Readercon: Social Class and Speculative Fiction

Having spent the weekend at Readercon, I feel like I should talk about it a little. For those who have never been to a SF convention, it’s not all people dressing up like space aliens and fairy princesses– in fact, the cons Kate and I go to tend not to have all that much of the dress-up thing going on. Instead, they’re run more like an academic conference, with lots of panel discussions on different topics relating to stuff in the genre. Why this happens is somewhat mystifying, when I stop to think about it, but it’s entertaining enough in its way.

Anyway, I went to a handful of panels that had elements worth commenting on, and I will proceed to comment on them here. I can’t type as fast as Kate does, so I won’t even try to make these posts comprehensive, but I’ll throw out a few comments on things I thought were particularly noteworthy. These comments are entirely based on my own impressions and opinions, and may or may not match with what other people at the same panel thought, but that should at least provide something to discuss.

Panel the Second (description here, my comments below the fold):

Social Class and Speculative Fiction
Andrea Hairston (+M), Shariann Lewitt, James D. Macdonald, China Miéville, Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Any completely satisfactory imaginary world will include some sort of class structure (not necessarily rigid or hierarchical), or an explanation for its absence. Are all novels without social class utopian by definition?

Andrea Hairston is very much a liberal-arts academic (the hideous professorism “problematize” appears in the description of the talk she gave later), and opened the panel with a long list of myths about America that relate to class, thus setting the precedent of not really talking about the panel topic as described in the program. China Miéville raised the ante by declaring that nearly all fiction helps support and sustain class prejudices via things like stories with coherent plots featuring the bourgeois idea of the atomistic individual protagonist. Patrick Nielsen Hayden asked whether this makes Homer an agent of the bourgeoisie.

Most of the rest of the panel was spent circling around the idea of the individual protagonist (who may or may not be a rugged individual) and the class implications thereof. I didn’t find this terribly interesting or illuminating. The bits of this panel that ended up catching my attention were thus sort of tangential to the main discussion:

РMi̩ville offered the opinion that class is fundamentally different from other important categories (race, sex, sexual orientation) because while he can imagine a world without race or sex prejudice, the lower classes will always be exploited by the upper. This sort of strikes me as being as much Hobbes as Marx, which is kind of an unpleasant combination.

– Miéville also suggested that the key to understanding Lovecraft is the realization that all the creeping evils of his stories actually represent the racially mixzed classes. I used to have a .signature quote from William Browning Spencer’s Resumé With Monsters about how they needed to import shoggoths to replace illegal immigrants, but I’m too lazy to find it in the book and type it in.

– In the course of a discussion about class and education Patrick Nielsen Hayden mentioned a Noam Chomsky comment noting that the section of the newspaper with the most detailed discussion of history and economics and sophisticated mathematical analysis is the sports page. Which is avidly read by people who are often derided as being too stupid to understand what government is up to. I’d love a cite for this, if anybody knows where to find it (Googling “Noam Chomsky sports page” just turns up a bunch of stuff about professional sports as an opiate of the masses.)

– Somebody from the audience asked about the significance, in class terms, of the fact that many SF readers are socially marginalized. Shariann Lewitt denounced this as a romanticization of marginalization, saying that people who are really marginalized aren’t reading SF, they’re pissed off about their marginalization and fighting to change it.

Personally, that strikes me as just as much of a romanticization– while there are marginalized people who are politically engaged and fighting the system, I suspect that they’re a tiny subset of a much larger set of people who are too busy worrying about where their next paycheck is coming from to spend time discussing their own marginalization. It’s closer to the truth than the audience question was, though.

Very little discussion of specific books here. This was a distressingly common problem with panels at this particular Readercon.

5 thoughts on “Readercon: Social Class and Speculative Fiction

  1. This article from The Nation includes a Chomsky quote that might be the one referred to, but the author does not give a citation for it:

    “Sports keeps people from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in–they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kinds of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this…Sports is a major factor in controlling people. Workers have minds; they have to be involved in something and it’s important to make sure they’re involved in things that have absolutely no significance. So professional sports is perfect. It instills total passivity.”

    I need to attend Readercon one of these days… I live a few miles away and work practically next door, but I never remember about it in time, and so I always have conflicting plans.

  2. Over the years, I’ve seen several cartoons and suchlike noting that the same teenager who can’t be bothered to do his homework will spend hours memorizing sports statistics and trivia….

    Feist’s Midkemia uses class in an interesting fashion… the primary characters are mostly nobles or ministers of same, except when/while they’re prisoners, exiled, or otherwise “defeated”. (The other exception is magicians powerful enough to flip off the nobles/king and make it stick.) In Kelewan, this is even more pronounced — there, practically anyone would literally rather die than live as a slave.

    Also, a popular character throughought SF/F is the “intrinsic outsider”, typically an outlaw or orphan who seems to move surprisingly freely through a variety of class/occupational situations, while never truly belonging to any of them.

  3. I’m afraid I don’t remember where I saw those remarks by Chomsky. It was sometime in the early 1990s.

    I agree that there should have been more discussion of books. Jim Macdonald brought up military SF, a subset of the genre in which class issues are often crisply foregrounded, and I wish we’d managed to go there.

  4. A candidate Chomsky quote, from wikiquote:

    I’ve often been struck by the extensive knowledge that people have of sports, and particularly, their self-confidence in discussing it with “experts.” While driving, I sometimes turn on radio talk shows on sports, and am always struck by this. People calling in have no hesitation in criticizing the coaches, the judgments of the people running the shows, etc. In contrast, when discussing matters of concern to human lives — their own and others — people tend to defer to “experts,” though for the most part the expert knowledge is no more beyond them than how the local professional sports team should play their next game.

    Note that this is only one Chomsky quote of two that they have on the subject, and that the second is very, very down on sports as a deliberately constructed opiate of the masses — as a way to distract their critical faculties. Call it the Rollerball theory. I’m not nearly so sure myself — even if there are people in smoke-filled rooms who do in fact think like this, the end result is that they’re developing critical faculties in people which could be a very great thing if someone could just figure out how to reapply them to politics…

  5. I’m afraid I don’t remember where I saw those remarks by Chomsky. It was sometime in the early 1990s.

    The quotes other people have provided have the right basic spirit– my impression from the little bit of Googling I did is that Chomsky tends to say the same thing about fifteen different ways, but keeps a few consistent points, so those are good enough as the source.

    I agree that there should have been more discussion of books. Jim Macdonald brought up military SF, a subset of the genre in which class issues are often crisply foregrounded, and I wish we’d managed to go there.

    I have to say, when I saw his name on the list of panelists, I said “what the hell is Jim doing on this panel?” The military thing didn’t occur to me at all until he mentioned it. It would’ve been interesting to hear more about that, both because of the class issues inherent in the military structure (the officer/enlisted split Jim mentioned), and the class elements involved in the composition of the military in general both now and in the past.

    The lack of specific discussion of books was a common theme in a lot of this year’s Readercon– maybe it was just the panels I went to, but most of them stayed maddeningly abstract, talking about the genre in general with very few concrete examples of what people were talking about.

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