ReaderCon 24: Default Narratives and Silicon Valley Futures

Two entries in one day after over a month of silence? Thank the one quasi-day off I had after ReaderCon 23. I say “quasi” because work, or in specific my clients and customers, made me pay for the free time. Perhaps one day I’ll feel I have enough back-up so time off isn’t limited by a thin thread. Or perhaps the story of “Andy can’t take a day off or everything goes pear shaped” is now the default narrative.

Default narrative, or consensus reality, seemed to be the underlying theme on many of the ReaderCon panels I attended. Be it a rant about how the default narrative of a space-borne future helped keep SF from recognizing other forms of science or discussions on egalitarian character trauma, or talks about how to write people from different perspectives/sexualities/cultures with respect kept running into this one phrase.

There is a Default Narrative embedded in our culture. Imagine it as a deeper, more pervasive version of Hollywood marketeers who say “Look, this film won’t work if the main character is not white, male and from the south” or “Women don’t go to raunchy comedies, so we’ll just keep making remakes of Notting Hill.” It grows from the stories we hear around us, but also works to keep those stories in a specific status quo, even if we know it’s wrong.

Hands up to everyone who looks at a multi-racial cast in an action or horror film and says, “Dammit. Black guy’s gonna die by the end.” And when it doesn’t happen, we are surprised.

Or, if we’re more invested in the narrative, it triggers a kind of cognitive dissonance. When we see a narrative which goes against the Default, a pain appears behind our eyes. It grows sharper when problems are pointed out in the default narrative, or we notice how much we benefit from the Default compared to others. No one likes change. No one likes to believe they’re small minded or a bad person. No one likes to feel stupid. So there is a reaction – a push back to the ‘norm’ enjoyed and a defense of it.

So how do we fight this? Oddly enough, it’s by telling more stories. Many more stories. And pushing to have them brought out into the light. Andrea Hairston, she of the amazing speaking voice and wonderful choice in hats, noted that narratives about a black president in 24 made it easier for many to see a black president in the real world.

Narratives can change. But it takes time and work on many levels. We have to keep fighting, even if we fail. Because when we do succeed, it lets us build upon it and try to change the Default. One series of agents and editors saying, “You know, that’s it, I’m going to stop telling my female writers to stop submitting SF and push for their stories instead” or a publisher going “Dammit, this inner city retelling of the Arthurian legend is damn good and needs a voice!”

There will be resistance. There will be pining for the good old days. The golden age of when things were Great and Good, as opposed to this wretched world where everything our betters fought for has fallen into ashes and dust. But we have to go beyond them. We have to keep fighting.

I mentioned Silicon Valley Futures in my post. My lady and I were witness to a unique event as far as I could tell. In a panel called “What the future is, and what it is not” about the perils of SF’s predictive featuring John Crowley, Glenn Grant, Vincent McCaffrey, John Shirley, and Bud Sparhawk, a gentleman stood up during the questions.

He announced he was working in Silicon Valley on the technology we will be using five years from now and gave an example of webcams built into televisions which are now being abused by the NSA, and demanded to know why Science Fiction was not writing about the future he and his colleagues were creating, but instead were invested in dead futures.

When the panel attempted to answer stating, yes, people are writing about this future you but this gentleman may not have seen it – the Silicon Valley Scion stormed out. I asked Jonathan Crowley about it later on and he stated this was the first time anyone ever stormed out of one of his panels. And afterwards, everyone talked about his future – and places we saw it, long before he even thought of joining the folks out in the digital frontier.

He appeared later on in a panel on nostalga in SF and Fantasy (featuring Elizabeth Bear, John Benson, Andrea Hairston, Elizabeth Hand, Robert Killheffer, and Scott Lynch), he brought up the same question. “Why is everyone so afraid of my question?” he bemoaned, as if he was Cassandra trying to bring old men and their rocket ships back to the present with no luck.

Elizabeth Bear called him out. To paraphrase: Your question has a false premise. You’re assuming no one is writing about this, or we’re afraid of it, but that’s not true. We are writing about it and embracing it, but you don’t seem to be seeing it. Yet, he continued on, spear-wound in his side, not wanting to look at recent issues of Clarke’sworld or Lightspeed or anything written by Bruce Sterling or Charles Stross.

For the Scion of Silicon Valley, the default narrative was “I’m creating the future, I don’t see anyone writing about it, therefore everyone is ignoring my future and sticking to their lazy Default Narrative.” He railing against the default narrative and refusing to even acknowledge the efforts of people to change it, he created his own default narrative and was trapped by cognitive dissonance within it.

If we really want to change the Default, we have to do more than raise our fists in anger, or stomp off when we don’t get change. We have to applaud those who are making changes, support them, and spread the word about them.

Change the question from “Why are people not writing about the future I’m making?” to “Where can I find and support people who are writing about this future I see coming?”

Or better: tell your story. Show us the future you see coming. Add to the pool of stories that will crack the Default. Because only we can change things. It takes time and action, and it will hurt. Dissonance will strike back, and it has powerful friends. But don’t ever let that stop you.

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