Ah, Detroit. How do I even begin describing Detroit?
It’s a city that sports a lengthy and illustrious history – the center of the automotive industry, a key location of the underground railroad, and an important port on the Detroit River – and yet today, most headlines about it speak of poverty, water shutoffs, and bankruptcy. Not too long ago, the idea of selling off the Detroit Institute of Art’s beautiful collection seemed like a real possibility.
Strangely, despite this – or perhaps because of it – Detroit feels like the perfect place for a science fiction convention. As a city, it’s in a strange limbo: its shiny, revitalized downtown forms a stark contrast to the suburbs and rundown streets that surround it. While many of its surrounding suburbs look like the sets of sci-fi dystopias, Detroit’s downtown is full of futuristic skyscrapers rising to the clouds, conjuring up images of cities from the far future. It seems to encapsulate a little bit of both worlds into it: both the pessimism and the optimism of science fiction, its bleak futures and its hopeful projections.
It’s a fact made clear as I drive to Detcon 1- the North American Science Fiction Convention, held in Detroit for the first time this year. As I approach the city, rocking out to a soundtrack of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin that would make Dean Winchester proud, I drive past what looks almost like the set of the TV show Supernatural and its dystopian Midwestern landscapes: abandoned buildings, dilapidated diners, once-glorious theatres and concert halls, many sporting broken windows, and graffitied walls as they’re crammed in between car repair shops and cheap stores. In fact, if it weren’t all a tangible reminder of the issues facing Detroit today, there’s be something almost quaint about the classic Midwestern feel of these streets.
As I approach, though, this quaint Midwestern scenery gives way to a mix of beautiful art deco buildings and shining skyscrapers. Like Chicago, whose futuristic cityscape conjures up thoughts of Asimov novels, Detroit’s got enough of that urban mix of architecture to be a fitting place to gather and discuss the possibilities of science fiction. The convention itself is housed in the Renaissance Center – a Detroit landmark, home of GM, a shining, six-towered conglomeration of glass and steel that houses offices, hotels, and glinting Cadillacs displayed all around the ground floor. It’s set in the heart of downtown, right on the riverside and along the charming downtown streets, fountains, and restaurants.
The building itself is a maze of floors and escalators, built like a wheel made up of five stories, but eventually I navigate even this futuristic challenge to find the convention itself, where a host of kind volunteers gives me a badge, a map, and points me to a table of free stuff – including a whole pile of free books offered by sci-fi and fantasy publisher Tor (and who could say no to that?) It’s Friday morning, with most of the con yet to come, and after an emergency stop at Starbucks, I’m ready to plunge my way into all the excitement.
This convention is one of the more academic types that I occasionally enjoy attending; it’s not the kind where you get to gather autographs from William Shatner and John Barrowman, but rather the type where authors, activists, bloggers, scientists, and other thinkers all gather together for panels and discussions about a whole host of topics related to science fiction, fantasy, fandom, and technology. Though there’s other attractions at such cons, my main interest in them is the discussions, which is why I venture straight away into a panel titled Maps in Fantasy.
Anyone who’s ever read a fantasy novel has probably encountered a map of a fictional world; they seem to be par for the course, and if you pick up a fantasy novel and encounter a map at the beginning, you just know that it’s probably going to be one of those sword-and-sorcery-that-want-to-be-Tolkien stories. (Thanks, Tolkien). These maps raise a whole host of questions, the most pressing of them being: why do we feel the need to map fantasy worlds and why can’t we venture into one without a map?
The obvious answer to this, brought forth by the panelists quickly, is that epic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery have their roots in the story of the quest, and the quest is regularly a journey. If there’s a journey, then you may very well need a map.
But what do maps add to the story? Why do we need them? How do they function in relation to the narrative? And how do you map a fictional world anyway?
This led to a fascinating discussion about the way that geography affects history – and therefore, the way that, in a fictional world, geography affects story. Civilizations, wars, mythologies – all are influenced by geography, which means that creating a believable fantasy story means creating a believable geography in which fictional civilizations exist and in which fantasy events happen.
Here, the panelists got together to provide a number of examples that proved their point: the way that Celtic cities were created in places of religious power (usually related to things like the sun and the angle at which it set) rather than logical places to settle, the way that U.S. cities used to be built exactly every seven miles to service the railroad back when trains needed to take on water for steam, the way that technology developed in Europe faster than in the Americas because everything was in the same latitude in Europe and different latitudes in the Americas (a point drawn from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel). All of these intriguing points, which can and have filled books, both affect civilization and reveal a lot about it – which means that a nuanced understanding of the interactions between landscape and history is necessary not only to create a map but to create a fictional story.
At the same time, the validity of providing an accurate map of a fictional world to assist the reader through the story got brought into question. A map may help a writer write, and a realistic geography may be required for a realistic story, but that doesn’t mean that the front of every book needs a map. After all, most fantasy maps are pretty anachronistic: they depict quasi-medieval (or quasi-Renaissance) worlds, yet maps from the Middle Ages and Renaissance were often neither accurate nor actually intended for navigation. Given that it was a time when we were only starting to understand that the world was round, the precision that we have today (and at the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire) is hardly believable.
A few panelists noted that it would be interesting to have an actual historically accurate map – with parts missing, parts that are just plain wrong, parts that become hazy as they move away from the center of the action. In short, to have maps that are, in some way, metafictional rather than additions to the story to help the reader along. Furthermore, the purposes of medieval maps were often religious or symbolic – not intended to actually help someone navigate, but to highlight places of importance, a fact also rarely found in the quasi-medieval fantasy full of maps.
Lastly, the panelists touched on stories and fictional worlds that are inherently unmappable (Hogwarts comes to mind, though none of the panelists mentioned this fact). John Harrison’s Viriconium series, which is deliberately contradictory in its geographical worldbuilding, was brought up, as well as a host of stories (whose names this reviewer unfortunately didn’t catch) where a map would be a spoiler in itself.
To my regret, this panel finished all too quickly. Though the discussion could doubtless last for many more hours, I had to instead hurry on to the next panel on my lengthy list: Space Opera and Planetary Romance.
This one began with an attempt to define the two terms in question. As always in sci-fi and fantasy, strict definitions are persnickety little things, but we tried, and came up with the general criteria that space opera focuses more on action and epic events, while planetary romance is more interested in characters and relationships. With those working definitions, we moved forward.
Much of the panel was filled with the less interesting task of attempting to either classify popular works into either category or trying to come up with works that fit into either category, but nevertheless, a number of intriguing points were raised throughout the panel – such as the point that, historically, space opera as a genre (or sub-genre) arose to correct what were then perceived as the problems of planetary romance. In the time since, planetary romance seems to have gotten darker – and as to why that might happen, one of the panelists pointed to a historical trend that planetary romance tends to get written right after a war, while space opera is usually created in the leadup to a war.
The final, most interesting point of the panel, was brought up in relation to Star Trek: when one examines its myriad incarnations, one finds, within this one franchise, a number of different approaches: the Original Series is mostly planetary romance, taking place on a variety of different planets; The Next Generation, with its fleet battles, confrontations with the Borg, and focus on command and control, is a (bright and happy) space opera, Deep Space Nine becomes a darker version of the planetary romance, while Voyager remains a TOS-style planetary romance.
The next panel I attended was on Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy, for which a practicing Jew, an agnostic, a Catholic, a scientologist, and an interfaith minister gathered to discuss the approaches that speculative fiction takes to religion, what interesting questions it’s able to answer, and whether it’s a place of “cutting edge theology.”
The first, and possibly most interesting, point raised by these panelists was the idea that science fiction seems to be much more respectful of religion, faith, and religious individuals than fantasy is – with the latter having a stark tendency to demonize individuals and institutions of religion, while science fiction often gives credence to the possibility of higher powers (a generalization which seems to hold true, even if it goes against much of what one might expect from sci-fi and fantasy).
Next, the panelists moved on to the issue of realism, stressing the importance of creating fictional religions and the role that they play in fictional worlds. In fact, even if faith and religion are not the center of a story, they must at least exist in order for a world to be believable, since a world in which nobody has faith makes little sense. Furthermore, religion has a number of roles to play in a society – from the “social glue” function of bringing people together (or setting them against each other) to the mythological role of explaining the world around them. In short, from the point of view of cultural anthropology, religion is a hugely important factor of a civilization, even if the objects of the characters’ faith don’t actually exist.
This quickly led to the next topic of discussion: those stories in which the gods do actually exist – and sometimes even interact with the characters or are the characters. This naturally changes things – if the gods are real and walking among you, the effectiveness of religion and faith as cultural forces naturally changes. Isabel Schechter emphasized the excellence of N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as a book that depicts gods as characters – and furthermore pointed out that some religions are more about practice than about faith, which means that the confirmation of the existence of the things you believe in doesn’t always matter.
This, of course, led to a discussion of what a god and a supernatural force actually is – and of the similarities between science and magic. Clarke’s Dictum – “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – was quickly brought up, as was a variation upon it: “any sufficiently powerful being is indistinguishable from a god.” It seems a simple concept, and yet it’s a crucial one: that those things which seem like magic may very well one day become science. For example, the Christian concept of the transmigration of the soul can easily be related to the science fiction through concepts such as the Singularity, the possibility of uploading one’s consciousness, and of transferring it from one body to another via technology. Thus, magical and supernatural concepts from fantasy can often find their equivalents in science fiction.
On this fruitful note, the panel ended, giving us all quite a bit to think about. Next came what had to be my absolute favorite panel of this long day: Designing Fictional Spacecraft. For this panel, a number of navy lieutenants and engineers and science fiction writers gathered, all cramming an astonishing amount of expertise into one small room.
They started with the fact that any science fiction spaceship you’ve ever encountered probably makes no sense whatsoever; in particular, the U.S.S. Enterprise, gorgeous silver lady she is, makes no sense in so many ways that you can’t even count them. Of course, Star Trek’s a pretty great show nonetheless; however, assuming you did want to design an actually accurate ship, whether to add realism to your story or because the plot of your story is heavily related to your spaceship, how would you go about doing so? As a writer, you also need to become an engineer – so what issues do engineers need to think about when designing ships (and particularly spaceships?)
The panelists started out with the simple yet complicated and incredibly important logistical questions: recycling, resources, storage, and the like: How do you design a spaceship that can store all the stuff you’re going to need for a really long voyage – especially since every ounce you put on a ship will need to be pushed out of an atmosphere and adds to the fuel cost? How do you reuse and recycle things when you’ve got a limited amount of space and possibly a very long voyage? What do you do when something breaks down? Where do you put the spare parts and the tools, and what do you do when you run out of spare parts and tools while in between galaxies? If you don’t have replicators that can magically manufacture any spare part you might want, then what are your backup plans?
These days, 3D printers are all the rage – but they’re very far from being Star Trek-esque replicators, which means that we’re a pretty long way from printing a replacement engine part. And if your spaceship is obsolete and nobody makes parts for it anymore, what exactly are you going to do? (As Lieutenant Marta Savage, one of the panelists, pointed out, the navy still has ships that run on computers that use vacuum tubes, for which nobody makes spare parts. She omitted mentioning what the Navy does when these break down).
Next came the logistical issue of …maintenance. As a number of experienced navy engineers on the panel pointed out, there are twenty bazillion things that could go wrong – which means that a very large portion of the actual crew of any ship is just there to do maintenance, fix the plumbing, and take care of all the things that could go wrong. In fact, even if you come up with a ship that actually does the mission for you, you’re going to need a crew to maintain the ship that does the mission. Thus, as engineer Doug Houseman pointed out, there are dozens and dozens of stories you could tell just about something going wrong on a ship: somebody forgetting a spare part, a cataclysmic and epic event occurring because a spaceship on a five-year mission has lost all the hammers, or the adventures of “Mulk the Maintenance Guy.” In short, a ship can’t fix itself, and no matter how complex your ship, you’re going to need a lot of people to keep it running – and fixing it isn’t always as easy as Scotty makes it look.
However, these are all issues that apply to pretty much any kind of ship, and once the brilliant people on the panel covered those, they started to touch on issues relating to spaceships in particular: stuff like the issue of heat dissipation, space radiation, artificial gravity, and orbital mechanics. Andrew Barton talked about the very important issue of what you do with the heat that your super duper spaceship engines are likely to generate – and how, realistically, everyone on the Enterprise probably should’ve been fried because of the kind of power they were generating. Plus, being in space means being constantly inundated with various kinds of radiation, which means that it’s up to a writer to come up with a clever solution as to why the entire crew hasn’t died of cancer. A couple interesting solutions offered were the ideas of putting the people on the inside and the fuel and water compartments on the outside (an approach, it must be noted, that the new Battlestar Galactica took). There’s also the problem of artificial gravity – which, as far as we know, we can only be created in one of three ways: spinning, acceleration, and mass. The latter, though, would pretty much require strapping engines to the Earth, which is why many writers take the easy out of “gravitational plating.”
A final, and interesting, point touched on before we ran out of time was that of weapons and power. A sufficiently powerful ship could, in itself, be a weapon – which raises the question of who makes these ships, who has them, and what safety measures are in place to avoid giving people with bad intentions control of engines that could blow up planets (and which, naturally, opens up a whole host of storytelling possibilities about evil people who actually got around those safety regulations).
By the time the panel wrapped up, I’d firmly decided that this was one of the most interesting and intelligent panels I have ever attended – and it left me, a non-fiction writer with no desire to actually design a fictional spaceship, with a wealth of new information and ideas.
My final panel of the day was listed as Gender Roles in Genre Fiction, though in reality it focused on much more, including sexism and misogyny in genre fiction and the uncomfortable conventions that reinforce it. This is a topic near and dear to my heart; I spend quite a bit of my time being concerned by the problems of sexism in the media and genre fiction, disliking how far the characters in sci-fi movies are skewed towards white males, and seething about the harassment and other problems often happening at conventions, and this panel seemed to be made for me.
In this particular case, my rage about these and many other issues was shared by the panelists, which included authors Jim C. Hines and Jacqueline Carey.
The panel began with a discussion of the good old Bechdel Test, which, despite its simplicity, remains hugely important. It might not tell us a lot of things about a story, but it does do an excellent job of measuring the extent to which women in a story exist as real people rather than plot devices in the stories of men. As such, it’s a test that remains hugely important precisely because of the huge number of sci-fi and fantasy books and movies that still don’t pass it. In fact, so many genre stories still use women exclusively as plot devices that the “sexy lamp syndrome” was a term coined to describe stories in which replacing a female character with a sexy lamp would not significantly change the story.
From there, the conversation veered towards other common and uncomfortable tropes that pretend to make women into real characters while just reinforcing problematic ideas (and ideals).
One of them, which we’ll call the “rape problem,” is just that – the idea that somehow, any strong female character must experience sexual assault as a form of “character building.” Whether to show her vulnerability or give her motivation, rape remains the uncomfortable go-to character development device for women – and yet, despite being so utterly overdone, is usually inaccurately and disrespectfully depicted. Adding on to this, author Jim C. Hines pointed out with indignation that, whether the story is about forging a male or a female hero, raping a woman seems to be part of the process; it’s either the female protagonist herself, or the male protagonist’s significant other that almost universally experiences this violence.
Next, the panelists touched on the problem of “exceptionalism,” which could alternately be called the “Strong Independent Woman” problem. It describes the tendency of fiction writers to create one female character that stands above all other women, imbuing her with traditionally masculine characteristics to set her apart from the other female characters. Not only does this result in a depiction (and valorization) of only one of the many possible ways of performing femininity, this approach also rejects the possibilities of female solidarity and female relationships. It results in a female character that rejects the world of women for the world of men and sets women against each other – which, in many ways, is just as problematic as the other plot devices discussed.
In short, this panel touched on some key issues that inevitably arise when discussing genre fiction. Though I already knew about many of the points raised due to all the time I spend writing and reading about these issues in the media, I was nonetheless impressed by the ability of the panelists to pinpoint what the issues were, pick apart why exactly certain tendencies are problematic, and refuse to sit tight and be quiet about these problems.
By the time this panel wrapped up, the sun was more or less setting on Detroit. Though the convention itself ran late into the night, with parties and autograph sessions planned throughout the evening, I was by now as exhausted as I was intellectually fulfilled. There was nothing left for me to do but drive home, mulling over all the new ideas I’d heard, and eagerly await the next day of the convention. Stay tuned for my write-up of the rest of my experiences!
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