Monday, February 29, 2016

Godzilla's Roar: Using the Bomb and the Beast to Teach Writing

With a new Japanese Godzilla on the horizon, it seemed like a good opportunity to share an approach to teaching introductory English courses which focus on academic writing and critical reading. I teach a course at MacEwan University called Analysis and Argument. It's the bread and butter of our department, since it is required for nearly every degree program MacEwan offers. When I first came to MacEwan, I taught the course as prescribed, using an anthology of essays like Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Jo Goodwin Parker's "On Poverty." Most courses of this nature work with a number of such readings on a wide variety of topics. Most readers have thematic trajectories that permit the instructor to focus the content. Nevertheless, none of these essays are instructive for essay writing in the University. While it might be ideal to teach a student to write like George Orwell in "Shooting an Elephant," it's unlikely that's what their history professor will want from them on a research paper about the British Raj. There was a distance between what I was asking them to write, and what we were reading as exemplars. Further, those readings are not indicative of the sort of reading they'll be forced to do for just about every course that requires a research paper. So I'd been playing around with the idea of finding scholarly articles from the library database to replace the essay textbook with. And when I read Shambling Towards Hiroshima, I knew I'd found the topic to center those essays around.

Morrow's novella is a fictional account of the end of the Pacific War; while the nuclear option is in question, the United States has developed three behemoths, kaiju-creatures, to attack Japan and end the war. Unlike the historical events surrounding the atomic bomb, Morrow's alternate history includes a demonstration for the Japanese government of these weapons of mass destruction. A demonstration by a full-sized behemoth is untenable, so three dwarf-behemoths have been developed: unfortunately, dwarf size produces docile temperament, and so a Hollywood actor who specializes in playing monsters is hired to do the job on a set with a miniature of Tokyo to stomp hell out of. Despite the ludicrousness of the plot, Morrow's intention is dead serious: he wants his reader to know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The classic monster movie references and SF elements are the bait to take us to Ground Zero, to bear witness to the atrocity. Consequently, alongside the humor and homage is history. And therein I found my two trajectories - metaphor and monster on the one side, history and horror on the other.

Initally, I tried using Morrow's novella as a research unit at the end of the course, following the usual meandering through various essays and topics. It was very successful as a single unit, so the next year, I attempted to focus the entire semester on Godzilla and Hiroshima, culminating in Shambling.  It was frightening: I was asking students to invest in a limited topic for an entire semester. Granted, there was a lot to talk about in the Godzilla/Hiroshima conversation, but it was still a risk. Luckily, it was a risk that paid off. The full-semester of Godzilla and Hiroshima, while met with initial skepticism, turned out to be one of the best pedagogical choices I've made. I have repeated the approach for four years running, with minor revisions each year.

Here's the outline:

1. Introduction:
 In addition to the syllabus, I introduce students to three things on the first day of class: the library database and the bipartite theme-stream. I require them to find either “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Sixty-Five Years Later” by Michael C. Milam OR “Japan's Nuclear Nightmare: How the Bomb Became a Beast Called Godzilla” by Peter Brothers. Both articles are short and very accessible. Milam's is about the inhumanity of modern warfare, but it focuses primarily on Hiroshima. Brothers' is a very concise history of the original Godzilla movie. The next class, I ask how for responses to the articles. Usually, students are amazed to discover Godzilla has anything to do with something as serious as Hiroshima, and that Hiroshima was something more than a mushroom cloud. Few of them have been exposed to the "view from the ground" of either of these monsters.

2. Summary: 
The first assignment is a 500 word summary of an article. In short, students are required to tell me what the author said without any of their own opinions included. This is a challenge for students who have been trained through high school to write their opinion or what they feel. It's an essential tool for academic and professional writing. The skill of putting another person's ideas into your own words in a concise and precise fashion is a practical skill in the real world. I give them two more articles to add to their growing arsenal of information on Hiroshima and Godzilla: "Hiroshima: Historians Reassess" by Gar Alperovitz, which takes the position that there were alternatives to the atomic bomb, and President Truman knowingly rejected those alternatives, and "Godzilla's Footprint" by Steve Ryfle, which expands on Brothers' article by providing in-depth information on the original Gojira film from 1954. We do a summary workshop, where I assign sections of each article to each student. They are required to reduce those sections to two sentences, and then I review all those sentences in-class, to point out the right and wrong way to approach the assignment. An added benefit of this approach is that, while they are learning how to summarize, students are also internalizing those articles in a very close way.

3. Interlude 1: Gojira viewing
To give students time to complete their summaries, we take a "break" of sorts by watching selections from Gojira in-class, and then discussing them in light of Ryfle's article.

4. Critical Analysis: While some people treat this assignment as a sort of position paper on a contemporary hot-button topic, I require students to work harder by evaluating the structure of the argument they are critiquing, not simply responding with "I think this article is right/wrong/true/false." Consequently, the critical analysis becomes a study of how the author made their point, without any opinion of whether they agree or disagree. Like the summary, this still isn't about the student's opinion or feelings toward the topic. Was the introduction strong? Were the examples good? Is the structure compelling? This is an exercise in evaluating the quality of an argument, not whether we agree with the author's conclusion. I give the example of when I was a minister and read The Case for Christ. While I agreed with the conclusion of that book, I thought the way Lee Strobel argued his point was weak. Likewise, I cite Bill Maher's Religulous as an example of anti-religious thesis that atheists might agree with, but have panned for its structure and approach.
Again, they are given two articles to choose from: on the Hiroshima side, it's Japanese scholar Sadao Asada's "The Shock of the Atomic Bomb: and Japan's Decision to Surrender-A Reconsideration," which argues against Alperovitz's position: Asada agrees that Truman knew about alternatives to the bomb, but Asada argues they weren't alternatives at all, in light of how intractable the Japanese military were. This is a great moment in the semester, because many students have concluded, based on their reading of Alperovitz, that Truman was a heartless bastard and the Americans are all jerks, and the Japanese were just innocent victims. Asada complicates things.
On the Godzilla side, it's William Tsutsui's “Godzilla and Postwar Japan Lunch Keynote Address,” which is supposed to be a survey of the Godzilla franchise meant to instruct about postwar Japan's history. However, the article is so poorly organized, it mostly ends up being a reiteration of Ryfle's information about the original Gojira.
Once again, I parcel out sections of each article and students submit brief critical analyses: we review these in class, which is crucial, as students have a very difficult time learning the difference between disagreement and critical analysis of quality of the article.

5. Interlude II: Hiroshima documentary viewing
Again, to give students time to write the assignment, we take another "break" to watch and discuss the BBC documentary, Hiroshima. We end up discussing how the documentary incorporates elements of both Alperovitz and Asada's argument. Students also gain a greater appreciation for the devastation of the Hiroshima event, illustrated through visual effects (incidentally, these effects were done by none other than Gareth Edwards, the director of the American reboot of Godzilla (2014) and a film we study later in the semester, Monsters (2010).

6. Research Paper: 
We start the research unit with Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster," which can act as a starting point for research essays focusing on Godzilla. Sontag makes a number of bold claims about the "inadequate response" of SF films whose imagery is dominated by destruction. She says they make no social commentary, and that as fantasies, they deaden us to the reality of real-world suffering. This is accurate, insofar as her American experience would allow: however, the students know that the Godzilla Sontag saw was not the one the Japanese had seen, and can argue against her point: Gojira has social commentary, and was meant to highlight real-world suffering. Of course, a student could also argue that Gojira might have been intended to do this, but ultimately failed. I do not require students to argue a point to correspond with my opinions on the matter. Sontag also speaks about the difference between intensive (close-up, concerned with view from the ground) and extensive (wide-angle, concerned with spectacle of devastation) views of destruction: I illustrate the difference between these views by asking students to recall the devastation in Gojira, and then having them compare that with the opening scenes of Grave of the Fireflies, where the perspective is not extensive, but intensive.

For the Hiroshima trajectory, I use either Vera Zolberg's “Contested Remembrance: The Hiroshima Exhibit Controversy” or Alison Kraft's "Atomic Medicine," if I am teaching nursing students. Zolberg's article, though it is specifically about the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian, provides a middle position on a number of the issues raised by Asada and Alperovitz, which adds enough information to form an informed thesis in response to the question "was the bomb necessary?"

Kraft provides a perspective on atomic energy that will be of practical interest to my nursing students: the rapidity of progress in cancer research in the 20th century correlates with nuclear testing. "Atomic Medicine" is also an opportunity for an interesting middle position research paper, where the progression of Godzilla from villain to hero can be used as a metaphoric way of speaking about how nuclear energy went from cancer cause to cancer treatment.

Now students have a total of eight articles under their belt: four for each theme stream. I require them to use three secondary sources for the research paper; one of these must be an article they locate on their own, not one I have assigned previously. To assist in the avoidance of plagiarism or bought essays, I find it's best to require students to use the articles already studied in the course. It's relatively easy to find essays online about Hiroshima. Finding essays which use the precise articles listed here is more difficult.

As I stated earlier, in previous iterations of the course, I used James Morrow's Shambling Towards Hiroshima as an anchoring point for the research paper. Students had to write on a theme from the book, illustrating what Morrow was doing using their secondary sources. I received some brilliant papers this way, but the novella as anchor is ultimately limiting, and I find the papers are better across the board when I don't require adherence to Morrow's novella for the final research paper. And besides, one of the lessons I've learned over the years in teaching introductory English is that students are too burnt out by the end of term to do any serious reading. Instead, I find it a valuable time to do a film study.

7. Final break: viewing of Gareth Edwards' Monsters.
Since the entire semester has been about a relationship between a metaphor and an actual historical event, I end the course with an exploration of a film that does the same thing which Gojira did, without identifying the real-world correlations. We view the film in short installments, discussing it after each 20 minute viewing. A full explanation of my close-viewing of this film can be found here.

Since there is no final exam for this course, our viewing of Monsters wraps our semester up in a way that requires application of concepts learned from Godzilla and Hiroshima to the particular instance of Edwards' film. I had hoped that Edwards' 2014 Godzilla would prove to be as good as or better than Monsters to finish out our course, but this did not prove to be the case, and I have continued using Monsters.

Each year that passes, I wonder if I should look at some other content: an entire semester on zombies? violence in video games? superheroes? But each year I watch the shock of students learning they'll be studying Godzilla for an entire semester turn to appreciation for the valuable lessons, as Tsutsui puts it, that a man in a rubber suit smashing miniature buildings can teach them (And it beats the hell out of having to read a stack of essays on the legalization of pot). 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Untold Tale by J.M. Frey

Let me start by saying, for those who are of the "TLDR" persuasion, that I think that J.M. Frey's The Untold Tale is the most important work of fantasy written in 2015. It may be the most important work of fantasy written this decade, but I'll have to get back to you on that in 2020.

I was excited when I first received an electronic copy of J.M. Frey's The Untold Tale, as I loved both Triptych, her breakout novel and one of the best time-travel tales I've ever read, and Dark Side of the Glass, her funny and smart metafictional response to Twilight. When I learned that The Untold Tale was going to be fantasy, I felt like it could be her literary hat trick in speculative fiction - science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

I'd also heard this was another work of metafiction, but given what Frey had done with Dark Side of the Glass, I was curious to see what she'd do with a secondary world of wizards and warriors, swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons. It turned out to be very intriguing: The Untold Tale begins with an unlikely hero, Forsyth Turn, a stuttering, intellectual lordling who moonlights as a fantasy Zorro/Batman in the employ of the King. He's not Conan or Aragorn or even Elric. He's a nice guy. His servants and subjects really like him. But he lives in the shadow of his awesome brother, who is more cock-sure than Conan and more arrogant than Aragorn (and I mean Tolkien's Aragorn, who's pretty arrogant when compared with Viggo's Aragorn) without even a smattering of Elric. He's a young version of Zemeckis' Beowulf.  Add the mystery of a woman who's been exquisitely tortured turning up on Turn's doorstep, and our story is off to an engaging start.

I expected metafictional commentary on fantasy, and I got it. In addition to Forsyth Turn being an unlikely fantasy hero (though only insofar that he's not a hobbit - Tolkien's hobbits and Forsyth Turn have a few things in common in their unlikeliness), Pip the mystery woman is not your typical fantasy heroine. She does not swoon - she swears (like the proverbial sailor). She is not powerless, she is empowered. I could go on, but you likely get it. She is the heir-apparent to Princess Leia, Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy, et al. Part of my brain said "hey, neither of these things is really all that original, but I appreciate reiteration, since women are still fighting for positive representation in geek narratives. It's still meta, even if it isn't so fresh (for those who read no further, this is part of Frey's game - she knows none of this particularly fresh. This was all just preamble).

Then there was the quest itself: instead of just going the way of Voltaire’s Candide (or even Tolkien’s hobbits) stumbling into situations, Pip makes a plan based upon standard fantasy narratives (I would explain this further, but there are both spoilers and a great joke in the name of this plan which are best experienced first-hand). Imagine fantasy roleplaying characters who not only how to achieve their quest with the least amount of violence and suspense, but WANT to achieve their quest in that safe and sensible fashion, because it leaves more time for sex.

Lots of sex. And with that salacious teaser, I want to make clear who should and should not read this book.

First, who should not read this book:

People who don't like sex. If you don’t like explicit sex scenes, you will not like this book. You might say, “Well I’ll just skip those bits,” but the absence of those torrid moments of passion will weaken the emotional impact of the book’s big reveal. Unlike so many other works of fantasy, this book needs its sex scenes.

People who don’t mind sex. You’re still going to think, “Son of a bitch, that’s a lot of sex.”

People who don’t like swearing. If you were just offended when I said “Son of a bitch, that’s a lot of sex,” then there’s a good chance you’re going to think, “Son of a bitch, that’s a lot of swearing.” 

Double up your offended sensibilities if you think women shouldn’t cuss.

People who think that modern Sword and Sorcery should still read like Robert E. Howard's "Vale of Lost Women," (to be clear, I love Howard - but "Vale" is sexist and racist and is, by consensus, one of the man's worst stories). Not only will you hate this book, but you’re the reason this book was written. And for the record, if the Sad Puppies are right, there’s a conspiracy going on right now to see this book win the Hugo, because if it does, Vox Day is going to transform into that Dagon monster at the end of Conan the Destroyer and he’s going to go on a rampage. So if that’s something you want to see happen, then you’re probably someone who should read this book.

People who think that rape is a smart motivation for a female character. Or torture. Or unbridled desire for the male lead as governing purpose. If degradation of women seems like a traditional fantasy trope to you, and you think that’s the way it should be, you’re going to hate this book. Which is sad, because if you could just see your way to reading it, you might change the way you think. 
People who want their fantasy to have a lot of action and creatures and violence. If you’re looking for a dungeon crawl to read, go somewhere else. You will not enjoy the easy pace Frey takes in the first half. This is a book where the heroes ponder, not pound their way out of a crisis.

People who are homophobic. Not only is there a lot of sex, there are many positive references to progressive sexuality. Westboro Baptist will picket this book the second it gets famous.

I’d really like it if all the types of people who I just mentioned would read this book, because it’s worth the journey, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. In fact, all the more if it makes you uncomfortable.

People who should read The Untold Tale

People who like sex. Now, you might say, “isn’t it enough that I can endure or just appreciate the sex scenes?” Yeah, it’s enough. But if you’re like me, and they get you a little hot, then the moment when Frey pulls the rug out from under you will have way more impact. I haven’t felt that manipulated since my Salsa dance teacher trotted me around the room to give me a sense of the steps. And in a way, that’s what Frey is doing also.

People who want to see smarter writing about women, people of colour, and LGBTQ characters: who are tired of writers mistaking the nostalgic impulse of fantasy for reifying outdated ways of treating the Other, whomever the Other may be.

People who read for more than “what happens next.” People who enjoy a turn of phrase as much as turning a page.

By now, you should know whether or not you want to read this book, and I can move on to spoilers. Go away and read it, then come back and read my analysis of the back half of the book.


Halfway through the book, after that passionate sex scene, after Pip and Forsyth are apparently deeply in love, we discover that she’s been under the control of the villain since page one. A sharp reader might see this coming, but even if they did, they might miss the full implications of that plot device. You see, it means more than just “the villain can see through Pip’s eyes.” It means that Pip might not really love Forsyth. And it means, horror of horrors, that every sex scene you’ve enjoyed thus far was effectively a moment of rape. Obviously, Forsyth had no idea what he was doing, but the evil mastermind behind Pip’s eyes did. And here’s where the really serious metacommentary engages. Everything to this point is, to a degree, prelude. And so The Untold Tale not only requires brave readers, but patient ones as well. I do not think this is a failing of the book. Too long we’ve been told by publishers (and elementary school librarians) that a good way of assessing if we want to read a book is to read the first three pages. I’d have never read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Out of the Silent Planet, or Lord of the Rings by that standard. J.M. Frey is an amazing writer, and most people won’t ever find this out because they haven’t been trained to be patient (or brave) with their reading.

Now think about Pip’s rape from a meta-perspective. A force controlling her has made her appear to love and want to unreservedly fuck Forsyth. And while I saw that there was a force controlling her, it didn’t occur to me that this extended to the sex scenes. When I did, it was like being slapped. I’ve enjoyed Conan since I was a kid. And I’ll readily admit, I enjoyed it (and still do) for those moments when the female lead throws herself at Conan’s feet. It’s a male power fantasy. Now, if that was but one of many sexual fantasies finding space in fantasy novels, it wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s the primary one. It’s the one that gets the most play and results in the greatest successes. Look at the marketing for most fantasy games online – some buxom elf or warrior woman. Frey is responding to this overused, terribly tired trope, and body slamming it.

Like many critics who appear to have never finished the book, I was emotionally charged enough to want to stop reading. I was angry. Angry at Frey for making me face that male power fantasy and interrogate it. Angry at Frey for taking what I took for love between Pip and Forsyth (a character I identified with very closely) and telling me it hadn’t happened. Angry on Pip’s behalf, because what was done to her was wrong. And that’s when I realized this was the most important work of fantasy in 2015. Suddenly, I didn’t just want Pip not to be raped. I wanted a lot of fictional women who had been thrown at the hero’s feet by their controlling mastermind to be vindicated.

It’s the same thing John Scalzi did with the lazy writing of Trek-style episodic narratives in Red Shirts. He wasn’t saying, “Trek sucks.” He was saying, “Trek could be so much better. And here’s how.” It was a call for better writing.

The Untold Tale does for fantasy what Redshirts did for SF. It addresses a particular area that needs to see change. And before you say that writers like Frey are just placing feminist shackles on everything, make sure you read the rest of The Untold Tale. Because Frey doesn’t just slap the guys with the male power fantasy. She slaps the self-righteous voices that ignore a partner’s “right to desire.” In the case of The Untold Tale, that partner is male, because it is Forsyth who calls Pip out on this. And this is appropriate, because it’s likely mostly men who will feel the full brunt of Frey’s chastisement.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read those words, because I’d been arguing that very thing in my head for chapter after chapter. The metacommentary had felt very one-sided to that point. And Frey doesn’t stop with that. She takes a few more turns (all puns intended) with her meta-conversation before the end of the book, concluding in a fashion which is exceedingly satisfying.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien talks about the eucatastrophe, which is effectively the consolation that emerges from the darkness near the end of good fantasy. Something terrible must happen before the hero can win out, or the stakes aren’t high enough: if the stakes are high enough, the happy ending, as Tolkien put it, “ pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” But this cannot come without Frodo at the edge of the Cracks of Doom, overcome by the Ring. We as the reader must despair, or the victory will not feel worth having. Frey takes her reader on a very dark journey – one that is primarily internal and emotional in terms of darkness. Forsyth and Pip perch at the edge of a volcano, but it is a relational one, not physical. And the book took its darkest turn for me when Forsyth gave his love as a sacrifice so they could complete their quest. It’s my favourite moment of the book, though when I read it, it was just painful. The idea of giving the love you feel for someone because that love causes you pain was incredible.

And this is the best reason to consider reading The Untold Tale, and why it's one of the most important works of fantasy from 2015. Because it isn’t just smart metacommentary--a book with nothing but a social agenda usually makes for crap reading, because it isn't a story, it's a sermon. Beyond what it has to say about the genre of fantasy, The Untold Tale is a wonderful fantasy story set in a beautiful secondary world: one I look forward to journeying through again.