Time and Space in Speculative Fiction

Uppsala, April 23, 2013

This academic one-day symposium was organised by Britt-Inger Johansson,  Research Director of ”SALT”, Forum for Advanced Studies in Arts, Languages and Theology at Uppsala Universitet. The symposium took place in the modern, elegant and functional building Blåsenhus and participants were served coffee and lunch. Some thirty people, including four to me known fans, listened to eleven communications in an extremely well-organised and chaired (by Maud Eriksen) event. Abstracts were handed out and were (and are) available on the web-site for the symposium. My only complaints are that some of the papers hardly could be said to deal with the subject matter of the symposium, and possibly in some cases too much time was used to relate the plots instead of analysis.

Phillip Wegner: Detonating New Shockwaves of Possibility: Alternate Histories and the Geopolitical Aesthetics of Ken MacLeod and Iain M. Banks.

The plenary lecture was given by Professor Phillip Wegner from Florida, who was visiting Uppsala. In addition to what is written in the abstract, Wegner talked about variants of alternate history: 1. The nexus story, where the focus is on a crucial point in history (exemplified by Murray Leinster’s “Sideways in Time”). 2. True alternate history – e g “what if the confederacy won”. 3. Parallel world, contemporary with our world. There are of course no clear differences between these, even Leinster’s story can be read as a parallel world story. The discussion of MacLeod’s and Bank’s works is covered in the abstract. In a short history of sf he considered early sf, written during the first two decades of the 20th century, to be modernist literature. With the formation of the pulps it became escapist literature, which ended with the New Wave in the 60’s. He took Bester’s The Stars My Destination as example. The genre has then returned to being an escapist literature, and this is due to Star Wars and economic forces.

Jerry Määttä:  Monuments to Our Ruined Age: The Rhetoric of Ruins in Post-Apocalyptic Narratives.

In this well-illustrated presentation Jerry Määttä divided the remains of an apocalypse into 1. Monuments and famous buildings, like the Eiffel tower or the statue of Liberty, 2. Ruined domestic houses, e g in McCarthy’s The Road, and 3. Ruined infrastructure, i e roads, bridges etc. Post-apocalyptic ruins in sf are often used in a criticism of civilisation, whereas in fantasy they are used to give a background.

Tuomas Kuusniemi: The Time of Tale: Time as Fractal Metaphor in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The fractal metaphor might be used to describe the different scales of time which are used not only in Herbert’s Dune but in many other literary texts. This should then involve similarities in the plot on various time-scales, but this was not clearly shown in the presentation.

Markku Soikkeli: Time-Travel-Stories and Christian Chronology.

This interesting presentation started with the observation that all stories are actually about travel through time. The omnipresent narrator is similar to a God. Stanislaw Lem used maximal time-loops leading to a fusion of religion and science. Soikkeli gave a reading-list: Karen Hellekson: The Alternate History; Andy Duncan: “Alternate History” (in Cambridge Companion); Michel Foucault: Of Other Spaces; Elana Gomel: Postmodern Science Fiction and Temporal Imagination; Stanislaw Lem: The Time-Travel Story and Related Matters of SF Structuring (in SF Studies).

Daniel Ogden: Disembodied Selves in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984)

By a description of the characters in Neuromancer, Ogden discussed the similarities between dependence on drugs and on being jacked into a virtual world. The names are part of the cyberpunk setting.

Ingeborg Löfgren: Cavell and Asimov – The Real and the Imagined Human in Philosophy and Literature.

To what extent can artificial humans or robots be used to tell something about real humans? The problem was demonstrated by showing a music video where a robot construct with little more than lips is singing and being very feminine. The story by Asimov, “The Bicentennial Man”, is told from the robots perspective when “he” is mistreated by some “real” humans. We cannot be sceptical to his having a mind. Cavell of the title is the philosopher Stanley Cavell who has discussed these questions in his book The Claim of Reason.

Leila Soikkonen: Confrontations between masculine and feminine in C.L. Moore’s speculative fiction.

Soikkonen is working on her Ph D thesis on C. L. Moore, and it was very interesting to listen to this gender-scientific analysis of her work.

Katja Kontturi: “I can’t seem to change history! I can only help it happen!”: Problems of magical time travel in Don Rosa’s “Of Ducks and Dimes and Destinies”.

This analysis of the time-travel theme in comics about Magica DeSpell and Scrooge McDuck was entertaining and served as a perfect conclusion to the symposium.

There were three more papers, which I did not consider to be related to the theme of the symposium.

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