In only two weeks from today, I will be off to Chicago for Chicon 7 - The 70th World Science Fiction Convention. To say that I am looking forward to it is an understatement. I am totally excited! Being my third time attending, I feel like I have a good grasp on how to navigate the con. At the top of my list of things-to-do this year is attend lots of author readings and try and stay awake past 9:00pm so that I can go to the parties. I'm also happy to be a panelist this year. At Anticipations (Montreal) and Renovations (Reno) I delivered academic papers, but didn't want to go that route this year (which is good, seeing as there is no academic track as far as I can tell). While it is still possible that it might change (especially in terms of my fellow panelists), here is my draft panel schedule:
Thursday 3:00 - 4:30 The Alien as Metaphor
Movie aliens aren't real aliens; they're humans in disguise. What do movie and TV aliens tell us about us? Is it surprising that during the Cold War the enemy aliens were often from Mars... the "Red Planet?" Do the aliens of "Avatar" tell us something about how we exploit primitive cultures? Is "Paul" a variation of the "fan as Slan?" We have met the aliens and they are us.
Panelists: Daniel M.Kimmel, Eric Hayden, Jason Schachat, John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell, Me! (moderator)
Thursday 4:30 - 6:00 Should SF Be More Optimistic?
When authors talked about the slow pace of technological innovation, the technologists turned around and criticized science fiction for its lack of vision in recent years, saying SF authors spend too much time on dystopian visions like The Road, The Walking Dead, and the I, Robot film. What happened to the optimistic future of Star Trek? Are writers spending too much effort on worst-case scenarios instead of what might be accomplished? Is any of this the fault of readers, publishers, or media companies?
Panelists: Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Me!, Katy Stauber, Lynda Williams ORU (moderator), Niall Harrison
Sunday 9:00 - 10:30 Fat People in Space
Based on our genre, there aren\'t any. Why not?
Panelists: Farah Mendlesohn (moderator), Julia S. Mandala, Me!, Petrea Mitchell
Sunday 3:00 - 4:30 Innerspace vs. Outerspace
Are the stars, or even the solar system, in humanity's future? Recent progress in genetics, neuroscience, computing, and nanotechnology has far outstripped progress in space exploration or travel. The problems that press on people and society the most - health care, aging, mental health, energy supplies, a damaged environment - have more to do with managing our planet than venturing into space. Should science fiction spend more time on the topics of inner space than outer space?
Panelists: Bill Higgins (moderator), Edward M. Lerner, Me!, Tad Daley
Overall, I am happy with the topics, but I wish that I had better time slots. I guess as a newbie to the SF community, I'm off to as good of a start as anyone, so I'm certainly not complaining. I do find the gender break down of the panelists interesting. For instance, there aren't any men listed on the "Fat People in Space" panel, and there are no women panelists on the "Alien as Metaphor" panel (except for me of course, but I'm listed as moderator). Gender parity is definitely something I will be paying closer attention to this year.
I hope that I will be able to reconnect with all of the cool people I met at previous cons, as well as get to know a whole lot more. I'm ready Chicago!
What does it mean to be “well-read?” This is a question that I have spent a good deal time thinking about the past several months. For most of my life, “well-read” has meant someone who had read the entire English literary canon and can throw off opinions on writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Faulkner. I vividly remember preparing myself for my undergraduate education by going to the public library to read “the Classics.” What I didn’t anticipate at the time, however, was how boring I would find them. Now I appreciate the value in reading “foundational Western literature,” but few canonical tomes have ever really excited me or made me think, “Wow, I want to read more of that!” Accompanying my lack of interest in these must-read texts was a sense of guilt and worry – I should enjoy Dickens, but I just don’t. Do I not understand the appeal? Everybody else in my first year English class seemed to love carrying around their Norton Anthology of Literature, but I simply performed the work I was tasked with little joy.
Since I had a lack of interest in the canon, I pursued courses in other genres of literature throughout my undergrad when I could: environmental writing, regional-Western Canadian poetry, Russian literature of the 20th century (Bulgakov, not Tolstoy). The result of my careful picking and choosing around the core-required courses is that I had read a little bit of everything from everywhere. If there were gaps in my knowledge of the canon, surely this would not be held against me when I entered into my Master’s degree.
During grad school, unfortunately, any confidence I had gained from undergrad was quickly stamped out. I almost consistently felt – and was made to feel by many of my peers – like I was embarrassingly “under-read.” I can’t even count the number of time where a (usually male) colleague said to me, “Oh! You haven’t read that?” Regardless of how they framed their derision, their meaning was clear: I was not as well-read as them and therefore somehow less intelligent/undeserving of graduate education/an idiot. I now know that much of this kind of combative conversation and literary peacockery is tied into gendered and classed ways of discourse, and academia encourages the assessment of one’s intelligence based on who/what they have read.
Of course, being well-read is important when you are an academic. Clearly, if you are researching and writing about a particular topic, it is best that you know as much about it as possible. But the distinction between what you need to read and what you should read is complicated and always changing. What you “should read” is often politically driven, based on which academic celebrity is in vogue this year, which splinter discipline is grabbing all the funding, etc. In my experience, peers who came from well-to-do homes were much “better read” than myself. By belittling my literary experience, these people were also reminding me, perhaps unintentionally, that I was outside of the norm. I was not, for all intensive purposes, “well-read” (which is too close to “well-bred” for my comfort).
One of the ways in which people (in academia, or really anyplace where there are pretentious jerks) maintain the illusion of their being “well-read” is to dismiss the knowledge of others. When I said, “I’m working with feminist SF writers,” snobbish colleagues would retort, “Have you read [insert whatever SF writer that they have read]?” Even if the conversation got to the point where I told them about the writers that I was working with, writers unfamiliar to them, these privileged peers would still insist in eliding my interests with theirs, which, by default, were better, smarter, more important and worthy of study. It sucked to be continually intellectually marginalized, but I kept on reading what I enjoyed despite my sense of genre-induced isolation.
When I first started involving myself with SF fandom, I brought all of my grad school insecurities with me. At the first con I attended (WorldCon in Montreal), I was overwhelmed at how well-read the other fans were that I was meeting. I only knew the little corner of feminist SF that I had studied for my dissertation. There was just so much SF out there that I hadn’t even heard of, never mind read. But, unlike my grad school peers, most of the fans I talked with weren’t condescending when I said, “I haven’t read that yet.” It really hit home to me that I was in a different world of reading when I explained my interest in feminist SF … and people not only asked me who my favourites were, but they wanted my recommendations! Up until that con, no one I talked to about my work asked me what they should read. Reciprocal interest AND respect? I hardly knew how to respond!
Instead of a verbal game of one-up-manship or a pure info-dump, the majority of people I talk to at cons are interested in sharing resources with me. I’m not saying that there aren’t still politics and power issues at play at cons when it comes to “the books that you should read” (because there most certainly are problems), but that there is a greater general openness to a variety of engagements with genre which is simply not as present within academe.
My experience with fandom, then, is a mixed bag when it comes to people using the phrase “well-read.” Since SF has so many subgenres, and many that bleed into the larger genres of fantasy and horror, very few people can claim to be well-read in all of it. Going to SF cons has helped me appreciate what it means to be truly well-read. If I’m sitting next to someone in their late-50’s who has been reading SF since they were a teenager, there is no way that my five years of directed scholarly SF readership will match their experience. And chances are good that they haven’t read the disgusting amounts of academic theory that I have, which help me frame my SF readings in, I hope, unique and productive ways.
I feel increasingly more comfortable in telling people, “I have not read that! I’ll put it on my list.” I have turned my lack of knowledge into opportunities to connect and learn from other fans. It’s impossible to read everything and I’ve finally stopped trying – and caring – to do so. By being amongst a diverse group of fannish people, I better understand the inherent unfairness of the phrase “well-read.” The amount and kind of books that I have read are dependent on the time, money, education, and health that are available to me at any given moment. These are factors with which we all must contend, but few acknowledge in their evaluation of what it means to be “well-read.”
I am happy with my little corner of books, but I still I want to read more and I want read widely. I am, however, constrained by finances, time, and ability. I would rather sit down with a person who has read a few novels well, than with somebody who has read a lot of books just for the sake of having read them. I’m sure that I will continue to encounter people who have read everything and think that they are better for it. But I don’t give them my time or attention anymore. I’m interested in learning about people’s passions – why did a certain book grab them, what do they recommend? To me, to be “well-read,” then, has come to mean “to love-what-you’re-reading.” More sharing, less judgement. Let's throw out the literary yard sticks!
Now help me decide on what book I should read next …
I wasn’t intending to write this post for another few weeks, but after a recent frustrating email exchange, I realized that I needed to write something about the still inexplicable presence of sexism and misogyny right now. I want to note some of the explicit and implicit incidents of sexism that I have experienced and observed in academia and fandom over the past few years.
During my time as a graduate student, I had to the deal with a certain amount of sexism that I imagine most other women in academia or similar professional institutions encounter. Generally, the sexism I encountered came from my male peers and not faculty (although there were certainly a few incidents at that level – and I have heard countless horror stories from female faculty about their own experiences with sexism). I think only once – *once* – did a male colleague openly admire my intellectual capability. I don’t think that I present myself as a blathering fool, but I can recall many times when a male peer looked at me like I was completely stupid.
So I came to expect disinterest and disregard from most men when it came to talking about my work with feminist SF (and also with posthumanism, corporeal feminism … really challenging and cool stuff!). I thought that once I got the PhD, maybe I would get some more respect – after all, we all experienced the same thesis writing process and we all passed the same tests with the same expectations – but no, not much has changed. The result is that I am hesitant to talk about my research or I down play its intellectual rigor, which is an unfortunate habit that I am trying to break (I have a supportive feminist man as my life-partner, who is always telling me to speak proudly of my accomplishments).
Just recently, at WorldCon, a man in the audience at my paper presentation challenged me on my academic standing. After I introduced myself, noting that I earned my PhD through studying feminist post-cyberpunk SF and am now an independent academic, he immediately began asking me what university level position I had attained (by listing the various tenure track positions as if I was unaware of them). I explained again that my academic career was degree terminal. The sexist nature of his query was commented on by a wonderful woman (an aerospace engineer – awesome!) that was also at the talk – we ended up noting the various incidents of casual sexism we witnessed during many panels at the con (from male panelists speaking over female panelists to outward deflections of relevant feminist issues). It seems that whenever feminist politics break into traditionally male-dominated communities, there is also a debate about whether or not the issues being raised are valid. Discussion is derailed quickly, as the status quo is eager to move on to other less upsetting topics.
In my position as a SF researcher and capital “F” Feminist, I’m noticing the same tired old responses being bandied about by those who are unwilling to recognize inequality and their implicit support of it. When I mentioned the previous and continuing contribution of feminist SF writers to the (post)cyberpunk genre at one panel, only one of the four panelists directly responded to what I had said. The more general response was to give personal anecdotes about encounters with female writers and edge the conversation towards more neutral ground. I am entirely annoyed by hearing the old line: “I know one woman [writer, editor, publisher, etc], so there is no gender imbalance [in SF publishing, fandom, academia, etc].”
I imagine that most people reading this post are the choir: you don’t need the sermon, you’re already preaching it. To any readers who don’t believe that there is significant gender imbalance in academia, fandom, or society at large: you are wrong. Feminists are not writing and speaking about gender and sexism because we are seeking a second opinion or validation. We are stating the existence of a problem and looking for ways to fix it. I feel that the gains made by first- and second-generation feminists are being undone – all while we are being told to sit down and relax. I definitely will be writing more about feminist issues (which for me intersect with anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-ablist rhetoric) in the future. I do believe that North American culture is at a cross-roads: as financial crises and war create a fearful public, the instinct for too many is turn back to conservative values and politics. If the feminist movement is to survive, we need to make sure that we don't stay quiet about the incidents of sexism -- both casual and egregious -- that we encounter.
Good-bye academia, hello fandom! I know, I know. I technically left academia nearly a year ago at the completion of my PhD, but like in any massive breakup, there has been baggage. I have been working through my issues with my graduate education by writing on this blog. Overall, writing about my experience in grad school has been cathartic and has let me connect with others in similar positions. If anything, my disenfranchisement with academia has only deepened over time and I am entirely confident that I made the right decision to leave.
Still, the shadow of academe has loomed large over me this past year. Most of the people with whom I spend time I met in grad school and our conversations inevitably turn towards departmental politics and frustrations over our employment prospects. I have been waiting for the decisive break when I stop looking back and begin to move forward into a venture of my own design. I am happy to announce that Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno (Aug. 17-21) was the break I was waiting for all this time.
I was uncertain as to what to expect of this WorldCon. My only other experience of intensive fandom was in 2009, when I attended WorldCon in Montreal. As I mentioned before, I was overwhelmed with people and panels during that trip and my presentation was less than stellar. Going into Renovation this year I set myself three goals: to talk to as many people as I could, present an engaging paper (leaving time for meaningful discussion), and to pitch my non-fiction book idea. On all accounts, I met with greater success than I could ever have imagined. I talked with writers and fans until I was literally exhausted. My paper presentation was awesome (Laura J. Mixon attended! More on that to come in another post) and we had a productive discussion about race in SF. My book idea was met with enthusiasm and sincere interest. To put in bluntly: I received more positive feedback during the 5 days of the con than I did in the entire 6+ years of my graduate education.
Part of the reason for the difference in response is obviously due to the fact that everyone at WorldCon loves SF/F, while I only met one or two individuals in academia who had a passing interest in the genre. As I noted before, SF is still a marginalized field of academic study. It just felt good to be surrounded by people who love SF as much as I do. Even when our specific interests diverged (because there are many different sub-genres in SF/F), the tone of conversation was one of sharing favourite authors and books instead of the never-ending academic competition of “who is better read.” I left Reno with a long list of books to read and a buoyed sense of self-esteem.
I am also acutely aware of the problems that exist within fandom. It is not a fairy-tale realm where everyone gets along and all of the world’s problems are solved. Sexism and racism are still issues that need addressing in SF/F fandom. Women writers, especially those who openly write feminist or queer SF, are still overshadowed by their male (heterosexual) peers. The marginalized presence and participation of people of colour at SF conventions is a site of great anxiety that is in desperate need of open conversation (one that is particularly pressing in my Canadian eyes). With these limitations in mind, I nevertheless feel that fandom is currently ready for significant change. As the generational split in fandom becomes more obvious (between the 50+s who have been attending cons since the 1960s/70s and the latest group of 20- and 30-somethings who bring with them the comic and gaming culture of the 1980s/90s), I believe that the conversations around the limits of fandom have the opportunity to evoke a real shift in the SF/F demographic.
Whereas I felt that I had limited impact on the same biases present in academia, I feel that I can perhaps create generative change within fandom. Someone had mentioned to me that it was a shame that I left academia as they need strong feminist women there, but I believe that the SF/F community needs them too. Instead of staying in academia and talking with a handful of colleagues who already agree with my politics, going into fandom introduces me to new people whose socio-political ideas are different from my own. While conversations around race, gender, ability, and sexuality, may not flow as easily as they would in a graduate classroom, the majority of the people I met at WorldCon are open to discussing (or, perhaps more accurately, debating) new ideas. The old fannish want to see fandom continue – and that means fandom must change to become more inclusive.
While I still don’t know with any certainty where I will be in terms of my career in the near future, I know that I want it to be within the SF community. Fandom offers me the opportunity to continue my research into SF and provides me with an eager and engaged audience for it. I can already map out some of the arguments that need to take place and I look forward to discovering new areas of contention (because that is where work needs to take place). I don’t want my life to be boring and safe. I want to live on my own terms and I want to be a positive and productive force in the world. SF, by its very nature as a speculative genre, coincides with my philosophy: to look ahead, to challenge and, hopefully, to change the future. So: Hello fandom. My name is Kathryn Allan, I’m a Feminist, and I’m just getting started …