Fourth Street Fantasy 2022 Roundup

A long week-and-a-half ago was 2022’s fabled Fourth Street Fantasy convention! Always one of my favorites, with its single-track programming allowing a deep and ever-growing conversation to thread through the entire weekend.

I know a lot of people couldn’t come this year, but I took notes! Specifically, livetweets. I find livetweets great for note-taking, in that they have all the freedom of a keyboard while also adding the “rapid interpretation and condensation” that makes note-taking an effective form of learning. So, ultimately I do these for myself – and you all get to enjoy the benefit!

For lists of panelists, see the first tweet in each thread, or the official Fourth Street 2022 Programming Page.

  1. Designing Worlds for Everyone
    • From airport scanners with only two body type defaults to facial recognition systems that can’t recognize BIPOC, unconscious—or conscious—design decisions from our world that treat people unequally seep into our fantasy worlds. Authors create fantastic worlds full of stairs wheelchair users can’t access or magic systems designed to erase disabilities. But there also exist magic writing systems that dyslexic users excel at and blind earthbenders who don’t have to overcome their disabilities in order to thrive. What are broad principles or specific ways of approaching world-building to include as many people in the fantasy as possible?
    • No livetweets, I was on this one!
  2. Join us in the Muck: The Value of Dark Escapism
    • Past 4th Streets have gushed over books like The Goblin Emperor and other approaches favoring communities coming together and triumphing over oppression, but what is the value of fantasy that is super Not That? Many of us at 4th Street also enjoy reading both TGE and stories with bleak outlooks on the world, and somehow these aesthetic—or thematic—preferences coexist. Let’s talk about why fantasies that share stylistic markers of nihilism and bloodgore can still be validating and empowering rather than depressing slogs. What does dark escapism have to say about heroism and living that we want to take with us?
  3. Would You Want to Live Forever? Depictions of Immortality in Fantasy
    • In some stories, immortality is a curse, where a person is forced to continue on when everyone they love dies. Sometimes it’s a gift, with all the time in the world to develop the resources and interests a person cares about. In others it’s an ongoing choice made through concerted spiritual and physical effort. What does a story’s approach to immortality say about the story itself? Who do we immortalize, and why? How can we use and expand depictions of immortality in fantasy to create or deepen dimensions of our stories?
  4. Modern Sensibility and “Progressive” Narratives
    • Fantasy writers often write characters who don’t, or logically would not, share modern sensibilities, but they are writing for readers who do. While we want our narratives to progress toward a conclusion, “progress” in our world is not always linear, particularly when it comes to people and cultures. Failure modes of attempting to walk this line abound, including characterizing premodern cultures as “primitive” or making the protagonist the lone ethical exception to prevailing attitudes. Let’s unpack how we balance contextualizing other understandings of the world in different times and places without excusing or validating oppressive behaviors and ways of thinking.
  5. From a Different Point of View: Choosing Perspective
    • Some subgenres of fantasy have common market default points-of-view, but there are always exceptions and innovations, too. How do authors decide what POV—third or first, past or present, or something more experimental—to tell stories from? Let’s talk about unique applications of POV, how to weigh their merits, and how the narrative perspective can shape and influence a story.
  6. What It Takes to Feed a City: Logistics of Agriculture in Fantasy
    • Despite the preponderance of farmboy chosen ones, actual farming to support the vast armies and civilizations of fantasy worlds tend to be in short supply. Let’s talk about the logistics of feeding entire worlds—from the space it takes, to how the food actually gets to the bulk of people before it spoils. Not every book needs to focus on agriculture when our heroes are off adventuring, but what are important or interesting aspects to consider that can complicate and enrich our stories?
  7. Overthrow Systems, Not People: Accountability and Social Action in Fantasy
    • The great fantasy of overthrowing leaders and in so doing restoring peace is that all problems can stem from a single bad actor. In reality, our systems are deliberately constructed to defend against this, so no one is individually responsible for unethical conglomerates’ actions—they are borne out of policy, algorithms, and tradition as if by magic. But of course, it’s humans who construct those too. With the understanding that a single villain has the advantage of narrative simplicity, how can fantasy do better work at holding vaster fictional constructed institutions—governments, corporations, or even neighborhood community organizations—accountable, and challenging and changing them?
  8. Conversations with Inanimate Objects: Personification in Fantasy
    • From talking swords to animated teapots to tribbles, humans will personify absolutely fucking anything. “Why are we like this” is a question probably outside the scope of any single panel, but let’s talk about how fantasy can use this technique to delight—or horrify—readers. In fantasy we have the power to actually bring our dead to a semblance of life and infuse inanimate objects with consciousness or take cursed artifacts on adventures and tuck them into bed. What are ways to be clever about personification, and what opportunity space have we missed?
    • No livetweets, I was on this one!
  9. The Flavor in the Details
    • Everyone loves being CaptainAmericaUnderstoodThatReference dot gif. On the other hand, it’s alienating to feel left out of the in-joke. How do we walk the line of background details that add extra flavor and resonance for some readers to appreciate without hanging critical story understanding on references not everyone will understand? How do we incorporate allusions to real-world events and memes without their feeling anachronistic? What makes these details worthwhile and not just cleverness at the expense of the story?
  10. Ambiguous Narrative Stances
    • What kind of ambiguity serves a story, in endings and in narrative support? Raising complicated questions with no easy answers is all well and good; avoiding dealing with what they mean entirely is an abnegation of responsibility. We can’t control reader interpretations, and there can be power in letting readers fill in for themselves what goes, but when is failing to take an explicit stance a disservice to the reader, and how explicit is it important to be? Where is the line between an ambiguous ending that fails the reader by failing to take a stance, or that serves the reader in forcing them to think through implications to their logical conclusion and intentionally decide on their own reading?
  11. “…But That’s Another Panel” bonus panel: Can You Trust the Archives? Imperfect Memory in Fantasy
    • Many fantasies treat ancient archives — or ancient immortals — as if the memory they contain is gospel. But we know there is no perfect recording system, not to mention transmission system: human memory is fallible even when differing accounts agree on events, written records are biased in perspective and rely on someone who can translate them “accurately,” and digital recordings can be corrupted or their technology rendered inaccessible. On the other hand, readers need something solid in a fantasy world to hold onto. How can fantasy incorporate this tension of needing archives but knowing they’re fallible in interesting ways? How does who can access the records shape the story? How would the story change if Leia’s message to Obi-Wan in A NEW HOPE was hacked and edited, or if the prophecy was embellished by a scribe who thought the original was boring?
    • No livetweets, I was asked to be on this one too, it was AWESOME

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