Metatopia: a rumination

Anyone who's heard me talk about metatopia in the past couple days: this is not that post. Instead, this is a post about whether I'm confident that it's actually a good idea.

A quick summary: "metatopia" is an umbrella concept for (u|dys)topia stories, meant to highlight the difference between stories that are about (u|dys)topia and stories that simply contain speculative or fantastical governments. The idea is that, most of the time, when someone says "Is this a (u|dys)topia?" the answer is "That's not a metatopic story."

I'm hesitating because I'm not certain that this argument is a harmless semantic distinction. I think it would definitely improve discourse around fiction, but there's another use of (u|dys)topia in discourse that I don't want to attack: describing and critiquing atrocities in the real world.

Yesterday Sabrina Vourvoulias, the leader of the Fantastical Dystopia panel I was on (she volunteered last-minute), published a blog post called "Readercon 27: Confronting the fails." I didn't say anything about the metatopia idea in the panel -- because I came up with it during conversation afterward with Michael Deluca. 

Vourvoulias's post mostly isn't about the Fantastical Dystopia panel -- it focuses a lot more on serious problems on other panels -- but my apprehension about this topic stems directly from her comments during the panel, and what I was thinking while she was talking.

She wrote,

Fantastical Dystopia, on the other hand, was really quite awful. I took on the role of leader the day before, and consequently hadn’t organized it — and it showed. I truly value everyone’s contributions under less than optimal conditions, but things never meshed for us. On the other hand, at least nothing “outright barbarous” (to, fittingly, quote George Orwell) was said or enacted by any panelist — which reportedly happened at other panels on dystopia and apocalyptic fiction.

To the point about none of the panels doing anything "outright barbarous" -- Vourvoulias explored the question of dystopia during the panel by way of describing her own experiences of having grown up in what she described as a dystopic state. I didn't have anything to add to that line of discussion, and an attempt to tie it in to the point I had last made would have functionally amounted to "Listen, I know you're talking about your extensive experience with suffering and horror, but let me tell you how you're wrong about the semantics." And that isn't what I wanted to convey at all, but there would have been no way to make that segue that wouldn't have sounded like that.

The question I'm struggling with, then, is: 

Can I make this argument for a "metatopia" designation at all, without it constituting an attack on the ability of marginalized people to talk about their experience? Regardless of whether the concept helps keep literary discussions on the rails, will it also be a tool to derail real-world accounts of suffering?

My solution to this, I think, is going to be to write the essay I was planning on writing, and discuss this specific concern with some of my professors. In the meantime I plan on not actually sending that panel suggestion until after I decide whether I really feel okay about this concept.