Worldcon: Monday August 19

On this last day of Worldcon the sessions I attended were

Unfortunately I have no notes on the Martian landers talk, because the lights were down for the presentation and it was so fascinating I didn’t want to risk missing anything while note-taking.

I am writing this almost a month after the talks, so my notes are making even less sense to me than when I was writing up the Sunday sessions.

Bigotry is not allegorical: strategies for writing and reading

Bigotry was defined as exclusion from humanness for arbitrary reasons. The panel distinguished overt from implicit bias. Overt bigotry is out in the open, and often illegal. Implicit bigotry is hidden assumptions about a monolithic view of some group. We’re all guilty of bias, but often sweep our biases under the rug. Combating bigotry requires difficult conversations. For example a company might require “good fit with company culture” but this can be code for excluding some groups. There are Harvard surveys for exposing implicit bias; only one was mentioned but the site I found has many.

Historically SFF handled these issues badly. The classic story involved whites colonizing or ‘civilizing’ a new world. The influential editor John. W. Campbell was an outright racist (by his own writings). The community is becoming more nuanced, especially with regard to race, but is still not good for mental health or body type. Dissociative personality disorder is portrayed as leading to scary criminal behaviour, whereas people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

There have been some good representatons of mental health issues: PTSD in the Punisher, Ash Tyler in Star Trek: Discovery, and Iron Man 3 were mentioned. Avengers: Endgamethough presented as a joke one character putting on weight (while suffering from grief).

Allegories for bigotry are too subtle and ignore real-world examples. It is too easy to think of it as ‘just a story;’ people dismiss it. Allegory also erases intersectionality: there is only a single marginalization, such as androids being seen as nonhuman, instead of individuals being part of multiple marginalized groups. If there is a queer person often ‘there can only be one.’ Prejudice against blue skinned aliens can’t represent all of history.

For the last 5-10 years representation has been getting better, but norms (the dominant paradigm) still exist, albeit being challenged. People still use the “but that’s the way it was” excuse, for example, to object to a black character in the Merlinseries (by which I think they meant the TV series ), though there were blacks in Britain since at least Roman times, and there weren’t dragons.

It is important to distinguish the authorial voice from the narrative, lest the books (and the author) be seen to be endorsing bigotry; it’s often done badly. You need to call out bigotry, and have significant characters openly challenge it.

Several examples were mentioned, some good, some bad. I think most of the following were good examples, but am not sure.

  • The Cinder series, which deals with cyborg prejudice.
  • The Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode Far Beyond the Stars
  • Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series.
  • The Babylon 5 episode where Sheridan was supposed to present some aspect of Earth religion, and did so by introducing a very long line of people from different religions.

The main bad example was Game of Thrones, which had had blacks as savages and slaves.

There were several other aspects mentioned briefly:
  • The ‘magical healing’ trope erases life experiences; trauma and its consequences disappear.
  • Don’t make the bigot a 1-dimensional cartoon; this doesn’t reflect reality.
  • If you’re writing about marginalizations not your own, you need to do a lot of research and also pay sensitivity readers.

Well-meaning vs ‘plain dealing’ villains

Not all antagonists are villains; a well-meaning one might be redeemable and can have their mind changed. Magneto, for example, is a well-meaning villain, who thinks what he is doing is right and neccessary. Palpatine and the Joker, on the other hand, are plain-dealing and know they are evil. Some well-meaning villains lack self-awareness. Daenerys in Game of Thrones starts of well-meaning, but steamrolls people all along, never self-reflects, and is definitely a villain at the end.

Sometimes a redemption arc is a result of fan response to a character, and is not always handled well. One good example is Harley Quinn, whose arc involves escaping an abusive relationship, but some panelists found disappointing the redemption of Regina in Once Upon a Time and Mystique in the X Men. Redemption arcs, such as Darth Vader’s, may be more justifiable in a series; it is more plausible for the villain to humanize over time.

There is a third category of ‘villain:’ the unknowable evil, unaware of the destruction they are causing, such as a human stepping on an unnoticed anthill (or perhaps the Elder Gods in cosmic horror).

Female villains are treated differently. A male villain can be a jerk, but not a female one. The standard Femme Fatale trope makes no sense; she would have long-term goals, or scheme to achieve power. Too many female villains fall in the ‘unknowable’ category; Battlestar Galactica’s Number 6 was more a force of nature than a person. The trope of ‘the one man who can redeem the evil woman’ panders to the male gaze; there aren’t enough female writers of female villains.

Other points raised:

  • The real villain of Spiderman: Homecoming is Tony Stark, given the way he treats Peter Parker.
  • If the villain is likeable, what is the narrative rewarding?
  • The CEO with no life on the climb to power is overly simplistic.

Keeping the show on the road: low Earth orbit and beyond

The talk opened with discussion of how much time routine chores took on Mir and still take on the International Space Station. The Proton launch of Mir broke everything. Now things are more rugged, but still need a lot of maintenance that takes up a huge amount of time. There is not much time for exploration.

Things like fixing the Hubble Space Telescope were heavily scripted, with Mission Control directing everything, but the astronauts needed to be able to take over if they lost contact with the ground. NASA tends to treat some very smart people as children, and schedule everything. There is a move to automate some things; for example, the Canadarm is run from the ground. When there are few people on a mission everyone needs to be able to do everything; with a larger complement, jobs can be more tailored to people’s strengths and weaknesses.

With regard to a Mars mission, prepositioning supplies has the problem that dust gets into everything. Mars Direct presumes robots going first to make fuel for the return trip, but those might break down from the dust and need human repairs; it would be a very risky mission. Robotic replacement of filters introduces significant complexity. Radiation is a significant problem on a long trip; Scott Kelly is having lots of non-life-threatening problems. A never-resupplied colony would need at least 2000 people, and some estimate 1 million would be needed for the kind of specialization needed for a viable industrial society.

We aren’t yet ready for a trip: we need a far better closed loop ecosystem. We can recycle 90% of the water and 50% of the air; an 8-week mission without resupply might be feasible, but not the years required for a return trip to Mars. We need to bring more of a biome with us; where will we get gut bacteria, for example. The Artemis moon mission expects to go 6 months without resupply.

A rotating toroidal space station has significant engineering challenges because of precession and the consequent need to have counter-rotating rings, which would wear out fast. Centrifuges might work. Effects of 1g and microgravity are known, but in-between are not.

There were lots of small points made:

  • The sharp stickiness of lunar dust is like living in asbestors.
  • Apollo astronauts had vision problems because the shape of the eye changes in microgravity. They had a disproportionate share of coronary bypass surgery, which killed Armstrong.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder wouldn’t be worse on Mars; there is still plenty of light, enough to run solar panels for example.
  • Young people are used to timelagged communications (via texting) so might manage lightspeed delays better than older people.
  • The ISS is wearing out and will eventually be de-orbited; it is cheapter to replace it than refurbish and reuse. But there’s Eric Choi’s story Fixer Upper.
  • There were originally plans to bring the Hubble back to Earth, but only Columbia had a large enough cargo bay.
  • A space elevator would work on Mars, but not Earth; the materials science is less complex, and there are fewer thermal issues.

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