I met Dr. Amy H. Sturgis this last spring at ConCarolinas. We just so happen to have the same Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab locket and both wear it regularly to cons, pointing and shouting at each other in crowded hallways. I finally got the nerve to talk to her at ConCarolinas, where she conducted a panel about Sherlock Holmes. The panel was packed, informative, and no one wanted to leave when the time was up. We chatted later over a beer, during which conversation she kindly pretended not to be embarrassed by the potted plant on my head.
She is a resource for scholarship and literary analysis for modern and historical SF/F literature and media, with such articles titled ” ‘Just Get Us a Little Further’: Liberty and the Frontier in Firefly and Serenity” (in The Philosophy of Joss Whedon Dean Kowalski and S. Evan Kreider, eds., University, Press of Kentucky, 2011), and participating in such podcasts titled “Gothic Literature and the Harry Potter Universe, Part 1″ (roundtable discussion with the Potter Pundits, including Travis Prinzi, John Granger, James Thomas, and guest expert Amy H. Sturgis for PotterCast, The Official Podcast of The Leaky Cauldron, Number 206, October 2009). I find her research to be meaningful to my reading life, bringing new aspects and qualities to the science fiction and fantasy I love to read.
This interview will run in two parts. The first is today, followed by the conclusion on Friday, 30 September 2011.
You can get a degree in Science Fiction history? What is it exactly you study?
I’d love a degree in Science Fiction History! As it is, I hold a Ph.D. (from Vanderbilt University) in Intellectual History, which is the history of ideas. As Ray Bradbury once said, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself…” I don’t think he was too far off the mark. If we define science fiction broadly to include “proto-”science fiction, this takes us back to Plato’s Republic; even if we limit ourselves to modern science fiction proper, beginning with, say, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we find that all of the major issues of modernity are addressed in various strains and movements of science fiction and related speculative fiction.
All of the big questions – What does it mean to be human? How should we approach the unknown? What is progress? What discoveries are around the corner, and how might they change us? – appear in science fiction, and the genre always seems to represent the cutting edge of contemporary thought as we develop new ways to think about and wrestle with these concerns. As a distillation of modern ideas, science fiction is a scholar’s dream.
I love to explore the challenging and innovative answers (and new questions) the genre provides. (If it’s not obvious, I’ll admit it up front: I’m a science fiction fan as well as a scholar.) So that’s what I do: I focus on tracing different ideas through the ongoing development and dialogues of science fiction. My other field of emphasis is Native American Studies, and (believe it or not!) I’ve found many ways in which the two subjects overlap.
We’ve seen a lot of these monster/classic lit mash up stories lately, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What are these and why are they so popular?
The monster/classic literature mashups seem to be a way of making what is old fresh again (Jane Austen’s work, for example), while putting a new and irreverent thumbprint on a classic text. I’ll confess that I don’t have as much expertise in this particular micro-genre as I do in other kinds of transformative works that retool/reimagine/update original texts, so I may not be the best person to ask about why they are so popular. Surely some of the appeal, though, has to be the sheer subversive fun of refusing to take the “great works” too seriously: the revenge of students who read assigned books that seemed dull (simply because, in many cases, they were assigned, and not chosen of the students’ own free will), and who thought at the time, “You know what would make this better? Zombies.” Those students grew up, and some became writers and publishers. Once one such mashup was successful, others were bound to follow.
Another micro-genre we’ve seen are the novels that extend the greats as “The Further Adventures of…” or novelizations of a secondary character like Darcy or Renfield. Should we take umbrage with such presumption? Are thy worth reading?
I tend to see the desire to extend/revisit a given literary universe as one of the highest compliments that can be paid to an author. While we should sneer at rip-offs designed to make a quick dollar (in any genre), I think there’s very good reasons to take pastiches, continuations, spin-offs, and “further adventures” seriously. After all, some of the great works of world literature have been, in essence, “fan fiction.” Just think of the amazing Arthurian texts written over the centuries, none of which “invented” King Arthur!
So much of what our society (often wrongly, to my mind) considers legitimate/illegitimate, serious/amateur, literary/popular is bound up in our current notion of high culture/low culture – and, let’s face it, copyright. Geraldine Brooks won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for March, which was based on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and clearly the literary establishment had no problem considering that a worthy title. I think the ongoing publication of works inspired by two of my favorite authors, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft, offer particularly good examples of the fact that truly creative and quality work can be built on the foundation of others’ texts. If the Doyle and Lovecraft ‘verses were not open to further continuation, we would never have had, for instance, the brilliance of Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” As to whether they are worth reading: I subscribe to Sturgeon’s Law, that ninety percent of everything is crap, so the question is whether or not the remaining ten percent is worthwhile.
I think that some of the works inspired by preexisting texts most definitely are. As always, one must pick and choose. I’ve been heartened to see Titan Books publishing the “Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” series, which is bringing back some of the most reputable and noteworthy pastiches of the past as well as new Sherlockian works. And I’ll happily admit that one of my favorite recent reads has been Lyndsay Faye’s excellent Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson
Interesting lady, huh? The interview only gets better from here, so check this space on Friday! She maintains an informative and interactive blog at http://eldritchhobbit.livejournal.com/. Go there, check it out, and come back here for the rest of this interview on Friday!