hitting nine worlds

Cons, Panels
It’s Nine Worlds time again! And I’m doing some fascinating panels. So, if you’re there on Friday or Saturday, do come along to:
World-building: No One Sells Happy Life Day Cards
Bouzy, 10:00am – 11:00am (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words
Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding, Genevieve Cogman, James Barclay
Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?
How to Idea
Cremant, 11:45am – 12:45pm (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words
Lavie Tidhar, Emma Newman, Tom Lloyd, Al Robertson, Catriona Ward, Sam Wilson
It’s a weird and wonderful world, and necessity is the mother of invention – but how do you hone ideas, sort the good from the bad, tune them up and make them run? A nice ramble through the inspiration that struck these authors, and how they balanced creativity with logic.
Moral issues in speculative fiction
Bordeaux, 8:30pm – 9:30pm (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words
Lisa Tuttle, Al Robertson, Matt Blakstad, Stark Holborn, Jen Williams, Mark de Jager
When you’re dealing with a sentient and newly murderous AI, or the revelation that the people behind the Wall are… well, actually people too, what happens to your morality? Moral quandaries can arise from the most unexpected places and some of the very best speculative fiction is driven by them. So, how do you do right, or wrong, when the world around you has shifted the goalposts? Hero or villain? Renegade or Paragon? And is the line between them a brick wall or a chalk mark?

a weekend at nine worlds

Cons, Crashing Heaven, London

Much excitement as I’m doing a panel and reading at Nine Worlds next week, plus a Google Hangout and some Courtly Fantasising beforehand.

So, on the Thursday 6th August at 3pm I’ll be doing the hangout with Alex Lamb, Aliette de Bodard and Anna Caltabiano – I’ll post a link when I have it. Then I’ll be hitting Fantasy in the Court. It’s a friendly meetup for genre folk in Cecil Court, should be lovely. You do need a ticket though, details are on the website.

And then on Friday I’m at Nine Worlds, doing a panel and a reading:

Architecture of a great character
Room 38, 10:00am – 11:15am
Al Robertson, Leila Abu el Hawa, Lucy Hounsom, Danie Ware, Sebastien de Castell, Liesel Schwarz

A good character can be timeless but what does it take to build this character and what jigsaw pieces make up the things that make our characters live on?

New Voices
Royal C&D, 10:15pm – 11:30pm

Readings from Francesca Haig, Lucy Hounsom, Zen Cho, Tom Toner, Al Robertson and Stark Holborn

The official schedule details are here. Apart from the reading and panel, I’ll be there all day Saturday too, taking everything in. So, it looks like it’s going to be a lovely, chatty, literary weekend. See you there!

talking & reading at eastercon

Cons, Crashing Heaven, Fiction, Readings

Much excitement at Allumination Towers as the programme for Dysprosium, this year’s Eastercon, has been released! I’m doing a very exciting panel and a reading with the mighty Ed Cox. Here are the details of each:

Watching the Detectives
Private dicks, gumshoes,shamuses, pinkertons, consulting detectives – we love them all but aren’t they even better with a supernatural second job? Moderated by Alice Lawson, with Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Mike Carey and (of course) me. It’s on Saturday morning, from 11.15am to 12.15pm, in Discovery.

Ed and I reading
Edward Cox will read from The Cathedral of Known Things and I’ll read from Crashing Heaven. We’re on on Saturday evening, from 8-9pm, in Johnson.

Hopefully see you there! Of course I’ll also be wandering around in general, do say “hi” if you fancy a chat. And now I’m off to ready my reading voice and brush up on some of my favourite occult detectives…

Eastercon 2009 – few panels, much chat, all good

Cons, Culture, Festivities, Novelists

The journey up

Well, H and I drove up on the Friday, and got very bogged down indeed in traffic. Hey ho, it comes with the Bank Holiday territory. On the plus side, we mastered a new technique for comfortable eating in overcrowded roadside restaurants – just cross to the other side of the motorway! Of course, we still had to eat at KFC, but at least it didn’t feel like we were dining with several football stadia’s worth of stressed drivers and their families.

And I am going to draw a veil over the pan-dimensional hell experience that is trying to find a central Bradford hotel in the insanity that is their one way system. I have seen the face of the blind idiot god Azathoth, carved out in Yorkshire streets, etc. Of course, once we found the hotel the idiot piping stopped and everything seemed to go back to normal.

The one and a half panels I made it to

Well, embarrassingly, I only made it to one full panel, and half of another one. I blame the venue; being quite small, and quite social, it was impossible to go for more than five steps without bumping into someone you could have a Really Interesting Conversation with, and then getting completely distracted. So here’s my 1.5 panel report:

Panel A – A fascinating panel on why writers’ groups are worthwhile, with Tim Powers, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, and Chaz Brenchley, expertly moderated by Maura McHugh – made me realise that you don’t go to them to be critiqued, but rather to learn how to critique; to help become an accurate editor of your own work, and to be able to help others to write better. As ever, you only learn how to get better yourself by giving to others along the way.

Also, much interesting discussion of self publishing, which helped me understand the big difference between fiction that’s self-published out of a sense of grievance – ‘there’s a conspiracy against my genius’ – and fiction that’s self published to be part of a fan or a social group.

That fan / social group perception also underlay Chaz Brenchley’s comment that ‘the ivory tower model [of writing] is no longer sustainable’. He doesn’t think it’s possible to be a successful writer by just sitting on your own and typing any more; you have to be out there, actively working to build up a readership – as he does, here.

And finally, Tim Powers revealed his secret tip for writing motivation – ‘guilt and fear’. Good to know…

Panel B – A rather interesting panel on pacifism in science fiction, with Farah Mendelsohn, Nick Harkaway, Kim Lakin Smith and Sam Kelly. For my money, if you go pacifist, you wipe out about 75% of the canon. Others disagree, and say 90%. Anyway, some very interesting commentary, tho’ sadly I had the classic problem of not having read many of the books discussed. Hey ho, all good suggestions for when the book hoard has diminished a bit.

One interesting thought results – that SF is frequently really a literature of colonialism, rather than of warfare; perhaps explaining its success in Western Europe and America, the two great colonial regions of our age. And that ‘Starship Troopers’ is basically ‘Zulu’, only with a little more context.

Ken Macleod also made a fascinating comment – ‘SF has encoded into it a set of assumptions that we can eventually have peace without pacifism’. A core duplicity, I would have thought, and a perception that definitely bears further pondering.

The Tim Powers keynote

At least I made it to one of the keynotes, tho’ I do have to admit *full disclosure* that it was only because I happened to bump into various folk on their way there, and was swept along in their slipstream.

Anyway, it was very enjoyable indeed; Tim Powers at once witty, erudite, and wise, while also managing to look like a Kyle Mclachlan / Robert Vaughn gene splicing experiment. Cool! I have a new role model. Anyway, highlights include:

TP on being young and knowing Phillip K. Dick: ‘It was instructive for us to see how a real writer actually lived… you’d be living in low rent zip codes and driving cars that people laughed at as you went by’ – well, I’ve always driven Rovers (thanks to Uncle Bill and the Rover garage he used to run) so I’ve got the second one sorted at any rate.

A TP learning from PKD: ‘You need to have your characters have a job… They’re going to have to get the day off work to go fight the [alien space] squids… his characters were always worrying about the state of their tyres, and how much gas there was in the tank.’

TP also helped me confirm why I don’t like ‘The Anubis Gates’. I seem to be the only geek on the planet who was underwhelmed by it (I thought it was a patchwork of sources that never quite gelled into something fully credible and coherent); apparently it was two other books combined, and was also disliked by Lester Del Rey. So I feel a little more justified in my underwhelmment.

The BSFA Awards

Well, once again, I hadn’t read all the books on offer.  So comments will alas be limited. On the plus side, great to see Ted Chiang take the best short story award; Farah Mendlesohn’s ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’ a worthy non-fiction winner; and thoroughly enjoyed the Newman Mcauley Overdrive that powered the opening sections of the ceremony.

Oh, and I got to witness MacLeeOddGate, which was both a rather wonderful moment in itself and a reminder that British English is both deeply idiosyncratic and frequently utterly illogical. If only everyone had seen ‘Highlander’! Then these things just wouldn’t happen…

The drunken conversations I had

Well, an embarrassingly large number, because I was rather merry quite frequently. But then again, that is part of the point of the con. So, a lot of chatting with old friends, and making new ones. I’m going to draw a veil over the specifics – is the world really ready for Conan Doyle the Barbarian, and other such horrors? – and leave it at –

Hello everyone! Lovely to see you!

*waves through the screen like a cheerful Japanese ghost movie villain*

The books bought

OK, so not such a huge list as – with the credit crunch etc – I was being frugal. But I couldn’t resist picking up:

Paul Kincaid – ‘What it is we do when we read science fiction’ – always good to pick up a new crit, and given that I’m winding up to write a science fiction novel this seemed to be the one to get. Already fascinating on Gene Wolfe; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Daniel Fox – ‘Dragon in Chains’ – Now this is driving me nuts, because I read a stunning review of it somewhere the other day, but for the life of me I can’t remember where! It does look rather wonderful – and freshly signed by the author himself. Can’t wait!

Toby Frost – ‘Space Captain Smith’ – The first of a series, and it promises to be wildly enjoyable steampunk mayhem… Huzzah!

The sad news

While whizzing round the dealer’s room on Sunday, I stopped to say hi to Eric of the Fantasy Centre. Alas, they’re closing! Bit of a shock, and very sad. More details here – when I get a moment I’ll be nipping down there to say hi and find out what’s going on.

The journey back

Having watched ‘Red Riding’ the other week, I was glad we could leave Yorkshire without being bafflingly fitted up for something horrific by various brutal people who smoke a lot. But not glad to leave Bradford, as in the end it was a lovely, friendly town with excellent curries and much good con fun. But hey…

A nice easy drive down, back here by 8.30pm, and general post-con collapse! Then a slow Monday mostly taken up by building the new BBQ. So that’s Eastercon 2009…

Science, the future and my Luddite superpowers

Cons, Metafiction, Modernity, Science Fiction

Well, it’s been a frustrating time for me technologically over the last week or so; I seem to have developed some kind of weird anti-modernity super power.

On return from America, I discovered that my boiler had stopped working; a plumber came and ‘repaired’ it last Friday, but it’s still not going. Last Thursday, my laptop blew itself up, losing the ability to open Windows. I spent the whole of tonight completely rebuilding it, which hasn’t really achieved very much; it’s moving with glacial slowness, and currently busy pretending it doesn’t have wireless. Even my phone has joined in the fun; today, its mail server started crashing. I didn’t even know my phone HAD a mail server.

Anyway… none of this has detracted from wildly pleasurable memories of last week’s convention. In particular, I’ve been pondering science fiction and realism, after a very interesting bar-side conversation with Ted Chiang.

As you’ll no doubt know, I’ve used this blog in part to mount an ongoing argument about the relationship between realist and genre (specifically science fiction and fantasy) fiction. I’ve argued that in some ways genre fiction is less deceived than more ‘literary’, realist fiction, given its deep honesty about its own unreal status. It’s the literature of things that never happen (to borrow from a phrase from M. John Harrison), and at its best it has fascinating fun with the metafictional status that that stance gives it.

This was the argument I was making to TC last weekend (imbetween ranting about Powell and Pressburger, themselves the most metafictional of filmmakers, and weaving to the bar to get more discussion lubricating pints in), and the one that he undercut. As he pointed out, the above falls down when confronted with the absolute literal mindedness that underpins science fiction.

At its purest, science fiction insists on a deep reality of response to the world. Far from escaping into fiction, it consistently grounds itself in the most current scientific thinking. The apparatus of science fiction might be speculative – space ships, AIs, aliens, etc – but that apparatus is hung on experimentally proven fact. Given this, science fiction can be read as more direct in its engagement with reality than even the most realist fiction, grounded as it is in an absolute, exclusive obsession with the root structures of the world.

So where does that leave my metafictional take on genre? For one, I think it helps create a way of distinguishing between fantasy and science fiction, rooted not so much in genre trappings (if the protagonist flies by space ship it must be sf, if by dragon fantasy) but rather in approaches to reality. Fiction steps into fantasy when it bends reality to its own ends; but it becomes science fiction when it refuses that consolation, instead taking an entirely rigorous approach to reality as a grounding base for the wildest narrative mayhem.

But if I had a time machine I might pop back to the bar and point out that on one very important level SF remains metafiction, insisting as it does on an extrapolation from, rather than a direct reflection of, current scientific thinking. It asks ‘given that the world is like this – what might we become?’ – stepping out of direct realism into the most self-aware, highly imaginative speculation as it does so.

Oh, and for the sake of comparison, here’s someone who refuses to extrapolate from science into tomorrow, finding meaning instead in its intersections with the directly lived world – the wonderful scientist-poet Rebecca Elson. Her single collection, ‘A Responsibility to Awe’, is magnificent, not so much for her poems (which are nonetheless excellent) but for the marvellous sequence of extracts from her notebooks, where the cosmic is interwoven with the quotidian to stunning effect. She died young; a major loss.