I got home this evening to find a letter from Anticipation (Worldcon ‘09 in Montreal), with a cheque in it for £50! The letter explained that as a non-profit organisation, they were redistributing what was left of the income to programme participants, and thank you very much.
I had a whale of a time at Worldcon last summer, and I was on four panels, each of which went very well and was a reward in itself. For them to do this too was very nice indeed, and entirely unexpected. Thank you Worldcon!
Canadian citizen, SF writer Dr Peter Watts, has been beaten and subjected to abuse while trying to leave the US. Apparently getting in the way of a border patroller’s fist counts as assault on a federal officer these days.
Boingboing story here,
Making Light comments here
Whatever comments here
Dr Watts’ description of the incident.
There is nothing worth seeing in the United States that justifies putting up with US border guards. Any of my American friends who wish to breathe free air are welcome to visit.
Dr Watts will require assistance with legal fees to fight this blatant abuse of authority. Citizens of the United States should consider if they really wish to live in a police state.
As well as supporting Dr Watts with money, I have commented on the White House forum.
My day job is in sustainable development, and I spend a lot of time convincing people with money to spend that it is better spent on reducing their impact on the environment. Climate change, avoiding it, mitigating the impact of it and adapting to it, is a major part of that and the big environmental story of the present day.
However, sustainable development does not just mean looking after the environment, it means looking after people too. Education, employment, civil society, transparent government, preventing corruption, are all as important as preventing pollution. I spend a lot of time working on corporate responsibility and trying to convince people with money to spend that it is better to spend it with suppliers who do not use slave or child labour, and who provide fair wages and representation to their workers.
And who support the rule of law, especially in the protection of women and children from abuse.
With that in mind, I can only agree with Marjorie Liu when she declares that she has not time to be concerned with climate change when a man who rapes a child and runs from justice has excuses made for him because he is a major public figure.
If there is not already a boycott list of the works of the people who have spoken up in favour of Roman Polanski, I am going to make and distribute one. These include Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. I’m pretty sure that the petition that that last link refers to will be a good start.
Money matters to all public figures, but reputation matters more to the kind of public figures who are weighing in on the side of Roman Polanski. The loss of revenue that comes with a poor reputation matters still more to the companies that fund and distribute the media that these people work in.
Runaway climate change will destroy civilisation as we know it, although the world will go on in some form. There is no denying that it should matter to us. But if we’re going to save civilisation, it should be a civilisation that is worth saving.
I packed on Monday morning and sorted out my travel arrangements, ending up back at the convention by about half-past twelve. The convention was winding down and everyone was in that cheerful aftermath mode that comes between having had a good holiday and returning to real life. There were a few panels on the schedule that I had marked out as wanting to go to, and I sat in on one briefly, on cultural memory, but it had at that point degenerated into an argument about racism and I left.
I had no real interest in panels; there was someone I wanted to catch up with before I left, which I eventually managed. We had dinner with new friends in Chinatown, and a drink in their hotel, and then it was time for me to get the bus to the airport …
… and the plane to Heathrow …
… and the train to Glasgow …
… and the taxi home.
I did a lot of circulating and socialising and met various people in the publishing industry and all those good things, and the panels and events were enjoyable and mostly inspirational. But the best parts of the convention for me were the times we were sitting somewhere comfortable, chatting, or drinking with old friends, or meeting new and congenial people that I’ll stay in touch with.
First thing on Sunday for me was my last panel, Ecology Theatre, at 9am. I arrived in reasonable time and not too zombie-like a state, and there were actually people filtering in. We talked about issues where people feel they are doing ’something’ for the environment and it is either not anywhere near enough or does nothing real. This is a hot topic for me and I could rant for hours on the lunacy that is designing cities for cars and then plastering over the harm by selling low-emissions cars. What is needed is dense occupation, universal effective public transport and a cultural shift away from ownership of goods. We can support the population that exists, and is projected. But not when spoilers are hoarding wealth and space and everyone’s ambition is to be like them …
… ’scuse me. Anyway, the audience filtered in over the length of the panel, the right-wing climate-change deniers didn’t make an appearance, and everyone had a productive and enjoyable time. I went to the green room with Frank Ludlow, one of the editors of Albedo One, who gave me a magazine to look at, and I’m going to have to send a story in. He was joking with me that I had promised him food and stars in the green room, and I delivered by pointing out coffee, bagels and a very woozy John Scalzi who for some reason had not slept much the night before.
A reading, Kij Johnson and Mike Resnick reading short stories, both very good readers, both lovely stories. I have read a couple of Mike Resnick’s novels but I should look for more of his short stories. I’ll definitely be reading Kij Johnson’s stories.
Panel on writing in a culture not your own. The main thing I took from this is to write with respect, and check with someone from there if you can. There will always be errors, and there may well be accusations of exploitation, but the correct response will always be to acknowledge the complaint and not get into an argument. I am well aware that I exist in a white, male, privileged environment. If I try to write from outside that environment, or in another culture, then any mistakes I make will be honest ones of misapprehension.
Panel on internet privacy, which was absolutely fascinating. John Scalzi’s cat has a twitter feed, which is followed by 1200 people, and that is nothing to do with him. He doesn’t know who set it up or who writes it. The implications of cyber-squatting, the information that you can pick up about someone by net-stalking them, the data mining that is currently and in the future possible, all are very creepy indeed.
The many passions of Neil Gaiman. I have read various things about Mr Gaiman, including the Sandman Companion, and I follow his blog. It was a nice thing to listen to a conversation about topics that interest him, how his honey has won a prize in his local county fair, how his fans and followers see his life as more of a story than he does. He picks up a stray dog and takes it to the shelter, of course he’s going to end up taking the dog in. The quote of the convention for me was Neil, on biting a lump of wasabi, ” … and I was staring through my nostrils, looking upon the naked, screaming face of God.”
Panel on economics and SF - this appears to be one of the bigger issues concerning everyone, along with the climate and resource future. Charlie Stross was on the panel with Karl Schroeder and others. SF fans of a certain stripe cling to various economic ‘truisms’ whether they are true or not, but the panel was good about avoiding getting bogged down in fights with such, and explored alternative economic systems as well as implications of the system we’re currently stuck with. I’m interested in alternative methods of reward and signifiers of status as well as the resource allocation aspects of economics and how to include costs that economists dismiss as externalities. Hayden Trenholm, I think, commented on a woman he knew who collected tattos, because where she lived on the street it was too dangerous to have money or expensive objects or clothes. She used the tattoos to signify to people that she had skills and earning potential, that she was worth something.
Panel on landscape in fantasy - this ended up being not so much about landscape as about being an outsider in Canada: Fiona Patton, Karin Lowachee and Nalo Hopkinson each talking about being foreign in their own ways. I left early.
The Hugos - I’ve never been to the Hugo awards before. I was immensely pleased to see Electric Velocipede and Weird Tales win rockets, and unsurprised that Wall-E, Dr Horrible, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, and The Graveyard Book won theirs. I was disappointed for Farah Mendlesohn and John Picacio, but maybe another time. A graceful note at this ceremony was the number of people who thanked the voters for their prizes and then in one way or another took themselves out of the running for the future.
Then on to the after-Hugo parties, where we got food in the fan lounge, and hung out at the various parties, chatting. My friend found a free chair in the hall outside the Reno party where a greeter had been sitting and sat there, greeting everyone who passed.
The first panel I went to on Saturday was “What Makes a Good Story?” with Robert Silverberg, Nancy Kress, Bill Willingham and James Nelson-Lucas, moderated by Scott Edelman. The panel were asked how do you make a good story, and how do you know when an idea will make a good story?
Robert Silverberg had some pieces of advice that he had been given by older writers. The one I picked up on was to write a second draft; the story will come out the same, but the prose will be better and the story will become more saleable. Nancy Kress said that the transition between not sellng and selling is when you learn to write in scenes, rather than just letting it all flow out. She also quoted Gene Wolfe, who said, include two problems in a story and let them solve one another.
They spoke about how you generate ideas, but I was more interested in how you tell if an idea will make a good story. The consensus seemed to be, ‘you just know’. Nancy Kress said that an idea would come with a character and a setting included, but she also has a writing process that involves starting at the beginning and hoping to figure out the ending as she goes. This occasionally leads to unfinished stories. The panel quoted Bruce Sterling: ask where’s the money? where’s the power? who controls the resources?
After I got some lunch, I went to a panel on the Elizabethan era and their relationship with fairies and other supernatural things. This was less interesting to me than the Werewolves panel on Thursday, because the panelists seemed to be more accepting of romanticised and non-historical notions of what the Elizabethan era was like. They didn’t tell me much that I hadn’t already picked up from novels set in the era, although I did pick up a couple of good references to follow up.
Then I went to the Neil Gaiman reading. The room was amazingly crowded and we sat on the floor in the aisle about halfway up the room. One of the stories was from the GRRM anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, which I felt captured the feel of the old Jack Vance stories very well. The other story was a love letter that had been printed in a Valentine’s day anthology of love letters. Mr. Gaiman prefaced it with a caution that he didn’t ‘do the love thing very well,’ which was kind of belied by the fact that he had been interrupted in the previous reading by a text, ‘from a lonely girlfriend in Moscow.’ The letter that he read, though, reminded me more of a razor blade in the chocolate assortment than anything romantic. It was a very creepy piece of stalking indeed. I can just imagine what an innocent romance reader would think when she runs into this in her Valentine’s Day book of love letters. And then I snigger.
After Neil Gaiman, I was on once again, on a panel on the future of cities. Other panelists were Anne Whiston Spirn (from MIT), Cara C Sloat (an engineer), Chandra Rooney (a sustainability consultant), Kristin Norwood (an architect) and Patrick Neilsen Hayden (an editor). Mostly the panel discussed near-future things like augmented reality, and the panelist from MIT had some interesting references that I’m really going to have to follow up. We touched on sustainability issues, cultural development to adapt to living in close proximity, and resource efficiency of urban living as opposed to suburban living. Once again the panel went well, and everyone enjoyed it immensely.
After the panel I found some space and a power socket to type notes and start updating blogs, and then went for eats before going to the Masquerade. I’ve never been to a convention masquerade before. The quality of craftsmanship and imagination in some of the entries was fantastic, that of some of the others … less so. I see costume and clothing as a folk art, and if you regard fandom as a subculture, then it’s perfectly natural that costuming is part of that culture. If people who aren’t members of the culture are bemused by the choices of costume, then tough. For all that there’s a fancy-dress pageant as part of the convention, I’m more impressed by the fact that people are wandering around the halls all day wearing these outfits. There were some absolutely fabulous hall costumes, of which I will post pictures anon.
Then a couple of Warner Brothers Cartoons, including Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century (!) and then on to the parties. At the party of the friends of George RR Martin, I failed to realise that my friend didn’t know that GRRM was the person in the easy chair that I had just said hello to, so when I pointed out who she was standing right next to, she wibbled. I was in the doghouse for a while. We got to chat with Kyle Cassidy about the photos that he was taking of fans that day, and to see a lot of the photos he had on his camera. The party was in aid of a children’s reading charity, and I won a copy of China Mieville’s The City and the City in the raffle. We wandered out to other parties including another launch party for some interesting-looking books. I liked the look of one that is taking a Lovecraftian squint at the Bible. Dan Brown seems to have struck a nerve with writers; I don’t think the spate of secret history novels is so much an attempt to cash in as a reaction of ‘I can do better than that!’
Friday started reasonably slowly for me. I had wanted to go on the Stroll with the Stars, which in the short programme grid was listed for 10.00, but which seems to have gone off at 9.00 each day. This threw me off a little, but I went into the panel about SF conquering the mainstream. I may as well have not bothered, it was all about how boring Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is (I haven’t read this book and I’m sceptical), and the old argument about mainstream writers making use of SF tropes but not ‘getting it’.
I think the panel had a point but it is a tired one. Mainstream authors are using SF tropes more successfully and more often and I was hoping to hear about that, and about SF authors who get accepted by mainstream audiences for their weird fiction. However, if we are going to grouse about outsiders playing with our toys I would refer to the first chapter of The Intergalactic Playground by Farah Mendlesohn for a neat description of the SFnal aesthetic, and possibly the whole of Paul Kincaid’s What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (which I have excerpts from but I must get the actual volume). The descriptions there of What SF Is would form a decent grounding for discussions of mainstream authors Not Doing It Right, and possibly grounds for being more inclusive towards them.
I didn’t take many notes here, but I remember an interesting comment: Michael Chabon got the Pulitzer and then the Hugo; he wouldn’t have got them both if it had been the other way round. I don’t necessarily agree with that, and it comes from a genre-ghetto resentment. I’m just glad for him that he got the both of them, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a fantastic book.
I went to the dealers’ room then, buying a couple of books and picking up some freebies, then I got some lunch and went to a reading.
In order, Paul Kincaid, Lillian Steward Carl, Farah Mendlesohn, and John Scalzi read from their Hugo-nominated books. Each was very engaging in their way and the reading was worthwhile. Paul read an article about islands in British SF literature, Lillian read an essay about two girls growing up as SF fans, Farah started reading from her newer book about children’s SF, but had too much to say on the topic and with the panel’s blessing described an overview of where she is coming from with the book. John read the article from his book about why Star Wars is not entertainment. Next door something uproariously funny was going on, but all the readers held our attention and had us laughing or nodding where appropriate. I got Farah to sign my copy of the book she had just read from and I rushed for my own panel.
I got there a little late, just into the introductions. The panel was on ‘Getting it Right: environmental issues in SF and fantasy’. It was an hour and a half and it was a very widely-ranging panel. We discussed environmental issues, from books that had got it wrong and right, to the dynamics of atmospheres, soils and ecologies. I contributed with some points about why a planet that has life would have varied ecologies and regions, and if you were going to design an ecologically-friendly settlement it wouldn’t necessarily be festooned with wind turbines, but it would be as well-insulated as possible. The panel went well and I went off talking with one of the audience until later in the afternoon.
Then food, and to the Angry Robot launch party, where Marc Gascoigne was launching his new line of books from Harper Collins. It was a fun party, and I came away with a couple of their books and having had the chance to chat with Aliette de Bodard, Jonathan Strahan and Anne Vandermeer.
Then onwards to the British Party, where I met with the friend I had been talking to that afternoon and immediately ran into Peadar O’Guilin, who got down on the floor to kiss my foot and apologise for standing me up on Thursday afternoon. There ensued beer and talk of Irish folklore, including some quite chilling fairy stories. Then more wandering around the parties until I started flagging, where we went downstairs and sat for a while chatting in the comfy chairs in the lobby with various people who were wandering through or stopping and sitting. This is one of the nicest parts of a big convention for me, the chance to sit in a bar or comfy space and chill for a few minutes or a couple of hours.
I had registered on Wednesday evening when I was passing the Palais de Congres and I saw various fannish-looking people wandering about wearing convention badges, heading into Chinatown. So I had no queues to deal with or any hassles, and I wandered in and sat down at the back of a panel called ‘The Werewolves of Brigadoon,’ about Celtic fantasy and the way that fantasy writers either don’t know or disregard actual history when they are setting their stories in Scottish or Irish settings. It is a topic that annoys me, and I came away with several references and much food for thought, especially to do with the fantasy story that I am currently writing, placing the Leannan Sidhe in modern-day Glasgow.
The next panel was about social media, discussing Twitter, Facebook and blogging in the context of marketing your work and keeping contact with the fan community. Mary Robinette Kowal made the point that when she was nominated for the Campbell award, her website had 10,000 hits and she credits that and the package of stories that she keeps on her site with her winning the award. The other interesting point is that while blogs and author sites raise your popularity and recognition, it is Twitter and Facebook that direct readers to the blog; this is how you build your readership so that the blog is more than posting rants into empty space.
After that I mooched around the dealer’s room, had a brief chat with Charlie Stross and Paolo Bacigulpi, and sat down by a power socket to compile notes. Presently it was time to get something to eat, so I went down to the mall downstairs in the Palais, where there is a row of decent noodle bars and cafes. James Nicolls sat across from me as I ate.
The opening ceremony was excellent, with Julie Czerneda acting as toastmaster. We had a welcoming speech from Marc Garneau, a genuine, honest to goodness astronaut who is the member of parliament for the region of Montreal where we were sitting, and whose friends are familiar with The Left Hand of Darkness. We also had a fantastic aerialist performance from a graduate of the Montreal school of circus arts, and short remarks from each of the guests of honour.
I had to leave, huffily, because I was scheduled on my first panel of the con, on ‘Toilet Technologies’. The panel was interesting and fun and reasonably well-attended even though Charles Stross was in conversation with a Nobel-laureate economist in the main hall, the reason I was in a huff. We talked about waste management technologies, the importance of sanitation to public health, and the kind of spectacularly-appointed conveniences you can buy from manufacturers in Japan. We didn’t really touch on the pet subject of the lady who had suggested the panel to Programming; she really wanted to talk about all the technology that could be put into cludgies to add entertainment, interest and information-gathering to basic bodily functions. Instead we kept it at the level of resource management and recycling, keeping to what seems to have been a major concern for the con this year, that of the reality of Climate Change and resource problems.
I had decided when I first read the programme that I was going to give those panels a miss, apart from my own ones, so that it wouldn’t turn into a busman’s holiday for me. As it was, it was a fun panel, recorded for a podcast somewhere that I’ll find out, and at the end an audience member came up to me and, although being from Alberta, reminded me in a Glaswegian accent about the sludge boats that still go down the Clyde, once with raw sewage, now with treated sewage sludge.
Then hasty excuses, and run to catch the last half hour of Charlie Stross in conversation with Paul Krugman. A quite incredible performance where two quick-fire wits managed to amaze one another.
I then wasn’t sure what to do, but I had heard mention of the Tor party being on that evening, so along to the Delta Centre-Ville which was the party hotel. I stopped in one of the function halls to get birthday cake, and wish a happy birthday to Elizabeth Vonarburg, one of the con’s guests of honour and in whose honour there were three tables covered with birthday cake. Then chatting with Julie Czerneda and her husband and various others, and upstairs to the Tor party. I remember this from World Fantasy in November, and it was just as packed. Managed to say hello to Lou Anders, John Picacio, and David Hartwell, and couldn’t bring myself to say hello to Neil Gaiman. Just as well, anyway; I’d have gibbered. The party went late into the evening, and there were many lovely people there to talk to, including a bunch of Clarion graduates who had been taught by Neil Gaiman, and a writer from Denver, and a dancer whose first con this was and who was delighted with the whole thing.
This is an SF / fantasy writer’s blog, after all, and what would such a blog be without a convention report? Actually I’m under instruction from my local fan group to provide a report, so they can read it here. I have wireless in my hotel, but I haven’t done much with it except check my email and post a boastful ‘landed’ status on facebook.
So I’ll blog from the con. Later.
First things first: I’m in Montreal.
This is not a minor thing for me. It’s not just a case of, “Whee, I’m on holiday somewhere that’s not Glasgow,” although that is good in itself. I was born here, I haven’t lived here since I was three, and the last time I was even here for a weekend visit was over twenty years ago.
So, what am I going to do in the city of my birth? I’ll find time to act like tourist in due course, and I’ll take my camera on safari too. But the first thing I did, on Tuesday morning after I’d surfaced and unpacked, was find the Metro and find my way to Lachine. I was taken aback by just how excited I was to be doing this. I hadn’t realised that it was so important to me.
I made my way by Metro and bus to an apartment building in Lachine that frankly has seen better days. I have no memory of this place; we moved away after a year or so, but this is where I was brought to from the hospital; my first home. The apartment super gave me my baby blanket, which survives yet. I went into the lobby and took a couple of pictures, then was standing outside taking photos of the building when I was approached by the landlord, who wanted to know what my business was. I explained, and shook his hand, and left.
I doubt I’ll ever go back. Lachine seems to be quite down on its heels as a place: a low-rent residential and industrial area with a nice marina nearby at the river shore, that I suspect people travel into rather than live beside. I saw no evidence of a town centre or anything that would distinguish it as a place in its own right. There is nothing there that would bring me to live in the area. My passport says: place of birth, “Lachine, P.Q., Canada,” but I suspect that the days of Lachine being anything other than a region of Montreal are over. Maybe I should change my place of birth to Montreal.
I did touristy things then, and the day after, which I will put into a different post. This is becoming about where I come from. This morning at breakfast, I realised that there was nothing I had to be at before midday, so I got on the Metro in the other direction to find my earliest memories.
After Lachine, I believe we spent a short time in Quebec. I could be wrong about this; I was there but I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. The first place I remember living was Ville d’Anjou, another suburb of Montreal which appears to have weathered better than Lachine.
I found a quiet cul-de-sac of mostly well-kept houses, a couple of streets back from the main road in a pretty suburban area. Nearby was a library and a play park and a small garden centre. Mature trees stood in some of the gardens, that were at best saplings when I had last been there. I found the right house and went up the stairs. I vaguely remember the road being longer and narrower than it actually is, but my memories do include the parking area in the middle of the crescent, and snow covering the parked cars to a depth greater than I was tall. My dad carried me out to help kick the snow off the tyres and I was able to walk back in the path he made.
Nobody was in when I rang the bell, so I took some photos and came away. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up there. There were kids to play with, and I was beginning to learn French by osmosis. I would have gone to school, learned to play ice hockey and baseball. I was already a hockey fan: I had a picture of Bobby Orr on my bedroom wall and my parents gave me a hockey stick and two pucks for my Christmas. My dad cut it down so I could hold it. It rests against my living room fireplace now.
This is another place that I will never return to, but I’m glad I did it this once.
A friend was surprised at the tone of my last post: he thought that earlier, discussing the new Trek in the pub, I’d been more positive about it.
Which leads me to wonder, just why is my praise so damningly faint for the new Star Trek movie? As far as I’m concerned, it was enjoyable enough. The acting and the actors’ portrayal of their characters were overall good, brilliant in spots and OK in others. In fairness to the script, they go out of their way to show Uhura as being exceptionally competent, and contributing to saving the ship. And the visuals were beautiful and spectacular as appropriate. All of the details are just as they were in the original series and in the more exciting of the OS movies.
I think this is the core of my problem. I am not one of those who goes to an ongoing TV series to see the familiar faces go through the familiar paces. Although I will happily re-read favourite books, even many times, if an author’s new book is too much like the last one or the last several, I will stop buying them. This is why I stopped reading David Gemmell, and why I think David Eddings was just taking the piss. I would not have been one of those fans who would demand thirty Rincewind novels of Terry Pratchett.
Which means that although it is pleasant to see Kirk, Spock, Bones and their happy crew just the same as they were before, I am not overjoyed. They are not a comforting safety blanket to me the way that they might be for some others. I don’t have a vast amount of emotion invested in seeing old familiar characters go through old familiar situations and repeat old familiar lines. And I am less than impressed by JJ Abrams’ spending tens of millions of dollars to make a film that we have substantially seen already, several times before.
Surely the old familiar characters with their pretty re-shot ship and scenery could have been put into a new and challenging situation? If we’re going to reboot the universe, could it not have been with a story that was suitably epic? And here I think I have hit on just why I am less than blown away. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov deserved to have a real coming-of-age story, not to be manipulated as pawns of the plotline. What they were was spectators and spear-carriers in a conflict between a new disposable character with no history in the Trek universe, and a secondary character who did not need to be there except to pander to fans. And when the deus popped out of the machina and started telling us how it “should be”, then the characters lost their integrity for me. Kirk had to be told by his old sidekick how to get his position on the ship, which by me means he doesn’t deserve to have it. The film, good up till then, was fanw**k from that point on as far as I was concerned.
To me, this is another visual-effects blockbuster; good as far as such things go, but no better. Comparable to the Star Wars prequels, say.