Monday, July 12th, 2010
11:51 am - Readercon 21  
Spent a long weekend in Burlington, MA, riding my bike, eating terrific barbeque, and attending Readercon 21. The weather was really muggy, but otherwise I had a pretty good time. I drove up Friday morning, so I missed Thursday night's session, which looked like it had some interesting stuff. Anyway....

Friday – 7/9

11:00 — I Weaving You My Story, Oui? Writing Realistic Speech.

At first glance I thought the panel was about writing realistic dialogue, but if I'd bothered to read the full description before walking in I'd have realized that it actually referred to writing realistic dialect and/or accents, up to and including those of aliens. Thus it wound up being far more interesting to me than I'd initially expected. I've always had trouble with this, especially in trying to figure out how much is too much. Greer Gilman's answer is to go for what she called the music of the speech pattern rather than trying to write it down verbatim, that the cadences of the pattern can be more descriptive than changing the spelling of the words, although occasional specific words can be used as markers. A couple of panelists threw some cautions into the discussion—Nalo Hopkinson mentioning that using dialect, especially if for only one character, runs the risk of making that character seem quaint, while Yves Menard brought up the point that one doesn't want the character to become a caricature.

12:00 — The Scientific Mystery Story.

A.K.A., Puzzle stories, which was the consensus after a bit of definition wrangling by the panel. These are stories which have mysteries at their core, but not criminal mysteries. Instead of whodunnits, they may be howdunnits, or as one panelist mentioned, "What in hell happened here?" stories. Allen Steele came up with a list of several categories, most of which I, alas, forgot to write down. There was some disagreement about which stories various panel members thought qualified as mysteries. Steele and Walter Hunt went back and forth as to whether (Steele) or not (Hunt) Niven and Pournelle's
The Mote in God's Eye
qualify as having mysteries at their centers. However, all seemed to be in agreement that the location of the Second Foundation was probably the lamest mystery ever.

1:00 — Orders—and Chapters—of Magnitude.

Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men progresses through ever-greater scales of space, time, and human evolution, eventually spanning several planets, two billion years, and numerous human species. — from the panel description

I wish I'd read the full description of this before I left home for the con. I have a little flipbook called Powers of Ten that I might have brought to this talk had I known what it was to be about. It's a series of images that start at a scale of 10²³ and work their way down in scale by powers of ten until the scale is that of a single proton. It's pretty cool, and sort of related to this panel. However, I didn't bring it. Such is life. Instead I left early and went for lunch

2:00 — I Don’t Think We’ve Ever Been in Kansas: Non-Western Cultures in Fantasy.

A lot of the discussion here was about writing about a culture that is not your own. Nalo Hopkinson summed the problem up as how does one write in other cultures without getting someone mad at you? "You can't!"

4:00 — The Fiction of Charles Stross.

Started as a review, then morphed into a question and answer period with Stross, who is always entertaining.

5:00 — David Foster Wallace Wanted Us to Do This Panel: Authoritativeness in Fiction.

As lucidly demonstrated in Catherynne M. Valente’s recent article in the Imaginary Literature Journal, there is a well-established tradition of genre stories assuming the methods and jargon of literary criticism, reportage, scientific writing, historiography, and other epistolary devices (for example, the citation of nonexistent periodicals) in order to create a sense of authority, a technique which substantially predates its great champion Borges (who in fact denied his role as an innovator in the autobiographical essay “I Did Not Write This”). We’ll take a look at our favorite such stories, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. How do these techniques work on the reader’s brain? Are we wiser to them than the audience of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” or the listeners who tuned in halfway through the Mercury Theatre’s The War of the Worlds? Are there kinds of fictional authority that haven’t yet been fully exploited? And isn’t it the case, as argued by Veen in 1967, that all fiction subscribes to this illusion of authority to some degree or another? — the panel description

Valente was on the panel and noted that her referenced article is nonexistent, providing an example of fictional authoritativeness. Many examples of various ways in which such authority can be implied were presented. Sherlock Holmes discussing Watson's accounts of cases in the stories is one such. Diaries are another. (My own example of such a story is The Andromeda Strain.)

Saturday – 7/10

11:00 — Crypto-Aviation.

This was a talk by Elizabeth Hand on some of the wacky ideas put forward by various inventors for flying machines that she came across while working on an archival project at the National Air and Space Museum. Most of this folk aviation, such as the projects of the Sonora Aero Club predate the Wright brothers, but one, a propeller driven spaceship many times the size of Earth (with 350,000 ft long propellers) came as late as the 1940's. Some cool designs, even if incredibly unlikely. Very entertaining.

12:00 — Orphans of the Time Stream.

Discussion of time travel centered around the ideas in Stross's "Palimpsest". Lots of fun, especially John Cramer's mention of a theory he proposed for sending information back in time using quantum mechanical entanglement that some colleagues of his are attempting to test. He doesn't think the universe will allow it, but no one he's consulted about it has yet come up with a good reason why it won't work.

1:00 — Folklore and Its Discontents.

Wait. Whaddaya mean Paul Bunyan was created by a frelling ad agency?!? I loved the Paul Bunyan stories when I was a kid. Bozhe moi!

There was plenty of good stuff in the panel, but that's what I'll always remember about it—my innocence lost.

2:00 — Great War Geeks Unite.

This was actually a huge discussion group (eleven panelists) and it proved that 60 minutes is way too short a time to even scratch the surface of World War I. There was lots of interesting stuff discussed in that hour, though. And they never even mentioned the air war.

8:00 — Get Lamp: The Text Adventure Documentary.

This was a screening of an abridged version of a longer documentary on text adventure games called Get Lamp. There's some fascinating stuff in here. When I got my first Commodore 64 in 1984, the first piece of software I bought for it was Zork I (Flight Simulator 2 was the second), and I bought a lot more text adventures in the years that followed, including the granddaddy if them all, Adventure. (It turns out the cave in Adventure is actually based on a real cavern, although apparently there are fewer puzzles and no maze in the real cave.) It was text adventures that started the computer gaming industry in the early 80's, but by 1990 they were mostly a footnote commercially. Infocom only existed for ten years.

Fortunately, new games continue to be written, mostly as amateur efforts. I even played a few after Casual Gameplay ran a competition recently. (One of the winners, Andrew Plotkin, was both in the film and at the screening.)

Sunday – 7/11

10:00 — Surprised by Ploy.

A discussion about how best to use surprise in a story, and how to set a surprise up. (Elaine Isaak noted that if one writes a surprise at the end of the book, it's certainly alright to go back and add the necessary foreshadowing.) Many of the examples were from movies—
The Sixth Sense
(good) versus
The Village
(excellent). James McDonald gave his sure fire recipe for providing good surprise, but I missed most of it.

11:00 — Not Quite the Punctuation Panel.

This was fun, especially for those of us with affection for the serial comma. We have a strong ally in Chip Delaney, who noted that one usually learns punctuation by the end of second or third grade*, and we carry that with us for the rest of our lives such that any other way of punctuating just looks WRONG and illiterate. Or as he later said, "When did I become an old fuddy duddy?"

* Grammar school, heh.

Punctuation is less elaborate these days. The semicolon is disappearing, as are many commas. Delaney quoted Jacques Barzun, that if an error is made many times it eventually becomes an accepted part of the language, but you also lose some nuance.

There was a lot of good information on usage of various forms—ellipses and dashes to indicate trailing off or breaking off sentences in dialogue, respectively. Using a period to end a sentence that contains a question, but does not conclude with an interrogative inflection (something I'd always wondered about).

12:00 — From “Microcosmic God” to “Slow Sculpture”: The Short Fiction of Theodore Sturgeon.

Barry Malzberg mentioned that one problem that SF writers from the fifties have in terms of being read and remembered these days is that most (with the exception of Alfred Bester) were better at writing short stories than writing novels**, and short stories tend not to be remembered as well as novels.

** I saw this when I read Kornbluth's The Syndic.

I haven't read much of Sturgeon. I need to change that.

(On a side note, I asked Barry Longyear today if there was any news on a proposed collection of his Jaggers and Shad stories, and he said that publishers seem to prefer novels to short story books. Bother.)

1:00 — Charles Stross reads from his new novel, The Fuller Memorandum.

Actually, he read "Mind Rot," a short story about cannibal robot zombies in space. Neat!

2:00 — How To Ensure Your Manuscript Gets Rejected.

A talk by Jack McDevitt with kibbitzing from Tom Easton, mostly McDevitt saying what you must avoid with Easton following with "not necessarily...." Straight forward advice and much fun listening to the two of them playing Abbott and Costello.

There were a few times that I couldn't find anything I was really interested in going to, but as usual, mileage varies. One thing I noticed was the number of movie based talks and panels (two on Avatar and one on District 9), something Readercon doesn't usually do. I scored a nice collection of Murray Leinster stories from the NEFSA booth for half price since it was apparently flawed. Looks fine to me, except for the black remainders mark. I also dropped some cash at the Used Book Superstore in downtown Burlington.

I managed to get in a couple of good, albeit sweaty, bike rides Saturday and Sunday morning on the Minuteman bike trail from Bedford to Arlington Center and back. I also did a little exploring on the new-to-me Bedford Narrow Gauge Rail Trail***, which starts right across the street from the end of the Minuteman****. The rail trail is only paved for a little way, but the gravel portion was firm enough to be manageable on my narrow tires. Next year maybe I'll put the fat tires on the Univega and bring it with me instead of the Fuji.

*** Narrow gauge railways are narrower than standard gauge. The Bedford line was 2' gauge (as opposed to 4'8"), which was a fairly popular gauge in New England. The most famous narrow gauge line was probably the 3' Denver and Rio Grande system. Model railroaders love narrow gauge as it gives them all sorts of opportunities for unusual track configurations and changing cars and suchlike, and the D&RG had all those trestles running through the Rockies. One cool bit about the Bedford rail trail is that they left some of the old trackage on place to give a sense of what it was like.

**** I discovered it's existence when GoogleMaps added the little "bicycling" option to its menus. I saw the bright green line going off in another direction from the Minuteman, and was like, "Hey, new bike path!" I lurves GoogleMaps.

I also came across a great barbeque joint on Rt. 3A, a little north of the Used Book Superstore, Lester's Roadside BBQ. Terrific pulled pork and smoked brisket.

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DebetEsse: Don't let them see you're afraiddebetesse on July 12th, 2010 - 05:51 pm
::is jealous of readercon panels::

You know, there are movies that seem worthy of inclusion in that kind of a con, but Avatar is not one of them. District 9 started out as one, at least, even if it got quite conventional by the end.
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DXMachina: Booksdxmachina on July 12th, 2010 - 07:05 pm
The thing about Readercon, though, is that it bills itself as a con about SF/Fantasy that is read, rather than watched or gamed, so it kind of grates. OTOH, the science and engineering talks that I enjoy might grate on those who are there for the fiction.
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oracne - Victoria Janssenoracne on July 12th, 2010 - 08:01 pm
I'm glad you enjoyed the WWI discussion! I'm going to pitch some more focused ideas for next year, for discussion groups or panels.
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DXMachinadxmachina on July 13th, 2010 - 12:16 am
It was a great discussion. Thanks for proposing it. As for ideas for future discussions, I was struck by something Walter Hunt said about how the people who lived before WWI could not have imagined what life would be like after WWI. That's one description of a singularity, and I'm wondering how far one could take that. Certainly aircraft went from being a curiosity to a reliable technology to something so feared that the D-VII was specifically mentioned in the Treaty of Versailles.
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oracne - Victoria Janssenoracne on July 13th, 2010 - 12:52 pm
Ooh, that would be a good one.
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