~ journal ~

Readercon 11

Guests of Honor: Harlan Ellison & Ellen Datlow
Memorial Guest of Honor: Gerald Kersh
July 9-11, 1999
The Westin Waltham-Boston, Waltham, Massachusetts
Convention Web Site | Con Quotes by Bob Devney (PDF)

Is Hollywood Getting a Clue?
7:00 PM Friday
Panel participants: Harlan Ellison, Henry Jenkins (moderator), Aline Boucher Kaplan,
Paul T. Riddell, Steven Sawicki

Ellison blusters and swears, inveighing against big-business moviemaking. He loves The Arrival and hates Independence Day. The rest of the panel members agree that Hollywood probably doesn't have a clue, though Jenkins points out that it's true that Hollywood is a business, but so is publishing. There have always been good and bad movies. His point is that there have been an unusually large number of decent SF movies in the last few years (he lists Dark City, The Matrix, Gattaca, Pi, Contact and several others). No one follows up on this point. Instead the discussion veers over to the representation of violence in movies and reactions to the Littleton, CO killings.

Gene Wolfe Autograph Session
8:00 PM Friday

As he signs my copies of Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, I ask, "Are you aware of how much convoluted argument about your work goes on on the Internet?" He replies, "Yes… I read a lot of it, but it gets boring after a while. I get to thinking, 'Does it really matter that much?'"

Misfit and Outcast Literature
8:10 PM Friday
Panel participants: F. Brett Cox (moderator), Nalo Hopkinson, Rebecca Ore, Allen Steele,
Robert Charles Wilson

Steele recounts a tale of growing up in the Southeast where everyone who fit in was a moron or at least pretended to be one, and you were pegged as gay for reading books. Cox sympathizes, having grown up in the same region of the country. Cox says that American literature in general is a literature of alienation and rebellion (Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, etc.). Steele says that part of what differentiates SF from this larger tradition is that the rebel hero doesn't have to die or conform by the end of the book. Cox brings the discussion around to the Littleton, CO killings again and asks if the other panelists have any comments about the connection of literature to their actions. Wilson says that his first experience of fandom was of falling in with people who were weird in the same way he was. But there were the occasional real weirdos who were mentally or emotionally unstable and lurked on the periphery. "They didn't 'get it'." Cox asks the audience ironically, "I wouldn't blame you for not answering this question, but what was your first reaction to hearing that a couple of high school outcasts had opened fire on a bunch of jocks?" The audience responds with a generally celebratory hubbub. A woman next to me then stands up and comments that us vs. them thinking can invade SF fandom as well, when fans begin to think they are better than the "mundanes" who have rejected them (cites Ellison describing non-SF fans as "morons"). None of the panelists follows up on her point.

Eleanor Arnason Reading
9:00 PM Friday

She reads a short story about a pseudo-squid mother trying to raise her children alone after being separated from her community. (She doesn't do too well). The story climaxes when she swims down into an ocean trench to look for her one remaining child, who has wandered off. There she meets a giant creature to which her species is obviously related, but which she has never heard of before. It investigates her thoroughly with its tentacles, but does not harm her; she tries to communicate with it, but is unsuccessful. She swims away from the encounter puzzled and finds her child hiding near the rim of the trench. She eventually joins a new community and always remembers her encounter with this strange being. In the spirit of its forbearance, she stops eating her species' smaller kin. Arnason comments after reading the story that she submitted it to Gordon van Gelder, but he rejected it, saying that it read too much like a nature story. She shakes her head and says that she thought she wrote a story about how hard it is to raise children by yourself!

Arnason also reads a poem from a book of labor verse about working in a shipping department. Then a poem about birds being the descendants of dinosaurs, which ends with the thought that to survive maybe humans should trust not to muscle and might, but to air and light. Then she reads a hwarhath story called "Feeding the Mother" that was printed in Paradoxa, vol. 4, no. 10 (Metafiction). I laugh at the part where the woman appears in the hero's dream and vomits a river of blood, then says, "What kind of food is that for an old woman?"

Later, at the bar with Carolyn Ives Gilman, Arnason says that she has consciously based fictional characters on real people only twice. Eh Matsehar from Ring of Swords is a fictionalization of her playwright friend Ron, who died at age 47 of a stroke. He also was physically damaged, arrogant but sweet, and gay. The other character was the giant mutant rat in To the Resurrection Station, who represented her partner Patrick. I ask Arnason what the story is with the second hwarhath novel and she says that it has so far been rejected, but she has taken suggestions from various readers (including Le Guin), and plans to rewrite it. She imagines that it will probably be published by a small press.

She pays for our drinks!

Meet the Pros(e) Party
11:00 PM Friday

I arrive too late to hear Ellison honor people and instead hear him vilifying Forrest J. Ackerman, Gregory Feeley and someone named Korshak. He also tells some jokes (some of which are funny). No mistake, he is a showman. Orson and I leave early, at about midnight.

Carolyn Ives Gilman Reading
11:00 AM Saturday

She reads from chapter two of Ghost, her novel-in-progress. It is set in the same universe as Halfway Human and is about "an ill-advised plan to democratize a third-world planet." The planet in question is the home of the Vindh, who, it turns out, are divided into two groups, the imChadhra, who are physically and intellectually enhanced by a virus, and the rest of the population, who are subjugated and planetbound. The viewpoint character of this chapter is offered the task of fomenting a revolution on the planet. By the end of the chapter, she has accepted. Gilman is not at all sure when the novel will be finished.

Smut and Nothing But: SF and Romance in Search of Redeeming Social Importance
12:00 PM Saturday
Panel participants: Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, Jennifer K. Stevenson (moderator), Cecilia Tan

Tan (wearing an amusing bondage outfit complete with leather dog collar and thigh-high black boots) reads from Blue Mars.

Stevenson reads from a romance novel about a bratty debutante who falls in with a Texan golfer. There is some amusing banter, but the sex scene is standard issue, unrealistic romance fare, in the course of which the guy convinces the woman to be boned on the trunk of the car – and she loves it!

Link reads an Angela Carter version of an Eskimo story called "Blubberboy".

Hopkinson reads a poem from Le Guin's Always Coming Home called "Yes-Singing" ("Eyegeonkama") and a lesbian love scene from a story by a Caribbean writer.

Tan reads from Vinge's Catspaw.

Stevenson reads from Hughart's Bridge of Birds.

Link reads from Stevenson's book Trash, Sex, Magic as well as Knox's The Vintner's Luck.

Hopkinson reads from her story-in-progress about a heterosexual couple who experiment with trading their form-fitting sensory stimulation suits and having sex.

Tan reads her story "Now".

Stevenson reads a bondage scene from a Crowley novel (Daemonomania?)

Link reads an unpublished story by Kelly Jackson about good and bad eggs which is very strange.

Doing Science: Reality vs. Fiction
2:00 PM Saturday
Panel participants: Eleanor Arnason, John Cramer, Shariann Lewitt, Paul J. McAuley,
Jean-Louis Trudel (moderator), Peter Watts

Cramer, McAuley and Watts comment on the wonderful experience of discovering something new as well as the "culture of science". Watts blows the lid off the "Darwinian" world of biology: the scientists are fighting mercilessly against one another for jobs, recognition and grant money. McAuley recommends Cook-Deegan's The Gene Wars, a book about the development of the Human Genome Project. Watts says that the life cycle of a successful scientist is the opposite of a butterfly's – from winged creature to chrysalis to worm! Arnason lists some of the things she thinks are missing from most SF depictions of science: collaboration, the process of trial and error, and the issue of funding. Watts mentions Connie Willis' Bellwether as a good representation of real science. It is filled with errors and only eventually achieves breakthrough. Lewitt and Cramer both comment that what is important in a story is getting the feeling of doing science across, not strict accuracy when it comes to details. Watts comments on his grad school experience: "It was amazing… it was horrible! It was like I couldn't really live without almost dying." Lewitt recommends Neal Stephenson's Crytonomicon. McAuley decries "the aha! syndrome," which is the tendency in fiction to depict the process of discovery as a spontaneous brainstorm rather than the culmination of long, hard work. As an illustration of said syndrome, he exclaims à la Star Trek, "Just reverse the polarity!" Watts comments, "Isn't the trial and error process more well suited to telling a suspenseful, compelling story than the aha! syndrome?" As an example of a good trial and error story, McAuley recommends the movie Cube. In response to further comment that real science must still be edited and condensed to make an entertaining story, Arnason says, "I think we are assuming that fiction is a lot more limiting than it is. It's not legitimate to say that we can't write about real science because the structure of story doesn't allow us to. There are many different kinds of stories." Lewitt then comments that fiction can be a great way to learn new things and that the details in a book she is currently reading about the Renaissance world of painting fascinate her. As an unrelated thought, Trudel mentions his interest in the "superannuated heretics" who inhabit grad schools and defend their old, unpopular ideas, which are sometimes obviously wrong, but sometimes wrongly ignored by contemporary science.

Further recommendations:

Watts: The Andromeda Strain
Cramer: Benford's Timescape, various books by James Hogan, and the movie Contact
Trudel: Robinson's Antarctica
Arnason: Wilhelm's The Clewiston Test as well as her own story "The Potter of Bones"
Lewitt: anything by Charles Sheffield and Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama
An audience member: Sobel's Longitude

5:15 PM Saturday

Not much is going on. A host of science fiction writers and fans occupy the hotel lounge and watch the Women's World Cup match between China and the US (the score is currently 0-0). When I went to the bar to buy some beer the service was very slow and John Crowley cut me in line. After I finally got my beers I accidentally brushed against his arm and he gave me a look of stark disapproval (at least that's what it felt like). Then his conversational buddy, Allyn Brodsky, bumped me, causing a sizable splash of beer to overflow the rim of one of the glasses I was carrying. I was suitably chastened. Ellen Kushner is here (not watching the game). She is wearing a cool black jacket that looks like linen or cotton and drapes almost to her ankles.

The Fallacy of Genre
5:30 PM Saturday
Host: Candas Jane Dorsey

I can tell she is Canadian – she pronounces the word about as "aboot".

She admits that she put things into Black Wine just because she could, to mess with people's genre expectations (the student riot = Tiananmen Square; Essa's brain scan near the end of the book is a straight fictionalization of a CAT scan). She talks about the origin of the pulps: it was cheaper to keep the printing presses running overnight than to shut them down and bring them up again the next morning. So the publishers needed something to print. She talks about the economic reality of marketing Canadian books (strange royalty regulations and tax issues). Then there is a tangential discussion about sex or the lack of it in SF these days. A webzine guy in the audience says that there is absolutely no (heterosexual) sex in the books he has been reading lately. Dorsey muses that she hasn't noticed any lack of sex, but maybe that is because she reads a lot of books written by women. (I agree. I can hardly think of any books I have read recently that don't have sex scenes in them, though some are indeed homosexual; most of these books are by women.)

Samuel Delany Reading
8:00 PM Saturday

The man is absent. It is nearly ten minutes into his thirty minute time slot. …Twenty minutes and he is still AWOL. Someone breaks out an old paperback of Dhalgren and people take turns reading it aloud to the assembled crowd. Just as Swanwick's reading is supposed to begin… Delany arrives! He reads commentary from the end of Bread and Wine. His lover Dennis said, regarding a silhouette drawing of himself ejaculating into the air, "Man! You never wasted that much in your life. Remember that shirt I got that says, 'Mean people suck, nice people swallow'? Chip, you're one of the nice people." Then Delany reads from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. He admits that he is promulgating gay culture – he thinks heterosexuals could learn a lot from gay institutions like the porn theatres in Times Square. "People can be more relaxed and have more fun."

John Clute's Model of Fantasy Structure
10:00 AM Sunday
Panel participants: John Clute, John Crowley, Candas Jane Dorsey, Donald G. Keller,
Teresa Nielsen Hayden (moderator)

While testing the handheld microphone, Clute says, "I guess I have to talk right into this thing… it's got a purring, intimate, sexy kind of sound… which is really what we're looking for." About The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Clute says that there is a kind of secret book within the book, made up of the motif and thematic entries. Crowley (wearing maroon low-top Converse All Stars), comments that the Encyclopedia has WATER MARGINS that are inhabited by authors such as Borges and Pynchon, versus the central writers like Tolkien. Thus the inner, secret book, echoes the structure Clute is using to talk about the literature.

Dorsey says that she is almost afraid of reading the Encyclopedia because it could make her fatally self-conscious as a writer. She characterizes the process of writing stories as the search for a "unified field theory" and connects the human habit of telling stories with our biological reality. She describes a study of good and bad nursing in hospitals – the one thing the bad nurses all had in common was the inability to construct coherent narratives out of their experience. She compares to dysfunctional families who can only tell lies, not true stories. Upon completing her train of thought she congratulates herself for thinking it all up at 10:20 AM on a Sunday morning.

Another humorous Clute-ism, regarding the first stage of fantasy narrative: "Bondage… which is not used as a term for actual fun trussing."

He comments that the CONCEPTUAL BREAKTHROUGH in SF is the same thing as RECOGNITION in fantasy, except that they go in opposite directions: CONCEPTUAL BREAKTHROUGH leads to a new, better-understood world, whereas RECOGNITION is the awareness of the loss of story. He characterizes SF, fantasy and horror broadly as various means of coping with the terrifying pace of change in the modern world (since 1780). He then remarks that his model of fantasy structure is a deeply Western, Christianized one. He admits that he is now unhappy with his characterization of horror in the Encyclopedia as a parody of fantasy. He has a budding theory that horror is an independent alternative to framing story, centered around the REVEL (which leads to CATHARSIS, a possible alternative for the term HEALING, which he doesn't much like). He says of his theory of horror structure: "It has wobbly legs, but it has a lot of legs. It's a centipede at the moment."

The SF Computer Game: A New Art Form?
11:00 AM Sunday
Panel participants: Pat Cadigan, Janice M. Eisen (moderator), Carolyn Ives Gilman, Kevin J. Maroney

Gilman says that as a writer of text for museum exhibits, she identifies with the creators of computer games. Ideally there should be some kind of underlying narrative in each exhibit, but museum-goers are not going to read the text in a set order, and the text will be only a small part of what they are experiencing. Cadigan praises escapism. Maroney comments: "There are places in Doom and Quake that are now more real to me than my high school is." Cadigan exclaims, "Thank God!" Gilman says that she misses character and politics in computer games. Cadigan recommends Disch's Amnesia. Maroney says that MUDs are full of possibilities, but no decent writers have taken the time to create really good ones. In response to the complaint about poor characterization and plot in computer games, I throw out the counter-example of The Beast Within.

Samuel Delany Autograph Session
12:00 PM Sunday

He signs my copies of Dhalgren and Trouble on Triton. He is very friendly and laughs when I comment about Times Square Red, Times Square Blue that "it's good to get a blast of reality."

Just Say "Wow!": Drugs and SF
12:10 PM Sunday
Panel participants: John Crowley, Elizabeth Hand, Paul J. McAuley, Patrick Nielsen Hayden,
Cecilia Tan (moderator)

Tan wonders if the introduction of a new drug into a culture acts as an excuse for bad behavior, completely apart from the physical effect of the drug. She asks, "Does first reading of SF coincide with first drug use for most people?" The panelists are divided in their own experience. Nielsen Hayden recounts his grade school experience of being forced to watch a movie about the evil of drugs. It featured a young hippie sitting cross-legged in front of a poster of a spiral galaxy. His immediate thought was that he wanted to be that guy. Tan asks if any of her fellow panelists have ever written while under the influence of drugs. Hand says no. She thinks it would be difficult and that the end result would be tedious for the reader. Crowley says, "Only diary entries, and they are unreadable." Nielsen Hayden points out that alcohol is a time-honored means of getting past writer's block and that cigarette-smoking is a well-known prop. Tan says that caffeine and mass quantities of Swedish Fish keep her going. She also drops acid once in a while as a way of seeing the world with new eyes. She does not, however, attempt to write while doing so (except for a silly diary that she and her friends pull out once a year).

Gene Wolfe Kaffeeklatsch
1:00 PM Sunday

Nalo Hopkinson asks Wolfe how much research he does in the process of writing his books. Quite a bit, he says. He started Soldier of the Mist thinking he knew about the ancient world – after all, he had taken high school Latin! Then he discovered that he didn't know anything. I thought he was being facetious when he used "ancient world" as a synonym for Greece, but he keeps making absolute statements about, for example, Babylon being the greatest city on Earth (what about China, South America, etc.?).

He comments that he is terrible at learning languages, but he still loves them. He says that the Latin in The Book of the New Sun is mistranslated throughout, and that he put it in to amuse readers who actually know Latin. He seemed pleased to relate that he does get letters from people who notice. In response to a question, he confirms that the character of the blind librarian is a pretty straight fictionalization of Borges.

He speaks at some length about the meanness of Gregory Feeley. Someone asks, "Isn't it the duty of a critic to let people know if he thinks a book is bad?" Wolfe exclaims, "Of course, as long as he is being honest!" He mentions what he calls "Wolfe's Rule of Some", which is that there is never total unanimity when it comes to aesthetics – some people will like a book, and some won't. John Clute has given him some unfavorable reviews, but he doesn't mind because he knows that Clute gives due attention to his books and is being honest about his opinions. Feeley, on the other hand, doesn't seem to make any effort to understand what he is reading and obviously enjoys making his reviews into "hatchet jobs". Someone describes Wolfe's carved walking stick as a "shillelagh" for beating dishonest critics.

Someone asks what he is currently working on. He says he is writing "a dumb book about knights." He doesn't know why. It just seized him.

Nalo asks if he finds it difficult to sustain interest in his longer works while writing them. He says no. He gets fatigued, but that is OK. He says that if he begins to lose interest in something he is working on, he has to go back and revise to make it interesting again – because if it isn't interesting for him, it's certainly not going to be interesting for the reader. He recounts his experience of reading a Kim Stanley Robinson story (or is it a novel?) in which a dead body suddenly appears in a bathtub – a startling moment that made him "jump out of his chair." He asked Robinson why he did it and Robinson replied, "Because things were getting dull." He clarifies that he is not talking about gratuitous weirdness – the dead body is in fact worked into the plot and makes sense later on.

As Wolfe and his wife (a sweet-looking lady who sat next to me during the kaffeeklatsch) walked down the hall afterward, I heard him exclaim, "That was nice! I think that was the best kaffeeklatsch I've ever had!"

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