I had a fantastic time at Readercon, so much so, in fact, that I totally failed to take pictures or tweet more than about twice. I did take about a thousand pages worth of notes, not just of the thought-provoking things people were saying, but of ideas that I was generating for stories, and things to keep in mind when revising stories I’m already working on. And clearly, there was a lot to absorb, which is why it’s taken me nearly a week to write up my reactions.
Readercon is, of course, run by humans, well-intentioned yet possessed of blind spots, so there were a few moments in panels I attended where I winced. Others have covered those moments with more authority than I, however, and overall I was positively impressed with the level of dialogue and discussion in the panels I attended. (I wasn’t at some of the others that caused raised eyebrows.) Given Readercon’s reputation for listening to and responding to feedback, I hope next year will be better. Meanwhile, all my personal interactions with folks were fabulous, and I particularly enjoyed my two shifts at the Broad Universe table in the Bookstore room, getting to know my fellow New England broads.
The highest hilarity of the weekend for me was the “My Character Ate What?” game show on sci-fi fantasy and food. I went because I so enjoyed watching that video of Mary Robinette Kowal breaking Pat Rothfuss’s brain, and I was sure she would not disappoint here either. She didn’t, and the rest of the panel of author ‘experts’ were equally hilarious, earnest, and full of beans in turn. (Both this and the engineering panel were led by Fran Wilde who also gets kudos for being a spiffing moderator.)
Guest of Honor Catherynne Valente was gracious, snarky, and inspiring by turns, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the panels I attended that she was on, as well as her solo reading. I even managed to get a couple of books signed and say ‘hi’ without making a complete fool of myself, so go me. (Author-encounter word-vomit is a thing, I’m sorry to say, but I did avoid it this weekend.)
I won’t attempt to transcribe my gazillion notes for you, but here are some highlights and particularly cool thoughts from some of the panels I attended.
Speculative Retellings – Fabulous kickoff to the con for me. Retellings of myths and fairytales and folklore are *so* much fun, and the folks on the panel clearly agreed. The quote from Cat Valente above was from this panel, as is the picture of my notebook. The conversation ranged from superheroes to saints, origin stories galore, the retelling opportunities present in both senses of identification with a story and senses of confusion or other-ness (‘this story isn’t really meant for me, but what if it was?’). We re-tell stories either because we love them or we hate them and want to fix them (hello, fandom!). Frustration as inspiration, and questions about the currency of sacrifice–what are you willing to give up, to walk the path of the hero? What are the stories or characters that need second chances? Or choices? (Cat Valente pointed out that no one ever asked Eurydice if she *wanted* to leave the underworld with Orpheus, after all. Maybe she wanted to stay…)
Strong Female Characters and ‘Lady Bromances’ aka Female Friendships in Literature – I’m lumping my summary of these two panels together, because for me one fed into the other. There was a lot in here, and there’s room for more. I liked Mikki Kendall‘s point about Zoe Washburn in Firefly, and how she’s a perfect example of how the fact that women who possess the ability to compartmentalize in crisis are often not given the narrative room to have their grief or other emotional reactions once the crisis is passed. This is a trope that disproportionately affects black female characters; based on the evidence of Melinda May in the Marvel Universe and a few others I would think it affects other female characters of color as well. After all, Peggy Carter (whom I love, even recognizing the flaws in the show) gets a very rare but very real and necessary moment of grief for her roommate, who dies in the first episode after about 2.5 minutes of screen time. It’s a great moment, and more characters regardless of gender or race deserve the narrative space to be fully-rounded human beings. In counterpoint, the discussion of female friendships was great, because friends are part of what help make us fully rounded characters, and show different sides than might otherwise come across. Girlhood friends, adult friends, intergenerational friends; it was a good list of stories and characters that the panelists mentioned, and there were both books I now have to read and stories I now have to write.
Engineering in Fantasy – Definitely one of my favorite panels of the weekend. “Buildings have to get built, regardless,” said John Chu, and from there it was off to the role of engineering in worldbuilding (more than just how people get around; not only on what, but do they have roads? irrigation? cartographers?) and the way good engineering is invisible until it breaks. This means breaking your engineering is a good story point; when something fails, what takes its place? Was it working for its original purpose and only broke when it was repurposed? What happens to a society’s structure when new tech is introduced? How much engineering can your world have without the theoretical science to back it up? (Because you can make things work without knowing why…) What about social engineering, the structures that make feudal systems and militaries work, among other things? What about a kind of educational and cultural infrastructure, the role of political and religious elites in spreading and sharing knowledge? Plus there are the benefits of looking at the way different cultures find different ways to solve the same problems and what that tells you about them, which is engineering as a kind of cultural shorthand, ie. the bridges of the Elves vs. the bridges of the Dwarves in Tolkien. (Several people in that session now want to write the story about “OSHA goes to Moria…”) Many kudos to both the panelists and the people in the audience who asked brilliant follow up questions!
Magic in Space – Jedi are space wizards, and that’s a very fine thing. But who else is writing cool magic in traditionally sci-fi milieus? This was a really fun panel talking about working mythology and magic systems into sci-fi: techno-mages, for instance, or mythical monsters in charge of alien planets, the concept of interstellar travel as its own sort of epic fantasy. Mikki Kendall said something interesting about how the differences in sci-fi versus fantasy are essentially just a matter of tone: “You have power. Period. How you choose to use that power is up to you,” which led to a neat discussion about spellcasting equivalents to computer programming, fears as inspirations, about magic being about control or accepting the loss of same, and when is magic a science (part of the rules of how that universe works) or something else (which breaks or bends the established rules of that universe). Does magic or sci-fi better answer the questions of why we seem to be alone in the universe? Is it just because the scale of space and time is just so vast, or are we being avoided? Will we recognize life when we find it? What about that space-jellyfish in Star Trek? Hasn’t there been magic in sci-fi all along? And isn’t it an example of magical thinking just to imagine the ways that life could be better or different, the way sci-fi writers naturally do?
Keytars in SF – Music is such an integral part to culture; it’s as worth considering (or considering its deliberate lack) in worldbuilding as engineering is. Discussion in this panel included everything from Earth music of past times being re-interpreted in the future (Star Trek TNG‘s Riker plays jazz and Data plays classical violin, Doctor Who declared Britney Spears the fitting soundtrack to the final explosion of the Earth) to alien instruments (Spock’s lute/harp thing, Dixieland-style music in Star Wars ANH‘s cantina) to the challenges and benefits of describing music and mood and enviroment as opposed to being able to show/play it in live media. The major thought-provoking statement from this panel for me (which I’m pretty sure was one of Cat Valente’s points) was thinking about music starting point being in the body; dance, rhythm, the physical requirements of instruments that need breath or digits or tentacles. (Now I want to write about an alien rock band…)
Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Short Story Structure (for Novelists)” workshop/lecture was a real writers’ craft highlight. Unfortunately, as she said in the beginning, she had ‘2 hours worth of content and only an hour to deliver;’ had the program wizards given her a 2 hour block, we would surely all have stayed. [Much as I appreciate the rapid-fire blocks of 50 minute sessions, I’d actually argue for a few more longer sessions for this level of quality content.] Fortunately, she did get through all the content delivery, though our ‘workshop’ was limited to ‘write down a whizzbang idea.’ She did, however, mention that she has writing exercises available on her website, which I intend to use. The diagnostic tools she introduced (average wordcounts for introducing locations and characters, levels of complexity involved in number of plot elements) were really helpful; looking back at some of my stories that have ballooned past what could reasonably be considered ‘short’ I can now tell why! I will definitely be using the plot sequencing idea (open and close your plot threads like html tags) to revise some of my short stories as well.