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About Siobhan Carroll
Siobhan Carroll specializes in British literature from 1750-1850 – the turbulent historical period called the "Romantic Century" – and in modern science fiction and fantasy. She is interested in the ways that literature has shaped our understanding of empire, community, and the natural world.
Professor Carroll's first book, An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), describes the complicated relationship between literature, science, and exploration during the growth of the British Empire. Natural spaces such as the atmosphere and the North Pole were once inaccessible to humans and thus also ideal settings for fantastic tales. But during the Romantic Century, inventions such as the air balloon brought these spaces within the potential reach of human empire. Some authors, like Mary Shelley, reacted against this ‘invasion' of previously imagined spaces. Others, like Charles Dickens, saw it as an opportunity to argue for the importance of literature to imperial expansion. Whatever their position, writers crafted images of "uncolonizable" spaces that reflected their attitudes towards the growth of the British Empire. The images that literature helped develop – such as the notion that the Arctic and Antarctic are identical "polar spaces" and should be grouped together by scientists and politicians – continue to shape the stories we tell in fiction and in politics.
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Planetary spaces such as the poles, the oceans, the atmosphere, and subterranean regions captured the British imperial imagination. Intangible, inhospitable, or inaccessible, these blank spaces—what Siobhan Carroll calls "atopias"—existed beyond the boundaries of known and inhabited places. The eighteenth century conceived of these geographic outliers as the natural limits of imperial expansion, but scientific and naval advances in the nineteenth century created new possibilities to know and control them. This development preoccupied British authors, who were accustomed to seeing atopic regions as otherworldly marvels in fantastical tales. Spaces that an empire could not colonize were spaces that literature might claim, as literary representations of atopias came to reflect their authors' attitudes toward the growth of the British Empire as well as the part they saw literature playing in that expansion.
Siobhan Carroll interrogates the role these blank spaces played in the construction of British identity during an era of unsettling global circulations. Examining the poetry of Samuel T. Coleridge and George Gordon Byron and the prose of Sophia Lee, Mary Shelley, and Charles Dickens, as well as newspaper accounts and voyage narratives, she traces the ways Romantic and Victorian writers reconceptualized atopias as threatening or, at times, vulnerable. These textual explorations of the earth's highest reaches and secret depths shed light on persistent facets of the British global and environmental imagination that linger in the twenty-first century.