Eric’s Publications & Other Writing

“Rationality and Privilege in Classic Robot Stories” in Letterature D’America

In this article, I explain how Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” and Anthony Boucher’s “Q.U.R.” reveal the ways rationality both threatened and masked cultural privileges rooted in whiteness and masculinity in a still-segregated America. These classic American robots stories help us probe the cultural logic shaping the response of men whose autonomy and privilege was being squeezed structurally on one side by a bureaucratizing social system and on the other by pressure from women and African Americans advocating for an end to legal discrimination and segregation. When initially conceived, this article was part of my unfinished “Gentle-(Mechanical)-Man” project (a fragment of which I list below). I never figured out how to fit the pieces together, but by separating out my analysis of Jack Williamson’s robots, I managed see even more in the stories than I had years before.

Usable Futures, Disposable Paper: Popular Science, Pulp Science Fiction and Modernization in America, 1908 -1937

It is true that Gemsback-era science fiction encouraged readers to treat fantastic changes as if they were “cold facts,” simple realities that could not be disputed. But many pulp science fiction writers were incapable of representing the cold facts of the present: mechanization, bureaucratization, and the deep penetration of the logic of capitalism into private life. Despite their fascination with science, invention, and human progress, and their faith that all problems had solutions, only a few writers turned their considerable imaginative power to the lived conditions of existence. The farthest most would go was to suggest that science would build a utopia, but ignorance, stubbornness, greed, and superstition—not capitalism—would prevent human beings from living in a technological paradise. But, as the stories I present in this dissertation indicate, some readers and writers used the symbolic resources of science fiction to represent modernization as a threat aimed precisely at people like themselves. In their view, depression, unemployment total war, political impotence, and cultural crisis followed on scientific and technological change. In the hands of greedy capitalists, science enslaved humanity or threatened it with extinction. Serving as the handmaiden of capitalism, science denied humanity its birthright of creativity and curiosity, exacerbated greed and selfishness, and replaced human empathy with hostility and indifference. 

“Business Girls and Beset Men in Pulp Science Fiction and Science Fiction Fandom” in Femspec (corrected text)

Between 1924 and 1939, only a few science fiction stories treated women’s working relationship to science as a matter of fact. But Dr. David H. Keller’s “Air Lines” and George Frederick Stratton’s “Sam Graves’ Gravity Nullifier” ask what happens to men, women, and business when women become key players in the usually exclusively-male business of science and invention. These representations of women as active shapers of science are not approving reflections of women working in science, but narrative propositions in early Twentieth-Century debates about the biological, psychological, and sociological effects of middle-class women working in such clerical occupations as stenographer, typist, and secretary.

“‘A Finer and Fairer Future’: Commodifying Wage Earners in American Pulp Science Fiction” in Endeavour: A Quarterly Magazine Reviewing the History and Philosophy of Science

When considered in light of the life stories of the people who wrote and read it, pulp science fiction functioned as an important catalyst for serious thought about the nature and future of industrial modernity. Written and published largely by middle-class professionals and para-professionals, and read mainly – although not exclusively – by young men about to become wage earners, American pulp SF is best understood as an inter-class discussion about the real-life consequences of the institutionalization (in corporate research laboratories, university science departments and government bureaucracies) and professionalization of American science and invention, as well as the ‘scientific’ routinization this brought into industrial work. Features analysis of Paul Ernst’s “The Incredible Formula” and ads targeting working-class men.

You Are All Muckers!: From ‘Experimenter’ to ‘Reader’ in Hugo Gernsback’s Popular Science Magazines, 1908 – 1926

In Hugo Gernsback’s radio and popular science magazines, readers were asked to identify themselves as active amateur scientists and inventors. Until 1923, Gernsback magazines were semi-technical journals designed first and foremost to help amateur radio buffs to construct, improve, and experiment with home-radio sets. Circuit diagrams, practical advice, and model experiments combined with “radio fiction,” personal experience stories, narrative non-fiction, and hagiographies as raw materials in the construction of a closely related set of modern identities—ham, amateur, experimenter, DXer. Each of these terms connoted a serious enthusiasm for electrical gadgets and the scientific principles that made them work. By 1926, it was very difficult to sustain a belief in amateur radio as anything other than a marginal, if vital, subculture having little impact on American society. Unable to apply his technical optimism credibly to an amateur experimenter culture by the mid-1920s Gernsback transferred it to science fiction. Reading and writing about the future progress of science would have to suffice for the men and women who once actually did amateur science in radio outbuildings and basement laboratories.

“Gentle Disruptions: Edward Scissorhands and the Discourse of Normalcy” on

Edward Scissorhands rehearses the trauma of living without categories, but resolves that trauma through abnegation and isolation. The once-upon-a-time format of the framing story, itself, denies the collective face of this problem, turning the story into an instructive, but finally, too sweet tale of frustrated romantic love, one of the key ideological constellations that made the invention of the homogenous suburb possible. In the end, the fantasy of radical individualism cannot solve the problem of how to code social difference; it, like etiquette, can only soothe our humiliation and discomfort.

Gentle-(Mechanical)-Men on

Android Data touches the chest of his friend Geordi

This is part of an unfinished project that represents what an emergent gender and popular fiction scholar just cutting his teeth managed to think about how some pornographic Star Trek: The Next Generation fan fiction was doing a kind of vernacular gender theory. Since 1995, scholarly study of fan fiction has matured a lot and in some communities gender theory has become a lingua franca for people living their genders in much more complex ways. There’s probably a lot about this piece that might come off as naive or mistaken, but as the parent of a transperson, I’m proud that long ago, in this piece, and in my Edward Scissorhands piece, I was already thinking about gender in ways that made it possible to accept their truth.

I think it fair to argue that the masculinity Trek fan-writers feel most in need of revision is straight masculinity.  As the privileged form of the rhetoric, “straight masculinity” has too often been a rhetoric of oppression for women and gay men.  The authors of these stories attempt to encourage straight men to craft new gentle relationships with women and with alternative masculinities.  Just how receptive straight men are to the revised-but-still-problematic masculinities offered by these stories will be difficult to determine.   Nevertheless, the fact that these poached texts offer straight men a point of entry into discussions about new masculinities is an encouraging sign that perhaps straight men may soon perceive their own interests in revising the ways they perform their gender.

“Making Contact; Learning to Hear Angry Words” on

You can imagine how I felt listening to Maya. I thought of myself as a good liberal, a student of history, and generally a person sensitive to the way racial violence has shaped American history. So, I was angry, ashamed, and defensive. I tried to explain myself, and defend myself, but struggled to find the language to answer her criticism. Instead of listening, thinking, and responding, I spoke to protect myself and maintain my sense of myself. “Does every lesson in a class like this have to focus on the sins of white people?” I asked.

“Fishing for Manhood” on

Eric Drown fishing from a dockLooking at me, sitting there, most of my mind parsecs away in a piece of science fiction, letting fish off the hook, he must have thought that my devotion to reading wasn’t quite manly enough. That if I was to be successful in life, my interest in reading needed to be tempered by an interest in the world beyond me. My dad looked at me. I put my book down and tried to focus on fishing. But what I really wanted to do was get back to the adventures of Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land.

“Is Clementa Science Fiction?” (commissioned essay)

Like Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, Clementa is first a dramatized critique of the destructive, deforming force of the rationalistic, technophilic patriarchy that Huntington found at the ideological heart of the classic science fiction story. It’s the story of a visit to a far-future post-European land where the sky-gazing men of Malastro fetishize a technology that they can neither understand nor make work. The Malastrans enforce a stifling societal hierarchy premised equally on a perverted chivalric code and the command-control scheme of 1980s-era corporations, and divide women into economically productive Drudges and sexually reproductive Dolls. Within this setting, the novel clearly shows that patriarchy devalues and degrades both sexes, distorts economic, political, and cultural relationships between and within sexes, and depends on cultural and material acts of violence to sustain it.

“Death in the Afternoon” on

Maya Deren at the window palms pressed on the glassThere comes a signature moment in Maya Deren’s 1943 short film, Meshes of the Afternoon. A young woman looks placidly out of the picture window of her home, her hands lightly touching the glass. Trees and bushes reflected on the windowpane frame her face. Deren loved this picture of herself. She used it as a head-shot and on book jackets until she died. Composed by her then-husband and cinematographer Alexander Hammid, it is a lover’s portrait, a young man’s tribute to his beautiful young wife. But this image is more than an artifact of Deren’s and Hammid’s love for one another; it is also a key image in a cinematic investigation into the psychology of dreams.

“College Reading Secrets Your Professor Expects You to Know” on

The days of being able to skim a few pages of the reading and fake it in class are over. In college you will be required to read far more than you may be used to, the readings will be more complex, and you will be asked to do more with them. Failure to read up to your professors’ expectations is a major cause of student under-performance.

“Buckle Down – How to Study When You Don’t Really Want To” on

I mentioned that the first part of the answer lies in having a ritual to transition from the mindset you use to navigate everyday life to the mindset you need to focus and study. By ritual, I just mean a pattern of behavior that eases you out of a more outward-facing social mindset and leads to focus. It could include one last check of social media, getting a beverage or snack, tidying your desk, whatever. Just something that takes a few minutes and signals to your brain that you’re about to study.

“Supercharge Your Reading By Focusing on Concepts”

In my experience working with students in first-year writing classes and reading- and writing-support sessions, students’ reading comprehension, focus, retention, and ability to use their reading to solve problems improves rapidly when they pay attention to the interplay of concepts in their readings.

Science & The Amateur – My first appearance on Odyssey: A Talk Show about Ideas (60 minutes)

I had been a public radio listener for over a decade when I got a call one day from a producer from Chicago Public Radio’s Odyssey.  A young scholar in my first “real” job as a professor, I found it both scary and exhilarating to be asked to be one of two guests on a one-hour talk radio show with a national call-in audience.  I’m a little nervous at the beginning of the show.  But I’m proud of the way I settled down and became the kind of Public Radio guest to which I had always enjoyed listening.

Science Movies – My second appearance on Odyssey: A Talk Show about Ideas (60 minutes)

My first appearance on Odyssey was followed up a few months later with an invitation to discuss the image of science and technology in a cycle of films that saw science and scientists as both invasive and all-knowing.  Gretchen Helfrich is a generous interviewer, who sees it as her job to bring out the best in her guests.  I had a lot of fun doing this show.

“Helping Students Read Complex Texts” on