With Deconstruction, Feminism, Film submitted and with it a number of intellectual questions I’ve been wrestling with for over a decade put to rest, I am now delightedly embracing my research on science fiction, and on science and literature. This work began whilst I was at St Andrews and has been bubbling along over the past three years, but it took a back seat to prioritise finishing the film book. Now it gets to take centre stage! Earlier this month, I joined the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence as a Senior Research Fellow and co-Project Lead on the AI Narratives project. I’ll be working alongside co-Project Leads Dr Stephen Cave, Executive Director of CFI, and Claire Craig, Director of Science and Policy at the Royal Society, as well as Kanta Dihal, our postdoctoral researcher and Associate Fellow, Dr Beth Singler. It’s a great team, and an exciting three year project to explore how AI is currently portrayed in literary, cinematic and other cultural narratives, what impact that might be having, and what we can learn from how other complex, novel technologies have been communicated. The Royal Society have also generously funded a more focused reboot of the What Scientists Read research I carried out with a multidisciplinary team in Scotland, so watch this space for updates on the AI Narratives project and on What AI Researchers Read…
It’s been a momentous three months since my last post as at the end of September I submitted a book I’ve been thinking about and working on intermittently for over sixteen years. Over the past two years I’ve been able to pull together all that thinking, engage in sustained writing, and produce a book I am truly proud of: Deconstruction, Feminism, Film will be published by Edinburgh University Press in June 2018. It’s a special book to me for many reasons: it’s my first book that extends my work from literary studies into film; it addresses and finally puts to rest troubling philosophic questions about deconstruction that I’ve had since I was a PhD student; and it articulates my methodology as a feminist scholar. Most importantly, however, it is my first monograph since having my children. As any academic parent knows, the effect of having children on one’s career is enormous – it’s not just the actual weeks you take off for parental leave. If you carry the child, it’s the inability to concentrate in the final months of a pregnancy, or even throughout those nine months if one has a difficult pregnancy. It’s the chronic sleep deprivation that arrives with your first child, which, if they are not that mythical beast, ‘a good sleeper’, prevents all but the most basic functioning (and can do so, in my experience, for years). It’s the return to work as a different person, with a different set of commitments and an entirely different relationship to time. It’s all the conferences, invitations, after-hours seminars, international travel that are now mostly ruled out just as a matter of course, with the select few you choose to attend requiring careful and extensive planning. I have no complaints – I chose to have my children, I love them, and they are more important to me than any book. But the pride I feel in having produced Deconstruction, Feminism, Film as well as my babies is enormous. So for any academic parent out there struggling in those early years, doubting the possibility that they will ever read anything more advanced than a picture book again, let alone have the intellectual energy, time and space to WRITE a book again….keep the faith: you will be able to do it again, eventually.
I’ve just spent a very happy couple of days in Bristol scripting and recording BBC Radio 3’s John Berger: Ways of Listening, a three hour celebration of his life and work to be broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday 23rd July from 8.30pm. It’s a symphony of delights including conversation with those who knew him well, a broadcast of the 1997 radio dramatisation of To The Wedding (my favourite of his novels), and selections from his best bits on TV and radio. It’s been a pleasure to immerse myself in his work again (and by goodness, is there a lot of it). If you’ve never encountered him before (my Mum hadn’t!), Ways of Seeing is the place to start – all four episodes of this groundbreaking 1972 series are available on YouTube. A shout out here as well, for the unsung heroes of radio – the producers. Tim Dee is putting all this together, a man of wisdom, skill and infinite patience. Go check out his work too.
Literary Pursuits returned to the BBC Radio 3 airwaves in July with Episode 5 on E. M. Forster’s secret book Maurice. With the Forster archives on my doorstep at King’s College Cambridge, I didn’t have to travel far for this one, but the book itself had a remarkable journey from Cambridge to America, passed hand to hand by men risking imprisonment to transport it from Forster to Christopher Isherwood. I start with this journey in order to discover the wonderful and moving story behind this seminal text in the history of gay literature.
On Sunday 28th May, I had the pleasure and the privilege to present a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme – Writing and Rewriting the Past – live at the Hay Festival, as part of the BBC’s line-up for the 2017 event. Sebastian Barry, Jake Arnold and Madeline Thien joined me to talk about historical fiction in the age of “alternative facts”. It was a deeply stimulating, sometimes moving, discussion, with all in agreement that Madeleine stole the show. If you haven’t read her novel, shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and 2017 Bailey’s Prize for fiction, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, go and seek it out now – you’ll be glad you did. The programme was broadcast on Thursday 1 June at 10pm on BBC Radio 3 and is available here as an Arts and Ideas download.
The arrival of Spring sees Radio 4 go into full Martian mode for a festival week celebrating the red planet. To kick things off I’m presenting the first of three documentaries on our scientific and literary imaginings of Mars…Come with me to Mars. A planet we have been been dreaming and writing about for centuries. From the Old Mars of canals and fantastic beasts, to utopias projected by feminists, bolsheviks and even druids. You can have any Mars you want, at least until we get there and Mars is finally terraformed and settled as a new Earth. Join me for Seeing is Believing – the first episode in a three part series, We Are the Martians – on Monday 6th March at 11am on BBC Radio 4, and available to listen again on the BBC iplayer.
After 6 months in solitary academic confinement, and with The Book triumphantly written, the beginning of 2017 has seen me return to life beyond my study with renewed enthusiasm and vigour. I’ve spent the past few months steeped in the Martian imaginings of our greatest writers and scientists for a BBC Radio 4 documentary on mankind’s romance with the red planet, for which I had the great if exhausting pleasure of a weekend trip to Mars’ Earth analogue, Arizona. We visited Percival Lowell’s Flagstaff observatory to learn more about how it all began, and then descended to Phoenix to talk about where we are now, with contemporary Mars scientists at Arizona State University. There may also have been a morning spent barsooming around the Arizona desert – as close to Mars as I’m ever going to get – imagining encounters with magnificent and fearsome six-limbed Tharks. And if that sounds a little frivolous, I can assure you that it was actually very illuminating: standing on red rock, looking across the barren desert to the dust clouds on the distant horizon, it suddenly made sense why that landscape inspired the original literary visionary of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs – whose experiences on those plains and encounters with their native inhabitants shaped his Martian imaginings. The programme will be broadcast as part of Radio 4’s Martian Festival at the beginning of March – more details to follow.
I also had the pleasure this week of a stimulating hour’s conversation with SF writers Roz Kaveney and Aliette de Bodard for an episode of Radio 4’s Beyond Belief on religion and science fiction, which will be broadcast on Monday 13th March. And, to knock a little realism into me, next month I’ll start recording my new series of Literary Pursuits by investigating the story behind the story of E. M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice. Fortunately, neither interplanetary nor transatlantic travel is necessary to get started on that investigation, since a treasure trove of Forster’s papers sits on my doorstep in King’s College Cambridge’s modern archives.
My academic work is top priority at the moment as I’ve gone into research lock-down in order to get my long-delayed second book drafted by Christmas. But it’s been a pleasure to treat myself to a break from the book to take part for the second year in BBC Radio 3’s Proms Extra events: live discussions that take place before the Prom and are then cut for broadcast during the interval of the evening’s concert. On Saturday 6th August 2016 I’ll be joining eminent science fiction novelist Stephen Baxter to talk with fellow New Generation Thinker Will Abberley about H. G. Wells and the lasting relevance of his work, especially The War of the Worlds. Then on Thursday 18th August I’ll be back in the presenter seat – a role I now enjoy even more than being a contributor – to interview the great Michael Pennington about what it’s like to perform Shakespeare and how the Bard himself portrayed the profession he knew best. All events are free and there’s one before every Prom, so plenty to choose from – if you can’t make it in person, both the Wells and the Pennington discussions will be available on Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas section of the BBCiplayer after broadcast. While you’re online, check out the new addition to the Proms season, fantastic comedian Vikki Stone‘s new behind the scenes podcast, Proms Unplucked.
The third and fourth episodes in my literary detective documentary series for BBC Radio 3 – Literary Pursuits – will be broadcast to bracket the Hay Festival at 6.45pm on Sunday 29th May and Sunday 5th June. Episode 3 investigates the story behind the posthumous publication of Jane Austen’s Persuasion whilst episode 4 travels to Dublin to unravel the mystery behind a singed proof copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners, dated 4 years before the book’s publication. In previous episodes I investigate Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. All the episodes in the series can be listened to on the Literary Pursuits page of the BBC iplayer and my thoughts on the series can be found here.