Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.
This is the sixth part of a multi-part conference write-up.
I can’t remember who I talked to over breakfast on Sunday morning. Unless it was Otta Wenskus and Andy Sawyer and Cecilie Flugt. Forgive me, lovely people! My brain was beginning burn up from all the interesting things it had to think about, and if you know me, you know there’s never been much spare brain to burn…
Sunday, 30 June. The papers on offer were ALL TOO INTERESTING. So I picked the panel whose topics I thought I knew least about, to be certain of absorbing the most knowledge.
“Masters of Science Fiction,” chaired by Andy Sawyer (SF Foundation/University of Liverpool), featured papers by Edward James (SF Foundation), Andrew J. Wilson (Independent Scholar) and Simon W. Perris (Victoria University of Wellington, NZ).
After introductions by Andy Sawyer, Edward James – a short man with a trim whitish beard, in a pale suit jacket over a t-shirt promoting the 2014 WorldCon – began the session, with “The Ancient World in the Writings of L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000).”
James considers L. Sprague de Camp to be the author of the best novel set in 6th century Ostrogothic Italy and possibly the whole ancient world, Lest Darkness Fall. He is also the author of all sorts of different “sideways” looks at the ancient world, although he was an engineer by training (and one who worked with both Asimov and Heinlein). He wrote an article about Hellenistic science published in Astounding, “The Sea-King’s Armoured Division.” In fact, he wrote many articles and books about the ancient world: in one of his manifestations, he was a populariser of the ancient world, a man interested in ancient technology and travel, who wrote some straightforward historical novels. L. Sprague de Camp was very friendly with Campbell, the editor of Astounding and Unknown.
Although there wasn’t a huge market for fantasy in de Camp’s earlier career, he edited collections of Howard’s Conan stories. It’s possible that de Camp classicised Howard’s placenames. He saw Conan in the light of a barbarian interacting with a Classical fictional world, and later took over writing Conan stories (at first in company with Lin Carter). He got rather committed to promoting fantasy. He wrote biographies of both Lovecraft and Howard, in addition to popular history about the ancient world.
“The Glory That Was,” a “fairly bizarre” virtual reality, and the previously-mentioned “Lest Darkness Fall” (1941) are the two works of his that deal most directly with the ancient world.
Andrew J. Wilson’s “Lost As Atlantis Now: Classical Influence in the Work of C.L. Moore (1911-1987)” was not such a well-read paper, for which Wilson, a big, broad-shouldered man with a mild Scottish accent, later blamed his hayfever. A writer, editor, and academic publisher, he’s engaged at present in something do with the literary estate of Iain Banks.
He spoke about Moore’s emotional depth and literary sophistication. The fact that it’s in the Romantic tradition but influenced by Classical myth. That in dealing with her work we’re talking about “yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.” An Indiana student magazine, Vagabond, offers the first appearance of any of Moore’s stories. After that, she ventured into the fantastic with her famous short story “Shambleau,” which has echoes of Medusa. It becomes a study in claustrophobic paranoia, and an inversion of the pulp damsel in distress trope. The main male character is reduced to the traditionally feminine role of victim.
Moving on from “Shambleau,” he spoke about Jirel of Joiry as Amazonian archetyle and the second story to feature her as an inversion of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydike. Judgement Night is influenced by the narrative of the decline and fall of the Roman empire.
He mentioned Jennifer Jodell, who wrote a thesis on C.L. Moore, and of the idea of receptions through space as well as time – although I can’t quite interpret my notes on this point from this remove.
The next paper, “Rome and Byzantium in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy,” was given by Simon W. Perris, a be-suited young academic from Down Under who looked disgustingly healthy and well-built for someone in a sedentary profession. He also proved to be an excellent speaker. (Which just goes to show there’s no justice in the world, she said with bitter resentment of people who get to the gym regularly.)
Perris said that Asimov’s Foundation establishes the Galactic Empire as a trope, and that the trilogy is intimately concerned with empire and imperialism. It’s easy, he says, to take potshots at Asimov.
The relationship between SF and history is not straightforward.
Asimov drew openly on Arnold Toynbee’s idea of cyclic history in 1953. The Galactic Empire is the Roman/British empire writ large. In question is Rome vs. Romanitas, Rome in Space and the Byzantine empire.
Fuzzy thinking about the Byzantine empire is emblematic of Western-centrism. Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius was published a few years (?) before the first Foundation novel. Belisarius looks to be the model for Asimov’s Bel Riose, while Justinian is the model for Cleon II. Like Belisarius, Bel Riose suffers the imperial jealousy. The Foundation’s Galactic Empire may be a model of Ostrogothic Italy (c.f.) Ravenna, with a centre-periphery dichotomy going on.
Perris draws on Dune as a comparandnum. He sees Dune as new, as mythopoieic, whereas the Foundation novels require history to repeat itself: they’re concerned with historiography rather than mythopoiesis. Dune is about mythopoiesis in a way that’s alien to the Foundation series. And Dune runs counter to the Foundation’s ideas of empire.
Now we break for coffee. Stand by.