Gaming and subcultures in Little Brother

MMORPG 2In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow demonstrates that social gaming communities can give rise to independent subcultures.

At the start of the novel, Marcus Yallow and his friends take part in an alternate reality game (ARG), Harajuku Fun Madness. The game involves clues hidden around major cities, forming a overlaid network over ordinary society. The ARG foreshadows events later in the book, where Marcus’s resistance network must remain hidden whilst still interacting with society.

Similarly, Marcus has experience of live action role-playing games (LARPs). Again, his experience involved playing the games in public, therefore producing a gaming layer over everyday life. Importantly, these LARPs involved dressing as vampires, linked to goth subcultures at the fringes of society. Marcus uses his knowledge of ARGs and LARPs to stage the politically-motivated gathering at the end of the novel.

With the internet monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Marcus uses a modified Xbox console to communicate with his peers. Significantly, the hardware is designed for gaming, now adapted for political use. Large corporations are symbolically aligned with the DHS, as the teenagers use Microsoft’s hardware for unauthorised purposes.

The Xnet itself is similar to chatrooms and forums that surround internet gaming culture. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), Clockwork Plunder, becomes less a game and more a legitimate social space for Xnetters to congregate, eventually becoming the home of the Xnet’s first press conference.

All of these examples are social activities that began as gaming experiences, adapted by Marcus and his friends for political means. Eventually, the situation is reversed: new game-like experiences arise from purely political activities. When Marcus meets the young teens Nate and Liam, he sees that they treat ‘jamming’ as an ARG, albeit one of which their victims are unaware.

In this way, Doctorow demonstrates that social subcultures and political movements can easily become merged, feeding into one another.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 10 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Image from Invertika / Wikimedia Commons

The Left Hand of Darkness and the ‘I’ of Ai

1eyeball004Ursula Le Guin’s choice of the name ‘Ai’ for the protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness reveals a preoccupation with subjectivity, perception and the ‘other’.

The fact that ‘Ai’ and ‘eye’ are homophones is no coincidence. Genly Ai functions as the ‘eyes’ of the Ekumen, observing the Gethenians. Furthermore, although Ai states that ‘The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone’, he has selected all of the elements of the novel – it is ultimately experienced through his eyes.

Of course, ‘Ai’ also sounds like the word ‘I’. The novel is a personal tale of Ai’s life-altering experiences on Gethen. His own self-image changes during his travels with Estraven, to the extent that his Ekumen colleagues appear like ‘a troupe of great, strange animals’ in comparison to gender-neutral Gethenians.

Many Gethenians deny Genly Ai’s status. He encounters scepticism about the existence of worlds beyond Gethen and is labelled a liar and a ‘pervert’ due to his physiognomy. Ai’s name (‘I’) functions as a protest that he should be considered equal and capable of independent opinion.

However, no Gethenian makes this linguistic connection. When Estraven initially enquires about Ai’s name he perceives the sound differently. He hears in the answer ‘a cry of pain from a human throat across the night’, illustrating instead his own fear of the alien ‘other’.

The reason is not just that Gethen is isolated. Karhide and Orgoreyn are locked in a cold war, without contact, struggling for domination without war. In the same way that Gethen sees itself as alone in the galaxy, both realms refuse to cooperate with each other. As far as each is concerned, they alone are ‘I’, holding out against the ‘other’.

In short, Genly Ai’s name acknowledges that he is a reader surrogate, but also serves a narrative purpose, highlighting the conflict with characters that he encounters.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 09 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 3

Nostalgia in The Martian Chronicles


In The Martian Chronicles, we are told that the colonists arrive ‘with small dreams or big dreams or none at all’. However, throughout the stories Bradbury suggests that the motivating factors for many characters are nostalgia and the clarity of early memories.

In ‘The Third Expedition’, John Black is easily tricked by the Martian’s use of his own memories to populate the town. When he sees his parents, he ‘[runs] up the steps like a child to meet them’. His unquestioning acceptance may be difficult to understand at first, but throughout the stories Bradbury shows that each group of colonists yearns for reminders of its past. Although Anna LaFarge in ‘The Martian’ says of her dead son Tom, ‘He’s been dead so long now, we should try to forget him and everything on Earth’, she and her husband perpetuate the illusion that the Martian is Tom in order to cling on to their nostalgic memories. Similarly, in ‘The Long Years’, Hathaway eases his isolation by creating robot versions of his family.

Nostalgia also fuels other aspects of the characters’ psyches. Father Peregrine’s memories of fire balloons fuels his evangelical religious convictions. In ‘Way in the Middle of the Air’, Samuel Teece’s memories of night-time attacks on black people involve ‘laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old’s’.

Many characters demonstrate that their ambitions extend only to a recreation of familiar Earth occupations. For example, the luggage-store owner states, ‘We came up here to get away from things’, yet his job selling luggage to people returning to Earth is regressive. Sam Parkhill, in ‘The Off Season’, has travelled to Mars only to set up a hot dog stand.

Bradbury shows us that the visitors to Mars, like European colonists of America, are not searching for a new world, but rather a safe place to recreate their own past.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 08 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian canals

Martian canals

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vision of Mars in A Princess of Mars [1] owes a debt to Percival Lowell’s astronomical observations, but itself propagated a specific image of the planet in the public consciousness.

In 1895, Percival Lowell published Mars [2], a summary of his observations of the planet. His descriptions of Martian ‘canals’ were influenced by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s references to ‘canali’ [3 – see image], more properly translated as ‘channels’ or ‘gullies’. The concept of Martian canals, in this and Lowell’s later works [4], fuelled many people’s belief that Mars was an inhabited, ruined world.

Burroughs, who was aware of Lowell’s theories, included ‘the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers’ in his vision of Mars. The canals have primary importance in the novel, controlled by the red Martians and the source of conflict between the races of the planet. Extrapolating from Lowell’s vision of a ruined world, Burroughs introduced Atmosphere Plants, combating the environmental threat of extinction of life. In his descriptions of ‘arid and semi-arid land’, ‘ruined edifices of the ancient city’ and ‘partially ruined towers of ancient Thark’, Burroughs aligned John Carter’s observations to Lowell’s popularly-believed findings.

While Lowell did influence other writers at the time of the publication of his work, including H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds [5], it was Burrough’s Barsoom series that proved the greater catalyst for the public perception of Mars. The concept of Martian canals remains popular today, as well as being a staple in literary depictions of the planet. Canals appear in The Martian Chronicles [6] by Ray Bradbury, who ‘admired Burrough’s Martian tales because they were romantic and moved the blood as much as the mind’ [7]. Many writers who later became prominent science-fiction authors were similarly influenced at an early age by Burroughs’s vision of Mars.

[1] Edgar Rice Burroughs – A Princess of Mars (1917)
[2] Percival Lowell – Mars (1895)
[3] Historical map of planet Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1888)
[4] Percival Lowell – Mars and Its Canals (1906)
[5] H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds (1898)
[6] Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)
[7] Aaron Parrett, Introduction: Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Martian Tales Trilogy, Barnes and Noble edition (2006)

Submitted to Coursera as essay 07 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5

Religion in H.G. Wells’s stories

Country of the BlindDoctor MoreauH.G. Wells’s story, The Country of the Blind, and novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, offer a critique of the function of religion in society.

In The Country of the Blind, Nunez encounters an isolated community whose inhabitants are blind. His descriptions of the sense of sight, and objects he sees around him, are dismissed by the inhabitants. Their proof – that they believe to be incontrovertible – is a religious explanation. The religious origin story is centred around touch, including the belief that above them is a ‘cavern roof […] exquisitely smooth to the touch’.

Nunez’s facility of sight allows him to dispute the beliefs, but he is unable to convince the population of their error. Their conviction, and his love for Medina-saroté, almost leads him to agree to be blinded. The story ends with Nunez high in the mountains, looking at ‘the illimitable vastness of the sky’. His own understanding of the truth is preferable to accepting a false religious doctrine.

In The Island of Doctor Moreau, the creatures have adopted Moreau’s initial prohibitions as doctrine. ‘The Law’ is a series of rules, some humanist (‘Not to chase other Men’) and some for Moreau’s own purposes (‘Not to eat fish’ is arguably morally arbitrary, but Moreau wishes to avoid them becoming carnivorous).

Once again, our narrator, Prendick, is in a position to witness the folly of a new religious code. His outsider status allows him to see that the Law, and the deification of Moreau as creator (‘His is the Hand that makes’), is a method for the creatures to rationalise the world and their own existence.

In both tales, Wells suggests that organised religion can arise in any closed community to explain the world and humanity’s function within it. Furthermore, the narratives illustrate that these deeply-held convictions can be misleading and potentially dangerous without being balanced by reason and open-minded observation.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 06 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Art versus life in Hawthorne and Poe

Butterfly etchingPoe’s The Oval Portrait and Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful both illustrate the Romantic artist’s preoccupation of art in favour of everyday life, but reach very different conclusions.

In Poe’s story, a painter’s portrait of his wife consumes him. Initially the painting is a tribute to the real woman, ‘proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her’. Becoming ever more obsessed with the painting in favour of the woman, on completion he remarks ‘This is indeed Life itself!’, only to see that his wife has died.

There are many similarities between Poe’s story and Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful. Like Poe’s painter, Owen Warland dedicates himself to ‘putting spirit into machinery’, to the detriment of his profession and relationships. After shunning his would-be sweetheart Annie Hovenden, he loses touch with the outside world. When he has finally created the mechanism, Annie is married and has a child.

Whereas Poe’s story is a straightforward indictment of favouring art over life, Hawthorne’s story is more complex. Initially, butterflies symbolise to Warland a ‘beautiful idea’ that he aspires to mimic with machinery. When he succeeds, the mechanism is, to all intents and purposes, a butterfly. Whether or not he is its creator has become irrelevant: he now appreciates the majesty of the real butterfly. When the butterfly is crushed by Annie’s wilful child, Warland – who created the box showing an image of a boy in pursuit of a butterfly – understands that the search for the beautiful is itself the ‘beautiful idea’.

There is a striking difference between the stories. Poe suggests that favouring art over life results in the loss of corporeal treasures, leading to despair. While Hawthorne’s story supports this incompatibility of approaches, it suggests that pursuing an artistic ideal is a noble undertaking, with transcendent rewards.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 05 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Frankenstein and communication

Frankenstein frontJohn Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, describes the newly-formed mind as a tabula rasa or blank slate: ‘white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas’, and states that all knowledge derives from experience. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley suggests that, as well as experience, the ability to communicate is crucial to understanding.

Frankenstein’s creature is initially rational but struggles to order his thoughts:A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time’. When he deduces that the sounds that the De Lacey family make are a method of communication, he describes speech as a ‘godlike science’. He masters language and reading, which he describes as a ‘wonder and delight’.

Later, the creature describes his main obstacle as the inability to communicate in the manner he would wish. He tells Victor Frankenstein, ‘I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love’. Failing to communicate with ordinary townfolk or with Frankenstein himself, the creature insists that he be provided with a female creature, the only possible companion with whom he may communicate without inspiring fear.

Shelley’s novel is defined by communication. Robert Walton’s letters to his sister form a framing device, but the tale within is transcribed from Victor Frankenstein’s own storytelling. In turn, parts of Frankenstein’s narrative are transcriptions of the creature’s own experiences. Therefore, the novel is dependent on placing trust on each storyteller in turn. Without each character’s ability to communicate fully and clearly, there could be no story.

The subtitle of the novel, ‘The Modern Prometheus’, refers to the theft of the Gods’ fire for human use. One could argue that the ‘fire’ in Frankenstein is not only the life that Frankenstein gives to his creature, but also the ability to communicate.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 04 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5

Images of weather in Dracula

Whitby abbey

In Dracula, images of weather associate Count Dracula with the forces of nature and build in intensity as he gains strength.

Initially, the unseasonal, ‘late-lying’ snow in Transylvania creates a muted effect like a ‘white blanket’ upon the land. Jonathan Harker’s coach ride is described as ‘a boat tossed on a stormy sea’, prefiguring the Demeter’s arrival in Whitby. Within the castle, Harker’s remarks on the ‘wind [that] breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements’. When Dracula interrupts the preying female vampires, Harker experiences the Count ‘as if lapped in a storm of fury’, linked to the forthcoming Whitby scene.

The day of the Demeter’s arrival in Whitby is ‘marked by myriad clouds of every sunset colour’ but with dark areas of ‘colossal silhouettes’. These images create a feverish backdrop to Dracula’s arrival. The description of the Demeter’s approach is filled with imagery linked to the Count’s threatening status: ‘dead calm, a sultry heat, and that prevailing intensity’. After appearing to the crew during a rainstorm, Dracula creates the ‘tempest’ which accompanies his arrival, producing an ‘onrushing mist’ which be later recalled during his physical transformation into a ‘pillar of cloud’.

Before Lucy is attacked by Dracula on the hilltop, the sky is clear with a bright full moon. As Mina sees Dracula, ‘heavy black, driving clouds’ obscure her view, mirroring Lucy’s swooning confusion.

At the end of the novel, snow at first reflects Dracula’s power over the elements (‘The wind came now in fierce bursts, and the snow was driven with fury’), but as the group of vampire-hunters  gain the upper hand, the snowfall recedes. Finally, the settled snow represents a return to the calmness of the beginning of the story and represents cleanliness and purity. Quincey, seeing that Mina’s scar has disappeared, says, ‘The snow is not more stainless than her forehead!’

Submitted to Coursera as essay 03 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 3 / Content 2.5

Alice’s struggle for identity in Wonderland

Alice big

Alice struggles to maintain her identity during her adventures in Wonderland, and it is only when she has fully established her identity that she is able to leave.

Soon after arriving in Wonderland, Alice speaks to herself (‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that!’). We learn that she is fond of ‘pretending to be two people’, demonstrating an already tenuous grip on her own identity.

Alice’s changes in size further challenge her self-image. She asks herself, ‘was I the same when I got up this morning?’ and goes on to question whether she might, in fact, be another child. Both the changing body-image and reliance on whether ‘I know all the things I used to know’ show that she values external indicators of self, rather than having a hold on her identity.

Other characters challenge Alice’s identity, and she struggles to establish herself. In response to the Caterpillar’s question she replies, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning’. As before, she considers changes to her personality and body to have been imposed upon her from external sources.

Similarly, when the White Rabbit mistakes her for his maid, Mary Ann, Alice nevertheless complies with his commands. The Pigeon insists that she is a serpent, using mistaken logical arguments to prove his case and Alice is forced to defend her identity.

The arc of the story follows Alice’s growing certainty of her identity. When she first meets the Queen of Hearts she is only tentatively sure of herself: ‘My name is Alice, so please your Majesty’. In the final courtroom scene Alice scoffs at the jurors who write down their names in case they forget them (‘Stupid things!’), identifies herself clearly (‘”Here!” cried Alice,’) and then leaves Wonderland with the realisation, ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 02 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Punishment of spouses in Grimms’ tales

Clever Else

In Grimms’ tales, the perceived incompetence of a spouse is punished with a loss of identity and abandonment. This recurring theme indicates the concerns of a contemporary readership.

In ‘Clever Else’ and ‘Fred and Kate’, the husband’s worldview predominates. Both stories begin with the expectations of the new husband. Hans is assured that Else ‘does not want for brains’ but insists that she must also be ‘careful’; Fred entrusts Kate with specific tasks in readiness for his return.

The perceived failing of both wives is to approach life imaginatively rather than practically. Else’s forebodings about potential injuries to a hypothetical child at first impress others. Kate’s misfortunes are also a result of foresight, as she tries to perform multiple tasks at once.

Both stories end in the same way: after sleeping in a field the wild imagination of both Else and Kate lead each to mistrust her own identity. Hans and Fred each insist that their wife is already at home and so the true wives are abandoned, having lost their identities.

Grimm FishermanSimilarly, ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ depicts a wife whose ambition opposes her husband’s practicality. Her granted wishes come with new identities of king, emperor and pope. These identities are ultimately stripped from her as punishment for imaginative greed, and she is returned to her original identity.

The stories suggest differing moral lessons to apply to different contemporary readers. While women are expected to aspire to be supportive wives, contemporary male readers would recognise a perceived need to reward a wife’s practicality and to prevent imaginative approaches that may lead to disaster. The stripping of identity and the abandonment of both Else and Kate may be seen as male wish-fulfilment fantasies, punishing wayward spouses. While the fisherman’s wife is not physically abandoned, the husband’s expression in Walter Crane’s tailpiece illustration makes clear that she has been shunned.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 01 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2