people, and relationships, and the web of relationships that permeates their small town. They make all the worst calls w/r/t human nature, and in the end they don't get what they want -- and not only that, but they cause a ton of collateral damage as they slowly and innocently blunder their way through Middlemarch society.

So that was the big picture. In individual scenes, though, it felt like a lot of people I had trouble keeping straight talking about political issues I, at best, hazily remembered. I got through it only out of a dogged and irrational completism.

(Side note: the narrator for this production was very solid, but the book seems to have a slight-but-perceptible amount of clipping throughout. Very annoying, and unexpected from a professional publishing house.)

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This is Haruki Murakami's debut novel about a college student falling in love in late-1960s Japan. It became a massive cultural phenomenon among young Japanese readers upon its release in 1987.

And I think I can understand that. If you're a young person, especially a young person in that particular culture, I could see this book serving as an epiphany, as a shining moment of "oh my god, someone *understands*" -- something similar to what Catcher in the Rye meant to American readers in the 60s.

But I didn't get to this book until now. And I'm 41. And I'm reading about a boy who's 18. And everyone feels everything so intensely, and everyone's so confused about who they are and what they want, and the poses and the posturing are all so intense, and everything is all-important all the time. And I know that, if I were young, I would empathize. But now I just sort of wryly smile at it. I remember. Eh, don't worry, kiddos. You'll sort yourselves out.

Honestly, I found the book very relaxing. I'm not sure if it's a Japanese-literature thing, or a bildungsroman thing, or both, but the book very agreeably meanders along, the perfect opposite of a page-turner.[3] I was surprised at how little I learned about Toru, the main character -- I mainly learned that he *wasn't* like any of the more sharply-drawn characters he met, which made him seem sort of... average? by comparison. But it was very pleasant to watch him wander through his schoolwork, then to the bookstore, then to the sanitarium, then to the hospital, meeting interesting characters along the way, like the whole thing was some sort of car-less road movie.

Eventually there's a love triangle. I suspect I was supposed to be invested in how that would turn out, but instead, it was like some bug pinned to a board, with a magnifying lens for close examination. So we see very clearly who Naoko is and who Midori is, and we get a deep understanding of how Toru has different and complicated feelings for both women. We closely watch how everyone feels, moment to moment, in a story that doesn't so much end as stop, because it was never about "how will it end?" Maybe it's a zen thing.

I read this as part of my continuing effort to get some kind of bead on Japan before I travel there. I don't feel like this novel quite did that for me -- partly because it's set fifty years ago, but also because it feels incredibly idiosyncratic. The sanitarium deep in the woods is, I'm sure, in many ways quintessentially Japanese. But it's also just an odd place, and close examination of the sanitarium just tells you about the sanitarium, not the country that contains it.

In the end, I enjoyed the book, but I wish I hadn't seen so much hype about it ahead of time. It's well-written and engaging, but it also feels weighed down with some of the clichés of literary fiction -- the young, sensitive, intelligent boy who's trying to find himself, who, viewed from a more objective, third-person perspective, probably comes off as a bit of an aloof and self-interested dick. The beautiful and quirky women he has to choose between. The aimless narrative that's really, like, about the aimlessness of *life*, man. It's the platonic Dude's First Literary Novel, but done about as well and as enjoyably as one could hope for.

For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and also checking out J-dramas with Great Teacher Ozukaza. I'm reading Roadside Picnic and listening to an audiocourse about climate change. I also watched Star Trek Beyond and finished season 2 of Galavant, so I'll be writing about those, too.

[1] For example, imagine how many different meanings the phrase "I just talked to him" can now mean, between online chat, Skype teleconferencing, phone lines, and good ol' meatspace.
[2] In the same spur-of-the-moment literary contest that produced the likely progenitor of western vampire stories, no less.
[3] More of a "page drifter", if that could be a thing?

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