Time, Space, and Readercon: A Personal Observation
I’m driving up Route 95. The audiobook of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is playing. His description of the humid climate of Thailand seems to be in combat with the air conditioning. The windshield fogs up more than once.
Most Readercon weekends it is either oppressively hot or unnaturally stormy, as if the weather of some inhospitable world has taken up residence. This year the heat wave which has dominated the northeast for the past week is past its peak but still present. Livid cumulonimbi hold court over Burlington, Massachusetts, creating inverted canyons almost too big for the sky to hold.
My printout of the program grid sits on the passenger seat, with panels and events already highlighted. Part of my pre-con prep. This year is Readercon 21. Damn. I’ve been attending since number 2 when I was in my mid-twenties. Some years it’s just a day-trip for me, but I get there. I assume some strange time-contraction is in play because, considering that the convention skipped a couple years, this inexplicable passage of time means I am getting older, a fact that is simply unacceptable.
That faint reminder of mortality lightly permeates the weekend for me, as last year Charles N. Brown passed away while returning home from Readercon. As I walk the halls and peruse the Bookstore I catch glimpses of so many writers who have been regulars at the con, whom I’ve gotten the chance to speak to, hear them read their stories and discuss their origins. Recalling the accumulation of experience also reminds just how much this mid-year exploration of the literature of ideas has been a constant in my adult life.
Flashback: My first Readercon in Lowell MA. It’s raining hard. I find three A.A. Attanasio books I’ve never heard of. I get about twenty autographs by the time its over. I have quite a few conventions under my belt already, including a couple Worldcons, but none of them hit me like this. I hope this con becomes a regular thing…
I have always found the panels at Readercon to be a bit more substantive than those at other conventions, primarily because they’re involved with exploring the meat of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the forces and functions that make it breathe. There’s a heady rush when one witnesses these biopsies on the dynamics of the genre. They can take the form of elegant mappings or brute force deconstructions. Most importantly, no matter how solemnly the subject matter is treated, there is laughter, great wall-shaking cascades of it. I suspect the Marriott in Burlington may be a living many-chambered resonance trap designed to echo, amplify, and otherwise maximize laughter for its own sustenance. If so, it feeds well.
This year’s Guests of Honor are Charles Stross and Nalo Hopkinson, with Olaf Stapledon as Memorial Guest of Honor. These GoH choices promise themes of progress, determination, and the far-reaching vistas on the imagination. We will be plumbing deep-time, a theme captured effectively on the cover of the program guide.
These promises begin coming to fruition early with a Friday panel examining the Scientific Mystery story, where Don D’Ammassa, Walter H. Hunt, Jack McDevitt, Allen Steele, and David Swanger break down the types of mysteries that can be tackled, as well as the methods by which such mysteries can be solved.
This is followed by Orders-and Chapters-of Magnitude, about stories where the narrative encompasses ever-increasing scales of space, time, and evolution. Ellen Asher, Paul Di Filippo, Robert Killheffer, Charles Stross, and David Swanger discuss the thematic challenges, along with the need for a human viewpoint. The Powers of Ten video is evoked a few times (along with its parodies), as well as stories ranging from Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero to the works of Stephen Baxter. It is agreed that such a story is hard to pull off due to the constraints of storytelling, but when it is managed it is a thing of beauty.
Readercon is the launch point for Is Anybody Out There?, a new anthology focused on the Fermi Paradox. Co-editor Marty Halpern (who has a blog page dedicated to the book) moderates a panel where contributors Paul Di Filippo, Yves Meynard, and James Morrow read excerpts from their stories. Halpern also gives a history of what went into getting the anthology published since its initial conception in 2007. The panel is entertaining and though-provoking.
It isn’t until driving home that I realize I did not buy a copy of the book.
I wander around the hotel a bit. It hasn’t really changed. The fake Irish pub is still there. That’s good. It’s changed its form a few times over the years. One year I discovered that it had become a dance club. Very unnerving. The motion detector faucets in the men’s room still don’t recognize me as solid. The lobby looks the same. There’s people on the couches. Some are talking. Some are reading.
Flashback: It’s sometime in the 90′s, when Readercon had a brief stint in Marlborough MA. Aside from us the hotel is hosting a large contingent of New Jersey families that have come to the area to attend a wedding. I’m in the bar on Saturday night, when a New Jersey housewife comes up to me and ask “What’s with the badges? Why is everyone here so anti-social? All anyone is doin’ in the lobby is reading!” I try to explain the nature of the con but she’s just not getting it. Her steady intake of Tanqueray isn’t helping. After about twenty minutes her friends show up and she leaves.
At this point the three Japanese attendees farther down the bar are looking at me, laughing, and repeating what sounds like “bah-woo-mah!”
We begin talking, I in poor Japanese and they in passable English, and I learn that they are referring to the departed wedding guest as a “Bog Woman.” After some more extremely faulty translation I learn that in parts of Japan what we would call “dive bars” are known as “swamps,” and a woman who can enter a nice bar and, by nature of her demeanor and actions, reduce it to a swamp, is known as a “Bog Woman.”
I laugh my ass off at this.
Saturday starts off with Can I Superstring that Story for You, which examines Quantum Mechanics in SF. Paul Di Filippo admits to trawling Scientific American and New Scientist for ideas and language to “tart up” a story. Ed Meskys recalls the first inklings of QM appearing in SF. John Cramer tells tales from actual accelerator experiments. Eric M. Van talks about the fine line between QM and hand-waving. The conversation includes Many Worlds theory, quantum consciousness, crosstalk between states, morphic resonance, and what constitutes causality violation. Di Filippo predicts that the first transmission sent via quantum entanglement will be the URL for a funny cat video. The conclusion at panel’s end was that there is a dearth of stories utilizing exotic QM.
Starmaker my Destination looks at the teleological nature of some SF, where purpose-driven destinies drive the story. Jeffrey A Carver, Ken Houghton, Donald G. Keller, James Morrow, and Graham Sleight sink their teeth into this one. The discussion progresses through mans role in the universe, Clarke vs. Wells, Dying Earth stories, the price tag of progress, and post-singularity SF’s contempt for flesh. It ends with a round-robin on the recent version of Galactica.
Orphans of the Time Stream begins as an examination of Stross’ novella Palimpsest and blossoms into a look at the varied sub-tropes of time travel and how they have been mastered or modified. Stross himself describes his thought process in trying to reinvent a “Time Patrol” story, especially its rules and limitations. Just about every obscure time travel story I’ve read (and a few I forgot) gets mentioned during this hour.
Torrential rains cut across the Boston area on Saturday, breaking the back of the heat wave and bringing some M-Class weather to the region. I go for a ride. I used to work weekends in the area and have a few places I like to visit when I’m here. Used Book Superstore is down the road. The legendary Kane’s Donuts is a mere twenty minutes away.
The aforementioned laughter takes center stage for the tradition Saturday night Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition. I have been to so many of these and yet still cannot describe just how absurd and glorious it is. It has to be experienced.
Flashback. It’s 2000. I’ve just watched part of the Gormenghast miniseries they’re showing as Mervyn Peake is memorial GoH. I encounter the three Japanese gentlemen again and we have lunch. I recount the many times I’ve told the “Bog Woman” story. They proceed to regale me with how they tell the story to their friends in Japan:
“Jeff sits at bar, minding own business. He is tall and strong. Bog woman comes! (slaps hand down hard on my shoulder) She DRAINS HIM OF ENERGY! She leaves him a husk!”
Iced tea shoots out my nose.
Sunday’s goings-on are brightened with news of Paolo Bacigalupi and James Morrow winning the Campbell and Sturgeon awards respectively.
I endeavor each year to save the bulk of my book buying for Readercon, preferring to give my money to vendors who specifically sell SF. This year I grab all three volumes of Clockwork Phoenix, which are ridiculously cheap considering their size and the roster of talent they contain. Also snag a lot of stuff that has recently come out in paperback, as well as some older novels I’ve been looking for from the copious shelves of used books.
And, as usual, there are so many panels I can’t attend because of scheduling: Metaphysical SF; Science for Tomorrow’s Fiction; The Writing of Olaf Stapledon. There’s only one of me, and he’s getting tired.
With many conventions I’m itching to get home after a while. With Readercon, it’s always difficult to leave. There’s so much more to talk about. My head is buzzing with ideas. But I have many pages of notes, a bag of books that will last me a while, and a box of donuts that won’t.
Readercon is an island universe that syncs up with ours once a year. Thought and physics work different there. The population isn’t just literate, it’s really literate. History is remembered. Great work is honored. And everyone laughs.
I head home, Windup Girl cranked, under distinctly terrestrial skies.
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