Underneath it All – Panel Report

I’m going to be blogging about WisCon 31 panels and events as soon as I can after attending them (hint: that’s not so soon), and posting to the relevant sections of THL. When I’ve posted them all, I’ll do a round-up post with links to all of my write-ups, and probably some others I find.

The first panel I attended on Saturday morning was called “Underneath it All,” and featured panelists Elizabeth Bear, Carla M. Lee and Jasmine Ann Smith. It was moderated by Georgie L. Schnobrich. This was not an explicitly feminist discussion, in the end, but I thought it was an interesting one, and so I am posting it along with my other panel write-ups. The panel description in the program was as follows:

So many fantasy books take place literally underground– Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, China Mieville’s King Rat, not to mention countless legends of the fey. What is the allure of hidden tunnels and caves? How do they shape the societies we envision down there? The Underground can be both very safe and very unsafe, compared to “above”.

After Georgie L. Schnobrich got the panel started by asking panelists to introduce themselves and make some opening remarks, Elizabeth Bear brought up the first big discussion-sparking idea, positing that “underground” in fiction represents or links to transformation. All of the panelists were able to think of mythical tales that reflect that idea, and Schnobrich also tied it to the concept of fairy mounds. After entering a fairy mound, she said, characters emerge either diminished or with great gifts – but never unchanged.

Bear pointed out many examples of underground journeys as transformation in Tolkien, as well. Schnobrich, thinking of Tolkien’s dwarves, wondered about the rules of underground cultures and societies. How do they address issues of food and resources? What are the social structures?

Carla M. Lee, who is very interested in horror as a genre, noted that the breakdown of existing social structure is often a motif in horror stories set underground. Characters from the surface travel down, and lose the structures that keep them safe up above. Again, this idea was linked to that of underground journeys as transformative. “There’s something down there,” Bear joked, and Schnobrich was quick to observe that if the characters can survive it, they’ll come out stronger. Jasmine Ann Smith noted that she’s read several books recently that seem to really reflect these ideas of transformation underground.

The conversation shifted fluidly between the transformation idea, and ideas about underground cultures and what they are (or might be) like. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, Schnobrich coined the phrase “subterranean indigenes,” which the panelists enthusiastically pledged to use in their next stories on the subject.

Next, Bear wondered whether, when we talk about the underground, we might really be talking about the subconscious (as she likes to put it, the “lizard brain”), but the discussion shifted toward the practicalities of life underground before this was explored further. Smith brought up The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, which she feels contains some good attention to the details of underground travel.

Bear pondered whether there are horror and adventure story tropes interacting in underground stories, and wondered who is safe underground, and why. Smith and Schnobrich responded that the underground seems to be safe for those who are raised there, or who have very good guides.

Audience members whose nametags I couldn’t read pointed out that the underground can be portrayed as a safe space for ordinary humans in stories where the surface world has become unsafe (as the result of a nuclear holocaust, for example). As another example, Karen Healey, who was also in the audience, brought up mining stories which focus on the importance of mining and the cultures surrounding it, and lay out clear rules which can keep the miners – the underground travelers – safe. Other audience members talked about thresholds, and the idea that one can be safe when in the process of moving from one state to another.

At this point in the conversation, an audience member brought up concerns of gender for the first time, noting that the Earth is often referred to as female or feminine, and wondering whether subterranean indigenes are often or always male, and what this might mean. Schnobrich felt that the perception of underground creatures as male probably has more to do with our cultural assumption of the masculine as default than anything else (if we don’t know for sure what they are, they must be guys!), and it was pointed out that the idea of Earth as feminine is not universal.

I asked about links between underground stories and underwater stories, but the panelists felt that these are generally different things – though Bear did recommend the novel Starfish, by Peter Watts, which features characters who have undergone the kinds of transformations that often occur in underground stories.

After this, the conversation shifted to the ways in which the quest to get to the underground can dominate a narrative, for the last few minutes of the panel. The idea of underground as metaphor for illicit or hidden activity was also discussed. At the end, I was left with a bunch of great ideas to think over and the ambition to write some stories in subterranean settings.


  1. says

    I think that’s probably the direction Elizabeth Bear was gesturing in, yes. I’ve definitely seen work that makes explicit links between physical journeys underground (or in caves or labyrinths and all that sort of thing) and mental journeys and discoveries, and I think it’s a reasonable association to make even in many works where it’s not explicitly signaled by the creator.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    This is going to seem hilariously irrelevant, but:

    Next, Bear wondered whether, when we talk about the underground, we might really be talking about the subconscious (as she likes to put it, the “lizard brain”)

    It’s unfortunate the discussion wandered at this point because I think she’s onto something that’s really potentially significant. A strong illustration in support of her point is from 1983, when Duran Duran recorded “Union of the Snake”, which they explained was about the bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind (lyrics here).

    The video depicts one band member finding an elevator in the middle of a desert that takes him underground where weirdness ensues. There’s a lizard-man featured throughout the video. Underground, the band member finds a little boy who mimics him (inner child?), and by the end the two of them are running for their lives to get back above ground.

    Duran Duran used literary works to inform a lot of their videos back then, which were actually like little mini-movies.

    I think the underground theme frequently represents transformation via facing the inner demons of the unconscious – the horrifying bits of your civilized self that will kill is pressed and who knows what else. I really wish discussion on that specific had gone further. Maybe this should be a question we could tackle, because I have a ton of thoughts on it – even precariously linking it to the concept of “underground” movements which can transform the consciousness of a society.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    …and the point of my jaunt into 80’s pop culture, if it wasn’t clear, was to show just how many places you can see Bear’s interpretation very literally being so signaled.

    Of course, this weekend I saw Pan’s Labyrinth and that was one story in which the underground wasn’t about any sort of transformation. The message I got… I may have to write about on the film site. *grumble*

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