#ICFA Panel: Remix Culture, SF/F and Books in Conversation

I moderated a panel at ICFA (which I had proposed) entitled: Remix Culture: SF, Fantasy, and Books in Conversation and I would like to write a coherent blog post about it, but that’s difficult because while moderating I didn’t get to take good notes and also because the smart, deep-thinking panelists had so many great things to say I can’t recreate more than the tiniest fraction of it.
It being the age of remix culture and postmodernism, however, perhaps a collage of intriguing thoughts and questions from the discussion is apropos.
My opening salvo: “A hallmark of literary fiction is that it contains references and allusions to books that came before from the Bible to Shakespeare to the canon. In science fiction and fantasy we engage with genre tropes (sf: space travel, first contact, artificial intelligence, etc/fantasy: prophecy, kingship, elfland, etc) that pretty much require any book in a subgenre or using a trope to be in conversation with books that share that trope.”
The fantastic panelists:
Max Gladstone: author of fantasy novels known as the Craft Sequence, described as “tales of wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees.” Also a copyfighter.
Therese Anne Fowler: author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and currently working on a novel about the Vanderbilts
Sam J. Miller: whose short stories have been in a lot of magazines lately (and shortlisted for some awards, I believe?) and who is working on a novel for HarperCollins right now called The Art of Starving, about a gay boy whose eating disorder gives him superpowers
Julia Rios: a former editor of Strange Horizons, now editing for Uncanny Magazine, also a writer and whom I also know as an incisive fantasy and sf cultural commentator from her work on the podcast Skiffy and Fanty and other panels she’s been on
And me (Cecilia).
I opened the panel by mentioning that I can’t seem to write anything without it being a reference to something else an that I know I’m not the only one. But that the sea change I feel is that now we just use what our influences are in our marketing copy (i.e. Magic U. is Harry Potter goes to college to study sex magic) as opposed to before when they were supposed to be hidden literary Easter Eggs. And that you don’t always realize what you’re remixing. In The Siren and the Sword I thought I was riffing on Harry Potter, but one of my beta readers pointed out it’s actually Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Whoa.
Max: What we now call remixing was once just called storytelling. Milton was the last person who might have conceivably read everything that there was Published at the time and wrote something reacting to Everything. It was a given that what you wrote referenced all that came before. The canon. As a copyfighter I believe in drawing on works of others and having my work drawn upon. (Max said many long and cogent, deep things that I did not come close to writing down, but at one point partway through the panel I told him he must write a blog about.)
Therese: (comment now updated with corrected info from Therese, since I got some of it wrong -ctan) I write historical fiction with historical figures in it. People tell me that now means I write “RPF.” (The fanfic term for “Real Person Fiction.”) I‘m was working on a book about the Vanderbilts Fitzgeralds and I wanted to use actual correspondence in it. The family denied the permission so I had to recreate the voices of those letters but in entirely my own creations, not because the family denied access but because I would have had to pursue permissions from the publishing rights holders (whoever they are in each case) and I didn’t want my book’s content to hinge on whether they could be procured. Therefore I just didn’t take that route and instead fictionalized what correspondence I have in the book.
Sam: I am constantly drawing on Avatar: The Last Airbender to the point where in my novel the hero in the climax scene puts his hands out in that really badass way and levitates off the ground (like the hero in Avatar) but I don’t know if people will notice the parallel.
Cecilia: What’s interesting about that is that Avatar: TLA didn’t invent the Elements, or the martial arts, or levitation, so even if you use them it could all be plausible. (J.K. Rowling didn’t invent wands or spells or flying brooms, either.)
Julia: Sometimes there’ll be a science fiction idea, though, that’s introduced as the creation of one writer, and everyone will adopt it as a trope instantly, and even call it by the same name. The example I gave last night was the ansible, the device that can instantly communicate across light years. Many writers have used it and even called it the ansible. I gave an Elizabeth Bear book to my mom to read and she said “I didn’t really like this book because you can tell the writer didn’t make it up herself.” I asked her why she knew that and she told me “She got the idea of the ansible from Elizabeth Moon.” And I had to explain, no, it came from Ursula K. LeGuin.
Cecilia: Sometimes the conversations are intentional (famously Delany’s Triton and LeGuin’s The Dispossessed were written in reaction to Joanna Russ’s The Female Man) other times reacting through the gestalt (supposedly Joe Haldeman had not read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when he wrote The Forever War, and then you have Scalzi’s Old Man’s War).
Julia brought up Hamilton as an example of something that presents an old story (US history) in a completely new way and new context because it’s a Broadway show that has elements of hip hop and rap music and a cast that is almost entirely People of Color. Which I thought had a fascinating tie in to Therese’s use of historical figures and their letters and the facts of their lives. Remixing not just “story” but “history.”
Sam brought up that remixing has traditionally been a way that marginalized voices can make themselves heard — that if the original is only representative of the dominant culture or paradigm its ripe to be redone from the marginalized point of view.
Hamilton would be a good example of that. Another one I thought of during the panel but forgot to mention is retellings like the book The Wind Done Gone, which is a rewrite of Gone With The Wind from a black maid’s point of view, or there’s a book that is a retelling of Frankenstein from a female secondary character’s view. (And we didn’t even get into the way fanfic is often about creating space for queer characters who are “traditionally” *ahem* invisible in mainstream canon literature, though Julia did speak about the non-commercial nature of fanfiction and fanworks.)
Julia also brought up questions of cultural appropriation and the fact that if you are going to borrow/steal/use you have to have awareness of where it comes from. I said you have to be like Robin Hood, steal from above, not from below. Max talked about nerdcore rap being very white and unaware (at first?) of how much was being appropriated from black culture.
A question came up from the audience: what are the limits? What line can’t be crossed? Are there things that should not be remixed?
Another audience member added that in questions of cultural appropriation it’s important to know the difference between secular and sacred things and to treat them appropriately. Julia emphasized awareness and talking to or collaborating with members of the culture you’re writing about.
None of us would agree to drawing a firm line around anything, though. The more revered a thing is, the higher up the food chain, the more ripe it is to be remixed–in fact perhaps the more inevitable that it will inspire others and need to be remixed.
I asked the panelists if the thought the breeding of old tropes with new aesthetics gave rise to new subgenres a la steampunk. Max pointed out that steampunk has a unique place in remix culture because it is the last genre to be able to use public domain material and characters (Captain Nemo, Sherlock Holmes, etc). With everything else getting extended and extended we’ll never had Philip Marlowe to add to our pastiches–it has to be at one step remove: Milip Farlowe.
We interrogated a bit the idea of the genre “interloper,” i.e. when Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro or Colson Whitehead swoops in and writer a fantasy novel or a zombie novel we from within the genre see them as outsiders.
I asked what works the panelists wished they could remix and couldn’t and Therese said she would really love to do Lolita. Oh yes, if ever there was a book that a reboot would engender fantastic discussion (as the original did, as well) and which I would love to see reframed with a modern political consciousness, that would be a great one.
I pointed out that in a way Harry Potter, which has inspired so many remixes, including Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (magic school), Avatar: TLA (magical kid part of a trio of peers), my own Magic University, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (riffing off Harry/Draco fanfiction), etc etc is itself a kind of giant remix of genres: it’s Cinderella (Harry lives in a broom closet and is forced to cook and clean for his step-family), it’s a traditional boarding school novel, it’s a magic school book, etc etc… so many tropes glomming together, and now it’s a kind of Ur-story itself. I asked what other works are Ur-stories in that way and not surprisingly we came up with some that also incorportate the stories that came before it:
Therese: Shakespeare
Sam: The Old Testament
Max: Star Wars (and we didn’t even get into how George Lucas not only lifted from many great filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa but was roommates with Joseph Campbell and wrote Luke’s journey to specifically follow Campbell’s hero’s journey trope)
Max also schooled us about how Wagner himself was the one who reinvented the experience of going to the opera so that people would have to experience his operas the way he wanted them to. The recessed orchestra, all the chairs facing the stage and close together so you can’t get up and leave in the middle, the darkened lights, etc were all because before that it was more casual and people chatted and ate and drank all the way through.
Julia mentioned that she has gone to Bollywood films where the mostly Indian audience would take the 10 minute long singing and dancing numbers as their opportunity to chat, get up and walk around, etc. This idea we have to sit in the dark and just face the stage or screen comes from Wagner and in places that aren’t as influenced this may not be the norm.
Many many books & stories were recommended throughout the panel. Here are a few that I noted:
Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward — if you’re worried about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it, while still presenting a diverse cast of characters.
Clockwork Canada — a steampunk anthology that addresses imperialism and Canadian diversity
Two recent rebuttals/remixes to the racism inherent in H.P. Lovecraft are
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys
Some works that are “post-portal-fantasy” i.e. what happens after you come back from the portal fantasy all messed up?
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
and a work of Jo Walton I didn’t get the title of, but perhaps it’s Restlessly Mundane a short story that can be read free on Strange Horizons
And this basically just scratched the surface of the many thinky thoughts that came up during the panel. We could have easily talked for another hour on the subject. Thank you so much to the fantastic panelists for being so smart and well-read and articulate!
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