Monday, March 26, 2012

Thoughts from ICFA: China Miéville's Keynote Address

As I mentioned earlier, I was at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts this past weekend, which is held every year in March in Orlando, Florida.  This week, several of us who attended are going to write about some of the highlights of the conference for you--not only to share the intriguing conversations and fun experiences that we had, but also to try to entice you to come next year, too!

There were many wonderful things about the conference for me, including the response and feedback to my presentation on considering the Doctor from Doctor Who as a monster.  I got to see old friends and meet new ones, which made the conference both professionally and personally rewarding.  I even got to see the alligator who lives in a lake next to the hotel!

Out of all these wonderful experiences, however, one stands out--the keynote address that guest of honor China Miéville gave during the luncheon on Thursday.
In this talk, Miéville addressed the theme of the conference--the monstrous fantastic--focusing specifically on one term that is often associated with monsters: "the uncanny."  The key idea of the uncanny is that it is that which is both familiar and strange, that which is both comforting and creepy.  But, as Miéville pointed out, what about the weird?  What about those monsters that cannot be uncanny because they are not knowable at all?  What about those monsters who induce fear because they are completely and utterly strange?

Miéville suggested another term for these kinds of totally unknowable monsters--the "abcanny."  He then went on to indulge in at least ten more types of "--canny," including the "subcanny" (monsters that are below the water), the "postcanny" (monsters made of trash), and the "precanny" (the terror of antiquity found in fossils and the like).  It was a wonderful, witty, intoxicating taxonomical tour de force--as Miéville himself said, "Prefixes are like margaritas."

But this wasn't all.  Rather, Miéville ended his remarks on a more serious note, namely, the reminder that while creating taxonomies can be unspeakably enjoyable, this process is not analysis.  He warned against replacing true understanding with simply filing things into different categories.

For scholars of science fiction and fantasy, this is an important reminder.  It is so easy to get caught up in the labels attached to the stories we read that we see these labels as the end goal of our work, rather that exploring what goes on beneath them.  Ultimately, Miéville's opening keynote address was the kind of scholarship where form and argument come together in marvelous synchronicity, and it was the perfect opening note for an overall fantastic conference.