Sunday 1 September 2019

Worldcon: Saturday August 17

By this point I had decided that the best way to get into the panels I cared about most was to stay in the conference centre, and skip the sessions right before the ones I most cared about so I could queue early. Today’s panels were

How astronomy might break physics

For the most part the panel might have been titled “how physics evolves in response to astronomical discoveries.” The first example was the history of neutrino observations. When a clever experiment to capture solar neutrinos ran long enough for experimentalists to have confidence in their results, they found that they could detect only about 1/3 of the expected number of neutrinos. It turned out that there were three flavours of neutrino, that solar neutrinos would shift flavour, and that only one flavour was detectable by their instrument.

They then talked about gravity waves, which to be detectable need to be generated by collision of neutron stars or black holes. So far there have been no deviations from Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The panelist was concerned that black hole collisions might not be enough to find such deviations. Scientists are hoping to orbit a gravity wave interferometer which would have much greater sensitivity.

Someone asked about quantum black holes, and a panelist pointed out that Hawking radiation means such tiny black holes have very limited lifetimes before they “evaporate.” There are likely none any more that occurred naturally.

Scientists are also waiting for better measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, to reveal eddies in the early universe that could give information about curvature measurements and supercluster formation.

Someone asked a question about dark matter, which one panelist explained as a gap in our understanding arising from observations of the rotation rates of galaxies, which in current theories require invisible mass to explain. Experiments have ruled out many possible explanations (most of which break the Standard Model), but haven’t revealed what dark matter is yet.

There are three “standard candles” for calculating the Hubble constant, all of which disagree despite narrow error bands on the numbers. One measure is based on supernova observations, but is only good out to 2 billion parsecs. Another is based on the Cosmic Microwave Background. The third is based on the flare when red giant stars begin burning helium. There are three assumptions behind current models, at least one of which has to be discarded to explain the anomaly: mediocrity (we are not in some position of observational privilege), homogeneity (the universe is roughly the same everywhere), and isotropy (the universe is the same in all directions). One panelist thinks isotropy should go, but others think we may be in a “low density bubble” (that is, mediocrity should be discarded).

Several other topics were mentioned briefly
  • There are plans (hopes?) for an X-ray interferometer for imaging black hole accretion disks.
  • A look at Kuiper Belt objects might give a better handle on the cosmological constant.
  • Exoplanets have challenged assumptions about solar system formation; it is now believed gas giants form far from the star but can migrate inward.
  • A “mystery fluid” might explain the curve in the Hubble graph, which ought to be a straight line. It’s a “fluid” because it shows up in the equations with fluid-like behaviour.
  • Some are hoping for “Dyson scale telescopes” by which I think they meant interferometers with solar-system-scale distances between detectors.
  • Dark energy is controversial like dark matter; standard explanations also assume isotropy.

Invisible work: mothers and caregivers in SFF

With this panel for some reason I chose to sort my notes by speaker instead of chronologically. Unfortunately I failed to distinguish notes-to-myself from things the speakers actually said, so I switched back to chronological for all the other talks later. The main theme of the panel was that in speculative fiction, parents and caregivers are often absent or dead, meaning that the PoV characters lack an important influence that is much commoner in real life than in some kinds of fiction.

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley talked about the common trope of an elder sibling taking over as caregiver when a mother is absent or dead. The trouble is that a 13-year-old orphan isn’t naturally able to take care of younger siblings without a role model. Women in speculative fiction rarely exhibit standard female/mother physiology such as lactation and menstruation.

Rivers Solomon talked about the lack or oversimplification of the role of mothers. For example, God of War has a classic father/son journey where they are alienated from each other and need to bond. The “hero’s journey” eliminates “family baggage;” mothers can’t run off and join a quest. This is related to the cult of the individual, which sidelines many kinds of relationships but especially mothers. Film (at least in North America) over-emphasizes beauty, such as having a woman wear perfect makeup while running from a zombie (in my experience British TV is better); there is less pressure for this in print. Common tropes include the “conniving mother” and the mother who gives up everything for her child; for all her badassery, Sarah Connor fit this trope in the Terminator movies, but she had no choice: she had to protect the “chosen one.” Girls (such as Snow White) are usually delicate, “made of glass and snow.” Authors should expand cargiving in stories but not erase the role of women; in the Harry Potter series, Hagrid was more of a mother figure than McGonagall.

Aliette de Bodard reiterated that mothers are usually absent or dead. In Black Panther, how might Eric Killmonger have fared if he had a mother after his father died? The problem is that things coded as feminine are not valued. Pulp adventurs for boys, and westerns, cut parents from protagonists' lives, as if they would get in the way; this is not true of literature from other cultures. A character may be seen as a failure if they don’t succeed on their own; the only relationships are romantic or those forged in battle; siblings are often elided as well. Pregnancy is often body horror, or the woman is relegated to being a vessel for a chosen one or the child of a supernatural partner. It is possible to centralize a birth scene; that kind of pain is just as important as battle wounds or torture when a novel wants something to go wrong. 

Some other comments where I neglected to record context.
  • No one can save a child from the problems of war.
  • Why can’t parents have adventures?
  • There are no toddlers in speculative fiction.
Kate Elliot has asked to be on the panel because years ago she had a career realization: it is radical not to marginalize people. For example, in Rogue One the mom is killed within three minutes and the protagonist goes down a bad road; it would have been more interesting if she had had her mom as a companion. Parents and wives get erased or “fridged;” why is navigating this sort of relationship considered hard when we all live in extended familiies? She blames America for the cult of the individual; Norse sagas in contrast were based on networks, especially kinship. There is more rape than caregiving pregnancy, and mothers are often vessels. I think she said she was once asked to take a scene about menstruation out of a book; the editor considered it “gross.” Other points:
  • When present at all, why can’t women help brothers or other kin, not just husbands and sons?
  • In the second Alien movie, the final confrontation was between two mother-figures, Ripley and the alien queen.
  • We need to expand caregiving beyond mothers.

Young adults versus… the world!

Since I’ve gone back to writing comments in order, there are phrases that contradict each other whenever panelists had different opinions.

The Young Adult market is aimed at teenagers, who are often in some sense “protected” but can also be exposed to bullying and violence. Teens are reading material darker that what they live; they are looking for answers to problems, with a pull between trying to be adults and needing support. On the other hand teens are living in a kind of dystopia, where their lives are planned out for them by authority figures.

As with the caregivers panel there was discussion of dead parents: is this necessary for taking away safety and forcing the protagonists to take action and become independent? It is a cliche from the days of fairy tales. The trope might be subverted by having the parents be antagonists. A common pattern is for adults to be unable to save the day, but also to dismiss kids. “Found families,” moving from the safety of kin to the uncertainty of friends, is what teens are living through.

Is saving the world from dystopia realistic? There is lots of activism today; kids are involved in saving the world, raised on a diet of dystopian novels that tell them they can do so. Everything feels unjust when you are young. Teens tend to be optimistic and want to save the world and overcome threats.

It may be hard to get readers if the kids fail, though that can happen in Book 2 of a trilogy without losing too many. Some level of hope is needed. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, likely not publishable today. However, one can change what success means to the character by the end of the story.

Some protagonists might seem too competent, but the cliche of hyper-competence has happened in real life; Charlotte Bronte was a prodigy at 13. But nobody is competent at everything, and a story should find situations that challenge the characters.

One can have smaller stakes than world-saving: the sickly younger sibling needs more attention and the protagonist worried about being forever lonely. They may need to save themselves instead of the world. World problems might still be there, but in the background.

Some isolated comments:
  • There is a thin line separating YA from adult fiction.
  • Middle grade tends to have lots of humour.
  • Portal fantasy is another way of removing kids from their parents.
  • Writers should read a lot of YA to see what their colleagues are doing.
  • The life experiences of a mature author are relevant; you don’t need to be young to write YA.
There was a section at the end about writing styles (plotting versus pantsing) that overlapped with other discussions in other panels.

Urban fantasy from the margins

The panel seemed to me initially about the nature of urban fantasy with, on the surface, less emphasis on authors and characters from marginalized communities, but partway in I realized the composition of the panel, the example stories they recommended, and the take on what urban fantasy meant all made significant differences from other urban fantasy sessions I’d seen. In particular, urban fantasy from the margins includes taking standard tropes but applying a marginalized perspective. It appeals to anyone who doesn’t feel part of the dominant culture. (Aside: I happened to recall an internet comment about some editors saying “we’ve already seen this story” when in fact there were major differences in perspectives even when similar tropes were used.)

Urban fantasy is intimately tied up with the specific characteristics of the setting: the ‘city’ becomes a character. Cities act as ‘machinery’ or way of functioning for its inhabitants, and stories involve how people interact with place. It is almost always a magical modern setting in the primary world, but doesn’t need to be an actual city; Rebecca Roanhorse has set stories in an enclosed reservation that acts like a city. An urban setting with fantasy elements may not be enough; one panelist considered Blade to be a superhero story instead. Paranormal romance and paranormal detectives are two popular subgenres. Urban fantasy is more accessible than other kinds to people who don’t usually read fantasy.

Slice-of-life stories are a common Eastern mode of storytelling, and more fantasy should use fascinating nonwestern cities. Modern cities are often melting pots, with many cultures living together. (Aside: a Canadian like me tends to think in terms of a mosaic instead of a melting pot, where people retain much of their original culture instead of assimilating; I think mosaic is what the speaker meant, but melting pot is the conventional American phrase).

Some recommendations:
  • Fonda Lee’s secondary world, starting with Jade City.
  • Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rhumba series, starting with Half-Resurrection Blues.
  • Ken Liu’s short story Good Hunting in two parts in Strange Horizons.
  • Anime, where angels and demons are distinctly non-Christian.

Send in the crones: older women in SFF

The panel described many situations where older women are absent or undervalued. An “invisibility blanket” descends when you reach 40. Hollywood is especially bad; an older woman might be asked to play the mother to the character of an actress not much younger. The Charlie Sheen character in Two and a Half Men panicked when he found out the woman he was dating was over 50. There are cliches they can play, such as the ‘wise woman.’

Editors are biased, and may say the character is not ‘relatable.’ British publishing is problematic; you need a private income to take a career as an editor, so marginalized people are less likely to become editors.

The ‘young orphan’ trope eliminates mothers, but the absence of mothers is characteristic of western literature. Chinese fantasy is more about cooperative endeavours and avoids the ‘chosen one’ trope that sidelines parents and mothers in particular. Elders are people with wisdom, and can be badass secondary characters when there is a younger protagonist.
Modern women are less likely to die in childbirth; they don’t fade when their children are grown, and can blossom.

There were several recommendations:
  • Anything with Nanny Ogg from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
  • Nora Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, starting with The Fifth Season.
  • Star Trek: Discovery’s Trina Cornwell, a 50ish admiral who makes tough decisions, and was portrayed as desirable and having desire.
  • Alex Marshall’s Crimson Empire series, starting with A Crown for Cold Silver, wherein former conqueror Cobalt Zosia comes out of retirement and goes on a revenge tour. She is a terrible but complex human being.
  • The Diane Lockhart character from The Good Wife and now The Good Fight.
  • Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss, described as “Nordic noir.”
  • Jaime Lee Moyer’s Brightfall, about Marion after Robin Hood retires to a monastery.
  • Una McCormack has written Dr. Who and Star Trek stories; a panelist recommended The Baba Yaga (in which the character is pregnant after 40 and The Star of the Sea in Eric Brown’s Weird Space shared universe.
  • Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades

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