Science Fiction

On this page, Dr Tony Keen from The Open University shares his favourite Science Fiction resources. To ask Tony a question, or to comment on these resources or suggest additional ones, please use the ‘Comment’ box below.

If you could recommend five books in your area of study to scholars from other disciplines, which would these be – and why?

1) David Seed, Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).  Like (almost) all the VSIs, this is a nice clear introduction to the subject, and is where I would recommend anyone to start.

2)   Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).  This is one of several works intended as standard undergraduate textbooks out there, which supply the reader with a collection on introductory essays on the history of the genre, sub-genres, theoretical approaches, and other topics.  Others include David Seed (ed.), A Companion to Science Fiction (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005) and Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), all of which use mostly the same set of contributors.  I prefer the Cambridge Companion – it’s the oldest, and hence the most dated, but it’s also a bit more accessible, and lass unwieldy than the others.  On the other hand, because the others are larger, they cover more topics, and researchers might need to consult one or both of these, depending on their actual research project.  (James and Mendlesohn have also edited a Companion to Fantasy Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.)

3)   Jeff Prucher (ed.), Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).  A terrifically useful dictionary of all the neologisms that are found in science fiction, and where they first appeared.  I think anyone would need this at their elbow when writing about sf.
4)   Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,2005).  There’s a lot I don’t agree with in what Roberts writes – for instance, I don’t buy his central theory, that sf is principally a Protestant mode, whilst fantasy is Catholic.  But he’s erudite, and there’s a lot of hard work put into this.

5)   Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).  A delightful theoretical approach to sf.  Almost every page in my copy has marginal notes indicating that there is something interesting here that I should pursue further.

And I’m going to cheat slightly, and mention also Paul Kincaid, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (Harold Wood: Beccon Publications, 2008).  I’m not recommending the whole book above the five I’ve already mentioned.  But I do recommend the title essay, as a brilliant exploration of the processes in operation when seasoned science fiction readers engage with the texts.

(Also, and this really is cheating, emerging from an sf press, Beccon, next year will be my Martial’s Martians and Other Stories: Studies in Science Fiction and Fantasy and Greece and Rome, which I hope will be an essential tool for anyone doing Classical Reception in this area.)

It has been pointed out to me that this is quite a UK-centric list – only Csicsery-Ronay is US-based – and that’s a fair comment.  But no other US works leap to mind ahead of these, though Gary K. Wolfe is always worth reading.

And finally … I do strongly advise anyone working in sf to read some theory in the medium that they have chosen to examine, i.e. read some literary theory if they are working on novels, or film theory if their area is cinema, etc.

Which are the major conferences in your field? It would be helpful if you could provide a sentence or two outlining the types of papers/audiences these normally attract. Which of these, do you think, would be a good place for students/scholars from Classical Studies to present their work on reception topics? 

Current Research in Speculative Fiction (http://currentresearchinspeculativefiction.blogspot.co.uk/) is a postgraduate conference that takes place in Liverpool in June.  As far as I know, that’s the only regular sf academic conference in the UK.  There are quite a few conferences, but they tend to be irregular or ad hoc events, such as Worlds Apart, which took place in the University of Hertfordshire in April.  These tend to be quite academic affairs, with papers by established academics or postgrads.

The Science Fiction Foundation, which is the main UK sf research organization, periodically runs conferences.  The next one (http://sf-foundation.org/conference) will be in June 2013, and will be themed on the reception of Classics in the literature of the fantastic.  (I’m Chair of this.)

In the US, there are two main conferences, the Science Fiction Research Association Conference, which moves around (see http://sfradetroit2012.com/ for this year’s) and the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, run by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (http://iafa.highpoint.edu/), which takes place every year in Florida.  I’ve never been to either, but I think the SFRA is probably more academic, whilst ICFA has more of a mixture of established academics and independent scholars.  Both events invite authors as well as scholars as guests.  And ICFA is apparently a lot of fun.

What we do have in the UK are conventions.  These are much more events for science fiction fans, rather than being academic conferences, but you can find a lot of serious discussion about sf in the programme, including sometimes near-academic papers.   One of the things that characterizes study of science fiction is that a lot of it is done by fans/independent scholars rather than full-time academics, and their work is valued in a way that the equivalent tends not to be in Classics.  (Though some fans are profoundly – and unhelpfully – suspicious of academics, whom they see as taking all the fun out of the subject.)

Eastercon (http://eastercon.org/index.php/Main_Page) is the British National SF Convention, and well worth attending for networking opportunities.

In 2014 it is likely that the World Science Fiction Convention will come to London.  This always has an academic track (Eastercon has tried this, but doesn’t get enough interest to sustain it).

I would say that all of these are places where one could present a paper on a Classical Reception topic, though one would have to pitch it differently at a convention rather than at a conference.  The 2013 Foundation Conference will, of course, be very welcoming to Classical Reception.

The other event I would mention is the annual SF Criticism Masterclass run by the SF Foundation (http://sf-foundation.org/masterclass).  This is a tremendously useful event where one can learn from authors and academics and develop one’s critical skills.

Which three journals would you recommend to scholars from Classical Studies who want to keep up to date with developments in your field? 

The main peer-reviewed UK journal is Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction (http://sf-foundation.org/publications/foundation/index.html).  The US equivalent is probably Science Fiction Studies (http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/), though that is more theoretical and less ‘fannish’ than Foundation.  I’d also like to put in a word for Vector, the critical/reviews magazine of the British Science Fiction Association.  It’s less academic that the others (and tends to cut down the number of footnotes in articles), but it often contains good stuff.  (You can join the BSFA here: http://www.bsfa.co.uk/.)

Are there any journals within your field that might particularly welcome articles on classical reception topics? 

I don’t think that there are any that are particularly welcoming to classical reception articles, or particularly unwelcoming.  I’ve published in Foundation and Vector, and I can’t imagine other journals would be hostile to these sort of articles.

 Are there any e-resources within your field that you find particularly useful – databases, discussion fora, facebook groups, twitter accounts, email lists, and so on?

The essential tool here is the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/).  This is still not completely rolled-out (the entries for R-Z are not yet revised, and some earlier entries need to be added).  But it is a vital resource for anyone working in sf studies, and will only get better.

The Locus Index to Science Fiction (http://www.locusmag.com/index/) contains (almost) every sf story and novel published since 1984 (though the database could be more user-friendly).

Strange Horizons (http://www.strangehorizons.com/) is an online magazine.  The reviews section is well-worth reading (though there are some – not including me – who consider it to be needlessly controversial).  It also includes features, interviews and original fiction.

The main email list is SFRA-L (http://wiz.cath.vt.edu/mailman/listinfo/sfra-l), which I’ve just joined.

Other than plugging the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Swords-Sorcery-Sandals-and-Space-The-Fantastika-and-the-Classical-World/208433862562456?sk=wall) and Twitter feed (@SFFConf2013) for the 2013 conference (!), there are no accounts or groups that I would say are particularly essential for anyone to follow.  I would, however, say that a presence on Twitter and Facebook, and the building up of a network of contacts through both, is pretty unavoidable.

And it’s probably cheating to mention this, because she’s a Classicist by training, but Juliette Harrisson’s Pop Classics weblog (http://popclassicsjg.blogspot.co.uk/) is well worth following.

Are you aware of any existing work from within your discipline that addresses Classical Reception topics? (i.e. work that scholars from Classical Studies might be unaware of, for whatever reason)?

Most of the stuff that directly addresses Classical Reception in the way that we’d understand it is done by people who have a foot firmly in both camps, such as myself, Gideon Nisbet, Nick Lowe or Lynn Fotheringham.

Other than that, most of the relevant work is done as an adjunct to broader studies of particular writers, such as Gene Wolfe (where there are a number of studies written or edited by Peter Wright).  Andy Sawyer (Librarian of the Foundation and reviews editor for Foundation has written on pastoral and sf, including Latin and Greek pastoral).  Juliette McKenna, a fantasy author whose undergraduate degree is in Classics, has written a couple of relevant articles.   The sf author Ken MacLeod is very interested in Lucretius, and has written some non-fiction about that.  There’s quite a bit out there in various places on the classical elements in Battlestar Galactica, and some on Star Wars (though that tends to be written by Film Studies scholars, not sf scholars).

But really, the field is wide open right now.  There’s nothing really good on Asimov’s appropriation of Gibbon and Thucydides in the Foundation novels.  I don’t think anyone apart from me has written on Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna series, certainly not from the perspective of the reception of Roman culture.  When people write about Gene Wolfe, they are almost always writing about the Book of the New Sun, and not his Soldier novels, which are set in the fifth century bce.  So come on, people!  I can’t write all of these!

10 Responses to Science Fiction

  1. clive anthony hoare says:

    Hello Tony,
    I posted on Carolyn’s Literature thread asking about a comparison I was trying to make between Pericles’ appeal and Augustus’ method in appropriating love and moving the love for the ideals of the state or the state itself above love for significant others. I used as analogies Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and Huxley’s ‘Island’ as examples of a dystopia and a utopia which kept suggesting themselves to me as I was writing (it was the EMA on A330). Carolyn suggested I find out if there are scholarly articles ‘out there’ on this link. I wondered whther you knew of any? Perhaps you can tell me where best to start looking myself. I’d be very happy to receive some pointers from you, especially since we all share your interest in science fiction here at home. Thanks Tony,
    Clive.

  2. tonykeen46 says:

    To the list of online resources I should add the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database (http://sffrd.library.tamu.edu/). It’s not perfect (not only am I credited as three different people, which is partly my own fault, but one article is given a spurious name and I am credited with a co-authorship on a chapter that is nothing to do with me), but it is useful.

  3. tonykeen46 says:

    Brett and Ben’s review article came out quicker than I expected – it’s here: http://crj.oxfordjournals.org/content/4/1/127.full.pdf+html

    It includes a useful (though by no means complete) list of work that has already been done in the area.

    You can read more of my reaction here: http://tonykeen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/two-seminars-and-review-article.html

  4. Tony Burns says:

    I was pleased to see one of my fellow participants in the seminar has an interest in science fiction and the classics. I have research and teaching interests in both science fiction and ancient Greek political thought and teach a module devted to political theory and science fiction to 3rd year udergraduates in the School of Politics at the University of Nottingham. However I have not as yet sought to combine the two interests, so I was very interested to read about your work. One thing that might be of interest, although it involves going off at a tangent, is the conenction between classical reception studies and the history of utopian/dystopian literature. I have in mind works such as John Ferguson’s “Utopias of the Classical World.” There is also an interesting article by M. Jackson entitled ‘Designed by Theorists: Aristotle on Utopia,’ in “Utopian Studies,” 12, 2 (2001).

    • tonykeen46 says:

      Hello Tony; thanks for your comments. Classical utopias per se are perhaps outside the remit here, but I don’t think studying Classical reception in more modern utopian fiction is going off on a tangent. Utopias are studied by sf scholars – Edward James has a chapter ‘Utopias and anti-utopias’ in the sf Cambridge Companion, so there’s fertile ground here for a Classical receptions scholar.

  5. I found this very interesting, Tony. I have been noting some references to Rome in science fiction and had come across Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna some time ago. This seems to link in well with some works in classics and archaeology that explore the issue of whether the Roman empire ever ended. I have also been exploring the way that some fiction, whether science fiction or not, address Roman monuments in England – particularly Hadrian’s Wall. Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) is relevant here and also, possibly, Neil Gaiman in Stardust. I agree that little has been done to explore these issues and will look up your work.

    • tonykeen46 says:

      Thanks Richard.

      I think there’s definitely something of Hadrian’s Wall in Stardust, though I don’t think there’s much written on that. I can’t immediately see anything in the new Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman, though, of course, that’s hardly the only academic study of his work, and a quick Google search brings up, oh, you, or at least a summary of you.

      Can I encourage you to consider submitting a proposal to the SFF conference?

    • tonykeen46 says:

      You might also be interested in my piece on Silverberg and other speculations that the empire never ended in Stephen Baxter and Sophia McDougall: ‘Alternate Histories of the Roman Empire in Stephen Baxter, Robert Silverberg, and Sophia McDougall’, Foundation 102 (Spring 2008) 71-86.

  6. tonykeen46 says:

    A few more things that have occurred to me as being useful to document:

    1) One basic piece of advice to anyone planning on doing work in sf is to read quite a lot of it – not just sf directly relevant to your research field, but enough to get some sort of a sense of how the field is in general (which isn’t that easy in such a fractured field). I expect the same kis true in other fields.

    2) A number of sf scholars have studied Lucian’s True History as an sf novel. See, for instance, S.C. Fredericks, ‘Lucian’s True History as SF’, Science Fiction Studies 3, part 1 (no. 8, March 1976), pp. 49-60 (http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/8/fredericks8art.htm) and Roy Arthur Swanson, ‘The True, the False, and the Truly False: Lucian’s Philosophical science fiction’, Science Fiction Studies 3, part 3 (no. 10, October 1976), pp. 228-39 (http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/10/swanson10art.htm).

    3) There is an interesting set of posts by Liz Bourke on Tor.com, on ‘SFF and the Classical Past’ (http://www.tor.com/features/series/sff-and-the-classical-past). Liz is another trained Classicist (she’s a Ph.D. student at Trinity, Dublin) who also writes sf criticism. These posts are mainly aimed at sff people who know little about Greece and Rome, but they are still useful sources of works you might have missed (and read the comments as well).

    4) Gideon Nisbet gave the 2011 BSFA Lecture on ‘Prolegomena to a Steampunk Catullus: Classics and SF’, as an introduction to some uses of Greece and Rome in sf. The text is here: http://birmingham.academia.edu/GideonNisbet/Papers/541513/Prolegomena_to_a_Steampunk_Catullus_Classics_and_SF; and the PowerPoint is here: http://birmingham.academia.edu/GideonNisbet/Papers/541522/Powerpoint_for_Prolegomena_to_a_Steampunk_Catullus

    5) It’s a little outside the scope of this seminar, which is meant to alert you to resources outside Classical Studies, but two Classicists, Brett Rogers and Benjamin Stevens, have been working a lot in this area. They organized a panel at the Amercian Philological Association in 2011, which has developed into a forthcoming book called Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (in which I have a chapter). The have a review article coming up in the next issue of Classical Receptions Journal, and are organizing a panel on ‘Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy’ at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) Meeting in October 2012.

    6) I posted a more extended introductory bibliography on my weblog back in August 2011: http://tonykeen.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/science-fiction-bibliography.html

    7) A review I wrote of Seed’s Very Short Introduction can be found in the Late Spring 2012 issue of Vector, no. 270, p.55.

  7. tonykeen46 says:

    I should add that both the Cambridge Companions are accessible online, if your institution subscribes to the Cambridge Collections Online.

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