Wednesday, July 31, 2013

ReaderCon 2013: Alien panel discussion

As I did last year, when I attended ReaderCon, a speculative-fiction focus convention in Burlington, MA, I went to quite a few interesting panel discussions, during which I took notes. In case any of you might be interested in what some of the current discussions among authors and editors are like in the field, I’m going to post a series of my notes here on the blog! Enjoy…!

The first panel I attended was just after arriving on Thursday, July 11. At 9:00pm I entered the realm of The Endangered Alien as discussed by the panel of (from left to right):
-- Andrea Hairston
-- Alex Dally MacFarlane
-- Phoebe North
-- Bud Sparhawk
-- Robert Killheffer (leader)
The premise of the panel was this:
“Science fiction sometimes becomes enamored of a theme for several years and then nearly abandons it for various reasons: microcosms in the 1920s, psionics or mutants in the 1940s and 1950s, etc. In recent years, aliens seem to have become less common. Novels by Paul McAuley, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Alastair Reynolds, and anthologies like Jonathan Strahan’s Edge of Infinity, confine their action to the solar system, with little credible possibility for intelligent alien life. The classic alien-as-hideous-enemy and alien-overlord tropes have largely migrated to movies and TV. When aliens do appear, in novels like China Miéville’s Embassytown, Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road, and Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, how are authors treating them? What purposes do they serve and what roles do they play?

First of all, the panelists were asked if they thought the premise of the discussion was correct: are aliens disappearing from science fiction books? How are aliens used by today’s authors? Author Bud Sparhawk reported that he often uses the alien as "other." As he recently sold half a dozen stories involving aliens, to him the subject matter of aliens appears to still be selling, and if it's still selling, then it still works as a trope, in his opinion.

Phoebe North writes as a YA author, and in her market, she has been told by agents and other industry authorities that "you can't do aliens." It's a generally unwritten rule that the YA market is not open to alien stories. If there are aliens in your story, they have to be predominantly humanoid, and cannot be too weird.

Alex Dally MacFarlane is an editor, and she finds no lack of alien stories are being submitted to her for anthologies.

Andrea Hairston is an author and a teacher, and her young adult writing students still want to write about aliens. She hasn't noticed any shift except in what the agents are interested in.

Robert Killheffer, the panel leader, asks: "Are the established SF authors avoiding alien fiction?"

He mentions the Mundane Manifesto, which emerged from a 2002 [Correction: 2004] Clarion workshop with Geoff Ryman. The authors involved were determined to get rid of extravagant or otherwise unlikely devices in their work -- things they felt were distracting writers and readers from our more likely futures, those based strictly on extrapolating possible outcomes of the world of today.

You can read the text of the Manifesto here:

Was the Mundane Manifesto able to create a visible trend on industry output? Or did it simply create a vocal minority in the SF/speculative community?

Bud Sparhawk feels it's a vocal minority. His recent non-alien fiction is driven by the fast-advancing technology of today and the near future, things like exploiting the Jupiter system, etc), but he’s not writing this material because of the Mundane Manifesto.

Phoebe North talked a little bit about how in Young Adult fiction, the expected alien is someone who looks like us, but makes the reader feel different, and is different themselves. It equates with real teen problems.

My note: This exposes them to the idea that other people may be coming from other viewpoints, from national heritage to sexuality, or reiterates their own experiences with the difficulty of communicating personal differences to others.

Alex MacFarlance thinks that the Mundane Manifesto hasn't affected her. She believes that in the field as a whole (as there has been for years), there is simply an awareness of current problems of near future Earth.

Andrea Hairston declaimed against hubris! To believe that we (humans alone) are the gauge of the rest of the universe is appallingly narrow-minded. Andrea also mentioned Carl Sagan, and how other scientists barred him from professional scientific organizations at various points in his career, accusing him of "poetry." !!!

Alex MacFarlane took the opportunity to mention that labeling your aims "Mundane" makes them sound “so boring.”

Rob Killheffer commented that “you cannot draw a line (like the Mundane Movement) across things we don't know yet. This is foolish and depressing.”

My note: It is initially perplexing that in a field dedicated to speculation that the need for limiting and curtailing that very speculation is embraced.

Bud Sparhawk asserted that all writers, no matter how future-focused, are always writing about right now whether they mean to or not. The elements may be buried or cloaked under other names, consciously or subconsciously, but the present day lies at the core of what authors write.

Phoebe North returned to the idea that restricting the use of a metaphor doesn't make any sense in fiction. Metaphors are tools. Use them or not, but don’t insist on their elimination.

Rob Killheffer commented that the atmosphere we're in right now seems in some ways to exert a conservative influence on fiction, even though the visible and vocal social world is trending toward more liberal/tolerant viewpoint (gay rights etc).

He inquired of the panel: What about the use of the alien as a racial stereotype replacement?

Andrea Hairston commented that often when aliens are present, the only other characters present in the story are white. In other words, the aliens provide “color” and contrast.

My note: This seems to be a simplistic mechanism, a black-and-white (if you will) approach, while the actuality would be a reality with plenty of grey areas. Not all authors slack on this front. C.J. Cherryh’s “Chanur” worlds, for instance, have no lack of variety in their peoples, alien or human, and it is obvious that she has not tried to simplify any of her peoples’ alienness.

Robert Killheffer commented that “the alien as racial underdog stand-ins for the oppressed minority is the lazy route (think Avatar, Jar Jar Binks).” He believes that in really good science fiction, the alien should make you uncomfortable in their alienness.

My note: Or even in their akinness, they should make you uncomfortable!

Audience Q & A

Audience member (male): Back 30+ years ago, kids reading science fiction were outcasts -- no one cared what they read. Now SF is more mainstream, so the industry wants to control it more (specifically the juvenile/YA fic genre).

Another male commenter: In werewolf fiction, werewolves being another popular “other,” the common pattern is that a community emerges that's been there all along and wants to join "regular" society. Now vampire fiction is doing the same thing.

Bud Sparhawk: “We need new outskirts!!!”

Another audience member: Superman was an early fictional alien, but think of it – this alien was an attractive 6-foot tall white hunk from Kansas! The tradition of "human" aliens is long established in the industry. Sexy aliens are okay by the editors.

Female audience member: Another new alien/other in current fiction is represented by an increase in the use of transcendent human evolution as an alien form.

Andrea Hairston: If the "other" is too dangerous we sanitize it and make it safe, like the Disney treatment of fairy tales.

Another commenter: With our current knowledge we realize aliens will be so alien as to be unrecognizable. Peter Watts’ story Blindsight features VERY alien aliens. Read online or download here!

Another commenter: Society is so fractured today (in spite of its so-called globalization) that the idea that we can communicate with seemingly alien culture is very important.

My note: Agreed. The idea that communication is possible with some effort on the part of both sides is tremendously important. It’s too easy to throw up your hands and huff about not understanding what the other person wants and simply walk away. It would be great if we could get everyone to grasp this in a long-term sense. This is a vital idea for humans to embrace, especially in today’s culture of immediacy.

Another commenter: It is rare to find alien fiction without any human characters.

Alex MacFarlane: What will our science fiction be in 300 years time? How different from our conceptions today?

Andrea Hairston: Mentions the Mundane Manifesto's reference to authors’ and readers’ desire to meet extraterrestrials as an "adolescent fantasy."

My note: The Mundane Manifesto does say: “The Mundanes recognize: That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.”