Bloomsbury (2018) 248pp £65 ISBN 9781350068940
The study of the reception of the classical world within the science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) genres is a rapidly growing sub-field within the broader field of classical reception studies. It is also the field that possibly engages the most with contemporary popular culture—for example, eight of the ten highest grossing movies of all time are within the SF&F genre. Once and Future Antiquities is the latest contribution to this field.
Whilst R.&S.’s previous volumes have focused on specific genres, e.g. Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (2015), this new volume takes a fresh approach to the field by focusing on a theme: ‘displacement’ The co-editors helpfully elaborate on this theme in their introduction. They note that not only is displacement an inherent feature within SF&F, wherein readers are asked to engage with imagined futures or different fantastical realities, but that it is also an essential feature in the study of Classics, which similarly requires our ‘displacement’ from the present to the imagined world of the past.
Although I would highly recommend each of the essays in this volume, which cover the state of the sub-field of classical reception in SF&F (Tony Keen) and a variety of media, such as Suzanne Lye on the movie Spirited Away (2001) and Jennifer C. Ranck’s study of the TV series Continuum (2015-2015), I am going to focus on one essay from each section.
Laura Zientek’s ‘Displacing Points of Origin’ discusses SF&F’s interaction with classical scholarship in Jack McDevitt’s novel The Engines of God (1994). The novel follows an archaeologist of alien cultures as she attempts to unravel the mysteries of an ancient alien monument and locate its creators. Z. demonstrates how the novel interacts with three major tenants in Classics: archaeology, language/philology, and mythology. First, McDevitt names the spacecraft in Engines after the Johann Winckelmann and gives it the mission of recovering ancient alien artefacts, drawing on Winckelmann’s aim of constructing a ‘textual monument’ of Greco-Roman art. McDevitt then turns to another archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, mirroring his archaeological quest for Homeric heroes with his own protagonists’ quest for the mythical alien ‘monument-builders’. Second, McDevitt draws on philology by entitling the alien language of the novel ‘Linear C’ and having it deciphered in the same fashion as ‘Linear B’. Finally, he uses a comparative approach to his constructed alien myths and those of Hercules to propel the narrative to its conclusion. But, by the end, the protagonists are confronted with, and in the process debunk, the modern myth of ‘ancient astronauts’. Rather than the hyper-intelligent aliens seen in ‘ancient astronauts’ narrative, they are instead ‘pathetic creatures who build primitive space stations and kill themselves’. Thus Z. demonstrates that McDevitt is shifting the perspective of the reader from the stories we tell about the past and instead focuses them on the process with which we construct these narratives – and how they can fail.
The next section focuses on literal physical displacements of characters and is perhaps best expressed through Ortwin Knorr’s essay comparing The Odyssey to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000) trilogy. His Dark Materials follows the young protagonists Lyra and Will through adventures across parallel dimensions—wherein they encounter estranged parents, man-eating Gobblers, and travel the Land of the Dead. Whilst the debt these novels have to Paradise Lost has previously been explored, K. takes a new approach in comparing the central characters to Odysseus and Telemachus. He notes that Lyra shares several of Odysseus’ characteristics—as leader, liar, devoid of name, and much-suffering—and even mirrors some of his journeys in her encounters with Cyclops-like Gobblers and her journey through the Land of the Dead. Yet K. then points out that Pullman essentially ‘displaces’ these characteristics slightly by making Lyra a more competent version of Odysseus—i.e. she does not lose her comrades to the monsters. Similarly, the coming-of-age narrative of Will echoes that of Telemachus, and yet is ‘displaced’ again through Will’s lack of a true reconciliation with his father, who dies soon after their meeting. Finally, K. also points out that Pullman repeats this process thematically—through the concept of homecoming. Both Odysseus and Lyra are seeking a homecoming to their family. But whilst Odysseus achieves it, Lyra not only loses both of her estranged parents, but she ends the trilogy torn from her lover and feeling displaced from what she previously called home. As K. points out, this allows Pullman to reflect instead the ‘displacement of growing up’.
Frances Foster also focuses on reception of The Odyssey within a young adult fantasy novel. In The Time of the Ghost (1981) by Diana Wynne Jones, a group of sisters attempt to commune with a ghost that haunts their house, which, incidentally, turns out to be the displaced spirit of one of their future selves. The novel explicitly references The Odyssey’s necromantic scenes by having the characters draw specifically on the epic to construct their own ritual for communing with the dead. F. outlines the direct comparisons between the ritual process within The Odyssey—of obtaining the blood, drinking the blood, and the link between the blood and the dead—that are mirrored within the novel and demonstrates how these connections can be used not only to better understand Jones’ novel and the status of the future ‘ghost’ within it, but also how it can be used to assist in the interpretation of the shades within The Odyssey. By doing so, F. creates a great example of two-way reception, wherein each text informs the reading of the other. It also allows her to focus on the central aim of each of these scenes—to grant both Odysseus and Sally (the ghostly future sister) a greater knowledge of their respective predicaments.
The last section goes beyond the traditional boundaries of SF&F media by exploring historical fiction, roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, and table-top games, such as Warhammer 40K. Alexander McAuley’s chapter draws on this final example, the table-top war game Warhammer 40K. The game is set in a fictional 41st millennium inhabited by the Imperium of Man, ruled by the God-Emperor and beset by myriad alien enemies. M. focuses on the Roman influences of the presentation of the Imperium of Man and specifically on the similarities between the God-Emperor and the image of the Divine Augustus presented in The Aeneid. His chapter is especially interesting for his inclusion not just of textual evidence for this link, but meta-textual evidence through analysis of the creators background and interviews with the authors.
This book would be at home in any secondary school Classics library – not only because of its reasonable price (£17.99 in paperback), but because it demonstrates the wide array of interactions the classical past has with modern entertainment. Considering the enduring popularity of young adult books such as His Dark Materials (which is also being developed in a HBO TV series) and the growing popularity of games like Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer 40K, this book provides an easy entry-point for those familiar with these texts to engage in advanced scholarly material.
The volume ends with a personal essay from famous SF&F author Catherynne M. Valente, probably best known for her Fairyland (2011-2015) series. Her captivating and humorous essay on her personal journey into both Classics and SF&F is a fine addition to the book and a good place to finish. She not only provides a concrete example of the successful mixture of Classics and SF&F, but also states why they make such good companions: ‘Mazes, talking animals, curses, witches, prophecies, minotaurs? In ancient Greece, that’s not fantasy. That’s Tuesday.’