SF Writing

I think Buzz Lightyear captured the issue:

Buzz_LightyearBeyond infinity; that’s the issue. A funny, sarcastic line that is suggestive that some, maybe a lot, of science fiction writing ….. sucks. I’ve embarked on this little project to read SF looking for examples of “post-literacy” (examples of literacy practices that extend current practices or are wholly new; it’s background work for the PhD I’m undertaking).

I started with a (“the”) classic, Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was brilliant in every dimension; story, concepts, writing. Then I moved on to some others including Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End),  Walter Miller Jr. (A Canticle for Leibowitz), and Robert Heinlein (A Stranger in a Strange Land). Yikes. Some interesting ideas but the writing is poor (if not horrible in some cases).

I know I’ve still got lots to read and will undoubtedly find some good writers along the way. I’ve just started to re-read Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984) and it is has startling and wonderfully written as I remember it many years ago. Review to follow soon.

Hope springs eternal.


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Stranger in a Strange Land

On my copy of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Ace Book, 1987) the cover boldly announces the book as “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written.” OK, but what does it have to tell us about post-literacy?

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


About a human, Valentine Michael Smith, born and raised on Mars as a Martian and now brought to Earth possessing exceptional abilities and a rock star status, Stranger starts well and then drifts off into a thin gruel of libertarianism, spirituality, and social commentary. The characters are cartoons and the writing about women and about sexuality is especially juvenile. Having said that, if you really want to read a real turkey from Heinlein try Starship Troopers. Clearly I’m no fan.

But Stranger in a Strange Land, for all its faults, created one of the most powerful and enduring ideas relevant to my exploration of post-literacy: grokking. The intense connection and deep understanding enabled through grokking is an archetype for what a more profound human interaction could be:

“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.” Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

Part telepathy, part Vulcan mind-meld, part immersion, part collective conscious, part epiphany; this is powerful stuff indeed.

A very important aspect of Smith’s grokking is that he learned to do it. Smith is a human not a native Martian; this ability was acquired, presumably through education, training, and example. Other characters in the novel learn to grok, although with lesser success. Clearly, we too can learn to grok; this capability and capacity is within human reach.

While grokking and the word “grok” are used repeatedly throughout Stranger (and by repeatedly I mean ad nauseam) it’s surprising that the affect of grokking is poorly articulated. We get the idea of grokking and its intellectual implications, but the emotional, holistic impact is missing.

For a much more convincing rendering of grokking I recommend “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl”, a short story by Kathleen Ann Goonan (which I wrote about here).

The other literacy practice of interest in Stranger is the nature and affect of the Martian language. It is difficult to master and is described as completely antithetical to English. However it seems to inculcate a telepathic capability in the user. The language brings with it other capabilities (or releases other innate abilities).This isn’t explored much, and it seems light weight and even unnecessary given the more powerful ability to grok. Why use language if you can grok?

Because “grok” has entered mainstream usage (in particular in the coding community), it has lost some of its profound implications. It isn’t just a matter of knowing something; it is a deep and holistic understanding that touches the core of one’s being.

I just wish Heinlein had imagined a more appealing word to describe it. Grok. Yuck.


Robert A. Heinlein. Stranger in a Strange Land (New York: Ace Book, 1987). First published in 1961.

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Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris was originally published in 1961 in Polish. Apparently the English translations have been poor until Bill Johnston issued his e-book only version in 2013.

Solaris is part of the “alien contact” theme that is prominent in science fiction. In terms of my interest, the novel explores what happens when intelligences (human and alien) try to understand each other. What literacy practice will they use?

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


Alien encounters are really only of interest to me when they reveal something about a post-literate future. And Solaris does this in a very interesting and compelling way.

The alien in question is a vast ocean on a remote planet. A sentient “plasmic machine” that communicates (thinks) in physical manifestations of itself. The attempts throughout the book for each to understand the other (alien to human; human to alien) are complete failures.

What if we meet an advanced society, but we have nothing to talk about. Or at least no way to talk about it.

One of the possibilities for post-literacy (and I know it’s weird, stay with me), is that it will be brought to us by advanced societies (i.e. aliens). Solaris provides us with that encounter but it leaves us with the profound conclusion that neither party will understand the other. To the frustration of both, communications will fail, misunderstandings will occur, and the opportunity to connect will be squandered.

Unlike the standard sci-fi trope that humans can’t understand the aliens, it is quite clear in Solaris that the alien doesn’t understand humans. The ocean makes all sorts of stumbles in its attempt to make intelligent contact. And this is especially surprising since it can probe our minds.

The “language” of the ocean is comprised of many physical transformations (“mimoids”, “G-formations”, “extensors”, and others) forming an extensive physical vocabulary and grammar. A language that represent ideas, statements …. something (because frankly we don’t know what it really means). The ocean is “a geometric symphony, but if this is the case, we are its unhearing audience” (location 1964).

Making ideas physical (corporal/embodied) is most dramatic when the narrator’s wife, who committed suicide some years earlier, appears on the station and interactions (somewhat successful) with the narrator (Kelvin; interestingly, an allusion to unit of measure with a connection to water). The dead wife has been “incorporated” by the ocean by probing Kelvin’s mind. Things do not go well.

Both parties make attempts normal to their own intelligence and literacy practices; both parties fail miserably and, in some cases, tragically. As Kelvin says “Contact means an exchange of experiences, concepts, or at least results, conditions. But what if there’s nothing to exchange?” (location 2414)

Advanced intelligence is not a linear capacity; we don’t simply evolve along some continuum. Intelligence is constructed within a specific context; a context that may simply be unavailable to the other.

If some of us acquired a post-literate capacity or capability (i.e. sufficient to displace or replace alphabetic literacy) it may be that those with this ability would be incomprehensible to those without it.


Stanislaw Lem. Solaris. Translated by Bill Johnston. Krakow: 2013. Originally published in 1961.

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) is a novel of its time; locked, sadly, in its time.

Written during the developing Cold War when nuclear annihilation through mutual destruction seemed close to inevitable, this is a book about persistence in an endless cycle of birth, annihilation, and rebirth.

What does this book have to say about post-literacy? A bit.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


The central conceit of the book is the veneration of the “Memorabilia”, textual detritus from the “pre-Deluge” age (literally shopping lists, manuals, blueprints for machines, etc.). A religious order preserves these (along with books memorized and others buried in kegs by “bookleggers”) believing them to be critical messages to inform and direct the return of civilization.

As the many centuries unfold these texts move from being inscrutable, to manuals for the rebirth of ideas, and finally to relics to be preserved once again (this time in a space colony) in the face of the virtual annihilation of Earth.

Literacy. Persistence. Preservation. Ideas. Truth. Faith. Commitment.

Lots of themes central to the idea of reading and writing as a core element of civilization (and of illiteracy has the mark of barbarism in times of “simplification”).

Lots of Latin too.

And surely that’s the biggest clunker in the book: the inexplicable persistence of Latin as the language of the Church into the far distant centuries. It seems as odd and unlikely as the use of shorthand in Clarke’s Childhood’s End (more on that here).

As a canticle to literacy and the power of reading and writing, Leibowitz is bloated and pedantic. While I’m likely oblivious or insensitive the larger religious messages of the novel, I’m not persuaded by the book that literacy holds the enduring power Miller ascribes to it.


Walter M Miller Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam, 2007. (Originally published in 1959).

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I just posted this on Twitter:

If you know me, you are probably saying to yourself: “He’s of a *certain* age, what the hell is he thinking?”

Good question.

My not-so-good answer is simple: I’m interested in exploring the future of literacy (i.e. post-literacy) in a more formal, structured, and research-based way. A PhD program, and all the aspects around it, will give me that opportunity.

And, frankly, it’s an adventure. Who doesn’t want that?!

I’m not kidding myself. A PhD is going to be a huge challenge for me. I’m going to have to up my game to stay with it. But I’m very excited and hugely motivated by all those I consulted about making this decision. Thanks to you all.

So, follow my progress, or lack thereof. I’ll likely post, tweet, write, talk, and generally bore you to no end about it all. Sorry. Kinda.


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Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl

“Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” is a short story by Kathleen Ann Goonan published in the  intriguing collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014).

The main focus of the story is about the importance of literacy, neural plasticity, and individualized learning. Oddly it actually makes a good case for post-literacy instead.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


Set ~200 years in the future but reflecting on experiences 100 years prior to that, the story begins by noting that “in the early twenty-first century illiteracy was classified as a public health problem” (p. 40).

Alia learns about her grandmother’s path from dyslexia (and resulting illiteracy) to advanced literacy through a newly invented “learning neurobiologic” call OPEN ROAD (p. 49) which “accelerates the process of learning to read for everyone” (p. 61). The quest is for universal literacy (p. 67). Against all odds Melody, the grandmother, learns to read and becomes a mentor for others. Heartwarming.

All well and good but Alia, herself quite literate, does not learn about this from reading or even from hearing Melody talk about it. Rather she learns about it through a “grok.” Most of the story is the description of what happens during that grok.

Grok: “Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.” Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

The grok is a total immersion experience where Alia fully and deeply understands the ideas and feelings of her grandmother. As Alia herself says, the grok provides an intimacy and awareness “like reading words … but a lot more powerful” (p. 44). Or, put another way, better than literacy. Bring on the grok.

Here’s how Alia describes the grok being given to her:

“I see that Melody has assembled spheres, which glow in the air like juggling balls, unaffected by the wind. She tosses me a golden sphere, a green sphere, and one that looks like Jupiter, pulsing with many dark swirling colour. I catch them – they feel like northing but a slight tingle – and press them to my chest, where they melt into the interface on my skin. I smile … I close my eyes and grok.” (p. 43).

Incidentally Melody has invented Zebra “a three-dimensional language” (p. 43) which seems to be related to the grok delivery system but is never fleshed out. Too bad.

So, ironically, “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” is a plea for the value and importance of literacy but describes a capability and a set of tools that are clearly more powerful. In the end it is a story about the triumph of post-literacy.


Kathleen Ann Goonan. “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. Edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. New York: William Morrow, 2014, pp. 38-73.

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Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1954) is a classic of science fiction. As is all too often the case with the genre, that doesn’t make it a classic of fiction.

Literary merit aside, Childhood’s End has some fascinating and instructive aspects relating to post-literacy.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


Childhood’s End is centrally about telepathy and collective consciousness (hive minds) but it also has descriptions of total surveillance (with on-demand playback) and synthetic memory.

Some observations:

Telepathy and Hive Minds

The Overlord, Karellen, warns humans about trying to understand or use advanced technologies; those perhaps beyond their capacity to understand: “The gulf between two technologies can easily become so great that it is – lethal” (p. 128). This is the gulf represented by the latent human telepathic powers that the children eventually develop. It is also the gulf between humans (and even the Overlords) and that of the Overmind (the hive mind entity that directs the Overlords).

The Overlords prevented human scientific progress because 21st century scientists were beginning to experiment with psychic powers and were on the verge of unlocking a capacity that was judged (by the Overmind) to be dangerous. It would become “a telepathic cancer” or a “malignant mentality”.

It was clear that the children, once telepathic, are changed, incorporated into the hive mind of the Overmind, and transformed into something beyond human:

“They will not possess minds as you know them. They will be a single entity, as you yourselves are the sums of your myriad cells. You will not think them human, and you will be right” (p. 178).

Becoming telepathic and melding into the hive mind transformations the children into something else. The price of greater insight and knowledge is the loss of the individual self; it is the end of the children as humans.

Synthetic Memory

New Athens, the community of artists and scientists set up to live apart from the Overlords (and with their acquiescence) were working on something called “total identification”. It is a means of synthetic memory “as vivid as any experience in … actual life – indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself.” (p. 142).

Whether the community fully implements “total identification” is unclear. However, working towards it presages the psychic abilities later reflected in the children.

Surveillance and Playback

The Overlords have the capacity to record, and playback, the lives of humans. A sort of global surveillance system with total recall. It is an electronic archive of human activity (although it apparently the capture mode doesn’t work under water).

Visual Language

The Overlords communicate with the Overmind using a visual language of shapes and colours (207). Unfortunately this is only vaguely alluded to but it seems to be a common trope in describing alternative languages.

The Non Sequiturs

There are some delightful non sequiturs.

Despite their great powers and superior technology, when Jan is transported to the Overlord world as a stowaway, he discovers they cannot speak English nor communicate with him in an advanced manner. They end up devolving to a crude sign and pointing language. Seems ridiculous.

However, my favourite jarring inconsistency consists of the the weekly conferences hosted by the Overlords. These are attended by reporters who are denied the use of any electronic equipment (cameras, tape recorders, etc.): “They had to rely on such archaic devices as paper and pencil – and even, incredible to relate, shorthand.” (p.126  emphasis in the original text). Only in an Arthur C. Clarke novel could shorthand survive into a future millennium.

Of course probably the most famous aspect of this book is Clarke’s disclaimer on the colophon: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” The forward to the book, first published in the 1990 edition, “mind-rotting bilge” about much of what his novel centers  on (aliens, psychic powers, etc.).


Arthur C. Clarke. Childhood’s End. New York: Del Rey, 2015. (Original work published in 1954).

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No Woman Born

C.L. Moore was unfamiliar to me as science fiction writer. But her 1944 short story “No Woman Born”, published in Astounding Science Fiction, is well worth finding.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


The basic story is simple. Deirdre, a hugely successful dancer and actress, is all but killed in a tragic theatre fire. Only her brain survives. A new metallic body is made for her and she becomes a cyborg.

C.L. Moore, in a reflection on her work (“Footnote to Shambleau … and Others” p. 367), describes the motivation for the story: “How would being a quasi-robot, no matter how beautiful, affect her thinking and her feeling as a human being?”

As she prepares to re-enter the public realm as a performer, albeit it one in a clearly changed appearance (she has no face for example; it is described as a “smooth, delicately modeled ovoid for her head  … a sort of crescent-shaped mask” (p. 243), there is much anxiety from her creator (Maltzer) and her manager (John Harris) about the reaction she will receive.

The essential questions are: Who is she? Is this new creation Deirdre or someone/something else? Harris, upon seeing her transformed soon declares “she was still Deirdre” (p. 245) and later Deirdre herself echoes this: “This is myself” she said. “Metal – but me.” (p. 250).

Her new body gives her increased flexibility and considerable advantages. She is physically superior in every dimension.

While those around her struggle with her desire to fully enter human life and society, Deirdre repeatedly says “I wonder” reflecting on her new cyborg identity and what that means for her.

Moore, perhaps, is less sure and describes the excited Deirdre as having “the distant taint of metal already in her voice” (p. 288). Can she co-exist within this society or will her “taint” forever alienate her? Like Frankenstein’s creature, she is lonely. But unlike the creature she is convinced of her capacity and its possibilities.

Of post-literate interest here is whether as a result of cyborg changes and prosthetics we remain who were are or become “someone/something else.” Deirdre is different …. and yet the same. But she continually remarks … “I wonder.”


C.L. Moore. “No Women Born” in The Best of C.L. Moore. Edited by Lester Del Ray. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975. 236-288.

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Radio as Pedagogy: The Book Minute

The dramatic rise in popularity of podcasts has demonstrated that radio wasn’t dead, it was just sleeping.

Listening to radio as a learning resource is one thing, but what about making radio as a pedagogical tool?

I’ve been using radio in undergraduate and graduate courses for a number of years (major tip of the hat to the awesome Kelly Jones for her guidance and vision).

podcast-icon-webCreating radio (both terrestrial radio and podcasting are “radio”) draws together a number of academic skills critical to student success: research, writing, presentation skills, team work, collaboration, and community engagement to highlight the most obvious.

A podcast or a live radio assignment can function in the same manner as the research essay does now. And it does so in a way that engages the student in a critical learning experience and excites them by challenging them with something new.

Radio as an assignment reinforces new skills and extends existing skills in a new context.

This semester I’m teaching a First Year Seminar called The Book: From Gutenberg to Gaga to Gone? The focus is about the nature and changing nature of the book and book culture.

For the major assignment in the course the students will create podcasts …. with a twist that makes this a bit more challenging.

The student podcasts will be contributions to a series called The Book Minute (www.TheBookMinute.com). These are 60 second podcasts that focus on a particular aspect of the book.

60 seconds.

This is a major constraint that I think will result in focus, research, creativity, audience awareness, performance, and technology skills. All radio is about storytelling; at the center of these podcasts will be a story, albeit a very short one.

The Book Minute

We start production next week in partnership with CFRU (93.3FM), Guelph’s community radio station. We are fortunate to be able to use their studios. They will be airing The Book Minutes throughout their programming year.

When the students evaluate the course at the end of the semester we will see if they found this pedagogical tool effective or not.

You can evaluate their contributions any time by listening to CFRU or by visiting The Book Minute.



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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (revised edition 1831) is a classic often little read and widely misunderstood because of Hollywood’s corruption of the story. If you’ve only seen the movies, read the book and prepare to be (wonderfully) surprised.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


In post-literate terms, the monster or demon Victor Frankenstein creates is a cyborg, albeit one created from human parts. Exactly how the creature is constructed and how it is reanimated is quite vague in the text.

Of interest to us is the brain and the creature’s intellectual life.

The brain Frankenstein uses is from a corpse but we don’t know how young or old, healthy or diseased.  This is important. How much does the creature “remember” of it’s former life? On the surface, nothing. He (for the creature is a he) is never seems aware of memories from another time.

However, he does manage to learn things quickly. An efficient autodidact, the creature is soon learning language, reading classic texts, and writing notes. His period of apprenticeship is short, his eloquence remarkable, and and his maturity obvious.

Is he drawing on his past or is he a superior being somehow endowed by the reanimation process with extraordinary learning capabilities? We certainly know he possesses physical strength and capabilities beyond normal humans (he scales mountainsides with ease and rows across vast waters in minutes). This is presumably the result of reanimation.

Upon learning, by observing others, the “the science of letters” (note, a science not an art), the creature remarks that this “opened before me a wide field for wonder and delight.” (p. 119). Fortuitously, he finds a bag of books on the ground and begins to read.

A favourite is Milton’s Paradise Lost which the creature reads “as a true history” (p. 129). True perhaps because the creature’s story alludes to that of Satan. The explicit link is made when the creature recalls that “Evil henceforth became my good.” (p. 220) echoing Satan’s “Evil, be thou my good” (Paradise Lost. Line 110).

Milton’s Satan is a fallen angel but one possessed of superior, beyond human, intelligence. Shelly meant us to understand the creature as a superior intellect.

Recall that the subtitle of the novel is “The Modern Prometheus.” The Prometheus myth has two version; in one, largely Greek, he attempts to help mankind and is punished by Zeus (i.e. he is their helper). In the other, largely Roman, he moulds humans from clay (i.e. he is their creator).

If the creature represents science and the superior intellect acquired through science. then a key message in Frankenstein is the power of ideas to manipulate and pervert human life. The hubris of our desire for increased knowledge and capacity is the danger. We are shaped by this.

In exhorting Frankenstein to create a partner for him, the creature says: “You are my creator, but I am your master; – obey!” (p. 167). One can hear in this McLuhan’s seminal observation, “First we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”.

The creature is not post-literate although he possess some degree of enhanced learning and intellectual capacity. He doesn’t remember a former life and the knowledge he had in that life does not inform his current incarnation.

But he is a warning. As Shelley describes, we craft our future and the tools we use have the power to overwhelm us. While post-literacy in my terms must be advantageous, Shelley indicates perhaps the outcome is otherwise.


Mary Shelley. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


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