Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Cultural references and making class relevant

Q, a highly evolved being who does not, strictly speaking, have a body

I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.

‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’

Student: Which Star Trek?

Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Student: Good.

Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]

Student: Like the Q.

Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.

A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.

The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.

Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.

So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.

Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.

Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?

Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)

Other student: Notorious.

Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’

Another student: *laughs*

Me: That’s The Three Amigos.

Student who laughed: Best movie ever.

Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.

They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.

It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.

What successes or failures have you ever had?

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Quick thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some brief, spoiler-filled thoughts.

This book is a couple of plays. It reads like plays, and it moves at the pace of plays. That is, plot development is not especially deep. That said, it seems like it would have been brilliant to watch live. It is highly entertaining. As a person who enjoys Harry Potter but not the Harry Potter phenomenon, and who thinks there are other, better children’s fantasy books, it gave me what I wanted.

But what, really, does this add to the Potterverse? Almost nothing. We see an outlandishly happy ending for all the good guys — they grow up to be influential bureaucrats and civil servants, which I think is supposed to be a good thing? And the play basically ends status quo ante bellum.

What does it provide us, then, besides a bit more fun and Voldemort’s daughter? It gives us what plays are good at. Plays — and, really, I only know Greek tragedy and comedy and Shakespeare besides Murder in the Cathedral — are more about characters and psychology than plot. Epics and novels and romances are for plot, films as well.

That’s what this play gets us — we see insight into what it means to be the man who was the Boy Who Lived, to be his son. We have fathers and sons. We have themes of friendship and loyalty and depth of love. We see Draco and Harry become friends because their sons are friends.

So, no, this book won’t really add an ‘eighth story’ like the first seven. But it adds something, some depth as well as glimpses of what life could have been.

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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?

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.