The leaves are falling, the nights are drawing in, but to cheer us all up it’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas time again. In the How To Read events, researchers from the Faculty of English share their approach to a text of their choice. I’m speaking on Monday 19th October on Lisa Cholodenko’s film High Art (1998), and there are events also on 22nd and 26th October.
Taking place at the Southbank Centre in London over the weekend of Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st May, the Web We Want festival dives into the wonderful world of the web with a packed weekend of technology, digital art, talks, exhibitions and creative workshops. I’ll be there on the Saturday chairing a panel on ‘When Science Fiction Becomes Reality: AI in the Digital Age‘. Organised by the ANXS Collective, who specialise in public engagement in Art and Science, the panel features scientist Professor Murray Shanahan, Professor of Cognitive Robotics in the Department of Computing at Imperial College London and recently scientific advisor to the film Ex_Machina, alongside artist and fellow SF-lover Richard Adams, and filmmaker Khalil Sullins. Khalil’s debut feature film, the sci-fi thriller Listening, was released in 2014 and has its international premiere at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival after our Web We Want Panel – so why not make a weekend of it!
My next event on the Cambridge Festival of Ideas calendar is ‘Reading the Anthropocene‘ which takes place on Thursday 30th November in the Faculty of English. Again thanks to the wide-ranging interests of my PhD students, I was alerted to this term a few years back and have been following debates around it ever since. I’m delighted that joining me to talk about whether we are indeed now in a new geological era, and whether or not that actually matters, will be Philip Gibbard, Professor of Quaternary Palaeoenvironments in the Department of Geography here at Cambridge, and writer and environmental campaigner Tony Juniper. It promises to be a lively discussion that could not be better timed as the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ meet for the first time this week to assess the evidence of man’s impact on the planet.
The Cambridge Festival of Ideas began this week and runs until Sunday 2nd November. It’s a great event that each year prompts academics to think of interesting and engaging ways to share their ideas with the public. I had the pleasure yesterday evening of taking part in one of the Faculty of English’s How to Read sessions. Two of our graduate students gave fantastic talks, one on Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution epic A Place of Greater Safety (1992) and the other on Masuji Ibuse’s 1965 novel about the devastation caused by the Hiroshima atomic bombing, Black Rain. Having triumphantly just submitted the manuscript of my edited collection (along with co-editor Dr Caroline Edwards at Birkbeck) on Maggie Gee, I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk about her work in public, focusing on the short story collection The Blue (2006). The audience were fantastic and post-presentation discussion ranged from the benefits or not of ereaders to the universality of themes across literature. I even got to talk a little about one of my favourite words and things, something a wonderful PhD student taught me about many years ago – skeuomorphism. Check out the full guide to the festival here.
Tomorrow sees the start of the 34th Cambridge Film Festival, which is bringing me out of summer academic hibernation with a bang. It’s been running since 1977 with a brief break in the late 1990s which happened to fall over my undergraduate years at Cambridge, so it’s great to finally be able to experience the festival now, as both a film-goer and as a reviewer and Q&A host. Cambridge 105fm’s Bums on Seats will be hosting two radio specials this Saturday and next, where I’ll join Toby Miller and others to review some of the highlights of the festival. Take One magazine will be providing exclusive written coverage of the festival. My first review for them is of a film that was released in the same year the festival launched – The Glitterball is a self-deprecatingly comic children’s science fiction/Enid Blyton hybrid. For more reviews from me, and the other writers covering the festival, keep an eye on the Take One website. I’ll be posting my thoughts on a host of films from Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, part of the opening night extravaganza, to the much more hard-hitting André Sanger’s Night Will Fall, taking in many others in between. I’ll also be hosting a Q&A with André Sanger and producer Sally Angel after the 6pm showing of Night Will Fall on Tuesday 2nd September. And the preceding evening I’ll be hosting a Q&A with Rowan Joffe (writer of the screenplay for 28 Weeks Later) and Stephen J Watson after the 9pm screening of Before I Go to Sleep – a film which stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in what I can’t help but think of as 50 First Dates turned to the dark side.
It’s going to be a fantastic ten days of unadulterated cinematic indulgence – tune in or turn up where you can!
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!
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.]
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.
Debate raged this summer about the all-male Arthur C. Clarke shortlist and the place of women writers in science fiction. That, along with the Texas abortion law changes, got me thinking about the feminist power of SF and what we can learn from it about women’s rights and how these are connected to our control of our own reproduction. That became the topic of my Free Thinking essay, which will be broadcast tonight on BBC Radio 3 at 10.45pm. As always, if you can’t listen live, it’ll be available on listen again here. Come with me on a late night journey on the Wombcraft to other imagined times and places. Enjoy the ride!