Science Fiction in San Antonio

LoneStarCon 3, the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon), took place in San Antonio over Labor Day weekend. I’d been looking forward to this con even more than usual– it’s been my first since Norwescon over five months ago, plus, it was a welcome relief from a long vacationless slog at work. I needed a break, so I flew down to San Antonio to meet authors, hang out into the wee hours with friends, and just generally have an awesome time being a geek. My roommate was the inimitable Folly Blaine, and we stayed on the 26th floor of the Marriott Riverwalk, overlooking a gorgeous view of San Antonio.

I arrived late Thursday (technically early Friday) in San Antonio, stepping out into the nighttime air which was still every bit as warm as Seattle in the midst of a hot summer afternoon. Luckily, most buildings were air conditioned down to temperatures so cold you could leave milk out without worrying about spoilage. So between staying inside and occasionally darting outside long enough to thaw, I was able to maintain something approaching comfort.

This was also the first con in which I got to use my new camera (a Canon EOS 7D, instead of my old Canon Rebel T1i). I did photography during and after the Masquerade, and during the Hugo Ceremony. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my long lens with me during the ceremony, but I did manage to find the Hugo Photo room afterward and got some good pics of the winners (i.e. the Writing Excuses crew, seen left). The set up in the room wasn’t very good– the blue photo backdrop in particular was rather useless, as you can see in the photos, and the room was so small and the photographers were crammed so close to the winners that I really needed a wider-angle lens. (I had thought I was being clever by kneeling in front of the crowd of photographers, but it turns out I was too close. Ah, well. Luckily I managed to get some good pictures while generally avoiding the dreaded Up-The-Nose Shot.)

The full Flickr set with all my pics is here. If you’re in any of these pics and would like me to send you the full-size original (or would like me to take the photo down, for whatever reason) get in touch with me via any of the methods on the Contacts tab and let me know. If you’d like to reproduce any pics on your blog, personal, or author site, you’re welcome to, all I ask is that you credit me for the photo and link back to the original Flickr page.

As far as the con programming itself, it was okay. I’ve learned what I do and don’t like on panels, and while there were quite a few that I enjoyed (like the Mad Science panel, seen here), I stayed way the hell away from anything that even had a whiff of Things were so much better in the old days, or What’s wrong with things today?

WorldCon is steeped in its own arcane tradition– as noted earlier, it’s been going for over 70 years, and it occasionally feels like a relic of an earlier time. Today there is at least one annual con in every major city and state; WorldCon dates back to a time where cons were less frequent, travel was more expensive, and there was a need for a major con which switched cities every year. (If this sounds familiar, it might be because I said the same thing about Westercon last year.) Now, there may still very well be a need for a travelling con: WorldCon is inexorably linked to the Hugo Awards, and it’s nice that those are given out in a different city every year, so lots of different folks have an opportunity to come see them. It’s nice to have a reason for folks from around the world to travel to one city and hang out, and it’s nice that that city changes. It would be nice if that city was in North America less often, to make it even more of a “WorldCon”– but it’s usually in North America. This year, Helsinki, Finland lost the bid for the 2015 WorldCon to Spokane, Washington.

So all in all, WorldCon does occasionally feel a bit conservative and stodgy, and that’s reflected in both the politics and the programming. There’s a distinct hint of yearning for “the golden age” of sci-fi, that things were better back in the glory days of fandom: in my frank opinion, that line of thinking is bullshit. Times change; it’s the nature of progress. Science fiction and geek culture is, in fact, healthier than ever, as evidenced by the huge number of conventions across the world, not to mention the huge success of science fiction and fantasy films at the box office (The Avengers, now the second-highest grossing movie in the history of ever, won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Long Form Presentation this year– my friend Patrick Swenson is seen here, guarding the Hugo in Joss Whedon’s absence.)

Sure, fandom has had its share of conflicts lately, but those conflicts are by and large fights to make fandom more inclusive: friendlier to women, and people of color, and queer and LGBT folks. I think huge strides have been made in this area, and it’s a fight that will continue– in the meantime, anyone that yearns for the olden days gets little more than an eyeroll from me. Welcome to progress, folks. It ain’t always pretty and it ain’t always easy, but it is– I firmly believe– inevitable.

A brief example of WorldCon stodginess worth mentioning is in its seeming reluctance to acknowledge Young Adult fiction as an actual thing. Despite what naysayers would have you believe (“young people these days are only interested in TV and video games”) books geared toward teens and young adults are thriving. So far, though, WorldCon has refused to acknowledge it with a Hugo category, despite increasing pressure from the membership. Hopefully that will change within the next few years, but whereas I think healthy, growing aspects of the industry should be encouraged as much as possible, WorldCon is fundamentally a small-c conservative place. Maybe that’s a good thing, in some ways. But in an era of rapid change, it can also make it seem slow, dinosaur-like, and more than occasionally a bit petulant as well.

It seems like every year after WorldCon lots of people post blog entries and tweets fretting about how WorldCon membership is getting older, that attendance numbers are declining, etc. But frankly, I’m not worried, nor do I plan to spend a lot of time worrying about it. It seems to me that fandom is fine, just different in the eyes of the younger generation. It’s evolving; it’s less exclusive, and more popular, and enjoying a heyday. I hope that WorldCon is able to keep up with fandom, but ultimately I suspect fandom is going to drag WorldCon into the future, not vice versa– or perhaps WorldCon will fade away and sci-fi/fantasy fandom will continue, different but motivated by the same geekiness at heart, the same love of asking ‘what if’ and speculating on the answers.

But larger questions aside, I enjoyed myself at LoneStarCon, and many thanks to the volunteers who worked their butts off putting on the con. My only regret is that many friends were so busy that I didn’t get to hang out with folks much outside of late nights at the bar. The con was also fairly spread out, and I found myself going long hours, even most of entire days, without running into a single person I knew. As a result, I had some occasional issues with depression– I’m also in the midst of switching meds, which didn’t help– but I’m pleased to say that the end, the good times outweighed my own personal neuroses.

And of course, congratulations to all my friends and personal heroes who won Hugo Awards! The Hugos were the icing on top of a tasty WorldCon cake. And even if the cake did occasionally seem in danger of going stale, I have every confidence that things will be fine. With folks like the group below leading the way in Science Fiction & Fantasy, why on Earth (or off Earth) wouldn’t I be?

(P.S. Major props to Paul Cornell for his hosting of the Hugo Awards, and his shoutout to the SF&F activists– some in this picture, but many others less well-known or working entirely behind-the-scenes– who are helping to make sure that the field truly is welcoming and relevant to all.)

What Happens in Reno, Gets Blogged

Last week I went to the World Science Fiction Convention, aka WorldCon, in Reno, Nevada. Most cons are held each year at the same venue in the same city, but WorldCon moves to a new city each year. It’s a bit like the Olympics, in that groups from potential host cities put together bids, which are then voted on– except instead of athletes and sporting events and drug scandals, it’s writers and editors and panels and drinking.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that WorldCon has a higher-than-usual percentage of professionals, and there’s more of a focus on business and networking than at other cons. There’s a lot of fannish stuff going on as well, but WorldCon is one of the best cons for rubbing shoulders with professional writers and editors and talking one-on-one (or at least few-on-one) with the pros.

My own career is still in such early stages that I’m not sure how useful networking really is. I have a finished first draft of a novel that needs a lot of polishing before it has a prayer of getting anywhere, so I’m not really looking for an editor or an agent yet. And I don’t have professional short story sales under my belt, so it’s not like I can expect an anthology invite or anything. Instead, I’m playing the long game, hoping that contacts I make now might pay off in the months and years down the road. I’m also familiarizing myself with the names in the business, and the way the business works. And, above all, I’m hopefully making some friends along the way.

I’d say WorldCon was a rousing success in all those categories. I got to see some friends from previous cons, like Matt Rotundo and Mary Robinette Kowal (who won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story!), and I met plenty of new ones. I was particularly pleased to meet the Inkpunks, a collective of writers who I’ve followed on Twitter for a long time, and various friends of theirs, as well as Cassie Alexander, who deserves special mention for inviting me into the SFWA party. *ninja eyes* I also met several Seattle authors who I’d seen and heard at events back home, including Keffy Kehrli and Liz Argall.

So much happened, it’s tough to form a cohesive narrative, so I’ll hit a few high points:

Kaffeeklatsches. I hadn’t done kaffeeklatsches at previous cons, but these are small group discussions (usually limited to 9 people) with an author or editor, which last for an hour. It’s a way to have a more intimate conversation with industry professionals, or even your own personal heroes. At WorldCon, I had kaffeeklatsches with John Scalzi, Howard Tayler, Lev Grossman, and Jennifer Brozek— these were some of my favorite hours spent at the con.

World Jay Day. Jay Lake is an author who’s been fighting a multi-year battle with cancer, and right now is undergoing chemotherapy. Despite that, he came to WorldCon to host the Hugo Awards, and is all-around an awesome guy. Diana Sherman organized a bunch of people to gather in the Dealer’s Room on Friday wearing Hawaiian shirts, and give Jay a surprise show of support. It was pretty cool.

Meeting my heroes. I got to meet several of my personal literary heroes, most notably Howard Tayler, who writes and draws the webcomic Schlock Mercenary. I suppose it’s odd that a webcomic artist would be so influential on an aspiring author, but he is, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was through Howard that I found Writing Excuses. When I finally had the chance to talk to him one-on-one for a few seconds, I told him, I’ve been reading Schlock Mercenary for nine years, listening to Writing Excuses for three, and I have a 175,000 word fantasy novel that probably would not exist if it weren’t for you guys. My life has led all sorts of interesting places because of you, and I just wanted to say ‘thanks.’

In general, I tried to stay professional throughout the con. I didn’t geek out when I passed George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss in the hall; I didn’t squee with joy when I held Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo Award or frantically try to get someone take a picture of me with it. Meeting Howard was the closest I came to having a “fanboy moment”, and as I walked away, I definitely teared up.

Parties. Each night I spent a few hours surfing through the various room parties, clustered on the 15th and 16th floors of the Atlantis Hotel. Some parties were put on by fans, others by groups bidding for future WorldCons, and some by publishers. There was also a semi-exclusive lounge hosted by SFWA, which, as mentioned earlier, I got into thanks to awesome friends. My next career goal is to be able to get in to the SFWA suite at cons without help.

I won’t deny it: parties stress me out, especially when (as was frequently the case) I walk into a party without knowing anyone. My inner introvert goes into total brain-lockdown mode, and a very strong part of me just wants to find a corner and hide. But the evening parties provided some of my favorite moments of the con, including meeting and hanging out with the Inkpunks (okay, technically, that was at the bar, but it still counts); hanging out with Lev Grossman on Saturday night after he won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer; meeting Amy Sundberg, Patrick Swenson, and holy cow I could list names forever and still forget someone. Suffice it to say that everyone was totally, absolutely awesome.

The Masquerade. Costumes were not as prevalent at WorldCon as they are at many cons, but what costumes were there were extremely well done. Someday, at some con, I’ll get tired of Masquerades and stop attending them, but it was not this con.

I was seated well back, but the people immediately in front of me were short, and I was able to get some relatively good pictures without having to worry too much about people’s heads being in the way. The best-in-show winner was Torrey Stenmark, for her Avatar costume, which also won at Norwescon earlier this year.

The Hugo Awards. On Saturday night came the biggest event of WorldCon: The Hugo Awards. Given each year for the best works in the field, they’re sort of like the Oscars of Science Fiction. In every category in which I actually predicted a winner, I was right, however, my votes usually did not correspond with my predictions, and in the categories where I strongly supported one of the choices, pretty much none of them won. I don’t begrudge any of the winners their awards; they all deserved them, and nothing happened that I would decry as a travesty of literature or good taste. Too often, science fiction itself is decried as a travesty of literature and good taste– so forget that noise. Fandom is far more diverse than my particular corner of it, and I’m okay with that.

I suppose if I have one regret about WorldCon, it’s that everyone was so dang busy. There were so many people who I’d have to loved to chill with at the bar and shoot the breeze, but the con as a whole was far too crowded and busy for that. Plus, the two hotels of the con were far enough apart that travelling between them was not easy, and even each hotel on its own was so big that it was hard to find people. What the con really needed was a con bar, but alas, despite the presence of numerous bars amongst the two host hotel/casinos, a favorite never materialized.

Speaking of casinos, I managed to go through the whole con without so much as sticking a quarter in a slot machine. All the temptation for me was in the Dealer’s Room: I came home with far more books than I have room for, and I’m now having to improvise bookshelves out of every available surface in my tiny apartment. I haven’t actually had to stack books in the sink yet, but if I live here much longer, who knows what measures might need to be taken.

Now I have less than a week until Dragon*Con, and all the craziness starts all over again. Except even crazier, because well, it’s Dragon*Con.

It’s gonna be fun.

Prepping for WorldCon

Tomorrow morning I catch a plane from Seattle to Reno for the World Science Fiction Convention— four days of soaking up wisdom from professional writers and editors, meeting lots of cool people, and in general having fun and reveling in pure geekery. I spent some time going through the program, marking off stuff I’d particularly like to do, and came up with over 120 hours of panels, readings, and various other activities I’d like to attend. This makes things interesting, since WorldCon is only 96 hours long. And that 120 hour number isn’t even factoring in time spent at parties, or just hanging out with friends. Or eating. Or sleeping.

It’s gonna be great.

In related news, my main goal prior to WorldCon was to finish the first draft of my novel In a Land of Wind and Sky, and today I did so. The draft is 176,902 words long, and it stretches across 642 pages in Microsoft Word. Since the time I wrote the first word of it (November 1, 2009), it’s been 653 days.

But to be honest, it feels a bit anticlimatic. There’s still a lot of work to do, and the line between where the first draft ends and the second draft starts is kind of arbitrary. For my own purposes, “first draft” means that I’ve built all the plot lines and character arcs from beginning to end. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re consistent. Sometimes the character’s voice changes from scene to scene as I experiment with different styles, or setting details are added midway through the story. Major plot elements are introduced and disappear as I try to decide what should be important and what isn’t, or change my mind about exactly what’s needed in order for different aspects of the story to be resolved.

In the second draft, my task is going to be to go through and make things consistent— support what needs to be supported, emphasize what needs to be emphasized, and take out what needs to be taken out. After the second draft, I think it’ll be ready for alpha readers.

But for now, I can head off to WorldCon, secure in the knowledge that if anyone asks if I’ve written a novel, I can say, “Yes.”

My flight leaves in less than 12 hours. Hmm… I should probably start packing.

Voted for the Hugos!

Earlier today I submitted my ballot for the Hugo Awards, which are annual awards for the best works of science fiction and fantasy, given out every year at the World Science Fiction Convention. I made a concerted effort to read as many of the nominated works as I could, and I’m glad I did, because there were many fabulous stories, authors, and artists nominated. By and large, I enjoyed the works of all the nominees, and will offer my hearty congratulations to whoever wins.

But, because these awards are still about choosing winners from among the best, here’s what I picked.

Best Novel: Feed, by Mira Grant. It’s a zombie novel, which makes a lot of people groan these days. (Har.) But Feed isn’t really about the zombies– here, the zombies have already come, and they’re now part of daily life as humanity struggles to adapt to a changed world. In Feed, the zombies are the backdrop for a near-future political thriller. And it’s probably the best near-future, “realistic” science fiction book I’ve read in years.

Best Novella: Troika, by Alastair Reynolds. This was a tough category to pick; all of the stories were great, and each had a unique hook that drew me in. But Troika, a near/alternate future story about the discovery of an alien object orbiting the Sun, and set amidst the backdrop of a second Soviet Union, won me over. I suspect The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang, about artificial intelligences being raised as “pets,” will end up winning the category– no complaints there, either.

Best Novelette: The Jaguar House, by Aliette de Bodard. Another tough category to pick– there were three or four stories I could have easily voted for, but I went with The Jaguar House because I really liked the Mexican flavor to the story, and also because kick-ass female assassins have a special place in my heart (those who’ve read parts of my novel will understand).

Best Short Story: Amaryllis, by Carrie Vaughn. I liked the depiction of family life in a near-future world, and also the happy ending. Happy (or at least, satisfying) endings seemed kind of few and far between amongst all the short fiction categories; many just had a hanging ending that left me feeling kind of haunted. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I felt a bit beaten down by the time I read all the stories, even though my reading was spread over a couple of weeks.

Creating a satisfying ending that doesn’t feel orchestrated or sappy is very difficult to do in short fiction. And I wanted to encourage it, because those are usually the stories I like best.

In the end, it was a tough call between Amaryllis, or For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal. I suspect the latter is going to win, so my top choice went to the former because I’m like that.

Best Related Work: Writing Excuses Season 4. Regular blog readers will have seen my previous posts raving about Writing Excuses, a writing podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal. They’ve already won two Parsec Awards, and I was pleased to be able to vote for them in the Hugos.

Best Graphic Story: Schlock Mercenary. If you haven’t been reading the webcomic, you should start. Epic space opera, with a deep story, great characters, and still manages to be funny every day.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Inception. It was a tough call between that and Scott Pilgrim; in the end, I went with Inception. Most sci-fi that Hollywood churns out these days is along the lines of Franchise: The Reboot-ening, Superhero Movie #37, or Lousy Film Version of Great Novel. Inception was none of these, and while Scott Pilgrim was quirky and fun, Inception was my favorite film last year, hands down.

Also, I’m a total Christopher Nolan fanboy.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury. If the title offends you, don’t watch the video. It will most likely give you a fatal aneurysm, and I don’t want that on my conscience.

Best Editor, Short Form: John Joseph Adams. A really tough call here, but I went with my gut on this one. John Joseph Adams edits two magazines, Fantasy and Light Speed, and has also put together a ton of great anthologies.

Best Editor, Long Form: Moshe Feder. I’ll admit some potential bias here, since Moshe Feder edits two of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells, both of whom have put out several awesome books in the past year. (They’re both also Writing Excuses podcasters.) It was a tough call between Moshe Feder and Lou Anders, but I suspect Lou has a better chance at winning the category, so I voted for Moshe. (Did I mention I’m like that?)

Best Pro Artist: Dan Dos Santos. All the artists in this category are great, but I’ve been a big fan of Dan Dos Santos ever since he did the cover art for Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. Check out the video below to see him at work. I’m not an artist, but it’s still inspiring to watch.

Best Fan Artist: Randall Munroe. Randall draws the popular nerdy webcomic XKCD, and I don’t really consider him so much an “artist” as a “commentator”. That said, he has a gift for visually conveying information in really neat ways. And even after familiarizing myself with the other artists in the category, Randall still gets my vote.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Dan Wells. In addition to being a Writing Excuses podcaster, he’s also put out a great trilogy of psychological thrillers over the past year or so, told from the point of view of a teenage sociopath. If you haven’t yet, you should totally read I Am Not a Serial Killer.

I can’t wait for WorldCon in two and a half weeks! Hopefully I’ll get to meet and congratulate most of the nominees and winners in person. Is it possible to increase the awesomeness of one’s own work via osmosis? I hope so.