SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part III of Many

Part I.
Part II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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