SFRA 2007: Kansas City

What follows is a summary of the papers I heard at the 2007 SFRA meeting in Kansas City. I’ll blog separately about my own paper; and about my thoughts about reimaging and repurposing old texts, and whether or not doing that is worth our time.

This entry is cross-posted at LJ here.

July 5, 2007: Plenary Session: The Importance of Robert A. Heinlein (Goonan, Gunn, Pohl, Steele)

The distinguished authors briefly spoke before inviting discussion. The importance of Robert A. Heinlein (RAH) reached consensus: as Pohl put it, RAH was important because Heinlein put together all the elements of other SF (Smith’s far-flung space opera; Weinbaum’s alien aliens; van Vogt’s alien POV) and made all these astounding things seem normal. Steele noted that RAH was one of the four greats (along with Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke), and he was to SF what Hemingway was to 20th-century American literature: after Hemingway, you couldn’t read or write the same way any more, and with RAH, itw as the same way.

RAH was also important because his work, particularly his juveniles, provided a broad entry into SF and made it broadly appealing. He was important (as Gunn noted) in publishing because he pioneered the SF best-seller as a genre; he opened the market in the previously impenetrable-to-SF slicks; and he broadened teh market for juveniles.

Discussion touched on RAH’s libertarian political beliefs; his juveniles as sophisticated, adult SF (but without sex); his career’s rough division into early, middle, and late stages, with the middle stage being his best work; and his problems writing women characters. Discussion also indicated anecdotally that RAH juveniles no longer serve as an entry text into SF for today’s adolescents, because his work strikes adolescents as less relevant.

July 6, 2007: Fighting Futures (Sharp, Yaszek)

Patrick Sharp, in “Monsters from Darwin’s Id,” talked about gender and Darwinism in 1950s SF films, concluding that Darwinism was applied by the films’ creators to argue that the evolution of the use of technology would permit humanity to survive. The threat of the atomic bomb, these films argue, can be defused by rational, science-based society. Women contribute via male selection and do not themselves upset the patriarchal order. Savagery is implicit in a matriarchal structure (as in giant ants); if a woman is in charge, then things are in dire straits indeed.

Lisa Yaszek, in a paper about adapting Golden Age SF written texts to the screen, discussed Judith Merril’s Shadows of the Hearth, which was turned into a film called Atomic Attack, in terms of the change in the role, from word to film, of the female protagonist. The text version focused on the female protagonist’s being thrust into a position of power because of her rationality and her ability to get things done. In the film version, the heroine was subsumed to the civil defense hero, and the heroine ends up going back into the kitchen. Yaszek noted we still judge SF storytelling by the criteria established during the cold war, and that the films created at the time were often helped out (stock footage, or financial support) by the U.S. government in exchange for positive portrayals of the military and the government.

July 6, 2007: New Critical Perspectives on SFTV (Maus, Stannish, Doran, Spirko)

Derek Maus, in “Megaparodies of Fan Culture in the Revived Doctor Who Television Series,” discussed the text’s parody and play with fan culture, where fandom is both warned of the dangers, and celebrated. The Series 2 episode “Love and Monsters” was closely analyzed. Maus also noted that the series used alternative media (Martha Jones’s blog), which connected to the fan base; and also noted that the new show comments directly on current events, further parodying today’s world. He concludes that DW is telling us to pay better attention to what’s important around us: the world is so much darker, madder, and better.

Steven M. Stannish discussed “Orientalism, Egyptomania, and ‘The Pyramids of Mars,'” the latter a 1975 Fourth Doctor adventure. He used Said and other Orientalist theory to argue that the stereotypes presented are comfortable to the viewer by presenting Egyptians and Middle Easterners as a reflection of anxiety. The script and language (including bogus hieroglyphics), as well as the use of modern-day Arabic (subtitled in English) presented as ancient Egyptian create an atmosphere that doesn’t attempt to be realistic, but that this kind of stereotype was comfortable to the viewership, creating a kind of coded shorthand; yet the show was aware of this and likely manipulating these symbols directly.

Christine M. Doran, in “Farscape: The Domestic in Danger,” used criticism on domestic theory to inform a discussion of the character of John Crichton, arguing that Crichton sought to defuse threats to the domestic by turning the alien into a friend, who may then be brought into the family. Farscape is interesting because the one who must change (Aeryn) is female, and a male figure becomes the domesticating force, an interesting gender reversal. The theme of the show is, “Will John humanize the aliens?”

Robert Spirko, in “Cylons vs. Cybermen,” talked about a posthuman world without humans. Media SF is often technophobic; it fears the loss of the human body. Yet Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica present compelling images of the rise of the machine and of new views of humanity. Spirko linked this to the Singularity: the desire to transcend the human body, which may end up going horribly awry, with transcendence resulting in inhumanity.

July 6, 2007: The Golden Age of SFTV Is Now (Rodrigo, Hellekson, Jacobsen)

This mini-panel featured brief sketches of ideas by the three presenters, followed by longer discussion with input from the audience. Shelley Rodrigo discussed technofetishism in techology-based procedural shows like CSI and Bones, which she argues are a kind of revamped SF that ultimately argues that rationality and science will answer all questions and catch the guilty. Karen Hellekson discussed the repurposing and intermixing of the old and the new in such TV shows as Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica (both recently revived) and Life on Mars (set in the past), concluding that the old texts are being tweaked to appeal to a new audience in terms of gender, race, class, and genre expectations. Craig Jacobsen talked about a kind of chimerism of narrative, with a huge number of densely interweaving texts (a trilogy of movies, a trilogy prequel, novel tie-ins, fan fiction, novelizations, DVD commentary, rereleases, etc.) creating a large, unruly whole that problematizes the whole notion of the text or what is available to study—or appropriate to study (what is canonical?).

July 7, 2007: Giant Fallout (Goodridge, De Los Santos, Rockwood)

Kelly L. Goodridge, in “Pacificism and Paranoia in The Day The Earth Stood Still, discussed this important cold war–era film in terms of increasing anxiety. A peaceful alien comes, yet no one will listen to him, and in fact, they seek to destroy him. The film depicts a kind of top-down paranoia, with the fear coming from above: the military. The message, however, is that unity is necessary for humanity’s long-term existence, and that individuals can make a difference in the world.

Oscar De Los Santos, in “Extra Large: Exploring Giant Creature Cinema,” linked films that feature giant creatures (lizards, ants, spiders, etc.) to the anxiety of the bomb and to war. He linked the cold war to the war on terror; the giant creatures mirror the political climate. The cratures embody the anxiety (war, nuclear bomb, epidemic), and the people around it reflect the criticism the film makes (apathy? indifference? agency?). Discussions of The Host (2007), a Korean film inspired by the SARS epidemic, and Transformers, an American film that reassuringly glorifies the military, show that the formula is still active.

Bruce Rockford, in “Heinlein’s Starship Troopers,” discussed both the text version and the film version and overtly linked the hivelike unity of the miltary with the very bugs they are fighting. Citizenship is granted via military service, interestingly linking these two concepts. Rockford noted that the old 1950s films now resonate in a new political climate. Starship Troopers is interesting because the struggle is all; the war is never really won. It results in a stratified society engaged in endless war.

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