This is the more detailed report of what I got up to in Boston last weekend. If you’re not interested, come back next week. I’m sure to talk about something else. This discussion is chronological. Events that I don’t remember times for (such as visiting the Art Gallery, which had some amazing stuff) are not included.
Big Canvas, Little Strokes: Creating an Epic Fantasy Series
(Peter V. Brett, David Anthony Durham, Elaine Isaak, Rosemary Kirstein, and Jo Walton)
Panelists discussed how the deal with a wast cast of characters, differences between science fiction and fantasy (Peter Brett said that the only difference is magic vs. technology, while Jo Walton said that the difference is the subject matter — fantasy deals with the numinous, while SF deals with the future), how many POVs are necessary (with Name of the Wind being mentioned as one exception to the traditional multi-viewpoint style) and how that impacts the book (Jo Walton said that too many POVs could decrease the level of suspense, as well as boring readers who don’t identify with a particular POV character; Rosemary Kirstein pointed out that politics can be twisty, so multiple POVs makes it easier to show the different sides of what’s going on), reader expectations, where they draw from in creating their civilizations, what authors they would recommend reading, and what they’d like to warn people about (making sure you understand history and geography was mentioned). All of that in an hour — and that was just the beginning of the con.
Has SF Eaten Itself?
(Kathryn Cramer, Charles Stross, Allen M. Steele — Patrick Nielsen Hayden was supposed to be on this panel, but was not)
This panel started with a quote from Nick Mamatas that art form life expectancy is 70 years. This doesn’t mean the art disappears, but by then, it tends to be frozen in a given state. To give this context, SF has effectively been around for 80 years or so, per the history stated here.
They discussed the bubble nature of SF, and how much recent work tends to be a conversation among its participants, not readily grokable if you’re coming to the genre from the outside. Also mentioned was other forms moving in and appropriating the genre furniture, such as mainstream writers Lev Grossman, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Margaret Atwood. Reinvention of genres was discussed, with spy thrillers after the demise of the Soviet Union as an example, and the possibility of a more popular approach, such as Stephen King’s approach to horror. China and Japan were mentioned as possible sources of a renaissance in the genre, with Usurper From the Sun as an example.
This talk focused on the plasma universe and how plasma physics explains development of spiral galaxies, filaments in space, and apparent superluminal velocities of stars. The presenter is a mathematician, not a plasma physicist, and my own background is biology, so I didn’t get a lot out of this talk, although it may be something to poke at later, especially since he did provide handouts with some background.
Saturday morning, I did some shopping and hung out with the boy looking over the swords and daggers on display (Higgins Armory) and talking about fencing lessons (Kunstbruder suggested some avenues to follow up on if he’s interested), then arrived late for the “What’s Up With Space?” panel, so didn’t focus much. After grabbing a bite to eat in the con suite (and more tea, of course), I watched the action at Dragonslair (the kids’ section), where they were learning to put armor onto a knight. Got several pics of the boy in action. After the knight was safely covered, the kids learned how to use halberds as a group to deal with the knight — so I watched this writer’s child, rather than going to the panel “The Writer’s Child,” which looked very interesting.
Around 2, I started focusing on panels again.
My Favorite Mysteries
(Toni L. P. Kelner, Dana Cameron, Paul G. Tremblay, Resa Nelson, John R. Douglas, and Darrel Schweitzer)
Characteristics of mysteries that appeal to SF/F readers, per the panelists: problem solving, curiosity, rational connections, what seems mysterious is explicable, different worlds, specialized knowledge, characters and theme, exploration of uncertainty. Panelists also provided their favorite non-speculative fiction mysteries that they believed would appeal to speculative fiction readers, as well as discussion of crossovers. It was a fun discussion, and I walked out with the hint of an idea about a story set at a con — and discovered later the call for submissions for unCONventional, so if I write the story, at least I’ve got a market to send it to. 😉
Playing With Dice
(Myke Cole, Peter V. Brett, Ethan Gilsdorf, Margaret Ronald)
This was one of the panels my son attended with me, which makes sense, as we play D&D as a family. The panelists discussed what they felt they learned from role-playing games and how that affected their writing lives. There was also some re-hashing of decades-old grief over particular game tactics (Myke Cole and Peter V. Brett were college buddies). Examples of things learned: storytelling, world-building, how to work with others, chaos is what life and socialization are like, the idea of empathy is key. Myke Cole divided writing into two important factors: craft and awesome, and said that D&D helped with the awesome. Margaret Ronald agreed about filling the well of awesome. “If you’re designing something, have everything happen at once. . . . It will be memorable.”
What Is Time Travel Good For?
(Karl Schroeder, Michael Flynn, Ian Tregillis, Ken Schneyer)
As evidence of how out of it I was last weekend, I went to this talk just because I thought the topic was cool. It wasn’t until the panel was half over that I remembered I am currently working on a time travel novel. On the other hand, I also got a really cool short story idea during this talk, too. Just have to make time to write it.
Karl Schroeder said, “Time travel is a way of getting at relationships.”
Poignancy is a part of the lure of time travel — “if I could do that over, if I could see that again.” Panelists discussed juxtaposition of past and present, memory and aspiration, our assumptions that we can predict our own future (even the next decision we’d make), how travel to the past is a symptom of regret while travel to the future may no resonate with the reader (and if it’s all going to be foreign, only reason to have time travel rather than just write an SF story set in the future is to have someone in the story who needs things explained to her or him), quantum mechanics (no single past), barbarian philosophy, the nature of ghosts, a universe with two dimensions of time, being willing to throw out science for the sake of a good story (“What’s the point of writing stories if you have to tell the truth?”), free will, class distinction, economic theory, and criminal punishment. Summary: The reason to write a time travel story is the same as the reason to write any other story — it lets you say something about the human condition that you can’t say in any other way. (Neglected to write down who said that. Sorry.)
After that panel, I headed for the autographing session (wanted Charles Stross to autograph The Jennifer Morgue for me, and he seemed a bit put out that I was reading the Laundry Files series in reverse chronological order). When the boy was done with games in the Dragonslair, we headed out to the Barking Crab to grab some dinner, walking through the cold and windy night to get there. I should have realized the Barking Crab serves excellent seafood, and one does not show up on a Saturday evening and expect to get seated. My son asked about food to go, and the answer was “Of course.” We ordered some, went back to the hotel, and split it with Bonnie, whom we were sharing a room with.
Later, we went to the play of “Giant’s Tooth,” with Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, Larry Seiler, Dave Grubbs, Larry Pfeffer, and Tim Szczesuil. Very humorous, and I’m glad we went.
Then it was off to bed to rest up for the last day of the con.
We started Sunday with breakfast at the con suite, and then I bought a few books (including The Atrocity Archives, so I could read it before The Jennifer Morgue) and pre-registered for next year’s con (John Scalzi is the GOH, and anyone who knows what a Scalzi fangirl I am will not be surprised) before I headed off to the interview of Charles Stross conducted by Ginjer Buchanan. I didn’t take notes during the interview, but one of the things that stuck with me is that as he started writing, he very deliberately wrote each book so it could be the start of a series in a slightly different sub-genre, on the theory that he didn’t know what would sell, and it made sense to write something new rather than writing a second book in a series that might not go anywhere. Then, of course, everything sold, and for a while, his agent was rather concerned because he was all over the map, rather than having a specific spot on the genre map. He decided that what tied his book together was his perspective, and he’s happy with that. (And given how well his books are doing, I’d say readers are fine with it, too.)
The E-Book Market
(Jeffrey A. Carver, Neil Clarke, John R. Douglas, Gavin Grant, Charles Stross, Eleanor Wood)
The panelists started off by discussing their preferred e-readers. John R. Douglas said he prefers something he can carry in his pocket, while Charles Stross stated that the problem with small screens is the constraint on blowing up text to a legible size (important for presbyopia; it was noted that older audiences are a larger market for e-readers). DRM came up, of course, with at least one panelist commenting he wouldn’t buy anything that was DRMed unless he could crack it. Also discussed was the physical act of reading — needing to flip back earlier in a novel to remind oneself of something, for example — and how that might change the nature of what is written or whether younger readers who start with electronic books might not have the same way of remembering where to look for information. Rights management, Calibre, bundling, contractual issues, royalties vs. licenses, and the Copyright Act of 1978 all came up for discussion.
At noon, I went back to get The Atrocity Archives autographed, which made me a tad late for the next talk. Charles Stross remembered me from the previous day and told me I’d get much more out of The Jennifer Morgue if I did read The Atrocity Archives first.
Going to Sea: An SF Fan’s Perspective
Weuve discussed everything from the difference between the Combat Information Center and the bridge to what different officers do, touching on where the information center is located in different class ships, the bridge being dark at night (just like a car’s interior), what’s involved in underway replenishment, overstaffing of ships, paperwork and where it’s done, lack of free time, manual backups, and why Star Fleet is more like the Coast Guard than the Navy.
SF & HF — Why Science Fiction and Historical Fiction Are the Same (Nearly)
(Darlene Marshall, Walter Hunt, Jo Walton, Debra Doyle, Michael Flynn)
World-building, the need to get the details right, obviously figures in both types of fiction. Jo Walton brought up the Tiffany problem — the name has been used since the 13th century in England and France, but if you use it for a girl before the 20th century, your readers will be certain you got it wrong. There are many details like that in both history and science where being right is still going to get the writer a lot of angry mail.
Other topics included POV (being alien to a culture makes it easier to explain in the story — examples given included Eifelheim, Shogun, and Cuckoo’s Egg), how much characters have already seen in the past before the story opens, different perspectives on culture and place in the world, Leonardo’s notebooks, lack of monolithic societies, the changing length of hours in medieval times, the inherent tragedy of all historical works (because we know what history has in store for the characters in the span of months or years), and lack of weeks and weekends. Kate Elliot was quoted — “Just because they’re primitive doesn’t mean they’re stupid.”
The Year in Physics and Astronomy
(Jeff Hecht, Ctein, Mark Olson)
Lots of stuff happened in the past year, and my one regret about this panel was that although they kept talking when the scheduled hour was up (nothing was scheduled after them), I had to go. Humorous incident: Ctein didn’t have a tent with his name, so he used Esther Friesner’s (who had been in the room previously). Pictures were taken (but not by me).
The Kepler mission came up first, including how it has changed our understanding of how planetary systems form, and that there is no galactic planar alignment for planetary orbits. Project Longshot was mentioned, which says that there is no planetary body in the Centauri system of Neptune’s size or larger. Double objects in the Kuiper belt were discussed (which reminded me of the plasma cosmology talk), as well as capture probabilities. Water is incredibly common in space, and there’s a limit to the size an orbiting body can get, due primarily to frictional effects. The cleanliness of Saturn’s rings were discussed as an anomaly. Epsilon Aurigae was mentioned, as well as the imaging of coronal loops off of Algol. Modeling of a supernova was shown, indicating extreme asymmetry of the eruption, and how that would function as a rocket for the star.
Ctein discussed moving beyond classical understanding of quantum mechanics, with a reformulation of how it works. He said he hadn’t wrapped his head around the new way of thinking, but he hopes to within the next year or two. The only search term he could suggest as a reference to look up was “holographic theory” — he says he doesn’t understand the ideas clearly enough to even give more relevant terms. He also mentioned that gravity was treated as akin to osmotic pressure. This is not an extension of the classical model, but rather a recasting of how we think about it.
And that was the con. We’d discussed doing a museum or the aquarium on Sunday afternoon, but we all felt pretty done in by that point, so we skipped that. I think visiting anything besides the con would require an extra couple of days, so we could get some rest in.