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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.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 24th, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
Not science fiction, but I thought you'd be interested:
The First Lady's advisers arrived to find the room filled with ushers and plumbers, electricians and maids and kitchen crew gathered in a huge circle, and Michelle in a T shirt and ponytail, very casual and very much in charge.

"This is my team that came with me from Chicago," Michelle said, pointing to her communications staff and policy people. "This is my team who works here already," she went on, indicating the ring of veterans around the room. Many of the household staff had served for decades; some had postponed retirement because they wanted to serve an African-American President. And so the two groups formed concentric rings and spent the next hour or so making sure that everyone had a chance to meet everyone else. I want you to know that you won't be judged based on whether they know your name, Michelle had warned her advisers. You'll be judged based on whether you know theirs.

May. 24th, 2009 01:25 pm (UTC)
some had postponed retirement because they wanted to serve an African-American President.

That is really moving. Thanks!
(Deleted comment)
May. 25th, 2009 03:49 am (UTC)
Later in the panel, Chris Hill shredded the maintenance men episode. He said it was annoying because the maintenance men only existed to be mirrors for the main characters and didn't have any story of their own.

I liked the B5 episode about the dock workers' strike. That didn't get discussed in the panel, though.

Did you like the Turtledove novel?
May. 26th, 2009 09:47 am (UTC)
Most of the main character's in The Automatic Detective</a> by A. Lee Martinez are regular working Jo(e)s. More or less, anyway. Actually, that's pretty much true of all his books, come to think of it.

I'm in the middle of Kage Baker's new book, The Empress of Mars, which is working-class-underdogs vs. The Man.

There are some working class characters in The Unincorporated Man, by Dani and Eytan Kollin, but they're mostly secondary at best. However, it's of the class of SF where the science is economics, and part of the story is the main character figuring out what it means to be poor in a post-scarcity economy.
May. 26th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Those sound good.
May. 26th, 2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
One thing that I've found in many movies (and to a lesser degree in books) is that there's often some contrived excuse to get the character out of their work or day job for a while, because they can't be running around doing exciting things if they're having the punch a clock. So I wonder to what degree it's just that a lot of people don't see a way to work work in to the plot, especially if it ties the character down not only temporally but geographically.

In non-SF-and-Fantasy movies, including work is somewhat more common, I think. The 40 Year Old Virgin included a lot of scenes at the main characters' workplaces (a salesperson in an electronics store and the owner and sole worker at a we-sell-your-stuff-on-eBay storefront). Sunshine Cleaners is all about work.

I hate that this book keeps coming up over and over again as an example, but technically Saturn's Children is entirely work -- the character has high adventures and espionage, but they're paid to do so. Similarly with most espionage thrillers. Technically James Bond is at work. It's not blue-collar work, but broadly including work it's work. The Hudsucker Proxy is all at the workplace, all the shows and movies about newsrooms or offices. The Office and Office Space.

I guess the hard part is mostly sci-fi and fantasy, and I wonder if part of that is the degree to which those genres deal with escapism and/or exploration. And maybe sometimes it's the James Bond thing -- it's work, but not something we easily recognize as work.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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