Summer Teaching—Urban Fantasy

The second class I teach this summer (June 28th-July 29th, Monday-Thursday, 10:30 am-12:45 pm) is Urban Fantasy.  The term always requires some explaining.  I applied it to the course before it became a marketing juggernaut.  I use the term very broadly to apply to fantasy set in a modern world as opposed to the much more common impulse to place fantasies in the past or in an idealized world that’s like the past.  This class is now listed as English 391-011.  This year we’ll be looking at some of the various borderlands of the genre with pairs of films and novels.

I start with Pan’s Labyrinth (film) and Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, both fantasies that rely on traditional mythologies at work in a modern world.  This is probably the most common approach, favored by de Lint and others.  These two do an exceptional job of integrating the mythos into the plot so that it doesn’t seem merely tacked on, as is too often the case.

Especially recently, the genre has lurched, shambled, slithered, whatever, toward horror tropes.  To look at this territory, I’ve chosen Let the Right One In (film) and Peter Straub’s lost boy lost girl.  I’ve never been much interested in vampire stories, but one of my many excellent students last summer turned me on to this film.  Straub’s novel is a highly unusual haunted house/serial killer story.  Or is it?  I told Peter I’m teaching the novel this summer, and he gave me a question for the class.  Unfortunately, he didn’t give me the answer!  Anyway, these two, arguably could be and are called horror but both have fantasy resolutions.

The third pair Adaptation (film) and China Miéville’s The City & The City owe much to the borderline genre of noir.  Both, some might say, aren’t fantasy at all.  We’ll see.  Charlie Kaufman’s crazy screenplay is all about what genre it is, so it should provide fuel for the fire.  I ended up not being that fond of Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, so I almost didn’t read this novel.  It’s the best novel I read last year.  I just voted for it for the Nebula.  Maybe it’s not fantasy.  Maybe it’s science fiction.  Maybe it’s…  Whatever it is, it’s damn fine.

The fourth pair Stranger Than Fiction (film) and Jeffrey Ford’s short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, lie in the borderland of metafiction, postmodernism, et. al.  This is the only Will Farrell film I can stand to watch, but this has consistently been the most popular film students have reviewed.  Jeffrey Ford’s brilliant short stories have had a huge impact on modern fantasy.  He’s won more World Fantasy Awards than anyone.  Ever.  More importantly, this collection has always been a favorite with students.

In the word or film world, of course, you can create any damn world you want to if you’re good enough, if you know how to blend genres just so…  Donnie Darko (film) and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore attempt such a feat, and judging by class reactions in the past, pull it off.  Even though it’s the longest novel on the reading list, students consistently rate it the best.  I’ve had students thank me for making them read this novel.  I keep waiting for him to write something shorter that works the same magic so well, but so far I haven’t found it.

So what are you waiting for?  You can register online at

Summer Teaching—Science Fiction

As in years past, I’ll be teaching two classes at VCU this summer, Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy.  I’ll describe the sf class today and the urban fantasy tomorrow.  For reasons more bureaucratic than substantive, the course numbers have changed, though generally the courses are the same.  The science fiction class is listed as Readings in Literature 215-004.  It runs May 24-June 24, Monday-Thursday, 10:30 am-12:45 pm.  I always try to fit science fiction into the general enterprise of literature, and I shall endeavor to do that even more this time.  The somewhat revised course description, reads as follows:

This course will explore science fiction in several different ways—as a genre, historically, thematically, culturally, in its different forms in print, film, and screen, as a social phenomenon, a craft, a community—not only to learn about science fiction but also about skills and strategies useful in the appreciation and understanding of any variety of literature.

Gosh.  I’d like to take a course like that!  The books this year are:

Alfred Bester.  The Stars My Destination.

Philip K. Dick.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Joe Haldeman.  The Forever War.

Neal Stephenson.  Snow Crash.

Cherie Priest.  Boneshaker.

Once again, the idea is a very rough historical survey of books and films beginning with the 50’s and ending with the present.  I still haven’t found a better 50’s sf novel than Bester.  I’ve returned to it after flirtations with Fahrenheit 451 (ugh) and Starship Troopers (great novel, but I can only take so much of the politics).  Do Androids etc. remains my favorite Phil Dick novel.  I enjoyed teaching Man in the High Castle, but I thought one alternate history on the list is enough.  Forever War was the favorite novel in last year’s class and is one of the best sf novels ever written.  The 80’s have always presented a problem.  Every year I try something different, and it dies.  Especially Neuromancer.  I’ve tried exotic alternatives like Murakami, but early cyberpunk consistently tanks.  My solution this year is to skip the 80’s.  So I’m doing the early 90’s.  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash represents something of a cyberpunk fruition.  Even in this relatively short Stephenson novel, he still manages to info-dump at length for page after page, but here’s hoping the students keep turning them.  Finally, I choose buzz for the latest book.  If you haven’t seen Cherie Priest’s goggled heroine on a bookstore shelf near you (cover facing out, thank you very much) you haven’t been paying attention.  Nominated for everything, it’s a zombie, steampunk, alternate history with goggles and dirigibles.  I hate zombies, but obviously everyone else doesn’t, and the ones here are mostly set decoration.  It’s really an engaging Mama Lion rescues her wayward cub story, and should be a pleasant diversion at course’s end.

The movie choices this year include several changes.  I still start with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 version.  It’s usually a class favorite and holds up surprisingly well.  For the 60’s I’m finally showing 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  I find it overly slow and ponderous and self-important, but its influence is undeniable.  I’ll see what the students make of it.  I’ve always wanted to show Rocky Horror Picture Show in the class, both as a science fiction film as well as a social phenomenon.  I’m just old enough that the ritual came after me.  My students will have grown up with it.  Skipping the 80’s once again, I’m showing Terminator 2, the best of the Terminator movies and probably the most influential.  The first Terminator movie did well enough in the class last summer (better than any 80’s film before it).  Finally, I’m excited to show Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, an excellent Mexican sf film.  I had planned on showing District 9, but in some ways I think Rivera’s film is more interesting.

So there you have it.  There’s plenty of room.  I’d love to have you!

Urban Fantasy comes to a close

One of the very best classes I’ve had in years comes to an end tomorrow when they take the final.  I’ll miss them!  There was no clear loser on the syllabus except Being John Malkovich, which is growing a little stale.  Murakami and Gaiman both had loyal supporters, and while it was no one’s favorite, they were willing to tolerate Topper.  In a first, no one would wish away the experience of reading Kafka on the Shore.  That may be because they had an extra day to read it since equipment failure canceled the screening of Donnie Darko.

I’m eager to get back to writing—several story ideas have been percolating lately—but this class makes it harder than usual to leave teaching behind.  Thanks everyone, it’s been a real pleasure.  Keep reading.  Remember what Colonel Sanders tells you (by way of Murakami):  A life without revelation is no life at all.

A favorite passage from R. L. Stevenson

Working on classic comic fantasies Topper and Harvey for the urban fantasy class, I’m struck how central the notion of naughtiness and sin are to both of them.  I often use the following quotation when I teach the wonderful Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but I think Thorne Smith and Mary Chase would agree:

It is probable that nearly all who think of conduct at all, think of it too much; it is certain that we all think too much of sin … To make our ideal of morality center on forbidden acts is to defile the imagination and to introduce into our judgments of our fellow-men a secret element of gusto.  If a thing is wrong for us, we should not dwell upon the thought of it; or we shall soon dwell upon it with inverted pleasure.  If we cannot drive it from our minds—one thing of two:  either our creed is in the wrong and we must more indulgently remodel it; or else, if our morality be in the right, we are criminal lunatics and should put our persons in restraint.  Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect duties.  And it is the trouble with moral men that they have neither the one nor the other.

… If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong.  I do not say “give them up,� for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.

—from Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains

Lucas and Gibson given the boot

I just finished up this summer’s science fiction class and as usual polled the class on what should stay and what should go.  Star Wars, though it held nostalgic memories for some, proved to be pretty thin broth seeing it now.  The most popular film was Children of Men, trouncing all competition.

William Gibson, whose Neuromancer always fares poorly these days, did no better with Count Zero.  Oh well, I enjoyed rereading it.  Joe Haldeman’s incredible The Fovever War was the most popular book, and I’ll definitely teach it again.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the second most unpopular novel was also the second most popular—The Man in the High Castle.

Little Brother

I just finished Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and found it a worthy read.  The attentive among you will have noticed that I picked this book for my sf class without having read it.  For the most recent book in the course I choose the sf title with the highest critical and marketplace impact.  Last year the Oprahized The Road was the obvious choice.  And while hardback Little Brothers on sale in the local Kroger a full year after pub date with no paperback in sight, might not be Oprah, it’s close enough for sf.  That it’s about the War on Terror when the theme of this particular class is war, made it inevitable.  Besides, I like Doctorow.  He’s smart, important in his own right as a mover and shaker.

I haven’t read the bibliography yet, which gives a hint to one of the problems with the narrative.  Forget the Xbox.  There’s plenty of soapbox here for anyone, and maybe too much for many.  For my purposes, this makes it a perfect ending for a course that begins with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers—originally written as YA also and larded with right-wing lectures.  Doctorow’s info-dumps are shameless, but this didn’t bother me so much.  He’s always interesting, which James says is the only requirement of a novelist.  This isn’t exactly Melville and the whales or even Stephenson in The Diamond Age, but interesting enough and clear.  At heart, perhaps, Doctorow is an essayist.

I did find myself longing for some shades of gray in the tale.  The only untrustworthy soul under twenty-five is so cartoonishly over the top he’s impossible to take seriously.   Surely, there’s one right of center kid in California with more than two brain cells firing.  My favorite YA writers like Robert Cormier or Philip Pullman allow for dark ambiguity in the narrative, but here the whole thing’s pretty easy after the nasty torture bits are over.  No one betrays our hero except the DHS.  Despite all the paranoia, it’s never personal.  Lucky fellow.  The villain lives to fight another day and that’s supposed to be enough darkness?  It all just seemed a little too sunny by the end.

I quibble.  Except for a bit of a lull toward the end, the narrative remains interesting and the hero engaging.  I agree with his politics, so I’m not the one to ask how effective the book is for those who don’t.  I trust some of my students will have something to say on the matter this summer.  My favorite fan of The Watch (a thoroughly lefty book) is self-described conservative Lelia Taylor who owns Creatures n Crooks.  It makes me proud to have poisoned her mind.  Here’s hoping Little Brother charms my class as well.

I’ll be on electronic hiatus for a while.  I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.  Enjoy the spring.

Summer classes—Urban Fantasy

The second class I teach this summer will be Urban Fantasy, June 22-July 23, Monday-Thursday, 10:30 am-12:45 pm.  I use the term loosely to mean fantasy in a contemporary setting, rather than the narrow marketing niche which seems to be all about sexy vampires and werewolves, neither of which interest me much, except that book Wilderness, but I can’t teach my own stuff.  There has been a growing interest from students in years past to look at some of the earlier incarnations of the form in fiction and film, so hugely influential on guys like Gaiman (and myself).  So the biggest change here is in the starting point.  The reading list—

Thorne Smith.  Topper.  (Modern Library.  ISBN: 0375753052)
Neil Gaiman.  Anansi Boys.  (Harper Torch. ISBN: 0060515198)
Sean Stewart.  Perfect Circle.  (Small Beer Press. ISBN: 1931520119)
Jeffrey Ford.  The Empire of Ice Cream.  (Golden Gryphon. ISBN: 1930846584)
Haruki Murakami.  Kafka on the Shore.  (Vintage. ISBN: 1400079276)

The films will be Harvey, Pan’s Labyrinth, Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, and Donnie Darko.

I’ll probably show a few clips from the film version of Topper as well.  The novel is quite charming and seductive and an acknowledged influence on Gaiman.  If I can only show one classic film fantasy, it will have to be Harvey.  The pairing of Sean Stewart and Sixth Sense, both non-horror ghost stories, is always popular.  Both Anansi Boys and Pan’s Labyrinth embed conventional mythologies to tell a modern story.  Jeff Ford and Malkovich are my favorite representative of the wacky weird.  I would like to find a shorter Murakami (or his equal) to manage the magic Kafka on the Shore conveys, but so far I haven’t found it.  Darko‘s destiny driven pseudo-science and adolescent edge make it a suitable companion.  I’ve cut Kelly Link for now and am giving Edward Scissorhands a rest.

Summer classes—Science Fiction

Once again I’ll be teaching two classes at Virginia Commonwealth University this summer.  The first one is Science Fiction May 18-June 18, Monday-Thursday, 10:30 am-12:45 pm.  I’m teaching a completely new reading list this year.  It’s still an historical survey from the fifties to the present, but it’s also a thematic selection centered around war in some way or other.  The reading list is—

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

William Gibson, Count Zero

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

Rereading the Heinlein with the prospect of teaching it, I almost chickened out several times before turning in the book order.  This is one right wing book, but it’s a good book.  My biggest fear is that it will bore students, since it’s no action thriller.  But if the ideas don’t piss you off at least once, you’re not paying attention.  Dick was an obvious choice to represent the alternate history approach to the war theme, and an sf course without Dick isn’t one I’m teaching.  Haldeman’s brilliant answer to Heinlein is one of the best sf novels ever written.  Joe has agreed to address any sticky questions the class might confront along the way.  Gibson’s Count Zero is one of my favorite sf novels and the best of The Neuromancer trilogy.  His depiction of corporate warfare in a world where nations are more or less irrelevant is convincing, influential, and possibly prescient.  Last year, I instituted a policy whereby the book representing the current state of sf would be the one that ignited the biggest critical and mainstream buzz.  The Road was an obvious choice last year and would’ve been a logical choice this year if that didn’t mean I’d have to reread it for the sixth time, and I’m just not cheerful enough these days to face that prospect.  Doctorow’s Little Brother won’t likely be Oprahized, but it’s certainly got buzz, and the course wouldn’t be complete without that war we all know and love, the War on Terrorism.  Doctorow is always interesting.  Films will be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr. Strangelove, Star Wars (1977), The Terminator, and Children of Men.  Terminator in light of the interesting TV series it’s evolved into, as well as its use of the time travel theme so often a companion to war themed sf, made it an obvious choice for the eighties, the governator and all.  The tough choice was Star Wars.  I remember teaching the Bible in world survey classes back in Texas.  I fear it could be like that.  To me it’s Flash Gordon meets Parzival, but to some it was a cinematic miracle.  I’ll never forget seeing the thing for the first time at a Texas drive in, starry skies backed by starry skies.  After the second (and best) film, the franchise steadily erodes in quality to me, but their influence is enormous.

Urban fantasy reading wrap-up

We limped through Murakami today. This class, more than classes past, consistently had trouble getting the work done, and several hadn’t finished. Many liked Kafka on the Shore, though some liked it strictly for the Nakata narrative. I need to find a shorter Murakami, I suspect. Voted off the syllabus in a lopsided vote was the wonderful Magic for Beginners. The sort of narrative play Kelly Link is so good at annoyed some of these guys no end, and several felt that two short story collections was one too many, and Jeff Ford was a more user-friendly weird. The favorite, of course, was Anansi Boys, though once again Perfect Circle had its share of fans. Many like the pairing of Sixth Sense and Perfect Circle. My copy of the novel is falling apart, however. Maybe Small Beer Press should send me a freebie. As for Anansi Boys, I’m probably ready for a different Gaiman. Or maybe it’s time for all new courses. I’m open to suggestions.

Urban fantasy films

Having viewed the last film, the class took a critical look at the film line-up, and none was voted off the syllabus. Sixth Sense perhaps came the closest because so many had seen it before, but they agreed it was worth re-watching and was a perfect fit with the novel Perfect Circle. Pan’s Labyrinth, the newcomer to the course, was very well-received. After reading their papers on films of their own choosing in which the bleakness of the class films comes up often, I’ll likely make one change to the syllabus and include at least one comedy. The current lineup is just too depressing. I’m thinking Harvey or Groundhog Day might brighten things up between the grim and the dark. We start Kafka on the Shore today, and I’ve heard early grumblings. We’ll see how it goes.