Conferences this summer (1): Science Fiction and the Bible at EABS (also, interdisciplinarity)

The conference unit I chair – “Science Fiction and the Bible” – is going into its second year. It started out at the EABS’ 2013 meeting as an exploratory session and was upgraded to a three-year research programme afterwards.

Last year at the joint SBL/EABS meeting in Vienna, it had its highest volume of submissions so far. It is quite a specialized niche concern and – as regards submission numbers – cannot be compared to the big blockbuster sessions “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible”, “New Testament” or “Reception History”. I still see it very much as an exploration of what can be done beyond the latest in historical-critical approaches and beyond reception-historical “list-science” (“here is a list of biblical references in the TV show *title*”).

I have spoken to many scholars working on interdisciplinary topics who have found it hard to inspire others to try interdisciplinary approaches, too. While many speak of interdisciplinarity as the future of the discipline (Biblical Studies), it seems to be quite difficult to get people to try. It’s understandable: everyone is really busy and an interdisciplinary topic requires really sitting down and doing reading from scratch. The “Science Fiction and the Bible” panel gets many submissions from graduate students. Maybe because they are not yet as burdened with administrative duties, deaning, committee work, and tenure pressures. It’s not really possible to write an interdisciplinary paper on the plane to the conference.

Interdisciplinarity makes you potentially vulnerable to sweeping dismissal: “You’re not a sociologist!” – “You don’t have a background in network theory!” I have never encountered such responses in real life, thankfully. In most interdisciplinary panels I have been to, discussion is usually not burdened by fear of being dismissed, but excited, supportive, and lively.

However, interdisciplinarity sometimes puts you in front of a room full of blank stares and the only feedback you get after a presentation on – say – the sociology of scholarly reading in Biblical Studies, which you spent half a year writing might be: “So are you saying Caleb is not a historical figure…?” (So you get on your 700-Euro flight home and feel guilty about your carbon footprint while thinking, “I could have just read this paper to my cat…”)

The most important thing to take away from conferences is constructive feedback and especially new ideas that develop in conversation between one person’s ideas and another person’s ideas. The point is not really being applauded for a great presentation but being constructively challenged and coming away with new ideas. In this spirit, I try to get people with  different ideas and approaches into the same room and leave plenty of space for discussion.

Long story short, here is the line-up for this year’s “Science Fiction and the Bible” panel, EABS Annual Meeting, Cordoba, Spain, July 12-15, 2015:

Science Fiction and the Bible

“Jewish apocalyptic in Japanese pop culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion and Shin Megami Tensei”

Carlos Santos, University of Salamanca

 

“Marionettes, Cyborgs and Forbidden Fruit: Understanding the Technological Singularity as a Fall From Grace”

Alice A. Petty, Stanford University

 

“Local Apocalypses: The Wicked City and Human Abundance in the Hebrew Bible and in Science Fiction and Popular Science of the 1960s-1970s”

Eva Rose Miller, Oxford University

 

“‘Let Us Go into the Field:’ Genesis 4 in ‘Dexter’ and ‘The Walking Dead'”

Eliza Rosenberg, McGill University

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My book is out now

I made what I did for my PhD into a book. It’s called “The Nowhere Bible” and it is available now from De Gruyter.

I called it that because it is about utopia – the no-place-good-place – and about science fiction, too – the always-not-quite-there.

The implicit question underlying the whole experiment is: what if the Bible were utopia or science fiction? What if we naturally assumed utopian theory or science fiction theory were the appropriate approach to it, because the worlds it imagines are not found in reality? What would happen to the text, to texts-about-the-text, and to biblical scholarship? In the end, the book is to some extent about the Bible (or rather the biblical passage I use as a case study), but it is mainly about hermeneutics and the different kinds of wishful thinking with which the Bible is often approached.

World-opening/World-closing

“Allegiant” (3rd part of the “Divergent” series) has a world-opening problem. The first part read almost allegorical and the world seemed fairly tight. The second part is usually where I start to lose interest in trilogies – same again here. My losing interest often also correlates with when the fighting action becomes prevalent. The story stops being about a world and begins being about shooting, and I often lose track of who is loyal to whom and why.

I have read reviews of the film version of “Divergent” that mentioned a certain anti-intellectualism of the series. Blatant, maybe, if you consider that the “intellectuals” in this world turn out to be the baddies (I have not yet finished the third part; maybe there is a plot twist coming up that rehabilitates them, but I’m not counting on it). I could still sort of bear it in volumes one and two, maybe because they felt so allegorical. “Allegiant”, though, is turning all out Fox News on me. Statements that read a lot like the polemical “You know, those scientists with all their geneticky stuff that they keep from us normal people, trying to tell me stuff about me… ugh! Jesus is the only one who knows me.”

Once the closed narrated world of volumes one and two opens up into a wider world the protagonists had been unaware of, plot holes and also technical narrative holes begin to show up more. Especially blatant is the avoidance of science when in this new, wider world the “novum” (Suvin), i.e., the cataclysmic change that has made the world as it is, has to do with genes and genetic “purity”. In the narrower world from the beginning, it seemed acceptable to have some pseudo-science and science fiction (truth serums, fear simulations, collective hallucinations) and it could have just stood as a given in that world, but once the characters encounter the wider world and scientists within it, I would expect the scientific event that has created both the wider and the narrower narrated worlds to be explained more in terms of hard science fiction than in the voice of Fox News anti-intellectualism: “You wouldn’t get it. Those scientisty types– they don’t want you to get it!”

Again, have not yet finished reading, the novel has another 150 pages or so to redeem itself.

“Divergent” by Veronic Roth — not yet finished (spoilers)

An intriguing topic is invented history and science fiction literature is a great place to turn to for beautiful (sometimes hilarious, sometimes haunting) elaborations on reason for, and consequences or realities of invented history. The opening of Lem’s “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” is a great satirical example.

I am currently reading “Allegiant”, third part of the “Divergent” trilogy by Veronica Roth. I had not read anything about the series before reading the series, and I had asked everyone not to spoil it (kudos to the audience at the YA Dystopia panel at LonCon for protesting loudly when one panelist seemed about to reveal the reveal). Not yet halfway through “Allegiant”, I am noticing that the “In a World…”-style teasers for this series were misleading. “In a City…” – would have been more correct, because the “world” set up in the first two volumes, well — spoiler — is not the “world”. (“Maze Runner” clears this up at the end of the first book, so readers haven’t spent as much time being in that world before realizing it is not a world, just a place; also, all the characters do not really have any personal “history” at their disposal as they are experiencing amnesia.) I am torn between having only liked the series ish, and being really interested in invented history. Because I didn’t see the reveal coming – tbh I really didn’t put that much thought-energy into this series to predict any plot twists – I didn’t pay much attention to how “history” is described in the first two volumes. I could/should go back. I remember there being something called “Faction History”, which the kids in that “world” (or, well, “city”) are taught at school. Maybe I am interested enough in this to go back to book one and re-read especially with regard to how history and history-teaching in particular are described there.

“The Calcutta Chromosome” by Amitav Ghosh

This was a random pick from a while ago. I picked it up because its cover is yellow – not your usual Sci Fi section black – and bought it because it mentioned something about medical mystery on its back cover. (Medical mystery novel, you say?)

It is very very good, understated, collage-y, and mocks Western science and colonialism.

At first I didn’t feel like surrendering to a very gloomy atmosphere of New York in a toxic near-future, but that’s not the only story – the stories are set in many different times and surroundings which are subtly connected, and the mode of story-telling changes all the time. There are different auctorial voices, long dialogues, reported dialogue, irreverent summaries of years of one character’s research, something that almost reads like folklore or fairytale/ghost story (and what a great ghost story it was!); and my favorite: the (partial, as she points out) reconstruction of a most crucial piece in the puzzle of this novel’s mystery by an artificial intelligence, who warns her user – and the reader – that the reconstruction might not be accurate. The story might not be accurate.

I think if someone ever challenged me on Borges’ writing being Science Fiction, an argument could be made via this book: dissolving time, dissolving identities, shadowy figures or demiurges in whose imagination everyone else exists (or doesn’t).

Call for Papers: Science Fiction and the Bible

The call for papers is now open for the panel Science Fiction and the Bible, which will meet at the European Association of Biblical Studies (EABS)’ Annual Meeting 2015 (Cordoba, Spain, July 12-15th, 2015).

More information can be found here.

As always, there is an open session, inviting papers on all relevant themes to do with Science Fiction in all its guises and the Bible and/or ancient literatures more widely. This year there will be a themed session about destruction and forgetting (and/or re-construction and remembering). If you are interested in SF but have not yet worked in the areas of Bible or religious literature, we would very much like to hear from you. The conference itself might be worthwhile for you, too, as there will be a cross-over panel on visualisation of sacred spaces and artefacts in Science Fiction films, which is organised jointly with colleagues of the Archaeology of the Levant group at the EABS. Furthermore, there is a workshop on Fan Fiction and Scribal Culture(s), which is inviting contributions. Colleagues from the Biblical World and Its Reception group invite papers on spatial theory, and there are workshops titled Images of Creation and Bodies of Communication. There are very interesting intersections to be explored between these panels. All in all, it’s almost like a small SF convention inside a Biblical Studies conference.

Gibson, Le Guin, Kress

My reading list is mostly curated by what I happen to pick up at used book stores.

I finally read “Neuromancer”. It took a while and up to about halfway in I wasn’t sure whether I cared enough to keep going, wasn’t sure whether the dialogue read too artificially cool and apocopated, wasn’t sure (until the end) whether I got what was going on. But I finished it and even related a little bit to the characters (esp. Molly) towards the end (that’s not at all crucial, though somebody did tell me once that they stopped reading “Hydrogen Sonata” because they “found it impossible to relate to spaceships”).

From there I went on to “Gifts” by Ursula K. Le Guin, which I picked up because Ursula K. Le Guin. Similar thing: found it incredibly hard to break into the (pre-industrial, agricultural, magical) world, somewhat easier to relate to the characters, made it through.

From there I went on to “Probability Moon” by Nancy Kress. And when it started out in a cuddle-world with “shared reality” and cute “neck fur” and lots of customary polite-talk about flowers and gardening on a world called World, I was ready not to go on, because I had just come out of breaking into a cyberpunk world, which did not come easy, into a pre-industrial magical agricultural world, which NEVER comes easy, to now go into yet another fanciful arcadia? I was about to say, “No thanks, not right now, I want to go back to the Sprawl” when Kress’ book shifted away from flowers and allegorically (?) disrupted harmony into hard Sci Fi and I will stick with it now. (Not quite halfway through.)

But I miss the Sprawl. It was hard to get into, but it also feels so much more appropriate to what I’m thinking about and writing about and living in right now than flowers and clay huts and magic.