The panels have been finalized, the panels chosen, and the moderators suitably equipped.
Modeling Complex Systems
John Chu, Kent Davis, Avani Gadani, Benjamin C. Kinney, Aja McCullough (M).
Fantasy readers love richly detailed worlds, but any given story only has so much space, and can only show and deal with so much in any kind of depth. At the same time, simplifying a world’s systems for ease of exposition can rob a story about challenging that system of its nuance and depth, or reduce its horrors to the appearance of edge-cases rather than exceptions.
Is it reasonable to ask a reader to read a treatise on fantasy economics for the sake of the plot or learn the inner workings of an invented social system when it’s hard enough to understand their own? How do we create models that readers can grasp, without eliding all the nuance that makes them a worthwhile part of our stories?
Getting By on Vibes
Charlie Jane Anders, Naomi Kritzer, Jennifer Mace (M), Sara A Mueller, Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Fantasy is a genre full of intricate worldbuilding, detailed chronologies, and complex magic systems—but for all that, it’s also a place where many stories can elide the details and skate over the questions with an application of the stylish, the ephemeral, or the simply cool. What’s more, shifts in tone, atmosphere, and genre convention when applied to a robustly built secondary world or alternate reality can turn the same structures into a whole new story. How can fantasy works use a shift in vibes to shore up their worldbuilding, or make unexpected changes to the foundations upon which the reader’s gotten used to standing?
Literally Building the Figurative Story
Sarah Kozloff, Catherine Lundoff, Arkady Martine, LaShawn Wanak, Ginger Weil (M).
You may have heard that “in urban fantasy, the city itself is a character”—but that’s hardly the only place where the physical setting defines the story. A mystery set in an abandoned ruin is fundamentally different from one set in a royal court or a bustling city.
Let’s discuss how landscapes, building styles, and other physical structures shape the story. How can we use literal infrastructure, with its attendant logistical considerations and physical limitations and pathways, to create metaphorical structure to mimic or even determine everything from plot to atmosphere to theme? Can we build stories by the act of designing the turrets of the magical castles and the alleys of the goblin markets?
Elizabeth Bear, A.T. Greenblatt, Aimee Kuzenski (M), LaShawn Wanak, John Wiswell.
As social understanding evolves, it gives us new perspectives on models we’ve used to view and comment on the world—such as fiction. We all have the stories we loved despite their clear problems, and the ones whose implicit biases didn’t become evident until later.
Let’s talk about ways that specifically new stories can grapple with reclaiming narratives for contemporary audiences, especially those who have been historically erased and marginalized. From reinterpreting what people think they know about myth and history to exploring who gets to have redemption arcs, how can we not just avoid perpetuating the same damaging narratives, but recontextualize, subvert, and reclaim the parts we want to embrace and jettison the refuse?
So You Want to Write a Multi-POV Epic Fantasy
Scott Lynch (M), C. L. Polk, Devin Singer, Sherwood Smith, Paul Weimer.
The epic fantasy subgenre of tomes so massive they could deflect small arms fire is known not just for its worldbuilding scope, but for its many point-of-view characters. The advantage of multiple POVs in fleshing out world cultures and events is clear, but the failure modes are easy to fall into: so many POVs overwhelming the reader, continual switching losing reader interest, and missing satisfying conclusions to all the arcs at the right times. Let’s discuss tricks, tools, and approaches for purposefully structuring our narratives to balance the additional load of complexity when a story requires multiple POVs.
Organizing People: Fantasy Bureaucracy as a Tool for Change
Stella Evans, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Matt Doyle, Sherwood Smith(M), Susan Taitel.
Fantasy stories tend to focus on moments of titanic upheaval, but even fantastic revolution doesn’t come out of nowhere. Change is a long game, and the long game is what bureaucracy is built for: someone has to repair the bridges, feed the people, and get the wizards their spell components.
For all its enormity, regularity, and arcane inaccessibility, a bureaucracy is made up of people, whose individual goals might be in conflict with their role in a bureaucratic engine—or might inspire them to find new uses for the tools at their disposal. Let’s explore how fantasy stories can play with bureaucracy as something other than a comedically interminable hell dimension or a cruel and unyielding behemoth.
Guardrails and Expectations
Charlie Jane Anders, Arkady Martine, Reuben Poling (M), C. L. Polk, John Wiswell.
Every story comes equipped with preconceptions, from its genre placement to its aesthetic markers. Some of the most fundamental are around scope and stakes: how big is this story, and how bad are the dangers? Fantasy is uniquely equipped to play with these preconceptions, using the speculative elements to open broad horizons for everything that can go wrong and all of the tools with which characters are equipped to fix it (or make it worse).
How can fantasy writers set “guardrails” around their story, and when and how can they break them down in a way that makes their readers feel compelled rather than cheated or distressed? In the grand authorial tradition, how do you lie to your readers and make them thank you for it?
Suggested Reading: Max Gladstone on Villains as Guardrails
Translation As Action: Whose Perspective Is It Anyway?
John Chu, CD Covington, Marissa Lingen, Fade Manley, Arkady Martine (M).
Translation is unavoidably an act of bias. The translator’s choices, in tone, word choice, and excision, can shape understanding and knowledge with immediate and far-reaching consequences. And the translators themselves are shaped by their own conditions, backgrounds, and needs.
Characters who translate can be political actors or pawns, acting for resistance, propaganda, or compromise, using false translations or hidden messages to achieve their goals. At 4th Street Fantasy we may have mentioned once or twice that point of view shapes everything—so what happens when a point of view has to be reinterpreted?
A Potion for Whatever Ails You: Healing in Fantasy
Benjamin C. Kinney (M), Anthony W. Eichenlaub, Devin Miller, Vivian Shaw, Winifred Yost.
Fantasy has a healing problem. With magic, you might get stabbed, down a healing tonic, and get back to the business of stabbing no problem. Or can you—and should you?
Magical healing included as an assumption can undercut a story’s stakes and worldbuilding, like injuries that are inexplicably beyond a healer’s power when the plot so requires, or an allegedly gender-equal Dungeons & Dragons setting where all the healers “just happen” to be women. If we care about healing when we design our worlds, rather than treating it as an afterthought, how does that affect the kind of stories we can tell?
Celebrating 35 Years of Sorcery and Cecelia: A Conversation with Fantasy Wizards Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Marissa Lingen (M), Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede.
2023 marks the 35th anniversary of Sorcery and Cecelia, a seminal work of epistolary fantasy of manners by two of 4th Street’s own! From the original letter game to the many worlds their careers have taken them to since the first Cecelia and Kate novel, join Marissa Lingen for a joint conversation with Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer as we spotlight these two local fantasists and their masterful work.