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

Full details of the Masterclass are here:

"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  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.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A couple of posts on my OU blog

I've put a couple of posts up on my OU blog (which I don't use much, but occasionally I post something closely related to my teaching interests).

One is a medium-length exposition on 'What is myth'.

The other, much shorter piece, applies a theoretical framework to a particular myth.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Marcus the Evangelist

I've had my attention drawn to an online piece by W. Robert Connor, arguing that the name of the author of the second Gospel, "Mark", or "Marcus" in Latin, suggests that he was from a pro-Roman and pro-Herodian family. The name, Connor suggests, may be a nod towards the Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who spent two periods in the East in charge of, among other areas, Judaea - as an example of pro-Roman naming he mentions the Tetrarch known to us as Herod Agrippa, but who was born Marcus Julius Agrippa. The author of the Gospel, the argument goes, may have been named at a time when the name "Marcus" was in vogue, which Connor suggests may have been the late teens BCE, making the Evangelist born rather earlier than he is generally thought to have been.

My immediate thought was this: Surely the use of Marcus shows that Mark was a Roman citizen?

To elaborate: "Marcus" is a praenomen, the first part of the tria nomina, the three-part Roman citizen name. In the first century CE praenomina were, as far as I know, the exclusive preserve of Roman citizens - hence the inscriptional formula [praenomen] + filius (e.g. M(arci) f(ilius)) could be used to demonstrate that one's father was a Roman citizen, and therefore one must oneself be a freeborn Roman citizen. If praenomina were in more general use, this formula could not carry the intended message. Connor (who seems throughout unfamiliar with Roman naming conventions) implies that any Jewish family could choose to name their child Marcus; I think that's only the case if the family were already Roman citizens.

Why Marcus? Let's first get rid of the red herring of Marcus Julius Agrippa. The Agrippa part of this name (the cognomen)* is certainly in honour of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. But the standard practice (which doesn't mean it was universal - naming practices regularly broke any "rules" that may have existed) was for first-born sons of Roman citizens, such as Herod Agrippa, to inherit their praenomen and nomen from their father. So Agrippa's father, who we know as Aristobulus, was probably Marcus Julius Aristobulus (we don't actually have Aristobulus' full citizen name recorded, but he must have had one). The Julius comes from when Herod Agrippa's great-grandfather Antipater was made a Roman citizen by Julius Caesar. Standard practice was to take the praenomen and nomen of the person who raised one to Roman citizenship, and use one's own name as one's cognomen. So Antipater would have become Gaius Julius Antipater.

Why the change to Marcus? I think this is because Aristobulus was the third son, rather than the first, of his father Herod the Great. Now, usual practice amongst Greeks who had achieved Roman citizenship was to distinguish between brothers through the use of a different cognomen, whilst retaining praenomen and nomen. In Italy, however, brothers were distinguished by different praenomina, whilst the nomen and cognomen remained unchanged; so the brother of Marcus Tullius Cicero was Quintus Tullius Cicero, I wonder if Herod was using both systems; so instead of distinguishing between Gaius Julius Antipater and Gaius Julius Aristobulus, he distinguished them as Gaius Julius Antipater and Marcus Julius Aristobulus. If that's correct, then given that Aristobulus was born in 31 BCE, if a Roman Marcus was being honoured here, it was not Agrippa, who would not come out to the east until eight years later, but the ruler of the Roman East at the time (and Herod's close ally), Mark Antony.

So why Marcus for the Evangelist? One might speculate (and this is very much speculation) that if his family received Roman citizenship from Agrippa when he was in charge in the east, they may have taken the names "Marcus Vipsanius" as the family praenomen and nomen. But one might alternatively have expected them to have taken the names of the emperor at the time, Gaius Julius (Caesar Augustus); certainly this was later practice, ensuring that such honours were monopolized by the imperial family. And even if "Marcus" does come from Agrippa, this merely indicates when Mark's family were enfranchised - it says nothing about when Mark himself was born.

In the end, I don't think we can say with any certainty why Mark was called "Mark" rather than any other name. But this does not mean that Connor's broader point about the pro-Roman nature of Mark is invalid. Indeed, given that I think it can be 100% asserted that Mark was a Roman citizen (which leads me to wonder why it never is), his pro-Roman stance is implicit and to be expected. I also think Connor is right about where Mark grew up, in the heavily Hellenized city of Caesarea, which would have had a strong community of Roman citizens, rather than the more traditional Jewish environment of Jerusalem.

I now invite comments from better Romanists than me.

[Edit: Emma England rightly points out that the above is based on the a priori assumption that "Mark" was the Evangelist's birth-name. I don't think that's an unreasonable assumption, but it is an assumption, and I should have flagged it as such.]

*Actually I suspect "Agrippa" is an agnomen, an additional name, and the cognomen here was the family name Herodes, so he was Marcus Julius Herodes Agrippa.