Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Back From the Windy City

My plane from the US landed on Friday afternoon, and yet I'm still not wholly back: piles of papers and books are still where I left them while unpacking, my photographs are uncatalogued, and a stack of emails remains to be answered.  I promised myself, however, that at least the traditional con report would be done before the convention itself was more than a week over (update: well, close enough).  In brief: I enjoyed myself at Chicon 7 very much, but that enjoyment often seemed to come in spite, and not because, of the convention's best efforts.  And now, at greater length:

The venue: unlike Montreal, Chicago is a city that I'm quite familiar with, with ties to both sides of my family.  My father got his master's degree there, and my mother's sister and her daughter lived in Chicago for many years, during which my family and I visited them several times.  In the last decade, however, nearly all of my relatives have moved away, and this visit was the first time I'd been to the city since 2001.  It was nice to be reminded of what a beautiful, vibrant, welcoming city Chicago is.  The Hyatt convention center where Chicon was held was not the easiest place to navigate, with two towers linked by only a few walkways and a small number of overtaxed elevators facilitating movement between its many levels (it apparently posed even more of a challenge to congoers with accessibility issues), but it was a wonderfully central location, so that every night I found myself in the middle of a bustling, brightly-lit downtown, with sights and restaurants only a short walk away (I have, for example, sampled deep-dish Chicago pizza at the fabled Giordano's, a culinary feat that I'm glad to have experienced but also in no hurry to repeat).  If nothing else, this trip has made me determined not to wait another eleven years before returning to this city.



The program: in a word, dreadful.  I was spoiled going into Chicon, since my previous Worldcon at Montreal had such an interesting, multifaceted, inclusive program, but even accounting for those high standards the programming at Chicon was a mess.  As has been widely reported by this point, the convention's programming team made the strange choice to, essentially, crowdsource the program, soliciting panel ideas from would-be participants and then regurgitating those ideas verbatim to other volunteers, without even bothering to rework them into more cohesive, more substantial discussion subjects, and staffing panels with whoever those descriptions struck a chord with.  I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the impulse to decentralize the classic convention structure--in my discussions with program heads at ICon I've frequently come across the idea that a convention should be more about providing its attendants with a setting, in which they can develop and discuss whatever issues come to mind, rather than a structured program.  But paradoxically, these kinds of conventions require a lot more care and attention to work than the classic kind, and Chicon's haphazard approach of combining the crowdsourcing concept with the frontal, panel-based structure of Worldcon resulted in a program that was incoherent--quite literally, as the program booklet also reprinted the attendee-suggested panel descriptions, grammar mistakes and all.

Not surprisingly, the program lacked, even by Worldcon's eclectic standards, any sort of overarching theme or themes, any sense that there were issues or a zeitgeist that the program heads wanted their convention to address.  Some areas were oddly overemphasized--I lost count of the number of sausage-making, wannabe author advice panels--while others were underrepresented--only two panels on reviews and one on short fiction--or merely odd lacunae--in the convention at which they were handed out, not a single panel discussed the Hugo awards.  At least one panel I attended had clearly been suggested in order to plug one of the participants' books, which, since she was made moderator, she was able to do with little interruption.  Even scheduling, where crowdsourcing could presumably no longer be relied upon, was a mess.  Panels with similar or nearly identical topics were programmed opposite each other--strong female characters in YA, for example, was programmed against strong female characters in general--or after one another but at opposite ends of the convention center. 

For all that, I did manage to have some interesting conversations at Worldcon, albeit mostly outside of panels.  I met lots of interesting people, both known to me and new, including several Strange Horizons reviewers and AtWQ commenters (though I did find myself having to reassure some first-time Worldcon goers that this year's program was by no means representative, which I hope future conventions will bear out).  And some panels seemed to work in spite of the program's limitations: my very first panel, Feminist SF in China on Thursday at 13:30, I had originally taken for a lecture because only one participant, Jan Bogstead, was listed.  It turned out that the program heads simply hadn't found anyone else to talk about the subject, so Bogstead recruited academic Emily Jiang, and between them they were able to round up several Chinese authors and academics who were attending the convention.  Which sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the result was a genuinely interesting and multifaceted panel on the state of SF in China and the role of women writers (if somewhat less about feminism than advertized, and apparently another panel on Chinese SF later in the convention was significantly less successful).

And then there were the panels that suffered from the same problems you encounter in any convention.  Some started out from a topic I was interested in only to take it in a direction that didn't appeal to me--Strong Female Characters in YA (Saturday, 10:30) did a good job naming individual works but failed to interrogate the strong female character concept, nor to establish how the qualities laid out for a strong YA heroine (capable, intelligent, believably flawed) differ from the ones for a strong YA hero; Historical Realism in Fantasy (Sunday, 10:30) had a strong group of participants but, perhaps understandably, bogged down in discussion of actual history; likewise, Feminism in Fantasy (Saturday, 18:00), which I would have liked to see concentrate on the issues surrounding female characters in the quasi-medieval settings of epic fantasy or the cod-Victorian ones of steampunk, ended up discussing fantasy in a more general sense, and then ran aground on the shoals of Buffy.  Some panels simply sucked: the hands-down worst was Ethics of Book Reviewing (Sunday, 13:30), which after getting bogged down for what felt like twenty minutes on Amazon reviews, turned out to be Book Reviewing for Authors, mainly about how and whether to write negative reviews, and also a platform for the authors in the panel to complain about their own reviews.  Happily, it was followed by the convention's best panel, Religion: Getting it Right (Sunday, 15:00), which had a lively, varied selection of panelists and covered a wide range of questions about how and whether to construct alien religions, and how to depict the wide range of expressions for religious belief and practice, perhaps the most important conclusion of which was the importance of depicting questioning even among believers, and of recognizing that some believers respond to theology while others respond to ritual and that both should be represented within a constructed religion.  Several questions, including my own, tried to get the panel (which included Kameron Hurley, author of God's War and its sequels) to talk about using real-world religions in science fiction and extrapolating them into the future, which sadly they didn't get very deep into, but even so this was by far the most comprehensive, intelligent panel I attended.

The Hugos, I: I had an interesting vantage point on the Hugo awards this year.  Graham Sleight, who along with John Clute, David Langford and Peter Nicholls was nominated in the Best Related Work category for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, asked me to be his guest to the ceremony, which meant that I got to dress up, hobnob at the pre-award reception (highlights include chatting with Graham, Paul Cornell, and Neil Gaiman about "The Doctor's Wife" and babbling incoherently at Dan Harmon about Community), and all without the pressure of actually being up for the award (it was fairly easy to tell the nominees from the plus ones by the former's general pallor and nervous demeanor).  I also got a pretty good seat for the awards themselves, which were packed, and thus a good spot to clap enthusiastically from when the SFE won its category.

The Hugos, II: Aside from the obvious, one of the benefits of all the above was that in the midst of sampling finger foods, worrying about my outfit, rooting for Graham and then cheering for him, there was very little time left to think about the Hugos themselves.  I haven't written much about the award this year, which was less because the ballot was so much worse than previous years--in fact it was no worse than usual--than because it crystallized a sense that has been growing within me over the last few years that maybe there's very little point in continuing that project.  When the nominees were announced, John Scalzi wrote, in response to his April's Fool joke story, "The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City," being nominated, that "I think its appearance on the Hugo slate just might make some Very Serious Observers of Genre shit a brick sideways, and you have to know I’m down with that."  At first this struck me as a somewhat passive-aggressive thing to say, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed that Scalzi had a point.  I've spent the better part of ten years talking about what the Hugos ought to be, but a popular vote award will inevitably--and by rights--be is whatever the majority of its voting membership wants it to be.  If what the voting membership wants for the Hugos isn't what I want for them, doesn't there come a point where continuing to complain about that fact is less a principled act and more just being curmudgeonly? 

That's not to say that I hate all of this year's winners--Charlie Jane Anders's "Six Months, Three Days" is, quite rightly, universally beloved, and though, in the malaise that struck me at the announcement of the nominations, I haven't read this year's winning novella, Kij Johnson is a fine writer who deserves to be recognized by the Hugos (on Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie," I think Chance sums up my feelings best)--and as many people have noted this year's winners are a hearteningly diverse bunch, which is surely an accomplishment worth celebrating in its own right.  But both the winners and the ballot as a whole reflect a trend that has dominated the Hugos for several years--towards nostalgia, fannishness, sentimentality, and stories that look inwards and backwards.  The combination of an author I've never gotten along with and a subject matter that didn't appeal to me meant that I haven't read Among Others, but both that subject matter and the book's reception seem to confirm it as the epitome of that trend.  In her acceptance speech, Walton quoted one of the commenters on her LiveJournal, who called Among Others "a love letter to fandom."  I don't want the Hugos to be in the self-flattering business of rewarding their own love letters.  I want them to look outward, for what's new and exciting and different in the field, for the works that will be shape and change genre writing in the years to come.  But saying that again and again is starting to feel pointless.

The Hugos, III, and Other Stuff: If I weren't conflicted enough by Among Others's victory, Walton, in her acceptance speech, thanked Rene Walling, who was recently banned from Readercon for sexual harassment (if you haven't heard of this incident, in brief: Walling harassed author Genevieve Valentine, who lodged a complaint; the Readercon board, in contravention of its own zero tolerance policy which they had already implemented once before, decided to ban Walling for only two years; a public outcry followed, and Walling received a lifetime ban; he also resigned from his committee roles in Chicon and several future Worldcons).  I don't know whether Walton's purpose was merely to thank a friend who had played an integral role in her novel's path to winning the Hugo (according to her, he suggested the book's title) or whether the choice to name him at the convention's tentpole moment was a deliberate poke in the eye to those who had cried so vehemently for his expulsion from Readercon and the Worldcon committees.  And the truth is, I'm not sure that her intentions matter at this point, because in the week that has followed, there has been a definite and depressing backlash against the so-called vilification of Walling, and the discussion of sexual harassment that came out of the Readercon incident, into which Walton's words can't help being folded.

It can't be denied that Walling would have been infinitely better off if Readercon had handed down a lifetime ban on him from the start.  Before the ill-considered initial decision, neither his name nor the incident in general were widely publicized, whereas after it banning him became a cause célèbre for feminist fans, and coverage of the debacle was nearly ubiquitous.  By the time the dust settled, Walling was being treated less as a person than as symbol for the way that fannish institutions privilege the feelings of harassers over those of their victims.  But none of that makes him an innocent or, God forbid, a victim.  And yet over the last week there has increasingly been a sense that in certain corners of fandom that is exactly what he is.  The discussion has veered towards hysterical terms such as witch-hunt and lynch-mob (Valentine has some more thoughts about how these terms come out of the woodwork, as does N.K. Jemisin), and both publicly and privately I have seen people decry the unfairness of his being tarred with the brush of a serial harasser.  Personally, my instinct is that a person doesn't wake up one morning and decide that harassing women is OK, but I don't know the man so maybe that is essentially what happened.  That doesn't change the fact that the onus is on Walling to demonstrate that he can amend his behavior, not on his friends to try to argue that he's suffered enough, and based on the reports coming from Chicon--at which Walling staffed con activities, bemoaned his misfortune to one congoer, and made an uncomfortable pass at another--he is doing exactly the opposite.  At the very least, his behavior demonstrates a profound lack of judgment that makes any possibility of genuine reflection and change seem very remote.  And yet, in the current atmosphere--in which, as Rose Fox points out, we're spending much more time talking about Walling and his feelings than about the feelings of Valentine and other victims of harassment--it seems likely that he'll be forgiven.  Again, I don't know if this is something that Walton intended to be a part of, and she is owed the benefit of the doubt, but in light of the events of the last week her speech leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

After Chicago: In less serious news, I spent two short days in New York after leaving Chicago, visiting family (amusingly, most of my relatives who used to live in Chicago have ended up in New York and its environs) and meeting intrepid LiveJournaler Coffeeandink.  One of the highlights of my visit was (no pun intended) The High Line, the reclaimed freight track which has been transformed into a public park.


The books: well, of course.


The cat, who belongs to my cousins, is sadly not included.

The future: Since I've gone on long enough, I'll let a picture say a thousand words.

8 comments:

Matt Hilliard said...

Oh man, I know you're busy but I hope you write about Cyteen when you get around to reading it. I love it but it's got some real rough edges. Lots to talk about, in other words, but no one seems to read it any more.

On the programming: crowd-sourcing is a good idea but you have to do it right. I don't know how the process worked but judging by the outcome people were submitting ideas without seeing what other people were suggesting, resulting in a lot of duplicates and a set of panels that was actually less diverse than it would have been with a bit more editorial control. What really caused a problem was that so many panels felt bound to the (almost always poor and in many cases incoherent) panel description and weren't able to improvise into something better.

All that said, as much as I agree with your overall point I have to nitpick: there was more than one short story panel: "Short Story Club Scene", "Filling the Magazines", "Creating Exciting Anthologies", "The Future Evolution of the Short Story", and arguably "Short Stories to Order" seem to qualify.

On the Hugos: no, complaining doesn't change voter tastes, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Awards are a way to start conversations, not end them. And I think you sell this year's Best Novel category short, not in terms of quality (though I would actually argue the quality was up from previous years) but in terms of breadth. Yes, Among Others is inward-looking and fannish. But Embassytown is its opposite, intellectually challenging at the expense of accessibility, while the other three are the sort of thing someone new to genre might be able to pick up and enjoy while also representing the genre's trendy flavors: space opera, doorstop fantasy, and zombies.

rushthatspeaks said...

Caveat: Jo is a dear friend of mine.

That said: pretty sure she was not, or at least not only, making a political point in the speech (though I haven't asked her yet), since the book went through a very long agonizingly complicated titling process which involved her asking her LJ readers for suggestions (a real and admitted last resort when the author knows they haven't read the book!) and which sounded very unpleasant all round. As I said, though, I haven't actually spoken with her about it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

Cyteen (and The Female Man) are part of what I hope will become Women Writing SF 2, though just when I can get around to it is a big question - hopefully by the end of the year, though who knows.

I must have missed those short story panels on the program - only one of them rings a vague bell.

Though Among Others is clearly the apogee of fannish inward-looking on the best novel shortlist, I'm not sure it's the only representative of it. Embassytown is a much better novel but it's also quite deliberately old-fashioned in both its setting and its style, and there's something quite fannish about a nomination for George R.R. Martin's second half of the fourth installment in a series that is nearly two decades old. More importantly, I think that a tendency for inward-looking is also reflected in how slight the nominated works feel. How many of them are likely to be remembered at all, much less as representatives of the best that genre has to offer, in ten or even five years' time? Among Others has an expiration date practically baked into its premise, and even Embassytown is already starting to feel like a less essential Mieville. The only novel on the ballot that feels as if it has a chance of longevity is A Dance With Dragons, and that will be as one installment in a series, and possibly only as an adjunct to the TV show.

rushthatspeaks:

As I said, it really wasn't clear to me what Walton's purpose was, and I'm perfectly willing to believe that she spoke purely to thank a friend (and as I say, a lot of the backlash we've seen this week came after her speech). But I do think it was an unfortunate choice - especially as I was told that Kate Kligman was in the audience - and that some compromise, such as thanking Walling in a way he'd recognize without naming him, might have been in order.

entropypump said...

Are any of the other big, non-public vote driven awards doing much better? I find the nominees for the Nebula just as disappointing as those for the Hugo (with the caveat that I only look at the novels).

If there were one rule I would change, I would not allow works to get nominated that are clearly part of a series or a setting an author regularly visits. But that'll never happen.

surliminal said...

I;m sort of suprised you dislike the crowdsourcing programme concept so much when as far as i could tell it's what Wiscon does and everyone seems to love their programmes. Me I'm a top down elitist and I like a vision driven programme curated by eclectic experts (essentially what I try to do in my work life) but I was beginning to think this was unusual..

Bryan M. White said...

Hey, that big reflective... thing.. was in Source Code, wasn't it?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

entropypump:

I'm not sure there are any other limited pool popular vote awards other than the Nebula and the Hugo (which are slightly different from one another because the Nebula is voted on by the members of a professional organization rather than a convention - if the Hugo tends to err towards fannishness, the Nebula errs towards cliquishness). And I would certainly say that this year's Nebula novel shortlist was stronger than the Hugo's, even if they both have the same winner.

But the truth is that any award system, and especially any popular vote award, has its problems. I'm not sure the solution to those problems is to make rules that restrict the voters' choices - what if the best book of the year actually is an installment in a series? - so much as it is a voting membership whose focus is on finding excellence rather than cheerleading for their favorite authors.

surliminal:

I haven't been to Wiscon so I can't speak to how well crowdsourcing works there, but as I said I'm not opposed to the notion of a decentralized program in principle. I just think it need a lot of care to work. It's not as simple as just dumping the program in the congoers' hands.

Bryan:

Yes. It's called Cloud Gate (or, more fondly, "The Bean"), and it's an environmental sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park.

Fernando Hugo Rodrigo Blanco said...

Interesting, your reflections on if to complain or not about the quality of winners and nominees in Hugo Awards. Not exactly the same, but I found last episode of Code Street Podcast wondering about the same issues, having as a point of departure Paul Kincaid’s essay on L.A. Times.

I’d add a different consequence, only noticeable, maybe, to those science fiction and fantasy readers in other countries. At least, in Spain, my country (I apologize in advance if my English is not that proper) the effect of a possible bad quality on these awards is that publishers (not that many, by the way; Spain is kind of obsessed still with considering science fiction or, above all, fantasy a lesser kind of literature; that, or that we may have a very strong realistic tradition) only focus precisely on those authors or books.

Of course, no problem if we talk about short stories or novelettes: we can find them online and we manage to read them. But novels? Unlikely to get a book published here if there is not a "Hugo nominee" or "Hugo winner" label to the cover. The last book by Bacigalupi could be the exception.

We can, again, buy them in Amazon or similar, and read them in their original language, but the truth is some books would find a broader audience if properly translated. For example, some complex works, such as the ones by Valente, would be received better with a good translation. I’ve found some reviewers found it daring to read in its original language, so you may imagine the difficulties for those we read English as a second language.

I’m not saying I or anybody could blame the readers who vote on these type of awards, and to make them have no less than the responsibility of "guarding the quality of the genre" even in not-English speaking countries. Of course, most of the blame would go to the readers on Spanish publishers companies (or the marketing or business details we, simply readers, don’t have a clue about). But I think there is a link with what Anglo-Saxon fiction awards each year, and what ends up being published here.

In a sense, they also create some sort of a canon, and, in a way, also influences what the Spanish authors may find necessary to be doing to be published.

And, ey, thanks for this blog. I find in it alternative readings to the "usual ones".

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