CCUE/Early Career Researchers 
Sunday, April 22, 2007, 09:40 AM
I’ve just returned from the CCUE conference in Oxford. This included a useful presentation on the RAE by Rick Rylance and a panel discussion on the problems facing early career researchers, with a particular focus on different kinds of postdoctoral opportunities.

It was noted that there was a kind of inflation process at work. As everyone knows, competition for any kind of first job is intense and it seems that permanent jobs go to older applicants than they did 10 or 20 years ago. The same is true of post doc posts, and a great many of these therefore go to people who haven’t just completed their PhD, those who already have some further teaching and research experience under their belts.

I was recently involved in short listing and interviewing for a Cambridge Research Fellowship and (so far as I recall) the front runners all fitted this slightly more experienced profile. When long listed candidates’ work is read by an external assessor it is more likely that they will favour the output of maturer scholars to a chapter written by someone just starting the third year of their PhD.

This is reflected in my own experience too – I secured a three year AHRB post doc when I was 29 and had already had a three year teaching post at St Andrews which allowed me a fair amount of time to develop my own research.

I think this trend has some worrying implications. Recently, a survey showed that university lecturers were more likely than any other profession to define themselves as ‘middle class’. And it could be argued that early career researchers from middle class backgrounds are more likely to progress in their careers because they are more likely to be subsidised while they make the transition from PhD to first job.

Again, I can use my own experience to back this up. I didn’t get a First and so didn’t get funding to do an MA. But my parents were able and willing to subsidise this. I then got funding to do a PhD – but wouldn’t have secured that without a good result from my privately funded MA.

These thoughts connect with another presentation given by Tony McEnery of the AHRC, a discussion of how best to support researchers in English. Perhaps more funding could be offered to people who have just finished their PhD, one or two semesters of additional support to allow them to secure a book contract or publish a couple of articles.

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Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk 
Monday, April 9, 2007, 08:50 PM
I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Stott’s Ghostwalk. It is an extremely compelling novel set in Cambridge which combines present day intrigue with speculation about a string of mysterious deaths which took place at the time of Isaac Newton.

For me, the book’s particular interest lay in its use of entanglement – Einstein’s spooky action at a distance becomes a metaphor for the uncanny parallels between past and present events.

Entanglement lies at the heart of the novel’s composition as well as inhering within its fictional narrative. Implicitly we can see the process of entanglement at work between the novel and other cultural artefacts – the ones I was most aware of were Don’t Look Now and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone but I’m sure there are plenty of others there too.

This is the same kind of reflexivity Pullman plays with at the beginning of Northern Lights. The novel is predicated on a series of alternate worlds. The boundaries between these can be permeated using the ‘subtle knife’. But a subtle pen also does the job.

For example when Lyra hides in a wardrobe to spy on a secret meeting and is surprised by its size the reader might well be reminded of the parallel importance of a wardrobe in Lewis’s Narnia books. The wardrobe which transports Lucy from one universe to another transports Pullman’s readers momentarily into an alternative textual universe.

I also recommend two further novels which (for me at least) entangle with Ghostwalk, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver and Gregory Benford’s Timescape.

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Lot's wife, Orpheus and Pygmalion 
Sunday, April 8, 2007, 04:15 PM
I have been struck by curious affinities between Ovid’s version of the Orpheus story and the Biblical narrative of Lot. Orpheus loses his wife Eurydice to death a second time when he looks back at her before they have left the Underworld. Lot’s wife also gets punished for looking back (at the destroyed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah). She is of course turned into a pillar of salt.

If we think of this transformed woman as a kind of statue (and according to the Wikipedia entry the transformation has been interpreted both as a reference to a memorial statue and as a miraculous metarmorphosis whereby she retains a woman’s form) she can be linked with a tale Orpheus tells (in Ovid’s version of the story) after losing Eurydice, the story of Pygmalion.

Pygmalion famously creates a statue of a beautiful woman who is brought to life by a miracle. Because her own trajectory is in the opposite direction Lot's wife is still more like the Propoetides, women who turn into stone after becoming prostitutes - it is their example which encourages Pygmalion to create a contrastingly pure and ideal woman.

Both the Ovid and the Biblical narratives have homosexual associations – Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of their inhabitants’ homosexual acts. Orpheus’s tastes shifted from women to young boys after the loss of Eurydice.

Moreover both tales have incestuous sequels. Lot slept with his daughters (they tricked him into this act by making him drunk) and Pygmalion’s grandson Cinyras slept (also unwittingly) with his daughter Myrrha.

So we have ill omened backward glances, women/statue transformations, homosexuality and incest in both these (ostensibly remote) narratives.

I’m not sure what to make of this pattern of connections. Just chance? Or did Ovid (as his 16th Century translator Arthur Golding firmly believed) have access to parts of the Old Testament?

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Heyer in Space: Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga 
Sunday, April 8, 2007, 10:56 AM
Posted by Administrator
The arrival of the Easter vacation means I can pack up Shakespeare, Ovid et al and immerse myself in a cosier textual world of balls, romantic intrigues, handsome officers, beautiful ladies and, er, plasma beams. So not Georgette Heyer (or even Jane Austen) then, but rather the science fictional world of Lois McMaster Bujold.

Like Heyer (with whom she has often been compared), Bujold is as interested in war, politics and detection as she is in romance and (again like Heyer but unlike Jane Austen) she is equally comfortable with male and female protagonists.

Although there are hard science elements in Bujold’s novels, her character driven, humorous stories are perhaps better described as space opera than SF. They are set in the far future - Earth is a quaint backwater and the use of wormholes has allowed many other planets to be colonised, developing distinct and often incompatible societies.

Her main protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, is an inhabitant of the world of Barrayar, a planet which remained in isolation for centuries and only remade contact with other worlds a few decades before Bujold’s saga begins. In isolation, Barrayar developed an antiquated, military and decidedly patriarchal society, strikingly similar in many ways to Georgette Heyer’s Regency London.

Miles is not a typical Heyer hero. An attack on his pregnant mother meant that he was born with extremely brittle bones and is only 4’10” tall. However his strategic brilliance and charisma allow him to compensate for these shortcomings, even in the ruthlessly eugenic world of Barrayar. I particularly recommend Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance (which focus on Miles’s dealings with his clone Mark) and also A Civil Campaign, the funniest and most Heyeresque of her novels.

Also fun are Shards of Honour and Barrayar which take us back to the courtship and marriage of Miles’s parents, Cordelia and Aral. Handsome, brave 33 year old Captain Naismith would be an ideal Heyer hero if she weren’t a woman. Aral Vorkosigan, too, is in many respects the archetypal Heyer hero with his saturnine looks, ruthlessness, sardonic humour, and unswerving sense of honour. But their courtship is interrupted by an inconvenient and psychopathic ex boyfriend (Aral’s not Cordelia’s) and hampered by the cultural gulf between Cordelia’s world (ultra liberal Beta) and conservative Barryar with which Beta is at war.

It is best to read the novels in rough chronological order I think – in particular it would be a pity to read A Civil Campaign without having read a few of the earlier Miles books first.

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SF: Text only adventure games - and wine! 
Monday, March 26, 2007, 12:02 PM
The arrival of Michael Bywater meant that it was time to open some wine and settle back for a highly entertaining paper, ‘Zorking Hell: How the PC made Hobbits of us all’. Although this was great fun (and appropriately interactive considering that Michael was exploring the possibilities of interactive fiction) it also raised some really fascinating questions about genre and narratology, and provided an excellent finale to a thoroughly enjoyable day.
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