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Jennifer Rea

2013 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship

Prof. Jennifer Rea used her 2013 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to complete her book project Empire Without End: Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Augustan Poets. In this book, she explores classical narratives, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, that permeate our culture. What, she asks, are the costs of empire without end? What will be our limit of sacrifice for personal freedom? And what sacrifices do we ask of those who become heroes to us?

Rea’s work argues that the popular genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy create a safe space that allow for discussion and exploration of such controversial questions, particularly in a post-9/11 American culture that is grappling with the proper role of surveillance vis a vis personal liberty. In a fantastical world, however, we can think through questions and consequences related to the limits of personal freedom, how we establish diversity, about the ethics of defensive imperialism, and the consequences of war and violence, etc. Our ability to grapple with questions that seem too close to home or generate fear and anxiety in a realistic world is made possible in a world full of fantastical settings and characters.

One example that Rea develops looks at several reincarnations of Vergil’s Aeneid. The story of the Aeneid appears across much of pop culture in TV shows like Battlestar Gallatica, Firefly, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This story is also explored in depth in Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy novel, Lavinia (2008), and in Jo Graham’s Black Ships (2008). In Black Ships, Graham reimagines what would have happened if Aeneas’s story had continued. Rea points out how Graham questions the epic trope of the hero being called to sacrifice everything for the success of the empire, and whether such sacrifices are, perhaps, too great? Rea ties Graham’s narratives to post-9/11 American culture and the American dream, revealing how Graham questions whether the idea of success founded on violence and conquest actually creates promise and security. In Graham’s novel, ultimately such sacrifices are not worthwhile for the empire or the hero, for when “all the world was mended,” the hero (much like Vergil’s Aeneas) has no resolution and no real future to look forward to. Thus, Graham’s novel suggests that the world cannot ever be mended after war and that the American dream—to create a new future with no link to the past—has been compromised with post-9/11 anxieties.

Prof. Rea’s project underscores the importance of the science fiction and fantasy genres in literature, demonstrates the relevance of classical narratives in contemporary culture, and astutely comments on American cultural anxieties and ideals. Her work demonstrates that classical study is vital to understanding the enduring questions that rest at the core of humanities about freedom, personal securities, and the costs of improving the human condition, and shows how the classics can help us to problem-solve potential political decisions and the future direction of a nation.