Return of the Vampires: Stephanie Meyer's Breaking Dawn 
Sunday, November 16, 2008, 03:57 PM
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I’ve just finished Breaking Dawn, the last (so far) of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels. (See recent post below.) It’s been fascinating reading about the flack Meyer’s been getting from all sides. Some have criticised the series from a broadly feminist perspective for making its heroine, Bella, so passive, unambitious and adoring (of the vampire hero Edward). The same readers often also object to the perceived anti-abortion slant of Breaking Dawn.

Others think the novel is perverse and immoral including some of Meyer’s fellow Mormons. The most sensible criticisms of Breaking Dawn I’ve read focus on its wish fulfilment excesses – Bella ends up with the perfect husband, perfect child, super nice in-laws, not to mention a huge walk in wardrobe stuffed full of designer outfits.

I haven’t waded through all the 3,000 or so comments which have been posted on But none of the comments/reviews I’ve read so far have said anything about what was, for me, the series’ genuine surprise ending. Bella has always wanted to be a vampire. The saintly Edward didn’t want her to face the perils involved in the transformation. The ‘will she, won’t she’ puzzle drove the opening books of the series. Now I’d assumed that Bella would stay human, and thought that perhaps Edward and the other ‘good’ vampires would be allowed to regain human form.

But Bella gets her wish and becomes a vampire. This is presented as an almost unequivocally positive outcome. Bella loses her trademark clumsiness, gains special powers which make her a kind of übervampire, becomes ten times more beautiful, practically indestructible and pretty much immortal. And there is no penalty – she and the ‘good’ vampires survive on the blood of wild animals and never harm humans.

I thought this was quite an audacious solution to the lovers’ dilemma – and, although I can see the case for feminist objections to some aspects of the series , it was at least nice that Bella was allowed to have it all and not (despite some trials along the way) be punished by the text for her rather transgressive desires. Given the nature of Bella’s wishes the ‘wish fulfilment’ fantasies provided by Breaking Dawn’s conclusion are really quite subversive.

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Visions of the Future: Anglia Ruskin SF Panel 
Sunday, November 2, 2008, 12:01 PM
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Yesterday afternoon I participated in a panel discussion about Science Fiction at Anglia Ruskin University as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. My fellow panellists were Professor Rowlie Wymer and author Chris Beckett, author of The Holy Machine and The Turing Test.

Together with members of the public we discussed a number of questions raised by the study of science fiction. What is the relationship between politics and science fiction for example? It was easy to come up with examples of broadly left and right wing sf but some examples were more problematic.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed portrays an anarchist society – but readers are divided as to whether that world represents a positive alternative or not. The sf film Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be seen as a paranoid response to the threat of Communism or, by contrast, as a satire on the tyranny of the McCarthy era.

It’s very difficult to keep up with sf publishing so it was useful to swap recommendations of books and authors we’d recently enjoyed. Here are three books which (on the advice of some of our audience members) I’ve now put on my ‘to read’ list:

Ian McDonald’s River of Gods
Charles Stross’s Accelerando
Adam Roberts’ Salt

One book I strongly recommended to others was Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance which wasn’t really marketed as sf but is a powerful and compelling vision of humanity’s bleak future viewed from the perspective of a time traveller from our own day.

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AHRC Peer Review College 
Thursday, October 30, 2008, 05:37 PM
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Yesterday I attended a training day at the AHRC in my capacity as a member of the Peer Review College. Members of the College are asked to provide detailed academic appraisals of grant applications and other bids for different kinds of funding. Each proposal, typically, is evaluated by two reviewers and given a grade. These grades and comments are then considered by a panel of subject specialists who rank the applications, determining who will get awards.

However this system is now being changed slightly. The panels will now be less subject specific, less specialist. They will no longer be offering a further layer of evaluation. Instead they will simply (not that it’s that simple!) be carrying out a comparative analysis of the Peer Review College members’ reports. Principal Investigators (ie the academics chasing the grants) will have been offered the opportunity to respond to any problems or questions raised in these reports – and their responses will also be scrutinised by the panels.

I’d initially had misgivings about these changes but feel more confident about the new system now I’ve learnt more about how it will work. Three expert reviews will now be sought, not just two, and the recruitment of many more academics to the Peer Review College should make it easier for the AHRC to identify really appropriate reviewers for each application.

Whereas previously people served on the specialist panels for three years or more, now the panels will change more regularly, offering more Peer Review College members a chance to participate. Having the chance to discuss the issues at stake with colleagues, and to compare notes on a set of applications, will be extremely helpful, I think. (Normally we work very much in isolation.)

I think the one issue which still troubles me is the instruction that we should not bring our subject expertise into play within the context of these new panels, even if that expertise would help the panel evaluate and rank the applications more precisely. However I can see that there might be some unfairness in raising new objections which the Principal Investigator then has no opportunity to respond to.

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Vampires in Seattle? 
Tuesday, October 28, 2008, 07:28 PM
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No of course this doesn’t have anything to do with Alex’s recent jaunt to Microsoft Headquarters in Seattle - which seems to have been very stimulating.

Freddie (son) has recently become a fan of Darren Shan, writer of slightly edgy vampire novels. When I went to Waterstone’s the other day to buy him volumes 4 and 5 in the series I noticed Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight in the same section and decided to give it a go.

I’d never heard of Meyer until I read this interesting article about her unexpected rise to stardom. Her series of novels (set near Seattle) about a teenage girl’s passion for an improbably handsome and virtuous vampire have met with mixed reviews. Some readers think they are depraved and should be banned from school libraries - even though Meyer is in fact a devout Mormon. Others simply think the books are excruciatingly bad.

I have to say that I was hooked from the opening pages – Meyer offers some assured and inventive variations on familiar vampire tropes and the central romance between Bella and Edward is leavened with humour as well as horror. I’ve already bought volumes 2 and 3 ...

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Shaping Fantasies: Responses to Shakespeare’s Magic in Popular Culture 
Thursday, October 16, 2008, 01:53 PM
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This was the topic I chose for my inaugural lecture last night – it’s an odd genre as you have to appeal to a general audience (including Freddie aged 10 and Susannah aged 8 in my case) while at the same time showing off your research credentials.

The main focus of the talk was Neil Gaiman’s response to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his graphic novel Dream Country, but I also discussed a Doctor Who episode (“The Shakespeare Code”), Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies and Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. A fuller and more formal version will be published here.

I’d never used PowerPoint before this semester but knew I couldn’t really talk about Gaiman’s text meaningfully without also showing Charles Vess’s accompanying artwork, so I limbered up for the inaugural by converting all my lectures into slide shows. I’m now a zealous convert to PowerPoint. (I just hope my students are too.)

Alex and the children arrived a bit late but otherwise behaved well.
Susannah’s response: “I knew it all before”

(what, even the bit about neoplatonism?)

Freddie’s (still more crushing) response: “it’s all very well but is that what the writers actually intended?”.

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