Science Fiction

2001 A Space Odyssey in kid’s TV

QPootle5(1)Having a 17-month-old toddler means that I was well awake and CBeebies was on at 7:40 am this Sunday. I was pulled out of my half-awake, half-asleep state, when in this morning’s Q Pootle 5 episode a monolith suddenly appeared in the early morning light, discovered by the bewildered Q Pootle 5 as soon as he woke up. What made me jump, was the sun slowly rising behind the monolith, and Q Pootle’s initial reaction – hesitation over whether to touch and explore the mysterious object or leave it alone. Now, where had I seen all of that before?

QPootle5(2)Q Pootle 5 is an animated series, inspired by the books by Nick Butterworth. It follows a small friendly alien, Q Pootle 5, and his friends Oopsy, Eddi, Stella, Ray, Groobie, and Bud-D on the planet Okidoki (there’s one more major character, but he’s actually another planet, Planet Dave!) Nick Butterworth, who worked closely with his son to bring Q Pootle from page to screen, has pointed out in a recent Radio Times interview that the world of Q Pootle 5 is:

“A combination of low tech and high tech. I drew inspiration from the way children’s imagination trumps reality. A cardboard box becomes a boat or a spaceship. A hair dryer makes a great outboard motor – or a lateral stabilising jet! Cushions, chairs, a bit of old hi-fi equipment with knobs to twiddle, these are all you need to go exploring.”

This already sounds like convincing world building based on good old science fiction tropes and using science fiction as a symbolic way to reaching, exploring and engaging with a toddler’s imaginative play. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that this morning’s episode decided to “play” with one of the canonical cinematic texts of modern SF, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.

maxresdefaultSF is a subject I teach to my undergraduate students, and 2001 is a text I always include in my survey SF module: its iconic aesthetics, its philosophical underpinnings and its “big ideas” (not necessarily radical and new ones by the 1960s, but definitely memorably explored) make it a compelling text to examine in class. Q Pootle this morning grappled with the ontology of the monolith, the mysterious object in Kubrick’s film that seems to be some sort of catalyst for mankind’s evolutionary leaps: from hominid ape, to Homo sapiens, to the mystical and poetic “Star Child”. With my students I discuss Nietzsche’s ideas, SF tropes of alien intervention in human evolution, and what the heck is that Star Child. Q Pootle and his friends make different educated guesses as to the nature of the monolith, trying to use it as a blackboard, a slide and a see saw!

QPootle5(3)QPootle5(4)
QPootle5(5)Groobie finally arrives to solve the riddle. He presses some invisible button on the monolith, which promptly causes it to lift up gracefully in the air (complete with Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra playing in the background and the sun appearing behind it as if it is just rising) to reveal a table tennis net sprouting on one side, and folding legs on the other! Groobie exclaims: “It’s my Galacto 2001 pop-up ping-pong table!” And if that’s not enough of a “homage”-cum-parody scene, one of the folding legs of the table quickly fails, and Bud-D fixes it with his spanner, which he then throws in the air in triumph: we see it rising up in slow motion and rotating, bringing to mind both the famous “transition” scene in 2001 from the first tool (the bone) to the most evolved one (the spaceship), and the spanner Bowman uses later on to “terminate” HAL (arguable, the longest murder scene in modern film).
QPootle5(6)
QPootle5(7)Playful intertextuality is nothing new in children’s books, and has been used for ludic purposes by masters of the picturebook form such as Anthony Browne. But it was still lovely to have my brain exercised at 7:40 am on Cbeebies. And I am wondering – since intertextuality often works in anarchic ways – whether my toddler son will exclaim: “That’s Groobie’s ping pong table!” when, one day, he gets to see 2001 A Space Odyssey!

Science Fiction Festival, new Mythgard Course and “things Celtic”

It’s been a busy autumn, with my first public lecture after having a baby, new publications in the pipeline and new, exciting academic ventures.

On 18-19 October I took part in Literature WalesSpace, Time, Machine and Monster festival at the Riverfront Arts Centre, Newport. My talk was on “Tolkien’s Middle-earth: Fantasy and the Reality” and explored the depth and vast detail of the Middle-Earth world. It also examined Tolkien’s attempts to link this imaginary world to reality via ‘mythical’ history and the construction of artefacts supposedly from Middle-Earth. This was the first time I had given a public lecture after nearly a year (what with the last stages of pregnancy and maternity leave, my last such appearance was my keynote for The Politics of Contemporary Fantasy conference at Wurzburg in October 2012!) It was lovely to give a Tolkien lecture again: it was very well-attended, I had very interesting questions and the discussion was lively and informed – great audience! I also enjoyed the session on Arthur Machen (the Welsh writer of ‘weird tales’, admired by H. P. Lovecraft, and recognised by Jorge Luis Borges) presented by Gwilym Games and the brilliant Catherine Fisher.

I am also very excited to be embarking on a new academic adventure: in January, and for the entire Spring semester 2014, I will be joining the Mythgard Institute (a new, online academic institution based in the US) as a Visiting Professor. I will be teaching a brand-new online course on Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy which bridges my previous expertise with my current research. I am looking forward to exploring the Irish and Welsh medieval tales and poems that make up the magic of ‘Celtic’ myth, and to teaching some of my favourite contemporary fantasy novels, many of which have won prestigious awards (such as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service; Susan Cooper’s The Grey King; Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider; and Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman). Enrolment is now open!

  • For more information about the Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy online course see here
  • Follow this link for more information on how the Mythgard Institute courses work
  • A short video presentation about the course can be accessed below

Space, Time, Machine and Monster

A science fiction, fantasy and horror conference, organised by Academi, will take place on Saturday 21 June 2008. Space, Time, Machine and Monster: A Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Conference for the Valleys will be held at the University of Glamorgan, Treforest, 10:00am – 4:30pm (tickets £5 / £3 concessions, available on the door only). I will give a half-hour talk on “Tolkien’s Science Fiction Experiments”. Download the conference programme here.