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Readercon 17 by Eric Van (chair)
Review by Ernest Lilley
Convention  ISBN/ITEM#: RDCON17
Date: July 7-9, 2006 Burlington, Mass. / Show Official Info /

Well, aside from totaling my station wagon on the way to the con, I had a pretty nice trip up from my new digs in Norfolk, VA, where I've moved in my ongoing mission to follow the fleet, or at least my Navy gal. Nobody got hurt, and likely more my fault than anyone elses...but not the way I wanted to start my trip. A month ago, I'd have said I'm really going to miss that car, the 2001 VW Passat wagon that took me on my Route 66 trip and other adventures...but the truth is that I went out and bought one exactly like it, well almost. The new ride has 70k less miles on it, the black leather interior I always wanted, and a 100k warranty. I did get to drive up with Gayle (SFRevu editor) and Paul (Webmaster), which was nice...but pricey fun.

We arrived at the con about noon Friday to set up the SFRevu table and unbend the posters we'd made but which got pretty bounced around in the crash. The con was held at the Burlington Marriot again this year, and while the bargain motel we'd stayed in on the way up had been serviceable the Marriot is a palace by comparison, and a pretty nice hotel no matter what your standard is. My singular beef is the $9.95 charge for high speed internet...which would tack another 30 dollars onto my bill. The coffee bar in the lobby is a Starbucks kiosk, and their prices seemed in line with the greater java chain, so I we were all happy with that come morning.

The con kicked off in mid afternoon with a panel on "The Suspension of Dissed Beliefs" and one on short fiction outlets that I'd have liked to make, but we were still setting up. I didn't get to a panel until five pm, actually, and I was hard pressed to choose between the offerings, but picked a path from:

Fantasy and Neuroscience - we tend to write stories about an anthropomorphized world, but as we offload our understanding of reality to an external framework, that model makes less sense. What comes next? It was held by R.Scott Baker, a Canuck Philosopher with a great sense of humor and a lot of interesting ideas about the relative merits of the scientific worldview as opposed to other schemas, like philosophy and religion. The fairly well packed room was full of folks who work in the sciences and in true fannish nature jumped in to check his logic every few minutes. Regardless we got to the end of everything, no, not the singularity, but the "semantic apocalypse" by the end of the panel. I liked this and may tap Scott for an essay for SFRevu.

The War of the Worldviews – This was a wildly popular panel with both China Miéville, and James Morrow, the GOHs, on it as well as some of the other brightest bulbs in the house, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Barry Malzberg included. A lot of excellent ground was covered, and a number of folks on the panel pointed out the importance of the horrors of WWI/II in shaping our world. To steal what I hope are useful bits it seems that they were saying that after the rise of humanism in the enlightenment there came a moment in the early 20th century where western civilization went off the tracks and lost all sense of a moral compass. Putting the rational world ahead of the anthropomorphic one had led humankind right into the teeth of an apocalypse, as the two world wars demonstrated, The response of "Campbellian" science fiction on the other hand, was essentially to "clap its hands over its ears and say, 'na, na, na...I can't hear you'" Which was fun, but only lasted a few decades until SF was invaded by later worldviews...including dark fabulists like China, and folks making direct challenges to theism like James Morrow. Theresa evoked the horror that many people with spiritual beliefs feel in the face of fundamentalism – and the inability to understand how folks get from religious writings about caring for others to the sort of angry dogma that seems to be stalking the country. China made some good points about how governments had retreated from the poor areas of the world and fundamentalist religions had stepped in to provide basic services that were no longer available. I actually chimed in that this is not only the case in the Christian world (US) but even more so in may Islamic countries. Barry Malzberg wound it all up with the lament that we could talk about the horrors of the last century as though they were an intellectual exercise, that the holocaust could be considered in any other terms than horror writ large.

SF and Continuing Human Evolution – I was on this panel with a group of great folks, including Karl Schroeder, John Scalsi, and Beth Meacham and we kicked this around for a while. The panel didn't have a lot of use for unassisted evolution, with Beth arguing that the SF community (using herself as an example) was going down unadaptive lines, at least as far as our physical viability was concerned. There was some response from the panel that we were just moving into a niche that allowed reduced physical attributes, the prominence of eyeglasses being cited, and that if this world changed, so would we...though not in one generation. Much of the talk focused on the possibilities of genetic engineering, and what type (or types) of humanity might grow out of that. Instead of the classic SF vision of the past of giant headed humans with amazing mental powers coming about as the result of either intentional meddling or natural selection, the reality may well be the opposite. Unthinking humans that look more like anime characters may well be the real fate of humanity. At least until some radical change in the environment forces them to have to figure out how to survive all over again. Karl also pointed out some interesting bits about how moving genetic information transfer to computers didn't remove the kind of random processes that we consider part of evolution. In fact, the opposite.

Meet The Pros: After a bit of drinking and carrying on at the bar with authors and editors I'd picked up from the panels I headed off to the "Meet the Pros" party for some author sightings. China had transformed from punkish attire to a dapper suit in which he looked equally at home. Every time I meet him I come away more impressed with this man's brilliance and range. The rest of us looked more or less as we always do, though copy editor Deanna Hoak, who works on China's books as well as others, was causing some serious head turning as she slinked around the room. The party game played at the reception is to get lines from the different authors around the room to compose your own ad hoc prose pasted on your person. The authors are asked before the con for a line from their work which they liked, and then given a page of labels with the prose on them. Mingling, drinking, and sharing of labels ensues and its all a great time and way to meet folks.

Saturday morning I sat in on Patirick and Theresa Neilsen Hayden's and Karl Schroeder's Kafffelatch where Theresa admonished a hopeful author "not to reject her own, work"...that being her own job. She says she has a big scary knife whose name is "slushkiller" and she uses it for opening submissions, and occasionally stabbing them to death. On multi-volume fantasy, they all point out that if you like a series, you're hooked and if you don't you wonder why anybody could be interested. But it's a personal taste thing. JK Rowling, Patrick points out, is a master of feeding you information you need just in time for it to be useful, which I dubbed Just-In-Time-Exposition (JITE), and which term he said he'd steal. Please do. SF fans have by and large learned to tolerate exposition that will only become useful later. SF fans no doubt consider JITE as pandering, but also because we really enjoy the process of decoding the reality we're reading. We love the notion of being just on the edge of incomprehension...but being able to figure it out. Does this mean SF is really a mystery genre? Some comments that came up during the panel:

TNH - Science fiction fans reproduce using printing presses
Kathryn Cramer - You must have a different sex life than I do –
TNH - You should see rocks watching lithography
PHN – for real fun, read the news to see if it's a plausible narrative. What's the narrative really saying, rather than what do the facts seem to be saying.
PNH – SF needs a better idea of how politics work.
TNH/CK – politics could learn a lot from how SF works…
PNH - A novel isn't the experience you have it's the source code that generates the experience.
TNH – finding the appropriate level of detail is frequently a function of the pace of the plot. If the passengers are commenting on the scenery, the train isn't going fast enough. THN related a tale about writing the movie Ben Hur, in the fifties, in which two characters hate each other, but the reason why is never explained. The scriptwriters pointed out that the underlying cause was that one was gay and the other wasn't and there was dissonance between them. This doesn't have to be shown on the screen as long as the writers know it. Then it works.
TNH – Erotica, humor and horror are the three failure genres where the failure mode is disaster.

On prodigious prologues - Karl explained to us that they're called "fisheads" because they come before the useful parts and should just get cut off. This was a great talk and it made me realize that parts cut out don't actually go away, they're offloaded to the reader's brain to reconstruct. Which is way more fun for the reader. SF readers are continuously developing better and better decompression algorithms.

There were some who wondered if all this discussion of magical realism, the failure of early SF to grasp the failure of the enlightenment, and the meaning of life, or possibly meaning itself wasn't all just a bit too introspective and well...pompous. Barry Mazlberg reacted quite strongly to what he felt was a game of shuffleboard with the ideas that surrounded the greatest horrors of the last century, and I wondered if someone in the audience was saying to themselves, "oh, the holocaust again. Can't people just get over it?" I'm just grateful that there are people like Barry who can still remind us that we must not. I'm sad that the thousands killed in places like Rwanda and Darfur do not seem to have champions of the same mettle.

The con was, as ever well run, though it had to do without its chair, Eric Van, for a while at the start. Eric had a "reading accident" early in the afternoon, in which, I gather, he fell and cut his hand while reading and walking. It required a trip to an emergency room and stitches. Well, I'm glad he wasn't reading and driving. At least that's how I think it happened. The elevators were never mobbed, the con suite was pleasant, well stocked and had a lively discussion running at all times. I only wish they'd open the con suite for continental fare at 8 am, but understand that this would constitute cruel and unusual punishment for con runners. The Green Room too was well done, though one had to watch out for the Wasabi Almonds. Panels had good time management, with folks popping in to hold up 5 minute signs and most everywhere there were sound systems assisting, or we assume, recording the proceedings. Occasional feedback made things more interesting. The hotel, the Burlington Marriot, is a nice venue and I hope they hang onto it for some time. Pleasantly appointed rooms, nice views, and a fair spread of restaurants within short driving distance. The hotel bar is a friendly pub, populated by an interesting mixture of Readerconians, airline crews, and locals, and sporting a good selection of beers.

Freelance copyeditor and friend Deanna Hoak held her mumble-th birthday party in the bar with a cake that got promptly devoured and numerous folks (mostly the male variety) were happy to pose with the Floridian Hoak, who was easy to spot throughout the con in a succession of distracting outfits. Deanna maintains that outside cons she's just considered a normal Florida gal. Within them, she does have a tendency to stop traffic.

Virtually the last panel of the con was a presentation by Peter Watts on the fictitious (as best we know) FizerPharm's Vampire Domestication Program. Peter has put together a terrific set of power point slides to support the backstory to a book he's doing, and they use genetics, molecular biology and other disciplines to show how the Vampire race flourished in ancient times but fell prey to a superior pattern recognition ability, which had the side affect of arresting their attention when confronting crossed vertical lines. That's right...he calls it the "Crucifix Glitch". One of the fascinating things in this panel was the number of well informed folk in the audience that I at first assumed were "shills", but turned out to be just interested folk, happy to add more ideas to Watt's concept. It was discussed that a wiki for the project could be constructed and things might really take off. You know a vampire talk is good when you leave feeling scared and/or ready to fight. This was very good.

The worst thing I can say about the con is that I'd like to see more panels on the business of writing, though I can hardly say I got to all the panels that I'd like to have attended. Or readings for that matter. Given a choice between attending a Readercon and a Worldcon, I'd be hard pressed to decide between them. If you're serious about writing, and it's at all possible for you to come network at this annual Massachusetts gathering, you should save up your frequent flyer miles for it.

Shameless Plug: You might also consider attending Capclave in the DC area, which I'm working on the programming committee for, and which is working on transitioning from a local to regional con. Over the next few years we expect to steal shamelessly from Readercon's model, though with a different focus, probably on short fiction. Last year's guest, Howard Waldrop, was very well received, we're looking forward to Kim Stanley Robinson for this coming year, and next year's guest though not officially booked, is a master practitioner in the art of the short short story. If the far north is a bit too far...consider Capclave.

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