I emerged from Liverpool's John Lennon Airport into a Friday summer afternoon's torrential downpour, and only the intervention of a very Scouse, very talkative cabbie saw me to my hotel without a proper soaking.
All in all, it wasn't the most well-omened way to begin the weekend of "Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World". But since, secluded within the sheltering walls of the University of Liverpool's Foresight Centre, a vintage Victorian building that had formerly housed the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, I would scarcely see the daylight sky again until Tuesday noon, weather omens were the furthest thing from my mind.
A joint venture between the Science Fiction Foundation and the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology of the University of Liverpool, and organised by Tony Keen, Andy Sawyer, and Fiona Hobden, "Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space" was the first English-language academic conference of its kind. It invited papers on the relationship between classical antiquity and science fiction and fantasy across all media: a conference on reception studies, but a specialised one.
And a large one. Over the course of three days, over eighty delegates gathered to hear over sixty papers. Up to three panel sessions were running concurrently at any one time. Tea and coffee flowed like rivers, albeit fortunately more like the Nile in flood, bringing new life, than the Lethe and its forgetfulness. Hot lunches were laid on. The Philharmonic Dining Rooms on Hope St. ended up pressed into service as Official Conference Pub, for when the Foresight Centre closed its doors in the evenings. The energy of many dozen academics—evenly split between those focused on classics and those who put their time into science fiction studies, the vast majority of them geeks in some shape or form—met and redoubled in conversation after conversation.
Rather than bore you, dear readers, with a play by play account of everything I had eye to eye and hand to hand knowledge of or concerning (if you want that, go here or here), I've picked out the two panels I most enjoyed and the one panel I most rolled my eyes at to talk about. I'll say something about the plenary addresses. And I'll leave you with my thoughts . . .
The two panels that stand out for me as both exemplary academic sessions and as entertaining presentations in and of themselves were "Britain," on Saturday afternoon, and "Masters of Science Fiction," on Sunday morning.
The "Britain" session took place in the Waterhouse Room, a narrow stuffy chamber on the ground floor of the Foresight Centre—but conveniently close to the tea and coffee. Chaired by Penelope Goodman (University of Leeds), it featured papers by Liz Gloyn (billed as University of Birmingham, moving to Royal Holloway, University of London), 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. Liz Gloyn, an engaging speaker with a direct, unpretentious style, presented the first paper. "'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.
She talked about how space operates in fantastical contexts, and 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. Gloyn 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.
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 Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist and the Ritual World.” Parmar is working on a biography of Mirrlees, and I confess I did not follow this paper well at all, despite learning more about Mirrlees’ relationship with the famous Jane Harrison, one of the first of the so-called Cambridge Ritualists in the early 20th century.
Cara Sheldrake gave the third paper of the session. “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 in most of these narratives: E.E. 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. Overall, she said, 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.
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 George R. R. Martin, she said, regarding the Wall: “fantasy has to be bigger.” The Wall showcases a division between monstrous land 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, she said, Martin 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.
My second standout panel, "Masters of Science Fiction," took place on Sunday morning, in an upstairs room overlooking Pembroke Place, with weak cloudy sunlight shining through the blinds: a full audience, and no street noise. (Later that day, I would be in the same room as an Orange Order march paraded down Pembroke Place, drums beating. As an ex-Catholic Irishwoman, I felt so very welcome to Liverpool then.) The panel was chaired by Andy Sawyer (SF Foundation/University of Liverpool), and 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 man of average height 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 sixth-century Ostrogothic Italy and possibly the whole ancient world, Lest Darkness Fall. L. Sprague de Camp was 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", October 1941). 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.
Although there wasn’t a huge market for fantasy in de Camp’s earlier career, he edited collections of Howard’s Conan stories. James considers it possible that de Camp classicised Howard’s place names, for de Camp saw Conan in the light of a barbarian interacting with a Classical fictional world. In addition to popular history about the ancient world, he wrote biographies of both Lovecraft and Howard.
Andrew J. Wilson’s “Lost As Atlantis Now: Classical Influence in the Work of C.L. Moore (1911-1987)” was sadly 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 matters to do with the literary estate of Iain Banks.
Wilson spoke about Moore’s emotional depth and literary sophistication, her work being in the Romantic tradition but influenced by Classical myth. Her famous 1933 short story “Shambleau” has echoes of Medusa. Moving on from “Shambleau,” Wilson spoke of Jirel of Joiry as Amazonian archetype, saying that the second story to feature her can be read 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.
The next paper, “Rome and Byzantium in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy,” was given by Simon W. Perris, a besuited 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.
Perris said that Asimov’s Foundation establishes the Galactic Empire as a trope, and that the trilogy is intimately concerned with empire and imperialism. The Galactic Empire is the Roman/British empire writ large. It’s easy, he said, to take potshots at Asimov, but the relationship between SF and history is not straightforward. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Asimov used theories of historiography, in 1953 drawing openly on Arnold Toynbee's ideas of history as cyclical.
Perris drew on Dune as a comparandum. He sees Dune as concerned with newness, 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.
But I promised to tell you of the panel that made me roll my eyes most! The panel, not the paper: Christos Callow—a handsome young Greek PhD student of Lincoln University—gave a paper on Saturday evening that almost led to fisticuffs. But for me, that paled beside Monday's panel on "Reusing Mythological Figures," chaired by Tony Keen (Open University, of whom I can say no ill) which featured papers by Elke Steinmeyer (University of KwaZulu Natal), Pascal Lemaire (Independent Scholar), and Jessica Yates (Independent Scholar).
During her paper on “The Reception of the Figure of Cassandra in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Novel The Firebrand (1987)," Elke Steinmeyer, a woman with a strong German accent which I found hard to follow, made it clear that she saw a 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, 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. Men cannot write women. The end.
Steinmeyer also rather left one with the impression that she considered prehistoric matriarchy (à la When God Was A Woman) to be a fact supported by solid evidence, rather than an unproven (and thus far unprovable) hypothesis.
The next paper in that panel was a Death By Powerpoint presentation, and the paper after that surveyed the entire field of everything. Which just goes to show that even at the most amazing conference in the midst of the most fun I've ever had in academic circles, there will still be papers that annoy the hell out of you, or send you right to sleep.
Fortunately, not very many of them. And the plenary addresses, which took place on each of the three days of the conference, were neither annoying nor snooze-worthy. Sophia McDougall (author of the Romanitas trilogy) took us through "Dreams of Rome," with an aside on the fact that people in Anglo-Saxon England, for example, were “living in a landscape marked by lost technologies.” Edith Hall (King's College London) claimed she came primarily because Tony Keen is a "good egg" whom she likes, and encouraged us all onwards to “The Sea! The Interplanetary Sea! Xenophon’s Anabasis in Outer Space.” (Hall is a very entertaining, engaged speaker, not shy of taking advantage of a comic moment.) And Nick Lowe (Royal Holloway, University of London) bounced us through "Fantasising About Antiquity," his long hair flying, grinning like a demented elf. This, in part a tour of the varieties of classical receptions Lowe saw happening in the conference papers, reached a climax with a clip from what he said was the work of fantasy to most engage with the ancient world.
This may in fact have been the climax of the entire conference.
The aim of the conference was to take classicists, classical receptionists, and science fiction studies/English literature people, stick them in the same cocktail mixer, shake them, and see what fell out. As an ancient historian focused on material culture in antiquity, as opposed to someone who has much to do with Classical literature as literature, I know some of the nuances of flavour in this cocktail went right past me. But much and interesting was the talk of methodologies, of connections intended and unintentional, of fortunate coincidences. Of why so many historians are geek-minded, and how the future is a mirror to the past.
For we look at both as though through a glass, darkly. We know—or surmise—only part of either, and the myths we make today, both in fantasy and in science fiction, draw deeply on our present and our past. As well as "yesterday's vision of tomorrow" which we carry with us, we move towards "tomorrow's vision of yesterday."
Although what that might be, I dare not say.
Postscript: There are plans in train for the publication of several of the conference papers, as detailed by Tony Keen here.