Saints and people who do not think like us (Fantasticon 2019)

Last night I returned from Fantasticon 2019. I want to be careful to underscore I'm referring here to the Fantasticon in Copenhagen, Denmark, and not the events in the US or UK.

First things first, here's the story I contributed to the event's program guide.

I attended Fantasticon last year and had a really good time. I'd go so far as to call last year's con a formative experience for me as an author. I'd attended plenty of conventions in the past but Fantasticon 2018 was the first one where I felt like part of the writing community.

And getting to see friends again is always amazing. Getting to meet Nisi Shawl was both a pleasure and an honor. I was particularly struck by a comment they made during an interview on their pamphlet Writing the Other: in writing that piece on modes of oppression, there were some modes--namely, class--which were considered so taboo to talk about that they and their co-author felt compelled to avoid them. (It would have been nice to have met Tade Thompson too, but he withdrew. I don't know why.)

It was also an honor to have been welcomed to the convention as a Special Guest. My name was on the poster!

My name was on the poster!
The Fantasticon 2019 poster

Oh, god, the poster.

This blog post has been a long time coming since sometimes I'm too optimistic. Enlarge that image, look into that central figure's eyes and tell him how he's being presented here is all right. That figure has been staring at me since I first became aware of the poster in February.

The topic of the convention was Afrofuturism, The Con's poster portrays the very African-as-savage stereotype Afrofuturist writers are trying to overcome. Afrofuturism integrates the perspectives of people from marginalized cultures into a vision of the future those people have usually, whether through assimilation or extermination, been excluded from. This poster wraps a Hollywood-prop-department idea of Africa in a gauze of Hollywood-prop-department future. There were a few revisions to the poster too, after prompting. The original version still watches over the Facebook group, while a version with small changes was circulated a while after the original and turned into the event's printed poster.
The March revision 

Months before Fantasticon 2019 I had a conversation with the organizer about the poster. I wasn't the only one who did and I was not the only person to say, this poster is not a suitable public face for a science fiction convention. Before the convention and at the convention itself I spoke to a lot of people, including some people who the convention especially should have been listening to, who told me that they were uncomfortable with the poster or that they'd raised concerns as well.

The only person I've heard enthusiastically endorse the poster was the Convention Chair. And how he did it lets me know the problem isn't just the poster.

Fantasticon always has a banquet dinner with a keynote speech from the featured guest. Nisi Shawl gave theirs, bookending it with quotes from a Joni Mitchell song:

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let tout from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet for free


And I play if you have the money
Or if you're a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good for free

Nisi was talking about altruism. They talked about being a saint. They talked about sacrifice, even putting yourself in harm's way to protect someone who would do harm to you. 

The Chair gave an impromptu speech just afterward. The poster was excellent, he told us all, and complaints about it all came from "people who do not think like us."

A page from the program book
Then started the filk sing-a-long. Only quick action by an observant program participant kept the projector screen from telling the whole banquet room that we'd be singing along to the tune of "The Darkies' Sunday School." That quick action did not prevent the flippant reference to rape in the lyrics. "It was like something from the '70s," that quick intervenor said later.

Why am I amped up to 11 about all this? At a fundamental level, fandom is about storytelling. And something I've seen in every single fan community I've interacted with, going back something like 25 years now, is that the story fandom always tells best is when it's telling itself "we are tolerant, we are open, we accept everyone." Too often that story is a myth.

The Afrofuturist authors whose work and ideas this convention we're supposed to be celebrating -- if we won't listen to their message, are they "people who do not think like us"? The convention members who saw something wrong with the poster, whether or not they could clearly articulate it -- are they not part of "us"? Am I not part of "us"? You put my name on the damned poster!

I'm still just starting out. I've only got a few publications. In my mind it was supposed to have been a great boon for me to be a Special Guest. But I found I could not promote Fantasticon 2019 in the months running up to it because I was ashamed of the image it chose for itself and I knew that if I waved this poster around uncritically, I might be, rightfully, pilloried. I couldn't send a copy of this thing to my parents so they can hang it on their wall.

And I'll tell you, I was tempted to pull out of the whole convention, but that would have been punishing myself for the convention's mistake. I'm not going to let the convention's bad judgement separate me from my friends and I'm not going to let the convention's insensitivity take away a platform when I know I have something useful to say.

So I need to confess I was also tempted to shut up about it all. I procrastinated and hesitated before I started this post and I probably will again before clicking Publish. I'm lucky I have a secure job separate from my writing. Someone who was more dependent than me on these business partnerships the world of publishing forces us to pretend we're equal participants in might have felt far more pressure to acquiesce.

And this convention, it's 40 people fewer than it was last year. Danish organized fandom is struggling to grow and bring in new people. The little false whisper: "They're hurting enough, don't hurt them more!" The lying knife: "You're the wrong kind of oppressed, silence yourself!"

I decided a long time ago it's better for my soul if I'm not a saint. I will bring what solidarity I can. Jeannette, I owe you. We're us and you're us and they're us too, and we only grow if we all grow together.

The 2018 Fantasticon was a celebration of steampunk. Steampunk is an aesthetic. You can't oppress a gear.

The 2019 Fantasticon's topic was Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a movement rising up from oppressed people. Turn the world, turn the people, steal their oil, strip the gear?--let interwoven people stop, and the world stop turning.


Edmund Schluessel


  1. The chairman of Fantasticon 2019 (and 2018) has stepped down, and a new team led by Flemming Rasch (who has organised Fantasticicon in the past) will take over. So don't let the above stop you from coming next year.

    I agree that the poster was pretty bad, but the problem was ignorance rather than intended hurtfulness. The poster was modified after criticism, but should probably have been done entirely over. Maybe time was a factor; I wasn't involved in the planning this year. The con was organised mainly by white, middle-aged men (mainly because nobody else volunteered) who didn't know much about afrofuturism or identity issues in the African diaspora, but were genuinely interested in knowing more, hence the choice of subject. I think that should count for something. That the organiser chose to defend the poster was a mistake, but I imagine that he defended his friend the artist rather than the content of the poster.

    About the filk-singing, I found more to be offended by than the choice of tune. One song portrayed Vikings as all being rapists and pillagers, which offended me as a descendant of Vikings. Another was about "My gods being better than your gods", with no irony, which was offensive to anybody who don't believe in Norse gods (and probably to many who do); a song that came just after Nisi's lovely speech about tolerance. The filker should not have been allowed to sing; at least his songs should have been vetted. I choose to believe that this was a last-minute addition to the program and that the organisers didn't look through the lyrics, thinking that fan songs couldn't possibly be offensive. I had greater problems with this than with the poster.

  2. Nisi Shawl here. Glad you enjoyed my speech, Edmund. I had a discussion with Tade and Knud about problems with the poster prior to the convention. Basically the issue IMO is context; the central figure's relationship to the city and ship is unclear. These problems weren't addressed in the changes made.

    However, I thoroughly enjoyed participating in Fantasticon and I am so pleased we met!