Disjointing Time: Ancient Texts and Science Fiction

This weekend, the last weekend before the 2020 Spring Semester Party gets started, I spent a few hours finishing Brett M. Rodger’s and Benjamin Eldon Stevens’s Once and Future Antiquities in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2019). It’s not really what I should have been doing, but it’s what I did. So, whatever.

To be honest, I was drawn to the book as much by its cover as my own casual reading interest in science fiction. Readers of this blog, I realize that a little bit of science fiction usually appears in my summer reading list (last summer it was Octavia Butler, the summer before Ursala K. Le Guin, the summer before that Isaac Asimov, and Neil Stephenson before that). I also wrote a paper considering the influence of Philip K. Dick on archaeologies of the future.  I also mention the influence several science fiction authors in a recent article in the European Journal of Archaeology:

“While the general absence of an intellectual framework for punk archaeology and its questioning of disciplinary practices and expertise invited useful criticism (Mullins, 2015; Richardson, 2017), its emphasis on the do-it-yourself and low-fi character of punk shaped my view of technology in archaeology with the (proto-) cyberpunk dystopias of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and John Shirley providing an anxious backdrop.” 

Rodger’s and Stevens’s book, then, while not a pressing read, did fit into a larger, if poorly defined, pattern in my work. (I feel the need to justify this because I have too many other things to do than to spend time reading random books because I like their covers).

Once and Future Antiquities does a nice job of showing how Classical texts and usually Homer shaped particular works of science fiction and fantasy ranging from Dr. Who and Rocky Horror to Hayao Miyazaki, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jack McDevitt. These articles embrace the patient rewards of a close reading of both modern and ancient texts. There is a hat tip to methodology throughout, especially in Tom Keen’s article, which also gives this branch of the study of the intersection of ancient texts and science fiction a point of origin in a blog post from 2006. I’ve tended to think about archaeology and science fiction in terms Frederic Jameson’s 2007 book, Archaeologies of the Future which I encountered Bill Brown’s recent-ish book, Other Things (2015), but the way archaeologists think about antiquities and Classicists do, is obvious somewhat different.

While the detailed description of how ancient and modern texts intermingle was fascinating, the most intriguing thing about these articles is that they often go beyond a sort of linear understanding of how an earlier texts influence a later texts. As any number of recent scholars have shown, this kind of “common sense” approach reflects the strong grasp that narratives of progress hold over scholarship over the last two centuries. Needless to say, this way of reading history and texts is problematic particularly in its tendency to normalize a continuum with more and less developed societies on a global scale. More recently, as folks like Rebecca Futo-Kennedy have shown, these models of progress (which likewise influence the shape of archaeological time as well) often have served to inform narratives of Western Civilization that reify the dominance of particular national and racial groups. Needless to say, modern ways of thinking have often served to reinforce the place of Classical antiquity as a key influence over modern “Western” society and, consequently, as a superior form of culture in the so-called marketplace of ideas. 

Science fiction and fantasy with its more fluid and discontinuous views of time (from Dr. Who’s TARDIS, to the Dick’s Time Out of Joint and the complicated meditations on time in The Watchmen) offers an ideal platform to disrupt these kind of linear, historicized, readings of influencing and influenced texts. What is clear in Rodger’s and Stevens’s volume is that modern texts have shaped our reading of ancient texts in every bit as a profound a way as the latter have shaped the former. Reading Homer as shaped by the work of Miyazaki and Oyeyemi reminds us of the power of creative texts to rewrite and re-authorize the past.  

As Donna Zuckerberg has pointed out, the complication of historicist readings of texts isn’t always inherently benevolent. Ancient texts can as easily find themselves appropriated by people with misogynistic, racist, or nationalist agendas. The main difference, I’d contend, is that many of these readings – particularly those of the “Red Pill” variety – rely on arguments for the historical primacy, authority, and time-tested superiority of ancient texts. The more disruptive readings offered in Rogers and Stevens offer us a way to escape from the burden of historicizing, modern, and often positivist analysis and to use speculative futures (and alternative pasts) as a way to claim meaning for ancient texts in the present.

One Comment

  1. Strugasky: http://www.rusf.ru/abs/encycly/abs_mesf.htm. Just started reading “How to be a God” last night. I’ll ley you know.

    Reply

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