Last weekend was Readercon, and it was mostly excellent. The con was hit at a very late planning stage by the news that both the pub and the lobby area of the hotel would be out of service, but you really had to see it to believe how thoroughly those areas of the building had been un-made. They weren’t merely taped off, but sealed away by blank white walls like something out of a movie, and the con’s traditional central gathering space was turned into the functional equivalent of a long scenic corridor in an old Doctor Who episode. The folks behind the con did a damn fine job of steering everything right past this obstacle, and there was a bumper crop of room and hallway parties to compensate.
I wish I could be as lavish with praise for the actual staff of the hotel, some of whom were angels and some of whom seemed overtly annoyed by all the hungry, paying customers who had the nerve to actually ask for things. Service at the one functional restaurant was lacking… and I can’t emphasize enough what it takes to drag those words out of me, as I waited tables myself for several years and have a preternatural degree of sympathy for those who wield aprons and order books. We often joke about how convention hotels and bars never seem to heed the warnings they receive about fannish hunger and thirst, but seriously, this wasn’t the hotel’s first rodeo with Readercon and while the restaurant food itself was usually lovely, the service (especially the bar service) was several distinct flavors of inadequate.
It probably seems ungenerous to harp on this, but Readercon has a thick and well-attended panel schedule, tightly time-managed by the con staff, and it’s also a place where dozens of agents, editors, and authors are holding business meetings at any given time. Agents, especially, often have appointment after appointment, hour after hour, and the need to chase down restaurant staff with IR cameras and hunting dogs for basic functions like getting a check really throws sand in the machinery of maintaining a professional schedule.
So, other than waiting for drinks and bills, what was I doing?
Friday, Elizabeth Bear and I shared a Kaffeeklatsch, which is German for “authors share embarrassing personal stories with more people than they ever expected to see in the room.” I stumbled through a long, revealing tale of something I’m really not proud of from my teenage years, when I applied my talents to a prank that caused unexpected emotional grief. Oh, Stainless Steel Rat books, you never warned me there’d be such ethical quandaries!
Saturday, my first panel was “A New Mythology of the Civil War,” also featuring Mikki Kendall, Dennis Danvers, Ronnie Stott, and Howard Waldrop. I think we did a fine job pounding the Lost Cause mythology into the dirt (not that this was difficult); anyone who can insist with a straight face that the American Civil War was not about slavery from the first angry word to the last shallow grave is lying or deluded. There wasn’t a heck of a lot to say, more’s the pity, about trying to carve a new counter-mythology in spec fic because we don’t really have an evolving major tradition of Civil War fiction at all, apart from the Twilight Zoney mechanistic approach (anachronistic technology is brought into the war by time-travelling assholes and hilarity ensues). There was some interesting stuff about the similarly mechanistic fixations of a lot of steampunk and the urge to play with airships and gatling guns while trying not to look too hard at the social tapestry and the actual, individual lives of millions in bondage and the sick culture surrounding them. I think we could have kept going for another hour, at least.
Next up was “The Uses and Values of Realism in Speculative Fiction” with Elizabeth Bear, John Crowley, and Rose Lemberg. After the usual ten minutes or so of trying to engage all our conceptual motors and define our terms, I think we settled into a rich and lively discussion. Coming from my perspective as a pretty staunch lover and repurposer of classic sword-and-sorcery, I have a tendency toward a fairly defined and physiologically grounded notion of “realistic.” Crowley was good about yanking things back to the broad picture from time to time… what world were we discussing? What rules, what reality? We touched on modes and expectations, on the pressures of genre, on why things like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” work beautifully on their own terms and fail completely to integrate with the structures of SF/F, where we expect meaningful “thens” for our if/then statements. Rose Lemberg was pretty sharp, and carried off the night’s trophy for pithiness when she suggested that readers shaken by A Song of Ice and Fire could find relief in something less cold and onerous, like Crime and Punishment.
My last Saturday panel was “The Xanatos Gambit” with Jim Freund, Yoon Ha Lee, and Jim Macdonald. We discussed the hell out of the titular gambit, the sort of multi-layered scheme someone sets up with a variety of outcomes, all of which are ideally beneficial to the schemer. I think we lost a tiny bit of traction and opportunity by being too literal about this; the history and theory of schemes that are not purely win-win is a wide, deep river we barely dipped our toes in, but what the hell. I still think we rendered very fair return for the brain cells engaged in listening to us. We did discuss the history of the trickster/schemer figure at some length, generally agreeing that we were less interested in the notion of trickster as cosmic balance or theological compulsion than we were with the notion of the self-interested plot hatcher. We touched upon the transition of the role over time, and how the once-popular “unironic rake who rapes his way across the story” had lost a lot of traction in the public consciousness due to the fact that some of the human race is trying to grow the hell up. We didn’t get to talk much about one near-exception I had wanted to cite, Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever, the greedy egotist who inevitably ruins life for himself and nearly everyone he encounters in a world-spanning epic of poor life choices.
Saturday night, Amanda Downum and I made our own series of amusingly poor life choices as we tied more than one on at various room parties, especially those hosted by the generous Bracken Macleod and Marco Kloos. Liberal application of spiritous distillations helped ensure that we didn’t get to bed until Stupid O’Clock, with the threat of Amanda’s 9 AM Sunday Kaffeeklatsch hanging over us like Poe’s goddamn pendulum. Bear and I arose shakily, determined to show solidarity… actually, I exaggerate. Bear was pretty stable. Amanda and I were the delicate ones, and after the Klatsch I actually had to go cling to the bed awhile longer to make the universe stop spinning.
I was mostly recovered just in time for my last panel, “Pining for the Fnords: The New Nostalgia,” also featuring Elizabeth Bear, John Benson, Andrea Hairston, Liz Hand, and Richard Killheffer. I think there was a bit of a troublesome dichotomy in the panel description, as I don’t find Scalzi’s Redshirts to be of a piece with Walton’s Among Others, and I don’t find the sense of ‘nostalgia’ allegedly evoked in those books to intersect with the other half of the discussion prompted by Paul Kincaid’s jeremiad… but it wasn’t my show alone and once we got up to speed we flew along at a nice clip.
This panel featured one of the stranger interludes of my Readercon experience. Bear had just finished discussing the attractiveness of the genuinely old-fashioned “get out your slide rule” puzzle story, and how it could be at least perfunctorily invigorating to play with the style of story where the audience is invited to do the math or science along with the characters in that quintessential 50s way. Then we both cheekily lamented the march of technology as a bar-raiser for narrative trouble, using our cel phones as an obvious and immediate example. I mentioned something about how many of the books and films of the 20th century revolved around the plot device of not being able to find or contact other people (the example I used was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and how a society where nearly everyone carried the equivalent of a Star Trek communicator at all times made this harder to pull off.
So, that’s what we were lamenting… not our damn cel phones themselves, invaluable tools that they are, but the NARRATIVE CHALLENGES improving technology poses. Even the lament was very tongue-in-cheek; it’s not a bad thing to be forced to stay on one’s toes as a writer.
A short while later, the panel opened up to the audience for questions, and a very… forceful gentleman asked us why we were afraid of technology. We all replied pretty forthrightly that we weren’t; he had the wrong end of the stick entirely. The guy then went on about his work developing, as he put it, the apps and technologies that will define the next five years, and asked why science fiction writers were all afraid to use the most cutting-edge technologies in our work, as according to him, leaving out the last fraction of the newest developments was tantamount to writing fantasy.
We got very energetic in responding to him, and he asked “Why are you all so threatened by my question?” which was a response classically symptomatic of a guy fixated on flogging a point rather than listening to what other people might have to say about it.
Well, to you, guy in the audience, if you’re out there, we weren’t “threatened” by your question. Your question (which I have since learned you threw at another panel before reportedly leaving the room in a huff) wasn’t “threatening” in the slightest. What it was, was predicated on a whole series of false assumptions, namely that:
A. All science fiction writers are the same, part of some club or hive mind that collectively shirks or embraces the things it will write about. What you’ve actually got is a diverse conglomeration of thousands of individuals each with a different degree of technological experience, a different set of interests, and a different range of access to the freshest information. Not to mention wide variations in the amount of plain old effing time we can apply to our research and our work. I mean, how comprehensive a survey of genre fiction can you really have made if you don’t get this?
B. That what you were asking was within the scope of the panel, and the panel’s ability to efficiently engage with it in the time remaining. There’s this thing that happens when a subject is broached that is orthagonal to a panel’s description or ponderously tangential to its actual focus– the moderator says, “Look, we really can’t go into all that,” and everyone moves on.
C. That failing or refusing to feature the absolute latest in cutting-edge real-world tech invalidates the act of writing speculative fiction.
So, we weren’t threatened by your question, sir, may the gods of technology bless and keep you. We didn’t have the time to try and shake you out of all your presumptions, and we knew it, and frankly it wasn’t our responsibility to do so. If you wonder why people get het up when you don’t appear to want to listen to them, it’s not because your questions ring too fiercely for mortal ears to hear them. I hope that helps.
Other than that, I got the chance to briefly sit in on the “Teen Violence, Teen Sex” panel, which was of interest to me because The Republic of Thieves features, in case you didn’t already know, both teenage violence and teenage sex, written to frame some issues of consent and false idealization that I think sex in SF/F has at times been prone to. A good discussion was developing when I had to sneak off to other responsibilities.
One thing I will say, in response to the frequent observation (and hell, I’ve made it too) that our culture seems far more comfortable with gruesome fictional violence than it does with consensual fictional sex, is that there is one rarely-discussed reason for author squeamishness that has nothing to do with prudishness or presumption or lack of awareness. It is merely that an author writing a sex scene may be in more danger of revealing actual facts about their intimate self and their kinks and preferences than they are at any other time in the writing process; the art of writing honestly and with feeling and vigor threatens to expose much about the person behind the keys. Mitigating or preventing that exposure is a hard skill to learn.
Whether you realize it or not, you will actually learn some real things about me and my experiences from the sex scenes in The Republic of Thieves. It has taken time for me to become comfortable with that, and I will never feel any need to apologize for taking that time.
Anyhow, that was Readercon! No more public appearances for me until GenCon in Indianapolis, August 15-18.