In the Groves of Academe

This is interesting: I’m being taught! Which is to say that Old Man’s War is being used in a literature survey class at Clarkson University by professor Joseph Duemer. The class is on colonialism, which makes it a reasonable fit, since there’s a colonial governmental structure in the book.

However, it doesn’t appear as if Professor Duemer includes the book because he especially enjoys it:

Scalzi’s prose doesn’t look so good when compared to Camus & Conrad, whom we’ve been reading, but his dramatization of the Colonial Defense Forces—armed to the teeth against all that is not human—will be a useful point of reference in thinking about Conrad’s Marlow going up that alien river in Africa & encountering all those inhuman beings. Basically, Old Man’s War is a kinder, gentler Starship Troopers, but not that much kinder & not that much gentler. It reproduces Heinlein’s prurient, if jocular, attitude toward both sex & violence; & though it lacks Heinlein’s fully-developed militarism & fascism, it manages a kind of Bowdlerized celebration of military power that in the end is probably more dangerous because it is less easily caricatured. In Heinlein’s novel, only the military gets to vote; in Scalzi’s story, nobody cares about the vote, but only the military has bodies capable of X-Games sex & X-Games violence.

To paraphrase Marge Gunderson, I’m not sure I agree one hundred percent with Professor Duemer’s police work, there, but the interpretation he presents is not an unreasonable one all things considered. I think it would be interesting to know how Professor Duemer’s students will see me, mediated through him. And like him I think OMW could be an interesting framing device for the other works Duemer will present. Duemer’s correct that I’m not the stylist Conrad is, incidentally; but then not many people are (what makes Conrad’s skill particularly galling is that English was his third language). But it’s probably the case my prose is more immediately accessible to current students, if only because I’m alive and working now, whereas, say, Heart of Darkness is a century old. If among other things reading me helps Conrad go down slightly easier for a flummoxed freshman, well, then my work here is done.

Mind you, I wouldn’t mind being taught one day for my work’s qualities rather than as a point of reference for admittedly better books. But still this is a nice first step in the academic world. The day someone uses me for a doctoral thesis, now. That day I can die happy.

25 thoughts on “In the Groves of Academe

  1. Be careful what you ask for – I’ve recommended The Ghost Brigades to one of my professors at MIT as a possible companion text for Frankenstein in a required graduate-level class.

    I don’t know if she’ll go for it, but on the off chance that our department gets the money to start a doctoral program, I’ll be sure to reference one of your books in my dissertation. ;)

  2. “…only the military gets to vote…”

    sigh

    Why, oh why, won’t people read the damn book?

    Let’s go over this again, class.

    The military specifically does not get to vote in Starship Troopers. A person who has served in the military, and then gets an honorable discharge, gets to vote.

    Likewise, any person who has completed a term of public service, of which military service is just one among many options, gets to vote.

    Any person cannnot vote while serving in the public service, military included.

    Heinlein’s idea was that the vote should be reserved to those who have demonstrated (past tense, there) that they can contribute to the public good. The idea being that serving others for a while helps one to understand that it’s not all about them, and that makes for a better voter.

    Heinlein also notes that this isn’t a perfect system, but it seems to work well enough in his book. He also seems to suggest that well enough is a useful criterion.

    I’d also like to quibble about the use of the term “fascist” and recommend Spider Robinson’s excellent piece “Rah, Rah, R.A.H!”.

    To paraphrase, read the book then look up the term “fascist” in the dictionary. Note the differences.

  3. >> “(what makes Conrad’s skill particularly galling is that English was his third language)”

    Agreed. Also, it’s a lesser known fact that he was a well known Batman/Obi-Wan slash fic author in his second language, wookiee.

    Sorry.

  4. Meh.

    I would be marginally flattered to be included in a class that way but like most professors this one seems to have completely missed the point.

    I agree that there is much to be praised in OMW and using it as a contrast to a work like Conrad’s is, in my opinion, an apples and oranges kind of comparison.

  5. Well, to the extent both books consider an unknown “other” — in my case aliens and in Conrad’s case the African natives — the comparison is not inapt. In any event, much will depend on the teaching.

    Regardless, I do like that Professor Duemer thought unconventionally enough to use SF as a teaching tool — I think that’s valuable, because not a lot of SF (particularly contemorary SF) gets used in that way.

    Chris Billett: And writing in Wookiee is harder than it looks, because so much about that language is inflection.

  6. I’ve never read Camus, but if one day someone were to say that my books aren’t quite up to Joseph Conrad’s mark, I’d be thrilled. Not many are.

    Maybe you could use that as a marketing… thing. (Whatever they call those marketing things.)

    “Scalzi’s prose doesn’t look so good when compared to Camus & Conrad…”

    You’d get people who think that Camus was some sissified French fop, or that Conrad wrote the original screenplay for “Apocalypse Now”.

  7. “Basically, Old Man’s War is a kinder, gentler Starship Troopers, but not that much kinder & not that much gentler. It reproduces Heinlein’s prurient, if jocular, attitude toward both sex & violence; & though it lacks Heinlein’s fully-developed militarism & fascism, it manages a kind of Bowdlerized celebration of military power that in the end is probably more dangerous because it is less easily caricatured.”

    *-*-*

    I’ve read both books and I’d say the professor’s analysis is *spot on*.

    *-*-*

    On a related note, it’s been said that it’s damn hard to make a war film without glorifying war.

    *-*-*

    It’s much easier in a novel, but it’s just not a route OMW takes. It’s a genre novel, pure and simple, and neither transcends nor attempts to transcend its chosen genre.

    *-*-*

    As such, it is *automatically* conservative, reinforcing the assumptions, values and cliches of the source material (whether that’s left or right is beside the point).

    *-*-*

    But because it doesn’t have an agenda besides entertainment, I found it a *much* better read than Heinlein, whose facile, fascist daydreams* get on my nerves.

    *-*-*

    Regards

    Hal

    *I’d have used the word ‘fantasies’ here, but that would have been alliteration overkill.

    Q: How do I implement line-breaks? The preview has me dreading the final post…

  8. Hal:
    The preview template here (and on many other Movable Type blogs) is broken, and doesn’t convert line breaks to HTML as it should. The final post comes out fine. You just have to put it on trust. >8->

    On the subject:
    I read Heart of Darkness for the first time last week. I thought it was all right. Some beautiful language, certainly, but except for vividly recalling Apocalypse Now to my memory it didn’t have that much of an impact.

    Perhaps I’m just too used to conventional narrative from modern novels, but I had a real beef with the amount of important development that happened off the page. Kurtz was barely depicted in the prose, and certainly didn’t match up to the primal force he was made out to be in all the scenes surrounding his appearance. I’d rather be shown, not told.

    Is it a flaw in my tastes or my education that I didn’t find this book exceptionally powerful?

  9. This term, in my advanced college writing class, I’m teaching *Jarhead,* *Starship Troopers,* *Slaughterhouse Five* and *The Forever War.* The books are there to provide fodder for the writing assignments and discussions. There is also a writing text that is better than nothing, but only just a tiny bit better.

    I almost tossed in *Old Man’s War,* but couldn’t figure out how to get everything in if I had five books rather than four. I do, however, think I’ve worked it out and will add *OMW* next term. My hope is that, by then, we won’t have to talk about the current war (sorry — remarkably war-like peace) anymore. But suspect that I will be wrong.

    Sorry. Went off on a tangent.

    While it isn’t as good as a dissertation, it still might make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, not unlike a ripe peach.

    And, um, Scalzi? What would you think about doing a phone interview with 17 college students? Should this all come to pass, of course…

  10. >> Is it a flaw in my tastes or my education that I didn’t find this book exceptionally powerful?

    There’s a whole discussion in whether it’s possible to have flawed taste… on which I argue it is! (John, is that an argument you’re interested in disucussing on Whatever? It’s a good one, I think!)

    In your case (back to Steve) I’d say stew on it. Not having a clue what age you are, I have no idea what to make on your opinion of Heart of Darkness, but I read it for the first time last year and was blown away. I’d also argue that Kurtz’s build up in juxtapose to how he was portrayed at the end is possibly the point of the story, and almost certainly a deliberate mind game on Conrad’s part.

    But then, that’s just my opinion!

    (… and hey, how many Puffin Classics have a Star Wars novel – i.e. Stover’s Shatterpoint – as well as a Hollywood action movie based on them?)

  11. Eff that guy.

    First of all… who gives a at’s rass what someone from Clarkson thinks about anything? In ranking the Clarksons, I have Kelly way higher up on the scale than C.U., and Kelly isn’t that high up on the overall scale, herself.

    Second… that dude WISHES he wrote something that would get looked over at a college. If I was an his class, I’d say something like “If I wanted to see bad writing, I’d just look over your course description.”

    Third… although you’re better at it than me, I would never put a finger to the keyboard while worrying about what some critic thinks. Do for self.

  12. For what it’s worth, I can guarantee you that OMW is going to be on the reading list (in the “War and Peace” group with Forever War and Starship Troopers as one option for the final paper–but not just as a foil for “better” works) for my online literature elective course this summer. Of course, the class is ENG 337 (Science Fiction), but still…

    And I may very well take you up on your response to Adrienne–would you do, not a phone interview, but an online chat? These are community college students taking SF online…you don’t get a better bunch, anywhere!

  13. Smurf: Well, being a professional critic of 15 years and having an ego the size of a house keeps me from worrying overmuch what critics have to say about anything I do. I’ve worked at that sausage factory. I know how it gets done. And anyway, as noted, his interpretation is not unreasonable.

    IN other news… Kelly Clarkson. Mmmmmm.

    Joe: Sure, I’ll be happy to do an online chat sometime.

  14. Chris Billett: And writing in Wookiee is harder than it looks, because so much about that language is inflection.
    And I always thought Chinese was so easy to write! Heh.

    Seriously though, Chinese is a massively inflected language vocally, but it has a purely positional grammar, and last I heard NO conjugation. Which in a way, makes it the simplest language to write. You either know how to write the complex figure or you don’t.

  15. I’ve gotten used to hearing readers confuse Heinlein’s speculations with his opinions, but the fact that a literature professor is unable to grasp that sci-fi is about asking “what if?” is disturbing.

  16. By the way, I have corrected my misremembered misreading of the Heinlein novel on my blog. Thanks, Mark Ensley. Oh, and Smurf? I think you _are_ in my class. You & six or seven of your fraternity brothers.

    John, I also added in a reply to your comment on my blog, the following: “To be fair, I should have added that, _Scalzi’s prose, on the other hand, looks very good indeed when compared to the vast run of contemporary science fiction short of William Gibson_.”

    Finally (& I do mean finally), speaking of great writers, did you folks see that Octavia Butler died today. A real loss.

  17. I’m definitely a Conrad fan, but I can understand people not thinking so much of Heart of Darkness. I think Nostromo, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are all good alternatives if you’re interested in trying more Conrad.

  18. “John, I also added in a reply to your comment on my blog, the following: ‘To be fair, I should have added that, _Scalzi’s prose, on the other hand, looks very good indeed when compared to the vast run of contemporary science fiction short of William Gibson_.’”

    I saw that. Thank you! You are too kind. In terms of stylists, incidentally, there are some really good ones writing right now; I wonder if you’ve read China Mieville and if so what you think of his work.

    Octavia Butler: The talk of the SF blogosphere. Alas. Truly a tremendous writer. She will be missed.

  19. What…am I the only one around here who likes Gibson? Yeah, he’s got sort of a stream of consciousness thing going, plot-wise, and his ‘scapes are all but surreal, but I love the worlds he creates. Very richly layered and wildly imaginative, while at the same time eerily familiar, like an episode of deja vu you haven’t had yet.

    OMW and others, though, fall into that ‘rollicking good jaunt of a book’ category that’s as easy to read as it is fun, but with more than enough meat to make it worth the ride, and with a familiar and direct approach to seasoning – sorta like a Double-Double animal style to Gibson’s saffron-infused lamb risotto with bitter spring greens resting on a balsamic/mint reduction.

    Talk about apples and oranges. :-D

    (and that, folks, is what happens when a foodie writes SF book reviews, lol)

  20. I’m reading Perdido Street Station at the moment, and can second that recommendation! First book in a while that I’ve been squeezing in every possible minute to read. (I haven’t got yours yet, John, so you’re not necessarily ruled out of that class!)

  21. John, I vowed to read you just because I like the smackdowns you administered to the Agents of The Patriarchy (aka ‘idjits’) about your wife’s correction of a drunken boor. Wierdly, 1200 amouseclicks and god knows how many links later I wind up BACK on your blog!

    Just requested OMW from the Seattle Public Library (it rocks!). Sadly, I’m #37 in the queue. Maybe they should buy a few more copies.

    And after reading you some more, I’m lookin’ forward to it.

    And I’m glad the professor above corrected his blog, as ‘fascism’ does NOT correctly describe the political system in use in the “Starship Troopers” universe. And the first chapter of “SsTrprs” is one of the most invigorating, KINETIC pieces of writing ever. (It always reminds me of a piece by another author incorrectly accused of “fascism”: Ayn Rand’s depiction of riding in a locomotive in “Atlas Shrugged”– admittedly the best thing in a very long slog.) Once you read that first chapter, you’re so jacked you read the rest of the book in one long sitting. Perhaps the professor can point out that particular tour de force to his students.

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