Off to WorldCon I go…

Where to find me at MidAmeriConII (WorldCon) in Kansas City

I’ve got a great schedule of programming this week at MidAmeriConII (the 2016 World Science Fiction Convention). I hope to see you there!

 

Panel title: The Interstices of Historical and Fanfiction

Day/Time: Wednesday Aug 17 at 07:00 PM to 08:00 PM

Location: Kansas City Convention Center – 2204
Historical fiction is a work of literature, comic, film, or television program set in the past. Fanfiction is a work of fiction produced by fans for fans, using famous people or source texts as their inspiration. Frequently the worlds overlap. Let’s discuss the overlaps, benefits, and pitfalls of working in these genres. The overlaps include writing fanfiction about historical fiction, setting fanfiction in an alternative universe by placing the narrative in a different historical era, fanworks about real-life historical figures (Historical RPF), or historical fanworks — any fanwork set in the past.

With Lyda Morehouse; Ms Sumana Harihareswara; Teresa Nielsen Hayden

 

Panel title: Joyful Disruption: Narratology and the SF/F Franchise (Solo presentation)

Day/Time: Thursday Aug 18 at 09:00 AM to 10:00 AM

Location: Kansas City Convention Center – 2201

Despite familiar complaints about the lack of creativity, interlocking franchise stories like those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars saga rely on complex narrative functions that I weave together into a cohesive theory involving disruption among layers of narrative; the role of canon, and other forms of cultural memory; and textual boundaries. My overall goal is to identify what it is about these franchise stories that creates “built-in” loyal audiences in the first place. In other words, I’m working to answer the question, what are the narrative features of these franchises that keep bringing audiences back time and again?

 

Panel title: Science Fiction at Universities: Creating the Canon

Day/Time:Thursday Aug 18   06:00 PM to 07:00 PM

Location: Kansas City Convention Center – 2204

Different universities including Dundee, Liverpool and the local Kansas City University run science fiction courses. The reading material they cite as foundational varies considerably, with some including very few women, PoC or otherwise diverse SF while others start from a basis that SF began with Mary Shelley and includes works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s, We (1921). What influence do university courses have on canon formation and what responsibilities do they have in representing and encouraging awareness of the diversity of material that is published?

With Dr. Paul Booth; Ms. Lynne M. Thomas; Gary Wolfe

 

Panel title: I Don’t Believe in Science

Day/Time: Sunday Aug 21   01:00 PM to 02:00 PM

Location: Kansas City Convention Center – 2204

All too often we hear about people who “Don’t Believe in Science”, but science isn’t about belief.  A discussion about why talking about science in terms of belief does science, and faith, a disservice.

Moderating this discussion with panelists Renée Sieber, Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, Carl Fink, and Benjamin C. Kinney.

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My Arisia 2016 Schedule

For those of you attending Arisia (at the Westin Boston Waterfront from January 15 through 18, 2016), here is my panel schedule. Because of other commitments, I won’t be arriving until Sunday but am looking forward to fitting in as much con as I can. Hope to see you there!

 

Sunday, January 17

Time: 4:00 pm

Panel #473: Beauty and the Best at 25

Location: Marina 2

Description: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remains the only animated feature to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination during the five-nominee era, and is one of Disney’s modern masterpieces. It’s got gorgeous songs, wonderful animation, and great acting, but also has some incredibly uncomfortable issues revolving around gender roles and abuse. How well has this Disney classic aged, how much has it influenced contemporary animation, and where does it rank amongst Disney films?

 

Time: 5:30 pm

Panel #480: Lesser Known Tropes v. Women in SF/F

Location: Faneuil

Description: We’ve had enough of the tropes of woman-as-accessory, sexual assault, and fridging. We debate what makes a Strong Female Character. But there are other tropes that crop up in stories around women characters that deserve discussion, many of which deserve to be retired. This is the panel to talk about these lesser-discussed tropes and what to do with them.

 

Time: 8:30 pm

Panel #460: The Hunger Games

Location: Burroughs

Description: With part two of Mockingjay, the big-screen adaptation of The Hunger Games has finished its run. We’ll look back on the series as a whole, evaluating it both as it relates to the books of Suzanne Collins and as a standalone set of films. How has the range of different directors and writers (as well as the casting choices, which have leaned very heavily towards whitewashing the cast) helped shape the franchise, and what affect has the series had on the state of YA filmmaking?

 


 

Monday, January 18

Time: 10:00 am

Panel #306: Inside Out: Pixar Gets Smart

Location: Marina 4

Description: Pixar’s Inside Out was a huge hit, and received rave reviews even by Pixar standards. Part of this love comes from the surprising depth of insight the movie has into what makes people in general — and young girls in particular — experience emotions, and why “negative” emotions like sadness can be absolutely vital. But beyond the insight, it was also a gloriously entertaining movie, and one that we’ll discuss and celebrate on this panel.


Time: 1:00 pm

Panel #323: I Hate the Hero

Location: Marina 1

Description: Is there a story with a protagonist that you dislike or maybe is just not likeable. I don’t mean, ‘The heavy is cooler than the hero,’ which is common. I mean you loathe the hero, to the point of rooting for the antagonist just to see them fail. What makes a hero likeable and do they have to be likeable for fans to be interested in the story?

 

Time: 2:30 pm

Panel #351: The Story Within the Story

Location: Marina 2

Description: Relatively few SFnal works give narrative the kind of central role within their heroes’ world that it often plays in our own. What works have best created stories within a story, and which are notable for the absence of a literary tradition where you might expect to find one?

Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #4: Head Canon

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for an article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue of New York Magazine (see here for the article). As I have in the previous posts in this series, I’m sharing some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version. The focus for this final post is the phenomenon of fan production known as “head canon.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the gold standard for academics, so I’ve been told), the first definition of canon is, “A rule, law, or decree of the Church; esp. a rule laid down by an ecclesiastical Council. the canon (collectively)” and reaches back to around the year 890. And in popular culture, there are few words that carry as much reverence and debate  as “canon.” When it comes to “head canon,” a key element of this fan activity is that it doesn’t change the established narrative of the “official” canon, unlike AU (alternate universe) fan fiction. It fills in the gaps, but doesn’t contradict the established storyline.

All stories have gaps. That’s the nature of narrative and this nature is counter-intuitively enhanced in long-running series. Fans want to know what is happening off-screen, between installments, before the series started, and, of course, after the stories “end.” This impulse fuels fan fiction and fan art but also the less-developed head canon. This is, as its name implies, primarily a private/personal mini story created by a fan for his or her favorite series, usually focusing on beloved characters. Social media, however, provides platforms for the sharing of these “personal” canons among fans. One of the most popular platforms for this is Tumblr, where just a quick search of the #headcanon tag can fill hours and hours of fun. It is one of those digital arenas that should come with a warning label for how much time it can absorb.

One of my favorite fandoms for active head canon focuses on Harry Potter. When I’ve looked at these before from a scholarly perspective, I found that fan interest in head canon tends to fall into three general areas for this series:

  1. Before the events of Philosopher’s Stone (split between the Founders of Hogwarts and the Marauders, Harry’s parents and their friends).
  2. During the seven books, minus the Epilogue of Deathly Hallows, particularly the summers Harry spends with the Weasleys at the Burrow.
  3. Between the end of Deathly Hallows and its Epilogue.

Another example of head canon I particularly like was shared by a fellow panelist on the Marvel Cinematic Universe session at the 2015 Arisia Convention (a Boston-area science fiction convention): the children and grandchildren of the Howling Commandos (from Captain America: The First Avenger) see themselves as family who get together frequently and can be called upon to support each other at a moment’s notice. This provides a nice gap-filler in the storyline from the mid-season finale of Agents of SHIELD‘s second season where one such descendant, who is part of the team, is killed. From my perspective, it allowed me to see that agent’s mother having an extensive support system to help her through her grief (which we glimpse briefly at the end of one episode) and also to imagine an entire network of skilled operatives looking to avenge their lost “cousin.”

Of course, head canon also comes with a downside in terms of memory when fans become so attached to one that they might lose sight of the “head” or non-official nature of it. I’ve fallen into this trap myself but haven’t let it stop me from delving into this particular form of fan production. It’s just too much fun.

Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #3: Canon’s Dark Side

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As I wrote in the previous two posts, I am sharing some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version via a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the dark side of canon used as an exclusionary tactic and gatekeeping mechanism to separate out “real” fans from the rest of us.

One thing that became clear for me while doing the research for The Science Fiction Reboot is that fans do not always wield the power of canon with an accompanying level of responsibility (or even common decency in some cases). Canon has been employed in much less joyful ways, particularly with long-running stories such as those in the comics universes and Star Trek. All one has to do is Google “Star Trek in Name Only” or “fake geek girls” to see this dark side in action (though I would add significant content warnings to those searches for abuse of all kinds, especially misogynistic).

One particular manifestation of this dark side (pun intended) that I encounter anytime I talk about Star Wars is those who declare that the prequels “do not exist” (as if they somehow live in a parallel universe where the movies were not made and released), which has also led to the social media meme/trend where “real” fan-parents pledge to only show their children Episodes IV-VI, “as it should be.” I covered my personal frustration with this attitude in the Afterword of The Science Fiction Reboot but, the TL;DR of my take on the prequels versus original trilogy “debate” would be that it was never going to be possible for anyone, let alone a mere mortal like George Lucas, to recapture the magic fans associate with those original three movies for those who saw them between 1977 and 1999. What can be indisputably observed, however, is the magical effect the prequel trilogy and related television series (Clone Wars and now Rebels) has on the children born after 2000, who encounter all six episodes. The magic lives.

There are also those who have expressed similar indignation at the canon “trim” to the Star Wars universe currently in process at Lucasfilm/Disney Studios. Some fans who enjoyed the extended universe (primarily the novel series that continued the story post-Return of the Jedi) are quite distressed that the events and characters in those stories will not be part of the ongoing canon. And they have been quite vocal, even vulgar, about it online.

To use the cliche, it seems we are either damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Not all changes to canon in reboots work for all fans. And when we write it that directly, it seems so obvious. Yet, there are those who seem to believe that their self-proclaimed status in a particular fandom endows them with the authority to pass judgment over what is “allowed” in canon and what is not. Such “authority” also seems to include deciding who may identify as a fan and who may not. I’m not talking about criticism or critique; I mean outright rejection of a text’s existence as part of the canon. I have said to my students several times over various genre courses that when you reject a text, whether it is a reboot or a sequel or even just a story arc you didn’t like, you are also rejecting the fans of that text at the same time.

That is not the fandom community I want to be a part of. Rather, I can illustrate what fandom community can be with a brief story about the first time I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron on its opening weekend this past May. I was attending the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Toronto and so went to a screening with a few fellow scholars. During our dinner after the movie, I spent most of my time answering questions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for these three friends who were much more well-versed in the comics canon than I can ever hope to be. It could have become a competition at that point, and at other times in fan spaces it has, but we didn’t let it go there.

The competing levels of canon, and differing experiences with these stories, don’t have to be barriers to community or gates keeping the “unworthy” out of the realm. I’ve heard several times at conventions that the great thing about fandom is that when someone learns you haven’t read/watched/played a particular genre favorite, the response is not judgment or disdain but, in the vernacular, a “squee” of “Oh my God, you have to see/read/play it! Let me see if I have a copy with me I can lend you.” I’ve experienced both the dark and the light side of fandom and have seen canon employed for both good and evil (as it were).
Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: the phenomenon known as “head canon.”

Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #2: Traditions of Storytelling

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As I wrote in last week’s post, I’m very happy with the way the article turned out but want to share some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version via a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the long tradition within Western storytelling of putting one’s own “spin” on canon.

I’ve argued before (see The Science Fiction Reboot) that the conventional view of reboots and franchises as evidence of Hollywood being “lazy” or running out of ideas is ahistorical, even elitist. This year’s target for such crisis rhetoric is Jurassic World, perhaps because Ultron was more clearly a continuation of a long-term saga as opposed to a more conventional sequel like Jurassic World. Retelling and adapting and rebooting stories is as old as, if not older than, Chaucer and the other early modern epics that are so often taught as the foundational texts in the Western literary canon [another, interesting definition of the term here related to my fandom focus but with quite different cultural valuation]. Of course the term “reboot” could only be applied to the cultural-literary phenomenon once computers were invented and became part of the everyday English vernacular.

Many, if not all, of the stories in the Canterbury Tales and others that have survived from that time period were adaptations of culturally familiar stories, as well as those imported from other cultures. For example, when I was doing my doctoral work at Lehigh University, I contributed to a collective web publication that compares John Gower’s “Tale of Constance” in the Confessio Amantis (written in the early 1390s) with its immediate source in Nicholas Trevet’s Of the Noble Lady Constance in his Anglo-Norman Chronicles (written in the early 1330s) (see here for the link: http://www.wcu.edu/johngower/scholarship/beidler/index.html).

It can also be argued that the plays of Shakespeare were reboots and even that the history plays were “real person fan fiction.” Our cultural valuing of the “original” story is a very recent notion and when it is invoked in the twenty-first century, often comes with a tinge of elitism that rejects the blockbusters like the Marvel films or Jurassic World for being “unoriginal.” As both a fan and a scholar of popular culture, I find such complaints and critiques frustrating because of the underlying (as well as overt) exclusionary nature of their message that there is something wrong with those who enjoy and financially support this rote, lazy storytelling, often accompanied by finger-pointing at said masses for not knowing any better. For example, while I do often agree with and more often admire Charlie Jane Anders’s work, her June piece declaring the success of Jurassic World a “terrible thing” for “anybody who loves movies” (see link here: http://io9.com/jurassic-world-is-a-huge-mega-hit-and-that-s-terrible-1713195036) works in this general vein.

Another interesting layer to the meaning of canon, however, relates to classical rhetoric which is conventionally taught as having five “canons”: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. These traditions highlight the ahistorical, even inaccurate, perspective that condemns franchises for being “unoriginal” because the definition of a skilled rhetor was one with a robust memory of a set of commonplaces that would then be arranged into a compelling argument that would then be delivered to the appropriate audience. In other words, those trained in the classical rhetorical tradition we can trace back centuries (problematic though it may be) would find the “lazy” critique puzzling, to say the least.

Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: The dark side of canon used as an exclusionary tactic and gatekeeping mechanism to separate out “real” fans from the rest of us.

Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series. Post #1: Joy of Fandom

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As many who know me can attest, I can talk and write about the subject of science fiction/fantasy fandom and canon at great length and even in the digital environment, there are limits to the amount of room available for any single article.

I’m very happy with the way the article turned out but wanted to share some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version in a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the joy and pleasure that canon brings to the audience experience with a text (meaning film, book, television series, graphic novel, video game, etc.).

Perhaps the most obvious role of canon in any series is that it rewards the long-time viewer and this is especially true for the SF/F genre because of the complex world-building so many series rely upon for their storytelling. This can create a steep barrier to entry for new viewers after several years (or even decades) of material and one could argue that Marvel is getting close to that tipping point in their Phase 2 storylines. The benefits of added pleasure for fans, though, as we search for clues and hints seems to be worth that risk at the moment. Examples of such breadcrumbs within the Marvel Cinematic Universe include the slow reveal that Skye’s birth name is Daisy Johnson over the second season of Agents of SHIELD and the mention of Wakanda in Avengers: Age of Ultron, setting up the introduction of the Black Panther character in an upcoming film.

The impulse to spend more time in the storyworld is one recognized by fan scholars for many years and it seems to fuel the current success of book series/sequels/reboots/spinoffs particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genre.  Essentially, these books/films/shows/games provide devoted fans with another opportunity to experience a story we clearly love. Otherwise, why would we read/watch/play, and more concretely, spend our money? Fandom is about joy and canon is one of the elements of the pleasure fans derive from our favorite stories.

We are currently in an exciting time for this sort of canon-work in many different manifestations. For example, the A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones saga is running parallel canons between the book series and the HBO show, with both being ongoing as opposed to, for example, Outlander, where a vast majority of the story has already been told. The complexities of these parallel “official” canons are something to watch very closely in terms of fan reactions and behaviors over the coming years. Notions such as spoilers and “faithfulness” to the original source material are likely to be turned on their heads by this story when all is said and done.

In addition, deliberate, high-level attention is being paid to the canon of several other ongoing, high-profile properties, though in seeming opposite directions. While the Star Wars canon is being “trimmed” by Disney in preparation for the upcoming movies, there is no question of extensive and intentional planning within the Marvel Cinematic Universe where breadcrumbs and clues are being established in films years in advance in some cases, all masterminded by Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios (interestingly also owned by Disney).

As I argue in The Science Fiction Reboot, a more conventional explanation for changes to canon in reboots is that it allows for changes and updates to familiar stories. This is usually explained as making the stories “grittier” and less idealistic than their original versions but my perspective is that is a much too limited explanation. For example, as both a scholar and a fan, I was less interested in the Starbuck gender swap in the Battlestar Galactica series reboot and more compelled by the change to Cylon origins. This change to the canon changed the story from one of alien invasion, a la War of the Worlds, to one of the consequences of playing God and creating new life, a la Frankenstein. That is what kept me watching the rebooted series for as long as I did, though eventually I lost interest.

Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: The long tradition within Western storytelling of putting one’s own “spin” on canon.

My finalized LonCon3 schedule (where to find me at WorldCon next week)

In case you might have missed the news, the World Science Fiction Convention begins next week in London. And I’m so excited (and not just because I’ll be debuting a new hall costume inspired by Brave’s Merida).

My official programming appearances are on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (see below) but I am also planning on attending the events on Thursday to open the academic conference.

Come and find me and we’ll chat about….well, I’m sure if you follow me on social media and are at WorldCon, we’ll have plenty of topics.

Hope to see you there!

I’ll also be in Dublin the next weekend for Shamrokon (the Dublin Eurocon 2014) and hope to have that schedule finalized soon.

 

 

Thursday, August 14

“Diversity in Speculative Fiction”: Welcome to the Academic Conference

Capital Suite 6 (Level 3), 10:30am – 11am

A chance to find out what the academic programme is and to meet (other) academics at the event before the first session. Please bring your own drinks along.

 

Diversity in Speculative Fiction Conference Reception

South Gallery 21/22, 10pm – 11:30pm

A reception primarily aimed at participants in the academic programme “Diversity in Speculative Fiction” but open to those who are interested in meeting the academics and discussing the programme with them. It is sponsored by the Science Fiction Foundation, who will be publishing selected papers drawn from the programme in the journal Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.

 

 

Saturday, August 16

Place and Time: Capital Suite 6 (Level 3), 9:30am – 11am

Panel Title: Mediated Boundaries

Panelists: Jo Lindsay Walton, Pawel Frelik, Colin Harvey, Heather Urbanski

Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. These are followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.

  • Heather Urbanski, “Narratology of Science Fiction and Fantasy Franchises”**
  • Colin B Harvey, “Tink Talks! Transmedia Memory and Neverland”
  • Pawel Frelik, “Subversive Moddernity—Fantastic Game Modification and Politics”

**I’ll be presenting the latest version of my analysis of Agents of SHIELD, Hunger Games, and Once Upon a Time as narratively disruptive franchises.

 

Sunday, August 17

Place and Time: Capital Suite 1 (Level 3), 10am – 11am

Panel Title: Working for a Living

Panelists: Martin McGrath, Donna Scott, Susan Connolly, Alison Page, Heather Urbanski

Most SF TV focuses on (and is written by!) professional/white collar/middle class individuals. But a few recent examples — such as The Walking Dead, True Blood, Orphan Black and Misfits — have included a greater focus on working class/blue collar experiences. How does this affect the stories such shows tell, the range of characters and identities they include, and how they use their fantastic elements?

 

Place and Time: Capital Suite 15 (Level 3), 1:30pm – 3pm

Panel Title: Secrecy in Science

Panelists: David L Clements, Katie Mack, Heather Urbanski, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Sunil Patel, Leah-Nani Alconcel

What role does secrecy have in science? Should drug companies be allowed to hide trial data from their competitors? Should scientists be allowed to publish papers and not the data they are based on? Is there a place for commercial confidentiality in space missions? But if everything is open, how will anybody get commercial benefit from new inventions and discoveries? And do we really want DNA sequences for super-flu, and the designs for dirty bombs and plutonium refineries to be available to all?

 

 

Monday, August 18

Place and Time: Capital Suite 13 (Level 3), 12pm – 1:30pm

Panel Title: Brave Young World

Panelists: Cory Doctorow, Gillian Redfearn, Heather Urbanski, David Farnell

How is the nature of young people’s reading changing, and how should it change the ways we write and publish? Are new forms of storytelling emerging along with new technologies?