Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

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Men, persons, humans

Thor: A person who is not a human

Since the Old English use of man to mean ‘a human being’ has been largely co-opted at this stage in the history of English to mean ‘a male human being’, many people have rightly sought new, gender-neutral/inclusive nouns to refer to individual human persons.

The most common solution is person/persons (or people). However, this does not work in all cases, since in some domains, human beings are not the only persons potentially under discussion. The realms that come to mind in this regard are theology, mythology, and science fiction and fantasy. In the last dual category of genre fiction, Star Trek calls us earthlings humans (pronounced by Quark the Ferengi as ‘humahns’). Obviously, many non-humans in Star Trek are persons — Odo and Hu, just to mention those who’ve already made an appearance on this blog. But all humanoid species and many non-humanoid species in Trek are persons. Even Q, the space fairy.

I am actually less certain about fantasy, since I do not read a lot of new fantasy. In Tolkien, the human species is populated by Men with a capital ‘M’, reflecting both the archaic nature of the language and its cadence as used by Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s own era.

In mythology, one has a variety of non-human persons. The concern here arises for translators and philologists who want to discuss literature in the Classical tradition. How do you render anthropos and homo? It cannot be person, since by current English usage, gods, demi-gods, centaurs, et al., are also persons.

Similarly in theology. In Christian theology, God is a Trinity of Persons, so it is actually imprecise to use person where a few decades ago one would have used manMankind also runs into similar problems, often solved by humankind, a word I dislike; much better to say humanity, I think. One place where this is a difficulty is Genesis 1, where God speaks of making, in older translations, ‘man in our image’. Andrew Louth circumvented this danger in Introducing Eastern Orthoodox Theology by consistently rendering (from Greek, not Hebrew) anthropos as human kind until he had to bring the discussion to the singular.

Many current English translations of the Bible and ancient Christian literature seem to think person is a perfect synonym for anthropos. Or, in the case of new translations of the Nicene Creed, cut men out altogether, ‘who for us and for our salvation’. Loses some of the theological potency; us what?

One of the books that is consistent in using one solution to the problem is Greta Austin, Shaping Church Law Around the Year 1000: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms. She consistently always refers to human beings using the substantive humans. This works. It is not as common as it should be, although I see it every once in a while. The philological objection is, of course, that human is an adjective, not a noun. But adjectives are frequently nounified when necessary, and this maintains the linguistic precision of the Latin text under discussion as well as the theological context of Burchard.

Perhaps not a breakthrough or deep or illuminating, but it is important for us to keep in mind not only why we may wish to shift our lexicon away from something, but also to consider where we are turning. Precision and accuracy are important, and person is often too imprecise for accuracy in language.

Personhood and Relationship (and Odo from Star Trek)

I’ve blogged on this topic once before, in relation to the character of Hu in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hu, you will recall, was a Borg who became dislocated from the rest of the Borg Collective, and during his time on the USS Enterprise, became friends with Geordie Laforge. This friendship was the evidence necessary not simply of Hu’s emergence as an individual separate from the drone-state of the Borg, but of being a real person.

You see, we manifest our personhood not simply in our individuality (rocks are individual, my mobile phone is individual, the Wedgewood vase on my windowsill is individual) but in our relationships with others. True personhood, whether human, alien, or divine, is manifested most fully in relationship with others.

And in relationships of love — such as friendship — that personhood is actualised in a particular way that can bring out the best in us.

It turns out that this theme is not restricted to Hu. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 3, Episode 14, ‘Heart of Stone’, Odo and Major Kira are trapped in some caverns in a seismically unstable moon. In true Trek fashion, Kira is trapped in a crystal, and looks about to die, so she asks Odo to tell a story to keep her occupied.

Odo tells the story of how he got his name.

Odo, in case you don’t know it, is a changeling, a shapeshifter. He was discovered by a Bajoran scientist and raised in a lab. At first, they did not know what Odo was. All the specimens in the lab were labelled, and this one was given the label, ‘Odoital’, which was meant to represent that the specimen was unknown, but is actually the Cardassian word for ‘Nothing.’

Once it became clear that Odo was actually sentient, they still called him Odo, but broke it in two like a Bajoran name — Odo Ital. Whenever anyone called him by this name, Odo, he heard this nothing behind it. That that was all he was — nothing.

But not anymore. Not since meeting Kira. And the rest of the crew of the space station Deep Space 9. Now, when people call him ‘Odo’, it simply means himself.

Through friendship, through companionship, this lost, lonely alien, who until recently knew no other of his kind, became comfortable with his own person. Odo became a name to him; it meant himself.

This is what our relationships do to us. We are not discrete, atomised individuals, but persons interacting all the time, moving through one another in relationship. These relationships are what make us persons. We should probably cultivate good ones, I think.

The thin grasp of reality (Ray Bradbury’s poetic SF)

In my first year of undergrad, I was deeply offended by a dismissive sentence in my English lit textbook, setting aside all ‘genre fiction’ — mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, horror — as not being for the literati or being great, interpretive, artistic literature. It’s been 15 years, so I honestly don’t recall the wording. But something to that effect.

I was offended, of course, because I was 18 and a science fiction and fantasy fan, and all 18-year-olds are easily offended by people who challenge the stuff they like. Nonetheless, even if a lot of SF is pure escape (which may still be art, after all), a lot of it is also great literature. If only more people read it!

I am slowly, one story every once in a while, working my way through Ray Bradbury, Stories, Vol. 1. Whenever anyone disregards the entire genre of science fiction, dismisses it with a sniff, looks down his’er nose at it in scorn, I think fondly on Ray Bradbury and his poetic science fiction. This morning, I read his story ‘No Particular Night or Morning’. This is a snapshot of life aboard a rocket ship in the vast emptiness between the stars. One character, Hitchcock, has started to lose his grip on reality. If he can’t see it, can he know it’s real? Does earth exist — has it ever existed? The sun? Yesterday?

Soon, he begins to doubt the very fabric of the present moment. Are the people in the next room real? Is his friend Clemens, standing in front of him, real? How can Clemens prove his reality to Hitchcock?

One of the things that makes good science fiction very good is when it is a story that needs its imagined context. That’s a tall order at times. One could imagine a similar story to this aboard a sea vessel. Yet in the sea there is still day and night. In space, there is nothing but an endless night. The psychological effects of long-term, interplanetary space travel would probably be grievous. But they are rarely explored in the staples of our SF diet, not in Star Trek, barely in Battlestar Galactica.

You can read this story as just a psychological thrill, the horror of deep space.

But it penetrates to one of the big questions of human existence, interstellar or earthbound.

How do we know what is real? Why do we trust our memories? Why do we trust our senses? Why trust our reason? Indeed, can we trust our memories, senses, reason? Pontius Pilate comes to haunt us, ‘What is truth?’

Ray Bradbury thus brings us from simple entertainment to the horrors of our own inner life, into the realm of psychology, philosophy, theology. This is the sub-branch of philosophy called epistemiology.

How do you know you are real? How do you know that I am real? Least real of all, this digital life. Go feel the sun, kiss your children, eat some pie. Hope that it’s real before it’s all gone…

The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

My review of The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun, #4)The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fourth and final volume of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun — I’ve already reviewed The Shadow of the Torturer which comes first. The first volume helped give us the lay of the land and introduced us to Severian and his far future Urth (that is, Earth) in the last days of the Sun. At the end of that volume, Severian enters exile.

The next two volumes follow the journey motif common to much fantasy — of course, as my review of the first says, this is not quite fantasy as we know it, but a sort of ‘science fantasy’ in the far future. This volume ends the journey motif, not that Severian stops moving around.

Honestly, I was not that interested in the chapters about the fighting in the war, which is why it took me so long to get through it. But immediately following those chapters, the knots start to unravel. Or maybe the loose ends start to be woven together? Whatever the metaphor, stuff happens, and things are revealed that make sense of episodes in the earlier books and various allusions Severian has made throughout.

For example, we learn about the New Sun and what it would take for it to come. We learn more about the ‘cacogens’. We learn about the Autarch and why that is his name. Big cosmic ideas come into play about time, dimensional travel, the universe. As well, my main suspicion about Dorcas was confirmed, but there was a further revelation I never suspected (ooo … the suspense!).

Tying together all these strands of narrative, of description, of enigmatic references from earlier volumes was done deftly. It could easily have descended into too much, too fast. Or large amounts of exposition. But it was done very well. However, I do recommend reading all four volumes in a short span of time. Because Wolfe ties all the strands together, and unloosens all the knots, by the end of volume 4, we have a complete but by no means exhaustive view of Severian’s society, its past, and its future. For those who like world-crafting, I believe Wolfe has done an extraordinary job in creating a rich tapestry without bogging us down all the time with explanations. Indeed, despite my reference to a ‘complete’ view, much is left unexplained — but that’s kind of the point.

All in all, a triumph.

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The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, #1)The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book because it was amongst the interesting-sounding novels discussed in A Short History of Fantasy — of course, in certain respects this sounds more like science fiction, set as it is in the extremely distant future. Nonetheless, the feel of the novel is that of fantasy, with a certain amount of low-tech material culture.

As the title of the quadrilogy says, this is the the Book of the New Sun. Some of the fantastic elements derive from the transplantation of extraterrestrial species on Urth in the generations of human space travel. Other things are possibly due to evolution. The inorganic elements of fantasy are a similar combination — extraterrestrial artefacts and creations of the deep history of human tech.

But none of this is why I heartily recommend this book. All if it is, however, partly why this is not your run-of-the-mill piece of SF. Nevertheless, the unfolding of Severian’s narrative from the Citadel and beyond is itself compelling. Once it gets going, the plot hooks you and pulls you along with it; the world of Urth and its dying sun is revealed and unfolded before you as you learn more about the main character and the various other people with whom he interacts in the Citadel and city of Nessus.

I admit, though, that I found it awkward for the first few chapters. Part of the feeling of the exotic that Wolfe gives us is the use of Greek-based words for stuff that does not exist in our world, and not always with a description of this hitherto unknown plant/object/animal. This, and the whole in medias res made the very beginning a bit difficult. But once the scene is set, and the world unfolding, then the plot gets moving and hooks you, pulls you in, and you follow Severian on his journey…

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