SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XI of Many

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.
Part VI.
Part VII.
Part VIII.
Part IX.
Part X.

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.


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

And I am running out of enthusiasm for writing this. Ouch, my wrists. Still, there is an oncoming train at the end of the tunnel – or is it light?


“Reusing Mythological Figures” was chaired by Tony Keen (Open University) and featured papers by Elke Steinmeyer (University of KwaZulu Natal), Pascal Lemaire (Independent Scholar) and Jessica Yates (Independent Scholar).

We begin with Elke Steinmeyer, a woman with a strong, hard to follow German accent, and her paper, “The Reception of the Figure of Cassandra in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Novel The Firebrand (1987).”

And this, dear friends, is where I depart from reportage to indulge in straight-up commentary, because I exchanged a whole lot of what? glances with Daniel Franklin (who occupied a seat in the row across from me) during this paper.

For Steinmeyer makes it clear – and reiterated during the Q&A – that she sees a very strong, nay unbridgeable, gender binary between the male and the female, with the result that men, now or in the past, cannot possibly write fully human female characters. At first, naturally enough, I wasn’t sure whether the gender-binary thinking in force was Steinmeyer’s view of gender in antiquity or if she extended it up to the modern day… but the Q&A rather put paid to my doubts.

Furthermore, in her discussion of Cassandra and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s engagement with the Gravesian notion of prehistoric matriarchies being swept away by (much less pleasant, of course) patriarchal social order, Steinmeyer neglected to contextualise the historicity of the matriarchy hypothesis – that, inter alia, whether prehistory had matriarchal or patriarchal societies isn’t a question that can definitively be answered, that all claims about social order and social power in prehistory are contingent ones – and left one rather with the impression that she felt prehistoric matriarchy was a Real Thing with Real Evidence supporting it.

My notes on the paper, basically, boil down to “does Steinmeyer think MZB’s fantasy history is historically supported?” “What is up with ‘lost female truths’ and building ‘a world better than Troy’?” And “‘revisionist mythography’ is all very well and good but CONTEXT PLEASE.”

I may have got a bit cranky after the gender binary thing. Maybe. Just a little.


This, I fear, did not put me in the best frame of mind for the next paper, Pascal Lemaire’s “Arthur in Atlantis: A vessel for the myths.”

(Pascal, if you’re reading, I’m going to tear your Powerpoint apart.)

It might’ve been a good paper. It referenced Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stargate Atlantis, and Andy McDermott, and different treatments/combinations of Arthur and Atlantis. But I couldn’t tell if it was a good paper, because it was a terrible presentation.

No, seriously. Death by Powerpoint. Black text on white (which is admittedly better than white on black) with very little imagery, and the text repeated what Lemaire was saying out loud, pretty much. Which, no. You don’t do that, if you want to keep your audience. You put up pictures. Quotes, if you’re quoting from something. Bullet-points sometimes if you want to either separate ideas or sum up.

Not the text of what you’re saying. That leads to zombification and resentment. My notes, which started out intelligible, devolved in short order to WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT GODS SOMEBODY SAVE ME FROM THE BULLETPOINTS.

AND STILL MORE BULLETPOINTS.

MORE EVIL POWERPOINT BULLETS.

SAVE ME I’M DYING.

…no, I’m not joking. This is about a page of my notes in between scribbled things like Grail! Reincarnation? Ancestry/genetics?


So that happened.

Those two presentations together failed to leave me in a very receptive frame of mind for “The Fate of Astyanax,” a paper given by Jessica Yates, a retired librarian and Tolkien scholar. It is official. All Tolkien scholars seem to think everyone else has memorised the Silmarilion.

No powerpoint, but she offered a handout. Once it became apparent that we were going to race from the Fall of Gondolin (CONTEXT PLEASE) through ALL OF FANTASY LITERATURE, I had to go and get some air.

Lots and lots of air. And caffeine.


That brings us up to Monday lunchtime.

This account will resume – hopefully in a more professional manner – at some point in the next forty-eight hours.

Excavations Reveal Ancient Mosaics At Amasya on the Black Sea.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part X of Many

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

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.


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


We have reached breakfast on Monday. It might not be all downhill from here, but it’s certainly the home stretch, the last lengths in the Derby, the final mile from Marathon…

I even remember who I encountered at breakfast today, they being variously Andy Sawyer, Nick Lowe, Cecilie Flugt, and Andrew J. Wilson – although not all at once. I was privileged to have a rather involved discussion with Lowe about the idea of the fixity and knowability of the past in some fantasies, and how that plays in to the idea of the fixity and the knowability of the future through prophecy – and why ancient history/Classics/history and SFFnal geekery seem to go hand in hand. (Similar approaches to knowledge? Minds that see shiny interesting things and want to collect more? A similar sense of worldbuilding possibility, or alienation from the here-and-now?)


On Monday morning, all praise to the good sense of the organisers, proceedings kicked off at 1000 rather than 0930. I decided to hit up the panel on “Young Adult Fantasy,” chaired by Audrey Taylor (Anglia Ruskin University) and featuring papers by Leimar Garcia-Siino (University of Liverpool) and Lisa Maurice (Bar-Ilan University).

(At this point, dear readers, bear in mind that it’s the third day and my notes aren’t All That, if they ever were to start with. If I don’t do justice to anything, that’s on me, not the people giving the paper.)

The panel began with Leimar Garcia-Siino’s “Resurgence of Mythology in YA Fantasy.”

Started with especial reference to Rick Riordan, and the upswing in the amount of mythologically-influenced YA novels in the last decade. (I did not find her presentation visuals easy to follow, but that may just be me.) Of these, a large proportion feature ancient Greek mythology.

What does the portrayal of mythology imply? How is it structured in comparison with the past? Why is YA and MG fantasy interested in the intertextual aspect of myth?

What is the relationship of myth and fantasy? For fantasy has deep roots in myth. A “folding of itself.”

Riordan uses Greek mythology to fuel the story. Myth either represents a true thing that cannot be expressed directly, or something that is not always true in fact, but ought (socially, emotionally?) to be true. YA authors are myth-making with myth instead of from myth: when the use of myth is explicit, so is the subsequent deconstruction and reconstruction.

“Nostalgia reconstructs the whole issue of pastiche and projects it onto the collective & social level.”

Riordan updates the myths for the 21st century. “What makes a hero” in the Percy Jackson books is almost entirely contrary to the ancient Greek myths.

This is complicated by the acknowledgement of the shift between past and present, that myth is both past and fantastic but not part of the understood present. Transplanting gods to modern New York requires an awareness, a tongue-in-cheekness, of the distance and differences between the myth and the now. The archetypes being used have to be affected and changed as well. There is a subversion of the mythic root: the narrative requires it in order to make sense. There is a repositioning, a transformation of the archetypes using the structures of the modern Bildungsroman.

How much can the reader be aware of the ongoing metafictionality? See some kind of relationship to fanfiction. Fanfiction is defined as much by context as content: a certain wish-fulfillment quality is also at play in mythic YA. The myth is extended and transformed into modernity. Do readers seek out other novels that engage with the same sources?


The second paper was presented by Lisa Maurice, whose aspect and accent reminded me of my Roman archaeology lecturer. Although I confess her fashion sense did rather baffle me: her blue headshawl and billowy bright dress-thing stood out among the rather soberer (in colour alone: I speak to nothing else) other folks in the room. “From Chiron to Foaly: the Centaur in Classical Mythology and Fantasy Literature,” was a paper delivered with rapid-fire energy and verve, and strained my wrist’s ability to keep up. She made specific reference to four modern authors: CS Lewis, JK Rowling, Rick Riordan, Diana Wynne Jones, and Eoin Colfer.

The centaur, said Maurice, is a well-known but ambiguous figure in Classical mythology. (Lucretius, for example, says that centaurs can’t exist.) It is a representation of the human and the animal.

Chiron, the son of Chronos and a nymph, educated by Apollo and Artemis, who goes on to be trainer of heroes, who marries and has children, who is eventually transformed into a constellation, is different to all the other centaurs. The other centaurs are descended from Ixion, from the rape of Nephele. They are savage, depraved, sexually licentious, vulnerable to intoxication. Of them, Pholus is the only other civilised centaur, but in general centaurs are more animal than human.

C.S. Lewis’s centaurs are strong warriors, on the side of good, bearded and magnificent, noble, with esoteric knowledge. “Full of ancient wisdom which they learn from the stars.” They are only distantly related to their Classical counterparts: this aloofness is original to C.S. Lewis and really influences later writers.

J.K. Rowling’s centaurs have knowledge of the stars. They also stand aloof, although one (Firenze) serves as a teacher. They possess deep knowledge and dignity, but they have a wild side. They live in a forest, are savage in attack, and there is one scene which implies that Umbridge may have been raped by them.

In Rick Riordan’s books, the centaur Chiron is the mythic Chiron, who has his traditional role as a trainer of heroes. He is a wise father-figure and teacher, and is again different from other centaurs, but unlike Classical mythology’s centaurs, this Chiron refers to them as his family. (These other centaurs are “Party Ponies” who fight with paintball guns, for Riordan has an eye for the comic and absurd.)

Diana Wynne Jones’ A Sudden Wild Magic and Deep Secret feature centaurs, but these centaurs wear clothes on their top half. They are very intelligent but have no hunger for power. Have very human reactions and behaviour. While they’re in the Chiron tradition and bear the marks of C.S. Lewis’ influence, they don’t fill a traditional Chiron role.

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl novels feature the centaur Foaly, an intelligent inventor, arrogant, conceited, a “cantankerous Q-substitute,” who ends up married with children. Colfer’s centaurs are intelligent but don’t possess magic, and are the physically least human of his non-human characters. Centaurness invokes Foaly’s uniqueness.

As Maurice concludes: “the centaur has developed, cantering a very long way from its original roots.”


We shall resume with the next session, “Reusing Mythical Figures.”

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part IX of Many

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

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.


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


So far, according to a friend who’s run the numbers, I’ve written 5400 words about this conference. And we are more than halfway done!

At 1630 on Sunday afternoon, many tired hot conference delegates filed into the Gallery to attend Nick Lowe’s plenary address, “Fantasising About Antiquity,” chaired by Andy Sawyer. Nick Lowe (Royal Holloway, University of London), whom I’ve previously described as possessing the grin of a “demented elf,” turns out to have the energy of one, too. The whole audience woke up and paid attention when he took the podium.

A very energetic, bouncy speaker, full of jokes, and very self-deprecating.

He talked about the fact that this was a conference like no other. Knitting things together. A fascinating intermingling, a “passing-through” of different ways of thinking, which weren’t quite translating. The Classics people see SFF as part of the reception of antiquity. The SFF people see Classics as on the spectrum of the fantastic.

He said that he saw six flavours of Classical reception at work:

i) Tracking Classics in post-Classical culture
ii) Jaussian herneneutics, interpreting antiquity through its readers, since one can’t unpeel an ancient text from layers of interpretation
iii)Cultural history – contextualising readings in their times and places
iv) “Transhistorical poetics” – looking for literary universals
v) Source criticism – excavating ancient sources of influence
vi) “Reading Reflections” – using ancient and modern texts to illuminate each other.

Classical receptions as a Thing does some combination of these things.

…Some confusion in my notes here, where Lowe mentioned two online links: the first link (to an oxfordjournals site) I can’t make work and probably copied wrong; the second link to Tony Keen’s T Stands For Tiberius.

He talked about the writer I.O. Evans, whose Strange Devices was set during the siege of Syracuse and saw inventions of Archimedes destroyed by the hero to prevent their falling into Roman hands. I.O. Evans sets scinece fiction in the ancient world, not fantasy or time-travel.

There is a relationship between the historical and the science fictional imagination. Reading into history. Using historical narratives. Similar/different rhetorics of engagement?

About historical fiction: most of the critical work is in German, and historical fiction has little visible presence in anglophone bookshops. There is no body of English critical work, and historical fiction is a neglected area of interest for Classical receptions. SF critics have something to offer historical fiction, with the similarities of poetics in use. Historical fiction is a “dark mirror” of SFF – and Sturgeon’s Law also applies.

On to Lucian of Samosata. Lucian as the grandparent of SF? The claim of the existence in the ancient world of a scientific tradition. No, said Lowe. Lucian offers a retrospective canon of the impossible. An “encyclopedia of the fantastic in ancient tradition.” The plastic megatext of the Heroic Age in the Classics. The True History is an outlier on a fantastic curve.

Livy as the first alternate historicist. “What would have happened in Alexander had turned east?”

The narrative of Cassandra offers the gift of anachronism.

I.O. Evans offers an elegy for a modernist idea of technology.

Lowe mentioned Lucio Ross’s The Forgotten Revolution, saying it’s 30% mad and 70% useful. Talked about Roman master narratives: “Gibbonics” (i.e., decline and fall) and the toga narrative.


We need to insert a pause here while yr. faithful correspondent attempts to interpret her notes. I have lines and circles and notes leading to other lines and notes and numbers and XENA! written across two lines. Looking at it, I can recapture the sheer energy of the paper, but disentangling some kind of linear sense from it… ah. Greek master narratives. Right. Onwards!


Lowe began to talk both about Greek master narratives and Thomas Burnett Swann (of whom, I recollect now, he had also spoken about at dinner on Friday evening). TBS wrote about lost ancient races, and secret histories of humans in conflict with lost races.

Of the Greek master narratives which I can interpret from my notes, he talked about:

Thinning: i.e., the disappearance of old magic.

Euhemerism, taking the myth bits out, which Rex Stout does in The Great Legend, writing the gods out of the story.


Another interruption to explain here. I confess, I’ve lost how this connected properly to the greater paper, but Lowe stopped to show a clip of what he called the greatest work to engage with the Classical world, or words to similar effect. A wooden horse is dragged inside the gates of war-ravaged Troy. The belly opens.

“AYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIIIIII!”

I don’t think I imagined the scattered applause that Lowe’s audience gave for the appearance of Xena the Warrior Princess – but if I did? The audience at least wanted to applaud.

And in “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts,” as Lowe points out, Helen finds her own destiny outside of myth.


The other Greek master narrative Lowe talked about was Gravesianism, the myth of displaced matriarchy (c.f. SP Somtow’s The Shattered Horse) which is a widespread fantasy of Aegean prehistory. He talked about how Graves’ Greek Myths is a work of fake scholarship, and that not all authors know it belongs in a fantasy universe.

He concluded by talking about Gene Wolfe’s Latro in the Mist and Soldier of Sidon, and how science fiction’s techniques of estrangement can be used to liberate antiquity from familiarity.


After all that, I was dead wrecked. While other people were heading off to the Phil, I staggered back to the hotel, where I encountered Cecilie again. We had dinner together – I was too tired to actually eat real food, and had soup and onion rings – and spent quite a lot of time commiserating with each other over the fact that people are tiring – exhausting! – and the fact that we both needed a bit of time out to stare at walls.

There were also many monosyllabic preverbal gnomic utterances.

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).

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part VII of Many

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

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.


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


We reconvened after the coffee break, and once again I was a) torn and b) jonesing for Caffeinated Syrup. (Coffee is not for me. And I am trying to break the bad habit.) Partly at random, partly because Katherine Buse had told me her paper would include mention of Minoans, I went to “Alternate Histories and Present-Day Politics,” chaired by Glyn Morgan (University of Liverpool), and featuring papers by Katherine Buse (University of Cambridge), Richard Howard (Trinity College Dublin – but, alas, the English Dept, so I knew him not) and Jim Clarke (Trinity College Dublin – but likewise).

Katherine Buse began her paper, “‘Frightened animals snarling over water rights’: Narrating History at the Edge of Nature/Culture,” by asking if anyone present personally knew Morgan Llewelyn, about whose book Elementals she would be speaking – because she had little that was complimentary to say about the novel.

One of the questions she wanted to address was, “What are we doing when we do history?” Llewelyn’s novel has Minoans and Gaian mysticism. Do we take history as lessons or see history as a narrative of cohering communities? Climate change narratives. Conflating narratives. (My notes make little sense.)

Unfortunately for this paper, Buse – who I met and spoke with elsewhere about the conference, and who struck me as having interesting research and being generally on the ball – gave a very scattered paper, which did not succeed in unifying its arguments into a coherent whole. Additionally, it ran out of time.

For me, I think my main concern with this paper (scattered time-keeping issues aside) is that it did not engage with the ancient Aegean element at anything but a surface level. Buse is not coming out of an ancient-history background and could, I think, have stood to delve more into Llewelyn’s engagement with the ancient world – which means putting the engagement firmly in context.

(I suspect more practice giving presentations would’ve solved the majority of the issues with this paper, though.)


I stayed long enough to see Richard Howard’s paper (“Rome as the Underground Self of the Irish Free State in Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England“) begin, but the Waterhouse Room was very stuffy at this point, and I was feeling solidly weird. So I stepped out, and after recovering myself a little, set out again in search of caffeine.

The walk outside refreshed me, and this time I found a Tesco, where I made off with some Coca-cola. Dear English friends: those automatic checkout things are just plain weird and I disapprove strongly, just so’s you know.

When I returned to the conference centre, it was a little short of lunch, and I think I spent some time talking with an interesting person or two. It may have been Cat Wilson? I should have taken notes outside the sessions, I’m realising now.

Lunch was beef bourguignon and roast potatoes and vegetables, with sandwiches and fruit also on offer. More talking to ALL THE INTERESTING PEOPLE. About things I wish I’d taken notes on, so I could remember now.


And then back to the sessions, but since I need to be kind to my typing wrists that’s all the write-up for right now.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool 2013, Part VI of Many

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.


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


Breakfast!

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.

Roman fingerprints found in 2000-year-old cream.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part V of Many

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.


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


Let me take up the narrative again from dinner. Dinner, held in the “Chapel,” of the Foresight Centre, the former hospital chapel. The buffet was laid with curry and rice, sandwiches and crisps and dips, and several different sorts of sweet cake, and also wine and fruit juice.

Liverpool 2013 010

Liverpool 2013 011

Not being a curry fan, I made a dinner out of sandwiches and dessert, and snagged a seat at a table which also held Dan Franklin, Zoe Johnson, Cara Sheldrake, Penelope Goodman – I think Sarah Miles and Liz Gloyn also – and Sophia McDougall. The acoustics bid fair to be absolutely terrible, with all the voices and clatter echoing back off the tile, and I missed most of the interesting conversations at the table in part due to eating myself.

(Sophia McDougall is both shorter and younger than I’d expected her to be, somehow. But expressively intelligent, and also witty.)

About the only thing I remember talking about at dinner was McDougall’s The Rape of James Bond – I mentioned that I admired her for writing it, and she said something about how surprised she was not to have received rape threats over it.

(A sad fact of the internet, this surprise.)

As the eating was winding down, Tony Keen got up to thank everyone involved in pulling off the conference. And then Andy Sawyer stood up to present tokens of appreciation to the two plenary speakers present, Sophia McDougall and Nick Lowe. The official unofficial symbol of Liverpool, adopted while it was “City of Culture,” can come in small, wrapped boxes… which the plenary guests accepted with trepidation somewhat reminiscent of people who are handed a live handgrenade and told not to drop it. (Perhaps I exaggerate for effect.)

Liverpool 2013 012

Sophia McDougall kindly let me take a picture of her “Liverpool Lambanana!”

Liverpool 2013 013

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who had no clue what the hell a lambanana was, prior to the conference dinner… Personally, I think it looks a bit eldritch.


We had to be shooed out of the chapel, due to much talking (O, had I only brought my notebook to dinner) and while many people headed off to the Phil, I had drinks with Dan and Zoe until zombification of exhaustion took over.

So to bed, to sleep! And wake refreshed for Sunday morning…

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part IV of Many

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.


The fourth part of a multi-part conference write-up.


Lunch!

Lunch on Saturday comprised many gourmet sandwiches, a selection of vegetables, fruit plates, stew, and roast potatoes. It was noted that apparently conferencing academics in Liverpool are not to be trusted with knives: cutlery available ran to forks and spoons, nothing sharper. I spent some time in discussion with Shana Worthen about the SF Foundation’s occasional series of books. And then, as far as I recall, I went in Quest of Caffeinated Sugar, finding Pepsi in a greasy spoon just down the road. A weirdly Scouse and very greasy greasy spoon.

(Sad addict was sad.)


After lunch, I was torn for which sessions I should attend. In the end, I settled on the “Britain,” session, chaired by Penelope Goodman (University of Leeds), and featuring papers by Liz Gloyn (billed as University of Birmingham), Sandeep Parmar (University of Liverpool), Cara Sheldrake (University of Exeter), and Stephe Harrop (Rose Burford College of Theatre and Performance/Royal Central School of Speech and Drama).

Penelope Goodman introduced the panelists. The first paper was presented by Liz Gloyn, an engaging speaker with a direct, unpretentious style. “‘By a Wall that faced the South’: Crossing the Border in Classically-influenced Fantasy,” moved through authors as diverse as Charles Kingsley, Hope Mirrlees, Rudyard Kipling, and Neil Gaiman. And once again, I’m not going to be able to do her paper justice. She talked about how space operates in fantastical contexts. How it affects our reaction to monsters. How crossing borders is essential to fantasy, and how, for crossings to be effective, they have to be marked borders. How the moment of transition is critically important to the structure of the novel. Liz had brought copies of the books she was speaking about to pass around – Kingsley’s Greek Fairy Tales, Kipling’s Puck, Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist and Gaiman’s Stardust, which was, I thought, a nice touch.

With especial reference to Kingsley, she mentioned that the test of border-crossing was a test of trust.

Of Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, she said that it demonstrated an uneasy relationship with Fairyland, that it reworks the mythological barrier of the cliff present in Kingsley, with whom Mirlees was familiar.

Of Puck, that borders are crossed and recrossed, that the space beyond the border is marked out as a space for “adventure.” “Adventure never happens south of the Wall.”

That the wall in Stardust and the nature of borders there are concerned with identity, and the characters’ places in the universe.

It was a fascinating paper, and I wish I’d had the chance to talk to her more when it was still fresh in my mind.


The next paper was by Sandeep Parmar, of the University of Liverpool, on “Hope Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist and the Ritual World.” Parmar is working on a biography of Mirlees, and I confess I did not follow her paper well at all. Although I did learn more about Mirlees’ relationship with the famous Jane Harrison, one of the first of so-called Cambridge Ritualists in the early 20th century.


The third paper of the Britain session was given by Cara Sheldrake, recently awarded her PhD from the University of Exeter. “Time Travel to Roman Britain” looked at thematic elements common to the use of Roman Britain in time travel stories, with a large focus on New Who’s Rory. As she pointed out, Roman Britain is not necessarily very popular from the point of view of time travel stories. Romans are used as shorthand for military dedication and personal courage. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet (1906) is a time travel story with Fabian overtones, while Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree (1977) shows how social integration might work. But overall one doesn’t get a sense of an overall contrast between the then and the now, but rather an image of soldiers. In the cold.

(No. I’m not doing this paper justice either.)


Stephe Harrop closed the session with “‘To keep out bad things’: Representing ‘The Wall’ in A Song of Ice and Fire.” A professional storyteller, her skill at talking was clear in her delivery.

According to GRRM, regarding the Wall: “fantasy has to be bigger.” The Wall showcases a division between monstrous lad and civilised land: the Wall is a defiantly visible border, taking up traditional readings of Hadrian’s Wall as a defensive barrier as well as a monitor and control of people and movement. But GRRM subverts the idea of the Wall as monumental and impermeable barrier. Jon Snow’s narrative challenges the monumental solidity of the Wall, and demonstrates its increasing permeability.

(This is another fascinating paper, and one which I especially hope makes it in to any Select Proceedings that may be published.)


Coffee break! Much interesting talkings. It was during this break that I met Daniel Franklin and Zoe Johnson in the flesh, and very entertaining people they were to prove to be over the course of the weekend.

The next session up included my scheduled paper, so I had no chance to see the panel on Television SF (BSG!) or Creatures (Galenic centaurs!). Instead, Ancient Civilisations saw me presenting the first of three papers, followed by Jason Lundock, PhD candidate of King’s College London, and Christos Callow, PhD candidate of the University of Lincoln – the session as a whole chaired by Stephen Trzaskoma, of the University of New Hampshire.

For my own paper, I shan’t recap. (If anyone’s interested, I can share the whole thing over email.)


Jason Lundock was the only other person there, as far as I could tell, whose paper took a material culture approach to SFF and the Classics. Unfortunately, “Arcane Treasure and Sacred Relics: The Lost Treasures of Anitquity and their Influence in Folktale and Fantasy,” while not the worst paper I’ve ever seen, was scattered and lacked a good through-line, a unifying thematic argument. Despite having interesting moments on the Holy Grail and Roman deposits in ancient Britain, on the whole it was very unspecific and vague. And Lundock, I fear, came off as something of a sexist prat: on discussing why treasure is a popular quest/McGuffin in gaming, he tossed off an aside about well, you could rescue the damsel, but then the guys’d have to fight over who got to take her home. Way to go with the heterosexism and writing out of the agency of women there, man. It really didn’t show you in a sympathetic light.


Christos Callow’s paper was subsequently much talked about. “Science ‘Fiction’? in Ancient Greece: Advanced Technology and Knowledge in Ancient Greece and Contemporary Hypotheses Regarding their Origins,” is as prime, and entertaining, a piece of academic trolling as I’ve ever been privileged to hear. Christos, a good speaker and very Greek, laid out the thought experiment that perhaps the golden age of human existence is in the ancient past. That people were more intelligent in antiquity. Better at living.

This certainly got an argument started. And then a gentlemen at the back of the room stands up to expostulate. “People today are certainly stupider! You can see this just by looking around! Half the people at this conference are stupid!”

Prime entertainment, but perhaps not exactly the most well-considered opinion to share at that particular point. I did not get the gentleman in question’s name, which is probably just as well.


This series of posts will continue with the conference dinner, and Liverpool’s famous lambananas. But for now, I need to rest my typing hands.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part III of Many

Part I.
Part II.


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


Sophia McDougall was supposed to give her plenary address at 1030, but there was some confusion owing to the fact that Ms. McDougall had taken a bit ill that morning. So Tony Keen kicked things off by reading the paper of Leon Crickmore, an independent scholar who was unable to be present. This paper detailed the founding of the SF Foundation and its library, but since Tony read a bit on the speedy side and since it was essentially insider SF academia talk, I followed it only very poorly and can now make no sense of my notes.

Sophia McDougall did arrive, and, introduced by Edward James, embarked upon her plenary address, “Dreams of Rome.”

McDougall, for those unaware, is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, which posits a present-day world-spanning Roman empire. As her turning point in Roman history, she takes the death of Pertinax. (Pertinax doesn’t die, and consequently there are no Severans: the empire avoids the tumultous third century and actually finds workarounds for its complicated logistical and co-ordination challenges.) Her plenary address treated in part the use of images of Rome in modernity.

Noteworthy points in the course of the address: she spoke about imperium et libertas in Victorian English politics (c.f. Disraeli’s Guildhall address of 9 November 1879) and the omnipresence of the idea of Rome; the fact that it was impossible to really enter the halls of British power in the 19th and early 20th centuries without at least a passing familiarity with Roman culture. Rome, she said, means many things to many different people. She spoke of the importance of Rome as a mirror to our modern-day concerns with imperialism, power, government, and freedom. The idea that Rome is close enough to us that we can, as it were, travel into it easily.

She mentioned the “danger” of living history, with particular reference to slavery, and the idea that often, in SFF, when writing about the past or future, “we flatten unpleasant things out.”

The other thing she spoke of was the longevity, size, and endurance of Roman monuments. You “can’t accuse Romans of not thinking big.” And the fact that these achievements outlasted the empire, that the methods of how to build certain of these things were forgotten. People in Anglo-Saxon England, for example, were “living in a landscape marked by lost technologies,” and the possibilities, SFnal and fantastical, inherent in that historical truth.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part II of Many

This is the second installment in a multi-part conference write-up. Part I is here.

But first, a poll!

Saturday morning. I woke up before my morning wake-up call, and made it to breakfast. Feathers Hotel did a pretty good breakfast spread, including pastries and yoghurt, although the fruit was a bit sad. I encountered Otta and Cecilie at breakfast, and together we navigated down past Mordor Cathedral to the central area of the university, and thence to the Foresight Centre (situated in, I believe, the former Liverpool Royal Hospital).

Here, I met the personable Shana Worthen, an enthusiastic and interesting ginger person, Vector magazine’s features editor and involved in both the SF Foundation and the BSFA. From her I learned – to my shock and delight – that the conference would provide lunch daily, in addition to the tea and coffee and biscuits already on tap. Morning registration was full of a wide variety of people, of whom the only other person I recall at this point in time (besides the fact that there was a table selling lots of second-hand books) is Edward James, formerly of medieval history at UCD.

At 1015, we made our way to the Main Hall (on the programme), which on the building plan was actually known as the Gallery. There, Professor Douglas Baird, head of Liverpool’s School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, introduced the conference. A short, balding, broad-shouldered man, he said we were present at a new type of conference, the first of its kind dedicated to Classical receptions in the fantastika. He cracked a few jokes at the expense of university admin, and mentioned “receptions of a slightly more bibulous type,” before handing over to Tony Keen.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part I of Many

Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space
A Science Fiction Foundation Conference, Liverpool, 29 June- 1 July 2013

Swords. Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World is 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 will take place Saturday June 29-Monday July 1, at the Foresight Centre, University of Liverpool.

Henceforth to be referred to as “the SFF/Classics conference”, or as “the conference.”


This is the first part of a multi-part conference write-up. I promised I would write the conference up to the best of my ability. I need to preface this endeavour by saying I cannot possibly do it justice. Over the course of three days, more than eighty attendees presented more than sixty papers. For the days of Saturday and Sunday, there were three parallel conference tracks. For Monday, two parallel tracks were in operation. I had a fantastic experience, and my head is still hopping from talking to interesting people and all the interesting things to think about.

The conference programme can be found here. Tony Keen, one of the conference organisers, Storified the conference here.


Let me begin with Friday evening. The preliminary meet-and-greet at the (lovely, late Victorian gentlemen’s club-turned-pub) Philharmonic Dining Rooms was my first introduction to several of the other attendees.

I’d arrived off a Ryanair flight, caught a taxi manned by a very garrulous Scouser gentleman, and checked into the Feathers Hotel on Mount Pleasant. The single rooms are tiny but adequate – the bathrooms are quite capacious, though. It is a Georgian building, and I caught a room overlooking the street, with original sash windows. There was enough time to hang my Real Grown-Up Trousers and Shirt in the wardrobe before heading out in search of the – actually very nearby – Phil.

I got there, and, naturally enough, recognised nobody. So I ordered a half of ale, peered nervously around, and was shortly approached by a lovely person from Denmark, Cecilie Flugt, who had recognised a kindred-nervous-peerer-around. Neither of us knew anyone going to the conference, so we peered nervously around together, while talking on Classical and SFnal topics. Soon, though, Tony Keen recognised the nervous peering around, and delivered us to a growing huddle of fellow delegates. Here we met the interesting Otta Wenskus (who would later dub the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King “Mordor Cathedral” and discover that it once possessed a bishop by the surname of Warlock), Fiona Hobden – with whom I wish I’d had the opportunity to speak more during the course of the conference – Christos Callow, Andy Sawyer, plenary speaker Nick Lowe, Pascal Lemaire from Belgium, and other people, including a large Liverpool SF Studies contingent, whose names I did not write down immediately. Leimar Garcia-Siino, who would give a very interesting paper on Greek mythology in YA on Monday. Charul Patel, of Lancaster. Some other people! Andrew J. Wilson, that was one of them.

I can’t remember what we talked about over dinner. I should have made notes. I remember that Nick Lowe, Royal Holloway, a skinny vibrant long-haired rake of a professor with a grin like a demented elf – and I mean that in the best possible sense – introduced himself as from the “University of Neptune.” I remember I ate venison sausages and mashed potato, and Tony made a passing sausage reference that could have gone very (if hilarious) inappropriate places, but didn’t. Of the people who went to dinner: Andrew J. Wilson. Andy Sawyer. Pascal Lemaire. Tony Keen. Me. Otta Wenskus. Fiona Hobden. Nick Lowe. Fiona Hobden. Cecilie Flugt. Perhaps they remember the topics of conversation better than I do. All I remember is that they were immensely invigorating. I think recent films featured. Cloud Atlas. World War Z. Man of Steel. Iron Man and sequels. I retain an overwhelming impression of Nick Lowe’s energy and enthusiasm, and Andrew Wilson’s large engaged good humour, a certain quick wit on the part of Andy Sawyer and a distracted intelligence about Tony Keen – but the rest escapes me.

I marched hotel-wards in company around perhaps 1000 or 1030, guided by the round crown of Mordor Cathedral. The rest of the story will have to wait…

Jo Fletcher Books, Rod Rees, SFF, Sexism, and Systemic Failure. Part I.

On June 25, 2013, Jo Fletcher Books (the SFF/H imprint of Quercus Books) published an article by Rod Rees on their blog, “Can Male Authors Successfully Write Female Characters.” The article struck me as egregiously offensive, and I contacted the publisher for comment for an article on it soon after it had been brought to my attention. (By Niall Harrison, who said – and I quote – “I feel kind of mean doing this.”)

On June 29, 2013, Jo Fletcher Books published a response by the imprint’s managing editor, Jo Fletcher, to criticism and conversation arising from the Rod Rees article, “On the Right To Freedom of Speech.”

At some point before late on June 30, 2013, both of these articles disappeared from the website, as reported by Natalie of Radish Reviews and reacted to by Foz Meadows. (“A Note on Post Deletions.”)

At this point in time (July 02, 2013) it seems both posts are again available to the wider web, as I’m able to click through to them from the JFB blog. (Rod Rees’ article now comes complete with a disclaimer that opinions aren’t those of the publishing house, which was originally lacking.) But if they should happen to disappear once more, Radish Reviews has been kind enough to host the screenshots in the linked post.

That’s the basic timeline of events. You may be asking yourself why they’re important.

I’m writing a piece on the subject of how well (or badly) male writers create/describe/cope with/handle female characters
Rod Rees, June 25, 2013.

…[M]y entire brain explode[d] in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor.
Foz Meadows, June 26, 2013

Since I’m traveling about today, I’m writing this in bite-sized pieces. Now that I’ve outlined the events as they took place, let’s dig a little bit into why they’re worth talking about.

In Part II.

Epic Lists of Epicness: Postmortem

Following on from our posts about “essential” epic fantasy (mine here and here), Jared’s followed up with some number-crunching.

What have we learned from this experiment? Across all four lists, only two works are universal: The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. We have a little better luck with authors – but even there, we don’t have a list of even ten we all agree on.

Participants in the list-making exercise are based in Ireland, UK, Australia and USA. Two identify as men, two as women. We’ve covered the bases of the Anglosphere, I think. And what we’ve learned is that there is no universal agreement on

a) what constitutes epic fantasy
b) what constitutes essential epic fantasy
c) whose opinions are the most wrongheaded.

Useful data all around, wouldn’t you say?

Go read Jared’s post. He has charts.

Gollancz Geeks, or why acting as unpaid publicity is not an OMGWTFBBQ OPPORTUNITY!!!

Update March 8: Gollancz has clarified their position in a blogpost whose content would’ve been helpful in their promo emails. And whose tone seems much more appropriate when speaking to adults than the nicey-nice PR OMG ENTHUSIASM!! of the initial emails…

Welcome to the Team! We are emailing you because you expressed an interest in hearing more about our Fantasy/Dark Fantasy/Horror titles and we think we’ve got the perfect read for you!

We are so excited to be able to share [title redacted] with you.

A few weeks ago, in the interests of SCIENCE, I signed up for the Gollancz Geeks mailing list. (Note: the contact form asks for gender information in a binary configuration. Despite the @Gollancz twitter account responding sympathetically to this concern when I raised it weeks ago, the form remains unchanged.) I view “Let’s start a club!” with a certain suspicion when it comes from profit-making entities – but perhaps Gollancz wouldn’t be entirely tone-deaf and skeevy about it.

Now we want to know what you thought of [title redacted]. Whether you love the book or hate the book we want to hear your opinion. We have 25 copies of [title redacted] to share with you. If you are interested in reviewing [title redacted] please reply to this email. The first 25 people to reply will be sent a copy. We will send t-shirts, bookmarks and badges to everyone who sends back a review by the 6th April 2013. We reserve the right to publish some or all of your reviews on the Gollancz Blog.

I don’t know what they call this in PR. I’ve seen it a bit, though, and I think of it as the forced-enthusiasm cycle. (“Forced” in the sense of “forcing” plants.) It’s irritating because it’s utterly transparent.

Step one: offer a definite but small quantity of a desirable commodity to the fastest and most enthusiastic interested parties. Step two: create minor-but-look-bigger incentives for fast feedback. You’ve pre-selected for positive attitude: even if a half or a quarter respond negatively or indifferently, the rest will be buzzed – in part because they got something for “free,” which always feels like getting away with something.

The forced-enthusiasm cycle works, demonstrably. It’s not even particularly skeevy. What makes this iteration of it skeevy and a wasted opportunity?

We reserve the right to publish some or all of your reviews on the Gollancz Blog

You reserve the right, do you? You’re not asking for the right, but reserving it? Fuck you, pay me. And not with –

We will send t-shirts, bookmarks and badges to everyone who sends back a review

T-shirts? Badges? Presumably with Gollancz’s logo on it, making this an opportunity for this particularly imprint to – ahem – “build its brand.” For free. In the guise of rewarding participation. (Badges? What are we, five now?) Gollancz, me oul’mate me lad – I hope that’s not too familiar, but since you’ve invited me to join your “Team” I think you should be all right with a few liberties – I hate to break it to you, but people tend not have brand investment, so to speak, in publishing houses. Books are not fungible. Your average reader will follow authors and series, not publishing houses.

You’ve wasted an opportunity, me oul’mate me lad – which, since you make a taxable profit and publicity is a business expense, costs you next to nothing – to build investment in other authors and series under contract with you, and get sensible free publicity, by offering tat and not books as swag.

Mind, you’d still have to pay me – or at least ask nicely, I’m not unreasonable – to (re)publish a review of mine. But this reserving rights lark? Come on, me oul’mate. You don’t seriously believe you’re doing anyone a favour here. You’re looking to get publicity for as good as free! And you’re lying to your email list by pretending you’re doing us a good turn. Underneath this nicey-nice PR OMG ENTHUSIASM!!! are all the morals of a hungry shark, and what’s really insulting? You ain’t even bothering to pretend this is an equal exchange wherein we’re doing you a good turn by investing time and energy in being, essentially, Free Publicity, in exchange for Free Shit.

Now, me, I’m a jobbing amateur. Semi-professional, I guess: I writes for some people who pay me in money and some people who don’t pay me at all because I like ’em and sometimes I can use the practice, and on my personal blog I writes just for the hell of it, mostly. It’s not my dayjob. (Although if someone were to hire me to do this sort of thing fulltime I’d probably quit my thesis so fast you wouldn’t even see my supervisor’s head spin.) People send me a review copy, they pays their shot and takes their chances. I’m confident enough to believe it’s an opportunity for them to reach the hundred-odd folks who Stats tells me come to the most popular posts here or however many hundred (thousand? I have to believe there’s more than ten lurkers for every commenter) skim that column I write at Tor.com. It’s not an opportunity for me to make them happy: there’re lots and lots and lots of books in the world, and even if I read more than three a week, reading – and thinking about, and writing about – one person’s instead of another person’s is still a significant investment of my time.

Thank you Team Gollancz Geeks for the incredible reply!

We are so delighted that so many of you are interested in reviewing [title redacted]. We are now in the process of notifying our [title redacted] reviewers. If you have been chosen to review this copy (again this is first come first served) you’ll receive an email by the end of next week.

If you weren’t selected this time to review [title redacted], don’t worry we’ll be contacting you soon about other opportunities.

(May I be snippy here and suggest more attention to punctuation in professional correspondence wouldn’t hurt?)

So, this is March 7th. Gollancz want the book reviewed by April 6th. They’ll notify potential reviewers by the end of next week – say March 15th. Assume the books are put in the post on that date and head out to UK parts only. Allow three to five working days for arrival of books. March 21st, perhaps? You’ve just over two weeks to read and review the book by Gollancz’s imposed deadline if you want their logo’d tat. Anyone else think that’s a little tight?

Gollancz, me oul’mate me lad. You can keep your opportunities. They’re not really opportunities. You’re running a giveaway, be honest. And in return for winning a prize, you want the LUCKY READER!!! to work for you for free.

It’s transparent. And it’s manipulative. And it leaves me feeling pretty cranky and disinclined to pay, y’know, real money for Gollancz books, if they’re going to be this transparently manipulative in their PR endeavours.

Also, nicey-nice PR ENTHUSIASM OMG LOVE TO SHARE!!! gives me hives from the saccharine falsity. So there’s that.


My liver may be fucked but my heart is honest.
And my word is true.

…I’m not nice. I’m not fair.

But, y’know. As the witch said to the bishop. At least I know it.

A thought on poetry

A conversation with Amal El-Mohtar and Alex Dally MacFarlane on Twitter, which began here, with a link to Sofia Samatar’s poem “Girl Hours”, crystallised for me some of my feelings about poetry.

Samatar’s is a visceral and moving piece of poetry, weaving in and out of history, science, bodies, ways of knowing with intensity, fire, and astonishing image, juxtaposition and rhythm:

You were not the only deaf woman there.
Annie Cannon, too, was hard of hearing.
On the day of your death she wrote: Rainy day pouring at night.

Oh bright rain, brave clouds, oh stars,
oh stars.

Two thousand four hundred fires
and uncharted, unstudied,
the hours, the hours, the hours.

It has the same force and power for me as Seamus Heaney’s “From the Lightnings VIII,”

VIII

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

(Out of the marvellous as he had known it. I will love that poem forever for that line.)

or Pablo Neruda’s “Canto XII: From the Heights of Macchu Picchu,”

And tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.

And give me silence, give me water, hope.

Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.

Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.

Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.

Speak through my speech, and through my blood.

The thing is, I cannot see genre in poetry. Division by forms, yes. But not by genres: even narrative is a form. There is image, and there is rhythm, and there is theme, and there is world changing in an instant – but not genre.

I find it impossible – I mean, how do you say “This is” and “This isn’t”? All the poetry that works in me partakes of the fantastic and the transcendental, but if separated into its constituent elements, how do I say “This is science”? “This is magic”? “This is mimetic”? “This is not”?

This is the immanence of things that know no words, that have no spoken names. This is poetry, in all its intensity, and freight, and emotion, and fire.

Poetry is as close as I get to religious experience, anymore.

Perhaps. If it doesn’t reach the poetic/transcendental for someone, in some sense, then I can’t find it in me to call it poetry. Failed poetry, doggerel, weird prose: but not poetry. The inner light and fire, the special intensity, the power to change, the power to move: these are poetry’s characteristics.

It doesn’t have to work for me. If it only works for one person in ten thousand, then it still works – but the one thing poetry cannot be and remain poetry is universally mundane.