Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Today is Bloomsday, the day of the events of James Joyce's novel Ulysses.

I confess that I have never finished Ulysses. I have, however, got further than many - the bookmark in my copy is at p. 856 of 933, in the middle of the 'Ithaca' issue, a little more than a dozen pages before Molly Bloom's monologue. It seems silly that I never got to the end - I guess I just got distracted by something else that needed doing, and never got back to it. It's so long since I read it now I would surely have to start again. (I nearly read it along with an online acquaintance, but didn't have time.)

That copy is a Chinese Yilin Press edition bought in 1997 in Changchun, I guess because I was looking for something to read in English that actually looked worth my time. It's a pirated copy of the 1992 Penguin with Declan Kiberd's introduction.

When I started Ulysses it was a revelation. The first chapter is full of Classical references - Buck Mulligan quotes Xenophon - and, of course, the whole work refashions Homer's Odyssey. I was gripped by the early chapters (which makes it all the more surprising that I never managed to finish the novel). I revisited the first one today, and I still like it.

It also gave me an insight into Thucydides. I could see similarities in their writing styles, and I came to believe that both writers were interested in the full possibilities of their respective languages, and in choosing exactly the right words to express the precise meaning that that wanted to express. That many not be an observation that modern Thucydidean scholars would subscribe to. But it works for me. I must read this book again.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Fantastic London Course, Middlesex University

I haven't done a good enough job of publicizing the course I teach for Middlesex University in the summer, on 'Fantastic London'. There are still places available on it - the cost is £495 for British and EU residents. You don't have to be a Middlesex student, or indeed any kind of student, to apply. 

The course runs for two weeks, from 2 to 16 July (though if they got enough students, they might add another group which would run into the following week). The object of the course is to explore London as a background for the literature of the fantastic (it's a slimmed down version of a longer course I teach for the University of Notre Dame - well, actually the ND course is an expanded version of this). We look at three texts, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, London Falling by Paul Cornell, and The Wicked and the Divine: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. There are also four walks through different bits of London, explaining how they were used as background for various bits of fantastic literature - The City, Bloomsbury, Camden and the East End. At the end of the course, students submit a short critical piece (1,000 words) and a short creative piece (2,500 words).

It's a fun course that I enjoy teaching, and I encourage anyone interested to apply. And please share this with anyone you think might be interested.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Terry Pratchett

I've never been a massive fan of Terry Pratchett. I've read a few of his books, and liked them and found them funny (especially those featuring the Witches), but I was never one of those waiting on the arrival of every Discworld novel.

That does not mean, however, that I don't recognise how important he was, and fully understand why my Facebook feed yesterday and this morning is full of tributes to him. With Douglas Adams, he helped reshape the English comic novel. With Neil Gaiman, he helped reshape the English fantasy novel. And Ankh-Morpork is one of the great Other Londons.

Over a quarter of a century ago, Pratchett, just recently gone full time as a writer, was a guest at Edinburgh University SF Society's Freshercon. For some reason, I ended up on a couple of panels with him, one on writing where he and Graham Dunstan Martin did all the talking, and one in which we were telling a live round robin story - so in a way I've collaborated with Terry Pratchett. I never really spoke to him after that, though saw him on panels a lot. I also have a very vivid memory of Iain Banks doing a note-perfect Pratchett impersonation.

And I always liked the stuff about dwarves.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Places still available on the 2015 Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism

There are still places available on the 2015 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism. If you would like to apply, please contact masterclass@sf-foundation.org.

Full details of the Masterclass are here: http://sf-foundation.org/masterclass2015

"The 2014 SFF Masterclass."

2015 BSFA Lecture

The 2015 BSFA Lecture at Dysprosium (the 2015 Eastercon) will be given by Dr Simon Trafford (Institute of Historical Research), and is entitled ‘“Runar munt þu finna”: why sing pop in dead languages?’ The lecture will be given at 5.30 pm on Saturday April 4th, in the Discovery room of the Park Inn, Heathrow. The lecture is open to any member of Dysprosium.
Simon Trafford is Lecturer in Medieval History and Research Training Officer at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research. He specialises in the history and archaeology of the later Anglo-Saxon period in the north-east of England. He completed his undergraduate studies and his D.Phil. at the University of York, where his supervisor was Professor Edward James, who sf fans know as current Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation. Simon has a particular interest in the depiction of Vikings in popular culture. His talk for us develops this, with a special focus upon the use of dead ancient and medieval languages in pop and rock songs.
The BSFA Lecture is intended as a companion to the George Hay Lecture, which is presented at the Eastercon by the Science Fiction Foundation. Where the Hay Lecture invites scientists, the BSFA Lecture invites academics from the arts and humanities, because we recognise that science fiction fans aren’t only interested in science.  The lecturers are given a remit to speak “on a subject that is likely to be of interest to science fiction fans” – i.e. on whatever they want!  This is the eighth BSFA Lecture.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

International Women's Day 2015

Last year for International Women's Day I posted about Edith Hamilton. This year I want to write about something a little different. Instead of writing about Classical Studies, I'm going to write about classical music, and in particular Marin Alsop.

There are plenty of female virtuosos on piano, violin, etc., such as Nicola Benedetti and Arabella Steinbacher, the latter of whom I'm always ready to go and hear. But there aren't many female conductors, at least not in prominent roles. There doesn't seem any particular reason why this should be, other than institutionalized sexism. Conducting doesn't particularly need strengths that are particular to men - after all, Sue Perkins won the BBC's celebs-learn-to-conduct series Maestro, and has done some conducting since. Vasily Petrenko supposedly said that orchestras are too much in danger of being distracted by a pretty woman, to which the only reply is "Do you think with your penis all the time?"

Anyway, in about ten years of going to classical concerts, I don't think I've ever seen a woman conduct. So when I saw that Marin Alsop was conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in February, Kate and I decided to go. It's unusual for us to go to the LPO - we're usually loyal to the Philharmonia. But as far as I know, Alsop has never conducted the Philharmonia (they should try to rectify this).

Anyway, we went to see her conduct three Beethoven pieces, Leonore Overture no, 3, Piano Concerto no.3, and Symphony no. 7 (which I always forget I know until I hear it). And it was great. Alsop really brought the music to life. She's a bundle of energy on the podium, and is clearly having a wonderful time. I would definitely go and see her conduct again, and I urge you to. And I hope that by the time I am put in the ground, a female conductor is not such a rarity.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Ninth Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism 2015

The Ninth Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism will be held from Friday 17 July to Sunday 19 July 2015

The SFF Masterclass involves three days studying texts supplied by three class leaders.  It is a great way to broaden your critical perspectives, sharpen some critical tools, and to make contacts with other people writing on SF and Fantasy.  The class leaders are drawn from professional writers, academics and fans, and this is a great opportunity to learn from people experienced in their craft.

Anyone interested in writing seriously about science fiction and/or fantasy, at whatever level they are in their careers, is welcome to attend.  This includes not just critics and reviewers, but historians and other scholars.  Those who have attended past Masterclasses are also welcome to apply (though we will prioritise applications from those who have not been previous students).

Past students have found these events immensely beneficial, and often return.  For some reports and endorsements from past students and class leaders, see the Facebook page for the Masterclass;

We are pleased to announce that the venue will again be the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, founded by Charles II in 1675, and the home of the Prime Meridian.

Price: £200£150 for registered postgraduate students. 

The Class Leaders for 2015 will be: 

Pat Cadigan, multiple Clarke and Hugo Award-winning author of Synners and Fools, and Official Queen of Cyberpunk.
Nick LoweBSFA Award-winning critic and writer of Interzone's 'Mutant Popcorn' column.
Graham Sleight, Hugo Award-winning Managing Editor of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

To apply please send a short (no more than 3,000 words) piece of critical writing (a blog entry, review, essay, or other piece), and a one page curriculum vitae, to masterclass@sf-foundation.org.  Applications received by 28 February 2015 will be considered by an Applications Committee consisting of Tony Keen, Andy Sawyer and Kari Sperring. Applications received after 28 February may be considered if places are still available, on a strictly first-come first served basis. 

Information on past Masterclasses can be found here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Classics and fanfic

One of the things I've often heard said is that most texts of ancient  mythology are pretty much fan fiction, since they reuse and repurpose characters that already exist. "Virgil was writing Homer fanfic" is the way it's often phrased. I'm not too sure that the equivalence is as strong as it's sometimes claimed to be. For a start, the concept of fan fiction is predicated on the idea that there are 'official' and 'unofficial' stories set in a particular megatext, and that the official stories hold an essential position of privilege over the unofficial ones. That's not really true in ancient literature - not even Homer is quite treated in that fashion. Still, what the comparison does show is that fanfiction, telling new stories about characters in stories that we've heard, is a manifestation of an urge in human storytelling that has very deep roots indeed, and that making the creation of original characters a sign of a superior writer, a stick that is often used to beat fanficcers, is a fairly recent idea.

Anyway, Juliette Harrison has written an interesting blog post on this subject. And Ika Willis will be editing an issue of  the Journal of Transformative Works that addresses Classics and fanfic, If you want to contribute you have until 1 March.