“All About Emily” and acting natural

October 8th, 2014

This weekend I read Connie Willis’s novella “All About Emily,” a slight comedy of backstage intrigue, ambition, and … robots:

“Oh, dear.” Emily looked over at Dr. Oakes. “I knew I should have said I wanted to be an actress.” She turned back to me. “But I was afraid that might give the impression that I wanted your job, and of course I don’t. Artificials don’t want to take anyone’s job away from them.”

“Our artificials are designed solely to help humans,” Dr. Oakes said, “and to do only tasks that make humans’ jobs easier and more pleasant,” and this was obviously the company spiel. “They’re here to bring an end to those machines everyone hates—the self-service gas pump, the grocery store checkout machine, electronic devices no one can figure out how to program. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice young man fixing the bug in your laptop than a repair program? Or have a friendly, intelligent operator connect you to the person you need to talk to instead of trying to choose from a dozen options, none of which apply to your situation? Or—” he nodded at me, “tell you who starred in the original production of a musical rather than having to waste time looking it up on Google?”

“And you can do all that?” I asked Emily. “Pump gas and fix computers and spit out twenties?”

“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes wide. “I’m not programmed to do any of those things. I was designed to introduce artificials to the public.”

(You can read part of the story here.)

Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors for blending SF with 1940s screwball-comedy style banter. This novella isn’t great, but it’s a quick and entertaining read, and would possibly make a good stage play. Sometimes books and stories that are a little flat on the page come to wonderful life on stage or screen. Ms. Willis also predicts that “Chicago” will still be running in revival in 20 years, which strikes me as a safe bet. (Her chronology is a little dicey, but she has a good deal of fun predicting who and what will be lighting up Broadway in the near future.)

“All About Emily” is, of course, a takeoff on “All About Eve,” and the charming android Emily does ultimately decide she wants a stage career. Not as an actress, though, playing the messy heroines of Ibsen or Churchill. Emily wants to be a Rockette.

What else would a robot want to be? And yet, how unsatisfying would it be to watch the Rockettes and know that their illusion of inhuman perfection is no illusion? The whole point of the Rockettes is the uncanny spectacle of people behaving with the precision and uniformity of machines. Nobody would want to watch a robot Rockette.

A robot Medea, though? That might at least spark curiosity.

Theater, even at its most realistic, is not supposed to be indistinguishable from ordinary life. We want to be able to see a sliver of light between the actor and the character. We want to know what gap was bridged.

Stephen King is making Ebola worse

October 7th, 2014

Salon addresses Ebola panic:

Ebola, at least from the American perspective, is something like the great white shark. It’s dangerous, all right, but the odds that it’s going to get you are vanishingly small. Fear of large predators and fear of the plague are deeply encoded in human experience and handed down from our ancestors. Maybe an instinctive response is invoked that we can’t resist. But in both cases, the self-refueling cycle of media panic is an epidemic that’s almost certainly more destructive than the original phenomenon itself — and the fear is not really about what we claim it’s about.

Author Andrew O’Hehir identifies the usual suspects for our collective overreaction: cognitive biases honed by evolution, fear-mongering by Fox News and its ilk, and the fact that the Ebola epidemic fits neatly, oh, far too neatly, into the kinds of stories we’ve already learned to tell and read:

Indeed, I’d suggest that Ebola-panic (like shark-panic) is shaped and informed by fictional thrillers — in this case, yarns about civilization-destroying plagues and the zombie apocalypse and so forth. It also taps into our cultural narcissism and xenophobia, into the paranoid imperial perception that American civilization is the center of the world and also that it’s precariously balanced, and constantly under attack from dangerous outsiders. All it takes is a handful of African visitors with cardboard suitcases and undiagnosed infections, and next thing you know the cable goes out at Mom’s house and we have to eat the neighbors.

Theater and science bump up against each other in all kinds of ways, and one of those ways is understanding the psychological science of storytelling. Humans are a narrative species, we put everything in story form–but reality is under no obligation to actually unwind itself like a well-told tale. In real life events may occur that do not foretell, call back to, or symbolize anything at all. They just happen.

Storytelling can be crucial to good science, but one thing science does is to slap us out of that storifying instinct, and give us a way to demonstrate reality to other people besides telling stories about it. Artists tell. Scientists show.

I’m struggling now to have a rational response to the Ebola crisis. Practically every friend I have has posted the NPR “You’re Not Going to Get Ebola Already” graph:

… and I believe it, I really do.

But if there were going to be a zombie apocalypse … this is what the beginning of it would look like.

I’m a Stephen King fan going back years, see, and what people who think they don’t like Stephen King don’t realize is how utterly mundane and realistic his work is. Until the werewolves show up. But until then, it’s ordinary people living ordinary lives. A New England couple, say, who are doing basically okay, although she’s a little bored in her career and he’s coming off a big project and feeling burned out and they’ve both got some eldercare worries hanging over their heads and are planning a vacation in the Southwest to recharge their relationship.

And as he’s digging out from a mountain of licensing agreements and P&L statements and she’s looking up dude ranches in Flagstaff, they see the headlines and video clips from Africa … and then the quieter news of one patient identified in Dallas … and an editorial in the nation’s paper of record about what “virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely discussing in private.”

This is exactly how Stephen King would write it.

And stories fit in my head better than statistics. I don’t have to behave irrationally, and I can despise the fearmongering and xenophobia that people are bringing to this situation, but I can’t respond to it as though I haven’t spent decades reading and watching stories that began exactly like this.

Art will always have unintended consequences. Stephen King is a great humanitarian, a good writer, and by all accounts one hell of a mensch. But he’s taught us how horror looks–not in a Transylvanian castle, but in a Somerville three-decker. He’s taught us to see the terror in the everyday, he’s pulled it out of the gothic tradition and pushed it into comedies of manners and coming-of-age tales. So that now, when we see some loose thread of worry, it’s so easy to imagine pulling it until the entire garment of our comfortable-if-annoying middle-class lives unravels.

The etiquette of talking about geeky things

September 3rd, 2014

I love this article from io9 on the seven deadly sins of talking about pop culture, from “non-consensual spoilers” to “letting random controversies get in the way of judging the work on its own merits.” Number six, “Not recognizing that pop culture has real-world meanings,” is my favorite:

Even if a story takes place 1000 years in the future on another planet, it’s still talking about the here and now, to some extent. It’s still commenting on our society and our institutions, and it’s in dialogue with other works created beforehand. Some people enjoy geeking out about the implications of a piece of pop culture, or picking apart the ways that something is flawed or problematic. And some people don’t necessarily enjoy doing that, but feel a need to do so because it’s a pervasive piece of pop culture that is speaking to or about them in a way that they need to address. So it’s a “sin” to deny other people’s right to analyze and criticize pop culture–particularly when they’re commenting on how it deals with race or gender or sexuality. In particular, it’s weird to tell people not to overthink something because “it’s just a movie”–we’re geeks, overthinking is what we do. And saying that mindless, uncritical appreciation is the only way to engage with mainstream culture is tantamount to saying that we should recognize no difference between, say, The Empire Strikes Back and The Phantom Menace. They’re both Star Wars movies, they both have explosions, and there are cool set pieces in both — but the moment you start thinking critically, you notice some differences between them.

I’ve never understood why attempts to analyze pop culture make some people viscerally angry. I don’t like sports, but I don’t wade into the comments section of sports blogs and angrily demand why everyone has to analyze the game to death. Sports are important–not to me, but to a lot of people. And some people enhance their enjoyment by analyzing and critiquing how the game could have been played different, or better. It’s not hard to understand that. I think everyone understands that, when it comes to sports. Why do people react so differently when it’s movies and books that other people want to critique?

“Her Aching Heart” and the science of romance (novels)

July 21st, 2014

Last night I dreamed I went to Central Square Theater again …

… because “Her Aching Heart” was so darn funny the first time (Globe review here). Aimee Rose Ranger and Lynn Guerra play modern-day urbanistas cautiously falling in love with each other while reading a gothic romance about a tempestuous English lady and the innocent peasant girl who sparks her affections. Only the occasional phone call or song hint at the present moment–most of the show is dedicated to the two actresses playing all the parts in the lesbian bodice-ripper. (Aimee’s bluff, rapey Lord Rothermere and Lynn’s palsied Granny, full of incomprehensible forest wisdom and whole-body tics, were my favorites.) Yes, I know it sounds stupidly complicated, but it’s not, really. If you liked the movie parodies Carol Burnett used to do, you’ll like this.


(Lynn Guerra and Aimee Rose Ranger in “Her Aching Heart,” A.R. Sinclair photography)

The romance parody in “Her Aching Heart” inspired me to dig up my dissertation, which was on the psychology of literary genre. I was curious to know if people had expectations about stories that went beyond surface characteristics (e.g., if it’s in the future, it’s science fiction, if there’s a murder, it’s a mystery). I asked participants to rate 10 different genres, including romance, classics, science fiction, and fantasy, across 16 different dimensions.

Here’s a graph showing how “romance” (in red, natch) differs in people’s imagination from ordinary fiction (in black):

People perceive romance as dumber, basically–I said that in a fancier way in the actual dissertation, of course, but I think my advisers knew what I meant. Romance is seen as more predictable, simpler, upbeat, emotional, and fantasy-based than regular fiction: It’s written for money and read for fun. No wonder it’s so delightfully easy to parody! We don’t even feel bad about making fun of romance novelists, because we assume as long as they’re making bank they don’t care about critical opinion.

I did my dissertation in 2002, and I wonder how “romance” would be defined in today’s imagination. That’s the tricky bit about trying to scientifically study a cultural phenomenon like literary genre–it keeps changing on you. In 2002, I would occasionally encounter people who didn’t know what “genre” meant, because it was still a lit-crit term, and wasn’t how iTunes and Amazon and Netflix preferred to organize your content and sell you more. Romance-wise, 2002 was before “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Gray” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” Would these dark offerings lead college students today to rate romance as a more pessimistic, complicated (if not intellectual) genre?

Of apes and Alzheimer’s

August 8th, 2011

Mr. Improbable and I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” last night, and enjoyed it greatly. For one thing, it does a marvelous job of allowing viewers to fulfill their fantasies of what they would do if they had the strength and flexibility of a chimpanzee. If you’ve ever daydreamed during a staff meeting of leaping aboard the conference table, ululating, pounding your chest, crashing through the windows and heading for the hills — and I know I’m not the only one, people — this is your movie.

It’s also, once you get past the science fiction and special effects, a fairly poignant look at life in the sandwich generation. The human protagonist, biochemist Will Rodman (yes, I know) lives with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. When Will’s research on a cure for Alzheimer’s is halted, he winds up adopting a baby chimp from the drug trials.

Of course, it’s Will’s experiments that ultimately lead to the rise of the apes (as well as the most hilariously blunt and effective elevator pitch in the history of venture capital, when Will, riding the lift with his boss, announces, “I injected my father with it. It works.”). But Will, despite the phallic determination of his name, is no ego-driven mad scientist. He is motivated by love more than money, power, or even knowledge: he wants his beloved father, a classical pianist and Shakespeare scholar, back. And he wants to protect his adopted “child,” Caesar. In the meantime, it would be nice if he could get his boss off his back, and find time to romance his live-in girlfriend.

Sound familiar? Will is pressed from every direction, and criticized no matter what he does. Look at James Franco’s face when the home-health aide angrily tells him his father should be in a facility. When the veterinarian points out that Caesar won’t stay a juvenile forever. He knows. He is doing his damnedest as a caretaker, and he knows he is failing. He’s not the son, the father, the lover, the scientist he wants to be. Every choice entails a sacrifice — not only the big choices, like “do I inject my father with the experimental drug,” but the little ones, like “do I look my lover in the eye when she is talking, or do I scan the room to make sure Dad and Caesar aren’t in trouble?” And he makes wrong choices, and decisions with all kinds of unintended consequences.

And he loses his father anyway, despite his best efforts, like all of us do.

And his “child” gets involved with drugs, and radical politics, and finds a group of friends that Will can’t relate to. Maybe it was his fault for being too involved with his father, and his career. Maybe it was inevitable.

We do our best for those we love, and we pray to God that our best efforts won’t somehow make things dreadfully, dreadfully worse.

And we hope we’re praying to a God who looks like us.

More thoughts on werewolves …

December 9th, 2010

Part of the reason werewolves don’t get a lot of love, I suspect, is that they’re harder to work with in film or television. It’s hard to go full lupine. As this rather interesting article from the Onion’s AV Club points out, dogs are not good actors, and wolves are even worse. So producers usually go for a sort of wolf-ape hybrid thing with makeup and prosthetics, which never looks very good.

More than that, though, I think that lycanthropy is, oddly, a little too mundane to catch on as the next occult craze. Werewolves are neither superior to humans, like vampires, nor inferior, like zombies. They are simply different. They have a condition. They have time-management issues. Werewolves are probably really into Spoon Theory.

Somehow, I was reminded of all this when a friend of mine Tweeted, “One great benefit of being deaf is being able to shut out the cellphone blabbermouth behind me. I just take off my processors.”

I replied, “There’s a thin line between disability and superpower, isn’t there?”

And that’s kind of the story with werewolves. It’s a superpower sometimes, and a disability at other times. Being a blonde with symmetrical and childlike features may get you out of a traffic ticket, but will probably make it harder to be taken seriously in your career. Having Asperger’s syndrome makes figuring people out harder, but fixing their computers easier. Parents have the awesome power to create life – and then become hostages to fate forever after.

Zombies are all the other drivers in a rush-hour gridlock. Zombies are the people who write comments in response to YouTube videos. Zombies are the people you see on television at those rallies, the ones you disagree with.

Vampires are your insurance company, raising your rates for an accident for which you weren’t at fault. Vampires are your late-night drunk-dialing ex. Vampires are hidden fees, the person behind you who darts into the newly opened checkout lane, that guy at the bar who refuses to believe that you really do want to drink a martini and read The Economist in peace.

Werewolves are afraid of embarrassing themselves in company. Werewolves wake up thinking, “I don’t believe I did that.” Werewolves can be great in emergencies, but daily life poses greater challenges to them. Werewolves wake up every day not knowing if they have a superpower, or a disability.

Werewolves are us.

Are werewolves the next anything?

December 9th, 2010

In case you haven’t noticed, vampires and zombies are big these days. Really big. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is the latest manifestation, and a fairly good one it is, too. (Although, as with “True Blood,” the show has garnered its share of critics who are willing to suspend disbelief on the question of vampires, witches, maenads, and were-panthers, but are fussily irritated at the inauthenticity of the actors’ Southern accents.)

Do you think werewolves are ever going to get their chance in the spotlight? I wonder.

Supernatural creatures work as metaphors. Vampires are superior to humans, but dependent upon them. They are takers, and a taker can serve as a metaphor for so many things: a decadent aristocracy, a demanding lover, an exploitative boss, a too-needy parent. (In “True Blood,” boy-next-door Hoyt is torn between his vampire girlfriend Jessica, who literally feeds on his blood with his joyous consent, and his controlling mother, who symbolically sucks the life out of him.)

Zombies are humans with no brains, and … well, you can kind of see how that could go in a lot of different directions. There’s a fundamental horror to the notion of facing another human being who can’t be reasoned with, whose motives are not fathomable to the normal mind. I’d submit that this is to a large extent the state of our political discourse today: both the left and the right seem convinced that the other side is brainwashed, unthinking, moved only by instinct and hunger.

So. Werewolves. What do they symbolize? What are they a meta for? And why don’t they ever seem to ride the wave of pop-culture glory as their supernatural colleagues do?

Happy Thanksgiving

November 23rd, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Good luck with that.

The ConductMom is in town for Thanksgiving, so posting may be light over the holiday weekend. But I’m always eager to hear from you. On the other blog, we’re talking holiday cards. What are your opinions?

And what are you grateful for this year? I think, in 2010 in particular, I’m very grateful that I’ve continued to get to know and deepen my relationship with my extended family, and also that Mr. Improbable and I seem to have survived the recession with our odd little careers more or less intact.

On Thanksgiving Day, we’re going to go see the Harry Potter movie. So … which Harry Potter character is your favorite, or whom would you play, if there were some community-theater version of the show? I think I’d be Minerva McGonnigle. I know she’s supposed to be in her early 70s, but I think that’s too old … I’ve always thought of the character as being in her 40s or 50s. (If they cast American actors, I’d put either Michelle Forbes or Katey Sagal in the role.)

Talk with me, talk amongst yourselves, talk with your mouth full — Happy Thanksgiving!

The psychology of stories

October 19th, 2010

On the Emily Rooney show today, I talked about stories: the story of “Mad Men,” the storytelling initiative at Central Square Theater, the stories drunken garden club ladies told a research psychologist back in 1976. (I’ll get a link up to the show as soon as possible.)

All these things — the kinds of stories we like to read, hear, or watch; the power of storytelling to build community and identity; the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves — are under the general umbrella of “narrative psychology.” For those of you who are interested, here are some recent articles of note on psychology and stories:

This study attempts to categorize people by their media preferences. The critiques in the comments are spot on: this is a very psychology-focused study, and disregards the whole field of media and communication research. Still, I do find it interesting — in my own dissertation, I tried to link up personality traits and reading preferences.

This New York Times article looks at recent research in how people tell the stories of their lives. We are willing to admit our faults, but need to believe we are continually improving.

Attempts to give an evolutionary explanation for storytelling are often embarrassingly bad stories themselves, but I liked this quite a bit.

This isn’t a study of narrative psychology per se, but of experimental philosophy. However, it’s about the use of stories to get at people’s moral intuitions (focusing more on the paradoxical nature of those intuitions than on the methodological problems of “trolleyology”).

Happy reading!

Mystery blog

August 25th, 2010

It’s quite clear what the blog is, I mean; it’s a blog about mystery fiction. I know some of my readers are fans — or even if not, many of you are all-around book people who enjoy a good review on its own merits. So check out Only Detect, which offers triweekly reviews of a variety of mystery novels, and a good blogroll, all against a tastefully retro wood-paneling background.

Best books of 2009, part II

January 20th, 2010

… and my further top five from 2009 (I’m enjoying your recommendations too, folks!)

6. The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I reviewed this here.

7. Rebuilt by Michael Chorost. See, here we go with that description problem again … this is a memoir by a man who got a cochlear implant at age 30. Yaaaaaawn. But it is, in fact, a brilliant, funny, honest and compassionate look at what it means to be a social being, the difference between hearing and listening, and the nature of relationships.

8. Still Woman Enough by Loretta Lynn with Patsi Bale Cox. I’d planned to write about Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography — the one she wrote after her husband died, when she could really tell the truth — when I first read it, but shortly after that, the Roman Polanski scandal broke and I couldn’t, because I couldn’t wrap my head around Ms. Lynn’s marriage at age 13. Months after I’ve read the book, I still don’t know what to make of it. Ms. Lynn’s intelligence and ignorance are both on astonishing display as she recounts her improbable life.

9. Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond. Yes, finally, like the rest of the world, I read this classic of “Why Everything Is the Way It Is and Not Some Other Way Entirely, and by the Way It Has Nothing to Do with Race.” Good book, although a number of folks in one of my chats mentioned that it’s fairly repetitious, which indeed it was.

10. Under the Dome by Stephen King. I said I liked King on a wide canvas? Here, he gives himself an entire Maine town to characterize — and kill. It’s no spoiler to say that 300 pages in, I was already beginning to wonder if enough people would survive to finish the 1,000+-page novel. Whatever your politics, the first 400 pages or so after “the dome” of the title descends will make you angry — either by reminding you of the Bush administration, or by painting an unfair picture of it. Then the action kicks in. Don’t make any social plans after you hit page 600 or so.

Your reading recommendations

January 19th, 2010

…. and what were some of the best books you read in 2009 — fiction or non-?

Best books of 2009, part I

January 19th, 2010

Every year, I keep a running list of the books I’ve read, with an asterisk beside the ones I particularly like. In 2009, I had a pleasingly rounded list of 10 asterisked books, with an even more pleasing symmetry: both the first and the last books I read in 2009 were starred, and both were by Stephen King.

Here are my first five top books from 2009. I’ll post the second five later today or tomorrow.

Please only comment if you’ve read these and want to discuss them — I’ll put up a post where you can leave your own recommendations shortly, just to keep things convenient.

1. The Stand by Stephen King. I like Stephen King on a wide canvas, and he gave himself one here. Not everything rang true to me psychologically, but the story is riveting and mythic in its power to stick in memory.

2. Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Ms. Goodman got her start writing about the arcane and claustrophobic world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and she’s even better here, limning the intellectually spacious, yet physically and emotionally cramped, world of elite academic science. (My friend Amazing Genius Science Girl thought Goodman got it right, who am I to argue?)

3. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Unfortunately, there is no way to write about this without making it sound like a horrible gimmicky rom-com: alternating chapters of two different futures for the heroine, in one of which she stays faithful to her husband and one in which she begins an affair with a friend, a raffish but loving snooker star. Somehow, the book is far more compelling than any description of mine, thank heavens.

4. The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. This is significantly weaker than her earlier novels The Position or The Wife, but Ms. Wolitzer’s eye for detail is spot on. There’s a lot to object to — I’ll leave “mommy war” critiques out of it, but I was taken aback by the notably short shrift given the book’s Asian couple, and their stereotypical upbringings. Still, mediocre Wolitzer is better than good nearly anyone else.

5. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim. No, I did not star this out of atonement for the casual racism of Ten-Year Nap, it just worked out that way. Calligrapher’s Daughter, the story of a Korean family at the turn of the last century, was published by my own publisher a few months before MCMoM, and the publicist gave me a copy. The author was inspired by the life of her mother, but decided to write a novel rather than an historical book or biography. Her research shows, though; I learned a lot. This is a contemplative book — you can read a chapter or two a night before going to bed and not stay up all night finding out what’s going to happen next. But its images and conflicts hang on.

Why “Children of the Soy” is just wrong

October 27th, 2009

Here’s a Halloween-themed post for you all. I’d gotten into a horror-fiction kick a while back, and noticed that every New England gothic that deals with the human or supernatural evil of some little farming town — it’s always about corn. From “The Lottery” to Children of the Corn to Harvest Home. Corn is the basis of the community, the source and/or excuse for the evil. So I figured, hey, I know someone who manages a farm, I wonder what Verena would say about this. I mean, get two women together, one of whom did a dissertation on literary genre and one of whom is a farmer, and surely we could figure out this “evil corn” thing, right? I had a few ideas of my own, so I shot them off to her. Here they are, and her responses:

1. Coincidence. Corn is a native crop to New England, which happens to be where America’s literary horror tradition got started. If the tradition had started in the midwest, it would have been “Children of the Wheat.”

Verena replied: That seems plausible. Corn’s native to the whole continent though (including Central America). Wheat was introduced from Europe, and doesn’t do well in the N.E. climate (fall rains come in just as the crop is ready). Wheat is also much shorter (not quite like lettuce, but still short). Wheat is romantic (“Days of Heaven”). You can’t really romp with your lover in the cornfields like you can in the wheat. Wheat is soft.

2. Structure. Cornfields are taller than people and make a scary rustling sound and you can hide in them, so you can set cool plot sequences in the cornfields that might not be possible in other agricultural settings. You pretty well have to be Peter Rabbit to get a lot of suspense going in a lettuce patch.

Verena replied: I think you’re totally right that big cornfields are easy to hide in and get lost in. That’s pretty scary. And unlike woods or mountains, there’s a man-made uniformity to a cornfield, so you can’t get your bearings. A corn field does have this weird human-like quality to it…hayfields are tall and uniform, and make rustling sounds, but you never feel like you’re standing in some kind of vegetable army.

Okay, doesn’t the phrase “vegetable army” just freak you out right there?

3. The Uncanny Valley. It is easy to make disturbingly human-looking poppets and fetishes out of corncobs and husks.

Verena replied: Yeah, kids love that! We always do husk doll making with little kids and it’s a blast. They all turn out so amazingly different.

That was pretty much all I knew about corn and why it might be scary, so I went on to ask her, “Is corn so important that in a given farming community it might not be just a crop, but the crop, much as potatoes were in Ireland? So that the needs of the corn become paramount and it’s treated in a sort of idolatrous fashion?

“Is corn so temperamental and hard to grow that a human sacrifice now and then might not seem like a bad idea? (I mean, do you sit around with your farmer friends and talk about ‘The Lottery’ and joke, ‘Well, of course it would be wrong, but don’t say you’ve never wondered if it would actually work …’)”

And that’s when it got really scary! (Okay, I’m cuing the music and holding the flashlight under my chin now.) She said corn isn’t really hard to grow, and that up until modern times there wasn’t an issue with monoculture that would lead to the kind of dependence I was wondering about … but then … she wrote …

sacrifice – here’s a thought – Blood has a lot of nitrogen in it (remember those school stories about how Native Americans planted a fish head at the base of every corn mound). Great fertilizer. You can buy “blood meal” as an organic fertilizer – it’s just dried blood and it’s the best thing you can get. A sacrifice that spilled blood all over your corn WOULD actually make it grow better.

So how about that!

Readercon: Because it’s not enough that I look like Spock

July 7th, 2009

Guess where I’ll be this weekend? Readercon!

You either know what that is and are thinking that I am even cooler than you had suspected, or you don’t know what it is and that vague feeling of pity you’ve been having for me lately is growing.

No worries. Readercon is a science fiction convention here in the greater Boston area–Burlington, to be exact. From the website:

Readercon is, depending on your point of view, either an annual literary conference (except it’s infinitely more fun than that) or an annual science fiction convention (except we’ve stripped away virtually everything except talking about and buying books).

I think this sounds absolutely terrific, and not just because 1) I look like Spock and 2) SF fans are unlikely to judge the Golden Rod Rainbow Stripe Shawl Sweater Shrug Cardigan. (Of course I’ll need it. The convention’s at the Burlington Marriott. Have you ever been to a summertime convention at a Marriott that wasn’t freezing?) But also because the program sounds fascinating. Check out this talk, for example:

Minds differ, and nothing reflects those differences more directly than the use of language. When a story’s first-person narrator has a mind significantly outside the norm, their altered diction provides a (sometimes purposefully cloudy) window into their altered thought processes. What are the protocols and challenges of reading a text where the narrator is autistic (Peter Watts’s Blindsight or Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark), insane (Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit”), mentally slow (Flowers for Algernon), impossibly brilliant (Camp Concentration), or unclassifiably damaged (Liz Hand’s Winterlong)? How do we infer the mental states from the altered and often unfamiliar diction? And what does that tell us about the relationship of mind to language?

Or this one:

Is Darwinism Too Good For SF? This year marks the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species and the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. Considering the importance of the scientific idea, there has been surprisingly little great sf inspired by it. We wonder whether, in fact, if the theory has been too good, too unassailable and too full of explanatory power, to leave the wiggle room where speculative minds can play in. After all, physics not only has FTL and time travel, but mechanisms like wormholes that might conceivably make them possible. What are their equivalents in evolutionary theory, if any?

This is exactly the kind of thing my friends and I like to talk about!

And, well (blush), I’m doing panels too! One on my PhD research, which was on the psychology of storytelling:

Narrative Psychology and Science Fiction If a character gets shot, it’s a mystery story. If a character gets shot with a phaser, it’s science fiction. But are there elements to science fiction that go deeper than the surface tropes? Psychologist and writer Robin Abrahams discusses what cognitive psychology and her own research say about mental models of literary genres — including science fiction, fantasy, and horror — and what personality factors correlate with a liking of different kinds of stories.

… and one based on Mind Over Manners:

IDIC for the Pre-Federation World: Coping with Diversity (Robin Abrahams). The Vulcans allegedly had a slogan “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” which is pretty big talk for an entire race of people who all have the same haircut. In the 21st century, however, diversity is increasing — and increasingly hard to deal with. Robin Abrahams, writer of the Globe’s “Miss Conduct” social advice column and the new book Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners, discusses diversity of values, priorities, and experiences. Can we really say that nothing human is alien to us? How do we cope with the “other”? And how can we use science fiction to help us address contemporary social dilemmas?

If you like to read science fiction too, I hope to see you there!