Instructions for the Age of Emergency.

Some fascinating comments on dystopias in science fiction, restructuring societies, and the Age of Emergency (which I now need to go read a lot more about).

monica byrne

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Halbert W. Hall Speaker’s Series on Science Fiction and Fantasy, Texas A&M University

February 2, 2018

Full Audio


Thank you so much to Texas A&M for hosting me, and especially to the Science Fiction Archivist, Jeremy Brett, who invited me and orchestrated everything. He’s been a supporter of my work for years, and I’m so delighted to finally meet him, and to have the chance to address all of you. I’d also like to thank TAMU Libraries, the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research and its Science Fiction Studies Working Group, the Department of English, the Department of International Studies, and the Department of Visualization. I’m so honored by such an intersectional effort to bring me here. So thank you.

As Jeremy said, I write a lot of things, but when people ask me what I am, the first thing I say is that I’m a science fiction writer. I gave…

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Well, it’s been busy.

I’m trying to get up early in the mornings so that I can write before work, and it’s starting to take, although it’s still a little rough. A lot of what I’ve been doing lately is going through older pieces that were never finished and deciding whether there’s enough there to make them worth polishing. It’s a little exhausting, but I’m making progress.

The weather seems to have broken early; we’ve had maple syrup weather for at least a week, which is nice.

I’m tired a lot. I’m hoping it’s a temporary thing.

That thing where the person thought you knew the context of the thing.

Vaguely related to my last post, I suppose–that was about how one story can be dressed up in the shape of a different kind of story, and this is about how one story can be dressed up as itself but be misread as to what that is.

I saw Wonder Woman. (Not recently, and I mean, I think everyone saw Wonder Woman.) And I was discussing it with someone else who’d seen it, and they mentioned that they’d thought the movie hadn’t explained enough of the story. I thought the movie worked fine for explanations, but I figured that I have some cultural-background-radiation familiarity with Wonder Woman, and am generally pretty happy to sit back and watch for world-building anyway, so I asked for clarification.

They felt that if the movie was going to reference existing Greek myths about the Amazons and Themiscira, and use those as the basis of the story, they should include more details. For example, since they put time into bringing up the story about Themiscira being protected from the outside world, that was obviously something that should have mattered, and they should have explained why and how it was that way so that it wasn’t jarring when everyone got through the protection.

(This was when I started re-examining my casual assumptions about how much of what I knew about Wonder Woman was general-culture background radiation, and how much of it was my-specific-subculture background radiation.)

I mean, on the one hand, it certainly makes sense; if a story establishes something, you expect it to come back to that thing. That’s basic stuff, Chekov’s Gun sitting right there. And yet no-one else I personally know assumed that the story of Themiscira was about things that were supposed to come up; it was just a story about things that were.

I think every genre has this, to some degree. In an office romance, the annoying co-worker’s horseback-riding hobby may not signal that she is going to try to trample anyone. In a mystery, the police sergeant’s impeccable grooming may never be a plot point. Some things establish setting and character, and some things are a hook for action; the two don’t have to overlap, although they can.

(It’s like in Escape from L.A. The gizmos that Snake gets given all come up as plot points throughout the movie. On the flipside, the evangelical moral purity of America and the catchphrase “Call me Snake” do not; they establish the setting, but they aren’t keys to the events.)

((I can’t believe I’m discussing Wonder Woman and Escape from L.A. in the same post.))

I haven’t quite figured out exactly what signals the difference between establishing points and action points to the viewer, and clearly it’s subjective, but I’m turning it over; if I can figure it out, it’ll be useful for being able to convey a story’s promise more clearly.

(And I’ve just gotten my first rejection of the year! The quest for centiBrads continues.)