Science Fiction’s big digital pivot

Over the past month or so, the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) has been hosting a series of livestream readings from SFF authors in the UK and beyond. We’re calling them the Lockdown Solidarity Salons or, if you prefer, Very Extremely Casual Tales of Optimism and Resilience (VECTOR). Authors, you are all such charmers!

You can find out more about the series on the Facebook page or YouTube channel. We hope you’ll join us this Thursday (8.15pm UK time) for Chinelo Onwualu, Fiona Moore, and on later dates for Naomi Foyle, Lauren Beukes, Temi Oh, Ian R. MacLeod, and more. Here’s Adam Roberts:

See below for Foz Meadows, Stew Hotston, Valerie Valdes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Malka Older, Tiffani Angus, Stephen Oram, Geoff Ryman, Wole Talabi, and Andrew Wallace. This Sunday, the BSFA will be holding our annual BSFA Awards ceremony (usually held at Eastercon, the UK’s annual national SF convention) on YouTube at 7pm BST.

And of course, we’re not the only ones.

There has of course been a huge flurry of online activity from SFF communities around the world. Authors, publishers, critics, conrunners and fans are experimenting with virtual versions of otherwise cancelled events, as well as inventing new things to keep our communities connected and our brains buzzing.

The Super Relaxed Fantasy Club (SRFC)’s online reading series, for example, has just hit its 42nd episode (the most science fictional number of all). The redoubtable London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC) have been hosting movie nights, symposiums, and reading groups, and have just released their Call for Papers for their 2020 conference, tentatively located in the digital: Beyond Borders: Empires, Bodies, Science Fictions. The Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU are hosting the Us in Flux series of virtual gatherings “exploring themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events.” And the Cyberpunk Cultures Conference in July has taken the opportunity to be amusing about its travel and accommodation advice.

Many conventions have decided to postpone. But CoNZealand, this year’s WorldCon in July/August, is going virtual. So is the SFWA Nebula Conference at the end of May, and Cymera festival in June. What different forms might a virtual SFF convention or festival take? ConTamination 2020 is a new event, scheduled for October, specifically themed around Covid and its wider consequences. The Facebook group Concellation describes itself thus:

The SF&F con that’s always cancelled. Celebrate the con that never was — cancelled before it was even announced, Concellation 2020 is the event you wish you could have pre-opposed!

And the Facebook group CONtagion says:

It’s the con you can attend while self-isolating! […] Want to make a video of yourself reading a story or giving a talk? Planning a livestream? Maybe your vlog or podcast has a new episode other SFF fans would enjoy? Share it here! If you have ideas on other things we can do to creatively approximate the con experience online, share those too!

There have been countless strong individual efforts from the likes of LeVar Burton, Patrick Stewart, and Catherynne M. Valente. Meanwhile, some writers have also been gathering together to quietly work away on Zoom writing sprints, or to conduct virtual workshops.

Perhaps now that the early burst of energy and enthusiasm has radiated out, it’s time to take stock and share our experiences. What works online and what doesn’t? What are the top tips and pitfalls? What do we miss and what do we not miss about live events? Who has learned or innovated ways of doing things remotely that they used to do in person? What new possibilities and affordances are we discovering on digital platforms, that don’t exist in realspace? When is it a mistake to try to “translate” something to a digital version? For organisers, what are the most useful tools and platforms, and in what ways? How do certain platforms — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Twitch, Discord, Zoom — encourage certain kinds of interaction and experience?

We hear the word “strange” a lot at the moment. These are strange days, strange times. SFF folks are supposed to be experts at strangeness. Maybe, in some ways, we are?

A few final thoughts.

Speaking of strange. The financial arrangements of traditional SFF conventions are often a big shock to folks the first time they encounter them. “People pay to go, even if they’re presenting and/or volunteering?!” There are similar gasps around how academic conferences work. These are complicated and sometimes controversial issues. The flowering of online activity we’ve seen has mostly been free for participants, with gestures toward monetisation through ads, and the usual “and why not buy my book?” side of things (and “why not join the BSFA?”). A few organisers seem to be charging relatively steep fees. And then there are those who are trying out more micro-transaction-type stuff. Maybe all this is an opportunity to explore new economic models, and/or to think about the role of money in SFF fandom more widely?

How important are definitions? Patrick Delahanty of asks: “If […]  began accepting listings for online conventions, what qualifies? Does some lone guy in his room playing Fortnite and talking to his Twitch chat room qualify as ‘BobCon 2020’?”

And then there are some deep questions. This mass exploration of the possibilities of digital community is coming at a time when most of our lives are being disrupted and transformed. For those of us who have been able to be on lockdown, time and space may feel very different: a lack of the usual temporal markers, a new constriction of and alertness to spatiality. So what wider questions are arising around time, space, ethics, accessibility, money, sustainability, sociality, friendship, diversity, solidarity, privacy, surveillance, copyright, labour, creativity, mental health, and other areas?

See y’all at BobCon.



2 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s big digital pivot

  1. Pingback: Vector in 2020

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