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.

8 thoughts on “SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part IX of Many

  1. Okay. Now I have to watch Xena all the way through.

    (Or at least up until it takes a weird detour into Hello Clone Jesus And Time Travel, because, really?)

  2. Pingback: SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part X of Many | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  3. Pingback: SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XI of Many | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  4. I do believe that should be “What if Alexander had turned west?” ;-)

    “What if Alexander had turned east?” could be a story in the vein of Churchill’s alt-hist of an alt-hist “If General Lee had not won at Gettysburg.”

  5. Pingback: SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XII of Many | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  6. Pingback: SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XIII of XIII | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Comments are closed.