Tag Archives: Westercon

503. Colliding Conventions

On the fourth of July weekend in 1939, the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) was held in New York City. 200 people attended. It has met yearly since, except during WWII.

Despite its name, Worldcon didn’t leave the United States until 1948, when it was held in Toronto. It didn’t leave North America until 1957 when it was held in London. It didn’t leave the English speaking world until 1970 when it was held in Heidelberg.

Worldcon is best known for the fact that it gives out the Hugo Awards.

In 1948 the LA Science Fantasy Society started a west coast convention (Westercon) for those who couldn’t afford to go east for Worldcon. This competing event also meets yearly.

In those years when Worldcon meets outside North America, a North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) is held somewhere in the US.

This year’s Worldcon 76 will be held in San Jose, California August 16-20. In 2019, Worldcon will be held in Dublin, Ireland, so a NASFiC should be held. The bid, which will be decided in San Jose, is for Layton, Utah on July fourth weekend.

This year’s Westercon starts tomorrow in Denver. Next year it will be in Utah — Layton, Utah, to be precise.

Yes, you did see them palm that ace.

In 2019, Westercon, which began as an alternative to Worldcon, and NASFiC, which occurs only when Worldcon is somewhere else in the world, will be the same convention. I wonder how that is going to work out?

Just fine, I would imagine.

I attended Westercons 33 and 34 in Los Angeles and Sacramento shortly after my first two novels came out. I attended Westercon 70 in Tempe last year just after Cyan was published.

In preparation for that convention, I made eighteen posts here on a number of subjects that would be covered on panels in Tempe. If you missed them, or if you want to see “How to Build a Culture” which I presented at Westercon 34, click on Westercon in the menu bar at the top of this page.

This year I am skipping Westercon 71, Denver, for my first Worldcon, just down the hill a hundred miles or so in San Jose. This should be fun.

Advertisements

497. A Tangled Web

Last July fourth weekend I went to Westercon and received a gift. While observing a panel, I got the inspiration for a novel. I started it as soon as I got home and finished it in October, which is fast for me. It became The Cost of Empire, my first steampunk novel, and you just got a chance to see the opening pages spread out over the last two weeks.

I call it steampunk, and it deserves that description, but it could as well be called alternative history since it does not have the sense of complete weirdness that many steampunk novels possess. Soon afterward, I began another steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. It is completely different in tone. If you want weird, we’ve got weird in this one.

I placed part of a chapter in a post, but that particular excerpt is almost domestic in tone. Not weird at all.

I’ve been working on Like Clockwork since about November and I am only about 40,000 words in. I have no idea how long it is going to be. I know the set-up and development, and I’ve already written the last few chapters. I just don’t know how many more words it will take to get from where I am to where I am going. Or exactly how I’m going to get there.

If I were teaching a class in how to write a novel, this would get me fired. Nothing I ever write takes a straight path, but this is the most tangled web I’ve yet woven.

Cyan has a fairly large cast of characters, but the novel centers around Keir Delacroix. There are sections of the novel where other characters step up and have their moment, but Keir is the sun around which everyone else orbits. That makes things easy for the reader.

Cyan takes a century (global) or about thirty years (subjective) to occur, but everything proceeds in a linear fashion. There are flashbacks, but not too many. Mostly we get to see things as they happen, which minimizes explanations, although there are a couple of dense pages right at the outset.

Events begin on Cyan, move back to Earth, then end on Cyan again, but the reader goes along for the ride, so there is no confusion.

In The Cost of Empire, Daniel/David James (one person, but he changes names part way through the book as part of a masquerade) is even more firmly the center of the story. He is our eyes and ears; there is only one short paragraph where the reader knows something that he doesn’t.

The action begins in England, moves to Trinidad, moves back to England, then crosses Europe and the Middle East and ends up in India. Like Cyan, it takes in a lot of territory, but the reader takes the trip with David, so he/she never gets lost.

My newest novel Like Clockwork has at least six major characters (so far) and a couple more nearly as important, all of whom have about equal time on stage. That stage is restricted to a portion of London in the year — well, I can’t really explain when things happen. Figuring out when is sort of the point of the novel.

At the beginning, the reader doesn’t know where or when she/he is; just that it is London, or sort-of London, and a strange London at that. The characters in the book know more than the reader knows, but they don’t know much either. The reader and the characters have to figure everything out as they go along together, and the storyline shifts from one character to another with every short chapter.

In a way, it is like a mystery novel, with clues in abundance, but without a villain. There is a prime mover, but he is in deep, deep background and — sorry, that would be a spoiler as well.

Like Clockwork is also a book length clinic in how to explain a situation without resorting to a narrative dump.  It’s been a lot of fun so far. Now if I can just figure out what the hell is going on, I’ll get this thing finished.

494. We Can Have Archaic and Eat it Too

Marquart rode into my life on horseback. The day after my epiphany, I had a couple of hours off. I was in the Navy at that time, working as a dental technician in an oral surgery, and we had back-to-back cancellations. I wasn’t a writer yet, just an over-committed reader, but I had written the first chapters of a dozen novels. That was usually as far as I got before the impulse ran out.

I took that two hours to write Marquart and his companion’s entry into the Valley of the Menhir. You can see what it eventually became over in Serial today, but it took a long time to reach that level of sophistication.

When Marquart first rode into the valley, forty-six years ago, he was riding a horse. It was all very medieval because I hadn’t done any world building. All of the religious aspects aspects of the story, enreithment, the relation of souls to bodies, and both to ai — even the existence of ai — were nowhere in my mind. It was just a bunch of soldiers in armor riding horses into a valley populated by deer and dotted with oaks. The only fantasy element was a werewolf. I didn’t even know then that shapeshifters were not native to the world of the menhir, having been brought in through the Weirwood menhir from the world of Lorric by the Shambler. I didn’t even know there was a Shambler, nor any of the other gods that you met during the last two weeks.

After two hours I had a short chapter, and the next customer knocked on the door, ready to have his wisdom teeth extracted. I put the chapter in a drawer. I wasn’t a writer then, and had no intention of becoming one.

Three years later, I decided to give writing a try and got hooked. Two years after that I pulled out that chapter, dusted it off, and started world building.

All this was about the time of the fantasy revival led by Ballantine, and there was no lack of books on how to create fantasy worlds. Purists were arguing that a simply medieval world hardly qualified as fantasy. I could see their point. Although it never kept me from enjoying fantasies that did not rise to that standard, I decided that horses just weren’t going to work for me.

During those Navy years I had lived near the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. On one trip there I had seen okapi, had fallen in love with them, and now added them to the book. That lasted about a week before I realized that I needed a true fantasy creature, not just a real one most people had never heard of, so I created kakais in okapi’s much jazzed-up image. Their heavily sloped backs — much sharper than okapis —  gave me the need and opportunity to design strange saddles which would require unusual practices for troops in the field. They also gave me reason to design a harsh culture for the riders of the plains, the Dzikakai (literally, men of the kakai) who were going to be the perennial enemies of the people of the Inner Kingdom.

Okapi.

Eventually, I populated the world of the menhir with a mix of “normal” and created critters. Besides kakais, I brought in tichan as bovine substitutes, added krytes (described and used for plot purposes)  and jaungifowl to my list of birds, made my bears red, and kept ordinary squirrels and deer.

Plot building, world building, and language building all took place as I wrote successive drafts. I don’t recommend the technique. Not only did it take me decades to finish the project, but I ended up with at least a hundred thousand words of text that had to be cut out as the project grew out of hand. Maybe a few chunks of that will end up in Serial late this year, but most of it will never be read by anyone but me.

Still, I doubt if this particular fantasy could have been written any other way, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. At least that’s what I tell myself.

During all this, I went to Westercon 33 in Los Angeles in 1980. I sat in the audience of a lugubrious discussion of what the magic horses in Lord of the Rings ate, and whether it was Tolkien’s responsibility to tell us. (My answer, unspoken as I gritted my teeth, was, “No, you damned fools, it wasn’t!”)

This was followed by a spirited but deeply nerdy debate on the use of language in fantasy. The language of the Inner Kingdom in VOTM was just beginning to come together for me, so I perked up my ears. The idea of archaic language was floated, and someone said that it should only be used as a spice in regular English. The concept spice morphed into general food terms, and the metaphor had become almost embarrassingly labored when one member of the audience stood up and said:

“Are you trying to tell us that we can have archaic and eat it too?”

I wish I had said that. Maybe sometimes we do try too hard.

Serial History

Over the years, those who have been with me from the start have seen a lot of fiction appear in Serial. Newcomers may be surprised at the list which follows, here and over the next two days. The level in the well of unpublished work is dropping, and I have been agonizing for about six months on what to do next. I’ll tell you what I’ve decided as soon as I decide.

Cyan doesn’t belong here. You can buy it at Amazon, — and why haven’t you? — so there is no point in serializing it. A Fond Farewell to Dying won’t work either since the novella version, mentioned below, was already presented. Besides, it is still available used, although somewhat hard to find.

Since I began Serial, I have published my few short stories, and my poetry has been scattered about A Writing Life. I have one additional short story which is under construction and another which was written for an upcoming anthology, but nothing is available to publish here now.

I have non-fiction on science fiction relating to my appearance at Westercon 34 in Backfile, and relating to Westercon 70 scattered throughout May and June of 2017, in both AWL and Serial. Go to Westercon in the top menu for links.

Five pieces of long fiction, from 30 to 130 posts each, have been serialized here, starting with the novella To Go Not Gently, from Galaxy. TGNG consisted of the first third, slightly modified, of my then novel-in-progress A Fond Farewell to Dying. John J. Pierce of Galaxy magazine bought the novella version, but he didn’t like the name and suggested To Go Not Gently. I presented it in Serial, then transferred a more readable form to Backfile where you can still find it.

more tomorrow

413. Wherefore Art Thou Steampunk

As they teach us in high school, when Juliet says, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she means why are you called Romeo, and then goes into a long bit about identity. This post will do the same thing.

I have been writing a steampunk novel since July, and it is going quite well. I am roughly half way through the first draft, and doing my world building as I write. I am also researching what it means to be steampunk.

My justification for writing in an unknown genre is that it really isn’t all that unknown. It is a first cousin to science fiction, to fantasy, to horror, to the novels of Verne, to alternate history when limited to the near-Victorian, to Edisonade (a new name to me for a sub-genre I’ve been reading all my life — think Tom Swift), and to the old west with neo-mechanical devices (a genre that existed long before the Wild Wild West). I’ve been reading all of these, all my life.

The name steampunk was proposed by K. W. Jeter in a letter to Locus. Jetter, James P. Blaylock, and Tim Powers are three big names in early steampunk, but the genre has come a long way since then.

You would be surprised how much research into obscure subjects lies untapped in college libraries in the form of Ph.D. dissertations. I have learned to use the internet to seek them out, since so many of the things I am interested in are quite obscure.

Mike Perschon’s 2012 dissertation The Steampunk Aesthetic can be accessed at https://era.library.ualberta.ca/files/m039k6078#.WbA9kcdllBw. On that page, click Download the full-sized PDF if you want to follow me down that rabbit hole. If not, you could just try Perschon’s website http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com.

No? Neither? I don’t blame you. Not many people have that much itch, so hang on and I will quote a few of Perschon’s conclusions.

Accordingly, this is not a study of Victorians or Victorianism, but rather a study of steampunk’s hodge-podge appropriation of elements from the Victorian period.

Non-speculative neo-Victorian writing is characterized by an adherence to realism that steampunk rarely cleaves to.

Steampunk (is) not . . . historical fiction per se, but . . .  speculative fiction— science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all mixed into one—that uses history as its playground, not classroom.

The most useful thing Perschon said, from my perspective, is that steampunk is not a genre, but an aesthetic. I had largely come to the same conclusion. The question for me has become not, “is it steampunk,” but rather, “does it taste like steampunk”.

I found that the more carefully I researched the Victorian past, both historically and technologically, the more I was attempting to make my novel fit a set of limitations. I was approaching it the same way I approached Cyan, where I first created a world with certain characteristics, then worked my story around it.

Steampunk doesn’t seem to work that way. In steampunk, an author has an idea of what his world looks like, then comes up with some quasi-magical dingus to make it work. Do you want your airship to be able to lift more and go faster? Invent a gas that never existed. In science fiction terms, it’s more Star Wars than Heinlein. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

In addition to academia. I am also half-way through a half-dozen recent steampunk novels. I would be further along, but I’ve been a bit busy writing my own. I’ll clue you in on those novels as I finish them.

387. Buchan the Racist

Getting ready for Westercon, I prepared a set of notes, placed as posts, for the panel What made the golden age golden? I was under the impression that it would be history and homage, and made notes appropriate for that. I was wrong, and it isn’t the first time I have spent time off track by starting before I had full information. When i’m ready to start a project, I’m ready, and sometimes I pay the price.

After I had posted my notes-to-self, but long before Westercon, I received this description of the panel:

Heinlein and Asimov are two pillars of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. But reading those works with modern eyes can reveal attitudes that would be unacceptable in modern times. What can we learn from the classics when we look past the sexist and racist attitudes that pervaded the works of that time? Can we still appreciate works that present unacceptable ideologies?

Well, that’s a bit of a different story. No problem. I am always ready to fight the forces of political correctness.

I’ve been to this rodeo before. Once, several years ago, I was looking at on-line reviews of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. I don’t remember why, but I do remember a review that ripped Buchan as a racist for seemingly anti-Semitic statements in that novel. I wrote a counter-review; both have since disappeared.

For those who don’t know him, John Buchan was a popular British novelist of the early twentieth century. He is very much a pro-British patriot, with the prejudices that implies. Think Kipling light. And he was a racist, but not an anti-Semite. I say that not as a scholar, but as a fan, who has read and re-read his works.

If you read him at length, his distaste for African blacks comes through loud and clear. His Jews, on the other hand, show up as both heroes and villains, just like his Germans and his Englishmen. But if you only read a little, you can be fooled.

#                #                #

To follow through on this, I used one of my favorite techniques. I recommend that you put this into your bag of tricks. I went to Project Gutenberg, downloaded The 39 Steps in Rich Text format, then cut and pasted that into my word processor. Now I had all 41,264 words in a searchable form.

One more hint. RTF will be hard to read because its wide line-length makes it look like bad modern poetry. Just switch your word processor to horizontal format and it will be much easier to work with.

The reviewer who started this controversy had complained about Buchan because of the words of one of his characters, Scudder. If you don’t know the book, Scudder is a kind of amateur spy who finds out that bad people are about to start World War I, and catch England off guard. This is what Hannay, the main character, says, quoting Scudder:

The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.  If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English.  But he cuts no ice.  If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog.  He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes.  But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.  Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.

Wow! That sounds pretty anti-Semitic, and the reviewer who started this conversation took it as proof positive. But let’s wait a minute. Assume that the character Scudder is the worst anti-Semite since Hitler — does it follow that Buchan hated Jews? I wrote a mass murderer into Cyan — does that mean I approve of mass murder?

You can’t read the words of a fictional character as the opinion of the author, especially if you are looking at a minor character of questionable honesty.

Scudder dies in chapter one and his quest is taken over by Richard Hannay, the actual main character in this and several other novels. If you look closely at the character of Hannay and a dozen other lead characters in two dozen other novels, then you will come closer to having a fair and defensible picture of Buchan’s attitude.

In point of fact, not only was Scudder a minor character, he was also a liar. The reviewer who cried bigot never found this out because he quit the novel early. I knew that he was, but I needed a quote as proof. To find this, I searched for the word Scudder in my Find and Replace function. His name appears 65 times in the book because Hannay keeps thinking about him. Click and read. Click and read. Click and read. I found the passage I remembered at the beginning of chapter four.

The little man had told me a pack of lies.  All his yarns about the Balkans and the Jew-Anarchists and the Foreign Office Conference were eyewash . . .

Hannay worries at Scudder’s diary, taken off his body, because it seems odd, almost as if it were a cypher, and Hannay is good at cyphers. Sure enough, the Jew-Anarchist plot is just a cover for a much deeper plot (not by Jews), which Hannay foils by the end of the book.

So, everybody was a nice, unbigoted person and it was all a misunderstanding? If it were only that simple.

Reread the first quote, if you can stomach it. How would that passage play in a book published in 2017? When it was published in 1915, the book was a hit. Nobody minded that passage at all.

After Hitler and the holocaust, anti-Semitism fell out of favor. Before that, it was everywhere, in Europe and America. An actually anti-Semitic book in England in 1915 would have raised no eyebrows.

Was Buchan a bigot? Yes and no. He was not anti-German, he was not anti-Semitic, but he was anti-African. How do I know? I have more than a dozen of his books, some multiple times. You can’t know from assumptions, and you can’t know from reading one book.

Bringing this back to the Golden Age of science fiction, we should be able to read and appreciate authors like Heinlein when he depicts mannerisms that are foreign to us. (Or to be fair, foreign to you; I grew up in the same era and it all seems normal to me, even when I disagree with it.) The fact, for example, that Joan Freeman in Lost Legacy is the object of mild sexist teasing should not mask the fact that she is a full participant in the action.

Nevertheless, understanding is one thing, enjoyment is another. There is a limit, and it varies with each of us. For me, Heinlein sometimes seems silly, but I still read and enjoy everything but Farnham’s Freehold. That one goes on my never-again list, along with John Buchan’s anti-Black tirade Prester John.

POSTSCRIPT: As it turned out, everyone on the panel ignored the description and we just talked about how great the golden age was. The forces of political correctness never raised their heads.

385. Westercon Report

I flew down to Tempe (part of greater Phoenix) to attend Westercon 70. It was a business trip — right? Like an amusement park attendant going to Disneyland is a business trip. That is, I had to go, but I had great fun.

There were panels and workshop on many subjects. I concentrated on the Books and Authors section, where there were enough things happening to keep me occupied three times over. I missed a lot of good stuff because I was presenting, or because something I couldn’t miss kept me away from something I didn’t want to miss. There were also panels on Art, Diversity, Fandom, Science, Steampunk and more, most of which I didn’t have time to attend.

I finally feel like I have a handle on what Steampunk is all about. I was born on the Nautilus, grew up with the Wild Wild West, and flipped out about Brisco. I have read a few Steampunk novels, and some short stories, and liked them all, but I never got what these people with goggles and gears glued to their clothing were all about. After two panels about Steampunk as literature, by Steampunk writers, and a panel by costumed members of Steampunk culture, I get it. And I like it — although you’ll never see me in costume. I also got the kernel of a new novel. That one is your fault, Steve Howe (not the guitarist) and Bruce Davis. Thank you Ashley Carlson, Suzanne Lazear and David Lee Summers for the literary education on Steampunk, and thank you Dirk Folmer, Katherine Stewart, and Madame Askew for the cultural education.

Those are just a few of the authors I met. They were mostly young people. Understand that, at my age, young is defined as under forty, and there weren’t many under thirty because it takes some time to have enough books published to get invited.

I won’t name drop at this time, except for Amy Nichols whose reading from Now That You’re Here (or was it While You Were Gone — I missed something at the introduction) was calm, clean, and unaffected, and sounded just like a teenager. The character in the book, that is; not Amy. I will testify that science fiction and fantasy are in good hands. I have at least a dozen new books on my must-read list, and a lot more on my want-to-read list. I expect to provide some reviews here and on Goodreads and Amazon. After all, that is how readers keep their favorites in sales, so they will be able to write more books.

I learned a hundred other technical tidbits on writing and publishing, but I won’t share them until I’ve tried them.

Worldcon is in my back yard next year. I can’t wait.