Tag Archives: Science-fiction

SFF & Classics (3)

So still on Day 2 but now with extra coffee.
The Whedonverse:
The first two papers of the panel focused on Firefly/Serenity and the 3rd compared Angel to the Southern Vampire (Sookie Stackhouse) Mysteries and all 3 looked at classical influences from slightly different angles.

The first paper, by Janice Siegel, was on the Cyclopean properties of the Reavers in Firefly. Siegel wanted to draw attention to the way that 3 aspects of ancient monsters re-appear in the form of the Reavers- namely rape, cannibalism/anthropophagy & the desecration of corpses. She made it clear that she did not believe that Whedon was directly referencing the monsters of the Odyssey when the Reavers were conceived but instead wanted to draw attention to the fact that the same social anxieties crop up now as then when we attempt to consider what makes Us civilised & Them monstrous. Nonetheless, she notes some important ideas that comparing the approaches brings up  – firstly and most obviously Rape is considered much more linked with violence and thus horrific in our culture than in antiquity; secondly cannibalism involves a kind of loss of humanity but often this is represented as a subversion of the dominant culture and finally that this is irreversibly tied to the need for a cultural agreement on the treatment of the dead (eating corpses- emphasises the monstrosity of the lack of respect) which holds as much true for us as it did the ancient Greeks. Siegel used a variety of different examples of parallels between the Odyssey and Serenity which made for compelling listening and was particularly intrigued by the suggestion by a member of the audience that in fact because of their communitarian aspect the Reavers were rather more like Laestrygonians than Cyclopes. A point which didn’t change the key contrast the comparison brought out that what particularly differentiates the Odyssean monsters from the Reavers is in the Odyssey, things which appear cultured or safe are often revealed to be in fact monsters whereas the Reavers which appear so monstrous are in fact “human”.
[One extra thing the Siegel dropped in which is also worth thinking some more on is the similarities in personality between Mal & Odysseus, including the similar types of trickery to escape]

The 2nd paper by Jennifer Ann Rea was entitled “You can’t stop the signal/signum: ‘Utopian’ Living in Whedon’s Serenity and Vergil’s Aeneid“. I must confess that my memories of it are a little hazy which is odd given that I felt fairly confident that I knew both “texts” quite well. After re-reading the storified tweets, I do remember the gist of the argument about how both make their audiences consider when violence is justified, what means can be used to create the desired (utopian) society and when the price for a ‘pax romana’ is too high. The discussion hinged on the ambiguity of the end of the Aeneid in comparison to the somewhat more openly didactic (albeit unresolved) elements of Serentity. I think there are some really interesting ideas about the ‘messages’ in the texts but fear that the breadth of research on the Aeneid makes us more likely to pick our favourite theory and then apply it to Serenity rather than trying to see whether responses from the audiences to Serenity can suggest new approaches to the Aeneid…. That or I wasn’t in the mood for politics.

The final paper of this panel was from Juliette Harrisson and moved away from Firefly/Serenity and onto contrasting oracles in Angel and Sookie Stackhouse. Juliette began by offering a little bit of context on the vampire genre and the way that vampires can be used to create a link between the past and the present. She highlighted the fact that modern vampire mythos tends not to offer classical (esp. not Greek) origins for its vampires (we have some from Confederate USA, a few from WW1 and some Egyptians & Vikings) but in 1819 Polidori’s Vampyre was heavily invested in the Romanticism associated with ancient Greece and contemporary Greek struggles. The key point of the vampire then is the blend of the exotic with familiar enough. Harrisson then mentioned some of the issues surrounding use of magic vs. religion in modern fiction and related that neatly to the (fictional) role of oracles as access to higher power without necessarily invoking any particular religious scheme and their particular use for dramatic foreshadowing. After comparing these uses to the ancient views of oracles, she moved on to her specific examples.
In the Buffyverse, generic old and magical was generally represented by  (bad) Latin and the really ancient tended to be Near Eastern/Egyptian which left little space for representations of classical Greece. Nonetheless, the Oracles in Angel look and feel Greek and are consulted in order to answer a question in very classical fashion (interestingly they are also able to turn back time before they are conveniently killed to prevent repeated use of this deus ex machina). In the Southern Vampire Novels there are fewer classical allusions but they are slightly more unusual – the rampant Maenad, Eric’s Roman vampire maker and the ‘Pythoness’ (“the [?] oracle Alexander consulted”). This oracle’s access to higher power is more uncertain but her role as judge of the Vampire Queen (authority over authority) is certainly out of respect for both her extreme age and her reputation as an oracle when she was turned.
Thus Juliette argued that the Oracles offer an interesting and different connection to the ancient world and allow the worlds they inhabit a means to touch some kind of ancient tradition, authority and higher power separate to that of the Vampires themselves. Is the lesson that we don’t yet have any other non-christian models for authority be it in politics or our future?

Overall, the panel reflected a number of ways that modern social and political tastes can be reflected and echoed in well-known classical examples – not a surprise to Reception scholars but nonetheless it was interesting to see new connections.

Next on my list a panel on Myths in Popular literature

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…

SFF & Classics (Intro)

Swords. Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World was a conference run by the Science Fiction Foundation and the University of Liverpool School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, on the links between science fiction and fantasy and Classical Greece and Rome.  It took place Saturday June 29-Monday July 1.”

I want to write a series of posts about some of the things I learnt from the recent conference & possible next steps in the field.

Firstly it is important to point out that as a means for crossing barriers and creating connections in the various fields represented it was (I think) a resounding success. Even this social phobic managed to talk to a variety of people including several established scholars that I have previously been too embarrassed to talk to.
The conference not only demonstrated a wide array of intersections between SF works and classical material but it also encouraged dialogue about the methodologies of research and their different roles. The first was represented in approximately 60 papers and every conversation I had or heard and the second in several of those papers and especially in Nick Lowe’s Plenary session.

Secondly, I am keen to find out what happens next. I really hope that this picks up some kind of momentum – more conferences or symposia, journal articles and edited collections. Obviously on a purely selfish note I would like to be involved in this kind of research and to have spaces to do it in. There is some evidence that this will happen since, if nothing else, I respect the energy and enthusiasm of the people that I met and believe that they will work to spread the field.

Finally, I have come away with lots fascinating ideas but I only went to a fraction of the papers and know that I will not be able to express all of it coherently so I will also encourage you to read other accounts including: Liz Bourke and Liz Gloyn