Readercon 21

July 2010

Knew Zadok Allen personally

It opens, nominally, on Thursday, with the idea that the first night is free and open to the public to give them a sample of the con. Well, maybe. It’s like getting to the party an hour before the host expected you. The dealers’ room isn’t open, nor is the Con Suite. Filthy Pierre has just arrived with his case of traveling display racks. A copy of the skeletal Thursday schedule is taped to a kiosk, because packets won’t be available until registration opens tomorrow morning.

Elaine Isaak, whose hero you do not want to be.

One oasis in this desert was Elaine Isaak, who read a darkly funny zombie story, “Memento Mori” which will be appearing in the forthcoming “Live Free or Undead” anthology (releasing in October, of course). Elaine and I got pulled aside for an interview on camera with Joe Viglione. Some sort of CCTV thing. There’s not much else to do but check in, throw the bags on the bed and see if the exorbitantly expensive wifi works.

Friday morning the Pros are beginning to drift in with glazed, jet-lag expressions. A man wanders by with a “Recovering Catholic” T-shirt (from a past panel). Registration opens at 10:00 and so does the Con Suite. I get my badge and my packet and head on up for a breakfast of tea, fruit, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Participants have access to the Green Room; the rest of us depend on the Con Suite for its cheerfully maintained supply of Goldfish, wheat crackers, broccoli and carrots with dip, and trail mix. I wish people wouldn’t eat all the M&Ms out of the trail mix.

Eric Van, whose skull is very much like a tardis

After breakfast I’ve circled an Eric Van talk on a system of taxonomy he has developed for classifying Science Fiction. It is remarkably exhaustive, covering nuances of difference among Magic Science, Fake Science, Wrong Science and Bad Science. I was relieved to discover that my own work falls somewhere between Best Science and Speculative Science, both respectable.

“Alternatives to the Pay-Per-Copy System” largely consisted of a discussion of electronic alternative models. Informative but somewhat discouraging. E-publishing provides damn near universal access to reasonably tech-savvy authors, but it amounts to being dropped into the murky depths of a vast sea where one’s work mixes with the ambient flotsam. Unless you’re already a really big fish, nobody is ever going to find you. It’s all about marketing and the big splash. Retailers such as Amazon hate the new models, because authors and publishers increasingly can go right to the consumers, skipping the middle man. Ironically, any remuneration model that relies on clicks and views is essentially pay-per-copy. And the beat goes on.

Guest of Honor Charles Stross (who is also slated as Guest of honor for Boskone 2011) invoked the infamous “series of tubes” rant. He also invoked the stunning observation that there have long been those who follow the pirate model: acquiring files, or magazines, or books, and sharing them without any further compensation to the artists or publishers. They’re called librarians.

James Morrow and Fiend

Friday was busy, with one delightfully geeky panel after another, from Microbes (Joan Slonczewski: “Bacteria will eat anything; they have no shame.”) to the Neurochemistry of Conscious States (Eric Van again, the man with Wonderland between his ears). Among the highlights was “Is Anybody Out There?” based on a Daw anthology of the same name in which contributors wrestle with the Fermi Paradox. James Morrow did a reading, a companionable Fiend Without a Face on his shoulder.

I divided the lunch hour between grabbing few handfuls of nutritive substance in the Con Suite and attending a reading by Shira Lipkin. These readings are a real gamble; I’ve sat through some excruciating stinkers. But “Cicatrix” was engrossing. Shira excels in the dying art of understatement, giving tantalizing hints of horror and violation without actually describing them. Corking good use of language, too. Just the right chemistry; narrative that is neither gauntly spare, suffering from modifierphobia, nor a tangled thicket of weak and weary pondering.

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, honoring a writer worthy of being rediscovered by today’s readers, is based on the disquieting premise that even if you’ve become published, popular and well-respected, that isn’t enough to prevent you from subsequently vanishing into obscurity ( hence requiring rediscovery. If you’re lucky).

Kate Kaynak, reading from her just-published novel “Minder”; are telepaths really the new vampires?

Saturday was more relaxed, beginning with the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. If you ever see a BU RFR on a con schedule, circle it. You get to hear samples from at least half a dozen or more writers of SciFi, Fantasy or Horror, and it’s like New England weather: If you don’t like it, wait a minute. And when you hear that excerpt that really catches your attention, you can pick up a copy of the complete work in the Dealer’s Room and have the author autograph it for you.

“Everybody Loves Dirigibles” was a panel with an identity crisis. According to the write-up, science moves too quickly for fiction to keep up, and most made-up futures have the shelf life of leaf lettuce. The panel took this oobleck of a topic and shared anecdotes about their favorite encounters with technological anachronisms, mostly zeppelins. Charles Stross had a T-shirt that said, “Fools! I will destroy you all! (ask me how)”. Want. A geek in the audience had a shirt that said, “Stand back, I’m going to try SCIENCE!” Really want.

The panels “How Electrons Changed Reading and Writing” and “How to Write for a Living” were both depressing. (Question: Is the writer who wants to “just write” doomed to obscurity? Answer: Essentially, yes.) In the former, it was observed that the pirate is the unknown author’s friend. It’s like having a volunteer publicist. Once again the comparison between the library and piracy was invoked. A reader is more likely to try something new if he doesn’t have to pay for it, especially if it’s passed on and recommended by someone he knows.

And writing for a living? Since the economy crashed, there’s a glut on the market of editors and freelancers. We were advised to think of ourselves as professionals and to value our work, not to lower ourselves to working for pennies. And never give your work away for free. Right. Don’t eat if it isn’t fine dining. Either starve to death or pick a different profession.

L to R: Worthy contestant Mary Robinette Kowal, co-conspirators Eric Van and Craig Shaw Gardner, champion and crowd favorite Yves Meynard, and challenger Mike Allen with the hat. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house.

Bloody hell, where’s the fun in that? Thank the god for Kirk Poland, the Saturday night high point of Readercon. A few of us got together for the First Annual Pre-Kirk Poland Cocktail Hour. The beverage selection was limited due to its spontaneity, but it was a hell of a lot cheaper than the bar and you could actually hear each other talk without having to yell. We were nicely cheerful by the time we paraded into the hall for the 24th Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition. I won’t even try to explain Kirk Poland. You just have to go to one. This year’s line was “…a collection of desiccated eyeballs. It held in its hand a terrible battle ax, the likes of which she had never seen.” Yves Menard edged out Mary Robinette Kowal, and the audience came in third.

Afterwards we adjourned to the Con Suite for cheesecake and other exquisite trifles, courtesy of Philcon and Boskone.

Mike Allen reads from “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground” while Darrell Schweitzer looks on, biding his time

Sunday morning brunch was provided by Viable Paradise, the workshop held out on Martha’s Vineyard (I hear they are already booked up for this year). The last two talks I attended at Readercon were on Carnivorous Plants and the Appeal of Lovecraft. (And it occurs to me that these two panels could conceivably be merged into one very interesting panel.) Mike Allen (who had partaken of the desiccated eyeballs at Kirk Poland) read from his contribution to an anthology edited by Darrell Schweitzer, who was also there, reciting eldritch limericks and sagely holding forth on Lovecraftian trivia (did you know H.P. was fond of the popular song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”?). Schweitzer was wearing a Three Stooges T-shirt (“it’s a gay thing”) and Faye Ringel made the observation that she found herself the only girl among boys expressing enthusiasm on that topic as well. The title of the anthology they are peddling is “Cthulhu’s Reign.” Like having a shoggoth on the roof.

This, by the way is Fluff Cthulhu. He had his own Readercon name badge, and I am told, Tweets. Fluffcthulhu.


One response

19 07 2010
Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert

Great write-up! This is perhaps the most enjoyable of all I’ve read! 🙂

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