Speakers 2018

Dimitra Fimi: In the blood and in the landscape: escaping (into) the “Celtic” past in contemporary children’s fantasy

A common “rule of thumb” often simplistically repeated about genre fiction is that fantasy is “about the past” while science fiction is “about the future”. Though both statements can be ripped to shreds by creative and scholarly work, there is something about fantasy’s engagement with the (often mythological or legendary) past that makes this popular perception stick. In this lecture, I will be looking at some of the best-known children’s and YA fantasy texts from the last few decades, which focus on the protagonists meddling with or running away from the “Celtic” past. Children and teenagers escape into the mythological past of Ireland and Wales to save their own world (Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigan, Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence), or to search for a sense of belonging and identity (Mary Tannen’s Finn books and Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge). In other examples, the legendary past erupts into their own mundane reality and the aim is to escape its potentially perilous powers (Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider trilogy). The lecture, therefore, will argue that fantasy literature not only shapes the “popular” perception of the past, but also offers us ways to “deal” with the past and its powerful hold on us.

Dr Dimitra Fimi
Dr Dimitra Fimi

Dr Dimitra Fimi is a Senior Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her first monograph, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. She co-edited the first critical edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice”, in which Tolkien theorizes his language invention (A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, HarperCollins, 2016). The book won the Tolkien Society Award for Best Book. Her latest monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), was runner up for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award. She has published widely in journals and edited collections. She lectures on fantasy literature, science fiction, children’s literature, and medievalism. She contributes regularly to radio and TV programmes (BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Wales, History Channel, BBC4). You can find out more on her website.

Alice Jenkins: Prophecy, prediction and escape in fantastic literature

“For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.”

“When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;”

“Two magicians shall appear in England…
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;”

Prophecies like these by Tolkien, Cooper and Clarke are a determining marker of high fantasy, and even their subversion is a well-recognised trope of fantastic literature more widely.  Prophecies exploit the workings of temporality in fiction in ways that challenge both characters and readers to think differently about where we are now as well as where we expect to be.  They contribute to and disrupt patterns of knowledge, discovery and adaptation to experience that the characters and readers in their different ways become familiar with as the novel progresses.

We can think of prophecy as deductive knowledge, i.e. knowledge derived from given laws and applied to lived experience.  This view of prophecy emphasises its strangeness and separateness from many of the knowledge processes of fiction, which are inductive, i.e. built up by comparing many observations.   Is prophecy a shortcut to knowledge, one that undermines the otherwise careful work of world-building on the part of writers, characters and readers?  Or is prophecy functionally the same as prediction and in some ways amenable to similar rules of knowledge as those that govern the steadier, more gradual processes of knowledge which characterise fiction, especially long fiction?

This paper explores some possible responses to the ways in which predictions and prophecies are formed in fantasy, and how fantasy’s predictions paradoxically lead us away from the known and familiar.

Alice Jenkins is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture and works mainly on the emergence of the knowledge economy in the nineteenth century. Publications include Space and the ‘March of Mind’: Literature and the Physical Sciences, 1815-1850 (OUP, 2007) and an edition of Michael Faraday’s essays, Michael Faraday’s ‘Mental Exercises’: An Artisan Essay-Circle in Regency London (Liverpool UP, 2008). She has recently completed a book on Victorian ideas about the ultimate unity of knowledge, as well as a cultural history of Euclidean geometry in the nineteenth century, which was written as part of Professor Jenkins’s three-year research project, ‘Nineteenth-Century Euclid’, funded by the European Research Council.

Will Slocombe: There is No Escape from Here (Wherever Here Is): Fantasies of Control in Fictions of Artificial Intelligence

This talk explores the ways in which representations of Artificial Intelligence operate within science fiction and associated genres. Often, the refrain of “It’s just science fiction” (read as: “It’s just escapist nonsense”) can be overheard when hard-nosed pragmatists hear concerns about a “machine apocalypse” as AIs escape human supervision; equally, scare-mongers seeing AI as nothing other than the end of humanity often seem overly concerned with the projection of their fantasies over the reality of current possibilities of AI technologies. Walking somewhere in the middle (with the occasional detour), this paper examines such concerns through the trope of control that such fictions engage with. Offering a summary of some cogent examples across media, such as the Deus Ex computer games, the Westworld and Person of Interest series, and a host of texts by various authors (Asimov, Asher, Banks, Dick, Heinlein, and Reynolds, to name a few), this paper examines the fantasies and realities of “control”, as narrative device and as metatextual problem. In so doing, it is clear that such texts not only draw on long-established fantasies about threats to human exceptionalism and agency, but also promote an illusory sense of “free will” and “control”. In short, the paper considers the somewhat depressing conclusion that no matter the fictional representation of AI, the “real” issue may be more akin to that raised by Baudrillard’s concept of simulation or something expressed most succinctly by the late, great Terry Pratchett: “The truth may be out there, but the lies are in your head”.

Dr Will Slocombe
Dr Will Slocombe

Dr Will Slocombe is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of Nihilism and the Sublime Postmodern (Routledge, 2006) and various chapters and articles on contemporary literature and theory, especially on postmodernism, deconstruction, metafiction, and science fiction.

He is currently working on his second monograph, Emergent Patterns: Artificial Intelligence and the Structural Imagination (forthcoming Peter Lang, 2019).

Tex Thompson: Once Upon a Time in the West: Fantasy and Identity on the Fictional Frontier

Fantasy and Westerns are, in a crucial sense, twin children of a single timeless parent. From the days of Beowulf, when the great Geatish gunslinger first rode into town to liberate the Danes from the ravages of the outlaw Grendel, the story of the dauntless hero striving against impossible odds has fascinated us all.

But the paths of these two genres diverge at the moment of the hero’s calling. Where fantasy tends to part the clouds and shine a ray of divine light down on the Chosen One, the Western is apt to showcase whichever inglorious mortal drifter happened to be passing by and decided to set themselves to the task at hand.

Yet while the open range of the American West closed all too quickly, and the golden age of the Geats ended with Beowulf’s passing, the fictional frontier only grows. Today, it stretches ever more widely across populations and storytelling mediums undreamed of even a hundred years ago. Which means that today, we have an unprecedented opportunity to bring fantasy and Westerns back together – to blur the lines between ‘born’ and ‘made’ heroes – to entice new audiences into the fold, by recasting these ‘long ago and far away’ genres in ways that invite the world’s most diverse readership to take up a heroic identity all their own.

Tex Thompson
Tex Thompson

Arianne “Tex” Thompson is a home-grown Texas success story. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in literature, she channeled her passion for powerful, innovative, and inclusive fiction into the Children of the Drought – an internationally-published epic fantasy Western series from Solaris.

Now an instructor for the Writers Path at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the founder / ‘chief instigator’ of WORD (Writers Organizations ‘Round Dallas), Tex is blazing a trail through writers conferences, workshops, and fan conventions on both sides of the Atlantic – as an endlessly energetic, relentlessly enthusiastic one-woman stampede. You can find more about Tex on her website.