Franz Kafka is a major figure in modern literature known primarily for stories that involve overpowering bureaucracies. With novels like Seth Dickenson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant and the rush of dystopian milieus in all of the genres, is Kafka as relevant today as he’s ever been? And, given the political climate, is “Kafkaesque” fiction on the wax?
Many writers and artists have had their work erased or minimized by acts of war and oppression. Whose work falls into this category in the genres? And is today’s fiction adequately addressing this often under-discussed phenomenon? How would our concept of a good story be different had the Eurocentric world view not become so ubiquitous?
Those lyrics, popularized by R. Kelly in the film Space Jam, highlight something each and every one of us dreams of—being able to soar in the heavens. Greek myth, superhero stories, and many genre books tap into this fantasy. What about the concept of flight is so appealing? How are today’s books reimagining the trope and where else can we go with it?
David Hartwell, one of the founders of the World Fantasy Convention, died this past year. Widely considered one of the most influential editors in the history of science fiction and fantasy, Hartwell is responsible for thousands of books. Together we’ll remember his life and celebrate his greatest achievements.
The story of the United States is a powerful one and many “American” stories begin in its Heartland. What about the middle of the US makes stories like Stephen King’s The Stand and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven so powerful? Recognizing that the US is far from perfect, does the baked-in concept of American Exceptionalism impact these stories negatively?
One of the beautiful facets of the genres is that anything is permissible under their umbrella. From the bizarre to the disturbing to the whimsical, there’s a place for everything and everyone. How is the “strange circus” trope a metaphor for our literary home? And why have we occasionally embraced a cultural phenomenon that lost much of its appeal with the advent of modern media?
This panel explores the growing body of English-language work by writers from a wide range of Asian and South Asian cultures. What does it mean to be part of such a diverse diaspora? Do Asian writers living in Asia necessarily partake of a different cultural conversation than those writing elsewhere? Do works in translation overshadow works by authors who are writing in their second language, and if so, what are the consequences for the genre at large? It is a heady and vital time for Asians in SFF, but do the shifts we see in today’s discourse do enough to destabilize a Western-centric canon—or do they simply re-contextualize a colonialist conversation?
Tall tales, like their fairy tale cousins, are reinvented in every culture around the world. These tales, handed down through generations, provide an amazing context for how humans relate to one another and to story. How have these oral traditions influenced today’s fiction? Is there such a thing as a modern tall tale?
H.P Lovecraft has long been an iconic touchstone. Where before his legacy was one of literary achievement, it has become inexorably linked to the genres’ racist histories. Victor LaValle’s novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, illustrates this complicated and enduring legacy. Have the works of LaValle, along with others like Caitlín R. Kiernan, Jorge Luis Borges, Chiaki J. Konaka, and Junji Ito functionally ended the discussion? If we’re ready to move beyond Lovecraft, who are today’s writers and today’s stories that the next generation will look to as formative?
Once solely the realm of horror, body modification (and post-humanity) has become increasingly common in today’s science fiction and fantasy. What about the exploration of biological limits give us trepidation? What are writers of this kind of fiction trying to accomplish by freeing themselves from tradition?
Alternate history manifests in several forms, but most often as “what if” narratives or time travel gone terribly wrong. How do alternate histories differ in form and style from their fantasy or science fictional parents? Why do so few alternate histories seem to engage with non-western outcomes? Furthermore, are we less interested in alternate history as the past becomes more knowable all the time?
Stories that have survived for thousands of years seem to universally contain the fantastic. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Homeric epics, Gilgamesh, and others have survived. Why? What is it about the fantastic that allows stories to endure? Is fantasy a deliberate act to make something timeless or a storytelling technique that serves the moment?
Writers like John Brunner and Joanna Russ wrote deeply political books. Brunner with Stand on Zanzibar and Russ with The Female Man took issues of the day head on. Those books are still relevant today, but why? What are today’s politically motivated books that will resonate fifty years fom now?
Fantasy in translation has become more common, but remains rare in the field. From Eastern Europe, Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books are a shining example, as are Sergey and Marina Dyachenko and Alexey Pehov. Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a Dutch horror writer, came to the US this year, and imprints like Haikasoru have been bringing translations from Asia for some time. Why are we more interested in works in translation today than we may have been decades ago? As the US imports more work, should the US also expect to export less?
Publishing is a challenging business made even more challenging as retail space has declined. This is doubly true of small presses, which aren’t blessed with massive capital to hedge against returns. But, aren’t we in the midst of a digital revolution? The reality is small press publishing isn’t as easy as it looks. What is it really like to run a small press and is it a viable business for someone just starting out?
Steampunk, and other historically-focused fantasies, often engages with fundamentally flawed technology. Whether it’s airships or clockwork machinery, there’s a certain mystic around pre-industrial age invention. Why the fascination with the patently impossible? And is there a reason once-popular subgenres built on these ideas have fallen out of favor?
Pop culture blogger Gavia Baker-Whitelaw has opened a lot of eyes to what costuming says in film. This link is a bit harder in literature where the imagination does the work of the eyes. How can writers describe clothing to overcome a reader’s bias about how people should look? How can clothes be used as sign posts to help readers conceptualize a strange world?
We all wear masks when we go before the world, showing only the parts of ourselves we want others to see. Taking the step to wearing a physical mask, though, carries great significance and no shortage of mystique. How and why have masks been used in fantasy? Are they merely about hiding identity or do they hold some greater metaphysical power?
Anthropomorphic fiction has been around forever, including fantasy stalwarts like Erin Hunter’s Into the Wild and science fiction staples like David Brin’s Startide Rising. Why are we exploring animal cultures when there are so many human cultures unexplored? What are some current writers covering this territory and will there continue to be interest?
David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy overtly discusses drug use and addiction and its impact on society. This is also true of Nora Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology, Jaye Wells’ Dirty Magic, and Kim Harrison’s Hollows series. However, these seem the exceptions rather than the norm. Why isn’t addiction more common in fantasy milieus given its prevalence in our society? When it is present, how does it differ from the real thing? How do privilege and race impact the ways in which writers portray addiction throughout the genres?
Sword and Sorcery, a pairing as good as Hamilton and Burr or Biles and Raisman, has been a literary mainstay since Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser came onto the scene. Why has this type of story continued to reinvent itself every generation? Can we imagine a time where it will have outlived its usefulness?
The trilogy is fantasy’s default. Urban fantasy simply can’t stop itself from sprawling across a dozen tomes. Is the long series simply a factor of market forces or is there a storytelling imperative behind it? With declining shelf space and ever more demands for the attention of readers, are long form series becoming less desirable?
Some believe that the occult investigator began with Laurel K. Hamilton and Jim Butcher, but the tradition is as long as fantasy itself. Today we call it “urban fantasy.” What are the genre’s roots? How has the occult investigator been retconned for a modern audience? And do we expect it to continue to find an audience?
When was the last time a zeitgeist novel had a bugbear or a cockatrice? How long is it since someone fought giant, flesh-eating beasts instead of pikemen? Where did all the monsters go? With quest plots out of fashion, deus ex machina ditched, treasure-hunting too economically dull, and stories about ethics instead of enemies, is the monster still relevant in today’s fiction?
Everyone has a favorite writer who isn’t as popular as they ought to be, and writers themselves wonder why they aren’t as popular as they’d like to be. Why do some writers hit it big while others toil in obscurity? Is it simply a question of timing? What are some of the finest underread works in the genre, both today and in the past?
If high fantasy often deals with a divine or cosmic power that is supremely knowable, then cosmic fantasy deals in the opposite—a supreme power that sits above us, with no empathy for humanity. Why is indifference more disturbing than outright hatred? Is this dichotomy a manifestation of a writer’s fear of obscurity? Is cosmic fantasy still being written today and who are its modern masters?
Time travel is one of the oldest forms of science fiction and remains one of the most enduring. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is perhaps the most famous example, but Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Connie Willis’ many shining examples also stand out. Why does the time travel story continue to endure with the likes of Charlie Jane Anders and Wesley Chu? Is there something inherently romantic about time travel from a structural perspective?
The 1890s were a special time for art, with a decadence most emblemized by “The Yellow Book,” a literary journal of the time. In many ways, the 1990s reflected this same phenomenon of counter culture. What genre writers of the 1990s best reflect this push back against convention? Can we make the case that the fiction of the 1990s launched the golden era of genre fiction we find ourselves in today?
Two schools of thought exist when it comes to debut writers. Some believe that a debut writer should build a brand around a long series, hoping to grow a committed audience over time. Others prefer to build a brand around the author, using standalones and short series to diversify. Is there a right way to do it? What are the pros and cons of each approach?
Many of horror’s early tales originate in New England, the cultural center of early America. This is a trend that has continued throughout the years, with Stephen King and others. Why is New England such an attractive setting for the horrific? What are some other touchstone milieus in America and beyond?
In December of this year, Shirley Jackson turns 100. Best known for her story “The Lottery” (1948), Jackson has been read by teenagers across the world. But her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle endure almost as strongly. What is Jackson’s legacy to modern horror? What women are carrying her torch in today’s horror market?
Horror from previous generations draws much of its power from the fear of the Other. In some cases the other is an unknowable being, a cosmic terror, but just as often it’s not, referencing instead more mundane distinctions between us and them. How problematic is the use of the Other to engender fear? Has fear of the Other led to some of the challenges genre faces today relative to inclusiveness and equality?
Nothing happens in a vacuum, nor is anything read in one. Every reader brings their own biases and preconceptions to a story. Should we take these biases into account when reading something written in a time different from our own? Furthermore, when reading contemporary fiction, is it necessary to set biases aside to explore outside our comfort zone?
Mark Charan Newton, Jack Vance, Nora Jemisin, Delilah Dawson, and others have written fiction dealing with disasters on a massive scale, whether natural or man-made. Some characters try to prevent it, some try to survive it, and others look forward to it as their only chance to remake the world in their image. What role does crisis play in the stories we tell, and how does an apocalypse change a character’s appeal to the audience? Is there a benefit to addressing the issues of the world we live in by first destroying it?
Ever since Heinrich Schliemann discovered the treasures of Troy and took them home to show off at dinner parties, people have been abusing the past for their own purposes. We’ve all read fiction by authors who seem to have gotten their archeology from an episode of Ancient Aliens, so how can we do better? We’ll discuss current best practices in archeology and art history, resources for curious authors, and if there’s time, what exactly is wrong with ancient astronaut theory. (So, so wrong.)
Gormenghast, Islandia, Ambergris, and other invented lands have been a part of our literary landscape from the beginning, yet the books which introduce these fictional cartographies can’t always be classified as fantasy. When the magic is in the place instead, how do we read and explore those works?
There have long been a few artists who produced both words and images in a fantastical vein. With recent innovations in publishing, including print-on-demand and web comics, a new generation of writer-artists are finding their audiences. With online-first fantasy comics like Scott Kurtz’s PvP, Mike Norton’s Battlepug, and Ursula Vernon’s Digger winning major industry awards, is the Internet the next best place to discover your favorite creators?
We’ve all consumed media about something being unseen, meant to be feared. The killer coming from inside the house, the ghost that only one person can see, the dangers which await us in the dark. But how do we make that more inclusive? Instead of “othering” people, like in Don’t Breathe, the new horror film featuring a blind killer, can we shift our focus to characters who can’t see or hear, but whose presence and experience aren’t meant to terrify?
A whole generation has grown up reading A Song of Ice and Fire. As Martin’s epic fantasy comes to a conclusion, where will those readers turn next? ASoIaF is rife with strong female characters, both good and evil, disabled characters with real power, and lack of security around the characters they love. What kinds of stories should we be writing for those fans?
The trope of the “crazy” person in the monster suit is code for mental illness without engaging with the issues at hand. In a genre where trauma is in many ways the purpose of the exercise, how do we avoid harming people living with these illnesses? The “Scooby Doo approach” to horror can often harm more than it entertains.
Thomas Aquinas argued the distinction between preternatural (that which appears outside of “the natural,” like the occult) and the supernatural is the difference between that which is affected by created beings—such as man, or demons—and that which are merely the unintended consequences of God. Which works of fiction explore this line between the cosmic and the merely creepy, the miraculous and the nearly mundane? When the actions of monsters, aliens, ghosts, or mutants can appear to as marvels, how does an author write characters that believably stand a chance?
The dragon and the pegasus are well-known to Western fantasy readers, but what other creatures lurk in the skies? The Manananggal of the Philippines, the Kongamato of Zambia, the Ahool of Indonesia, even the legendary Thunderbird of North America... Let’s move past the common and explore the full range of airborne mythological creatures from around the world. Why are we so enamoured with things that fly?
Music in fantasy has been used to educate the population (and so the reader) in McCaffrey’s Pern series and Wilde’s Updraft. But there’s also a long history of music itself being magical, as in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. How do writers decide where and how to use music? What other works have looked beyond deploying songs as exposition?
In Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series, two children literally kill God. Where else can fantasy go with the topic of atheism, or in some cases, with the topic of changing the religious narrative, and pushing it so far as to relegate the divine as inconsequential? Fantasy often relies on belief systems, such as the belief in magic. Where else can we toy with the concepts of belief to shift how our fantasy worlds function?
This well-known and oft-discussed author was as inspiring as he was prolific. There are numerous fan sites, more than one doctoral thesis on Lafferty’s fiction, and a wide range of authors directly or indirectly influenced by this American Original. Using those works as a jumping off point, we’ll explore the authors and innovators who came next, and how they’re impacting us now. Also, feel free to talk about Mur Lafferty who is pretty great, but not R.A.’s kid.
Dark Fantasy and Horror are often conflated, as are Horror and Thriller. How do we differentiate between these genres? Is there something unique to the shape of the story? Or is there an indefinable “I know it when I see it” factor that leads to categorization? Are these distinctions useful or have we reached a point where genre’s rigid boundaries are limiting new kinds of stories and writers from emerging?