WE’RE ALIVE, WE’RE ALIVE!: THE FIRST ENGLISH STUDIES SF CONFERENCE IN SPAIN

My good friend Pere Gallardo from Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona has just organised the first English Studies SF conference in Spain. 18 of us, SF academic fans and shcolars, met last Friday 16 (see the list at https://www.sciencefictionppab.blogspot.com.es/) and promised to stay in touch to meet again in one year’s time at my home university, UAB.

The format used was having 15-minute presentations in one single room so that everyone could listen to everyone else, with Q&A sessions replaced by breaks after every four presentations, and lunch together. The day was closed with time for comments and general feedback. The guest speaker was, by the way, the novelist Montse de Paz, Pere’s ex-student and the most recent winner of the fantasy and SF Minotauro award with her novel Ciudad sin estrellas (see https://www.scyla.com/libros/1026/ciencia_ficcion/ninguna/ciudad_sin_estrellas_premio_minotauro_2011).

I found the presentations much in line with what is going on in the field of SF. Most dealt with identitity issues, such as race/ethnicity and gender; others with current issues such as family, religion, utopia/dystopia, the post-human body, etc. currently at the front line of research in SF. I myself presented a paper on Manuel Huerga’s fascinating documentary about US-Spanish astronaut Michael López-Alegría, Son & Moon, focused on the construction of post-patriarchal masculinity in it, if, indeed, it is post-patriarchal at all. I don’t know if that’s cutting edge, but I do hope it is. My favourite presentation was the one by Bill Philips, who spoke about what he calls the ‘SF Renaissance’ in Britain –and also about the suprising presence of Hell as a virtual world in one my favourite SF novels, Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detail (see my blog entry for 14 August 2011). He gave us all a long list of thrilling novels by UK novelists to read, which is what any SF fan hopes to get out of meeting others of his or her ilk.

The downside of all this excitement is a composite BEM (bug-eyed monster, for non SF fans). To begin with, 18 scholars interested in SF for a population of 47 millions in Spain is not that much. I realise we deal in particular with English Studies but, just think: the SEDERI conference –Spanish and Portuguese Society for English Renaissance Studies– overlapping our own conference (actually lasting for 3 days…) has been around for 23 years now. In this edition there were 46 papers and 3 plenary speakers. Ummmm… Some of the 18 were actually supporting friends, colleagues who work on adjacent popular fiction areas, such as detective fiction. Others were doctoral students just beginning, and although this is brilliant and a hope for the future, it also means that in that room at Rovira i Virgili there were very few of us with at least a 10-year-experience in the field, much less 23. Pere Gallardo is the absolute dean: his PhD dissertation on the robot in short fiction of the Golden Age dates from 1995 (my own, from 1996, about monsters mixes SF and gothic).

Two more factors must be mentioned. One is that the current crisis and its appalling impact on the consolidation of tenured positions in English Departments is seriously affecting the development of SF within English Studies. The scholarly commitees in charge of accreditation for tenure do not welcome research in this field and those with temporary contracts who try to pursue it are warned that this might not in their best interests by bigoted peers, who call themselves kind. Even without them, it’s hard to concentrate on a field when one must have another job to supplement the one as associate. The other factor has to do with the senior doctors supervising PhD dissertations. From what I gathered, some are advising their students to pursue much downtrodden paths which might be (relatively) new in Spain but that elsewhere are not at all what might be called cutting edge. There’s a feeling that in SF garlic soup is being constanly discovered, as not enough critical mass has been assembled to give the field a firm foundation from which progress may come. Too soon, perhaps.

Thank you Pere for making the effort to organise this first promising event!! It’ll be my turn next time and I’ll do my very best to correspond.

4 comentarios en “WE’RE ALIVE, WE’RE ALIVE!: THE FIRST ENGLISH STUDIES SF CONFERENCE IN SPAIN

  1. Thank you, Sara, and thanks to Pere and all the people who were there.
    For me, as a very recent author, it was a privilege to talk about my vision of science fiction and utopia (or dystopia) among you.
    I came back with a bunch of ideas to think about… and a wish to go on writing and, maybe, exploring some of these fields sci-fi opens to every inquisitive mind.

  2. I really think – and I know Sara and Pere will agree – that Iain M. Banks’s work is quite extraordinary. He alternates writing ‘mainstream’ novels (whatever they are) under the name ‘Iain Banks,’ with sci fi novels as ‘Iain M. Banks.’ His first novel, which was not sci fi was The Wasp Factory and I would thoroughly recommend it. I like Banks because, as I said on Friday, he is one of the very few writers I know who actually writes about a utopia rather than a dystopia. Through the ‘Culture’ novels (as his utopia is called) he explores the ramifications and consequences of what it means to live in a utopia. The question of death, or rather mortality, is a major theme, but not the only one (incidentally, the final chapter of Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters deals with similar questions). He also discusses materialism, greed and avarice in a society in which such concepts have become meaningless; crime and punishment but, above all, colonialism. I was particularly interested in Ángel’s talk because colonialism (and imperialism) are what science fiction is about, especially space operas. As various people pointed out, alterity is central to sci fi, but I am not entirely sure how postcolonial theory can be applied to science fiction given that it is about fictional worlds/universes, which are very slippery at times. As I understand it, postcolonial literature is not written from the centre, but from the periphery, yet all of the sci fi writers we discussed were, effectively, from the metropolis.

    Banks asks what kind of responsibility an all-powerful utopian society has when it comes into contact with a technologically inferior tyranny. Does it have a duty to intervene? Should obviously nasty tyrants be overthrown and their subjugated people liberated and introduced to the joys and benefits enjoyed by their utopian saviours? Clearly these questions are relevant to our world today. Equally, how many administrators of the European colonial powers claimed the same thing? That they had a duty to bring light where there was darkness.

    Novels
    Abnett, Dan. Horus Rising. Nottingham. Black Library, 2006.
    — Legion. Nottingham: Black Library, 2008.
    Asher, Neal. Hilldiggers. London: Tor, 2007.
    Banks, Iain M. Excession. London: Orbit, 1996
    — Look to Windward. London: Orbit, 2000.
    — Surface Detail. London: Orbit, 2010.
    Hamilton, Peter F. The Reality Dysfunction. London: Pan, 1996.
    — The Dreaming Void. London: Pan, 2008.
    Morgan, Richard. Broken Angels. London: Gollancz, 2003.
    — Woken Furies. London: Gollancz, 2005.
    Reynolds, Alistair. Chasm City. London: Gollancz, 2001.
    — House of Suns. London: Orion, 2008.
    Robson, Justina. Mappa Mundi. London: Macmillan, 2001.

    Reference
    Adams, Robert. The History of Science Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
    Atwood, Margaret. «Aliens have taken the place of angels» The Guardian, 17/06/2005. https://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2005/jun/17/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.margaretatwood
    Mendlesohn, Farah. “Religion and Science Fiction” in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

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