I’m fascinated by conventions, and I’m not entirely sure why.
I think conventions are liminal spaces, a bubble of unreality – some sort of a compressed space-time anomaly where the usual rules of physics no longer apply. Like a singularity inside a black hole… there is something about that sort of social space that appeals to the writer in me, with the result that I keep ending up featuring conventions in my books. Somewhat strange conventions…
To the extent that my agent, on receiving a recent manuscript, sighed and said, ‘Are you going to have one in every damn book?’
Which is a good question…
As I’m writing this the World Fantasy Convention is grinding to an end. My twitter feed is full of WFC chatter. It all sounds like a lot of fun, from a distance. What does fascinate me about conventions is the way they represent a pocket universe, with its own rules – a perfect setting for a murder mystery, or for a story about a rigid society and the outsider who topples it, or… pick your own particular story formula. In the first draft of The Bookman, my novel with Angry Robot (now in all good bookstores) my hero, Orphan, ends up, about half-way through the book (in an alternate nineteenth century) meeting a young H.G. Wells on a ship to France and finding himself, through no fault of his own, at the first Convention du Monde de Roman Scientifique…
‘So what does bring you across the channel?’ Orphan asked at last. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, at least.’
‘Oh, no, absolutely,’ Herb said, looking pleased at the question. ‘It’s quite all right. You see, I’ve been invited as a guest to a most curious event – I’m quite looking forward to it, actually! – taking place in Paris from tomorrow. It’s a literary convention – a kind of gathering of like-minded people, all of whom are, as it turns out, fans of the scientific romance!’
‘That does sound interesting,’ Orphan said. He tried to picture it in his mind. While working at Payne’s he had sold the occasional novel of scientific romance, such as Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race or Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and though the buyers ranged across the social stratum, they seemed almost to form a strata composed entirely of themselves: earnest, serious men (for they were almost exclusively male) whose eyes seemed to light up at the mention of their favourite book or author, and who often carried on at some length regarding the merit of this or that imaginary device before parting with their meagre cash.
Orphan ends up at the convention, meeting a young Arthur Machen and Hanns Heinz Ewers and an older Verne, amongst others, finds himself in a murder mystery investigated by M. Dupin, and finally extricates himself onwards on his journey. It was fun to write but, as my agent pointed out, completely unnecessary for the novel and, eventually, 16,000 words were replaced with a single line. No doubt the book is better for it… though I do wonder, sometimes.
I tackled conventions again, in a different manner, in my forthcoming novel from PS Publishing, Osama. To give you the bare bones of the story, a detective in a somewhat different history to ours is hired by (naturally!) a mysterious woman to locate the obscure author of a series of pulp novels featuring one Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante… and his journey takes him, across an increasingly phantasmagoric world, to New York, and to OsamaCon: where the few fans of this obscure literary figure gather to discuss every fine point in the five novels (in our own world, real-life events). I think, this time, I managed to capture some of what I meant about conventions, about the way they function as social outsides. When he arrives, my hero looks out of his window at the city outside:
Joe looked out of the window again. He had the feeling that outside the window there should have been hover-cars, men in trilby hats and jet packs, spider-webs of passageways spreading out of the distant tops of the towers. There should have been women in silver suits taking in a show at the tri-vids before indulging in a spot of lunch, the kind that came in three-course pills, great big subservient robots trailing behind them. Instead there was a brown man in overalls collecting rubbish with a long stick outside an adult cinema.
That tension between the real and unreal, the dream of SF and its realisation, all play a part (as do the Osama fans, and the merchandise in the dealers’ room). And, somewhere in between these two books, I ended up writing an entire murder mystery set in an Israeli SF convention… though the book, a collaboration with Nir Yaniv, is only available in Hebrew.
It’s not to say conventions appear in everything I write. Mostly, they make an appearance when there is a mystery, as in my current work in progress, a detective novel about… well, the universe. And where better to investigate both the disappearance of a scientist (who may just possibly have some of the answers) as well as the universe itself, if not in another self-contained world? If nothing else, the following section allowed me to express how I feel about occasionally writing science fiction…
‘I come in occasionally,’ the man said. Unlike the others, Jonathan couldn’t get much of a handle on him. He did not have a beard or other facial markings that would allow Jonathan to perceive his face, neither did he have long hair or piercings or wear aftershave or easily-identifiable clothes. In fact, the man was remarkably unremarkable, as if his sole purpose in life was to pass through it as unobtrusively as possible, drawing as little attention to himself as he could. ‘I’m a science fiction writer. Well. A writer. Who also writes science fiction.’ He shrugged, took a sip of his beer. ‘It’s like the old joke. Do you know it?’
Jonathan mutely shook his head.
‘This man says, I built a thousand ships, but does anyone call me Great Edward the ship-builder? I built a thousand homes, but does anyone call me Great Edward the house-builder? The man shakes his head sadly, looks down, mumbles, But you fuck one sheep…’