Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From "Pinocchio" to "Astro-Boy": Fairy Tales and Sci-Fi

In the spring I'm co-teaching a course with a scholar visiting from Japan, "The Edges of the Human: Bodies, Animals, and Machines in Speculative Fiction Films and Literature." The course will be about evenly divided between Japanese science fiction films and books, and British and American science fiction and fantasy. It's an introductory course, meant for non-English major undergraduates.

I obviously have an interest in children's books and movies (see earlier posts on Kipling and Toy Story), as well as a limited interest in literary science fiction (China Mieville, Early Bengali Science Fiction), but I've never taught a course specifically dedicated to this type of topic before. It will be an added challenge to team-teach the course -- especially given that the topic itself is so wide-ranging.

To make the course cohere, we will need to show connections between the 20th century Japanese tradition in science fiction (both in literary fiction and manga, anime, and popular cinema) and at least one thread of the parallel tradition in the Anglo-American context.

One unit I am working on is a Pinocchio/Astro-Boy nexus. Pinocchio feels like a folk tale, like Snow White or Cinderella, but it is actually a late Victorian tale. It is best known through the 1940 Disney animated feature, but of course the story was first written by an Italian writer, Carlo Collodi, as The Adventures of Pinocchio (available in translation on Project Gutenberg, and as a free audiobook via LibriVox). Collodi was clearly influenced by the established fairy tale tradition and the Brothers Grimm, but his story also has some elements that seem distinctly Victorian, including the emphasis on show-biz, via the Marionette show, and some of the direct moralizing about what it means to be a good little boy. (Many Brothers Grimm tales actually do not have such blatant moralizing; the moral is quite often simply "pay attention to the fairy, dummy, if you don't want the witch to turn you into a statue").

Many of the trademark features of the Disney Pinocchio are missing in the first version of the story Collodi published in serial form between 1881 and 1883, including especially the nose that grows when Pinocchio lies (Collodi added that later), and the concern about becoming a "real boy" (also added in the second half, which Collodi apparently wrote to make the story more marketable to children -- and less bleak). While in Disney there is a Glenda-eseque, maternal "blue fairy" who makes Pinocchio come alive at the very beginning, in Collodi, the "Turquoise Fairy" only becomes a factor in in the second half of the narrative. Pinocchio's initial enchantment precedes his being formed into a marionette -- the block of wood out of which he was carved was already enchanted. (In Collodi he also burns off his feet near the beginning of the story, and kills the talking cricket. Ouch!)

I am not sure whether we will do all of Collodi, but it seems essential to at least look at the chaotic, violent, and generally picaresque structure of the first half of the book alongside the more sanitized Disney version.

The great Japanese manga artist and animator, Tezuka Osamu has described how he he was influenced by the early Disney animation style, and it's not hard to guess that the Disney version of Pinocchio had an influence on the genesis of Astro-Boy, which Tezuka created as a manga starting in the early 1950s (in Japanese, Tetsuwan ATOM). While the preoccupation in Collodi's Pinocchio is an industrial-era rendition of the prospect of artificial life, Astro-Boy is clearly inflected by the concerns of the nuclear age.

I have not seen the original, printed manga of Astro-Boy, though I have watched a little of an English-language version of the original televised cartoon, as well as the 2009 animated feature (which was, incidentally, better than the reviews made it out to be). However, what is immediately clear from the television cartoon is that Tezuka is interested in adapting the fundamental ideas of the Pinocchio story to the Japanese context after Hiroshima. While Gepetto is a puppeteer, Astro-Boy's father is a maker of robots, and his co-workers worry, in even the first episode, about the dangerous potential of the robot that is to become Astro-Boy specifically in terms of his potentially being used as a weapon.

In both the television cartoon and the recent CGI, animated film, Astro-Boy's "father" creates him as a substitute for a real son who died -- and for whom the father feels guilty. (This is not there in Collodi.) In neither case is there space for a mother figure anywhere; the mother is dead, out of the picture. The absence of women or mothers is roughly true even in the Collodi, where the maternal Turquoise Fairy was added in largely as an after-thought. Interestingly, and troublingly, none of these "Pinocchio" narratives seem to need or want mothers.


I have one broader thesis about 20th century science fiction that I think Pinocchio/Astro-Boy reflects quite well, and that is that there are often strong affiliations between science fiction (narratives of the future) and traditional folk tales, which seem to reflect a version of the past. Though modern and post-modern science fiction tends to reflect contemporary concerns, they often rely on very traditional tropes.

But I also have other questions that I'm still thinking about; maybe readers can help.

For instance, to what extent should The Adventures of Pinocchio be seen as a variation -- albeit inflected with stylistic and structural elements borrowed from Fairy Tales -- of Frankenstein? In short, is Frankenstein relevant?

Another question I have, not being an expert in fairy tales or the Brothers Grimm (one of my projects for winter break is to catch up on scholarship by critics like Jack Zipes), is how to think of antecedents to the idea of the inventor who creates "living" machines -- artificial life. One thinks of the "Homunculus" in Goethe's Faust, Part 2, but even that is not that far off chronologically from Shelley's Frankenstein. Really, the appropriate point of origin seems to be the Golem figure in the Hebrew Tradition (The author of the Wikipedia "Golem" entry even suggests that some passages in the Talmud describe Adam himself as a kind of "golem").

Are not all of our modern and contemporary robots, cyborgs, and A.I.s simply variations of the ancient Hebrew Golem narrative? Is there anything really 'new' about "artificial intelligence"? (Isn't it, in fact, the oldest thing in the world?)

Yet another question to explore is whether there are antecedents for the artificial life of Tezuka's Astro-Boy in the Japanese folk tale tradition. (A surprising number of contemporary fantasy manga narratives -- one thinks of Naruto -- seem styled after traditional Japanese folk tales.)

Finally, can readers think of other "nexus" sites, where there is significant crossover between Japanese sci fi (including manga and anime), and western science fiction and fantasy? (One site we are exploring is Japanese cyber-punk -- Ghost in the Shell vs. western cyber-punk, in Neuromancer, et al.)

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died earlier this week, at the age of 91. He was one of the best-known sci-fi writers of the 20th century, the author behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, among many others.

As is well-known, Clarke moved to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in 1956 -- in large part for the year-around access to diving -- and remained there until his death. The locale inspired at least one of Clarke's novels, Fountains of Paradise:

Clarke lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death in 2008, having emigrated there when it was still called Ceylon, first in Unawatuna on the south coast, and then in Colombo. Clarke held citizenship of both the UK and Sri Lanka. He was an avid scuba diver and a member of the Underwater Explorers Club. Living in Sri Lanka afforded him the opportunity to visit the ocean year-round. It also inspired the locale for his novel The Fountains of Paradise in which he described a space elevator. This, he believed, ultimately will be his legacy, more so than geostationary satellites, once space elevators make space shuttles obsolete. (link)

I first read The Fountains of Paradise many years ago, and I pulled it off the shelf this afternoon for a refresher. There is an intense opening, set in the classical period, 2000 years ago, involving a "Prince Kalidasa," who does not seem to resemble the actual Kalidasa (who was not a prince, but a poet). And there are some rich descriptions of the island of Sri Lanka (named "Taprobane" -- Tap-ROB-a-nee -- by Clarke).

Here are a few paragraphs from the historical section involving Clarke's Prince Kalidasa:

The air was so clear today that Kalidasa could see the temple, dwarfed by distance to a tiny white arrowhead on the very summit of Sri Kanda. It did not look like any work of man, and it reminded the king of the still greater mountains he had glimpsed in his youth, when he had been half-guest, half-hostage at the court of Mahinda the Great. All the giants that guarded Mahinda's empire bore such Crests, formed of a dazzling, crystalline substance for which there was no word in the language of Taprobane. The Hindus believed that it was a kind of water, magically transformed, but Kalidasa laughed at such superstitions.

That ivory gleam was only three days' march away - one along the royal road, through forests and paddy-fields, two more up the winding stairway which he could never climb again, because at its end was the only enemy he feared, and could not conquer. Sometimes he envied the pilgrims, when he saw their torches marking a thin line of fire up the face of the mountain. The humblest beggar could greet that holy dawn and receive the blessings of the gods; the ruler of all this land could not.

But he had his consolations, if only for a little while. There, guarded by moat and rampart, lay the pools and fountains and Pleasure Gardens on which he had lavished the wealth of his kingdom. And when he was tired of these, there were the ladies of the rock-the ones of flesh and blood, whom he summoned less and less frequently-and the two hundred changeless immortals with whom he often shared his thoughts, because there were no others he could trust.

Thunder boomed along the western sky. Kalidasa turned away from the brooding menace of the mountain, towards the distant hope of rain. The monsoon was late this season; the artificial lakes that fed the island's complex irrigation system were almost empty. By this time of year he should have seen the glint of water in the mightiest of them all-- which, as he well knew, his subjects still dared to call by his father's name: Paravana Samudra, the Sea of Paravana. It had been completed only thirty years ago, after generations of toil. In happier days, young Prince Kalidasa had stood proudly beside his father, when the great sluice-gates were opened and the life-giving waters had poured out across the thirsty land. In all the kingdom there was no lovelier sight than the gently rippling mirror of that immense, man-made lake, when it reflected the domes and spires of Ranapura, City of Gold-the ancient capital which he had abandoned for his dream.

In this made-up history of the ancient kingdom of Taprobane, Clarke actually seems to know whereof he speaks; the injections of bits of Hindu culture seem to come from a position of knowledge.

And here is a little from the main section of the novel, set in the present day. The protagonist is a Sri Lankan named Raja (short for "Johan Oliver de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe"), who has retired from public life, and moved to an estate built on the site of "Kalidasa's" original pleasure gardens:

That had been twenty years ago, and he had never regretted his decision. Those who predicted that boredom would succeed where the temptations of power had failed did not know their man or understand his origins. He had gone back to the fields and forests of his youth, and was living only a kilometre from the great, brooding rock that had dominated his childhood. Indeed, his villa was actually inside the wide moat that surrounded the Pleasure Gardens, and the fountains that Kalidasa's architect had designed now splashed in Johan's own courtyard, after a silence of two thousand years. The water still flowed in the original stone conduits; nothing had been changed, except that the cisterns high up on the rock were now filled by electric pumps, not relays of sweating slaves.

Securing this history-drenched piece of land for his retirement had given Johan more satisfaction than anything in his whole career, fulfilling a dream that he had never really believed could come true. The achievement had required all his diplomatic skills, plus some delicate blackmail in the Department of Archaeology. Later, questions had been asked in the State Assembly; but fortunately not answered.

He was insulated from all but the most determined tourists and students by an extension of the moat, and screened from their gaze by a thick wall of mutated Ashoka trees, blazing with flowers throughout the year. The trees also supported several families of monkeys, who were amusing to watch but occasionally invaded the villa and made off with any portable objects that took their fancy. Then there would be a brief inter-species war with fire-crackers and recorded danger-cries that distressed the humans at least as much as the simians - who would be back quickly enough, for they had long ago learned that no-one would really harm them.

Reading this, I can't help but think of Clarke himself, one of the world's most famous writers, living in a remote part of Sri Lanka -- away from it all.

After the opening, the novel has a more conventional science fiction story arc -- the goal is to build a kind of massive space elevator from the top of a mountain in Taprobane...

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

China Mieville, not a fan of Libertarianism

Via 3QD, China Miéville has a biting critique of libertarianism in In These Times. It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book:

Libertarianism is by no means a unified movement. As many of its advocates proudly stress, it comprises a taxonomy of bickering branches—minarchists, objectivists, paleo- and neolibertarians, agorists, et various al.—just like a real social theory. Claiming a lineage with post-Enlightenment classical liberalism, as well as in some cases with the resoundingly portentous blatherings of Ayn Rand, all of its variants are characterized, to differing degrees, by fervent, even cultish, faith in what is quaintly termed the “free” market, and extreme antipathy to that vaguely conceived bogeyman, “the state,” with its regulatory and fiscal powers.

Above all, they recast their most banal avarice—the disinclination to pay tax—as a principled blow for political freedom. Not content with existing offshore tax shelters, multimillionaires and property developers have aspired to build their own. For each such rare project that sees (usually brief) life, there are many unfettered by actual existence, such as Laissez-Faire City, a proposed offshore tax haven inspired by a particularly crass and gung-ho libertarianism, that generated press interest in the mid-’90s only to collapse in infighting and bad blood; or New Utopia, an intended sea-based libertarian micro-nation in the Caribbean that degenerated with breathtaking predictability into nonexistence and scandal. . . .

A parable from seasteading’s past goes some way in explaining. In 1971, millionaire property developer Michael Oliver attempted to establish the Republic of Minerva on a small South Pacific sand atoll. It was soon off-handedly annexed by Tonga, and, in a traumatic actualized metaphor, allowed to dissolve back into the sea. To defeat the predatory outreach of nations and tides, it is clearly not enough to be offshore: True freedom floats. (link)

Though he is indeed merciless in slicing up libertarianism for dinner, Miéville is nevertheless interested in one of the recurring leitmotifs in much libertarian thought -- the idea that true liberty must inevitably be landless, stateless, and therefore possibly afloat (in outer space, or at sea -- same thing). The idea of the "floating utopia" is one he explored in his novel The Scar, which I briefly attempted to interpret here. In Miéville's rendering, of course, a lived utopia is always going to be perilously close to its opposite.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

"Children of Men," anyone?

I don't have time to do justice to Children of Men, but both Joseph Kugelmass at The Valve and Mark at K-Punk have written long, excellent posts on the film, and I would recommend you to them.

The film is, visually, extaordinary -- it led to one of those rare nights where I couldn't sleep, not because the baby was waking up every couple of hours (though there was that), but because I was haunted by the film's spectacular cinematography.

My one reservation with Children of Men comes from the slightly-too-heavy Christian flavor of the humanism in the film. The filmmakers definitely distance themselves from fundamentalist Christianity (the ‘repentance’ cult is seen as deluded), but it’s very hard not to read the Birth of a Child as enabling the Redemption of the Human Race in anything other than Christian terms.

Perhaps it’s possible to deemphasize this because the film brings in so many secular progressive/liberal themes-—the totalitarian overtones of the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security, the persecution of immigrants/minorities, and the potentially devastating consequences of pollution on both the environment and on human health.

But all that couldn’t help me from feeling a little confused during the scene where Kee and Theo were walking down the street and soldiers were making the sign of the cross—as if the film’s ideology was shifting under my feet, and I was being offered a Communion wafer when I had thought I was eating Junior Mints.

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