I just spent the past five days
soaking up the Florida sun soaking up the intellectual stimulation of the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (aka as ICFA, pronounced “ick-fah”). This is an academic conference that also invites writers and editors in the field of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to be in the mix. It’s a–dare I say–fantastic opportunity to get away from the frozen snowy north be deeply intellectually stimulated. The research papers being read range from close textual readings of fantastic literature to sociopolitical analyses of films, to Marxist deconstruction of video game music, to fan studies and transformative works.
With such a panoply of choices before me, and no particular agenda, I sampled from many different tracks and topics, and I find myself unable to write one coherent narrative recap. Instead, I’ll resort to that tried and true staple of our age, the Top Ten List.
1. Elves Must Die
2. Sexism is Lazy
3. Magic is Privilege
4. Cyberpunk is Dated
5. Shopping is Work
6. Personal Growth is not Activism
7. Sidekicks are Oppression
8. Anthropomorphising is Oppression
9. Improbable Sexuality is Ironic
10. God is a Pantser
Details under the cut:
ELVES MUST DIE
One of the panel discussions I attended was on fantasy TROPES THAT MUST DIE. It was a lighthearted panel in which moderator Sarah Pinborough devoured a symbolic Cadbury chocolate for each trope that was deemed unworthy to live. The first trope brought up by panelist Kevin Maroney was universally panned by the audience and panel alike: the Tokienesque elf. The whole “commune with the trees, better than everyone else” received image of the elf that we get from Tolkien seems largely inescapable. Even if one is reacting directly to it by trying to go against that grain, the cliche looms large. Therefore, elves must die. (Also deemed ready to die: farmboy protagonists as a lazy way to inform the reader, especially those who also know nothing about farming either, oppressive faux churches that are oppressive for no real reason, names with apostrophes in them…). Also…
SEXISM IS LAZY
Marco Palmieri (an editor at Tor Books) who was on the TROPES MUST DIE panel answered the question “what would you like to see less of in your slush pile?” with “fridging,” and also at an earlier point had mentioned general boredom with “pseudo-medieval settings where women are second class citizens.” It’s just lazy to argue that there are no women (or hardly any) in your adventuring party or your book’s cast because it wouldn’t be “realistic” in a medieval setting for women to do anything but stay home as chattel. Sorry, writers, but if that’s your nod to “realism” (while you’ve got magic, dragons, etc…) you’re being either lazy, sexist, or both. Yep, subjugation of women in general became the thing–even moreso than elves–that everyone agreed we could do without in fantasy fiction. Fridging, meanwhile, is another expression of ingrained sexism or misogyny in which a female character exists solely in the story to be the victim killed off in order to spur the hero to action. (The name comes from an infamous issue of Green Lantern in which a girlfriend character who had been introduced three issues earlier is killed and her body stuffed into the refrigerator, hence the term “fridging.”) Find a better way to give your hero motivation.
MAGIC IS PRIVILEGE
I actually saw three separate papers on Harry Potter which all echoed the idea in one form or another that the Wizarding world is a metaphor for racism. Karin Kokorski from Osnabrueck University presented “Half Blood, Mudblood, Pureblood: Pseudoscience in Harry Potter,” Rebecca Rowe of Kansas State presented “Being the Slave versus Seeing the Slave: Empathy and Sympathy in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus and J.K. Rowling’s Dobby,” and Erica Ruscio from Kansas State presented a paper entitled “[I]t all looks rather different from a Muggle perspective”: Muggle Technology, Privilege, and Control in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” Kokorski showed various ways in which biological pseudo-science was used by various oppressive regimes like the Nazis to test or prove blood “purity level” and how this related to anti-Muggle attitudes fomented by the “pure bloods” in Harry Potter. Actual biology shows that race is a societal construct, not a scientific one, and that classifying different races is subjective. “Races are by definition unequal,” and allow for a fabricated sense of belonging and superiority. The attitudes demonstrated by the Malfoys show that it is not only racism but classism at work, as the Malfoys believe not only in inherent magical superiority but that only those with elite knowledge of magic, who know “our ways,” should be educated at Hogwarts. Rowe’s paper I’ll mention again later, and Ruscio’s paper followed Kokorski’s closely but took it one step further, showing that magic itself is a metaphor for privilege itself. While her paper was examining the mechanisms that wizards use to keep Muggles ignorant of the magical world, especially the use of Muggle technology appropriated for the use of maintaining Muggle ignorance, this basic idea struck me so strongly I realized that the next time someone I’m talking to is struggling to figure out what privilege exactly IS, I’ll be able to use Harry Potter to explain it. In particular the idea of Harry (and other Muggleborns) as an under-privileged class, who arrive at Hogwarts without the advantages that the children raised with magic (with privilege) have. The privileged kids already know how to navigate the magical world, which is a huge advantage. This is akin to how kids who speak English as their first language have a huge advantage over those who don’t. Both Kokorsku and Ruscio also talked about how in the Wizarding world there’s a classic inversion of the power structure, in which the powerful/privileged (the magical) believe or act as if they are the victims as justification for keeping the less powerful (the non-magical) oppressed or ignorant. (i.e. the Nazis often portrayed themselves as the victims of the “powerful” Jews.) Even the “good” characters like the Weasleys accept and perpetuate this stance that Muggles are kept ignorant/oppressed for the greater good.
CYBERPUNK IS DATED
The first paper I saw was Valerie Savard (University of Alberta) presenting “Transforming the Laboring Post-Human From Cyborg Machine to Virtual Human in 20th Century Science Fiction.” This paper presented a small slice of her dissertation, which focuses on 1960s and 1970s science fiction because that was the era in which the ideas about computer networks and their effect on our lives went from being purely science fictional to being a reality with the advent of the Arpanet. Her actual presentation was mostly analyzing the 1973 film WORLD ON A WIRE (Fassbinder, and the inspiration for the films The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor), which was based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel Galouye. Prior to that point, most sf images of the technological future involved the ways machines would reduce our need for manual labor, and how we were marching steadily toward a 15-hour work week. But once the proto-Internet came into existence, that track was completely subverted. Manual labor has been replaced with mental labor, and thanks to networking, each human in the network can be literally “at work” or working ALL THE TIME…she typed her blog post at 1:30 in the morning… The cyberpunks grasped quite quickly how this would lead to a growing divide between haves and have-nots, and to digital sweatshops. In other words, the actual world we live in today. This is why cyberpunk feels as retro as the swoopy space explorer pulps of the 1950s. We’re already living it. Hello, we come from the Internet.
SHOPPING IS WORK
Another point that came up in the discussion of Valerie Savard, in capitalism, all consumption is work. So of course shopping is work. It also means that all the online consumption we do is work. We watch ads, that’s work. We use social media, that’s work. (Or as has ben famously said of sites like Facebook and services like Gmail, if you’re getting it for free, you’re not the user, you’re the product.) So in our capitalist society where we are virtual workers 24-7… why yes, hello, we come from the Internet. The thought that led me to though is one in which this means that the consumers of a thing–the readers of a book, the fans of a series or show–are then, in a way, in service to that thing, “employees” of that thing. I’ve said before that monetizing fan activities is only barely begun and we’re going to see corporations doing more and more of that, but this takes the conceptualization to a new level. We see it already happening, fan as worker bee, with “street teams” and authors giving their fan hordes names (John Green’s Nerdfighters, etc), and yet there is also a democratization going on, where the stratification between pro and fan or creator and fan is blurring. I tend to think of my own fiction in this way: by being the creator I am “merely” the number one fan of the work. (Related: If what I’m writing wouldn’t excite me as a reader if someone else had written it, then I’m doing something wrong.)
PERSONAL GROWTH IS NOT ACTIVISM
Now I’ll refer to the earlier paper on Dobby the House Elf by Rebecca Rowe and also talk about the brilliant keynote on “applied science fiction” given by scholar Colin Milburn. Rowe contrasts Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus–a djinni enslaved by a teenage wizard in an alternate-universe London–and Rowling’s Dobby the house elf. Stroud tells the story from Bartimaeus’s point of view in first person, striking deep empathy for his plight within the reader, while Dobby’s (and Harry’s) story is told in the third person limited POV, and also uses various literary tropes to distance us from Dobby (he’s used as comic relief, for example) and ensure we can feel sympathy for Dobby but we can never truly empathize with him. (In fact even Dobby cannot refer to himself in the first person…!) In Rowe’s reading, this ends up meaning that Stroud’s books are a call to action to end slavery and oppression in our real world, while Rowling’s–despite her stated desire to have the books teach tolerance and equality–can only serve as a kind of balm toward understanding. Paraphrasing Rowe: “Rowling’s approach leads to personal growth but not activism.” This, for me, finally nailed on the head why I feel like Rowling has occasional fits of white savior complex. She means well and accomplishes much, but not this. Seeing this simple ideal boiled down this way was very clarifying for me: If you are a member of a (any) privileged group, becoming enlightened about the unprivileged is an important first step (it sure beats willful ignorance) but it is NOT ENOUGH. This theme wasn’t echoed directly in Colin Milburn’s speech at all, but it does tie in to much thought I’ve been having lately about online activism, from “SJWs” (social justice warriors) to feminists to Anonymous.
Milburn started talking about “applied science fiction” by discussing how the very early engineers at MIT who ran the early computer banks wrote the “Spacewar” project as a “glorious hack.” In their off hours when they weren’t making the computer compile important research data, they were making the first video game, and they were pushing the computational powers of the computer to do things like simulate gravity and obey the laws of physics. They were inspired in part by the Lensman novels of Doc Smith, who often had jaunty engineers adventuring energetically across the universe. They inherited “a certain ethos from Smith,” Milburn said, an enthusiasm for adventuring after scientific answers. His talk moved through many milestones in hacker culture (including the formation of hacker culture/subculture) and eventually brought us to the present-day ways in which hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous are still practicing “applied science fiction,” from the adoption of the V-for-Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask to hacking a government website to make it play Asteroids (which is, at its roots, Spacewar).
Someone I was chatting with casually after Colin’s talk spoke rather dismissively of Anonymous, as if a group of highly privileged, mostly white middle class men couldn’t possibly have any valid concerns about the power structure in this country…? I was struck by how lazy that conclusion was, and how driven by emotion. Yes, we’ve got various self-identified MRAs and GamerGate members making asses of themselves. We’ve also got Aaron Swartz dead, hounded to take his own life by overzealous law enforcement, and ample and mounting evidence of overzealous policing not just in Ferguson, MO but all over the country, and tremendous overreach by various governmental powers (47 senators just tried to take foreign policy into their own hands, for example, while the Supreme Court is a right mess, etc etc…). I would say there are plenty of reasons for even white, middle-class privileged men to be pissed off and wary. The question is how are we going to bring ALL of these forces of revolution together to demand societal change? And if we don’t, are we doomed to fail, to be inevitably crushed in capitalism’s virtual gears on one hand and a corporation-driven and money-lobbyist “democratic” police state on the other?
Whew, yes, academic thinking can get pretty heavy at times. In fact, let’s get the last two really heavy realizations out of the way now:
SIDEKICKS ARE OPPRESSION
I’m sad to say I found Stephanie A. Smith’s analysis of the ways in which the Avengers franchise movies actually oppress racial diversity and queer narratives to be convincing. It hasn’t ruined the movies for me but I do wish they’d do better. In her paper “Yankee Doodle Marvel: The Technocarnality of Captain America”–which unfortunately she couldn’t be there to read (!) but which fortunately she had sent to her session’s chair, so he was able to read it to us–Smith basically drew convincing parallels between the first Captain America film and James Cagney’s YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, a Hollywood vehicle for fomenting patriotism and preparing the populace for America’s actions in a “just” war. (And not just the Cap films, but also the way Iron Man’s origin story is now in the Middle East and the way that fears about non-Western terrorists are played on in the character of The Mandarin.) I love the Avengers movies, but she also presented annoyingly convincing evidence that there’s problematic homosocial “sidekick” stuff going on here, just like Lone Ranger’s Tonto, the sidekick is always a person of color (like the Iron Patriot is for Iron Man, or Sam in Captain America 2) OR a stand-in for a queer relationship that must be constantly negated by its use as comic relief or a target for homosocial taunts. To paraphrase her, “The film erases both queer and race issues” and instead injects them in sexism, as the film takes place in a “good old sexist past.” See Agent Carter for more examples of that. See also subjugation of women in the “tropes that must die” section above. Hmm.
ANTHROPOMORPHISING IS OPPRESSION
Okay, this isn’t probably what you think. No, it’s not about furries. It’s about how Lev Grossman may be the only fantasy writer who, when he writes about animals, actually writes about animals instead of presenting them as mere anthrocentric stand-ins. In his paper, Tony Vinci did a very deep breakdown of how in nearly all fantasy fiction today, the possibility for liberation, for true imaginative growth for the reader, is not there, except in Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS. According to Vinci, Grossman’s concept of magic “critiques the humanist ideals operating behind an anthrocentric world” and “rejects human exceptionalism.” Grossman is able to use THE MAGICIANS as a commentary on the lack of imagination in the genre itself when his magical teenagers find they can enter Fillory (Narnia, though CS Lewis’s estate blocked him from calling it that) but they find themselves still mainly concerned with mundane things. But when they become animals, they develop a wholly alien point of view. I think Vinci would have probably enjoyed the TROPES MUST DIE panel.
IMPROBABLE SEXUALITY IS IRONIC
In the paper “The Erotic Imagination: From Sex Pollen to MPREG, Aliens Do It Better,” Sarah G. Carpenter from George Mason University covered a lot of ground about certain sexual tropes in fanfiction that have evolved, including “sex pollen,” “aliens made them do it,” MPREG, and others which are used in multiple fandoms, which she labeled “improbable sexuality.” In particular, she explored the way in which these improbable sexuality fics are presented within fan culture both as “genuine erotica” and ALSO “absurdist” representations of the pseudoscience excuse for why the characters are having sex in the first place. To quote from her abstract: “Erotic fanworks are often staged from an ambivalent space: the sex itself is presented as piece of genuine erotica, while the framing mocks the very tropes it deploys and embraces “insider” humor as fans laughing at themselves for loving this thing.” In other words the premise, whether it’s sex pollen, “fuck or die,” or what is laughingly accepted as absurd by both fan writer and reader but is nonetheless accepted anyway. This struck me for a few reasons, not the least of which this is, I think, a lot of what is going on in professionally published romance. Everyone, both the authors and the majority of readers, knows the formulas and the cliches, but mutually agree to revel in them ANYWAY. I’ve often felt that in romance there is more of a “common goal” between the writer and reader than exists in other genres (and in “high” literature it often seems the opposite, the writer may be openly antagonistic to the reader). Remember what we were saying about tropes that need to die? What about the tropes that cannot die because quite frankly they’re what keep us going when nothing else will get us where we need to go. i.e. the bedroom for a climatic sex scene? I’ve certainly been guilty of my share of “fuck or die” stories in my professional fiction (as well as fanfic) myself…
GOD IS A PANTSER
In the gospel of commercial fiction, there are two kinds of writers, plotters, and pantsers. Plotters figure everything out about their novel before they start writing. They write detailed outlines with intricate knowledge of everything (or almost everything) that will happen in the book. Pantsers, on the other hand, fly by the seat of our pants. If we have an outline, it’s more like a hastily drawn treasure map that we’re optimistic with some quick thinking and perseverance we’ll eventually get to where X marks the spot, but we’re honestly not 100% sure what we’ll find when we get there and dig up the treasure chest. James Morrow addressed the convention at a keynote lunch, and he called his speech “the sequel to” a speech John Crowley gave at a past ICFA. Morrow’s talk was insightful on many levels and I cannot even capture a fraction of his points, but among other things he talked about thought experiments, and how in ye olden days philosophy and science were inseparable. About “the characteristic cruelty of thought experiments” (poor Schroedinger’s cat), and about how the true difference between science and science fiction is that in science one expects an experiment’s results to be repeatable. In science fiction, or any fiction, the outcome of the “what if?” thought experiment, on the other hand, will come out completely different for each and every writer who attempts it. In fact, Morrow points out, even…”God created light and saw that it was good.” Even God didn’t know how Creation was going to turn out. He was surprised to see it turned out good.
I suppose that means it’s our job now to make sure it continues to do so. See previous points about activism. Of course what am I going to do to make the world a better place? Write more books. Write more books.