(panelist assignments, talks, readings etc. forthcoming)
Most of Readercon's founders (four out of five) and many of its attendees are heavily into punk / indie rock. What's the connection?
When we read Heinlein's The Puppet Masters at age thirteen, we instantly got the irony of the last lines: "Puppet masters--the free men are coming to kill you. Death and destruction!" After all, how could a race that felt compelled to commit genocide be "free?" Of course, years later we realized that Heinlein meant nothing of the sort. Is reading more into a text than the author intended legitimate, or just an interesting form of misprision? A strong argument can be made that any meaning you can find in a text is fair game, author's intentions be damned. A perhaps equally strong argument can be made that that's just silly.
Some books are dense. Reading them is not a matter of breezing through, watching a text-driven cinematic experience in one's mind. Each page--maybe each sentence--raises questions, so that one must stop and think, or page back to find some reference. Many of Readercon's favorite writers work frequently in this mode. In Gwyneth Jones's White Queen, for example, the private thoughts of the human characters, in a social milieu only a few years hence yet in many respects quite strange, demand as much of the reader's attention as the thoughts of the alien visitors. There is no necessary relation between density and quality--many great books read quite transparently, and some dense books are merely clotted. Are there stories that should be told densely and stories that shouldn't, or is this choice independent of content? What are the secrets of effective dense writing? What pitfalls must be avoided?
For decades, vampirism was a metaphor for sexual pleasure. Now that that is overt, what is it a metaphor for? Is vampire fiction, in which the vampire or vampirism is sympathetic, actually a metaphor for addiction, and the pleasures of drugs? What is the relation of vampirism to the abuse/recovery movement? Is the vampire an addict without any need for recovery?
"I think that SF stories today are more and more beginning to sound like Fables of the Third World: Stories whose protagonists, often human, represent cultures which have been colonized by the future. The future may come in the form of aliens, or the catnip nirvana of cyberspace, or as AIs, or as bio-engineered transformations of our own species: but whatever it touches, it subverts. SF stories of this sort can--depressingly--read rather like manuals designed to train Polynesians in the art of begging for Cargo; but they can also generate a sense of celebration of the worlds beyond worlds beyond our species' narrow path."--John Clute. If we accept that sf is somewhat of a barometer (or leading indicator or driving force) of our culture's attitude towards the future, what does this observation about the flavor of much recent sf tell us--about ourselves and about sf?
You don't hear much pro-drug talk these days. Nevertheless, there are still those who avow that certain drugs aid the creative process. There are others who'll argue (from experience) that such help is always self-deluding. How could it be that drugs actually help the creative process for some people but are destructive for others? Do these two different outcomes correlate to different approaches (unconscious or conscious) to the creative process?
Certainly there have been other literary portrayals of slavery as rich, as challenging to stereotype, and as utterly harrowing as Octavia Butler's Kindred. Yet as readers of imaginative literature, we like to think that a novel like Kindred goes places, does things, moves the reader in ways that no realist text ever could. Race should be a topic that speculative fiction excels at exploring. Yet there is no separate entry for Race or Racial Conflict in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and the entry on Politics observes that "the tendency of genre sf has been to ignore the issue or sanctimoniously to take for granted its eventual disappearance." Use of the alien as a metaphor for the person of color is a standard trope of liberal sf, but perhaps race is one topic that demands a literal approach (e.g., Derrick Bell's "The Space Traders"). Arguments that this overall neglect simply follows from the scarcity of sf writers of color may be confusing cause and effect. With the success of the anthology Dark Matter, the founding of the Carl Brandon Society, and a slow but steady influx of writers of color, we may finally have reached a day when literature's most powerful mode begins to address society's most intractable problem. What sorts of stories do we want to read? What sorts do we need to write?
At a recent symposium at Harvard, some extraordinary evidence for limited precognition was presented: some individuals appear to have a small skin conductance response prior to a randomly generated burst of white noise. None of the faculty members present could find any methodological flaws. Once upon a time, psi powers like these were arguably sf's second-leading trope (after space travel). We can think of a number of its reasons for its decline, most obviously the death of its great champion, John W. Campbell, Jr., and the rise of skepticism and the continued lack of hard evidence for psi in the real world. And yet the trope is hardly played out. What's the source of our continued fascination with psi? What sorts of things can we uniquely say about being human in a story featuring psi powers? Would actual scientific evidence for psi change the genre, or has psi speculation always been science fantasy rather than anything resembling hard sf?
In the 1960s and '70s the notion of ecological catastrophe was so fresh that whole books, like John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, were written about it. In the years since, we seem to have become inured to the notion; ecological damage is now an almost ubiquitous part of the background of imagined futures, but almost never a central plot element. There is currently a healthy scientific debate about the extent of ecological damage and a corresponding policy debate as to how drastic our response needs to be. Is anyone writing sf that focuses on these concerns? Or have all the foreground uses of ecological disaster been strip-mined? And do the ecological backgrounds of current sf do justice to the range of possible futures?
"Style ... properly arises out of content ... one must therefore, alas, either develop a new one each time out, or opt for the default value of transparent prose."--Norman Spinrad. If Spinrad is right, then the more an author develops a unique, powerful voice, the more limited they become in terms of content--which would be particularly unfortunate for a writer of speculative fiction. Certainly we can all think of writers whose unique voice sometimes comes across as stylistic ossification when it's applied inappropriately. What are the ways out of this dilemma? How do you develop a range of voices?
Let's talk about fictional religions and/or deities that seem to actually "work" for their adherents ... from the creations of Octavia Butler and Sheri S. Tepper to the fivefold pantheon in Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion. What does it take to make a religion "work" in fiction? Are those factors that same as those required to make faith "work" in real life? Has reading or writing about religion influenced your own beliefs and practices?
The standards of sf criticism have changed dramatically over time. Once, characters were merely asked to be sympathetic and interesting; now they are expected to be three-dimensional. This emphasis on characterization has been accompanied by a concomitant reduction in the demand for fast pacing. What are the driving forces behind these changing standards? Are the critics reflecting the tastes of writers, editors, and readers, or are they leading them?
Gwyneth Jones has written extensively and provocatively on feminist f&sf. Rather than try and fail to summarize her on-the-record (and, in some cases, ten-year-old) views in three sentences of blurb, we've invited Jones and several other worthy volunteers to discuss the current status and future of feminist sf.
The pleasures of reading long and short books can be quite different. Long books can engage us in a way that short ones cannot, but short books provide a unique opportunity for total immersion in their world. What are the market forces driving us towards longer and longer books? Do people no longer value the unique pleasure of finishing a novel in one sitting?
You might have met fifteen people today, fourteen of whom will prove to be completely irrelevant to your future and one who will change it profoundly. And right now you have no more than an inkling as to who the exception might be. The unpredictably of life is extraordinarily difficult to capture in fiction, because it's the author's job to not bother telling us about the fourteen meaningless encounters. Almost every event narrated in a novel can thus be assumed--and is usually perceived--by the reader to be relevant to the future. These readerly expectations present a real challenge to the author who wants to create plots as surprising as real life. Much of the flavor of fiction derives from the different ways that authors work around this limitation. And there seem to be two fundamentally different approaches. "Transparent plotting" attempts to capture the flavor of real life by defusing the readerly expectations ("I didn't see that coming"). Scenes of apparent future relevance are mixed with scenes that appear to provide merely extra color, only there is some misdirection as to which is which. "Visible plotting" revels in the artifice of fiction and exploits the readerly expectations ("I didn't see that coming"). Every event turns out to be important, but for different (or additional) reasons than expected. Are these two approaches mutually exclusive, or can they be mixed within the same book? Does every author gravitate towards one pole, or are there some who can work successfully in both modes? There are correlations of mode to content: some of these are obvious (novels of character are transparently plotted, thrillers are visibly plotted), others less so (transparent plots afford the satirist much more leeway). What are the challenges and rewards of defying the correlations?
There are several ways a fantasy novel can break (or at least call attention to) the fourth wall between reader and text. A fictional fantasy world can become real (Jonathan Carroll's The Land Of Laughs, William Browning Spencer's Zod Wallop); the characters may have a sense of themselves playing out a Story (John Crowley's Little, Big); the tools of fantasy (writing, storytelling) may themselves be the tools of the characters in the work and integral to the magic. Why does fantasy lend itself so well to meta-fictional effects? Such touches are, in theory, postmodern, but is the goal of meta-fictional effects in fantasy the same or different as in literary postmodernism?
For years biology was relatively neglected by writers of hard sf. But that's changed dramatically in the last decade or so. Has this been strictly a response to the rise of biotechnology, or was sf (as is more often the case) somewhat ahead of the curve? An overview of this burgeoning subgenre and a look at where it's headed.
It sometimes happens that a work of fiction contains real meaning that is unknown to its author. Many writers have had the experience of learning from critics or other readers what their true concerns have been. What's this experience like? How does finding out what your secret themes are affect your future writing? We can imagine it being very good--or very bad.
Ursula K. Le Guin's Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind, as the capstone of this extraordinary fantasy sequence.
Something very interesting can happen when an author creates a fictional series over a long period of time, especially a series with some social or political content (explicit or implicit). Society changes, attitudes change, the author's own mind may change--in response to society, as part of a natural process of maturation, or even as a result of writing the books themselves. What happens to the fiction when a writer discovers that the attitudes underlying the later volumes of a series are no longer the same as when the series was conceived?
Angela, we miss your mordant wit and your stylish prose. We miss your fairy tales that always turned out to be so horribly real. We've been quoting your quip about "too much fin this siècle.," and wishing you were here to see your prophecy come true. When we realize there will be no more stories with your distinctive flavors, it's as if we're suddenly missing a limb. And examining the stump of that limb, we realize that we almost certainly chewed it off ourselves. We know that if you were still here you could tell us exactly why we did that, maybe even make us laugh about it with a frisson of dread. (If any of the preceding are sentiments you share, join us for a celebratory wake in honor of Angela Carter.)
We've beaten John Clute's wonderful notion of "the real year" of a book almost to death. But not quite! Every novel, regardless of the year in which it is ostensibly set, has a "real year" whose flavor informs it. It occurs to us that every genre novel, whether it's set on Mars or Middle-Earth, also has a "real place," whether it's New York City or a small town in Iowa. The real place of Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter is the Soviet Union; part of the triumph of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars is the extent to which the real place actually is Mars (via, however, Tibet and Antarctica), and this in fact makes the text more challenging in the same way that setting a book in the real present does.
This year's Tiptree jury discusses Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child, short-listed novels by Sheri S. Tepper, Hugh Nissenson, Joan Givner, and Ken MacLeod, and other worthy gender-role-challenging works from 2001. Read the jury's annotations of the short list online at https://tiptree.org/.
"The science fiction convention of the alien attempts to present otherness in unitary terms, so that `humanity' is uncomplicatedly opposed to the `alien'; both Jones and Butler focus on the way in which the opposition seeks to suppress the others of both gender and race by subsuming them within a commonsense notion of what it is to be human."--Jenny Wolmark. Let's use this provocative assertion as a jumping off point for discussion.
Including a look at the state of the magazines (professional and semi-pro).
Sometimes we write to exorcise personal pain. And often the best way to do that is to find the humor at its heart. How can it be that there's usually something funny hidden within the grimmest of experiences? Why does finding that humor ease the pain? Is it just the sharing with others? Our brave panelists discuss the roots of black humor--both their own and that of other writers--or, as James Thurber (himself a very funny man with a very painful life) once said, they'll get humor down, and break its arm.
Perhaps the greatest strength of fantasy as a genre is its accommodation of unique visions; the fantasies we value most are all (at least until imitated) sui generis. John Clute and others have thus decried the rise of "commodity fantasy," whose purpose is instead to give the reader the same familiar, comfortable experience as books previously read. But doesn't this hold all of fantasy up to an impossible standard? No one, after all, rejects a musical performance, baseball game, or sexual encounter for providing only familiar sorts of pleasures. Isn't it possible to do truly worthwhile work within "commodity fantasy"? Does more commodity fantasy really mean less that's sui generis, or can the two coexist?
Judith Berman's "Science Fiction Without the Future" (New York Review of Science Fiction, May 2001) raised provocative issues about the relationship of modern sf with the future, issues we hope to cover this weekend in panels inspired by that master extrapolator of near futures, John Brunner. But almost buried in Berman's essay is the ancillary observation that the protagonists of sf stories are increasingly middle-aged or even elderly--like their writers and readers. This lack of youthful characters began as an effect of the graying of the sf community, but now it has arguably become one of the causes, in a destructive feedback loop--less young writing blood means fewer stories of interest to younger readers (it's not just altered chronology that led Peter Jackson to make Frodo the same age as his much younger cousins). Is there anything the sf community can do to counter this trend? Should writers and editors be looking for stories that feature younger protagonists?
Despite the legitimate protest that sf is not prophecy, serious extrapolation about the future has always been a viable sf mode. With each passing year, we move deeper into a stretch of time that our past greats attempted to envision. We thus have more of a chance to compare extrapolated and actualized futures. What lessons are we learning? Is the addition of this reflexive element changing the nature of sf extrapolation?
As Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, if a writer chooses to write a book for Young Adults only because she thinks it's "simple" to do so, its audience "will look at it, and they will see straight through it, with their clear, cold, beady little eyes, and they will put it down, and they will go away. Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: they have not yet learned to eat plastic." When asked (at Boskone 2002) why she wrote YA, Tamora Pierce replied, "When I change somebody's life, it stays changed." Our panelists will discuss the special challenges and rewards--especially the psychic rewards--of writing YA.