Intrusive comic book research, literary misbehavior & pop-cultural observations.
May include nuts, personal opinions and non-academic language.

tiistai 5. heinäkuuta 2016

Research, Meet Fandom; Fandom, Meet Research

No rest for the wicked - or the academic. We've finally reached the heart of summer, and most people I know are enjoying their well-deserved holidays. As for myself, however, I spent the best part of last week in Tampere, working hard at the annual sci-fi convention Finncon and FINFAR's Fantastic Paper Workshop.

Now, I allocated about as much time to commenting on students' papers and discussing with colleagues as to enjoying the informal program or stalking the writer guests, but different geek cons remain the high points of my summers. So, I'm not sure if last weekend counted as play or responsibility. I know most researchers have a very different opinion on this, but for me, life = work is not that tricky an equation. It simply means I spend most of my time doing something that is both useful and fun! And Finncon surely fit the bill.

The books I hoarded from the scifi jumble sale were also more or less work-related.

One of the perks of attending as a researcher, rather than as a fan, is that we got to start convening a day early: FINFAR, or the Finnish Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy Research, likes to coordinate the schedule of its annual paper workshop with Finncon. The idea is to invite students and researchers of all levels and disciplines to submit short works-in-progress that have something to do with speculative fiction. Since a bunch of more advanced researchers will trickle to town for the con anyway, it's usually easy enough to find commentators that are experts on whatever topics the papers cover. 

I have now attended these workshops as a presenter and as a commentator. (I'm not necessarily a very advanced researcher, or even a sci-fi researcher of any sort, but I do know a thing or two about unnatural narratology, specualtive comics and Frankenstein!) The atmosphere has been very relaxed and collegial, and the discussion very dialogical and in-depth, from both perspectives. So, if you have a hard time finding people who would be willing to engage in serious debates about the philosophical differences between vampires and zombies - or folks who are happy to ponder the narrative structuring of dreams and time loops - get in touch! We had sessions in both Finnish and English this year, and are planning to gear more of our Facebook and Twitter communication towards international audiences. The society is very welcoming towards comics researchers as well - there's currently two of us in the board, and FINFAR's own journal, Fafnir is publishing a comics theme issue at the end of the year. (There's still some time left to the CfP deadline!)

I couldn't possibly summarize everything we discussed in one and a half days, over eight promising papers, but here's some of my favorite insights

"Don't trolls offer an alternative to the posthumanist hybridity of mutants and cyborgs?"

"Are realistic human characters ontologically different from characters that openly present themselves as fantastical creatures? (In other words, does Koskela in The Unknown Soldier exist more than Pessi the troll and Illusia the fairy?)"

"Are FinnWeird and realist fantasy - our local equivalents to magical realism - genres, brands, writer groups or all of the above?"

"Always, always have a copy of your finished dissertation with you, so you can convince PhD students it's a perfect source for them."

"Sure, people are upset when unconventional plot twists happen, but on another level, they also enjoy it: 'Oh, how horrible! Now everyone's dead! This is so cool!'"

"Do clones and genetically engineered humans reside in the Uncanny Valley? Are they manufactured monsters, or does their (assumed) monstrosity develop later in their lives?"

We did not find satisfactory answers to these questions - but mapped out a few roads one could take to find out...

Right after the workshop ended on Friday afternoon, it was time for another work duty: our academic geek culture panel! Geekery has become a hot topic of late, and as I've reported before, me and a few of my colleagues wish to raise an academic voice to the rampant media discussion about who gets to call themselves a "True Geek". We organized a course and a seminar on the topic last spring, and decided to throw in a "roadshow". That is, we signed up for Popcult Helsinki and Finncon 2016 to tell the hordes of self-confessed geeks how their group identity is currently defined by media and by research. Both panels went well, and we have received some very heartfelt feedback: many have found the discussions important, insightful and empowering.

I have to commend the Finncon audience for bringing up a few very interesting points: Under what circumstances could we consider, for example, (Finnish populist right-wing politician) Timo Soini a geek? Is it okay to call grown women 'geek girls'? And are "geeky" hobbies already so widespread we should start identifying some a-geek areas of interest instead?

All these will be at the core of our future inquiry, if only we get funding to research the evolution of contemporary Finnish geek culture a bit further... It is clear that the meaning of the word has undergone some dramatic changes both globally and locally in the 21st century. As many seem to have very personal, even emotional responses to social labels like "geek", it would be important to investigate why and how the cultures and discourses around them are changing. (Ahem, foundations! Are you listening to this!?) What is more, we all know that the mainstreaming of fandoms has caused certain problems in the fields of digital games, comics and science fiction literature... Joss Whedon's Twitter account has also become one of the casualties. Why can't everyone just play nice?!

Here's my opening slide to the Geek Culture Panel.

As per usual, the program also featured an academic track, which starred many familiar faces. This year's theme, selected by the sadly topical Dystopian Fiction research project, wasn't really my area, though: I have no power in fairytales, nor in dystopias - I was kicked out of both realms long ago. However, I had the chance to listen to a couple of very interesting papers about eco-dystopias and the emotional aspect of dystopian literature. And the chair's ray gun from Archipelacon made a comeback!

The Academic Track was kicked off by University of Tampere's own PhD Juha Raipola.

The Finnish branch of The World Hobbit Project also had considerable presence in the con program. Preliminary analysis of the huge questionnaire data suggests that many viewers have linked the Hobbit films to a larger, transmedial Tolkien storyworld, which I find superbly intriguing. Many also seem to have thought that Tauriel had potential as a (function) character but was, in the end, handled poorly: the physics-defying elf fighting styles and the unlikely romance plot are simply pushing it too far.

Oh, and hot dwarves are...well, hot dwarves. To each their own.

At the end of the first Hobbit panel, Liisa Rantalaiho was pronounced honorary member of FINFAR. Surprise filking happened.

Whenever I had time, I did my best to catch a few interview sessions featuring Jasper Fforde, one of this year's guests of honor. I've been meaning to read his Thursday Next series for ages, because it bears certain similarities to The Unwritten. (I was surprised to find that the guy even looks a bit like Mike Carey!) Fforde sounded even wittier in person than on paper, which really seals the deal: Thursday Next's going to be next on my miles-long TBR list! I'm also going to follow his great writing advice and set myself a few narrative dares over the summer... (If there's one thing I learned from the GoH interviews, it's that lonely childhoods make original writers.)

Bookmark by the ever-wonderful Myrntai - the artist in charge of this year's Finncon graphics.

TL;DR: Finncon was fun again, FINFAR was fun again. Sci-fi fandom and sci-fi research are great resources to each other. Geek culture is coming to the neighborhoods near you, with a bang and and a roar. We should all read more, and "Write. Better. Books."

Please stay tuned for the CfP of Worldcon academic track! It's in the works. *a barely swallowed squeal of enthusiasm*

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