I’ve started a long string of working days, so I want to make room to celebrate some of the work that delights and provokes me from week to week. I want to say that this will be a regular feature–but, I know myself too well, so, let’s just call it an optimistic start.
Movie: Pumzi (2009)
I start teaching “Intro to Science Fiction” on May 2, and my class’s first taste of analysis will come from a viewing of Pumzi, a twenty-minute 2009 film that held up tremendously well on re-watch this week. This Kenyan production about a water-scarce future is elegantly produced and highly affecting, and touches on a number of themes I hope to develop over the next four weeks. I hope the students enjoy it as much as I did, and I look forward to seeing how many different ideas about the uses of science fiction they generate from it on Tuesday.
TV Show: Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Return (2017)
“Omar comin’!” mutters kidnapped-space-scientist Jonah Ray, while a little boy in a terrible, terrible Christmas movie comes whistling on screen with an evergreen slung over his shoulder. I didn’t think I’d laugh as often at MST:3K’s revival as I did, but while the old episodes–which I watched well after their air-dates–were always endearingly goofy, I found a distinct joy in background-binge-watching a roast of lousy movies replete with more up-to-date references. The show’s changes haven’t diminished its fundamental character–so if you liked the old, or liked the old in theory but never got into it in practice, do give the new one a try.
Short Story: Salman Rushdie Reads Italo Calvino’s “Love Far From Home” (April 2017)
This is a bit of a cheat, because it’s a New Yorker Fiction Podcast, but I found the original story less remarkable than hearing Salman Rushdie and Deborah Treisman discuss its position in Calvino’s career: a work, that is, on the cusp of his transition into the style of writing and body of literature for which he is best known today. I enjoyed Rushdie’s breakdown of where and why he thought an older writer would have changed the ending, and I chuckled at both his and Treisman’s bafflement that Calvino could be so jaded about love so young.
Book: Longitude (1995)
The path to publishing a history of stellar evolution is now, for me, a little more scattered than it was this time last year, but I can still take lessons from–and delight in!–other people’s successes in the pop-sci genre. In particular, Sobel’s Longitude is a marvel of short, controlled sentences, which she uses to advance eminently memorable anecdotes about Western civilization’s long, meandering path towards the chronometer. The book is as engaging and accessible as it is informative–a real feat; and one I have yet to master.
Music: Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” (2016)
Technically, I devoted more of this week to repeat listens of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, which moved me in places and troubled me in others, but this is the song I found myself humming more often–grammatical idiosyncrasy and all. Kiwanuka’s music has a near-timeless quality, with most pieces feeling like classic Motown grooves, swing, and soul–but also aching in a way that suits the contemporary world just fine. Lines like “Maybe this time / I can be strong / But since I know who I am / I’m probably wrong” especially hit the spot for me this week.
Article: “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” The Atlantic (April 20, 2017)
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
When the library at Alexandria burned it was said to be an “international catastrophe.” When the most significant humanities project of our time was dismantled in court, the scholars, archivists, and librarians who’d had a hand in its undoing breathed a sigh of relief, for they believed, at the time, that they had narrowly averted disaster.
James Somers’ account of a failed utopian project–and all the societal “protections” to blame–is a striking affirmation of how extraordinary the “future” in our present is. The fact that these are the sorts of problems we have today (alongside all our age-old horrific ones) speaks to how far we’ve come. For me, at least, there was something uplifting in the ruins.
Maybe it seems odd to cheer at failure, but I once published a short story, “We Who Are About to Watch You Die Salute You,” which used long-form journalism to convey how exceptional events (i.e. Mars colonization; mass death on a Mars colony; and the uncertain fate of a crew still hurtling towards Mars) would nevertheless unfold in a mundane way: absent a proper sense of wonder, that is, because of the smallness of infotainment culture and related Terran politics. I wouldn’t call my story a success–only a few readers seemed to grok the style, and I am, again, too much a fan of long sentences to achieve the correct voice for journalism–but in articles like Somers’, I find better examples of I was striving for: namely, the reminder that even in our failures, we often reveal our extraordinary potential as a species.
Whatever your own accomplishments and potentials this week, I hope you found them amplified by your own reading, viewing, and listening choices.
Either way, best wishes to you all.