Last year I attended Boskone, a sci-fi/fantasy convention right here in Boston, for the first time. Not only did I get to meet one of my life-long favorite authors, but I also attended loads of wonderful panels and discussions. I had intended to write a post detailing each day but alas, only made the one. A lot of the events I attended had a strong focus on diversity of all kinds, which is part of what made me love the convention so much. Needless to say, I was so excited to attend this year’s convention as well!
This year I planned things a little better, figuring out which events I wanted to make it to ahead of time and what time I needed to get to the convention on Day 1. I arrived with plenty of time to check in and read a bit of my current read before my first panel. I’ve written summaries of all the panels I attended, but some are a bit lengthy. Each has their own header so you can skip around to read only what sounds interesting to you!
The Hopeful Future in Science Fiction
This panel contained James Patrick Kelly as the moderator with Muriel Stockdale, Gene Doucette, Fonda Lee, and Steve Miller as the participants. The discussion started with introductions as each panelist shared whether they had a hopeful view of the future or not. They then set into discussing optimism and pessimism and its place in the science fiction genre.
Fonda Lee noted that she felt “science fiction is an inherently optimistic genre” in that it implies that we will be here, even when things go sideways. She expanded on this by commenting that dystopian fiction is less of a genre, and more of a point of view. Lee argued that she could write a story set in the Capitol of Panem (from The Hunger Games) that was utopian; it all comes down to perspective. Gene Doucette agreed with her sentiment, adding that even in post-apocalyptic books the narrator (or reader) is assumed to be a survivor: “the future is going to be the end of everything, but not for you.”
The topic then shifted more towards optimism in the genre, with Fonda bringing up the sub-genre of “hopepunk” which James Patrick Kelly then compared to “solarpunk.” Both of these genres focus more towards cultural shifts as the solution rather than technology. Because of this, “climate fiction” and related stories are written more by authors who tend not to write sci-fi. Kelly also points out that whereas sci-fi as a whole glorifies the power of the individual, these sub-genres focus more on solutions that are the responsibility of an entire society. They are telling us that one person is not capable of making the changes necessary to fix this.
During the Q&A portion, an audience member brought up the question of whether more pessimism in sci-fi may be the result of discordant realities and a shift in the demographics that the genre is being marketed towards. Lee agreed with this idea, hammering home the fact that sci-fi that may have been considered optimistic 50 years ago no longer comes across that way to some; when the spaceships are full of cishet white men, the stories are only optimistic for a certain subset of people.
Overall, I found it great food for thought and definitely plan to explore the hopepunk genre a bit more deeply. Kelly offered the collection Hieroglyph as well as the Better Worlds project from The Verge as recommended reading for these topics.
Medical Ethics in the 21st Century
This panel had Robert B. Finegold, MD as the moderator with Paul Jeter, Julie C. Day, Frank Wu, and Justin Key as the participants. Prior to the panel, Dr. Finegold asked some audience members why they chose to attend this specific panel. As someone who works in clinical research — medical ethics are essentially my whole job. Questions like these (perhaps not always to this degree of intensity) arise on a daily basis in my office, so I’m always interested in learning more.
The panel began with a discussion on the ethics surrounding genetic testing. Frank Wu spoke first about the difficulty surrounding whether to undergo testing for Huntington’s disease, a devastating condition that is passed down genetically. Simply knowing whether or not you have the disease can impact the course of your life. Justin Key brought up the potential impact genetic testing can have if the results fall into the hands of insurance companies, who could potentially discriminate against their clients.
Dr. Finegold then moved onto the topic of genetic editing. A lot of nuances were brought up here: editing the genes of people who can choose (consenting adults) versus those who cannot (fetuses), editing genes to prevent or cure fatal diseases versus editing genes based purely on preference. Underlined here is the fact that genetic editing can and likely will have unintentional consequences that we may not even be aware of for years to come. Key weighed the pros and cons aloud, emphasizing that he was unable to pick a side: we could have the ability to treat chronic and debilitating diseases, but at what cost? He was also sure to add that even now we use medicine to change bodies to fit our own preferences: dieting and plastic surgery are two common examples he gave, commenting that we don’t even know the possible long-term consequences of these.
The last topic under discussion was organ transplantation, specifically how the demand far exceeds the supply and the dilemmas this causes. Key spoke first about how psychiatrists are responsible for evaluating potential transplant recipients for risk factors. While they themselves don’t choose whether someone receives an organ or not, this evaluation is taken into consideration. He noted that it will be interesting to see how machine learning and AI play into this process, essentially whether we will end up inputting all the available data and allowing a computer to decide who receives a transplant. Jeter took this in another direction, bringing up how we must account for animals, ethically, in our medicine.
A few other threads were followed including the concept of opting out of organ donation rather than opting in; populations that may distrust medicine for good reason; mandatory immunizations; and how short appointments and long waiting times both lead to injustice in medicine. I found a lot of these discussions absolutely fascinating and am hoping to seek out some resources to read about them.
Telling Tarot Tales
I took fewer notes in this one, since it was a workshop and not a panel. The workshop leader, Trisha Woodridge, was just great! She emphasized the importance of tuning into your intuition when reading tarot rather than trying to memorize what the cards are “supposed” to mean. We did an exercise where we each spent a minute looking at a randomly drawn card, then flipped it over and wrote what we remembered of it. We went around and described what had stood out to us while she helped us draw out our interpretations.
She then went over some general associations with the cards (minor vs major arcana, court cards, each of the suits) and finished the workshop by setting up a celtic cross spread and using it to tell a story. While the workshop focused less on the storytelling aspect than I thought it would, that’s mainly because 50 minutes is a pretty limited amount of time. I’m really glad I made it to this one and will definitely be using some of what she shared in the future.
Agency and Free Will in Speculative Fiction
This panel was a bit less structured than the earlier ones, with Juliana Spink Mills as the moderator and Gillian Daniels, Rebecca Roanhorse, Greer Gilman, and M.C. DeMarco as the participants. This discussion was mostly about prophecies and the “Chosen One” trope. Mills did a good job of asking some thought-provoking questions, which the panelists took and ran with.
Gillian Daniels cautioned that while this can give the reader a reason to care about the character, the author needs to make it interesting in order to make it compelling. She shared that double meanings and misinterpretations of prophecies are one way to accomplish this. Rebecca Roanhorse added that it helps to confound your readers’ expectations and that you should use what they bring to the story against them.
They went down a few other paths, but a lot of it circled around to the question of how you know whether a character has free will or not. Do the secondary characters surrounding a Chosen One have free will? Do we have free will if confined by the circumstances of our lives? Does your free will cut into someone else’s agency? How do addiction and behaviors stemming from it play into free will? It’s a lot of food for thought and I’m interested in exploring the concept more at some point.
So, that was Day 1 of Boskone! I am finishing this post at 10pm the night of, and am excited to see what the next couple days have in store. You’ll get recaps of those in the next week or two as well. I can say that it was already well worth getting ticket’s to this year’s con.