SFF & Classics (1)

Day 1:
I must confess that I was somewhat nervous and un-engaged at the beginning of the first day because my rather sketchy paper was in the first set of panels at the beginning of the afternoon and as a result found it quite hard to follow the two morning papers.
The first was a potted history of the Science-fiction foundation and the second an insight into the writing of Roman inspired alt. history. Each was interesting in its own way but perhaps less inspiring for the scholar in me than for the dilettante I try to hide. I did, however, feel that I ought to go home and read Sophia MacDougall’s books after having heard her speak and perhaps that is all that I needed to take away from the session. Next followed a slightly embarrassing being locked out incident related to forgetting my phone charger and a rather more embarrassing speaking in public incident (I promise I will talk about my panel later) then coffee and the Television and SF panel.

I wouldn’t be lying if I said that I went to this panel primarily to hear Amanda Potter talk about Dr. Who Fanfic and then got suckered in to the discussion on Battlestar Galactica & Caprica.
I have listened to Amanda talk a couple of times, chiefly about Xena, and have always been impressed at the breadth of her research so I was keen to hear her talk about anything Whovian. Her topic was a comparison of how the writers of the (new) TV show used specific classical imagery/mythology (Minotaur & Sirens) with how fans incorporated those classical elements into their own stories.  After her careful description of the different approaches (with a strictly PG rating), Amanda largely concluded that the fans in fact used more detailed classical material and stuck more faithfully to their ancient inspirations than the professional writers. It was especially striking that the Sirens as aliens was a particularly appealing angle of exploration/explanation of the myth in the fanfic but was completely at odds with the pirate-themed episode offered by the show-writers. Overall I wasn’t disappointed by the paper; not only was the potential richness of public engagement with the episodes, characters and classical stories brought out but hypotheses for the multiple roles of classical material were also suggested however it was clear that there is still a lot of work begging to be done on the topic.

I know less about BSG (in this instance the newer incarnation) and its spin-off prequel, Caprica, than I do about Dr Who having only watched a handful of clips prior to these papers but I quickly discovered that I don’t know that much less about them than I do the world of fanfic – it is genuinely amazing how much background knowledge you acquire by just listening to geeks talk – and I didn’t feel as out of my depth in these papers as I expected or as I did in some I attended later in the conference.
The first, by Torsten Caeners, gave a comprehensive and very helpful overview of the multiple layers of classical reception across BSG. Specifically, he argued that although many viewers might easily spot the overt allusions to gods and heroes in the names and theology of the show, more interestingly for classicists, the show also engaged with the world at a more complex level in several areas. Caeners picked 3 topics that he thought showed strong classical elements: plot similarities with the Aeneid, the character of Kara Thrace (Starbuck), and, Adama’s stoicism. Of these, the last was the least convincing and the first most superficial. When pressed in questioning Caeners happily conceded that Adama’s philosophy, whilst clearly showing some hallmarks of Marcus Aurelius, was unlikely to have been either consciously based on a classical philosophical model or to offer much in the way of new reinterpretations. The clear plot elements of the search for a new home after a devastating war and several false stops have an intriguingly Virgilian pattern to a classicist but again it is difficult to determine to what extent that has been mediated by multiple earlier receptions. Is this because there are generally fewer studies showing uses of Aeneid-type journeys than there are of Odyssean ones – or am I showing my ignorance?
However, I found the discussion of Starbuck more intriguing because it touched on both the way that her name was tied to her characterisation [Thrace-Thracian-warrior (Ares & Spartacus?)] but also the Orphic elements of her role – which comprise something of her relationship to music, her katabasis and her moments of “inspiration”. I don’t feel I know the show enough to really comment on what those things might signify or offer but I do think that it shows a fascinating engagement with ancient tragic heroes beyond the obvious.
Overall the paper covered a lot of ground and I think was good for encouraging classicists to look for key key motifs and patterns from antiquity in modern format.

The final paper in the panel was by Melissa Beattie on the use of ideas of autochthony and language in Caprica. Since the only thing I knew about Caprica before this paper was that it was a BSG spin-off I struggled to capture the nuances of the characterisation that the speaker was suggesting. However, the key point that I gleaned from the paper was that the impoverished war-torn colony (planet Tauron) that gives Caprica (the colony/planet) its gangsters is marked out by the use both of an ancient/modern Greek hybrid language in dialect and slang and by frequent references to their rural, land-based life including the use of the perjorative “dirt-eater”. I don’t think I quite understood why the Taurons used Greek, unless it was a purely classicising element to the show, and I was more interested in but even less clear on how the language and the relationship to the earth were connected in the characterisation of the race. Despite suggestions that the Greek was supposed to offer a Mediterranean  feel that evoked the Italian used in American mobster films (and TV), I was left with a slightly uncomfortable sense that if the audience were supposed to recognise it they were also supposed to visualise a rural, backwards and riot-torn Greece with a once glorious past only seen in snatches – a miserable and somewhat racist picture – but that might just be me! Generally however the paper was engagingly delivered and I think rather importantly demonstrated how appropriations can be oddly alienating.

At the end of the panel and on that slightly downbeat note I should sign off this post before it gets any longer…

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4 thoughts on “SFF & Classics (1)

    1. Byghan Post author

      Thankyou.
      Mostly I am embarrassed by losing my thread and missing a few of my key points but I plan to do a full post just on my panel and all the ideas it brought up including stuff on my paper (and then another post on my plans for an article related to it).
      I am really looking forward to the book btw.

      Reply
  1. Pingback: A couple of interesting links | Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space

  2. Pingback: SFF 6 | Writings of a Cornish Classicist

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