A new book

I will confess to a sin of moral failing, in this case covetousness, on encountering Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art, a 2002 collection from Greenwood Press, edited by Gary Westfahl, George Slusser, and Kathleen Church Plummer. I should be delighted, and am, by this smart if slender volume on what Slusser in his Introduction calls the “iconology” of SF and fantasy art. It is an area in which I have a building interest, still inchoate but energized by an intuition bordering on zealotry that this tradition of illustration is part of a larger set of visualization practices that do double duty as artwork and as particularly actionable and productive scripts circulating among industrial and fan cultures. Here’s how I rather breathlessly summarized my current thinking in an email to a new professional acquaintance:

I’m coming off a long period of writing about special effects and fantastic-media franchises, along with ongoing pedagogical and scholarly interests in animation and videogames, and so I’m investigating SF and fantasy illustration in relation to media production, e.g. preproduction art and world design in movies, television, and gaming, as well as their function for fans whose investments and activities center less on narrative and character, and more on hardware, technology, terrain, physics, xenobiology, and so on: the content, both given and implied, of fictional universes. Traditions of SF illustration multiply intersect professional and fannish spheres of action (spheres which themselves overlap and diffuse into each other) as a kind of “build code” for branded industrial unrealities whose iteration over time establish highly specific iconographic conventions.

It’s a sprawling concept, one I’m just starting to shape and focus. As context, I’m currently writing a book on material forms of media fictions: object and artifacts produced and circulated around fantastic-media franchises, e.g. superhero statues and collectibles, spaceship and monster model kits, fantasy-wargaming miniatures, and prop replicas and costumes. One chapter looks at reference materials (maps, blueprints, encyclopedias, timelines, concordances) as a textual borderland between officially-authored serialized fantastic media properties and hardware-oriented fan activity; the documents function both as entrypoints to the fictional experience and as fuel for ongoing negotiations over canonicity, and often result in the replication of established objects and coining of new ones at both the official and grassroots production level. Thinking through these histories, Star Trek’s in particular, and relating them to emerging technologies of 3D printing and personal fabrication, led me to build code, which is now the governing figure of the SF illustration project.

I wrote this to Kate Page-Lippsmeyer, a PhD student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California, to whom Henry Jenkins was kind enough to introduce me based on our mutual interest in SF/F illustration and shared sense that it is a surprisingly underinvestigated topic. Unearthly Visions, which Kate helpfully put me onto, both proves and disproves the latter premise, as a lone beacon, a vanguard.

Or maybe I am just scratching the surface of a world of scholarship of which I’ve been shamefully oblivious; maybe I have tripped over a node in a robust network and am about to be pulled into a hundred conversations, a thousand citations. Loner that I am — and it’s a bad professional habit I am trying to break — I want to be both the lone astronaut on an endless unbothered voyage, and the wandering traveler welcomed by a friendly solar system.

Redshirts, blueshirts

Really enjoying Ina Rae Hark’s BFI TV Classics book on Star Trek. To write it, she watched 700 hours of cumulative Trek, and it shows in her comprehensive and confident discussion of the original series alongside the many spinoffs it spawned. Hark writes as an aca-fan, and her desire to analyze Trek as Trek results in passage after passage of original insights that balance critical readings with a respect for the show’s internal logic:

One choice made by the producers was to divide the specialities represented into three broad categorizations, denoted by the colors of their tunics. The captain, helmsman and navigator wore gold. It denoted command officers, those who directed the course of the ship and deployed its assets, such as phasers, photon torpedoes and tractor beams. Blue was the color of the science specialists, including the medical staff. Although Spock served as both the ship’s science officer and its first officer, his primary allegiance to enquiry and research was indicated by the face that his tunic was blue and not gold. If the blues gathered and analyzed data for the golds to base command decisions upon, everything that allowed the ship to do what it was commanded to do fell to the hands-on crew in red, who kept the engines and ship’s systems humming, enabled communications, performed secretarial duties and provided security. (These duties would be grouped under the rubric of ‘operations’ in TNG and the colors for command and operations would be reversed in the twenty-fourth century spinoffs.) (11)

Her dissection of the tropes that spanned the original series’ seventy-nine episodes, such as the insistent carnality of its vision of embodied subjectivity and corresponding distrust of the purified, decorporealized superintellect — a binary we currently apprehend through narratives of the singularity and transhuman consciousness — blows dust off an old franchise, leaving me eager to rewatch episodes. I’m halfway through her section on The Next Generation and enjoying myself.

Cartographers of (Fictional) Worlds, Unite!

J. K. Rowling’s appearance in a Manhattan courtroom this week to defend the fantasy backdrop of her Harry Potter novels is interesting to me for several reasons. It dovetails with a conversation I’ve been having in the Fan Culture class I’m teaching this semester, about the vast world-models that subtend many franchise fictions (e.g. the “future history” of Star Trek, the Middle-Earth setting of Lord of the Rings, the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, and so on). In his writing on subcreation, J. R. R. Tolkien calls these systematic networks of invented facts, events, characters, and languages “secondary worlds,” but more recently the phenomenon has been given other labels by media theorists: master text, hyperdiegesis. Henry Jenkins has put forth the most influential formulation with his concept of transmedia storytelling, which recasts franchise fictions like The Matrix as a kind of generative space — a langue capable of ceaseless acts of fictional parole — which can be accessed through any number of its “extensions” in disparate media.

One might say, in an excess of meta-thinking, that the notion of the storyworld itself floats suspended among these various theoretical invocations: a distributed ghost of a concept that feels increasingly “real.” As our media multiply, overlap, and converge in a spectacular mass ornament like a Busby Berkeley musical number, we witness a contrasting, even paradoxical, tendency toward stabilization, concreteness, and order in our fictional universes.

A key agency in this stabilization is the cataloging and indexing efforts of fans who keep track of sprawling storylines and giant mobs of dramatis personae, cross-referencing and codifying the rules of seriality’s endless play of meaning. Most recently, these labors have coalesced in communally-maintained databases like Lostpedia, the Battlestar Wiki, and — yes — the Harry Potter Lexicon at the heart of the injunction that Rowling is seeking. The conflict is over a proposed book project based on the online Lexicon, a fan-crafted archive of facts and lore, characters and events, that make up the Harry Potter universe. Although Rowling has been sanguine about the Lexicon till now (even admitting that she draws upon it to keep her own facts straight), the crystallization of this database into a for-profit publication has her claiming territorial privilege. Harry, Hermione, and Ron — as well as Quidditch, Dementors, and Blast-Ended Skrewts — are emphatically Rowling’s world, and we’re not quite as welcome to it as we might have thought.

At issue is whether such indexing activities are protected by the concept of transformative value: an emerging legal consensus that upholds fan-produced texts as valid and original so long as they add something new — an interpretive twist, a fresh insight — to the materials they are reworking. (For more on this movement, check out the Organization for Transformative Works.) Rowling asserts that the Harry Potter Lexicon brings nothing to her fiction that wasn’t there already; it “merely” catalogs in astonishing detail the contents of the world as she has doled them out over the course of seven novels. And on the surface, her claim would seem to be true: after all, the Lexicon is not itself a work of fiction, a new story giving a new slant on Harry and his adventures. It is, in a sense, the opposite of fiction: a documentary concordance of a made-up world that treats invention as fact. Ideologically, it inverts the very logic of make-believe, but in a different way from behind-the-scenes paratexts like author interviews or making-of featurettes on DVDs. We might call what the Lexicon and other fan archives do tertiary creation — the extraction of a firm, navigable framework from a secondary, subcreated world.

But is Rowling’s case really so straightforward? It seems to me that what’s happening is a turf battle that may be rare now, but will become increasingly common as transmedia fictions proliferate. The Lexicon, whether in print or cybertext, does compete with Rowling’s work — if we take that “work” as being primarily about building a compelling, consistent world. The Lexicon marks itself as a functionally distinct entity by disarticulating the conventional narrative pleasures offered by Rowling’s primary text: what’s stripped away is her voice, the pacing and structure of her storytelling. By the same token, however, the Lexicon produces Rowling’s world as something separate from Rowling. And for those readers for whom that world was always more compelling than the specific trajectories with which Rowling took them through it (think of the concept of the rail shooter in videogames), the Lexicon might indeed seem like a direct competitor — especially now that it has migrated into a medium, print, that was formerly Rowling’s own.

The question is: what happens to secondary worlds once they have been created? What new forms of authority and legitimacy constellate around them? It may well be the case that the singular author who “births” a world must necessarily cede ownership to the specialized masses who then come to populate it, whether by writing fanfic, building model kits and action figures, cosplaying, roleplaying, or — in the Lexicon’s case — acting as archivists and cartographers.

Before the Internet, such maps were made on paper, sold and circulated among fans. One of my areas of interest is the “blueprint culture” that arose around Star Trek and other science-fiction franchises in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll be speaking about this topic at the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara at the end of April, but Rowling’s lawsuit provides an interesting vantage point from which to blend contemporary and historical media processes.

The Video Game Explosion


A quick plug for a new book edited by my friend and colleague Mark J. P. Wolf, The Video Game Explosion: A History from Pong to PlayStation and Beyond (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008). I’ve worked with Mark before, on a collection he edited with Bernard Perron, The Video Game Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 2003). Mark is a remarkable historian and scholar, with an exhaustive mind for detail, who’s been in on game studies from the start (here’s an interview with him at The Brainy Gamer). His goal with this volume is nothing less than a comprehensive reference work on the history of videogames. From his introduction:

This book differs from its predecessors in several ways. It is intended both for the general reader interested in video game history as well as for students with chapters thematically organized around various topics, which are generally arranged in chronological order and tell the story of video games from their earliest inception to the present day. Other features of the book include sidebars and profiles that highlight various aspects of video game history and a glossary of terminology relating to video games and their technology. Some of the best people writing on video games today have contributed their scholarship to form this comprehensive history. While other books on video games have been written from a journalistic, sociological, psychological, or nostalgic point of view, here the video games themselves occupy a central position. Other aspects of history, such as the companies, game designers, technology, merchandising, and so forth, provide a necessary background, but games always remain in the forefront.

The Video Game Explosion is divided into five sections, “Looking at Video Games,” “The Early Days (Before 1985),” “The Industry Rebounds (1985-1994),” “Advancing to the Next Level (1995-present),” and “A Closer Look at Video Games.” There are entries on almost every imaginable subtopic within videogame history, including system profiles of the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and the PlayStation line; company profiles of Electronic Arts and Sega; genre profiles of adventure games, RPGs, and interactive movies; and a series of short essays examining videogame production in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

I particularly recommend the entries on “Rise of the Home Computer,” “Genre Profile: First-Person Shooting Games,” and the sidebar on “Retrogaming,” all written by yours truly.

Amazon link here; publisher’s page here.

Dumbledore: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell


I was all set to write about J. K. Rowling’s announcement that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay, but Jason Mittell over at JustTV beat me to it. Rather than reiterating his excellent post, I’ll just point you to it with this link.

Here’s a segment of the comment I left on Jason’s blog, highlighting what I see as a particularly odd aspect of the whole event:

On a structural level, it’s interesting to note that Rowling is commenting on and characterizing an absence in her text, a profound lacuna. It’s not just that Dumbledore’s queerness is there between the lines if you know to read for it (though with one stroke, JKR has assured that future readers will do so, and probably quite convincingly!). No, his being gay is so completely offstage that it’s tantamount to not existing at all, and hence, within the terms of the text, is completely irrelevant. It’s as though she said, “By the way, during the final battle with Voldemort, Harry was wearing socks that didn’t match” or “I didn’t mention it at the time, but one of the Hogwarts restrooms has a faucet that leaked continuously throughout the events of the seven books.” Of course, the omission is far more troubling than that, because it involves the (in)visibility of a marginalized identity: it’s more as though she chose to reveal that a certain character had black skin, though she never thought to mention it before. While the move seems on the surface to validate color-blindness, or queer-blindness, with its blithe carelessness, the ultimate message is a form of “stay hidden”; “sweep it under the rug”; and of course, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

We’ve got two more movies coming out, so of course it will be interesting to see how the screenwriters, directors, production designers, etc. — not to mention Michael Gambon — choose to incorporate the news about Dumbledore into the ongoing mega-experiment in cinematic visualization. My strong sense is that it will change things not at all: the filmmakers will become, if anything, scrupulously, rabidly conscientious about adapting the written material “as is.”

But I disagree, Jason, with your contention that Rowling’s statement is not canonical. Come on, she’s the only voice on earth with the power to make and unmake the Potter reality! She could tell us that the whole story happened in the head of an autistic child, a la St. Elsewhere, and we’d have to believe it, whether we liked it or not — unless of course it could be demonstrated that JKR was herself suffering from some mental impairment, a case of one law (medical) canceling out another (literary).

For better or worse, she’s the Author — and if that concept might be unraveling in the current mediascape, all the more reason that people will cling to it, a lifejacket keeping us afloat amid a stormy sea of intepretation.

Coming Soon: Videogame/Player/Text

This is a plug for a new collection on videogame theory, Videogame/Player/Text, that’s just about to be published by Manchester University Press (here’s the official announcement). The editors, Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska, came up with a great idea: invite game scholars to contribute chapters in which they turn a videogame of their choice inside out, upside down, and shake it wildly to see what insights tumble out.


For me, Videogame/Player/Text was an opportunity to return to the subject of first-person shooters, which have interested me both as a player and an academic since my early days in grad school. (My master’s thesis, a Lacanian reading of FPS history written at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, later became a chapter called “Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar” in The Video Game Theory Reader [Routledge, 2003], edited by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron — Amazon link here.)

For Tanya and Barry’s collection, I wanted to get away from the puzzle of retrofitting film theory to videogames (which is still, for many game scholars, anathema) and write in a more medium-specific manner. My focus in “Of Eye Candy and Id: The Terrors and Pleasures of Doom 3” is the evolution of graphic engines, the software component that renders 3D spaces from a subjective viewpoint and is an integral part — the kernel, really — of FPS experience. What I take on in my article for V/P/T is the question of when, exactly, graphic engines came into existence, both as a technical and discursive category; how graphics have generally been talked about in dialectical relation to gameplay; and how the evolution of 3D graphics relates to player embodiment, isolation, and solipsism. As a teaser, the opening paragraphs of my V/P/T essay are quoted here:

Let’s start with a claim often heard about Doom 3 (Activision/id Software, 2004): that it is “just” a remake of the 1993 original, the same stuff packaged in prettier graphics. That, although separated by eleven years and profound changes in the cultural, technological, and aesthetic dimensions of videogaming, Doom 3 – like all of Doom’s versions – boils down to a single conceit, recycled in the contemporary digital argot:

First, people are taken over, turned into cannibal Things. Then the real horror starts, the deformed monstrosities from Outside. … Soon, brave men drop like flies. You lose track of your friends, though sometimes you can hear them scream when they die, and the sounds of combat echo from deep within the starbase. Something hisses with rage from the steel tunnels ahead. They know you’re here. They have no pity, no mercy, take no quarter, and crave none. They’re the perfect enemy, in a way. No one’s left but you. You … and them.

Here the second-person voice does to readers what Doom so famously did to players, isolating them in a substitute self, an embattled, artificial you. The original Doom had its shareware release on December 10, 1993, marking the popular emergence of the first-person shooter or FPS. Less a game than a programming subgenre all its own, Doom’s brand of profane virtual reality was built around a set of graphical hacks – an “engine” of specialized rendering code – that portrayed navigable, volumetric environments from eye-level perspective. Players peered over shotgun barrels at fluidly animated courtyards and corridors, portals and powerups, and “deformed monstrosities” like the fireball-hurling Imp, the elephantine Mancubus, and the Cyberdemon (“a missile-launching skyscraper with goat legs”).

Technologically, Doom depended on advances in computer sound and imaging, themselves a result of newly affordable memory and speedy processors. Psychologically, the FPS stitched the human body into its gameworld double with unprecedented intimacy. Gone were the ant-farm displacements of third-person videogames, the god’s-eye steering of Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) and the sidescrolling tourism of Super Mario Brothers (Nintendo, 1985). Doom fully subjectivized the avatar – the player-controlled object around which action centers – turning it into a prison of presence whose embodied vulnerability (they’re coming for me!) deliciously complemented its violent agency (take that, you bastard!).

Shooters that followed – Unreal (GT Interactive/Epic, 1998), Half-Life (Sierra/Valve, 1998), Deus Ex (Eidos Interactive/Ion Storm, 2000), Halo (MS Game Studios/Bungie, 2001), and countless others – deepened the FPS formula with narrative and strategic refinements, not to mention improvements in multiplayer, artificial intelligence, and level design. But to judge by its latest iteration, the Doom series didn’t bother to evolve at all – except in terms of technical execution. …

As for the rest of V/P/T‘s contents, they look fascinating, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. A lot of friends among the contributors, and a lot of writers whose work I respect. Here’s the chapter lineup:

  • Introduction: Videogame, player, text – Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska
  • Beyond Ludus: narrative, videogames and the split condition of digital textuality – Marie-Laure Ryan
  • All too urban: to live and die in SimCity – Matteo Bittanti
  • Play, modality and claims of realism in Full Spectrum Warrior – Geoff King
  • Why am I in Vietnam? – The history of a video game – Jon Dovey
  • ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’: real-time game performance in Warcraft – Henry Lowood
  • Being a determined agent in (the) World of Warcraft: text/play/identity – Tanya Krzywinska
  • Female Quake players and the politics of identity – Helen W. Kennedy
  • Of eye candy and id: the terrors and pleasures of Doom 3 – Bob Rehak
  • Second Life: the game of virtual life – Alison McMahan
  • Playing to solve Savoir-Faire – Nick Montfort
  • Without a goal – on open and expressive games – Jesper Juul
  • Pleasure, spectacle and reward in Capcom’s Street Fighter series – David Surman
  • The trouble with Civilization – Diane Carr
  • Killing time: time past, time present and time future in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – Barry Atkins

Videogame/Player/Text should be published by the end of September from Manchester University Press. I invite you to check it out.