Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Readercon 25: A Grand Time

The Messal (1902) John William Waterhouse
This past weekend was my third Readercon. The first year I attended, I elected to commute and felt the full brunt of my decision, the 350 bus running hourly but not reliably between the convention center in Burlington and my home in Somerville. I enjoyed the panels through a haze of sleepiness and annoyance at my own decision.

My second Readercon was a lot better as I grabbed a room with a couple friends.  We enjoyed the panels and wandered each night, haunting the floors for room parties like some very specific ghosts.  The convention was well done but a great deal of tension hung in the air.  In light of the harassment controversy, the entire board had resigned.  This was a new, rebooted con that was wobbly on its legs.

This past Readercon, that new con has solidified.  It has a strong, warm presence without compromising its more academic, literary-driven panels. Rose Fox and Emily Wagner have cultivated a hell of a con.

I met tons of people in real life as opposed to watching them online (ex. Maria Dahvana Headley, an absolute mensch, by the way).  It was also great to talk with friends made at previous conventions and from Clarion, though I regret I didn't have a chance to have in-depth conversations with everyone I wanted to.  I'm told that's kind of how cons like this work.  "There's always next year," is the refrain, but after a long weekend and the resulting crash, that's a source of comfort.

Thursday and Friday were my big panel days.  Some of them hit a lot of major points but didn't feel long enough.  This included Theater and Interrupted Ritual, where Guest of Honor Andrea Hairston, the ever-bubbly C.S.E. Cooney, and others talked about what accounted for an actual ritual and how it applied to staged drama.  Then there was This Whole Situation is Monstrous, where Leah Bobet lead a discussion about abusive relationships in fiction, specifically YA.  How readers consume and relate to Young Adult literature is a particularly tricky subject, I think, because I would like to both trust people to know the difference between fiction and reality BUT have more diverse relationships depicted in fiction to stave off peer-pressure and herd mentality. Not every model should be "strong, mysterious, emotionally distant boyfriend hates-and-then-loves naive girlfriend," though I understand why there's an audience for that.  Which is all to say, I wondered briefly if the con would consider revising their panels from one hour (really, fifty minutes) to hour-and-a-half time blocks. 
Exhibit 1: Signed copy of Cloud and Ashes

Then again, having less than an hour didn't detract from the energy of most panels. In The Past is a Terrible PlaceK. Tempest Bradford moderated an even-keeled discussion about social, racial, and socioeconomic problems in the past and present, though the conversation tilted more toward "what would it be like to time travel to [era x]" by the end.  Tension of Satisfaction and Subversion, lead by Ellen Kushner with some hilarious commentary by Kit Reed and Lev Grossman, was particularly motivating and insightful about tropes and how writers go about breaking them, unintentionally or otherwise, sometimes defining an entirely different genre.

Also deeply satisfying were panels like When the Magic Returns and Long Live the Queen, both of which hit on the friction between nostalgia/romantic historical notions and innovative, science fictional technology.  I would love to see more of that kind of discussion in future programming.  Maybe that's just because Katherine's Addison's The Goblin Emperor has revived my faith in steampunk, however.  Still, these discussions made me excited about what can be done with social critique in technologically advancing societies (or magical societies introduced into already tech-advanced worlds).

A Fondness for Fanfic, meanwhile, was more of a feel-good pow-wow for authors who either got their start in writing fan fiction (cough) or, despite being professionally published, write it on the side.  In a similar vein, The Booty Don't Lie: A Cheeky Discussion of Butts in Literature was supremely fun, though it had a broader...erm, looser...um, very different feel from the other panels.  There were a lot of butt puns used throughout the panel from top to bottom (sorry).

The readings I went to were pretty fantastic all around.  The Long Hidden Reading, specifically, prompted me to go pick up the anthology from Crossed Genres as soon as it ended. After that, the unlisted Women Destroy Science Fiction reading left me pleased PodCastle has made the audio of Kameron Hurley's essay, "We Have Always Fought," available.  It's the kind of essay I want people to read in college courses when studying the genre.

Speaking of readings, I definitely didn't attend a super-secret, Friday, midnight guerilla reading.  This hypothetical reading also most certainly did not feature fellow Clarion '11 narwolf, Brooke Bolander, and newly-minted Shirley Jackson award winner, Sam J. Miller, among others. What are you talking about.  There was no wine or tons of delightful swearing and innuendo.  You're silly!  So very silly.

As Saturday went, the programming seemed a lot lighter than Friday.  I missed a good chunk of it anyway as I wasn't feeling too well.  I queasily chilled in my hotel room until it passed, though from where this sudden "spell" came and where it went, I couldn't tell you.  I did catch a nice Kaffeeklatsche with Kit Reed, Kate Maruyama, and Daniel Handler, who I understand is some sort of representative for the reclusive Lemony Snicket (cough x2).  Handler had some encouraging insights about the industry and "being struck by lightning."  They were all enormously clever and funny together.

Exhibits 1-11: Readercon Haul
The highlight of Sunday was seeing The Shirley Jackson Awards.  I teared up when Sam Miller took home an award for "57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides" and during Greer Gilman's acceptance speech for her gorgeously creepy novelette, Cry Murder! In A Small Voice.  They absolutely deserved their wins.  You must go read these works immediately.  As I already did, I went to the dealer's room afterward to pick up Greer's Cloud and Ashes, pictured to the left with Cry Murder's sequel, Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

So an excellent con.  I was enthralled, beguiled, and am sad it's no longer happening.

One of the only dark clouds I can think of was learning that Hugo nominee John Chu is consistently mistaken for Ken Liu at many conventions.  We talked at a couple points and, yes, he confirmed he definitely wore a name tag all weekend despite being mistaken for Liu several times.  I even overheard a person tell John how much she was looking forward to the novel that, uh, Liu is writing.  I would understand if this mistake happened once if John was just starting in the industry, maybe, but a) despite being of the same race, they look nothing alike (unless they are more similar in shape than I thought and Ken Liu wears glasses sometimes? I'm not sure) and b) there are more than a couple Asian authors in the SFF genre at the moment.  No, authors still lean pretty heavily towards white, but the genre has become increasingly diverse over the past few years.  The convention programming appears to recognize this, looking at its topics; I hope other attendees will, too.

I spoke to John tonight at Max Gladstone's book launch for Full Fathom Five.  He said his blog post may or may not have inspired a panel at next year's Readercon.  I think that's the sign of a convention that has grown a lot.  Like an artificial intelligence of the best kind, it looks to learn and understand what people want.

And I'm absolutely sold on attending again next year.