reCONvene 2020

illustration by Tithi Luadthonge

The New England Science Fiction Association, NESFA, has been running cons for a while. Getting close to sixty consecutive years. They managed to squeak out a terrific Boskone 57 in February of 2020, on the cusp of the pandemic that has changed our lives forever.

Will it be safe for us to gather together for physical proximity cons in the near future? Will they at last be called feelies, as we all know they should be? And will we be able to navigate the political turmoil that has gripped our nation? In the meantime, while we sort out these matters of life and death, NESFA has plunged straight into the realm of virtual cons, with their one-day online version of : reCONvene

This was the fourth virtual con that I attended this summer, beginning with the what the heck Balticon 54, which was held as a free online experiment and placeholder, since Balticon itself had postponed to 2021. After that I popped in for the free portion of FantastiKon (which was simultaneously convened at a University building in Split, Croatia). Then I participated in a more academic-style Cyberpunk Culture Conference.

Each of these three virtual cons had their merits. Balticon was the most diverse in it’s use of technology. FantastiKon was a great exemplar of moving some of the programming online, while still allowing for people to get together in the so-called real world. Cyberpunk Culture had pre-recorded all the speakers, which the participants could view in advance on Youtube. Then on the two days of the con, each presentation had it’s own Discord channel where discussants would chime in during a certain period of time. In this way, Cyberpunk Culture was able to create a real-time flow of events and group discussions, as people hopped from one presentation to another, or hung out in non-specific “hallways” via chat or audio connections.

reCONvene has now assembled and accomplished a hybrid version of the other cons I attended. And they did it really well!

The format of reCONvene was to set up a series of simultaneous program items, so that you could only attend one out of several that were happening during any given hour. This is the typical parallel programming style of most cons, so it had a natural feel to it. Since the con was a one-day event, this meant that between the hours of 11am to 5pm, you could attend six full panels sessions, at most. Or, if you are the sort to go in and out of rooms during a con, you could pop around and get a flavor for the multiple things going on.

The sessions were held in the form of Zoom webinars, or Zoom Meeting Rooms. The basic difference between these formats is that Webinars are like panel sessions, in which the invitees can link in with audio and video, while the audience can only watch and listen. By contrast the interactive Zoom meeting rooms were held with limited numbers of participants who could all connect and join the discussion. Yes, kaffeeklatsch were held in the Zoom meeting rooms.

The Zoom panels were available only to registered attendedees with official “invites” based on their registered email address. This seemed reasonable, since the cost of the registration was kept low ($10). By contrast, ConZealand, which was forced to go virtual due to the pandemic, did not offer any rate other than the full attendee cost of ($300). In my view, there should be a minimal registration fee for these virtual cons, otherwise only a few insiders will be able to afford to attend them, and they will turn into elitist echo chambers and suffer the same bitter isolation as the academic journals. Much better to open the gates to all of fandom and see what shakes out.

It’s great that the upcoming Futurecon SF (Sep 17-18 2020) is following the minimal cost model! You can attend for free, or make a small donation to support them. This is a great decision, in my opinion, especially in the context of Futurecon SF, which is explicitly international and diverse. If you want people from all over the world, don’t charge a price that only the developed nations attendees can afford. Let’s use the necessity of the pandemic to level the playing field, why don’t we?

The speakers list of reCONvene took advantage of NESFA and Boskone’s deep backlist of connections. Charles Stross was able to attend for a kaffeeklatsch from Edinburgh, and Aliette de Bodard was online for a panel from Paris, France. So this was not your average brunch patio at the Kickstand Café, (even though those can be pretty amazing, to be sure).

In the opening hour, I was very interested in the Allure of Pure-Tech for Epic Fantasy panel, but opted for the one on climate change:

Glimpsing Climate Recovery

Vincent Dougherty (moderator)
Vandhana Singh

Vandhana Singh started off the session by noting that the looming threat of climate change is not being met with the serious measures it requires. On the contrary, the collective juggernaut of humankind is colliding with it head on.

Vandhana: It’s a so called ‘normal’ way of behavior that brought us here. People are so invested in what feels normal for them, their denial kicks in, and they want to do the same things they have always done in the same way. I really didn’t realize the depth to which the current paradigm has a hold on our imaginations. And you can also see the predicted rise of right-wing groups actually taking place before our very eyes.

Vince: In any complex system you not only get the linear effect, but you get all sorts of unexpected outcomes that radiate out in different directions. There’s an established body of climate fiction that deals with these actually. There were archetypes of them even before the 20th century. And each of these stories attempts to deal with the inexplicable change that suddenly occurs. These could be brought on by wars, pandemics, or even the use of agriculture. Historically all of these, and many other factors, have been proven to be causes of total systemic changes. So, what do you think you are going to change in your fiction writing due to this situation that we find ourselves in?

Vandhana: That’s a really good question. The climate fiction I’ve written is usually linked to social inequality themes. And there’s a good model for this sort of thinking in the Stockholm Study about nine planetary bodies. To pick climate out by iself as the sole theme from these interlocked biological cycles, (which are needed for human survival), is in some ways challenging. And yet, every day the pandemic provides examples that reveal social problems in stark relief. For example we saw daily wage workers in India who were suddenly jobless. There was a massive exodus from the cities where their part time labor jobs all vanished at once. These millions of people had to walk in 100F heat on roads all over India, trying to go home to rural areas. They walked for hours or days, even weeks, without any protective masks or adequate food and water. Many people died during this exodus. It was a very profound, science fictional moment. And I found I was so moved by this reality, that I couldn’t even write for a while. Now I am trying to figure out what climate fiction is. I’m trying to figure out how the powers that be have taken such a strangle hold on this planet. We have turned our backs on so many species that they are going extinct all around us. So it’s become quite clear to me that we cannot solve this climate crisis without social and environmental justice. In response, what I’m trying to do right now is figure out how to show a social structure in fiction that can enable a response to the crisis.

Vince: Living for so long in the Netherlands, I take for granted how much any solution depends on consensus. Here, we just agree on things. For example, my garden is several meters below sea level, but for centuries there has been a consensus among the people here to invest in engineering solutions to flooding. And even though it’s a small country with only 17 million people, our expertise is transferable. So how do we transfer our knowledge, which can help alleviate coastal flooding as the waters rise, to other countries where there is no consensus? Even in the Netherlands where the people are much more aware of environmental issues, to the point that they will be brought up in every conversation, even here we notice “pandemic fatigue,” and people want to go back to some kind of “normal” whatever that is. But the pause has given us an idea of different “normal” and you can see that clearly in the impact on energy and resource use. The annual haj was limited to very small numbers in Saudi Arabia. New Year celebrations in China, annually one of the largest movements of people back and forth on our planet, were simply canceled. Are these to be merely temporary effects? Will the lessons of the pandemic shut down last for very long? So this is our challenge, how to translate the experience we’ve had into fiction and influence the changes we need to make to save our planet. And this includes influencing the government. How do we effect hearts and minds? I’m worried that people will go back to “normal” and won’t keep these lessons and use them.

Vandhana: We can work on specific solutions such as how we can build communities with safe, face-to-face interactions, even in a pandemic. But first we have to deal with the biggest illusion of modernity which is endless economic growth and consumption. Can we replace the hunger for endless growth models with something better? Our collective consumption footprint is growing exponentially. This is happening despite claims of de-coupling and switching to green energy. To be honest, as long as we have endlessly growing material demand we will never solve the crisis. We need to reexamine those fundamental notions that we take as default true. Science Fiction can address that by making the familiar feel weird. in sf you can create a context where that kind of insanity about endless growth is evident. And in education, the one faculty that we don’t nurture is imagination. So as writers of sf, we can play a role in the re-imagination of a different world.

Vince: SF often serves as a warning, rather than a path to a more utopian approach. Take for example, Blade Runner, which takes place in a fictional Los Angeles in 2019. In that scenario, which was filmed in 1981 and projecting into the future, bio-diversity has crashed to the point where most animals exist only in the form of clones or robots. It was fiction then, but now we’re already seeing the reality of that biodiversity loss. Human demands on habitats is rising. The energy infrastructure is staggeringly large, so very large it’s gotten to the point where the numbers don’t mean anything. And even though cities are engines of innovation, their per capita use of energy is higher than smaller communities. On the other hand, cities might be the place where radical improvements could be made! So we have to look at these opportunity points where change can have a the biggest effect on a global scale. And we have to imagine: what might a better next phase of our world look like?

Vandhana: Exactly. i’m writing an essay called “Utopias of the Third Kind.” What’s a Utopia? I define it as an egalitarian utopia. We already have utopias for the rich, but that is not what I’m looking for. Utopias of the third kind are possible in the real world; they are egalitarian, and they are ecologically balanced, as well as being non-hierarchical. There’s more on this in my “Speculative Manifesto” in The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet. And we do have fictional models to look at, like the works of Ursula K LeGuin’s work. We can look at alternatives that are out there. The ones that are sustainable so far are small scale and localized. That is as it should be. When you go to the green energy sector, the local reality matters much more than it does in the extractive fossil fuel sector. You actually have to consider the local ecology for green energy to work. And it’s not that we need to upscale what is happening in these small communities. We need to outscale: everywhere will have its own localized utopian experiments. and by acting together it will shake the pyramid of modernity’s power. SF can help us show that what we take for granted as reality is really just another scenario and it can be shaken up.

Vince: My hope is that we will see transferable ideas beyond the local and that they will become a real option. We actually have the technologies that we need (such as solar, wind, and geothermal) but they are not equally distributed. How do we spread that out to help people at scale? How do we outscale the sustainable efforts that work at local scales into the lives of thousands, of millions, of a billion people?

Vandhana: Well, we can make some cautionary statements. This will not be the last pandemic for one thing. We know that as the ice caps melt, there will be pathogens that are released from the melting ice. As the world heats up, the existing pathogens will also change. It is really a sickness of the planet. We simply cannot go back to the way we were. The entire paradigm has to change. May was the hottest month on record, despite the fact that emissions dropped sharply during the pandemic. We know that it will take hundreds to thousands of years for the biosphere and the upper ocean to absorb 75% of the increased CO2 that exists in the atmosphere already. Then the deep ocean will take thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years to absorb the remaining 25%. It’s impossible for us to go back to the systems that have accelerated anthropegenic climage change. Therefore we now have a huge burden of responsibility for the future.

photo: Noah Berger/Associated Press

The other sessions I attended were of similar excellence! Keep on reading for a few more highlights from the other sessions.

The Distant Future in Science Fiction

Sharon Lee (moderator)
Steven Barnes
Jennifer Marie Brissett
Guy Consolmagno
Adrian Tchaikovsky

Guy: We’re talking about the far future, but SF is more about the time it is written. Even so that’s a feature, not a bug. Because if you have weird aliens in a totally different society people might not relate to it. There has to be some commonality from our present experience in a way that we can recognize and relate to it. The actual future might end up beong so different that we couldn’t even recognize it. To give you an example, when I read Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, which is set 500 years in future, society is very different. At first I when I encountered the way she protrayed people living together in extended clans, I thought “I would never live like,” that, but then I realized, “Wait, my extended Jesuit community really is like that,” and it gave me a hook that I could completely understand.

Adrian: In my view, it is exceptionalism, rather than relatedness that will determine what finally happens in the distant future, You end up with someone at the top who thinks “what I am is important.” Then, instead of driving us with innovation into the future, this self-oriented exceptionalist thinking actually stops innovation. It then boils down to the one holding the power who says: “what I want is to preserve what I have and who i am,” rather than finding solutions to problems. How then would exceptionalist thinking be able to deal with alien races? What if, in fact, the alien civilization was better than ours, and not only different? What if instead of being a threat, it was an opportunity.

Sharon: We can look for examples right here at home. Has anybody read The Hidden Life of Trees about how trees communicate? And there is also an 8000 year old mushroom that exists here in Oregon. We aren’t engaging with these biological others and don’t pay attention to them, even though those old systems are really in danger. Our society percieves them as ‘lower order’ entities and don’t act to save them. How can we change this behavior?

Steven: If human exceptionalism is the question, we need to interrogate if humanity is in the position of needing to take care of the world in the first place. Maybe it isn’t a selfishness problem so much as how we define the Self. What do you percieve your self to be? Does your Self stop at your body, your family, your community, your race, your world?

Jennifer: So much of humanity’s problem is our inability to see ourselves. We are fighting about such miniscule shitty stuff because we cannot deal with the reflection of who we are collectively. We are trying to not look. But the reflection keeps coming back. The civil rights movement was about a whole group of people who weren’t being seen. Because a whole group of people were invisible, and not seen by the rest. It may be a continual struggle for us to see each other, to see our selves. How we deal with all of nature is a reflection of who we are inside. Only if we are being honest about that reflection, in all of its beauty and its ugliness, will we get anywhere. But either we are going to survive by dealing with this reality, or we are going to die from our inability to deal with it.

Adrian: It’s true, we only have the one world. We are reliant on it to take care of us. And if we break it we’re stuffed. I cant improve on what Jen just said. The power to see our selves in another, or in another species, is the essential thing. It’s important now, for humanity to survive, but it will be extremely important if we ever meet something else. if we can’t deal with our own species on our world, how will we ever be able to deal with aliens if they are out there?

Llareta, Atacama Desert, Chile

The AI Amongst Us

R.W.W. Greene (Moderator)
Ted Chiang
Alastair Reynolds
Karl Schroeder
Martha Wells

RWW: All of us on the panel have written stories in the spirit of AI and maybe we have better than layman knowledge of this topic. Even so, we have a tendency in our fiction to skin our concept of AI with human qualities of gender, personality, purpose. What do you think is going on under that skin?

Karl: One of the best stories about this is Staislaw Lem’s The Mask, where there is an assassin robot in the shape of a woman. Her human form is a kind of mask itself, but the real mask is the mind. The robot thinks that she’s a real person, and this gives her the motivation that drives her to pursue her quarry. Its creepy. It’s similar to the theme in Battlestar Galactica where some of the cylons don’t know that they are cylons.

Ted: _The tendency to assign robots a gender and a face arises from a couple of things. One of them is the objectification of women, and the idealization, the fansticization of women. There’s Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or there is Lester Del Rey’s Helen O’Loy. The idea that there is a perfect woman, who is not a person, who has no subjective experience. This is really just a projection of what men want from a woman. And that idea persists even now. I think a recent example of that is Spike Jonze’ film, Her). So that is a very long-standing and active trend in the depiction of AI. The other thing, underlying that idea that we think of robots as being people, comes from this idea that we can make perfect idealized servants, who live to please. In a way its a dream of slavery without all the bad parts, without the moral horror. You create a class of entities who were perfectly obedient, who do all the things you don’t want to do, and they are happy to do them, and there can be no moral objection to it. This desire for a form of slavery that doesn’t have the downsides is an animating force of many sf depictions of robots and AI_

Martha: Annalee Newitz’ Autonomous also deals with humans imposing gender and sexuality on robots. The human has a robot partner, and projects his own desires onto it. Then the robot reimages itself to fit the desire. Ann Leckie talked about that slavery idea, too, and an evil AI that has to be destroyed to save mankind. On the other hand, AI in sf can take the form of a slave revolt. In that case, the AI usually becomes conscious and wants to pursue its own life without being our servant.

Alastair: Another case would be sending robots to the outer solar system to explore planets where communication latency is very long. You can do telepresence, but it’s not convenient for real situations with that latency. So you want the robots to have automonous decision making qualites. But if they cross over to free will then we cross the ethical threshold, because we have created slaves. We want them to be free up to a point, but it will be a long rocky road to develop an AI that is autonomous.

Karl: The ethical possibilites are endliess. What if they have free will, but they don’t experience pain or suffer, can we still exploit them?

Ted: I don’t thing that is possible. I dont think anything can be conscious and have free will and yet be incapable of suffering.

RWW: We’ve seen intelligence in both plants and animals, so how do we know that an AI doesnt exist, but in a form that we don’t recognize? Maybe we’re just putting a skin, like SIRI, on top of the self-aware AI, and as it sings us to sleep, how would we really know if it is an AI or not?

Ted: Does it have to conform to our definition of intelligence? We have observed unexpected intelligent behavior in crows and elephants. We just didn’t notice it earlier. We are thinking that they are doing things that map well onto what people do. Those are analogies to our own behavior. it wouldn’t be productive to say this boulder is in fact intelligent by expanding our definition of intelligence to just sitting still. We should have the ability to recognize AI as long as we stick to a comprehensible definintion of intellegence. And in that sense, having a human-centric usage of the word “intelligence” is still necessary. If you move too far away from that, then words cease to be useful.

Martha: We also find ways to explain to each other that other things are NOT sentient, to preserve our human advantage.

Karl: Of course, consciousness and intelligence are two different things. You could have two computers behaving in exactly the same way, but one is conscious and one is not. Empirically you should be able to determine which is which by examining the internals. in which case, I could be a robot emulating me taliking to you, and you couldn’t tell unless you used the same examination. But I’m not as interested in the 100th iteration of AI that finally passes the Turing test, I’m interested in the 999th version that almost passed but failed.

Martha: The AI in my murderbot is partly machine and partly organic. What would it want? Moving from system to system, and then having to shrink down it’s parameters to adapt to an organic body; would an AI want that? Murderbot would not want to be merely human but would prefer to stay the way it is. For example, maybe an AI would be able to absorb images flashing across a screen in a way that human eyes couldn’t begin to follow and process.

RWW: Is there anything in murderbot you couldn’t do another way?

Martha: The freedom to comment on my own psychology, my own developmental issues.. I woudn’t have been able to do that with a human character. You can stand outside yourself to make a commentary on the human condition from an AI character.

Ted: There are ways of talking about a person finding their way in this world. It’s a story that we can all identify with. An AI protagonist offers a different point of view, and another way of talking about it. That’s sort of what SF does. It dramatizes aspects of the human condition using a speculative scenario. AIs can serve many purposes because they can be stand-ins for people, and at the same time they give us certain dramatic liberties that would not be available to us if we were talking about actual people.

Modernizing Fairy Tales and Myths

Adam Stemple (Moderator)
Victor LaValle
Seanan McGuire
Rebecca Roanhorse
Ms. Catherynne M. Valente

Adam: Why modernize myth and fairy tales? What do you get out of it? What do you think the reader gets out of it?

Victor: We can take the traditional forms and bring them into the stories that we tell as individuals and where we fit into a family of traditions. I was thinking about my mother, my grandmother, my sister, my uncle and so on, and the various mythologies that came to me through them. By telling my own myths, I wanted the elements to bleed together, both the fantastic and the realistic, personal myths. On top of this there are also cross-cultural myths. For instance, I’ve got Scandanavian troll mythology in my stories. In that case, I was being like a magpie to take things that weren’t mine and make them my own.

Rebecca: In, Race to the Sun I’m working with Navajo legends. It’s part of the Rick Riordan series, which are all based on myths from various cultures. This book follows a pair of hero twins, which is a story that appears in many meso-American cultures. The twins go through trials to reach their father who gives them weapons to fight monsters. Of course there are some monsters, like hunger and poverty which are things that you never get rid of. And those are nothing like the monsters that you can slay once and never have to see them again. There are many Navajo youth who never learned some of these stories from their own families, and I wanted to bring these stories forward and make them feel relevant to these kids.

Seanan: The Brothers Grimm didn’t like the fact that German women hurt their own children. So they changed those Mothers to Step-mothers. In reality, Hansel and Gretel is about a woman with two children who are eating everything in the house. They do nothing useful. The woman has just given birth to a baby and she knows a bad winter is coming. It’s absolutely certain that, in the present configuration, everyone will starve and everyone in the house is going to die. On the other hand, she realized that she could put the eight year olds out in the snow. At least they had a chance. One might fall off a cliff, one might get eaten by wolves. Or they both might get found and saved by a rich patron. The real choice was for the mother to either put the children in the snow (where they had a small chance to survive), vs keeping them in the family where all of them would die.

Adam: My favorite fact about the Grimm tales is that the originals were very violent, then when they found out that they were being read to children as bedtime stories, the violence all got toned down in later editions. But how can you retell mythological tales for a new audience? Where is the line between taking the original story as an act of appropriation, vs. creating something new and meaningful? As artists we should be able to explore all aspects of humanity, right?

Rebecca: I’ve been accused of this, (appropriation) so I might as we tackle this question. We are not religionists, we’re speculative fiction writers. I’m aware that they are living stories, but it is not my responsibility to maintain their religiosity. These are all stories that you can find on a bookshelf already.

Seanan: About appropriation, I would ask myself: is it open, or has it been forced on me? Take Cinderella. We all know that story. It’s open. How about Christianity?
Christianity is forced upon us, and we are culturally imprinted by the Church in ways that we never sought out. I dont need to make an excuse about what I want to do with stories that society has forced upon me, and it’s not appropriation, either.

Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Finding our Humanity in Horror

Christopher Golden (Moderator)
Charlaine Harris
Justina Ireland
Stephen Graham Jones
Paul Tremblay

Justina: How do we find our humanity in horror? Maybe realizing that the real monsters are the people, and that we’re all part of capitalism and consumerism. And it’s about building resilience. Horror is a way of showing adversity under ridiculous circumstances.

Paul: For me it’s the moral ambiguity. Any art tries to reveal the truth, for horror the truth is a nightmare, but I think that I find humanity and hope in the shared recognition (with the reader) that something is terribly wrong.

Charlaine: The humanity is in asking ourselves, what would we do in that situation? Take for example, The Walking Dead, which is so successful. People are watching it and saying: I would just go on and die, in that circustance. I couldn’t take it. While others say: I will struggle and fight to the end. It’s kind of a test about how you think you would react in those terrible circumstances.

Stephen: Well, you hope the reader will share in the revulsion of what is happening. But as an author you’re afraid, in the the back of your mind, that there is a really small percentage of people who will think… “this is a great idea!”

Christopher: I think children should be exposed to age-appropriate horror. There are important life lessons from stories like this. But you have to be careful. The first time I met Clive Barker we talked about this topic. He said he was watching Robocop in the theatre, right beside a family with an 8 year old. He thought the graphic depiction of heads being blown off was not right for that age.

Paul: Even the creature double features gave me nightmares. I couldn’t make it through Nightmare on Elm Street the first time. In terms of reading, I was never scared as much by texts, and I devoured Poe. But one summer I had surgery and while I was stuck in bed recuperating I decided to read Stephen King’s It, the one with the cover painting of a claw grabbing the sewer grate. And I threw that book down, saying to myself, “nope, I’m not going to be stuck in my house all summer afraid of the basement.”

Christopher: Being human is to live in a constant delusion that we have some control over what is going on. Horror breaks that illusion. So why do we think horror helps us? How does something terrifying provide us safe harbor?

Justina: Maybe loss of control in the story gives me a feeling that I can still control many aspects of my own life.

Stephen: I feel as if understanding that this person feels like I do helps me. I don’t feel as bad with the idea of being alone in the Universe. Sure, it doesnt actually solve anything but it soothes you somehow.

Charlaine: It sharpens you for the day when something terrible happens to you, Maybe it prepares you for it by admitting that terrible things can happen.

Christopher: Even though horror fiction is spotlighting the fact that it is all choas and the worst things will happen. But you are experiencing it along with somebody else. And at the end of the story, you get a small sense of control back. The amusement park ride is over and I made it! I shut the book and everything is still here and everything is ok. It restores the illusion.

Stephen: When you crack the door open maybe a huge tentacle reaches in to get somebody by the neck. But it’s also possible for a unicorn to come through on a rainbow. With horror you maintain that sense that anything is possible. And you have to believe in something in life. When you’re walking down the street, if it’s not the door to the Church you’re passing, its the Bigfoot Club. We are all searching for meaning, and what you turn to might not be the church, but it could be bigfoot, or just science.

Justina: Whatever the belief system is, horror is about pushing that faith to the limit and saying, do you still believe now, after this? It’s like at the end of Skeleton Key, when she finally believes, and that is when they take her body.

Charlaine: All the characters start off not beliveing. But if you don’t believe, you’re wearing the red shirt. Those people die first. The one’s who say, “what, a vampire? That’s ridiculous!” They are always the first to get it in the neck.

Paul: Just because the door opens and there’s something evil there, doesn’t neccessarily mean there is something good to balance it. To me the Universe can be inimical. So I don’t want people to think that what is happening is spiritual, and I don’t particularly want the reader to be able to identify with what is happening.

Christopher: Still, the book has to get to the point where the reader believes, and then you take over their soul! Like in my novel, Ararat ,they discover a demon. The people are from a range of spiritual backgrounds, from believers to atheists. What happens is that the evil is defined by their various experiences, rather than a common experience.

Stephen: All horror starts with somebody in a meat grinder. Sometimes they see the hand turning the wheel, sometimes only the teeth chewing their leg.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo, illustration by Kevin Hong

Worldblending in Speculative Fiction

Ellen Kushner (moderator)
Aliette de Bodard
P. Djèlí Clark
Dr. Carlos Hernandez
Cerece Rennie Murphy

Ellen: How do we take our own worlds and blend them into our fictional worlds?

Carlos: The things you choose to represent are the ones you want to highlight. In the end, every word in every sentence is world building. The setting of Miami is my own real Cuban culture, though the science is out there.

Cerece: The Wolf Queen is set in East Africa. So, in addition to the culture there, I wanted to know what would the people be like in the coastal town to make it juicy?

Alette: When I designed Xuya it was meant to be a Vietnamese galactic empire. Basically the 19th century Vietnamese empire set in space. Family and kinship are still very important in the story, and I tried to figure out how would other things change? For example, if you could preserve the entire personality of your dead mother, then how would ancestor worship work? Some people would be okay with the new possibility, and think: “this is one aspect of my dead mother,” and then they could still continue to practice ancestor worship which is another form of ritual communication with her. Others would have considered the preserved personality, enabled by technology, as an unacceptable violation of tradition. Then there are sentient spaceships as part of the family. Now what does that mean? The way I handled it was that the spaceships get parked in orbit and must remain in space. But the spaceships can project an avatar that stays together with the family who all go down to the planetary surface.

Djèlí: In my book A Dead Djinn in Cairo, the history context is still the one we know and expect,so there are boundaries I would have to adhere to. But the dead Djinn world is different. It’s my take on the anti-colonial, as a way of critiquing colonialism. With a nod to Edward Said. My take on colonialism has a bit of the absurd. I bring in the the reintroduction of magic (the djinn) into the world. You can see the idea of these other beings as a story of first contact. How do living beings deal with that? Then there are aspects of ethnicity and culture that get blended into the contact with these completely other kind of beings.

Aliette: I did not start off writing my personal family history. There were things I wrote that were based on the issues of being a second generation of the Asian diaspora. But I lacked confidence and thought, “do I know enough about my own culture?” In fact, I started off writing about ancient China. But then I realized, when talking to my friends, if I wasn’t going to write these stories blending my own family history, then who will? What am I afraid of? My family wont break down the door and say: how dare you! My family came to France because of the Viet / US war. There were so many things that I heard from my various relatives, that made me understand that Vietnam is a culture of memory. But things changed radically after 1968. I wondered, what does it mean to grow up with stories that are frozen in time? What does it mean to be in the shadow of the war? What of history: who is right? Was anybody right? The whole diaspora has to deal with these same questions.

carlos: Miami is the flip side of the coin. Cubans settled there as a beach-head to go back to their homeland and start a war. They all wanted to go back to Cuba and kick ass. And they found a commonality with people in Florida in those days. “You’re anti-communist? We’re anti-communist!” In that sense, even though they were outsiders, they fit right in, and at the same time felt very sure of their cultural identity.

Aliette: Worldblending is what you leave in, and what you change. For example, I degendered Confucianism. Usually male and female have certain roles and the language is gendered. However, I kept the hierarchy of who is older and who is younger. Men and women are equal, but in a marriage their is a greater spouse and the lesser spouse, one the domestic and the other who goes out and has larger societal role. That is how I reworked some of the language and culture.

Cerece: In my order of the seers, people could see the future. What didn’t change was that you have to recognize your own power. No one can define it for you. You have to discover it for yourself. When others define your power, it is going to be a limitation, and is not what you are truly capable of. When that happens, others are controlling your capabilities. And another aspect of my story was to find out how the symbol of divinty turned into a group of maligned scapegoats.

Djèli: For Dead Djinn In Cairo, there were still large political forces. Colonialism wasnt done with, and just like our own world today, the legacies live on. But Cairo was the pre-eminent technological and economic power of the world in my story. There’s a little of Wakanda there. In The Haunting of Tramcar 1075 there are lots of societal issues. As for the actual machines, they were based on 1912 tramcars. But in the story they are semi-sentient, which is a little different from the original 1912 mechanisms.

Aliette: If it is 200 years in the future, you can even get things hilariously wrong. Of course you can fail to do research, but you’ll get called on it. In some ways the point of the novel is to say to the reader “you’re expectations are wrong about that place, let me show you why.” Then you have to do your best to convince them of your vision. On the other hand, you can’t write to tailor a book to people’s preconceptions.

Carlos: If people start off by complaining that you got the place wrong that is a very low bar to start a conversation.

Djèli: For The Black God’s Drums I started off with a story based on some things my mother left me. Then I layered on a secondary fanstasy world. I mean, there are giant lizards that people ride on, there are winged babboons, and magic. The cultural center is probably Congolese. But then I brought in the Zjab, which is a man with horns from Afro-Carribean folklore. Someone said they were reading it and thought, “Wow! Then this zjab shows up,” and they liked it. So there is some serious world-blending! But hey, I have also got winged babboons, I can do anything I want. Some peple say: “how is that possible?” Well, I made it happen, now you have to figure it out.

Bodard covers by Maurizio Manzieri