Friday, 26 April 2013

Look once, look twice, look again: searching deeper to make research connections

My focus in the last week has been pulling together a proposal to take a research trip to England. At times writing it felt a bit like having my teeth extracted one by one without any anaesthetic but I think I've got it sorted out now. The interesting thing about writing the proposal, though, was following the trail of connections that led to to where I wanted to go.

It started about 8 weeks ago, when I saw a call for papers for a conference on research into speculative fiction being held at the University of Liverpool. It sounded like exactly my sort of thing, so I wrote an abstract and sent it off. The problem was, the conference was only for 1 day. And it takes 24 hours (minimum) to fly from Australia to England. So if I was going to go to the conference, I had to work out what else I would do while I was in the UK because there was no way I was going for less than 2 weeks.

One of the reasons the University of Liverpool is a great place for a conference on speculative fiction is that their library has a Science Fiction Special Collection. I was sure there had to be something in there for me but searching on the terms 'posthuman' and 'posthumanity' got me nowhere in their library catalogue. I kept searching around the Science Fiction Special Collection website looking for clues but I wasn't getting anywhere with skim searching. It was time to look deeper, and pay close attention to each page on the site.

Digging deeper

On the 'Scholarship' web page (which I'd previously ignored because I thought it related to getting a scholarship), was a list of links under various headings including 'Courses', 'Conferences and events', 'Themes & subjects' and 'Theses & dissertations'. Under the heading 'Themes and subjects' was a link 'posthumanity'. I clicked on it - it took me out of the library site to an unassuming (a bit dodgy looking, actually) page. On this page, under the heading 'Books' it listed fiction by just three authors, none of whom I was overly familiar with but one name jumped out at me: Olaf Stapledon. I knew I'd seen his name in my wanderings around the Science Fiction Special Collection site. I went back and double checked and bingo - the special collection has an extensive Stapledon archive.

So far in my research into posthumanity I've focused on recent theory and criticism, and each of the novels I've chosen for my case studies are from the late 20th/early 21st century. I hadn't really looked for where the beginnings of fictional posthumanity might be. Turns out, Olaf Stapledon is pretty much it - he is the forefather of posthuman science fiction. And now here was a whole archive of his writing, notes, correspondence, lectures and more staring me right in the face. This is what I'd (unknowingly) been searching for.

Lessons learned

There are a couple of lessons to learn from this exercise. The first is, if your instinct is telling you something you're searching for is somewhere on a site, keep searching. Look deeper and if you don't find it the first, second or third time go back and look differently. Secondly, don't assume the page title or even the visible headings are telling you everything you need to know. I'd dismissed the 'Scholarship' page several times because of its title and because the first two headings (courses and conferences) on the page confirmed what I thought the page was about. I'm not sure how many times I'd looked at that page before I finally scrolled down to see the 'posthumanity' link, but it was at least 2 or 3.

The Olaf Stapledon archive could turn out to hold the core ideas and concepts that will pull my PhD thesis into a cohesive whole. And although it was staring me in the face, I very nearly missed it. This is very unscientific of me but I believe it was my instincts telling me to keep going back and look again.

By the way, my abstract for the conference paper wasn't accepted. But to be honest, it doesn't really matter. I'll still go to the conference as a delegate, and it'll be a great networking experience, but in the end the conference was just a pathway to me finding what I really needed.