Readercon 18 report


I’m back from the convention. I spent some quality time with Laura Q, and we met up with Angry Black Woman for a pleasant breakfast on Saturday, but overall this was a much less social experience for me than WisCon. Nevertheless, I did enjoy it, particularly all the exposure to Karen Joy Fowler, who I had never heard speak before, despite her presence at several other conventions I’ve been to. She was an absolute delight, a person who always had something interesting and thoughtful and frequently funny to say, and who spoke in complete, well-constructed sentences!

My lengthy notes are behind the link. THURSDAY

The Real Year Is Ageless!

Panel description: Readercon 4 Guest of Honor John Clute introduced the concept of the “real year” of a work of fiction in the January 1991 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, and it has proven to be one of the handiest critical concepts in the field and the basis for several past Readercon panels. According to Clute, every sf text, regardless of the year it claims to be set in, has an underlying “real year” which shines through, the secret point in time that gives the work its flavor. The closer the “real year” is to the present, the more cutting-edge the fiction reads; but most authors have a characteristic real year, one often based upon key childhood or adolescent experience and concerns (the real year of most Ray Bradbury stories is 1927). It’s been exactly a decade since our last “real year” panel, and the concept casts light on almost every interesting development in the field since.

Participants: David Hartwell (L), John Clute, Elizabeth Hand, Barry Malzberg, Graham Sleight

Of course, there are sound problems, so the panel starts 10 minutes late. Clute speaks amusingly and somewhat opaquely about how the panel description isn’t completely accurate. He’s not exactly certain about EVERY work of sf having a “real year”.

“Books are more complex than people are.” – Clute

Sound quality remains terrible. I am having trouble hearing.

Hand says that lately she’s read A LOT of fiction that is set “now”. George Saunders, Rebecca Curtis, Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince. “These are all post-9/11 stories.” She contrasts this to a few years ago, when everything seemed to be set “then.”

Malzberg says that there is a big unexamined assumption behind this thesis of a “real year”: that the more realistic and less science fictional a work is, the better it is. I missed his second point, but his third point is that he can listen to some musical pieces and estimate their time of composition, but others (he lists a Beethoven work) have no “real year”. “It was a hundred years ahead of its time when it was written, and it’s a hundred years ahead of its time now.”

Clute says his original article in 1991 was “an assault” – a reaction against naïve far future extrapolations – not “an ultimate tool of analysis.” “I thought it was funny!”

Some guy has fallen asleep behind me and is starting to breathe heavily.

Hand hypothesizes the existence of sf authors who write their books on paper in cursive script and haven’t watched TV in a while (“or maybe they’re watching Lost in Space or something”). “Does a writer have to be plugged in to now to write about tomorrow?”

The sound to the rear speakers is turned on mid-Clute-sentence, and there is scattered applause.

Hand asks if any authors consciously write about a “real year”. She says obviously anything that includes autobiographical elements is a yes, but… she doesn’t think about it. Who does?

Malzberg says that in 1971 when he wrote about the year 2000, he was creating a version of 2000 that was intimately tied to the ’70s. That was what everyone knew how to do, but he isn’t sure that was true 10 or 20 years later.

He pauses thoughtfully, “Although… Maybe Gibson and Sterling were kidding themselves that they were visionaries when they were just polemicists like the rest of us.”

A Clute term: “theatre of memory” — was ist das?

Malzberg takes a moment to note the shortcuts authors take while writing because they are under contract and need the money. “You throw in a spaceship and a robot and you do the best you can.”

Sleight: “If science fiction isn’t about the future, what is it about?” He’s been reading a Kim Stanley Robinson trilogy (the Gold Coast?), and he can see that the books are concerned with where we are now, and possible outcomes of current trends.

The panel members agree that advocacy — a common feature of earlier sf — is problematic. The last 20 or 30 years have seen a general shift away from it toward the descriptive.

Clute: “We’re trying to recognize where we are now.”

Hand says the Sensawunda has largely disappeared. Hartwell politely disagrees. (He reads almost all the short fiction published in the field every year.)

Clute: “A sense of wonder is a literary construction. It is not actually the surprise – it’s the shape of the surprise.” Hartwell says he would like Clute to write a LONG essay about this; he would love to read it.

I’m starting to feel woozy. Even though the panel is not over, I think I must go look for food.


Maureen McHugh Kaffeeklatsch

Lots o’ attendees, many of whom are quite talkative.

Maureen says she loves subways, because, having grown up in Midwestern suburbia without a car, she associates them with freedom. That’s why she started and ended China Mountain Zhang in subways.

Outlining: she doesn’t do it. Her writing method is more like crossing a swamp. Jump to a tussock, then put down your 2×4 to move to the next tussock, pick up the 2×4 and repeat. Of course, with this technique you don’t have any idea where you’re going, and you reach dead ends and have to start all over again. That’s why she’s rewritten her current novel five times!

She talks a bit about how her writing has been changed by her online work with 42 and the “I Love Bees” project. Now she’s discovered she can write funny things, that she has an “Elmore Leonard voice”, and how to write about zombies.

She says, “technology creates art forms”, and lists as examples the printing press making the novel possible, the video camera making the cinema, and the computer making video games.

She finds writing groups VERY helpful, but mostly she learns from them by critiquing OTHER people’s work, not by having her own critiqued.

I ask a question about her extrapolation of future China in CMZ. Did she think about it a lot and try to predict where things are going? She gives fair warning that she is going to quote a very un-PC phrase: “The Chinese are the Jews of Asia.” They even think of themselves that way. She explained this thought more, but I don’t have good notes. The upshot is that they will assimilate everything and make it indistinguishably Chinese. She says they are in the midst of assimilating Marxism right now, turning it slowly into a mutant market economy. But, she says she was not very rigorous in her extrapolation. “I don’t believe in my futures. I don’t believe in ANYBODY’S futures.”

A guy next to me thinks China is headed for an economic collapse, but Maureen doesn’t think that’s a foregone conclusion. “I’m a firm believer in chaos theory. We don’t know what’s going to happen!”

The Slipstream/Magic Realism Canon

Panel description: There are lists galore of the best 100 sf, fantasy, or horror novels, but nothing at all for their odd cousin, the slipstream novel. Until now! Each panelist has submitted a list of the best 50 or 100 works of fiction of all-time that are in some important way non-mimetic or fantastic, but would not ordinarily be regarded as sf, fantasy, or horror. We’ve compiled the lists and provided you all with a handout; the panelists will talk about the best and most controversial of the works.

Participants: John Kessel, Cat Valente, Victoria McManus, F. Brett Cox (M), Ron Drummond, Paul di Filippo, Graham Sleight, Theodora Goss

Kessel: Cognitive dissonance. An effect, not a type of content.

Valente says the first time she heard the word “slipstream” was when her first novel was accepted for publication. “Oh! I guess I’d better find out what that means.” When she read Sterling’s original essay, she wasn’t impressed, because she studied literature at the graduate level, and to her what he called slipstream was just postmodernism. (A later note: “Books that make Bruce feel funny.”)

Drummond says he’s going to play a Jethro Tull song during the panel! He says he doesn’t like the implication that slipstream has to be a downer.

Di Filippo muses about the metaphorical physics of the term “slipstream”. He doesn’t want to be told that he can’t do something because of genre conventions or expectations. A slaughterhouse reference: “We’re all wild bulls on our way trying to break out of the chute.”

Sleight maintains that slipstream is NOT the same as literary sf, interstitial fiction or magic realism. Slipstream is fiction where, not only can you not recognize the world you’re in, but you may have forgotten how to recognize it.

Goss is surprised that her book made the canon list, because she thought she was writing fantasy. She wonders why it should be surprising when mainstream and fantasy mix (this is how she interprets the definition of slipstream from Sterling’s essay). She thinks it’s an artifact of how realism and fantasy split apart as literary genres, and now they are starting to come back together. People find this disorienting.

Valente says that she has to go pretty far down the list of works before she sees something that “doesn’t make sense”.

Kessel says the term “fantasy” “has been colonized” and now means secondary world medieval fiction. Valente strongly disagrees. She thinks people who believe fantasy is all derivative of Tolkien are just wrong.

Goss says there are really two different interpretations of the word “fantasy” – one is a genre (like the Tolkien stuff Valente was talking about), the other is a toolbox of story techniques.

More logistics problems: the handouts for this panel are sitting in a box on the stage rather than somewhere the audience can easily get to them.

Drummond recounts the crazy process of making the list. It involved LOTS of emailing and collating and pondering. The only work that all eight panelists gave three points was Collected Fictions by Borges.

Gender stuff: There were no women on the panel at the beginning, and Eric Van decided to recruit people. Relative paucity of female writers on the final list. Is it because most female writers would consider their possibly slipstream work as fantasy or mainstream (“like Margaret Atwood, who doesn’t write science fiction, right?”).

Eric Van (in audience) says that making lists like this is something that men like to do more than women, but women shouldn’t “bitch about” how the lists turn out if they refuse to participate. Hm…

Valente notes that she doesn’t necessarily agree with the psychological interpretation Van has put forth (she LOVES making lists like this), but she had never seen someone so concerned about gender representation on a panel as he was, and she was very impressed.

Discussion about list-making and its exclusionary aspects. Kessel says he’s made lots of lists himself, but he’s not entirely comfortable with them. He doesn’t want them to become permanent artifacts. They should be flexible and ever-changing. He loves having the list they came up with, but he doesn’t want to be handing out yellowed copies of it 20 years from now.

Another problem: a lot of the panelists haven’t read a lot of the books. Cox recounts an old teaching joke: “Have you read that book?” “Read it? I haven’t even taught it!”

Drummond: “The books are the definition.”

Drummond and Sleight say that a work can be sf or fantasy and simultaneously slipstream. Say what? Sleight says it’s about the balance of the elements.

Valente: “Through this list we can create the ideal slipstream reader.” She notes that something she added to the list (The Pillow Book, I presume) is there just because it was absolutely strange for its day, though many people wouldn’t think it is now. “What is considered slipstream may change.”

An audience member asks if there are any magical realism works that aren’t slipstream, and if so what are they. Panelists list several: The Natural, all the works of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits was on the list, but probably shouldn’t have been.

Some discussion about how slipstream could be characterized as “literary fantasy that doesn’t sell very well” (Kessel).

An audience member asks about “writers who may be hacks: Jasper Fforde, Gregory Maguire”. There is an oohing in the audience as if fighting words have been spoken, but Valente quickly says that these writers are not remotely slipstream, sidestepping the whole quality question.

Discussion of slipstream in other genres: Eric Van says that the original cut of Donnie Darko was slipstream, and the director’s cut (which he prefers) is science fiction. Interesting! I totally agree, except I like the original better.

Kessel dishes some dirt about Sterling’s original essay. He was in the room when Sterling was coming up with the list of books (so was Karen Joy Fowler, and she can verify the story), and all the titles were proposed by slightly tipsy volunteers, not Sterling himself. “He didn’t read ANY of those books!”

The difference between surrealism and slipstream. Cox says surrealism expects that nothing will make sense, whereas with slipstream there’s the lingering sense that things OUGHT to be making sense, and why aren’t they?

Some discussion of how freeing slipstream can be. It may be scary and unsettling, but it can be exhilarating as well.

The Jethro Tull song is finally played, rather pathetically quiet through the speakers. It wasn’t worth the wait, I have to say.

Karen Joy Fowler Kaffeeklatsch

The kaffeeklatsch combines with one in the other room. Attendees therefore include Steve Berman, S.C. Butler, and Michael Daley.

The movie of The Jane Austen Book Club will be out soon. Bob Devney says he’s seen it and it was decent.

Karen talks about being a housewife, and the moment she became radicalized over the term: when Algis Budrys pulled her aside to give her some well-meaning advice and said, “I don’t think you should tell people you’re a housewife, because it will make them think you’re stupider than you are.” After that, she made a point of ALWAYS saying she was a housewife.

Writing: she tends to write short things, then add more in. She is almost never asked to cut anything out of her stories or novels.

She studied Chinese politics in college.

Devney asks if Sarah Canary is an alien. Fowler says the whole book is about how a person’s point of view determines what they see, and therefore we should not give her any more credence when she says she thinks Sarah Canary is an alien than we would any of the characters in the book who have other interpretations.

She’s working on a novel that she calls a mystery because there’s an unexplained dead body in it. Except the dead body doesn’t show up until after page 400! It’s her first book written under contract, and she will never do it again. It’s been an extremely stressful experience.

Now she knows how slowly she really writes, and she feels it all the more keenly because she and Stan Robinson write together, and he’s the kind of guy who writes 5 pages and runs 5 miles every day. She can hear him busily typing, and she feels inadequate. However, she won’t stop working with him, because she loves him and thinks he’s great.

She says she hates the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie. “Let’s not speak of it.”

The Singularity Needs Women!

Panel description: At Readercon 14 (2002), GoH Octavia Butler said “As the only woman up here, this may be a strange question, but I can’t help wondering how much of this speculation about a post-human future has to do with men’s desire to control reproduction.” We sadly can’t ask Octavia exactly what she meant, but we want to pursue this striking statement. Does the post-humanist ideal of freedom from bodily constraints clash fundamentally with the ideal of freedom for the more than half of the population with female bodies? Or might the Singularity actually be a means to the freedoms sought by feminism? Has anyone written fiction about how these ideals interact, and if not, is this an opportunity?

Participants: James Morrow, Victoria McManus (M), Kathryn Cramer, Elizabeth Bear, Louise Marley

“The singularity is the Rapture for nerds.”

Cramer: “Like most science fictional concepts, this is as much about the present as the future.” “What I see going on is an attempt at the singularity.” Wikipedia as example: editors are consciously working toward a future where it will be improper to ask who is behind an online alias. She makes a strange analogy to surgical instruments being sterilized that I really don’t understand. She thinks men are more able to take on personas because they aren’t the ones who have the children. She thinks online anonymity is a pernicious trend.

Bear cites a recent study that shows that people don’t trust online names as much if they can’t be easily assigned a gender.

Morrow talks about how men are more behaviorally flexible than they are made out to be. He outlines a story he would like to write sometime about a future where there is so little space for criminals in prisons that an alternative punishment for men is created: being assigned their own 2-year olds that they have to raise in a healthy way. Cramer characterizes children as “psychotic dwarfs with a good prognosis.”

Some discussion of whether the singularity means having no bodies, or easily changeable bodies. The mind/body split – McManus doesn’t like the idea.

General comments about how Things Aren’t the Way They Used to Be. Western Union doesn’t send telegrams; Marley always uses the internet instead of the phone book; McManus “just Googles it” instead of memorizing things.

Morrow says cloning stories are really about “artificial maturation”, not cloning. “A clone is just a twin. Not a very interesting idea, really. That being said, I’m putting the final touches on a cloning novel…” (The Philosopher’s Apprentice)

An audience member says that the post human world might be more about male fear of death than a desire to reproduce. Elizabeth Bear says she completely agrees.

Jim Morrow will be demonstrating male pregnancy later. (that’s a joke)


Must Great Narrative Art Have Humor?

Panel description: At Readercon 17, Eric M. Van presented the beginnings of a neuroscientific theory of aesthetic responses to narrative art. There were four fairly obvious responses, which corresponded to the standard qualities of beauty (of prose or cinematography), character, plot, and depth of meaning. The surprise was that humor seemed to be a fifth primary quality rather than a subset of any of the other four. The notion that humor is as fundamental a story quality as plot or character suggests that every great narrative work should possess it, an assertion we’re not sure we’ve heard before. We’ll analyze the nature of humor by looking at our favorite jokes, comedy routines, and prose passages, and try to answer the titular question. Can we name any great works of narrative art that are essentially humorless?

Participants: Eric M. Van (M), Paul di Filippo, Judith Berman, Barry Longyear, Craig Shaw Gardner

Van summarizes the theory that prompted this panel. (Humor is “the fifth element” of narrative art, along with beauty, character, plot, and depth of meaning.) He then asks each panelist for their initial reactions to the thesis. Each then tells a joke, which doesn’t seem to be answering the question, and also seems to be equating “jokes” with “humor”. Some of them are funny, though.

Berman: Q. “What does Bush think of Roe v. Wade?” A.“He doesn’t care how black people get out of New Orleans.”

Longyear talks about how a lot of humor is born out of pain. “Take the pain, and flip it over to survive.”

Berman thinks that pain isn’t the only element of humor. Cultural background determines the role of humor and what is seen as a violation of expectations.

Di Filippo points out that humor is not an entirely unexamined subject up to now. Also, pain is more often a joke at someone else’s expense. He quotes Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is me getting a splinter in my little finger that causes me pain. Comedy is you falling down a manhole and breaking your back.”

Van briefly outlines what evolutionary psychology is, preparatory to telling us his theory he thought up in the shower this morning. Humor depends on incongruity.

Berman says some jokes are funny even when you already know them. She cracks up telling a story about Coyote and pine pitch and tails catching on fire that I can’t hear very well because she’s too far away from the microphone.

Van still hasn’t gotten to tell us his theory. More Berman rambling… aha! The theory: laughing makes things memorable. He gives a hypothetical scenario of some hunter-gatherers who travel far away looking for food, and have to turn back without finding any, only to be startled off the path by a snake a mere quarter mile from home and finding a massive banana grove. Laughing at the irony makes the experience memorable.

Longyear: “The reaction to something unexpected is not always humor; often it’s screaming!”

An audience member says that he’s recently been observing a 4-year old who cracks up whenever he learns something new. He thinks there’s something to Van’s theory about humor and memory.

The panel moves to another room for the second half, but I’m going to stay here for the Political Beliefs panel.

Political Beliefs and Fiction

Panel description: Both our Guests of Honor have histories of political activism. We’ve learned from other authors that the relationship between strongly held political beliefs and fiction is not always what it seems: apparently apolitical stories have hidden political motivations, or the overt political elements which would seem to be central to a story’s conception are in fact late additions. Our panelists discuss their stories with political elements or motivations. How do different creative circumstances (e.g., coolly rational vs. mad as hell) lead to different flavors of fiction or different degrees of success?

Participants: Paolo Bacigalupi, David Louis Edelman, Karen Joy Fowler, John Kessel (L), James Morrow, Lucius Shepard

Kessel asks each panelist to introduce themselves and try to characterize their politics.

Morrow: his two latest publications are The Last Witchfinder (about “the problem of theocracy”) and an anthology of European science fiction in translation. He describes himself succinctly as “A man of the left.”

Fowler: she lists several short stories. She thinks her political beliefs are common sense and incontrovertible, so it saddens her to say that politically she is considered extreme left.

Edelman: libertarian atheist, somewhat leftist on some issues, somewhat rightish on others.

Shepard: “Politically, I’m some kind of radical.”

Bacigalupi: “I’m an environmentalist.”

Kessel: “I’m a college professor, and that probably tells you everything you need to know…”

Kessel asks the panelists if they think it’s possible to write something that’s devoid of politics.

Morrow doesn’t think so. He thinks all fiction has a political dimension. Some less obvious than others (The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells vs. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison).

Bacigalupi thinks it is and gives an example of a story of domestic violence (man murders wife, they’ve had a troubled marriage, the murder is bad) that he thinks doesn’t make any larger statement. It’s a purely personal story. (Hm. Guess he doesn’t believe “the personal is political”.)

Fowler says it’s not possible to write a story that doesn’t express values, and values usually have a political element to them.

Kessel asks why the panelists wanted to be on this panel. Shepard says, “Did I want to talk about politics? Sure.” Kessel asks if writing fiction is a good way to put forth a political message. Shepard says yes, that it’s the only way he knows how besides direct activism. He talks a bit about Latin American history, and the insidious effect of the Dole Corporation.

Fowler says she’s been in a state of incoherent rage since Bush got into office, and she feels guilty that The Jane Austen Book Club was taken up as “comfort fiction” by people who were tired of thinking about politics in the years after 9/11.

Morrow asks if writing a novel about Austen isn’t inherently a political statement, and Fowler says, maybe, in another time and place, but against the twin evils of Cheney and Bush, it seems like an insufficient offering.

Fowler: It’s important these days for people to distinguish between propaganda and political passion.

Kessel asks, “How do we tell, Karen?”

She’s not sure. She says it’s about reading many different texts, comparing them, etc.

Bacigalupi says that he consciously writes propaganda, and doesn’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with it.

Kessel recounts a story of reading Starship Troopers when he was in 6th grade. He LOVED it, and if he had been older would have joined the Marines. He considers that book to be propaganda.

Edelman says that some people on the right are denouncing Sicko as propaganda. Is the label of propaganda applied completely based on where someone stands politically?

Kessel calls for examples of important political fictions. Morrow: 1984, Animal Farm, Catch-22, and to a lesser extent The Cider House Rules.

Someone mentions The Left Hand of Darkness.

Fowler: The Elemental Logic series by Laurie Marks.

Bacigalupi: The Dispossessed.

Re: The Dispossessed, Kessel loves it and has taught it many times, but he thinks it suffers from a too-committed political ideology.

He then asks, “What is your most political piece of fiction that you’ve written? And the least?”

Morrow: This Is the Way the World Ends (an angry critique of the arms race). He says it probably suffered as a work of fiction from the passion of his politics, but he doesn’t care.

Bacigalupi: “Small Offerings” is the most directly political of his stories, but they are ALL political.

Kessel says that when he writes political fiction, he tries to thoroughly ground it in the perspective of an individual. Fowler asks what HIS most political work is. He says “The Clean Escape” written during the 1984 election, his version of the anti-Reagan screed. (He despised Reagan.) It is currently being produced for television (ABC), and the scriptwriter updated it from 1984 and Reagan to 2007 and George Bush, and there wasn’t much change required at all!

Kathryn Cramer stands up in the audience and says something that I can’t hear.

Kessel says he recently read War with the Newts, which is often characterized as an “anti-Hitler book”, which he says flattens a work that is an analysis of the whole human race and is very funny. Gulliver’s Travels. Catch-22 again.

An audience member asks if a work can be incredibly politically charged and at the same time a thing of beauty?

Bacigalupi says it has to be or it will be a piece of junk. Shepard says his fiction focuses on emotion.

Kessel praises Shepard’s “R&R”. It is very passionate, and also beautiful.

In response to an audience question about writing politics indirectly, Kessel says that science fiction is well equipped to deal with politics because you can distance the subject, call it something else. (Edelman interjects, “It’s not about George W. Bush, it’s about George Q. Bush!”)

Fowler says that her novel The Sweetheart Season was very much about the Vietnam War without ever mentioning it. It is set in 1947, and deals with the aftermath of WW II, but if the reader engages with the book in the way she intended, they will see all the contrasts with Vietnam. (A good example of the “real year” theory!)

An audience member asks if this is a moment of ethical crisis for writers. Should they do what they can to change the political reality of now, or will they sit on the sidelines and do nothing like the Weimar Germans?

Fowler says that this is the kind of question she was hoping to talk about on this panel. She describes a story she read recently for Clarion that she thought was really great. It is about a guy who wakes up one day and starts seeing images of torture appearing on every available surface around him. After every image, the question, “Joe Schmoe, what are you going to do about this?” Various misfortunes ensue, and the story ends with the main character and some other similarly inflicted people feeling really sorry for themselves.

Kessel says he’s uncomfortable with an expectation that storytelling must have a political purpose or be considered cowardly. (paraphrase) Fowler interjects humorously: “Are you going save the world, or aren’t you!?

Fantasy as Inner Landscape

Panel description: It’s easy to criticize fantasy for its apparent acceptance of outmoded social structures, and in fact we’ve done so in past panels such as “Elfland Über Alles” and “The Return of the Prime Minister.” But are the social structures of fantasy actually a metaphor for inner experience? The king, the knights, the aristocracy, and the noble peasants who aspire to one or more of the above-do these appeal to writers and readers not because of any fondness for their reality, but because they provide a map of human experience and growth?

Participants: John Crowley, Greer Gilman, Kelly Link, Kathryn Morrow (L), Paul Park, Michael Swanwick

Swanwick has mixed feelings about the validity of the panel topic.

Gilman says that just about everything she’s written is her inner landscape turned inside out. “As poets know, the mind has mountains.”

Park says that in both his sf and fantasy, he has an alarming tendency to include characters with aristocratic titles. He’s kind of sick of it and wants to know why he’s been doing it all this time.

Link thinks the theory in the panel topic might be useful in a limited sense, for certain works.

Crowley says that like Park he used to write a lot of fiction with counts in it. He says that maybe authors let out “their most regressive political fantasies” in the genre because they wouldn’t want to do it in a realistic novel. “Paul claims to be disgusted by aristocratic hierarchies, but… we’ll see.” He describes “psychomachia”, i.e. struggles in the soul. Fictions about battles between gods that didn’t describe the gods, instead, they described psychological realities.

Swanwick talks about the fantasy cliché of the exiled, unknowing king who finds his identity and assumes the throne. Park exclaims sarcastically, “That’s great! Do you have notes? Are there troubles along the way?” Swanwick says that type of story was groundbreaking once, but eventually became so commonplace it’s like mass-produced sausage.

Gilman: “The young hero as sausage.”

Swanwick then goes on to say that of course, that’s why his next novel is going to be about this very thing. He sent off to John Clute and asked, “What does fantasy do right? Give me your theory of fantasy structure.” Clute complied, and Swanwick said to himself, “OK, how many of these can I subvert?” For starters, instead of the king being triumphantly crowned, he’ll be pushed out a window.

Park talks about how story traditions can sweep people up so that they completely internalize things that could be very problematic to them otherwise. He cites the example of Naomi Novik, whose books he’s been reading lately. She seems to completely believe in the ideal of the gentleman who takes care of people less fortunate than himself. “What does she get out of this?”

Link talks about how characters who have special powers or are really kings are used because writers want to give their creations agency, something that they themselves often lack. She finds this problematic, because it’s not limited to written fiction, it’s also common in videogames and television, in fact in all the stories we ingest constantly while we don’t actually DO anything.

Crowley: “The difference between an inner landscape and an external landscape is that the former is full of meanings, not things that can’t be controlled.”

Some discussion of yearly rituals.

Gilman: “Since humans have been on the earth, we’ve been terraforming it, putting our stone circles on it, carving things in the dirt.”

Swanwick talks about his novel that’s set in the tower of Babel which is also meticulously mapped to New York City (subways, the Battery, Central Park – Gilman interrupts and asks, “Is Central Park the female principle?” And Morrow says, “It is now!”) “You need something that fights back, otherwise it’s Play-Doh.”

Arguments for realism and world constraints in fantasy. Otherwise, “it’s a big lie” (Swanwick).

Link: The story as a metaphor for writing the story.

Crowley says he gets some thrills out of this idea personally. Reading an initially absurd story premise and wondering, “is the writer going to make it to the end?! Or is this thing going to crash and burn?” He gives the example of Link writing about a person deciding whether or not to go to a party with some zombies or run away.

An audience member asks for examples of stories that depict odd inner landscapes as well as traditional ones that are done well.

Link praises <…> and Elizabeth Knox (Dreamhunter and Dreamquake) as well as Paul Park’s novels, which give readers an entry point into something a lot more complex than the usual fantasy fare. Crowley says that it’s still possible that there will be a democratic revolution in Park’s series, and Park says he has been wrestling with that very question.

The Fiction of Karen Joy Fowler

Participants: John Kessel, Amelia Beamer, Ken Houghton (M), Victoria McManus, Maureen McHugh

Kessel: After telling an anecdote about how he completely misread a story she gave him. “Karen can make you feel like a dunce, and that’s a valuable experience.”

He says that the first person who recommended that he read Fowler was Orson Scott Card. “I honor Mr. Card for that, if nothing else.”

McHugh: “She both subverts and confirms the reader’s expectations in ways I find tricky and pleasurable.” She is not showy, you don’t get a sense of display. Contrasted to someone like John Barth.

Kessel: Fowler may be a naturally slipstream author. “There’s the ostensible genre of the story, and the story.”

Kessel: In the ’80s, there was the cyberpunk thing. Sterling could dismiss Connie Willis, Kessel himself, etc, but he couldn’t dismiss Fowler. He characterized her as “the secret weapon of humanist science fiction” that could subvert all the work the cyberpunks were doing to fix the genre.

Sterling held that humanist sf was “soft in the center”, and Kessel replied, “Karen Fowler’s fiction isn’t soft at the center.” McManus: “It’s erect!” Kessel: “It’s erect, it’s penetrating, it’s seminal!”

Houghton asks if there are any characters in Fowler’s fiction who are heroic and uncomplicated by foibles? There is some murmuring about Sarah Canary, but she is mostly a cipher, a hole in the narrative. Kessel says that her characters are often heroic, but he loves that they are often outsiders, that they are limited.

Fowler is in the audience, and she says it’s enormously gratifying to hear all this praise of her work, but she has a question: she does a lot of workshops with John and Maureen, and she often has to talk them into liking her fiction. Why is that?

McHugh: “Because we’re not very smart?” Kessel says he thinks that’s an artifact of the workshop atmosphere, but it is also because of the nature of her work. It takes some time to get what she’s trying to do. Like Kelly Link, like Carol Emshwiller.

Kessel: “It’s almost a characteristic of a slipstream writer, to get bad advice in workshops.”

Kessel brings up the question of whether or not Fowler is a science fiction writer. She’s not, if you ask Dave Truesdale. (McHugh: “Let’s not.”) But even if she’s not a science fiction writer, she thinks like one: there is an analytical quality to her work. She’s anatomizing whatever situation is presented in the story.

Houghton asks: Who are the successors to Fowler? Who has learned from her?

Everyone agrees that the obvious answer is Kelly Link. Beaman proposes Theodora Goss & Interfictions people and Mary Rickert? (no one knows if Rickert has read Fowler).

Karen Joy Fowler Interview

Interviewer: F. Brett Cox.

Cox asks for some basic biographical information. Fowler says she lived in Bloomington, IN until age 11, when her family moved to Palo Alto, CA.

She had an enormous sense of dislocation when she moved to California, partly because she was 11, and that’s the year when everything goes wrong for everyone. In Indiana, she had been a little queen of the playground, but it wasn’t like that in California, where she was seen as “unsophisticated, and odd, and immature”. She had to pretend knowledge of and interest in things that were foreign to her, and feel the constant fear of being unmasked. She thinks that was the genesis of her writing, that experience of observing things from the outside.

However, she put away the idea of writing from the ages of 5 to 30. Instead she focused on dog breeding and the search for the perfect breed. Having two kids and turning 30 were what inspired her to write.

Her entire family loved to read. Half Magic by Edward Eager was one of her very favorite books when she was young. Also The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear.

“Both of my parents were native Californians, so the eleven years that we had spent in Indiana – the happiest years of my life! – were miserable exile for them.”

Her father “taught something so obscure that he never had more than 3 students at a time.” (He was a psychologist.) “He ran rats through mazes and tried to design mathematical models of mental processes.” She believes that his entire field has since been thoroughly discredited, but he was very happy doing it.

She visited him a lot in the rat lab, and she was allowed to play with the rats, but not the monkeys. “Horrible things were being done to monkeys.”

“The hell hole of Palo Alto.”

“I married well, because my husband has an enormous martyr complex, and I do not. So his sacrificing himself for me really works pretty well for both of us.”

She talks very eloquently about making the “astonishingly careful decision” to become a writer and daring to fail for the first time in her life.

Like Maureen McHugh, Fowler says reading and critiquing OTHER people’s work is the most helpful part of her writing workshops.

She originally promised her husband that if she hadn’t made something of her writing career (money-wise) within a year she would get a job. But that first year just taught her that there was no way that was enough time. She didn’t actually publish something for 5 years, and amassed a huge number of rejections. (They make a very satisfying thump when she drops them from a height onto a table.)

She has many vivid memories of her first convention in Sacramento, because much of it was quite shocking to her.

Sarah Canary was rejected 26 times before it was bought. She tried to start a novel quite a few times and discovered by the time she had written 14 pages that she had nothing more to say on the subject. (These became short stories.) She eventually decided to draw on her graduate research on the Chinese diaspora. The character of Sarah Canary was a device to patch together what was essentially a series of short stories.

Her inspiration for The Jane Austen Book Club was seeing a sign in a bookstore that said, “The Jane Austen Book Club” and thinking it was already a book. She realized a short time later that she was wrong, that no one had written it yet! She hurried to do it herself.

She says that she was reading a lot of women writers in the ’70s, and had an impression that the field was full of these women, writing feminist stories. Something that sadly didn’t turn out to be the case. But she thinks her love for science fiction is largely due to those works (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Female Man, etc.).

“The question of the perfect dog breed is still unsettled in my mind, and I am still thinking about it.”

She submitted the final version of her latest novel a week ago Friday and has been checking her email every 40 minutes to see if her editor has gotten it. She says she has armored herself against rejection, but a side effect is that she is also armored against praise. So when she got an extremely enthusiastic email from her editor about the first 300 pages of her book, she thought, “Boy, she really doesn’t want to take a chance that I won’t finish this novel!”

Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition

Contestants: Glenn Grant, Craig Shaw Gardner, Yves Meynard, Debra Doyle & James Macdonald (team), the Audience


An ever-largening disk that is alien, strange, frightening, etc. in a million slight permutations.

Option 1) “a gentle hiss, a louder hiss”. (McDonald/Doyle)
Option 2) a really loud sound, a voice, amplified: the voice of doom (Glenn Grant)
Option 3) a faint hum, gradually increased in volume, “halting neither at tone, nor semi tone, nor quarter tone” (Yves Meynard)
Option 4) metallic noises; “things were stirring within the disk ship” “Robots! Robots were marching!” (Fanthorpe – audience is in the lead!)
Option 5) a silver being that speaks perfect English, “even though its mouth held far too many teeth” “Alien crunchies can’t be beat” (Gardner – I knew it)
Option 6) “…light that had mildew on it. It was obscure, as though the wick of the cosmic torch had been turned down, but nevertheless it was light.”


“Space is deep; man is small. And time is his relentless enemy. […] As mass approaches infinity, TIME APPROACHES ZERO.” “Knowing well their waiting fate, who would volunteer to become part of —

Option 1) “On Earth, on Mars, on Zoltiman…” (Meynard)
Option 2) “The Dilationeers” Robert Exley, space mechanition, apprentice-grade (Grant)
Option 3) Billy Bunting, boy genius, and his dog Fred. E=MCFred! (Gardner)
Option 4) The long passage. (the real ending of the passage from To the Stars, by L. Ron Hubbard – audience guessed right again! – in the lead by 185 points)
Option 5) that cursed brotherhood? Professor Wolf Armstat. “I fear that my mass is approaching infinity” “Einstein knew from blintzes!” (Debra/Jim)
Option 6) …light that had mildew on it? Etc.


“It gave no warning and made no sound…” “and the spectators, one and all averred that at first they took it for – ”

Option 1) “the strangest hole that man ever looked into” (the real end of the passage by Austin Hall from “The Man Who Saved the Earth”)
Option 2) “the Navel of the World” tourist attraction (Doyle/Macdonald)
Option 3) technicolor illusion (Meynard)
Option 4) “an illusion, a trick of shadows” “the vast hole refused to negate” “the incredulity grew, modified by the exponent of terror” “where Pandemonium had been lacking, the public supplied it” (Grant wins this round, but the audience is still in the lead!)
Option 5) “nothing more than a really big hole” but then, deep in the darkness, the “movement full of horns and claws and eyes.” “The Silent Space Weevils.” (Gardner)
Option 6) …light that had mildew on it. Etc.


A truncated entry from a glossary. The panelists went overboard – there are more than 5 entries.

“Con/Conned (nautical) the station or post of the person who steers the vessel or –“

Option 1) coriolus force; cumin (Meynard)
Option 2) “consanguinity – incest determiner” “concupiscence” “crazy”
Option 3) “control board” “control personnel” “control station” (Gardner)
Option 4) “a criminal who deceives others by false pretenses. For example, a Republican president.” C-pope, a redundant pope, to be used when the primary pope, and the B-pope, have crashed” ?, a word worth 39 points; crawlies, the: the feeling you get when watching Schindler’s list remade as a musical. “chubbard, the sound a scientologist makes when sucked out through a hull breach. “ch-wawk: the call of an undead chicken” (Meynard)
Option 5) constant, or c, referring to the speed of light; cud, curved space computation (The Glossary to the Stars, by L. Ron Hubbard)
Option 6) corming, an impervious sealant; cove, a fellow or chap; CY, corporate year; (Grant wins again! he’s now only 7 points behind the audience)
Option 7) conned, canned, kenned. obvious jokes
Option 8) …light that had mildew on it. Etc.


Multiple beginnings for a common ending (the “…light that had mildew on it” quote).

Option 1) “Stop! What are you doing? You’re draining the collectivators!” our gaseous enemies. “a jigsaw puzzle piece dropped into place like hedgehogs into holes. “you mean to create a diffusion circuit! (Grant)
Option 2) “I must find out! was the cry of my mind.” “Three steps into the cave and a stygian gloom filled the air.” Wow, if this isn’t the real one, it’s REALLY good. (Meynard)
Option 3) “I don’t hear them hammering at the shutters anymore. Maybe they’re gone?” the dirt road to Plantersville. (Doyle/Mcdonald)
Option 4) the darkness seemed palpable, giant fuzzy blotches, rampaging spores (Gardner)
Option 5) it’s black as night, whispered the Labor Leader, black as pitch, said the Premier. Noctivigation. Darker than a cavern, darker than a mine, darker than a dungeon. Completely Tartarian! (the real passage from Fanthorpe. Sometimes he made fun of himself!)

There are chants of “YVES! YVES! YVES!” when he is announced the winner.


Horror and Social Observation

Panel description: It’s easy to think of our two GOHs as being quite different—a writer of dark fantasy and horror, and one of fine observation of individual and social consciousness. But we’ve noticed that these seemingly disparate approaches to literature have a surprising common ground. In the novel of social observation, the protagonist often begins with an incorrect model or set of assumptions about the way the world works, and discovers through a series of revelations, some slowly accumulating and some shattering, that the world is in fact more complex and difficult to navigate. That sounds a lot like horror to us—and, in fact, it’s precisely John Clute’s proposed archetypal horror novel structure (see the blurb for “Awe, Horror!”). What would Jane Austen and H.P. Lovecraft agree about? And where would they part ways?

Participants: Michael Cisco, Karen Joy Fowler, Laura Anne Gilman, Adam Golaski (M), John Langan

Some discussion of how the panel topic might not make sense.

Golaski: Is Lovecraft a writer of social observation at all?

Cisco says Lovecraft commented on society extensively, but in terms of actual close observation, not so much. He’s more of an abstract theorist.

Gilman: she thinks Lovecraft observed the layers of respectability versus the inner desires and impulses.

Golaski asks Fowler, as the resident Austen expert, if it is accurate that she wrote about social rules? She says she doesn’t necessarily think her novels were ALL about that, but she has no objection to the general thought. She has read the books of Austen over and over since age 14, but never read much biography before writing The Jane Austen Book Club. She has read a fair bit since, though. Austen’s letters were very cutting; Fowler says she comes across as less likable than in her books, and in fact most of her letters were burned by her sister after her death because she thought they wouldn’t reflect well on the author.

Langan says both Lovecraft and Austen were fascinated with manners. Older men and younger men; uncle to nephew. In a lot of his stories, the nephew is taken over by something evil, is hollowed out, and the uncle has the duty of killing the body. This says something about his position in the writing world: an old man in the midst of up-and-comers. (He had a voluminous correspondence with other writers.) “Death might be the gift you have to give.”

Golaski: the way you tell if someone has been taken over by evil is to observe the way they walk, talk, all the little cues that are present or lacking. “In horror, when those rules are broken, it can lead to something awesome, but often also awful and terrifying.”

Cisco: The history of the novel. Early moral instruction for women, how you negotiate society and particularly, how you make a good marriage. “Bourgeois society isn’t run by morals, it’s run by rules.” American fiction tended to end ambiguously, whereas European fiction resolved somehow (even if it was with the death of the main character). Cisco says Lovecraft was nostalgic for a European model of fiction, for aristocracy, for resolution.

Gilman: Two models of social fiction: breaking rules = failure or breaking rules = achievement. Sometimes there are combinations of the two, but most fictions fall into one camp or the other.

An audience member wants Fowler to comment on the one book that both Austen and Lovecraft would have in common: Northanger Abbey. “She saw through the gothic.”

Fowler: She doesn’t think we can read Austen’s works as cautionary tales, because the author wasn’t sure what she thought about how things turned out at the end. “Mostly what she’s good at is making the rules look ridiculous, and at making the people who follow the rules — and don’t follow the rules — look ridiculous.”

Langan: characters who are “ruled by desire”. Fowler points out that in Austen, some of these end up paying the price for the rest of their lives, but for others things turn out very well.

An audience member asks if Lovecraft and Austen’s small social worlds bring a commonality to their fiction. Golaski and Fowler say that this has been exaggerated in both cases.

At the 5-minute warning, Fowler recommends a forthcoming story by John Kessel (title?), “an unholy melding of Austen and Mary Shelley”.

Rosemary Kirstein Reading

She reads from the book she’s currently working on. It will be the next volume in the Steerswoman series, but will NOT be called “The City in the Crags”. That book still exists, but has been bumped back one volume because she realized she needed some more development of other story elements before the events of that book.

Both passages are about a stranger to Wulfshaven, a young woman named Opal who doesn’t speak the language well and is trying to avoid notice for unexplained reasons. She finds work in the stables of Artos (not identified by name in the reading, but revealed to us by Kirstein), and has never seen non-human animals before. Intriguing. The passages are written in the first person in short, clear sentences. Kirstein says she may switch to third person in revisions.

Personal Archetypes

Panel description: The Jungian notion of archetype is a useful tool for explaining why certain fantasy tropes speak powerfully to us. But clearly, not everyone responds to every archetype to the same degree, and this may well be one of the reasons why different people respond differently to different books. (One of us, e.g., is moved nearly to tears by any well-done scene of communication with animals, and suspects that not everyone else is.) As readers, where do our personal archetypes come from? Early life experience, or our first favorite books? (Or is the latter hypothesis begging the question?)

Participants: Debra Doyle, Greer Gilman, Karen Joy Fowler, James Alan Gardner, Barry Longyear, Paul Park (M)

Gilman: “A personal archetype is something that gets you at word one.”

Doyle: “Bulletproof kinks.” (She herself loves scholars, particularly if they have knives in their boots. And Odin’s raven.)

Fowler consciously works with some archetypes when she writes, but she hasn’t paid close attention to the archetypes she responds to in what she reads.

Longyear objects to the “modular” approach to literature; he doesn’t think of books as collections of images, themes or archetypes, at least while writing. He thinks they can sometimes be identified afterward, “ringing like chimes.” He cites Mommie Dearest as an example.

Longyear says it always gets him when he sees an adult doing something really nice for a child.

Fowler says she is drawn to underwater landscapes, particularly in the ocean. She grew up in Indiana, so she doesn’t know where it comes from. “A mysterious invisible world around us. […] There’s something very exciting to me in thinking about that world.”

Gilman tells a story about her mother reading one of her stories that features an evil underground goddess/mother. Afterward, she asked, “Couldn’t she be an aunt?” Gilman doesn’t think so.

Gardner says an author needs to be careful to balance archetypes with particularity. You don’t want to recite clichés, but you also want there to be some emotional resonance to the creation.

Longyear tells an anecdote about a draft story he read (for a writing group? workshop? class?) in which the writer dumped all her rage and fear about dying into a piece that he thought was brilliant. He “twisted her arm” to read it in front of the group, and they all loved it. Longyear said, “You have to get this published!” and she said she had to “polish” it. Two weeks later, the revised version read like “a slab of pine” – she had removed all the honest emotion from it because she considered it too personal, and it broke his heart.

Fowler on images: the description of the stone kings in Tolkien is very powerful to her. So is the drowned train at the beginning of Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping. She says that in her own story , whatever goes on in the drowned city is the same as what happens in the drowned train. The image functions as an inchoate statement of what you can’t say or don’t know how to say in any other way.

Longyear says something he responds strongly to is the theme of being stranded, alone in desperate circumstances.

He loves The Count of Monte Cristo, and says there was a time when his most treasured fantasy was to be locked up for 12 years with a scholar. “My ambition as a kid was to do hard time.”

He describes his experience at 3 ½ years old, being told that his mother was dead and his father didn’t want him. For a long time, he never thought why the theme of being stranded, along in desperate circumstances, appealed to him so much, but… he eventually realized this personal experience might have something to do with it. (rueful laughter from audience)

Some discussions of how much a personal archetype has to be explained or altered to make sense to a reader. Longyear says that he is wary of trying to ensure that the reader has an exact emotional reaction to his work. He’s had a lot of experiences of readers getting a lot MORE out of something than he thought he put into it.

Fowler: “It’s an enormous problem for writers to know whether they’re making something better or making it worse.” “We have a default value system that says the more you work on something, the better it ought to be.”

Longyear: “There are many types of bread you don’t want to knead too often.”

Gilman talks about Badger’s kitchen in The Wind in the Willows. Snug, and in-and-out. A crystallization of what the work is about.

The chicken-or-egg question. Gilman loves scarecrows and witches, and she wonders if that’s because she absorbed so much Oz in her youth, or… if she had receptors in her brain that made those elements stick, as opposed to… the Cowardly Lion, or other Oz stuff.

Fowler calls “The Cat in the Hat” “the bringer of chaos”. “I like Eeyore so much, I married Eeyore.”

About the author

Janice Dawley

Outdoorsy TV addict, artistic computer geek, loner who loves people.

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