How to solve a problem like Helena?

This post will contain spoilers for Orphan Black seasons 1-3, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 3-9 (yes, including the comic book continuations to a point), and Angel seasons 1-4. And, it turns out in the writing of it, Being Human series 1-3 (the UK version).

I had originally planned to write this blog after the penultimate episode of Orphan Black season 3 (“Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow”), but I watched it too late in the week and so I waited until I’d seen the finale. The finale doesn’t change much of what I have to say, although it does provide a fun quote and some additional material. What I have to say is this: Helena is becoming a problem. Here is why.

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Some thoughts after Prof Edith Hall’s excellent Gaisford Lecture

I thought I would share my responses to Professor Edith Hall’s Gaisford Lecture, the text of which is available on The Guardian website. I couldn’t attend the lecture as I am no longer in Oxford, or the UK, primarily as a result of the UK’s atrocious spousal visa regulations, so my response is based on the text in The Guardian. Hall has also provided the text on her blog, with an introduction. Hall’s blog is worth browsing for its own sake, too.

First things first: My background. I attended a (Roman) Catholic state secondary school from 1997 to 2004, which shared a sixth form with the neighbouring Anglican school and the girl’s grammar school on the far side. While the classes for all the subjects offered in the Catholic and Anglican schools were mixed, the girl’s school offered spaces to students from the other schools on specific courses which they did not offer (Classical Civilisation), while the others did the same for students from the girl’s grammar (Theatre Studies; Physical Education). The girl’s school offered Latin and Classical Civilisation, the latter of which I took for A Level; due to a conflict in scheduling I also ended up doing History there, too – apparently good fortune on my part. The girl’s school was selective entry, but not fee-paying. When a number of students from my school were invited to visit the Oxford College Lady Margaret Hall, on the basis of encouraging applicants from under-represented schools, I attended; I applied to LMH in 2003 to study Literae Humaniores Course II:A (Latin), was accepted, and matriculated in 2004. It turns out that I am quite bad at Latin; I was offered the opportunity to change course to Classical Archaeology and Ancient History in my third year, which I (foolishly) declined. To anyone else in my position, I would wholeheartedly recommend CAAH over LitHum, unless you are particularly interested in literature and languages. The relief of not having to study Latin any more may explain why I enjoyed my Master of Studies in Classical Archaeology so much; I submitted my DPhil in Archaeology in January 2014, passed my viva in March the same year, and will almost certainly graduate at some point, when I can bring my partner back into the UK. I have taught undergraduates in both LitHum and CAAH; those students had a tendency to either get first class degrees, or for the paper I taught to be one of their best.

As I hope is clear from my background, I wholeheartedly agree with most of what Hall says in her lecture. Classical Civilisation is a brilliant course (or it was in 2002-2004), which shaped the direction of my life. ClassCiv teaches students not only about the literature of the ancient world, but the art, the architecture, and the life. I say “the ancient world”, but I suppose I mean ancient Greece. And when I say “ancient Greece”, I largely mean “ancient Athens”.

The emphasis on ancient Athens when we talk about the ancient Greeks is hardly a surprise, as it is Athenian literature which has largely been preserved throughout the millennia. It’s not entirely true, particularly of the Archaic Period, but the big names – Aristotle, Plato, Euripides – and not-so-big-names-but-truly-massive-corpuses – the perpetually sad Xenophon – are Athenian. When we think of archaeology we might think of the Parthenon before all else, although Olympia and Delphi might crop up for a few people; even if we think of Epidauros we think of Athenian plays performed there.

In April, as a response to one of the many programmes on ancient Greece the BBC have produced this year, Prof. Mary Beard quoted Moses Finley asking the question “which Greeks? when?” When Hall talks about the attempts of some scholars playing down the “specialness” of the ancient Greeks I think of this quote – were all the Greeks “special”? Or was there something distinct about their culture which allowed “special” people to speak up and be heard? My personal approach is to emphasise the position of Greece as part of a distinct Mediterranean network, in which there were “Greeks” everywhere from Egypt to Iberia, but similarly other people – and ideas – moving around and influencing them. The particular importance of the Greeks is that they had a literary culture through which such writing could survive; one thinks of the Etruscans, and the broad destruction of their literary legacy by the Roman Empire, and wonders if other cultures might not have had more to say.

Hall encourages the teaching of Greek civilisation because their ideas equip people to defend their liberty. As someone for whom archaeology comes a lot more easily than language (if not necessarily literary criticism), I value modern ideas more than those of the ancient Greeks. The value I see in the routine study of the ancient Greeks is the opportunity to approach a subject in which certain ideas have been established, and to show how taking a variety of perspectives and different evidential categories give us numerous narratives and challenge dominant paradigms. When I taught students to question the evidence for certain narrative ideas surrounding Greek colonisation, the spread and development of the alphabet, and early trade, I hope that they would be able to apply such thinking to all arguments – to question the perspective of a writer, to look for the evidence to back that up, and – particularly important in archaeology – to question the processes through which that evidence has been interpreted.

On this last point, Hall makes a number of points which I do not recall her explicitly relating to the study of Classical reception, but which really ought to be. Hall’s “Classics and Class” project challenges the idea that we should think of Classics as the preserve of posh, public school idiots like certain mayors of London, but that the subject has a long history of inspiring others to promote liberty and even rebellion. I think that reception is one of the most important aspects of the study of classics, particularly literature, as it is essential to understand how the texts through which we encounter the ancient world have largely survived not through accident, but by design. There is also a long history of value attached to specific texts – I linked earlier to, a project dedicated to showing the bias against the writings of Xenophon which persists in the study of Classics. I don’t know much about Xenophon myself, except that his Greek is by far the easiest I’ve been able to read, but I know that institutional bias needs to be addressed and corrected. If we can learn how to do so through examining the neglect of a particularly prolific Classical author, perhaps we can apply this process to the contemporary world and start to understand how long-held beliefs affect our approaches and interactions with modern life.

In archaeology, things survive for many different reasons. The easiest way for something to survive is for it to be buried intentionally, particularly if the burial itself has certain significance and protection – like a grave. The objects buried tend to be of particular importance, and those which do not tarnish, like gold, tend to have higher value (although “value” itself is a culturally contextual concept). Thus the survival of objects relates to their material worth and the likelihood of their burial – as the creation of the written word relies on the literacy of the author, its survival on the perceived importance of the author, the richness of the textual history on the broad acceptance of the author by those preserving texts. The ideas from ancient Greece belong to a particular set of privileged individuals whose works and ideas survived. Understanding that privilege and what it means should, I believe, help us to understand how certain people and ideas are privileged in the modern world

Learning about the ancient world, from Classical Civilisation to Literae Humaniores to archaeology, has taught me perspectives on the modern world, the way in which ideas proliferate, and to question the authority of assertions and arguments. It’s not the only way to learn these skills, but it is a good one, and one I tried to pass on to my students. Hall believes that we should learn about the ideas of the Greeks and the ways in which they have had impact on the continuing history of the human race; I do not disagree with this approach. My thoughts and approach here are, I believe, largely complimentary. Classics for all, indeed.

Contact (Part 1?)

Great science fiction stories should leave the readers asking questions. This statement is probably true of all stories, but I’m particularly interested in science fiction, so I’m focusing on those. In the past week or so I’ve had intense discussions about science fiction television shows and films, and I’ve thought intense things about science fiction books, but I lack others who have read those books to have quite the same kinds of discussion. I’ve posted the discussion I had with a friend on Twitter about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, episode 9) before (and here is it again), but even now I’m having new thoughts about that episode – about the importance of addressing ideas we hold to be true (in this case, the consciousness of Data) against those who do not agree in a way which allows us to examine our viewpoint and make it more forcefully. I wish I could do that too, sometimes. I’ve been reflecting on how stories encourage us to ask those questions, how they might lead us to certain answers, and what it is useful to ask in science fiction; in particular recently I have been thinking about the question of contact with alien life.

There are two principal sources of these thoughts: the first was reading the Hugo Award nominated The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu); the second was this article in February’s Clarkesworld magazine, which I only just got around to reading. (In the background, I’ve been re-watching The X Files too, in which contact comes up a lot). In the Clarkesworld article, Mark Cole discusses the limited examples of “friendly aliens” in science fiction (mostly cinema; there’s no discussion of the Federation or Ekumen or any other alliance of worlds) and suggests that stories of conquering aliens are more common because we can believe that from human nature and history. I’m not completely convinced that human history is quite so replete with conquerors and violence (perhaps European history) rather than co-operation and allegiance – perhaps it’s just that the conflict receives greater emphasis in our history books? But I also feel that this interpretation is a far too literal reading of contact stories. The Three-Body Problem discusses the impact it would have on human society if the existence of extraterrestrial life were discovered, which is a much more interesting idea. In this scenario, human beings discover that they are not alone in the galaxy and have to come to terms with that knowledge. The approach here is more interesting because it looks at how human beings behave, requiring no idea about the alien life at all – because we have no idea what alien life is like, but we know how human beings react to the unknown, or to new knowledge. Personally, I find the questions about how human beings behave much more interesting than inventing an alien conqueror.


Someone suggested on twitter that I write a blog instead of constraining myself to 140 characters.

I have a blog; this is a blog. But I don’t use it. Maybe I should. Maybe blogging will make me feel like I’m contributing to the internet.

I used to review the odd book here, but now I do that on Goodreads so I guess I need to think of something else. I might also change the theme. I make a lot of notes on books which don’t go into Goodreads reviews, so maybe those will be part of the project.

I will try to keep to tighter word limits (c. 1000 words?) because otherwise I just go on and on and on.

Here’s the last thing I really made on the internet:

The Prince and the Pa(u)per Mask

Over the past couple of days, two news reports about Egyptian Mummy Masks have been reported separately in news outlets across the world. One is about the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask in the Cairo Museum; the other is about a papyrus mask of an unknown individual in a private collection which was destroyed to reveal what might be an early copy of the Gospel of Mark. I find it very interesting that these two cases have made the news so close together, but none of the news reports that I’ve seen have tied the two cases together. It is perhaps worth remembering that a huge chronological span separates these two objects – although not a span as great as that which separates us from them. And yet I believe that the parallels between the two cases are worth a few comments.

The treatment of these masks is directly related to their perceived value by their owners and curators. The first is perhaps the most famous museum object in the world, the gold mask of a long-dead king of a prosperous land around whose tomb and discovery many myths have gathered. The other was a papyrus mask of an unknown individual, of much lower status, in an Egypt which was part of a much larger empire – the mask has been described as not “museum-quality” (although one wonders how many museums were consulted about that and what defines “museum-quality”). In an effort to make the gold shine again, Tutankhamun’s mask was damaged, and the perceived need for such a valuable and famous treasure to be on display led to it being further – and permanently – damaged by a speedy and unprofessional repair job. Meanwhile, the perceived lack of value of the papyrus mask led to its total destruction in the hope of finding something with greater value in the modern world: a fragment of an early Gospel. In the former case, the object is world famous and has been recorded, studied, and photographed again and again – arguably nothing has been lost by the damage done to it. But the response, on social media and in the news reports about the damage, is incredulous. That reaction seems fair – the damage is irreparable, and many of us (myself included) will now never see the object in as perfect condition as we might. In the latter case, however, the object is largely unknown and there may not even be any decent photographs of it; it is, as far as I can tell, unprovenanced or at least not obviously from a formal excavation. So little is known about the Gospel Mask, except that it has now been completely destroyed and we may never know anything about it. But, we might argue, it could lead to a potentially more interesting further discovery. As an archaeologist largely interested in pre- or proto-historic periods, the idea that a written document of dubious date, of which we have many other copies, and which is largely of interest only to those who believe in its contents is more important than an artefact which may give us some indication about those not usually represented by written texts or shiny gold masks is troubling. What is perhaps also of interest is that whoever made this mask clearly also placed greater value on the mummy mask than on the copy of the gospel. Might we be better off questioning why that is, too?

In both of these cases, the problems seem to have occurred because of specialists; or rather, because of a lack of consultation with specialists. Rather than take the necessary time to repair the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask, someone ordered that it be repaired with whatever happened to be around, which was a tube of bog-standard superglue. I assumed that this could not have been done by a professional conservator, but another glance at the story seems to indicate that it was, in fact, done by a professional. We don’t know what professionals, if any, have been consulted about the Gospel mask. The only names which have been spoken are not archaeologists or papyrus experts, but a New Testament scholar. The publication of the text has been delayed and delayed. It is unclear what has been done to this object or who is responsible. We do not know how this evidence might be manipulated, except for the clear case of hype-creation by leaking titbits of material to the press about the object.

These two cases highlight how we place value on historical artefacts, how this has changed from the value placed on them in antiquity, and how we perceive authority in controlling access to and disseminating information about historical objects. The case of the Gospel mask certainly deserves examination and discussion about how we should go about damaging objects, whether “museum-quality” or not – would I be complaining if the “damage” done was destruction of part of a sword to determine its metal composition? That’s work I’d even be happy to do myself, if I knew how to go about it (and was paid to do it). But the discussion needs to be about what information is gained and what information is lost. Our understanding of Tutankhamun’s burial and our appreciation of the objects created for it has declined very little, if at all, as a result of this damage. We may never understand the Gospel Mask, nor know about it in any great detail, unless it was very carefully recorded before it was destroyed. Whatever new information with which we are provided by the text on the papyrus, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the perceived value placed on it by whoever made the mask, and was buried in it – was this reverence for the text or complete dismissal? Can we know the answer to that question now the mask has been destroyed?

There’s certainly a lot to mull over in the cases of Tutankhamun’s mask and the Gospel mask. I haven’t even considered the fact that these objects are *funerary* (largely because I have little respect for the long-dead, and no belief in an afterlife). The public reaction to these cases suggests to me that they might even be more interesting objects because of their roles in 2015 than they were when they were first created.

Retro Post: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I really enjoyed The Forever War when I read it in 2010; the version which I read had a fantastic cover which is the collection, Peace and War, which includes the other Haldeman books on the same theme, Forever Peace, a companion novel, and Forever Free, the sequel which I describe (accurately) later in this diary as “batshit fucking loco”. I’ve put together several entries from my diary about the novel, with the dates attached.

24th May 2010

In reading The Forever War I have become much, much more interested in proper sci-fi. The book, thus far, is brilliant, conveying a proper sense of isolation, of distance, and of the difficulty involved in long distance space travel, and especially war. There’s a lack of distinct otherness to the alien life-forms and world – although the cold, empty planet on which the Privates train is certainly well feeling. It’s mostly that the Taurons, as bi-pedal two-armed upright-walking creatures are just a bit too close to human for me. Insofar as interstellar travel is concerned this is certainly the best sci-fi I have ever read.

But I suspect that my interest grows for other reasons, too. A Scanner Darkly is probably the best Philip K. Dick book I’ve read [this remains true], and I have been reading a lot of Interzone too. But I am starting to believe that while fantasy can and perhaps should [be able to] get away with principally being a romp (as Retribution Falls and The Lies of Locke Lamora are) sci-fi needs to be more than that. The Forever War is a commentary on the Vietnam war (and by extension all wars) by a veteran; A Scanner Darkly by a veteran of the war on drugs, showing that the side on which he fought was the wrong one.

26th May 2010

Some initial thoughts upon finishing The Forever War: it is good, very good. One of the best books that I have read so far this year, and certainly the best that isn’t by Ursula Le Guin [which were The Earthsea Cycle, in its entirety by this point I think]. I’m not too certain about its attitude to homosexuality, but given the contexts of a) the time it was written and b) its use in the book [as an alienating factor for the veterans] I think that I can understand it. I’m not certain that it’s meant to be condemnatory, rather than just alienating.

I like the ending, even [obviously, edited for spoilers]. I think that works, as does most of the rest of it, especially the [spoilers deleted]. It was a satisfying conclusion.

The warfare, the technology, the extraterrestrial setting – I liked all of that. The sense of distance, isolation, and loneliness I thought were fantastic. My internal imagery was usually better [in my opinion] than, say, the comic book, and though Alien is probably the closest film adaptation and despite my love of Blade Runner, I’m not certain that even Ridley Scott should bring this to the screen. [As he was rumoured to be doing at the time; this was before Prometheus, so I didn’t complain about this film, despite the opportunity to do so. It’s rubbish!]

My criticism, ironically, is mostly to do with (so far as I can tell) the novella “You Can Never Go Back”, which wasn’t in the original publication of the book because it was too dark and negative. If it is the earthly part of Lieutenant Mandella the it’s mostly because of the treatment of homosexuality, but I wasn’t so keen. It did, however, provide the right sort of sense of isolation that I thought was necessary for the story. [The soldiers go home to a world that has moved beyond them and changed, which is now unrecognisable – they can’t stay, and re-enlist in the army, as I recall.]

Other than that, there were some minor inconsistencies which, frankly, I’m willing to ignore. Generally, I really liked it, and I’m looking forward to reading some more classic sci-fi this year.

Retro Post: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

I’ve been meaning for years to use entries from my old diary (23rd May 2010-2nd July 2012) as the inspiration for blog entries. Now that I have some distance between then and now, and as many of my more recent entries are based more firmly on notes from my current diary, I feel more able to do this. The plan is to copy out slightly edited versions of the entries themselves, perhaps with annotations [in square brackets]. In some cases (such as the entry on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino) I may re-read the books in question and add new comments; in others (such as the entries on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin) I will have to check that there isn’t already information on this blog which matches them. I guess I will try to make these updates regular, once or twice a week, rather than just whenever I can be bothered with them. It might help the blog keep going, and prevent further four-month gaps in updates.

The entry with which I am going to begin is from 23rd May 2010.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was alright. As good as I really expected it to be, not at the level of the best fantasy like the Earthsea cycle but it was a readable, Firefly-esq jaunt in a fantasy world. The problems which I have with it [are typical:] towards the end, especially when dealing with the character’s feelings, he over-indulges in telling rather than showing. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by his female characters – they were minimal, and exclusively introduced with sex in mind: Frey thinking about how useful it was that Jez was plain, the beauty of the female Century Knight, and the others being primarily Frey’s conquests in one form or another.

The other part is setting. Much of the geography of the world in Retribution Falls, besides some of the NSEW locations, is indistinct. I couldn’t figure out my way around the Ketty Jay, nor even precisely what it looked like. [I think my gist here is that the type of ship the Ketty Jay was – airship? Aeroplane? – was unclear, so there were no clues about how it should look apart from the cover.] Greater descriptions would have been nice, but there was also the chance to imagine it for yourself, which was quite good.

[I think the comparison of this novel to Firefly was over privleging, but I know what I mean. The idea was that there was a group of misfits, on the run, on a ship. You’d like them because they were roguish, although I don’t remember them being funny. I have a lot more to say about this book in later entries concerning the rape of all the female characters; a theme of this diary was how many of the novels I read approached rape, as a vast number of fantasy novels seem to do. Perhaps also worthy of note is that this book has two sequels now, neither of which I have read or really intend to.]