Science fiction has been many different things to many people. It has been a form of crass escapism from the drudgery of everyday life. It is a money-making machine for selling merchandise, toys, and Happy Meals, including some of the highest grossing films of all time. It has inspired the research of new science and new technology—for example, the idea of the geostationary communications satellite was the brainchild of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. And it has served as a mechanism to explore serious issues, to help bypass corporate media filters which would otherwise block serious commentary from reaching wider audiences.
Science fiction—in the work of such masters as Mary Shelley, Rod Serling, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Ursula K. LeGuin—has served as a means to generate and promote social commentary, critique existing social structures, and explore the human condition. This constructive side of science fiction was the focus of the Think Galacticon conference held at Roosevelt University in Chicago this June.
The conference, organized by (and named for) a Chicago-based science fiction reading group called Think Galactic (www.thinkgalactic.org), explored science fiction through a left political lens, both critiquing mainstream science fiction and also highlighting works that can be considered part of a left progressive sci-fi tradition.
The conference organized a series of panels on a number of social themes: kinship ("Gender and Sexuality in Fan Fiction," "Species-Defined Gender Roles in SF and Fantasy"); race ("Race and Ethnicity in Young Adult Fiction," "Fighting for Recognition in the SF Community," "Racefail ’09"); politics ("Politics and SF Movement," "Anarchism and the Superhero: Anti-Crime Direct Actionist or Enforcer of the State?"); science and technology, ("Science and Technology for Liberation," "Climate Change"); and economics ("Class, the Economy and You," "DIY [do it yourself]"). Most of the panels I attended had a "shepherd" of sorts who raised initial questions and helped keep things on track, but encouraged and facilitated a great deal of audience participation and ideas. The result was a conference that teemed with fascinating discussion and broke molds and stereotypes at every turn.
The panel on "Gender and Sexuality in Fan Fiction" discussed gender disparity in the types of powers that superheroes tend to be assigned, whether aggression should automatically be defined as masculine, and whether robots are automatically gendered (e.g., Transformers).
Similarly, the panel on do-it-yourself technology might have focused on the stereotypically "male" technology of computers (and, yes, open source technologies like Linux were part of the discussion). However, the majority of the time was spent on stereotypically "female" technologies like making clothes, the politics and social mores behind "large-sized" clothing, and the empowerment and identity creation that lies behind the creative act.
A panel on politics and the sci-fi movement began with the introduction of a "taxonomy" of politics in sci-fi, ranging from the so-called "hard" sci-fi of authoritarianism (e.g., Tom Godwin’s short story "Cold Equations") to the subgenre called "space opera," which carried a more empowering and optimistic vision. But that panel didn’t stay for very long on the main topic, much to its benefit. It leapfrogged from the Futurians (an influential group of science fiction contributors) to the work of the Scottish writer Ken MacLeod to the variations of libertarianism (left vs. right) to dozens of other writers, filmmakers, and visionaries. Although it was fun to be a part of a pinball game of the mind, on further reflection it probably would have benefited from more focus.
The panel on "Science and Technology for Liberation" quickly delved into the blurring of lines between fiction and reality. Technologies—particularly communications technologies—that were whimsical just a few years ago often become real. One cited example was the communications medium called a Wave in the sci-fi TV series "Firefly," which inspired a name for the communications tool call Google Wave. Moreover, such communications tools can quickly become hugely influential: YouTube first came online in 2005, Twitter in 2006.
Science fiction, or those science fiction authors who imagine near-future scenarios, might now be caught in the unprecedented position of being behind the curve of actual events. One example is the novel Halting State by Charles Strauss. The plot of the novel centers on a virtual-reality bank robbery. Shortly after the book’s publication, virtual online bank robberies, particularly in the famed virtual reality world Second Life, were actually taking place. In July 2009, the space trading game Even Online saw the equivalent of 200 billion credits stolen.
Many conference attendees complained that other science fiction conventions simply didn’t tackle enough serious sci-fi themes as well as Think Galacticon. By combining a sensible conference structure, a variety of suitable sci-fi and social themes, and a lot of politically savvy people, Think Galacticon hit just the right note. The conference structure, which required participation from attendees, heightened its quality and nearly everyone there made contributions and commentary, sometimes very substantial contributions. But the structure alone would have amounted to very little if it weren’t for many involved participants who counted among their ranks more diverse racial, gender, and other demographics than one may typically find at a science fiction convention.
There were some stumbles along the way. One panel I attended, "Class, the Economy and You," didn’t tap into the intelligence of its participants and wasn’t as good as I hoped it might be. Overwhelmingly, though, the conference inspired and informed, not just on science fiction, but on the multitude of issues and topics. The organizers of Think Galacticon would do well to organize another conference soon, particularly with world affairs, technology, and activism all moving at such a rapid clip. Our collective imaginations will need the intellectual workout provided by Think Galacticon.