Stef (firecat) wrote,

Wiscon panel report: Class, Culture, and Values in SF&F

Wiscon panel report: Class, Culture, and Values in SF&F
Tracks: Reading, Viewing, and Critiquing Science Fiction (Power, Privilege, and Oppression)

Class isn't just how much money you have or what work you do; it also involves cultural beliefs, values, and attitudes that are expressed in how you talk, what you do in your free time, and all sorts of less tangible elements. (See Barbara Jensen's book Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, due out in mid-May.) The SF&F writing and fannish communities are mainly middle-class folks, which makes the class values of SF&F works mostly middle class, too. What works and creators explore classes outside the mainstream, white, European, middle-class value systems? What class markers tend to show up most, or least, often? Do these works show the non-middle classes positively? negatively? realistically?

Moderator: Debbie Notkin
Eleanor A. Arnason
Alyc Helms
Danielle Henderson
Rose Lemberg

[My notes aren't a complete transcription and may represent my own language rather than the actual words of the panelists. I welcome corrections. I did not identify all audience commenters by name. If you said something I paraphrased here and want your name to be used, please comment or send me a private message.]

[The book mentioned in the panel description, Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America by Barbara Jensen, is available at For a 20% discount use promo code CAU6.]

Debbie: Class culture values: overambitious topic. How are cultural values affected by class?

Alyc: There are taste hierarchies and values. For example, the reputation of fantasy vs SF in academia. SF is more legitimate. There is a book Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction [editors Mark Bould and China Miéville, Wesleyan Press, 2009,]. Originally the book was to include fantasy, but fantasy was dropped.

Wine tasting has been legitimate longer than beer tasting.

Danielle: Reading Class asks why there are middle class expectations on working class people. SFF replicates, does not revolutionize. Describes haves and have nots. Cultural markers are bleak. Often use the trope of having to sacrifice to improve, similar to how class is lived currently.

Rose: I'm 4th generation Russian. In Soviet Union my family was poor, but there was no shame for being poor. It was about how you cope. Not all cultures include class mobility aspirations and shame around being poor or lower class. All Danielle's students say they are middle class; there is a stigma to saying otherwise. There was class in the Soviet Union; it was about what you read and where you vacationed. Low brow vs. high brow. Workers could read up but professors couldn't read down. Do you read? What plays have you seen? This is more subtle than in America. Access to resources was more equal than in US. Definition of culture is debatable and fluid.

Eleanor: Problems around this issue: In the US poor and rich are vaguer categories; there is a huge middle class. Complicated by race, non-whites usually lower than whites in the middle class. The middle class is disappearing. Soon there will be the rich and the upper middle class (the servants of the rich—i.e., professionals). There are no more good union jobs. The Marxist categories of class are: Owning the means of productions and using others' labor to produce, self employed and owning your own tools, working poor. A lot of the people who have been laid off have become consultants, but don't make much money; what class are they? Is the fannish community middle class? Depends what you mean, I think it's more diverse than that, not upper middle so much. It's difficult to talk about.

Debbie: I've been in the fannish community since I was in my early 20s, and it has given me an awareness of class. Energy is put into hiding class, in general society. Recommend Ruby Payne [], A Framework for Understanding Poverty [], but some people despise it. It describes the skills of being poor, middle class, and rich, and tries to make them equivalent. I don't know how to rent a private plane, and I don't know how to feed a family on $1.70 a day. I am upper middle class, my parents were professionals, we always had enough to eat. People can learn the skills of different classes.

Can anyone recommend books?

Eleanor: Vampire Cabbie by Fred Schepartz []. Some books by C.J. Cherryh [] and Melissa Scott []. Not many, especially not that deal with working class culture.

Alyc: Class is related to economic system and world building. A lot of world building assumes capitalism. Samuel R. Delaney's The Fall of the Towers trilogy [] shows that individual perception is limited and also follows complex modes of production. Marie Brennan's Onyx Court series [] is set in historical England. In the first book, the main characters are nobility; in each subsequent book, the main characters are a lower class than the previous one.

Danielle: China Miéville, Perdido Street Station []. Michael Moorcock []. I like to see books that don't equate financially poor with culturally bereft. I hate that in The Hunger Games [Suzanne Collins,] the main character has "olive tone" skin and she has to fight for her whole culture, including the rights of middle/upper classes. We maybe can't talk about books that treat class in SF setting because there aren't many and they aren't popular. Working class is not that bleak. Representations of joy, creativity. In the US there's a lot of emphasis on class mobility, but some people just want to have a valid quality of life. Aspiring isn't everything.

Debbie: So there could be a "magical poor person" like the "magical Negro". []

Rose: In novels the poor always end up not poor. In fantasy, peasants become kings. Also there is no scarcity among the poor characters. I ate a lot of buckwheat as a kid. Economic power influences what you eats and what is comforting to you. Also what you want to avoid. Aspirations are class based. I don't see this. I've seen books where a royal family lives in suburbia, and serfs have individual bedrooms. I loved sharing a bed with my grandma. In a lot of books all the architecture is middle class? Poverty doesn't have to be dreary. We all still have culture, entertainment, holy day dishes. The Dispossessed [Ursula K. Le Guin,] describes what you find in a class neutral society and a class stratified society. Steven Brust, Taltos []. Protagonist is an assassin, poor, father runs restaurant. He becomes a criminal lord, other humans think he's someone who made it.

Debbie: Redwood and Wildfire [Andrea Hairston,] shows a rich culture in an economically poor context; it's about moving, collecting culture, not traditional aspirations.

Audience comment: There used to be quotas against Jews, women. I couldn't become a doctor living in an immigrant family in a housing project in New York.

Debbie: Immigrants have different aspirations.

Audience comment (Aahz): Eric Flint, Ring of Fire anthology []; Elizabeth Moon, Remnant Population []

Audience comment (Mary Ann Mohanraj): Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain [ed. Bell and Molina-Gavilan, Wesleyan Press 2003] is very class oriented. Dark Matter [series of anthologies edited by Sheree Thomas,] is more race oriented. Short story "Miss Parker Down the Bung" by Kate Bachus (free at Strange Horizons:

Audience comment (Isabelle): I have baggage around food because of poverty. My comfort food is Kraft Mac+Cheese Deluxe (with cheese sauce in a pouch) because it costs more than the Kraft Mac+Cheese with the powdered cheese. I wanted junk we couldn't afford when I was a kid. I was an adult before I tasted a kiwi or a blackberry. There is a trope: if you make it, you no longer want to... Why is there no representation of this?

Rose: Immigrants sometimes can't afford or find the foods they were familiar with. Jews have herring as a cultural food because it is cheap.

Alyc: There's a divide between economic and education class issues. We had education, but we were homeless for a year. In Guatemala, fresh foods were peasant foods; people aspired to eat processed foods. When we visited, people offered us Velveeta.

Debbie: Sometimes it's about class, sometimes it's about exoticism. In Japan they wanted to take us to eat Italian food.

Rose: Also colonialism. Mcdonalds was a big deal in Russia early days.

Eleanor: Want to see writing about interesting jobs, e.g., plumbing in space station. My writers group said they liked it when I didn't write about unions. Can't sell stories about unions.

Audience comment: Rebecca Cooper's first book, a YA. [I can't find this] [ETA: I think what was referred to was Terrier, the first book of the Beka Cooper or Provost's Dog series by Tamora Pierce. Thanks [personal profile] jazzfish!]

Danielle: We can't know the future but we can extrapolate. Don't want a future of minimum wages, coal mines in space.

Debbie: That's our job.

Audience comment (Alan Bostick): Rats & Gargoyles by Mary Gentle []. "First 45 mins of first Alien movie". Hidden agenda of the novel is as an instruction manual of class upward mobility.

Two web site resources:

Debbie: People want stories that depict class without being about class.

Audience comment (Lisa Geoffrion): I hate that class is always about money. Our neighbors in the trailer park have 2 new SUVs but are working class. My kids, we're poor, but they say we're middle class because we don't use "street" language or wear "street" clothes. Do people know what that means?

Audience comment: I think of "street" as code for "black."

Lisa: No. [Lisa lives in a rural area that's overwhelmingly white]

Audience comment: Go to working class studies convention. Music—karaoke is about making your own music; yuppies go to see music.

Audience comment ([personal profile] jazzfish): Steven Brust [] is a Marxist.

Debbie: He says there are no politics in in his books.

Audience comment: Upper classes and less well off are increasingly not sharing public spaces.

Debbie: Times Square Red Times Square Blue [Samuel Delaney,,_Times_Square_Blue] has a good treatment of that, as well as the difference between contact and networking.

Danielle: It's hard to have working class heroes when we don't have jobs anymore.

Alyc: Books are often about how an individual can change the world, but it's hard to depict social movements.

Eleanor. Let's try to imagine how work will be done in the future. Classes won't disappear.

Rose: Relationship to means of production completely changed. How to deal with this?

Debbie: Quote by Ursula K. Le Guin: "The great & mighty go their way unchecked. All the hope left in the world is in the people of no account."

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