WorldCon 2016: Mythology as the basis for speculative fiction

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.

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Panellists: Ada Palmer, Jeffrey Cook, Sheila Finch (moderator), David Farnell, Katie Daniels

SF: Joseph Campbell said that myth and metaphor are the language of dreams. How important is myth in speculative fiction?

JC: The basis of myth is exploration and explanation.

KD: Myth is what endures.

DF: Myth is the story. Science is the vehicle. Even hard science fiction follows mythic patterns.

SF: It’s easy to see the hero’s journey play out in fantasy.

AP: At one point in Jo Walton’s The Just City, a Platonist explains a spaceship to aliens. Myth helps us conceive of alien concepts and means of communication.

JC: Useful myths are universal. They allow us to understand other cultures.

KD: We may have to define most useful. Are we talking about Prometheus or Jason and the Argonauts?

AP: The most useful myths can invoke craftsmanship, finesse.

DF: Do tropes emerge from myths? If you’re writing about Japanese mythology, it’s helpful to dig into the literature and not restrict yourself to what you see in manga.

SF: Jung said that myth conveys a sense of the numinous. They say something different to each person.

DF: Here’s one Japanese myth: the weaver goddess and a cowbird fall in love and stop doing their respective jobs. The Emperor of Heaven separates them, but allows them to reunite in the rainy season. It’s very Romeo and Juliet.

Q: 2001 and Star Wars are myths in their own rights.

AP: Some myths are devoid of awe. Others are full of it. Myths are the metaphysical reality of a world.

Q: What are some of the main themes of myth?

DF: How to deal with death.

JC: A quest of favours. [Mel’s note: In order to achieve the story goal, the protagonist must provide each character who helps her with something they want or need. Things generally get more complicated, and more humorous, as the story progresses, and the series of favours can even be a chain, with the satisfying of one favour being dependent on all the others before. Sometimes the favours cannot be granted until the ultimate goal is accomplished, and then everything falls into place.]

AP: Look for the big questions. Why is there evil? What is death?

And that was time.

Next week: Oceans, the wettest frontier.

Ad Astra Day 1: Myth-information in modern fantasy

Friday night session: Myth-information in modern fantasy.

Panel: Marie Bilodeau; Chadwick Ginther; Jen Frankel; Stephen B. Pearl; Katrina Guy

How do authors incorporate traditional lore and myths into their modern-day fantasy settings? Is it possible to make a witch burning pertinent in the twenty-first century? Discuss these, and other inflammatory questions, in this panel.

Sadly, I entered this session a bit late because of my travel turnarounds and check-in delays (and the fact that my room was possibly the furthest removed from the convention centre it could have been :P).

But here’s what I caught:

CG: Manitoba is the province in which there have been the most reported sasquatch sightings.

JF: Native legends are such a rich source of material. The Six Nations Reserve. Hoodoos.

SBP: In Europe and specifically the British Isles, the legends are equally rich. Take the stories of the Bogart.

MB: Why do we, as writers, depend so heavily on mythology? Are we lazy?

SBP: We’re tapping into something universal. Joseph Campbell was a smart man. Think what you will, but look at Robert Jordan’s work, particularly Dragon Reborn. The protagonist is comprised of bits and pieces of multiple mythologies, including Christianity and modern (Superman).

KG: In Simcoe County, there is this swamp which is reported to be haunted. The story goes that a monstrous baby was abandoned there. His spirit now haunts the swamp.

SBP: From the European tradition again, the trope of the unbaptised child recurs. In one instance, the person he haunts names him “Billy Bones,” and it turns out that was all he wanted: a name. Once he was named, his spirit became content and he disappeared.

JF: Where does urban legend cross the line into folktale? When does folktale become myth?

CG: In Winnipeg, there is the urban legend of “the hanging tree” out back of one of the courthouses. This was supposedly where the criminals were hung, but it’s really just a tree where an old tire swing was hung. The rope burn in the trunk was all it took for another, darker story to take hold in the imagination.

Q: There are real figures, such as the Black Donnelleys, that have become legend, tantamount to myth. What is it about these figures that attracts us? Is it the drama of their stories?

SBP: You have to be careful when you draw from myth or legend to stick to the principle, but make the situation suit the world of your novel. For example, I used a Japanese legend, rokurokubi, a demon which is a disembodied flying head. My work is paranormal, and I changed the flying head into the astral projection of a flying head, sent out to terrorize victims.

Q: What about the prevalence of mash-ups in Canadian horror and fantasy? For example, Jesuit priests and vampires?

MB: Myth informs our stories. My educational background is in religious and cultural studies.

SBP: To look at a modern interpretation of classical myth, look at The Almighty Johnsons.

CG: Also the current storyline in Thor comics.

JF: Drawing on myth is about the impact is has on us. For example, “everything comes in threes.” The supernatural tells us something deep about human nature. Mine those lessons for impact.

Q: Is it a challenge to be “boxed in” by mythology?

JF: The traditional, Voudoun zombie has been totally lost in the more modern “plague” zombie, or Romero’s zombies. Authors writing zombie stories now are somewhat constrained by what other authors have done with the trope.

MB: With fantasy, some people say it’s tame. It’s not a political genre. Science fiction is supposedly the avant garde genre, but if you dig down, it still draws on the same material.

CG: Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is cannon, if sexist.

SBP: The foundational myths go back as far as Aristotle.

KG: Fairy tales aren’t just Disney. I’ve visited a church where they have plaques from their sister church, half-way around the world, and stones from an ancient basilica. These are talismans as much as they are artefacts. We’re in touch with the fantastic every day. We walk past it and fail to recognize it.

JF: We can look back to connect the dots. The historical record. Why is “such and such” considered true? The writer translates this. What makes your character who they are? What makes us (humans) what we are?

SBF: The gift of perspective. Does the rabbit think the fox is “evil”? Extend that into your story’s mythology: is Dracula “evil”?

Q: What do you think of the trend of rewriting the classics with modern horror tropes? For example, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

CG: It’s a fun premise, but at the moment, it’s overdone.

MB: Let’s each give examples of our favourite authors who use mythology to finish off.

KG: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and the Kane chronicles. Tanya Huff.

SBP: Jim Butcher. The Time Life Enchanted Worlds series of books.

JF: 30 Indian Legends; Grimm’s Fairytales; Arthurian Legend.

CG: Gaiman’s American Gods; The Eddas; Song of the Vikings.

MB: The storytelling tradition, in all its variations.