Thursday, April 18, 2019

C2E2: The Future is Now

C2E2 2019 had some more prominent literary guests & paneling than usual, which is awesome, and I was able to attend a couple. Brief notes below; errors mine!

The Future is Now brought together SF/F authors to discuss various questions on how they create future worlds. Panelists:
  • Alison Wilgus: writer & comic artist; recently published Chronin.
  • Sue Burke: Chicago-based translator and SF author, recently of Semiosis.
  • Cory Doctorow: SF writer, journalist, and activist, recently published Radicalized.
  • Mary Robinette Kowal: Chicago-based SF writer, audiobook narrator, and puppeteer, recently published The Fated Sky & The Calculating Stars.
  • Mirah Bolender: SFF author, recently of City of Broken Magic.
  • Didn't catch the chair's name, alas.
Chair: Do you have literary heroes or events in the past that particularly affect how you create future worlds?
MRK: Yes! Cyclical nature of fashion, political issues. The issues faced by women astronauts in her fiction (set in an alternate past) are drawn from examples today.
AW: Has been working on her project so long it's like collaborating with a 12-years younger version of herself. Much more aware of queer aspects of the book, and how we've made lots of advances in queer rights but also they're under attack in a way they weren't.
CD: Super-skeptical of the whole enterprise of prediction. Tries with fiction not to project forward but to reflect back on what we're going through right now. Focused on human rights & digital technologies. When we create a terrible technology, we need to beta test it on people who can't complain, so it starts with prisoners/refugees/students before moving up to other sectors of society.

Chair: How much research do you do?
SB: Spent years researching, botanists are happy to tell you what they know, because nobody ever asks. Everything plants do in this book they do here, except think.
AW: Fell very hard for a manga called Rurini Kenshin set in the Meiji Restoration, late 19th century. Started researching this period a lot, eventually decided to make something about it.
MRK: I write things in eras I'm already interested in, but bring in experts because people really know this stuff, so talked to literal rocket scientists. Would write bits like "jargon the jargon", mad libs for experts.
MB: My work basically the opposite of that. Had a plot, did research as needed to support.
CD: Writing for Boing Boing is a powerful mnemonic to notice and remember interesting things. First rule of plotting is to give characters agency but not too much. One story in Radicalized is about allyship & Superman, referenced Matt Taibi's book on Eric Garner.
AW: Thinking about who gets to be the narrator.
CD: Importance of talking to friends and readers from other groups when writing from other perspectives, probably got a lot wrong, but on balance thinks representation is more important than getting it 100% right.

Chair: There's been a seismic shift in the literary landscape with things like #MeToo and #OwnVoices, how has that affected you?
MRK: Any writing is a political act. These issues aren't new. Talks about a conference her mom was on in the 70's on diversity, that looks identical to the conversations today. What has changed is my understanding of my place in the landscape, which does effect choices I make in books. To not ignore it. What has changed is acknowledging it. Plots of my books aren't about sexism and racism, they're about asteroids and space flight, but that has to be part of it too, to not be complacent/complicit.
AW: There's the stories we're telling, and how we tell them. Might not have done her project in the same way if starting it today. Points out that it's great to be on an SF/F panel with only one dude on it, and we need to keep going with more inclusion.

Chair: "Future is Now" title made her think of all the woman-centric films coming out. Where would you like to see the genre go next?
MRK: Looking forward to having a more inclusive writing world, so that certain authorial choices won't be crowding others out. Would like to not be asked "what is it like to be a woman author?"
CD: There are a couple of very undertold stories that we could benefit from telling better. We've treated computers as narrative conveniences instead of things in the world. Computer science is pretty stable even if the technology changes quickly. References recent Australian ex-PM who thought he could legislate around the rules of mathematics. Talks about his novel Little Brother. There's a lot of room in the field to write stories about the limits and capabilities of computers, where they are the thing that the plot turns on. Quotes that "it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism", even as capitalism seems to be nearing the end of its run. There used to be the consensus that computers couldn't ever allocate resources to an entity the size of a nation as well as markets can, but that's no longer the case. Markets are now a choice, not a necessity, which means there's a whole lot of undertold stories, especially in the light of climate change and the risks to the only habitable planet we know of.
SB: Is a translator, and people are writing really different SF in other language traditions of it, and very little of it is being translate.
Panelists mention recent good collections of Indian, Chinese, Iraqi  SF in translation.
AW: Want more weird stuff, not just VanderMeer weird but mundane weird, Becky Chambers/Ann Leckie weird, more weirdness with gender and living situations, there's more getting published and wants to see more.
CD: Be the weird you want to see in the world.
AW: Kim Stanley Robinson is even doing weird stuff, 2312 is this road trip to see tons of post-human stuff. If a 70-year old white dude is doing stuff this weird, think what others can do.
MB: Wants to see more stories thinking about hope and solutions.
CD: Solarpunk is doing some of this.
SB: Recent Brazilian Solarpunk anthology.

Chair: Is the genre at the forefront of change?
AW: SFF actually reactive, all writing is therapy, SFF is just very elaborate fantasy therapy. It's always grounded in the present, more sometimes than literary fiction, because it's reacting to bigger headlines.
MRK: Science fictions reflects the zeitgeist. We go through cycles, things like alternating fascination with the natural or the artificial.
SB: SF's job to prevent the future.
CD: Talks about reactionary politics in SF at a Worldcon panel. Science fiction's golden age was the least blue-collar, it was the 30 years after WWII where there was enormous social mobility for people with technical skills; it glossed over a lot of class and political issues. There were radical people working in the field but they weren't the majority. Seeing SF engage with this a lot more now, and so is fantasy. Points out that fantasy has often had a really ahistorical ratio of vassals to lords. There are fantasy authors flipping that, points out Stephen Brust's Trotsky-influenced fantasy.
AW: Is the rise of the novella connected to this political turnaround?
MRK: The publishing field went through this period that encouraged large works, but now reading styles and technology allowing smaller sizes to succeed again.
CD: We're also in this artificial TV bubble, and novellas are great for series adaptation. Also products horrific collapse of the TV bubble within a decade.

Chair: Meaningful fan interactions to share?
SB: George R.R. Martin put it best when he said we're all fans. There is no difference.
AW: Makes a podcast about graphic novel publishing, Graphic Novel TK, has had people come up to say they listen to it, and that's been really great. Podcast aims to help people break into publishing, especially marginalized voices, so great to hear it's helping lower the barrier.
MB: Met a highschooler who said she stayed up all night to read her book. It worked!
CD: Gave a talk at West Point, had a cadet tell him that he was planning to work for the NSA to make a good change, what do you think of that? CD pointed out that Snowden was gung-ho, from a military family, was one of the smartest people at the CIA, and tried every legal channel he could to affect positive change and it didn't work, so if you don't have a plan to do better than that, think it through. Feels like he makes a tiny dent in the universe from hearing that people in information security have read his books.
MRK: Glad that representation of social anxiety disorder, demystifying and de-shaming it, has reached some readers.
CD: Judy Blume's Are You There God It's Me Margaret updates about sanitary products.
MRK: We live with stigma about this stuff for way too long.

Audience Question: What scares you most, or gives you most hope, about the future?
AW: Climate change, no question.
CD: My hope & fear are the same, the protests against all the terrible things going on, and the violence from the institution against it. Hard to tell if the old powers are on their deathbed and over-reacting or at the height of their power.
SB: Biggest fear is we're going to have trouble feeding ourselves.
MRK: Everything we think about climate change is worse when you drill into it.
MB: Biggest fear is that we know so much but aren't acting on it.

Audience question: Seems like there's less focus on sexuality in genre fiction?
AW: It's a sine wave, we get tired of coming out/trauma stories and can focus on other aspects of identity.
MRK: Talks about keeping spreadsheets about character identities to look for under or over representation.

And that's it! Thanks to Chicago Nerd Social Club for supporting Positron coverage of this event.

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