Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Virtual FantasyCon 2014: SFF and Politics

There is nothing more glorious than to defeat your enemy by transparent democratic process, and hear the lamentation of the other sides’ whips. Can SFF make political process dramatic and heroic, or will it always come down scheming viziers and noble warriors?
Lizzie Barrett (m), Jaine Fenn, Foz Meadows, Catherine Hill, Adrian Tchaikovsky [with interjections and digressions from Megan]



Much of fantasy derives from feudalist phantises, notes Adrian Tchaikovsky, which in turn are based on enormous lies from the powerful and wealthy, such as divine right. Fantasy continued this unquestioningly for a long time, so that power and the right to govern came from the "true" king, the prophecy, and so on, rather than the self-determination of the vast population in that kingdom. People are starting to question this, though.

The organisations of kinship and power, from family upwards, across history, are very various, and for Foz Meadows are an interesting way to start world-building. There's a genetic element in wanting the best for your children, as Tchaikovsky says. [Digression: How that plays out, though, can be very different to our usual assumptions. We often look at an animal family structures to "explain" an alpha-male-led, hierarchical, survival-of-the-fittest approach to safeguarding our genetic heritage, but we cherry-pick the animals we look at - eg the aggressive chimpanzees rather than the laid-back horny bonobos (which are admittedly harder to study) - and often misunderstand the pack behaviour we do study. The Victorians were baffled by hyenas and unable to identify any females, because the females are big, tough, packed with testosterone, and in charge. The painted dog, meanwhile, has a different take on survival of the fittest to our usual assumptions: the old, weak, and infirm get first dibs on all kills, and the hunters eat last. Nope, I haven't retrained as an animal expert - that's my brother's field! His My Safari app has some fantastic Campfire Lectures on animal behaviour, and you can read a few previews here, including the stuff on painted dogs.]

Catherine Hill points out that we tend to eternalise what we have now [something I noticed in the Female Friendships panel] and homogenise the past: "These past people had x so this must be what they all had!" Democracy is actually 2500 years old, rather than a recent post-feudal invention, albeit in different forms.

Jaine Feen turns to politics in sci-fi, which is brilliant at extrapoloating. For her, Ursula le Guin's Dispossessed is the ultimate political science-fiction novel. It features multiple political structures, with the moon as a utopian anarchist colony. The problem with utopias is that they tend to stagnatate. This raises fantastic questions and also suggests that people do want to be ruled. Catherine Hill offers the example of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series: what happens after the despot is overthrown, in the subsequent power vacuum, is explored in the second book.  Ian M Banks also criticises politics in his books, though Fenn finds his politics quite simplistic and has always thought sci-fi is more suited to exploring the aftermath of the overthrow than the overthrow itself.

Asked whether sci-fi can move the political landscape forward, Foz Meadows feels it absolutely can, and gives the example of Palestinians dressing up as the Na'vi to draw a parallel with the events of Avatar. Similarly, Thai anti-coup protesters used the Mockingjay salute. It's easy to think in terms of tyrant / victim, oppressor / oppressed, though, when reality is more nuanced and systemic [a point also raised in the Fantasy and Economy panel]. Tchaikvosky agrees with this: fantasy can have a very circular historical structure. Terry Pratchett, bucking that trend, is excellent at exploring the complexity and at moving the history forward. [Monstrous Regiment and Jingo are two good examples.] Fenn suugests that because Pratchett's political commentary is subtle and non-specific, it has the potential to date very well and inform future generations. That said, it's not vague - it's very specific, but embedded in his world. (Being "vague" to keep something universal would be terrible writing advice!)

Meadows points out the dystopias are effectively an entire genre dedicated to the political process. They really engage with the questions, how do you govern? how do you govern well? She references an article in the Guardian which suggests that dystopias are actually criticising left-wing politics and the power of the State. [I feel this risks conflating both fascism and communism - far right and far left - as both being "State" ergo being left-wing.] One reason dystopias work so well, says Tchaikovsky, is that the Young Adult (YA) protagonists aren't the bad guys - the previous generation fucked it all up.

Lizzie Barrett poses the question of why fantasy tends to hark way back to the past, but sci-fi tends to use twentieth-century political structures. Tchaikovsky feels that we still hark back to the feudal society as some kind of romantic ideal. Meadows sees this as an aesthetic more than political choice and compares it to steampunk: it's not necessarily Victorian politics, beliefs, and society that we're hankering after, but the aesthetic of cogs, leather, wood, rives, gas lighting, and steam machines. Hill thinks it might be to do with the origins of the genres: sci-fi originated in Victorian times and its "golden age" of sci-fi was during the Cold War. When we're "copying" these older societies, though, we often get it very wrong. Tchaikovsky references the crippling ignorance of actual gender and racial stuff in fantasy. Often sexism and racism is defended as "that's what it was like!" but the actual history tells a very different story, leading him to conclude, "So that's your fantasy: that everyone's white and women do as they're told." Hill points out the other factor here: it's fantasy! You're allowed to do anything! Even sci-fi mindlessly replicates whiteness and maleness, and ignores the possibility of social and technological change for women. It's the year 4000, and we're still getting surprise / accidental pregnancies? Really? In 1950s sic-fi, our sky-gadding hero would go home to a wife who's made dinner for him: the massive technological change, in these worlds, hasn't affected anything else.

In the audience, Sarah Higbee raises an interesting point: we tend to blame governments, to the exclusion of corporations. How often is that actually addressed or does the government get the blame? [I think she's largely right, but two counter-examples from Doctor Who spring to mind immediately: "Partners in Crime", with Adipose advertising how the fat just walks away, and "Rise of the Cybermen", with the trance-inducing earpods.] If anyone's struggling with the evil-government / baddy-king trope and how to get away from that, this might be an alternative to explore - which takes us back to tapping the rich seam of your fantasy world's economy.

Read more Virtual FantasyCon panels and this fabulous panel on world-building from last year's World Fantasy Con, where Tchaikovsky touched on unthinking racism/sexism in fantasy in a bit more detail.


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