I have been conducting interdisciplinary research in U.S. history, media, and popular literature for more than a decade and presenting it to a diverse audience.
Science Fiction and Digital Humanities
I’m trying to combine my deep knowledge of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) and horror with digital humanities methods and approaches. An ongoing problem for many scholars is demonstrating the impact of their work beyond niche scholarly communities and their own classrooms. Digital Humanities has the potential to reach a much greater audience and to employ tools that expand a line of inquiry beyond the close reading of a relative handful of texts. However, presenting scholarship online can be difficult as so much of the material remains undigitized and within copyright limitations. I’m also finding my experience in university libraries to be raising my consciousness regarding the challenges archivists and librarians encounter when working to preserve these materials and make them discoverable and accessible.
All of these projects are in the early stages of discovery and will be collaborations:
- To develop a union catalog interface to help direct interested parties (Scholars and fans) to holdings of genre books and magazines, as well as the personal papers of authors and editors. In a utopian vision this might link directly through to the digitized witness when it is shared with the public. Right now most of these materials remain hidden in uncatalogued collections. Creating a unified discovery tool would greatly advance popular culture scholarship.
- On a related tack I’m interested in helping create a corpus of digitized magazines across genres for text analysis that use non-consumptive methods because of copyright concerns. But it would also be nice to be able to release the digitized versions when rights are granted.
- To create a network visualization of writers, editors, and publishers in genre magazines. I intend to start with the pulps and Golden Age, although this doesn’t much narrow the task given the overlaps across science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the strange/weird.
- Just in first discussions: an oral history of Speculative Fiction Fandom. We have the people, the methods, and the interest, but this will require not only technology to conduct the interviews, but also a lot of storage media, then processing and production time. This is going to require funding.
My immediate work is on the evolving representations of Artificial Intelligence in science fiction, particularly on TV in FOX’s Humans and HBO’s Westworld. A particular thread that ties these recent series to past examples including the reimagined Battlestar Galactica and the original Westworld movie or its contemporary, The Stepford Wives, is that of sexual objectification and individual agency.
Finally, as with so many other academics, I have not yet given up on transforming my dissertation (see below) into a monograph. This project is proving more difficult as the available texts have more than doubled since the dissertation was completed in 2012.
My most recent piece was an introduction for Frankenstein’s Legacy, a series of discussions involving the ethics of creation and potential effects of artificial intelligence and robotics on human society. This introduction applies Isaac Asimov’s “Frankenstein Complex” to a range of media depictions inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel as a way to set up the discussion of ethical discovery and innovation by a panel of faculty drawn from Philosophy, Physics, Design, and Computer Science.
Comics and graphic novels
I wrote on the relationship between reality and fantasy narratives in graphic novels in a volume of Salem Press’s Critical Insights series: “The Reality/Fantasy Narrative and the Graphic Novel” in Critical Insights: The Graphic Novel, edited by Gary Hoppenstand for Grey House Publishing/Salem Press. I explore the depictions of characters who are anthropomorphized abstract concepts such as Death, Dream, and Desire or Chaos, Order, and Eternity in the semi-mimetic “reality” of superhero comics. My work also appears in a collection of scholarship on the Iron Man comic series, The Ages of Iron Man: Essays on the Armored Avenger in Changing Times, edited by Joseph J. Darowski for McFarland & Co. My chapter is “Iron Icarus: Comics Futurism and the Man-Machine System,” a study of how the comic series has dealt with questions of cybernetics and suggests that humans must remain in control rather than reduce human oversight of advanced weapons systems.
Apocalyptic Science Fiction
I have also published two articles that contribute to the field of American Studies in their exploration of civil rights, national security, and the growing anxiety of biowarfare and pandemics. “The Cain Mutiny: Reflecting the faces of Military Leadership in a Time of Fear,” which appears in the collection Cylons in America, is an analysis of military and civilian leadership during a time of prolonged national emergency and considers the tension between the competing goals of providing security and defending civil liberties. My second article “Zombie Apocalypse: Plague and the End of the World in Popular Culture,” appeared in End of Days: Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity, a collection edited by Karolyn Kinane and Michael A. Ryan (McFarland 2009). This article considers notions of plague and the unquiet dead, and tracks the evolution of these themes in contemporary popular culture as the transformation of the vampire myth through scientific rationalization in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and the recent films it inspired that replace supernatural agencies with scientifically plausible explanations for the end of the world by drawing on recurrent fears of contagion, infection, and death.
My dissertation, Shattered States: Catastrophe, Collapse, and Decline in American Science Fiction, completed under the direction of Dr. Gary Hoppenstand, explores the destruction and collapse of the United States and the failure to preserve its democratic institutions in recent American post-apocalyptic speculative texts. Exploring the connections between literature, media, and social issues in late-20th century American culture, I apply the techniques of literary and media criticism, cultural studies, and historical analysis toward developing a composite of American culture incorporating a variety of subcultures and communities, especially those that blur along the borders of identity including gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. The majority of my American Studies coursework was with faculty in the English program or the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures, who helped me to refine my tools for working with the shifting representations of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in speculative fiction and new media. By focusing on popular culture, and more specifically genre literature and media, I engage with a discourse that considers the fractures within American society and the possible failures of its civil liberties. Studying these apocalyptic metaphors has helped me to chart the expanding identity and cultural conflicts in the U.S. during the late-20thcentury as social divisions and tensions that suggest the declining potential of the “American Dream” against an embattled political and cultural identity that remains bound to World War II triumphalism and Cold War fears.
I completed the dissertation in 2012, right before an explosion in postapocalyptic comics, novels, and television began during the second Obama administration. Now, in the time of Trump, there are almost too many to track. The dissertation applied a set of heuristics for inclusion in the corpus that needs to be rethought in light of the growing tribalism of political factions in the United States as well as the increasing incidents of public violence and political disenfranchisement.