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MIND MELD: Our Favorite Convention Panels

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This week, we asked our panlists about their favorite Convention Panels:

Q: What was the best convention panel you ever attended? What was the best convention panel you were ever on? If you could set up your ideal convention panel, what would be the topic and who would be on it?

This is what they said…

Amal El-Mohtar
A Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, Amal El-Mohtar currently resides in Scotland, in the company of two black and white cats and their pet Glaswegian. In her hours of rest she drinks tea, lifts weights, plays harp, and writes stories about maps, bird women, book women, the Arabic alphabet, singing fish, and Damascene dream-crafters. Not usually all at once. Her story “The Green Book” was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2011.

Best panel I ever attended: It’s tricky to do this without clarifying the metrics by which we measure “best” — funniest? Most engaging? Most illuminating? Most overall enjoyable? I’ll stick with, for now, most positively memorable:

In 2010, at Readercon 21, I attended “I Weaving You My Story, Oui? Writing Realistic Speech,” featuring Greer Gilman, Nalo Hopkinson, Anil Menon, and Yves Meynard, with Barbara Krasnoff as moderator. Though it’s been almost four years, one thing Nalo said on that panel really stuck with me: addressing the anxiety attendant on writing different cultures, she said that we should keep in mind that we are more alike than we are different; that we should remember that while never losing sight of those differences; and that there are experiences, like biting into a piece of fruit, that can allow us to bridge those gaps of difference without erasing them. While there was a lot of fascinating stuff discussed — writing dialectical differences aurally rather than visually, among them — that image, of biting into fruit as a bridge, has remained with me for years, and will, I think, do so for many more.

Best panel I was ever on: This is a toss-up between two Wiscon panels that I participated in on the same day! Also in 2010 — a particularly fantastic year for me convention-wise — I was on both “The Politics of Steampunk,” with Liz L. Gorinsky moderating among Jaymee Goh, Theodora Goss, Piglet, and Nisi Shawl, and “Revenge of Not Another Fucking Race Panel,” which had a game show format led by Julia/Sparkymonster, and participants including Seressia Glass, Andrea D. Hairston, Cecilia Tan, and Shveta Thakrar.

In the steampunk panel, the conversation was incredible; I had the wonderful experience of learning from both the panelists and the audience members, and of feeling like I was saying things that made sense (which is always kind of a gift when one’s on a panel and feeling like one’s blathering nonsense at an embarrassingly fast clip). It also later led to Liz Gorinsky inviting me to contribute a piece to that year’s Steampunk Fortnight on, so I have more reason to think of it fondly. But for sheer over-the-top uncontrollably laughing FUN, nothing beats RoNAFP; everyone was having such a great time, and I got to talk about how brains are delicious and also how I’d like to have a TARDIS inside me (SO I CAN BE BIGGER ON THE INSIDE, OBVS), and I’ve never been on a panel quite so riotously enjoyable since.

My ideal convention panel: As it happens I’m on the programming committee for Readercon, so I actually get to work towards these ideals with some truly fabulous people! At present I’ve been lobbying pretty hard for a panel that I feel will address the fundamentals of a number of intersecting disciplines and discourses while potentially bringing about a fourth Punic war.

I refer, of course, to the Butt Panel.

Titles are slippery; “What Cheek: A Thorough Investigation of Literary Butts,” or alternately “The Booty Don’t Lie: Butts and Radical Truth-Telling” present themselves as possibilities. The ideal panel of my imagination would have me moderating a conversation between Janelle Monae, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jeph Jacques, Hal Duncan, and Chaucer, in which we would address the humble buttocks’ place in history, literature, gender, genre, race, and sexuality, reasoning a posteriori all the while.

Django Wexler
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. His most recent story is John Golden: Freelance Debugger. His middle-grade fantasy novel, The Forbidden Library, will be released on April 15th.

I’m relatively new to the convention circuit, so my experience doesn’t run too deep. The best panel I have been on, so far, was probably the “MG/YA Hero/Heroines” panel at NYCC ’13, with Claire LeGrand and Paul Pope, among others whose names are now lost to me. I think I enjoyed it because it was one of the first panels I’ve been on where I genuinely felt like I had something to say. The character and story of children’s book protagonists is a subject near to my heart, and my MG fantasy The Forbidden Library had its beginnings in thinking about some overlooked possibilities in the “standard” fantasy heroine’s setup. Coming in to the panel with a thing that I was specifically interested in talking about and taking questions on made for a more interesting experience for me than some of the others I’d done, which were on topics as broad as “Epic Fantasy”. It also helped that NYCC was my third big convention, so I was not quite at the pitch of nervousness I’d worked myself up to at SDCC earlier in the year.

The best panel I ever attended is a harder call, partly because my memory for these things is receding into the mists of time. I have fond memories of panel at a WorldCon last decade, where David Brin got into a spirited argument with another panelist on the merits of Star Wars, a subject on which he is extremely passionate. (He’s against it, FYI.) I believe Vernor Vinge may have been on it as well, although it’s possible I’m conflating a different panel from the same con. (That was also the con on which I rode in an elevator with Vinge and got to tell him I liked Rainbows End. My first brush with fame!)

For me, the ideal panel combines a few important elements. Obviously, the subject matter has to be something I’m interested in, but almost as important is that it’s something the panelists are interested in. If possible, something they’re passionate about! (Although not so much that the panel devolves into a shouting match.) Generally, I prefer fairly narrowly defined panels to really broad ones or panels driven by audience questions, which all tend to sound a bit similar after a while. Another crucial element is a good moderator, who keeps the discussion moving when it gets bogged down or sidetracked, and makes sure the panelists don’t monologue or wander off topic. (My first panel, at SDCC, was moderated by the awesome Colleen Lindsay, who has set a very high bar for the moderators that followed her.)

Kari Sperring
Historian and author Kari Sperring is not a Musketeer, but could totally do it if it were a viable profession today. Her most recent novel is The Grass King’s Concubine, sequel to her debut novel Living with Ghosts.

I sometimes think I’ve been around in British sff fandom for too long. Faced with this question, my first response was ‘where do I start’? My second ‘but I never see panels, I’m always in Green Room.’ Both are true: over here in the UK, we run Green Room rather differently to the US model: it’s less a place for participants to eat, than a gathering space in which they can meet co-panelists and discuss the subject in advance. (With drinks laid on.) So over my too many years of con-going, I’ve seen the preliminaries of all too many panels that I then did not get to watch. Panels on specific writers, panels on writing craft, panels on astronomy and history and sociology and bus timetables (yes, really). I can’t remember all the ones I yearned to see and missed, but I remember the yearning, the sense that somewhere over there was a public conversation I was not allowed to hear. It’s all very frustrating.

And the same goes, to a degree, to panels I have been on. I’ve been around too long; the specifics blur. Which convention had the panel about Women in Celtic Societies and which one the panel on Celtic Myths in Fiction? Or were they both Mythical Celtic Women and Why They Are Not Historical) which any Celtic history-related panel containing me tends to turn into? (It’s one of my rants. Sorry.) And what about the panels about women in sff – can we write, do we write, are we safe, should we expect to be safe, what are we anyway? The panels and the cons pile up, each its own strand in the ever-growing tapestry of sff discussion.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. And yet… There are a few that still hold place in my memory. The panel at, I think, Interaction in 1995, about Roger Zelazny, on which Joe Haldeman, George R R Martin, Walter Jon Williams and Victor Milan talked not only about Zelazny’s wonderful, complex, imaginative body of work, but about his skills as an editor and his reputation as a demon games’ master in table-top games. I never had the chance to hear Zelazny talk, but that panel – a panel made of people who knew and respected and loved him – provided me with a rare chance to learn something of him not only as a writer but as a real, entire person. It was a privilege to hear his friends talk. IT sticks in my memory too because it is, I think, the most jealous I have ever seen my other half. He really wanted to have played in some of those rpg sessions. Then there was a panel on Whitewashing and Inclusivity at last year’s Eastercon, EightSquared, on which Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Aliette de Bodard, Stephanie Saulter, Dev Agarwal, C. E. Murphy, Tajinder Singh Hayer and Caroline Hooton discussed elision, cultural imperialism, inclusion, and moving forward with the greatest insight, generosity and thoughtfulness. I wish there could be more panels like this one.

It’s harder to identify a best panel I’ve been on. They tend to pass in a blur of engagement with topic and anxiety that I’m not being boring or talking too much. From the point of view of learning, the most interesting was probably one on social class, at World Fantasy Con 2012 in San Diego, moderated with great skill by Jeff Marriotte, and made up otherwise of Kathryn Sullivan, Kirstyn McDermott, Will Shetterley, John Hornor Jacobs and me. I hadn’t met any of my co-panelists before and I was jet-lagged, but it was a fascinating, engaged item which ranged across culture and time and produced some wonderful comments and questions from the audience. It was the first time I’d heard Americans address the issue of class in their own society, too. But the most fun I’ve had on a panel? There are two. The first was a podcast (does that count) also at World Fantasy 2011 which I had the privilege to record with the amazing Marie Brennan, on the subject of ‘theme-park history’. We ranged from the Upper Palaeolithic to the late nineteenth century, taking in folk-lore, technology, chronicle-texts in manuscript, clothing, table manner, feminism, and books we both loved (and loathed). We talked – and laughed and bounced ideas – for over an hour and it was just a wonderful discussion. The other was at Congenial, a small convention (one of the Unicon series, always held in UK universities) in Cambridge in the summer of 2012. Juliet E McKenna, Tanya Brown, Kate Keen and I were the participants: the topic, loosely themed around writing, was ‘How to do sex and death properly’. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much on a programme item: the prose went behind purple into deepest red, the audience suggestions got more and more ridiculous and we had so much fun we promised to do exactly the same panel again next time. We will, too.

As to the panel I would most like to see… The one I mentioned earlier about Whitewashing and Inclusivity came pretty close; the one on class is a close second. In both cases, the participants were informed, involved, thoughtful and utterly fascinating (well, apart from me. I live with the British class system, so…) and the audience was engaged and equally involved. They were both panels which became seminars, drawing in a roomful of intelligent observations and questions. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I cannot keep off politics: everything I do, not least my writing, is steeped in that (I remain startled that no-one has yet noticed – or at least told me they noticed – that there is a two-page lecture on socialist economics in the middle of my second novel). For me, sff is a years’-long, culture-crossing debate over the many possible natures and forms of human societies. So perhaps my dream panel would be something on challenging political, racial and social stereotypes in sff. And I like the participants to be those writers whose engagement with this subject shines out in their work: Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Nnedi Okorafor, Kate Elliott, Saladin Ahmed, Ken MacLeod and Adam Roberts.

Catherine Lundoff
Catherine Lundoff is a former archaeologist, former grad student and former bookstore owner turned professional computer geek and award-winning author and editor. She is a transplanted Brooklynite who now lives in Minneapolis with her wife and the two cats which own them. Silver Moon (Lethe Press, 2012) is her latest book and “Medium Méchanique” in Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam (2013) and “The Light Fantastic” in Luna Station Quarterly (2013) are her latest stories. Visit her online at her website, facebook and Twitter as @CLundoff.

Truthfully, because I’m a guest at a fair number of cons, between my own programming, socializing and Broad Universe tasks, I end up going to a lot fewer panels than I intend to. At some conventions, I only make it to the panels and readings that I’m on. I feel mildly guilty about this. No matter what I pick as a favorite here, I’m going to worry that I missed out on something else that was just as great or even better at the same con. So I’m totally going to cheat and pick several.

WisCon is the world’s foremost feminist science fiction and fantasy convention and is renowned for excellent programming, so it’s not surprising that it features my two top panel picks. Of course, I’m going to cheat even more because I’m going to pick two panels that are recurring annual events
They are:

  • The Karen Axness Memorial Panel: Women Writers You’ve Probably Never Heard of (But Should Read). The name has changed slightly over the years and the panelists are different almost every year, but the intent stays the same. In a genre where women writers get less attention and fewer reviews than their male counterparts, almost any woman writer can become one that you may not have heard of. To have an enthusiastic group of readers, reviewers, booksellers and librarians recommend their favorite works is critically important and can help a less well-known writer get discovered. I’d love to see this be a panel at other cons, and add one for LGBTQ writers and POC writers to get the word out about some of the great diversity of good reading to be found in the SF/F genre.
  • My other pick is the Not Another F*cking Race Panel. This is also an annual WisCon event, with a slightly different panel name each year. It features a group of writers and/or fans of color talking about…anything except race. Topics have included Star Trek, My Little Pony and just about any other fandom or fannish thing you can think of, and it’s wonderful and hilarious. And if you’re used to seeing writers and publishing professionals who are people of color primarily appear on race-related panels, it’s refreshing to hear them get to talk and laugh about the fun fannish things that they enjoy too.

Best panel I’ve ever been on. Oof. This one’s just as hard. I’ve been on some fun panels, some funny panels and some interesting panels, and a few that combined aspects of all of the above. And since it’s so hard to pick just one, I’m going to pick another new series. We started the Unheard Voices of SF/F panel to focus on the work of three organizations promoting diversity in the genre: Broad Universe (promoting women writing SF/F/H), the Carl Brandon Society (promoting writing by writers of color as well as positive portrayals of characters of color) and the Outer Alliance (a community of writers, readers and fans promoting LGBTQ inclusiveness in the genre). So far, we’ve done versions of this panel at WisCon, Diversicon and Arisia and we would like nothing better than to take it on a world domination tour. My favorite version so far was the one we did at Arisia 2014, which featured Andrea Hairston, Victor Raymond, Trisha Wooldridge, Julia Rios, K. Tempest Bradford and me. In the course of an hour, we covered what each organization does, what we hope to do, why a diverse science fiction and fantasy genre is a stronger genre, book recommendations and assorted other related topics. It was a blast and I can’t wait to do it again at WisCon 2014.

My ideal panel. Author Juliet E. McKenna started a hashtag on Twitter called #panelswedontsee a couple of weeks ago and I want to be on some of these and see many of the others so badly that it hurts. The point of the tag was to call attention to how women and minority writers get discussed at convention panels, if at all. I long to moderate a panel on “Writing Strong Male Characters” (or any/all of the other great suggestions). I want K. Tempest Bradford, Haddayr Copley-Woods, Juliet E. McKenna, Andrea Hairston and Kameron Hurley as panelists. I want to bring the brilliant snark until we change the genre and make all of it as powerful and interesting as it has the potential to be.

John Stevens
Author and columnist John Stevens is an SF Signal Irregular, a founding Member of The Three Hoarsemen podcast, and a fiction writer as well.

I find it hard to pin down “the best” single panel I’ve ever been to, but I can say something about the kind of panels that are most engaging and efficacious for me. The panels that I get the most out of are those that perform an intellectual alchemy, blending topic and participants to create something that stimulates fresh or deeper thought. It is less a matter of the subject and more a matter of what panelists do with it. When panelists bring a combination of experience and play to the panel, they can produce a conversation that not only entertains the audience but illuminates the subject and, possibly, gives us ideas for looking at how we take in, make sense of, and re-visit the stories we’ve read and will read.

A good representation of what works for me is a panel I attended at Readercon 22 in 2011. The subject was Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, which had been recently reissued by Wesleyan University Press. It was one of the con’s annual Book Club events where panelists discuss a specific work (with an audience that is ideally familiar with the work) and its effects on their thinking (you can see a video of the panel here ). Since it was a book about reading SF it made for an excellent touchstone of conversation, and the panel were all familiar with the book and with the work of its author. To make the event more interesting, Mr. Delany was in the audience, as were other readers and experts.

What made the panel so great was the enthusiasm that everyone in the room had for the subject. It was not a session of unbridled acclaim and agreement on the book’s lessons, but rather a spirited and convivial dissection of what people took away from the book. The discussion was anchored by the book and by Liz Hand’s capable direction of the proceedings as moderator. Everyone had a lot to say about the themes of the book, which were transferable to broader discussions of SF history, literary theory, and the act of reading itself. The panel was talked about in the halls for the rest of the weekend. I came away with so many ideas that I wrote a column on the book a few weeks later for SF Signal.

The more I think about it, the more I find that this format is very appealing because it concentrates attention on something specific and bounded for discussants to engage. This applies to panels that I’ve been on too; when the subject is specified (either in the title, the description, or by the moderator) discussion arises and unfolds more easily. I found this to be true at the following year’s Readercon when I was on a panel discussing Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Everyone on the panel brought a deep appreciation for the novel to the table, and the resulting conversation opened up the book to additional readings and caused me personally to reflect on the book’s art and meaning. I found myself reassembling thoughts in my head as the panel proceeded, to the point where Jeff Vandermeer had to verbally poke me to respond to the book. I felt a bit drunk on words afterwards.

I don’t think all panels need to focus on books or be populated by people who adore the subject at hand, but a focused topic, a steady moderator, and panelists who feel strongly about the topic combine into a formula that makes it more likely for the necessary alchemy to happen. My ideal panel is less about a particular subject than the necessary ingredients of convergence that spark a generous, flowing exchange of ideas. I’ve tried to conjure my ideal panel several times through panel suggestions and working as a moderator, and that only works if the other participants are ready to not just join in the ritual of performance but to embrace the possible magic that these events can produce. My ideal panel is a group of enthusiastic, critical contributors who want to generate a colloquy about something that stirs everyone in the room to reflect on, and maybe reconsider, what they thought when they walked into the event.

Derek Johnson
Columnist Derek Johnson writes genre movie reviews and criticism for SF Signal and SF Site.

Until I was 20 I knew nothing of science fiction fandom, let alone conventions. It was not until 1988 when I joined the Slug Tribe (one of Austin’s science fiction and fantasy workshops) that I became at all aware of Armadillocon, the first science fiction convention I attended, and to this day my primary relationship with discussions of all things skiffy.

We always remember our first times with a certain fondness, so it should come as no surprise that my first panel, the first I ever attended, remains one that focused on Philip K. Dick. That October 1988, James Blaylock, K. W. Jeter, and Tim Powers, writers I was reading very closely, reminisced about their absent friend, recalling stories by turns hilarious (as when he convinced Blaylock that gravity was coming to an end) to the surreal (Jeter described driving Dick to a counseling group, where he attempted to pick up women, which always makes me wonder if Chuck Palaniuk ever heard the same story) to the downright bizarre. When the panelists opened things up for questions, one audience member asked if the panelists had any theories about the infamous break-in that occurred at Dick’s home in the early 1970s. Powers barked “No!” before passing the mike to Jeter. The moment brought a chorus of laughter from the audience.

Many panels I’ve attended over the past 10 years centered on apes. Interesting moments occurred at each one—for example, Scott Cupp, at an Armadillocon 2003 panel on ape movies, talked about a movie which a guy in a gorilla suit attacked unsuspecting members of a nudist colony. The audience responded first by asking if Cupp was putting them on (he wasn’t), then by asking if the movie was available on DVD. (Admit it, you’d watch the hell out of it, too.) Then there was the Apes in Popular Culture panel at Armadillocon 2011, in which one of the attendees (Bill Crider, I believe) brought out a mock-up of the cover for a long-lost magazine entitled Zeppelin Stories. On its white cover, a large gorilla (though to my eyes it looked like the artist mixed orangutan DNA) attacked a man who was standing on a rope ladder underneath an airborne dirigible. This was the cover art for the feature story entitled “Gorilla of the Gasbags” by one Gil Brewer. The panelists (who included Rick Klaw, Rhonda Eudaly Simpson, moderator Mark Finn, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Chris N. Brown, Don Webb, and Cupp) speculated on the contents of the story (the original is lost to memory) until Joe R. Lansdale, who sat in the audience, offered a challenge: write a story around the cover and bring it to next year’s convention. (I wasn’t part of the panel, but Finn allowed me to bring my contribution.)

The next year, panelists brought stories encompassing a variety of different themes, with Don Webb’s contribution being the most fascinating. Don had forgotten his story, but a portion, from memory, as if channeling William S. Burroughs. I worried when Lansdale began reading the first page or two of his, as he, like I, went to Edgar Rice Burroughs for inspiration (Subterranean Press published the resulting novella, titled The Ape Man’s Brother). I needn’t have worried, as he put a spin vastly different from mine (which also incorporated elements of Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and H. Rider Haggard) on the challenge.

What’s my dream panel? Actually, I believe I’ve lived it: a couple of years ago I was invited to panel with Lansdale, Klaw, Finn, and Howard Waldrop on what five movies we would take with us on a deserted island. We listed so many possibilities that I wondered if I shouldn’t just ensure the deserted island had Netflix access.

Deborah Stanish
Deborah Stanish is the co-editor of the Hugo nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She has had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords, Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III, Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers and Apex Magazine. She is the moderator of Verity! Podcast, where six women, from around the globe, debate and discuss Doctor Who.

In 2004 I was at a very small conference focusing on the work of Joss Whedon where the guest of honor was Jane Espenson. Whedon’s properties really helped advance the “cult of the writer”, where fans were willing to follow writers from one series to another, and Espenson was definitely the queen of that tribe. She participated in a panel with Middle Tennessee University’s David Lavery (Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and co-founder of Slayage, the Journal of the Whedon Study Association) and it was fascinating to see these two interact and critically discuss her writing through an academic lense. Her work was treated with respect and to the type of analysis that I had only ever encountered in literary circles.

Being a media writer/editor makes for an interesting convention experience. You have to navigate past the actor-focused meet & greets, autographs and photo sessions to find the panels where the creators – writers, producers and directors – discuss how they create the worlds that make up our collective modern myths. This panel, at my very first convention, stands out as the benchmark for creator panels. I got to peek behind the curtain and, to my delight, saw that there really was a wizard pulling the strings.

I’ve been fortunate to have been participated in some amazing panels over the course of my career, both SF/F related and Real World related, but a very recent panel will probably stick with me a long time. At the 2014 Gallifrey One convention I was asked to moderate the Colour Separation Overlay panel with Paul Cornell, Dennis Slade and Lindsay Mayers. The panel, despite its conflated media-related name, was about racism in Doctor Who. On Verity! we talk a lot about the various “–isms” in relation to Doctor Who but there is no getting around the fact that I am not a person of color and any contribution that I would have to this panel, despite my stance as an ally, would be from an outsider looking in, privilege firmly in hand. My discomfort caused me to examine how I choose to engage with difficult topics and how much of myself and my failings I’m willing to publicly expose. What ultimately convinced me that this was a panel I should be involved in was a really thoughtful Twitter conversation I’d had earlier with Mayers regarding our reaction to Miley Cyrus’ performance on the VMA’s that highlighted how different, albeit underrepresented, perspectives can affect reaction to controversy.

In the end I did what any good moderator does on a panel – I asked questions and I listened. During the course of the panel I admitted and examined my missteps and listened to a thoughtful and respectful audience talk about a difficult subject. No one likes to hear that something they love is flawed or that their interpretations are filtered through a multi-layered lens of privilege but that is exactly what they heard. Then we challenged the audience to think about how they respond when people say that something upsets them or is problematic and, rather than defaulting to justification or argument, to really listen. And they did. Of all the panels I’ve ever participated in this had the most traction and post-convention response. I can’t praise my fellow panelists enough for their hard work and willingness to tackle the hard stuff.

Earlier this month Waterstones published a Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy. Of the 113 authors listed only nine women made the cut. There was a LOT of online discussion about this (check out Juliet McKenna’s posts here and here for a sampling) and once again women, both readers and writers, raised their voices and said “I don’t think so.” Equal representation is a huge issue, not just in SF/F but in mainstream fiction and all levels of television and filmmaking. While it’s tempting to construct a fantasy panel consisting of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, May Sarton and Dorothy Parker (Oh my giddy aunt…) my real fantasy panel would be one where equal representation isn’t an ideal, a goal or even a debate. It just is.

Alisa Krasnostein
Alisa Krasnostein is editor and publisher at independent Twelfth Planet Press. She is a freshly minted creative publishing PhD candidate researching the potential for political editing and publishing, She is also part of the twice Hugo nominated Galactic Suburbia Podcast team. In 2011, she won the World Fantasy Award for her work at Twelfth Planet Press.

The two most enjoyable convention panels I’ve ever attended – the ones that had me with a smile on my face as I left – would have to be the live recording of a Doctor Who Special of Boxcutters Podcast at Worldcon 2010 in Melbourne and a panel on how to pitch your novel to a big publishing house at Romance Writers of Australia in Fremantle last year. The formats for these two panels couldn’t have been more different. The Doctor Who Special featured Rob Shearman and Paul Cornell with the regular (at that time) hosts of Boxcutters – John Richards and Josh Kinal. The panel worked because it was hosted by adept moderators who weren’t needing to overshadow the rest of the panel and because Shearman and Cornell know each other well and riffed off each other. The result was very entertaining. Conversely, the Romance Writers panel was moderated by one of the convention’s guests – Abby Zidle, editor at Gallery and Pocket Books – and volunteers from the audience. Zidle set up the panelists as various department heads sitting in an acquisition meeting debating the merits of a real novel pitch provided by an author in the audience. Zidle was entertaining, providing snippets of examples from real meetings she’s attended but also deftly navigated the audience through how decisions are made about manuscripts in big publishing houses.

The premise of our podcast Galactic Suburbia was based exactly on the “if you could have your ideal convention panel”. We were forever disappointed about spending the whole hour of a panel debating whether there is sexism in SF and never getting beyond these sort of Feminism 101 discussions to much meatier topics. One of the problems with convention panels is you’re always starting at the beginning and establishing where all the panelists can be on the same page and agree to have a discussion. A podcast with regular panelists and audience allows you to develop the conversation beyond that.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
Lynne M. Thomas is the former Editor-in-Chief of Apex Magazine (2011-2013). She co-edited the Hugo Award-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords, as well as Whedonistas and Chicks Dig Comics. She moderates the Hugo-Award winning SF Squeecast, a monthly SF/F podcast, and contributes to the Verity! Podcast. In her day job, she is the Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University, where she is responsible for the papers of over 60 SF/F authors. You can learn more about her shenanigans at Along with being the former Managing Editor of the Hugo-nominated Apex Magazine, Michael Damian Thomas co-edited Queers Dig Time Lords (Mad Norwegian Press) with Sigrid Ellis, Flying Higher: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry (Meatball Trouble Productions) with Shira Lipkin, and Glitter & Mayhem (Apex Publications), with John Klima and Lynne M. Thomas. He also has worked as an Associate Editor on numerous books at Mad Norwegian Press, including the Hugo Award-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords (edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea) and Hugo Award-nominated Chicks Dig Comics (edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis). Michael and Lynne live in DeKalb with their daughter Caitlin, and a cat named Marie. Caitlin has a rare congenital disorder called Aicardi syndrome, and Michael works as her primary caregiver. Together, they travel through time and space fighting crime.


My favorite SF/F convention panel that I’ve served on as a panelist must be a panel that I did at OddCon several years ago, when Kage Baker was one of the GoHs for the convention. The other was George R.R. Martin. The question was “What is the Value of Art?” and the panelists were myself and Kage Baker. We had a very small crowd, because the panel was scheduled opposite George’s GoH speech.

What followed that question may have been the deepest conversation about life, the universe, and art that I’ve ever had. I learned on that panel that Kage’s mother had been a WPA artist who studied under Maxfield Parrish, and Kage had some particular views on how art, especially art by women, was valued. My contribution was about the art market and how it worked, from the perspective of a curator and institutional collection. How do we value the art that we select and purchase for public consumption, as compared to how it is valued by those who consume it or create it?

She and I chatted for an hour about art, life, and beauty, intertwining the conversation with discussions of commercialism in art, and books, and science fictional perceptions of the value of art. I’ve never enjoyed being on a panel more.

My favorite panel that I’ve ever attended was at Capricon 2012. It was called “Civil Disobedience” and was about the Occupy and Tea Party Movements, and included Cory Doctorow, Michael Z. Williamson, Mary Anne Mojanraj, and Eileen Maksym. The panel was moderated with the Iron Fist of John Scalzi.

The topic and the panelists meant a standing-room-only crowd, many of whom brought their metaphorical popcorn in anticipation of a really good slapfight.

What they got instead was a genuinely cordial and respectful interaction between people with diametrically opposed political viewpoints. This made for an excellent panel examining social movements on any part of the political spectrum, both in fact and fiction, and how they are portrayed by those documenting them in either format. Not only was this a moderation tour-de-force, it was an extremely interesting panel. Often with political topics, we expect discussion from both sides that zooms right past the opposing viewpoints rather dismissively, but “plays to the base” of the folks who agree with the speaker in question. Instead, what we got was an honest, somewhat raw, but respectful discussion of power, government, community, and collaborative action, through the lens of people who occasionally have more in common than they think, but when they disagree, they REALLY disagree.


My friend Steven H Silver often mentions that he became a conrunner in order to recreate for others that magical experience of attending his first convention. Though I’ve experienced hundreds of panels, my earliest as an attendee still come to mind first as the most magical. As a Doctor Who fan, I still have strong memories of Visions 1996 and a Doctor Panel with actors Colin Baker (6th Doctor), Deborah Watling (Victoria), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), and Lalla Ward (2nd Romana). This was back in the day before endless nonfiction books and DVD extras, so all of their anecdotes were fresh and extremely exciting. (Colin accidentally rubbing dog poop in his face before a take! Frazer Hines and Patrick Troughton pranking Watling by substituting knickers for her handkerchief in a scene where their characters find that article and exclaim that they recognize it as Victoria’s!)

What shocked me most was the frankness on stage. Lalla and Sarah were extremely critical of Matthew Waterhouse as an actor and as a person for his awful behaviors on set. Lalla gave the answer “Tom Baker” when asked about her favorite Doctor Who monster. I now know that it isn’t unusual for these actors to be so brutally honest on panels, but at the time it seemed so shocking and refreshing.

I was in such a daze of fannishness that I accidentally stared in amazement at Colin Baker passing us in the hall after the panel. There was the Doctor! He met my gaze and said, “I’m only a figment of your imagination.”

So magical.

Two panels at general SF conventions come to mind when I think about my most memorable from the audience. At my first Windycon in 2006, we attended a small panel about serving in the military and how it affects your writing that featured legends Gene Wolfe and Frederik Pohl. It was extremely emotional as both men remembered fallen friends and often horrific conditions during WW2 and the Korean War. Seeing both of these amazing authors be so honest (Gene teared up quite a bit) made me feel like I was sharing something very special with 10 or so people in the panel room.

The second one Lynne detailed above. I can’t even begin to explain how amazing her conversation was with Kage Baker. Two amazing, thoughtful, intelligent people delving into art and existence in ways that expanded my brain. I wish these panels had been captured on video.

My most memorable panel as a panelist is a hard choice to make. I had an excellent panel once with George R.R. Martin about television writing that went quite well as we talked about the differences between UK and US television. I had a wonderful Blake’s 7 panel with Scott Lynch and Charlie Jane Anders that let us all geek out about our Liberator love. My favorite panel of all time, though, was probably the Wiscon launch panel for my book Queers Dig Time Lords (co-edited with Sigrid Ellis). Many of the contributors were there, and we were quite raucous. That one was captured for posterity and has been featured on the Outer Alliance Podcast. We managed to mix thoughtful points with complete irreverence and joy. That’s what makes a perfect panel for me.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

3 Comments on MIND MELD: Our Favorite Convention Panels

  1. The best panels I’ve ever been a part of have been about the Harry Potter books. Everyone from the panelists to the youngest members of the audience had an opinion and expressed it. That’s much more fun than being a talking head for a quiet audience.

  2. absolutely amazing Mind Meld.

    I loved reading about Lynne Thomas talking to Kage Baker about art for an hour. If I had a TARDIS, that’s what i would go to.

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