Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘World Science Fiction Convention

The past through tomorrow

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Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon

Precedent is merely the assumption that somebody else, in the past with less information, nevertheless knows better than the man on the spot…Tradition is something very different. To follow a tradition means to do things in the same grand style as your predecessors; it does not mean to do the same things.

Robert A. Heinlein, Space Cadet

On Thursday, I took part in a panel at the World Science Fiction Convention titled “Old Time Radio and New Tales in the Age of Podcasts.” Now that the event is safely behind me, I might as well confess that I’m not sure why I was included: I’ve written one radio play, still unaired, and I’m married to a professional podcaster, but I doubt that the organizers knew this, and nothing else in my résumé stamps me as an authority on the topic. But I’ll happily talk about anything, so I went back to review the handful of blog posts I’ve written about radio and worked up a few additional thoughts in advance. As it turned out, the panel was my fourth event in five hours, including a draining solo presentation on John W. Campbell’s work during World War II, so my energy level was pretty low. For the most part, I was content to sit back and allow the other speakers to do most of the heavy lifting, chiming in whenever I felt I had something to contribute. The one big point I wanted to make is that contemporary podcasts aren’t the same thing as classic radio dramas—if you’re writing for audio these days, you’ve got to prepare for the possibility that your listeners are giving you maybe a quarter of their complete attention. Two of my fellow panelists disagreed, saying that writers and producers had to encourage their audiences to embrace an old-fashioned “theater of the mind.” Personally, I think that this is a nice sentiment, but not particularly realistic. Still, it was all very cordial. Afterward, one of the other participants shook my hand, saying that he thought that I did a good job, and essentially apologized for taking over the discussion. “I don’t usually talk much,” he told me, “but when I’m on a panel like this, I just can’t stop myself.”

And this turned out to be a prophetic remark. The next day, the very same participant was expelled from the convention for hijacking another panel that he was moderating, using his position to indulge in a ten-minute speech on how political correctness was destroying science fiction and fantasy. I wasn’t there, but I later spoke to another member of that panel, who noted dryly that it was the first time she had ever found herself on the most controversial event of the weekend. Based on other accounts of the incident, the speaker—who, again, had been nothing but polite to me the day before—said that the fear of giving offense had made it hard for writers to write the same kinds of innovative, challenging stories that they had in the past. Inevitably, there are those who believe that his expulsion simply proved his point, and that he was cast out by the convention’s thought police for expressing an unpopular opinion. But that isn’t really what happened. As another blogger correctly observes, the participant wasn’t expelled for his words, but for his actions: he deliberately derailed a panel that he was supposed to moderate, recorded it without the consent of the other panelists, and planned the whole thing in advance, complete with props and a prepared statement. He came into the event with the intention of disrupting any real conversation, rather than facilitating it, and the result was an act of massive discourtesy. For a supposed champion of free speech, he didn’t seem very interested in encouraging it. As a result, he was clearly in violation of the convention’s code of conduct, and his removal was justified.

The Futurians

Either way, though, he got exactly what he wanted. If he had been allowed to stay, he would have taken it as a tacit endorsement of his approach; now, by being expelled, he gets to use this perceived injustice to whip up his sympathizers, and we’re already seeing the results online. But this kind of tactic is as old as fandom itself. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the famous incident in which the Futurians were excluded from the first Worldcon in New York. In The Immortal Storm, the historian Sam Moskowitz—who was the one who forced them to leave—says of the episode:

Looking at the circumstances in the most pessimistic light, we can see that the Futurians had everything to gain and nothing to lose. If allowed to enter, they could have disrupted proceedings, and thus proved their prior claim that New Fandom was incompetent to run a successful convention; if not allowed to enter, they could point to another prior claim of New Fandom’s being essentially dictatorial as proved. Indeed, Futurian strategy may have been devised with these possibilities foremost in mind. Whether it was or not, the Futurians stood to gain public sympathy as a result of the convention if they played their cards properly no matter what stand New Fandom took.

And although I don’t think the Futurians were organized enough to consciously act with this end in mind, it worked more or less as Moskowitz says. For while, public sympathy tipped in their favor, and while this victory was short-lived, the fact remains that what we hyperbolically call the Great Exclusion Act is just about the only thing that anybody remembers about the first Worldcon.

I doubt that the kerfuffle from this weekend will resonate for nearly as long, and I suspect that we’re more likely to remember the convention for the landmark victories by women and writers of color at the following evening’s Hugo Awards. If the stunt had taken place in the early days of fandom, it might have merited a paragraph in The Immortal Storm. (Or as Borges puts it in “Three Versions of Judas”: “His name would have helped swell the catalogs of minor heresiarchs.”) As it stands, it’s going to be little more than a footnote. But I have a hunch that it was motivated, at least on a subconscious level, by a nostalgia for the controversies that have animated fandom in the past, despite the fact that the community that we have now is larger, more diverse, and more interesting. Donald A. Wollheim, who was a better troll than anyone living today, once said of the fan William Sykora: “You got the impression that for him, it was still 1937.” You could say much the same thing about the current crop of reactionaries, both in the positions that they take and the means that they use to express them. Just as contemporary podcasters have to adjust to the realities of the medium, rather than pining for a golden age of radio that no longer exists, writers these days have to operate within a set of standards that weren’t even on the table when a lot of classic science fiction was written. And that’s just how it should be. As I’ve noted before, increasing the diversity of voices within the genre can only lead to greater innovation, and the science fiction of an earlier era didn’t succeed because of its indifference to these concerns, but in spite of it. It’s good to have a debate, but any side that remains stuck in the past—especially in science fiction—is bound to lose. And if it can’t adapt, maybe it deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2016 at 8:52 am

Days of Futurians Past

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The Futurians

On July 2, 1939, the First World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York. It was a landmark weekend for many reasons, but it was almost immediately overshadowed by an event that took place before it was even called to order. The preparations had been marked by a conflict between two rival convention committees, with a group called New Fandom, which the fan Sam Moskowitz had cobbled together solely for the purpose of taking over the planning process, ultimately prevailing. On the other side were the Futurians, who were less a formal club than an assortment of aspiring writers who had collected around the brilliant, infuriating Donald A. Wollheim. As the convention was about to begin, Wollheim and a handful of Futurians—including Frederik Pohl and Robert A.W. Lowndes—emerged from the elevator and headed toward the hall. What happened next has long been a matter of disagreement. According to Moskowitz, he was initially willing to let them in, but then he saw the stack of pamphlets that the group was planning to hand out, including one that called the convention committee “a dictatorship.” Thinking that they had come only to cause trouble, he asked each of them to promise to behave, and those who refused, in his words, “chose to remain without.” Wollheim later gave a very different account, claiming that the decision to exclude the Futurians, later known hyperbolically as “The Great Exclusion Act,” had been made months in advance. In any event, Wollheim and his friends left, and although there were some rumblings from the other attendees, the rest of the convention was a notable success.

So why should we care about a petty squabble that took place nearly eighty years ago, the oldest players in which were barely out of their teens? (One of the few Futurians who made it inside, incidentally, was Isaac Asimov, who wandered nervously into the convention hall, where he received an encouraging shove forward from John W. Campbell.) For me, it’s fascinating primarily because of what happened next. New Fandom won the dispute, leaving it in an undisputed position of power within the fan community. The Futurians retreated to lick their wounds. Yet the names of New Fandom’s leaders—Moskowitz, Will Sykora, and James V. Taurasi—are unlikely to ring any bells, except for those who are already steeped in the history of fandom itself. All of them remained active in fan circles, but only Moskowitz made a greater impression on the field, and that was as a critic and historian. The Futurians, by contrast, included some of the most influential figures in the entire genre. Asimov, the most famous of them all, was a Futurian, although admittedly not a particularly active one. Wollheim and Pohl made enormous contributions as writers and editors. Other names on the roster included Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, James Blish, and Damon Knight, all of whom went on to have important careers. The Great Exclusion Act, in other words, was a turning point, but not the sort that anyone involved would have been able to predict at the time. The Futurians were on their way up, while the heads of New Fandom, while not exactly headed downhill, would stay stuck in the same stratum. They were at the apex of the fan pyramid, but there was yet another level to which they would never quite ascend. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a discussion at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention, which in itself is a monument to the house that New Fandom built. But the panel is called “The Futurians.”

New Fandom

And it’s important to understand why. As the loose offspring of several earlier organizations, New Fandom lacked the sheer closeness of the Futurians, who were joined by mutual affection, rivalry, and a shared awe of Wollheim. Many of them lived together in the Ivory Tower, which was a kind of combination dorm, writer’s colony, and flophouse. They were united by the qualities that turned them into outsiders: many had been sickly children, estranging them from their peers, and they were all wretchedly poor. (In Damon Knight’s The Futurians, Virginia Kidd, who was married to James Blish, describes how the two of them survived for months on a single bag of rice.) More than a few, notably Wollheim and John Michel, were sympathetic to communism, while others took leftist positions mostly because they liked a good fight. And of course, they were all trying—and mostly failing—to make a living by writing science fiction. As Knight shrewdly notes:

This Futurian pattern of mutual help and criticism was part of a counterculture, opposed to the dominant culture of professional science fiction writers centering around John Campbell…The Futurians would have been happy to be part of the Campbell circle, but they couldn’t sell to him; their motto, in effect, was “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.”

Like all countercultures, the Futurian lifestyle was a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to live. None of them was an overnight success. But by banding together, living on the cheap, and pitting themselves against the rest of the world, they were able to muddle along until opportunity knocked.

The difference between New Fandom and the Futurians, then, boils down to this: New Fandom was so good at being a fan organization that its members were content to be nothing but fans. The Futurians weren’t all that good at much of anything, either as fans or writers, so they regrouped and hung on until they got better. (As a result, when a genuine opening appeared, they were in a position to capitalize on it. When Pohl unexpectedly found himself the editor of Astonishing Stories at the age of nineteen, for instance, he could only fill the magazine by stocking it with stories by his Futurian friends, since nobody else was willing to write for half a cent per word.) New Fandom and its successors were machines for producing conventions, while the Futurians just quietly kept generating writers. And their success arose from the very same factors—their poverty, their physical shortcomings, their unfashionable political views, their belligerence—that had estranged them from the mainstream fan community in the first place. It didn’t last long: Wollheim, in typical fashion, blew up his own circle of friends in 1945 by suing the others for libel. But the seeds had been planted, and they would continue to grow for decades. The ones who found it hard to move on after The Great Exclusion Act were the winners. As Wollheim said to Knight:

Years later, about 1953, I got a phone call from William Sykora; he wanted to come over and talk to me…And he said what he wanted to do was get together with Michel and me, and the three of us would reorganize fandom, reorganize the clubs, and go out there and control fandom…And about ten years after that, he turned up at a Lunacon meeting, out of nowhere, with exactly the same plan. And again you had the impression that for him, it was still 1937.

MidAmeriCon Episode II: The Sequel

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Mark Hamill at MidAmeriCon

When the World Science Fiction Convention was last held in Kansas City, Missouri, the guest of honor was Robert A. Heinlein, the Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, and producer Gary Kurtz and actor Mark Hamill were on hand to promote an upcoming movie that was still billed by many sources as The Star Wars. In August, when the convention returns to Kansas City for the first time in thirty years, I’ll be there. To be fair, Haldeman and Kurtz will also be back, along with the likes of George R.R. Martin, and the fact that I get to attend this particular year seems like an auspicious sign. It’s Heinlein’s hometown, for one thing, and because it’s so close to the University of Kansas, it means that the annual Campbell Conference—an academic gathering named after you know who—will occur at the same time.

Last week, I received a draft schedule of my events, and it looks fantastic. I’m especially pleased by the presentation I’m set to deliver as part of the academic track on Thursday, August 18, at 4pm. Here’s the abstract of “Deadline: John W. Campbell in World War II”:

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, turned down the chance to enlist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov. Instead, he forwarded defense ideas from his authors to Murray Leinster at the Office of War Information; ran the writing factory that cranked out classified sonar manuals at the Empire State Building; brainstormed responses to the kamikaze threat with Theodore Sturgeon and L. Ron Hubbard; and was investigated by the military for publishing a description of an atomic bomb over a year before Hiroshima changed science fiction—and the world—forever.

It’s a dry run for much of the material that I hope to cover in my book, and I couldn’t be more excited to present it. My other events include:

Writers of the Past: Retro Hugos in Perspective. Wednesday, August 17 at 4pm. Seeing the nominees for this year’s Retro Hugo awards brings a flood of recognition and familiarity for some, and a blank look from others. Join us and find out about the professional authors of the period, and the context for the year 1941. Who was just starting out? Who were the Grandmasters of the day? Which giants in the field were still journeymen in those days? Why are they still important? Moderator: Bradford Lyau. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Shahid Mahmud.

Remembering the Futurians. Thursday, August 18 at 1pm. Jack Robins, who died last year, was a founding member of the Futurians. The Futurians were instrumental in not only laying the groundwork for many fannish traditions, but also included the authors of many of the seminal works in the field from Asimov to Pohl, Kidd, and others. Let’s take a look back at their influence during a magical era when the future of science fiction and fandom was taking off. Moderator: Mark L. Olson. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Pete Balestrieri, Scott Edelman.

Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon

Do Heinlein Juveniles Stand Up? Thursday, August 18 at 2pm. Robert A. Heinlein published 12 books between 1947 and 1958 that were aimed at young adults, predominantly in the male SF market. Although many older fans have a tremendous regard and nostalgic glow for Heinlein’s juveniles, can children today enjoy them or do they seem hopelessly dated? Let’s take a dive into these books and cast an appreciative yet critical eye over them. Moderator: Dr. Janice M. Bogstad. Panelists: Brendan DuBois, Dr. Marie Guthrie, Dr. Michael Levy, Alec Nevala-Lee.

Old Time Radio and New Tales in the Age of Podcasts. Thursday, August 18 at 5pm. The classic era of radio saw science fiction shows X Minus One, Stroke of Fate, Dimension X, and others. Podcasts often use classic storytelling since many other tales from the era of Weird Fiction are out of copyright; however, there are other, newer stories that lend themselves extremely well to podcast readings. The panel discuss old and new ways of using podcasting to tell classic stories well, and bring new stories to life. Moderator: Julia Rios. Panelists: Jim Freund, David Truesdale, Alec Nevala-Lee, Tamora Pierce.

Classics in the Corner. Friday, August 19 at 11am. So much new fiction is being published, both traditionally and self-published, that nobody can read it all. But is anyone still reading the classics from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s or are they just filling up space on the shelf? Why should or shouldn’t we continue to read them, especially when they make us wince with sexist and racist language? Has the move toward diversity and inclusion reduced our tolerance for different eras, even when reading with a critical eye? Moderator: Don Sakers. Panelists: John Hertz, James Minz, Betsy Mitchell, Alec Nevala-Lee.

Techno-Thrillers. Saturday, August 20 at 5pm. Techno-thrillers can be an exciting blend of literary genres that combine science fiction, crime drama, spy stories, thrillers, etc. They can be set in outter space or take place here on Earth in the not-so-distant future. What makes them special? What sets them apart? And are they dressed up space operas? Moderator: Toni L.P. Kelner. Panelists: Greg Bear, Edward M. Lerner, P.J. Manney, Alec Nevala-Lee.

If that weren’t enough, I’m also going to be taking part in a group reading on Friday, August 19 at 12pm featuring authors from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Editor Trevor Quachri will be there, along with former editor Stanley Schmidt and writers Ken Liu, James Van Pelt, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, and yours truly. (I’m hoping to read a page or two from my upcoming novella “The Proving Ground.”) All told, it promises to be a great weekend, and if you’re planning to attend, please drop me a line or keep an eye out for me when you’re there: I’m eager to meet and listen to everyone who wants to chat about the past and future of science fiction, the four writers featured in my book, or really anything at all. And if we’re lucky, MidAmeriCon II will be one of the few sequels that lives up to the hype. 

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2016 at 8:37 am

Are you a gardener or an architect?

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There are many different kinds of writers. I like to use the analogy of architects and gardeners. There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like…And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up, and sort of shape it…I am much more a gardener than an architect.

That’s George R.R. Martin talking, and if my experience this weekend at Worldcon is any indication, the distinction between literary gardeners and architects may be Martin’s most lasting contribution to the way we think about writing. Of the ten or so events on writing I attended, either as a viewer or a panelist, I’d say that the gardener/architect distinction came up in at least half, usually to appreciative murmurs from the audience. Either approach, the speakers were quick to say, is perfectly fine, depending on the writer’s methods and personality—which is certainly true. But I also noticed that nearly every writer who brought up the distinction identified himself as a gardener, with an implicit sense that architects are slightly inhuman technicians whose left-brained approach can deprive them of the happy accidents of character and incident that lie at the heart of writing.

Well, in case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m an architect. My first blog post was called “Nails and Houses.” My favorite book on storytelling of any kind, David Mamet’s On Directing Film, abounds in architectural metaphors, and I seized every chance I could to recommend it at my panels this weekend. (I have a feeling I sold more copies of Mamet’s book than any of my own work.) I’ve used a lot of different metaphors to describe outlining, which I’ve called a stealth first draft and compared to the relationship that a screenplay bears to a finished movie, but perhaps it’s most accurate to say that the outline is a blueprint. At this point, I wouldn’t dream of starting a substantial writing project without an outline for at least the first major section, and I still believe that having an outline often makes the difference between finishing a project and ending up with a few tantalizing fragments. And while I’m aware that this approach doesn’t work for everyone, it works so well for me that I’ve discussed it at length, both on this blog and elsewhere.

What needs to be emphasized, however, is that a novel is not a house, however seductive that analogy may be. It’s easier to remodel, for one thing. And it can be planned and built in increments: I never outline an entire novel at once, but always leave a residue of plot and character problems unresolved at every stage. In some ways, the architectural approach to writing is less like building a house than like city planning: it involves many connected structures, built over time and for different reasons, each one of which subtly changes its neighbors and the surrounding landscape. Just as a healthy neighborhood consists, according to Christopher Alexander, of the coordination of patterns scaled to human needs, writing a novel is about orchestrating many self-contained pieces—beats, scenes, chapters—into a harmonious whole. And the result, if you’ve done it properly, is less a city like Brasilia, with its structure imposed from the top down, than London, which makes sense on the ground but also reveals surprising patterns when seen from above.

And what I’ve discovered about these architectural habits is that they’re very much like what Mamet says about his own methods: applied correctly, they set the imagination free. As a blueprint, an outline helps you organize materials and find places for elements that otherwise might be lost. I’m much more likely, for instance, to remember and utilize the free-floating fragments of inspiration that come at odd moments—while shaving, showering, or taking a walk—when I have a larger structure in which they can fit. This requires a certain amount of flexibility, of course, and a willingness to revise in light of new developments. Even when I’m working out a carefully structured plan on the page, I’m often surprised by unexpected plot or character turns, which emerge, not in spite of the pattern that surrounds them, but because of it. That tension between structure and serendipity is one of the great joys of writing. And fortunately, with a novel, it’s always possible to remodel, rebuild, and, when necessary, demolish.

Written by nevalalee

September 5, 2012 at 9:36 am

Goodbye, Worldcon; Goodbye, Stanley

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What can you say about something like Worldcon? It’s only been over for a day or two, and I already miss it. For much of the past weekend, I’ve felt like I was practically living at the Hyatt Regency, even though I still went back home to Oak Park every night—which makes me feel as though I only got half the experience, since so much of the life of the convention clearly takes place sometime between midnight and four in the morning. And after telling myself that this was likely to be my first and last convention, I’m already starting to wonder when I can come back. (San Antonio next year probably isn’t in the cards, but London in 2014 is awfully tempting.) I went in looking forward mostly to my own panels, but emerged having learned a great deal more than I managed to convey to anyone else, not just about writing, but about speculative fiction, fandom, and the ties that bind them together.

I’ll have a chance to talk more about my panels on this blog in the future, and it was a real pleasure to meet writers like Jay Lake, Stephen Leigh, Vylar Kaftan, Russell Davis, and so many others. The real fun, however, came in attending other events, sometimes almost by accident. My favorite was the panel “Media Tie-In Novels: Art or Commerce,” in which such authors as David Gerrold and Peter David traded war stories, both good and bad, about the curious and often undervalued work of writing movie, television, and gaming tie-ins. (Game designer Tom Dowd had kind words for Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelization of Wrath of Khan, which I picked up later that day in the Dealers Room.) And of course the Hugo Awards were great fun: I got to chat with Locus reviewer Rich Horton and root for my favorite nominees, and while Community didn’t win, I was especially glad to see Kij Johnson win Best Novella for her wonderful “The Man Who Bridged the Mist.”

Yet the most significant moment of this year’s Worldcon was highly personal. Much earlier, I’d received an invitation for a special event sponsored by Analog, which I wanted to attend in any case, but it wasn’t until Friday that I learned the real reason behind it: the retirement, after thirty-four years, of editor Stanley Schmidt, with the highly capable managing editor Trevor Quachri taking the helm of the most legendary magazine in science fiction. At the event, Stan received heartfelt tributes from Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s, and writers whose names I’ve seen in print countless times, all gathered in the same crowded room. I hadn’t seen Stan in person in almost four years—we had lunch, oddly enough, on the day of Obama’s inauguration—and I’m grateful I had the chance to thank him myself and meet his charming wife Joyce. I had to run home soon thereafter, but I heard that the party ran past two in the morning.

And it isn’t surprising: we all owe Stan a lot. He was the first editor to ever buy a story I’d written—my novelette “Inversus,” which appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Analog—and that first sale, which came out of the blue, was one of the great turning points of my life: it was my first concrete evidence that I might actually become a professional writer one day, and I’m sure there were many other authors there that night who could say the same thing. Since then, I’ve sold Stan a number of other stories, not all of which he accepted the first time around, and it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be at Worldcon at all if he hadn’t picked up “The Boneless One.” His support has been important to me in ways I can’t even begin to express, which is why I was so glad to see him get a standing ovation at the Hugos on Sunday—the biggest reception of the night. He deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2012 at 9:49 am

Dispatches from Chicon 7

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If you happen to wander into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Chicago this weekend, the first thing you’re likely to notice is an abundance of Indiana Jones hats. From time to time, you’ll also see a few Yoda ears and Starfleet uniforms. You’ll also encounter a lot of guys who look startlingly like George R.R. Martin—including George R.R. Martin himself. But most of all, you’ll find a large crowd of rather peculiar people, superficially ordinary at first glance, who nonetheless seem somehow different from those you generally encounter around the Chicago Loop. It’s hard to pin down what sets fans apart, or why, as I approached the hotel, I kept noticing people, otherwise nondescript, who I just knew were going to the same place that I was. But if you spend enough time at the World Science Fiction Convention, you start to develop a sixth sense—or, in this crowd, maybe a seventh or eighth sense—for this kind of thing. And the overall feeling is exhilarating.

You could sense the diversity of the convention just by looking around the table at the New Writers panel I attended. There was moderator S.J. Chambers, who went from an editorial job at Strange Horizons to a Hugo nomination for The Steampunk Bible; Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a wunderkind who once found himself, to his chagrin, being billed at a convention as “the Horror Hunk”; Emma Newman, who got into Oxford with the help of a science-fiction story and then took a break from writing for ten years, only to return with a vengeance; Hanna Martine, a Chicago-area mom who switched from epic fantasy to paranormal romance after growing tired of the former’s lack of sex; and yours truly, who did his best to explain why he was attending a science-fiction convention with a book like The Icon Thief. (Later, one of the attendees advised me that, with this crowd, I was better off leading with my appearance in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and leaving my novels out of it.)

One of the things I love about Chicon so far is how funky it is. This isn’t a slick event like Comic-Con with a ton of media coverage, but an event for fans by fans. The big celebrities aren’t movie stars or directors, but the likes of Robert Silverberg—although I hear that Dan Harmon might make an appearance at the Hugo Awards on Sunday. This is a convention whose earliest incarnations were attended by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury, whose names are still invoked with awe and affection. And that sense of continuity is everywhere you look. Its spirit might best be expressed by the appearance at the opening ceremony of Erle Korshak, who, at the age of seventeen, was the secretary at the very first Chicon, held on September 1, 1940. When asked how it felt to be at this year’s convention, Korshak replied: “It makes me glad that I’m still alive.”

And while the convention itself has grown much larger over time—about five thousand people are scheduled to attend this year—it still feels charmingly old-fashioned. One of my favorite things about literary science fiction is how low-tech it tends to be: it’s no accident that its most venerable magazine is called Analog, which just began accepting electronic submissions last year, and whose editor only recently stopped sending out typewritten acceptance letters. Fandom was built on mimeographed fanzines, electronic bulletin boards, and Geocities pages, and despite a well-designed convention app, the Chicon website itself has a pleasingly dated feel. The great thing about science fiction is that its finest practitioners didn’t need access to the technology of the future in order to write about it. They just needed a pencil and a dream—and when you look around this convention, it’s hard not to conclude that their dreams were larger as a result.

Note: Today at Chicon at 3:00 pm, I’ll be appearing on the panel “Turning Ideas Into Stories,” also featuring authors Tim Akers, Roland Green, Louise Marley, and Jamie Todd Rubin. This is going to be a good one!

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2012 at 9:38 am

The Chicon Thief

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Regular readers will know that I envy the world of passionate fans, even if I’ve generally found myself on the outside looking in. As a result, I’ve always been fascinated by the culture of science fiction and fantasy conventions, but I’ve never had a chance to attend in person, partially because I don’t identify strongly with any particular fandom—aside from that of The X-Files, which seems to be on the wane these days—and because my own weird obsessions have tended to take me in a rather different direction. In less than two weeks, however, I’ll be attending the 70th World Science Fiction Convention here in Chicago, also known as Chicon 7, both as a panelist and eager attendee, and I can’t begin to describe my excitement: looking over the convention schedule is like browsing through the world’s best course catalog, with events like “Designing Spacecraft as a Hobby,” “LARPing: Make-Believe For Adults,” and “How to Write for Furries”—although the one I really can’t wait to attend is Sy Liebergot’s presentation on the lessons of Apollo 13.

I’m able to attend Worldcon this year because of the lucky confluence of a number of factors. This year’s convention is being held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, only half an hour’s train ride from my house, so it’s practically in my back yard. It’s also been an unusually productive year for me on the science fiction front: over the last eighteen months, I’ve published four stories in Analog, including “The Boneless One,” probably my best work, which ended up in the latest edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Realistically speaking, I don’t think I’ll have another run like this for a long time, if ever, so it’s very fortunate that my best year in the science fiction field happens to coincide with the convention taking place such a convenient location. Will I ever go again? I really hope so—although right now it seems best to regard it as a special treat in a year that qualifies as an outlier by any measure.

At the moment, I’m scheduled to appear on five panels over the course of four days, and I hope you’ll check them out if you’re there. Here’s my schedule:

  • Thursday August 30, 4:30 pm. New Writers Session 1. A panel for new and debut writers to discuss their work and careers. Moderator: S. J. Chambers. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Emma Newman, Hanna Martine, Thomas Olde Heuvelt.
  • Friday August 31, 3:00 pm. Turning Ideas Into Stories. Many people ask authors where they get their ideas. This panels asks: “How do you develop your ideas into stories?” Moderator: Louise Marley. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Jamie Todd Rubin, Roland Green, Tim Akers.
  • Saturday September 1, 9:00 am. Men Writing Women. Many male writers have written stories from the female protagonist point of view or even using a female pseudonym. This panel will explore this issue from a variety of perspectives. Moderator: Bradley P. Beaulieu. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Jan Bogstad, Myke Cole, Russell Davis.
  • Saturday September 1, 3:00 pm. Develop Your Story Idea. We will take an idea or two from the audience and work on how we would turn it into a story. Moderator: B. A. Chepaitis. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Courtney Schafer, Jamie Todd Rubin, Martha Wells.
  • Sunday September 2, 3:00 pm. Stalking the Elusive Story Idea. What is creativity? Can it be taught? Is it possible to generate story ideas on demand? A discussion of the practical aspects of inspiration, brainstorming, and the search for material, from the perspective of the working writer. Moderator: Jay Lake. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Stephen Leigh, Vylar Kaftan.

If that last panel’s description has a familiar ring, that isn’t a coincidence: it’s a topic I suggested, and I’m really looking forward to it. As for the rest, they all look like fun, especially “Develop Your Story Idea,” which could either be fascinating or a magnificent train wreck. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2012 at 10:01 am

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