We got a late start and by the time we had breakfast and got ready to hit the panels, we’d missed the 10 am panel we wanted to see. Then in the lobby, we got into a conversation and missed the 11 am panel. But we did make it to the noon panel.
NOTE: The photos of the panelists were taken with available light from two or three rows back so are a bit grainy. I did some Photoshop work to get the panelists to stand out from the darkness. But hope you’ll get the idea of who was there. Panelist are always listed left to right from the audience point of view or as you look at the photo.
Noon: Unexamined Assumptions in SF.
Panel: Mikki Kendall, James L. Cambias (leader), Kenneth Schneyer, Darrell Schweitzer, Anil Menon.
Description: In a 2011 blog post, James Cambias complained of “[convention] attendees and panelists dusting off old, unexamined assumptions” in SF. For much of its history, SF developed a set of unexamined assumptions that became default conventions of the genre—that space exploration will move systematically outward from the moon to the planets, that the explorers will be cisgender heterosexual American or European males, that aliens will fight us in (peculiarly two-dimensional) space battles, and so on. 21st-century SF has made some notable efforts to roast these chestnuts, but it has its own set of assumptions, which this panel will mercilessly dissect and offer alternatives to.
Some questions were raised and dealt with such as: Why would you have clone slaves when born people are certainly cheaper. Why would any alien want to come all the way to Earth when whatever the book/movie/whatever gives as a reason could certainly be found in their own solar system? Schweitzer suggest the only reason would be if people of Earth tasted good making us alien sushi.
There was also a lot of talk about the economics of SF and fantasy and how they seldom, if ever, seem to apply. Why is a post apocalyptic society uniform? Shouldn’t they all be varied by which small group survived with their culture attached but changed for the harsher environment?
The thought was raised that in many SF stories they could just as easily take place without space. Why doesn’t any SF story show how we got from here to, say, the Star Trek universe where everything is peacefully one Earth government and a kind and benevolent Federation? Does the expectations of the audience fashion the story?
1:00 PM. The Autopsy, Postmortem Changes, and Decomposition: A Primer for Writers.
Speaker: Laura Knight.
Description: What happens after we die? Despite the incredible surge in popularity of forensic science in popular media, many myths and misunderstandings continue to surround the autopsy, and postmortem changes like rigor mortis and subsequent decomposition are often misrepresented. Further, medical examiners and coroners have often been depicted as insensitive and crude, eating a sandwich in one hand while wielding a bloody scalpel in the other. Dr. Laura Knight, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner, will present actual autopsy photographs, along with a non-sensational narrative description of the autopsy process and a detailed explanation of the changes to the body after death.
Dr. Knight gave an enlightening and tight presentation that actually fit in the time allotted and allowed for a short Q&A. She had a slide show to accompany her talk. She began with the difference between Coroners and Medical Examiners (M.E.), the training required for an M.E., then she went over how an actual autopsy is performed (the sequence, the standard items that are looked for, and some of the problems that arise).
The room was very warm and the pictures rather graphic. A couple of people had to leave during the talk. If any author is writing a crime story and needs to have a forensic autopsy as part of the discover of the cause of death, they would find this topic extremely helpful — It’s not like seen on CSI Anywhere.
2:00 PM. The City and the Strange.
Panel: Howard Waldrop. Ellen Kushner, Stacy Hill, Leah Bobet, Amanda Downum, Lila Garrott (leader).
Description: In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes, “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy demonstrates that epic-feeling fantasy can still take place entirely within the confines of a single city. Fictional metropolises such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris, China Miéville’s New Crobuzon, and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest are entire worlds in themselves, and the fantasy cities of Lankmar and Ankh-Morkpork shine as centers of intrigue and adventure. In what other works, and other ways, can cities be stand-ins for the lengthy traveling quest of Tolkienesque fantasy?
The panelists talked about some of the differences between real cities and made up cities. Made up cities must have a feeling to the reading of a history of culture and they need to work. Real cities are not homogenous they have small pockets or neighborhoods that vary from those neighborhoods that surround them. It was agreed that some of this information could be supplied via impressions rather than specific information.
Someone on the panel said they remembered a quote that, I paraphrase from my notes, “the city is where you go to meet people you don’t know and aren’t related to.”
Further discussion centered on hidden world cities or 2nd world cities in fantasy and the city as a wilderness or unknown territory as much as the country setting could be unknown territory.
3:00 PM. Theories of Reading and Their Potential Insights into Fantastika.
Panel: Shira Daemon, Eric M. Van, Gayle Surrette, John H. Stevens (leader/speaker), Suzy McKee Charnas, Rick Wilber, Kate Nepveu.
Description: We talk about reading at Readercon every year, but we rarely talk about our understanding of reading as a mental process of cultural practice. John H. Stevens will summarize some recent theories of reading from neurological, psychological, anthropological, and literary perspectives, followed by a discussion about what these ideas might be able to tell us about how we engage, interpret, and codify fantastic literature. In what ways is fantastika read like any other sort of text, and in what ways might we read (and write?) it differently?
I was on this panel but as with the other panelist, just got to listen to John’s presentation from a front row seat. The top photo above were the three of us to the left of John Stevens from the audience point of view and the smaller photo are the panelists to the right of Stevens. Unfortunately, Suzy McKee Charnas was directly behind Stevens from where my husband was sitting so doesn’t show in the photo.
John’s talk took up the entire time for the panel since there were several questions from the audience. His material is fascinating and he’s writing a book on the topic covering theories of reading from several different disciplines — anthropology, sociology, and neurology. He’s also been blogging about his research and musing on SF Signal in his column The Bellowing Ogre.
Visit to the Book Dealers Room:
One of the wonderful things about Readercon is that they have only book sellers in their Dealers’ Room. Unfortunately, even though I review books, I also buy a goodly number of books. I also love looking at the covers of books that I’ve only see the advanced reader copy of — and most of the time with no cover art.
Then we met friends for dinner and catching up on what panels they went to while at Readercon.
8:00 PM. Critical Fictions & Other Fabulous Beasts; or, Learning to Read and Write All Over Again.
Speaker: Henry Wessells.
Description: You think you know how to read? This look at critical fictions and other modes of reading/writing will suggest that it might be time to learn it all over again. The critical fiction is a piece of fiction or poetry where form (story) and content (critical function) are inseparable, a work of art that explicitly declares itself as a critique of another work of literature and explicitly makes use of that earlier source text. Henry Wessells will cover the precursors, techniques, and current practitioners of the critical fiction, and tell you why. Is it literary mash-up for people who shudder at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Come find out. See the suggested reading list at http://criticalfiction.net/readinglist.html.
I was excited by the topic description but rather disappointed in the actual lecture. The room was warm and Mr. Wessells read several poems and a short story, as well as an introduction to a book. The introduction he read might have been more interesting if it had been pared down to the part essential to forming a definition of ‘critical fiction’ rather than so centered on the one author and book. I totally fail to see the difference between critical fiction, homages, and pastiches. When asked about this he said it depended on the author’s intent, guess that’s a great reason to read the introductions and forwards to books and stories — to get a heads up from the author.
I plan to check out the link to the suggested reading list, since I’m sure that my failure to grasp what Wessells was more on my side than his due to the hour and the temperature of the room. Any one interested in the topic based on the description should check out the site listed in the description.
We then called it a night but on the way to our room got folded into a conversation in the lobby — thus another late night for us.
Slept in a bit late on Friday. Well didn’t sleep well — never do the first night in a new place. Got up and ready to go. Registration opened at 10:00 AM. There was a program item we wanted to see at 11 so we made sure to get down to registration on time. The line was already quite lengthy. I got my registration material in the green room but my husband had to go through the pre-reg line. That’s when we hit the first snag. His registration wasn’t there so back in line for the at-the-door and filling out the forms. Finally completed the process at ll:32 AM.
If you’ve been here before you know that registration is down a side hallway. It was crowded and hot, very hot. Many of the people leaving were joking about forming a registration survivors support group. It was truly amazing that people didn’t spontaneously combust from either heat or bad tempers, especially those working at registrations who didn’t get to leave that heat for much longer than those getting registrations. That doesn’t even take into considerations the problems with some of the technical equipment. GOOD JOB in a bad environment, people.
The first panel we managed to get to was at noon.
Noon: Muzzling the Horse’s Mouth.
Panelists: Graham Sleight, Veronica Schanoes (leader), David G. Hartwell, Michael Dirda, Ruth Sternglantz.
Description: Conventions, zines, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook provide many venues for writers to shape the dialogue around their works. When it’s hard to avoid information about what a writer intended, how does that affect the critical reading experience? As readers and as critics, can we feel confident that we would have seen on our own what the writer has revealed to us? How do we differentiate and prioritize between our own insights and those shared by the author? Does the writer’s emphasis on some aspects of a work make it harder to see other aspects? And what happens when the critic’s desire to convey information about a work—such as an author’s stated intentions—comes into conflict with the critic’s desire to demonstrate a viable personal reading of the text?
What that description all boils down to is: does an author’s published intent about his work effect the critical reader? Many felt that the text should speak for itself and if the author’s intent doesn’t get borne out by the text than the readers interpretation is just as valid as the author’s.
The topic did move onto the difference between reviews and criticisms. Reviews are for people who haven’t read the book and criticisms are for those who have read the book. It was felt that all reviews are subjective views for the reviewer. Panel members felt that the best reviewers present a sincere response to the work. Readers get to know a reviewer’s taste and can then learn to trust the reviewer to either be close to their own taste or opposite to their taste. (Personally, I had one reviewer that I knew if that person hated the work then there was a good chance I’d enjoy it.)
Panel talked about how many times what you get out of the text is sufficient to enjoy the work. However, with some books a second reading can add richness and texture to your experience. (This was mostly said in relationship to the works of Gene Wolfe.)
Another interesting side issue was on audio books. There was the feeling that audio books add a paratext as the narrator (not author) reads the book using pacing, inflections, and other performance tricks that may change the experience for the listener to be different from that of a reader. [In a panel on Saturday, a blind woman talking about text-to-speech readers said she preferred the mechanical reader rather than a person because it allowed her to get an experience more like reading — when she was sighted.) Ruth Sternglantz said (and I’m paraphrasing) that audio books are not reading text but a reading of the text.
1:00 PM: Theological Debate in Fantasy and SF.
Panel: John Benson, Ellen Asher, James Morrow, Sonya Taafte, Harold Tonger Vedeler.
Description: From Spenser and Bunyan to Michael Chabon and Stephenie Meyer, writers of speculative fiction have engaged in fine-grained, subtextual theological positioning and debate. Leaving aside instances of more obvious religious maneuvering, what happens when implicit or encoded theological dialogues become invisible to readers, either because the passage of time has stripped away their contexts (as with, say, High Church vs. Low Church Anglicanism in Victorian fiction), or because they are only available to the initiated (as with Meyer’s LDS-inflected fantasy)? Are these vanishings a loss? Is there something insidious about books whose surface narratives conceal debates to which we lack access, or do these dimensions enrich the texts? Are we ‘better’ readers if we try to suss them out?
Religion for the purposes of this panel was defined as “God is in the details.”
Reader may get the moral message from a work but not the actual religious underpinnings. Panel and audience talked about specific books such as reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as a young person and understanding the right/wrong, good/evil, strength of family unit, etc. but totally missed the Christian message. One person said they actually thought it was a Mithras tale.
The writer doesn’t necessarily add religious underpinning but the religion is so much a part of the writer’s world view and core beliefs that it is intrinsic to how he or she see and interacts with the world and thus it shows in the text.
There was also a lively discussion of whether it even mattered if you didn’t recognize the religious underpinnings. Was the reader’s enjoyment any less valid if they didn’t get it? Most thought that it didn’t really matter if they recognized which religion if they got the basic moral message being conveyed.
One comment that I found interesting was that mysticism is flexible and theology is not. I hadn’t really thought of it in this way before but did see it as being more or less a valid way of looking at things.
2:00 PM: Serendipity in the Digital Age.
Panel: David G. Shaw (L), John Benson, John Clute, Michael J. DeLuca, Kathryn Morrow, Michael Dirda.
Description: Libraries are closing off their stacks from patrons and sending robots to retrieve requested books; brick-and-mortar bookstores are being supplanted by Amazon’s massive warehouses and recommendation engines. While these arrangements increase efficiency on the business end, they destroy serendipity on the reader’s end. Yet sites like Wikipedia and TV Tropes give us what Randall Munroe called “hours of fascinated clicking,” trails of discovery that strongly resemble the old-fashioned bookstore or library experience. Can those sites teach us how to recreate browsing in our browsers? Should Amazon look more like the new online edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia?
We all love to browse in bookstores and library stacks. However, more and more libraries have closed stacks and many bookstores are closing or there are none near you and you end up with online sites that have recommendation engines which are often not really your taste or not finding things by chance.
On the other hand the panel agreed in principle that we’ve never really had true serendipity since bookstores and libraries don’t have everything but only what the buyers believe the patrons will want. There’s always been a limiting factor on what we can browse and that hasn’t changed. So, we need to try harder to find that gem that wouldn’t normally be the kind of thing you read but that you stumble across anyway.
3:00 PM: Anthropology for Writers.
Panel: James L. Cambias, John H. Stevens (L), Christopher M. Cevasco, Francesca Forrest, Harold Torger Vedeler.
Description: In a 2011 blog post, Farah Mendlesohn wrote, “‘Worldbuilding’ as we understand it, has its roots in traditions that described the world in monolithic ways: folklore studies, anthropology, archeology, all began with an interest in describing discrete groups of people and for that they needed people to be discrete.” This panel will discuss the historical and present-day merging and mingling of real-world cultures, and advise writers on building less monolithic and more plausible fictional ones.
The conversation among the panelists was interesting and wide ranging but the key to this panel was summed up at the very beginning by Harold Torger Vedeler in three points:
- Worlds must change over time allowing the characters to act in a historical context.
- No world is homogenous. Story may look at only one group but the other societies will have an impact on that one.
- People often say one thing and do another. They may idealize their culture but then what they actually do doesn’t agree with that idealized culture.
4:00 PM: Sherlock Holmes, Now and Forever.
Panel: Veronica Schanoes, Ellen Asher, Michael Dirda, Victoria Janssen, Fred Lerner.
Description: Sherlock Holmes is everywhere right now: in TV series like House, BBC’s Sherlock, and the upcoming Elementary; in the Robert Downey Jr. movies; and in books and stories being written about Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What accounts for the endless appeal of this character? Are we ever going to get tired of brilliant and slightly mad detectives? Or is it all really about Watson, as suggested by our collective urge to keep telling and retelling Holmes’s stories?
Lively and interesting points were made by the panelist and the audience. The key element, it was agreed, to remember is that there is a distinction between the stories by Conan Doyle and the interpretation of the stories in movies and in other media and the continuation or addition of new material by others writing about Holmes and Watson.
Key reasons why the stories are still popular was thought to be the atmosphere of the stories and the friendship of the two main characters.
Evening: We decided to call it a day. Went out for dinner and found Brave was showing so went to see it more on that later.
That’s it for Friday. I hope to have my Saturday of Readercon report up soon.
We got out of the house just about on time — meaning we were an hour late (11:00 AM) and we arrived at the hotel at 9:30 PM.
After the drive and several slow downs along the way, we arrived just as the ambulance and fire department were finishing up. The next morning we had a note under the door saying that the alarm in the lobby had been pulled accidentally. [We heard later that someone got distracted when talking and tried to open a door but instead grabbed the alarm. I don't know if this is what actually happened but it is plausible.] We thought that explained the ambulance but today (June 14th), we learned that while setting up his booth in the Bookstore, one of our book-dealer friends suffered a heart attack. We were of course shocked to hear this and are hoping he’s doing well and recovers quickly.
Anyway, the hotel, as always, is comfortable and since we’ve been coming to Readercon for several years now it’s a known facility. The programming is all on the same floor at ground level. The lobby is available for sitting and talking and there’s an in-hotel pub for talk and a drink. The con suite is again on the 6th floor and the Kaffeeklatches are on the 8th floor.
We checked in and essentially called it a night. Guess we’re not as young as we used to be, but then who is.
The start of a whole new day. Managed to get down to the Book Shop to open on time. We moved one of our bookshelves in order to help get traffic to our table when authors are doing signings. We’re right next to the autograph tables and when the lines get long they block off our table because we’re closer and we become inaccessible. Moving one bookcase seemed to ease the press so even if the lines were longer we still got customers. Of course this move was aided by the author close to us moving his chair closer to the other author’s chair so they could talk and none of the rest of the day’s authors moved it back to center on that table.
But still business so far is far less than it was last year but the conversation about books, reading, the rise of ebooks, and other topics has been entertaining, enlightening, and fun. If tomorrow doesn’t improve in sales we’re not even going to break even this year with the travel and hotel costs.
11:00 AM: Book Design and Typography in the Digital Era.
Panelists: Neil Clarke, Ken Liu, Erin Kissane, David G. Shaw (leader), and Alicia Verlager.
Description: Design and typography can heighten the experience of reading a written work; in the case of poetry, typesetting can be crucial to comprehension and interpretation. eReaders can change font sizes with the press of a button, making books far more accessible to people who have visual limitations or just their own ideas about how a book should look. What happens when these worthy goals are at odds? Will the future bring us more flexible book design, much as website design with CSS has become more flexible as browser customization becomes more common? Or will we see the book equivalent of Flash websites where the designer’s vision is strictly enforced.
Ken Liu gave a quick history of the book from scroll to codex. First there was the scroll but you didn’t have random access to it — you always had to roll and unroll the entire thing to find what you wanted. With a codex or book you could go right to the page. More of the development of the book driven by the desire to print the bible and get access quickly to the parts you wanted.
China also had the scroll and they went to whirlwind books. These books were still more scroll-like but the bottom layer was a long scroll page and the top was a slightly shorter one and so forth. When unrolled completely the shorter layers curled up looking like whirls. This was developed for a dictionary and it was a way to solve the random access problem.
Now we have the ebook which handles the random access aspect quite well to search for an item but the return to the section you were reading is not always easily or correctly handled.
They talked about design issues and the conversion problems of print to ebook. For newer books you still have the electronic file and that makes conversions a bit easier but for older books the scan, OCR, run through converter formula that many places are using create awful books, making those who run into these badly converted/formatted books think all the books are like that. There was general agreement that more quality control for editing the OCR’d book and cleaning up HTML needed to be added. It’s mostly the small publishers doing this and the larger publishers are watching and learning from them.
Verlanger, who is blind, and has a technology blog where she writes about accessibility issues with technology among other tech-topics, spoke about the problems of back code which make the books inaccessible simply because they can’t be read by the programs used to translate text into speech. Scanners on the lowest quality setting sometimes create files where the images are not even identified as images by the OCR programs and weird groupings of letters are are added into the text/speech confusing the listener. Also DRM came up, in that a lot of the programs DRM for PDF and other formats identify the text-to-speech programs as illegal pirating software and do not allow the access at all.
Many issues were discussed and if you were interested in book design and conversions to ebooks and their utility this was a panel with a wealth of information for the audience.
Then it was back to the Book Shop and our table for an hour.
1:00 PM: Urban (Fantasy) Renewal.
Participants: Toni L.P. Kelner, Craig Laurance Gidney, Leah Bobet (leader), Ellen Datlow, and John Clute.
Description: The term “urban fantasy” has encompassed the work of Charles Williams, a contemporary of Tolkien who sometimes situated his fantasy in London or suburban settings as opposed to a pastoral secondary world; the novels and short stories of Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, or Robin Hobb (as Megan Lindholm); the phantasmagoric cities of China Mié or Jeff VanderMeer; and most recently, the magical noir of Jim Butcher and Charlaine Harris. Is it possible to reclaim “urban fantasy” as a useful critical term? Rather than wring our hands at how it no longer means what it did, can we use it to examine what these very different writers have in common, and to what degree they reflect different eras’ anxieties around and interests in the urban?
John Clute read a definition that he’d put together for his Encyclopedia of Fantasy. It was a good one and quite long and I couldn’t write it all down. One part I remember and I’m pretty sure it’s from this section was that the city is so much a part of the story and the characters environment that it’s just “the city” — any big metropolitan city but usually London, NY, Paris…
There was also some talk about urban fantasy that wasn’t contemporary but most felt that modern readers expected urban fantasy to be contemporary rather than set in the distant past.
The panelists also tossed around the term rural fantasy, suburban fantasy, and paranormal romance and how it differed from urban fantasy. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance differ in how central to the story the search for a mate is. In urban fantasy, you may find your mate but it’s not the central core of the story while in paranormal romance it is the central to the story.
An interesting panel with some very interesting views on labels and these labels in particular.
Worked with Hyperion at the SFRevu table until closing at 6:00 PM. We then had an hour until my panel at 7.
7:00 PM: The One Right Form of a Story.
Panelists: John Langan, Meghan McCarron, Gayle Surrette (leader), Marilyn “Mattie” Brahen, and Judith Berman.
Description: Quoth Mark Twain: “There are some books that refuse to be written…. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written– it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself.” Anyone who has adapted a fairy tale for a poem or developed a short story into a novel might disagree, yet many authors have also spent years chasing stories that evade capture until they’re approached in just the right way. What makes some stories easy-going and others stubborn? Is the insistence on a story “telling itself” a red herring? And what does “form” really mean here?
This was one of the easiest panel I’ve ever moderated. From the first question the panelists just played off one another, building on or suggesting ideas until I opened it for questions. Each shared experiences where the story didn’t work and wouldn’t come together as they imagined it until they found the core or the character that the story was about. That form was when all the pieces fit because the creative and intellectual side worked together and the writer found the thread the story wove around. (This is my comprehension of the discussion and I was avidly listening but also concentrating on seeing that everyone got a chance to contribute.)
8:00 PM: I’ve Fallen (Behind) and I Can’t Get (Caught) Up
Panelists: Michael Dirda, Jennifer Pelland, Craig Laurance Gidney, Don D’Ammassa, and Rick Wilber.
Description: In a recent blog post for NPR, Linda Holmes wrote, “Statistically speaking, you will die having missed almost everything…. There are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling or surrender.” How do you choose among the millions of books that you could be reading? Do you organize your “to read” books or are all your books “to read” books? How useful are books reviews, Amazon recommendations, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc.? How do you budget your limited reading time? And how do you cope with the knowledge that you will never read everything you want to?
In other words — how do you pick what to read in your TO-BE-READ (TBR) pile when it’s larger than any one person, no matter how fast they read, can read in a lifetime?
D’Ammassa has an actual written schedule of when he reads (3 hours every morning and another 3 hours before bed). I can’t imagine being that organized but maybe it’s something to strive for.
Dirda said he hasn’t read for pleasure in years. Just about every book he reads, he writes about. That’s at least two books a week. He also said he’s a slow reader because he moves his lips when he reads. (I have a little person in my head who reads me the books — in other words I can’t read any faster than a person could read the book aloud. I was so happy to learn that Michael Dirda has a similar tic that slowed his reading down.)
All of the panelists stated that they read at different speeds for different types of books — dense text or non-fiction being slower than other books.
Time is always a problem. Dirda said he’d given up TV and movie watching. Other said they read on their long commutes to and from work and missed that reading time when they changed jobs to one closer with less travel time. Airplane trips are great reading times with few interruptions. Pelland said she got a lot of reading done in the Laundromat because there wasn’t anything else to do there while the machines ran.
The issue of ebooks was raised. They avoid the stacks of books but putting them on the drive of the machine and the device was easy to carry and handle rather than hauling around lots of books to read. Also, they avoided the appearance of hoarding.
In many ways this was a slight variation in the Bookaholics Annonomous panel that Readercon usually has during the convention. As someone who could insulate her house with the books she plans to read someday — I appreciated the issues raised and the ideas tossed out by the panelists and the audience.
We got in late yesterday for Readercon 22 — too late to setup in the Book Shop and too tired to attend any of the Thursday evening events. Instead we got our luggage and personal items out of the car, checked in to the hotel and crashed.
Friday morning. The hotel has a Starbucks in the lobby, so getting something for breakfast was simple. Then shower and look over my notes for my first panel at noon. Then at 10 a.m. we got our registration material and began to unpack the car to set up our table in the Book Shop (usually called the Dealers’ Room in most conventions except Readercon only has books sellers in the room no jewelry or other fannish items — it is a convention for readers).
A bit before noon, I stopped into the Green Room to check if the other panelists were available — no luck on that one.
12:00 PM And They Lived Happily Ever After, Until they Died: Retelling Russian Folktales.
Panelist: Patricia McKillip, Gayle Surrette (leader).
Description: Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret Histories of Moscow, Catherynne M. Valente’s http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0765326302/ampedesistud-20/” target=”_blank”>Deathless, Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre… it appears we’re in the middle of a renewed interest in fairy tale retellings–and specifically, postmodern, genre-challenging fairy tale retellings–based in the folklore of Russia. Is there a specific element to Russian stories that makes them particularly fit for contemporary adaption?
Originally there were going to be other people on the panel but they dropped out. Patricia McKillip had written two books using elements of Russian folktales. I’d hoped to moderate a panel and ask questions about the subject matter that I thought would give a chance for the authors to discuss their works and how they used the tales — which Patricia did, talking about her view of Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless that was very interesting. However, I’d only crammed for three days on the tales and, faced with just me and Patricia on the panel, most of that knowledge fell out my ears.
Luckily, two young women in the front row of the audience were Russian and willing to add their experience with the culture and stories. About half the audience had read The Secret History of Moscow and half had read Deathless with some overlap of the two groups. Opening the topic up to the audience for comments and questions produced an interesting discussion of the differences between Western fairy tales and folk tales (Grimm and Anderson) and Russian folk and fairy tales. The discussion ranged from how folk tales were a way to teach young children how to behave in the world and what to expect, to how the differences between and strict top down governmental structure (Tzar or Communism) and a more general representational government could change expectations of what behavior would increase your chance of survival. Is seems many Russian folk tales are about endurance while western ones are about moving up socially or becoming a success/gaining treasure.
It’s always hard to judge how a panel I’m on goes, but I feel that this one actually worked better because of the audience participation and the sharing of knowledge that occurred. I know that I learned a lot that will have me thinking in new ways as I read through the many Russian fairy/folk tales that I found on Project Gutenberg.
After the panel, I rejoined Hyperion at the SFRevu table in the Book Shop to help finish the setup. The Book Shop opened today at 3:00 PM and closed at 7:00 PM.
3:00 PM Global Climatology for Worldbuilders. Lecture by Gwendolyn Clare.
Description: The major patterns of global climate here on Earth–including atmospheric and ocean currents–can be directly derived from basic physics principles. These patterns, along with the location and shape of continents, let us predict the types of ecosystems found anywhere on the globe. After the talk, we’ll brainstorm different ways to alter the global climate system to suit our fictional needs.
I go to the science for writers programs as much as I can, and a good 80% of time, they’re pretty much worthless to me. This one was quite solidly in the 20% of goldmine territory.
Ms. Clare started off the discussion by asking the audience what things they thought most strongly influenced the climate. Several answers were offered up, but as one might expect, the biggest factor is simply the sun. There are dozens of other factors that modify and complicate climate, but the sun is the alpha point that starts the whole thing. Without an energy source, there’s no climate worth speaking of.
With just a couple of simple slides, I now actually understand what causes tropical rainforests zones, the desert bands, not to mention the coriolis affect, and why it bends the way it does where it does. There are times when information, which has been fuzzy and vague for a long time, suddenly clicks into clarity like finally getting a proper pair of glasses. This was one of those times.
More slides clearly showed sample causes for major warming and cooling periods over the last hundred million years or so, ranging from volcanoes, and particularly effective carbon dioxide eating planet, and the random actions of plate tetonics.
The last part of the talk centered around the audience calling out modifications to planets (rings, size, different stars, rotation speeds, different proportions of water to land, lack of plate tectonics, and my own very minor offering of blasting open the isthmus of Panama to rework some of the Atlantic currents) and what kind of modifications to climate these changes would inflict.
Lots to think about, and lots of new things to do more research on.
5:00 PM Feeling Very Post-Slipstream.
Panelists: Leah Bobet, Paul Di Filippo, Elizabeth Hand, Chris N. Brown (leader), F. Brett Cox.
Discription: Bruce Sterling’s definition of “slipstream” was based in the experience of living in the (late) 20th century. Now we’re in the (early) 21st, and present/near-future-set works like Mira Grant’s Feed and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition are starting to evoke a distinctly 21st-century sensibility with frank discussions of fear, anger, religion, security, and ever-present cameras. The only terms we have for these books right now is “post-911″. We can do better. What do we call books that leave you feeling angry, scared, and angry about being scared?
I was a bit late for the panel and when I got there Elizabeth Hand was saying that she didn’t like labels; that (and I’m really paraphrasing here) they tended to keep people out or putting up as many barriers as they were supposed to help by putting things in boxes. When she reviewed for the science fiction magazines, she could use terms that when she wrote for the popular press she needed to explain those same terms.
The discussion continued and it was fairly agreed that some terms gained traction and some didn’t. Some that gained traction were: Slipstream, Cyberpunk, and now Steampunk. Steampunk is also a fashion and culture so it’s more than a literary subgenre.
Someone said that slipstream sort of pulls the rug out from under the readers expectations. Another panelist asked what would you call the post-slipstream writing if the rug is already pulled out from under the reader.
Also mentioned that slipstream was about the feeling of strangeness when reading the story. Similar to horror, it’s the feeling you get when reading it that determines its place or label.
Discussion turned to a narrative and the failure of the narrative. For many, especially young college age students, Bin Laden is the only bad guy they know about. In movies and books, when a bad thing happens it’s solved in a month. It took ten years to find Bin Laden for 9/11. In disaster films, the disaster happens and everything is worked out and solved within the movie (or book) in a relatively short period of time. Then there’s Katrina and here we are years later and the area still hasn’t recovered fully and we’ve had even more disasters (tornado, floods, drought, etc.). The narrative has failed to match the reality.
At this point, Elizabeth Hand piped up with, “What would you call that, Failstream?” The audience and the other panelists liked the term and congratulated her for coining it. She tried to say she was joking but they insisted she own the term. Once the panel opened up for comments and discussion with the audience — failstream was used for the first time. (Guess she’s stuck with coining a new term when she doesn’t care for labels — too bad the term is so apt).
Then it was back to help Hyperion in the Book Shop until closing. Then the inevitable search for food (note breakfast muffin and coffee and only water until 7 PM when we ate) and now writing up the day and off to bed and to face Saturday when I have a 7 PM panel on The One Right Form of a Story.
If you’re reading this and you were at the Russian Fairy Tale panel, I’d love to hear your impressions and comments. If you just have comments and weren’t at the panel or even Readercon — leave a comment.
We’ll be heading to Readercon this weekend. Readercon is one of the few conventions that I attend each year. SFRevu has a table in the dealers’ room — our semi-annual book sale to clear out our basement actually so if you’re there stop by the table for a chat.
Here’s my schedule:
Friday: 12:00 PM G And They Lived Happily Ever After, Until They Died: Retelling Russian Folktales. Patricia McKillip, Gayle Surrette (leader). Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre… it appears we’re in the middle of a renewed interest in fairy tale retellings—and specifically, postmodern, genre-challenging fairy tale retellings—based in the folklore of Russia. Is there a specific element to Russian stories that makes them particularly fit for contemporary adaptation?
Saturday: 7:00 PM ME The One Right Form of a Story. Judith Berman, Marilyn “Mattie” Brahen, John Langan, Meghan McCarron, Gayle Surrette (leader). Quoth Mark Twain: “There are some books that refuse to be written…. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written—it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself.” Anyone who has adapted a fairy tale for a poem or developed a short story into a novel might disagree, yet many authors have also spent years chasing stories that evade capture until they’re approached in just the right way. What makes some stories easygoing and others stubborn? Is the insistence on a story “telling itself” a red herring? And what does “form” really mean here?
Hyperion and I look forward to meeting our readers and making new friends.
11 a.m. The New and Improved Future of Magazines (Part 2)
Panelists: John Joseph Adams, Sean Wallace, Robert Killheffer (Leader), John Benson, and Leah Bobet.
Panel Description: After last year’s “The Future of Magazines” panels, participant K. Tempest Bradford wrote: “The magazines and anthologies that I love tend to have editors who have taken the time to examine themselves or their culture, to expend their knowledge of other people and ways of being, to open their minds. These magazines and anthologies contain far more stories I want to read by authors of many varied backgrounds. As I said, it’s not fully about print vs. online, it’s about better magazines and books.” This time, creators and proponents of both print and online magazines collaborate on determining ways that any genre magazine can create a brighter and better-read future for itself, using Bradford’s comment as a launching point.
This first part of this panel was on print media only and was last year. This year they were discussing print and online media. Things had changed so much that online was now a growing area for magazines
Leah Bobet championed the need to use the online media or internet as it should be used and do more stories in hypertext and other newer narrative arts.
Narrative tends to be linear using the page after page top to bottom print magazine structure. The nature of the internet allows for different art forms but as magazines have moved to the digital format and online they’ve retained the linear narrative form we’re all used to.
John Bensen talked about how things continue to cycle. Once the radio had stories. A reader would read a complete story or novel on the radio. Now we have podcasts which essentially are stories that are read to us. The difference is that it’s digital and the listener can not only choose the time they listen to it (rather than being limited to the radio program schedule) but can download the story, book, or program they want to hear.
There was a discussion of how important accessibility is for the materials you’re putting up. Print is fine but if it can’t be found by a reader it’s not accessible. The internet is much more accessible to people since it’s available worldwide and many people can find it with a google search. Magazines are sometimes print, online, and available in several different formats for ereaders and as podcasts. Thus accessible to a number of users no matter how they want to access it.
All mentioned that receiving email or electronic submissions make their jobs much easier. It’s easier to format. They can respond quicker. And putting a magazine together is also easier when you collect the electronic documents.
Bobet mentioned Anthology Builder where you look through the stories available and pull them together to be the anthology that you want to read. It used print-on-demand technology.
Noon Travel Literature
Panelists: James L. Cambias, Michael Dirda, Howard Waldrop, Fred Lerner (Leader), and Debra Doyle.
Panel Description: The link between genre fiction and travel literature is one of honorable standing: even discounting obvious crossovers like Gulliver’s Travels or Lucian of Samosata’s True History (arguably the earliest work of science fiction), what is The Left Hand of Darkness if not a travelogue of Gethen, or why are maps of Middle-Earth included in every edition of The Lord of the Rings? Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes reads like a Baedeker of the next universe over, but our sense of wonder and desire for a different world might be as easily satisfied by Bill Bryson in Australia, Jan Morris in Italy, or Charles Dickens in America. Should it be? Panelists and attendees are invited to discuss the pleasures and perils of travel literature, starting with their favorites.
The panel differentiated between guide books and travel books. Guide books tell you about the place in rather clinical detail. Travel books are a more personal experience with a place and its people.
Mentioned that at the turn of the century just about every American who crossed the Rio Grade wrote a travel book about their experience. These books seemed to see travel as a lark. However, they also seemed to see the place they traveled to as being there only for their entertainment and amusement.
Dirda mentioned his liking those travel books by the young, sandy-haired British gentleman who goes off to travel a foreign land. These also tend to be travel as a lark. Examples of this type of writing: T.E. Lawrence’s writings while he traveled with his father; Mo Willems’ You Can Never Find a Rickshow when it Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day; John L. Stephen’s Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan and other Incidents of Travel books mostly dealing with South America; The Travels of John Mandeville The Fantastic 14th Century Account of a Journey to the East; most of Jules Verne’s work is travelogue – Around the World in 80 Days; Charles M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta; Well’s War of the Worlds in a very good travelogue of the home counties as Wells bicycled all over taking notes before writing the scenes; Kipling’s Kim and Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy; H.P. Lovecraft since you could draw a map of Arkham from reading his stories and the descriptions of the place; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though one panelist thought it was more prose poems; Lucian’s True Histories, these are real tall tales.
Many of Kiplings techniques of travel writing are used by SF writers – just say something and don’t explain it. SF is travel to place you can’t go or don’t exist but you must make it real.
2:00 p.m. Everybody Loves Dirigibles: Science for Tomorrow’s Fiction.
Panelists: Paolo Bacigalupi, John Crowley, Jeff Hecht (Leader), Joan Slonczewski, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick.
Panel Description: According to William Gibson, “We can’t spin futures, because the present has become too brief.” By the time the fiction is written, the science has moved on: “Nothing gets quainter faster than that history you just made up.” But is there really only a synaptic gap’s width between cutting-edge and outmoded? It’s taken decades for viruses to come up to competition with radiation as the biomedical handwave of choice; the prominence of airships in the popular imagination remains undaunted by the fact that the zeppelin hasn’t been cutting-edge since 1932. And who’s writing the great novel of the Large Hadron Collider? Our panelists compare the current state of the scientific field with the fiction it’s inspiring—or should be. What ideas endure beyond the obsolescence of their science? What latest developments remain unexplored?
(This is by Hyperion) Despite the fact the dirigibles were in the title, the panel was technically more about how technology passes you by while you’re busy writing your story. And despite this fact, a good 25% of the panel was about dirigibles. Why? Because everybody loves them. There is something about certain technologies that just won’t let them die in our imaginations, no matter how hard governments and corporations insist on ignoring them. Dirigibles haven’t been financially viable as transport since the 1930s. Charles Stross mentioned that it wasn’t really the design of the Hindenburg that caused the disaster. Well, unless you count the fact that they used rocket propellant to seal the hull. It was the US embargo on exporting helium that did it in. If it had had the helium buffer it was supposed to have, the accident probably wouldn’t have happened.
Other dirigible related information dealt with local lifters, which move very heavy items that helicopters either can’t handle, or if they can, can’t operate in residential areas. One of the more interesting bits concerned the, now defunct, CargoLifter company from Germany. When they went bankrupt, a consortium of Eastern businessmen bought up their hanger. The hanger is so large that they’ve turned it into a tropical resort 30 miles east of Berlin. Inside is artificial seashore, complete with sand beach, and a rainforest. They actually have balloon tours of the inside of the hanger. Finally it seems that the final doom for dirigibles is simply speed. They don’t move fast enough for our modern age. Joan naturally pointed out that the bacteria which can be used to generate vast amounts of hydrogen in an economical manner, actually they reproduce extremely quickly. But nobody gives bacteria any respect.
Other than dirigibles, nuclear power was a favorite topic. Nuclear powered space probes, nuclear powered airplanes; which had the unfortunate side effect of killing the passengers because they couldn’t afford the weight of the shielding, and nuclear powered trains (well, electric trains powered by nuclear power). The first is still on the drawing boards, the latter is thankfully long ago abandoned, and the last is in France. The anecdotes surrounding these technologies which once formed the backbone of the future as foretold by science fiction fans showed an anticipation of permanence. And in fact, most of the technologies have endured, although only in niche environments, or mutated nearly out of recognition. There was a time when every car had a cigarette lighter. They still exist, although you can’t light a cigarette anymore. Instead they’ve become the ubiquitous power source for running your cellphone, laptops, and GPS systems.
All in all, a good time was had by all, good questions were asked, good answers (although sometime drifting sharply off topic) were provided, and lots of good information on a wide range of beloved technology was given. Now I’m still waiting for my flying car. And has anybody seen my jetpack?
5:00 p.m. Interview with Nalo Hopkinson. Interviewer was Jim Freund.
I always find the Guest of Honor Interviews interesting and this one was certainly no exception. Freund ask some questions and Nalo regaled us with stories of her father who was a Latin and English teacher as well as a Shakespearian actor. She mentioned that among the people of the Caribbean she’s known as her father’s daughter rather than a writer/author.
Hopkinson is a Clarion graduate attending the workshop in 1985. She said she went feeling that she had nothing to say. She could put words together but didn’t know what to say with those words.
She mentioned that when she writes a short story, she can sense the shape and trajectory but when writing a novel it’s like seeing an oncoming train through thick fog. (a very useful analog to my mind)
They talked about her work reading stories on CBC (the Canadian equivalent of NPR), the anthologies that she edited and her novels. She mentioned working on Mojo: Conjure Stories how after she accepted a few of the stories, she could see the shape of the anthology and the rest of the stories were taken with that shape in mind. When she realized that, she thought those rejection notes that say, “Sorry but this does not meet our needs at this time,” just might be the truth.
She’s funny, sincere, committed to writing the best work she can and in being honest in her writing which she says is very scary. But what helps is seeing how open Chet Delany is and he’s still there doing okay.
All in all, it was an interesting chance to listen to a writer I admire talking about her life and her writing.
After the interview, we closed our table in the Dealer’s Room for the day and sought dinner. We’re now back in our room and have decided to call it a night. Readercon is always fun but I’m just coming off a pretty bad fibro flare and I’m exhausted and we still have Sunday to get through. The Dealer’s Room closes at 2 and we’ll leave shortly after that. Then we have a 10 hour drive home not counting the detour to Providence, RI to visit my son for a few hours on the way home — haven’t seen him since Christmas.
Tags: Nalo Hopkinson
We drove up from Maryland to Burlington, MA yesterday. We got a late start and didn’t arrive until 10:30 p.m., so we missed the Thursday night programming. On Thursday’s Readercon has an evening program schedule that is open to the public. It’s a way for people to see what a convention is like in order to determine if they want to come back for the rest of the weekend and buy a membership.
Being exhausted we just checked in, set up the computers and tried to get to sleep. Unfortunately, my laptop decided it didn’t want to work either — guess it was a rough trip in the back of the car. After a few searches on the program that was causing the problem, we found a fix and downloaded it to Hyperion’s machine and then installed on mine. So, I’m now back to limping along with only the usual problems until the new laptop arrives later this month.
We manged in spite of the late night to get up, find food, get to Registration to get our badges, and begin to set up the SFRevu table in the Dealer’s Room. We were surprised at how much easier it was to get set up when we had from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to set up. Of course, we also had to figure out how to work around the things that we forgot — like our signs. Luckily, the hotel has a business center with a printer. Once we finished the setup, I’d missed all the morning program items that I’d hoped to see but that’s life and decision making — you have to miss something to do others.
2 p.m. I Don’t Think We’ve Ever Been in Kansas: Non-Western Cultures in Fantasy.
Panelists: Nalo Hopkinson, Shariann Lewitt, Theodora Goss (Leader), Catherynne M. Valente, and Darrell Schweitzer.
Panel Description: When it comes to settings, authors of both epic and urban fantasy— as attested by such recent novels as Daniel Fox’s Dragon in Chains, Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death—are increasingly diversifying beyond the mainstay models of North America or western Europe. For some writers and readers, the choice of geographies offers a chance to stretch beyond their comfort zones; for others, it can be an exploration and a reclamation of their heritage. How do these different approaches affect the fiction they create—and how do they affect our readings of the books?
Panelists discussed ways to write a story using a culture not your own: respect it, talk to people who are native to that culture, read books written by people native to the culture, don’t exotic-ise it, look at the jokes and sayings of the culture, understand your assumptions and examine them closely to see if they are actually true.
Schweitzer suggest that if you offer details make sure they are right.
There was a lot of discussion on using other people’s culture and stories. The analogy that was decided upon was that telling another culture’s stories was like renting or leasing it — you have to return the story in the same condition that you got it. You can’t trash it or abuse it because it isn’t yours.
Also, remember, no matter what you do as a writer, people will get angry with you so you have to do what you feel is right for you and the story and the culture. People will get angry no matter what so be true to yourself and your internal moral compass.
3 p.m. The Best of the Small Press.
Panelists: Michael Dirda, Rick Wilber (leader), Robert Freeman Wexler, Sean Wallace, and Gavin J. Grant.
Panel Description: These days, many of the best novels and novellas, collections and anthologies are published by small presses in print runs that may only number in the hundreds. Most of these cannot be found on the shelves of chain bookstores, or even most independent and specialty shops. We’ll highlight the best works recently published by small presses—including many that Readercon attendees may not have heard about.
The panelists agreed that small presses or independent presses are where some of the best and most cutting edge writing is being published.
There was some discussion of unit prices and how they varied by the size of the print run, problems with distribution, pricing, and the effect of ebooks and whether small presses did ebooks (they do).
Books of note: Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow, Tachyon Publications; 1st edition (February 1, 2009); The Babylonian Trilogy by Sebastien Doubinski, PS Publishing; Limited and signed ed edition (May 1, 2009); The World More Full of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema and Erik Mohr, ChiZine Publications; 1st edition (September 15, 2009); anything by Ashtree Publishing; The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer, Tachyon Publications (July 15, 2010); Small Beer Press; PS Publishing; Aqueduct Press; Fairway Press; and other book titles, authors, and publishers that I was too far behind in writing to catch.
4 p.m. How Electrons Have Changed Writing and Reading. Cecilia Tan (speaker, this was a talk/discussion).
Discussants: Inanna Arthen, Leah Bobet, K. Tempest Bradford, Jeffrey A. Carver, Barbara Krasnoff, K.A. Laity.
Description: Ebooks, the Internet, social media networks, Paypal — have these really changed the writer/reader relationship forever? Not surprisingly, sf readers are early adopters of new tech and sf publishers are leading the way in new content delivery. Is it really possible with new tech for a writer to cut out the publisher and still make a living? Is the writer who wants to “just write” doomed to obscurity now? Writers, what forays into the new frontier of electronic publishing have you made and what did you find out there in the wild lands? Readers, what have you enjoyed and sought out, what would you welcome?
The talk went over the changes over the last few years in publishing and eReader technology and Amazon’s Kindle and B&N’s nook among others. A writer who has the eRights to their books and who puts it in Kindle format on Amazon can get 70% of the book price if priced between 2.99 and 9.99. They mentioned that some authors are making money on their back list that is out of print by putting up the ebooks on various sites.
There was also some discussion of social media and other options such as subscription stories and serialization on blogs. Things are changing. This also puts more of the selling and PR work on the author and some are better at it than others.
Cecilia Tan will have a more coverage of this on her website.
Next I took a break to print up my note cards for my 6 p.m. panel.
6 p.m. Global Warming and Science Fiction.
Panelists: Steven Popkes, Paul Di Filippo, Gayle Surrette (moderator), Alexander Jablokov, and Paolo Bacigalupi.
Panel Description: The dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear war were common themes in mid-twentieth century sf, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The nearest comparable danger today is anthropogenic global warming. It’s our impression that sf has not given to AGW the same level of attention that it gave to nuclear matters in the past, and has more often treated the issue as worldbuilding background than placed it at the centers of stories. Are we correct? Might this stem from today’s attention to extrapolation of multiple, simultaneous trends, and to the difficulty of writing about the near future? Does AGW’s more uncertain set of consequences make it harder to dramatize? What role does the controversy about the existence of a threat play? What approaches have gone yet untried? We consider sf’s take on a warming world.
Since this was the panel I moderated, I can’t really say much about it, except that I thought the panelists made some very interesting and thought provoking comments. Some that I remember:
That GW isn’t like nuclear war. We didn’t then have the bombs in our houses. We do have cars, lawn mowers, and other devices that put out carbon and cause greenhouse gasses.
The problem is that we’re all idiots and who wants to write that? — it’s not very satisfying. In most of the past problems, it wasn’t our fault. We could blame someone else, but now it’s us.
The story can be about GW if it’s in the background but it’s not a single item — it effects the economy, food production, transportation, the ecology, everything and those impacts need to show in the characters lives. (very paraphrased).
No matter what happens with GW there will be winners and losers. It may change the balance of who has power.
Once the panel was over we went to find food and then talked with friends and just called it a day. Tomorrow is another full day of programming items and the Dealer’s Room wall also be open all day.