Can Sci Fi change society?

By Kirstin Morrell

It was a culture of worship, where fiction writers were gods. As a writer, how could I argue?

Mount Royal College hosted the "Symposium on SF and Social Change" Feb. 6-7, mixing scholars, writers and enthusiastic readers.

Many journalists posed the question of whether or not speculative fiction can change the world. This is a disservice to the real questions posed by some of Canada’s greatest thinkers on the subject. The hows and whys were the real meat of this gathering.


The unofficial first night of the symposium was a free reading, hosted by the Calgary Public Library from three Canadian literary greats: Robert J. Sawyer, Candas J. Dorsey and Timothy J. Anderson.

I recognized few faces in the lobby, a sad testament to the fragmentation of Calgary’s science fiction and fantasy community.

Only some of those I spoke to even realized Calgary has had an annual SF/F convention for the past 20 years.

I got into the theatre just in time to catch the symposium’s organizer, Dr. Randy Shroeder, introduce the guests and start the reading.

Sawyer was the first to pose the question that would drive this weekend: is science fiction meaningful or merely escapist? He didn’t answer with a sentence, but rather a story.

He wrote Immortality for an anthology launched at last year’s 61st World Science Fiction Convention. Immortality did not preach the message of equality, instead it showed the pain past injustice still causes.

Anderson, ever the flawless performer, poked fun at a future version of the Nigerian chain mail message in his story, while Dorsey read a tale of an old religion living underground in a new religion’s society.

Sadly, I could not understand why the local SF/F writers’ group was conspicuously absent from the reading, except that their monthly meeting coincided with this event. Sometimes one can look too far inward, to the exclusion of a world of possibility.


Friday was devoted to the reading of academic papers analyzing speculative fiction. Neophytic acolytes threw around terms of the secret language of English literature scholars, to the sad exclusion of ordinary people in the crowd. "Semiotics," "agency," even "icon" all used in ways I could not understand. I needed a glossary.

Many in the audience complained that, unlike their home fields of study in the sciences, people simply read from their papers and no one really presented.

However, the occasional brilliant thought did erupt from certain papers.

University of Northern British Columbia’s Jacqueline Plante postulated the nature of desire is not the presence of wanting, but an absence deeply felt.

By the end of the first day, I felt extremely discouraged in my field of study. Is this what English majors do? Is this how we contribute?

If anything, Friday had the opposite of the intended effect. Certainly these people all take science fiction very seriously. I was now having a harder time with that belief.

English literature, as a field of study, was always so full of passion and meaning for me. As we studied the poetry of Larkin or the prose of Lawrence, we were dissecting the horrors and common, everyday desires of our shared existence. At its root is the belief we can build on the knowledge discovered and recorded in the past, formulate new knowledges and pass them on in our writings.

In the final session, Dorsey and Anderson battled with the question of whether predictions effect change, or if they are merely predictive. In their vast insight, they turned the discussion to ask a far more important question. If SF can effect change, is this necessarily a good thing?

In any case, the participants had to dine. So at the end of the day, many adjourned downtown to a restaurant to continue arguments and intellectual naval gazing in a more social fashion.


Saturday’s schedule dove directly into the reading of several papers, and I did not regret sleeping in. Lunch was where those like Sawyer, Mason and others debated everything from the subjective nature of time to the future of the publishing industry.

Every seat was full for the final session, a plenary featuring Sawyer, Dorsey and Anderson struggling to answer the questions posed over the weekend. Their combined insights included warnings: every writer is a product of his or her age, current SF is bound to the realities of modern economics, and maybe the process of writing happens on too long a timeline to capture the pace of change.

The planned events were now over. That evening saw the die-hards follow the troika of writers to a Chinese restaurant where they packed the back room to overflowing.

I managed to interview Dorsey and Dr. Shroeder together. Between them, thoughts on the nature of speculative fiction and the creative process flowed and combined to divine insights I could not begin to understand. These writers live and think on a plane most of us in the audience can only observe from a distance.

After eating, the truly keen went with Sawyer to soak up more caffeine in a downtown coffeehouse until after midnight. A few didn’t want to say good night at the end.

I found it fascinating to watch a man so many people are drawn to, who still communicates with them as an equal. Sawyer was the one bridge between the truly esoteric levels of thought and those like me, who live on a plane with the majority.

However, I did not realize his true contribution until I heard a recording of his keynote address, days later. He did not lord over us with lofty concepts or browbeat us with his intellect. Instead, he guided us and showed us how to think of a future beyond anyone’s prognostications.

Thinking back on the weekend, I realize the conference was sadly not meant for people like me. It was wonderful to be privy to the secret underground, where silent smiles are exchanged between peers who found each other in the crowd.

Networking was the real bustling underground city of these days. Intellect was drawn to intellect and I’d like to believe some ideas were exchanged, some fires stoked.

When you bring minds like Dorsey, Anderson and Sawyer together, the resulting conflagration is a spectacle to watch. However, the real symposium took place in the restaurants and coffee shops and even in the hallways between sessions.

Many voices doubted SF was anything other than a shout in the dark. I disagree. If nothing else, these blazing exchanges of ideas inspired me.

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