This session took place in the pop-up tent building created by the NZ Festival, which was bang on theme. It seemed like a magical, almost imaginary building that wasn’t there yesterday and won’t be there tomorrow.
A good crowd gathered to hear Darusha Wehm chair a session on science and magic with speculative fiction writers Charlie Jane Anders, Intan Paramaditha, and Cory Doctorow. We started with a general discussion of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror).
The ever-quotable Canadian writer and activist Doctorow said he rejects the idea of science fiction as predictive literature: thinking the future is predictable is to commit the ‘venal sin of complacency’. Anders, a transgender sci-fi author and organiser from the US, commented that most of the literary fiction she reads nowadays in set in the past. ‘It’s so hard to write about the time we’re living in now. By the time your book is published, we will have descended several more notches into hell.’
Paramaditha is a horror writer and academic from Indonesia who brought a very welcome new perspective to the discussion. She thinks of speculative fiction as an umbrella term for ‘all stories that depart from consensus reality’. Paramaditha said she didn’t really grow up with the same sci fi as the rest of the panellists. ‘Sci fi bloomed in wealthier countries – we were busy with our own issues. Thinking about invasions from outer space isn’t as important as thinking about the more local invasion of colonialism.’
Wehm asked about speculative fiction as a way of writing about fear. Anders said: ‘Inherent in the concept of escapism is that you’re escaping from something.’ Stories can help you face the scariest things in our reality with enough gauze to make it palatable. And as a trans woman living in Trump’s USA, there is plenty to be afraid of.
Paramaditha commented that speculative fiction can show what we as a society are afraid of. She used the film Alien as an example – it explores ‘the fear of women and feminine power; the fear of blood and of women’s bodies’. It’s important for us to confront this fear, and particularly for women to question the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women: ‘We are perhaps not so different from the bad, monstrous women.’ Anders commented that Alien is scary because we don’t understand it, and nowadays we’re conditioned to think that we can understand everything.
I was particularly struck by what Paramaditha said about magic and colonialism. She said there is a dichotomy between science, in the realm of knowledge, and magic, in the realm of ignorance – but that this is a colonialist discourse. For example, in the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia, the Dutch called what they did science, but called what the Indonesian people did magic.
‘I see magic as something subversive, beyond comprehension. I want to disrupt the binary between civilised and uncivilised. Magic subverts reality – but reality is never completely rational.’ Paramaditha pointed out that we preserve the desire for magic in our popular culture – she used the examples of A Trip to the Moon, an early film by Georges Méliès, and the film Hugo that references it. ‘There are some forms of magic that are acceptable and desirable.’
Wehm asked about the writing process itself as a form of magic. Doctorow said: ‘When you start writing it’s like doing a puppet show for yourself, but when you put enough detail in the simulator, things you didn’t explicitly put in the box start coming out of the box.’ Anders said that the great joy of writing, for her, is when the characters surpass your original concept of them and surprise you. ‘The best kind of magic is when characters change during the story because of what happened to them.’
This was a excellent session very ably chaired by Wehm, and you could tell when it ended that the audience could happily have listened to another hour. I managed to get my copy of All the Birds in the Sky signed by Anders before I had to dash off, leaving the tent of science and magic behind. Onwards!
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
You can still see Cory Doctorow on Sunday 11 March at 2.45pm, at his solo session Cory Doctorow: Surveilling Utopia.