Friday, June 3, 2011

WisCon 35 Panel 65: "Class Issues in Science Fiction and Fantasy"

Preoccupied with my own upcoming panel, I didn't take many notes on this one, so I'll only offer a few recollections. Basically, I was left with a better impression than B.C. Holmes (but read her account of it: she's brilliant)—maybe because I had lower expectations: class panels, like disability panels, gang aft agley in my experience. So this is really Some of the Interesting Points Made on Panel 65.

Alexis Lothian said that her experience of the U.S. is that it's assumed that you're going to elevate your class if you go to college, whereas my experience of the U.K. is that you always maintain that you still belong to your class of origin, however well-off you are. Later, she asked in response to someone else's question, "What do you mean, 'Should people write about class?' How are you ever not going to? There certainly should be more writing about class from a Left perspective, and I'd also like to see more writing about the working class without Left assumptions about what feelings or views working class people should have." Jess Adams said she'd like to see more visibility: "Why am I reading about people who are not like me or who, if they seem to be like me, it turns out that they are secretly the King, which is not my experience in life." Most of the other panelists assured her that they were not secretly the King either.

Someone remarked that any kind of a social change movement deciding what people should think, should do, should demand, always works against the best interests of the people involved who are the least privileged, 'cause you don't know what someone else's circumstances are.

Eleanor Arnason asked why all the skilled trades disappear in SF? Is all the plumbing going to be done by robots? Plumbing is all about gravity [my notes actually read, "Plumbing is all about Patrick Arden Wood," but I think that's the person from whom Eleanor got her information concerning what plumbing's all about]: how does plumbing maintenance work in a large space station that's spinning? There's a huge part of our society now that doesn't appear in SF. The descendants of the Ripping Adventures for Manly Lads of the '30s and '40s either create a futuristic world where nobody does the work or a postapocalyptic world where it's all done by peasants. [Isn't there a Nicola Griffith novel about plumbing?] Carolyn Ives Gilman said that coming to Madison was like going to a different country: in Missouri, once you get out of the college towns, everybody you encounter thinks schoolteachers, nurses, et al are spoiled whiners who suck up taxpayer money.

Alexis disagreed with Eleanor's generalization and invoked Delany and some authors whose "stuff is not in the U.S. pulp tradition." An audience member said they'd like to see, in a "medieval" adventure where the mercenary and the knight and the farmer and the barmaid all decide over dinner that they're going to go on a quest for a distant magical object, how they manage to take off work, to use the roads without getting arrested, to use swords without running afoul of the law, etc. Beth Plutchak, in the audience, said, "Obviously, I'm not a writer because I've never been punished . . . er, published . . . But I know from my attempts to write that it's just so easy to start with a cliché because that's what my head is full of . . . and each time we write about the Heroic Individualist fighting the Empire or the Corporation with his own ingenuity, we're not talking about the issue; we're just perpetuating it. I don't know how many people here know about Aqueduct Press, but I've followed it and Timmi Duchamp's essays and blog posts for a long time; and Timmi's mission is not just to get these books in our hands: it's to teach us how to read them." [Thank heaven, exposing and challenging the dominant narratives, and proferring alternatives, is not just "Timmi's mission." It's the kind of thing that's central to the missions of Professor Hairston and Karen Joy Fowler and Nick Mamatas and all sorts of groovy people—Ray's done a lot of it, IMHO; and check out the upcoming Paris Review interview with Chip Delany]

Mike Lowrey said people should also be aware of Erik Flint. Eleanor talked about the current economic catastrophe and the creative bookkeeping that keeps many of us unaware of its extent. Fred Schepartz suggested that much of SF proceeds from "An escapist notion that we don't want to read about ourselves." [I think that gives some readers too much credit: there are readers who really believe that they're Heinleinian superheroes or at least that they have more agency than the ordinary working-class person. Readers who didn't like Mission Child and Outlaw School tended to say, "The heroine is too passive. I would never let those things happen to me. I would transcend my situation!" And why didn't the Three Sisters just get up and go to Moscow, and why doesn't anybody in Blood Simple just communicate with each other?]


Vandana Singh said...

Thanks for these updates, Josh, makes me feel I am there! Wish I could be at Wiscon corporeally and not just in spirit...


Rebecca said...

Most people in the US are clueless about how little power they have to change their own lives and how much their associations and affections create compliance with their various givens. The expected life for me would have been teaching and getting married -- and then later, teaching. Stepping out of that role was close to impossible (both roles I hated for my own personal reasons) -- and I took an early retirement to avoid having to continue fighting the attempts to put me in my place (even Tor attempted to make me a YA writer, even though my books very evidently didn't appeal to younger readers. YA is sf's current place for women; for some women, it's a good fit -- for me it was like being throw to hallucinating pariah dogs).

People fantasize about how they'd have escaped their circumstances if they'd seen their circumstances as dire; few actually do; even fewer see their circumstances for what they are.

And it's even more amusing to see North Americans looking for the compliant workers of their home cultures in this strange brew of indigenous resentment and Andalusian gypsies pretending to be pure Spanish. I see people who simply can't give up the culture set they grew up in -- and who don't see that others might not share their values for good reasons.

Just finished reading Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, which talks about the specific problem of people feeling that they're the ones to educate the proles into true class consciousness.

Rebecca Ore

Alexis Lothian said...

To compulsively clarify on a few points:

Talking about US and UK views of class, I wasn't meaning to imply that either is necessarily right; just that class of origin is understood more broadly as an identity category in the UK than in the US in my experience. Class mobility is possibly a little easier in the UK (at least for the moment, since Cameron et al are doing everything they can to get rid of it) but it's a *narrative* of class mobility that dominates in the US. All of which is in my experience as someone who has moved between different strata in the UK but has only experienced mainly academic structures in the US.

I fear that I come off looking rather strange in talking about left politics and representations of class. I said what I did there because I worry that we bring together too many things under the heading of class: left or labor politics, representations of material conditions, the experience of class as part of one's identity, and the representation of poverty. I want to see writing about the complicated ways these things line up and fail to line up!

Finally, Delany has been very explicit in his critical work about coming out of the US pulp tradition. Though of course he comes from a lot of other places as well! I cited him as an sf writer who deals consciously and well, IMO, with class––I always want to bring up his work in these discussions.

But I also wanted us not to limit our discussion to an unnecessarily narrow taxonomy of what sf and fantasy are. I cited William Morris, I think, thinking of that left utopian tradition, which has its problems but certainly does think about the materialities of labor. And there are surely other places to look too. I don't like the idea of turning to one strand of a vast tapestry and complaining that something doesn't appear anywhere just because it isn't in that strand.