Noreascon Revisited

This year’s WorldCon was wonderful and, in stark contrast to last year’s, beautifully organised. Not once did I show up to a panel only to be told it had happened three hours earlier in a completely different room. My only snafu was that word didn’t get to the other panellists on "What Should Good Fantasy Do?" that I was unable to attend. This, compounded with my non-attendance of parties that night (I was too knackered), led to a rumour that I was dead. My first such rumour!

Charles, Delia, Eliani, Eileen, Ellen, the other Ellen, Jonathan, Karen, Kelly, Lauren, Liza, Mari, Martha, Sarah, Scalzi, Suzy, Tom, Tricia and many, many others) met some fabulous new ones, such as Justina Robson and Jane and Shara Zoll, and best of all finally got beyond "Hi" status with Karen Meisner. In fact we got so far beyond it that Lauren, Karen and I started planning a ConHunks calendar. (We won’t embarrass anyone by telling you who made our final cut.) But enough name dropping—Mely says it’s boring, she only wants to hear about the panels. Be warned though, I didn’t take notes and I have a shit memory:

Thursday 12:00 noon "Archetypes in SF: First Contact"
Jim Frenkel (Moderator)
Walter H. Hunt
Ed Lerner
Karen Traviss
Justine Larbalestier
In culture clashes between aliens and humans, the humans aren’t always the good guys…..discuss the archetype, the ways it’s been used, and how to turn it upside down.
It was kind of slow. One of the first panels of the convention with the panellists (most especially me) all clearly trapped in a what-do-I-do-on-a-panel-exactly head space. But by about the midpoint we were firing on more than half a cylinder. I managed to mention both the stories I wanted to (Tiptree’s "And I Awoke on the Cold Hill’s Side" and Eleanor Arnarson’s A Woman of the Iron People) as well as getting in a plug for Gwyneth Jones’s White Queen. There was much talk about how to write convincing aliens and a wee bit on colonialism.

Thursday 4:30pm Justine reads for half an hour from her coming-out-next-March novel, Magic or Madness
Or, um, fifteen minutes. I think it went okay. Fifteen people showed up and none of them left mid-reading. Certainly it was less traumatic than my last reading. I spent the remaining fifteen minutes fielding questions and nattering about writing the novel and my insane decision to have Australian vocab, grammar and spellings for the two Aussie pov characters and US for the US one. This has led to much copy editing and proof-reading pain. If my subsequent readings are as unfoul as this one I imagine that in about thirty years I’ll start enjoying them. The best bit was this lovely New Zealand woman (whose name I didn’t catch) who told me she only came to my reading because she thinks I have a fabulous name (I hope discovering I’m Australian wasn’t too awful a shock for her). Here’s hoping the attractiveness of my name will translate into copious book sales: "Hey check out this author’s name! I am so buying this book." The second best bit was Cory Doctorow’s deep shock that I squandered fifteen—fifteen whole minutes—nattering with the audience when I could’ve been reading to them. I swear I’ll never do it again, Cory. Honest.

Thursday 7:00pm "The Seven Deadly Sins of SF and Fantasy"
Geary Gravel
Rosemary Kirstein
Justine Larbalestier (M)
Scott Westerfeld
Admit it—some SF motions just don’t make sense…and a lot of them become standard background elements in the genre. Discuss a bunch of them (well, at least 7—and invent some new ones of your own, if you want!), why they’re so terrible, and how they get established. Is it just that People Don’t Think, or are there other reasons for these lousy ideas?
This started off great. All the panellists on the same page about what pisses them off: universal translators, matter transporters (like on Star Trek) that don’t completely transform the societies they’re used in, worlds without money that seem to have no economy of any kind, fantasy novels supposedly set in other worlds that just happen to be like Disney’s version of fairy tale Europe. Then Scott made the fatal mistake of mentioning wheat. Turns out there were a whole bunch of people in the audience who are deeply attached to wheat and no matter how many times we tried to explain that the point was not to get rid of wheat per se, but that the mere fact of including wheat in a Medieval world meant to be non European kind of defeats the point. As Scalzi says: the panels "I did see were memorable, particularly the one on literary clichés, in which we learned that apparently a substantial number of readers really really really like wheat, and are prepared to defend it against all those who would seek to expunge it from the various fantasy worlds. So those writers who yearn for a gluten-free universe, beware." Someone else out there in the blogsphere (lost the link, sorry) also noticed our pain and said that all the panellists looked like we desperately wished to be anywhere but sitting up on the podium dealing with irate questions about the sanctity of wheat. Tragically for Scott the wheat meme went on to haunt him for the rest of the con. He is now considering going on the Atikin’s diet.

Friday 12:00 noon "Archetypes in Fantasy: The Princess, Alone"
Ellen Datlow
Michelle Sagara West (M)
Jo Walton
Justine Larbalestier
Despite our consensus before starting the panel that none of us had a clue what to say, this panel went well. Largely because of the utterly wonderful Jo Walton. I plan to buy all her books. She has the most wonderful deep resonant voice and fabulous Welsh accent and she said really really smart things about all manner of subjects including what she called the weight of story. How hard it is to write against traditions filled with passive sleeping women and active rescuing men. That said, the first half of the panel was concerned with pointing out that there are alternative traditions with active princesses.

Friday 1:00pm "The Two Cultures in F&SF: Science Confronts the Humanities"
Ctein (M)
Matthew Jarpe
Nancy Kress
Justine Larbalestier
Decades ago, C.P. Snow defined the "Two Cultures" of technical intellectuals and literary intellectuals. The split is still with us. How does it influence our fantasy and science fiction? What works, what authors manage to bridge the gap? What works or authors make it deeper?
For some reason I can barely remember this panel. I honestly have no idea what anyone said except that I managed to sneak in a crack about the US allergy to the theory of evolution and Nancy got in a crack about deconstruction and a lovely woman in the audience answered my plaintive pleas for popular science book recommendations.

Friday 4:00pm "Do Women Write Differently?"
Suzy McKee Charnas
Theodora Goss
Eileen Gunn
Elizabeth Anne Hull (M)
Justine Larbalestier
This was just wonderful and no surprise: look at the panellists (myself modestly excluded)! Geniuses all! We laughed, we cried. Dora Goss tellingly pointed out that perhaps a more interesting title for the panel would have been: "Do Men Write Differently?" We all pointed out that the answer very much depends on which women and which men they’re writing differently than. Eileen, Betty and Suzy all had funny yet horrifying anecdotes of being "praised" for writing like men. We had a lively discussion about James Tiptree, Jr., ably abetted by the knowledgable, engaged, and smart audience who filled the room to the point of overflowing. And I got to use Kelly Link’s line that women write differently because they tend to do it sitting down.

Saturday 4:00pm "Lyrical Language"
Fruma Klass
Kelly Link
Terry McGarry
Delia Sherman
Justine Larbalestier (M)
Is it a good idea to bounce the reader out of the story by making
her aware of how beautifully you write? Define "beautifully." And,
under any circumstances, is "style" really so necessary?
This was my second favourite panel and my toughest moderating job. Fruma Klass came armed with lots of research and some wonderful quotes she wanted to read out loud. This is not normally how these panels work. I was worried about getting the balance right between not having Fruma read for too long and lose the audience, but still giving her space to do her thing. Fortunately her quotes were wonderfully well chosen and the other panellists had fun bouncing off them. We decided that separating "style" from "story" is a fool’s errand. Kelly and Delia spoke eloquently about the untransparency of so-called transparent writing. The audience was lively and engaged and didn’t mention wheat once.

Sunday 1:00pm "The Justine and Scott Grand Literary Beer"
Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld
This too was fun. The two of us got to talk about our favourite subjects: us and writing to a table full of people who were interested in having us do so. Our audience included a few die hard Westerfeld fans, some folk who’d seen us on panels and thought we seemed interesting, including two who were at the wheat-is-sacred panel. I’d definitely do a literary beer again even though we didn’t manage to talk about truly important things such as Elvis, Buenos Aires, interface design flaws, women’s basketball, or cricket.

New York City, 8 September 2004