Category: Books

Spring 2014 Courses at UConn

Thanks to the gracious powers that be, I am on leave this semester, but in the spring I’m offering one section of a gateway literary-theory course for English majors (skewing environmental), and one special-topics course on textuality (skewing new media). These will be some of the first courses to explicitly tackle “the digital” in a department better known for its strengths in medieval studies and children’s literature. I’m still dithering over what primary texts I want to use in each, though I’m leaning toward China Mieville’s The City and the City, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, or Geoff Ryman’s Air for 2600, and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for 3623. Suggestions are welcome!

I’m also slated to offer an “Intro to DH” grad seminar in Fall 2014, and as I come more from interdisciplinary new media studies than DH proper, I’m expecting to learn and experiment right alongside my students. I’ll post a tentative syllabus and a compilation of resources sometime in the new year.

Engl 2600  Introduction to Literary Studies

To prepare you for work in more advanced classes, this course will develop your understanding of the discipline of English through a select overview of literary history and the major theoretical schools of twentieth-century literary criticism—among them reader-response, New Criticism and close reading, structuralism and post-structuralism, new historicism, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory. As we will discover, these are not simply theories for theory’s sake, but rather diverse perspectives on what should be included in (or excluded from) the literary canon, the relative importance of genre, author, and audience, and the relationship of literature to broader social and cultural contexts. You should end the semester with a surer sense of the pleasures and pitfalls of different critical approaches to texts, as well as the many subfields and interdisciplinary extensions that “English” encompasses.

In addition to a focus on textual interpretation, this course will also stress research and documentation guidelines and strategies, with special emphasis on changes in the discipline due to digital trends. You will learn, for instance, how to follow Modern Language Association (MLA) citation practice, how to evaluate both print and online sources, and how to make appropriate use of secondary sources while developing an original thesis. Assignments will include several short written responses and a final research paper with annotated bibliography.

Engl 3623  Studies in Literature and Culture

Literature Before and After the Digital

Since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, a host of areas traditionally grounded in print literary culture—among them storytelling, argumentation, publication, and archiving—have been radically transformed by online and mobile devices and services. In this increasingly digitized postmillennial era, we might therefore wonder how literature and our study of it have been impacted and how to best argue for their continued relevance. Do shifting cultural and technological paradigms demand new texts and critical approaches, or are these seemingly dramatic changes just the latest variations in the ongoing evolution of the literary?

To circle this question, we will consider not only the obvious crossover realms of electronic literature and interactive fiction, but also the application of literary methods and knowledge to non-literary objects. The course will frame the upstart arrivals of blogs, wikis, and e-readers within the centuries-old history of print, while revealing how deeply textual metaphors and practices continue to structure our online interactions. Throughout, we will also ponder whether “virtual reality” transcends any single genre or media category (for instance, video games), and discuss how form and format shape the development and experience of narrative.

Engl 6500  Seminar in Literary Theory

Intro to Digital Humanities

The term “digital humanities” now has an established foothold in our discipline, having generated lucrative funding opportunities from unexpected quarters and alternative academic (alt-ac) career paths for technically oriented scholars. Yet alongside the general enthusiasm, some have voiced a warning (witness the “Dark Side of DH” panel at last year’s MLA convention). So what exactly are the digital humanities? And why do they have a dark side?

This course will serve as an introduction to this burgeoning subfield and its provocations, by exploring its origins in bibliographic and textual studies and literary archival projects, as well as more current initiatives involving gaming, “big data,” and cross-institutional collaboration. Special attention will be given to the challenges of studying and preserving literature now composed, distributed, and read in digital form. Students will not only have multiple opportunities to interact with active DH archives and platforms (Drupal, TEI, Project Bamboo, etc.), but will also be asked to experiment with their own basic, but hands-on projects, preferably related to their existing areas of interest. No previous technical experience required.

Casual Dames

On a recent road trip to southern California, I brought along Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Having recently finished a chapter on farm games, I was curious to discover what this slim, vividly red tome had to offer (as far as I know it’s one of the first published academic takes on the casual game phenomenon).

Things I appreciated: Juul points to (admittedly limited) data to dispel the common industry perception that most casual gamers are older women. He historicizes the medium of video games, observing that its not just the games that are changing, but also the players themselves; the gamer equivalents of the baby boomers have aged into a new paradigm of work (work)/life (games) balance, and it’s amusing to read about a generation of “reformed” hardcore players now playing Bejeweled Deluxe… and liking it. Last but not least, Juul gathers opinions from both industry insiders and players through interviews and research surveys.

Things that could be better: Even in hardback, the book’s a flimsy volume, since the last 100 pages of the book are appendices, notes, and references, mostly transcripts of interviews. That leaves about 150 pages of actual writing, liberally peppered with screenshots and photos, divided into eight (8!) chapters. The book seems designed to appeal to both game designers and academics, so it is light on theory and heavy on examples. It is, in a word, casual.

(As an aside, I am not a fan of the phrase “diegetic juiciness,” though to be fair, the juiciness scale comes from designer Kyle Gabler, not Juul. Juiciness refers to the level of positive feedback that a game offers, so a casual game like Cake Mania that rewards players with sound effects, bright colors and shapes, and other sensory cues  is extra juicy, while an old text game like Colossal Cave Adventure is dry as a stick by comparison. It’s hard not to titter at such a criterion, or at least not to find oneself imagining games as so many pieces of overripe fruit).

Where I’d like to add some thoughts: Though Juul has done much to debunk what we could call the “casual dame” stereotype (by showing that yes, many women play casual games, but men do as well, in nearly equal numbers, and that any kind of game can be played casually or intensively), not enough has been said about the origins of said stereotype and its continued influence on game development. On the one hand, it has led to the industry’s turn to serving populations other than the assumed adolescent male audience, and that seems a worthy goal. But the still persistent tendency to associate casual games with dumb or less challenging or social games, and then to simultaneously attach them to a presumed player base of bored housewives and older women, implies an unspoken judgment that women’s time is worth less than men’s time, that female players lack taste or a desire for difficulty, and that women are social creatures, while men are not. Juul himself argues that casual games almost always deploy “positive fictions” (as opposed to the hack-and-slash, run-and-gun style of the games preferred by hardcore players). I have no sociological data to call upon here, but I can feel a slippery slope under my feet as much as the next person. Plenty of casual games already on the market appear more than happy to cash in on the supposed feminine preference for happy, domestic dramas (leaving men all those grisly and violent “negative fictions”… oh goodie?).

Furthermore, Juul brushes lightly over evidence that monetary considerations may actually trump any kind of design-based or social-context issues in determining whether or not someone picks up a casual game. In his own Gamezebo player survey, by far the largest selected response to the question “Is there anything that makes you choose a casual game over traditional computer/video games?” was “Computer/video games are too expensive” with 44.9% (the next highest is “I don’t have the time to play computer/video games” at 23.7%). The lead designer for the mega-hit Diner Dash also tells Juul that the casual games audience “is a phenomenon of the business model more than anything else” (free trials or try-before-you-buy, free-to-play or F2P, and “freemium” models come to mind). Meanwhile, Juul argues that one of the reasons games have gone truly mainstream is that home computers are more pervasive than ever before. But what about mobile devices? Is the revolution simply a case of hardware saturation and software deflation? Or are casual games a sign that games are no longer just for the technological and economic elite?

One final, crucial omission in this account of casual games would be its lack of comparative, or cross-cultural, analysis. As Dave Rohrl of Zynga acknowledges, “Most of these innovations have really come from overseas, especially from China” (202). My own research on farm games supports this statement, and yet Juul’s book is written as if only Western audiences counted. But games are one of the few cultural arenas in which Western influence is not necessarily paramount! In other words, what might be a casual revolution for us is probably old news somewhere else.

Climate Horror

All this talk of virtual farming has kept me from reflecting on a steadily rising stack of books, both academic and popular, that have fed my brain for the past few months. Among them, thanks to the climate/ecology/environment sections in Orca Books in Olympia, Washington, are Bill McKibben’s classic The End of Nature, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, The Plants, by Kenneth McKenney, and Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams.

I have to admit, I was most amused by The Plants, mainly because it was published in the year that I was born and seems to be a prototype of what one could call climate-change or atmospheric horror. Billed as “a superbly crafted novel of horror and high suspense,” the book also offers the following analogy: “What Alfred Hitchcock did in The Birds… What Peter Benchley did in Jaws… Kenneth McKenney does in the newest, most exciting excursion into plausible terror yet”! Note the common thread in these examples, namely nature’s wrath, or what William Cronon has called “nature as avenging angel.” The Plants takes place primarily in a small rural town in England, during an unusually warm summer that leads to a profusion of plant life with a malevolent bent… a little old lady is attacked by her roses after she threatens to prune them, a man who hacks apart his giant, potentially prize-winning squash gets stalked and murdered by sinister vines, and every time something suspicious is about to occur, residents hear the strangely overwhelming sound of foliage rustling all around them.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The more I read Ursula K. Le Guin, the more I’m pleasantly surprised at how well her work dovetails with my own research on environmental representation. I had only hazy memories of A Wizard of Earthsea before reading The Lathe of Heaven and The Word for World is Forest, so in my mind I had Le Guin pegged as a children’s fantasy writer. Oops.

No long plot description here, but I will say that if you are a person who either openly or secretly swooned over James Cameron’s Avatar and the Na’vi culture portrayed therein, you should read Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. The correspondences are almost shocking.

Gilding the Golden State

Ahh, northern California. I love your sunshine, your moderate temperatures, your coastal scenery, your redwoods, your year-round produce. But like most ersatz Californians, even as I am reveling in your glories, I have to work to forget the fault lines running below me and the wildfires that regularly blaze across the countryside, and I try not to let the massive depletion of underground aquifers by agricultural irrigation operations stop me from enjoying my wine, peaches, apples, almonds, tomatoes and, well… need I go on?

On a related note, Brian and I made a Friday afternoon foray to the recently re-opened San Pablo Dam reservoir, which had been closed for some time as the East Bay Municipal Utility District (otherwise known as EBMUD) made structural upgrades to the dam (this after a 2004 study revealed that earthquake damage could lead to dam “slumping” and downstream flood damage to nearby communities). We used to see the reservoir in its drained state from our hikes in the Berkeley hills, so it was something of a pleasant surprise to witness it restored to normal capacity–a blue, sunlit gem nestled away in the dry hills behind Richmond and El Cerrito, insulated from the cold fog covering San Francisco and Berkeley by a wall of inland heat. I admit, I enjoyed the irony and the intimacy of recreation hiking in the oak scrub around an artificial body of water that contains some portion of my drinking water (most of Berkeley’s drinking water comes from the Mokelumne River, but I assume much of it gets stored in San Pablo reservoir). As I dutifully obeyed the signs prohibiting swimming or wading, took note of the suggested safe intake of reservoir-caught fish (many species contain high amounts of chemicals and are therefore unsafe for pregnant women or repeated consumption), and watched a white pelican urinate into the water as he soared past, I thought to myself: being a Californian sure is complicated.

The problem is, I’ve read the work of John McPhee (The Control of Nature, Encounters with the Archdruid, Assembling California, etc.) and Marc Reisner (Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water and A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate), and I’m all too aware of the forced prosperity of the Golden State: how this semi-desert terrain that was never meant to support gold-hungry, real-estate hungry, sun-worshipping hordes became the major megapolitan areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles through the relentless draining of the Sierras and the damming of waterways literally thousands of miles away.

Awwww, shoot.

It’s not quite enough to make the sunshine today seem sinister, but I admit that a kind of geographical blindness seems to set in after only a few years of living in this apparent paradise. I’m no Mary Austin, after all. I’m still defined by the habitats of my youth in that I can only recognize the trees, flowers, and animals common to suburban Maryland. It has taken me years to begin recognizing manzanitas, madrones, lupines, and poppies; “chaparral” has only recently entered my vocabulary. But I’m trying. I suppose I’m a bit of a cognitivist, because I’d like to see not only the beauty of dramatic coastlines, old- and new-growth forests, and the riverine, but also the geologic, meteorological, and human-driven processes that led to their (de)formation. Recognizing the imprint of a receding glacier, the tinder-box quality of a drought, the rains likely to encourage edible mushrooms… would all be welcome reminders that California will change, with or without me.

Turtles All the Way Up

I had time for a quick read this weekend: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, an unusual work of science fiction that playfully straddles that fine line between the mundane (pot-smoking landlords in Portland, Oregon) and the utterly fantastic (alien turtles). I’m primarily fascinated with this little book because of its vision of ecological crisis and the power of the human psyche to either impose or deny such environmental realities. The protagonist, George Orr (no doubt a reference to George Orwell as well as the hero’s characteristic either/or indecisiveness), is an “effective” dreamer, meaning some of his dreams have the effect of altering waking reality, at times even rewriting history. Afraid of his ability, Orr turns to dream-inhibiting drugs, gets in trouble for overdosing, and finds himself remanded to the care of an “oneirologist,” Dr. Haber.  Haber, after learning of Orr’s power, attempts to use it to solve the world’s problems in the most heavyhanded of ways. And the world, at this point, is chock full of problems: primary among them overpopulation and air pollution.

The Lathe of Heaven was first published in 1971, and it imagines a world, in fact, several worlds, in which even Americans are just more masses of undernourished people crammed together under eternally leaden skies, courtesy of toxic greenhouse gas concentrations. Thus, in an increasingly surreal series of treatment sessions, Dr. Haber sets about trying to end world war, overpopulation, racial discrimination, and more through Orr’s dreams, but the solutions never turn out quite the way he intended, while exacerbating the moral dilemma for Orr. The imperative to end discord based on skin color results in turning everyone the same uniform gray; the direction to promote world peace results in Orr dreaming up an alien invasion, which in effect forces the nations of Earth to cooperate in their first interstellar conflict; the implanted suggestion to dream of more elbow room results in a plague that kills billions of people, depopulating the overcrowded Earth.

Clearly, given the many chapter epigraphs from Chuang Tse and Lao Tse, Le Guin was influenced by the tenets of Daoism in writing this story, and Orr is a Daoist protagonist in that he does not actively strive to better humanity but recognizes the moral rightness in just letting things be. He is also most comfortable in a world that does not give preeminence to the human but recognizes the human’s part in a much broader range of entities and concerns.

Yet the story makes me uneasy with both Haber’s well-meaning but ethically bankrupt dominance and Orr’s self-abnegating passivity. Technology here is suspect, in the form of Haber’s Augmentor machine, and the book’s climactic scene features Orr’s one real action: exerting himself to hold reality together long enough to turn the Augmentor off. By book’s end, Haber is in the lunatic asylum, and Orr is happily at work designing real, old-fashioned kitchen cookware. DIY > dystopia?

On a final note, Orr’s ambivalent relationship to Dr. Haber via the process of hypnosis and directed dreaming as well as his later, and more positive, collective dreaming with the alien race of turtles, were an eerie precursor to my viewing of Inception this weekend, which is a movie premised on the notion of “shared dreaming.” See my comments on the movie and its relation to game worlds at the Critical Gaming Project Blog.

From Virtual Dollhouses to Virtual Treehouses

“Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”

As I posted earlier, my friend Jen Schradie, a sociology graduate student and mother of two young children, recently pointed me to a book that she said had resonated deeply with her, especially after a magical family stay in the seaside town of Bolinas, California (a far cry from their usual haunts in Oakland). This book turned out to be Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2005), which has apparently sparked a number of “No Child Left Inside” legislative movements and other efforts to reclaim wild and natural land for the education and spiritual growth of children across the world. In short, I found myself at once sympathetic to and troubled by Louv’s claims, which leave little room for forms of media to be productive agents for social and environmental change. The biggest culprit behind recent generations’ growing alienation from nature, he argues, is television, as well as all of the electronic devices that have come to occupy a disproportionate amount of our time—computers and video games bear particular mention.

Though according to Louv’s chronology, I belong to a generation born after the dramatic shift away from nature as a daily companion (from the 1970s onward), I should note that my parents were both trained as scientists, and what’s more, not the kind of scientists that spent all day puttering around indoors under fluorescent lights. As a doctoral student, my father studied with Eugenie Clark, popularly known as “the shark lady,” famous for her ichthyological dives in the 1950s and 1960s, and though he never became a full-fledged fisheries biologist, he’s probably the reason why, as kids, my older brother and I were constantly surrounded by fish. I distinctly remember years when almost a dozen fish tanks of various sizes occupied our garage, housing a variety of freshwater and salt water fish, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. As children, we fished at local ponds for bluegills, caught frogs and turtles, and happily traipsed around the extensive undeveloped forest, meadowlands, and creeks surrounding our otherwise generic suburban development. I used to come home with my tube socks full of creek silt, which I emptied in the bathtub (my poor parents!).

Meanwhile, my mother was an avid and talented gardener, trained as a zoologist, who went on to work in medicine. From her, I learned to distinguish between crocuses, hyacinths, and gladioli, how to prune chrysanthemums (by mercilessly lopping their heads off, which used to upset me before I realized it actually encouraged their growth), and how to save strawberries from slugs and roses from Japanese beetles. Because of her, we ate fresh garden greens and vegetables long before it was truly fashionable to eat über-locally, and I was that embarrassed-looking kid that came into school with arms full of Italian squash (too much for us to eat!) to give to my friends and teachers.

So from a young age, you could say that I was delighted by and enamored with the natural world. I loved to sit still and just watch animals, landscapes, for minutes, hours at a time (this habit to this day annoys Brian when we’re out on hikes, as I get fixated on a bird or a cloud while he’s intent on getting from point A to point B). Once, in middle school, I even turned our downstairs bathroom into a makeshift bird still, putting a piece of flat plywood outside the window and strewing different kinds of seeds and nuts and fruit on it, then crouching inside behind drawn curtains, spying on the takers. For my senior project in high school, I inveigled myself a summer internship at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., in the Reptile House. Needless to say, scaly, slimy things didn’t really repulse me, and the creatures I chose to work on were the zoo’s captive pair of Indonesian Komodo Dragons, the largest lizards in the world. Along with the San Diego Zoo and a handful of other American zoos, the National Zoo was attempting to increase the captive population of these endangered lizards by breeding them, and I will never forget the experience of watching the hatching of a baby Komodo, as it gently pipped its way out of one of the carefully incubated, meatloaf-sized eggs. Life in the Reptile House quickly saw to it that I was no stranger to nature’s nastier side, as one of the gruff male keepers showed me how they mercifully dispatched tiny “pinkies” (newborn mice) by cracking their necks swiftly over one knee, using their tiny tails as handles, before feeding them to snakes. I myself offered giant, dead rats to the adult Komodos in scent tests, but for most of my research, I simply sat outside the Komodos’ carefully heated enclosures every day and watched and marked their every movement for three hours at a time. That kind of attention and stillness, Louv argues, is practically unheard of in today’s age of mingled anxieties over Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Internet and game addiction, and abysmal test scores.

But now for the flip side: I also consider myself a knowledgeable consumer of electronic goods and services. In fact, I think film, video, and digital media are so interesting that they have lured me away from my roots in studying literature and become the primary subject of my research. I spend more time playing computer and video games than I do watching television. Immediately, some might object that these two impulses, one toward nature, the other toward technology, cannot sit well with each other—they appear to be mutually exclusive. But without glossing over the huge environmental and social impact that consumer electronics have had (for instance, the exporting of much of our electronic, or “e-waste” to China), I bristle at the suggestion that I should have to choose between one or the other, that there is no way to reconcile a deep connection to nature and the nonhuman world with as important a connection to technology and the virtual. One might even say that this is the very dilemma of our times, or at least of the generations raised with a joystick in one hand and a merit badge in the other.

As someone who studies both games and environmentalism, I have spent countless hours preaching the cultural construction of notions of “nature.” I urge my students to regard recourse to the “natural” with as much suspicion as the technoutopianism of the early digital pioneers, because both tend to leave behind those people and things deemed either “non-natural” or obsolescent. As many environmental justice advocates and some enlightened urban designers have argued, our fetishization of wild, supposedly pure natural spaces has led to comparative disregard for the urban and suburban spaces most of us live in. At the same time, those who have trumpeted the virtues of the networked society, online anonymity, and computer-assisted anything, have consistently underestimated or overlooked continuing economic and social disparities. And yet. And yet.

It is simply too easy to fall into a valorization of the natural as the solution to all our problems, just as it is too easy to cast stones at all things digital. While Louv admittedly attacks the problem of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder” from many angles—child developmental psychology, urban planning, architecture and landscape design, curriculum design, and more—the sense remains that if we can just find a way to get our children and ourselves out of doors, in direct communion with the natural world, everything—from attention span, sensory awareness, mood, social bonding, confidence level, physical agility, academic performance—will get better. Louv acknowledges the concerns of parents afraid of strangers snatching their kids, violence and drugs in the streets, accidental injury, and liability in an ever-litigious society, but at the same time downplays these fears. In the lyrical world of Last Child, every underprivileged kid from the hood gets a chance at a transformative experience in an Outward Bound type program, and a meeting with restorative nature is as close and as free as that overgrown ditch at the end of the road (though, confusingly, he himself acknowledges that one reason for the decline in national park attendance may be the increase in park entrance fees, and many of the redemptive experiences in nature that he describes come at the other end of a fishing pole, under a tent or cabin roof, or on a boat).

As much as some might like, computer and video games are not going to magically disappear once the nation comes to its senses and sends its kids marching into the woods. Neither will nature, as Louv describes it, be a practically feasible option for many parents struggling to raise their kids in urban environments, under tight time and budget constraints. In my mind, many of the benefits of the natural experiences Louv details could be found in games—free, unstructured play without adult supervision; a chance to learn about natural processes and life cycles, or how people, animals, and plants are connected; educated mentorship, as in a guiding presence knowledgeable enough to provide more information about what one is experiencing; and hands-on activity with actual consequences. Of course, video games cannot offer stimulation for all the senses, and Louv rightfully accuses most media of being hopelessly bimodal, bludgeoning our visual and auditory circuitry with a surfeit of signals, but here again is another contradictory framing: games and television are at once both too stimulating, overdetermining the player’s or viewer’s experience, and not stimulating enough, in that they do not allow us to smell, taste, and touch. My gut reaction is that 1) not all games and television shows are crazily intense; in fact, many games are deliberately open-ended and encourage measured exploration; and 2) the recent trend in motion-sensitive control and even controller-less gameplay points to the possibility of games moving beyond simple audiovisual feedback toward greater interaction with the virtual environment based on proprioception and touch. Moreover, my own experiences and research suggest that while game graphics and sound are highly developed in some respects, they are still hopelessly primitive in others, namely environmentally and ecologically realistic detail (e.g. using the same generic tree-form to populate a landscape, rather than a range of species that fit the contours and resources of the landscape, or using a stock sound byte of some unidentified bird rather than the appropriate birdcall with the right timbre, reverberation, etc. given the situation). Current games overlook these opportunities to become rich in environmental information that need not be didactically delivered. If one of Louv’s criticisms is that today’s children know nature in an abstract, often frightened way that creates a harmful separation, e.g. doing a unit on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest instead of studying the flora, fauna, and rock formations in their own area, we should recognize that rich game environments have the potential to be experientially informative, not just informative, and though they may not offer the same range of sensory input, they do avoid one of the major obstacles Louv cites: risk of injury and personal liability. I am not foolish enough to suggest that game environments, no matter how lovingly realized, should substitute for direct experience of the real world—but as many studies have shown, more and more people are turning to virtual worlds not only for entertainment but also for challenge, companionship, and even civic participation, and there seems to be no good reason not to embrace and encourage game design and gameplay in forms that recall our favorite modes of natural play.

The Scene/Seen and the Obscene/Unseen

“Man does not live by words alone; all ‘subjects’ are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves, a space which they may both enjoy and modify.”

– Henri Lefebvre

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy (mostly the latter), thanks to Ed‘s massive book collection. We used to go to the mall just to visit Waldenbooks, and back in those days we could spend fifty dollars and come out of the store with an impressive stack of shiny, new paperbacks from Del Rey, Tor, and smaller, more obscure presses ($3.95 or $4.95 a book, can you imagine? If not, I’m over here waving my cane and screaming at you to get off my lawn.). My brother used to joke that I read more of his books than he did, and I was that annoying little sister that was always absconding with a promising read and pestering my sib to buy the latest sequels. In retrospect, I dread to think about how much money was spent on trite storylines involving horses, noble quests, and tomboy heroines, but I like to think that I earned myself a broad exposure to SF&F by discriminating little between very different authors: the pun-loving, pervy irreverence of Piers Anthony one month, the Arthurian reimaginings of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Stephen Lawhead another; series by Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, and Tad Williams forming a memorable core around which forgettable reads clustered, like the Dragonlance novels of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and books by Dennis L. McKiernan, R.A. Salvatore, and Julian May. To this day, I’m still a fan of Elizabeth Moon and Mercedes Lackey (and yes, even the horses… I mean, companions).

I’m admittedly not as well versed in science fiction, though I remember being quite dazzled by stories we read in high school astronomy, introducing concepts like dark matter and stellar parallax as well as theories like the one that the universe is expanding like a giant soap bubble. Meanwhile, a friend has been singing the praises of Perdido Street Station, and Brian has been making his way through this year’s John W. Campbell Award nominees, including Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and China Mieville’s The City & The City. So after my advisor Charis recommended that I read The City & The City as a potential way to complicate my thinking about virtual environments, I readily agreed: dissertation research without footnotes!

I won’t spoil the book for those who may still want to read it, but I will say I was intrigued by the idea of two overlapping cities sharing the same physical space but otherwise rigidly separated in terms of habits of perception. The book reads quite easily as a commentary on any form of balkanization, whether national, religious, or cultural. It also brings to mind Foucault’s work on the internalization of authoritarian forms of discipline and Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, to which Mieville’s book gives a kind of fictional life. It was, after all, Lefebvre who said: “What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and links it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?” The City & The City models Lefebvre’s triad of perceived-conceived-lived space and his distinctions between the scene and the obscene via its characters’ rigorous adherence to the seen and the unseen. But it doesn’t take Mieville’s imaginative exercise to witness the same careful “unseeing” of people and places in the real world–in urban ghettos, war zones, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on, and on, and on.

Am I the last person to read the Mars trilogy?

Yes, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) has been out since the early ’90s, but somehow I’ve been under a rock (cough, graduate school) and not managed to pick up on this series until Brian brought it home from our favorite little SF&F bookstore.  And I’m amazed how well this trilogy fits into my current thinking about ecology and virtual environments.  Why couldn’t I have read these back when I was first writing about Spore and the absurdity of terraforming alien planetoids with lasers, tractor beams, and magical U-Built-It kits?

I’m consistently amazed by the level of technical detail Robinson crams into these books, and the sometimes excruciatingly precise description of Martian geography.  Here is a series that tackles global warming on not one, but two planets, takes nuclear energy and radioactive fallout in stride, but stops regularly to coo over salt-tolerant lichen and, well, dirt (ok, regolith).

I’m not sure yet what I think about Hiroko, the “farm workers,” and the mysterious will to life that Robinson dubs “viriditas” (how does this compare to Bruce Sterling’s Viridian?). I’m a little tired of woman being identified as the all-mother/goddess/planet, let alone an Asian woman (a.k.a. Why does the Japanese lady have to strip for every public gathering?).

Robinson lives in Davis, CA.  Who knows?  I might get to ask.

Do Night Elves have Nature-Deficit Disorder?

For me, this question is a quirky but pithy way of encapsulating some of my recent work on environment in games, and the form of the question is given to me by two books that have recently been brought to my attention: Bonnie Nardi’s My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of WarCraft, and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It will be interesting to put Louv’s thesis alongside Henry Jenkins’s writing on video games as virtual playspaces.

In the World of WarCraft universe, Night Elves constitute perhaps the most “tree-hugging” race (or at least are in a close tie with the shamanistic Tauren). Their homelands are restful and serene deciduous forests, their buildings and their capital city merging treetop dwellings with classical Greek architecture. While the Tauren are most closely related to Native Americans in their practices and lore, Night Elves seem to be aligned with Asian mythology, as every year when the Lunar Festival rolls around the Night Elves celebrate with fireworks, the visiting of spiritual elders, homage to the moon, and ornamental silk dress clothes.

Surrounded as they are by natural beauty in apparent harmony with built structures, are the night elves (or more accurately, the players who play night elves) nonetheless victims to what Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder”? Simply because the nature that surrounds them is virtual? Does the nature that surrounds the night elf player teach him or her anything about nature as it exists in the “real world”?