|A very long recap of Readercon
||[Jul. 21st, 2013|01:41 pm]
Last weekend I went to Readercon, the speculative fiction convention in Burlington, MA. This was my first literary convention, and only the second con I’ve ever attended (the other was Wicked Faire, which I am pretty sure counts as a con). I went with a couple of the people from my writing/critique group. Gillian and Lura and I split a hotel room for Friday and Saturday night. (I was unable to attend the Thursday night opening remarks/panels as I had to work late to make up for taking Friday off.)
Friday morning I got up entirely too early out of sheer excitement, then spent four hours impatiently cleaning the house, visiting death and destruction upon carpenter ants, drinking iced coffee (this is a great idea when you’re already keyed up and impatient!), going to the liquor store (priorities, I haz them), and other mundane acts of not being at Readercon yet. Finally it was time to pick up Gillian, head down to South Station to pick up Tim and Mark (one of Gillian’s Clarion friends and his husband), head to Burlington, and check in. We got to the Marriot a little before noon, so it was already full of people in their best non-costume nerd finery (I met C.S.E. Cooney, who was definitely pushing the boundaries of “non-costume,” but as a former wearer of Renaissance skirts and hooker boots to school, I wholeheartedly approve). We got our badges and Gillian introduced me to like twenty people because apparently she knows everybody. Then the real fun began!
We got in about halfway through the 12:00 “Of Gods and Goddesses” panel. Coming in mid-conversation always means that it takes a little bit to figure out what’s going on, but we did catch some very interesting conversations about making up (or trying to make up) new gods and goddesses versus using deities from existing pantheons, the relationship between Christian mythology and pagan mythologies in fantasy stories and some of the worst trends therein, and religious traditions that are underrepresented and under-reimagined in fantasy. Patricia McKillip admitted to having been complimented on a fantasy pantheon that she had completely forgotten she'd written. My recommendation notes for this panel were N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Patricia McKillip's The Sorceress and the Cygnet.
After that we kicked around exploring and being social for another hour, and I met the two other B-spec members who would be around for the whole con, Lura and Emily. (I am fairly new to my writing group so there are several members I haven't met yet.)
At two we attended the panel on "Expressions of Disability in Speculative Fiction," which discussed common shitty tropes about disability and why they are shitty, mostly focusing on the "culture of cure" and the particularly common trope of using technology or magic to get rid of disability. They also vetted the portrayals of some disabled characters in popular SF/F (Bran: awesome, Hodor: not so awesome). One of the panelists pointed out that technological advances were likely to have their own issues with disability--interacting with them poorly, changing the expectations for "fully abled," etc--and that access to disability-aid technologies is not automatically going to be equally accessible in the future. There was also a short discussion of ageing in fiction towards the end of the panel.
At three we attended the "Characters who Break the Binary" panel, which discussed the dearth of good portrayals of characters who were neither entirely gay nor straight, or who are not entirely cisgendered. This was the first of several panels I saw where Alaya Dawn Johnson was a panelist, and therefore the first in which I resolved that I have to read her entire backlist, stat. Steve Berman talked a bit about trends in the stories that come into Lethe Press (genderqueer is very big right now), and the way that nonbinary identities are named and framed at different places and points in time.
At four we attended "Race as a Social Construct in Speculative Fiction," a panel that Gillian had suggested (the story is that she suggested it at 3 am after an argument about racism with someone on Twitter, and was shocked that they actually used it). I say this in the interest of full disclosure, so you know I have some reason to be biased when I proclaim that this was a particularly excellent panel with especially smart and awesome speakers, including Alaya Dawn Johnson again, and John Chu, who is apparently a friend of Gillian's. This panel was led by Andrea Hairston, who is a Theater Person as well as an author, and you can tell, because she is super engaging and funny and has an amazing stage presence. (Also, she had an awesome hat.) The panelists dissected some of the failier ways in which some sci-fi/fantasy (mostly sci-fi) works have tried to depict allegorical or analogous stories about racism, often using what are markedly different species. They then moved on to the challenges of depicting characters of different races in their own works without being so blatant as to be weird and stereotypical but without being so subtle so that readers would miss it (I gathered that this is a bigger issue in shorter works but I don't think anyone explicitly claimed that at any point); they also discussed the related opposite problem of running into characters that are explicitly labeled as ethnic minorities but who are characterized in ways that seem to lack any sort of awareness of how that might actually lead to having experiences that would shape their characterization. (I believe someone--I want to say Daniel Jose Older--brought up Will Smith characters running at cops with guns, which no grown-up Black man in America would expect to get away with.) Most of the panel focused on science fiction; I would have been interested to hear more about the racial essentialism issues embedded in the Tolkien-derivative fantasy tradition but we ran out of time before I could figure out how to word that as a specific question.
I don’t remember what book was recommended at what panel but my rec notes for this block of sociological panels has: Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi; The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson; and anything by Andrea Hairston.
This was enough seriousness for one afternoon, so then we went to a panel called “Writing (Hot and Heavy) Action,” which was about writing sex scenes and fight scenes. Predictably, the room was packed. I was mildly terrified of this panel, to be honest. The panel turned out to be great—both utterly hilarious and full of really good writing advice—but I am now mildly terrified of Margo Lanagan. There was also a hilarious line of discussion revealing that many science fiction writers used to make ends meet by writing letters for Penthouse. Who knew?
After this we went out for dinner, and we went to a sit-down restaurant, which was quite fun, but which I will remember not to do again for next year because it took two and a half hours (I do not know it managed to take quite that long) and therefore I missed the panel on clothing and fairy tales that I wanted to attend. Boo.
When we returned to the con we saw a performance by the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, which was just as awesome as their name. Some of the performance was music—there was a particularly good song in the style of a plaintive Irish ballad, except it involved airships—and some of it was spoken word storytelling. There was a very dramatic and exciting story about a bone shark, which would have had slightly more impact were this not the day after the Sharknado premiere.
After this it was party time! After having some Kraken rum in our room (apparently this is, like, the unofficial drink of Readercon or something; I didn’t even know, I just bought it because it’s awesome), we went to the Meet the Prose party. There was a game going on at this party where all the authors had sheets of stickers with the first line of one of their works on them. The goal was to collect all the stickers, thereby meeting all the authors. We did not do this game as we showed up a bit late, but we had a good time talking to all sorts of fancy people anyway. Theodora Goss told us a bit about her current WIP, a novel based on her short story “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter.” I also had a fascinating conversation with a woman who introduced herself only as Nightwing, who quit her job as a software engineer and now sells corsets (I started talking to her because she was wearing an awesome one). After several great conversations and a couple of drinks, it was time to go to bed, because the panels started at 9 am the next morning.
The Saturday 9 am panel that I attended was called “The Work-Work Balance” and it was about the costs of pursuing a career in the arts—basically how to not starve to death in the many years it takes to produce and sell enough stuff to live on, and without letting your day job take you away from writing. There was a lot of complaining and some very good advice. The advice I think I personally would find the most helpful is to schedule a specific block of time to write each week, so that the back of your brain will sort of plan for it. I like this advice better than “write a little each day”, because I am bad at writing in small blocks.
A lot of the panel was also about managing finances: be okay with having a smaller house, etc. When you do have the opportunity to make money, set some of it aside for later. Most of this was stuff I already kind of knew, but it was good to remind myself of it since I have been rather spendy of late.
Then we took an hour to kick around the book fair, where my resolution to spend less money promptly died (it was a quick and painless death). Gillian introduced me to the chief editor of Clarkesworld, and I could not resist buying three magazines and also spending several minutes admiring the cover art. I bought a couple of books of short stories. I was in word nerd heaven.
11 o’clock was the panel “A Visit from the ‘Suck Fairy,’” about enjoying works with problematic elements. The general consensus was that it is okay to enjoy books that have some sort of faily thing going on as long as you own it, and don’t get all denial-y and try to pretend that Lovecraft was totally not racist, for example. They talked a bit about where they each draw the line on what they can and cannot stand to read or have in their house, and how frequently authors are excused as “products of their time” even when this is not actually true. Yoon Ha Lee talked a bit about how when he was younger, some of his favorite books included some classic sci-fi works (I cannot remember the author’s name) that dealt with gender-swapping in what he now recognizes as a hugely faily way, but at the time, was pretty much the closest thing to a representation of trans-ness as he could find in books.
At noon was the “Friendship is Magic” panel, which was about friendship in speculative fiction and in fiction in general, and, more importantly, about the lack of depictions of friendship, even considering that there’s clearly a market for it because some of the most successful story franchises ever have been buddy stories (Sam and Frodo, Holmes and Watson). Some of the panelists discussed how they represent friendships in their own works, particularly female friendships, which are even harder to find in mainstream works than male ones (although perhaps not quite as hard as cross-sex friendships). They also discussed the trope that villians never have friends, only minions—a particularly absurd notion considering that in the real world, assholes have friends all the time (frequently other assholes, but still). Most of the panel discussed the importance of friendship and community versus the American value of individualism and making your own way. In the only question I ventured for the entire con, I asked about friendship versus romance—the idea that romantic and sexual relationships are the only sort of relationships that “count,” which seems to be at least as much of a popular idea as not relying on other people.
At one o’clock I (by myself now) went to Romie Stott’s talk “Economic Systems Past, Present, and Future.” This had a little bit less to do with developing economic systems in writing than I sort of assumed it would; I forget sometimes that I actually do know a little more than nothing about economics and money, so I think the purpose of the talk was more like “Here the basic things you need to know about real money, so that you can avoid saying egregiously stupid things about it when building worlds.” An extensive part of the talk was about feudalism, possibly the most frequently-misunderstood-but-used-anyway system in fantasy; some of the rest of it addressed basic economic concepts like “What is money, actually?” and comparative advantage (a concept Robert Heinlein apparently did not understand).
After this Gillian and I were scheduled to give blood. The Heinlein Society/Red Cross folks were running a bit behind schedule; so I took another trip to the dealer’s room and bought a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Giving blood took a while—we had to be given extra water since apparently it’s hard staying properly hydrated in the hot weather, even while stuck inside a freezing cold hotel—and somewhere around the two-minutes-before-the-end mark I started shivering uncontrollably. We fixed this with Chipotle and a nice quiet introvert’s dinner in the hotel room. Then I took a nap. Apparently I really need my blood in order to function.
At six I went back downstairs to attend the panel called “The Tropes of Tresses,” which was about hair in speculative fiction. Yes, there was a whole panel about hair. There was some talk of heroines with wacky-colored hair and how this has become a bit of a “Mary Sue” trope, but there are also some stories that pull it off well (Kristen Cashore’s Fire came up as an example). They also talked about scenes involving hairdressing as a bonding experience, and the various uses of changing one’s hair (usually cutting it off) as a symbol for big changes. They also talked a bit about men’s hair, including facial hair, and what it has meant in different cultures and in different types of stories (shoutout to Khal Drogo’s braid!). Then somebody brought up body hair, and the panel inevitably devolved into an entire room full of people shouting “merkin!” (I have found my people, and they are batshit crazy.)
After this was the Speculative Fiction Open Mic, which was definitely in the “fun and different” camp for me; I don’t read a whole lot of poetry. But this was all fantasy and science fiction poetry! Gillian read her awesome poem “Please Do Not Eat the Children,” which was published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Catherynne Valente read “What the Dragon Said” and I tried not to freak out because Catherynne Valente is awesome and I did not know she was there as she was not on the author list and ahhh fangirling.
Eight o’clock for me was a panel on “The Xanatos Gambit,” which is a particular type of scheme where any of the multiple outcomes all benefit the schemer. The panel was hilarious, due in large part to sheer force of personality on the part of Scott Lynch. The slightly meandering discussion covered everything from the trope of the trickster as a cosmic balancing force versus the schemer as an individual self-interested douche, to famous gambits used in fiction, to how to write schemers non-stupidly. Scott Lynch brought up that a lot of older stories used to feature the character of “the rake,” which is a euphemism for a rapist that you’re trying to pass off as a fun character, and we don’t see as much of that anymore, for good reason. He also mentioned that it’s easy to make characters be smarter than their authors because of the time frame involved in writing and editing; the character and its author both have to come up with the solution to a problem, but the character can seem to come up with it in five seconds whereas in reality it takes the author seventeen months to think of something that cool. Scott Lynch is also of the opinion that hiding information is totally cheating; a good author of cons lays out all the information and the end reveals how they all tie together. (Scott Lynch had a lot of opinions for a one-hour panel; I was quite impressed. It’s hard to have that many opinions in such a short time frame without sounding like a jackass. As someone who likes having opinions, I must study his methods.)
After this it was party time again, woo! Brought the rest of our
crack and rum Kraken Rum to a small room party hosted by either one of Gillian’s Clarion friends or a friend of Gillian’s Clarion friends; one of our hosts was an artist, so we ended up looking at a lot of very cool SF/F-themed linoleum-woodblock prints, because woodblock prints are awesome. We briefly attended another party outside the sixth floor elevators that dubbed itself “Occupy Hallway.” Our last and most illustrious party was Bracken MacLeod’s room party, where I met several fancy authors, and made the mistake of making an offhand comment about bras to Elizabeth Bear, which resulted in her making me and Catherynne Valente stand up so she could compare our boobs. It was a very strange evening.
Kicked off Sunday by attending a talk called “Reading the Fantastic” on the program; the full title turned out to be “Reading the Fantasic, or, The Fainting Narrator: A Meander and a Conclusion.” This talk was even more Relevant To My Interests than I thought it was going to be when I decided to attend. Henry Wessells kicked off by asking us how long it had been since we’d all read The Monk, and then basically rambled for an hour about The Monk, common framing devices used in Gothic fiction, delaying tactics used to build atmosphere (the main one being where the narrator faints at key moments), and H.P. Lovecraft. He also read several excerpts from a Gothic novel I haven’t read called The Wild Irish Girl, and some particularly Gothical passages of Lovecraft’s The Shunned House. I hope somebody got a recording or a transcript of the entire talk; it was solid Gothy fabulousness all the way through. I went a bit nuts trying to livetweet it so I would remember stuff.
My ten o’clock panel was “Workshopping as a Lifestyle,” which contained a lot of solid advice on how to determine what works for you in a critique group, stuff to keep in mind when being workshopped, different critique group models, some of the possible pitfalls of workshopping, and what can be gained from workshopping. One of the big takeaways for me was that critiquers go into your work looking for stuff to dislike (not out of malice, just so they can help), but readers generally go into a work wanting to like it.
The panel after this was “Framing the Fantastic,” which may have been one of the nerdiest panels of the entire con; it was about framing devices. I loved this panel, partly because it was full of very specific, technical advice on the craft aspects of storytelling, and partly because I am a dork who loves framing devices. On more than one occasion I have gotten very excited about coming up with cool framing devices before having a story to tell with them. There was also much exciting talk of footnotes (if you’ve ever read anything by Terry Pratchett, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, you will know that footnotes really can be awesome and this is not just dry ubernerd excitement going on here). I learned what a club story is; or, more precisely, I learned that the name for that particular framing is “club story.”
At noon I went to “Writing for Younger Readers,” which was about middle-grade and YA lit, both of which I still read a lot of. This was basically a fun panel about how children and teens are awesome, enthusiastic, no-bullshit readers, with a lot of discussion about what books affected each of the panelists as children. There was also some discussion of publishers’ expectations/editorial policies about what was allowed in what age level’s fiction, etc. Alaya Dawn Johnson had some particularly hilarious things to say about people’s reactions to some of the stuff she managed to keep in “The Summer Prince.”
After these four rockin’ panels in a row, I was (a) hungry, (b) freezing, and (c) feeling like my brain had run a marathon. I went and had lunch by myself in the hotel restaurant, then sat in the gazebo to thaw out and read before heading to the last panel of the con.
The last panel was “Teen Violence, Teen Sex,” which kicked off with all the authors expressing some form of disagreement with the hand-wringing tone of the panel description (this was validating to me, as I thought I’d imagined the sort of concern-trolly sex-positivity-gone-wrong subtext there due to my own issues). There was a lot of discussion about what “coming of age” actually means, what “sexual awakening” actually means, the problems with framing sexual awakening/the beginning of adulthood as dependent upon sex with another person, and the fact that sexual exploration and romance take up time and energy, which, in certain kinds of high-stakes action-adventure novels like SF/F tend to be (particularly the currently popular dystopian/post-apocalyptic stuff), protagonists may have limited time and energy for that sort of thing. They also discussed how a lot of YA novels do a better job of dealing with the implications of violence and the effects of committing violence than a lot of “adult” books do. All in all, a lot of substantive, thought-provoking stuff about what it means to grow up and find yourself. (Something I am still thinking a lot about, at 25. Maybe this is why I read so much YA.)
Now the con was over, so it was time to say goodbye to people in the hotel bar, head home, and collapse for the remainder of the afternoon.
Once I read the books and short stories I bought and intend to buy, I will be sure to review them at my half-assed reviewing-things LJ!