Notes from Loncon 3: Women and TV

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.

These panels talked about two TV shows I enjoy: Orphan Black and (though not the exclusive focus of the panel) Doctor Who. The depiction of female characters in these shows was a particular point of discussion.

There are SPOILERS for Orphan Black, especially the second season finale.

Welcome to Clone Club

Tracy Berg, Jo Charman, Jeanne Gomoll, Moira O’Keeffe, Sunil Patel

This panel discussed the feminism and science of Orphan Black.

My takeaways:

  • Interesting that the show that gives the most varied exploration of female characters is a show where the women are genetically identical. These women have different personalities and attitudes. They relate to each other (and not all about men).
  • Different female attitudes to motherhood are also showcased. Including Cosima’s not-that-fussed attitude. [As someone who has no desire to have children, it’s nice to see that one of the clones has this attitude.]
  • The clones infertility (and Duncan’s casualness about it) has shades of Naziism. The arrogance of scientists in removing a basic human right from these women.
  • Orphan Black portrays a wide range of sexual relationship types: marital, casual, gay, straight, consensual, coercive. The show itself doesn’t seem to put any judgement on the (consensual) sexual encounters, leaving the viewer to make their own mind up.
  • Portrayal of rape. These portrayals are also varied, showing that there isn’t just one type of rape.
    Helena having her eggs removed while drugged. (Even with no ‘sex’, it’s still exploitation of her body against her will for someone else’s power/agenda.)
    Gracie being implanted with embryos. (As above. There’s no way she gave a clear, explicit, and non-coerced ‘Yes’ to this use of her body.)
    Paul being abused by Rachel. (Rape happens to men too.)
    Paul having sex with Sarah thinking she’s Beth. (False pretences is still rape.)
  • The clone-monitor relationships are all sexual. (With the exception of Tony’s?) This is a little creepy. And perhaps implies that all women are weak to being wanted.
  • The diversity in the show. The diversity is really good. There was a point in the first season where Paul seemed like the ‘token’ straight, white male. (Donnie was a bit of a nonentity at the time.) Only diversity not yet seen is body shape diversity – except in the minor character of Sarah Stubbs in the second season.
  • The male clone line:
    Is this going to take away from the strong female focus of the show?
    Is the male line less diverse? Were they all raised identically in the military?
    How self-aware are the male clone line?
  • The science:
    The scientist moderating the panel said that some software Cosima uses on the show is the real software that she (a cancer researcher) uses in real life. [I loved this tidbit of info. This show loves their science and their scientists.]
    There is a diversity in the way scientists are portrayed: Cosima – the curious explorer; Leekie – the ego; Scott – the geek; Delphine – career-driven; Duncan – perhaps closest to the stereotype of a scientist.
    The science is realistic. There is no computer magic. The clones have to wait for several episodes before a full DNA sequencing gets done.

The Girls Who Waited

Russell Blackford, Sarah Ash, MaryAnn Johanson, L. M. Myles, Jack Bowman

This panel discussed the lack of female protagonists in time-travel stories.

[Note: I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the title of this panel, given that it was grown women being discussed under the heading ‘girls’. However, it does kind of highlight the point about how women are perceived and referred to differently than men. Yes, the panel title is a reference to an episode title. But in that episode it is still full-grown-woman Amy Pond who is referred to as a girl (even when playing a 50 year old). ]

My takeaways:

  • When female characters participate in time travel stories, they rarely have agency.
    Continuum given as an example of time travel story with a strong female protagonist – but Kira has no control over the time travel itself, she is thrown back against her will.
    In the comic of Days of Future Past, it was Kitty Pryde who went back to sort things out. But in the movie, they gave the agency to a male character, Wolverine.
    River Song, a character who initially seemed to be able to navigate the timeline on her own initiative became more and more diminished into just the love interest and the pawn of other people’s plans.
  • When women do appear in time travel narratives, it’s all about a man anyway.
    Sliding Doors (not quite time travel, but another movie where the woman has no control of her progress through the timeline) is marketted as a romance. It’s about a woman getting rid of the crap boyfriend and meeting the right man.
    The Time Traveller’s Wife is about how a woman’s life is impacted by a time travelling man.
    Outlander – a woman send back in time (again not by her own agency) falls in love with a man there and decides not to return (to a different man) in her own time.
    Doctor Who – because now it’s all always about the Doctor isn’t it [*sigh*]
  • Doctor Who companions:
    Do the female companions tend to reflect their time period?
    Has the representation of female companions improved linearly from the past to the present? Not really.
    In the 60s/70s, compared to other TV shows at the time Doctor Who contained better female roles.
    The companions are always intelligent, but how are they used? Do they challenge the Doctor? Rose did for the 9th and Donna for the 10th. Other than that, not so much in the new series.
  • The argument that it is harder to send women back in time because of historical attitudes to women is a cop out. Wherever you look there are always examples of women in power.
  • You can’t force artists to make stories they don’t want to tell. Instead we have to open the field to a wide range of storytellers.

Notes from Loncon 3: Diversity

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.

This set of panels are those that talked about diversity.

Rewriting Gender Defaults

Roz J Kaveney, Alex Dally MacFarlane,Julia Rios, Geoff Ryman, Mary Talbot

This panel discussed the depictions of people of diverse genders in SF&F.

My takeaways:

  • Pronouns.
    What to use? English only has “he” and “she”. There are a few different non-gendered pronouns.
    What to use is the preference of the individual to whom the pronoun applies.
    What do you do when you can’t ask what is preferred? Some people prefer their name as a pronoun. Does this lack ‘solidarity’? How do you deal with the situation where you don’t know anyone’s name?
    There is no one way of handling pronouns and there never will be.
  • If in fiction you choose not to use a pronoun for a character is this a copout?  Does it obscure the complexity of reality? Does it challenge the reader in how to imagine the character?
  • Gender perceived as social, when instead it is about physical embodiment
  • Left Hand of Darkness is often trotted out as the book for this issue, but it has many problems. The use of “he” throughout puts a male filter on it and turns it into a book without females. In an essay Ursula K Le Guin defended her use of the male pronoun. However, in a later essay she had rethought her position about pronouns.
  • Problems with how gender diversity is represented in SF:
    SF is about solving problems. Non-binary gender is not a problem to solve.
    Using gender or sexual plurality as ‘the other’ is a common SF trope that shouldn’t be continued.
    In big SF novels it is statistically improbably that only characters of binary genders are present.
    More gender diversity in novels, but these characters shouldn’t be a plot point, they should just be there.

Writing Post-Colonialism

Brenda W Clough, Shaun Duke, Nin Harris (no show), Aishwarya Subramanian, E. Lily Yu

This panel discussed the impact of colonialism on cultures and literature.

My takeaways:

  • There is no clear line between ‘colony’ and ‘not colony’. Even independence does not eradicate the coloniser’s influence.
  • Cultures are not static. Even without the coloniser’s influence a culture would have changed.
    Does the incoming culture affect everything in on sweep?
    Is the healing of colony identity a return to what was there before?
    Where does a culture go next?
  • Cultural imperialism:
    Education privileges US and European history. Education privileges the English language. English language and media privileges other aspects of Anglophone culture.
  • The English Literature degree and canon were defined in India as a way to enforce the British culture.
  • Nowadays how do writers from other cultures attempt to penetrate the English canon?
    By referencing it? For example, Wide Sargasso Sea.
    By writing in their own language and tradition and demanding recognition?
  • Language is the key. The original languages of places are dying out. English (or other colonial languages) are privileged. These languages are seen as the gateway to better jobs and a better life.
    If you write in a language other than English, you are limiting your chances of publication.
  • After colonisers go, what is left? Depends on the method of decolonisation. Institutions. Values. What is taken? Assets go out of the colony to enrich the colonisers.

Full-Spectrum Fantasy

Mary Robinette Kowal, Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone, Keffy R. M. Kehrli, Jennifer Stevenson

This panel discussed diversity of gender, class, and race in fantasy.

My takeaways:

  • Neuroatypical representations.
    Often invisible. Depression is not often represented in fiction, perhaps because of the lack of active agency a character has when depressed.
    Mental illness romanticised – from Shakespeare onwards.
  • The ‘cure’ trope can be damaging. Societal expectations are to ‘cure’ people who are not ‘normal’. Sometimes this is not consensual – the ability to cure is seen as more important than the consent to the cure.
    More useful to have conversations about accommodating those who deviate from the typical. Rather than forcing them to conform.
  • Disability. People often romanticise the achuievements of people with disabilities (“Inspriation porn”). Disability informs a character’s interactions with the world, but does not define the character.
  • Often don’t see -isms (e.g racism, sexism, classism) in SF&F.
    The ability to ignore class/race/sex is a privilege. Privilege provides insulation from experience that other unprivileged people have. You can’t say privilege doesn’t matter.
  • Writing advice:
    No member of a community is the only one. Don’t just have a token one of anything.
    Google for the stereotypes about a particular set of people, then avoid them.
    Listen with empathy.
    We don’t tend to write what we know, we tend to write what we read. So read more widely and works by people who aren’t from the same background as you.

Notes on Loncon 3: Fantasy

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.

This set of panels are those that had more of a focus on the fantasy genre.

Fantasy vs SF: Is the Universe Looking Out For You?

Stephen Hunt, Anne Lyle, Ian R McLeod, Robert Reed, Rebecca Levene

This panel discussed whether the presence or absence of special destinies is the real dividing line between fantasy and science fiction.

My takeaways:

  • Attitudes to leadership. In fantasy there’s often a notion that someone is “born to lead”. In SF, “the clever person leads” – this is equally unconvincing.
  • Have SF and fantasy swapped their attitudes of late? SF was initially in favour of change and technological advancement, now it seems more and more cynical of it. Fantasy seemed initially to be against change and about returning things to a status quo, now we see more change-based fantasy.
  • SF tends towards standalone novels and fantasy towards series. Perhaps because SF is about ideas, which can be wrung out in a single story, whereas fantasy is about people and can follow a longer life into a series.
  • In SF the unknown is understood; in fantasy the unknown is embraced; in horror the unknown is feared; in literary fiction the unknown is ignored.

Seeing the Future, Knowing the Past

William B. Hafford, Sarah Ash, Liz Bourke, Karen Miller, Kari Sperring

This panel discussed the use of prophecy and knowable history in fantasy worlds.

My takeaways:

  • A shared and definitive history of an entire globe is impossible, but many fantasy series are based on single definitive histories.
  • History and reality are messy, but when it’s a story you want the answers, which leads to a requirement for a  certain amount of tidiness.
  • The single genetic line that appears often in fantasy (e.g. Aragorn) is implausible. Either a genetic line spreads (like Genghis Khan’s) or it dies out. In ruling families the lines of direct inheritance are on average only about three or four generations deep.
  • Prophecy in fantasy differs from prophecy in real life. In reality a lot of prophecy is written in retrospect or is written as revolutionary propaganda. In fantasy prophecy is used as the roadmap for the narrative or as a shorthand for worldbuilding.
  • Traditional fantasy likes grand narratives. People can feel that if they know something, they own it. But you can’t own the grand narratives of reality; they’re too complex. There’s lots of anxiety in the modern world (and about the modern world) fantasy in a world with a known history and future can act as an escape and assuage that anxiety.

A lot of this points made in this talk came with notes of exceptions to the rules, especially in more recently written fantasy. The fantasy field is much wider than the stereotypes.

Notes from Loncon 3: Genre panels

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.

This set of panels are those that were focussed on particular genres.

Hard Right

Neyir Cenk Gokce, Charles E. Gannon, Hannu Rajaniemi, Alison Sinclair, Jaine Fenn

This panel discussed possible connections between hard science fiction and conservative ideologies.

My takeaways:

  • The panel, mostly scientists as well as authors, seemed to agree that there wasn’t really a connection between the two. There are plenty of non-right-wing people involved in Hard SF.
  • Why is there a perceived connection between the two? Perhaps because Hard SF often includes military technology and, historically, has included colonialism.
  • The inclusion of empires and monarchies in Hard SF can lead to a simplistic world view and promulgate certainties, which is a tendency of the right wing. However, the reason empires and monarchies are often included in fiction might just be that they are simpler to write than more fragmented or nuanced political systems.
  • Scientific advances are always deprivileging, they take away the specialness of a certain group (even if that group is all humans).
  • Many of the writers and readers of Hard SF are engineers or people in technology.
  • The need for black and white certainties was postulated as the common ground between conservatism and Hard SF. However, nowadays there are very few certainties in science, the sciences are very statistical. Less obvious causality. This is in opposition to narrative structure where causality is strongly preferred.
  • They also discussed politics trying to create its own science, for example creationism. Also how Soviet advances in genetics were retarded by a politicised science that rejected natural selection.

Duelling by Starlight: The Joyful Poetry of Space Opera

Carl Engle-Laird, Elizabeth Bear, Rosie Oliver, Hannu Rajaniemi, Adam Roberts

This panel was a general discussion of Space Opera.

My takeaways:

  • It’s difficult to tell where the line is between Hard SF and Space Opera. Works which were described as Hard SF when they were written that are now described as Space Opera.
  • The word “Opera” implies something operatic and melodramatic, where all the internal is exteriorised and telegraphed to the audience. Perhaps not the right description in this case.
  • Space Opera perhaps a reaction against a human horror or awe at the expanse of the universe and the insignificance of our place in it. Space Opera removes the sense of wonder at the universe by taming it and making it commonplace. However large the universe is there is a hero who saves the day.
  • Space Opera is less about answering the question “how did we get here?” and more about answering “we’re here – now what?”

We Can’t Get There From Here

Jukka Halme, Ian R. MacLeod, Jon Courteney Grimwood,Kay Kenyon, Sheila Finch

This panel discussed alternate history. I got kicked out about halfway through because the room was too full. At about 75% through someone left and I was able to get back in for the rest.

My takeaways:

  • Everything not set in the future could be considered alternate history.
  • Previously, alternate history was thought of as a “rigorous exploration from a single point of change”, now there is less focus on how the alternate timeline came about. It’s less about the clear point of divergence and more about a secondary world based on our world.
  • Advice for writing alternate histories:
    Map out the full alternate history for yourself, then forget it before you start to write.
    Spare the reader the explanation. Be careful with your infodumps; readers don’t like to be lectured.
  • There isn’t one true history of a place, even in this world. The history of a place is as much a reflection of the time that the history was written in.
  • The inevitability of history is a myth. Nobody saw WWI coming. It wasn’t predictable or predicted. There were many tipping points, many places where it could have been avoided.

 

  • Detectives in SF: Book recommendations

    The Detectives in SF panel at Loncon referenced quite a few interesting-sounding books and authors. (For my notes about this panel, check out my earlier blog post: http://wp.me/p1ualJ-af)

    Below are the ones I’m going to be adding to my to-be-read list.

    Red Planet Blues – Robert J. Sawyer


    For the title alone, I’m hooked on the idea of this book. Great title. A noir detective novel set in a goldrush-style town on Mars. That’s some interesting ingredients. I’m looking forward to seeing what this book makes of them.

    Leviathan Wakes – James S. A. Corey


    A space opera that from the sounds of it does go bigger in scope than its crime/mystery plot. I’m a little wary, because it’s the first book in a trilogy, and I’m often reluctant to commit to a series or multi-book storyline with a new (to me) author.  Good reviews. I’ll probably end up getting it on Kindle rather than hardcopy.

    Down These Dark Spaceways – Anthology


    This anthology of SF noir was mentioned quite early in the panel and piqued my interest because I enjoy short form fiction. However, it seems only available in hardback: new at extortionate price; used, more reasonably priced. Also the only two Amazon reviews are in opposition: one glowing, one scathing, both brief. Reviews elsewhere are more in depth and generally positive. One thing to mind with this one, is that Sawyer’s novella in this collection was later expanded to create Red Planet Blues.

    Empire State – Adam Christopher

    Not explicitly recommended as part of the Detectives in SF panel, but the author was one of the panellists. I’m already reading this one. It’s definitely noir and riffing off the pulp traditions, but there are superheros in the mix too.

    Berlin Noir – Philip Kerr

    Philip Kerr  was recommended for his noir and detective works. While he does write SF novels, it isn’t an SF novel that I’ve listed here. Berlin Noir is a collection of three detective novels set against the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.

     

    Notes from Loncon 3: Urban and contemporary

    This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

    I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.

    I do enjoy stories that use a contemporary of urban setting to showcase a fantastical or science-fictional element. In a similar vein, detective stories can  provide a great framework for the fantastical and science-fictional.

    Cities: Where, Who, Why?

    Michael R Underwood, Zen Cho, Candas Jane Dorsey, Ian McDonald, Yen Ooi, Francis Knight

    This panel discussed how and why cities are used in SF&F,  why some cities feature more often that others, and how to write cities.

    My takeaways:

    • Cities are interesting because they are confluence points: of people, of cultures, of money, of power. These things come together in a city and are concentrated there.
    • Cities are interesting because they can have layers of lived experience. Part of this can explain why some cities with thousands of years of history – like London – appear more frequently in genre writing than newer cities with less history to draw on.
    • Cities are hard to capture precisely on the page. An analogy was drawn to Achilles and the tortoise. No matter how quickly or thoroughly you create a city, you can never capture it because in that time the city has already moved on.
    • When writing a city, be impressionistic. Use broad strokes, little patterns, and scattered pieces that create the illusion of reality. As ever, what is left out is more important than what is put in. Find the telling details.
    • You can’t control the city, only the experience the reader has of the city.
    • Points to consider when writing a city:
      • The perspective the characters who live in it have about the city.
      • How different stratas of the city mix.
      • How money and gentrification affect the city.
      • The full sensory experience of the city.
      • The climate of the city.
      • Are there seasons? How do they affect the city?
      • The architecture of the city.
      • The infrastructure of the city.
      • How the city is governed – and how this plays into architecture and infrastructure.
      • That there are logical reasons for why things are the way they are.

    The Fantastic Now

    Sarah Shemilt, Kelley Armstrong, Carole Ann Moleti, CE Murphy, Michael R Underwood

    This panel discussed the positives and negatives of SF&F in contemporary settings.

    My takeaways:

    • Often “Urban Fantasy” is an inaccurate descriptor, as many stories so classified take place in non-urban settings. “Contemporary Fantasy” is more apt.
    • The downsides of contemporary settings are:
      • References become dated quickly. Especially references to technology.
      • You might get something wrong.
      • The modern era makes secrecy tough: camera phones and YouTube. How do the fantastical elements stay secret?
      • If you are writing a series, the timeline of the books might differ from the publication timeline.
    • Series vs standalone:
      • Urban fantasies are often series because they are based on mysteries or detective series. As long as the mysteries continue, the series can continue.
      • People like series because they get invested in the characters and want to spend more time with them.
      • People are happy for secondary threads to carry from book to book as long as the main plot ties up at the end of the book.
      • Teen audiences are more comfortable with novels that end on a cliffhanger than adults are.
      • Many series are named for the lead character and it is the lead’s arc that defines the length of the series.
    • Q&A: How do you deal with the “stakes escalation” problem in a series? And also “power creep”?
      Have an ending in mind and build to it. (And stick to it!)
    • Q&A: What about urban fantasy or paranormal romance in other media?
      The genre is quite dominant in TV at the moment. On the one hand other media can prolong the lifetime of a genre. On the other hand it can play out the genre much faster. Influence on a genre between different media is not a linear thing or a homogenous thing.
    • Q&A: If you’re writing multiple series, how do you keep them separate?
      Don’t multitask the two series. Finish a book from one before starting on a book from the other. Having two series to alternate between can save you from burning out on one or the other. Create playlists for each series to set the mood.

    Detectives in SF

    Heid Lyshol, Erin Hunter, Peter F Hamilton, Jan Siegel, Adam Christopher

    This panel discussed crime and detective fiction as narrative shapes that have been creeping into speculative fiction.

    My takeaways:

    • The detective story provides a great structure for exploring your science-fictional world. The detective must navigate all sections of the society in search of the truth.
    • However, you can’t use the SF&F aspects of your narrative as get-out-of-jail-free cards for the plot. There must be rules to what you can and can’t detect with the SF&F extras.
    • Noir tends to be more strongly about mood than plot. (One of the panellist’s pet themes was that Scandinavian crime stuff, in its mood-evoking is more ‘gris’ than ‘noir’ – this witticism was offered at least twice.)
    • The detective story can act as a gateway drug to bring in readers who are not traditionally SF&F readers.
    • Both SF and the (non-police) lone detective tend to be fairly anti-authoritarian so mesh well.
    • When writing science-fictional technology and forensics, be aware that you can be outpaced by reality.
    • Be aware of the tropes of the detective novel and what your reader’s expectations will accordingly be. For example, many readers of mysteries feel that the opportunity to ‘play along at home’ and guess the resolution is mandatory.

    Notes from Loncon 3: The perfect sentence

    You Write Pretty

    Geoff Ryman (no show), Greer Gilman, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E J Swift

    This panel was a fun one. Four authors proposed their favourite sentence from a fantastical work and defended it to the audience and the rest of the panel. The winner was selected by an audience show of hands.

    The winner was Frances Hardinge’s pick from Jabberwocky:

    And as in uffish thought he stood,
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
    And burbled as it came!

    The points in favour of this sentence are that while it is nonsense verse – a playful experiment – the made-up words have meaning because of their music. It exists on the line between comical and eerie. The best monsters are those half-glimpsed. Jabberwocky is such a monster because it is described with unknown words.

    E J Swift’s proposed sentence was from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad:

    But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

    The points in favour of this sentence are its energy as it pinwheels through the stream of consciousness, the justification for stealing a wallet, and that while it does so it displays such a great deal of self-awareness on part of the narrator.

    Christopher Priest’s proposed sentence was the first sentence of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

    There was a wall.

    The points in favour of this sentence are its classic simplicity, its brevity. The sentence is both declarative and symbolic (summing up as it does the main theme of the whole book).

    Greer Gilman’s proposed sentence was another one from poetry, Andrew Marvell’s The Garden:

    Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
    Withdraws into its happiness;
    The mind, that ocean where each kind
    Does straight its own resemblance find,
    Yet it creates, transcending these,
    Far other worlds, and other seas;
    Annihilating all that’s made
    To a green thought in a green shade.
    I fear a lot of the discussion of this sentence went over my head. The points in its favour were the many connections it included both backwards and forwards through the history of the fantastical.
    There was also general discussion of what makes a good sentence. These were my takeaways:
    • A sentence is a building block and as such has a function to perform. Different sentences have different roles. A perfect sentence is one that does the job that has been assigned to it elegantly. Sentences don’t have to be beautiful to be effective.
    • Sentences can be weighty in context. Many good sentences come late in a work because they have the full story working towards them. In contrast, opening sentences have a different task – often to be striking.
    • Kill your darlings? Opinions split on this one. Some panellists agreed, take the sentences out and put them somewhere where they can be reused or reabsorbed into more appropriate contexts. Frances Hardinge characterised a ‘darling’ as “a splendid soloist, who is not playing with the rest of the orchestra.” On the other hand, Christopher Priest’s attitude to the urging to kill darlings was “It’s my book. my words. Sod ’em. Sometimes your darlings are really good!”
      I loved both of these quotes – as you might be able to tell from the fact that I transcribed them verbatim in my notes.