Sunday, August 16, 2009

Trip Report

I'm back! And a mere 38 hours after walking through my front door (after 37 hours of wakefulness), feeling more or less recovered. Worldcon was, well, you name it--fun, exhausting, weird, illuminating, disorienting and invigorating. I feel very motivated to dive right into writing and talking about genre with a redoubled enthusiasm, and hopefully that feeling will last as I get back into the daily rhythm of work and ordinary life. I have a couple of writing assignments due by the end of the month, but I also hope to get the blog back on track, to which end the gigantic pile of books now threatening to cave my desk in will no doubt be a great help.

More thoughts:
  • Montreal: quite lovely, and with a more European flavor than any other North American city I've been to. That presumably has something to do with the fact that the city's bilingualism is mostly an official thing--outside of the con, I heard French almost exclusively, but the Montrealers I interacted with also had excellent English and were more than willing to use it. Despite staying in the city until Thursday, we (I was at the con with Niall Harrison and Nic Clarke, both of whom are more familiar with cons and fandom than I am, and who did an excellent job of shepherding me along and introducing me to interesting people) didn't do a lot of touring, feeling more than a little exhausted after the con, but the highlight of what we did see was without a doubt the double whammy of the Biodome, situated in what was once Montreal's Olympic park, and the Botanical Gardens right nearby.


  • The con: my impressions are foggy and no doubt colored by the people I hung out with and the panels I went to--you could probably pick any other Worldcon member at random and their experience would be completely different to mine--plus, never having gone to Worldcon or any other con before, I can't really say how this one stacked up. One thing, however, struck me very powerfully: the repeated, and quite disorienting, realization that all these people--kids half my age, people my age, those old enough to be my parents or even my grandparents--were at this place because they share an interest with me. Well, that and the guy dressed as a Klingon--there wasn't much costuming at the con (I skipped the masquerade), but seeing a guy dressed as a Klingon felt like a necessary rite of passage.

  • The dealers' room: rather disappointing. Apparently this is a problem with Canadian Worldcons because American dealers don't want to deal with tax issues, and the pickings were thus quite slim. Happily, the (appropriately SFnal) Palais des Congres was not very far from Ste. Catherine street and its two mega bookstores, and I came back with a respectable haul.

    Not pictured: Flood by Stephen Baxter, The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, and The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, purchased during my 14-hour layover in Amsterdam (also quite lovely, though I was sadly too sleep deprived to do much touring).

  • Panels I was on - I don't have detailed notes about these, obviously, and since they happened a week ago my recollection of specific points and who said what is quite spotty, so these are my not very detailed write-ups:

    • Handicapping the Hugos I: The Novels, with Paul Kincaid, Farah Mendlesohn, and Philip Nanson - Run in a style imported from Eastercon, in which the nominees are discarded one at a time until only the winner is left. The general attitude towards the shortlist was quite negative (Kincaid: "I thought Adam Roberts was too gentle") and even Anathem got a drubbing, though I was more pleased with the discussion of Little Brother, in which Farah and I went head to head, neither one doing much to convince the other but both, I think, making our points about why we hate or love the book quite clearly. This did not stop Little Brother from being the last novel standing (it also carried the audience vote, with several times more supporters than any of the other books including the eventual winner), though Anathem won the free vote.

    • I’ll Be Back - I was not originally scheduled for this panel about the Terminator universe, but was press-ganged into it when it turned out that of the scheduled panelists only Niall had turned up (we were joined by a helpful audience member, a Bostonian named James whose last name I have shamefully forgotten). Very lively panel with lots of contributions from the floor--in general I noted more audience participation in media-themed panels than in literary ones--which ranged in several directions but ended up focusing on the television series. Possibly the most interesting comment came from a well-informed audience member who suggested that Fox might be moving towards a new business model in which it produces cheap shows, airs the first season or two on TV, then produces following seasons direct to DVD. Certainly casts the recent Dollhouse renewal in an interesting light.

      (After the panel the three of us were approached by a reporter for a Canadian TV/online genre news show who asked to interview us. We gave him a lot of material and I doubt that, even if the item airs, all or even most of it will be used, but he'd apparently been around the con all day (and we saw him later on), mostly concentrating on media but clearly very interested and eager to get a wide range of material. It's a nice antidote to the perception that media coverage of science fiction conventions is always snide and superficial.)

    • One Season Wonders with Jeanne M. Mealy, Lee Whiteside, and Tara Oakes, who all seem to be long-time media fans (Oakes was wearing Jayne-hat hair clips, for which she had apparently received kudos from Adam Baldwin himself at Comic Con). Again, a very involved audience, and the discussion mostly turned around our impressions of the state of TV as an economic model, and the viability of televised science fiction (prognosis on both: not good). Plus, lots of name-checking of late, lamented shows, with both The Middleman and Pushing Daisies drawing much lamentations from the audience. Per the Terminator panel, there was also some discussion of alternate financing and delivery methods (cable stations, Chuck getting a third season by adopting Subway as a sponsor, the shorter, close-ended British model).

    • io9: Threat or Menace - About the effect of the internet on fandom and the fannish discourse. I was expecting a poorly attended panel given that this was set right before the Hugos, but hadn't expected that, once again, the other participants wouldn't turn up (with the exception of moderator Susan Forest). So I got my revenge by calling Niall to the front. Forest, though not very involved in internet reviewing, was an excellent moderator with lots of questions for Niall and I to bat back and forth, to which our perpetual response seemed to be that everything that makes the internet good (low threshold of entry, broad spectrum of opinion, immediacy) is also what makes it bad. An audience member (who later turned out to be Israeli SF author Nir Yaniv) asked the authority question--isn't the problem with the internet the fact that my opinion and that of a know-nothing kid who started a blog last week are equal? To which my response was first that we could have had an hour and a half discussion on that issue alone, but secondly and more importantly, that four years ago I was that kid, and that the fact that I have any amount of respect and recognition (it was utterly terrifying to have people walk up to me and say "You're Abigail Nussbaum! I love your blog!") is surely an indication that there is some selection mechanism at work (though obviously your opinion of its effectiveness might vary).

  • Panels I attended - with much better notes:

    • From SF Reader to Economist - Paul Krugman's talk (Friday, 14:00) - this was apparently Krugman's second appearance at the con, following a Q&A session with Charles Stross on Thursday. I think I would have liked the former better (actually, what I really would have liked would have been to see Krugman talk with Paolo Bacigalupi, or, for added entertainment value, China Miéville). This session was mostly dedicated to questions from the audience, which were of a purely economic bent (surprisingly, no reference to Obama's stimulus package, of which Krugman was famously critical, but at least one question about health care). One SFnal question did come towards the end, when someone asked Krugman's opinion about currencies in virtual economies such as Second Life gaining real-world value, to which Krugman's first response was to note that all economies are to some extent virtual, and then to say that it wouldn't at all surprise him if in-game economies became meaningful economic players, and thus came under government regulation and taxation.

    • Archetypes Without Stereotypes, with Ben Jeapes, Patrick Rothfuss, Nalo Hopkinson, Doselle Young and Brandon Sanderson (Saturday, 10:00) - A very funny panel, and I appreciated the initial efforts to distinguish between a stereotype and an archetype (Rothfuss's definition of archetypes as something sought out by the author, whereas stereotypes are introduced unconsciously, strikes me as useful if perhaps a little too generous towards authors who indulge in stereotypes). However, the discussion quickly shifted to the safer ground of clichés rather than stereotypes, with much of the humor derived from the participants listing their favorite and least favorite character clichés (during which Sanderson did a passable Dalek impression). Hopkinson tried to move the panel back to the issue at hand by noting how readers from a culture different to the author can find stereotypes the author never noticed, but this wasn't picked up, or rather got the accurate but unhelpful response that 'if you write a character well, it won't be a stereotype.' Interesting question from the audience about writing non-stereotypical aliens. Jeapes: write from their perspective. Hopkinson: write more than one of them. Rothfuss: don't use them (his focus being on the fantastic, he was making the point that the Tolkienian races are overused).

    • We are the Knights Who Say Fuck, with Guy Gavriel Kay, David Anthony Durham, Marc Gascoigne, Patrick Rothfuss, and Ellen Kushner (Saturday, 12:30) - a panel about the use of diction in fantasy fiction, and whether archaic (but Earth-based and period-specific, and thus clearly alien in a secondary world fantasy) or modern (and thus even more alien-sounding than the archaic kind) diction should be preferred. Kay, the moderator, started off with a Le Guin quote in which she complains that fantasy novels whose diction and focus are mundane are leached of their numinousness, to which several panelists responded that some fantasy novels aren't trying to be numinous, but simply taking advantage of the freedom of a secondary world. The discussion veered into Rhetorics of Fantasy territory when Rothfuss and Kay started to draw a distinction between fantasies that rely on the numinous and those that reject it, then got into the question of mashing together high and low diction, or different kinds of diction, in order to create both the alienness of a secondary world and the archaic style that fantasy readers have come to expect. It was at this point that I lost the thread a little, as the discussion seemed to settle into the unsatisfying conclusion that anything will work if you do it well enough, and I really would have liked to have had some specific examples of successful and unsuccessful diction in fantasy novels, but I liked Rothfuss's comment that one way to achieve alienness in language is (as he apparently did in his novel) to invent new idioms. The brief question and answer period didn't leave me any time to point out that the most successful recent instances of writers creating fantastic diction come from television--Firefly, The West Wing, and most especially Deadwood.

    • Writing the Other and Other Assumptions, with David Anthony Durham, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Kate Nepveu, Wendy Pearson, and Jamie Nesbitt Golden (Saturday, 14:00) - this turned out to be more a discussion of discussions of writing the other, with Nepveu leading off by giving a potted history of RaceFail and other panelists talking about ways in which unconscious racism is expressed and the resistance one can encounter when trying to challenge it or to discuss the issue of race at all (Durham gave an interesting example from his first novel, a historical novel set in the 19th century, in which he described the difference in physical features, such as skin tone, between his various black characters. This apparently threw many white readers). It was an interesting discussion, but not the one I was hoping for. The actual question of how and whether to write someone of a different race (or ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality) is an incredibly complicated one, and discussions of it are often derailed by the very unwillingness to engage that the panelists here were describing. This panel, however, in which both panelists and audience seemed to already be on the same page (when Nepveu finished her RaceFail recap, it turned out that about 90% of the audience were already familiar with it, and when she mentioned the Avatar casting debacle the entire room gave a collective groan) might have been a genuine opportunity to get past the 101 stage and really talk about this thorny and sensitive issue.

    • Movements in Fantasy with Catherynne Valente, Michael Swanwick, and Maura McHugh (not sure about the last one) (Monday, 10:00) - surprisingly snarky about the very idea of movements in fantasy, with most of the panelists working from the assumption that self-described movements are usually somebody's pet project rather than a meaningful description of trends in the genre (this was Swanwick's take on New Weird, though of course it seems like an equally apt description of Mundane SF). Valente made several interesting if pointed points about steampunk--that she expects it to be a genre about alienation due to industrialization, but that a lot of its enthusiasts are simply there because "anything made of brass is cool" (this connected to her experience at steampunk conventions, where the focus is mainly on steampunk as an aesthetic sensibility, and many participants are surprised to discover that it has a literary aspect).

  • The Hugo ceremony: very professional, if a little obvious in its attempts to emulate the Oscars. Paul Cornell won the award presentations hands-down by calling out "And the winner is: Doctor..." and then pausing for a long moment before announcing the Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form winner. David Anthony Durham won the acceptance speeches when he accepted the Campbell award and talked about finding his true home in genre. Weird Tales winning best semiprozine over Locus in one of the earlier presentations had a strange effect--it was such an unexpected result that for a moment it seemed that anything could happen, but then the ceremony slipped more or less back into its groove. Or, more precisely, there were surprises, but not very pleasant ones--I'm OK with Elizabeth Bear winning the novelette category, though I would have liked the award to go to Bacigalupi, but Nancy Kress's victory in the novella category is baffling, and though I can't really claim to have been surprised by Neil Gaiman winning best novel (and am at least glad that Little Brother didn't win instead), I truly did have hope that Anathem would beat it. The only satisfying fiction win is Ted Chiang's in the short fiction category, though you have to set the bar pretty low to draw satisfaction from "Exhalation" beating such an unimpressive slate of fellow nominees. As others have noted, the diversity of this year's slate of winners is heartening, but I don't think it's asking too much for the winners to be both diverse and good. Oh well, at least the dramatic presentation winners are right-headed.

  • After the Hugos: oh boy. The story begins with the fact that Niall Harrison is very tall and knows Geoff Ryman, who is also very tall, and had, previously in the weekend, suggested to Geoff that they ought to take a picture with the similarly tall John Kessel, to which the not at all vertically challenged Scott Edelman was also added, and, well, one thing led to another, and before long they were all doing the zombie walk. (Yes, the picture is fuzzy, but you try holding a camera steady while four tall men lurch towards you.) From there it seemed like only a hop and a skip to leaving the building together, and I fell into a pleasant conversation with James Patrick Kelly, only to abandon him shamelessly when it turned out that Niall had been talking to Paolo Bacigalupi for almost a whole minute without calling me over so I could squee like a fangirl. And before we knew it we were in the Hugo losers party.

    We ended up having a very interesting conversation with Bacigalupi about his work in general and his upcoming YA novel. It's not an obvious step for a writer so closely associated with depressing, almost moralistic stories, but Bacigalupi's attitude seems to be that he feels more comfortable writing upbeat stories for children, who haven't, in his words, made the wrong choices yet, and that he hopes his stories will prod children, as previous generations of SF novels have prodded them to become astronauts and rocket scientists, to develop sustainable energy substitutes and solutions to environmental problems. Which led me to think about the current shift towards YA in science fiction, and whether it represents a general feeling among authors that YA allows them to do things--such as using SF for advocacy--which adult audiences consider quaint or even old-fashioned.

    Also had a nice chat with David Anthony Durham, who looked very fetching in his Campbell tiara but nevertheless completely shot down my theory that Acacia deliberately references The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, though in a very nice way. John Scalzi showed up, Hugo in hand ("Well, I did lose two"), and passed it around so we could all admire how lovely this year's base is. Meanwhile, Paul Cornell and Nic had their priorities straight, commiserating with each other over the cricket results while Jonathan Strahan crowed at them, and I made Gord Sellar, who apparently keeps being mistaken for Cory Doctorow, very happy by realizing that I'd mistaken Doctorow for him. I highly recommend this method of getting over the aggravation of lousy Hugo results, and am only sorry that I didn't get a chance to say hello to Neal Stephenson, though that may be a blessing as I probably would have babbled incoherently.

  • Other stuff:

    • Extremely impressive (and long) fireworks display on Saturday as part of Montreal's annual fireworks competition.

    • On our way to the Biodome, I was stopped by a woman asking for help reading a map. At the same time, a man asked me whether a building with a men's bathroom sign was the bathroom. I said that it must be and looked back at the map, only to hear loud noises and see smoke coming out of the building (which now had a danger sign near the door). "If this were a particularly bad candid camera trick," I said to myself, "the guy would walk out of that building with Doc Brown hair." Guess what happened next? At this point, Niall and Nic, who had been approached by the film crew and asked to keep silent, obviously called over to me and we went on our way. I've never been a particular fan of this kind of show, but having been caught in one of their stunts I mostly feel annoyed at having my time wasted--do all the people who end up on the show really not care that their day has been disrupted?

    • Books read: the short story collection כתוב כשד משחת (Write Like a Demon) by the previously mentioned Nir Yaniv, whose collaboration with Lavie Tidhar, The Tel Aviv Dossier (which seems to take place in the same universe as Tidhar's story "Shira" from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction) was launched at the con--very funny in a way that seems to me to be uniquely Israeli (or, to put it another way, that cements my belief that there's a kind of humor that works well in Hebrew and in Eastern European languages but doesn't translate into English--which is why Erich Kastner and Karel Capek crack me up in Hebrew but leave me unmoved in English--and which Yaniv is tapping into). Also The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale and Sunnyside by Glen David Gold.

    • Movies watched: Wolverine (hey, it was on a plane and I wanted to see if it really was as bad as all that. It is), Up (for the second time, with Niall, Nic, Farah and her partner Edward James, because the poor deprived UK routinely gets Pixar films six months after they're released in the States), and Moon. I was extremely annoyed that District 9's release date was the day after our departure, but happily it has now been announced as ICon's opening film, so kudos and a huge thanks to the festival's organizers.

  • While I was gone:

    • John Scalzi drew attention to the faltering Strange Horizons fund drive by not only mentioning it on his blog but promising to match contributions up to $500. The result: nearly $10,000 donated in a single day, putting the fund drive at a whopping 177% of its target sum. Huge kudos, and remember that the drive is still open.

    • Several different slapfights seem to have exploded all over the internet. I haven't read it yet (my internet backlog is still terrifyingly large) but I'm sure Hal Duncan's reply to John C. Wright's descent into ranting homophobia will be quite the treat.

    • My Dollhouse post got Whedonesque-ed, which made for a satisfying spike in user stats.

    • Andrew Rilstone has returned, after five months' absence, to blogging. Or, at least, I think that's what he's done--he's posted a PDF, which once again I haven't had time to read yet, and which is apparently his response to Watchmen. Whether this means that normal service will be resumed is anyone's guess.

    • The Hugo nomination and voting stats have been released (PDFs in both cases). Interesting: Daniel Abraham came within eight votes of a nomination, which in next year's less competitive field (none of the big names have eligible novels) may mean that next to China Miéville he's the closest thing to a shoe-in for a nomination. Depressing: Mike Resnick came within three votes of having a story in each of the short fiction categories. Even more depressing: the closest The Sarah Connor Chronicles got to a nomination was seven votes for "The Demon Hand," no meaningful votes for The Middleman, and even counted together, all of Pushing Daisies's votes wouldn't have added up to a nomination. Meanwhile, not one but two Stargate: Atlantis episodes get multiple nominations, and Torchwood is all over the lower nomination rungs. Surprising, though possibly it shouldn't be: there are no 'compromise' wins--in all of the fiction categories and the Campbell, the nominee who got the most first place votes was also the winner.
So, how have you been?

8 comments:

Matt said...

Thanks for the link to Rilstone's meditation on Watchmen...I'd seen it but this reminded me to read it. It's absolutely brilliant. I've loved other things he's written but this is another level above that. I hope it gets the audience it deserves.

Raz Greenberg said...

Cool post. Sounds like you've had a good time! I had no idea Paul Krugman is into SF, btw.

Kate Nepveu said...

As far as the Writing the Other panel, there was a disconnect between the description and the title; the description was, as you say, much more meta [*]. I chose to prepare for the description rather than the title, mostly because that was what I knew. Also from the front of the room it looked to me like 50% had heard of RaceFail. (I also thought I'd asked before giving the potted history, not after, since that have been the useful way to do it, but I do not insist on the accuracy of my memory.)

Honestly I was not expecting to be able to have a 201-level discussion at a WorldCon panel. I am pleasantly surprised that we probably could have, at least at this panel. And if I did it again, I would try to prepare for that possibility (and more about the title, too; at another panel that had this mismatch, that I was moderating, I tried to do both, to what success I'm not sure). So yeah, learning experience.

[*] "Do discussions of Writing the Other reinforce the power dynamics of a genre structured by racial hierarchies? Is the assumption that the Other is "of colour" coded into all our discussions?"

Kate Nepveu said...

Also it was nice to meet you and I'm really annoyed I missed the fireworks while vilely ill, because I love fireworks and it's been ages since I've seen some.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Raz:

Krugman is a long time SF fan. He's credited the Foundation series with sparking his interest in economics and speaks highly of Charles Stross's use of it in his Merchant Princes series. In 1978 he wrote a semi-serious paper about the economics of interstellar trade.

Kate:

I take your point about the title/description mismatch, and I can certainly understand not anticipating the audience's sympathy - as I understand it, there was another panel on roughly the same topic whose members and audience were far from having passed the 101 stage. Luck of the draw, I guess.

And yes, it's a shame that you missed the fireworks and especially for such a reason. Hope your illness passed quickly.

Zahra said...

The passage about numinous language from Le Guin sounds like it came from her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" in the collection Language of the Night. That essay does exactly what you describe--analyzes a series of fantasy books for their style. It would be lovely to see an update, however.

Gary Couzens said...

Thanks for this. I wish I could have been there. And as someone who's been in the audience for all but the very first Not the Clarke Award panels at Eastercon, and having seen Farah Mendlesohn in action many a time, I particularly wish I'd been at the Handicapping the Hugos panel!

Gary Couzens said...

What I meant to say was that I wished I'd witnessed you and Farah going head to head...not that I've ever seen you in person before, you understand. :)

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