[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
Reading this new volume from Bloomsbury is to experience the breadth of classical reception in the contemporary world. Hints and allusions to Greek and Roman antiquity abound in texts as diverse as Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Studio Ghibli classic Spirited Away and Games Workshop’s table top strategy game Warhammer 40K. This volume takes an expansive approach to appreciating and analysing different styles and modes of reception. This means that the reader gains an appreciation for the range of methodological approaches possible in reception studies, depending on both the text under consideration and the nature of its engagement with the classical past.
Bloomsbury’s stated mission in its Studies in Classical Reception series is to “explore the appropriation, reconceptualization and recontextualization of various aspects of the Graeco-Roman world and its culture, looking at the impact of the ancient world on modernity.”1 This is an exciting addition to the series given the scope of classical allusion embedded in the literary genres of science fiction and fantasy. This, combined with mainstream awareness of classics through its reception in graphic novels, films, and a resurgence of table-table gaming over the last decade, makes this volume a great reflection on the complexities of reception in speculative texts.
This volume complements and extends the editors’ interest in reception in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. Rogers and Eldon Stevens have previously edited the collections Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (Oxford 2015) and Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy (Oxford 2017). The volume under consideration here is the editors’ second contribution to Bloomsbury’s Studies in Classical Reception series following on from the volume they co-edited with Jesse Weiner on Frankenstein and Its Classics: The Modern Prometheus from Antiquity to Science Fiction (2018). Once and Future Antiquities brings together reception in both the genres of fantasy and science fiction. This is the result of the birth of this project from a conference; the contributions all are developments of papers presented at the 2015 conference Once and Future Antiquity: Classical Traditions in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
The number of papers in this volume prevents an individual treatment so this review will consider some of the discrete organising categories offered by the editors as a means of considering some of the important ideas explored. The organising principle of this volume is displacement in a variety of manifestations. Displacement serves to connect the wide variety of subjects and foci offered in this collection and draws attention to the rich afterlife of classical reception in contemporary genres.
‘Displacing points of origins’ begins with a consideration of methodology: how to approach reception and frameworks for thinking about the nature of reception. The resounding point here is that reception studies requires a nuanced praxis wherein the scholar demonstrates effective expertise with both the source texts from antiquity and an intimate appreciation for the context of the reception. The bar is set (appropriately) high: scholars need to be on top of the academic thinking in both fields and aim to offer their ideas to both fields. In other words, scholars must be open to displacing themselves from their own scholarly point of origin in order to build engaging studies of reception.
From this starting point, the role of displacement takes on many forms. For example, displacement might be physical—Dr Who and his companions end up influencing the Trojan war through their displacement in time—or it might be psychological—as in Norbert Hanold’s imaginative collapse of the ancient and the contemporary while in Pompeii. Displacement also serves to guide interpretations of people searching for ancient origins, a key trope in Jack McDevitt’s novel The Engines of God. To be displaced can be spatial, sometimes reinforced by the character of familial relationships. Both Lyra’s journey in Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Chihiro’s in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away result in displacement from family, isolating the protagonists and leading them into new worlds. Displacement can equally relate to the slippage between the past and the fantastical as myth is used as vehicle for revealing truth in Oyeyemi’s novels.
The beauty of displacement as an organising principle is it accommodates the sheer variety of ways that reception happens in science fiction and fantasy. This is important as the subjects under consideration are vast—Greece! Rome! science fiction! fantasy! The ambition to incorporate so much is both exciting and daunting. This collection of papers is eclectic and diverse, highlighting the rich scope of opportunity for additional work in this field.
Displacement offers a semantic throughway to these papers, but its scope ensures that displacement itself looks very different depending on the texts under consideration. This means that the relevance of displacement also varies and it can sometimes generate a sense that displacement has been coerced into a discussion where perhaps other conceptual frameworks might better serve. There’s the tension at play between the fact that displacement is designed to offer a conceptual thread through all the papers and the new challenges presented by the extensive range of receptions examined while taking this approach. This in part comes down to the complexities of the genres. Science fiction and fantasy stand within in the broader landscape of speculative fiction and none of these categories is limited to a single medium. Film reception requires a different set of analytical frameworks from a table top game and arguably science fiction and fantasy are interested in building very different relationships to the classics before we even get to individual examples.
This collection might have been strengthened by allowing each scholar to engage with the reception of the Greaco-Roman world using the most suitable conceptual framework for his or her study. This observation is not designed to sway potential readers from engaging with the volume, but to acknowledge that the possibilities of reception are vast when considering what is at play is both the ancient past and the complex engagement with that past in more recent materials. The variety of the receptions under consideration here is a testament to the richness of the field and the potential for study offered in speculative fiction. Readers considering reception studies will find an encouraging array of examples and ways into approaching the subject.
Authors and titles
List of Contributors
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Displacing Antiquity in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Brett M. Rogers, Benjamin Eldon Stevens
Displacing Points of Origin
1. More ‘T,’ Vicar? Revisiting Models and Methodologies for Classical Receptions in Science Fiction, Tony Keen, Open University, UK
2. Saxa loquuntur? : Archaeological Fantasies in Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva, Jesse Weiner, Hamilton College, USA
3. Time Travel and Self-Reflexivity in Receptions of Homer’s Iliad, Claire Kenward, Oxford University, APGRD, UK
4. Monuments and Tradition in Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God, Laura Zientek, University of Washington, USA
Displaced in Space
5. Lyra’s Odyssey in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Ortwin Knorr, Willamette University, USA
6. Displacing Nostos and the Ancient Greek Hero in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Suzanne Lye, Dartmouth College, USA
7. “The nearest technically impossible thing”: Classical Antiquity in the Novels of Helen Oyeyemi, Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Trinity University, USA
Displaced in Time
8. Dynamic Tensions: The Figure(s) of Atlas in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Stephen B. Moses and Brett M. Rogers, University of Puget Sound, USA
9. Drinking Blood and Talking Ghosts in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Time of the Ghost, Frances Foster, Cambridge University, UK
10. Finding Cassandra in Science Fiction: The Seer of Agamemnon and the Time-Traveling Protector of Continuum, Jennifer Ranck, Independent Scholar
11. Classical Reception and the Half-Elf Cleric, C. W. Marshall, University of British Columbia, Canada
12. The Gods Problem in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, Vincent Tomasso, Trinity College, USA
13. The Divine Emperor in Virgil’s Aeneid and the Warhammer 40K Universe, Alexander McAuley, University of British Columbia, Canada
Epilogue: Finding a Place in Displacement
14. Just Your Average Tuesday-Morning Minotaur, Catherynne M. Valente