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SFF 7

Just a few more little bits and pieces to finish up..
If you have followed this far you cannot be truly surprised that my memory and notes for this stage in the proceedings are truly failing. Sorry to the speakers..
My final event of the conference was the screen & media panel – a slightly odd pairing that covered representations of Promethean figures and re-workings of the Roman Empire both over multiple genres.

The first paper was delivered via Skype, a brave move that was only slightly hampered by technical issues. In it Jarrid Looney, who is currently finishing up his doctoral thesis, offered a broad ranging summary of the uses of the Prometheus myth – you can find the paper itself (or at least a version of it) on Academia.edu (here). I found Jarrid and his topic engaging – although perhaps the paper itself felt a bit too broad-reaching for a conference it offered me the opportunity to rethink the links between modern examples of uses of the name. He argued persuasively that Prometheus made a useful metaphor for some kind of catalyst for change in both positive & negative ways depending on whether he was a gift-giver or defying the Gods, or something else. In particular I was drawn to the way that Looney was able to connect multiple examples to the original myth via Shelley’s Frankenstein and its anxieties about technology and hubris.  I would have liked a little more of a chance to hear him talk about the possible reasons both for this theme and also for why some traditions more deliberately link themselves back to individual parts of the classical myths than others… always a tricky topic.

The second paper from Dan Goad was about how Ancient Rome influenced particular depictions of Empire in fantastica. He started by talking about the Romulans in Star Trek and contrasted them with the Trevinter Imperium from the Dragon Age computer games. It would be fair to say that Romulans-Rome as a comparison is neither new nor subtle and that it has been made extensively and openly. Goad focused on the way that the Roman aspects of the Romulans were largely connected to their militarism and interest in political intrigue – and how that in turn was a large part of Romulan self-identity. I was much more interested in how that contrasted with the Trevinter Imperium specifically because the Imperium is a kind of collapsed or collapsing Rome with Trouble on its borders. He suggests that Rome makes a useful model within Dragon Age because of the way that it can be shown to continue to have influence even after it no longer has physical power – this of course is a powerful idea for Reception scholars and delightful to see it being used in models of Rome.
Unsurprisingly Goad concluded by emphasising the multiplicity of images of Rome and the way that its scale makes it a fertile ground for modelling all kinds of things.. including Empire.

It seemed a fair note to end the proceedings on and left plenty of thoughts for the future.

SFF 6

So.. I haven’t forgotten that I promised you Warhammer

I chose to head to this topic not as a gamer but as the friend and relation of gamers. As such I started from a position of understanding some of the structure, a little of the specific world-building practices and very little of the details.
It was fabulous. [Don’t get me wrong I’m not about to set up a 40k game but…] The first speaker, Alexander McAuley treated us to a paper on the notion of a Virgilian Divus Imperator in the 40k universe. His premise revolved around the methods of presentation of a God-Emperor in both Virgil and Warhammer – specifically an (Augustan) Emperor’s role as a figurehead that creates order amongst chaos. The Warhammer Emperor rules enigmatically over a system of provinces and cultic practice that mimics an image of an Augustus who is defined by his major battle and transformation into supreme leader. McAuley suggested that just as the eventual leadership of Augustus is understood to underpin the whole of the progression of the Aeneid even where it is not explicit so the Emperor’s rule is a ‘necessary’ implicit in all the other actions of the 40k story. He also pointed out similarities in the deification process and somewhat pre-empted the subsequent paper by suggesting parallels between the Horus Heresy (prequels) and the Octavian-Antony Civil War.

[This reading of Virgil managed (for me) to reiterate the points made by Rea about our discomfort with the violence and anger shown by Aeneas at the end of the poem and what we give up for ‘divine’ order- although I’m still not sure whether conclusions can be drawn from that]

The second paper was by a brilliantly passionate Luke Pitcher who took several of these ideas and developed them further in a paper entitled “The Promise of Progress? The Problem of the Roman Past in Warhammer 40k“.
Pitcher was particularly interested in the way that the figures of Julius and Augustus Caesar appear to have been blended together in order to give a more fitting legend to the figure of Roboute Guilliman (son of the God-Emperor and Primarch of the Ultramarines – in themselves an interestingly  Romanised fighting force). Guilliman’s backstory relies on both some of the Divus Imperator imagery discussed in McAuley’s paper and a story of avenging his foster father during a civil war….
One of the interesting facets of Pitcher’s talk was his use of the fact that in the Warhammer canon much of the material about the activities of the God-Emperor and his children was created after the initial world-building despite the fact they happen earlier in the temporal scope of the universe and as such the development of the mythos are appropriate metaphors for reception generally. Including the tension surrounding the idea that looking too much to the past can lead to a kind of stasis… He also touched on the issues relating to multi-authoring within the corpus (before less formalised fanfic is even considered) and the constraints that are potentially placed on interpretations of actions by other writers and notions of canon. He suggested that classical elements in the stories allowed writers to draw on their own existing experiences of interpreting a real shared past as they handled the stories as well as ensuring that they were using a common pot of material.

Although this was a slightly shorter panel than some of the others it provoked some quite lively discussion at the end and over coffee. Particularly of note was the role of fanfic and the way that understanding and corpus is developed through this process of multiple authoring but that because the Warhammer universe uses historical background rather than mythological the approaches of the writers varies somewhat from that discussed by Amanda Potter with relation to Dr. Who earlier in the conference.

The panel was followed by the final plenary of the conference- Edith Hall talking about Xenophon’s Anabasis in Space.
It is worth confessing up front that I have never read the Anabasis (in English let alone Greek) and as such my knowledge of it goes no deeper than the brief precis that Dr Hall offered by way of introduction. Fortunately, Dr Hall confidently took the audience through the imagery, structural nuances and tonal subtleties of Xenophon’s work that the writers of SF she picked out were interested in.
Hall highlighted how through translations of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth the imagery of soldiers/explorers reaching a somehow recognisable sea  (Thalatta! Thalatta!)  despite the ‘alien’ nature of the landscape they have been struggling through became a staple feature of Science Fiction and she chose to discuss 3 of the more extensive reworkings which cover a variety of styles: Andre Norton’s Star Guard, Weber and Ringo’s March Up Country & Kearney’s Ten Thousand.

The militaristic and ethnographic features of Xenophon’s work allow it to to be reworked in multiple modern genres and the strongly moral overtones appeal to a lot of writers. In Xenophon, not only are there  conflicting political ideologies between warring states but there are  also competing approaches amongst the ten thousand and this makes it possible to use the story to emphasise different aspects of any journey. More importantly, Hall also talked about the importance of the idea that Xenophon’s return is, despite having elements of both, not just an Odyssean journey home nor does it follow the Iphegenia in Tauris story arc  (she digressed slightly to show how Iph in Taur influenced Trader Horn, Road to… and ultimately Star Wars stories). What in many respects makes Xenophon’s narrative more potentially interesting for writers are the aspects of failure and loss around the initial endeavour and perhaps more importantly his own internal conflict about the notion of returning home.  If returning home is not easy or perhaps not desirable then one’s attitude to new territory is subtly shifted towards its potentials for a new start…

Hall was very clear in her preference for Norton’s version of the tale over the others that she had selected. Although (and I am surmising without having read any of them) Norton’s is almost certainly the most political and literary of the three I could not help but feel that in making such a personal aesthetic choice Hall didn’t offer her audience quite the depth of comparative analysis  she is capable of. On the other hand she made a lovely plea for more authors to attempt engagement with the ancient text, a very good case for using Xenophon as an inspiration and appeared to have been able to use the modern texts to help her find new interpretations of the Anabasis.
The paper was pleasingly thought-provoking for me, in that it engaged with a series of texts that stylistically I know very little about and brought them more into my world-view but it was not quite the end of the conference….

SFF 5

Ok, like readers trying to follow my commentary, I was by Monday morning somewhat tired and jaded which meant checking out of the hotel and lugging my bags up the hill took me a little longer than planned and I was several minutes late for the first paper of the morning.
On this basis I apologise that I think I missed some of the nuances that the speaker was trying to suggest.

When I arrived Leimar Garcia-Siino was giving a very slickly competent talk on “The Resurgence of Mythology in Young Adult Fantasy” which I struggled rather spectacularly to follow. I recall only 2 key points: firstly that the Percy Jackson novels are representative of a broader trend towards re-appropriating mythology as an emotional and academically didactic tool in story-telling for young adults and secondly that, furthermore, our ongoing mythological consciousness creates a playful metanarrative which both reinforces and ultimately reinvents the mythological framework. I also remember thinking that if I was more awake it would have made an interesting (and far more theoretical) counterpoint to Schrackmann’s reading of Riordan partially because she looked at similar aspects of the conflict between ancient conceptions of heroism and modern values.
Overall, the paper was among the more theory heavy that I listened to and although the speaker had some interesting points to make about how we can utilise imagery whilst re-writing context I think I’d need to re-read it with some coffee to hand…

Next I dashed out to Tom Garvey’s paper on Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. This paper reminded me a little of Brand’s paper on Watchmen in that it initially seemed strongly demonstrative in style (i.e. we were treated to a thorough explanation of why certain things should be considered classical references or allusions). However, this paper explored very different ground to most of the others that I heard at the conference because the speaker actively aimed to discuss the use of the text in a pedagogic setting. Specifically Garvey considered ways that Stephenson contrasts methods of teaching and learning within the book (and explicitly uses classical material both as exemplar and as methodology) and asked students to apply that to their own experiences and also suggested ways of reading Stephenson’s commenatry/critique of classicising education in contrast to his Eastern-philosophical leanings.
In Garvey’s exposition, Stephenson’s book  is a useful example of how embedded classical culture can be identified and played with for an audience prepared to deal with self-analysis – what Reception scholar can’t get behind that?

After the Break: Warhammer 40K…

SFF 4(?)

Aaaargh sorry for the exceptionally long delay.

Still on Day 2 but post lunch
Session 13: Divine Updates – Myths of the Classical World in Popular Literature.
This panel was all by academics from the University of Zurich, I’m not sure I quite caught a unifying theme to the papers but each of them offered me a whole load of food for thought.

The first was by Meret Fehlmann on the re-imagining of classical myth (and religion) in the novels of Robert Graves and Elizabeth Hand.
I haven’t read anything by Hand and I haven’t read the novels by Graves that Fehlmann discussed (though perhaps unsurprisingly I have read his Greek Myths & I, Claudius) but I am quite conscious of the fact that his interpretation of pre-historic Goddess worship has been influential so I was interested to see how she traced his ideas and reactions to them. Fehlmann demonstrated 2 points: firstly how Graves developed his ideas about the cult of the mother Goddess from his version of the Golden Fleece into his book 7 Days in New Crete to suggest a kind of utopian re-balancing of society and secondly how Hand re-wrote those ideas about the cult and ultimately rejected their usefulness.
Graves’ ideas about both the importance of women in cultic scenarios and the notion of the necessity of destruction in society have their basis in a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropological enquiries, including those of Jane Ellen Harrison. The ideas are played out across swathes of pagan and feminist literature but were fairly quickly rejected by scholars and then ultimately by those groups too. It is interesting to see the literary positions that demonstrate the trends but unsatisfying to consider how much more there could be done on tracing lines of influence… My brain was so buzzing with the possibility of showing how JEH influenced 70’s lesbian pagan feminism I was quite distracted.

Next up.. a Paper on the Watchmen graphic novel/comic from Scott Brand

This paper served as a gazetteer of almost every classical allusion the speaker could find. Naturally there was an interesting discussion on the impact of using Juvenal (quis custodiet..) as the central theme of the novel (albeit mediated through American politics) and some focus on the Promethean elements of the characters. However, to my taste the paper as a whole was a little light on analysis (although it is only fair to note that this was not his normal research topic) but instead offered up some interesting possibilities for further analysis as well as illustrating how classical material can serve as ornamental short-hand and foreshadowing. I would particularly like to see someone with greater skill than I pick apart the interplay between the Greek, Roman and Egyptian identities and images of the character of Ozymandias.

The 3rd paper of the panel entitled “Where’s the glory in repeating what others have done? Mediating the Ancient and the Modern in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians series” was from Petra Schrackmann.

This rather fascinating paper took great care to show how the novels actively re-write ancient mythology in order to make it more relevant to modern children. Schrackmann especially argued that by juxtaposing the modern and the mythological Riordan was able to critique both and that he used the books to create a modern mythos that especially highlights issues with the education system as well as providing a pathway to the growth of personal identity. It is clear that the series shares some of its central themes with many other books for its target age-range, specifically the notion of the power of knowledge and learning to negotiate independence through issues of agency but the speaker nicely highlighted why the often fatalistic Greek myths could still be used fruitfully.

This paper was followed rather well thematically by the final paper of the panel by Aleta-Amiree Von Holzen on Anne Ursu’s Cronus Chronicles. I have to confess that not only have I not read these ‘middle grade’ stories, I hadn’t even heard of them before the paper. Nonetheless the speaker competently outlined the key plot points before explaining some of the ways that the author took some of the same basic premises of the Percy Jackson series but created a different feeling in order to offer thoughts on the nature and purpose of power. The paper suggested that Ursu’s modernising of the myths sometimes inserts a slightly comic tone into the stories but the disregard of humanity shown by the Gods has a lot in common with the  ancient tragedies. Von Holzen also drew out the importance of the Promethean myth to the Chronicles’ consideration of free-will and the role of the Gods in a modern world – a classical connection that (as well as being discussed indirectly in a later paper) surely ought to be brought out more in modern writing.

In summary, despite (or perhaps because of) the fairly diverse directions of these modern mythological re-tellings/re-purposing it was clear that writers have been very conscious of the difficulties of using such a different cultural medium as ancient myth in their own work but also that they can use that to their advantage.

Right, better stop there before this gets any longer.
Monday morning next (Nick Lowe’s plenary will I think act a as kind of conclusion to the whole conference)

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…