Science Fiction and Fantasy: Uncovering the Modern World of Information, Society, and Technology through Metaphor and Imagination; ALA Annual Conference 2009

(presented by LITA)

Milton Wolf from the LITA Imagineering Interest Group introduced the speakers for this event, which ended up being primarily a publicity stop for Tor Books authors.  I was disappointed that we didn’t talk more about technology, metaphor and imagination — as the program guide had suggested — but what’s a girl to do?

Robert Charles Wilson began with a brief but eloquent talk about his new book, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22-nd Century America.  Set in America after apocalyptic problems such as environmental meltdown and a plague of infertility, this is a story about political reform and restoration ~ especially the restoration of a Free Public Library System.  Wilson argued that information and knowledge will always “want to be free.”  Julian Comstock sounds like an absolutely fantastic novel and I wish Wilson were more comfortable as a public speaker, because I have the feeling I could have listened to him talk about what’s on his mind forever (or at least a few hours).

Next up was Ken Scholes, promoting his book Lamentation.  Scholes wasted no time changing the tone of the event to a Fantasy fan-club rally.  He had prepared a short talk called “Reaching for Heaven and Finding Barsoom, Arrakis, The Shire and Oz Instead, Or How Science Fiction and Fantasy Saved a Trailer Boy Like Me,” which the audience just went nuts over.

Then Margaret Weiss got up and apologized for “not understanding the assignment.”  She had apparently prepared some remarks which she decided to scrap after she heard Scholes rally the troops.  I think she was actually going to talk about technology, metaphor and imagination, so I’m a little sad that she changed her mind.  Instead she argued that Fantasy novels are not escapist; rather, they are a way to talk about issues such as racial intolerance, religious persecution, fear of the “other” and even substance abuse (one of her characters in Time of the Twins: Dragonlance: Legends #1 is a pub-going alcoholic who has to recover from his addiction).

John Brown then spoke about his forthcoming novel, Servant of a Dark God, in which “humans are ranched by beings of immense power.”  But really he just threw around a lot of fishy quotes and statistics, such as “there are more libraries than McDonald’s in America” and “science fiction and fantasy book sales went up 140% in 2008.”  The central premise of his talk was that science fiction and fantasy are the “gateway drugs to literacy.”  He stressed that this was not just a figure of speech and that weird chemical reactions actually happen in people’s brains when they read Fantasy.

Finally, Eric Flint brought it home, albeit in a rather curmudgeonly way.  He argued that the history of Western Literature is full of “ordinary people placed into extraordinary circumstances and doing very well,” as opposed to modern literary fiction in which “ordinary people do ordinary things and fail extraordinarily.”  He dislikes the term “Literary Fiction” and calls it out as a bizarre non-objective marketing term ~ after all, shouldn’t Moby Dick be shelved in Sci-Fi and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” be shelved in Fantasy?

Flint pointed out a harmonious relationship between libraries, authors and publishers — librarians get ’em hooked on their first taste, and then the readers are willing to shell out $28 a pop for the next new release.  The audience practically gave Flint a standing ovation.

So I didn’t really gain any new insights into technology, metaphor and imagination.  But I did learn that, just like librarians, Sci-Fi and Fantasy authors feel compelled to justify their profession to a hostile world.

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