G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

The order in which I’m approaching the things I said I’d do in this post has changed. I have to push the timeframe out by a month, so the last promised thing will be appearing in mid-October. And I’m switching the order of Lucian and Bowersock around, so Bowersock comes first.

G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam: a longer-than-500-word review.

This was not the book its title led me to expect. With a title like The Throne of Adulis and a subtitle of the Eve of Islam, one expects a contextualised discussion of kingship around the Red Sea within a relatively short timeframe. But in its 150 pages – this is not a long book – Bowersock ranges from the first to the sixth centuries CE and beyond, leaving one rather with the impression that The Throne of Adulis is not so much a coherent monograph in its own right, but rather the sketched outline of a longer work.

I’m not accustomed to finding academic works lacking in depth of field. In this case, the lack of depth which I perceive may be in part my lack of familiarity with the details of the Late Antique Red Sea, with which Bowersock may in fact be assuming that his readers are already familiar. If so, Oxford University Press have chosen poorly in how to present The Throne of Adulis to the public, for it is not presented in its cover copy or press release as a scholarly monograph appealing to a specialist audience, but rather as a book which “vividly recreates the Red Sea world of Late Antiquity, transporting readers back to a remote but pivotal epoch in ancient history, one that sheds light on the collapse of the Persian Empire as well as the rise of Islam.”

Nota bene, friends: it doesn’t do that. And, it fact, this piece of puffery is contradicted by Bowersock’s stated goal in his own preface. For Bowersock is not so much concerned with the wider Red Sea world, with its social and archaeological context – and let me say that I find the use of archaeological evidence in this book to be both limited and unconcerned with discussing the problems and benefits of said evidence for shedding light on people. Inscriptional evidence for important people, yes – but everyday persons, not so much.

Bowersock is interested in only one thing: an inscribed throne from the Red Sea port of Adulis, described by the sixth-century Christian writer known as Cosmas Indicopleustes. From here, he ranges outward to discuss the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, the Jewish Himyarite kingdom on the Arabian peninsula, and – briefly and in no great detail – the involvement of Byzantine and Persian interests in Axum’s wars in Arabia. When it comes to discussing the throne – the “throne of Adulis” of the title – and Axum’s situation in Ethiopia, it is a very straightforward, useful piece of research, comparing the description of the throne at Adulis with other inscribed thrones from the history of the Axumite kingdom and doing so in ways that I, as someone who knows little of Axum, can follow very well.

When he moves on to discuss Axum’s involvement in Arabia, and the Himyarite kingdom, his work stops being something that I can follow well at all. The discussion of the socio-historical context of the Arabian peninsula up to this time is lacking. Bowersock’s discussion of the Himyarite kingdom is seriously hampered by the fact that he does not take the time to lay out and examine the evidence literary and archaeological in a methodological fashion, so I am left not knowing if the lack of detail is Bowersock’s choice or a result of lack of data. The through-line of his narrative/argument is confusing, therefore, to follow, and he sketches a very limited picture of Byzantine and Persian involvement. Furthermore, he has next-to-nothing significant to say about Axum and Himyar’s impact on the rise of Islam.

And I’m left with a very odd feeling about the way in which Bowersock refers to Jewishness and Arabness. There seems to be an underlying subconscious strain of moral judgement there – not something one can easily put a finger on, but the choice of adjectives and adverbs strikes me very uneven at times. The discussion of the Christian kingdom of Axum’s interests in Arabia, and the Jewish Himyarite kingdom’s suppression of Christians, never rises to an acknowledgement that there are reasons other than pure religious sentiment to suppress adherents of a different creed: that religion is intimately political. That adherents of the creed of one’s belligerent neighbours can also be seen as Fifth Columnists.

Anyway. The Throne of Adulis is a book of interest to people fascinated by inscribed thrones, and of very limited use in explaining the social and political context of the Red Sea in the century before the rise of the Prophet.


How in all the world is it possible for something that should be so ridiculous to be so AMAZINGLY FUN?

Guillermo del Toro must be the answer.

Guillermo del Toro should make all the GIANT FIGHTING THINGS films ever. Science fiction and fantasy film-making? Needs more Guillermo del Toro. He brings beauty and flair and makes the ridiculous sublime. The hideous beauty of the kaiju. The jaegars’ beautiful brutality. Idris Elba, outlined against the sun like the image of some martial saint.



I agree with everything Aisha says here at Practically Marzipan. Especially YES YES YES YES YES.

It’s not perfect. But it comes a damn sight closer than most skiffy films I’ve ever seen.


Sleeps With Monsters: Kate Elliott’s Crossroads Trilogy

A new installment of the column over at Tor.com.

Kate Elliott’s writing has long concerned itself with war, and most particularly, with the effects of war. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her Crossroads trilogy (Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, and Traitor’s Gate, published by Tor in the US and by Orbit in the UK), which opens on a land long at peace, proceeds through brutal war, and ends in the aftermath.

Ilona Andrews, Magic Rises

A new review over at Tor.com:

Magic Rises is the sixth instalment in the Kate Daniels series, after Magic Slays, and marking a return to the main series line after last year’s Gunmetal Magic. Magic Rises also marks a first for Kate Daniels: for the first time, Kate leaves not only Atlanta but the North American subcontinent itself. (Dimensional gateways and magical rips in the space-time continuum aside, at any rate.)

A review of Charles Stross’ Neptune’s Brood

Over at Tor.com.

Neptune’s Brood, the latest science fiction novel from multiple award winner Charles Stross, could be subtitled a novel of adventure and accountancy. I’ve read what seems to me a lot of fiction, and a lot of science fiction: I don’t think I’ve ever before read a novel so closely involved with financial theory and the workings of money and debt. Stross has written a novel that works as both science fiction thriller and an exploration of how interstellar banking—interstellar economics—could work in a universe without FTL travel but with interstellar mobility.

Sleeps With Monsters: Kate Elliott’s Cold Steel

My latest column over at Tor.com is mostly a review of Kate Elliott’s latest novel, Cold Steel:

Kate Elliott began her Spiritwalker trilogy in 2010, with Cold Magic. Cold Fire followed in 2011, and now Cold Steel has arrived to crown the ensemble. Elliott’s métier is epic fantasy, and her fantastic alternate Earth—from its glacier-shadowed Europa to the Taino-ruled Caribbean and the revolutionary free city of Expedition, and to the realm of the spirit world as well—is built with great consistency and complexity.

Complex systems

It’s an Irish summer and the sun is actually shining. I should be working on my thesis or one of the ten thousand things I’m behind on.

(Like reviews. Hi, difficulty focusing! How nice you should come visit…)

Instead, I’m taking a little time to mention something that I came across via Niall Harrison at Strange Horizons.

Tor UK has an open submissions policy. Editor Julie Crisp ran the numbers on genders submitting to their slushpile. In Sexism In Genre Publishing: A Publisher’s Perspective, she brings the numbers out into the light and finds that her slushpile ratio is 32:68 F:M overall, 22:78 F:M with science fiction specifically, and calls for more women to submit their work.

Leaving aside the discussions from short fiction markets which suggest that while men submit more work overall, women submit work of better quality – what good is a post that points out the disparity in subs? Renay (of LadyBusiness) calls it “a reductive, shallow look at the issues regarding gender parity and representation in genre.”

She says, “[The post seeks] to distance itself from the external criticism of the community which would hold it accountable for the decisions which have led to the low numbers of submissions from women. Instead of taking a forward-looking path to solving the problem of low submission, publicly posting the numbers to ask “How can we do better? What are the cultural and social issues that might be influencing women’s reluctance to submit? How can we reach out more and welcome women writers? How can we better support them once they’re here?”, Julie Crisp used the numbers to say, “Not it!” and complain about the blame being laid at her door.”

In the comments to the original post, Sophia McDougall writes

What is so hard about battling sexism in publishing is its so nebulous and fluid, you often cannot point to one deliberate, malicious decision and say “this is where it all went wrong.” This also means there is not one single decisive thing you can do to fix it. You’re right to say it’s not “clear-cut”. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that the problem is just that women aren’t interested. As the industry stands, women have good REASONS not to be interested! I know this is something that people at the publishing end can’t just wave a magic wand and fix. I know you can’t publish what you don’t receive. But publishers do have a part to play, and that has to include recognising the complexity and scale of what’s going on.

…maybe SFF isn’t worse, maybe it’s better, because at least it knows and cares that it has a problem and is trying to change. Even though it is sometimes painful.

But I feel this piece will be taken as granting SFF permission to care less.

Sexism is complex and visible disparities are the result of many intersecting factors. Showing the numbers is useful. But if one wants to change the disparity one cannot sit back and wait for better numbers to magically appear. Just because one asks nicely.

Addressing complex systems takes work.

I’ve never seen UK editions of Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction. Catherine Asaro. Kristine Smith’s Jani Killian novels. Chris Moriarty’s Spin novels. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden books. Hell, Karen Traviss. The time is ripe for some UK publisher to make an investment in an SFF “21st Millennium Classics” line, acquiring UK rights to SF novels published in the first decade of the new century, and putting an equal proportion of male and female authors in the line-up. If women in the UK don’t see science fiction by women on the shelves, published by UK publishers, they’re hardly going to see the point in submitting to UK publishers themselves.

If there was an easy fix, we would have stopped talking about this years ago. Constant, mindful engagement across multiple avenues of approach: that’s the only solution.

And that takes a very long time.

Sleeps With Monsters: Kate Elliott’s King’s Dragon

A new column up at Tor.com, on Kate Elliott’s King’s Dragon:

I first read King’s Dragon, the opening book in Kate Elliott’s seven-volume epic fantasy sequence Crown of Stars, in the same year I started secondary school.

Returning to it after an interval of (give or take) thirteen years, I find an immense difference between my reactions as a thirteen-going-on-fourteen year old, and my reactions now, as an adult with more context for the genre

Addendum to the conference write-up, Liverpool.

I will be writing a column on the conference for Strange Horizons, wherein one may expect to find my overall thoughts.

But I can’t move on from the conference without mentioning dinner on Monday night, which I ate in the Philharmonic Dining Rooms with Dan Franklin and Zoe Johnson. It was a delightful dinner, and they were delightful company: the Phil serves wild boar burger.

Comes dessert, and the offer of a dessert menu. The lovely waitress-type-person clears her throat, looks embarrassed. “Today instead of sticky toffee pudding, we have something called “sticky dicky,” which is a cross between sticky toffee pudding and spotted dick.”

Sticky dicky. No sooner does the waitress-type-person leave than the glances went around the table. And the giggling and jokes began. Made worse, naturally enough, by the fact that the dessert menu also offered an Eton Mess.

Most memorable line of the evening, after we’d got on to Roman dick jokes: “Pet the friendly phallus!”

The waitress-person came back. We were still laughing. It took another five minutes for us to calm down enough to order, and by then we’d made “chocolate orange cup” manage to sound dirty. And I ordered an Eton Mess, and when it arrived the jokes began again, to the point where it was another five minutes before I could swallow any of the whipped cream.

…Right, that still sounds rude.

In other contexts, with other people, that would’ve crossed the line past appropriate and into sexual harassment long since. But in that company it was friendly and hilarious. Seriously side-splittingly hilarious.

And I still can’t come across the word “sticky” without giggling.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XIII of XIII

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

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.

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

This is Monday afternoon and my notes are shaky things.

Final session! Given a choice between My Little Pony and “Screen and media,” I picked “Screen and media,” because I heard that one of the papers would speak about Dragon Age. This session was chaired by Edith Hall, and featured papers by Jarrid K. Looney (Royal Holloway, London) joining by Skype, and Daniel Goad (Royal Holloway, London), present in the flesh.

…My notes are crap. Hell. Okay. Well, Looney’s paper, “‘There is both the god in man, which reaches for fire and stars, and that black dark streak which steals the fire to make chains’: The Dual Identity of Prometheus in Modern Media Culture,” despite the amusing vagaries of technology, proved an energetic and interesting paper.

(Notable moments: Skype cut out while Looney was saying, “Space, the final front-“.)

Seriously, my notes for this session are terrible. Okay, Daniel Goad’s paper, “A Tale of Two Empires: Ancient Rome as a Model for Two Fantasy Empires,” was up next. Goad was a good speaker, and his paper dealt with Roman influences on Star Trek‘s Romulans and Dragon Age‘s Tevinter Imperium. While I enjoyed it, I found it more shallow and surface-y than really satisfactory.

Sigh. Poor, poor notes. Oh, well. After three full days of detailed note-taking, I suspect it’s a bit much to expect my hands and brain to co-ordinate well in the last hours.

Tony Keen wrapped up the conference, saying that there would be some some of publication of “Select Proceedings,” since with over 60 papers they could not publish all of them. He said that there was a 2012 French conference on a similar topic, that there were volumes forthcoming from a number of people, that London WorldCon would have an academic track, for which the CFP closing date was December 1.

After the conference, retired to the Phil with a bunch of other people. Where I, embarrassingly enough, didn’t here Nick Lowe compliment my paper and had to ask someone to explain. At which point Liz Gloyn told me, DI-esque, “Bask in the praise! Bask!”

Some wonderful people there. Much wonderful conversations. I am overjoyed, and privileged, to have gone, and I hope similar things happen in future.

SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XII of Many

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

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.

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

This is Monday afternoon and my notes are shaky things.

At lunch, I succeeded in dumping my helping of chicken satay over my foot, to general hilarity. Including my own, since by this point in the conference I think I was a bit punch drunk. Had some interesting conversations, including about videogames (although possibly this was not at lunch) with people including someone who’s name I’m not sure I got. I think it was Emily Kesh? (She was reading a Penguin Paradise Lost, I think.) Anyway, all things very convenable.

After lunch, we all filed upstairs to the Gallery, for the plenary address of Edith Hall (King’s College London), on “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: when Tony Keen introduced her as “a powerhouse of Classical scholarship,” Hall performed a series of dance-y “muscled arms” gestures.

Hall took the stage to disclaim deep knowledge of science fiction. She accepted the invitation to speak, she said, because Tony is a “good egg” and she likes him.

Xenophon, she said, is a major figure in the Western prose tradition. Many genres have their roots or influences in the Anabasis. She gave a précis of the Anabasis, and particularly its opening and movements to the death of Cyrus and then to the Black Sea, and stressed that although this is the climax of the narrative it is not its conclusion, as Xenophon and the Ten Thousand continue fighting around Thrace, and Xenophon (being exiled from Athens) wants to found a new city himself.

The Anabasis is the archetypal account of a military expedition. It provides military information, but the emphasis is on escape. There are previous escape texts in Greek literature, like the Odyssey, but the Odyssey is centred on home, centripetal, featuring travel around the periphery of the world. Xenophon’s text is profoundly centrifugal, caught between Greek and Persian worlds.

Other escape texts include Iphigenia in Tauris, which sees two men and one woman at a primitive barbarian community at Tauris, who must bring back an ancient wood statue of Artemis. (And the lads need to rescue the woman.) Comparandum with Return of the Jedi.

Although Hall said the influence is not direct, but probably mediated through the history of cinema, like the 1920s Trader Horn which influenced Tarzan and various iterations of “two guys and a girl escaping” films. Xenophon himself knew of Iphigenia in Tauris and was later to set up a temple to Artemis.

Hall remarked on the fact that despite being a socialist she’s attracted to right-wing men: “I would have married Xenophon and lived on his farm.”

Moment of humour over. Writers using the Anabasis, she said, have to deal with the geopolitics. How seriously have the authors thought about the Anabasis itself? How do you use Xenophon’s conflicted attitude towards home? Colonising the Black Sea? Socratic political theory? Xenophon’s Anabasis has an extremely pragmatic attitude towards home. The soldiers are mercenaries, some criminals, poor men coming from rural poverty, the principal players all – in a sense – refugees from a war-torn Greece and the end of a thirty-year war. The soldiers are selling their swords and labour to the real power in the region, Persia.

The Ten Thousand were a marching republic of sorts, a city on the move. The Anabasis is full of political theory, and Xenophon shows us different types of city/society life – feudal empire, tribes, new city, Athens and Sparta.

The Anabasis is like a “rite of passage novel.”

Hall looked at the idea of the Anabasis in three works. Paul Kearney’s Ten Thousand, which she called “Tolkien light with Greek proper names,” David Weber and John Ringo’s March Upcountry/March to the Sea (“macho puerile junk – just junk“), and Andre Norton’s Starguard – “The shortests! And it’s by a woman! Which I didn’t know when I read it!” which she said was the best of the lot, and which of them all she would recommend to other people.

Here my notes get sketchy and fuzzy, as Hall gave the room the low-down on how each of these novels engages with the Anabasis. Since I can’t make sense of what I have written down, I leave the details as an exercise to the reader.

It was an excellent and engaging paper. Even if it didn’t delve too deep into why the Anabasis and why these novels… or maybe that’s my mid-afternoon punch-drunkenness talking.

At the very end of the paper, Andy Sawyer stood up to present (with a long run-up, during which Hall’s face grew more worried) Edith Hall with her plenary-speaker gift.

Sawyer: “Your very own super lambanana!”
Hall: “Oh my God, what is that?”


“Look at it, that’s beautiful!”

Whereupon Edith Hall insisted on having pictures taken with the lambanana, Tony Keen, and Andy Sawyer, amid much giggling from the audience and calls of, “Hold it in profile!”


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.




…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.


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.


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.

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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.)

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

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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…