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 MiÃ©ville, 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 MiÃ©ville 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:
– MiÃ©ville 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.
– MiÃ©ville 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 ResumÃ© 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.