More San Jose Worldcon Panels

(Long post — from Facebook, 23 August)

Finishing my report on this year’s Worldcon, about the several interesting panels I attended — long post, about panels on SF and philosophy, definitions of SF, evolutionary theory and 19th Century SF, and SF and Futures Studies.

Of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of panels at this year’s Worldcon, I got in to and sat through only a few, considering how crowded events were by the weekend, with many of the event rooms SRO, all the seats full and people sitting on the floor or standing against the walls.

Sunday afternoon was a panel on “Philosophy Meets Science Fiction,” a subject one might think abstruse, but the room was full, perhaps since David Brin – always an entertaining, provocative speaker – was on the panel. (Despite the program listing, R. Scott Bakker did not show; one substitute was Eric Kaplan, a producer of Big Bang Theory, who said funny things while never cracking a smile; see his Imdb page for pics.) The panel discussed how science fiction works to literalize an idea, any idea, even abstruse philosophical ones, and spent much of the hour around two examples: the “Trolley Problem,” depicted in an episode of “The Good Place” that won a Hugo Award that evening, and the “uplift” concept of Brin’s early novels and in other works by Huxley, Cordwainer Smith, et al. Also on the panel was Susan Schneider, editor of the 2016 book “Science Fiction and Philosophy,” and author of a story that responds to Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (they kept getting the title wrong, though). Brin – I saw him on three panels – tends to let others speak and then respond, or react. Here Brin chimed in early, stating that his philosophy was pragmatic: what does the world tell us about our problems? It’s told us that Hobbes on the one hand and Rousseau on the other were wrong; the way to escape the fundamental human condition is to realize that we’re delusional. Novels are honest delusions; bad people (politicians) use delusions to control others; and the way out of this trap is through methods of reciprocal accountability and criticism. Later he responded to the Omelas variations: don’t assume what society tells you, do the experiments and see what actual results are.

Later Sunday afternoon was a lecture by one Paul Saka, of the University of Texas (where he has a webpage), on “The Meaning of Science Fiction and the Meaning of ‘Meaning’”. This one *was* abstruse, and attracted only about 15 of us, maybe 20 as the hour passed. Being systematic, Saka, whose initial impression is of a twerpy academic with an odd haircut, spoke fluently if softly from PowerPoint slides, working his way through different kinds of definitions, each with SF examples. Definition by example (Gernsback and his magazine as being about Wells, Verne, and Poe). Taxonomic (as in genus and species, examples from dictionaries, Pohl in ’92, Hartwell in ’97). Classical definitions, as in a bachelor is an unmarried man, with SF examples including Darko Suvin’s famous definition about cognitive estrangement – a definition Saka has issue with, since it might include any kind of fiction as SF. And so on: ostensive (SF is what I point to…), circular, recursive, causal definitions; those that are stipulations (Pluto is not a planet); those that rely on family resemblances (Wittgenstein, Lakoff, Bleiler in SF THE EARLY YEARS). And finally: definitions as prototypes, as exemplars, describing averages or best examples, with references to Lakoff ’87, the American Heritage Dictionary with its use of the word ‘typically’, Heinlein’s definition in OF WORLDS BEYOND 1947, and especially a couple definitions/descriptions by Frederik Pohl, one in Galaxy magazine in Dec. 1968, another – a long paragraph Saka displayed from the 1978 nonfiction book Science Fiction: Contemporary Mythology, The SFWA-SFRA Anthology – that runs on about the various effects a good SF story should have: “Does the story tell me…?” (Alas, I don’t have the book, so I can’t find that para to quote any farther. But I ordered it.) That was his bottom line. Questions from the audience addressed marginal cases (Heinlein’s JOB and GLORY ROAD) and how definitions might change over time.

And even later Sunday afternoon, at 5pm, was a panel with David Brin, G. David Nordley, Bradley Lyau, Tom Lombardo, and others, on “The Impact of Evolutionary Theory on Nineteenth Century Science Fiction.” The moderator, Lombardo, who’s about to publish a massive volume called Science Fiction – The Evolutionary Mythology of the Future: Prometheus to the Martians (Volume 1) (…/…/), began by claiming 1861 as the true beginning of science fiction, given novelists’ reactions to scientific events of that era, with results from Wells (who ranks among writers concerned with evolution along with Stapledon and Baxter). Nordley and Lyau talked about Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, and Herbert Spencer, his popular 10-volume work. Brin chimed in, reacting, with warnings about teleology, both from the leftists, and the libertarians, how the right is a sucker for cycles of destiny and rebirth, citing an Outer Limits episode (I didn’t catch which), and going on to discuss Lee Smolin’s idea of the evolution of universes, and how laws of nature might be inherited from one to the next, including the likeliness to have black holes that would give birth to new universes…

Finally on Monday morning I caught “Science Fiction and Futures Studies,” which ran like a sequel to the previously mentioned panel, again with Brin, Nordley, Lyau, and Lombardo, though not quite so crowded, because Monday. They discussed the differences between the purposes of SF as fiction, and futures studies, which Brin makes half his living by, advising corporations around the world how the world might change and what to expect. Wells did both, in his numerous novels. Again Brin reacted, about how the right has blind faith in markets, and doesn’t believe in foresight; that markets, like sports, need regulations in order to eliminate cheating, and prosper. Lyau recalled futurist bestsellers like FUTURE SHOCK and MEGATRENDS [I have old paperback copies of both] and Brin advised Googling “David Brin idiot plot” to find his essay on the common clichés of most Hollywood films: “I will ruin all movies for you!” he claimed. (Heh; Gary Westfahl has just done something similar about YA dystopian films, and novels, in his review here,, and gotten the usual internet flack.)

I mentioned before that the SF pro’s don’t show up to panels; presumably they’re secure in their careers or too busy making deals. For me, not really an SF professional, just an accomplished fan, I am always looking to learn. That’s why I still keep going to panels, and why, after a six-year break, I think I need to resume going to conventions, at least a couple a year.

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