More after-the-fact blogging, even further after the fact in, er, fact. I wrote this on the train back down to New York, and post it as I wrote it but for the addition of links. The panel stuff filled more than one posts’ worth so I’ll break the rest into another post, hopefully soon.
Relativism and the Superhero was the first actual panel discussion I managed to get to, and talked about the evolution of popular-media superhero stories from the brightly-coloured moral fables of the Golden Age of the thirties and forties to the muddier, more ambiguous “Iron Age” usually associated with the nineties and onward. The panel actually put the start of that ambiguity further back than I’d expected, with Chris Claremont using X-Men 150 to reveal Magneto’s survival through the Holocaust, giving his actions a human dimension. Some interesting points came from both the panel and the floor during the discussion: one audience member said that if you take comic superheroes as popular mythology, as many do, then previous mythologies have gone through evolutions and revisions similar to this. She posited the Arthurian and Greek myths as examples that started off answering a need for unambiguous heroes to exemplify virtues, but which then get rolled back to more flawed interpretations. I’m not entirely sure that that progression always holds, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, but I’m now interested in finding out more about the development of bodies of legend like the Arthurian ones to see if it followed that pattern – I have a feeling that the evolution will be more traceable with Arthuriana, and I also think I know who to ask about it. Another point I hadn’t considered before, which probably shows some naivety on my part, was the influence of demographics on the feel of comics: one panellist contended that there had been a fair bit of modern-style darkness in the comics originally, which dropped away once publishers zoomed in on eight-year-old boys as a market (the argument was that this was either the cause of or because of Robin appearing as Batman’s sidekick, but my notes didn’t record which). The cycle turned when other media started competing with comics to the point where publishers couldn’t afford to lose their young readers and so the comics grew “older” to start following those readers into adolescence. I find that convincing at first blush, both with the timing and because it seemed to me that a lot of the “darkness” and “edginess” of comics’ Iron Age had more to do with fulfilling a very adolescent idea of what was badass rather than any substantive evolution of what those stories were about.
The Beth Meacham and Jay Lake session was set up as a mutual interview, nominally with each asking the other about writing and editing respectively. With that as a point of departure they chatted for a lively hour about their work and the great contrasts in their backgrounds: Lake the child of wandering parents who spent his childhood in more countries than I managed to count from his list, Meacham with her roots firmly planted in the quiet Midwest who got a permission note to use the adult section of her library when she was a young girl because she’d read the kids’ shelves dry. (Not the right expression, but you know what I mean.) I didn’t keep notes, it wasn’t that kind of panel, but it was fun to listen to two smart, engaging people who liked talking to one another.
After that the schedule offered some heavy, thinky stuff with Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman scheduled to talk about his passion for SF and how it tied in intellectually with his work in economics. Were I as smart as Paul Krugman I’d have thought to get to this in plenty of time, since by the time I got there there wasn’t even standing room and the crowd was spilling out the door. Continuing the quest for cerebral fare we moved on to a panel on getting environmental issues right in SF, which at first sounded promising with some interesting discussion on climate and ecology, treatments in SF (what Frank Herbert got wrong), and some cool tangents on things like ecosystem impacts on cloud formation. Less cool was the tangent that saw the panel get bogged down in the politics of Illinois’ representation on the Great Lakes water council or some such, which was the point at which I bailed and moved on. (A valuable lesson I took from Anticipation was don’t be afraid to be ruthless if a panel isn’t delivering – move on and find one that is.)
One panel that definitely delivered, on both substance and entertainment, was the “Archetypes Without Stereotypes” – I don’t have all the panellists’ names to hand but I remember excellent words from Nalo Hopkinson, Pat Rothfuss and Doselle Young. The discussion was quite freewheeling, but one of the points I particularly took note of was to avoid laziness in the use of archetypes. Instead of using them to avoid work by deploying a premade character (Pat’s example was the Enigmatic Wizard a la Gandalf), put that work into the archetype by stripping it back to the elements that make it so powerful, then putting those elements to use without bringing in the cultural plaque that builds up around the archetype. The later parts of the discussion moved on the arche/stereotypes the panellists hated (Helpful Black Guy Who Dies In the Third Act came in for some flak) and the ones they hated to love (Doselle finds the Femme Fatale archetype to be much like an actual femme fatale: he knows liking her is wrong, but he just can’t help himself…)
I went to two panels on fandom itself, one on Sunday and one on Monday. I rather surprised myself with that, actually, since I’m by and large a creature of authordom and don’t do the fandom thing much. The one on expanding and renewing fandom, and drawing readers in to turn them into fans (or words to that effect, I can’t find it in the schedule) was interesting in an “oh dear” kind of way. For a panel that was supposed to be about how to make connections between Fandom (ie the organised community who go to cons and interact through established fan communities and publications) the discussion seemed to be rather inward-looking, A woman in the audience kept trying to explain how unwelcoming she found traditional fandom, and how a lot of fans her age and younger were looking to the circuit of anime, fanfic or similarly specialised cons and communities for somewhere to meet and belong, and the panellists’ response was generally to hector her about how fanfic was theirs, you know, it was invented in trad fandom, and anime was all just visual noise, and they didn’t understand the point of these anime cons anyway, and on and on. The vibe seemed to be that these kids with their newfangled Japanese media and their electronical intermanet were doing it wrong, and they needed to conform to traditional fandom which had decades of tradition to prove that they were doing it right. Something I’m still mulling over is a remark from late in the panel, when the observation was made that it’s harder to get people into fandom because SF itself is more mainstream now: you can have lively chats about Battlestar Galactica or Neil Gaiman or Full Metal Alchemist with people you find at the office or wherever. At the remark that it’s no longer a cold and lonely thing to be an SF fan, one of the panelists shook her head and said with great conviction that that was unfortunate, “because it should be.”
(I have to break in on myself here and say that we have just had the most sensational sunset and dusk over the upper Hudson and the Catskills outside the right-hand windows.)
The second panel was called “Fans aren’t Slans! Pathologies of fannish culture” and was sort of like a detoxified version of that first one. The discussion once again was smart and freewheeling, with sympathetic and interested discussion in new-generation sorts of conventions like Dragon*Con and the San Diego Comic Con, the sort of community that’s building up around those and how it does and doesn’t interact with traditional Worldcon-style fandom. The desires of a younger fan who’s keen on (for example) anime and costuming weren’t dismissed out of hand, but neither were the desires of an older fan who’s been coming to Worldcons for decades and feels they’re part of something that they don’t want to lose. Tangents included the fact that there’s apparently an identified and catalogued fannish accent (enunciating very fast, with heavy use of the lips and front of the mouth in articulation – there’s a theory that because a lot of fans read well while they’re very young, this comes of frustration with getting language skills before mastering fine motor movements of the mouth to talk clearly), and an explanation of the panel title (an infamously loopy fan in the early days of fandom apparently insisted that fans were a genetically superior subset of humans called “slans”, and had ideas about starting a compound in the mountains somewhere from which he was going to breed the future master race).
A panel that took me slightly by surprise was “We are the Knights Who Say #%@!”, about diction in fantasy. I went in expecting a rather light and frothy sort of exercise about olde-worlde-thee-thou writing styles versus more idiomatic ones, but the panel took its cue point from an Ursula Le Guin essay asserting that fantasy should be transcendental, and that prose which could fit into any modern political thriller (for example) was dumbing down to meet its audience rather than pushing them out of their comfort zone into something wonderful. (The analogy brought out in support of that point was wanting to go and experience Katmandu, but wanting to stay at a Holiday Inn and eat at McDonald’s when you get there.) I couldn’t stay for the whole panel, which was a shame because when I left the members were really starting to get their teeth into it. The drift of the discussion was moving away from old versus new diction specifically, and starting to align on the slightly different question of whether language should be simplified to accommodate its audience, or expect the audience to stretch for it. Most of the panel seemed to favour the latter, although Marc Gascoigne admitted himself to be torn: he was an advocate of engaging and entertaining the audience, but admitted that as a parent he understood the role of “hiding the broccoli under the burger”. I don’t think the issue is as binary as the discussion was painting it, but I don’t know if they got past that point – I had to go do my signing, spending a pleasant but very quiet half-hour sitting between Colin Harvey and Laurel Anne Hill, who had an awesome three-headed dragon puppet and chocolate to share. (Laurel, if you found this blog, I’m sorry I missed your steampunk panel. I’d planned to get there but got ambushed by other happenings.)
That’s about as far as I got before I put the computer away and started peering out the windows for any sign we might be about to hit town. I’ll try and write the rest of it up next week – it’d be just embarrassing to have my Worldcon report not go up until after GenCon.