Saturday 16 August 2014

Representing social breakdown in SF versus Fantasy

I got another interesting pairing of talks at Loncon 3 on Thursday. The first was on the representation of refugees in science-fiction, the second was called Vampires and National Identity. They don't seem obviously connected but it turned out the second talk offered solutions to the problems raised by the first.

The panel talk on refugees featured writers with direct personal experience of refugees in the real world. It digressed quite a lot on real refugee experiences which was certainly useful, and the general agreement was that not much was going to change in future worlds. Different transport technologies and perhaps different planets... Here, as elsewhere in the conference, we heard about the difficulties of representing a situation in writing while holding on to another story thread. As Lauren Beukes said, if she'd tried to represent the real nature of a refugee hostel, "it would have taken over the whole book".

In the fantasy field, it's easier to use the paranormal as allegory and metaphor for social and psychological situations. The speakers discussed the idea that vampires, who occupy the border between living and dead, can be used as a metaphor for social collapse and individual dehumanisation, and as a xenophobic othering mechanism by host populations. It's easy to imagine a similar narrative mechanism with zombies where the differences between vampires and zombies map relatively easily onto issues of socio-economic class and refugee agency which got discussed in the SF talk.

This is when I realized that the most creative suggestions from the SF talk used technology to achieve a similar 'undead' state. The writers on the panel proposed life on a time-share basis, with refugees forced into artificial sleep for blocks of time, or alternatively, in retreat from the physical world altogether into the virtual realms of the 'uploaded'. Either approach seemed to express the 'dehumanised' status of refugees who are reduced to an incomplete life, very often in terms of basic needs, almost always in terms of cultural identity and social participation.

All very interesting, though a talk I intended on Friday offered some completely different options, which I'll discuss in the next post.

The talks I attended were Refugees Have More to Worry About Than Revenge with Jean Johnson, Dev Agarwal, Erin Hunter, Lauren Beukes and Sean McLachlan and Vampires and Identity with Nin Harris and Deborah Christie. Nin Harris based her talk on the works of Alaya Dawn Johnson.

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