08 July 2005

Readercon 16: Day 1

I spent most of the evening at Readercon, and am pretty tired, but I want to try to give a general overview of each day before the notes I've taken make no sense at all to me.

I arrived around 4pm, having battled the Friday traffic, which, though thick, wasn't half the density of traffic heading north for the weekend (it seemed that the entire highway from Concord to Nashua was one big traffic jam on the north side). As I entered the hotel, I talked for a moment with Gavin Grant, who was waiting for a cart so he could bring boxes and boxes of fine Small Beer books to the dealer's room. I registered, then chatted with Brett Cox and Ted Chiang before heading into the dealer's room, aka Temptation Central. I was actually very good, and stuck within the budget I had set for myself, which may be a first. Mostly I bought stuff from Gavin -- a couple of 'zines (including a new one I'd not heard of before, Sybil's Garage), Magic for Beginners (yes, I've got a galley of it, but there are occasional books I just want to own a real copy, and this is one -- I even held one of the $111 limited editions, and it was beautiful), and Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller, which I hadn't expected would be available yet. I was sorely tempted by Maureen McHugh's collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, because I've read a few of the stories in it and like them very much, and because the cover is gorgeous, but I knew I wouldn't have time to read it within the next few months, so it can wait.

Wandering around, I happened upon Graham Sleight, one of the best critics the SF field has, and someone I'd not spent enough time with at Worldcon last year. He got my hopes up when he told me that a hardcover of John Crowley's Little, Big that I was eyeing was only $15, but then picked it up and discovered he'd misheard ... it was $50. (Momentary bibliographic trivia: the first U.S. edition was actually a large-format paperback.)

Then I made my way to the Prime Books table, where Sean Wallace was aided in sales by Sonya Taaffe, who urged books on people with the sort of vigor that makes it seem as if not buying the book would be to risk eternal damnation. And given how beautiful is the hardcover of Greer Gilman's Moonwise, this is entirely understandable (along with the lovely editions of Sonya's own books. Sean offered me lots of review copies with the hope that I would review (positively) every book Prime had published, but, unfortunately, time is a constraint right now, and so I only let him give me a couple that I'm particularly interested in, Anna Tambour's Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & and Jeannelle M. Ferreira's A Verse from Babylon (I can't promise good reviews, but they certainly look on a first glance like the kind of books I'll appreciate).

Then it was time to go to some panels. At first, Geoffrey Goodwin and I decided we would follow Jim Kelly to the panel on short fiction and best of the year anthologies, but even though Jim has a couple of Hugos and other awards and is multitalented and tremendously respected, he had no idea where he was going, and suddenly a bunch of women were hanging all over him. Geoff and I decided to find the panel ourselves, and so we walked in the opposite direction. Once we entered, Geoff decided we should sit somewhere where we could see and hear well, and so he plopped right down in the front row. I have an immense dislike of front rows, because at some point in childhood it was beaten into me that We Do Not Sit In Front Rows. I've actually changed tickets at theatres when I've gotten the front row. But there was nothing I could do in this case without being conspicuous.

Karma happens, of course. Toward the end of the panel, somebody said they like to get a feel for how stories are being received by reading about them on the internet. Naturally, someone asked what sites they read. Somebody said, among others, The Mumpsimus. Normally, I would have blushed and slid down in my seat and enjoyed the little bit of notice while also remaining invisible. But Gavin was on the panel, and he pointed at me, because I was in the front row, and said, "That's Matt Cheney." Suddenly everyone in the room was looking at me. I was glad I wasn't picking my nose.

The substance of the panel was pretty good, though, despite that moment. The panelists were Ellen Datlow, Kathryn Cramer, Gavin Grant, Paul DiFilippo, and Carl Frederick as moderator. There was talk of the tremendous number of novellas now being published, not only in magazines and anthologies, but as stand-alone items by such places as PS and Golden Gryphon. There was general agreement that the fragmentation of the SF field right now is really kind of fun, and leads to a marvelous diversity of stories. Among trends seen recently, Gavin mentioned noticing a lot of aspiring writers tend to include either asteroid miners or centaur pornography, while Kathryn Cramer said she'd seen some good hard SF recently that used ideas from neurology as a way of strengthening characterization without sacrificing speculation, because it allows writers to delve into questions of how the mind really works. Various writers of short fiction were recommended: Christopher Rowe, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Matt Hughes, Charles Coleman Finlay, Bradley Denton, Laird Barron, Margo Lannagan, Holly Phillips (who was sitting right behind me, but nobody pointed HER out!), Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Judith Berman, Theodora Goss, Elizabeth Bear (indeed, these are good days for short fiction).

Things got a bit contentious when Paul DiFilippo said that as much as he loves the small presses, they don't have the consistency of the major magazines, and that the average issue of F&SF is better in overall quality than the average issue of, for instance, Electric Velocipede, primarily because most writers send their best work to the major magazines first. Ellen Datlow said this wasn't entirely true, that it's very much a question of taste, and that stories can be good by various definitions without being quite right for one of the major magazines.

The next panel I attended was "The Author on the Side of the Milk Carton", about writers who were once well known but have since been forgotten, or nearly so. (I arrived late, so didn't hear who all the panelists were, and there seemed to be one more than was listed in the program, so I will not attempt to guess who they actually were. Maybe they'll end up on milk cartons.) There were discussions of what sorts of things cause datedness, the shifting timelessness of great art, writers who outlive their fame, writers who die too young to really develop, etc. Most of this was common sense or obvious, but a few good recommendations and observations were made, with one that really stuck with me, though I don't know exactly how true it is: that in the 1920s in England and the U.S. the popular, middlebrow books were fantasies, and that by the mid-1930s this was no longer true, that realism had taken over, and the previous writers (such as James Branch Cabell) were forgotten.

Eventually, having exhausted every possible formula they could think of for how a writer transcends their own moment, the panelists agreed that it's entirely unpredictable and essentially random, though that genius becomes obvious. An audience member asked whether science fiction doesn't wear as well as fantasy with the passage of time, given how futures become quickly quaint. Another person answered from the audience that SF is not valued for its predictions, and that it is always a comment on the present and how writers interpret their own world, that Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man is a great 1950s novel. He then went on to criticize the assumption that just because a writer was popular in their own day and not later is a bad thing -- why disparage and discredit writers who managed to speak to their own time? This caused a bit of a stir, and various answers, including that the things that make writers popular in their day don't always have to do with quality, but with marketing, etc., and that with time it becomes easier to see some of the writers who had less publicity but were doing good work. Does the present, then, always have debased taste and the future better? The panel ended before the questions could be satisfactorily addressed.

The next panel was on "The Reading Protocols of Slipstream", with Jonathan Lethem, Wendy Walker, Steve Rasnic Tem, Patrick O'Leary, and F. Brett Cox. This was the liveliest and oddest panel I saw, but fascinating. Wendy Walker started out by saying she didn't really know what slipstream was and didn't like the word because it suggested slipperiness, though she didn't like the word "protocols" even more because it suggested The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Jonathan Lethem also expressed some discomfort with the word "slipstream", finding it "dangerously baggy" because it stretches to accomodate so much -- writers associated with SF, writers not associated with SF, particular stories, whole careers. He said he has a horror of category names and prefers specific ones, especially since SF is itself a central-less area, so there's no need to add more central-less areas to it. All novels, he suggested, are slipstream if you look at them closely enough, and yet also not -- like an oasis in a desert, or perhaps a mirage. But he did think the term might be useful to describe one specific type of story: the type of story where the it was unclear if it was science fiction or fantasy, and where the fantastic element is muted and ambiguous, causing the reader to have to make up her or his own mind about whether the story is supernatural or not. As for protocols, he said all reading requires strategies, that it is impossible to read without using some protocol or another. Slipstream, under the strict definition, makes protocols more visible. Some people find that intrusive and never want to be reminded that a story is just a story, or about the reading strategies they employ. Other reader crave just that sort of story, the sort that foregrounds the reading experience and makes the protocols a subject and a problem of the story itself.

Steve Tem said a good reason to come up with new labels is to be identified with the sort of writers you want to be identified with. He said he's generally considered a horror writer, but that he feels his writing is closer in spirit to what most people identified with slipstream or interstitial fiction write, rather than with Dean Koontz or Michael Slade. SF readers as a whole, he said, tend to hold the understanding of a story in abeyance and let the world build for a while in their heads, trusting the writer. This, he suggested, is a good habit for all readers.

Patrick O'Leary said slipstream exists when you don't know what genre something is -- for instance, Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary, which may be science fiction ... or may not.

Jonathan Lethem said that reading the best classic, traditional science fiction provides a reader with opportunities of reframing consciousness, where the actual situation of characters may not be clear until well into the story (e.g. James Blish's story where eventually you realize the characters are particles in a water molecule ["Surface Tension", I think, right?]). Slipstream, on the other hand, provides pleasure not through conceptual breakthrough, but through bringing the fictional elements to the surface, creating a reframing of tone or tradition of form once the reader recognizes or decides what the story is doing. This can be emotional, humorous, and even erotic, but the self-conscious literary reframing experience is a very different one from the experience of conceptual reframing in a story.

Patrick O'Leary suggested Nabokov's Pale Fire as an example.

Wendy Walker then said Nabokov was scrupulous about words, and would hate the word "protocols" as much as she does. She thought it important to bring the discussion back to that word, and she expressed a certain horror that the word, so closely linked to the genocidal impulse, would be used. Responsible writing, she said, is inevitably political and is always aware of its associations. "Protocols" is not, she seemed to imply, a responsible word.

An audience member asked if a word could have its associations changed, and if retiring it because of its associations didn't give more power to the oppressors. Someone else explained that the word is used because Samuel R. Delany has used it so fruitfully to explain differences between popular literatures and more academically-sanctioned literatures.

After a somewhat tense exchange when it seemed like the rest of the time would be taken up with the question of whether the word was acceptable or not, things returned to the subject at hand. Jonathan Lethem said readers' expectations can differ, and that a writer can play with readers' expectations. Wendy Walker said that good writing is good writing, that learning to really write is learning to use language, and that when such things as Kafka's "Metamorphosis", not to mention fairy tales, are so well known, why do readers have trouble when a book literalizes its metaphors? From the audience, Kathryn Cramer disagreed that language is everything, and said that in SF in particular, things often are built (and judged) through images and ideas. Steve Tem said if he doesn't like the language of a book, he can't continue reading it, regardless of the story or ideas. He then said that as he gets older, what matters most is emotional truth. Kelly Link's stories work, he said, not just because they are well constructed and written beautifully, but because they are emotionally true, and that they make you care about the situation within them, no matter how bizarre or fanastic.

The panel ended with the writers recommending books they thought were good examples of what they'd been talking about. I didn't get them all, but some of the ones mentioned were: Country Cousins by Michael Brownstein, Who is Teddy Villanova? by Thomas Berger, The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier, Pricksongs & Descants: Fictions by Robert Coover, and Was by Geoff Ryman.

I ended the night by going to a reading by Samuel R. Delany, a writer I have revered for a long time. He sat on the edge of the table in a small conference room and read from Phallos and his autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water. I have read some of Delany's pornography, and haven't much cared for it, but his reading of Phallos was quite a lot of fun and very funny. The Motion of Light in Water is one of my favorites among his books, and a favorite book by anyone, really, and when reading it he did a marvelous job with various voices, making the sections he read both amusing and touching.

Tomorrow perhaps I will have a bit more time to make my chronicle of the day more focused. (As Pascal said, I didn't have time to write a short blog post, so I wrote a long one.)