2024 Programming: Panels


Frontiers and Borderlands

4:00 PM

Steen Comer, Macey, Arkady Martine (M), Victor Raymond, Maureen Zahn

We’ve talked before at 4th Street about how fantasy worlds are concerned with space and boundaries – the necessity of drawing and defining imaginary spaces for the reader. The edges of those spaces, the borders between two defined places and the frontiers where the definitions start to slip away, are very useful concepts in fantasy storytelling. They’re also very real tools used by real-world states and institutions for their benefit, often at the expense of the people living in the real spaces delineated by those lines and colors on the map. How can we use fictional frontiers and borderlands in fantasy to both better tell our stories, and better understand the power of the real ones?

Inventing the Past: Fantastic Historiography and Revisionism


Scott Lynch (M), Fade Manley, Aja McCullough, Reuben Poling, Maureen Zahn

The history of invented places can be as rich, complex, and disagreeable as real history, with as many perspectives as writers and readers can bring. But unlike real history, the question of “what really happened” in a fantasy world is at least considered to be answerable by the author. Many works play off in-universe historical revisionism, revealing lies and cover-ups to the reader along with the characters – but is the Big Truth just as flattening as the Big Lie? And would the inhabitants of a fictional world regard as pivotal the same events, discoveries, and divergences as a reader would? 

Let’s talk about what we can learn from real-world historiography, in all its contradictions, disagreements, and unsettled messes, and how we can apply it to the business of equipping fantastic stories with a history of their own.


Please Note: the Saturday schedule is a little different from previous years. We’ve added an extended break from 4 to 5 PM, shortened other breaks between panels to 20 minutes, and adjusted start times slightly to accommodate these changes.

Reliably Unreliable Narrators

9:20 AM

W.L. Bolm, Mary Robinette Kowal, Marissa Lingen (M), C.L. Polk, Shen Tao

For obvious reasons, we talk a lot about suspension of disbelief in the fantasy genre. But what about stories where the reader could stand to benefit from a healthy sense of skepticism? Plenty of speculative works make use of the good old unreliable narrator: a first-person protagonist with a precarious relationship with the truth, a 3rd-person ensemble impacted by their own limitations and biases, or even a seemingly omniscient narrator who looks away at some convenient moments.

How can authors best balance a narrative’s need for obfuscation, omission, or outright deceit runs up with the reader buy-in required for fantastic elements? How do readers navigate a story where the author is asking you to trust them about one thing, and lying to you about the other? And what specific possibilities can be unlocked by a story where the narrative tour guide to an imaginary world can’t be trusted?

Art Has A Frame

10:40 AM

Elizabeth Bear (M), C.D. Covington, Arkady Martine, Wm Henry Morris, Samuel T. Weston

“The difference between art and real life is that art has a frame.” Stories come with narrative, stylistic, and chronological boundaries, which take on a different tenor depending on where the teller chooses to start and stop, or whose perspectives they highlight. They also have out-of-frame inclusions, whether deliberate choices like real-life epigraphs, or inadvertent incursions by the unexamined assumptions of a writer – or a reader.

As both writers and readers, what can we do to be aware of our frames and use them as a tool—and how much should we want to? What difference is there between a serendipitous theme and a disastrous meta-fictional blunder, except for extending the author the benefit of the doubt?

Frictionless Fantasy: When Magic Becomes Mundane

1:40 PM

John Chu, Kate Dane, Devin Miller, Victor Raymond, Maureen Zahn (M)

The fantastic elements that make a story work or bring it to life can also get embedded in its structure in ways that serve to drive them to the background. It’s one thing for magic to be load-bearing in a story, but another for it to become commonplace, and lose its wonder and impact. One possible failure mode is what one might call “frictionless fantasy,” in which fantastic methods can solve problems so smoothly, easily, and without resistance that they eventually sap a story of tension and excitement.

When is this treatment of magic a problem for a story, and how can authors avoid it? How can you use magic to solve problems without taking away its capacity to awe and entrance readers? Or, how can you deliberately collapse the magical and the mundane, and use it as an asset for your story? When does it feel right to solve a problem with the wave of a wand? Let’s make sure to talk about authors who have successfully leaned into the idea of a wizard on every corner and a dragon in every vault, and gotten away with it.

Reshaping: Body Modification In Fantasy

3:00 PM

Alison Davys, Avani Gadani (M), Ash Howell, Matt Smit

For thousands of years, people have modified their bodies for countless reasons – passing on cultural traditions, affirming or reclaiming identity, signaling social status, augmenting abilities, and changing aesthetics. Fantasy fiction gives us a wide gallery of body-mod options, from magical tattoos to technological implants to whole-body transformation. Some subgenres, such as cyberpunk, dig particularly deeply into the practices and pitfalls of body modification, though sometimes in ways that can betray a lack of imagination or experience on the writer’s part.

What are forms and functions of body modification that fantasy hasn’t sufficiently explored, or could do more with? How can fantastic transformations and augmentations reflect and explore matters of identity, accessibility, and cultural history that bear on the real world? And how do we avoid the common failure modes of body-mod fiction that undermine the very possibilities of inclusive and imaginative worlds that they’re supposed to be exploring?

From Hot Shot To Hot Mess: Character Competence In Narrative

5:00 PM

John Appel, Beth Cato, J.R. Dawson, Reuben Poling (M), John Wiswell

Consider the axis of protagonist types, from competency porn to walking disaster. While readers may have preferences in either direction,, it’s still easy to get them wrong even for the target audience. A disaster character who only ever makes the worst decision may be regrettably realistic but is unlikely to be narratively satisfying. On the other hand, it’s very unsatisfying to read about a character who makes no mistakes and faces no challenges outside their competence because they’re just that good.

How do you balance characters on either pole of this axis, and work towards a satisfying narrative of earned victories and appropriate failures? How do you mix and mingle different kinds of character competencies – the self-destructive genius, the overpowered rookie, the specialist out of their element – and keep readers engaged with their wins and losses alike? 

Sorcery As A Side Hustle: Professionalization in Worldbuilding

8:00 PM

Elizabeth Bear, Mary Robinette Kowal, Catherine Lundoff, Macey (M), Phil Margolies

Fantasy stories, especially those concerning large-scale conflicts or set in worlds with defined systems of magic, often have an understandable focus on characters’ professions. But think about how many people at this convention wear multiple hats, pursue multiple careers, or take great pride in a craft, vocation, or hobby totally separate from what they do to pay their bills. More, think about how many people engage in pursuits that can be practiced professionally at the highest level, but find them rewarding enough to pursue as a hobby or game.

Our panelists will explore these gradients in the context of fantastic jobs, roles, and professional identities. What’s the difference between a knighthood bestowed as a personal honor, and that same knighthood as an office within an order? Are your invented sports played only by amateurs and within communities, or are there organized bodies and institutions around them? Is a wizard still a wizard on his day off? 


Dwelling on Redemption

10:00 AM

Aja McCullough, Aimee Kuzenski (M), Kurt Pankau, Vivian Shaw, John Wiswell

Every person, real or imaginary, makes mistakes and fails to live up to their best selves; every person, in one way or another, pursues a course back from those failures. But not everyone who wants redemption can gain it, and not everyone who receives it can be firmly said to have earned it. The “redemption arc” is a much-discussed, often-beloved story trope that particularly resonates through the morally charged and often violent genre of fantasy fiction – but a thing as complex as redemption can’t be delineated by a simple parabola.

How do characters, and the writers creating them, successfully “earn” their redemption? Through whose eyes, within the story and outside it, are their attempts at self-betterment perceived, and how does that perception shape the story? How can we write triumphant redemption narratives without ignoring or instrumentalizing the survivors and victims cast aside on the road to hell and back?

The Middle of the Story: 30 Years of Mirror Dance

11:20 AM

Lois McMaster Bujold, Marissa Lingen (M)

4th Street Fantasy continues to celebrate the rich history of Minnesota fantasy and science fiction. This year, we’re very pleased to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold, a book that stands as both a singular success and a powerful middle chapter in the Vorkosigan saga. Lois will join Marissa Lingen for a conversation about Dance and about how she confronted the well-known Middle Book Problem – how to produce a story that stands on its own and encapsulates a beginning, middle, and end without being a beginning or end in and of itself.

…But That’s A Different Panel

2:30 PM


As is traditional, near the end of every Fourth Street we consult a group of mystic oracles* possessed of great divine inspiration**. Guided by their prophecies, and using the sidebars, unexpected parallels, and roads not taken in our previous discussions, we then sculpt a suitably astonishing panel topic to wrap up the convention and shock, amaze, and edify all who witness.

What’s more, we don’t even know who the panelists are! So be careful how much insight, erudition, and competence you display throughout the weekend…because the programming team is watching, and one of those panelists could be YOU.

*The 4th Street convention committee

**a rough 3-day average of 8 hours of sleep and 12 gallons of caffeine per person