Saturday, April 28, 2007

Virginia Tech Blame Game

Virginia TechWhile most people respond to a tragedy like Virginia Tech with shock and sadness, a contemptible few immediately react by claiming the event as strained support for their pet political theories. Two particularly shameful examples from the past week are pertinent to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genre community. They come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but should be offensive to all rational readers regardless of their politics.

The first is a long letter to Locus Online posted there on April 21. It is a bizarre, paranoid rant by Marleen Barr, who once taught at Virginia Tech and fancies herself a pre-eminent feminist science fiction critic. In Barr’s view, Cho Seung-Hui’s killing spree was a misguided but understandable reaction to the intolerable lack of diversity at Virginia Tech and the infuriating existence of George W. Bush.

Barr explains that Cho selected his first victim to make a statement about sexism at Virginia Tech: “I think that Cho Seung-Hui picked a female to be his first victim in order to make a statement about how Tech responds to that which is Other in relation to white male patriarchy. He knew that one shot dead female would be treated as, well, ‘just’ one shot dead female. No need to shut down the campus.” (Never mind that the other dorm victim, Ryan Clark, was male.) Cho then purposefully targeted only minority faculty for his shooting spree, as a peculiar form of backlash against the lack of diversity on campus. (To make this theory fly, Barr ignores Kevin Granata and assigns Jamie Bishop to an unorthodox minority: German teachers with long hair.) All the white students Cho shot simply “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

How the President is responsible for all this is unclear, but Barr feels the need to mention Bush and members of his administration by name a dozen times in her letter – all the while using the annoying rhetorical tactic of denying she is saying what she is saying even as she says it: “I will presently refrain from comparing the Cho Seung-Hui gun-in-hands hyper-masculine action hero image to that of the theatrical spectacle of Bush on the aircraft carrier.” (In the words of Inigo Montoya, that word “refrain,” I do not think it means what you think it means.) Barr’s best moment is where she points out that Bush once served turkey to soldiers in Iraq and a Hokie, the Virginia Tech mascot, is a castrated turkey. Her point is entirely obscure, but hell, it sounds anti-Bush, so that’s all good.

Barr’s theories are not just nutty, they are vicarious terrorism. She seizes on an atrocity that someone else has committed and assigns blame to whatever it is about society that she dislikes. It is every bit as wrong-headed and offensive as when Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on feminists and gays.

The second comes from Mary Grabar, a conservative columnist at, who teaches English at someplace called Clayton State University. In an April 24 column titled “The making of a mass murderer--In english class,” Grabar attributes Cho’s murderous rampage to the fact that he took a class in horror literature and film at Virginia Tech. She wonders whether this directly caused the massacre, implying that Cho learned how to commit murder by watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in class (if only he had – he would have killed fewer people using a chainsaw). Even if not, she asserts that this class reflects an educational system that wastes time on unworthy topics and weakens students by undermining their moral resolve and religious beliefs, with the natural end result of an “egotistical, narcissistic, soulless, anti-Christian, anti-authority, anti-hero” like Cho Seung-Hui.

Poking around on the Internet, I managed to find the course description for this class in Contemporary Horror (scroll down to English 3984). Alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Stephen King, the course covers Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom Grabar dismisses as “titillating ephemera” beneath the dignity of a legitimate English course. The course description does not explicitly indicate that Professor Stevens would take course time to “scoff at the notion of original sin,” but Grabar is quite confident he did.

How sad it is that someone who teaches college-level English cannot imagine how the tools of literary analysis might apply to anything more recent than Shakespeare and Chaucer – although the Virginia Tech course guide also lists classes on Shakespeare and Chaucer. (I’ll “refrain” from mentioning the hypocrisy that Grabar teaches Poe in her own American literature class or that she wrote her PhD dissertation about some hokey modern sci-fi writer named Pynchon.)

Ironically, Grabar describes great literature as that which “engages us in moral questions.” But there is no contemporary branch of literature as closely concerned with raising moral questions and confronting evil than horror fiction. One could not get far into many of the books covered in the Virginia Tech course, such as The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates or the graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore, without considering serious and important moral issues. It is a shame that Cho did not learn from the moral issues in these authors’ works, but then neither has Mary Grabar, so if you see her coming toward you, best dive for cover.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Gunning for the Buddha by Michael Jasper

Gunning for the Buddha - cover art by Jamie BishopIn honor of Jamie Bishop, one of the victims of last week's massacre at Virginia Tech, the Book of the Week is Gunning for the Buddha (2005), a collection of short stories by Michael Jasper. While Michael Jasper is a promising author who writes in a variety of styles and genres -- he even recently published a paranormal romance under the pseudonym Julia C. Porter -- the reason Gunning for the Buddha is our Book of the Week is the book's striking cover art by Jamie Bishop.

Jamie Bishop, son of SF writer Michael Bishop, was an artist and illustrator when he wasn't busy with his German classes at Virginia Tech. The cover of Gunning for the Buddha is an example of Bishop's preferred medium of digital art. His web site described the process of creating this image in collaboration with Michael Jasper, showing the various ideas they considered and discarded before arriving at this cover: -> 10 images for Gunning for the Buddha cover art

Media reports always emphasize the number of casualties from a tragedy such as the Virginia Tech massacre, but like each of the victims, Jamie Bishop was not a number, he was a human being with friends, relatives, talents, hopes, and aspirations. His needless death is a terrible loss for all of us.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop

Brittle InningsThe Book of the Week is Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop, in tragic observance of the massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday.

Michael Bishop is a two-time Nebula Award winner and nine-time Hugo Award nominee. Brittle Innings, a coming-of-age novel about a teenaged baseball player in the minor leagues during World War II, which sneaks in a memorable science fiction element halfway through, is my personal favorite of Bishop's works. It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 1994. Michael Bishop is widely known as one of the most soft-spoken, gracious, and humble personalities in the science fiction community. By all accounts, his son Jamie possessed the same qualities.

Michael Bishop's son, Christopher "Jamie" Bishop, was a talented digital artist who had done the cover art for several recent books. A portfolio of his artwork is available at his website -> Memory39. I do not own any books with Jamie Bishop cover art, but I will try to obtain one for next week's Book of the Week.

In addition to his artwork, Jamie Bishop taught German at Virginia Tech. He was teaching yesterday morning when a gunman entered his classroom in Norris Hall, shot and killed Bishop, and reportedly then shot all but four of Bishop's students. These students were among approximately 32 killed and 15 wounded in yesterday's attack.

Jamie Bishop was 35 years old. He is survived by his wife Stephanie Hofer, who also teaches German at Virginia Tech but was not in Norris Hall when the attack occurred. The Los Angeles Times has a profile of Jamie Bishop at its website (free registration required): -> L.A. Times Jamie Bishop profile.

Please remember the Bishop family, and all of the victims of the senseless killings at Virginia Tech, in your thoughts and prayers.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Jackie Robinson: My Own Story

Jackie RobinsonThis Sunday, Major League Baseball will mark the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier. In honor of the occasion, the Book of the Week is Jackie Robinson: My Own Story by Jackie Robinson & Wendell Smith, foreword by Branch Rickey. This rare book was published by Avon in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson began his major league career. This book has no discernible connection to science fiction, but I had to acquire it as a loyal UCLA alumnus.

Years before Robinson broke into major league baseball, he was BMOC at UCLA. Oddly enough, baseball was his weakest sport at UCLA. He was far better known for his exploits in football (he led the nation with absurd averages of 12 yards per carry and 20 yards per punt return) and basketball (he was twice the leading scorer in the Pacific Coast Conference). He was also a star in track & field, a sport he learned to love watching his brother Mack, who won a silver medal in the 200-yard dash at the 1936 Olympics (finishing behind only the legendary Jesse Owens). Robinson was the first UCLA student to earn letters in four different sports.

After leaving UCLA in 1941, Jackie Robinson briefly played semiprofessional sports, which were integrated on the West Coast at the time, until he was inducted into the Army. He was one of the first African-Americans to become an Army officer through Officer's Candidate School (an opportunity he purportedly received through the intervention of heavyweight champion Joe Louis), but he never fought overseas because he was court-martialed for refusing an order to go to the back of an Army bus. He was ultimately acquitted and later honorably discharged, after the Army determined that the order was contrary to Army policy and Lt. Robinson was justified in defying it. From the Army, Robinson went back to sports, competing in semipro football and Negro League baseball, where he was spotted by a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1945, visionary Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a professional contract, after first obtaining Robinson's solemn oath to forbear for three years from retaliating against any of the racial bigotry he would inevitably face, a promise Robinson kept for exactly three years.

One of the UCLA Athletic Department's greatest sources of pride (along with its 99 NCAA championships, most of any school) is its role in the racial integration of society. UCLA operated a color-blind athletic department from the time the school was founded in 1919. Few people realize that Ralph Bunche, the first black winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, went to UCLA on an athletics scholarship before distinguishing himself even more for his academics, graduating valedictorian of his class in 1927.

While Jackie Robinson is rightly celebrated for breaking baseball's color barrier, not so many remember that his former teammate at UCLA, Kenny Washington, broke the NFL's color barrier. Indeed, because Robinson had to spend a year in the minor leagues before playing for the Dodgers, Kenny Washington actually donned a big-league uniform first, in 1946. The second black player in the modern era of the NFL was another Bruin, Woody Strode, who went on to have a successful acting career. Washington and Strode got the opportunity to play in the NFL when the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, because the commissioners of the Los Angeles Coliseum insisted that the team be integrated. The Coliseum was apparently embarrassed to host an all-white team, since L.A. was well accustomed to integrated football teams, largely thanks to the successes of Washington, Strode, and Jackie Robinson, both with UCLA and with the local semipro teams, the Los Angeles Bulldogs and the Hollywood Bears.

None of the three men who broke the color barrier in the NBA in 1950 was from UCLA, but Bruin Don Barksdale was the first African-American basketball player to play for the U.S. Olympic team and the first to play in the NBA All-Star Game, in 1948 and 1953, respectively. In 1968, UCLA tennis great Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open to become the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament. Ashe remains the only black man to win the U.S. Open, Wimbledon (defeating fellow Bruin Jimmy Connors in the finals), and the Australian Open. (Yannick Noah is the only black man to win the French Open, for which we try to forgive his son his annoying tantrums on the basketball court.)

Jackie Robinson: My Own Story is a digest-format book, a bit larger than an ordinary paperback and held together merely with staples rather than glue. Several publishers experimented with this format in the 1940's and 50's, before thankfully abandoning it. We will return to science fiction next week with the most rare digest book in my collection.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle by Michael Moorcock

The Great Rock 'n' Roll SwindleThe Book of the Week is The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, a bizarre punk rock novel published by Virgin Records and written by science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock.

This original 1980 printing of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle was issued in an unusual 11" x 14" format, like a tabloid newspaper. It was printed in connection with the film of the same title about the punk rock group the Sex Pistols, and contains multiple photos of Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, and the other Pistols.

Michael Moorcock was one of the leading voices of the "New Wave" of science fiction in the 1960's and remains an important figure in the SF/F field to this day. But Moorcock was a musician even before finding success as an author, and he remained involved with the music industry for many years. He wrote several songs for Blue Oyster Cult and collaborated extensively with the band Hawkwind.

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is supposedly a novelization of the film, which gave Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's skewed view of the punk rock phenomenon. Moorcock, however, was contemptuous of McLaren and took significant liberties with the book version, weaving the story into the ongoing chronicles of his own multifaceted recurring character Jerry Cornelius. After this tabloid edition, the book had a small print run in paperback, but remains probably the most obscure entry in Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series.

From music, next week we will make a quick foray into sports, this time with no SF connection at all.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

2007 Hugo Awards nominees for best novel

Blindsight, Peter Watts (Tor)
Eifelheim, Michael Flynn (Tor)
Glasshouse, Charles Stross (Ace)
His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik (Ballantine Del Rey; Voyager as Temeraire)
Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge (Tor)