I’m not going to comment here on the issues and problems with the con, which are already well-documented and widely discussed, but instead write about some aspects of the panels I went to that really interested me. Thanks to all the volunteers who kept the show on the road despite what were obviously difficult conditions.
I only joined the con in March after the point when it was confirmed that it would be online only. I didn’t fancy it as a hybrid event and I certainly wasn’t going to go in person at this point in time (although I’m very much looking forward to doing more in person over the coming months). Looking to the years ahead, there is already a lot of discussion as to how things might function and on the desirability of running completely hybrid events (if technically feasible), or whether it might be more practical to stream selected panels to an online-only ‘supporting membership’.
The latter is effectively what I did this year (at full rate) because I had other things to fit in, including having my Astra Zeneca vaccination on the Saturday, with the consequence that I was a bit woozy on the Sunday in particular and had to go back to bed after the bid session; only getting up for the awards. Then, due to me getting the timings wrong on the Monday, I tuned in just in time for the end of the ‘Celebrating Storm Constantine’ panel with Ian Whates, Donna Scott, Liz Williams and Ian Watson. So, this report would be limited to the three panels I saw – not going into the details of either my laboured progress through the invisible maze or my spectacularly inept game of Tetris – if it wasn’t for the fact that there is an extra week to go back and watch panels on the ‘holodeck’ on the con viewing platform.
Therefore I was able after all to watch the Storm Constantine panel, celebrating the life of a writer who sadly passed away in January this year (the Guardian obituary is here). I have read the first Wraeththu trilogy in the past and am intending to reread it (if I can find my copy) at some point this year before reading more of her work. It was interesting to listen to the various reminiscences but what particularly came through was the importance of recording the history, connections and influences of an important and significant writer who is much less recognised and acknowledged by SFF criticism, let alone the literary and publishing mainstream, than she deserves.
I managed to catch up with the Newcon Press Book Launch, which I missed on the Saturday because the programme listed it at the wrong time. I also caught up with ‘The Last 20 Years: SF in the 21st Century’, which I thought I’d failed to get into on Friday evening due to my own errors but apparently just didn’t stream at the right time (and indeed had a few technical glitches within). When I finally watched this late on Tuesday night, it turned out to be a fascinating and rather disturbing panel. Graham Sleight moderated Dan Abnett, Anne Charnock, and Stephanie Saulter. Initially discussing what for them illustrates some of the changes of the past twenty years, the panel identified the extent and importance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Dan), the writing of genre by literary writers such as Kate Atkinson and John Lanchester (Anne), and the end of SF as a predominantly white male preserve as evidenced by the Clarke Award successes of Tade Thompson and Namwali Serpell and the defeat of the ‘puppies’, who now look very much like a last desperate stand on behalf of white supremacists against the flood of diversity (Stephanie). I think those selections work incredibly well to describe the main trends in what we can see as a massive ongoing realignment of the symbolic order in which the old primacy of the white, heterosexual, cis, male, bourgeois, classical liberal subject is being decentred with the consequence that all the traditional literary and cultural hierarchies no longer hold. (Apart from anything else, the word ‘canon’ now functions completely differently to how it did in the 20th Century). This has resulted in, as Charnock said, a lot of weird and surrealistic fiction; reflecting, as Saulter said, on the unstable world surrounding us.
However, the second part of the panel which compared this cultural revolution to the political events and trends of the 21st Century so far was much more alarming. As Dan put it, ‘twenty years of awful things’ means we are looking for assurance from long-established mythologies – whether MCU, SFnal, classical or folk lore – built up of familiar, generational knowledge to the extent that they are now embedded in our cultural fabric. At the same time external political reality – fake news etc – is now so unreliable that people are developing a ‘cargo cult mentality of looking at out past and making trustworthy gods out of the things that were once washed up and which we recognise … raising the Marvel comics is like raising Atlantis’. Dan did pause at this point to wonder if it was going too far but there is a lot of validity to this analysis. We do now live in a disturbing world (‘we’ here refers to people in the industrialised global North who became acclimatised to stable, prosperous years in the decades following WW2). I don’t think there is any point standing on this cargo-cult beach and holding out our hands Cnut-like and ordering the waves to stop. We have no choice but to traverse the weirdness and hope too many people don’t get swept away. Scary! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted my whole life not to be in Kansas anymore but now we’re really not in Kansas anymore and there is no sign of my scarecrow, tin man and lion. Maybe I needed to look in the companion panel, ‘The Last 20 Years: Fantasy in the 21st Century’?
I did manage to watch this panel (featuring Juliet McKenna, Tiffani Angus, Ekpeki Donald Oghenechovwe and Jacey Bedford) live on the programme platform. This was less apocalyptic – in part because fantasy is not, like SF, so directly focused on the present with respect to the future, but more focused on the present with respect to the past. However, this meant that there was also here a strong sense of the turn to generational knowledge and to myths and folk lore embedded in our cultural fabric. I suppose this is always inherent to fantasy, so that the main change in the last twenty years is that fantasy has become more popular and more culturally prominent than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, which seem to me to have been a period of low ebb following the 1960s and 1970s. (Anecdotally, for example, we read A Wizard of Earthsea in-class in my comprehensive at the end of the 1970s but when being interviewed for an English teaching job at a comp in the mid-1990s, my suggestion that teenagers might be attracted to reading fantasy was treated with absolute disdain and visible expressions of disgust. I suspect the equivalent people today would be more appreciative once again).
In this respect, I was very interested in the discussion concerning the relation of adult fantasy to children’s fantasy books and in particular the idea expressed by Juliet that Liz Williams’s Comet Weather (which was on the shortlist for the BSFA Best Novel Award) is particularly popular with adults who as children read certain kinds of books. I think she (I can’t find the panel on the holodeck so I’m relying on memory) was referring in particular to E. Nesbit’s Bastable books, which I can’t remember if I have read any of (although having read about Nesbit in Williams’s Miracles of Our Own: A History of Paganism , I obviously need to go back to those). In any case, I also had the impression when reading Comet Weather, which I really enjoyed, that it was reminiscent of the feel of many of the books, principally written between c1900 and c1970, that I borrowed every week from West Wickham’s Children’s Library while growing up. That’s an interesting phenomenon that I shall mull over while reading Blackthorn Winter, the sequel to Comet Weather (I was wondering if there were going to be four in the series, aligned to the seasons, and it was good to have this confirmed at the NewCon book launch). Other interesting points in the panel concerned the global reach of fantasy and the impact of various publishing formats, such as ebook novellas. The changing representation of gender and sexuality was another key point of discussion, as was the restrictions in writing about such topics on those African writers based in countries where homosexuality remains illegal.
On Saturday – after my jab but before my immune system overwhelmed me with its response – I accessed two panels via Gather Town: ‘Working Class Heroes’ and ‘How to Train Your Spaceship: The Living Ship’. The latter of these – with Edward James, Elizabeth Bear, Justina Robson, Charlie Stross, and JRH Lawless – was surprisingly philosophical (in a fun way) and came pretty close to suggesting that actually it’s the spaceships who are training us. However, I want to say a little more about the former panel – with Farah Mendlesohn, Stewart Hotson, Ali Baker, Ken Macleod and Charlie Stross – because I publish frequently on working-class and proletarian writing, one of my current projects is concerned with social change in relation to class consciousness and self-reflexivity, I’m guest-editing a special issue of Vector on ‘SFF and Class’, and this is an opportunity for thinking aloud and just seeing where it takes me.
I missed the beginning of the panel, switching on just at the point when Stewart was commenting on how stories featuring working-class people are often about getting out of the class and ‘getting on’, rather than establishing actualisation and agency within that class position. My first thought was how little has changed because people were saying similar things about working-class representation in the 1930s although then the debate often centred on working-class writers, who were open to the accusation that all they were doing was elevating their own position. For example, George Orwell – looking back on a decade in which working-class writers such as James Hanley, Jack Common and Walter Greenwood were prominent – discusses Lionel Britton’s Hunger and Love (1931) in ‘The Proletarian Writer’ (1940):
This was an outstanding book and I think in a way it is representative of proletarian literature. Well, what is it about? It is about a young proletarian who wishes he wasn’t a proletarian. It simply goes on and on about the intolerable conditions of working-class life, the fact that the roof leaks and the sink smells and all the rest of it. Now, you couldn’t found a literature on the fact that the sink smells. As a convention it isn’t likely to last so long as the siege of Troy. And behind this book, and lots of others like it, you can see what is really the history of a proletarian writer nowadays. Through some accident – very often it is simply due to having a long period on the dole – a young man of the working class gets a chance to educate himself. Then he starts writing books, and naturally he makes use of his early experiences, his sufferings under poverty, his revolt against the existing system, and so forth. But he isn’t really creating an independent literature. He writes in the bourgeois manner, in the middle-class dialect. He is simply the black sheep of the bourgeois family, using the old methods for slightly different purposes. Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying that he can’t be as good a writer as anyone else; but if he is, it won’t be because he is a working man but because he is a talented person who has learnt to write well. So long as the bourgeoisie are the dominant class, literature must be bourgeois.
(Incidentally, Hunger and Love is a much more interesting and ambitious book than this suggests, and SFnal in some respects. I’m intending to write a future blog post on it as part of my ongoing series writing about interwar texts as SFF, the latest of which was on Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year).
I think the key point here is that we do still live in a bourgeois culture and therefore it is difficult for any writer (irrespective of their precise class identity) to articulate working-class agency and actualisation because our culture as a whole is still predicated on notions of identity and subjectivity that simply don’t allow for the existence of even the possibility of working-class agency and actualisation. Furthermore, beyond this issue of the nature of dominant ideology, there also remain central oppositions of class interests that lead to direct intervention by ruling interests – through political legislation, policing, management, concerted media action etc – in order to prevent the development of any collective form of working-class agency and actualisation. The history of these things often goes in cycles, so that in Britain periods of relative liberalisation (the 1960s) have alternated with periods of more overt oppression (the Thatcherite 1980s). However, since the 2008 financial crash and the election of a sequence of increasingly more reactionary Conservative governments from 2010 onwards, the political situation today is probably more polarised than at any time since the 1930s.
However, what has changed is that bourgeois ideology is no longer as dominant as when Orwell was writing. As I’ve noted above, there is an ongoing realignment of the symbolic order in which the old primacy of the white, male, bourgeois, classical liberal subject is being decentred with the consequence that all the traditional literary and cultural hierarchies no longer hold. This is why the current British government are intensifying the culture war, not to distract us from economic arguments, but as part of a scorched-earth, last-ditch attempt to maintain the bourgeois order (although, if one is cynical about it, they might even be interpreted as attempting to go back even further to some form of neo-feudal order). In this context, representation within SFF – which has after all been the dominant form of film and TV fiction for at least the duration of the current century, and is arguably on the point of becoming (if it hasn’t already done so) the dominant form of book fiction – has become an area of major cultural and political importance. (There’s a lot more that could be said about this than I have space for here. These discussions are ongoing, as we know, and will cluster around different specific foci at any one time such as, for example, the recent debate surrounding SFF set in empires – I’m hoping to come back at some point and frame some of these individual debates within the larger context).
Another important point coming across in the panel discussion was, as (I think) Farah summarised, ‘In Britain, class is almost a caste system based on ancestry’. This has changed since Orwell’s time. In the 1930s, the vast majority of the British population were working-class, which was both a cultural identity aligned with a structure of feeling described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as a ‘common proletarian way of life’ and a reflection of the fact that most people worked as some form of skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled labour. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and the ‘common proletarian way of life’ is a fading sepia-hued memory and most people don’t work in those types of occupations, but there seems to still be a majority of British people self-defining as working-class. This might mean they come from a council estate, or it might be a political identification, or it might be a reference to childhood circumstances, or it might be a broad cultural identification. What it is not a direct indicator of – as discussed in the panel – is income, wealth and home-ownership status. (The category of 55+ home-owning, financially stable, working-class-identifying voters living in the North of England has now entered Pol-Sci folklore for its support of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s overturning of Labour’s ‘red wall’. This is despite the fact that most Labour voters and trade union members backed neither of these causes. I will at some point – possibly on my other blog – write about these topics in more detail with references).
Furthermore, as everyone knows, class identification in Britain is often relational and/or situational. That it is to say that it is often dependent on circumstances whether there is an upside to positioning oneself as working class or middle class and many people will modulate their accent/presentation/appearance depending on what they deem is likely to be most beneficial for them or least likely to lead to confrontation. I’m not alone in thinking of these aspects of British society as a type of pantomime that is enjoyed (on the whole) by those familiar through experience with the conventions, but a source of bemused incomprehension to the uninitiated. All the same, nobody apart from the most ardent panto fans really wants to get dragged up on stage and thrust into the spotlight, fully exposed to the view of all. Therefore, perhaps we could all just move on from the ‘yah boo, look behind you, oh yes I am, oh no you’re not’ version of class because this really is a distraction from building a functional politics for the 21st Century, which takes advantage of the new possibilities generated by the erosion of bourgeois ideology. This is not to say we should abandon ‘class’ as a tool of analysis or a basis for praxis, but that we should use ‘working class’ more in the wider sense of applying to those dependent on waged employment rather than in the narrower (British) identity sense.
None of this, however, automatically makes it easier for writers to demonstrate agency and actualisation distinct from ‘getting on’. The panel went on to discuss a number of follow-up questions framed by Farah as ‘Do the poor have to be sidekicks? Do heroes have to be middle class? Are there two many heroes and not enough unions? (One of my takeaways from this panel was that I need to read/watch The Expanse). There was also an important discussion of gender and class, with Ali pointing out that some male working-class jobs – e.g. posties – provide free time later in the day in which adventures could be had (i.e. if one was the hero of an SFF novel), whereas working-class jobs for women in retail are more likely to take up all the day: there aren’t many books in which the hero works a checkout at Sainsbury’s. (The only example I can think of off the top of my head is the protagonist – although she is a supermarket supervisor rather than till operative – of one of the chapters in Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, a mainstream book which I think most SFF readers would enjoy. Although the character doesn’t have an adventure, she is represented as actualised and with agency). Farah then pointed out that many working-class women went into teaching exactly for this reason of it not taking up the whole day. For all the recent discussion of the numbers of academics who are second- or third-generation academics, I also think that significant numbers of working- and lower-middle-class people went into academia from the 1980s onwards for similar reasons. Certainly most of the academics I know well are first generation and many of them were also the first generation in their families to go to university as a student.
The panel discussion went on to take in credentialism and more fundamental questions about work. After all, we could reduce every one’s working hours and introduce universal basic income or even institute a post-scarcity economy if we really wanted to. I took Charlie as implying that the main purpose of ‘work’ (at least in recent decades) is to socially oppress the working class (understood in the wider sense of waged employees) by taking up as much of their time as possible and thereby restricting their capacities for adventure, agency and actualisation. The problem starts to seem more and more intractable the more I think about it … almost as though the only solution would be to completely overturn the existing political order and run society along completely different lines … On that note, It was great to hear Ken say that perhaps the best way to write about working-class heroes would be not just in relation to unions but to a socialist society and that he is currently working on a new novel doing exactly that.
There is still much I could say about this panel (whose reading recs can be found here); even about some of the asides, such as the role of merchants in SFF. And I think available space really does preclude my extended against-the-grain reading of Lord of the Rings arguing that Sam is the working-class hero of this exemplary work of paranoid proletarian modernism. So, I shall simply conclude by saying that it was very good and thanking all the participants. Indeed, thanks to all the participants on the panels I have discussed and all those on the programme as a whole.
In conclusion, the ‘Working Class Heroes’ and the two ‘Last Twenty Years’ panels were excellent thought-provoking discussions and conclusively demonstrated that SFF has moved beyond the 20th Century both in terms of the global and political context now being radically different and the way in which 20th-Century genre (whether comics or children’s lit) is no longer part of our present but now a form of myth/folk-lore embedded in the cultural fabric of society. This is a huge change with many potential ramifications which are not at all clear yet and I think content programmers of future cons might want to try and find ways of building on these panels. The thread running through all discussion and debate these days is what shape will the ‘new normal’ take after the pandemic (assuming it does end and that some stable social form takes place afterwards, which are both quite big assumptions). I think what needs to be pointed out here is that the pandemic is not some sort of Act of God or natural phenomenon but a social phenomenon that has been shaped by the political and ideological forces now operating. The circumstances under which we are having the discussion need to be part of the discussion.