Friday, September 9, 2016

Worldcon Recaps- The Rest!

Whew! Last Worldcon set of recaps, for miscellaneous panels I didn't take extensive notes on. More below the jump:

Reviewing the Reviews

Gary Wolfe, Michelle Sagara West, Rich Horton
  • Nothing too substantial here, mostly interesting for some oral history of SF/F reviewers.
  • Shout-outs to Pauline Kael and her Bonnie & Clyde review, as the kind of heroic ideal a reviewer might aspire to--saving a wonderful work from obscurity.
  • Wayne Booth keeps coming up on my radar a lot--he came up at this panel.
  • Some comments on C.S. Lewis's writing on criticism and genre fiction which make me want to look those up.
Check out the notes from a similar panel at Wiscon for some good review sites.

Science Fiction as Epic

John Kessel, Frederick Turner, Elizabeth Moon, Walter Jon Williams, Cynthia Ward
Panel description: Often science fiction is dismissed as "space opera". What constitutes epic science fiction and what does it do that more personal stories can't?

This was a panel that was kind of an instructional failure--because the idea of "epic science fiction" was never really defined, the converstaion meandered pretty badly, with a lot of confusion as to what counted as epic, or not. A few interesting points:
  • Turner: epics were the SF/F of their time
  • Williams: some early big "SF" was really (and retrospectively obviously) fantasy with a thin SF veneer, because commercial genre of fantasy wasn't yet established.
  • Williams points out that epic seems to rule out post-apocalyptic SF, Kessel that there's also no democratic SF, it all reverts to empires & kings.
  • Shout-outs to Cherryh's Foreigner sequence and Arnason's Hwarhath books.
Yeah, didn't take much from this one.

SF Predicts the Future the Way a Shotgun Kills a Duck

David Brin, Dr. Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, Dr. Charles Gannon, Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman

For some reason, this panel was on the academic track, which was really odd--not a particularly academic thing, and also the academic room did not have the seating for all the folks these panelists brought in: these are some of the bigger, older names in SF, and that is also very much the demographic of Worldcon, so the room was packed way over capacity.
  • The gist of this panel was twofold: talking about how and if SF predicts the future, and how those predictions have a practical impact on the human race. The practical side had a very concrete expression, with the panelists talking about some of the (non-classified) work they did with Sigma, the DC futurists, and other private and public institutions--policy-impacting SF brainstorming sessions, wargaming kind of stuff. "Science fiction in the national interest," as someone put it.
  • Benford had a lot of specific project examples, including research on geo-engineering projects such as using high-altitude aerosol dispersal to fight global warming.
  • Brin talked a bit about the Fermi paradox and the Great Filter, described SF less as a shotgun hitting targets, more as a long stick to poke ahead at possible pitfalls. Said that the highest form of SF is the self-preventing prophecy: Soylent Green, 1984, Silent Spring. (Interesting that Silent Spring went into SF in his head.) Cited 2 science-fictional but real images as the most influential of the last century: the mushroom cloud, and Earth from space. Brin also encouraged everyone in the room to help contribute to TACET/TASSET, a searchable index of SF as a thinking tool for different kinds of situations.
Unrelated observation: David Brin should probably use Terry O'Quinn for the biopic.

I gotta be honest, this was kind of a weird panel. It was cool to see these folks talk, and don't misunderstand me--I have a lot of respect and fondness for a lot of their fiction. But this was so strongly and purely one pole of SF, and one pole only: tech-centric, space-obsessed, 100% bearded white dude SF. During Q & A someone asked (think it was Frederick Turner) why the discussion of SF prediction focused on tech--were personal computers predicted ahead of time or not--but not social changes. Where are the Golden Age SF stories that predict feminism, racial equality, sexual expression? And the panel completely missed the point, defensively naming less than a handful of female SF writers from that period as proof that somehow the genre was ahead of the curve on gender equality.

Interesting panel, and I don't want to knock these writers or the very non-fictional projects some of them are involved in, but it kind of cemented a distinction between schools of SF that I'd been picking up on all Worldcon.

Also, not recorded, for the safety of your brain: approximately 87 puns on "duck" and permutations on the shotgun metaphor.

Coode St. Podcast

Jonathan Strahan, Gary Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, Kij Johnson

I'm not going to put all my notes down for this because you can listen to the podcast! This was recording of Swanwick, Johnson, and Wolfe doing a close, writerly reading of Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See", and it was AWESOME. Tons of cool insights. Among the best panels I've ever been to.

Listen to that podcast.

Alienation and Science Fiction

Dr. Amy Sturgis, Robert Reed, Joy Ward, Robert J. Sawyer

This was a mildly weird one. The panel description read: What are the bleaker and more lonely works of SF, and why do they work? What makes them perfect for examining what it means to be human or inhuman?

Based on that description, I was super-pumped for this panel: both collecting a reading list, and hearing some thoughts about one of my favorite themes in SF.

Instead, the panel turned into this conflicted discussion of anti-social/introversion tendencies in the SF community, with basically no reference to SF works of alienation.

Particular low points were the audience cheering the old "fans are superior to mundanes" idea, which I was frankly shocked to find still alive, and an audience question-really-a-comment that introversion/anti-social behavior is a choice that SF fans just shouldn't make (paraphrasing, but that was the gist, from an audience member who kind of self-identified as not a fan, so: super-weird). Really weird and aggressive, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in finding it kind of insulting--social isolation was a major fact of my formative years, and SFF was one of the things I turned to. This seems to be a fairly common experience for at least one type of fan--so I was pretty nonplussed when the panel didn't really respond, just kind of said "okay sure". There was some really weird audience/panelist antagonism at this thing, including an audience member "asking" to say that they didn't like Sawyer's work, Sawyer responding by citing all his awards and insulting the guy's appearance.

There were some cool points to the panel, however, Reed talking about being alienated and liking it, Sawyer and Reed both talking about excitedly recording weird people interactions they overhear for writing purposes, a long discussion of how the ubiquity of SF/F franchises and imagery--the "culture war victory" that came up a lot at the con--connects or doesn't to SFnal/fannish values. Sawyer: "The world is cosplaying SF without engaging with it as a philosophical project, and that's a huge disappointment." Which is a cool thought, and one I share to an extent--although I have to wonder if the great gobs of non-phi-sci-fi actually hurt those projects, maybe make it easier to get to good question-raising SF by lowering the barrier against enjoying nerdish things. Dunno. Something to think about.

Weird panel, though.

When the Magic Goes Away

Jared Shurin, Heather Rose Jones, Erin Wilcox, Rosemary Claire Smith, Kevin J. Anderson

I felt like I had to go to this one, thinking it might have some resonance with my talk on anti-fantasy. The panel description said it was to be about "representations of coming back to the real world or letting go"; in practice it was more a discussion of the "vanishing magic" trope in fantasy. Some interesting stuff, though, as well as a few mildly face-palmy moments.
  • Started off with some examples of "magic going/gone away", including Middle Earth, the mystic forest of medieval romances, the Mesozoic (?), and Homeric Greece. KJA offers Dune as a reversal--SF going away, being replaced by more fantastic elements.
  • Heather Rose Jones was dropping cool ideas all throughout this panel, makes me want to read her stuff: on the "mechanical fantasy", where the magic rules are so explicit that it works like SF, and conversely the "techno-fantasy", fantasy thinly dressed up in SF clothing (Golden Age full of these, she notes). Also suggests that the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl is a kind of intrusion of old, irrational magic into modern storytelling.
  • Nobody makes the connection between the "magic going away" trope and ecological overtones, which is kind of a weird oversight. Anti-fairy iron as a stand-in for technological society is mentioned.
  • Books where magic goes away mentioned: An Accident of Stars, Every Heart a Doorway, The Borrowers, American Gods. KJA suggests Fahrneheit 451, where the "magic of reading" is going away, I facepalm.
  • KJA goes on to spin some anti-mundane, fans-are-slans type comments. I facepalm some more.
Meh, 2/5 star panel.

Criticism in Speculative Fiction

Dr. Amy Sturgis, Dr. Tom Easton, Jason Sanford

An okay panel, though again one that went a bit offtrack: panel description was explicitly about criticism as opposed to review, but the bulk of panel was about reviews. I was a little confused as to why Easton was on the panel, as he seemed actively hostile to the idea of criticism, referred to academic work as "masturbatory", etc. Had a derailing effect.

Really would have loved to just have Sturgis talk the whole time, to be honest. But! Some things:
  • Check out Starship Sofa, podcast that Sturgis provides critical/historical context for.
  • Interesting bit about negative reviews, that whole Anne Rice Goodreads bullying thing.
  • Some interesting stuff about mainstream reception of speculative works, how genre ignorance can lead to mis-steps. Sturgis uses the example of mainstream outlets praising McCarthy's "The Road" for its originality, which is kind of outrageous for readers who know that it's like post-apocalyptic travel tale #873, not #1. Not mentioned on the panel, but I also can't help thinking of the kerfuffle over Ben H. Winter's "Underground Airlines", where the New York Times and others falsely praised it as like the first SF to deal with slavery, meanwhile Winter and tons of others are yelling "No! Octavia Butler! Many more!" down at the end of the hallway.
  • Sturgis plugs Glen Weldon's "The Caped Crusade" (scholarly Batman thing) as a great example of a critical book for a lay audience, that can act as a gateway to more analysis if people are into it.
  • So many problems in life can be solved if you cultivate lots of friendships with librarians.
  • List of places to find good criticism:
I'm super into SF criticism for the general as well as academic population, as you've probably seen by now, so despite some weirdness I was pretty pleased with this panel.

The State of Feminist Fantasy

Dr. Janice Bogstad, Tessa Gratton, Julia Rios, Ann Leckie

This was to be my last panel of the con, and a bit of a relief, to be honest. If I learned one thing at Worldcon, it's that Wiscon is awesome, and this panel would have felt at home there. A lot of this panel wound up being list-sharing, who to read in fantasy that's doing this well, with some other comments as well.

One of the core questions was not if there is feminist fantasy (lots of examples), but rather why it's not generally discussed, why it hasn't cohered into a movement or sub-genre the way that 70's feminist SF did.

Gratton had a good point that we (culture, SF/F community) already "know"that SF is political, but fantasy is just about elves or whatever.

Along a similar line, an audience member pointed out that SF was historically perceived as a male arena, so women had to actively carve out and defend a spot. Fantasy, on the other hand, has always had a "girly" side, so women didn't have to fight so hard to get published in the first place, minimizing how much feminist work was recognized.

The list! Clean this up:
  • Angela Carter's fairy tales
  • Catherynne M. Valente
  • Robin McKinley
  • Megan Lindholm
  • Robin Hobbe
  • Patricia Briggs
  • Kate Elliot
  • Katherine Kerr
  • Kelly Link
  • Sofia Samatar
  • Nancy Kres
  • Leckie notes some important women, not necessarily feminists themselves, Andre Norton and C.J. Cherryh. (I'm omitting a long aside here about Cherryh! But Leckie's totally correct: Cherryh's fiction is important from a feminist perspective, and extremely amenable to feminist readings, though Cherryh herself has distanced herself from the term.)
  • Also asked: where does Madeline L'Engle fit into this? What about C.L. Moore?
  • Men writing feminist characters/narratives? Max Gladstone & Jim C. Hines come up immediately.
This was a great panel, with far more nuance and discussion than I've captured here. I particularly liked Gratton's commentary on the YA-related twitter/tumblr-verse, and her statement that "it's 2016, I will die on the hill of intersectionality"--feminism today can't be just about (white) women, it has to be about equality and justice over a much wider range of issues.

This panel also raised some questions for me that I want to think about some more, possibly fodder for Wiscon panels/discussions:
  • What can feminist fantasy do differently than SF?
  • What's the relation between these works' feminism and quasi-historical settings, where applicable?

And that's all my notes! I doubt I'll be going to Helsinki next year, but I'm glad I made it to a Worldcon. Regularly scheduled Positron content resuming post-haste!

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