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Archive for May, 2014

Great post from The British Museum on Anglo-Saxon art. Highly stylized, as with Viking art (and, well, most art throughout history…), though as an archaeology professor of mine once pointed out, the preference for such highly stylized representations does not mean “they” were incapable of “naturalism/realism,” but instead had to do with what art was for them. EH Gombrich (The Sense of Order) and Laura Kendrick (Animating the Letter) have some interesting things to say about interlace, monstrosity, and the difficulty of “reading” art like this that I was able to work into my dissertation, but that may be a post for another time…
While it was fun to dig into Viking age art for my dissertation on early Skaldic ekphrases (poems about pictures), I am definitely more a literature person than an art history person. Still, you can check out my post on how to dress like a Viking for some (very) brief notes on the different periods of Viking/Medieval Scandinavian art–eventually I may put together a post from my lecture notes on Viking art (we spent some time on it when I taught the Viking and Medieval Scandinavia course at Berkeley). Hm, maybe I will include that with my notes on interlace and monsters in Medieval art…

British Museum blog

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th…

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Image from Wikimedia

Around a week ago Delany was given the Damon Knight Grandmaster Award at the annual meeting of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The award was announced back in December, but I thought I’d post about it now that the event has actually happened. The Grandmaster award is a great way to recognize those who take this particular corner of “genre fiction” beyond the limitations both the literary world at large and even its own fans place on it, not writing “respectable fiction” in disguise, but digging into the unique potential of fantasy, science fiction, and related genres to do something unique, something that cannot be done “elsewhere” or with other tools. Browsing the winners of the Nebula Awards each year is certainly a fine way to find new work and new authors (I am reading recent winner Ancillary Justice at the moment, which makes good use of the potential of science fiction world building as a way to interrogate our conceptions of gender), but you really can’t go wrong with the list of grandmasters, which includes Damon Knight himself, founder of the SFWA and author of a book on short story writing that I am rereading for the first time in over a decade, Gene Wolfe from last year, another super duper favorite of mine (whose fantasy duology I discuss here), Golden Age sci-fi giants Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke (both of whom I read constantly in Jr Hi and High School), and Ursula LeGuin, like Delany coming out of the “New Wave” of sci fi and fantasy of the 60s and 70s (my favorite period, I think), and right up there with Delany as one of the authors I most look up to.

I love the cover art--I recognize the artist, but can't remember the name...

I love the cover art–I recognize the artist, but can’t remember the name…

I’m a huge fan of Delany’s science fiction (and his fantasy in the Nevèrÿon series), and just reread two of my favorites of his recently, Nova and Empire Star (I was going to continue on to reread Babel-17, which is now included on the flip side of Empire Star, as originally intended, but I seem to have misplaced it in just the last couple days…). Nova was the first book of his I read, and I think it is probably the best to start with–his work can be a bit difficult (which I admit I like–you need to read things that push you to grow in your ability to engage in a nuanced way with a complex world), and Nova is the most accessible I’ve read so far, at the same time that it has far more substance than 99% of the genre fiction out there. It is a short novel, so those used to the monstrous 700 page beasts on the market today may be a bit frustrated with the piddling 200+ of many New Wave era novels, but I really wish short novels like this were more “in” today–let’s have more variety, not less. In these 200+ pages, however, you will find a well-wrought reworking of Moby Dick (-ish… not really a thorough retelling, just a homage to the obsessive-chase motif) through the lens of the Tarot (which Italo Calvino also makes use of, and which allows for an interesting perspective on narrative itself), using the latter along with the character Katin as a way to dwell on novel writing as an art form (and in fact, this is a great meta-novel for those interested in the purported death of the novel, given that Katin is attempting to revive the art centuries after the last novel has been written), and along with all this anticipating the melding of human and machine that will later be explored in cyberpunk. Jo Walton has a great discussion of this old-but-still-so-fresh novel over at Tor.com, where she also gets into many more literary connections in the book which I did not list here. I may return to Nova again one day (it is among the most reread of my collection), but for now I suggest seeing what she has to say!

IMG_2690Babel-17 and Empire Star are also relatively accessible, though I found them somewhat less so than Nova, and somewhat less satisfying–but much easier than his Nevèrÿon stories, so check them out anyway! Where Nova is (in part) a meditation on the role of the novelist, Empire Star is (in part) a meditation on the role of the poet–but also hits on the issues inherent in living in a society built on slavery, which stood out a lot more to me as I reread it about the same time that I was checking out this articleEmpire Star can feel a bit like a cheat when you get to the end (don’t want to spoil it though), but in a way the “cheat” is part of the “consciousness novum” of the book (as in simplex, complex, and multiplex consciousness–it is a sort of Bildungsroman of the protagonist’s progress from one to the other), and so fair. Babel-17, with its linguistic novum, was always meant to be paired with the novella Empire Star, though this has only recently been the done. I can’t say I was especially won over in terms of believability with both these stories (well, his -plex terms are actually super helpful for thinking and discussing about complexity of awareness versus intelligence, so I don’t think I really have too much of a complaint there), but I don’t think that is the point so much–it is more about using the tools of science fiction to think in a new way, or see our world from a new angle, putting pressure on things we take for granted in order to make them appear explicitly before us, rather than sitting in the background. And look, how many hard-science nova are really up to snuff from the perspective of actual scientists…

I’m afraid I haven’t read Delany’s famous Dhalgren yet, though I hope to get to it (and I have a copy). I did read Triton, which I did not enjoy as much as the others I’ve listed here (it was still really interesting, just didn’t engage me as much), but if you find you enjoy Delany’s style, it is certainly worth checking out. I’ve read the introduction and two of the stories to Tales of Nevèrÿon, one of which basically took a young female protagonist through the theory of deconstruction in a period long before Derrida came along. Oh, and the introduction to the book is written by an academic who is aware that he is a fiction. Gives you a bit of a feel for the book, haha. Gender and sex are common targets of Delany’s deconstructing narratives, and some of his books can get pretty “mature” (in the ratings sense), which I realize can be difficult reading for those not used to that (I’ll include myself in that category, though I’m pretty OK with reading things that make me uncomfortable–maybe not all the time though). Delany is generally a pretty unusual and interesting person, both within and without the science fiction community, so I recommend checking him out! There is an interview with him here, though it doesn’t seem to be opening for me at the moment.

So there you go–easily one of my top picks (maybe my top pick, actually) for intelligent science fiction for people in the humanities. Hoping to get around to reading Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand soon, so maybe I’ll have a post about that up eventually! Though it would be really nice to get back to some of my own writing–finally got a new project underway, and it would be nice to finish off the draft sooner rather than later.

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Hardanger Fjord seems Norwegian enough a thing to head up this post. Image from wikicommons.

Not only is May 17th the birthday of my amazing brother, AND the day after the birthday of one of my amazing sisters, it is also Norwegian Constitution Day! (not “independence” day as I once mistakenly referred to it–Norway had just switched over from Danish to Swedish control at the time, and the Swedes weren’t especially happy with the new holiday…) What’s more, this year we get the bicentennial of Constitution Day! Whoo hoo!

My cheesy Viking superhero, in the colors of the Norwegian flag... kinda.

My cheesy Viking superhero, in the colors of the Norwegian flag… kinda.

I am a quarter Norwegian-American through my dad’s side, so I grew up with the Norwegian flag coming out this time of year. No traditional “syttende mai” celebrations though–must have been interference from our Swedish side. 😛  While Norway spent much of its post-medieval history bound up with either Denmark or Sweden, it was kind of a big deal in the Middle Ages, as you can read in many of the sagas. The easiest to find (and the most comprehensive) would be Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about Norwegian kings from legendary times up through the Middle Ages by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (though I have seen arguments against his authorship). There are at least two translations current if you want to check Amazon, and there are some free ones online, but honestly, I’m not especially happy with any of the offerings out there, especially in their rendering of the skaldic passages (I say this not having looked into it for a while, but I’ve checked my own translations against these before, and usually find something to get frustrated with… but OK, I don’t specialize in the Kings’ sagas) The English translation that I picked up a while back (because it was what was there) is this one, and it is fine for a casual read–plus the version I have has some old illustrations from an earlier (I think) translation. EDIT: OK, never mind, I totally forgot about the 2011 Finlay-Faulkes translation, which is now available online for free in the first two volumes--shameful of me, as I am a fan of both Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (met Alison at a palaeography seminar and relied heavily on Faulkes’ edition of Snorra Edda for my dissertation). 

Well there you go! Happy syttende mai! Go read some Ibsen or something!

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Some experienced Vikings.

Some experienced Vikings.

This is another cheater-reblog (meaning I don’t have to put much effort into it), but I wanted to share this book coauthored by a friend of mine (who also has an awesome blog, and who is an expert in berserks, if you’re into that–and who isn’t?). I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but I look forward to checking it out! Remember also my list of sources in my post on the Vikings miniseries (near the end of that post, after all my griping about the first episode). There is also another new history of the Vikings by Anders Winroth (I don’t know him myself, but he is married to one of my friends in the field). Yeah, I need to check that one out as well–gone are the days when publishers would just send me complimentary copies of books out of the blue to try to convince me to use them in my classes. 😦  But we’ll see, maybe I’ll get back into it one day…

Berserkjablogg

The Viking Experience
The Viking Experience  is a general history of the Vikings by Dr Marjolein Stern and yours truly, and I am excited that it is now available through Amazon. Far be it from me to praise this book overmuch but I am really quite pleased with how it turned out. It is in full colour with plenty of illustrations and comes in a slipcase with removable inserts illustrating important documents of the time. Rather than blather on about it, I shall let the publisher’s blurb speak for me:

‘From the remote and unforgiving landscape of northern Europe, the Vikings voyaged to far-flung areas of the world with extraordinary consequences. The Viking Experience examines the origins, explorations and settlements of these seafaring people, exploring their impact on the world as colonizers, craftsmen, traders and state-makers. This highly illustrated book provides a revealing portrait of the Vikings’ incredible legacy with a collection…

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