The #ICFA39 Panel on Power & Politics in SF/Fantasy/Horror

I’m live-blogging this from the writers panel on Power & Politics at ICFA 39 (International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts: Orlando, FL). When I do a live-blog typing like this I capture about 60% of what is said, so this is just a fraction of all the commentary and discussion. (And any bad grammar or things that don’t make sense are definitely my fault and not the panelists!)

Sally Weiner Grotta, Sam J Miller, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Fran Wilde, Stephanie Feldman at ICFA 39

On the panel:

  • Fran Wilde
  • Mary Anne Mohanraj
  • Sam J Miller
  • Sally Weiner Grotta

Moderated by Stephanie Feldman (Crawford award winner and current anthologist in Who Will Speak For America.)

Stephanie Feldman: My opening statement: All art is political; it either enforces the status quo or challenges it. Does speculative fiction have a particular relationship to politics though?

Panel: (silence)

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Okay. I’ll put on my professor hat for a while. When we’re teaching we talk about cognitive estrangement. By saying here we are on another planet, we’re talking about aliens, then you can start exploring gender, race, neoliberal economics, and it lowers people’s defenses. If I talk about moms in Oak Park and my neighbors read it, there would be an immediate defensive reaction. But if I talk about tentacle creatures on another planet there’s a distance there which lets us get at issues.

Fran Wilde: I think the way we can re-key the map of history is the most important thing we can do and almost an obligation. Read Everfair by Nisi Shawl (who’s in the audience). It take King Leopold’s war and makes it all work out. When science fiction does it, it’s felt as entertainment, but it helps make us better humans.

Sally Weiner Grotta: In the human political environment, it’s very easy to hate the other if we do not know the other. It’s so important to take it out of the local context to create empathy for the other. Those who don’t empathize with their neighbor who is slightly different might still empathize with this person on Mars or Alpha Centuri. One of the key problems in our current society is the bankruptcy of empathy. As authors we can help people re-establish it within themselves.

Sam J. Miller: I think sf/fantasy gives us the vision about how we can make things better. You can use it to warn people, to explain how fucked up it is, you can be a cautionary tale and show people whats’ wrong with the fantasies they have.

Stephanie Feldman: We have so many dystopias now, it’s so important to have some Utopias, too. And whose utopia is it?

Fran Wilde: There are so many stories where the utopia has a price, though. Even Black Panther, Killmonger is the one who is left behind so that Wakanda can exist.

Maryanne: I think we’re preaching to the choir here, everyone at this conference is going to say yeah, sf can be political, so I want to push back on that and argue the opposite. I think a lot of people walk out of Mad Max thinking Furiosa is awesome! But not necessarily saying hey we have to get on this water thing. There is this series of essays (by Amitav Ghosh)about how to picture climate change. The consequences of it are so big that when people read sf they can’t bring it back to our world. It’s different from Handmaid’s Tale which addresses things people feel acutely all the time instead of things that are in the future or on another planet. It’s happening “over there.”

Fran Wilde: Why is that, though? Neal Stephenson sneezes and Google races out to develop it as the next hot thing. Why isn’t that working on climate change?

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I don’t know–it’s not my argument, it’s his argument. But we don’t want to look at it. We have, for lack of a better term, a big blind spot about it.

Sally Weiner Grotta: Well and then we have the people who think it’s all fictional to begin with! So if you write a fictional representation of it, the conspiracy theorists will say well you write fiction anyway. James Baldwin said: “You write to change the world, knowing you probably can’t, but if you can change it by one millimeter, then you have.” I think we can have some effects.

Sam J. Miller: We are challenge how people think and behave but I think we do it in support of the people who are actually trying to change the world as opposed to being the ones who change it ourselves. As writers we don’t exist in isolation. So treating it like we’e offering one piece of what we function politically in the world.

Fran Wilde: And you have other jobs. None of us are just writers. We have to do other things. Like you working with the homeless in New York and Mary Anne, after the Trump election you ran for office.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: yes, I ran for library board and I won, which is the smallest office. But if there was one thing I wanted people to come away from this panel it was go vote.

Sam J. Miller: It’s also though that voting is important but it’s one day of the year. The rest of the year call your reps, go to protests, read a book, write a book, even if you can’t vote.

Fran Wilde: The thing is sometimes our language has been taken away from us. The language of climate change has been disallowed. Legally you are not allowed to. Part of our job as writers is to take that language back. Omelas, but also Frankenstein, and Paolo Bacigalupi, he gives you your words back.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I think we have to be careful not to give up just because a problem is big. It’s part of our job to say I know it’s a big problem. Maybe if I’m a polish writer trying to write about the Soviet era I need to put it into science fiction so I’m not thrown into jail.

Fran Wilde: And many writers did reclaim the Russian language through science fiction.

Stephanie Feldman: But what can we do to affect the change or tell the stories we want to tell? I wrote one for Welcome to Dystopia, and we were asked to envision the dystopia that would happen after the election. I was reading Twitter and I was realizing my story actually seemed better than what was actually happening. I didn’t go dark enough! It’s a problem. If we need to imagine near future that’s a challenge and people become very quickly adjusted to it. Natural disasters are not shocking to them anymore. How can we go after those folks?

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I’m happy my story in Welcome to Dystopia hasn’t happened yet. I did go dark enough.

Sam J. Miller: But you don’t think things are going to change until they do change. Look at gun control: Parkland happened and now we have kids fighting back in really effective ways and the conversation is actually changing as a result. Even the really intractable-seeming problems can *snap* get fucking fixed.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I just read the graphic novel March by Congressman John Lewis, working for voting rights in the south. He was a student activist. And the thing that struck me is that you have to march again and again and again. You don’t just have one march. First time you get a small number of people out, and then they go back to the classroom and talk about it, and then the next time 2/3 of the class march. And so on.

Sally Weiner Grotta: The school is named after an activist who fought for the Everglades and taught her by their example not to back down. That kind of story example can inspire communities.

Fran Wilde: But there are lots of schools where they taught gun control…

Sally Weiner Grotta: Well it’s that they were teaching a culture of not accepting the status quo.

Fran Wilde: Parkland is a watershed, but the families that have died in previous protests in Philadelphia and St. Louis are being rolled over.

Sally Weiner Grotta: I believe in the zeitgeist, in that spirit, and that it’s a moment that people have seized.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Well and you had a bunch of tech savvy theater kids there who used the Black Lives Matter model to exercise their privilege and spread their message.

Stephanie Feldman: This is what we were joking, is what happens when you raise kids on The Hunger Games. They’re ready to rise up.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: You look at Gandhi. He was a PR genius. He staged a lot of things very visibly, very dramatically. And sometimes I think activists forget that part of it.

Stephanie Feldman: To bring things back to writing and science fiction. Did any of you stop writing after the election.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Some did. I had one student whose advisor finally told her, “That man doesn’t get to take your novel from you.”

Sally Weiner Grotta: In real society we haven’t seen the Caligula-like despot before. To a certain extent we are more prepared as writers for living in the sf/f realm to try to understand how it world. It gave me more of a push that I need to form stories that make sense in this word that makes zero sense to me.

Sam J. Miller: You want to believe that we’re better than this. But we’re not. Part of what made the 2008 elections so transformative, we thought hey, maybe we’re not so bad after all.

Fran Wilde: Spoiler: we are that bad.

Sam J. Miller: My novel Blackfish City we sold the week before the election so I was writing it a year before, and it’s very much an anti-Trump book. The latest US government has collapsed and pundits are saying it’ll be the last one. A lot of us were already writing about how fucked up things are, and now our little Cassandra complex is everyone can see that it’s fucked up.

Fran Wilde: I helped beta Twitter. I live on Twitter. Watching the twitter philosophy narrative form on election night and the local news in PA had a completely different narrative. They were talking about a culture I didn’t understand. Pennsylvania isn’t a culture I understand anymore. The fact that there are people who want to take away my life by cutting off health care is enraging, and to watch my friends losing their care and their health. I didn’t want my fiction work to be about that narrative. I did not want to write about domestic violence and kids surviving it. I did write an article about a family member for the Washington Post that I said they could publish after this family member died, but then when Trump happened I let them publish it. It’s sort of now or never.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: What I was writing about politically before all this was about the Sri Lankan civil war. I translate it into sf and fantasy and I come back to it again and again. In some ways I’m a utopian. I think of Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank saying I believe people are good at heart. I don’t believe in empathy. I believe we have a failure o first premises. Most people who are democrats have parents who are democrats. And most republicans had parents who were republicans. I think everyone is trying to be “good” within their framework. So after the election, my impulse was hey, I’ve been over here having this conversation about Sri Lanka and neighbor against neighbor but also how people put themselves at risk to save others, the Singhalese neighbors who sheltered their Tamil neighbors at risk of their own lives. So now my focus has been talking to republicans in my community. And there aren’t a lot them because I live in ultra liberal Oak Park. In our library for example we got rid of fees. As we were going on the campaign trail people were saying don’t you support people having to learn responsibility. And I didn’t tlel them the library isn’t job to teach that. Upper income students are in my office the very next day if they miss a test, whereas lower income students have a shame spiral where they just don’t show up in my class ever again. So I tell this to the nice old ladies in our garden club aren’t these the people we most want to have in the library? You have to reframe it for them. They have tears in their eyes when they find that out. They have empathy. But they don’t know how things are. So much of what’s in our country has been subjugated to corporate interests.

Nisi Shawl (question from the audience): Is there a step toward the future we want though? Is there the equivalent of the Star Trek communicator becoming the flip phone. Is there a climate change story we could tell?

Fran Wilde: I like alternate histories for that reason, though. So we can see a different path. How do you re-envision a technology or a society so that it works better?

Sally Weiner Grotta: There’s a lot fo things going on in third world countries that we aren’t even aware of. like using plastic bottles as water condenser taking words out of the air. You can use those kind of things for a story.

Fran Wilde: That’s a word I really want to take back: “third world country.”

Mary Anne Mohanraj: A better word is “developing country” if that’s what you mean.

Karen (in the audience): Where is the power to change? Is it at the top? Is it in the middle? Where can we make that incremental change?

Mary Anne Mohanraj: But it’s like Sam was saying when I was talking about voting, it’s not about whether we have power it’s whether we use it. There are so many things you can do, but most people aren’t doing them. The kids at Parkland is the pointy end of the stick but there’s a huge wedge behind them.

Sally Weiner Grotta: One of the things the election made me want to do is to include more speaking and workshops in my career, and teaching people to listen to each other’s stories. The ability to teach storytelling is a powerful thing that we have. That’s one of the things I believe in.

Sam J. Miller: The power to make change always lies with the people most impacted by the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s not about savior of the oppressor deciding to stop. I always think of “what’s your primary audience?” If there’s just one group, who is it? For me it’s the young queer folks who aren’t seeing themselves. TO me it’s a function of who are we writing for. If there’s a problem we’re writing about, center the narrators of the folks who are most impacted.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: But there also nothing about us without us. If it’s me and my position of privilege saying I think they need X, but if they’re voices are not there I’m not doing it right. Thinking about Gandhi, about coming to India after being a British taught lawyer and working in South Africa, but it was the white western media who were worked by him.

Sam J. Miller: But then you look at the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, there were people of all different types involved, but it had to be the black leaders who were the leaders.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: The Space X folks asked us as sf writers to ask about future housing solutions, and they asked who are the stakeholders in this project? How do you engage them?

Audience member: We start reading SF as an escape, but now we’re moving toward attacking problems our real world. How do you handle that?

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I just started reading Roxane Gay and I need to take breaks. I think there is a place for escapism. Right after the election a lot of people fell into a pit of despair, and something light and charming can help you out of that.

Fran Wilde: We also don’t write the same thing again and again, either. We have that variety that lets you see multiple sides of the same issue. Some are funny and some are less so. I’m funnier on Twitter, honestly… But that variety and also reading other people is something that as writers we have to do. Give yourself the permission to breathe.

Sally Weiner Grotta: As writers our fist responsibility is to our readers to tell a good story, develop good characters, and then we express our angst about the future, but we do it as a good story, weaving the reader through the issue. like MAM I tend toward hope against my rational self. That’s what drives me more than “I want to write about climate change.” It’s more “I want to write about this girl and her family” who have run out of water.

Stephanie Feldman: A completely idealistic ending won’t feel true, but a completely despairing ending won’t feel true either.

Fran Wilde: What’s so frustrating is watching all our best plot lines being stolen by the actual news!

Sam J. Miller: I think Black Panther is the best kind of escapism. It has really nuanced exploration of real world issues. We provide not a sense of happiness so much as a sense of justice. Maybe everyone die, but in a story their deaths have meaning. We give people something. The movies and books are the ones that make me feel like I have a place in the universe. If that’s illusory, well, okay.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: That’s lovely but I don’t know that I agree. I don’t know that I’m actually full of hope.

Fran Wilde: On this panel you are! I’m sarcasm, you’re optimism, and Sam’s nihilism.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I think there’s less pressure in mainstream lit to have happy endings. Why is it that there is some expectation to have sf/f end on a triumphant note? At the end of book 1 of the Hunger Games you have the triumphant hero arc, but it starts to unravel at the start of book 2, and by book 3 you know that she has made her own way of doing things but the power structure is all still there.

Lynette (question from the audience): What are stories that felt like it helped you see something you were powerless about or that made you go do something about it?

Mary Anne Mohanraj: I think feminist sf of the seventies is what made me take my husband down and say “we have to talk about chores. No this is not an even split and I’m doing more and more, and he was like no, it’s even… and we made a chart and charts things for a week. He was actually doing better than most husbands but it still wasn’t equity.”

Sally Weiner Grotta: I was reading Dickens around 6th grade and that was a big call to arms for me. About how society can fail people and how good people in society can still go wrong. It really shaped me going forward.

Sam J. Miller: I should have so many answers to this question, but I don’t.

Fran Wilde: I can think of various characters but not books really. Various books various stories put characters in trauma or injustice. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson is a big one. A lot of Alaya’s stories do that.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Going back to the feminist sf of the 70s: Joanna Russ gave me permission to be angry.

Sam J. Miller: We should have this conversation on Twitter because I know lots of people will have them. I’m going to say The Handmaid’s Tale showed me how things go so quickly from bar to worse. I understand the mechanics of oppression and how people participate in their own oppression from that book, it really sharpened my understanding.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Look at the Defense of Marriage Act. I think one reason it happened faster than expected is because of Will & Grace. Will & Grace humanized a lot of gay people for a lot of people. It’s a slow change and it’s cumulative now that things are imaginable. I wrote a story with two lesbian girls in Sri Lanka in the 1940s and did a reading from it. And my dad comes up to me and says “How did you do the research? How are you sure there were lesbians there?” He really thought lesbians were only in the West. He’s a well educated guy but he really couldn’t see it. It goes back to cognitive estrangement. Showing you a world so different from your own that it makes you question your own assumptions.

There were more questions from the audience at that point, but my fingers were getting tired of typing!

Some books by these nice folks:

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