MARCON - and the Panel of Doom
I had a lot of fun at MARCON this year. Some of my personal highlights were getting goosebumps from Gary Braunbeck's reading of his story "For My Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer" from Dark Faith
, the ZombieWalk (pics here), getting to see con-friends and making some new ones (you know who you are!), and the good reception I had at my own reading. There was a lot more, of course, and overall it was a fun mid-sized con. I've been to big cons (GenCon) and small cons (Millenicon), but not anything inbetween like this. It was a distinctly different vibe. But this isn't a con report. Not really.
You see, there was one – only one - bad panel, though. And it was a panel I was on.
There were only two panelists for "Religion in SF" - myself and one Robert P. Lohman (who apparently, according to the program, just brought the machine that goes ping… but left it out of the panel). I really don't know anything about the man – and I don't think I want to. You'll understand why in a moment.
Here's how I started the panel: "I've seen lots of these sorts of panels go south before, where people got upset and felt like they were being attacked. That's not the point of this panel. We will end up talking about real religions, and real historical events in those religions. But if you think I'm insulting you, please, please, say something so that we can come to a better understanding of each other."
Mr. Lohman looked at me, looked at the audience, and said, "Everything that he said he'd do, I'm not going to do." I rested my forehead in my hand.
Only five more minutes passed before Mr. Lohman asked me if I wanted to kill him because of the Thirty Year's War. (My response: "Bwuah?") It wasn't long until Mr. Lohman asserted that all religious leaders do not believe what they "peddle" to the congregation. And a few minutes after that he said that religion only makes people make stupid decisions . And then Mr. Lohman questioned how anyone could make up an alien religion, since we don't know any aliens or their religion.  His participation went downhill from there.
Point is, even though I worked hard to actually address the issue, a lot of people felt cheated. They came to hear about religion in science fiction, not about how one person thought they were right and everyone else was wrong. (Think Richard Dawkins without the charisma and you get the idea of what Mr. Lohman was like.)
So I'm going to recap my basic advice here. If you have questions, post them in the comments. If you were at the panel, be sure to post in the comments, k'ay?
- Do your research - both into the history and the actual faith of any real religion you use. Research both sides of any conflict, and try to see how each side was "right".
- When creating a religion, do not simply take an existing human religion and change a few details - Avatar is an example of Doing This Wrong.
- Fictional religions (or real ones that are used in fiction) should have variations in depth and breadth. There are dissenters, there are unbelievers, and there are questioners. Some people will be callously using faith to get political power, others will be utterly ignoring it to do something they view as good.
- Beliefs have to be logical. If you start with the belief, for example, that someone would be eternally punished for not participating in the ritual... wouldn't it make sense that you force them to participate? On the other hand, what if belief in free will is a big deal? Then you're not going to want to force anyone to do what they don't like.
- There should be a justification for a belief or any contradictions. "Because our High Muckymuck says so" is acceptable, but should be avoided.
- Your "religious people" need to be three-dimensional, not cartoon Snidely Whiplashes. They should also not be cookie-cutter clones. If you think of the character as "the religious one" or "the atheist one" or "the Baptist one", then You Are Wrong. Reverend Book is an example of Doing This Right.
- Your job as a writer is to create empathy with the characters. Not sympathetic, but create empathy. We can even have empathy with a serial killer (Hannibal Lecter, anyone?) – but that doesn't mean we'd actually want to meet them.
- All characters (again, with painfully few exceptions) should think they're Doing The Right Thing. That's where story comes from, dammit – two people truly thinking they're Doing The Right Thing… and doing something completely different.
- Remember the less-often represented religions. The various pagan types still exist - if you're portraying a real human society, why aren't they represented?
- Writing To Prove A Philosophical or Theological Point leads to sucky writing. Period. Use that for a nonfiction essay instead.
- Use a variation of the Bechdel Test. Is there more than one representative of the faith? Do they talk to each other? About something other than their faith? (Note: As I remember it, the Bene Gesserit fail this test in Lynch's version of Dune.
- Honestly, a lot of these problems (gender, race, religion) seem to stem from crappy and/or lazy research & charaterization.
That last point is worth repeating, in big letters.
Honestly, a lot of these problems (gender, race, religion) stem from crappy and/or lazy research & charaterization.
Think about that one a little while.
Hope you also had a great weekend!
 This one's a paraphrase - I can't remember the exact word order. "Stupid" was definitely in there.
 Not joking. It went downhill pretty fast.