Fall and winter science fiction conventions are putting together their programming right now, so my head is full of panel topics.
Panels at sf cons generally feature four or five panelists, usually some combination of writers and editors, though depending on the convention and on the panel topic, panelists might also be reviewers, knowledgeable fans, scientists, artists…anyone who might have something interesting to say. The panel topics are chosen beforehand; they often have humorous or provocative titles, and a brief description of the topic will be provided as well. Sometimes the topics are deliberately vague, to allow for a wide range of discussion; sometimes they are very specific.
When suggesting panel topics, first discard obvious, general topics such as “year’s best new fantasy” or “how to look for an agent.” Those are probably already on the schedule, and probably remain there from year to year. Many conventions have at least some panel descriptions online, so even if you’ve never attended that particular con, you can have a look at what’s been done before. You’ll get ideas for what they’re looking for, and might be inspired by a new twist on an old topic.
It’s also wise to look at the convention itself first; for instance, Readercon in the past has favored complex panel topics along these lines:
The Willing Suspension of Dissed Beliefs (2006)
There are some novels that can seduce us with their worldviews despite our intellectual opposition to the deep authorial philosophies that inform them. One can argue that the secular humanist reading Gene Wolfe or the free-market conservative reading China Miéville becomes, for the duration of the novel, a Catholic or socialist in at least some small recess of their brain. What exactly is going on here between text and reader?
It also helps to work from your own knowledge and interests. If you think it’s cool, it’s likely others will, too. WisCon is a specifically feminist science fiction convention, which solicits panel ideas and participation from its entire membership. As you might imagine, there are many panels related to gender, feminism, activism, etc. Here’s a topic that I proposed one year:
My Big Fat Paranormal Wedding
Instant, unbreakable soul bonds; choosing immortality to be with your lover; arranged marriages to save the world. All these plot tropes in paranormal romance damage or negate the element of choice in relationships. Are these tropes a plot convenience, or symbolic of something deeper in our society’s views on marriage?
I combined my knowledge of paranormal romance with my interests in the craft of writing and in discussing romance and feminism. Those three aspects combined to make the topic complex enough to generate discussion. I also identified some basic elements I’d like to address, which gave panelists something concrete to work with. Finally, there was the catchy title.
My last tip for coming up with topics is making notes during panels. In the course of a discussion, dozens of fascinating ideas and glanced at, discarded, alluded to. Some of those could make great panels for the next year.