Monday, January 22, 2018

ConFusion Recap: The Future of Portal Fantasy

Many classic children’s books, including Through The Looking Glass, are portal fantasy stories. What do new portal fantasies need to bring to the table to stand out in a crowded field? How do reinterpretations like Every Heart A Doorway fit into the portal fantasy landscape? Do you pretty much have to be Neil Gaiman to get away with playing this trope straight, or is there room for new voices? And where do we want to see portal fantasies take us next?

Navah Wolfe
Sarah Gibbons

Ness: Just finishing a re-read of all the Oz books, so this is fresh in her mind.
Wolfe: Kaye's Tapestry books as an excellent example. What do portal fantasies [henceforth PF] have to do to stand out in a crowded field?
Ness: Would like to see more adults in PF.
Gibbons: Every Heart a Doorway and The Magicians as coming out of adult frustration with the world.
Harris: Not sure we need something completely new; might be enough if PF just addresses the world we live in now. New readers might not want/be able to cope with the cultural baggage of established PF.
Wolfe: Wants more of the after-effects of PF, “the grown up Pevinses”.
Harris: The idea of “Portal PTSD”.
Gibbons: This genre's been around forever, it's still alive, doesn't need revivified. But there are all these things we're frustrated with that could be addressed or improved on.
Wolfe: Imagination, but also return.
Audience comment: Thomas Covenant series.
Ness: Interested in how to keep double life of adults in two worlds.
Wolfe: Portal trope is kind of Doctor-Who-companion-like.
Audience: References actual Who episode with Sarah Jean [sic. Apologies, not a Whovian.]
Wolfe: McGuire's Wayward books explore different kinds of portals.
Harris: They're about a help-group for PF, not a PF itself.
Wolfe: Stories from the perspective of parents of a Peter-Pan-ish story; weighing that childish desire to travel to wondrous places with parental awareness of the dangers therein. Smith's Mom and Dad on the Homefront, Janni Lee Simner stories.
Gibbons: Valente's Fairy series “modern yet traditional”, what sets them apart is agency. PF subgenre has unusual percentage of female protagonists—Alice, Wendy—often very passive.
Wolfe: Pushback to PF comes when you don't really know why you're doing it. “Fanfic of my childhood self-insert” gets quickly tiresome. PF that works knows why it's PF. Brings up Kay's Tapestry again as good example.
Harris: Valente's books work because of the agency of the protagonist.
Ness: The female agency of Baum's Oz books is often overlooked, particularly cites some collective action moments.
Gibbons: On L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time: Maggie's not fucking around. Also cites Funke's Inkheart series. “The pure observer travelogues get boring;” talks about “Alice vs. Dorothy” models in terms of active adventurers.
Gibbons: Most Portal stories are also Quest fantasies, and a lot of times their problems come from "partner tropes" that go along with that—especially the dreaded chosen one overusage.
Harris: What tropes would we like to see?
Gibbons: Anti-Chosen-One, more struggle, more things earned instead of given to the protagonists.
Ness: Would like to see an update on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, lots to look at in how our perspective on future/historical mindsets and gullibility work.
Gibbons: Would like to see explorations of how that story could fail.
Audience: What about more stories looking at future travelers visiting the present?
Ness: Don't do it the way Supergirl's doing it right now.

Gibbons: Brings up Mendlesohn's taxonomy from Rhetorics of Fantasy to help delineate what counts as a portal fantasy. Parallel worlds can definitely count.
Wolfe: TV show Fringe and its ability to reinvent itself several times.
Harris: Issue of "cheaply different" parallel world, don't really fire up the sense of wondrous or strange.
Ness: In screen productions, these are often production cost issues, uses the Arrow-verses "alternate realities" as example.

Audience question on what kinds of things the panelists look for in PF.
Gibbons: Discussing the need for balance between "normal" and "portal" worlds. PF has to bring something back, there must be some kind of transformative or weirding force on the other side of the portal.
Harris: As long as you're writing it well, it works.
Wolfe: Don't write to the market, write what you love. There was that overload of dystopias recently; within that there were some great works clearly written with love, but they got swamped by people trying to write to a perceived demand.

Audience question: beyond bad writing and "chosen one" tropes, what are the big turn-offs in a PF slush pile?
Harris: A PF slush pile is the turnoff. Moderation in all things.
Wolfe: Warns of the crutch where we focus all attention on the fantastic, not the mundane. The mundane world needs built in fiction, too. Brings up example of Parks & Recreation: "they built the shit out of Pawnee". There's also a tendency in PF to make protagonists bland everyman characters, which doesn't work. Give them a reason to want to go, a reason to not want to come back.
Harris: Agrees, character needs to drive the story. All good literature is about people. Brings up example of King's Misery, where nothing really happens, but you really buy the characters.

Audience question about balancing worldbuilding in PF.
Gibbons: It's weird there, but it's also home to the people there, you need to communicate both.
Wolfe: Give them their blue milk!
Harris: References Doctor Who again: sometimes adventure is its own reward. Not enough work explores joy.
Wolfe/Gibbons: Discuss a modern millennial PF where characters stay on the fantasy side for a while just to avoid high rent.
Harris: Also, don't forget that PF works in science fiction just as much as fantasy, for instance Stargate and Sapphire and Steel.

Favorite non-nook portal fantasies?
Ness: Can say her least favorite is definitely Emerald City.
Gibbons: Thinks everything she likes was a book first.
Wolfe: Jupiter Rising, proceeds to defend this.
Harris: Monsters, Inc.

And that's it! Great panel.

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