Monday, February 20th, 2006
2:59 pm - Boskone 43  
So, Boskone. I came. I saw. It kicked my ass...

I took the commuter rail in from South Attleboro, the first time I've been on a non-subway type train in fifteen years. I like riding on trains. You get to see the back sides of things. I rode commuter rail to high school every day, on aging Erie Lackawanna electrics, and loved it. The trains were so old that the lavatories consisted of a toilet over a hole in the floor. Interesting to see the tracks whizzing by as you were, er, whizzing yourself. When I was in college (in the early seventies), the railroad finally put up signs asking that people refrain from using them except for extreme emergencies.

The MBTA is much more modern. The trains use diesels, which means they don't lurch when they start to move they way electrics do. Often, the only way that you notice you're moving is that the scenery has started to go by. There are different annoyances. The seats on the old EL cars were reversible, so everyone got to face forward, rather than the current practice of having half the seats face forward, and the other half backwards. Also, the windows on the double-decker I rode inbound were absolutely filthy. Anyway, it was fast, cheap, and comfortable. They're supposed to extend commuter service down as far as Wickford, which would be great for me.

10:00, 11:00 a.m. - "How Much Science Should SF Contain?" b/w "Is Science Fiction Necessary?"

A twofer of panels based on unanswerable questions that instead provided answers to another question, i.e., "What are the potential problems of putting someone too old or too young on a panel?"

The first had some interesting stuff primarily because the unanswerable question got changed to something that could sort of be answered, i.e., "How Much Bad Science Can an SF Work Contain Before One Suffers a Fatal Eye Rolling Accident?" The answer to that, Chad Orzel pointed out, often depends upon how familiar one is with the science being abused. That's certainly true. Bad chemistry (the science, not the human interaction) often takes me right out of a story. Someone questioned why an editor would buy a story with bad science, and a panel member mentioned that most editors don't have backgrounds in science (and I would add, neither do a lot of readers), so it doesn't tweak their bad science antennae. Also, as George Scithers put it, their first priority is to publish good stories. If the science is good, all the better.

The problem with the panel was that Scithers is a man who has probably forgotten more Science Fiction than most of us will ever know, and it's starting to show. I was really looking forward to hearing what he had to say, because his was one of the few names amongst the collected panel members that I'd ever heard of outside of my two Boskone experiences. My lack of familiarity with a lot of these people has nothing to do with Boskone, but rather that I just haven't really kept up on the doings in the SF world since I was in grad school, a long time ago. Back then I subscribed to Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, which Scithers edited. Unfortunately, he kept striking off on odd tangents illustrated with hoary old anecdotes. The youngest writer he mentioned in any of them was Larry Niven. I admit that it had never occurred to me that the first novel to feature time travel was A Christmas Carol, but it wasn't really germane to the subject of the panel.

The second panel was meant to be a follow up to an earlier panel, "Is Fantasy Necessary?", possibly in the hopes that the two would combine for a massive flame war much constructive discussion. What actually happened was that most everyone agreed that SF is necessary, because even as some topics (such as space travel) become more mundane, there always seem to be new ideas to write stories about. Toby Buckell called SF the literature of early adopters, and I tend to agree with that. Karl Schroeder brought up Chip Delaney's assertion that while sentences in most literature are about the subject, in SF sentences can also be about the object. "The red sun rose," evokes a very different response than "The red sun rose as the blue sun set." The first is about the perception of the observer, while the second demonstrates that we're not in Kansas anymore.

Buckell is young, and he grew up outside of the States, so his exposure to SF history and lore seems a bit haphazard, something he was enthusiastically willing to demonstrate. Allen Steele had to rebut him a couple of times. Nobody bothered to correct him when he mentioned that A. E. van Vogt had written the Lensman series. Until now.

Interlude - Lunch

Boskone doesn't have a set lunch break, so one is forced to decide which hour of activities is worth blowing off. This turned out to be an easy choice for me. I sat down at noon for a panel entitled "The Singularity: Vernor's Turd?", and when my eyes glazed over while Charles Stross was still introducing himself, I knew it was time for a break.

I went to the Au Bon Pain in the mall, and immediately outed myself as an ABP newbie. They were advertising this oven baked steak and cheese sandwich that looked fantastic in the picture, so I strode up to the counter and ordered one, foolishly thinking that they would make it up fresh. Instead, the woman at the counter condescendingly pointed at the heated rack of pre-made sandwiches that I'd completely missed on my way through the queue. Sigh. I paid for my food, and had to go back through the line to get my sandwich. I also managed to pull the rack off its holder, dumping three more (fortunately well-wrapped) sandwiches onto the floor. I slunk out to the tables in the mall thinking that at least none of the people watching this display on newbieness will ever see me again.

The worst part of the whole experience? The sandwich sucked. It didn't look a thing like the advertising. It was like a frelling HotPocket. I also got a little serving of their “New!” macaroni and cheese, and that sucked, too. The pasta had dissolved so that it was like macaroni and cheese soup. How can you possibly fuck up mac and cheese?

1:00 p.m. - "Genius Loci: How Setting Influences and Structures the Story."

"One dead rat in the gutter is worth seventy-five street urchins." -- Elizabeth Bear

This was fun, although I wish they'd included at least one non-fantasy writer. The panel was enthusiastic about the question, there was plenty of good interplay among the panelists, and the questions from the audience were good. Moria was brought up as an example of a setting that is almost a character in its own right. Differing philosophies regarding maps were discussed without flames. Bear does highly detailed maps of her cities beforehand. Ellen Kushner lets her characters wander about, and eventually draws a diagram of where they've been.

There was a brief tangent when Bear mentioned that she's been following Henry David Thoreau's blog, and that Pepys' Diary is also blogged, and I had a brief image of a flame war erupting between the denizens of each. The internet is a great place.

2:00 p.m. - "Weber's Honorverse"

This was the one specific fandom thing I went to, and they never seem to end well. It was only a half-hour, and it was just Timothy Liebe moderating instead than a panel. There were two problems. First, being fannish, there were people across the entire spectrum of opinion about the verse, all of whom showed up thinking that everyone else in the room was in sync with them (including me, even though I really ought to know better). I was actually stunned to hear Honor Harrington described by one woman as a wonderfully real female character, possibly one of the best in science fiction, since most of the people I've seen discuss Harrington consider her to be the ultimate Mary Sue. Second, since the Honorverse is all about the military and politics, it was perhaps inevitable that the discussion would keep derailing in the direction of Iraq. When you only have a half-hour, tangents are particularly wasteful.

2:30 p.m. - "The Hard Edge of SF"

This one started at 2:00, so I snuck in once the Honorverse was done. There was some interesting stuff here, especially dealing with creating metaphors for things, how sometimes the universe is just too weird to come up with a good metaphor, and how one must be careful not to mistake the metaphor for actual content. There were some bad questions. One guy just didn't seem able to frame his question in a way that was comprehensible to anyone else. Another fellow shot himself in the foot by asking a question about a book written by a particular author, except that it turned out he had the wrong author. Or the wrong book. Puzzled looks all around. Anyway, there were some good recs.

After that, I tagged along after veejane, rilina, and yhlee as they explored the hucksters room. I scored a hardback copy of Barry Longyear's City of Baraboo, Greg Egan's Distress in paperback, and half a copy of The Golden Age of Comic Books 1937-1945 (Vee and I split the purchase) which will be cut up for the artwork it contains (lots of plates of covers from the '40's). I was tempted by an original edition of L. Ron Hubbard's Slaves of Sleep, both for the title and the wonderfully tacky cover art, but I manfully resisted. We purchased baked goods, and I got to explain the difference between a HoHo and a Swiss roll.

We hung out for awhile in the con suite with theodosia and some others, then Vee and I went to the a/v room and watched Kurasawa's The Hidden Fortress. I'd never seen any of Kurasawa's work before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are some plot holes you could drive a truck through (e.g., how did all that gold get into the firewood in the first place?), but they don't detract. I was not surprised to learn afterwards that George Lucas based C3PO and R2D2 on the two peasants, because there were a couple of times I was thinking to myself "these are not the firewood haulers you are looking for..." Great fun.

Afterwards, Vee headed home while I went looking for dinner (Mexican in the mall food court). I had time to kill before my train, so I took a quick walk through the con art exhibit, but saw nothing that sang to me. There sure were a lot of paintings of dragons...

One name that kept popping up in almost every panel I went to was Greg Egan, so I'd picked up a copy of Distress in the hucksters room. I started reading it on the train home, but was so thoroughly squicked by the first few pages that I had to stop. It snuck up on me, because I started out fascinated by the descriptions of what they were going to do, but then when the implications hit me, I suddenly had a total urge to toss the book as far away from me as possible. Totally visceral reaction. So I spent the rest of the ride home studying the con program, and listening to the woman next to me giggle while text messaging someone. From the descriptions I've seen of the novel, what happens in those first few pages doesn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the plot, so someday I may just try starting over from chapter two, but I suspect it'll be awhile.


I had an invite to a party in Somerville after the con, so I drove up, parked the car at Davis, and took the T in. I made it in early, then discovered there really wasn't anything at 10 that I was interested in going to. Bother.

10:00 a.m. - "Why So Many Hurricanes?"

No one knows for sure, which I already knew. This was a half-hour onesie moderated by Jeff Hecht, who did a good job of going over the data of the recent surge. One thing that is disturbing is that hurricanes are starting to hit places that don't usually get them, like the South Atlantic and Portugal. One very good question that was posed by the audience was whether the number and intensity of nor'easters has also increased. Unfortunately Hecht didn't have any info on that.

10:30 a.m. - "Researching the Ancient Past for SF"

I stayed in the same room for the next talk, another onesie, this time with Paul Levinson. I remember thinking last year that Levinson is awfully full of himself, and he did nothing to dispel that notion. I had nothing better to do, so I stayed. He made some good points about the need for using critical thinking skills when doing research using the web, since there is so much incorrect information that gets repeated as truth. If you're researching olden days, olden encyclopedias tend to be better sources than modern encyclopedias. Yawn.

11:00 a.m. - "Homage... or, Stealing(?) from the Classics"

The panel started off with quite a bit of discussion about Starship Troopers, since almost every military science fiction writer has done a homage of it. John Scalzi copped to doing it in one of his novels. Three types of homages/steals were mentioned. There's the homage that celebrates an idea, one that rescues an idea (this is where the stealing comes in), and the homage that answers an idea, such as The Forever War as the answer to StarshipTroopers.

Scalzi mentioned that there seemed to be a lack of modern gateway SF, i.e., most of the books that one recommends to potential new readers of SF tend to be classics, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, all stuff written fifty or sixty years ago. I thought this was pretty funny since John M. Ford, who has written a bunch of Star Trek novels, was sitting up there on the very same panel. And indeed, that was the rebuttal, that most people today get involved with SF by way of TV, films, video games, and their tie-ins.

There was discussion of homages of mainstream literature. Philip Jose Farmer was mentioned as doing quite a bit of this. Ken MacLeod mentioned that a lot of his early work was a stylistic homage (often unintentionally) to one of his favorite writers. He also mentioned pitting homages against each other in the same work, such as starting out a story in the style of a "cozy catastrophe" story (e.g., The Day of the Triffids"), and moving it in the direction of, say, J.G. Ballard's stuff. Ford then announced that he had the overwhelming urge to write a story entitled "Darkness at Noon, Film at Eleven."

12:00 a.m. - "Intellectual Property: Public Domain Issues"

Cory Doctorow talks very fast. This was a good panel on the implications of unbridled copyright protection, and why having works in the public domain is good for society at large. One problem with extending copyrights beyond the creator's death is that it allows his heirs to stifle the works. Examples are the heirs of James Joyce, who refuse to allow the use of his works in critical examinations. Another is that of Henry Kuttner. Kuttner was married to C.L. Moore, and when he died, all his rights accrued to her. When she remarried, her new husband wanted her to have nothing to do with that SF foolishness, so she stopped writing entirely. When she died, both her rights and Kuttner's were then inherited by a dick that thought SF was nothing but foolishness, and thus there are no new editions of the works of either.

Another problem is that prior to the US becoming a party to the Berne Convention, works produced in the US were not copyrighted unless they were registered. Now, all works are copyrighted regardless of registration, so that they cannot be published in any form without express permission from the creator. This means an enormous amount of material that once might have been in the public domain, now can't be used in any form without permission for seventy years after the creator's death. By that time most of it won't exist, and even if it did, how would you even be able to track down who has the rights?

1:00 p.m. - "Sense of Wonder: What Inspire(s)(d) It?"

The moderator (Fred Lerner) ran the panel by asking a series of questions of them, starting with the first book they'd ever read that evoked a sense of wonder in them. Bradbury was mentioned by Allen Steele and Mike Resnick, while Kathryn Cramer mentioned an old, later discovered to be awful, Bram Stoker, and Karl Schroeder mentioning a juvenile called Stranger from the Depths. My own answer would've been The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I wonder how many kids actually read the book any more? Schroeder also mentioned that he might be the only person at Boskone who has never read anything by Heinlein.

Some massive thread drift followed this, but then Lerner asked what recent works inspired the same sense of wonder. Schroeder mentioned Greg Egan. (He managed to pimp Egan in every panel I saw him in.) Cramer mentioned Alistair Reynolds. Steele mentioned both Stross's Singularity Sky and David McCulloch's 1776, of all things, and went on a long tangent about the problems faced by the Continental Army prior to the battle of Trenton. From there the rest of the conversation went galumphing off about how non-fiction can also evoke a sense of wonder, perhaps even moreso than fiction, which I'm not quite sure was the point of the whole exercise.

2:00 p.m. - "Weird Quantum Phenomena"

This was a brief introduction to quantum mechanics and the weirdness that lies therein given by Chad Orzel. Most of the talk discussed variations of the "two slit" experiment, and how the results differ if one uses classical particles,

(paraphrased) Imagine this is Dick Cheney holding a shotgun. He fires at a fence with two openings. Now imagine that there is a millionaire lawyer behind the fence that we can use as a detector.

versus if one does the experiment with quantum particles. (Sadly, he resisted the temptation to go with "Now imagine Dick Cheney holding a particle accelerator.")

It was a good talk. Chad's a good teacher, and made it quite understandable. He talked briefly about the various ways in which folks have tried to (not very satisfactorily) reconcile quantum weirdness, so much of which seems to fly in the face of common sense, to the classical world, including "decoherence", "Copenhagen" (Schrödinger's cat may live here), "many worlds" (each quantum measurement results in a pair of universes), and "shut up and calculate." Being a physicist, he neglected the fifth option used by us organic chemists, "shut up and use the metaphor."

As you might guess from the above statement, I was never very good at the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Wave equations and I turned out to be unmixy things. I think there must be a moment of understanding that some people get, but it never happened for me. On the other hand, I was always great at manipulating the metaphor, because I never had a problem visualizing wave functions when plotted as orbitals in three dimensions. One thing about the talk that was interesting to me was to see the differences in the way quantum mechanics is taught to chemists versus the way it's taught to physicists. In chemistry, it's almost totally directed towards the quantum mechanical model of the atom, the orbitals, and the various energy states that the electrons may exist in within the confines of the atom. Not so much with the free particles and waves and slits and stuff. Neat stuff.

That was it for Boskone. By that time I had headache, so I decided to skip the party and head out. I stopped along the way for Popeye's, and then took a nap.

Odds and ends:

Recurring themes - Disparaging the "mundane SF" movement. Greg Egan was recommended in almost every panel I went to, even those that Karl Schroeder wasn't on. Schroeder was also telling anyone that would listen that a lot of future SF will be coming out of games.

Odd useless information gathered - I found out in the Sense of Wonder panel that panelist Kathryn Cramer is the daughter of well known (to everybody but me) physicist and SF writer John Cramer. I had no sooner found this out, when in the very next panel, the one on quantum mechanics, did John Cramer's name come up again, because he works in the field. Some might take that as a sign that I should read one of his books.

Fashion statements - Not all that many. One guy in a pink cape, who probably realized that he looked silly, but didn't care. A few guys with no social skills and the clothing to match, who probably didn't realize how bad they looked, not that they would care if they did.

I had a good time, and yet I'm beginning to wonder how useful cons are to me. I'm too much of an introvert for the social aspect to be much of a draw. The acquaintances I do have tend to be looking for very different things in SF books than I am, so I just sort of shut up and listen (by which I mean I have nothing to add to the conversation other than occasional trivia). Panels are so hit or miss, and are too easily derailed. Of course, the fact that my headache is still with me may be coloring my perceptions just now. I know that for the most part, I enjoyed last year more. There were more panels that interested me. This time, there were a couple of times when I couldn't find anything I really wanted to sit in on.
Current Mood: cranky
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David J. Schwartzsnurri on February 20th, 2006 - 08:11 pm
I'm finding that as time passes I go to fewer and fewer panels and spend more of my time going to readings or socializing. Panels are so very hit-or-miss; a factor of the topic, the participants, the crowd and half a dozen other things. And they too often revisit topics that have been covered to death.
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DXMachinadxmachina on February 21st, 2006 - 03:15 am
See, I completely overlook the readings. I'm now regretting not going to Scalzi's or Ford's. Of course the good thing about readings is that I can always just buy the book, and then I don't have to sit in a tiny little room with a bunch of strangers. (I'm really bad at socializing with folks I don't know, and not much better with folks I do.)
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