Tag: nerd hermeneutics

Zombie scale?

Abi Southerland on the current popularity of Zombies:

I mentioned this puzzle to my better half, who happens to be in the middle of a reread of World War Z. His answer? … You can have a fascinating story about a single zombie in a world of humans or the last human in a world of zombies. You can do one on one human-zombie interactions, or set entire armies against each other. They work differently as individuals (stupid and clumsy) and in crowds (lucky by means of what sheer numbers can do with probability theory). A group of them is as impersonal as a natural disaster; a single one is as intimate as death or betrayal.

Um. Maybe.

I suspect that, like most social phenomena, we’re in the realm of complex causation. There isn’t one reason for the popularity of the Zombie Apocalypse. Instead, we have a convergence of many reinforcing factors.

1. Over the last 10-15 years we’ve seen a number of different, but independently successful, Zombie-themed cultural artifacts. Just take two examples: we’ve had a generation (at least) of gamers cut their teeth on the Resident Evil franchise. 28 Days Later made a lot of money–and significant cultural impact–back in 2002. Both of these saw success for qualities not at all intrinsic to their Zombie elements, but related to their quality as games or as film.

2. Note I say “Zombie-esque.” Neither Resident Evil nor 28 Days Later dealt with “traditional” Zombies. The Zombies in both are the consequences of contagion unleashed by biomedical experiments. In fact, most contemporary Zombie fare–going back at least to George Romero’s genre-defining work–takes a similar line. While there have been attempts to update Vampire mythology the same way–with Vampyrism as a virus–I don’t think such attempts have really worked. The nature of the transformation seems less plausible; the contrast with fears of mass contagion and biotechnological catastrophe somewhat shallow.

3. Indeed, Zombies aren’t scalable so much in size but in terms of representation. Vampires are basically about sex, sex, and sex: “scary” female sexuality, “scary” eastern sexuality, coming of age, defilement and corruption, etc. Even the “good vampire” genre is basically about sex. You know: some powerful guy proving his love by restraining his natural urges and refusing to take the heroine’s virginity blood, even when the heroine has no such self control and would willingly surrender to him. I’m surprised Twilight didn’t get an grant from the Bush Administration.

Now, Barbara Hambly did once try to use vampirism to riff on nationalism and World War I, but Zombies will always beat Vampires as metaphors for nationalism. Indeed, as Romero himself proved, one can represent anything involving contagion (natural or mimetic), loss of individuality, or consumption with Zombies. And that covers a lot of ground.

4. Zombies are meta. Yes, of course, we all know about Shaun of the Dead, but Zombies have been ironic ever since they first appeared in US popular culture. Vampires just don’t work as objects of the funny-but-still-kinda-scary sort (except, perhaps, in Joss Weedon’s hands). Subject the Vampire mythology to too much scrutiny, however, and collapses under its own quasi-pornographic weight.

[update: I neglected vampirism as “drug abuse,” but I suspect that the The Lost Boys probably proves my point about the limited ways one can successfully use vampires as allegory]

Think of Bill in Left4Dead (“You call this a zombie apocalypse? This ain’t nothin’ compared to the zombie attacks of 1954!”) or Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, Episode 1 (“A Combine zombie. Zombie Combine. That’s, that’s like a… ah… a Zombine! Right? Heh”).

Ultimately, though, the real issue isn’t “Vampires versus Zombies” (although I think I smell a… oh wait, google says it’s been done) but why we’re seeing a wave of interest in metaphorically-laden supernatural thingies.

I would have attributed to the economy–kinda like punk’s big breakout in the US during the early 1990s–but it started before then. 9/11? Harry Potter as gateway drug? What do you think?


Oh, my

Anyway, the end begins tomorrow.

I’m sure the political-science/science-fiction nerds that dominate the international-relations blogsphere will have much commentary.

The main question: will it be like the first half of Season 2, or the second half of Season 3? Ah, the difference between greatness and farce….


The Convenant as Idrians? Cortana as a Mind?

It has been a busy week in world politics, but despite finishing my book I’ve been too squeezed to provide insightful commentary. A bit of geek-blogging, on the other hand, takes far less energy.

While I was trolling around Gamespot this discussion of Halo’s influences caught my eye:

GS: With Halo, you’ve succeeded in creating a unique sci-fi setting and storyline in a rather overcrowded genre. What were the inspirations for the game’s mythology?

Jaime Griesemer: That’s tough. Halo was created by a group of people, all with their own personal flavors and influences, so the end product is the result of all of those influences bouncing around and ricocheting off everything else. If I had to pick a handful of the more obvious ones, though, the Culture books by Iain Banks had a lot of influence on the technological and historical parts of the universe. The Vang by Christopher Rowley was a big inspiration for the flood, and Armor by John Steakley and the original Starship Troopersby Heinlein (not the movie version) gave us lots of good ideas for the Mjolnir armor. For movies, obviously there is a big Aliens influence, but the Bungie team has a very wide range of interests, so everything from old-school Westerns to 1950s sci-fi to obscure Japanese cult horror movies and the latest Michael Bay flick is fair game.

It turns out that at least one website devotes an entire page to The Culture novels’ influence on Halo. That’s nice, insofar as some Halo fans might decide to read the novels as a result.

But also somewhat odd. I guess Halo, like any ringworld, might be likened to a Culture Orbital. Certainly, the designers “quote” Iain Banks’ novels. But the direct influence seems pretty mediated.

Given that our own Patrick Jackson has a book chapter on The Culture, and Excession in particular, in Clyde Wilcox’s forthcoming edited volume on Science Fiction and Politics, it struck me as appropriate to bring the issue to the Duck. Anyone have any thoughts on the matter, on Halo in general, or on The Culture and world politics?

PS: Patrick would never write this on the Duck, but Banks told him that his essay was one of the best commentaries he’d ever read on The Culture novels.


Academics and Game Addictions

Dan Drezner reveals that he was (is?) a Civilization addict:

Occasionally, despite my mental efforts, one of these activities sneaks it’s way through my defenses. I’m convinced that had I not gotten hooked on Sid Meier’s Civilization game, I’d have another article somewhere on my cv. [What about blogging?–ed. A more complex answer — I’d probably have another article or two, but the articles on outsourcing and blogging would not be there either.]

Now, I must admit that I’m a bit dubious about being addicted to Civilization III. Did Dan escape the snares of Civilization I and Civilization II, or was he merely a latecomer to Sid Meier games?

Without a doubt, Europa Universalis II cost me more hours in lost productivity than any other computer game. I warn all International Relations scholars who are both interested in historical world politics and have a gaming bent to keep far, far away from it.

Good simulation of diplomatic parameters, balancing behavior, the chronic instability of early modern states, trade competition, religious dynamics, and lots of opportunity to create historical counterfactuals (so what might have happened if the French Crown had converted to Calvinism anyway? If China had turned towards outward exploration? If the Eastern Roman Empire survived and turned the tide against the Turks?). In sum, a nightmare for an International Relations nerd.

For me, it was like “playing” my dissertation. If a dissertation could be a really, really fun game.

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Nerd Hermeneutics

In response to Time Burke’s “Rampant Geekery: Star Wars Thoughts [SPOILERS]”, I made a comment about what I called “nerd hermeneutics”: the analysis of the text and media of speculative worlds, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, as if they were complete, self-contained systems. In a followup, Tim expands masterfully on this concept. He talks about it as “ways in which a fiction like Star Wars invites a particular kind of reader to make it into more than it is, to fill in its gaps, invent coherencies, see themes that are only barely there.”

Reading my comment with the benefit of, well, actually being more than half-awake, it is clear to me that I didn’t explain myself very well. Here’s what I wrote:

All of this encapsulates what’s wrong with Star Wars and why it is so damn popular among a certain class of geeks: they suggest this deep mythology. If one only has the secret decoder ring, then everything starts making sense. The thing is, the films really are much more interesting if we start interpolating – based perhaps, on our reading of the extensive canonical literature – some background conflict between intuitive and analytic force users in the Jedi Order, or if we rework the narratives of the first two films in light of the third. In honor of the late Ricoeur, let’s just call it “nerd hermeneutics.” Makes sense, I suppose, of why at least one very smart friend of mine says that Star Wars is his religion…

So here’s another try, in light of Tim’s subsequent post.

There are a number of different styles of nerd interpretive strategies, many of which might be termed “hermeneutical.” The flaw with Star Wars, therefore, is not that it lends itself to “nerd hermeneutics” but to a kind of Midrash.

When I was growing up, one of the most magical things about the original trilogy was the way it tossed off references to places and events, but did not explain them. Thus, we learned of the “Clone Wars,” “Bothans,” the dissolution of the “Imperial Senate,” the “Old Republic,” and the “spice mines of Kessel.” What were these things? I had no idea, so I, along with many of my friends, made up my own back stories. In short, we interpolated our own Midrash narratives. Sometimes I feel bad for George Lucas. When he decided to make the first three films, he had to come up with a plot that matched the imaginations of legions of fans. The fact that he couldn’t even come close was, I think, an even bigger disappointment than the poor craftsmanship that went into many aspects of the films.

Despite the ways in which the prequels filled in the narrative arc of Star Wars, the universe still lends itself to a Midrash style of interpretation. It does so because it drops a lot of hooks – references to events, concepts, peoples, and places – that never really come together. Indeed, the interpretations of the first three films that make them seem philosophically, conceptually, or politically interesting almost always rely on knowledge fans have gotten from the vast number of “shared universe” novels that exploit such references and explicate them. The films themselves do not provide enough material for a more traditional form of nerd hermeneutics, one more akin to “cultural hermeneutics” in the social sciences.

Compare them with, for example, the first Matrix film or Neon Genesis Evangelion. Both of these works of film/television speculative fiction leave a lot of room for interpolation and Midrash-style analysis, but they don’t need them. They can be subjected to challenging exercises in nerd hermeneutics without any need for a “secret decoder” ring.


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