The Future of Fantasy: Notes from the 2018 World Fantasy Convention, Part 4

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This is the last of my posts sharing notes from the 2018 World Fantasy Convention. Because I am a “save the best for last” kind of girl, I’ve saved my favorites for the final report–notes from panels on “The Future of Fantasy” and “Optimism In the New Dark Age.” Out of all the amazing panels this year, these are the two that have been churning in my imagination ever since, already impacting the way I envision and write fantasy.

“The Future of Fantasy”: panelists Brenda Clough, Nora E. Derrington, Kelly E. Dwyer, and Nibedita Sen.

“Fantasy is constantly evolving–trends and tropes abound, but where is fantasy going next? What should be cancelled, and who and where should we be looking to for the fantastic future?”

This panel dovetails beautifully with the one on tropes and gender. It opened with the acknowledgement that fantasy is at a tipping point between white Western male fantasy and literally everything else. Traditionally fantasy has focused on the former perspective. The question now is this: Whom should fantasy represent? A new tension is building between progress and reaction, as writers challenge the former status quo and some get extremely uncomfortable with this.

This is where tropes come in. When asked what tropes should disappear, Kelly Dwyer cited the trope of the endangered/dead woman as motivation for a male character. Overall, though, panelists agreed that there is almost no trope that is “done”–tropes are not “done,” because while writers from privileged groups have had ample opportunity to beat them into the ground and reduce them to tired cliché, marginalized writers haven’t had the chance to do them. Take vampires, for example. The buzz in much of the publishing world is that vampires are old news and should not be touched with a ten-foot stake. This was only one of multiple panels that cited the short story “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K. M. Szpara, about a trans vampire. Panelists concluded that we don’t need to do away with tropes (except the brutalized-woman-as-convenient-plot-point), but reframe and expand them.

Other reading recommendations: Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, and anything by Zoey Castile, who is reframing and expanding tropes in romance.

This was a fantastic panel. The discussion was passionate and articulate, and challenging in the best possible ways. Best quote of the panel (from Nora E. Derrington, I think): “It’s not enough to leave the door open if some people have historically not been welcome in the room.”

“Optimism in the New Dark Age”: panelists Michael J. Deluca, Sarah Beth Durst, Matthew Kressel, James A. Moore, and A. C. Wise.

“The ’00s brought us a glut of dystopian fiction, but in this new dark political era, what value or function can positive or so-called “hope-punk” fiction bring? Is optimistic fiction head-in-the-sand denialism, or is it mindfully visionary? Who are some of the writers creating this type of fiction?”

This panel introduced me to the term “hope-punk,” giving me a new way to think about what kind of stories I want to tell. Dystopia has become our default vision of the future–but why? Panelists expressed a need to challenge this default. By way of example, they offered the following examples: Bladrunner is dystopian, Star Trek is optimistic. Panelists were quick to point out that optimistic fiction does not necessarily involve rose-colored lenses–rather, it deals in resistance, diversity, and inclusiveness. As Sarah Beth Durst pointed out, fantasy is uniquely suited to this. When you finish a fantasy, you feel the world is a little more magical and you are a little stronger. “Fantasy has the power to give hope in hopeless times.” We need optimistic literature to enable us to envision a better world as possible so that we are empowered to make the future we want to see. If we can see it, we can imagine it.

Fantasy has unique possibilities for empowering readers. It opens up new options of ways to be strong, but in a subversive way, by allowing us to escape for a while. Fantasy as escape is also important, because escape offers a chance for healing, which is necessary. There are no guilty pleasure, Durst insisted; escape is a legitimate reason to read.

Panelists pointed out that “optimistic” has become a loaded word. They also suggested reframing “utopia” as a verb, not a noun–it can signify not necessarily a perfect place, but the act of working toward a better future. In reality, things are getting better–we are living in the least violent time in human history, but we are more aware of and willing to call out injustice, and this is reason for hope that can be reflected in our literature.

One of the biggest problems in the world is lack of empathy. Books create empathy and fantasy/sci-fi is the extreme-sport version of this, because readers must empathize with people, races, creatures, worlds that never existed.

Panelists discussed the rise of movies about teams–people coming together, building  diverse communities and found families in order to move on, rebuild, keep each other safe. This trend stands in direct contrast to the old tradition of the lone Homeric hero.

Fantasy and sci-fi often offer an optimistic message about the resiliency of the human spirit. Optimistic stories are not simple happy, fluffy ones–they can journey to very dark places, but if the character comes out stronger, there is a message of hope. Sometimes the story has to descend into the pit in order to find the reader who is at the bottom reaching up.

Recommended reading/viewing:

That’s it for my notes from the 2018 World Fantasy Convention! I hope you’ve found something useful or interesting here, and at the very least a favorite new read for the new year.

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