SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part VIII of Many

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.
Part VI.
Part VII.

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.


This is the eighth part of a multi-part conference write-up.


After Sunday lunch, I had no choice about which panel to attend, since I was chairing the panel on “Epic.” A development which terrified me, even though everyone was very polite and it seemed to be quite straightforward.

“Epic” featured papers by Ralph Covino (University of Tennessee, Chattanooga), Chris Pak (University of Liverpool), Beverley Scott (University of Liverpool), and Charul “Chuckie” Patel (Lancaster University). As I was chairing, my notes are not what I wish they were. Before we began, an Orange March tromped down the street outside the window, drums a-beating. Dear Liverpool: as an Irish person and an ex-Catholic, that felt so welcoming.

Yes, that was sarcasm.

Ralph Covino kicked us off, with “‘And then what happened?’ – Expanding a Universe: From the Trojan War to <emStar Wars,” in which he looked at some of the things which make both Star Wars and the Trojan War mythos successful at spawning expanded stories. What do audiences want out of growing a story? he asked. Some consistency, and repetition for familiarity. The audience’s desire to know more is not necessarily restricted to knowing what comes next.

Next up was Chris Pak, with “‘Their acts, mortal and cast away/Are crystalled in the melt of history’: Frederick Turner’s Genesis: An Epic Poem (1988).” I’m afraid that in the first few minutes of this paper my chairing nervousness overcame me and I had to dash to the bathroom, but I returned in very short order in time to discover that Frederick Turner, the son of the two anthropological Turners, Victor and Edith, had written a science fiction epic poem about terraforming in the 1980s. Pak wasn’t the most engaging of speakers, just reading from his paper, and I confess I found the inside-game lit crit aspect of this paper impenetrable (nor could I follow when Pak was reading out quotations).

Contemporary epic, said Pak, reconfigures ancient epic. Epic is a game of intertextuality. The poet’s awareness of a historic perspective. Turner’s epic as both self-referential and self-validating. Postmodern. Something about Derrida & Stapledon.

Very few questions after this paper, so we had time for a five-minute water break.

The third speaker, Beverley Scott, had a paper on “The Argo in Space and Time: Science Fiction Receptions of the Argonautic Myth,” focusing on H.G. Wells and Robert Sawyer in particular. A solid speaker, very engaging and strong in front of her audience, she talked about the Roman (Valerius Flaccus) idea of the Argo as the first ship ever to exist – an end to an idealised simple way of life.

The Argo is a transgressive vessel on a transgressive journey. The Argo‘s firstness is prominent and distinctive. Valerius Flaccus undermines that by having the ship navigate to places with harbours, and mentions maritime nations.

It can be read as a harbinger of negativity. A novum (c.f. Darko Suvin) of cognitive alienation.

In H.G. Wells’ Chronic Argonauts and later The Time Machine have a ship/vessel that sails through time. The notion of crossing previously insurmountable boundaries. In 1895, with Argonauts of the Air, ten years before the first real piloted heavier-than-air flight, Wells posits human flight.

Important to note the Argo‘s primacy as “first ship” is a Roman idea, not a Greek on.

In Robert Sawyer’s Golden Fleece (1999), there is a ship in space, but the point of the journey is fooling the passengers. Colchis is supposed to be a refuge, but it’s a lie.

Wells examines hubris. Both Wells and Sawyer look at pioneering endeavours.

The Argo is an idea of transgression.

The Time Machine opposes a Golden Age to the Age of Iron.

The Argo generates receptions that break free of the epic genre.


I need to draw a line under that part of the panel, and confess that I have conflicted feelings about Chuckie Patel’s paper, “The Shape of a Hero’s Soul: A Roman Conception of Fate in the Development of the Epic Fantasy Formula (as seen in The Curse of Chalion).” In part because The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls are books with immense personal importance to me and my development as a reader; in part because in a couple of off-hand comments it seemed Patel had not completely done her homework* – I’m not sure one can talk about fate and the gods in Chalion without the light cast on it by Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt – and because I feel that there were some misreadings of characters other than Cazaril at work.

(And I hold papers on Bujold – it is unfair, but there you have it – to the same standards I hold her books. High standards.)

All that aside, Patel was a good speaker, engaged with her audience. I did not follow the whole theoretical discussion of time as either “tensed” or “tenseless” at all well. (Prophecy combined “tensed” and “tenseless” theories of time.)

There is a journey for the hero to achieve transcendence. Chalion combines fate and free will. Journeys seen as a series of choices. According to the saint Umegat, the gods set many on the path but only those arrive who choose to. In Chalion, prophecy is not a set of instructions, and to see it as such is a misreading.

Plays into Stoic maxim that fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling.


After this, another coffee break. Which I spent most of with Cat Wilson, talking about Bujold’s Chalion books, and how Cazaril is a cup into which the gods pour grace (idea of a saint) but that Ista isn’t, even though she eventually accepts a role as a saint: she’s still a sword, still too prickly: the only god she can work with is the Bastard, because she’s a saint out of season and not like other saints. Also about the fundamental melancholy of how The Hallowed Hunt works out, and the idea that the different gods have different approaches.

Speculative theology, yo.


Next up, Nick Lowe’s plenary address.


*Bujold is “little-known” in the UK my arse: maybe not hugely best-sellingly popular, but I have UK editions of Memory, Komarr, A Civil Campaign, The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls (complete with the famous Nazghul-esque cover figure).

6 thoughts on “SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part VIII of Many

  1. Speculative theology is fascinating. I kinda want entire conferences on that. Entire books on that, even, until fantasy can break further away from the Yet Another Fantasy Version Of The Catholic Church and Yet Another Fantasy Version Of D&D Gods approaches it seems to take more often than not.

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