Last time, I wrote about the wonderful time I had at Readercon. Today I'll kick off a series of posts about specific panels and talks, with one on class struggle in science fiction and fantasy. I'll give a quick summary of the panel as well as highlights from the discussion.
I've paraphrased the panelists' words, and apologize in advance for any mistakes or mis-representations - let me know by leaving a comment and I will fix it.
Description (from program): With rising economic inequality and class struggle ever more visible in America, how are these issues being explored in SF/F? Is the pessimism of YA dystopias (from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, published at the start of the Great Recession, to M.T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand in 2017) emblematic of changed views of the American Dream? How do recent works differ from their 20th-century forebears (Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain), and how are they tackling the intersection of class and other identities?
Summary: The need to have a hero in a story can bias a story towards middle and high-class characters, and means that a large portion of the human experience is left out. It is also not faithful to reality, because actual history is more often shaped by a large group of people rather than a single hero. Many mundane acts of heroism are also systematically ignored.
Stories have to follow individual characters, but we can show them embedded in their organizations or communities and focus more on those dynamics. Stories need to be engaging, but that also means we can talk about difficult issues through “vampires and robots.”
The stories that we consume affect the way that we see the world, for example, through hero worship. It’s a double-edged sword.
CV: As genres, science fiction and fantasy often have trouble dealing with class because the hero is often the one who has enough spare time to pursue a plot or mystery. People who are not part of the elite (e.g., the nobility or technical elite) don’t have time to figure out what’s going on, only the time to face things as they come. Fantasy especially has trouble with this because the nobility are the “movers and shakers of history”; at best you get the middle class (“fat hobbits”).
CT: A novel has to follow a person or small group to some climax, but actual history is seldom shaped by a few people. It’s more often shaped by a large group, including many people who don’t get named. Speculative fiction could do a lot to explore movements: how large groups of people work together to change society. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin does a good job.
MO: We act as if we’re past monarchy, but a lot of things in our world came from the Victorian age. For example, breakfast buffets in hotels are an aristocratic tradition.
CV: We are still in a oligarchy; we are in a new gilded age. We have been “convinced as a culture to cheerlead capitalism, and specific players in capitalism.” Consider how much geek fandom is invested in the Avengers endgame. Disney doesn’t care about us! Media companies are making a ridiculous amount of money convincing us to consume their stuff as a fun hobby. Corporations are “making us complicit in our own oppression, and [making us] find it entertaining.”
SS: It’s difficult to write a book about work, and about how politics works at a ground level. I think we can write more interesting novels if we can concentrate on how economic systems really work.
Question: How do you address the fundamental difficulty that stories have to be about individual people, not about systems?
MO: I’m fascinated by organizations, and group dynamics. Working as part of an organization, you can see yourself as a hero for a certain amount of time, but after a while you can’t keep tricking yourself. In stories, you need characters to identify with; I can’t be intrigued by abstractions. But we can show characters enmeshed in the organizations they’re working for.
In the modern world we consume a lot of content. If I don’t have a stack of good stories within easy reach I get nervous. Consuming this much affects how our brains mediate the world, and frames our experiences. We put the popular narratives as frames on everything we see. This can both be a good and bad thing.
We imagine people as heroes, because plots are built around individual heroes. We imagine romance where there isn’t any. What we think of as fundamental aspects of story are not fundamental - they’ve changed over history. Sometimes we’re right because others act on the same impulses, and so the story sense is a kind of intuition, but sometimes it’s false. We need to be critical of the narratives we’re consuming and imagining.
CV: We are motivated to take the stories we read and bring them into the real world. Consider the amount of worship that people direct towards Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and other billionaires. Trump is a “real world Tony Stark” (from Iron Man). We want to live in a world where someone comes to save the day. Elon Musk has been terrible for the class struggle; he was born with privilege upon privilege; his claimed inventions aren’t invented by him. But he bends narrative energy towards him, so people see him as a way to live in a different story.
CT: There’s a drive towards exceptionalism in stories: a super-competent hero saves the day. A challenge is to write normal people, facing something traumatic in their normal lives.
MO: Consider people who are heroes in your and other people’s lives. It’s hard to find these heroes in the news; they are unknown or disappear immediately; it’s hard to anchor them in your head. The things we are told are heroic are not as heroic or exciting as the things we ignore completely.
For example, pregnancy and childbirth are largely ignored in science fiction. But pregnancy is a heroic journey, and much more guaranteed to have pain than the journey of throwing a ring in the volcano. We think of it as mundane, unexciting, unremarkable. But this kind of heroism doesn’t have to be boring - think about the struggle to feed one’s family.
CV: Pregnancy shows up in horror stories. But childbirth and early childrearing are ignored, and used as a way to get rid of a woman character.
Breastfeeding is a class marker that has switched. It used to be that wealthy people used baby formula; breastfeeding was seen as vulgar and obscene. Now, it’s wealthy women who have the time to breastfeed, and the poor who use a formula because they have to go back to work.
Even women don’t write about these things because they think it’s not novel-worthy. Similarly, war is worthy and education is not. (Though, education and childrearing are talked about in AI stories.)
There is nothing in life that class does not permeate. Art has no obligation but to tell the truth, but if you are not involving class you are probably not telling the truth.
Question: We eat nutritious food (stories tackling important issues) and pizza (popular fiction). Where capitalism booms, are we doomed to pizza?
CT: Spinach pizza? If you create a beautiful thing, you can sneak in a lot of cool stuff and people will support it.
CV: This is where science fiction and fantasy shine. We can write about class struggle with vampires and robots. It’s not fun without vampires and robots, because we read about it in the newspaper every day. But because we write in genres, it goes down easier, in a way that people will remember more, because they were not expecting to get a lecture on class struggle.
MO: Fun is a highly underrated quality in literature. Writing about class, slavery, etc. doesn’t have to contradict fun; the writing and voice can be strong and enjoyable.
Q: Does human nature make utopia impossible?
CT: We need to get away from merit-based systems. The punishment for not winning the cherry-pie-eating contest should not be abject poverty. The bottom line should be nice and solid, so no one is falling through it.
MO: There are many ways to organize society. We’ve designed society to incentivize certain ways of sucking. There are new societies we haven’t tried yet. We won’t know until we go out and try.