I have spent an unusually quiet day today (pre-storm: 57 exams and 30 exercises are hitting me tomorrow) to prepare a paper for a conference. I have the abstract, I’ve read the book pencil in hand, I thought I could start with the bibliography. I’m talking about a short paper, 2,500 words, for a 20-minute delivery, which might perhaps expand into 4,000/4,500 for publication. So far, the bibliography I need to check already extends to 35 items and might go on growing if I don’t stop myself. Now.

How’s that happened? Well, easy. The conference (SAAS, next March 2013) is called ‘TRANS-: The Poetics and Politics of Crossing in the US’ and calls for papers addressing one of these: the transnational, the transliterary, the transgender and the transhuman, each one a topic that could be discussed in a separate conference (or ten). My own paper, on John Scalzi’s SF novel Old Man’s War (2005), deals with how the transnational is taken for granted in military SF to justify the need for the transhuman particularly in relation to the (patriarchal/right-wing) soldier’s body. This means that my bibliography has to combine all the following ‘keywords’: transnationalism, transhumanism (general and in SF), post-humanism (general and in SF), John Scalzi and Old Man’s War. Ufff… Oh, I forgot ‘body’, ‘gender’, and ‘masculinity’.

A fast search in MLA, Wikipedia, Google and the UAB library’s catalogue quickly results in that monstrous bibliography list. I soon realise I won’t have room to consider the two other novels I have been re-reading for the paper, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, as the discussion of the differences between the post-human and the post-post-human soldiers in the text will take up the whole paper… Not to mention the fact that I need to decide whether to consider analysing the three other novels (and associated shorter texts) that Scalzi wrote later and that, according to him, should be taken into account. I finally decide that I can’t accommodate so many primary sources in the paper and that I’ll stick to Old Man’s War. This is a serious problem, as SF and fantasy often come in series. At one point I’m even seriously annoyed with Scalzi for resisting the common sense idea that books, although parts of series, are read as separate items. This ends with my putting in my Book Depository wish list the other books –though I know very well I don’t have the time to read them and finish the paper, due for 10th February.

There are still no academic articles for Old Man’s War and so, I check the internet for reviews, mostly in blogs. In one, by Nick Whyte, I find a very detailed critique of the book, elicited by the bloody death of a character in Scalzi’s novel, the only one who demands that humanity negotiates with the alien enemies. Whyte accuses Scalzi bitterly of supporting right-wing militaristic solutions, a charge which, to his surprise, is answered by Scalzi himself. There follows an interesting conversation with the novelist pointing out that “As I know the author’s politics better than you, I’m in the position of saying that your assumptions regarding what they might be are *wildly* inaccurate.” So much for the death of the author. Scalzi then explains, not without contradictions, that he wrote the book on purpose with a few ideological blanks so as to invite a variety of responses which have indeed materialised (see his blog…).

And I have stopped here because today in our web 2.0 the bulk of the debate around any book is just overwhelming. Any book, believe me. You have to consider the ‘legitimate’ media reviewers, the bloggers, the author in interviews, the author’s blog, the author’s Twitter, the author’s Facebook and the hundreds if not thousands of messages generated by all this –even before you start touching the academic work. Deep sigh. No wonder in the end papers and, generally any piece of academic writing, feels like patchwork. I wonder what writing literary biographies is going to be like in the future.

I can always, of course, ignore two thirds of all the resources, both 2.0 and traditional, but although nobody, surely, would notice, I would. Catch 22, if you ask me…


  1. Well, “we do what we can”, as Henry James said… I suppose one will just have to enjoy the process of reading and looking through sources and learning, and leave the coherence of the result to take care of itself. After all, “our words are ours, their ends are none our own” (Player King) -, what we write has unexpected results, and so someone like me may get to hear about Scalzi for the first time in his life here.

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