Change is Coming

I really love writing pseudo-academic rants about fantasy and science fiction books – it’s an opportunity to dig into what makes my favourite genres work and occasionally a few people also like to read what I write. But I am about to start my final year of my undergraduate in museum studies and as I move towards applying to graduate school I am looking to expand the kinds of things I write about (also post more consistently through the school year but that is a bit of a pipe dream).

That isn’t to say that there won’t still be posts about fantasy books but there is also going to be more pieces that relate to some of the wider reading that I do. Whether it be thoughts on academic papers, interesting internet subcultures or real-world creativity I am always interested in how information is shared so that the greatest number of people can enjoy it. If you have found the kind of nitpicking and analysis that I put into my posts about books interesting, I think that you might enjoy the expanded content that is coming to the blog.

I will also be changing the appearance of the blog so things will look quite different in the coming weeks alongside the arrival of different types of content.

So in general, change is coming, and I hope you will stick around.

Where Science Cannot Follow: Dreams as the Site of Speculative Fiction

There is a great deal of speculative fiction that has been made impossible in recent years by the progression of science, technology and time. Stories that once presented a world that was not necessarily real but was still possible based on the understanding of the world that was prevalent at the time the story was being written. That isn’t to say that The War of the Worlds is no longer an enjoyable book to read because Wells didn’t know that there are no advanced aliens on Mars or that the message of 1984 is now irrelevant because Orwell got his timelines wrong. Rather, science has moved beyond the minutia of those stories and shifted the experience of reading those books. As a result, speculative fiction has had to shift if it wants to remain within the realm of possibility. One such place is the world of sleep and dreams which remain an area that science struggles to fully understand and explain. Films like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, or Hank Green’s debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing make dreams the setting of much of their world and build a speculative experience around something that science still cannot fully explain.

The entry into dreams is important, and very different, in the worlds created in Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. Christopher Nolan does not give all people easy access to the world of dreaming, instead it is a process that requires drugs and no small amount of skill, especially if the dreamer wants to have the kind of high stakes adventures that are at the centre of the plot. Additionally, dreams in this form are not the benign experience of the real world but rather are filled with dangers and pitfalls that come with looking behind the curtain – implying that what science might find when it does master the details of sleep may not be as pleasant as some would like to imagine. Hank Green is one of the people who utilize dreams as a site of positive experience that is universal. His novel uses a dream world in order build a shared experience where everyone begins on equal footing across cultures. Nolan and Green’s contrasting interpretation rest on decisions about how they want their readers or viewers to interact with the notion of dreaming.

Inception feels in many ways aspirational – you sit and watch Leonardo DiCaprio run around taking on all kinds of risks and think about how great it would be to become that kind of badass. But rather than requiring a monster workout regime the dreaming of Inception is just out of reach because the world of dreams remains a mystery (also because dream sharing is not actually possible). Alternately, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing presents dreams as something amazing that will happen to you, not something that can be pursed or created by rather a phenomenon that is driven by an external force. These are very particular decisions that have been made in during the world building of the speculative stories in the same way that a fantasy writer must decide who has access to magic.

Both of these stories feature dream sharing as a pivotal mechanic. The creators are not just interested in a setting that is separate from science, they want to explore the collective experience of these places. The collaborative aspects are what are beyond science but the need for sleep and for dreams means that it much easier to accept these constructions that it is the notion that we might one day be invaded by Martians. Technology has enabled us to see Mars in detail and to send probes to collection additional information but the picture that science creates about sleep is much less clear so creators like Nolan or Green are able to fill in these spaces with their own imaginings. Dreams are still a place where we are able to collaboratively imagine a world that is not restricted by science which means they have an immense range of possibilities that Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing take full advantage of.

People do not experience these stories and necessarily believe that they will occur in the real world, but the experience doesn’t require the same level of suspension of disbelief that other texts may depend upon. The speculative worlds that Hank Green and Christopher Nolan create are based in the possibilities that arise when science is unable to provide a clear list of restrictions. Whether the creator chooses to use the world of dreams as an exclusive place that visitors must earn entry into or if dreams are a kind of magic that happens to the dreamer the dream is still a space that is protected by real world mystery. One day Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing will be made even less plausible as science explains the intricacies of sleep but until that happens dreams are a largely unexplained phenomena that make room for speculative imaginings of the future.

Cardistry from the Outside: Creativity or Skill

Somehow a deck of cards doesn’t seem like a medium that could create art. Cards are used for such low brow games as Go Fish while Bridge is about as complicated as it gets but even that is a far cry from painting or dance. However, the creative display of dexterity with playing cards has moved beyond the realm of distractions in a magic show into a thriving discipline of its own. Cardistry has a vibrant scene including a convention and a community of artists, many of whom are visible on YouTube or other social media. For someone who stumbles across a performance video – either edited with music or just clips of people showing off – cardistry lives purely in the realm of art. The patterns are unfamiliar and the motions that go into creating the flourishes are impossible to follow but the performance vids lead quickly down the rabbit hole into tutorial videos that complicate the line between art and skill.

(It is at this point that I should mention this is a piece written based on limited experience and I could not be farther from an expert on cardistry – which is kind of the point)

Just like any other discipline cardistry rests on a basic repertoire that every cardist must master before moving onto more complex moves. The charlier or sybil cuts are examples of basic moves that teach a variety of grips and finger movements that are used in more complex combinations. It is at this point that a newcomer will either sit down and spend the time grinding practice in a mirror until they become smooth or it is the point where they decide that this is too hard, and they simply do not have the dexterity. I think the ones who don’t pick up a deck are more likely to view cardistry as pure art: something that relies on natural talent that no amount of practice can teach in the same way that repetition won’t allow the average person to paint a Mona Lisa. But, for those who put in the time reaching some degree of proficiency with the basic moves opens door into intermediate patterns and makes it seem like the elaborate flourishes are within the realm of possibility. This is a view of cardistry that is based in a skill model – with practice you can be just as good as anyone else.

Even the tutorial videos only represent a tiny portion of the flourishes and cuts that are on display in performances. Cardists are constantly developing new variations on old moves or even developing tricks that are entirely new. Flourishes are named by their creators and when others talk about these movements, they refer to the name given by the original artist in the same way poetry or paintings are attributed to their creators. There is also a thriving economy that provides the supporting infrastructure for cardistry that has its own set of artists who are only sometimes the cardist themselves. Beautiful decks of playing cards are designed, printed and distributed, some tutorials are placed behind a pay wall and videographers are clearly involved in some of the film making. Cardistry is full of creative people doing creative things but rather than targeting only the talented minority they represent themselves as accessible to the newcomer.

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle of skill and art, that yes enough practice makes any individual cut or flourish possible, but it takes true creativity to be the one designing new movements. Even putting together an entire routine made up of other people’s patterns appears to require not just practice but an instinct for how the movements fit into each other. From all outward appearances this is how the cardistry community understands itself as well, especially given they named them with a card-artist portmanteau. There are tutorials and even a cardist convention that connect people all over the world, but the individual practitioners have a great deal of respect for the work of other artists. The process of invention and sharing has the same sense of the proprietary knowledge that appears in other disciplines. Collectively this makes the world of cardistry seem very much like any other art-world with a network of artists who are part of an industry that looks impenetrable from the outside.

Cardistry offers the opportunity to consider how appearances mask the reality of what appears to be incomprehensible art. The discipline of cardistry relies on the audience being unwilling to explore the line between art and skill but just a little digging exposes the potential path to card mastery. The entrance to cardistry is guarded by what appears to be hours and hours of practice but it challenges newcomers to consider what level of work they are willing to put in and what they consider to be the dividing line between art and skill.