It Was Standing Room-Only in the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy NYCC Panel

Prions! Machetes! Ash ice cream! With topics like that, there’s no wonder that Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy panel at New York Comic-Con 2019 was literally standing room only.

Moderating was author Benjamin Percy (The Dark Net), and his lovely guests were six of the esteemed writers featured in this year’s volume of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Carmen Maria Machado with series editor John Joseph Adams. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenhyah (“Through the Flash” from Friday Black), Lesley Nneka Arimah (“Skinned”), N.K. Jemisin (“The Storyteller’s Replacement” from How Long ’til Black Future Month?), Seanan McGuire (“What Everyone Knows” from Kaiju Rising II), Annalee Newitz (“When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis”), and Brenda Peynado (“The Kite Maker”).

From world-building strategies to restrictive templates in sci-fi and fantasy, a lot of incredible stuff was covered in just 55 short minutes (it honestly felt closer to 20, it went that quickly). Unfortunately, we couldn’t fit everything into this post (trust us: it was practically one-liner after one-liner), but we’ve tried our damnedest to bring you some of the best quotes. Plus, read on until the end for a full transcript of Seanan McGuire’s recipe for “Ash Ice-Cream That Won’t Kill You” (our title)!

On their Best of short stories: 

  • Jemisin: “I basically did it to practice writing frame stories, but also because I wanted to engage with all those fairytales about evil sexual women, evil hungry women. How gluttony is considered to be a terrible thing. And I wanted to lean into that, and so I did. It’s about women who eat their father.”
  • McGuire: “I went to UC Berkeley for a dual major in folklore and herpetology (Go Bears!), and I got really interested in our interactions with and assumptions about reptiles and amphibians, and the way we ascribe human motivations to creatures who literally do not experience love and affection the way humans do. And I figured that kaiju would probably be more similar to them than they are to us.”
  • Newitz: “What I was really concerned about, and I think is the thing that animated the story, was watching social support systems and social services being taken away, watching the government take away support for people who need healthcare, who need housing, who need education…This is a story about when all of those support services are gone, how do people come together to help each other?”
  • Peynado: “I really wanted to explore, as a white-passing Latina, the intersection of people who mean well and think they’re not racist and end up being racist anyway, and white guilt in a general way. For me, the story was a lot about exploring that sort of sense of guilt, and yet still continuing to do harm and not wanting to acknowledge that and not wanting to apologize in a meaningful way.”
  • Adjei-Brenyah: “My inspiration was I wanted a story where the most powerful, the most badass person in the world was a young black girl, and so that’s what I did. I was also using this person who’s very powerful to explore what are the limits of morality or evil…This character Alma has become basically superpowered, and because time has reset, she got a chance to do every single thing to everybody, and she got to the very bottom of evil in a way that in a normal lifetime you might not get a chance to, often.”
  • Arimah: “It takes place in a world where women must be naked until they are married. So you live your entire life under your father’s clothing until you reach the age, which varies [between] 9 to 15, and then you are disrobed, and then you have to go about naked in public until you are married and your husband gives you his cloth, which you wear, and his protection. And I was inspired by the patriarchy.”

On confronting and subverting templates of sci-fi and fantasy: 

  • Jemisin: “I have spent probably the bulk of my career reacting against those templates. Because so many of them are so restrictive and in many ways so shallow. Science-fiction and fantasy have so much potential, and it’s hampered by this constant attempt to narrow down the potential of the field into ‘Well, if you’re going to write fantasy, you’d better write European guys with swords.’ There’s this constant attempt to say this is what these templates have to be.”
  • McGuire: “Revision is one of the oldest human narratives. We change things every time we tell them. We think we’re reciting them exactly as they were originally told to us, because we focus on the parts that are important to us. The Princess and the Frog always made me angry, because why the hell would you want an awesome talking frog to turn into a dude? […] A lot of people object to fairytales because ‘Fairytales are so white.’ Most of the fairytales the Brothers Grimm collected did not necessarily have white origins. Literally the only fairytale princess whose appearance matters at all is Snow White, who is what we call an Aarne-Thompson tale type 709, and Snow White matters because she looks like a fucking murder clown. She is not a pretty, pretty pale lady. She has skin as white as snow and hair as black as coal and lips as red as blood. That is a vampire!”
  • Newitz: “The more we deviate from those safe confines [of genre fiction], the more dangerous the story starts to feel, the less safe it is. Sometimes, it veers all the way into the super jaggedy realm of literature, which is really scary and often not escapist and intended to grind your face in the machete of reality. … I like to pull out some of the safeties, but also leave in some of the comfort. I want to give you the long, boring lessons… but I also want you to have a good time.”
  • Peynado: “I read science-fiction and fantasy when I was young, but as a Latina I was mostly reading Latin American magical realism, and then dove into literary fiction in my MFA. I end up writing across genres. I won’t say that genre doesn’t exist, or that I’m not drawing from tropes, but I will say that it’s kind of all mushed in my head. It’s like play-doh that has been mushed a lot. And it’s just kind of whatever comes out. I’m like, ‘Look at that, this one’s science fiction, there’s an alien.'”
  • Adjei-Brenyah: “With the timeloop, what was important for me in making it my own was instead of it being this one person who remembers through the flash, it was several people. Because I think Groundhog Day and the Tom Cruise [movie Edge of Tomorrow] are very much into that sort of individual guy [being] the answer. What’s happening in my story is there’s one girl who seems to be that Tom Cruise person, but then also everyone around her is coming through the flash, everyone has that ability to retain and understand beyond that. So for me, that’s where the fun and energy came from.”
  • Arimah: “My reading has always been, I have no respect for genres, in the sense that I have never been the sort of person who elevates any literary tradition over another…When I write, I also have no respect for genres. I write everything from dirty realism to works that are fantasy and science fiction, because for me, it’s less about writing a specific genre and more about, ‘What does this story demand?’ …My allegiance is to the story and for me, that’s what’s paramount.”

On world-building strategies:

  • Arimah: “Mind your business. You have to make sure your character minds their business. I feel like when people start writing speculative fiction and building a world, there is an impetus to pack everything that you think of and throw it on the page…If your character Glorp always goes around with purple grass, then they are not going to comment on it, right?…If your character is the vector through which this world comes to them, then what is it they are noticing? It means there’s a lot of things you need to leave off the page. Those things you leave off the page would almost be artificial to cram in, which sort of ruins that suspension of disbelief. It’s like someone telling a lie, and telling you too much detail, so there’s something off about that. I feel the same way with writing fiction and world-building, where you’re selling the lie of this world that’s not at all like ours.”
  • Adjei-Brenyah: “Especially with the short story, I do think very particularly about those first couple of pages almost as an indoctrination period. I want them to feel like they’re getting to the story, but I also can’t overflow it with random details about this world….I try to, on the line level, keep the voice very engaging and interesting, and hope that in the story where the world is pretty disparate from our own, that slight tension between what they might expect and what I’m writing causes them to lean in, and they don’t even realize that they almost learned a new language.”
  • Peynado: “One of the things that I talk about on the first day [in my world-building class] with my students is thinking about world-building as what’s wrong and what’s right in the world. Where’s the conflict in the story? Stories are all about conflict. So only develop where the conflict is in the world. And then, for things to go wrong, there also have to be stakes. So on the converse, what do your characters love, and what is at stake for them to lose when things go wrong in the world? …I try to build that love and wrongness in every world that I start building.”
  • Newitz: “There’s this science fiction movie I think from the ’50s called Robot Monster. We finally meet the robot monster, and the robot monster says, ‘I am Ro-Man from the Planet Ro-Man.’ To me, that’s the opposite of what I want to do in world-building. I want there to be complexity, but of course, as folks have been saying, you also can’t have all the complexity on the page. Otherwise you’re just playing DND, which is great, but it’s not a novel.”
  • McGuire: “In fiction, we expect the world to make sense. The world does not make sense. There will always be things in a well-built world that jut out at the wrong angle, that don’t fit into the rest of the setting…The more your character would know, the more you have to tell your audience. You also have to remember that neurodivergent people exist in all populations, so there will always be someone willing to data-dump if you go to where the scientists are. That’s fine. But your world will be expected to make sense, because it’s fiction. We want fiction to make sense. We don’t want to live in a world where a brain-shrinking fungus can just suddenly crop up in Australia when it’s native to China, as it did yesterday. I’m so proud of it.”
  • Jemisin: “For those of us that are writing in fabulous or fictional frames, the thing that should be the sense of wonder is the magic, or the strangeness, the thing that isn’t normal compared to our world. The people should not be the thing that makes you go ‘What the fuck?’ The functioning of nature and animals and prions and machetes, whatever, should not be the thing that kicks you out of the story.”

Seanan McGuire’s recipe for Ash Ice-Cream That Won’t Kill You [Context: Earlier in the panel, Annalee Newitz makes a comment about sometimes wanting to give audiences (metaphorical) chocolate ice cream, and sometimes “weird-ass ice cream made with ash and plum leavings.”]:

McGuire: “If you’re going to make ash ice cream, you need to put really careful consideration into what you’re burning. Oleander ash is still toxic. Bone ash can make you very sick. Also, you are now eating a person, and as we’ve already established, you’re not allowed to do that.” [More context: there was a running joke about getting prions from cannibalism.]

(Newitz: “It doesn’t have to be human bone!”)

McGuire: “If you want to make ash ice cream, I suggest going to your grandmother’s house, where a pesticide has never touched her roses ever, gather about a dozen roses’ worth of petals, dry them, burn those. You will get a very fine ash that will blend well with a vanilla or sweet cream base. What you shouldn’t do is start burning random shit because you want to make genius ice cream, which is apparently ash, because most of you will die and we will get in trouble.”

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