The Ad Astra Experience: A Reflection on Ad Astra 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

As an educator who engages in fandom, I see fandom as a teaching space, by which I mean it is a space for developing new ways of looking at the world. Ad Astra is nominally a Canadian SF writer’s conference, but there is some magic in the slippages between writer and fan, and in my case between academic, writer, and fan. 

I wanted to be on as many panels as possible because I feel that as an academic I have a duty to share knowledge and experience wherever possible. So, being on panels allowed me the space to share some of my ideas and to learn from the ideas and perspectives of others. Having said this, many of the most informative and educational experiences happen between panels, in those random hallway conversations and in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with fascinating people.

I was on 8 panels this year: “The Classics – In Space and Beyond!”, “The Beldam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture”, “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star”, “The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature”, “Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer”, “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World”, “Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen”, and “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”. I had the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and interests and was fortunate  enough to share the experience with brilliant, wonderful panelists who varied from performance artists to authors to academics and, of course, fans. I was impressed by the incredible amount of enthusiasm and passion from all of the people involved, and I think this is the particular magic that comes from a mingling of people who come from varied perspectives to bring their delight and sense of wonder to this collective space.

“The Classics – In Space in Beyond!” in addition to having an amazing title and an exclamation mark (letting us know that we were DEFINITELY in for excitement) allowed for an exciting place for exploring something that I love to explore: adaptation. Texts can shift and change with time and with the interests of people, and this panel explored the notion of a “classic” text and how these classics could become platforms for changes that allow them to shift to include new ideas while maintaining their core, or become spaces where under-represented people can insert their voice or ideas. I have probably talked about this before, but I see fan fiction as an exciting potential space for playing with texts, for shifting them, changing them and asserting new ways of looking at them (as well as allowing for fan agency) and I see a lot of the adaptations of the classics as forms of fan fiction, explorations of new elements of texts and creative engagements. As a panel made up of performance artists, authors, and instructors of literature, we were able to explore the possibilities of investing new energies and new insights into classical texts through adaptation and also the potential dangers in adaptation.

For me, the real magic of the panel “The Bedlam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture” was the exploration of the power of books that feature witchcraft for empowering young people. Often these books feature young people who begin in a situation of powerlessness and gradually are able to shift their circumstances through magic. The wonder of this is that it illustrates to young people that they DO have magic, that they have an ability to change their world by words – not spells, but another form of words, those on the page. They learn that by reading and writing there is a power to challenge assumptions and to change the way we view our world. This type of power results in things like the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that began as a fan group for Harry Potter and changed into a group that takes the Harry Potter texts and uses them to change the world by empowering young people, encouraging them to help get books to those who can’t afford them, and generally by challenging the cultural assumption that young people can’t change their world. This is a special kind of magic – that of empowerment.

The beauty of the “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star” panel was the excitement of the audience, and, particularly, their desire to engage in those communication spaces that allowed for their voices to be shared with the world around them. Many of the attendees were interested in sharing their perspectives, their interests, and their understanding of speculative genres. This excitement underscores why i began blogging, podcasting, and running my own radio show – to provide a space for people to share their voices and their perspectives about the genre that they feel so passionate about and to encourage people to think about and interrogate the works they are reading. 

“The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature” blended a critique of the embedded ‘traditional’ ways that literature is often taught (which are often assumed to be the only ways of engaging with the process of teaching) with new ideas for approaching the process of teaching students about literature. We examined the idea of ‘pedagogy’ (teaching) itself and looked at what this means for our engagements with literature: what do we consider ‘teaching’?, what does teaching inside the classroom look like?, and, of course, my favourite question – how do we extend teaching literature beyond the walls of the classroom. I think that this last question occupied a lot of our time and concentration because many of us engage in the idea of teaching in diverse ways: through providing a space for students to think about how literature and life outside of the book interact with one another, through looking at literature as a medium of empowerment, through encouraging students to think critically about the texts in their lives, and through making ourselves figures who look for learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer” extended the idea of hauntings to encompass an idea of the haunted, spectral space itself. We looked at traditional ghost narratives and how they develop to express cultural issues, representing sort of a cultural icon of our particular cultural preoccupations. Ghosts tie in with the subconscious and represent those things that we deny in our culture, the things that haunt us. We looked at the relationship of ghosts to the texts that they are presented in, whether through the descriptive power of literature or the CGI of film and television, and explored the diversity of ghost narratives and the idea that ghosts are presented in diverse ways in our cultural media to present diverse issues and understandings. Ghosts, as figures who represent that barrier between life and death, become figures who are surrounded by questions and come to embody the idea of questioning ideas themselves. It turns out that the “boo” of the ghost is actually an existential question. 

Of course, right after the ghosts panel, I was able to stay in that space of the undead for “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World” and have a chance to explore the figure of the zombie with two authors of zombie fiction and a costumer. We looked at the changes in the zombie narrative and the current diversity of narratives, while being aware that the zombie narrative in recent years has tended to be inclined toward the infected zombie (the zombie virus). The zombie narrative has been able to shift and change to express the fears, anxieties, and even desires that we have as a society… though when I talked about Claude Lalumiere’s descriptions of wiggling maggots in zombie kisses there were gags around the room (it is always awkward to talk about zombie romance before lunch). We also took the zombie beyond the page and film by talking about how people have used the image of the zombie to make cultural commentaries – through dressing as zombies to protest educational reforms to the CDC’s use of the zombie narrative to create a pandemic preparedness guide. The panel’s exploration was staggering… or maybe shambling… 

“Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen” allowed panelists to explore the shifts and changes that are perpetually happening in the superhero genre as well as the potentials and dangers in the transition from comics to film. The superhero was exposed to the Kryptonite of critique and through that process, like Star Labs, we were able to look at the superhero through new lenses and then turn that lens on the society that creates and needs its superheroes. We looked at the social conditions that make superhero narratives desirable and the changing social conditions that mean that we need to shift and change our superheroes to become representative and dynamic figures. We looked at the different possibilities that the comic book or film media represent and the way that these different media change the figure of the superhero and, by necessity, focus on different issues, needs, and desires. At the end, we were even able to sneak in a little discussion about ‘the gutter’ (the white space between the panels of a comic book) and the incredible creative work and insights that happen in the comic book when the audience has to fill in the narrative between panels. 

One of the highlights of the con for me was the final panel I was on, “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”, because we explored a particular type of fantasy that is generally considered absolutely the most “real” thing possible, and that is “normalcy”. We looked at the potential that the speculative genres have for illustrating that “normalcy” is itself a fiction, something created to embed certain groups in power and to suggest that other groups don’t have worth or value. This clearly hit home for some of the audience members because one member expressed his issues with the notion of changing SF to be inclusive. He told us that we were too disparaging of past SF that portrayed a white, straight, able-bodied male hegemony and expressed his concerns that if SF and other social media changed that he and other straight, white, able-bodied men would “become a minority”. I think this itself illustrates the power of SF to challenge those power structures and to illustrate that the structures that keep groups like straight, white, able-bodied men in power are themselves quite weak and that questions posed by minority groups can destabilize those structures, open new possibilities and fundamentally point out the insecurity surrounding the structures that situate one group as “normal” and therefore naturalize their power when in fact it is as constructed as any fantasy story.

Ad Astra would not have been such an amazing experience if it weren’t for the incredible insights, passions, and interest of the fans. I am so thankful for all of you fans who asked brilliant questions and brought up new ways of looking at the material. I am also extremely thankful for brilliant co-panelists and the co-panelists for these panels included people like Kate Storey, David Lamb, James Bambury, Gail Z Martin, Karen Dales, Gregory Wilson, Kari Maaren, Robert Boyczuk, Douglas Cockell, Erik Buchanan, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, Chris Warrilow,  Peter Prellwitz Dennis Lee, Derek Kunsken, Max Turner, Adam Shaftoe, Cathy Hird, and Charlotte Ashley. Authors, academics, musicians, biologists, podcasters, costume designers, a Wiccan priestess, fans, and a whole lot of people who blended these roles… this complicated mix of panelists made for some amazing interactions and really incredible discussions. 

I want to particularly thank Angela Keeley for all of her hard work at Ad Astra this year. She was both a great resource to presenters and her enthusiasm and interest in the topics of the con really encouraged presenters to be similarly excited, energetic, and engaged in their panels. 

I have to say that my favourite overheard line from the con was “Watch out: things tend to get derailed by the Klingon in the room”. I would imagine that unlike “the elephant in the room”, the Klingon in the room makes him or herself heard.

To discover more about Ad Astra, visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org 

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5 thoughts on “The Ad Astra Experience: A Reflection on Ad Astra 2015

  1. Matt Moore says:

    As someone who was there to witness said Klingon, it is sage advice.

    It was great to see you my friend, and I hope we can do a panel together soon!

  2. Wonderful to see you again, Derek! And yes, kudos to Angela and the programming team.

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