This is going to be an even less complete con report than usual (later: yet ridiculously long all the same!), since Arisia was now weeks ago, but I've been writing the thing in my head since then, so I might as well get it out onto the screen even belatedly and incompletely. As usual, it's easiest for me to remember what I said, especially since I have pre-panel notes for most of these, but please do feel free to ask questions or even just express interest in any particular panel, and I may well be able to dredge up more about it from my memory.
This was my first Arisia, and on the whole I was impressed with what I saw of the organization and logistics. Of note: lots of good signs, amazing pocket program (fold-out program grid!), and free wireless in the hotel rooms (not something Boskone has in the past negotiated (been able to negotiate?) with that same hotel). I mostly ate in the Green Room, which was also excellent, but there seemed to be a good number of food stations outside the restaurants as well.
As for my programming, this Arisia is going down in my mental books as "the one where I shouted." [*] Which has been and will be the cause of nazel-gazing as to the appropriateness of my methods—but to head off the kind of supportive comments that frequently happen, unless you were actually at the panels in question, please don't assure me that I did the right thing, because you'll be basing that on necessarily-incomplete information.
[*] Most cons don't get "the one where" designations. Really, the only other significant one is Boskone 2009, a.k.a. "the one where I was barely there because my father was dying and I was still nursing SteelyKid, and oh yeah it was RaceFail too."
Anyway. The panels I was on (6) or went to (2):
Race and Identity in SF/F
Does genre literature have tools and tropes uniquely suited to complex discussions about race and identity? Is the very notion of a post-racial society hopelessly naive?
Friday night, 8:00, after dropping SteelyKid at my mom's and then driving in circles for far too long in the brain-dead belief that there was other garage parking really close to the hotel.
This was supposed to be a four-person panel, but it was only me and asim. So that made it, like my next panel, unexpectedly stressful; I had notes, but they were conceived as sufficient for filling 1/4, not 1/2, of a 75-minute panel. That plus the broadness of the panel description made me feel like I was doing a lot of flailing around, talking about obvious things without much direction or cohesion.
My pre-written notes questioned what "tools and tropes," exactly, those might be? Aliens?! (See the next panel for that.) In general I am dubious about 1:1 allegories regarding race; again, see aliens below, and also it's easy to trivialize complex situations. One thing I do think SFF can do is model racial diversity as the unmarked state, which of course requires showing the diversity in unmistakable ways. As far as the "identity" part of the description, it's a lot easier to think of SFF works that use speculative situations to take an identity issue and turn it up to 11. And for the last sentence, well, how far in the future are we talking? At some point it's conceivable that the snap judgments people make based on appearance will be based on something other than the physical traits associated with our current conceptions of race, sure.
I can't remember (or be bothered to check) what track this panel was on, but another thing contributing to my feeling flail-y is that I can't contribute a lot to discussions of TV, movies, or comics, which was more what asim had things to say about. So there was some discussion of Star Trek and what's progressive for one time looks less so later, and things different iterations did well or poorly. We talked a bit about industry structural differences between TV/movies and books: on one hand, yeah, the many more people involved in bringing something to screen, plus a tendency toward conservatism, does make it harder to make racially diverse, non-fail-tastic things (accounts from a friend who used to work in American TV: one, two, three). On the other, to paraphrase William Goldman, nobody knows anything about what makes movies successful, and anyway, that's a reason not an excuse. I think someone asked whether books were therefore more likely to be "better" than movies because you didn't have the committee effect, and we kind of said "enh"; since a great deal of dodgy things are inadvertent, it may just mean that there's less chance of someone saying, "uh, hey, did you mean to . . . ?"
And if I keep taking this much time to write up the rest of the panels, I will never get this done, and I have so much else to do. So, moving on:
Species as Analogy for Race
"Avatar," "District 9" and even "Star Trek" are among recent SF films that have offered us aliens who arguably are standing in for real races or ethnic groups. How does SF film handle racial issues? Is it a way of avoiding painful topics or a way of addressing them by other means? Jessica Belisle, Andrea Hairston, Walter Hunt, Suford Lewis, Nisi Shawl (m)
This was right after the Race & Identity panel and I was really excited to go to it because my initial reaction to the title was that species as an analogy for race is always a bad idea, hello, literally alienating?
A lot of this was about Avatar and District 9, which I haven't seen and so zoned out on; also I left the room for an extended coughing fit during the middle of the panel. The only general note I can make out now is Andrea Hairston pointing out that the early mythic story in America about the crossing of races is Pocahontas, which despite the name is really all about what happens to the white guy. She mentioned a really early movie called The Squaw Man, which was based on a play (Wikipedia list) and sounds basically like Madame Butterfly.
This was the first time I'd seen Nisi Shawl or Andrea Hairston on panels and they were both totally awesome. They each recommended a work that sounded really interesting. Hairston cited The Brother from Another Planet, a 1980s movie (IMDB) in which an alien in NYC has race ascribed to him by everyone he meets, and also is running from characters who are a very strong analogy to slave-catchers. Shawl recommended Gwyneth Jones' Aleutian Trilogy, in which aliens : white colonizers :: humans : colonized. Both of which led me to ask if the key to using species as an analogy for race is to use the created species to illuminate existing racial issues and not replace them. They thought so; Shawl also pointed out that in Jones' books the species is standing in for white people, and thus it's a non-othering analogy.
And then I was tired and went to bed.
Saturday morning, it was time for the second of the unexpectedly stressful panels and the first of the panels where I shouted:
Idols with Feet of Clay
The late James P. Hogan was a Holocaust denier; Orson Scott Card is a well-known homophobe, and Harlan Ellison is infamous. Is it okay to like the works when you hate the person behind them, or should principles override a good read? What obligation does the author have (if any) to keep their personal views in check in their stories or in public? Can you still read the works of someone with whom you are on opposite sides politically? If not, why? Erik Amundsen, John Bowker, Adam Lipkin (m), Kate Nepveu, Ian Randal Strock
Foolishly, I was not expecting this to be a controversial panel. I'd even worried if we'd have enough to talk about, because when I was preparing, I had literally six lines of notes, and because my position is that I don't read works by people I know are jerks because it's unfair to the work, I'd keep looking in the work for signs of jerkdom, but that people read so differently that I wouldn't presume to say what anyone else should do, as long as they're happy with their decision. I also noted that I think it's ethical and rational to say that you don't believe in authorial intent and therefore don't see the author in the work at all; or that life is too short to read things by jerks; or that you'll recommend books but mention the problems you have with the author and let the person you're talking to make up their own mind.
Not controversial at all, right? Hah.
After introductions and setting out positions and whatnot, one of the things we talked about was disinviting John Norman and Elizabeth Moon from conventions. I think this was the first time I shouted, when Strock [*] and Bowker started invoking censorship and concepts specifically from the First Amendment, because I consider it massively unuseful, in conversation-ruining ways, to apply First Amendment law to the actions of private organizations, especially on something tangential to the actual panel. (As I said at the beginning, I am still thinking about whether my methods in this case and my other shouty panel were the best possible.)
[*] I am assuming on the basis of probability that Randal is a middle name and not the first half of a double unhyphenated last name; if I am wrong, I will fix it.
And then I loudly interrupted Strock again when he said that he was (something; surprised, dismayed, I can't remember now) at hearing everyone else say X (where I also don't exactly remember what X was now), because I hadn't heard anyone actually say X, and I would much rather clarify a misstatement than have someone respond at length to a position that no-one was taking—see, again, massively unuseful in conversation-ruining ways.
And then—well, I'm pretty sure I didn't actually shout this time. But Strock said something about sensitivity training and how it's supposed to keep people from saying offensive things, and he thinks that maybe we should having training in how not to be offended at things people say, because it just gives the speaker the power to upset you, so why not just ignore it, why get upset.
I'm pretty sure I didn't shout because at first I was in shock that I'd just heard that. The audience erupted in objections, many of which I would have said if my brain had been online and which I will leave as exercises for the reader. That gave me time to collect myself and add, in as controlled a tone as I could manage, that it's worth getting upset and noticing and responding because racism and sexism and suchlike are wrong.
Strock later said that he meant that someone who calls him a (slur applicable to Jewish people) isn't going to listen to him, so why should he waste his energy? And I said yes, it's important to consider whether you have the resources at any given time to respond to someone who's attacked you, but it's also important to consider that responses are heard by more than the attacker and the people who are listening may have their minds changed. Nevertheless, that later statement is not what came across the first time.
So, yes, unexpectedly stressful indeed, the more so because I wasn't braced for that kind of discussion in the first place.
Strock has a review of the con at SF Scope, with a description of this panel. Alas, it appears from that that I never did make my position clear to him.
From there I stumbled into the audience of another panel:
Take Back the Sci-Fi
Sexual assault and rape frequently get used as symbolic plot devices, with no consideration of how sexual violence actually affects survivors and the people around them. Let's discuss books that accurately portray the repercussions of and recovery from sexual assault, as well as those that merely use it as a shortcut to character development, those that end up glorifying it, and how sexual violence can be written in a way that is true to the character and respectful to survivors. Genevieve Iseult Eldredge, Catt Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Ken Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Shira Lipkin (m), Trisha Wooldridge
I had several extended coughing fits during this one and my handwritten notes don't get any easier to read as time goes on (thank you, person who lent me a pencil and who I talked to a couple of times, but whose badge I never got a good look at; if you're here, do say hi?). So, some generalities and then what titles I was able to hear.
As the description suggests, the panel thought that just using sexual assault as a shortcut to character development was lazy and harmful; one example was Firefly's "Objects in Space," where there are much more interesting and character-appropriate things to threaten Kaylee with. Also on the negative list were magical healing, using "historical accuracy" as a reason for putting rape all over the place when other historical practices aren't also showed (Rome the TV show) . . . and I know there ought to be more things there, but I can't find them in my notes and I don't want to be putting words in the (eminently qualified) panelists' mouths. Right, then.
Also, if you're a writer, you can do research by calling your local rape crisis center (see RAINN) and asking for resources (DO NOT ask random survivors to tell you their stories for your research!). In some places you may be able to sit in on advocacy training. Also, google "rape culture."
Books people mentioned as solid depictions of sexual violence and recovery:
- Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor: about rape as weapon of war. Protagonist is child of rape, rape scene isn't sexy and shows research, mother and protag have strong relationship and book is realistic about how they proceed through life.
- The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell: male survivor, which is fairly rare in fiction; has a lot about recovery and people coming to terms with the fact that something was rape. (A Karin Lowachee book was also mentioned late as having a male survivor, but I didn't hear the name.)
- Quantum Rose, Catherine Asaro (something about a confrontation halfway through the book)
- Maelstrom, Taylor Anderson, a minor point (which I missed due to epic coughing fit)
- Rampant, Diana Peterfreund, protagonist is the cousin of a survivor, shows the reaction of the community
- Serpent's Reach & Cyteen, C.J. Cherryh, non-violent but very coercive scenes
Then I retreated to my hotel room to work up notes for the panel I was moderating that night and decompress; I ended up taking a quick tour of the dealers' room (though not dealers' row) and then just hiding in my room, stitching a bookmark that will eventually be offered for con_or_bust and listening to podfic, until it was time for dinner with a friend.
My next panel was at 8:00, and I was rather nervous about it for two reasons that will probably be apparent from the description:
Many Ways to Tell a Story
How does a particular medium change the telling of a story? Novels, comic books, and movies can all have the same source material. At what point do they diverge and why? What works in one medium and not another? Can one story work well in multiple media? Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Andrea Hairston, Gordon Linzner, Kate Nepveu (m), Ian Randal Strock
In order: Andrea Hairston thinks about this stuff, like, really professionally, as in, is not only a novelist but a theater professor at Smith College, and Ian Randal Strock had been on the "Idols with Feet of Clay" panel earlier in the day.
I'm pleased to say that everyone on the panel was thoroughly professional and engaged and it went very smoothly. Unfortunately I have absolutely no notes from during the panel, just my own beforehand, and even looking over those now doesn't jog my memory much.
I started the panel by suggesting that there were two fundamental characteristics that affected the kind of story you can tell in a medium: whether there are pictures, and whether the time over which the story is told is controlled by the creator or the audience. I then suggested that these result in works falling at different points along two axes: the amount of work the audience does or the space left for them to create the story in, and the threshold for willing suspension of disbelief. Things affected by where a work falls on these axes include pacing, characterization depth, exposition, kinds of emotional engagement (I'm thinking here about how I can read horror but can barely watch anything even slightly tense), and scenery/special effects. I think some other things people talked about here were the joys and frustrations of a creator working with other people to see their vision realized, and the amount of information that can reasonably be conveyed in one medium as opposed to another.
I asked about pitfalls of placing a story in one medium as opposed to another. One that came to my mind was that if you're going to do a story about the most awesome X (writer, painter, singer) you might be well-advised to pick an X that you won't have to directly depict in that medium (see: willing suspension of disbelief). Unfortunately I don't remember if anyone had other things to add to this, though perhaps this is where we talked about amount-of-stuff limitations.
We talked about favorite and wrong-in-illuminating-ways examples. People brought up "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption"/The Shawshank Redemption, which is interesting because it's a novella and the movie actually adds stuff in rather than taking it out, but it really preserves the feel of the original work, helped by amazing actors. On the other hand, the tone of The Princess Bride between book and movie is quite different and would have been hard to do on screen. [*] There was some discussion of superhero movies and comics and how the movies can work better for non-fans of the comics because of the many choices necessary in adapting decades of often-contradictory canon into a single story for the screen. (And I didn't mention Fullmetal Alchemist here, but I should have.)
[*] The first time I read the book in hardcover I was astonished, not only because the framing story existed but because I was convinced that I had read the book from the library in paperback and it didn't have the framing story. I can't imagine such a book actually exists, that Goldman would have permitted a novelization of the movie, but my memory is still firmly convinced otherwise. Which just goes to show, if the rest of this report weren't evidence enough, that memory is fallible.
I think this may have been one of the panels where I thought that we didn't need the full 75 minutes, but we did get some questions from the audience and on the whole it seemed to go over pretty well, though I still have a nagging feeling that I missed some opportunities or some potential as the moderator.
Then I said "arrgh why I did let myself be scheduled until 10:45 p.m.!" and went off to my last panel of the night,
Playing in Other People's Sandboxes
This discussion will explore the pleasure for both writers and readers in augmenting pre-existing characters and universes. Catt Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Kate Nepveu, Meredith Schwartz, Cecilia Tan (m)
Travel issues, I believe, kept Schwartz from attending; logistical issues made Tan very late. Kingsgrave-Ernstein pulled two people out of the audience to be on the panel, who were apparently ellid and gatewaygirl; all three of them are writers of Harry Potter fanfic and possibly also other things, and have been involved in fanfic fandom for much longer than I. As the reader and the relative newbie on the panel, then, I put myself in the role of "person who asks leading questions about history and writing and says 'gosh!' a lot." Well, no, okay, not only that, but you get the idea.
This was another broad panel description, and also the audience was very diverse, with one person who'd apparently never heard of anything about fanfic and at least one who appeared to know as much as anyone on the panel. So that was a little awkward. Also, I thought I had notes for this, but I can't find them anywhere.
So we talked about writing and reading for more of the same kind of story (casefiles and the like; apparently the very first Star Trek stories were gen, not slash, which I didn't know); for dealing with cliffhangers (The Empire Strikes Back, back in the day, was a big one); for continuing stories (is it Blake's 7 that ends without significant closure?); for doing worldbuilding (Harry Potter is a big one for this); for expanding characterization; and for telling stories that the creators couldn't tell in their medium or wouldn't be interested in (with sex, of course, but not just that). We talked about fandom as a gift-based economy: beta reading; fic exchanges, including Yuletide and remixes; and kink memes, what I think maybe Tan previously called "women writing porn for each other in real time," which is pretty damn unusual. We talked about the kinds of sources that lend themselves to big fanfic fandoms (see last year's Readercon panel notes and to a lesser extent my post about crossover fandoms).
The most memorable thing I learned was from an audience member. We were talking about how the vast majority of fanfic writers in fandoms we knew were female (I can literally count on one hand the number of male fanfic writers I have read, and I think two of them mostly or only write for Yuletide), and I asked whether there were any writing fandoms where the numbers were different. (I believe that AMVs (anime music videos) are far more likely to be made by men than vids (a separately-evolved fannish community working mostly from English-language sources).) An audience member said that they were aware of a community of gay men who would do detailed photoshoots of Barbies dressed up in different locations, like photo albums from vacations, though I'm not clear on how much text would accompany these. (Apparently these are not shared online publicly because of Mattel.) I think this is absolutely fascinating, which should be read in as non-judgmental a tone as possible.
Then I went to the Carl Brandon Society party and stayed up too late, but managed to drag myself out of bed for the first of my two Sunday panels:
Foundlings and Orphans
The orphaned baby who grows up to become a master wizard. The lonely farmboy who becomes a powerful Jedi. The last son of the planet Krypton, who assumes the mantle of the world's greatest hero. Foundlings and orphans form a common and powerful theme in popular culture and fiction around the world, but why? What is the origin of this storytelling theme, and why does it appeal to writers and audiences so much? Mary Catelli, Debra Doyle, Kate Nepveu, Sheila M. Oranch
I volunteered to be on this one because I am a foundling, or at least am purported to be: the adoption agency told us that I was found on the steps of a police station with a note pinned to my blanket giving my birth name, birth date, and saying "please take care of." It didn't occur to me until I was a teenager that this could (may well?) have been a polite fiction, not that I cared. I thought this was a very pertinent example of the persistence of foundling myths in popular culture! Later someone in the audience said that as of the 1990s (early, I think) this story was also given to a family who adopted a baby girl from China.
So the main reason I wanted to be on the panel, honestly, was to point out that only one kind of foundling/adoptee experience has storylike qualities, that of the person who wants to know about their ancestry; people like me, who don't feel anything missing for not knowing their biological family, don't make for interesting stories (about that aspect of our backgrounds). Also to put in my plea for not using "natural" to mean "biological."
My notes for this are therefore very sketchy, also I was wiped out. The only comprehensible thing I have down there is that when foundlings and orphans are the focus of a story, they both have obvious built-in quests: foundlings for their biological family, orphans for a substitute family. I remember we touched on the whole hereditary-aristocracy thing (mentioning Sherwood Smith's Wren books, in which the title character is an orphan but her best friend at the orphanage, not her, is the long-lost princess), and making room for the kids to have a story (including the absent parent), and I found myself referring to A Series of Unfortunate Events what felt like every other sentence. And this time I remembered Fullmetal Alchemist, but only at the very end.
I realize this is almost entirely unuseful; feel free to ask questions and maybe my memory will be jogged, or maybe malkingrey will have something to add.
My last panel of the con was right after that, and I admit I went in pretty cranky, because (a) I had a pounding headache and no painkillers and (b) I walked in, saw The Wombat, another panel member who I'd met very briefly earlier that day, standing in front of the panelists' table, and asked him where he was sitting, and he said, "You can sit on my lap." I believe I stared at him for a long time, then said "No." and repeated my question.
Anyway, the panel:
LOTR: Movies vs. Books
Are the Tolkien books done justice in Peter Jackson's films? Do the films surpass the books? Are there people who don't know there are books? How does it all look now that the hype is behind us? Peter Maranci, Kate Nepveu, Charlie Spickler (m), Eric M. Van, The Wombat
This was my other shouty panel, early on, when I felt that I needed to be very assertive to keep other panel members, particularly Van, from entirely monopolizing the panel. I feel like there was still a little jostling after over being heard, but not unmanageably so, and I was expecting it to be a very active discussion—indeed, at the end of the 75 minutes I looked at my notes and realized we hadn't even mentioned Andy Serkis so far. (I got to mention my re-watching observation that Gollum on the Elvish rope flails very much like a toddler who's being thwarted, which got someone to confirm from the Internet that he does have children.)
I have already talked at enormous length [*] about my opinions of the movies, and will have a Tor.com post about the third movie soon (the Appendices are wrecking me). So the only thing I'll say here is that Van had a really interesting explanation for the characterization changes, especially Faramir, to wit: this is an AU in which the Ring is famous and not a secret. As part of that, Faramir knows what Frodo has and has promised to bring the Ring, specifically, back, which is a lot different from some unspecified weapon. Which I think is a very clever explanation, but if the movies were intending to make that kind of fundamental worldbuilding change, they needed to signal it a lot more clearly for people who knew the books.
And then I went to my mom's and was reunited with SteelyKid and there was not a football game, no indeed, and then drove home in the dark with SteelyKid sleeping peacefully in the back, which is terribly sleep-inducing in and of itself, so thank goodness for podfic to keep me awake.
There, that's my report, finished in time for the next con. (Come donate and/or buy tasty baked goods at Boskone this coming Saturday!) And proofread and posted with a sick toddler doing her barnacle impression, too.