4th Street Fantasy 2022 – Draft Panels

We’re excited to see folks again at this year’s 4th Street Fantasy! Please take a look at the proposed panel descriptions below, and if you’re interested in volunteering to participate or giving feedback, let us know by filling out this survey.

Proposed Panel Lineup 2022

NOTE: Everything here is provisional and subject to adjustment. None of these titles or descriptions are finalized. One or more of these panels may not appear as part of the finalized program, depending upon participant interest.

Designing Worlds for Everyone

From airport scanners with only two body type defaults to facial recognition systems that can’t recognize BIPOC, unconscious—or conscious—design decisions from our world that treat people unequally seep into our fantasy worlds. Authors create fantastic worlds full of stairs wheelchair users can’t access or magic systems designed to erase disabilities. But there also exist magic writing systems that dyslexic users excel at and blind earthbenders who don’t have to overcome their disabilities in order to thrive. What are broad principles or specific ways of approaching world-building to include as many people in the fantasy as possible? 

Join Us in the Muck: On the Value of Dark Escapism

Past 4th Streets have gushed over books like The Goblin Emperor and other approaches favoring communities coming together and triumphing over oppression, but what is the value of fantasy that is super Not That? Many of us at 4th Street also enjoy reading both TGE and stories with bleak outlooks on the world, and somehow these aesthetic—or thematic—preferences coexist. Let’s talk about why fantasies that share stylistic markers of nihilism and bloodgore can still be validating and empowering rather than depressing slogs. What does dark escapism have to say about heroism and living that we want to take with us?

Would You Want to Live Forever?: Depictions of Immortality in Fantasy

In some stories, immortality is a curse, where a person is forced to continue on when everyone they love dies. Sometimes it’s a gift, with all the time in the world to develop the resources and interests a person cares about. In others it’s an ongoing choice made through concerted spiritual and physical effort. What does a story’s approach to immortality say about the story itself? Who do we immortalize, and why? How can we use and expand depictions of immortality in fantasy to create or deepen dimensions of our stories? 

Modern Sensibility and “Progressive” Narratives

Fantasy writers often write characters who don’t, or logically would not, share modern sensibilities, but they are writing for readers who do. While we want our narratives to progress toward a conclusion, “progress” in our world is not always linear, particularly when it comes to people and cultures. Failure modes of attempting to walk this line abound, including characterizing premodern cultures as “primitive” or making the protagonist the lone ethical exception to prevailing attitudes. Let’s unpack how we balance contextualizing other understandings of the world in different times and places without excusing or validating oppressive behaviors and ways of thinking. 

From a Different Point of View: Choosing Perspective

Some subgenres of fantasy have common market default points-of-view, but there are always exceptions and innovations, too. How do authors decide what POV—third or first, past or present, or something more experimental—to tell stories from? Let’s talk about unique applications of POV, how to weigh their merits, and how the narrative perspective can shape and influence a story. 

The Impact of New Serial Media on Prose Fantasy

Serial media has been around forever, but today’s emerging authors have grown up with different iterations, from manga to internet-based fanfiction, or even C/J/Kdramas to Netflix-style serialized rather than episodic TV seasons. What are the comparative strengths of serialized fiction? How can authors incorporate the structural tropes and pacing of these forms into prose, particularly non-serialized, fantasy? How do we account for differing reader expectations between formats and cultural narrative expectations when we don’t all pull from the same new serial media traditions? This panel will discuss interesting adaptations we’re starting to see of narrative structural elements from specifically new serial media, and what we might expect or want to play with in the future. 

Overthrow Systems, Not People: Accountability and Social Action in Fantasy

The great fantasy of overthrowing leaders and in so doing restoring peace is that all problems can stem from a single bad actor. In reality, our systems are deliberately constructed to defend against this, so no one is individually responsible for unethical conglomerates’ actions—they are borne out of policy, algorithms, and tradition as if by magic. But of course, it’s humans who construct those too. With the understanding that a single villain has the advantage of narrative simplicity, how can fantasy do better work at holding vaster fictional constructed institutions—governments, corporations, or even neighborhood community organizations—accountable, and challenging and changing them?

Conversations with Inanimate Objects: Personification in Fantasy

From talking swords to animated teapots to tribbles, humans will personify absolutely fucking anything. “Why are we like this” is a question probably outside the scope of any single panel, but let’s talk about how fantasy can use this technique to delight—or horrify—readers. In fantasy we have the power to actually bring our dead to a semblance of life and infuse inanimate objects with consciousness or take cursed artifacts on adventures and tuck them into bed. What are ways to be clever about personification, and what opportunity space have we missed?

The Flavor in the Details

Everyone loves being CaptainAmericaUnderstoodThatReference dot gif. On the other hand, it’s alienating to feel left out of the in-joke. How do we walk the line of background details that add extra flavor and resonance for some readers to appreciate without hanging critical story understanding on references not everyone will understand? How do we incorporate allusions to real-world events and memes without their feeling anachronistic? What makes these details worthwhile and not just cleverness at the expense of the story? 

What It Takes to Feed a City: Logistics of Agriculture in Fantasy

Despite the preponderance of farmboy chosen ones, actual farming to support the vast armies and civilizations of fantasy worlds tend to be in short supply. Let’s talk about the logistics of feeding entire worlds—from the space it takes, to how the food actually gets to the bulk of people before it spoils. Not every book needs to focus on agriculture when our heroes are off adventuring, but what are important or interesting aspects to consider that can complicate and enrich our stories? 

Ambiguous Narrative Stances

What kind of ambiguity serves a story, in endings and in narrative support? Raising complicated questions with no easy answers is all well and good; avoiding dealing with what they mean entirely is an abnegation of responsibility. We can’t control reader interpretations, and there can be power in letting readers fill in for themselves what goes, but when is failing to take an explicit stance a disservice to the reader, and how explicit is it important to be? Where is the line between an ambiguous ending that fails the reader by failing to take a stance, or that serves the reader in forcing them to think through implications to their logical conclusion and intentionally decide on their own reading? 

So You Want to Write a Multi-POV Epic Fantasy

The epic fantasy subgenre of tomes so massive they could deflect small arms fire is known not just for its world-building scope, but for its many point-of-view characters. The advantage of multiple POVs in fleshing out world cultures and events is clear, but how can authors manage that many POVs so they don’t overwhelm or lose the reader’s interest with constant switching? How do we balance how much time we spend with any character, and how do we bring so many threads to satisfying conclusions? 

Preliminary Panels, 4th Street 2018

Courtesy of Scott Lynch, our Programming Coordinator, and Casey Blair, our Assistant Programming Coordinator, here are the preliminary panels for 4th Street 2018. Please share any thoughts and questions in comments or email programming@4thstreetfantasy.com.

• All the Things We Do That Aren’t Smashing Things

Based in part on certain ideas expressed in Urusla K. LeGuin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Literature” essay.

A discussion of all the ways we tell stories about building lives, civilizations, and legacies using anything but the edge of the sword. Why do we so often truncate our experience/expectations of fiction to revolve so firmly around the linked concepts of heroism and violence when there are so many other crucial aspects to being human? How has the fantasy genre dealt with this conundrum, and how have specific fantasists tried to approach it? How do we keep the discussion from degenerating into a prudish or performative rejection of the abstract concept of “violence” altogether, while affirming that there are other common and crucial ways of getting things done?

• In Consideration of Smashing Things, and What Follows

Combat, and the ways of warriors, are a staple of the fantasy genre. We read about daring swords-folk, the ranked legions of Empire, spell-wielding gunslingers, steppe horse-archers, and all their doughty opponents. What might a mixed panel of military veterans and martial artists think of these depictions? What did our narratives of conflict teach them about fighting that proved true? What proved false? What lingers, possibly forever, in the wake of an instant’s violence? How can tales of fantastical combat best evoke the realities of war in our own world, and should they? As a matched panel to “All the Things We Do That Aren’t Smashing Things,” panelists will also speak to the issue of reconciling the narrative concepts of “heroic” and “mundane.”

• Talking Across Ten Thousand Years

Time is big. Really, really big. You might think it’s a long anxious wait to get to the bathroom after a 4th Street panel, but what about gulfs of time longer than the recorded history of our civilization? SF/F deals frequently with the concept of Deep Time, but how astutely? Can a human society really hold a consensus cosmogeny together for a million centuries? Can a wall of ice really be manned by the same order of guards for 8,000 years? We already look at the people of just a century or two ago as something akin to aliens. This panel will also address the essential challenges of communication and interpretation across vast spans of years— for example, the U.S. Department of Energy has a mandate for the permanent warning signs and symbols in place at its deep bedrock nuclear waste storage facilities. They need to somehow work ten thousand years from now, when the assumption is that our culture, languages, histories, and data will be gone… but our hazardous atomic waste will still be dangerous. How can we talk when only our words are left, and even the words have no context?

Useful reading: “This is Not a Place of Honor,” by Alan Bellows

• Complicity and Consequence in Interactive Narrative: Press ‘D’ to Feel Guilty!

A panel discussing the challenges and implications of attempting to inspire feelings of guilt, responsibility, or complicity for fictional activities/decisions in players of games and interactive fiction, also touching on the concept of vicarious responsibility when experiencing a more traditional narrative (if one laughs along with Corwin of Amber being a total bastard, does that make one a bad person?). Why do this? When is this a useful frame-breaking learning tool? When is it a cheap trick? Can we truly use fictional spaces to make people interrogate the decisions they make and the circumstances they dwell in? What are the practical and ethical limits of this sort of exploration?

Possible conversational touchpoints include the following games and interactive fiction pieces: Tyranny – Dishonored – Knights of the Old Republic – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – Subnautica – This is the Police – Papers, Please – Lime Ergot

• You Don’t Own Me: Concepts of Freedom in the Work of John M. Ford

Distilling the work of the late John M. Ford down to a few key points is a mind-bending and questionably plausible endeavor, but there are some recurring themes we can at least pretend to conclusively discuss in our too-short time together. One subject that peeks out from the fog of invention over and over again is that of freedom in multiple aspects. Whether it’s freedom of identity and freedom from imperial conquest (The Dragon Waiting), freedom from erroneous stereotypes and cultural traps (The Final Reflection), freedom from colonization and from the boundaries of parental control (Growing Up Weightless), or even authorial freedom from every established constraint on the demeanor of a franchise (How Much for Just the Planet?), Ford was on the case. We miss him and it’s been awhile since we talked about him deliberately. Let’s fix that.

• Literally Killing Figurative Characters

A series of meditations on ending our relationships with fictional persons— whether we’re authors deciding that we’re not going to write them any longer, or readers realizing that we won’t be reading new words about them ever again, or making the deliberate decision for any reason to cease reading/caring. Is it ever possible to cease caring? How is it best to dispense with a fictional person whose time has come? Will include discussion of the sometimes tempestuous relationships between author and long-term characters, referencing C.S. Forester’s private love/loathing poem to Horatio Hornblower, pop culture images of the writer chained to a best-selling imaginary person but yearning to break free, and the different modes in which an audience decides to close the book on an imaginary friend.

• The Craft of Cutting Out: Using Reductive and Restrictive Tools

“The difference between life and art is that art has a frame,” someone once said. All art comes from some manner of limitation, and this will be a craft-centered discussion on the use of limitation as a deliberate creative tool— whether it means using minimalist typing programs like Writeroom, or a typewriter, or a notebook and pen, or a simple instrument rather than a complex one, or a limited and controlled environment (Maya Angelou famously maintained a hotel room in which she would write every day sans distraction) to channel creativity. What happens when we go unplugged rather than electrified? Where do we draw the line between healthy asceticism and punitive measures?

• Who Put This $#@!! Balrog Lair in the Middle of a Sewer Line? (Alternate Title: Life in the Temporary Topmost Layer)

The Balrog, of course, would say “Who tried to drive a &^%#!! sewer line through the middle of my lair?” First principle: We’re not all that excellent at shunning risk even when we manage to identify it. Some of our cities are literally sinking, while others are precariously perched next to volcanoes, and yet we keep buying new furniture anyway, c’est la vie.

Second principle: We’re all living on top of stacked and flattened layers of history. Our nations spread over the bones and borders of the nations they replaced by fair means or foul. Our neighborhoods are named for trades or functions that vanished decades ago, our streets were built for the vehicles of ages past, and they were built atop still older streets and neighborhoods.

Combine these two principles and you begin to construct a fascinating, disquieting picture of how our lives are shaped by the compacted strata of legacy infrastructure, detritus, and danger beneath our very feet. All the layers of history in a place act upon the living. How and when has this been accurately reflected in fantasy fiction? How do you present the secrets and dangers of a fantasy landscape as a vivid influence on its inhabitants rather than a meaningless detail on a map or list? Also, how do we grapple with the notion that we must some day become just another thin line in someone else’s deeply-layered history?

• Rebuilding the Mystery: Rejecting Rules For Magic

Magic is a common feature of fantasy fiction, and the “magic system” has become a common means of framing and describing it for reader comprehension. Brandon Sanderson, one of the most noted codifiers of magic systems in contemporary fantasy, has posited “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands such magic.” Not everyone agrees, to put it mildly. So let’s have an energetic discussion about the uses of de-concretized, nebulous, “soft magic,” comparing the various traditions of sorcery in fiction and describing circumstances under which a story might be suited to or even improved by throwing rules and systemization out the window. How can we narratively center the wonder of magic without teaching the reader precisely how it works?

• Grim Times, Bright Tidings

Fantasy in the last decade has seen the rise of a distinct thread of bloody, gritty, goth-rococo work that has been called (originally jokingly) “grimdark.” The wheel always turns, and now a distinct exploration of the aesthetic antithesis of grimdark has emerged, under equally semi-serious rubrics like “hopepunk.” What does it mean to deliberately write and seek hope in a work of fiction? Fantasy has always been known as a powerful vehicle for escapism, but let’s dig deeper into the value of this mode of fiction; how and why do we engage with injustice optimistically, and model ways of transcending awfulness? How do we maintain sufficient attention to detail and realism to claim that we’re plausibly confronting reality rather than eliding it, and how do we do that without swooping all the way back to grimdark in the end? Is it even possible, and should it be desirable, to balance escapism and social awareness?