Turns Out This is Your Dad’s SF: Friday, 9:00 pm
David Levine (mod)
The premise of this panel was, as presented by David Levine, a question: Are there any new ideas in science fiction, or are we merely retreading old ideas? The panelists, particularly Eileen Gunn and Pat Murphy, promptly dismissed the question as silly. They asserted that science fiction, being about the moment in which it is written, not actually about the future, is always fresh and new because there is always a new present moment about which to write.
Levine seemed a little non-plussed by the quick dismissal of the premise, and stated that he thought there were no new ideas in science fiction. This bogged the panel down momentarily in a discussion of what “new idea” meant. It turned out that the panelists had some fairly divergent assumptions. Levine was talking about the trappings, the set dressings, of science fiction — the plots. Space travel, alien encounters, brains-in-jars. Murphy and Gunn were talking about story, about the reaction of characters to the plots and set dressing.
I wondered, at this point, if what we were seeing was one of those cultural differences in how people read science fiction — for the plot, for the tech, for the relationships? But the panel was moving back to the premise.
Chip Hitchcock asserted that there was nothing new in sf, but that, instead, we had bleeding between genres masquerading as new ideas.
Brad Lyau spoke up, from his authority as a historian of literature. He said two things. First, that science fiction has won the culture war. That, when one’s imagery and stories are used to sell deodorant and sports drinks, one has won the hearts and minds of the populace. Second, he said that new writers have no difficulty coming up with new things about which to write — that their lives are radically different from people before them, and they see the future in new ways. Hitchcock added that writing about the classic ideas is still powerful, because we are still not in the future.
Murphy raised the question of marketing categories — that a lot of sf is being released as something else. Levine pointed out that sf readers are conservative and resist new forms of sf, so publishers don’t want to publish it. [At this point, I started to get irritated. The appeal to "people won't buy it so we won't publish it, nevermind that if it's not published no-one can buy it," is one habitually used as a weapon by those in authority against those outside it.] Gunn added that sf is not about experimental literature, and Hitchcock agreed that the conservatism of publishers is related to the conservatism of readers.
Murphy asserted that sf is not afraid of science, but that mainstream works not marketed as sf is afraid of science because our culture is afraid of science. Gunn agreed and added that the sf of now addresses the fear of how we will still be human in the future.
[At this point, my notes become highly editorialized. My notebook says: "Hitchcock, insert foot in mouth. Hitchocok, still foot in mouth w/ regard to paranormal romance. Still foot in mouth w/ regard to REAL sf/f. Hitchcock now slamming 'mundane' press?" I then say, "I wish they would stop us vs. them re: 'Mundanes' and 'Enlightened."
I then say: "The suppositions in this are killing me. Self-published = bad, small press = good, large publisher = necessary evil, large books stores = unenlightened gate keepers, independent bookstores = champions of the light. For fuck's sake, people."]
My notes stopped then. I did not write down the thing about paranormal romance that Hitchcock said, which so set me off. He referred to paranormal romance as “hairdryer books.” When asked by his fellow panelists what that meant, Hitchcock replied, “books women read while sitting under the hairdryer at the salon.”
I am not an impartial reporter of this panel. The presumptions, left unsaid but strongly implied —
- that there is a pure form of sf
- that this pure form is for the readers of science fiction, not the mundanes or those who read genre-blending works or watch television or movies
- that all those who do not read sf are fearful of science and the future
- that self-publishing was inevitably poor quality work that didn’t make the cut to real sf
- that genres with primarily female audiences are not in any way sf
- that real sf can only be read in books and physical anthology magazines, not the internet
— these presumptions are divisive, elitist, anti-feminist, and uphold a hierarchy that currently limits access to story, production of story, and is invested in silencing any other forms of access to science fiction. At a convention whose Guests of Honor were Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman, I found these presumptions and statements particularly ironic and misguided.
The capper, to me, of the panel was when someone — I don’t recall who, I wasn’t taking coherent notes at this point — said that people who begin reading science fiction after the age of thirty are not allowed to judge whether a work is science fiction, whether it is good, or whether it has value, because their brains are not accustomed to sf and they will never be able to fully understand it the way real sf readers understand real sf.
The panel colored my view of the rest of the convention. I left that room with a growing sense of unease which I still carry, weeks later.
Bluntly, if that’s what being an sf fan is about, I want no part of it.
But here’s the thing — I don’t believe there’s a “real” sf. I don’t believe that a publishing industry gets to tell me how I can access my stories. I certainly don’t believe, at all, that anyone else can govern my response to a creative work. Work made on the internet, or through vidding or fanmixing or self-publishing, these are all creative works. They need to be judged, certainly! Some will be good and some will be bad. But the means of their production and distribution does not score points one way or the other on value. To assert that only works passing out of the hands of the artist, through gatekeepers who control the means of production away from the worker, and judged by those invested in maintaining that hierarchy of production are valuable is as self-serving a claim as I’ve ever seen.
I appreciate the work of those who came before me. I value and respect the stories and ideas, the craft and effort and sacrifice made by previous authors. But Now is a moving target, and investing so heavily in the past and its values obscures one’s view of the Now. I love my dad’s sf, as it turns out. It’s shaped who I am.
I know what my sf is. And it’s not my dad’s sf. My sf is made by people any damn way we can. My sf is produced by peers, distributed through gift economies and barter. My sf is made available legally and illegally because the more people who read and watch stories, the better we all are. SF is about the now. It’s also about the future. We don’t need time travel to change the future, we only need right now, this moment. The changes we make now create the future. And my sf, the sf of now, embraces diversity, gives ownership to the creators, judges stories in peer networks, and invites everyone to participate in owning tomorrow.
ETA: David Levine, the moderator of this panel, responded to my remarks in the Wiscon LJ group. He has very kindly given permission for me to add them here. I think hearing his view is valuable and necessary for the generation of dialog and understanding. Thank you, David, for taking the time and energy to reply.
“The panelists discussed the panel extensively in email before the convention. Eileen objected strenuously to the original panel statement, which boiled down to “there are no new ideas left in SF,” and we found that none of us agreed with it; I asked the convention to change it and they did, by changing the statement to a question (“is it true that there no new ideas left in SF?”). Eileen also invited Pat Murphy to be on the panel, to increase the number of women on the panel and because she thought Pat would have some interesting things to say about the topic (which she did).
“I’m sorry to hear that I appeared “nonplussed” by Pat and Eileen’s rejection of the panel thesis. What I was trying to do at that point in the panel was to raise questions and elicit discussion on the topic, and I may have been playing devil’s advocate a bit.
“Personally, I thought that the panel went well and did a good job of demolishing the idea that all the good ideas have been done already and the real world has become so science-fictional that writing SF is no longer possible. I disagreed with some of Chip Hitchcock’s statements, but I didn’t feel it was my place as moderator to slap him down for his opinions, only to keep the discussion moving and on-topic.
“I do believe that the science fiction genre (both readers and publishers) is quite conservative, resistant to new ideas and new forms of storytelling. However, just because I’ve observed this conservatism doesn’t mean I think it’s a good thing, and I don’t believe it should be used as an excuse for continued conservatism.
“The presumptions that you found so appalling (the bullet list in the middle of your post)… well, I don’t think we actually discussed any of those topics in the panel, though as you say they were presumptions rather than stated. I personally do not agree that real SF is not for those who read genre-blending works or watch TV/movies, or that all non-SF-readers are fearful of science and the future, or that self-published works cannot be real SF, or that genres with primarily female audiences are not real SF, or that real SF can only be read on paper and not on the Internet. I’m sure that Eileen Gunn, editor of the groundbreaking webzine The Infinite Matrix (2001-2006) would disagree even more strongly with that last!
“I do not recall anyone saying in the panel that “people who begin reading science fiction after the age of thirty are not allowed to judge whether a work is science fiction, whether it is good, or whether it has value,” which I agree is an appalling statement, but if it’s in your notes I suppose someone must have said it or something like it. We did talk about the differences in perception of SF and science-fictional ideas between people who grew up reading SF and those who didn’t, and about how non-SF writers who tackle SF ideas without reading broadly in the field first can get it badly wrong, and I can see that something along the lines of “no one who didn’t read SF before the age of 30 knows anything about SF” might have been said at some point.
“Bottom line: I can see how you might get that kind of anti-media, anti-Internet vibe from some old-time fans, but I personally did not see that vibe explicitly on display in this panel and I was surprised and disheartened to find that you came away with it as your primary memory of the panel.”
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