You can find the first half of my FenCon X panel writeups here. Now, on with the rest!
Death as a Character
Michele Bardsley (@michelebardsley)
Rhonda Eudaly (@reudaly)
Amber Benson (@amber_benson)
Hoo boy. I don’t even know what to say about this panel, other than it was awesome. We spent about 5 minutes talking about personifying death as a character (or a corporation, in Amber Benson’s case) and the rest of the panel talking about the Ball-Jointed Doll panel, which the death panel had replaced because of a scheduling snafu.
Now, I want to start out by saying that I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s hobby. I spend some of my days cooking fake food for fake adventurers, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with collecting or making dolls. It’s actually pretty cool on paper. But that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting when you (or Erin to be specific) walk up to a woman to compliment the cute baby in her arms or stroller and OH GOD NOT A BABY
Before the panel started, we joked with Michele Bardsley that the doll makers were going to curse us, using either voodoo or some previously unknown form of fetich magicks. Only when Rhonda Eudaly entered did we find out the doll people were actually upset with the change. We teased Amber Benson about crossing the Ball-Jointed Doll picket line, but maybe it’s not a joke. If you see a news story about Ms. Benson being injured in a horrifying accident involving tiny plastic arms, let this writeup serve as evidence.
Barbara Ann Wright (@zendragandt)
Rob Rogers (@robcrogers3)
Skyler White (@WordworkWitch) [No relation to Breaking Bad AFAIK, but I bet she LOVES hearing that constantly!]
I loooved this panel! So much useful information and interesting discussion. The audience was engaged and asking questions, which is always preferable over the panels with 5 bored people staring at the clock.
The nice thing about this panel is the mix of approaches from the authors, proving that the only real rule of worldbuilding (or more broadly, crafting a story in general) is that there aren’t really any rules. For instance, we discussed how to start a story, and the panel was pretty well divided between “Start with the world, put your characters into it” and “Start with your characters, build the world around them as you need it.” I generally fall into the latter camp, but there are benefits and downfalls to each method (mine being that my settings sometimes feel too perfunctory and empty).
The panel also stressed the importance of pruning out your worldbuilding details. It’s easy to get carried away with fantastic details about your setting, but in general, that’s not why people are picking up your book. Story is still king (which, in my opinion, is defined primarily by character development, but you may quibble with that). If, while writing, you lose your character in favor of history or setting or whatever, you’ve gone too far.
Reading Suggestions: Dune, Dark Tower, Hal Clemens, China Mieville, John Meaney, Lee Kilough (Her chapbook “Checking on Culture” is a great quickstart guide to crafting a believable world).
Politics in Genre Fiction
Cory Doctorow (@doctorow)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden (@tnielsenhayden)
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (@pnh)
Steven Brust (@StevenBrust)
A topic that might bore some people to tears, but had me on the edge of my seat. The conversation flew quick and the wit was sharp, so I’m just going to paraphrase some key lines instead of putting together a summary. Let me stress that this is a paraphrasal. For the most part, there are no direct verbatim quotes here.
CD: The main nod toward politics for a lot of science fiction is the “war room scene,” a la Dr. Strangelove, Mars Attacks, etc. The Bin Laden assassination picture is a good example. But by the time we get to that point, all the interesting politics are already over.
SB: Politics is like stage magic. Both are finished much earlier than the audience is meant to believe. The rest is just misdirection.
CD: The Great Man theory of history is the science fiction theory of politics.
PNH: Politics are complex. Most fiction portrays huge political achievements as the work of a few singular individuals, when then reality is not as simply.
CD: Commodification of ideology is a problem. We’re now selling counterculture.
SB: Building off of CD’s comment, the problem with the New Left was that it wasn’t an ideology, it was a mood.
SB: Astroturf? That’s not a thing.
Audience: Yes it is!
[Note: Astroturfing refers to someone pretending to be an independent supporter of a cause while actually being bankrolled by a corporation or government. ‘Shill’ is a similar term. CD points out that ‘astroturfing’ is so named as it is ‘fake grassroots.’]
CD: Astroturfing is a serious threat to any ideology. Similar to agent provocateur. Some groups are somewhat immune to this. It’s hard, for example, to believably emulate the nihilistic lunacy of 4chan as an outsider.
[Note: There’s a term for this: shibboleth.]
CD: “Great Man Theory” + “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog” = Locke and Demosthenes from Ender’s Game. Ender’s siblings are a prime example of astroturfing.
SB: The interesting part of politics is in how a need transforms into an action. Who calls whom? Who gets the ball rolling?
PNH: That’s a hard question to answer, and one that’s susceptible to conspiracy theories.
CD: Automation can disrupt the status quo in an industry, but it can also be used to defend it. Anonymouth is a tool that can be used to anonymize your text, remove your voice from it. But it could also be used to emulate another author. Make pitch-perfect Harry Potter fanfiction? Start a war by pretending to be a jihadist? It’s possible.
SB: I think you’ve just started the conspiracy theory that J.K. Rowling is a terrorist.
PNH: Lots of nutty people in the world come up with conspiracy theories, but it’s also true that humans conspire quite often.
SB: Calling something a conspiracy theory in order to dismiss it is too simple and problematic. The key question is: how many people would have to keep this secret in order for it to succeed? If it’s more than ten or so, it’s not a very realistic conspiracy.
TNH: Speaking of science fiction politics, I have to bring up Stick Figure Libertarianism, a desire to boil down complex problems into simple overly-utopian solutions. “If we just do X, everyone will be Free and Equal!” It occurs in all ideologies, but seems to occur more often to Libertarians.
CD: But sometimes science fiction can function as a thought experiment (what would happen if x was true) rather than a realistic prediction of what will happen. This is often used with respect to technology, and can also be used with politics. Or sometimes politics can simply be window dressing.
PNH: Used to make readers believe in the world just long enough.
SB: One of the keys to good political fiction is to give the “opposition” good, logical lines along with your heroes.
[Note: I think The West Wing often did this well. The creators didn’t shy away from their message and what they thought proper solutions were, but the conservative characters often got good zingers. Also worth noting The West Wing as Steven Brust talked about Qumar for a while before correcting it to Kuwait. It was early, and he was not yet fully caffeinated :-)]
CD: Using politics in fiction is sort of like a computer simulation of a rock. Simulate with not enough detail, and it’s a pointless exercise — you can’t draw any conclusions from it. Simulate with too much detail, and it’s not very efficient. The conclusions you draw are way too specific and narrow.
SB: Some things take less computation to simulate than others, though.
CD: I am willing to accept that it takes less processing power to simulate you than me, Steven.
CD: Boredom with politics is a defense mechanism of the status quo. A common strategy is to wrap political activism / change with so much bureaucracy that no one but those will a lot of time or patience can participate. An interesting side effect of this is that Google Translate is drawn from EU documents, thus, most English translations end up being written in Eurocratic speak.
Reading Suggestions: Alan Clark Diaries; Neal Stephenson & Stephen Bury, Interface; Mack Reynolds; Ken MacLeod; Times of India
To end, I’ll leave you with a song from the fabulous Jonathan Coulton. Have a great week!