Con Report: WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

I recently contributed the following convention report to the Milford Writers’ Conference blog

welcome-to-worldcon1WorldCon 75 was my second time attending the World Science Fiction Convention (the first was in London three years ago) and it was both a terrific con and a wonderful opportunity to explore a fantastic city. Helsinki is a beautiful, hugely walkable place. It’s all trees and parks (make sure to check out Eila Hiltunen’s stunning Sibelius Monument!) and everyone seems to speak perfect English. During the convention itself, I was delighted to be involved in several popular events. I took part in the ‘Science Fiction in University Courses’ panel, which was a fun opportunity to talk about what I do for a living at Aberystwyth University (and a chance to have some great discussions with fellow panelist Helen Marshall from Anglia Ruskin University). I was also part of the ‘Stargate at 20 Years’ panel, during which I had the rare treat of testing out ideas from an academic article in progress on an enthusiastic audience of genuine fans. Finally, I delivered a paper on the convention’s academic track titled ‘The Cause of the Incident was Human Error: Irish Nuclear Anxiety in Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House’ (feedback on this was very positive and I intend expanding it into a full length article in the near future).

Other panels and talks I attended which have really stuck with me included the ‘Resistance’ panel featuring Tiffani Angus, Liz Hand, Kameron Hurley, and others talking about, well, the things that we need to be talking about these days (‘We have a problem with empathy,’ Angus says. ‘One on one we’re good; with family we’re iffy; and then we have the internet…’). I enjoyed the talk by Jenny Knots of NASA’s Public Affair Office (‘Bagpipes were once taken to the space station but… those weren’t very popular’) as well as the contributions of E.G. Cosh to the ‘Visual Language of Comics’ panel (‘The language of comics comprises symbols within the art and what happens on page/how it’s read,’ she says. ‘Accept that you’re going to need to read the page a few times’). Meanwhile, on the ‘Engineering in Science Fiction and Fantasy’ panel, Fran Wilde was the standout participant (‘Engineering is a way for science to interact with the world,’ as she put it. Also, ‘where do all the objects come from in Harry Potter? Where is the Hogwarts School of Engineering?’). There were also interesting, informed panels discussing ‘Hard Science Fiction’ (a ‘state of mind which manifests in various sub-genres,’ says Andrew Barton) and ‘Mighty Space Fleets of War’ (‘In space, shrapnel is forever’). Another highlight in terms of quality and diversity of material was the academic track (really great to see these integrated into conventions more and more these days) which I found to be one of the most successful elements of the whole convention.

There was honestly so much going on that it’s difficult to sum up! We ate reindeer, experienced an exceptional Helsinki thunderstorm (‘Everybody is advised to stay inside between 20:00 and 22:00’), were awed by the ceaseless dance of construction cranes near the convention center (#CraneCon), got to meet Daveed Diggs and Clipping (though unfortunately I could not make their concert as it clashed with my ‘Science Fiction in Universities’ panel), and enjoyed wine and nibbles at a City Hall reception welcoming WorldCon to Finland for the very first time. We attended the Hugo Awards ceremony (shout-out to Ada Palmer’s acceptance speech: ‘There are more kind people in this world than cruel people so never give up on working to what you want in the world’) and, at one point I found myself in a room with an actual astronaut and the director of the Vatican Observatory (‘People must follow the robots!’).

Beyond the convention, a personal Helsinki highlight was the visit I took to the spectacular sea fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on a series of islands just a short boat trip from the city’s famous Market Square. I spent a good five or six hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the fortifications, Suomenlinna’s museums (and submarine!), as well the site’s complicated history, but that was hardly long enough time! It was a terrific trip-within-the-trip and a real boon in terms of the ideas it sparked off (I definitely plan on using a version of these islands in future fiction projects). Indeed, getting the chance to see and be inspired by places like Suomenlinna is one of the big advantages of a WorldCon which truly travels the world.

See you all in Dublin in 2019!

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Thirty Thoughts on my First Term at Aberystwyth…

Aber SunsetWell, I’m pleased to report that I’ve survived my first term teaching at Aberystwyth University in Wales. It has been a big change from the many years I spent at NUI Galway, there’s no denying that, but it has been a positive and rewarding new set of opportunities and challenges which I have enjoyed immensely. And, because I’m me, I have of course been taking detailed, massively subjective notes! So, without further ado, here are thirty observations and reflections on the past few months in no particular order…

  • Aber sunsets don’t quit.
  • On a clear day, you can see the entire curve of Cardigan Bay. The effect of this is to give you what feels like an immediate sense of the size and shape of pretty much the whole country.
  • At low tide on a sunny day, the Aber seafront looks like another planet.
  • AU loves acronyms!
  • On occasion, it’s tempting to think that AU stands for “Alternate Universe”.
  • This is especially true when one considers how Aberystwyth is like the Galway of Wales: It’s a university town mid-way up the west coast of the country, has a promenade (at the end of which people kick the wall), and even a local Advertiser.
  • On the other hand, it’s a much smaller town. Think Galway shrunk to the size of Maynooth.
  • Even locals are syllable conscious here and don’t bother with the full names of places. More often than not they’ll use a nickname or an abbreviation. Thus Aberystwyth is usually just Aber, Machynlleth is Mach, and so on…
  • There is *always* a car coming at you. Look both ways. Look again. Look a third time. Because traffic in Aber operates on quantum mechanical principles: It is only when you step into the street that the wave function collapses and the car actually appears.
  • Steps and Hills. Inclined and uneven surfaces of every kind. These are the things Wales is made of.
  • I have found the collegiality in Aber to be striking.
  • Teaching rooms in the Psychology Building, where I have classes, are decked out (walls, desks, chairs, and so on) in different colours with the aim of creating different effects on those present: “Blue induces a calming effect” (so this is obviously where one of my most energetic classes takes place); “The Purple Room promotes good judgement” (um, because… Prince?); “Green promotes well-being and learning” (then why not have them all green?); “The Orange Room generates enthusiasm and creativity” (note: I have no creative writing groups here); and, finally, “Yellow enhances clarity and awareness in decision making” (which is how we all end up on Ryanair flights, yes?).
  • There is one blue desk in the Purple Room which A.) Shouldn’t be there, and B.) Moves around every week…
  • The Personal Tutor system here is excellent (and, I think, genuinely beneficial).
  • There’s bacon in pretty much everything in Wales. Even the chicken.
  • “Aberdashery”.
  • “Aberttoir”.
  • “Faberystwyth”
  • Technically spotted in Shrewsbury, rather than in Aber, but I also appreciate the punny names of PG Skips and Atlas Rugs.
  • Speaking of, it takes two hours to get from here to Shrewsbury. Which I guess makes it my new Limerick.
  • It takes three hours to get to Birmingham, which I suppose is my new Dublin.
  • Whereas in Galway you will always find people walking the Prom, in Aber I have found it is often empty outside of the summer/early-autumn days. This is because the wind and the waves can be quite intense.
  • A surprising number of you have Aberystwyth doppelgängers…
  • The Devil has evidently visited Wales many times.
  • North Wales (so, say, the drive from Aber to the ferry in Hollyhead) is stunning and I love it.
  • People speak of the “Aber Bubble” which affects new residents after a while. Once inside the bubble, one never wants to leave…
  • The Ceredigion Coast Path – which runs through the town – is an astonishing amenity to have on one’s doorstep.
  • In addition to being a Legal Deposit Library, the National Library of Wales next door to the university has very awesome features such as tunnels where Shakespearian manuscripts were hidden in case of a Nazi invasion, as well as a room made entirely out of copper (to block electric fields).
  • It’s really difficult to discuss Star Trek IV in Wales (“They have to go back in time to save *what*?”).
  • Since arriving last September I have been undertaking the “Walk to Mordor” (that is charting my distances walked against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). As of the winter break, I have completed 745 km in Wales which is a little more than my initial target of the distance between Hobbiton and Rivendell (737 km; distances via http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2012/07/23/walking/).

Now, roll on Semester Two… Or, if you prefer, next stop Lothlórien!

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The Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series

Multible Worlds of FringeTerm got so busy so fast that I totally forgot to mention this at the end of the summer. I’m pleased to say that I have contributed a chapter to the recently released McFarland volume The Multiple Worlds of Fringe: Essays on the J.J. Abrams Science Fiction Series which has been edited by Tanya R. Cochran, Sherry Ginn and Paul Zinder. This was a particularly exciting project to be part of for, as my friends are sick of me saying, Fringe is my favorite TV show of the post-Lost/Battlestar Galactica era (a comment which usually draws reactions of “That’s an era now?!”).

My chapter, ‘The Scientist as Villain, the Scientist as Hero’, looks at one the central questions of Fringe: is science an intrinsically nefarious undertaking or, alternatively, a deeply noble enterprise? I argue for the latter, offering a defense of the Walter Bishop character as a ‘mad’ scientist. Yes it is true that in the show’s backstory he may once have been a villainous figure but, realizing that, Walter took steps to have such inclinations quite literally removed from his mind. Such an invasive, surgical response can easily strike the viewer as ‘mad’ yet, in taking this option, Walter Bishop reaffirms his belief (and, for that matter, ours) in the transformative, heroic ability of science to save and change lives.

The chapter draws on the literature surrounding the image of scientists in popular culture (science-fiction in particular) to consider Fringe’s conception of science as a heroic endeavor and, consequently, demonstrate its depiction of the scientist figure as one which is fundamentally heroic. As viewers, we have an inclination to see the cases handled by Fringe Division as a series of crimes perpetrated via extraordinary scientific means when in fact, as with many elements of the show, the opposite is just as true: each week, the transgressions of Fringe’s antagonists are foiled by extraordinary scientific means. Key to this (and to this chapter) is the character of Walter Bishop. Though his methods are unorthodox and his ethics occasionally questionable, Walter – by voluntarily reducing himself to a childlike state – is a truly heroic embodiment of science. Visitors to his lab may deem him ‘childish’ and ‘crazy’ but, as Douglas Adams once put it, ‘a scientist must be absolutely like a child […] You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool’ (So Long and Thanks for all the Fish). Indeed, Walter’s eccentricities, renewed benevolence, and astounding success at saving the day in the aftermath of William Bell removing part of his brain cause the viewer to question the distance between sanity and madness when it comes to expanding the boundaries of scientific knowledge in a world ‘where one breath of the wrong air can incinerate you from the inside out’ (Fringe, ‘Pilot’).

A book that ought to be of interest to any fan of the show, The Multiple Worlds of Fringe has diverse contributions from scholars in literature, psychology, and film/TV studies. The editors have sought to bring together material as multifaceted as the series itself, with specific focus on issues of humanity, duality, genre, and viewership. It is a volume which offers readers a contextualization of the series as a postmodern investigation into what makes us human as well as one which provides a sustained examination of the ways in which technology increasingly modifies and transforms that humanity.

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What good are the artists? Or, for that matter, the critics?

Here’s a recent review I wrote  for the Irish Examiner

Oxford Life in BooksThe Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books

John Carey

Faber; £18.99

Review: Val Nolan

It is no surprise to find that this memoir by Britain’s leading literary critic is full of symbols: A shallow-bottomed canoe which goes to places other boats dare not; a Bakelite radio that picks up nothing but static from the universe beyond the written word; the Crystal Palace in flames as the era of empires draws to a close. Yet John Carey’s earliest memory is the oddest of all: an elephant on a London street. Of the many totems in The Unexpected Professor, this great beast – mighty in reputation but charming in person – is perhaps the one which most resembles the author.

An academic, biographer, and a longstanding presence in the British press, (particularly in the Sunday Times, for which he has written since 1975), the eighty year old Carey is now an emeritus professor at Oxford where he taught English literature for four decades. He has chaired the Booker prize, authored volumes about Donne, Thackeray, and William Golding, and, famously, has proven to be an uncompromising critic. It is therefore a revelation to meet him as a child reading the kind of Biggles adventures which taught that “courage matters more than understanding poetry”.

No doubt it does, depending on the courage required or the poetry in question, however the double-take such a comment elicits is typical of Carey’s irreverent and entertaining journey to the top of the ivory tower. At no point is he beyond mining the streak of the ridiculous which runs through mid-century British life and, indeed, once he undertakes his National Service he discovers that, far from Biggles, the army “turned out to consist, to an unexpectedly large extent, of dressing and undressing very quickly and often”.

The armed forces also exhibited a slavish devotion to the English class system and, in that way at least, the pantomime of soldiery suitably prepared Carey for the “infectious snobbishness” of Oxford. The undergraduate years he describes were an unreal life of book-littered rooms, servants (or “scouts” in the local parlance), and luxurious meals even as the rest of Britain struggled with post-war austerity. Carey, the proud but then self-conscious product of a grammar school education, learned to pretend “to be like any other St. John’s freshman”. Nowadays he supposes that “a lot of them were pretending too”.

Servants aside, the opulence might leave some contemporary students jealous, but Carey himself wisely refused to buy into Oxford’s elitism and social division. His move from St. John’s to the leftist and tolerant Balliol College, a “civilised place where disagreement could resolve itself in laughter, not anger,” suited him well. Within its walls he found his ideal Oxford, an institution “full of brilliant minds” where class distinctions “counted for nothing”.

It is here too that the real meat of The Unexpected Professor reveals itself. The book is a time capsule from a just-past age when universities regarded their Humanities departments as engines of intellectual and creative energy, not a hindrance to league table mobility or national economic goals. The shift from then to now is all the more remarkable when one considers the titanic, if idiosyncratic, talent to emerge from the system Carey encountered: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden… none of whom could have functioned within the pharaonic third level culture of today, a maze of branding, quotas, bloated bureaucracy, and strategic visions.

“I heard,” Carey writes, “that one of my ex-students, when he was appointed to a lectureship at a provincial university, innocently proposed that they should give the same amount of time to teaching as I had. He was laughed at, on the grounds that their staff-to-student ratio made it impossible. All the same, I think he had a point, and the current abandonment of regular tutor-student contact in many English universities seems to me a disgrace”.

Not that the author claims all was ideal in his day. For one thing “women were segregated in five heavily fortified colleges on the outskirts of town”. For another, “the Oxford English syllabus in the 1950s was a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour. Its cut-off point was 1832 – that is, it omitted all Victorian and twentieth century literature”. Equally, the glimpse into the Bodleian Library’s catalogue room, “virtually the same as it had been throughout the nineteenth century,” is delightfully kooky in a Harry Potter fashion, but today’s option of searching its holdings online instead is unquestionably a positive achievement of the Internet Age.

Of course, part of the pleasure of The Unexpected Professor is being allowed to peruse Carey’s own lifelong library. “Literature,” he says, “trains you in ways of thought outside your own place and time”. Here he offers asides on great books from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, “the world’s first science-fiction novel,” to how the treatment of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote “reeked of injustice and class discrimination”. George Eliot “is great because she is serious and rational. Dickens is great because he is not. He is an anarchic comic genius, and critics who treated him as a moralist seemed to me way off course”.

A keen eye and a sharp wit eventually brought Carey out of the academy’s cloistered halls and into the realm of mainstream book reviewing. For one of his first assignments he was sent Seamus Heaney’s early pamphlet Eleven Poems (1965) which he devoured with “mounting astonishment” and decided that, if this was the kind of work available, then writing for the papers was a “job to hang on to”.

Reviewers, he says, “can make enemies,” which is true if you are doing it right, but he nonetheless believes in the value and vitality of broadsheet criticism while also admitting that, though it is guided by knowledge and experience, such work is always subjective. Anyone who has read his infamous What Good Are the Arts? (2005) knows that Carey believes some readers will just like a book and some readers won’t. Which is about as accurate a description of reviewing as this critic has come across, and a salve, perhaps, for those writers who feel slighted.

Certainly Carey himself has been attacked in the past however this new volume is unlikely to provoke the same ire as, for instance, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992). A minor but enjoyable work by a major figure, The Unexpected Professor is accessible, welcoming, and lively. Or, if you prefer, the exact opposite of most academic writing. Whether he be dining with Robert Graves or feeling “shamed by the nobility” of Ted Hughes, John Carey’s palpable joy at literature and learning jumps off the page. If he is immodest at times (and he is), well, he has earned that right. This warm and engaging record of books read and book written only proves as much.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches literature at NUI Galway. His story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ has been selected for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Volume Eight) to be published by Solaris in May.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 5 April 2014 (Weekend, pp.34-35).

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Religious Discourse in Lost and Battlestar Galactica

Yesterday I received my contributor’s copy of a new volume edited by Oklahoma City University’s Marc DiPaolo, Godly Heretics: Essays on Alternative Christianity in Literature and Popular Culture (published by McFarland). The book examines how storytellers, filmmakers, and philosophers have reinvented Christianity again and again, how they have explored new interpretations of the bible, and how they have struggled with questions such as free will and the existence of evil.

While this might strike some of you as an unexpected project for me to be involved with (I’m not what you might call a religious person), Godly Heretics provided the perfect opportunity to discuss something very much in my ballpark: Lost and Battlestar Galactica, two hugely popular science-fiction television series which both leaned on the interrogation of religious certainties as an integral, arguably essential element of their overall stories. While the theological inquiry proffered by these shows was often received and rejected without consideration for what the writers were trying to articulate, both Lost and BSG had profound messages to communicate about life, belief, community, and the dangerous tendency of organised religions to divide humanity into ideological factions rather than unite people into truly accepting societies.

My chapter tackles the divisive (to put it mildly!) reception of both series head on, exploring the dialogues about religion which they attempted to open with pop cultural audiences. I consider the purpose behind Lost and BSG’s use of heretical notions such as apathetic deities, resurrections that are not, and the deliberate collision of contemporary belief systems with archaic or esoteric forms of worship. While my chapter doesn’t shy away from the fact that a great many people were dissatisfied with the endings of these shows, it is an effort to demonstrate how the theological underpinnings of Lost and BSG are more coherent, and indeed more important, than generally accepted.

A fine volume, I intend sitting down with Godly Heretics over the next few weeks and spending time with the essays from the other contributors. In particular I’m looking forward to Grace Moore’s chapter on A Christmas Carol, Scrooged, and Groundhog Day, and Eric Michael Mazur’s chapter on Peanuts and The Far Side. There’s also work here on Kieslowski’s Decalogue, Kubrick’s The Shining (by another Irish contributor, Trinity’s Dara Downey), as well as chapters on Tolstoy and Nietzsche, Shelly, Whitman, Thomas Jefferson, and the varying representations of Jesus in literature. It’s a book which I think will interest a wide range of people, both academics and those with a more general interest in how Christianity has been portrayed over time, so please do order a copy for your local or university library.

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Why I Write Book Reviews…

The reviews pages of the Irish ExaminerI had an interview a few months ago for a position at a small university just outside of London. The meeting with the teaching staff before lunch was very pleasant, more like a chat between (potential) colleagues than anything else. Actually, it was very positive. Kind of a surprise so when the interview with the Higher Ups and Admin types in the afternoon was a little more combative. In fact, after a number of other interview experiences in the last year, that afternoon session has started to seem more and more belligerent. In particular, there was one part which sticks with me:

Panel Member: ‘I’m looking at your CV and I see an awful lot of reviews. You’re very productive.’

Me: ‘Thank you.’

Panel Member: ‘No, that wasn’t a compliment…’

Welcome to academia! Now, one of the reasons I didn’t secure that job was that the panel wished to hire someone with an already extensive list of peer-reviewed articles – for which the author will never get paid – and considered my newspaper work – an important part of my living – to be a distraction from more ‘academic’ pursuits. Why? Well, like most things, it’s all down to money. Anyone working in or interviewing for academic positions in the UK (and, increasingly, here in Ireland) will be familiar with how university funding has become linked to the publication output of a particular department’s academics. The result of this is that the person with the most journal articles gets the job because the hiring institution will (in the UK anyway) be able to use those publications in their REF applications:

Me: ‘I do have a number of forthcoming publications. For instance, I have an article on McGahern which looks at –’

Panel Member: ‘How many pages is that?’

Me: ‘Sorry, what?’

Panel Member: ‘How. Many. Pages. Is. That?’

Me: ‘I don’t know, it’s not published yet. I can tell you how long it is. It’s 11,000 words.’

Panel Member: ‘That’ll do. What else do you have?’

Because that, apparently, is the criteria on REF application forms: ‘how many pages have your academics published?’. Not, ‘what breakthroughs have your academics made?’ or ‘how has the contribution of your academics been received in their fields?’ but ‘how many pages have they published?’. More pages equal more money, and though said academic wrote them for free, he or she needs them in order to get the job and make a living.

It’s an awkward Catch-22 (or ‘crocodile’, as I’m told the term was way-back-when!) for early career academics such as myself. Yet what certain funds-hungry members of the interview panel at <Name Redacted> University College failed to or declined to acknowledge is that my aims aren’t so different from theirs. Yes, I write book reviews because I love reading and I love writing about what I read – in fact that’s my main reason – but I also write them in order to earn a living. My lecturing and teaching roles have thus far been part-time and, though I aspire to work full time as a lecturer (at which point I hope to be in a financial situation stable enough to expend the necessary time and effort on a greater number of journal articles) I’m happy to bolster my income until then with reviewing. There are many reasons for this. The main ones are that reviewing:

  • Lets me use my education and experience for financial gain (hey, rent!)
  • Allows me to exercise my writing skills and critical thinking (use ‘em or lose ‘em, folks!)
  • Ensures that I see my work in print within a very reasonable timescale (mere weeks versus the months, often years, of academic journals)
  • Enables me to communicate my ideas about contemporary fiction to a much wider audience than a journal publication (sad but true).

While I intend to write fewer reviews once I secure a more permanent position, I won’t be giving them up entirely because there’s another reason I think they’re important: I firmly believe that it’s crucial for those in the university to contribute to the discussion of their fields through the popular media. In the case of book reviewing it comprises the leading-edge of literary criticism, that ‘first look’ at contemporary writing; more generally though, academics in the media represent a valuable and highly visible rebuttal of the perceived disconnect between the ‘ivory tower’ and the ‘man on the street’. It’s something that I think people like the Panel Member above disregard too readily. In an age when the usefulness of the Arts is questioned more than even, when university lecturers are perceived as doing nothing all day (I can tell you it’s far from that!), there’s a lot to be said for seeing ‘So-and-So lectures on this topic at Such-a-Such University’ at the bottom of an article. It reminds people that the real role of universities is sharing knowledge and contributing to the wider community. Even if the message communicated is as simple as ‘Hey, look! We have things to say about what you’re reading!’ That’s far from a bad thing.

If more people were to realize this then it might go some way towards combating the poor reputation of the book review in the current academic job climate. I’ve been thinking about this over the last week as a friend of mine recently attended a professional development conference and kindly shared the major points. One of the things she reported was that participants were told ‘no one reading a CV will be impressed by fifteen reviews and no articles, so keep a balance’. That conference was aimed at Historians, but their discipline is close enough to Literature for the same rules of thumb to apply. What the speakers there said has a certain truth to it, yes, but it’s important to note that when they say ‘reviews’ they’re speaking about reviews in academic journals, a fundamentally different beast to the newspaper review. The main distinction is that almost nobody reads the former, something which can be said of academic journals across the board. Mind you, I wish that wasn’t true; I write and publish articles in academic journals, pouring my heart and soul into work on topics which I hope will appeal to people (check out my recent John McGahern and Flann O’Brien pieces if you so wish), but realistically I know that only a handful of interested specialists or quote-mining students will see – let alone read – these publications. Conversely, newspaper and media reviews are widely received and allow scholars and critics to build up productive relationships with many literary people outside of the academy (because, let’s face it, sometimes the insular nature of university life can make one forget that there’s a whole wide world outside its walls). Certainly that’s been my tremendously enjoyable experience of freelance newspaper work over the last half decade, first with the Sunday Business Post and, in the last two years, with the Irish Examiner. Writing reviews has helped me keep a roof over my head, absolutely, but it’s also helped me become a better critic, a better scholar, and it’s ensured that I’ve had fun doing so.

There may not be a box on an REF form for that, but maybe there ought to be.

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