Day 2 of the Worldcon had more programming, so the attendees were distributed over several more rooms. This meant I got into more programme items, if not always my first (or even second) choice items.
First up was the panel In Defence of the Unlikeable Heroine. This discussed the double standard: a hero is allowed to have flaws, to be unlikeable, and we forgive him for this. But give the same traits to a heroine, or even less extreme ones, and suddenly she is unforgivably unlikeable. Men can be heroes or antiheroes, but women who cross the line become villains. Characters don’t need to be likeable, though: we want to read about interesting rounded compelling characters doing interesting things; we don’t necessarily want to sit down and have a cup of tea with them. In films, a female protagonist can be strong and assertive, provided she is also sexy, to soften her for male audiences. Think of Katniss from The Hunger Games: her youth and hotness compensates for her unlikeableness, yet her unlikeableness merely stems from the fact that she doesn’t want to die. Moreover, the plot is manipulated so that she only kills in self-defence; a male lead would be allowed to strike first and not be apologetic for saving his own life. Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren can play cold ice queens because they are beautiful. Older female characters can get away with being unlikeable—Granny Weatherwax has no fucks to give—but there is a dearth of such older characters too. Some of the issues might be from the way audiences code “female” as “mother”, and that unmotherly becomes unlikeable. Part of being a mother is putting your children ahead of you, part of being motherly is putting everyone ahead of you.
Next was Nalo Hopkinson’s Guest of Honour interview, and then Walter Jon Williams’ Guest of Honour presentation. I always enjoy hearing about authors’ lives: they are often unusual in some respects.
Next was a panel on Asexuality in SF. Jo Walton was on the panel, and commented that her first novel, The King’s Peace, has an asexual protagonist, which fact got zero attention (except from asexual people recognising themselves), yet when her novel Farthing came out, everyone was saying “there are so many gay people in this book” that she had to come out as straight! Why the difference in attention? Is it because it’s hard to notice the lack of something? A lot of early SF left out sex; it was essentially asexual. Now that it can include sex, there’s no more room for asexual characters. Historically there were a lot of asexual and celibate people, who are being reimagined as gay. Yet people like Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t have been closeted, because their Renaissance pals were writing about their homosexual relationships all the time. Authors play with pronouns, and the reading of the characters’ relationships as sexual or not can depend on this. Ann Leckie uses “she” for all in the Ancillary series. Ada Palmer uses “they”, except for the narrator who uses “he/she”, but coded for social role, not gender. Delany, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, uses “she” unless you desire them, when it changes to “he”. The experience of reading with this ambiguity is interesting. [I was wondering how it works in non-gendered languages, like Finnish, but that was another panel.]
After a break for lunch, I went to a panel on the Role of Secrets in Speculative Fiction. There are different sorts of secrets: the true identity of a character, something being hidden from the character, something a character knows that they couldn’t possibly know, secret histories, conspiracies, and so on. The reveal shouldn’t be too early, losing tension, but it shouldn’t wait until the last page, turning everything on its head; it is best to reveal large secrets of the world slowly, letting the reader puzzle them out. It shouldn’t be over-signposted, but shouldn’t be a rabbit out of a hat. It should be important to the plot, and should stand up to re-reading.
Next came a panel on Science Fiction and Fantasy in musical theatre. Musicals are inherently not realistic, but how to make them science fictional? There are more fantasy-based musicals, as there often needs to be less world-building: Wicked as a prequel to Oz needs very little context setting, as the audience can be expected to know the story. Musicals allow for breaking the fourth wall and other such devices; the audience is willing to suspend a lot of disbelief. An adaptation needs two female and two male roles, for the range of voice parts: this can be difficult for adapting many SF stories!
Long-form Storytelling in Scifi Videogames was an interesting lecture by Ivaylo “Evil Ivo” Shmilev, about requirements for the interactive story basis for videogames that require a significant time to complete. The requirements boil down to sufficient non-trivial diversity and complexity that the players maintain interest, and a range of ways to achieve this. Even if a game is very linear, the complexity can result in a kind of urgency that keeps the player engaged.
I then went along to a presentation on The Perils Of Book Collecting, by James Bryant, covering what to collect, how to store, and when to dispose of items. People collect different things: incunabula, first editions, all editions or all translations of a particular work, autographed copies, complete works of a single author, works of a small publisher, and even books you want to read. For storage, the main perils are water (falling from above, rising from below, or seeping in from outside), inadequate floor strength, and children. A tip re damp: build shelves with a lip at the back and a gap between them and the wall, so books can’t touch the wall, and air can circulate. Make sure books are insured for replacement price, not cover price. Have your paperbacks in electronic format (not textbooks, illustrated, signed or other special editions, though), well backed up. You can get 5000 paperbacks on an SD card, so you can have your library with you everywhere, without need to access the cloud; it’s great on aeroplanes, for searching for passages, for making the font size bigger. Leave your collection in your will to someone who wants it, and understands what they are getting, otherwise it will get thrown out.
I looked in on Adventure Games, but only stayed for about 20 minutes, as it was mostly a list of games, and once he got past the ones I knew of, it wasn’t that interesting to me. [Yes, I played Colossal Cave on an IBM 370 mainframe in the early 1980s.]
The final panel of the day was Bringing SF into University Courses: Experiences from the Field. There are Masters courses on SF, and more undergraduate literature courses are including SF modules. It’s being pushed by academics interested in the area, and pulled by student interest. There is still some snobbery about it, but after all, mainstream is just another genre: it has its own shelf in the bookstore! It also provides an opportunity for cross-disciplinary teaching, such as: teaching physics by ruining Hollywood movies; an Environmental Studies programme seeing how the Anthropocene is tackled in SF.
Then it was off for supper with a couple of Finnish fan friends I first met at a Narrating Complexity workshop in York. It’s a small world.