In the Sci-Fi and Marginalization Panel at Small Press Expo, a large panel of creators took part, with experience in comics, gaming, and more, with quite an international perspective.
The panel was hosted by Sloane Leong, and panelists included Alexis Ziritt, Albert Monteys, Alex Alice, Carla Speed McNeil, and Iasmin Omar Ata.
Asked what traditions in sci-fi they are in conversations with, Iasmin, a middle-eastern cartoonist, writer, and game developer, said that in their comics there’s a far future for middle-eastern culture, like space travel, which is something people don’t really think about.
McNeil said that she started with The Twilight Zone and the show dealt with identity, loneliness, isolation, and social assumptions, as well as pressure to conform. But the show always turned things on their head, she said, and though she uses different material that “mental practice” of saying “there’s not just one way of looking at this” is something she absorbed.
Monteys said that shows using fantasy or futuristic elements in conjunction with metaphor also influenced him, and that’s what he tries to do. He likes to “talk about things that are happening right now” and tries to imagine how things will be in the future. Then he puts that in the background, as a natural thing, even if it’s not the focus of the story.
Ziritt said he didn’t have a lot of TV shows growing up in Venezuela, but he watched a lot of Japanese animation from the 70’s and B-movies from Mexico, and those must have influenced him.
Alice said he works with alternate histories and so he has European powers of the late 19th century colonizing other solar systems that are full of alien civilizations. He uses this to explore concepts of colonization and to “side-step” reality a bit in a way that allows him to explore ideas without having to deal with the prejudices we usually associate with history. In creating alien races, he tries to find ways in which people could exist with different ways of life and thinking.
Asked about sci-fi that is currently influencing their work, Iasmin said that Shojo sci-fi work from the 70’s, that’s very emotional, is really appealing. They also love Arthur C. Clark’s work.
Monteys said the first author who really captured his imagination was Kurt Vonnegut. Those books used sci-fi “trappings” for satire and making “great, sad, funny characters”. He wants to be that “meaningful” without being too complex, too.
Ziritt said Flash Gordon, the movie, and Planet of the Vampires by Mario Bava. Comics like Spacehawk, too.
Alice said that Olaf Stapledon, a professor, who wrote a “history of the future” until the year “5 billion”, and that book gives you a feeling that you’ve read “the fate of mankind”. The professor envisioned what seemed like every possibility is played out. There are waves of humanity rising and falling, needing greater variation to keep the story going, and he plays with many ideas that later have come up in other sci-fi.
Asked what sci-fi does for them that other genres don’t, Iasmin said that it gives you a glimpse into a “non-white-American and non-Euro-centric” way of thinking. It helps bring a new voice and a vision of the future, with different cultures and identities, and helps insert this into conversation, since this is largely how the future is bound to be.
McNeil said that “Why science fiction?” is a really big question. The concept of the post-apocalypse has been a big part of sci-fi since “day one”, since apocalypses happen all the time. When picking up the pieces, and putting them back together, following them, it enables things to change in radical ways. But people over time forget that things ae flexible and changeable.
Sci-fi works because people are “blind to what’s around them” but if you “put a rocket ship on it”, it’s “easier to point at things”, she said. Even when handling a “recognizable, modern world”, you can change details that can really “mess with things”. In Steven Universe, for instance, if you see a globe, there’s no Russia. Without details like that, you’d assume contemporary life has been portrayed. Added together, details can “point at things in a sharp way”.
Monteys said that for him, it starts with it being a place that he is comfortable with. As an afterthought, he asks, “What can I do with that?” He views sci-fi as a version of the future, a version that is warm and bright far away, and horrifying if you look at it up close. Sci-fi “sheds a light on the present” and our modern apocalypses, some which are even possibly good. We have a “sensation constantly of living at the end of times”, and so you can use that to talk about what’s happening now in sci-fi.
Ziritt said that he likes “hard core sci-fi” or very light like Star Wars. He wants things that are “fun” and that plays into his work. He’s tired of opening sci-fi books where the main character is white with blonde hair, so wanting to change that helped get him into sci-fi.
Alice said that he realized at some point that what he tended to see in sci-fi was post-apocalyptic literature, and the other type of story was like Star Trek, the idea that we would go to space and explore, followed by world peace and utopia. Seeing the film Idiocracy then changed his world view of what the future could be, and then Donald Trump was elected president.
This led him to think that the hopeful future he had in mind was less likely, but he still wanted to create a series that would put forward the “spirit of wonder and excitement of exploration” that had influenced him as a child. Being able to create new characters encountering the space race and flight to the moon captured wonder again for him.
Iasmin said that Star Trek is a big influence on everyone, and it was one of the first queer fandoms that developed, too. There are many queer narratives brought to light through science fiction, they pointed out. It’s a genre that creates space for queer people, they added.
Asked how they handle the tendency toward tropes or clinches, the panelists said “Don’t do a lot of exposition”. High science-fiction can be kind of exclusionary, they suggested. Also, it helps to remember that tropes have been part of world culture all along, McNeil said, like Ragnarok as apocalypse, and the idea of rebuilding the world as existing in many cultures. Just because they are pre-existing doesn’t mean you should remove them sci-fi. Be aware they are around, but present them in new ways. Sometimes, maybe one should use “all the clichés” and just be “cheesy”, Ziritt added, to laughter.
Arthur C. Clarke came up often in the panel, for making environments “fascinating” in a way that transcends clichés or tropes. Using certain tropes because they resonate personally can also be important to help the creator make them significant to the reader, too.
Asked about the difference between their writing and art response to marginalization, Iasmin said they use classic Palestinian visual motifs and design elements adapted to a future setting, and introduces them into the sci-fi context.
McNeil said that contrasting the future with the contemporary is “fun” for her. Monteys commented that he tries to have characters interact with backgrounds that have contemporary “attitude” to help readers identify with the characters and the story.
Ziritt says that he creates sound tracks to listen to while creating a comic, so he has “doom rock” for instance, while drawing like a “black light poster”.
Asked how they deal with the “crimes” and the “trauma of the past”, Iasmin said that they do use those elements in their work, through finding the artefacts of the past dealing with culture. Taking current trauma and “recontextualizing it” is very important for Iasmin. They feel any “identity-based trauma” can be brought to light through science fiction.