Wednesday, February 18th, 2009
4:33 pm - Boskone 46  
I often complain about not being able to find enough decent panels to attend, or that there are too many scheduled concurrently when I'm at a con, but this year's Boskone was just right. There was something to pique my interest pretty much every session, and I rarely had to choose between two equally appealing panels. The con was held in a different section of the hotel this year, and it seemed a much better arrangement. All the panel sessions were on the same floor, and while the con suite area was downstairs, it was huge.

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Saturday

10:00: "Men Writing Women"

I think this one would've been better if there had been more than one woman on the panel. The first line in the description was "What is it about "strong female protagonists" that appeals to so many male authors?", and someone asked if anyone actually set out to write weak protagonists of any gender. Someone mentioned that passive protagonists do exist, e.g., Dr. Watson; they often act as foils. Alisa Kwitney, the lone female on the panel, had the most to contribute. One problem she noted was that many men write woman as strong all the time, rather than having them react differently in different contexts.

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11:00: "Quantum Physics: Many Worlds?"

Chad Orzel did his usual terrific job of using a conversation with his dog to explain an aspect of of quantum mechanics, in this case the Many Worlds hypothesis. One of the problems with quantum phenomena is measurement. In quantum theory, every object has a wave function associated with it which gives the probability that the object will be found in a given state. The thing is, once you perform a measurement on the object, it becomes fixed in the state that's observed. Many Worlds theorizes that a measurement produces all the potential observable states occur, each in its own branch of the ongoing function. The key thing here is that despite what some SF writers have written based on the theory, no parallel universes are actually created. Measurement does not create mass.

It was all very entertaining, and my poor organic chemist's brain feels like it finally has a handle on the concept of decoherence, something I've been trying to figure out for a few Boskone's now. It's sort of like entropy for wave functions. Chad's blog entry about the talk is here.

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12:00: "Extra-solar Planets"

Maybe it's me, but it's one thing to have scientific information presented in an entertaining, even humorous fashion, as Chad Orzel does. It's quite another when a panel member whips out a guitar and expect the audience to sing along with a filk about extra-solar planets. I mean, I write filks, and I even ran the Buffistas filk archive for a few years, but this just wasn't my cup of tea at all. I left after the fourth or fifth verse. It turns out the panelist was also the con's featured filker, Dr. SETI, so there's that, and the filk was good. I just wasn't expecting it. The other two panelists were Jordin Kare, whose talks I've always enjoyed, and Geoff Landis, the con's featured scientist. I would have liked to have heard what they had to say, but not, alas, as part of a musical.

So instead, I tried to attend a Charlie Stross reading scheduled across the hall at the same time, but another author turned up in the room and said the schedule was wrong. Oh, well, time for lunch.

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As I mentioned above, the con suite area was huge, and included the hucksters area, the art exhibit, and even the Higgins Armory demonstrations. I bought a couple of books, one a volume of science columns by L. Sprague DeCamp, and the other a collection of short stories by Robert Charles Wilson, one of which, "Divided by Infinity" was mentioned as a good depiction of Many Worlds. Then I had some bread for lunch. They had a lot of bread there.

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1:00: "The Fragmented Genre"

When I looked over the schedule, this looked like the weakest session of the day, so I figured I'd use it for lunch. But since I'd already had lunch, I needed something to do. This was a discussion about the ever more numerous pigeonholes that publishers and booksellers try to squeeze books into. Nothing especially thrilling, but it wasn't boring, and it passed the time.

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2:00: "AIs and Angels"

This was fun. The topic came from the idea of angels as servants who might turn on their creator. Some of the things discussed were what sentience is (the ability to have desires? is cognition even necessary?), whether intelligence has an upper limit, what would an intelligence developed without millions of years of evolutionary development be like, and would it differentiate in anticipating the wants of you versus those of your cat. The panel (Jeffrey Carver, Walter Hunt, Karl Schroeder, Charlie Stross, and Shane Tourtellotte) was terrific, and all participated about equally. The capper of the discussion for me was Stross suggesting the possibility of spambots developing into AIs.

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3:00: "Game On!"

Discussion of gaming that had the best quote of the con - "Disbelief should be suspended, not lynched." Unfortunately, I missed the attribution. This was more of a nothing-better-to-go-to choice, but even though I don't do much actual RPGing, I like the idea of it, as my huge collection of Traveller paraphernalia will attest. One funny bit was when two of the panelists had to explain to the other two what a Mary Sue was. Again, nothing exciting, but I still enjoyed myself.

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4:00: "Is Setting in SF Limited?"

This was a discussion mostly about near future, solar system centric fiction, or lack thereof. There were plenty of potential story ideas discussed, but one panelist sort of dominated the discussion, which was unfortunate. Worse, towards the end the audience discussion turned into a bit of a rant on how the government interference has ruined space for everyone. I headed out for the T station.

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Sunday

10:00: "How Not to Edit Yourself"

I was interested in this one because I have trouble writing a paragraph without rewriting it again and again until it is just perfect, and it slows down my progress to a crawl. Several techniques for quieting one's inner editor were suggested, some useful (setting deadlines), some less so (alcoholism, heh). The panel also mentioned techniques for proofreading. Lots of useful stuff.

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11:00: "Writing the First-Person Point of View"

There was some interesting stuff here, the key point being that the narrator is a character, one that is often unreliable. Information going to the reader is skewed by the character's viewpoint, and it can be a challenge to build the secondary characters through the eyes of the narrator. Another challenge is not letting the author's knowledge and personality replace that of the the narrator. One possible way around this is to mix first and third person in the same piece.

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12:00: "10 Over-rated SF/F Books"

Book bashing fun! One of the problems from the outset was to define what was meant by overrated. There are many books that have historical significance that don't stand up to current standards, such as the Foundation Trilogy. (Side note - I recently had a conversation with a coworker who was telling me how wonderful E.E. Smith's series are, books that most already considered quaint when I started reading SF forty years ago. Different strokes, I suppose. Smith was mentioned by the panel, too.) Many of the books mentioned fall into the category of being of a particular time - Dune, The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness. Others were co-opted as cult favorites, like LotR and Stranger in a Strange Land, which drove up the fanaticism level beyond the actual merits of the books. Similarly, Neuromancer started a subgenre, and thus is overpraised.

The was quite a bit of discussion of Dahlgren, mostly wondering if a book can be overrated if nobody finishes it. Actually, Glenn Grant had one of the better explanations I've heard for reading it, but I'm still not gonna do it.

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So that was it. I took a last walk through the hucksters area, then headed for home. Learned some science stuff and some writing stuff, and enjoyed myself quite a bit this year.