Teaching Fantasy Class at Oxford

This summer, it will be my honor to cover Dr. Amy Clarke’s regular UC Davis Study Abroad class called Oxford: Portal to Fantasy.

Right now, I’m having a wonderful time revisiting some classics (and reading a few new ones). The course includes the following novels:

  1. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
  2. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. J. R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
  5. Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle
  6. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  7. Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust

My students will be coming from UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UCLA, and Foothill College.

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Steampunk Class Projects

Last quarter, I finished up another section of my UC Davis first-year seminar on Steampunk. Fifteen students came on board to read the VanderMeer’s short story collection, the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel, and watch Wild Wild West and Howl’s Moving Castle.

One of the special projects asks them to design a steampunk character (for a comic, or video game, or other media). I thought I’d share a photo of some of their entries.



This year I had two students who used porcelain-style dolls for their characters. Other submissions included a four-legged “steam sheriff,” a girl balloonist, and an electric-robot version of “The Little Mermaid.”

Overall, the assignment simply asks them to show familiarity with steampunk iconography. Each one comes with a description of the characters, similar to the ones featured for costumes at the Steampunk Emporium.

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There are Two James Gunns, but Nobody’s Confused

James Gunn had two great stories in Asimov’s last month, finishing a string of works he’s published there over the last year, all affiliated with his recent Transcendental series for Tor Books.

Asimov's GUnn

But the author is not the same guy that I wrote about last month who makes movies and is a longtime Replacements fan.

Oddly enough, there are two James Gunns in the world of science fiction.

The one in Asimov’s is a nonagenarian and SFWA Grand Master, a true literary legend. He’s written scores of novels and short stories since the 1950s, and is still writing today. His dystopia about futuristic medicine was turned into a TV series (ABC’s short-lived The Immortal). Oh, and he pretty much invented college-level science fiction instruction as a professor at the University of Kansas.

The other James Gunn is a fortysomething who writes pictures in Hollywood and who directed the best, swellest sci-fi movie you saw in 2014 and its equally fun sequel. He started working at Troma, the place that brought you Toxic Avenger and the like. Clearly, the guy revels in the “so bad it’s good” school of art. (And, as the huge popularity of his Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack proves, he has an omnivorous taste for great pop music, whether sappy, cheezy, or just plain sweet.)

The two Gunns aren’t related, but they have a lot in common.

Both bring a wickedly dark sense of humor to speculative material. Gunn’s novel Kampus (1977) is a twisted take on hippie academia, with a lot of the same over-the-top violence and cringe-worthy sex found in director-Gunn’s awesome movie Super from 2010.

They’re also both Missouri boys, although author-Gunn is from Kansas City and director-Gunn grew up in St. Louis.

The big question: does this confuse anyone? The answer seems to be “no.” I’ve checked the Internet (never known for its lack of complaining) and found no one nonplussed about two James Gunns.

Maybe it’s just the bifurcation of science-fiction fandom. Conventional wisdom says that most of the Comic-con types don’t the read monthly fiction magazines, and the fandom that does follow print media and novel series may not embrace the same material as its popcorn-eating, media-frenzied brethren.

I don’t know if I agree with that summation, but I hear it a lot in SF circles. Make of it what you will.

I enjoy both men’s work though. I count KU’s James Gunn as a mentor and friend. And I enjoyed the hell out of Slither.

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Did Bob Dylan Use Star Trek Dialogue as Lyrics?

Since I wrote my earlier post on The Last Jedi‘s use of Elvis Costello, another famous sci-fi/rock ‘n’ roll connection has been on my mind: a minor incident in Bob Dylan’s career that involves fans thinking he had pilfered Star Trek dialogue for lyrics.

See, back in the ’80s, some people thought Dylan borrowed a few lines from the Star Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos” and used them in his 1985 single “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)”

If you don’t know the song intimately, for Pete’s sake, go watch the video on YouTube now. (It’s a perfect 1980s video; Dylan dresses like Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice, hangs out in neon-soaked Japan, and lip-synchs like nobody’s life depended on it). The video’s kinda-sorta narrative seems to be about someone wrongly accused of murder.


So, where does Star Trek come in? About 36 seconds into the song, when Dylan sings this line:

“I’ll go along with the charade until I can think my way out.”

Star Trek fans–justifiably famous for their dialogue memorization skills–immediately caught this as dialogue from the 1967 episode, “The Squire of Gothos.” In it, the crew deals with a strange being with God-like powers who calls himself Trelane and is obsessed with Earth’s history.  Trapped by Trelane, Sulu asks Kirk how long they should “go along with the charade.” Kirk responds,”Until we can think our way out.”

Was Dylan a closet Star Trek fan?

Turns out, they’re both paying homage to the same source: Humphrey Bogart.  Bogie utters the “charade” line in the 1949 film, Tokyo Joe. Dylanologists studying the song have discovered references to multiple Bogart movies, including The Maltese Falcon, in “Tight Connection to My Heart.” Clearly, Dylan was playing with Bogart’s persona throughout the song, borrowing his lyrics from movies to give the tune a hard-boiled feel.

Presumably, Paul Schneider–the credited writer for Star Trek’s “Squire of Gothos”–was familiar with the Bogie line as well. Kirk and Sulu’s exchange is a tip of the hat to Tokyo Joe.

As is often the case with the Internet, rumors about Dylan stealing lyrics from Star Trek  will still pop up occasionally and are quickly quelled by referencing more Internet: in this case, Wikipedia’s fairly comprehensive response. For even more info, look at Oliver Trager’s Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, a book I found invaluable while preparing the curriculum for my UC Davis poetry class that featured Dylan this summer.

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Replacements Tribute by Guardians of the Galaxy Director

Here’s the best science fiction/rock n’ roll convergence I’ve seen recently.

Director James Gunn, who helmed Guardians of the Galaxy (1 and 2) as well as some great genre films of his own creation, wrote an online essay about being a fan of the Replacements.

Pitchfork’s coverage of the essay has a great side-by-side photo of Gunn and singer Paul Westerberg as well as a Spotify playlist of Replacements songs curated by the director.

Gunn’s musical taste is famously great, as the success of Guardians of the Galaxy’s “mix tape” soundtracks shows. Westerberg was known for loving the same kinds of syrupy, bubblegum-y songs that the GotG soundtrack highlights. (If you can find it, read the late 80s cover story from Musician magazine for more on Paul’s taste.)


Photo from 6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com

Gunn says he was inspired by Bob Mehr’s book, Trouble Boys, which continues to gain readers over a year after publication. Another Replacements book, former roadie Bill Sullivan’s memoir, Lemon Jail: On the Road with the Replacements, is coming out soon from University of Minnesota press.

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C19 in Albuquerque: A Great Conference

I got back from the biennial C19 conference last week. It was an excellent four-day event, with presentations from many scholars who focus specifically on American literature of the 19th century.

That said, transnational approaches were in abundance, including my own paper on Jules Verne’s influence on American adventure fiction (with nods to trends in Oceanic Studies). Here is a screen clip from the slideshow:


The image on the cover is from an 1894 dime novel entitled Frank Reade, Jr. Exploring a Submarine Mountain; or, Lost at the Bottom of the Sea.

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Armed Force(s): The Last Jedi and Elvis Costello

I’m obsessed with places where science fiction and pop music overlap. So I loved seeing recent reports about a veiled reference to musician Elvis Costello in the latest Star Wars movie.

Apparently, director Rian Johnson used the moniker “DJ” for Benicio Del Toro’s morally ambiguous hacker in The Last Jedi as a tip of the hat to Costello and his 1979 album, Armed Forces.

Promotional material for that album had a military theme, including photos with Costello holding a rifle to his mouth, looking like he’s ready to blow his brains out. The logo on these simply says “DON’T JOIN.”

Johnson reported that the character’s name is “DJ” is a reference to that “don’t join” slogan from Armed Forces‘ promotional material. It’s actually the character’s motto rather than his name, according to some Star Wars books. (It’s also on the character’s hat in the movie, but I never could read it clearly.)

Costello fans know that Armed Forces‘ working title was Emotional Fascism. The songwriter was wrestling with the rise of neo-fascists in 70s England. (The “Mister Oswald” referenced in his early single “Less than Zero”, for example, was British fascist Oswald Mosley.) Costello often found himself (lyrically) drawing parallels between fascist government and boy/girl romantic relationships, which played into the entire album’s cynicism.

Links to the original articles are under the photos of Elvis (one on left is designed by Barney Bubbles and from rockshot.co.uk, the right is from the link on ign’s article below):






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