Sunday, February 26, 2012

What is magical realism? Part 1: Science Fiction

I'm teaching an introductory literature course this semester, and on Wednesday, we began our unit on magical realism. I thought it might be interesting to discuss the topic here since magical (or magic) realism is one of those terms whose definition is constantly disputed. We usually know it when we see it, but explaining it is about as easy as saddling an ostrich.

Although originally a painting term applied to a group of German surrealists, "magical realism" came to be associated with literature in the 1940s. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (my go-to for quick and dirty literary definitions) offers the following: "the term came to be applied to fictional prose works that are characterized by a mixture of realistic and fantastic elements." That seems straightforward enough--magical realism is a genre where daily life and fantastic/magical events are treated as part of the same reality.

The problem with this definition is that it ignores what I believe is the heart of magical realism. It describes what magical realism does, but not what it is.

In order to get at the elusive heart of magical realism, I started off the class with a look at another genre: science fiction. Bedford defines science fiction as "a type of narrative fiction that is grounded in scientific ... concepts and that ... employs both realist and fantastic elements in exploring the question 'What if?'" In other words, sci-fi speculates about the future using a mixture of the realistic and fantastic. The similarity to magical realism is obvious.

As with its definition for magical realism, I feel the Bedford falls short in defining sci-fi. So I supplemented its definition with a quote from author Ursula K. LeGuin, from the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, a sci-novel about a planet whose people are androgynous. LeGuin writes, "This book is not about the future … Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous ... I’m merely observing … that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting … I am describing." LeGuin argues that sci-fi is not actually about the future. Rather, it uses speculation about the future to describe the world as it already is.

I'm not denying that sci-fi speculates about what our future might be like. Obviously, it does. But I do agree with LeGuin that on a fundamental level, sci-fi must be about us-as-we-already-are; otherwise, we wouldn't find it interesting. Take Star Trek. If we didn't already think that the human race as a whole is curious, that we desire to explore our universe, then the point of the show would be lost. We won't care about starships and Vulcans unless we already suspect that human beings are curious and inventive enough to want to discover these things.

And this raises a question: If sci-fi is about us as we already are, then why bother making up the fantastic parts? Why not just stick to realistic stories?

BECAUSE, as all sci-fi lovers know, science fiction has a peculiar power, a way of driving home its points that realistic fiction lacks. At some level, more or less conscious, we believe that the events depicted in a sci-fi story could happen. Not that they'll necessarily happen, or even that they're likely to happen. But they could

Thus, the impact of whatever point about ourselves-as-we-already-are (that we are androgynous, or curious and inventive, or corrupted by power) that a sci-fi story makes is made more powerful by a prediction about the future that just might come true. Our belief in humankind's inventiveness is strengthened by a story that presents the possibility we might someday travel through the universe faster than the speed of light. Our belief in humankind's capacity for evil is strengthened by a story that presents the possibility that someone could unleash a biochemical weapon to destroy an entire population.

And why do we believe that these predictions could come true? Because, as a culture, we have an almost blind faith in the power of science. Given enough time, enough geniuses, enough resources, science can do anything, from discovering aliens to recreating dinosaurs.

Science fiction has power because we believe in the possibilities of science.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How to Read Your Kindle Touch in the Bathtub

I love to read. I love to take bubble baths. It's not going to surprise anybody to learn that I love to read while taking a bubble bath.

However, my habit suffered a hitch when I acquired my Kindle. I fretted about how to protect the device from the water: from steam, from splashes, and from the catastrophe of total submersion.

My father, neither a bath lover nor a novel addict, told me I would have to stick to reading hard copy books in the bath. The problems with this solution will be evident to all novel-loving bath addicts.

Everybody else said, "Stick it in a Ziplock bag."

I tried that. I used a gallon sized, freezer strength Ziplock (well, Target brand), and almost experienced Kindle meltdown. Every time I tried to turn the page the plastic hit the sensitive touch screen in multiple places, causing it either to turn too many pages or freeze up.

But tonight, I HAD to read Cybele's Secret (review coming in a future post), and I HAD to read it while immersed in hot water. I went online to see if anybody had solved the Ziplock bag problem. Apparently some had, but all they would say (in taunting cyber voices) was, "I had no trouble using my Kindle Touch inside a Ziplock baggie." The selfish, misanthropic cretins!

I looked at a waterproof case available on Amazon (for $19.99) and watched a demo about how to use it. I contemplated building my own waterproof case out of a discarded bedding bag, duct tape, and those foam thingies you put on cupboard doors. And then it hit me. The way to solve the Ziplock baggie problem. I can't decide if I'm an idiot or a genius.

What I am NOT is a cretin, so here's how to do it. You too can enjoy the pleasure of e-novels via touch screen in the bubbly!

You will need
1 quart-sized Ziplock bag, freezer strength with double seal
2 minutes

  1. Put your Kindle Touch in the bag.
  2. Seal the bag, leaving a little air inside.
  3. Slide the Kindle to the corner of the bag.
  4. Bracing the Kindle against the side of the bag, pull the plastic tight over the screen. Fold the excess around the back of the Kindle and tape it.
  5. Repeat step 4 for the top of the bag.
  6. Run your bath water. Use extra bubbles.

You're welcome. Donations of cash and chocolate will be accepted.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review of The Grey

If you’re wondering whether or not to see Liam Neeson’s latest vehicle, The Grey (note pretentious British spelling), there’s a simple litmus test: Do you like Jack London? If your answer is yes, then this film is for you. Skip the rest of this review.

If, on the other hand, White Fang confused you, Call of the Wild aggravated you, and you would have gladly endured frostbite yourself rather than read one more page of “To Build a Fire” (the most wretched short story to ever disgrace the pages of a middle school literature anthology), if you, like me, are a Jack London hater, then this movie is most definitely NOT for you.

The Grey is an obnoxious exercise in alpha-male existentialism. Period.

The plot involves a bunch of roughnecks who have been working for a petroleum company in northern Alaska. Their flight back to civilization crashes, and a handful of survivors are left to fight for their lives against the bitter cold, the unforgiving landscape, and a pack of aggressively territorial wolves.

At this point, I would normally warn SPOILERS AHEAD. But once that plane hits the frozen tundra, the rest of the movie is painfully predictable. At regular intervals, the seven survivors die: by wolf, by landscape, by despair. The only question is whether Neeson’s character, John Ottway, will make it out alive, but as the movie makes it abundantly clear, it actually doesn’t matter. The universe is a giant crap shoot, and if the wolves don’t get you today, something else will tomorrow. One of the first scenes shows Ottway with a shotgun in his mouth, contemplating suicide. The movie suggests that, ultimately, it didn’t matter that he chose not to pull the trigger. Certainly, the film awards gravitas to Ottway’s choice to go down swinging, but it also gives dignity to the guy who chooses to sit down and wait for the wolves. Going out on your own terms is the best that can be hoped for.

I should probably confirm the lurking suspicion in the back of everybody’s mind: No, I am not an existentialist. I believe in the transcendental. I hope for a lot more than going out on my own terms.

However, the fact that my own world view is radically different doesn’t mean that I’m unable to appreciate or be moved by existentialist stories. Waiting for Godot drives me to fury and to hysteria. “Miss Brill” breaks my heart with the poignancy of human tragedy. Lord of the Flies terrifies me. So why did The Grey do nothing more than annoy the snot out of me? (And I have a cold right now, so we’re talking about a lot of snot…)

1. Women are reduced to props for male egos. There are no actual women in this movie. The closest we get are a half dozen flashbacks to Ottway’s wife. She’s never named, she never speaks except to encourage Ottway, and never moves except to touch him. At the end, we find out the woman is dead—she literally does not exist apart from his memories, which mold her existence around his own. Any other reference to women in the film is the same—they exist to fulfill men sexually and/or emotionally. There is no suggestion that a woman might be a person in her own right.

2. The film under-appreciates its own irony. *SPOILER* Ottway discovers that the whole time he’s been trying to escape, he’s been walking toward the wolves’ den. In the world of the movie, this is the ultimate irony, and it’s a moment that’s genuinely funny (unlike the penultimate death scene where I inappropriately burst into the giggles). If Ottway had thrown back his head and had one hearty guffaw over the sheer ridiculousness of his entire adventure, I might have forgiven the movie at least some of its testosterone driven nihilism. But instead, Ottway stiffens his spine, chants a battle verse composed by his father, and charges. Sigh.

3. The plot is tragically short on MacGyver homage. I like a wilderness survival story as much as the next nerdy girl, but a key component of the survival story from Robinson Crusoe on is the Macgyvering—making a sulfuric acid plug out of chocolate bars, or the Arctic equivalent. But we get only two instances—one where the survivors make boom sticks (which are disappointing in action), and one at the very end, where Ottway tapes broken bottles between the knuckles of one hand, and a knife to the other, thus growing claws to match the wolf’s. It was a great moment, but too little too late.

4. There was not enough wolf footage. The magnificent Alaskan scenery was some compensation, but I would have appreciated more shots of the fabulous wolves. They may be monsters in this film, but they’re beautiful monsters. (At one point, I thought seriously about rooting for them, but I couldn’t quite break out of my species box.)

5. It makes violence the ultimate human achievement.

I think that covers it. Enough ranting for one day!