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!
All is as been rather quiet on the public engagement front since my first full academic year at Cambridge began back in October. But whilst in person I have been absorbed by the pleasures and demands of teaching and administration, the ‘Close Reading’ broadcasts for BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme have been going out steadily every month or so and have been received very well by the public, which is wonderful. The fifth episode will be broadcast this Sunday 24th May, in which I wrestle with a challenging passage from near the opening of Ian McEwan’s disturbing novel Enduring Love. Check out my radio pages for links to all the aired broadcasts in the Close Reading Series, covering Elizabeth Bowen, Aldous Huxley, Muriel Spark and Katherine Mansfield. The final broadcast in July will take a close look at Pat Barker’s Regeneration.
I’m delighted to be able to announce my new miniseries – ‘Close Reading’ – for BBC Radio 4’s literature programme Open Book. The first episode went out yesterday, Sunday 23rd November, and guides listeners through a passage from one of my favourite novels, Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love. In an age when speed is everything and time seems to dwindle to nothing, the idea of the series is to go slow, to read texts with an acute sensitivity to detail, with an ear and an eye for how they are doing what they are doing. Outside of educational institutions, it’s not an approach to literature now commonly practised by readers around the country, so novelist Tessa Hadley and myself spent some time convincing Mariella of its value in the interview introducing the series. It was wonderful to discover both Tessa and I are passionate believers that such close attention to detail repays the effort. Close reading gets at the heart of what the writer has done with words and can spin the reader out from the tiniest of details to the largest of themes. It’s the way I was taught to read and it’s the way of engaging with texts that I find most intimate, exciting and rewarding. I hope listeners will think so too.
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!
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.