Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Never Drink...Wine

So...what does a horror and dark fantasy writer do on a blog during the month of October? Hmmm... This month Halloween starts NOW and runs all month long. I'm not promising a daily posting, but I'll do my best. So feel free to visit daily for your Halloween fix. And to start off we'll go....well, where else but Transylvania?

Dracula, that dark metaphor for repressed sexuality, is alive (or undead) and well, staying to the shadowy side of cyberspace. Serious fans of Stoker's count might want to take a day trip to Dracula's Homepage, where you are welcome to enter freely and of your own will. This site, kept by Elizabeth Miller, is a great starting point for the curious or for the serious fan of gothic literature. Whether you want to read about Vlad, the real-life count who supposedly inspired Stoker, or peruse the entire novel, Miller's portal is well and lovingly organized. Dr. Miller, according to her bio, has participated in several documentaries on Dracula and has been interviewed by BBC, ABC ("20/20"), U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, and numerous other media outlets. She has published several articles and books on Dracula, including A Dracula Handbook and Bram Stoker's Dracula: A Documentary Journey into Vampire Country and the Dracula Phenomenon.

What is astonishing is why the vampire, in an age where sexual exploration isn't quite as repressed, has managed to dominate fantasy literature. In the Victorian era, the vampire was, according to a fascinating little article by Stephen Dixon in the Irish Times, a parable for syphilis. Dixon goes on to credit concern over the AIDS virus for the re-emergence of the vampire through the 1980-90's. But what about the pervasive presence of the vampire in our current popular culture? Should we again look toward disease for an answer? Or is it possible that in an age where intimacy seems a difficult state to achieve and where people verbalize feeling a loss of control over their destiny that the vampire is a metaphor for both the elusive relationship and the ability to claim power by taking the darkness and turning it back on the oppressor? I don't suppose there is any one answer, and any discussion regarding the current popularity of the vampire will bring about numerous debates. That's why they created beer, after all, to make such discussion easier to handle.

By the way, for those folk who might be attending my Last Man Standing Trivia Contest at the upcoming Conclave, I promise you a few Dracula questions. Here's one question to mull over, although it probably won't be asked at the convention: "Name ten actors who have played the famous vampire in a theatrically released motion picture....if you consider yourself a real horror fan, try and do this without googling the answer.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Conclave 34

Conclave has been around since 1976. Among its past guests of honor, one can find such luminaries in the realm of science fiction and fantasy as James Gunn, Theodore Sturgeon, Ben Bova, Robert Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak, David Brin, Algis Burgiss, Gene Wolfe, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, Gordon R. Dickson, and Larry Niven. If you don't know these names, then you don't know science fiction and fantasy.

This year, I'll be at Conclave 34, in Romulus, Michigan. No, I'm no guest of honor, but rather a humble contributor to a few panels. However, to be in any way associated with the above personages fills me with excitement. But don't worry, those who come by will find the usual convention fare and a chance to escape for a weekend and join fellow gamers, artisans, writers, and fans of genre. You might even have an opportunity to join in the launch of something tentatively called The Midwest Genre Association. Maybe.

So hopefully, I'll have a chance to see some of you. It will be good to get away from it all for a few hours and share in science fiction and fantasy history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

True Blood....Maybe Next Time

Allow me to step back from all things intellectual for a moment (whew) and instead discuss the second season of TRUE BLOOD, which ended a week ago. Or if you insist on a more intellectual discussion, visit my educational blog...Sternberg's Mind Matter

For those who aren't in the know, TRUE BLOOD is based on the works of Charlaine Harris, specifically books centered around the exploits of female heroine Sookie , a waitress who has the ability to read minds. In the world created by Harris, vampires have stepped out of the closet and are now accepted, somewhat, as part of society. It's dark urban fantasy.

Now, while I haven't read any of Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books, I have read some of her other efforts, and have found them to be extremely entertaining. So when I criticize TRUE BLOOD, as I am about to do now, let me say it's in no way a criticism of Harris.

That being said, the first season of this HBO special was wonderful, and I recommend it to all. You can rent it or buy it. The second season, however, was a muddle. While it started out well, focusing on the kidnapping of a vampire by a religious extremist group, it ended in what can only be described as farce, with the town of Bontempe, Sookie's home, falling under the spell of a supernatural immortal who is intent on sacrificing the local shapeshifter to the god Dionysius. Wait? What???? See what I mean? We started off with this great story about religious extremists and about the social strata of the vampire community and end up with an absurd plotline.
I'm not giving up yet on the series. I'll be there next year and hopefully, it will recapture the tension and darkness of the first year, or even of the first part of the second year. We'll see. Sophomore years are like that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Losing It

Generation X, Meet Generation ADHD

fossilsWe have abrogated responsibility of our children to electronic media, allowing them to suckle for hours at the glass teat, to endlessly mash game controllers, and to wander through the internet with little to no impulse control. We then assuage our collective guilt by claiming this undisciplined intellectual response to be the new literacy. If we can claim that falling reading scores merely indicate a change in HOW children read, we might feel better about ourselves as a society. By all means, let’s test children on their ability to think like a pinball, to pick out the most obvious points in a text, and to reduce communication to its most basic elements. Forget about critical thinking skills developed by deep reading. Let’s abandon a self-disciplined approach to intellectual study. Instead, we can reduce ourselves to our most primary strands of thought and fulfill Taylor’s concept of sacrificing the individual for the system ( warning—at the time Taylor wrote, the system represented sweat shops , child labor, and unbridled exploitation of labor).

In an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr makes makes an interesting case about the affects of prolonged exposure to the internet in his essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“. Carr states: ” When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.” Carr believes, and I agree with him, that ” our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged” with the sort of scanning that most people consider online reading.

At a convention panel in Michigan, Tamora Pierce, a writer of young adult fantasy, during a discussion of declining literacy, embraced the idea that children weren’t reading less, but rather they were reading more online and reading differently. She seemed to feel this move from a traditional reading style was a good thing and that perhaps it was a liberating reaction from the pedagogy where, in her words, children were only being taught to read the works of “old white men.”

If the internet is truly affecting us at a neurological level and if Generation ADHD is losing the ability to remain focused on longer works of literature and to operate at deep levels of thinking, then we need to address this as a society head on and not find ways to accept decline by redefining it to make it palatable.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Freedom To Learn

The following is the most recent posting from Sternberg's Mind Matters

M.I.T. has put its curriculum online. This means that anyone can access all manner of lectures and academic content. Although they can’t get a degree by doing this, for the person interested in self-enrichment or prepping for possible coursework, the opportunity is tremendous.This idea, the spreading of opencourseware, some claim is the future trend of education. Right now numerous universities and high schools have their material online and the cry is for more material to be made available for all. How very egalitarian. Students from districts outside the United States, or adult learners, suddenly have at their fingertips a wealth of information. This is a globalists' dream. Somewhere, Thomas L. Friedman is celebrating.

However, one wonders about the the possible consequences or complications of this trend. Not that I am against the idea, but I suppose there will be a point where the "free" work starts competing or butting heads with public and private universities. Especially if an organization such as P2PU, a peer to peer university were to receive some form of accreditation. While there would always be those wishing the prestige of graduating from an actual university with a physical campus, there are those who would shrug their shoulders and say, "A degree is a degree."
Consider Phoenix University, one of the first distance learnign programs in the U.S.. Initially, those graduating with a Phoenix degree were met with skepticism. At the beginning distance learning was a queer creature and few took it seriously. Now a degree from Phoenix University is met with little if any resistance.

So why not P2PU? Surely there are enough students for all, and one can't imagine that students availing themselves of programs such as P2PU would deprive places like Harvard, Florida State, or the UCLA of a paying student base. And yet, there are always consequences for each social trend or technological development. In the coming years I suspect we'll see court challenges regarding copyright infringement from one side and from the other side, challenges to be eligible for monies that would usually be reserved for phyical institutions and not necessarily those existing in a cyberworld.

I'm not passing judgement. I'm just thinking out loud.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kill Everybody

I'm not one to be controversial. I'll give some of you a moment to quiet down. However, I want to talk about something near and dear to my heart--the apocalypse. I recently had a discussion with another writer. I believe we were gnawing on the concept of zombie novels and apocalyptic fiction. I said: "You know, I have this thing about not killing everyone off. I mean, if we're going to create a character, endow him or her with all these marvelous qualities, and then torture them for the length of a novel. After dragging the character and the reader through all that, don't you think the hero has a right to live?"

The other writer chuckled in a terrifying manner. "Oh no. Kill 'em all."

Well, it is the apocalypse after all. But what does it say when we kill off everyone. If we create a hopeless environment, populated with hopeless people, then where is the tension? And where is the catharsis? How many times can you have Charleton Heston kneeling in the sand and screaming in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty? How many times can you rescue a heroine only to have her claimed in the last second of the film by an unkillable Freddie Kruger? How many times can you paint yourself into a corner, such as Stephen King does in "The Stand" and resolve it with a literal "deus ex machina"? Let's face it, the ending of "The Stand" remains one of the most disappointing and ludicrous resolutions in the history of modern literature.

As a writer of Lovecraftian fiction, I know that no one is going to be able to take down Cthulhu or Azatoth. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to give my character some victory, or my reader some catharsis.

Call me a pushover, but I want my audience to cheer and when they leave the theater or close the book, I want a satisfied smile on their faces.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

New Blog?

I ain't going anywhere. However, I did want to create a second blog for Stewart the Educator. My second blog will deal exclusively with educational matters whether it's school policy, NCLB, content area issues, or politics related to the profession. For a short time I will copy those posts here as well, at least until I can develop a network of educators who will join me. So, from now on "House of Sternberg" remains a writing and all-things-absurd blog, and Sternberg's Mind Matter will be a blog for all things about the field of education.

Below...from Sternberg's Mind Matter. If you're an educator and you want to respond to this post, I welcome you to do so on the other blog. Of course, you're also free to comment here as well.

The Presidential Address

I am fascinated by the response people are having to the president’s announcement that he will make available a ‘pep’ talk on education this coming Tuesday. The concern by some individuals that this is an attempt to further a partisan agenda by attempting to indoctrinate students is a glimmer of a much larger issue —the politicization of education in America, from the left and from the right.

It’s inevitable, I suppose. Teachers have tremendous influence on students, but according to a report done not so long ago, teachers are usually third or fourth in the ranking of influence on students.

The primary influence is, of course, the family. Next, peers (although many studies have shown that as students approach adolescence that the family influence is overshadowed by peer influence). Behind family and peers? Teachers and the clergy come in a close third and fourth, but lag well behind the first and second.

So, given the role of the teacher, it’s not surprising we often become the straw man.

Still, let’s go back to the original issue—the presidential address that has several on the right crying foul. Maybe these individuals should stop and think: who is going to have more influence on their children–the wordy man on TV, whom they will listen to for less than an hour as they fidget in their seats, or the teacher who has them day after day after day?

And even then, the teacher will come in a weak third or fourth. Parents should have little concern for any furtherance of any agenda. It’s been shown that children tend to take on the politics of their parents.

Now, if Obama ever develops a really cool video game, then the right might have cause for concern.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Literary Influence-Another Consideration

I continue to give thought to the concept of literary influences. If I were studying an author and trying to understand what elements came together to help form his literary identity, I suspect it would be a life's work, with many undefined areas and several unsatisfactory answers. Also, ultimately, I suspect it doesn't really matter. Consider how little is known about Shakespeare, for instance, yet the author continues to be a presence in literature.

I think when an author claims someone as being a literary influence, one needs to take that with a grain of salt. Perhaps it's more of a tribute to that author than a true declaration. I believe that an author is the sum of many parts. Family influences, teachers, friends, and life changing experiences probably weigh more heavily on a writer's process of creativity than having read another author's creations.

Here is another suggestion. Perhaps the idea of a literary influence, besides being a form of tribute, is a marketing ruse. If I'm a publisher and I'm doing a second or third run of a Carver title, why not add "Another anthology from one of the most influential short story writers of the last two decades."? Why not?