World Fantasy Convention Panel

Notes from the World Fantasy Convention 2016

If you’ve seen me scrawling down notes (or in recent times, typing) at a con, you’ll know I take a lot of notes in panels. I’m interested in what people say and it helps me engage with the content. I also love to share this information, especially for people who can’t make the conventions. So here are my notes from the World Fantasy Convention 2016. Where possible I’ve attributed the thoughts to the relevant person, but sometimes it’s a whole group discussion.

The nineties and the nineties

The above photo is from the panel, which featured Janeen Webb, SM Stirling, Laurel Anne Hill and Jason A. Wycoff.

So I’m a total Victorian era nerd and my curiosity was piqued by a panel that was comparing the 1890s to the 1990s. As it turns out, there’s thin connections between the decades, but it was an interesting panel anyway.

Wycoff began by stating how the 1890s were artistically defined by pessimism and the idea that civilization leads to decadence.
Laurel Anne Hill discussed Looking at how women were treated in the period, where women did not have a great agency about their bodies and lives. When the yellow book came out there were women on the staff (The Yellow Book was a literary periodical from the 1890s). Women in the upper and middle classes began to work.

From my research, women were on staff at newspapers as early as the 1850s, as they were used as typesetters due to their small hands (true story).

During this period fantasy wasn’t separated out as another genre, SF was only really being invented. Janeen Webb mentioned that both 1890s and 1990s had massive changes in publishing. The 1990s saw massive series launched such as Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones. Hill added that in the 1890s writing moved towards realism and away from morality, in the 1990s, there was a lot of lookalike Tolkien material, but began to move away from this too.

What tropes are people still using from the era?

  • Lost civilizations
  • The explorer novel whether it was on earth, in fantasy worlds or in space.

Recommended reading

  • Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  • Dracula – Bram Stoker
  • Dr Nikola Novels – Guy Boothby
  • Pharos the Egyptian – Guy Boothby
  • The works of H. Rider Haggard
  • The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
  • The works of Ambrose Bierce
  • The works of Gertrude Atherton
  • The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen
  • The King in Yellow – Robert W. Chambers
  • The Well at the World’s End – William Morris
  • The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Keeping YA Weird

World Fantasy Convention Panel
Rani Graff, Ellen Klages and Fran Wilde

This was a really inspiring panel. Everyone came out of it feeling good about being weird.

To start, kids like strange things…

Fran Wilde began by saying there’s a sense of permissiveness in weird fiction on how far you can push your narrative and break boundaries. Things that have been previously published as adult books would now be categorised as YA eg Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Dune. The weirder stories in YA have developed outside of the Lovecraft tradition and rather from fairy tales, Baba Yaga, with elements of the famiiar combined with the monstress.

Klages said that teenagers have a lot of weird changes going on, so they like things that are breaking rules and boundaries. Some adults are turned off by weirdness in books, whereas kids want to read it. “Being weird and strange keeps us together.” She expressed how SFF allows our weirdness to run with the author, that we don’t feel so out of place through fiction. This idea of finding your tribe.

Rani Graff added that the mainstream has shifted over the years, and it’s easier for young people to find others online.

Recommended reading

  • Frances Harding – The Light Tree

The Supernatural vs the Occult

This panel featured Dena Bain Taylor, Joelle Reizes, Bernadette Bosky and Jonathan Oliver

Dena Taylor discussed how the supernatural is part of a natural order of things, whereas the Occult is about human intervention. Mentioned John D – Elizabeth’s first astrologer. Prospero is based on this.

Joelle Reizes added that Occult means hidden or secret in Latin. Passing hidden knowledge down – not safe for everyone to know. The supernatural involves beings – ghosts, phantoms in a physical space. I found this particularly interesting in writing about crime and investigation from a supernatural slant, that the detective is seeking hidden knowledge.

Jonathan Oliver mentioned good ol’ Hammer Horror – Posh English aristocrats raising Satan in big houses. There’s nothing quite like a Hammer film, with the cheese meets cult atmosphere.

The discussion followed on with the sexism that often accompanies the portrayal of the occult. Bernadette Bosky mentioned the idea of good pagan women vs evil men.

Talked about Christian bestsellers like Frank Peretti, which asks the question is it still fantasy if you believe it. They present supernaturalism that tries to get belief. It’s fantasy if it is not possible. The challenge is not insulting people who believe in these traditions. The more an element is believed in by the author, the less it is described.

The conversation delved into the notion of posession is always a subtext of the malign. Jonathan Oliver said that it can be a subtext for the mentally ill. Possession stories are problematic as they are a removable responsibility – getting out of treating mental health by blaming it on posession.

Taylor spoke about how witches need a balance between supernatural and occult (secret knowledge of the natural world). Interesting discussion on whether you can have the knowledge but not the skill – eg natural inherent ability vs the ability supplied by pacts with supernatural creatures vs witches with forces involved eg ancient Rome. The discussion continued as to whether science can be an occult information – secret knowledge man should not know and does bad things with.

Recommended reading

The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce

Dark fantasy vs Horror

World Fantasy Convention Panel
Ellen Datlow, Rio Youers and Christopher Golden

This panel featured Jonathan Oliver, Steve Rasnic Tem, Ellen Datlow, Rio Youers and Christopher Golden

The panel began delving into the differences between dark fantasy and horror. Ellen Datlow said that dark fantasy is different to horror in tone. Dark fantasy has an exuberance and joy, horror is more realistic. Dark fantasy usually has an optimistic ending, horror pessimistic, something has been lost.

Rio Youers continued that tone is subjective, that dark fantasy and horror can exist in the same spectrum. He asked is it a dark fantasy theme novel or a dark fantasy horror novel eg Joe Abercrombie vs Laird Barron.

Christopher Golden said that Horror has shifted over time into dark fantasy – definitions have moved. In dark fantasy the magic costs something, such as the death of a loved one, but the world is restored. In horror, the world is broken by the end.

Ellen Datlow’s quote of the day: “I’m not scared by anything except for real life.” She expects to be creeped out, disturbed, and good stories will linger in the brain. There is a difference between being shocked and scared.

Writing tips

  • Steve Rasnic Tem: Don’t fully describe the POV character as it allows the reader to put some of themselves on the character.
  • Rio Youers: Character is key – if you don’t affiliate with the character you can’t be horrified by their death. Need to care about character for the impact to be successful.
  • Christopher Golden: Tropes only matter unless they’re so cliched they become obvious to your work.

Recommended reading

  • The Girl Next Door – Jack Ketchum. Complicity in horror.
  • Salem’s Lot – Stephen King (the only book Ellen Datlow’s had to turn the light on for)
  • The Shining – Stephen King

The Modern Occult Investigator

This panel featured Laura Bickle, E.J. Stevens, Stephen Vessel and Elektra Hammond.

Who are the modern day examples of the occult investigator?

  • X-Files is the “gold standard” of modern occult investigators
  • The Greywalker Series – Kat Richardson
  • Kate Daniels Series – Illona Andrews
  • Charlie Madigan series – Kelly Gay
  • Alex Craft – Kalayna Prise
  • Remy Chandler – Thomas E. Sniegoski
  • Downside Ghosts – Stacia Kane
  • Diana Tregarde series – Mercedes Lackey

How have things changed over time from the original detective stories?

  • More strong female protagonists
  • Longer story arcs, multiple books
  • Paranormal romances

How does tech affect investigating?

  • “It’s hard to imperil your investigator properly.” Low cell phone coverage…
  • Have trouble with the technology – eg the character struggles with it.
  • Magic reacts with technology – eg Dresden Files
  • Flux between magic and technology – alternate between two options
  • Drop the cell phone in a river/sewer/toilet
  • Many places where tech doesn’t work, can be a western idea that technology is all pervasive (male author)

This led me to think about the difference between investigators with supernatural powers and those that are normal people investigating the supernatural world.

There was a brief reference to the historical practice in Asia of the judges who could consult the supernatural/ghosts while investigating. This is particularly memorable in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story In A Grove, which later became the famous Akira Kurasawa film, Rashomon. 

A couple of extra thoughts from the panel:

  • It’s a good opportunity to bring out the humanity in supernatural creatures by consulting with them.
  • Hinting at the supernatural when it’s a normal crime – can be creepy, like Twin Peaks, that kind of thing. Strange, unusual, hint of the otherworldly.

Atheist Fantasy

World Fantasy Convention Panel
Jeff Minerd, Auston Habershaw, Max Gladstone, Kevin Maroney, L.E. Modesitt Jr, Larry Hodges

I took a lot of notes on this panel, my particular interest comes from my Christian faith, and also an interest in ethics, especially how atheists derive ethical values systems outside of a religious framework.

Do you think religion is a necessity for society and do we need it in our writing?

Max Gladstone pointed out that the latin root of religion is to bind someone to something larger than the self. He discussed Tilley’s idea that faith is a state of being observed. He also mentioned Stephen J Gould’s idea of the God of the Gaps, that God is the explanation for the things we don’t know about. There is space for existential conflict in the notion of non-believer confronted with the deity (which is pretty clearly explored in his book Three Parts Dead).

Habershaw talked about religion as a binding agent for social systems. There’s a difference between civic religion and the actual existence of divine supernatural beings. Divides the practical priest and the magi. He asked what’s the difference between a super powerful being and a god. Is a god just a powerful being with a fan club?

L.E. Modesitt Jr asked whether you can have an absolute concept of good and evil which is societally accepted without a deity?

Kevin Maroney discussed trying to create a sense of justice in a society without reliance on extraneous principles. Social democracy. Build a society you are willing to be born into without knowing who your parents are.

The panel brought to mind Interview With a Vampire – that nuance in the distance from God. Cut off from eternity in heaven, how does the character respond to that? Creates conflict in character.

Recommended reading

  • From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey Through Myth and Legend – Valerie Frankel (recommended to me by a nice person in the audience)
  • Caliban Upon Setebos – Robert Browning
  • World of the Five Gods series – Lois McMaster Bujold