Thursday, September 8, 2016

Worldcon Recaps- Academic Panels

Midamericon II teamed up with the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, from the University of Kansas, for an academic track. I really wish the academic program hadn't been separated in the paper program--it was in a different section at the back--as I think we might otherwise have had a lot better attendance. Still, I really appreciate cons with at least some academic presence, and we had plenty of interested non-academic folks at most panels. I went to a good number of these talks, heard some great stuff; really brief overviews below.

Joyful Disruption: Narratology and the SF/F Franchise

MCU is the the supertextiest
Dr. Heather Urbanski
  • Very cool lecture!
  • She's looking at Hollywood franchises, big multi-media things like the Marvel/DC or Star Wars universes.
  • Starts out citing some examples of anti-superhero rhetoric, lamentations over lack of originality, etc.
  • She's looking at the question of "Why franchises?" from a narrative perspective, using theorists like Mieke Bal, as well as some stuff on memory work & theory.
  • One of her core ideas is that the difference between text, story, and fabula is more disrupted, independent in "supertexts", because so much of any given moment relies on something elsewhere, on the viewer making those connections.
  • Cites timing of Marvel Universe releases to create reinforcing effects in the audience--timing references in films and television series so that they call out to each other in ways attentive fans will notice.
  • Talks a bit about memory theory, including ideas from Barry Mazur, Julia Creet, Jan Assman, & Frances Yates--the idea of cultural memory, its crystallization and cultivation. Uses moments from "The Force Awakens" to illustrate.
  • Uses "Stranger Things" as example of "nostalgic bricolage".
Great talk! There's an audience question that makes me ponder, though--referencing the beginning of a superhero film that doesn't make much sense if you don't know the canon, asks: "How do do you decide what's interesting intertextuality, versus just plain bad writing?" Urbanski responds that she very deliberately avoids aesthetics; she's interested in fannish joy and how this stuff works, not telling people what they like sucks.

Which I get, that's fair, but it's also telling. It's weird that one has to suspend aesthetic judgement to talk about this stuff--because if you leave your aesthetic judgment switch on, it's real obvious that a lot of us this stuff is REAL BAD. It's a weird problem, compounded, I think, by the overt, extreme, and carefully-planned commodification of these franchises. I feel like there's got to be some way to fuse those three angles--the aesthetic, the economic, and the kind of socio- or ethno-narratology Urbanski's working on. Great talk though.

Science Fiction at the Universities: Creating the Canon

Dr. Paul Booth, Gary Wolfe, Dr. Heather Urbanski, Lynne M. Thomas

This was a pretty cool panel, made up of people who work in/interact with academia in different ways, talking about how SF/F works in the classroom and the institution. Booth did something unusual and smart, taking a quick list of audience panels at the beginning of the talk, and using those to structure it. Questions included:
  • How to balance classic texts with newer/less well-known.
  • The "Scott Card Problem"--what to do with authors who have problematic ideologies.
  • Is the boundary between SF/F important in these contexts?
  • Any comments on how students engage with SF differently because of generational differences? (Grew up with tech, born in the mid-late 90's, etc.)
  • Any commentary on difficulty or ease of getting universities to carry these classes.
  • Urbanski: This may sound heretical, but I don't try to teach the classics. They can find those. I want them to see it as a living genre. I actually don't think it's good for you to read something where you don't exist (if you're not a straight white male, that is).
  • Booth and Thomas talk about genre distinction importance or lack thereof. Science Fiction vs. Fantasy, or Science Fiction as a subset of Fantasy.
  • Lots of discussion on university push-back on SF/F classes, how the high/low-lit divide hangs on strong in some places, whereas completely absent in others--Booth talks about the relative ease and even enthusiasm he has with using SF/F in classes, whether or not it's designated as such. I'm reminded of the GoH AMA back at Wiscon, BTW.
  • Thomas tells some interesting stories about managing SF collections at Northern Illinois, and how they kind of became diverse by default because a lot of the old dead white guys' papers were already snatched up.
  • Talking about specific texts they like to teach, a few panelists mention "The Machine Stops" by  Forster as a piece that has "aged back in to relevance", that students really connect with.

Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Ecology, Utopia, Dystopia

David Farnell

Alas, I didn't take extensive notes, as this was my copanelist. An overview of "The Dispossessed" with a focus on those three elements, including my favorite monologue, "here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes," you know the one.

A Series of Agile Distractions: Anti-Fantasy & World-Building in Swanwick's Stations of the Tide

Jake Casella (hey that's me!)

My talk had essentially two parts. First, I'm working on a more detailed definition of "anti-fantasy", which I think can be a very useful term for a certain kind of movement within genre fiction. Drawing on (but distinguishing from) Mendelsohn's conception of the liminal fantasy, as well as some narrative & reader reception theory. Then, I use Michael Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide" to talk about that concept (and vice versa). Finally, drawing some tenuous connections between the anti-fantasy and some old facets of SF genre definitions, cognitive estrangement and the sense of wonder.

Feeling pretty good about this paper, and am hopefully doing some more with it. Will let you know. In the meantime you may glean some insights from the Think Galactic discussion of "Stations" earlier this year.

Teaching Stony Mayhall: The Anti-Zombie Zombie Narrative

Robert Lipscomb

This was a great quick piece of scholarship--equally split between the history of the zombie-as-monster, critique of same, and the experience of teaching Gregory's "Raising Stony Mayhall".
  • While noting important precursors (and highly encouraging us to watch "I Walked with a Zombie", beautiful film, we are told), sites the real "birth" of the zombie with Romero.
  • Talks a bit about the "dominant monster" of a cultural period--Frankenstein as the monster of reason & technology, vampire as the monster of repression social & sexual, the zombie as the monster of the demographic other.
  • "The Other as Population at the end of the imperial age."
  • Three-quarters-jokingly suggests that he's thus indentified a 75-year monster cycle (Shelley, Stoker, Romero). Won't speculate on the next.
This was a really great paper, with some lovely turns of phrase. Lots of focus on how the zombie is semi-secretly a racist image--roots in Haiti, zombies visually portrayed as brown or darker-skinned, invading, shambling horde as immigration fears.

Also really makes me want to read "Stony Mayhall", which first popped on my radar way back at the CNSC discussion of "The Girl with All the Gifts". Incidentally, this talk had some interesting crossover with a presentation Booth gave in Chicago recently: "Monsters in Pop Culture".

The Personal and the Apocalyptic in James Tiptree Jr.'s Short Fiction

Arnab Chakraborty

This was a cool, kind of wandering piece, looking at twists & paradigm shifts as core SF values. Looking at how any individual anxiety can be made to define all of human life in an SF context, by enlarging it to apocalyptic proportions.

Also did some good close reading of "The Screwfly Solution", and argued, contra-Csicsery-Ronay, that one can't subtract the science from Tiptree's stories--they really too heavily on the science for their fatalistic punch. Conversely, Chakraborty referenced Le Guin's "SF & Mrs. Brown", and how Tiptree infuses her stories with character as well.

Also mentioned a book I want to check out: Rob Nixon's "Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor".

Using SF to Teach Ethics: E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops"

Dr. Judy Goldsmith, Dr. Emanuelle Burton

This was a fantastic, engaging panel. Goldsmith & Burton are putting together a textbook for teaching ethics in computer science programs, and they ran this panel kind of like a "test-teach". They started out by breaking down ethics into 3 branches for us--deontology, utilitarian, and virtue ethics--then giving a synopsis of Forster's story and reading some excerpts. Then we just discussed it, classroom style: both the specific example of using The Machine Stops to talk about ethical systems & vice versa, and the larger project. Great stuff.

Yeah, yeah, insert Dalek
joke here.

FutureScapes: How Civic Innovators Utilize Science Fiction to Build the Cities of the Future

Luke Peterson

This was a cool talk, not academic but talking about a practical project: Peterson works for New Urban Mechanics, an urban planning firm that does some cool stuff, including the Big Belly trash compactors you've probably seen around, as well as less-glamorous but pretty important stuff like procurement reform.

They are soliciting contributions to what will hopefully be the first of an SF anthology series, each one targeted towards thinking about specific problems the cities of the (near) future will face, as a brainstorming tool for urban planners to start thinking up solutions ahead of time. Very cool.

Fanzines as Social Media: Historical Antecedents for Digital Fandom

Dr. Paul Booth

Dr. Paul Booth of Depaul in Chicago! He runs those awesome pop culture conferences they do in the spring (Harry Potter's up next, BTW).

Booth teaches communication and film, but his scholarly work focuses on fandom studies. What he was presenting here was a look at the way that pre-internet fan communications anticipated a lot of later social media development, and also talking a bit about the development of fan studies and how fandom understands itself.

Very cool talk, particularly the idea that the 3 core aspects of fandom culture--communication, creativity, and knowledge organization--have persisted across radical technological change. He also gave a shout out to fanzine archives like the Hevelin collection, who had a booth at the Con.

(Also, a fascinating little historical note--Fredric Wertham, the guy who prompted the massively influential/detrimental Comics Code, later had a change of heart and did one of the earliest fanzine studies.)

...And Yesterday was Already Tomorrow: Ancient Greece and Rome in Science Fiction

This was a cool set of talks. One speaker couldn't make the con, so we missed a cool-sounding analysis of G'Kar & Londo from Babylon 5. Also, due to some poor moderating, the first talk went way over time, crunching the second, but nonetheless they were both pretty great.

Dr. Robert Cape's talk, "Zelazny's Ancient Greek Myth of Our Future Now", looked at how much Greek mythology and theatre were very much alive and in the 60's/70's zeitgeist, putting their appearance in New Wave SF in context. Lots of cool images of SF re-imaginings of mythological tales, album covers and playbills that pulled on Greek imagery.

Dr. Timothy Phin had a great talk that I hope to find in print: "Finding Rome in the Radch", a look at the connections between Leckie's Ancillary trilogy and aspects of Roman history that she's pulling on.

Really a fantastic piece of scholarship, mostly focusing on the roles and reception of citizenship, language, slaves, and emperors in both Rome and the Radch. Very good stuff.

I also have to note that Phin has a really amazing basso profundo speaking voice.

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