Monday, July 29, 2019

Research Trip to Eaton Collection of SFF

About to leave for Riverside, CA, so I can begin my 10-day research trip to the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy archives housed at UC Riverside. . . . trip is coming courtesy of the R. D. Mullen Postdoctoral Fellowship sponsored by Science Fiction Studies. (Click here for the description of my research project on the Fellowship website -- in short, it's about Poul Anderson and his role in the American alliterative revival.) I'll be on my own completely for 4 days. Then Martina is coming down -- not much to do in Riverside, from what I hear, but she has friends in the area, so we'll be having dinner and whatnot.

But I'm excited to finally dive into these archives. Maybe I'll find a lot, maybe I'll find a little, but it's all bound to be fascinating. Alas, the archives themselves are only open 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, so I'll have to be much more ruthless with my time management that I might otherwise have wished. (I.e., no lingering over intriguing but tangential things.) I set up my account yesterday and have already made my first requisition requests. Hopefully things go well.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Pulling an essay from an edited volume

Advice manuals for people in graduate programs often say, "Avoid edited collections like the plague!"* Submit articles only to peer-reviewed journals, they continue, and don't let some editor get your dissertation chapter for some forgettable new collection. This is good advice, and I know it, but I broke it anyway some four years ago. Saw a CfP for a peer-reviewed collection of essays, and wrote a dissertation chapter with that volume specifically in mind.

At the time, the decision made sense. After all, I was currently writing the dissertation, the terrors of the academic job market were looming, and publications are a good line on the CV (or at least better than no line on the CV). Nor did I plan for this dissertation/book chapter combo to survive into my eventual monograph. Hence, I wasn't really "wasting" my research on an inferior publication venue.

Alas, 3 1/2 years after submitting the original manuscript, I've finally pulled that book chapter.

There'd been warning signs for a while. The editor seemed extremely disorganized, for one -- I had another friend whose abstract had been approved, but she bowed out after several e-mails to the editor went simply unanswered. The peer review process was a joke, too -- between my two received peer reviews, one was superficial and the other incompetent. Worst of all, the editor seemed perfectly willing to blindly accept/publish anything  . . . as I realized a few months ago when I took another look at my contribution and realized, horrified, what a piece of garbage it was.

Don't get me wrong -- the argument held up brilliantly, but the writing itself put a blush to my cheeks. After taking four days off to re-write, I ended up cutting 15% of pointless verbiage and significantly professionalized the tone. To be fair to myself, I was only a doctoral student when I wrote it, and my writing has clearly improved since then. Still, no serious academic editor should ever have accepted that original book chapter without substantial revisions.**

Anyway, the only reason pulling the essay took me so long was guilt. If I pulled the chapter, that might scupper the entire volume, which I knew had some length issues. Nonetheless, it finally just reached the point where (a) I had given the editor every chance, and (b) now, unlike four years ago, publishing an essay in McFarland won't do anything to help my career.***

So, that's that. Have to say, re-submitting the article to a real academic journal is coming as quite a relief.

* That particular quote, if memory serves right, comes courtesy of Surviving your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs, a book by which I live. It's by Kathryn Hume who, incidentally, also did Fantasy and Mimesis back in the early 1980s.
** There were several other warning signs as well, but they must go unnamed for the sake of anonymity.
***Although McFarland will occasionally publish good books (and they're really trying to be the Routledge or Palgrave Macmillan of popular culture studies), I've also received several job-market warnings from serious academics about the relative worth of a publication in McFarland.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Lawrence Watt-Evans's The Misenchanted Sword

As I was doing my research on evil, possessed, vampiric demon swords (#scholarlife), I came across Lawrence Watt-Evans, whose sword Wirikidor from The Misenchanted Sword (1985) clearly falls into the tradition of Moorcock's Stormbringer, Anderson's Tyrfing, and Tolkien's Anglachel.

Somehow, amazingly, I've never heard of Watt-Evans before -- even though he's been publishing since before I've been born and has over 50 books or so in print. Anyway, it's always nice to find nice, easy-going read from a previously unknown author. In fact, unlike gloomier sword-and-sorcery novel types, The Misenchanted Sword both more light-hearted and better written than many of its peers. Although purely entertainment (& it was odd to see so many major political characters continually not giving two figs about a magical sword that cannot be defeated), The Misenchanted Sword was fun. Certainly, I liked it more than the Stormbringer stories I've been reading lately; Elric is maybe the only sword-and-sorcery protagonist more unlikable than his evil demonic soul-sucking weapon. Anyway, The Misechanted Sword is also one of those rare fantasy novels where the likeable schmuck protagonist who just wants to be an innkeeper . . . happens to stay just an innkeeper. Overall, quite good for quick afternoon's reading. Good job, Watt-Evans.

Friday, July 19, 2019

A surprisingly good SF poet? Karen Anderson.

Although her husband, Poul Anderson, is by far the better known, I've recently been reading The Unicorn Trade (1984), a mix of poetry and prose co-written by the Andersons, and I've been pleasantly surprised by how good a poet Karen is. Initially, I went into the volume hoping to discover more alliterative poetry of the sort that Poul often translation from Old Norse sagas and such forth. Alas, Karen is hardly an experimental in form; lots of rhymed syllabic verse, sonnets, haiku, and the like. But she certainly creates some quite clever & striking images.

For example, take the following sonnet, Conjunction (Venus and Jupiter, Februrary 1975)
How pale is Venus in the lingering light
When sun is set, but day is not yet done;
While in the thronging lights of middle night
Great Jupiter has splendor matched by none.

But watch them now, as in the western sky
Along the paths for them aforetime set
He night by night strides lower, she more high,
Until the stars of Power and Love are met.

Behold as night around them darkens, how
Queen Venus' glroy overmasters Jove,
Nor doubt the truth of what we witness now
On earth below as in the skies above:
For as each subject to the king must bow
So even kings must bow them down to Love.
Now, isn't that just nice?

Or how about this one, The Sky of Space (especially lovely lines highlighted):

No more a crystal sphere with nailed-up stars,
Nor floor of Heaven, but a stranger thing
And fitting words have not been made to bring
Praise to old wonders' new-born avatars.
This is no site of grand Miltonian wars,
No trophy hall of myth where beast and king
Act out the lays that Homer's kinsmen sing
In Attika or Danmark, Hind or Fars.
Yet even when with new-coined phrase we trace
Those shapes of splendor that equations fill--
Or when some Rhysling sees what now we miss--
Even then will the balladry of space
Resound with Old Olympian echoes still
And ghost-gods walk in each Ephemeris.

So space is made to seem magnificent through math and science ("Those shapes of splendor that equations fill") but, even so, there is a continuity between the future and the past, the age of cosmic exploration and the age of mythic wonder.

Indeed, the whole of The Unicorn Trade might be seen as a tribute to the glory and the wonder of the space race -- some of the most poignant work comes in the middle, when the Andersons mourn the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger chaffee on January 27, 1967, or their powerful co-written short story tribute to Willie Ley, the astronaut who was killed only a month prior before his first space flight. Their poetic tribute, written with Tim Courtney, is as follows:

Planh on the Death of Willy Ley: June 23, 1969.

Only a month before the dream comes true
That all his life was shaped to, and his labor,
Death unannounced as lightning from the blue
Has struck his hand from the cup about to brim.
If nought exists but what we touch and see,
Nor hells nor heavens there where the pulsars quaver,
Of a god unreal we ask what cannot be:
Grant afterlife. Just for a month. For him.

He built his rockets while the zeppelins flew
And worked as many years as Moses wandered
To teach the promise of a world still new,
A shining land not barred by seraphim,
A shore that we may touch as well as see
Where in a month men will at last have landed.
We wish what we cannot believe: that we
Live past our death. Just for a month. For him.

Now the moon waxes broad above that crew
Who will, as next the sun lights Alphonse Crater,
Send back a month too late the Pisgah view
He earned so well, missed by a span so slim,
Of what he taught us they would touch and see.
Might he but watch the skies of their equator,
Our lungfish in the sea Tranquility--
Might a heaven be! Just for a month. For him.

Other poems are happier, but all are touched by wonder, all marveling at science and enchantment: "The Unicorn Trade," "Look up," "Think of a Man," "Cosmic Concepts." Karen Anderson may be well-known to those intimate with the old speculative fiction fan community, but she's new to me, and I certainly dig her.

Monday, July 15, 2019

This is why I never became a poet

Been working furiously since coming back from Europe, getting ready for my research trip to the Eaton Collection in UC Riverside in two weeks. So far, my main topics of study:
  • Old Norse sagas
  • Old Norse and Old English meters in alliterative poetry
  • Evil possessed vampiric demon swords (EPVIDSs)™ in sword and sorcery.
It's all related.

In other related news, if there's any poets out there looking for inspiration -- the Norse mead of poetry seems like a winner.

"The Norse account of how the gods came to secure the mead of poetry—a heady brew of blood, spittle, and honey—tells how the god Odin stole it from a giant . . . by drinking it, and then flying back to Asgard in the shape of an eagle.The giant pursues him, and though Odin manages to vomit [!] most of it into containers which the other gods provide, in his panic he defecates a little [!!!] before he reaches Asgard; this is the comparatively meagre and grossly degraded drink which human poets have for their inspiration."
-- From Heather O'Donoghue,
English Poetry and Old Norse Myth: A History, p. 180.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Haunting Lines from Literature

My dissertation advisor just posted a facebook meme asking for "haunting or life-changing lines" from literature. The following is more than a little depressing, but it's the first thing I thought of (and I haven't thought about A Tale of Two Cities in years and years):

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.
Charles Dickens on his character Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Two Reviews Published

In less than a week, two book reviews of mine have gone live. The first is a film review for Science Fiction Film and Television on the movie Okja directed by Bong Joon-ho -- alas, it requires a subscription. It was cool writing for SFF&T since I doubt I'll ever write anything else suitable for them, and I'm happy with the review itself, but I also realized that I just don't have the disciplinary background necessary to pull off really first-rate film reviews. Because of that, writing the thing was a real bear. So, that's the last one of those!

The second review is more up my alley: Sub-creating Arda, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Thomas Honegger, a book on world-building and J. R. R. Tolkien. That's live now from the open access Journal of Tolkien Research.

Interesting, though, how different the publication schedules for different journals can be. The Okja review was written two years ago, right during that limbo summer period between defending my dissertation and getting hired by the U of A. During that time, I also did reviews on Alfred Bester and an Angela Carter biography, since my stress levels and life crunch simply weren't't conducive to more important academic writing. SFF&T, though, had a super long queue, apparently, hence the long wait before publication. In contrast, I finalize the review on Sub-creating Arda just under a week ago, almost immediately after IMC Leeds, but JTR publishes articles and reviews immediately or almost immediately upon acceptance. Gotta say, from an author's perspective, I certainly like that method more.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

IMC Leeds, 2019

Wrapping up the IMC (International Medieval Congress), here at Leeds. All in all, things were fantastic. Although I didn't attend the Monday panels, mostly because of excessive registration fees and extra hotel charges, the Wednesday panels were highly productive and worthwhile.

In the first paper panel, Andrzej Wicher asked about how Christian LotR was. (Answer: very). William James Sherood, a grad student, gave a good talk on Tolkien's Romanticism from Keats via William Morris. My own talk was on methodology and the usefulness of a Strauss lens when studying Tolkien. 

Alas, despite about 50-60 audience members, which incidentally meant that I fell drastically short of handouts, the Q&A ended somewhat early. Such things happen.

As for the following round table, it was me, Anahit Behrooz (a grad student, some of whose essays I'd seen elsewhere), and an independent scholar, Michael Flowers, whom I remember seeing present at the Tolkien Seminar 4-5 years ago. This was a much more lively affair. We each opened with 8-minute spiels about "new voices and new topics" in Tolkien scholarship, and our papers worked well with one another. Flowers gave a straight new biographical talk, Behrooz argued that Tolkien (despite some problematic aspects) was compatible with critical theory, and I argued that we find paradigms besides theory with which to approach Tolkien and fantasy literature in general. 

Q&A was lively, and I enjoyed that there was some push-back against some of my own ideas. For example, I explained my ambivalence about using Queer Theory on Tolkien, as one prominent scholar recently did. Basically, this ambivalence is that thinking someone as privileged as Tolkien could be supported by Q. T. requires some intellectual acrobatics; if Tolkien counts as "queer," then who doesn't? Not sure if anyone was convinced, but such polite disagreements are always fruitful.

One other thing that amused me greatly. My wife was in attendance, and she happened to sit next to someone typing notes during the round table. When I gave my 8-minute spiel, she typed, "Seems bright." Once the Q&A opened up, however, she crossed that out and wrote, "Seems full of hot air, but google Strauss anyway." Now I'm fatally curious to discover (a) who it was, and (b) what I'd said to trigger that! Oh well -- can't win them all, I suppose.