io9 Comic-Con Panel: Personal Confessions About the Scifi That Changed Our Lives

We rocked the io9 panel at Comic-Con yesterday, which was devoted to a discussion of science fiction that could change your life. Joining io9 editors Annalee Newitz (hi that's me), Charlie Jane Anders, and Graeme McMillan were Austin "Soon I Will Be Invincible" Grossman, and Patrick "SciFi Wire" Lee. We all talked about life-changing science fiction, as well as world-changing scifi. Plus there were some confessions involving Scotland, Star Trek, and wanting to have sex with aliens. Here are a few highlights, as well as some picks for great scifi to transform your world.

I kicked things off by talking about what it means for science fiction to change your life. Either it can truly alter your entire identity, the way SF often does when you read it as a young adult. Many of us have stories about reading a novel or seeing a TV show that completely altered our world view and made us into dramatically new people (if only in our own minds). Then there is science fiction that can change your mind or opinions without making you a radically different person: I think a lot of SF affects us that way as adults, when our identities are a bit more formed but our opinions are still malleable. I mentioned a few scifi tales intended to change people's minds like The Matrix (whose red pill/blue pill scene has spawned a simple way to explain the process by which people choose to continue believing a pleasant lie or face a difficult truth) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (where humanity must change its destructive ways or perish). I also admitted, later in the panel, that science fiction inspired me in two ways: It made me want to change the world for the better, and set me on my lifelong quest to have sex with aliens.

Next Austin Grossman talked about three novels that he considers a kind of cross-decade trilogy about nerd power and political agency. He described the way William Gibson's Neuromancer offered him a picture of the future that was totally different from his parents' idea of the future: "It didn't contain the Cold War," he said wryly. "It was full of things they didn't understand, like computers." He went on to say that Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon explores the way nerds have always had a vital role in history, and that today's scifi and science geeks are just the latest in a long line of world-changing geeks going back to the 1950s Manhattan Project and even back to classical antiquity. His final pick was Cory Doctorow's latest novel Big Brother, which he said was a present-day speculative novel about geekery as the only possible response to the United States' current "loose understanding of what it means to have civil liberties."

Graeme McMillan confessed that the only thing that rescued him from the horrors of growing up in Scotland was reading science fiction and comic books. His passion for both started with John "Triffids" Wyndham's young adult novel Chocky, and when he grew a little older he became fascinated by comics by his fellow Scot, Grant Morrison — especially Doom Patrol and The Invisibles. "Those comics taught me that there were other worlds out there that I had never realized existed." Later, he said, Morrison's comics got him interested in the writing of Jeff Noon, especially the novel Vurt, which is trippy and philosophical in many of the same ways Morrison's work is.

Charlie Jane admitted she had no memory of her life before science fiction, and that one of her earliest memories is of insisting that everybody at her fifth birthday party play a Doctor Who game, even if they didn't want to. Then she told a story about how she was on a book tour a few years ago, crashing in a group house in Vermont that belonged to an anarchist collective that was boycotting everything and trying very hard to be politically pure. At the time she was reading Ursula LeGuin's amazing novel The Dispossessed, which is about how all societies, no matter how idealistic, can never be perfect. She said that she left the novel behind in the hope that some of the people in that group house would find it and identify with it somehow and maybe learn from it.

Patrick Lee finished off our opening round by talking about how science fiction had helped him feel like there were worlds he could escape to when being the only Korean-American in his neighborhood made him feel like an outsider. He talked about reading Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and others. Star Trek also made a big difference in his life, because he started to see people who looked like himself on television. Plus, he said, it opened up a way for him to connect with other science fiction fans. He beamed at the audience, and said, "My people!" And then everybody cheered.

We talked a little bit about whether science fiction could start changing the world outside the scifi subculture now that Comic-Con has proven that scifi is a mainstream phenomenon. And then people in the audience came up to the mic, and added their own thoughts. We discussed whether scifi should be considered "legitimate" the way literature is, or whether we like the idea of it staying a little bit non-legit because that allows us to get away with telling crazier and more subversive stories. Several people talked about their favorite life-changing stories, including Ender's Game.

We concluded by talking about what scifi tech we'd like to see in real life (Patrick said he wanted a plug in his head, and I said I wanted the wearable computers from Vernor Vinge's latest novel Rainbows End — Austin admitted later that he wants Dr. Horrible's Freeze Ray). And we debated whether scifi can have a negative impact on the world because people become so obsessed with it. I suggested that people can become obsessed with anything, from soccer to the stock market, and that by and large scifi leads to community-building and cool new freedom-fighting organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group whose whole mission would have seemed like scifi 20 years ago.

Thanks to all who came out, and use your io9 swag wisely. We still have some pins and stickers, so if you're at the Con come find us and get some.

Let us know if you took pictures of the panel, and we'll link to 'em!