Friday, March 30, 2012

Monstrous Taxonomies: My Thoughts on ICFA

It has been very hard to contain the conference into coherence in words.  My notes are no help as they spring from the page in tangles, generating ideas of their own.  The ones for Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's wonderful talk at the Guest Scholar Luncheon begins with some notes on medievalists, swoops into zombies, and then carved into the middle of the page is the ominous question, "Where do Japanese zombies come from?" that then starts standing side by side on notes with baroque little arrows and zig-zags on the taxonomy and nature of our fascination with the more familiar western undead.  Of course, that the idea of Asian zombies, or even their existence, was never mentioned might come as no surprise to those who have visited this conference before.  New inspiration continually hit me throughout the conference, as much inspired by the presentations I attended and the people I met as the environment itself.

While the theme was "The Monstrous Fantastic," in the presentations I attended taxonomies came up again and again.  Taxonomies were even discussed to begin to encapsulate the vastness of our theme, but also in terms of the pull to define what we had come to discuss, namely these fantastics called science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird, whatever.  Saturday's roundtable reading of China Miéville's "Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory" from Red Planets was an open dialogue into a question that had already been discussed at several points throughout the conference: what are the defining differences between science fiction and fantasy, and do they matter?

My own paper at the conference dealt with some of these same issues inherent in our taxonomical lust.  While I laughed and applauded China Miéville for his Guest of Honor Luncheon talk "On Monsters," and his taxonomic hyperbole, the issue I heard raised in several panels was a need to discuss these issues because of the invariably narrow boundaries of the definitions that come to define our field.  David M. Higgins in his paper "Science Fiction and the Postcolonialism" best described the issue in science fiction: we are so careful about how we define 'postcolonial' and who is allowed to be included and who cannot participate, and yet we define science fiction by a vague concept of "we know it when we see it."  The issue of course for those not within the stereotyped parameters of the genre is often exclusion or a banishment into fantasy as though it were somehow a lesser genre.

I can fully recognize that my zealous rambling on taxonomies may come as a bit of a yawn, but to me what is exciting is the possibility of exploding the genre with new cultural perspectives of science and science fiction and continuing to question the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy.  That when these difficult questions came up, instead of a push toward standard definitions and that "I know it when I see it," the scholars at ICFA and the guests approached this as a puzzle that demanded discussion.  The scattering of works that broke existing genre barriers were not just blips of no consequence, but examples that proved these issues needed discussion, and this is I think why I have loved this conference so much.  I was not the only one leaving a panel that cut our current understanding of something into pieces with a surge of inspiration to re-shape and rethink the boundaries of knowledge.

This is all to say, I was never able to see an author reading or stop by the bar for a drink.  I did see the alligator, though!