Monday, March 28, 2011

Chapter 49: In Which I Discuss My Vacations

I love science fiction conventions. There's nothing like the communal feeling of being surrounded by fellow genre enthusiasts. I used to go to a lot of anime cons when I was younger, which I can't do anymore because A) at most cons the age range skews way too young, and B) there's more focus on the fandom than the art. Not so much a problem at science fiction cons. I have been a guest at three such conventions during my career as a professional writer. At these conventions, I have been fortunate enough to do panels with some of the most talented names in the business, and talk with them about literature. Books. That paper stuff that apparently nobody likes anymore. Two of those conventions happened in the last month. Shall I tell you about it? It's the least I can do.

I left home early Friday morning to catch a 6am flight to San Diego, my backpack filled with copies of my book in bubblewrap. A Transbay bus to San Francisco, then from downtown to the Mission. Already, I was off to an adventurous start. From there, the bus to the airport. A perfectly pleasant flight in which I ate a biscotti and passed out from lack of sleep. Touchdown in San Diego. Much bus riding ensued. Saw a very pretty harbor. In downtown San Diego, I found a sweet outdoor mall.
It even had a Sam Goody's!

First impressions of San Diego, stepping off the plane: the vibe reminded me of the Bay. Wrong. San Diego is more akin to L.A. I only realized that going through downtown at night. It's been a while since I saw cholos walking around. And more bleach blond hair than I could deal with. Los Angeles cast its shadow over the place. In the hotel area where the resort was, I naturally saw plenty of rags advertising escorts. For escorts who live in L.A. Not a single San Diego-based rag. I was left wondering if the city even had its own prostitutes. But I digress. I wish I stayed longer in order to take in San Diego's unique mojo. Being an east coast guy, I couldn't even grasp the geography. During downtime in the con suite, some local scifi enthusiasts were kind of enough to explain to me how a city could be simultaneously on both the Pacific coast and the Mexican border.

San Diego is also, for this year at least, the unofficial geek capital of the west. They have ConDor at the beginning of the year, then Animekonji, Conjecture, the Clarion writers workshop, the annual entertainment industry behemoth called Comic-Con International (something I always wanted to go to as a kid, and, frankly, sounds terrifying to me nowadays) and, as if that weren't enough, World Fantasy Convention (starring Neil Gaiman) will be there in the fall.

The Town and Country Resort in San Diego is gorgeous. Gorgeous. It's also a true resort. Four different hotel complexes with different architecture bought up and combined. On first impressions, it looked like the designers couldn't decide which era to go for, so they threw in everything. Fun. It took me half an hour just to find which tiny slice of this monster housed the science fiction convention. Coming from the Bay, which was expecting snow for the first time in 30 years, to working on my tan by a pool was a nice deal. Palm trees in an actual tropical climate? How about that. With all the Roccoco-style trappings, the resort was very much a vacation spot: in other words, a place that is in no way like home. A prime place to have stuff like swordfight exhibitions and Victorian/steampunk balls.

Most random architecture ever, but without a doubt geogeous. Oh, and each room had a wicker hare on top of the TV stand. I really wish I got a picture of the hares.

ConDor is an honest-to-goodness science fiction convention, with most of the panels geared to the tech-inclined and the old school. Their theme this year was "Weird Science." That meant pictures of mad scientists through the ages on the con suite walls (some of whom were, distressingly, real guys) and all sorts of fun activities for the kids. The Guest of Honor was Greg Benford, a pretty towering names in the genre. I appreciate the scientific focus but, as a fantasy writer, it left me the odd man out in a ways. So I snapped up any panels I could that dealt with fantasy.

First one. "A Blender Full of Tropes: Media For A Self-referential, Mash-up Generation." With: Samantha Henderson, Chris Farnsworth, Cody Goodfellow and Allison Lonsdale. We talked about mash-ups. When I get on these panels, I inevitably find myself representing different schools of fandom. On this one, I pretty much represented 1960s-70s pastiche like the Wold Newtonverse and its postmodern comic book successors (aka the stuff I've read). Stuff like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Planetary. I discovered on the last day of the con that I was supposed to moderate this panel. Thank goodness I didn't know. Allison moderated, and did a far better job than I would have done, particularly with her knowledge about internet culture. Guests weren't alerted to moderating status until they arrived at the con, so there wouldn't have been time for me to prepare, anyway. I admit I know little to nothing about current geek stuff. I couldn't tell you a thing about Joss Whedon or Nathan Fillion or internet memes. I'll geek out on some Lord Dunsany all day long, but the most modern dork property I crush on is True Blood, which is popular enough that I don't even consider it geeky.

It's interesting to me whenever I do these "subgenre" panels, because we all do a lot of talking only to come to the conclusion that genre designations are at best superfluous and, at worst, crippling to creativity. These subdivisions aren't real. Everything's a mashup. We covered Terry Pratchett, Tarantino, Alan Moore, Maurice LeBlanc, Lovecraft, 4chan, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In other words: everything. I also love these panels, because they serve as an excuse for people to simply talk about what they like. Panelists and audience throwing out things they like. Goodfellow, who writes Lovecraft pastiche, had a lot to say about how pastiche, no matter how it veers from the source, should still connect to the source's worldview in a way. Pretty interesting, and his fiction sounds off-the-wall. All of the panelists were accomplished artists and had much to say about how genre-blending goes into their own work. It made me think about my writing, which I categorize as "urban fantasy," if asked, but is really whatever kind of story I felt like writing at the time. Anyways, great panel.

On a slightly unrelated note, I've been thinking a lot about redacting: the stitching together of different narratives by a third party. Maybe it's because I've been taking this "Bible as Literature" course, the Bible being a multitude of myths stitched together by different writers with different agendas. For instance, the Joseph novella was written specifically to be a bridge between the Abrahamic ancestors and the Exodus. Now, as a kid I was a big fan of Robotech, an American cartoon made by combining three different animes and inventing a brand-new overarching plot for them. While that would be a blasphemous thing to do to an anime in the Age of the Internet, I think it would be cool to try. At least in writing. Like, make a story where I do a bridge between James Bond and Batman. Well, not exactly those stories. But different myths. I think it would be fun. It just goes to show this whole mash-up thing has been around a long time. Some call it postmodern mash-up, some call it myth, some call it religion, but it goes way back.

While in San Diego, I stayed at a local punk house. To get there, I took the San Diego trolley at night. Sorry, San Francisco. SD's public transit has the realer clientele. There were some straight terrifying dudes on that trolley. Many people were also crashing at this punk house. The punks who actually paid rent affectionately dubbed me "Random Guy on The Couch." Now, recently, at the hippie house where I live, there has been a lot of angsting about cleanliness, and how everybody needs to do their part to maintain a sanitary communal space. Lots of coercion from the people who clean on the people who don't. Do you remember that part in Inglourious Basterds, where there's a whole 40-minute scene about a British undercover operative and the Gestapo agent who finds his accent funny? And the British guy goes to all this effort to not seem suspicious. And then, after all that angsting over accents, Brad Pitt goes to the movie premiere and doesn't even try to hide his Tennessee drawl. That's how I felt at this punk house. They're fine people. The friendliest, most inviting people and I am grateful they let me crash at their place. I think they would agree with me that their house is not the cleanest in the world. They kind of took it to the next level.

I slept on the living room floor, along with four other people. Didn't have to worry about waking up on time for my autograph session, for I was woken at the butt-crack of dawn by a cat running across a bunch of piano keys, then by what I thought was a rooster alarm clock. It was an actual rooster. Apparently a lot of people in that neighborhood keep hens, so there has to be a rooster for nookie purposes. Not at this house. They just had a pet rooster.

I was not in Anaheim, but these ducks were mighty

(WARNING! PERSONAL SHIT ON THE INTERNET!) I have night terrors. I've had them for a long time. There have been many instances where I've woken up from some nightmare thinking I've gone blind, or deaf, or that I can't breathe. Thinking I'm dying. This is nothing to be ashamed of. I don't have a fucking problem. Fear is a natural part of life. However, it does make things awkward when in communal spaces, such as this house, where I'm sleeping on a hard floor, with a bright light shining in my face, and two of the other floor-sleepers were engaging in a duet of plague-like coughing until my head hurt so bad I convinced myself I was having an aneurysm. No fun for me, probably less fun for the girl I was screaming at to help me. I still feel bad about that.

Saturday morning it rained. A lot. The resort was nice enough to provide umbrellas.

The intrepid explorers ponder how they will cross this oceanic barrier

The rain was also responsible for one of my favorite visuals. The Stairway to Nowhere!

Yes, I'm weird. I just know that one of these days I'm going to write a story involving a flooded parking garage.

This is as good a time as any to mention the dealer's room. It was small, but had good vendors, and was easy to move around in after they got all the rainwater off the floor. Plenty of steampunk gear, as expected, but also some cool used booksellers. One guy had a lot of Ace dos-a-dos novels, the kind I'm working on right now. The fact that Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin put out books in that series only cemented my conviction of how cool an idea it is. And there was this guy there who was a Tom Swift enthusiast, selling all sorts of the old Appleton books. I love Tom Swift, and if I was in a spending mood he probably would have gotten some money. Unfortunately, nobody had the two books I was looking for: Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and Robert E. Howard's Hour of the Dragon, both of which I required for class (by the way, grad school is awesome). And there were Klingons there. Always gotta have Klingons. Though I think they gave up their table halfway through the con so some Girl Scout could sell cookies. I sat at the autograph table for an hour. Didn't sign any autographs, but it was nice to sit down, and I got some writing done.

That's me. Writing.

I rapped with the folks around me about the closing of stores like Borders and B&N. I think it's exciting because smaller retailers can make their mark again, or retailers will find new ways to sell books in a changing publishing world. Someone else pointed out that bigger writers than myself, you know the kind who don't sell three books a month, will lose a major source of revenue. All food for thought.

Most of the con ran the usual way: times of profound aimlessness mixed with frantic, shit-I-hope-I'm-not-late moments. Between these, I made it to the masquerade, caught some of the filk concert, a zombie apocalypse panel, a Gothic fiction panel, a poetry reading and "Fembots and Fairies," which was ConDor's requisite "fuck this shit" panel about the sexism of mainstream fantasy cover art. Gradually, it turned into a discussion of whitewashing on fantasy covers. Awesome. Allison made a pretty astute comment about how, in the original Star Wars, Princess Leia is covered from neck to toe. But then, look at the poster, where she's got a thigh-high slit up her skirt. Yes, sex sells. The good thing is that nowadays people will pipe up about the sexism, or about this absurd notion that putting people of color on a cover automatically makes it a niche product (and thus, POC should not be represented on anything you hope to make money with). All this literary talk made my nerdy little heart go "Squeeee!" Which leads me to "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie: Fantasy Should Sound Like Fantasy."

"From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" was easily the best time I had at the con, and the very reason I go to these things. To engage in spirited discussion with people who know what they're talking about. The topic was based off of an (admittedly old) essay that Ursula Le Guin wrote, about how true fantasy should contain "high" language in order to separate it from other genres. I was initially surprised that such a progressive person as Le Guin would suggest such a thing, but she was writing this in the formative years of the genre. The other panelists were: Lynn Maudlin, Scott Norton, Michael Underwood and Eric Shanower. Underwood was wearing an awesome wizard-like robe. I want one. Like most panels I sit on, I was the youngest panelist by at least 20 years (I Wikipedia'd it: Shanower is 47). I think that's pretty cool, and I also think it's cool that all the panelists had different perspectives on what kind of language should be emphasized (if at all) in fantasy writing. In preparation, Shanower had a list of opening paragraphs from popular fantasy books of the last 100+ years, and he read some in order to give a range of what "fantasy" sounds like. I'm pretty sure I spent the whole hour and a half screaming requests into the multiple Eisner-winner's ear. Sample conversation:

Shanower: "Let me read a passage from Wicked by Gregory Maguire..."

Me (looks at his copy): "Autographed?"

Shanower: "What can I say? I'm an Oz fan."


There was no panel afterwards, so we went for an hour and a half talking about fantasy, writing styles, adaptation, the state of English education in America and the publishing industry. An absolutely fascinating talk that I felt proud to add my two cents to. Needless to say, I had to stick up for folktales, pointing out the dialect used by Joel Chandler Harris, and also point out that Dickens (who wrote fantasy sometimes, A Christmas Carol being the most obvious example) used plenty of dialect as well. The audience was small but enthusiastic. At one point, two of the members had a discussion with each other about the viability of stylized language in today's market. One guy said that the reality of publishing is that big firms only want the most accessible stuff, and the other guy thought this sucked. All five panelists were looking around at each other, wondering if she should encourage this democratic discourse or assert our authority as the people sitting at the table. I hope that the audience is that fired up at every single panel I do.

The sparks were not just between audience members. Oh no! I remember disagreeing with another panelist on George Martin's writing style (I don't think of him as a very lyrical writer, and feel his books are more popular for their plot/character development than their language), and about the viability of imaginative language in today's market. I pointed out that Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link and Catherynne Valente (and if I was on my game I would have mentioned, for the love of God, Susanna Clarke) have all found success with language that is lyrical and/or archaic. Another panelist lamented the fact that Lord of the Rings is not taught in schools, after which I pointed out that many school systems are actively diversifying their canon beyond the writings of white/dead Oxford dons, after which another panelist pointed out that Tolkien was never really canon in American schools. In between the debate, we discussed a ton of fantasy works, including my beloved Elfquest, a fantasy epic that was actually made in Poughkeepsie. In fact, there was some spirited conversation about graphic novels, particularly how they work as literary adaptations and how they themselves are adapted. An audience member pointed out that it's through Shanower's work (he's doing Marvel's Age of Bronze) that young people are now coming across the classics. I don't know if kids read comics anymore, to be honest. Most kids I know obsess over more new-fangled technology, more likely to learn Greek mythology from God of War 3. If a comic book is out of date, then a book book must be seriously out of date. I love comics as an art form. One of my earliest introductions to epic storytelling was Roy Thomas' work on Conan. I hope kids are still into them.

Saturday night I watched Pan's Labyrinth with the punks. Fell asleep around the time that guy got his nose smashed in with the beer bottle. To this day, I still think the fascist in that movie is one of the best villains in film. Up there with the Wicked Witch of the West. On Sunday I did a reading to a small but enthusiastic crowd. Then I was on the Very Last Panel, "The City As A High Fantasy Location." I brought my own urban fantasy perspective to the proceedings. I really couldn't think of a lot of strict high fantasy (ie, not Felix Gilman) that went into the nitty gritty of how a city runs. Dave Duncan mentioned Ankh-Morpork from Pratchett's humorous Discworld series, which naturally led us into "What is the definition of high fantasy?" Sherwood Smith connected it to the medieval romance, but also the deeper myths involved. She speaks eloquently on the subject of high fantasy, particularly Tolkien, who I am not a huge fan of. She referred to LOTR as an elegiac work, a story about the passing of an age at a time when Europe was bent on destroying itself, all the ancient wonders of their cities getting blown to pieces. I am a lapsed fan of high fantasy, yet I was certainly reminded of why epics appeal to me, and to everyone.

The question also came up "What constitutes a city?" Is Gormenghast a city? It's a large, enclosed community, so mabe it counts. The conversation inevitably turned to RPG games with urban-based campaigns, which I know little about, but for 30 years have provided an avenue for fantasy fans to explore urban development. My example for a fully realized city in high fantasy was King's Landing from A Song of Ice andd Fire. After which, Scott Norton, who was moderating, pointed out all the George Martin fans who are up in arms about the city's portrayal on the upcoming TV show; it looks more tropical than northern European. Now, I could care less about that kind of thing as long as the show's story is compelling, but it goes to show that setting is not arbitrary. A great panel, where I got to rap with the masters.
Being so close to L.A., there were a lot of guests and dealers involved in the entertainment industry. Especially coming from the Bay area, where politics is the primary occupation, this caught my attention. Listening to voice actors talk about their work, even the everyday minutaie, is fascinating. I sat by the pool talking to a lady who worked on David Lynch's Dune, who told me about those poor Mexican extras who Lynch decided should wear black rubber in the middle of the desert. Lots of fainting.

ConDor was fun. It is San Diego's oldest convention. The age range was from the elderly to, well, their little grandkids.And I loved that about it. Yes, I am a young, edgy, shocking maverick writer. Or whatever. I like discussing my passions with others, and I like being in a family-friendly environment. Many thanks go out to all of the super friendly volunteers, but especially programming coordinator James Hay, who put me on such wonderful panels, and is just a sweet-natured person (as was his wife, who staffed the con suite). He knows it's about fun, as evidenced by him dressed in a mad scientist cosplay and running around screaming with stuffed lobsters clamped to his arms. Awesome guy. And I stayed with some awesome punks. Much love to them, too.

The next week I was a guest at the inaugural Friends of Genre convention (or FOGcon), a literary con in San Fran modeled after Wiscon. Their theme was "The City in SF/F." Cities in fantasy? I can talk about that. From what I could tell, they're on the right tracl. To my pleasure, they had a lot of panels about urban planning and the sociopolitical aspects of cities. They also had karaoke, to my pleasure. Late Friday night, I sat on "How to Destroy Your City and Enjoy the Wreckage," with GOHs Pat Murphy and Jeff Vandermeer, Gary Kloster and moderator Madeleine Robins. Successful writers all, and I feel I learned a lot from their perspective. The very premise of the panel appealed to me because I feel like I grew up in the wreckage of a city, and enjoyed it. Pittsburgh is basically a post-apocalyptic ruin (the apocalypse being the collapse of the steel industry). That's why I like it.

We started with the panelists talking about what possibilities they explored in the novels where they destroyed a city. I sheepishly had to admit that I had yet to destroy a city in my work. But I promised them I would, and that seemed to please them.The panel was an hour and fifteen minutes long, so we covered the topic about as thoroughly as possible. The other panelists had vast bibliographies of books they'd written to cull from. As the guy with only one book, I talked about other people's lit. How Katsuhiro Otomo took out Tokyo in Akira, and how the old "lost civilzation" stories by Haggard, Howard and Lovecraft explore social upheaval in urban ruins. Oh, and San Francisco has been destroyed a lot more than I thought it did. In terms of literary armaggedons, it's got a good track record.

Such fascinating discussion. One part that stood out to me was the idea of exploring the "whys" of a city's construction. Robins mentioned how the doors in some old buildings in Boston are really wide because they're built to accomodate women with hoop skirts. A fact like that is worth a whole page of rote description.

We discussed how symbolism makes certain cities ripe for destructive fictions (like the oft-annihilated New York). We discussed the ability of apocalypse to redefine what society is. Robins told a personal anecdote about walking through NYC on 9/11, where everyone was gathered in groups around radios and self-rationing their resources. Very haunting. We discussed how post-apocalyptic fiction is so often about the restoration of the old order, with the heroes fighting against those trying to make society something new. Is it by nature a conservative genre? Could be. We discussed how cities are not a monolithic organism, but a million different societies gathered together. We discussed how, in writing, we show how cities are defined by the people who live in them. That was the week they tore down the ghost hotel on Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh, which I feel so lucky to have visited once. I brought it up at the panel. As Kloster commented, "To some that abandoned hotel is an eyesore; to you it's an artifact."

The final question posed to the panelists was: how did you destroy your city? At which point I said, "I remember now! I destroyed a city-sized box store."

Robins: "How?"

Me: "Zombie slave rebellion."

Robins: "Wow. How'd they control the zombies?"

Me: "Oh, you know. Spells."

What was interesting to me was, in saying that, I fully realized that "Graveyard Shift" is about Pittsburgh. The two times I've read it out loud, I had the characters do Pittsburgh accents, promising myself I'd switch up the accent if I ever read it in different cities. Because, you know, it could be about any town. Of course I knew it was inspired by Pittsburgh, with the narrative about a drive-in theatre being torn down and replaced with a megastore inspired by North Versailles. But it goes beyond that. A post-industrial atmosphere where people believe strongly in a hard day's work, don't bullshit each other and hold together despite all the shit that is thrown at them. Every single word in that story is Pittsburgh. So there you have it. I destroyed Pittsburgh in a story.

After the marathon panel, we agreed there should be a "pastoral con." Not that bucolic Shire stuff that never really happened, but a con about gritty rural scifi/fantasy. I'd be the first to sign up, if there was.

The next day I had a reading. A 9am in the morning reading, sharing the room with Daniel Marcus, who is a great guy. Advice: when scheduled for an early event, don't despair. Bring it. Wake up the audience. Wake up yourself. Seeing as how it was an urban fantasy convention, I read from "Safe Space." I was very pleased with my level of energy, and with the crowd's feedback. Not bad at all. There were different meet-ups and tons of parties on Saturday, none of which I participated in, opting to bow out early and do homework instead.

Leaving FogCon that day, I felt extra aware of the city. It didn't hurt that it was more crowded than usual for th St. Patrick's Day parade. Suffocatingly crowded. Prophets yelling about the end of the world and how we're going to Hell (one lady's response: "This isn't Hell?"). Politicians in motorcades. The worst traffic possible, cars zigzagging into each other like fallen dominoes, the traffic cops barely able to keep order. Barely enough space to walk. A city, with all that entails, all of the different ill-fitting building blocks.

Also, I felt a surplus of pride in being a fantasy writer. We live at a time in which the works of old masters are readily available and new writers have a surplus of lit to draw inspiration from. The shelves are filled with imaginative ideas, mash-ups of what has come before. Yeah, something like Twilight will always make the big bucks, but something really challenging can get published, too. There's room for everybody. I think I said as much at the "high fantasy" panel: this is, hands down, the most exciting time for the genre.

Oh yeah, and I just got invited to be a guest at Baycon.

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