Something a little bit different this week. The weekend just gone was Continuum 14: Conjugation – the 14th iteration of Melbourne’s annual fan-run speculative fiction convention. I attend Continuum for many reasons – to see friends, to dance the night away at the Maskobalo, to sing bad karaoke… but most especially for the program of talks and panels.
Like all of Australia’s fan-run conventions (and probably those of other countries, but I can’t speak for them), many of Continuum’s attendees are in the literary way – whether as writers or aspiring writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, or any combination of the above, not to mention readers who think deeply and critically about the fiction they consume.
Listening to them examine the structures and tropes of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror introduces me to new concepts or new aspects of concepts I thought I understood; it challenges me to think beyond my assumptions and explore new ways to write, and new subjects to explore in my writing. There is nothing in my life that broadens my writerly horizons the way a convention like Continuum does.
The Monstrous Feminine
I missed the first half of this panel, alas. But the second half was a brilliant dissection of the fine line fictional women walk between being heroes and villains.
When are women seen as most monstrous? When they corrupt what are seen as their “natural roles”: the carer, the mother. Hence “monsters” like Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Aunt Lydia (The Handmaid’s Tale), Mother Gothel (Tangled – not to mention the classic evil stepmother of so many fairytales), and even “Mother” (Psycho).
Discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale – is Aunt Lydia really a monster? If a society so disempowers women that the only way they can take any control over their lives is to become part of the system and participate in the subjugation of other women, why do we blame the women, not the system? What about women who become part of the system and complicit in its oppression in order to protect other women from the worst of it? If a social system is so ingrained that meaningful change seems impossible, is it monstrous to choose to work within it rather than struggle against it?
Why is it so much easier to be a male anti-hero than a female one? It only takes one or two redeeming moments for a male main character to be seen as forgiveable for all his terrible actions; but it only takes one or two moments of amorality to damn a woman. Are monstrous women inherently seen as less forgiveable?
Another “natural role” inverted by monstrous females: the good wife. Beauty as a trap; fear of marrying a monster. Lady Macbeth, Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Melusina the fairytale queen who turned half-snake one day a week. The wife as a wild thing that must be conquered and tamed by the husband: capturing a selkie or other monstrous wife (the brilliant story Jackalope Wives comes immediately to mind) and then being afraid of her – afraid she will leave, or of what else she might do.
Speculative Ethics and Fannish Legal Shenanigans
Although separate panels, the roads they led the audience down were related enough that I’m combining them.
The alternative settings of speculative fiction provide unique opportunities to explore ethical questions – sometimes explicitly (The Good Place, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas), sometimes more subtly. How do our definitions of right and wrong change when presented with different fictional scenarios? In a zombie apocalypse or similar scenario, actions we would normally consider unethical (up to and including killing other people) may be considered excusable by the need to survive. What happens if we meet aliens who have a completely different moral code to ours?
If people are held to have certain rights and responsibilities, how does that change with fiction that alters the definition of personhood? What if animals are considered people? If corporations are people, what ethical responsibilities do they have? Arguably they could be considered ethical for seeking to maximise shareholder returns, if shareholders are considered to be their dependants. And if corporations can be people, why not other “organisms” made up of many people or creatures? Why not the Earth itself?
If AIs develop sentience, how does that affect copyright laws around computer code? If a programmer owns the copyright on their code, do they own the AI? What happens if an AI wants to reproduce – i.e. to make a copy of their code? What would be the implications of an AI going open source?
Crime and punishment – discussion of legal systems in different settings. In some the law is “here is a list of things you can’t do”, while in others it’s “here is a list of things you can do.”
How do you punish criminals in a post-scarcity or post-currency setting? Common options: social ostracisation, removal or “reprogramming” of personality, forced labour, incarceration. Some sci-fi even posits simulated incarceration: freeing up jail space by using simulations to make offenders live out years of jail time in minutes – effectively reproducing all the psychologically-damaging aspects of jail (isolation, dehumanisation, desocialisation) while removing the single arguably-beneficial aspect: the removal of an offender from society.
Why are fictional villains so often considered inherently evil? The assumption that villains “deserve” death or incarceration is very much based on the American/Australian model of justice/revenge rather than, say, the Scandinavian model of rehabilitation.
An Inheritance of Chains: Facing Empires in Science Fiction and Fantasy as a Postcolonial Reader
An amazing talk from Filipino-Australian fan, writer, and artist, Likhain.
Postcolonial culture shows the effects of colonisation that keep hold long after independence:
- Ideals of beauty that reflect the colonisers’ (apparently the Philippines share the Indian obsession with women achieving lighter skin).
- Bilingualism – because speaking the colonisers’ language was necessary for survival, for success.
- Treatment of the colonisers’ language as more prestigious than the original language of a country (viewing it as a sign of superiority, much like their light skin) to the point of suppressing the country’s native language/s.
Success in a colonised country requires siding with the coloniser – that instinct doesn’t go away just because the colonisers have. No country that has been under imperial rule can simply “go back to the way it was”.
Speculative fiction loves its empires. It’s easy to cheer for white outsider Daenerys (Game of Thrones) as she assembles an army of “rescued” native peoples to fight and die in a war for a throne that has nothing to do with them. Empires are portrayed in ways that obfuscate the harsh reality of colonisation: as a better alternative to what came before; as a benevolent ruler; as a superior culture; as a superior species; as the price of progress. All of these portrayals serve the same purpose: to convey legitimacy.
The simple lie of all empires is that they deserve to exist. “For the good of the empire!” assumes that the empire is ever worthy of continuation.
The Three World Problem
Another incredible talk, this one discussing portal fantasies from the point of view of a fan who arrived in Australia as a Burmese immigrant as a child.
Portal fantasies as stories of immigration, and they always end one of three ways: the protagonist yearns for home and eventually finds their way back; the protagonist discovers their true home in the new world and chooses to stay; or the overlap of the two worlds is responsible for their imminent destruction, and the protagonist must find a way to separate them forever.
Why can’t the protagonist of a portal fantasy be a child of both worlds? Why must they be forced to choose one?
The stages of arriving in a new world, as experienced by a genuine child immigrant
- Awe and delight – what is this wondrous new place full of strange and wonderful things!
- Culture shock. The realisation of just how much of this new world you don’t understand – vernacular and slang, social customs, foods, all the myriad ways, large and small, you stand out as “not belonging here.”
- Homesickness and facing the xenophobia of those who do “belong.”
The idea that you can live a while in a new world and then go back home unchanged is a myth. The world you came from will not be as you left it. You will not be as you were when you left – lost language skills, a strange accent to your speech, forgotten or clumsily-performed customs that once came naturally, new and strange points of view (another Ursula Vernon story comes to mind – Elegant and Fine).
This is what it is to live out a real-life “portal fantasy”.