2019 4th Street Programming

Hello, 4th Street Fantasy community!

As usual, we’ve been stirring our cauldrons between conventions, working to add substance and focus to as many of our prospective panels as possible. These prospective panels are gathered from a variety of sources, including community feedback and suggestions, conversations left unfinished in previous years, and unused topics listed for “…But That’s a Different Panel.”

Here are the twelve prospective panel ideas we can currently describe as “most relatively developed.” Please feel free to offer critiques, suggestions, expansions of ideas, counterpoints, proclamations of genius, and/or rotten fruit in any measure you desire. Also please feel free to express an interest in sitting on any of these panels, or suggesting other people you believe would be ideal!

Also, please note that all of this text is extremely drafty— none of these descriptions or titles are anywhere near final. We will update them over the coming weeks and possibly list additional ideas for consideration, before finalizing our 10-panel slate around June 1st.

Email programming@4thstreetfantasy.com if you see a particular panel you’d like to be on!

Fantasy about Everyday People

Fantasy has a reputation for focusing on warlords and princesses, and one theory goes that we see so much royalty in fantasy because they’re the only ones with the power to make decisions and affect their worlds on a grand scale. But are they? Power within a narrative and character agency are completely different things. How do we shift our focus away from the idea that those born to wealth, power, and privilege usually get to matter the most in our stories? What are some ways we can use fantasy to tell the stories of “ordinary” people? This panel will discuss brilliant fantasies about “ordinary” people who worry about their budgets and getting their chores done, how we make small stakes feel epic and epic stakes feel plausible on smaller scales, how our heroic protagonists must be extraordinary and how our ordinary protagonists can be heroic.

When Gods Step In

In fantasy, it’s no surprise to see gods taking an active hand in the story—except sometimes, that fundamentally changes all the rules. With stories that can feature beings of unprecedented power, how do we manage stakes and agency? How can gods act as divine intervention without becoming narratively unsatisfying deus ex machina, how can characters do anything that matters if free will is negotiable or fate isn’t, and how do you depict their faith or understandings of magic in a nuanced way when gods are provably real? When we reference gods in our determinations of how the rules of fantasy worlds work, that affects what it means to challenge of any understanding of what has “always” been “true,” and it shades how we read stories about exercising freedom under systems we can’t comprehend or influence. This panel will discuss how we navigate the awesome potential for power and problems of gods literally and figuratively stepping into our stories.

Deconstructing Concepts of Purity and Degeneracy

The notion of the fallen world or the descent from a paradisical origin is intrinsic to many world mythologies and has informed a great deal of fantasy fiction. This panel will analyze not just the concepts of degeneracy and purity applied to setting, but also the individual and biological implications of those frameworks, looking at notions such as “pure bloodlines”  and “pure languages” in fantasy. We’ll take a clear-eyed look at how these concepts inform eugenic and supremacist hierarchies in the real world, and we’ll talk about unspooling unrealistic, romanticized, and narrow views of tradition. How well or badly has our fiction handled these concepts, and what can we do with them moving forward?

Monster Mash and Smash

Writers and readers are endlessly fascinated with monsters. Other-izing faceless hordes has clear racist underpinnings, and we have a multitude of examples of gritty, difficult monster stories that challenge how well we think of ourselves—and we also have countless stories of monsters we would die for, monsters who make us die laughing, and monsters who challenge us to think better of ourselves. What is it about monsters that makes us so hungry and excited for their stories? What makes them fun? Why are we driven not just to tell stories that contain monsters but that are about monsters? Why do we love to come up with and endlessly learn about (proven clearly by Pokémon evolutions and D&D Monster Manuals) bizarre creatures that don’t exist? Why do we cheer for Godzilla, adopt Babadook as an icon, and crave the perspective of Grendel’s mother? This panel will discuss how we use stories to own our own monstrosity and claim outsiders, and how writers make it so the incorporation of monsters into their stories can be validating, awesome, and full of wonder and delight.

Cultural Registers in Fantasy

Cultures have different ideas of what constitutes “high” vs. “low” culture in different art forms, and that is as true in our fantasy as it is in our world. This panel will examine how cultural registers play into what work and whose is seen as “valuable” and how we can use this in crafting our fantasy stories to build tension and historical depth: how characters can or must navigate different expectations of entertainment and assumed education between cultures, the kinds of tales people value across times and what that says about them, how art that is seen as safe or challenging can reflect or drive political moments and thematic beats, and the implications of what it means to value cultural registers of art differently. What does it mean for societies to uphold certain standards or canons, and how do we apply those ideas in our fiction–and subvert them?

Representation Without Endorsement

Our fiction often involves sensitive, disquieting, and alarming subject matter. How do we grapple with the presentation of such things while making it clear they might not actually represent an author’s preferred state of the world and that there is a difference between character and author viewpoint? From a discussion of whether it’s possible and if so how to write bad characters behaving badly without harming the reader, to when narratives need to take a clear stance on an issue rather than leaving ethical questions unanswered, this panel dives into the nitty-gritty of working with nasty plot elements and considering their effect on the reader.

Non-Written Structural Memory

Last year’s Talking Across Ten Thousand Years panel delved into how we leave messages for future generations, but there are many other forms of memory aside from the written word, both personal and cultural. Ruins are memories, and so are changed landscapes; what we discard or choose not to save defines our world-building as much as what remains. Oral histories have communicated stories and values across generations, there are incredible textile works like the Bayeux Tapestry, and there are even techniques like memory palaces developed to record and transmit memory in particular ways beyond writing. What forms of non-written structural memory can we apply in our written fantasy? How do we use song and rhythm to help teach and learn, what are the functional differences between oral and written records in art and culture, and what strengths of oral storytelling can we steal and adapt for written? This panel will discuss how we use narrative and story both to form and pass down cultural identity, and whether there is a distinction between culture and what a culture remembers and how.

Swords, Lasers, and New Perspectives… IN SPAAACE!

Speculative fiction is experiencing a beautiful resurgence of space fantasy, where how your spaceship’s lasers work is less important than the fun explosions you cause along the way, and where the fact that your Kessel Run can’t actually be measured in parsecs matters less than the fact that you deserve space knights with magic swords. One reason this wave is so exciting is the growing attention to perspectives that have historically been left out in crafting these tales, and to confronting unfortunate legacies such as unexamined colonialism. How do we create light-hearted and epic adventures that take us to worlds outside our lived experiences without reinforcing oppressive systems? We’ll talk about common failure modes and explore solutions, and discuss how the many brilliant new space fantasies emerging into the genre landscapes are meeting their challenges.

The Energy and Influence of Anime

Once upon a time, it was possible to read everything being published in science fiction, and fans had a shared pool of referents for conversations. Now, not only is that impossible, but more people are coming up in the genre with a different pool of referents: from anime and manga. Steering away from tropes lest we fall into a TV Tropes-like abyss, let’s dive into some of the exciting and challenging narrative changes this emergent crop of writers with formative manga and anime influences are bringing with them into English prose SFF. What manga and anime conventions are we already seeing, and which do we want to see in English prose SFF? What narrative idioms from manga and anime are difficult to translate into prose, especially for readers who don’t share those referents? How have standard anime season formats affected approaches to pacing? This panel will discuss how the shift from Golden Age SF as a shared experience to anime changes the landscape of fantasy and the possibility space of narrative traits in English prose SFF.

A Consideration of Death in Fantasy

What exactly has good old death given to fantasy literature over the years? Let’s look at not the meta questions of series endings and retiring characters, but on how writers use death within a text, and the power of what it can do, from fictional death coinciding with the ending or transformation of an entire narrative (i.e., Morpheus’ death leading to the actual end of the 75-issue original run of SANDMAN) or to, conversely, how it functions simply as another marker in the long walk up the mountain of story. In particular, this panel will consider death’s role in fantasy specifically: rituals and ceremonies surrounding death, building consequences and lasting effects for surviving characters and grappling with mortality when magic is real, the disparities in approach between death as plot device and death as symbolic and magical concept threaded through fantasy narratives, and cultural concepts of revenge fantasy.

The Role of Narratology in Adaptation

All art is in conversation with other art, and nowhere is that more clear than in adaptation. Transforming works of art is a fundamentally creative process that, done well, keeps core pieces of the story familiar while also shifting the narrative focus to appeal and make sense to new audiences with different perspectives. Fanfiction and the act of retelling tales are as old as stories and equally worthy creative pursuits, giving us opportunities to center the experiences of other identities, to explore issues previous story iterations didn’t. Applying concepts of narratology as they pertain to how we transform stories so their meaning makes sense to a different audience, this panel will discuss the artistic challenges and pitfalls in adapting stories as well as why this kind of narrative iteration is culturally critical.

(Suggested reading on narratology: https://www.tor.com/2019/01/29/the-mysterious-discipline-of-narratologists/)

Fiber Arts in Fantasy

Our culture has ignored and devalued women’s work for generations, and so have a lot of our prominent fantasy series. This is not a discussion of why work traditionally done primarily by women matters—we take that as read—but on how we can apply knowledge of one particular, vastly overlooked discipline in both understanding and writing fantasy: fiber arts. This panel will examine how fiber arts are a fundamental underpinning in economies, how we can apply their functions in engineering and coding, what they mean for the politics of fashion, and, of course, what it means for this critical form of art and skilled labor to be associated with women, with a focus on what all this means for fantasy world-building. Even following a pattern, fiber art is a both art as well as craft and a fundamentally, literally creative act: how can we apply the lessons from this work to the creation of fiction?