One of the many joys of having moved somewhere you have no intention of ever leaving is that, after years of itinerant academic life, I can now start to set down roots in the local community. So I am delighted to have been welcomed with such open arms on to Toby Miller’s great Cambridge 105 film review show ‘Bums on Seats’. My first visit to the studio saw us reviewing an interesting mix of the summer’s blockbusters from Belle to Maleficent, with a little bit of sci fi thrown in there too, of course, by way of Edge of Tomorrow. Podcast available here if you’re interested to hear our thoughts.
After a busy start to the year, I’m looking forward to a quiet academic few months over the summer focusing on reading and writing. But I couldn’t not post today after receiving the draft programme for Loncon3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention taking place in London from 14th-18th August. This is the first Worldcon to be held in London since 1965 and the 75th anniversary of the very first Worldcon held in New York in 1939. Thousands of SF fans from around the world will be descending on London. There will of course be people dressed as ewoks and other fun elements of SF fan culture, but to provide entertainment and stimulation across the whole range, there is also an incredibly stimulating Science Programme of talks and discussions. I’ll be giving a talk on What Scientists Read, as well as taking part in panel discussions on the animal in SF (with Adam Roberts and others), climate change narratives (with Kim Stanley Robinson and others), and the uses (or abuses?) of TED as a form of science communication. Go along to Loncon3 to check out all the details of how to join in the fun and discussion. What with the BFI Science Fiction Season following closely on its heels, it’s going to be an exciting summer for SF in London!
I’ve just spent a fantastic day in Norwich at a symposium on the palimpsest, organised as part of Adam Pugh’s exciting Invisible Fabrick project. It was one of those days that refreshes the intellectual soul – not an academic conference but a symposium attended by academics, art practitioners, curators and the public. A diverse mix of interested and interesting minds that always makes for stimulating discussion and debate. I had the pleasure of revisiting my early work on palimpsests and the palimpsest, and was also prompted by great questions to think about how that textual metaphor might be extended, or possibly extenuated, by our modern day digitial hyperreal world. The highlight of the day was what I’m already thinking of as Patrick Coyle‘s ’round table with a difference’! Rather than the usual academic way of ending the day, with a panel reflecting on the ideas that have been raised, Patrick took us on a creative ‘tourk’ (talk and walk) from the symposium venue to the site of the evening’s book launch, layering into his own creative work reflections on the day’s proceedings. Entertaining, ingenious and utterly original. I’ll definitely be booking him to wrap up proceedings at the next conference I organise!
To round off my dramatic week I went along to BBC Radio 3′s Free Thinking (what was Night Waves) to chat with Philip Dodd and drama critic Susannah Clapp about science fiction theatre. Is it on the rise, and if so, why? Does theatre need to define itself against SF cinema and the special effects it is now capable of? Or does it need to stretch and develop itself technically by rising to the challenge of staging SF narratives in and for the 21st century? Have a listen to our thoughts here.
This week I’ve come over all dramatic, having caught the current buzz around SF theatre. This afternoon I popped down to London to watch the new Headlong production of George Orwell’s 1984 which has just begun its West End run. I have to say I found it a little disappointing. The opening was almost embarrassingly patronising as it gathered together a reading group to ‘teach’ the audience how to understand the novel. But once they got past that, it steadily improved and Mark Arends was subtly convincing in his portrayal of a psychologically damaged, disoriented, if not downright unhinged, Winston. On the train ride home I finished off a new Sci-Fi-London blog on SF theatre, which will appear here shortly. And if I could have been in two places at once, I’d also have sent my avatar over to LA to catch Sci Fest, the first science fiction theatre festival (poster above, and more on them in the blog ) which looks nothing less than tremendous. All in all, a satisfyingly science fictionaly theatrical day!
I feel like an intrepid explorer into unknown waters, but my life as a blogger has begun! The folks down at Sci-Fi-London, the London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, have kindly invited me to post my thoughts on their website every so often, so I started with some musings on Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. All my blog posts can be found here. The festival has been the launch pad for some fantastic sci-fi films, including one of my all time favourites, Splice, as well as the zombie classic 28 Days Later, so I’m looking forward with excitement and anticipation to the launch night of this year’s festival tomorrow at the Stratford Picturehouse with the world premiere of new sci-fi thriller Lost Time.
So my BBC Arts TV short film is now Live and can be found here. In it I talk about the relationship between literature and science since the mid-twentieth century. This date is marked not just by the end of the Second World War and the national and international changes that ensued, but also by another date – 1959 – when the English chemist and novelist C. P. Snow took to the podium in a packed Senate House at the University of Cambridge. There he stood and boldly delivered a lecture that was to change the face of the debate about the relationship between literature and science.
Snow believed that the intellectual life of Western societies was split into what he famously called ‘the two cultures’: the arts and humanities at one pole, the sciences at the other, an unbridgeable gulf between the two. Scientists, he said, don’t read; and literary types don’t have a clue about science, most of the ones he knew couldn’t even explain something as scientifically fundamental as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
So what did Snow want his lecture to do? Well he wanted it to provoke debate and he wanted it to spur people on to attempt to close the gap between the two cultures. Since Snow’s lecture, many intellectuals and scientists have risen to his challenge, working hard to prove that the divide between the two cultures is more imagined than real. Strangely enough, though, most scholars of literature and science have sought to prove Snow wrong not by looking forwards, but by looking back. They point to the nineteenth century as evidence of the intimacy between literature and science. Behold, they say, Darwin’s love of Milton, or Coleridge’s close friendship and collaboration with the visionary chemist Humphry Davy.
Yes, the nineteenth century was an era in which literature and science were common bedfellows. The title page of the very first issue of the journal Nature, published in 1869, in fact bears an epigraph from Wordsworth. And that epigraph remained there for nearly 100 years. But it was abandoned in 1963, only four years after Snow’s lecture. This timing is not coincidental. For the contemporary history of the relationship between literature and science is different to that of the nineteenth century. We need to look forward in response to Snow’s challenge, not look back.
And what do we see if we do indeed look beyond 1959? Well, we see a troubled relationship. Sometimes the two cultures are at war. Sometimes they are in love. In the 1990s, the famous science wars exploded in the States. Postmodern theorists argued for the equal value, even the fallibility, of all forms of knowledge. They challenged science’s claims to objectivity, authority and truth. And the scientists fought back, defending science from the perceived attack. Physicist Alan Sokal even went so far as to plant a hoax article in the journal Social Text supposedly to expose the lack of intellectual rigour of the new forms of cultural and literary theory and thought.
On the other hand, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we’ve seen moves towards reconciliation. In October 2011 the Royal Society held its One Culture festival, exploring the crosscurrents between literature and science; in 2013, the Barbican ran a season called ‘Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain’. Whilst the cultural theorists of the end of the twentieth century got into trouble because they argued for science’s similarity to other forms of knowledge, in an oddly similar spirit, though to different ends, the reconciliatory projects of the past twenty years also concentrate on what the two cultures share, be it a sense of wonder, or the crucial role imagination plays in both. But it is time to come out from under Snow’s shadow. Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with there being two cultures. Perhaps, in fact, we need to start valuing literature and science precisely for their differences, rather than continually attempting to bring them together. Science and literature offer us different ways of understanding the world, different routes to knowledge. And if we are to survive as a species, and retain our humanity, we are going to need to keep both.
After an intense few months of move project management, with little time for anything else, the relocation to Cambridge is upon me and life can start to be filled up again with things other than estate agents, builders, painters, letting agents, removal companies, the list goes on. So yesterday I had the pleasure of spending the day filming with a great crew from the BBC making a short film as part of the New Generation Thinker experience. Check out last year’s films here. And yes, I did have to walk around looking thoughtful and take a book down off a shelf and pretend to be very interested in it. TV is a strange beast but it’s fascinating being part of a team creating in a medium where the images hold sway over the words. Very different to writing, and to radio. I’ll post a link to the NGT 2013 films when they find their way on to the BBC Arts page. In the meantime, there’s much more to come over the next few months, from a new blogging role for Sci-Fi-London, home of the UK’s main SF film festival, to a What Scientists Read event at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April. Goodbye packing; hello world. It’s good to be back!
[Bad pun blog title courtesy of my husband.]
So the big news this month is that I’ve just been appointed to a University Lectureship in Literature and Film at the University of Cambridge. I’ll be heading down South to take up the post on 1st April 2014. I’m looking forward to embracing all things film and literature in the South East, as well as being within easy striking distance of the Big Smoke. One of my main responsibilities will be a special topic paper on Classical Hollywood – my favourite recent discovery is the startlingly postmodern 1941 musical Hellzapoppin’, loved by Lindy Hoppers the world over for its fantastic dance scene, but also laugh out loud funny and smartly self-reflexive about the Hollywood cinema of its time, in particular, and film in general. Well worth a watch over the festive period!
This Friday will be the 50th anniversary of the death of Aldous Huxley, the prolific writer best known for his dystopian vision of the future Brave New World. To honour the occasion I’ll be heading down to Edinburgh for my first visit to BBC Radio Scotland’s The Culture Studio. I’ll be chatting with Janice Forsyth about Huxley’s life and work – just how far are we now actually living in the world he imagined?
There’s an interesting connection here with Zamyatin’s We which I discussed last month at BBC Radio 3′s Free Thinking Festival. Huxley denied having read We before writing Brave New World but the similarities between the two tales are uncanny: the use of literature for state propaganda; the possibility of a space beyond the world of the controlled state; a final showdown with the man at the top; the threat the individual poses to an organised society. It’s hard to believe that We was not a source for Brave New World – George Orwell didn’t buy it; nor did Kurt Vonnegut, author of the fantastic Player Piano, who cheerfully admitted that he ripped off his plot from Brave New World which he had no doubts was equally ripped off from We. Lurking in the background here, as always of course, is H. G. Wells with his visions of future utopias and dystopias which have frightened and intrigued all subsequent speculative writers in equal parts.