The Past, Present, and Future of Sci-Fi in Philly: Geekadelphia Panel at the Free Library

A couple of days ago, I attended a panel at the Free Library of Philadelphia sponsored by Geekadelphia – Philadelphia’s geek blog. Gathering together local sci-fi authors, historians, and fans, the subject of the panel was the past, present, and future of science-fiction in Philadelphia, though the panel quickly evolved into a more broad discussion about the past, present, and future of the genre. Here’s a number of the interesting points raised at the panel, many of which bear further thinking about – and many of which, I think, have bearing on the various topics discussed on this blog.

You can read more about the various people on the panel at the event page here. Before I begin, I must also note that the panel took place at one of my favorite places in Philadelphia – and one of the most science fiction-y: the central branch of the Free Library. Located on the Parkway, this beautiful building has rows upon rows of science fiction books, often boasts guests like Kate Mulgrew (Katherine Janeway) and Chris Hadfield (an astronaut), and has an amazing roof deck with a gorgeous view of the city and its skyscrapers (and for me, the twinkling lights of a large city always evoke a sense of possibility that science fiction also gives me). Here’s a photo, taken on my phone:


On that note, the panel fittingly began with a question about the way that Philadelphia’s past is linked to science fiction. The first, and most intriguing answer, came from historian Siobhan Carroll, who suggested that we’re living in the decayed version of William Penn’s utopia. He designed Philadelphia to be this perfect city, laid out on a grid, and of course we’re living in the dystopian version of it:

Penn’s plan for Philadelphia.

We talked about dystopias quite a bit, with someone bringing up an interesting point: if someone is writing about their real, contemporary experiences and they’re dystopian, does that count as science fiction, or does that fit somewhere else on the spectrum of genres? If the experience is “real,” can it still be sci-fi – or do we put it in the biography and memoir section? (a question that is increasingly relevant given the state of affairs in the U.S. today- a question I will return to in another post). This led to a joke about a new (and utterly terrifying) genre: dystopian non-fiction (a genre that likely already exists, in the satires of Stephen Colbert and the like, but which really could bear more academic exploration).

This, naturally, brought up the topic of the relationship between the present and the future in science fiction, since most dystopias are set in the future (despite the dystopian potential of contemporary life). A question and concern that the panelists especially tackled was how far in the future an author must go to write science fiction. Especially with the pace with which technology is advancing today, where yesterday’s sci-fi rapidly becomes today’s technology, how far ahead should you think when you write sci-fi and how far in the future should you set your story? If you set it in the near future, do you run the risk of reality outpacing you?

This led to a comment made by one of the panelists that technology is advancing so fast today that it’s hard to keep up with it as a sci-fi author- things are becoming reality faster. This, though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, is in line with a lot of thinking about technological advances: Ray Kurzweil and a number of transhumanist thinkers point out that technology advances at an exponential rate. That’s why they think we might eventually reach the Singularity – because of this exponential rise in technology, we’ll use technology to create better technology until we reach the Singularity. That, of course, places the sci fi author in a bit of a conundrum, because now there’s a shorter ‘timeline’ on the sci-fi things they write about and invent before they become “real.” Of course, as Michael Swanwick pointed out, even if you do thinking about inventions that then come to pass, your thinking wasn’t wasted, because science fiction is always about the implications and meaning of technology as much as the actual technology – and even if Google invents something before you write about it, those considerations will be valuable to your formation as a thinker and writer of science fiction.

This led to a funny story about William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame, of course), who attended a Worldcon sometime in the 70s or 80s and was given a card as the key to his room instead of an actual key. That was the moment, he insisted, at which he realized the stuff he was writing about was real.

Another thing we talked about is diversity – and, naturally, the ‘fiasco’ involving the Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and this year’s Hugo awards. (For a quick summary, go here). The consensus seemed to be that what’s changing is not who writes sci-fi and fantasy (people of color and women and queer people have always written in the genre), but who gets noticed – and what kinds of stories they write. People who aren’t white men are increasingly getting noticed as writers in the genre and getting recognition and awards (like the Hugos). That’s what the Puppies are fighting against: that recognition, but the very fact that it’s noticeable and something for them to fight against means that change is happening, and progress has been made already. A very important aspect of this is the fact that diversity is not a “trend,” as many like to call it today – it’s more the realization of the importance of that diversity and its recognition when it does exist.

And to finish up, here’s some more fun tidbits about other connections to Philadelphia:

  • Philcon was apparently the first sci-fi convention and, naturally, took place in Philadelphia
  • Asimov and Heinlein and Delaney all lived in Philadelphia
  • They were all also part of sci-fi-esque government-related think tanks.

Posted on September 12, 2015, in science fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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