February 17th, 2013

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Boskone Panel Notes: Mythology in SF

Okay! I am putting all my panel notes from this weekend up one panel at a time. This is Mythology in SF, which was Friday at 8pm. These are not transcripts, but incomplete notes I hastily scribbled down. Please feel free to offer additions or corrections in the comments.

Here's the official blurb:

How have myths and fables from our past affected SF writers' development of fictitious off-world or future-world mythology? Are most of their myth systems just the old stuff dressed up with different names, or is anybody coming up with anything truly new? Does a mere hint of myth make an SF story a fantasy?
Julia Rios (M), Debra Doyle, Greer Gilman, Margaret Ronald


Debra Doyle co-writes books with her husband, Jim Macdonald, and had stayed up until 5am Friday morning finishing a novel. They have a website here, and they are both instructors at Viable Paradise (they were two of my instructors when I attended in 2009, in fact).

Greer Gilman
writes fantasy which is very mythic, and she won the Tiptree Award in 2010 for her novel, Cloud and Ashes. Her website is here.

Margaret Ronald is the author of an urban fantasy trilogy set in Boston (Spiral Hunt, Wild Hunt, and Soul Hunt), and which draws heavily on mythic themes. Her website is here.

Mostly our output tends to be fantasy, but we all like to read science fiction. Doyle has used myth in science fiction in the Mageworlds series. Maggie has written some SF short stories.

Julia: How have myths from the past influenced and affected SF writers? Why is myth so attractive?

Greer: This has a very long history. We mapped the heaves with myth. Constellations have mythical stories attached to them. Stories are a way of mapmaking.

Doyle: Myth can be really useful in establishing structure.

Maggie: One of her favorite books is The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge, which is hard SF, but uses the Snow Queen and the White Goddess for theme and structure.

Greer: SF can thrie on the tension between familiar stories and alien experiences and environments.

Doyle: Rocannon's Worldhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocannon%27s_World by Ursula K. Le Guin is a great example of using myth in SF.

Greer: "Semley's Necklace" (the short story which opens that book) -- We have taken alien object and put it it museum. Aliens come back to reclaim. [I am not entirely sure how this tied into the discussion, but at the time is made perfect sense.] Tolkien said Christianity story gets told over and over, so must have truly happened once.

Maggie: Terry Pratchett uses myth to great effect, but that's really getting into fantasy.

Doyle: All of this keeps coming back to Earth cultures and people fighting in real life because they misunderstand each others' myths. Recommendation for Mr. Bligh's Bad Languagehttp://www.amazon.com/Mr-Blighs-Bad-Language-original/dp/0521467187.

Julia: Where is the line between fantasy and SF? Are there examples of truly alien myths, or are they all just our myths retold?

Maggie: Tried to play with alien myth in thinking about the world of "Salvage" (short story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies). Thought a lot about what sort of creation myths robots would tell themselves.

Greer: It's hard to write completely alien mythology because how could humans understand it?

Doyle: John M. Ford might have tried... If you are going to write this stuff from the inside, you have to believe it while you're writing it. Lovecraft may have done a good job of imagining truly alien, but it made people lose their minds.

Julia: One example of really alien-feeling creatures are the lobsters in Charlie Stross's story that later because the beginning of Accelerando. But I'm not sure what myths they might have.

Maggie: Lots of aliens seem to be pulled from myth.

Greer: Out of the Silent Planet -- Different perspective, but empirical presence (so that makes is somewhat familiar). But that doesn't explore the question of what the aliens would tell each other.

Maggie: In Old Man's War by John Scalzi, there's an alien race who have a myth that a planet will be redeemed by battle.

Greer: Bradbury's Martians are inversions of humans.

Doyle: Aliens as fairies.

Audience: For elves in space, what about Poul Anderson's Selenites?

Audience: For robot mythology, there's a webcomic called Freefall where robots believe if God is omnipotent, then all religions must be true.

Audience: For alien myth, Zelazny.

[Speaker not listed in notes]: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge has echoes of The Ant and the Grasshopper.

Greer: Michael Swanwick has a story called "Mother Grasshopper", where the planet is actually a giant grasshopper.

Audience: Don't need to go into space to find alien SF. Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun has the dying sun--very alien, but on Earth.

Audience: Battle Star Galactica has aliens who seem more familiar to today's societal norms than the humans. Humans there are more open and Cylons are monotheistic and very conservative.

[Speaker not listed in notes]: Zelazny, Lord of Light [illegible] Zeus in space...

Maggie: Vorlons in Babylon 5 use myth to manipulate people and get what they want.

Audience: Fantasy, but alien feeling: Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana.

Audience: Poul Anderson's "Goat Song" is an SFnal retelling of the Orpheus myth.

Greer: Stories of opposition between science and myth.

Maggie: "The Nine Billion Names of God" is a good example of that.

Doyle: Also by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Star".

Julia: So where is the line between SF and fantasy? Is there one? Is Science Fantasy a thing?

All panelists: We hate lines. It's all genre.

Doyle: It really frustrates SF authors if you tell them that SF is just fantasy where scientific method is the going mythology. Hard SF is like the ultra orthodox, pure form of genre faith. [Whole room laughs.]

Greer: And we're a literary UU. [More laughter.]

Maggie: Heard Doyle at a previous Boskone say that SF or fantasy depends on book covers. Rocket? SF. Holy Grail? Fantasy.

Audience: What makes a myth creditable/publishable?

Maggie: Have to believe it would be told again and again.

Greer: Stories are maps. Good ones get used.

Maggie: On a more meta level, depends where they are in the overall story. If they come early and seem too much like on the nose foreshadowing, it can be hard to believe in them.

Greer: Real mythologies are not consistent.

Julia: Sita Sings the Blues is a great example of this. The movie itself has some problematic aspects because it's a white American woman using another culture's mythology to process her breakup, but it also has beautiful art, and these fantastic interludes where she gets a group of Indian people to talk about what happens next in the story. There are lots of overlapping voices saying things like, "In the version I know..." and, "Wait, I thought this happened..."

Audience: Do you see many authors using mythology to make aliens understandable to humans (like Klingons having culture of honor, for instance)?

Maggie: One way to understand a person is to ask them to tell a story about themselves.

Audience: Jane Yolen is an example of an author who lets you have different versions of myth. Some of her stories end multiple ways. She writes in the text things like, "Some people say it ended this way, and some people say this happened..." She doesn't tell you the One True Ending.

Audience: Neal Stephenson deals with myth and religion from the perspective of a computer nerd. Star Wars, by contrast, is ostensibly SF, but feels very Jungian. Do panelists have examples of SF that feels like fantasy or vice versa?

Audience: There's no reason SF has to feel more cerebral than fantasy, really.

Julia: First SF-feeling fantasy that leapt to mind was Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Very strongly rooted in myth and the fantastic, but also has very academic and technical magic system, and felt cerebral. SF doesn't necessarily have to feel cerebral, but apparently my brain thinks of it that way.

Greer: Le Guin's Author of the Acacia Seeds is a good example of an alien trying to tell its story.

And we were out of time.

For other panels, click the Panel Notes tag. I will be writing up others in the next day or so.
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Boskone Panel Notes: "The Paper Menagerie:" Anatomy of a Winning Story

This was the only panel I managed to attend without being a panelist. I was really curious to hear what the panelists would have to say about why they thought this story appealed to so many people, and what in general made a story award worthy. The panel went in a different direction than I expected, but it was still fascinating. I love the story, and I have been very interested in seeing the various love, hate, and meh reactions to it from others.

If you haven't already read the story, I recommend doing that before reading these notes. They might not make a lot of sense otherwise. You can read it free online at io9, or listen free at PodCastle.

These notes are not complete, but merely whatever I hastily scrawled down at the time. Please feel free to offer additions or corrections in the comments.

Okay, here's the official blurb:

Ken Liu's 2011 short story "Paper Menagerie" is the first fiction to win all three of SF's major honors: the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. Let's all read it beforehand, then talk. How does it do what it does? What makes a story so popular? What makes a story great?
Theodora Goss (M), S. C. Butler, Elizabeth Bear


Theodora Goss is the author of The Thorn and the Blossom, and many other stories and poems. She won the World Fantasy Award in 2008 for her short story, "The Singing of Mount Abora".

S.C. Butler
is the author of the Stoneways Trilogy (Reiffen’s Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magicians’ Daughter).

Elizabeth Bear is the author of many novels and short stories. Her most recent novel is Range of Ghosts (a sequel is coming out in March!), and she's won two Hugo Awards for short fiction (for "Tideline" in 2008 and "Shoggoths in Bloom" in 2009), and one Hugo Award in the fancast category for the SF Squeecast.

Butler: Personally feels it is harder to write short stories than novels.

Bear: There's no room for white space in short stories.

Goss: What are panelists experiences with this story? She hadn't read it until assigned to moderate panel. Made her cry. Feeling and intense and complex emotional response while also trying to decide to how to talk about it intellectually was a very interesting experience. Also felt this story might have easily been published in a mainstream literary venue.

Bear: Read originally because it was nominated for the Hugo, and she wanted to do her due diligence before voting. Read it again before this panel. On the first read, she found the main character too unsympathetic, but on the second read she felt the main character was an intentionally unreliable narrator, and also possibly more forgivable because he was a teenager.

Butler: Didn't like the story. Beautiful on the sentence level, but felt the end was giant info dump, and also didn't think the story felt like fantasy. Because of that, the magic threw him out of the story, and the characters' reaction to magic felt untrue to him. The other boy should have been intrigued at the magic existing, or, if magic was just normal in that world, there should not have been magic at all.

Bear: Thought it seemed to be coming out of the Magical Realism tradition, where magic is something that happens and is generally accepted by characters.

Goss: Skipped over any feeling that reaction was untrue because they were kids, and kids accept a lot of weird things.

Butler: David Hartwell says that Literary world doesn't understand that in SF and Fantasy, we take things literally. [This note is not entirely clear, and I might have gotten it wrong. If anyone has a source, please feel free to share it.]

Goss: Came from an immigrant family, so this story spoke to her because magic was part of the Old World (in this case, China), and not part of New World life. As child of parents who escaped from communist Hungary, this difference between things from Old World and New World resonated, but she also felt a little worried about the idea that the mother was the magical Other. [Similar usage to magical negro, I think.]

Bear: Also not sure how to feel about it. Also from immigrant family, but not first or even second generation American. Parents both born here, grandparents not all born here. Both parents completely assimilated and the only traditions they still have are food-related. Bear had to look for and research her heritage, and so this spoke to her because the main character was a first generation American trying so hard to assimilate, and only later realizing he'd lost something really important because of that. That realization of the loss made him more sympathetic on second reading (and also the feeling really bad about being a dick to his mother).

Butler: Didn't see that. Felt narrator completely reliable and just a total dick. Only had sympathy for mother.

Bear: Felt the story was infused with regret.

Goss: It seems to be told from the boy's perspective, but it's really told from her perspective.

Bear: Agrees.

Goss: Ending sad because boy doesn't have magic she could have taught him, and cannot reach her now.

Bear: That's ambiguous. There's some suggestion that she may be able to come back to him.

Butler: Read it as she would only come back in letters. Opportunity irrevocably lost. Didn't feel main character really understood that loss at end.

Bear: His writing her letter is indicative of trying to make amends.

Goss: She did have a full life.

Butler: A horrible life!

Bear: But she had agency.

Butler: Would rather have happiness than agency.

Goss: In terms of understanding where I came from, took until I had kids to start seeing. When did it happen for you?

Bear: Still working on it.

Butler: Had atypical upbringing. Never rebelled. Always loved and respected parents. Not sure when family came here, but many generations ago. Very secure in American background. Maybe that's why cannot feel sympathy for main character, and only for mother. She's had a hard life and he had it easy. He should recognize that and respect her.

Goss: What did you think about the father?

Bear: He was a non-entity. Not in a narrative sense, but in a human sense. He was not an engaged parent.

Goss: Found him deeply problematic for not supporting his wife.

Butler: He married his wife in spite of her not being what he expected, which signaled that he was a good guy, but then no.

Bear: He seemed more like a "path of least resistance" guy.

Goss: Thought he really did fall in love with her, but then why did he have to move them to suburbia where she would have a really hard time. It was a horrible place. Very 1950s.

Butler: Not realistic suburbia.

Audience: Felt it was very realistic.

Bear: Irish grandmother got crap for welcoming black family to neighborhood.

Goss: Saw this in her childhood in Bethesda, Maryland in the 1970s.

Bear: Felt the story suffered from the Brokeback Mountain problem. This family would have been much better off in New York City.

Goss: Seriously, why did the dad move them there?

Butler: Really felt end too infodumpy.

Bear: Ken is early career author.

Goss: So why did it win all the awards?

Bear: There are no perfect stories. All stories have flaws.

Butler: Disagrees.

Goss: Maybe Borges, but that's more like poetry.

Butler: Then it doesn't count. If it's poetry, it's poetry and not a story. Saki wrote some perfect stories.

Goss: We tend to reward stories that are literary and fit uncomfortably into genre. Pushes boundary.

Butler: This story felt very conventional, not boundary-pushing at all.

Goss: Maybe for a literary story...

Bear: But this is a genre award...

Butler: So why hasn't Charlie Stross won? [Charlie Stross has won the Hugo twice, actually. Both times in the novella category for "The Concrete Jungle" and "Palimpsest".]

Bear: This story pushed some cultural boundaries by being by an Asian author and about Asian identity. Similar to women being recognized in 70s. Now people are starting to read and recognize people of color. Aliette de Bodard and E. Lily Yu are two more Asian SF writers gaining recognition right now. It's not that there haven't always been people of color writing SF, but right now we're starting to pay more attention.

Goss: Ted Chiang came before.

Bear: He may have paved the way for these guys.

Audience: You don't know if this is really magic, so how is it fantasy?

Bear: Have you read Among Others by Jo Walton? It won Hugo and Nebula, and in the structure of the narrative, it is entirely possible that the narrator is simply suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia.

Audience: Jo said in interview on io9 that the magic is not metaphorical.

Panel: Yes, but trust the art, not the artist. In the narrative, it is never made clear.

Butler: What is Slan or Heinlein if not the same story as this?

Bear: In those, outsiders turn out to be special. This is the story of the put-upon, ostracized person who realizes he's been a bad person and blew it. It's a more mature perspective, and a commentary on Slan type stories.

Butler: Thinks people voting for these awards today are more well-read in mainstream literary fiction.

--Discussion of whether or not Le Guin is mainstream literary. Butler says no. Goss says yes, and she has explicitly written non-SF for literary mainstream venues. Butler says she's doing it "from our side" unlike others who are not like Michael Chabon, Doris Lessing, Walter Mosley, and Karen Russell. Those authors seem to be occupying a middle space between "our side" and "their side".

Goss: Ken's story is more conventional than Karen Russell, who is writing more experimental mainstream literary fiction.

Bear: My experience with awards is that success comes with stories that are somewhat conventional, but throw in an edgy element. "Shoggoths in Bloom" was Lovecraft pastiche, but with a black protagonist. Written because Bear was pissed off at Lovecraft.

Audience: Have to consider what else was up that year. Maybe competition was really weak. [Seriously, WTF?]

Butler: That's a judgment you're making that others might not make. [SRSLY]

Audience: Wonders if this story can't be read as triumph of mundane over the fantastic.

Goss: Mundane may have won, but did it triumph? What does reader want at end? Want Connecticut, or magic?

Bear: Agrees, and notes that we have enough strong reactions to story that we can argue vigorously for an hour.

Butler: Narrator uses same wording to describe selling himself to corporation as he used to describe mother selling herself to father. Indicates not a triumph.

Goss: This is a sign of regret. The origami is described beautifully, which is a sign of triumph.

Bear: I have such a crush on the tiger!

Butler: I want the shark!

Bear: Of note: all the origami is made of mundane stuff like used wrapping paper.

And that was the end of the panel time.

To see more panel notes, click on the Panel Notes tag. This is the second Boskone panel I have written up in 2013. I have notes for a few more, and will try to get them posted in the next day or so.