The 67th WorldCon is off and running! Today was a wonderful day. I can't begin to say how meaningful it is to see fans and authors and artists and scholars from around the world gathered in one place, celebrating a shared passion about and common emphasis on speculative fiction. It's a diverse crowd indeed, but I'm sure you'll be glad to know I've counted at least half a dozen plushie Cthulhus of different shapes and sizes on a variety of feet and hands and heads.
I was not part of the programming today, so I was able to kick back and enjoy what others had to say. I had a chance to meet and talk with two particularly interesting and delightful people, Peadar Ó Guilín (author of the book I recommended as my "pick of the week" the last time I was featured on The Sofanauts, the fascinating post-apocalyptic dystopia The Inferior) and Gabrielle Harbowy (Editor-in-Charge at Dragon Moon Press, one of the energetic publishers on the cutting edge of new media, including the printing of podcast novels).
All but one of the panels I attended were completely packed, with every seat taken and several rows standing in the back. Here are some of the highlights:
The Werewolves of Brigadoon Panel (with Celtic scholar Kari Sperring and fiction authors George R. R. Martin and Peadar Ó Guilín)
This panel considered the phenomenon of Celtic-flavored fantasy, its authors and their backgrounds, and its grounding in real historical fact (or appalling lack thereof). Sperring began with a self-titled "rant" against Marion Zimmer Bradley and her colleagues, explaining "Everybody knows the Celts did X…," and then pointing out that all of these stereotypes are historically inaccurate "bollocks." Ó Guilín countered by asking if it really matters if fictional stories emphasize myth over fact, if these tales challenge us to be better people today. George R.R. Martin argued against the "ownership" of stories by any narrow cultural group, calling for us to emulate the science fiction he read as a youth that viewed us all as Earthmen (and Earthwomen). Since this debate touched on many of the issues of authenticity and appropriation that inspired my The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America: From H.P. Lovecraft to Leslie Marmon Silko project, I found this to be a particularly interesting discussion.
One Genre or Many? Panel (with scholars Farah Mendlesohn and Gary K. Wolfe and fiction authors Michael Swanwick, Ellen Klages, and Patrick Rothfuss)
Again, I found this discussion quite useful, especially as it brought up the fuzzy, politically charged, and possibly nonexistent boundary between fantasy and magical realism (which is one of the topics I cover in my forthcoming book chapter), and I found myself often in agreement with Wolfe's position. The wide-ranging dialogue touched on a number of topics including Theodore Sturgeon's notion of "syzygy" (the cross-fertilization of fantasy and science fiction), Ray Bradbury's notion of the genres (one can happen and the other can't), the role marketing plays in creating labels and categories, and the idea that fantasy needs the kind of "hard" and "soft" distinction that science fiction enjoys. I was particularly taken with Mendlesohn's point about how the attitude of the writer defines its genre. She gives her students a writing exercise in which they must describe a shopping mall using four lenses: first fantasy, then science fiction, then horror, and then crime fiction. Because they are only crafting a description, and not a story with a plot, they are forced to consider what to emphasize, which words to use, what attitude to adopt to distinguish one approach from another. Interesting!
The Panopticon Society (with software engineer and entrepreneur Brad Templeton and scholar Andrew A. Adams)
This panel addressed the very timely issue of the surveillance society: what level of surveillance is inevitable, how our behaviors change as we know we are constantly observed, and whether or not the watched can (and/or will be able to) also watch the watchers. I came away with the most notes from this meaty panel, but that makes it a bit harder for me to sum it up succinctly. In the end, although I was fascinated by the technology described (How long will it be before sensors in the sewers – or perhaps individual toilets – with every flush "tattle" on us to our doctors? Our insurance companies? Our law enforcement? And in what ways, from wiretapping to CCTV, have we made the reality of a police state only a question of policy rather than infrastructure?), I was perhaps even more taken with the sociological questions raised. How do young people, who grow up living their lives through Flickr and Facebook and Twitter, understand and value reputation? How do we act differently, when we have the constant expectation that we may be watched/photographed/filmed? What new social norms will develop to help us navigate a world of increasingly diminished privacy?
The Life and Work of John M. Ford (with fiction authors Neil Gaiman and Jo Walton, and editors David Hartwell, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Beth Meacham and Harriet McDougal, who is also Robert Jordan's widow)
I am a fan of the great – and, unfortunately, recently late – John M. Ford, and so it was a bittersweet joy to hear the poignant recollections of his editors and fellow authors. I learned some new things – such as the fact that Ilen the Magian, who sings the wonderful song "Monochrome" in Ford's How Much For Just the Planet? (the one and only professional Star Trek novel written as a musical), is in fact inspired by and an anagram of Neil Gaiman. The panelists recounted the stories behind his many award-winning works, told personal tales, and read unpublished verses of Ford's, many of which he had posted online or emailed as responses to online discussions. Gaiman rightly pointed out that Ford never wrote the same kind of work twice, which not only reflected his genius, but also meant that few people have heard of him, because he recreated himself with every piece he published. I know I wasn't the only one who got misty-eyed when Gaiman read Ford's prophetic "The Last Connection."
You can see all of my photos here. Tomorrow morning begins with Tony C. Smith interviewing me live from WorldCon for The Sofanauts podcast, and then the day will kick into high gear. I've got lots planned, including the ceremony for The Prometheus Awards.
Thanks for reading my report. I'll be posting more soon!
"We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space."
- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds