Stef (firecat) wrote,
Stef
firecat

Wiscon panel notes: We Do the Work

SF writers are supposed to be good at building compelling and believable worlds. So why is it so hard to build a world featuring working class characters in working class settings, especially given that a lot of SF writers come from that kind of background? What has worked, for you? What hasn't? Who clearly hasn't tried? Who has tried, but failed spectacularly? SF fans have done a good job of demanding better–written women and minorities in SF; what about their working class counterparts?

Panelists: Eleanor A. Arnason, Chris Hill, Michael J. Lowrey, Diana Sherman
Moderator: Fred Schepartz

[info] - personalbadgerbag has detailed notes on most of this panel here. I'm including my notes from the beginning of the panel. My notes aren't verbatim so don't blame the panelists for any words I am putting in their mouths.


Panelists introduce themselves:
Eleanor: Writes science fiction and fantasy
Diana: Writes for a video game company
Fred: Novelist, cab driver, union organizer, shows communist party card
Chris: British working class origins
Michael: Union organizer, NWU


Fred: We aren't going to have a debate on class because that panel has been done before and it hasn't worked well. But let's define "working class"

Eleanor: Can get fired by boss, doesn't own means of production
Diana: Personal schedule is defined by job, can be fired
Chris: Opportunities are limited by upbringing and attitudes
Michael: Economic well-being is at the mercy of someone else


Fred: What's the status quo with regard to working class characters in SF?

Eleanor: Blue collar workers are not represented -- there are no plumbers in the future, e.g. Shadow economy is represented. Blue collar work is repetitious and doesn't include creative problem solving (e.g. in construction -- because you don't want creative problem solving in construction work). So it's not inherently exciting. SF came out of pulps, and has a bias toward stories of individual action.

Diana: Working class people exist in SF&F but are usually a secret prince or an apprentice who saves the planet. They are "hidden" and then they "leave." Working class job is seen as a trap. SF is escapist adventure.

Chris: It's a generic truth about literature that working class people don't generate story unless they are escaping. Dickens gets a cooking for writing about the working class, but actually all his working class characters were either tragic or comic.

Michael: Soldiers are working class people who show up in SF. Roots of SF are in American pulp literature, which has a bias against collectivism. Leader stories are about leaders, not the movement. Exception: Some Harry Turtledove, and Eric Flint's 1832 series. (Eric Flint was a union organizer.) There is potential for greatness in working class people, so unleash it in your writing.

Fred: Labor struggle is difficult to talk about in America because it's difficult for us to talk about class. Some writers are working class but write escapist SF because they want it or think audience wants it. Also to portray a labor struggle requires an ensemble cast which is harder to write (more characters).


Fred: Will there be a working class in the future?

Michael: Who built the Death Star?

Audience: Robots!

Eleanor: If robots built the Death Star they would also do the fighting. In Charlie Stross book Saturn's Children, only robots are left. People are versatile/cheap. (So there will continue to be a working class.

Diana: Humans are more flexible than robots.

Chris Hill: People are cheap. In utopias, who is doing the work? These societies are often untenable because the author is not interested or isn't thinking about those issues.

Michael: Writers of magic utopias should be required to work at jobs where they have to maintain something. "There's no such thing as 'away.'"

([info] - personalbadgerbag's blogging begins here)

During this section of the panel I was thinking about Jeanne Duprau's book City of Ember (which is also a movie), because it's all about work. Humans are living in an underground city that was set up for them to survive a nuclear? disaster, and they don't remember ever living on the Earth's surface. The elders who put them down there left instructions for how to get out, once it was safe to go topside again, but the instructions got lost. So now the city is decaying and the supplies are running out. A number of jobs are described including courier, maintainer of electrical systems, maintainer of water pipes.

In a later section of the panel, one of the panelists was describing a story by Kornbluth about a Puerto Rican dishwasher who is a math genius. The panelists were lamenting that this kind of story is no longer being written. But it reminded me of a story in Walter Mosley's Futureland in which a technical genius is born into a poor family. So maybe some of them are being written again.
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