Notes from Loncon 3: Urban and contemporary

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.

I do enjoy stories that use a contemporary of urban setting to showcase a fantastical or science-fictional element. In a similar vein, detective stories can  provide a great framework for the fantastical and science-fictional.

Cities: Where, Who, Why?

Michael R Underwood, Zen Cho, Candas Jane Dorsey, Ian McDonald, Yen Ooi, Francis Knight

This panel discussed how and why cities are used in SF&F,  why some cities feature more often that others, and how to write cities.

My takeaways:

  • Cities are interesting because they are confluence points: of people, of cultures, of money, of power. These things come together in a city and are concentrated there.
  • Cities are interesting because they can have layers of lived experience. Part of this can explain why some cities with thousands of years of history – like London – appear more frequently in genre writing than newer cities with less history to draw on.
  • Cities are hard to capture precisely on the page. An analogy was drawn to Achilles and the tortoise. No matter how quickly or thoroughly you create a city, you can never capture it because in that time the city has already moved on.
  • When writing a city, be impressionistic. Use broad strokes, little patterns, and scattered pieces that create the illusion of reality. As ever, what is left out is more important than what is put in. Find the telling details.
  • You can’t control the city, only the experience the reader has of the city.
  • Points to consider when writing a city:
    • The perspective the characters who live in it have about the city.
    • How different stratas of the city mix.
    • How money and gentrification affect the city.
    • The full sensory experience of the city.
    • The climate of the city.
    • Are there seasons? How do they affect the city?
    • The architecture of the city.
    • The infrastructure of the city.
    • How the city is governed – and how this plays into architecture and infrastructure.
    • That there are logical reasons for why things are the way they are.

The Fantastic Now

Sarah Shemilt, Kelley Armstrong, Carole Ann Moleti, CE Murphy, Michael R Underwood

This panel discussed the positives and negatives of SF&F in contemporary settings.

My takeaways:

  • Often “Urban Fantasy” is an inaccurate descriptor, as many stories so classified take place in non-urban settings. “Contemporary Fantasy” is more apt.
  • The downsides of contemporary settings are:
    • References become dated quickly. Especially references to technology.
    • You might get something wrong.
    • The modern era makes secrecy tough: camera phones and YouTube. How do the fantastical elements stay secret?
    • If you are writing a series, the timeline of the books might differ from the publication timeline.
  • Series vs standalone:
    • Urban fantasies are often series because they are based on mysteries or detective series. As long as the mysteries continue, the series can continue.
    • People like series because they get invested in the characters and want to spend more time with them.
    • People are happy for secondary threads to carry from book to book as long as the main plot ties up at the end of the book.
    • Teen audiences are more comfortable with novels that end on a cliffhanger than adults are.
    • Many series are named for the lead character and it is the lead’s arc that defines the length of the series.
  • Q&A: How do you deal with the “stakes escalation” problem in a series? And also “power creep”?
    Have an ending in mind and build to it. (And stick to it!)
  • Q&A: What about urban fantasy or paranormal romance in other media?
    The genre is quite dominant in TV at the moment. On the one hand other media can prolong the lifetime of a genre. On the other hand it can play out the genre much faster. Influence on a genre between different media is not a linear thing or a homogenous thing.
  • Q&A: If you’re writing multiple series, how do you keep them separate?
    Don’t multitask the two series. Finish a book from one before starting on a book from the other. Having two series to alternate between can save you from burning out on one or the other. Create playlists for each series to set the mood.

Detectives in SF

Heid Lyshol, Erin Hunter, Peter F Hamilton, Jan Siegel, Adam Christopher

This panel discussed crime and detective fiction as narrative shapes that have been creeping into speculative fiction.

My takeaways:

  • The detective story provides a great structure for exploring your science-fictional world. The detective must navigate all sections of the society in search of the truth.
  • However, you can’t use the SF&F aspects of your narrative as get-out-of-jail-free cards for the plot. There must be rules to what you can and can’t detect with the SF&F extras.
  • Noir tends to be more strongly about mood than plot. (One of the panellist’s pet themes was that Scandinavian crime stuff, in its mood-evoking is more ‘gris’ than ‘noir’ – this witticism was offered at least twice.)
  • The detective story can act as a gateway drug to bring in readers who are not traditionally SF&F readers.
  • Both SF and the (non-police) lone detective tend to be fairly anti-authoritarian so mesh well.
  • When writing science-fictional technology and forensics, be aware that you can be outpaced by reality.
  • Be aware of the tropes of the detective novel and what your reader’s expectations will accordingly be. For example, many readers of mysteries feel that the opportunity to ‘play along at home’ and guess the resolution is mandatory.

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