19 October 2013

Masters complete! PhD underway!

Wow, it has been quite a while since I last posted on here. I've been busy, though! Until July I was still working full-time and studying part-time, but mid-year saw some big changes in my work and study arrangements.

I have now graduated from Charles Sturt University with the Master of Information Studies (Librarianship). Shortly after completing the assessment for my Masters program - before I had even officially graduated - I commenced a PhD at Monash University in their new Literary and Cultural Studies Graduate Research Program. 

I decided to apply for the PhD program late last year because of one of the scholarships on offer, but I only discovered the scholarship a little over a week before applications closed. I only had a few days to throw together an application (fortunately I'm freakishly organised and had handy all the required paperwork), drafted up a research proposal, and lined up some potential supervisors. 

I found out shortly before heading to Toronto last October that I had been accepted into the program and was also fortunate enough to have received the school's Cecile Parrish Memorial Scholarship for Research Excellence in English Literature. So, upon commencing my PhD at the end of June (the latest possible date to commence in Semester 1), I stopped working full-time and now work only two days per week at one of the university's libraries.

My thesis will consider the possibility of ethical literature and then relate this to the science fiction genre. At present, I anticipate my thesis having three closely connected sections:

  1. The first section will focus on ethics and literature in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot. It will consider Levinas's philosophical writings and his ideas of totality (the reduction of people, of history, and of the world to fixed, finite concepts) and infinity (the rejection of totalisation and the opening up of transcendence, found first and foremost in the face-to-face encounter with the other person in their absolute alterity/difference), and his writings on literature and the aesthetic (which fluctuate between positive and negative). In attempting to ascertain what kind of writing could be considered ethical (in the sense of resisting totalisation and possibly bringing about an encounter with transcendence, or that which is beyond comprehension), I will bring in the writings of Blanchot, who drew on, critiqued and developed Levinas's ideas of ethics and literature in his own literary essays and fictional writings. The goal of this will be to explore what styles of writing—what narrative techniques and the like—can facilitate the opening up of an 'unenglobable literary space', where what is written has infinite possible interpretations and cannot be reduced to a single meaning or straightforward story.
  2. This will then feed in to a consideration of how early science fiction often failed to open up this interpretative space, prioritising the communication of fixed concepts and scientific facts over the opening up an ambiguous, interpretative space. I will consider how this has changed as the genre has evolved, with New Wave SF, for example, introducing modernist and experimental writing styles and challenging the previously dominant materialist (and totalising) ideologies. I intend on working in the idea of fabulation, as discussed by John Clute and others.
  3. Finally, I will engage in a study of a Gene Wolfe work—I am thinking of The Book of the Short Sun at this point—and consider how it opens up this unenglobable literary space by resisting reduction to a single interpretation or straightforward narrative. Among the writing techniques and styles I plan on discussing would be Wolfe's use of unreliable narrators, fragmentary writing, and the slingshot ending. I also anticipate discussing Wolfe's treatment of religion and theology, war, and ethics ('love your neighbour' being one of the central themes of The Book of the Short Sun). 

So far research is coming along very well and I'm really enjoying the project. I have also been learning French, so I can engage with Levinas's writings in their original language. Overall it looks like the next few years will be very busy! But I'm looking forward to it.

17 February 2013

Toronto, Part II: The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy

In November 2012, immediately following the World Fantasy Convention, I undertook my CSU Master of Information Studies Professional Placement at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy – a special collection housed at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. The branch is opposite the University of Toronto, which contains some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings I saw in the city.

Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library

Entrance to the Lillian H. Smith branch - I love the griffins!
(Although perhaps only the right one is a griffin - I'm not sure what the winged lion is...)

Originally named the Spaced Out Library, the Merril Collection was established in 1970 when science fiction author, editor and critic Judith Merril donated her extensive collection of genre material to the Toronto Public Library. Renamed the Merril Collection in 1990, it is now Canada’s leading speculative fiction library collection, boasting over 72,000 items. During my placement I also visited the Toronto Public Library’s other special collections, including the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at the Lillian H. Smith branch and the rare books collections at the Toronto Reference Library.

The view of the ground floor (with the circulating TPL collection) from the Merril Collection (third floor)

The Merril Collection is a non-circulating reference collection that is open to the public and visited by a range of different users, including local Torontonians reading genre materials for leisure, students from nearby universities or schools writing assignments on genre literature, and academic researchers from around the world.
The Merril Collection reading room, with subject index and short story card catalogues along the back wall!

The Friends of the Merril Collection, a non-profit organisation run by volunteers, supports the collection by running events and selling merchandise and Friends memberships. They also maintain a web presence, publish a quarterly newsletter (titled SOL Rising, in memory of the collection’s previous name) and run annual short story competitions.

Friends of the Merril Collection things for sale

Something that stood out to me during my placement that I particularly liked was that the Merril Collection maintains close ties with local book dealers (such as Bakka-Phoenix), as well as local and international small presses and rare book dealers, from whom they liaise and buy materials directly. Working with local bookdealers helps build a sense of community - this is a major advantage of the special collection being in control of its own acquisition policies.

Bakka-Phoenix, Toronto’s leading Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror specialty bookstore

The Merril Collection has the rather epic aim of acquiring one of every work published in the English language in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. A combination of user interest and critical reception tends to drive the acquisition of young adult and children’s genre fiction, graphic novels, role-playing game manuals and non-fiction materials. The collection also contains extensive holdings of early science fiction pulp magazines and fanzines, and small collections of foreign language material, manuscripts and correspondence. Original science fiction and fantasy art is also collected.

Entrance to the Merril Collection's rare books

The Merril Collection fiction stacks

Boxes of pulp magazines, many of which are extremely rare and valuable
Some of the Merril Collection's graphic novels

An original painting owned by the Merril Collection and used on their promotional material. The painting is by Frank Kelly Freas and is based on a cover he made for Astounding Science-Fiction (vol. 54, no. 1, September 1954).

There were some truly incredible items in the collection, including a first edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and the first issue of Amazing Stories. They also had a large collection of Gene Wolfe material, which I will write about on my other blog.

First edition (second printing) of Stoker's Dracula

Amazing Stories no. 1 (April 1926), with original letter from Hugo Gernsback calling for subscribers

I undertook a range of activities during my three-week placement, including:

  • Answering reference questions at the information point (including reader’s advisory questions and research questions, often with the assistance of Merril Collection staff)
  • Indexing academic journal articles, including those in Science Fiction Studies and Utopian Studies
  • Retrieving materials for users
  • Receiving and processing new materials
  • Collecting new materials from local book dealers
  • Checking booklists and bookseller inventories against collection holdings

Me indexing articles from academic journals while at the service desk

First-person librarianship (patron played by my wife)

One of the most interesting and enjoyable activities I assisted with during the placement was helping run two events hosted by the Merril Collection – an author reading and signing and an academic presentation. The events were held an hour after the collection closed, giving us time to re-arrange the reading room to accommodate a speaker and small audience, as well as set up any audiovisual equipment that was required.

The reading was by Jo Walton, who recently won the Hugo and Nebula awards for her novel Among Others and was guest of honour for SFContario 3, the 2012 Ontario Science Fiction Convention that was held during my placement. Walton's reading was great - she read her story "Three Twilight Tales" from Firebirds Soaring (2009) - and I got a couple of her books signed afterwards.

Jo Walton's reading at the Merril Collection

Jo Walton signing the Merril Collection's copies of her books (being delivered by Lorna Toolis, the Head of the Merril Collection)

I had a fantastic time during my placement at the Merril Collection. The staff of the collection were incredibly friendly and welcoming and I was sad to be leaving after only three weeks. It was great being immersed in genre literature and getting to answer reference questions concerning science fiction and fantasy - something it was clear the collection staff, whose knowledge of genre materials is extensive, also loved doing. I learned a lot during the placement, especially about how non-circulating special collections can operate within a large public library network, and I am very grateful to Lorna and the staff at the collection for welcoming me and providing me with the opportunity to gain this valuable experience. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in special collections or genre fiction travelling to Toronto to visit the Merril and Osborne Collections at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. I can't wait to go back again!

06 February 2013

Toronto, Part I: The 2012 World Fantasy Convention

In November last year my wife and I spent four weeks in Toronto - a trip that was motivated by three things: the 2012 World Fantasy Convention; the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculation, where I undertook a three-week professional placement (see my next post); and, finally, our need for a holiday.

The theme of the 2012 World Fantasy Convention was urban fantasy and there were many panels on this issue, mostly grappling with trying to define exactly what urban fantasy is (and usually with limited levels of success). There were a few panels I found particularly interesting, including one titled 'Faith and Fantasy' (fascinating discussions, well chaired by Jonathan Oliver), one on book collecting, one examining Clute's The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (afterwards I managed to pick up what may have been the last copy of this limited edition book available for sale), and the 2012 retrospective "Speaking of the Year's Best...".

Michael Dirda and John Clute

I was particularly glad to meet John Clute again, whom I had met (and discussed Gene Wolfe with) in 2010, when he was in Melbourne for AussieCon 4 (the 2012 World Science Fiction Convention) and the Changing the Climate conference on utopia, dystopia and catastrophe. I also got the chance to chat with Tim Powers, Bill Willingham, Isobelle Carmody, Charles de Lint, Jo Walton, and a few other authors I've enjoyed reading the past few years.

Farah Mendlesohn, Tim Powers, David G. Hartwell, Tanya Huff and Charles de Lint

Another highlight was attending a reading by the Australian author Jack Dann, who read "The Island of Time," a story he wrote for the upcoming Gene Wolfe tribute anthology - it was a fantastic story, written in the second person and very thematically related to Wolfe's brilliant story "The Island of Doctor Death".

Something my wife and I weren't expecting: when registering at the start of the conference we were each given a 'book bag' containing 20 books. As most of them were different (and looked quite interesting), by the end of the conference (and after buying a few more books from the dealer's room) we had accumulated some 40 new books. We ended up sending four small boxes of books back to Melbourne and cramming the rest of them into our two (fairly small) suitcases. Still, we had to buy a third suitcase in New York to make it to Paris and home with all our extra luggage (read: books).

The conference venue was nice, but relatively isolated and inconveniently located over an hour out of downtown Toronto by public transport. Overall, though, it was a pretty fantastic week of immersion in fantasy literature and conversations with authors, scholars and fans.

The WFC venue: Sheraton Parkway Hotel in Markham

20 August 2012

The Locus Photo and Ephemera Archive Project

I received a great little parcel in the post today from the Locus Science Fiction Foundation for giving to their Photo and Ephemera Archive Project on Kickstarter, which managed to raise over $24,000 when its initial goal was $9,500. In the parcel was a t-shirt (with fantastic design by Shaun Tan), a chapbook (The Creator by Clifford D. Simak), five photo postcards and a bookmark.

I really look forward to seeing the results of LSFF's digitisation projects when they start becoming available online. I'm particularly excited about the prospect of being able to listen to digitisations of the vast collection of author interviews LSFF has on microcassette (a very degradable medium - trust me, I worked in my library's Music and Multimedia section for several years). The massive collection of sf ephemera passed into the hands of LSFF after Charles N. Brown, the co-founder and editor of Locus, passed away in 2009. I think it's awesome that LSFF is undertaking such a massive digitisation project and making these materials available to the wider sf community. I really hope they can achieve their ambitious goals with the money raised through Kickstarter. Donations to the Locus Photo and Ephemera Archive Project can be made on the Locus Science Fiction Foundation website.

19 July 2012

The Gender Games Symposium

The Sìdhe Literary Collective, a reading group my wife and I participate in, has been involved in organising an upcoming symposium called The Gender Games: Stories in/for the Contemporary World. The inter-disciplinary symposium will look at different ways we construct gender in society through narratives and in different forms of media. It has been organised by Deakin University, Monash University and the University of Melbourne, and will be held on 26-27 November 2012 at Deakin's city campus in Melbourne. Best of all, it will be a free event (although registration is required). Unfortunately my wife and I will be unable to attend, as we will be overseas at the time (more on that later, but expect blog posts from Toronto, New York and Paris). The call for papers can be found on the conference website.

22 February 2012

Sìdhe Literary Collective blog

Since 2007 my wife and I have been members of the Sìdhe Literary Collective, a reading group with common interests in feminism and popular culture that was formed at Monash University. Recently we've been working on a blog, which has now gone live!

The Sìdhe Literary Collective blog (22/2/2012)

On the blog you'll be able to find information on the group and its history, details on the conferences we've organised, and an 'In the Media' section pulling together articles and interviews related to the group and its conferences. The first blog post is just an introduction to the website, but there will be another up shortly offering a recap of our recent conference, Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures, which ran in August 2011. Check out the blog at sidheliterarycollective.blogspot.com.au

06 February 2012

Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular

On Saturday 4 February, my wife and I attended the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, performed by the amazing Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Concordis Chamber Choir. The concert was held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre's Plenary Hall, a massive venue that was packed with Doctor Who fans, many of whom (ourselves excluded) had dressed up as their favourite Doctor or donned their nerdiest Doctor Who tees - there were even TARDIS and Dalek themed dresses and many, many fezes and bow ties (they're cool, you see).

As expected, the music was incredible. Most of the pieces performed were chosen from the two most recent series of Doctor Who (featuring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor) and were accompanied by clips from their corresponding episodes (sometimes with the original dialogue and effects sounds). The score's composer, Murray Gold, was in attendance and even played the piano towards the end. The orchestra was conducted by Ben Foster, who has been responsible for the orchestrations of Gold's pieces and conducted the orchestra that plays them for TV score.

There were also a couple of fantastic surprises that I wasn't expecting (although I probably would have if I'd done some research before going). The first was that the concert was hosted by the incredible Mark Sheppard, an actor that has appeared in all my favourite nerdy TV shows (Doctor Who, The X-Files, Firefly, Chuck, Battlestar Galactica). The second was that throughout the performance professional cosplayers roamed the venue dressed as Doctor Who monsters, including the Silent, the Ood and the Cybermen. The moment after the interval when the Daleks entered to take over the concert, enslave the orchestra and threaten the extermination of the audience was particularly awesome.

Andrew Macleod, David Thomas, host Mark Sheppard, Natasha Thomas, composer Murray Gold and Ben Hanlon get chummy with the Daleks. Picture: Stuart Milligan Herald Sun. Check out the Herald Sun article.