Readercon_16 Panel Descriptions
Traumatized Authors: Encounters with Evil and the Speculative
“It is possible to see Tolkien as one of a group
of ‘traumatized authors,’ all of them extremely
influential . . . all of them tending to write fantasy or
fable. The group includes . . . Tolkien, Orwell, Golding,
Vonnegut . . . C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and Joseph
Heller . . . Most of these authors had close or even direct
first-hand experience of some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century,
horrors which did not and could not exist before it . . . All
of them responded with highly individualized images, and theories of
evil.” —Tom Shippey, foreword to J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the
Century. Hence the dominance of speculative rather than mimetic fiction in
works that address the horrors of the modern age.
After the Cover's Closed.
The amount of closure that any story can have varies
widely; there are endings that clap shut like a trap and endings (like
“The Lady and the Tiger”) that force the reader to decide what
happened next. Presumably the writer has a sense of how much closure the
ending should provide, and thus how much they want the reader to think about
the characters afterwards (and even what those thoughts might be). And yet
there's no question that the reader brings as much or more to the ending of a
story than the writer. Different readers not only have different tastes in
degree of closure, they have different propensities to wonder what happens
next (from the reader who doesn't care whether the lady or tiger gets chosen,
to the reader who can't help wondering what happens after the end of On the
Beach.) When the closure a reader experiences matches the writer's
intention, the result can be very powerful. But it may be the mismatches that
tells us more about the nature of fiction.
Working Backwards From Effect To Story.
We can think of at least four different effects on the
reader that are specialties of sf: sense of wonder, pleasant confusion,
conceptual breakthrough, and rug-pulled-out/what-you-know-is-wrong.
“Recognition” (in John Clute's theory) and
“eucatastrophe” (in Tolkien's) are arguably effects that are
specialized to fantasy. We have lately been struck by the suspicion that
authors sometimes start with an effect in mind and work backwards towards a
story that will evoke it (“gee, I feel like writing one of those stories
that totally messes with your mind”). How does having an acute sense of
the effect you wish to evoke in the reader shape the creative process?
From Wonderland to Baconburg: Cross-Generational Fiction.
“The world needs more stories profound enough
for children but entertaining enough for adults” —Anita Roy Dobbs.
From Lewis Carroll through Roald Dahl to Daniel Pinkwater, there's a sizeable
body of fiction written for children (not “young adults”) that
adults can read with equal pleasure. Some of this fiction works on two levels,
but more often the kids and their parents are delighting in roughly the same
things. How is it that some stuff that entertains children is as pleasurable
as dental work to adults, while some is magical?
Einstein and Modernity.
There's no question that relativity and quantum
mechanics formed significant parts of the modernist world view. We have
actually seen an argument that the inability to accept inherent quantum
randomness in physics on the part of Einstein and others was the scientific
equivalent of not being able to read Joyce, listen to Stravinsky, or look at
Picasso. Special relativity became a ubiquitous metaphor for moral relativism,
in contradiction to its actual philosophical implications. A discussion of the
real implications of 20th-century physics breakthroughs and the way they have
been appropriated or misappropriated as metaphors for our times.
The True and Secret History of Clarion.
The story of the hugely influential workshop for sf
writers, beginning with its roots in the Milford Science Fiction Writers
Conference. We'll hear a wealth of substantive history seasoned with legendary
anecdotes (or vice versa).
Sf has not one but two time-honored traditions of
expanding the novella into the full-length novel. You can tell the same story
at different lengths (The Hemingway Hoax, Flowers for Algernon, Enders's
Game, “A Galaxy Called Rome” / Galaxies), or you can
write two more novellas (Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, More Than Human,
The Fifth Head of Cerberus). To what extent does the story itself dictate
the best approach? What does the added material tend to be like? In the case
of the simple expansion, is one version inevitably superior (fulfilling the
dictum that every story has its optimum length), or can they have separate but
When a creepy stranger in a story in a horror
anthology turns out to be a killer, it's no surprise. When the same thing
happens in a story in a literary collection, though, it can blindside us
completely and be far more forceful. This is a genre reading protocol paradox:
a horror story is usually more horrifying if we don't know it's a horror story
beforehand. There has thus always been a steady but significant trickle of
genuine horror in literary markets (e.g., Michael Chabon's “The God of
Dark Laughter” in The New Yorker.) Should horror-heads be paying
more attention to them? Or do these stories — regardless of the quality
of the writing — lose some of their clout when you put them underneath a
cover with “Horror” stamped on it?
If This Goes On / If All This Goes On: Single vs. Complete
Through the 1950s, the dominant formula for sf
extrapolation was to postulate one major change to the human condition
(“if the influence of advertising continues to grow,” “if
the morons outbreed the rest of us”) and add it to a small and fairly
standardized set of future tropes. It wasn't till the '60s that we started
seeing attempts to extrapolate a complete future, a mode which has gradually
become more and more dominant. Is there still a place in sf for the classic
single-premise story? Or are all sf writers doomed to have a complete command
of every aspect of contemporary technological and cultural change before they
dare to explore that one neat idea?
The Author on the Side of the Milk Carton.
Once upon a time James Branch Cabell was a major
figure in American literature. A. Merritt was once the undoubted king of
fantasy. Mark Clifton was briefly a hugely influential and controversial
short-story writer and went on to co-write a Hugo-winning novel. Today they,
like many others, are barely read. This can happen to a writer for more than
one reason; most (but not all) seem to be intrinsic to their work. What causes
a work to become dated? Are there good reasons to re-visit such work, and
special reading approaches to make the outdated text more accessible? If we
can get a handle on why a work dates, can we predict which authors will be
shockingly forgotten tomorrow?
The Art of the Slingshot Ending and Other Sequel Tricks.
An author can end the present story with complete
satisfaction, but meanwhile, he's setting up the sequel. John Clute (borrowing
a term coined by Kim Stanley Robinson) calls this “the slingshot
ending.” It's not the same as merely starting the sequel in the last
chapter of the previous book, à la Ian Fleming. Instead,
the author slowly starts putting the narrative hooks for the sequel into the
present text, careful all the while not to disrupt it. In the final pages, as
the resolution of the present story become clear, so does the nature of the
sequel. A discussion of this and other ways to create a series of tales that
link together but stand satisfactorily on their own.
Really Magic Realism.
There's a subgenre of speculative fiction which
combines extraordinary human abilities with closely observed contemporary
settings. Sometimes the abilities are science-fictional (e.g, Zenna
Henderson's “People” stories), more often they are magical. It's a
subgenre that allows for the particular pleasures of contemporary realist
fiction without sacrificing the latitude afforded by imaginative literature.
“Twenty-Five Years Passed.”
That first sentence of Book Three of John Crowley's
Little, Big is a profound shock to the reader. For the first time, they
realize that the tale they are reading will cover a large swath of time. It
strikes us that the characters in two classic types of sf stories — the
tale of suspended animation, and the tale of relativistic time dilation
— experience precisely the same shock. The world has changed, perhaps
subtly, perhaps severely, and the sf protagonist or chronicle-novel reader has
to learn what has changed. Both types of stories are concerned with the limits
of the human ability to grasp change over time. In the chronicle novel the
challenge to the reader is a proxy for the characters' limited grasp of their
own history (which the novel will ultimately make clear to the reader); in the
sf story, the reader and protagonist are more directly equated.
What Do You Believe About Speculative Fiction That You Can't
Usually, we don't go public with our beliefs until we
develop a cogent argument to support them. But sometimes that argument never
grows in our mind, and our belief remains a “gut feeling” or
“intuition.” This is a rare opportunity to present your pet theory
about imaginative literature without providing any justification whatsoever!
Wow, I Actually Wrote That?
It's not unheard of for a writer to discover a story
they wrote years before and (at least at first) have no memory of having
written it. It's probably the closest a writer can come to reading their own
work the way others do. Our panelists share their anecdotes. What can we learn
from this odd experience about the natures of writing, reading, and
The Reading Protocols of Slipstream.
Every genre has its reading protocols, a way of
reading and understanding the text that is specific to the genre. A reader who
gets the genre wrong and applies the wrong protocols is likely to seriously
misapprehend the text (cf. James Thurber's “The Macbeth Murder
Case.”) But what about the genre we call “slipstream” or
“interstitial,” where the question of genre is kept in flux, and
genre conventions are often toyed with and exploited? Does it have reading
protocols of its own? Or does it have the one big protocol of reading without
Best-Guess Science, Hand-Waving Science.
There are two fundamentally different approaches a
writer can take when dealing with highly speculative science which is
important as a jumping-off point but otherwise not central to the story.
Obviously, the writer can do extensive homework and make their best effort at
getting the science right. However, there is also a longstanding tradition in
sf of merely inventing some plausible-sounding explanation together with a
little jargon and then getting on with what the story is really about. Both
approaches have their advantages and their potential problems. How much does
the specific story dictate the best approach, as opposed to the writer's
Reading Through Another's Eyes.
One of the devices experienced readers sometimes use
is reading and trying to better understand a book by imagining the response to
the text of someone other than one's self. For instance, it's a great way to
approach a book that our significant other adores but is less than wonderful
for us. Or one can imagine the response of a reader from a different period of
time or with different genre expectations — or our own response at an
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Important: The Art of Secondary
They can fade into the background or steal the story,
and there's an art to knowing which is appropriate, and a craft to making them
vivid and rounded when the story calls for it.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About SF Poetry.
Both sf and poetry have hugely important differences
from the conventional prose narrative. What happens when you combine the two?
The Possibly Problematic Appeal of the SF War Story.
In “The Traumatized Author,” we discussed
imaginative literature's special ability to deal with the horrors of modern
warfare. But clearly the military setting has appeal and legitimate utility to
a broader class of writers than those who have experienced war first-hand. For
instance, questions of duty and honor are naturally foregrounded, while a
combat setting can be an intense crucible for human behavior. However, there
is always the question of whether such stories glorify war. If so, how much of
that is in the text and how much in the individual reader's response?
If They Were Alive and Writing.
Which dead fantasy writer would have written a great
New Weird story, and what might it have been like? Given Phil Dick's interest
and expertise in psychoactive drugs and altered states of consciousness, what
might he have done with some of the neuroscience tropes of post-cyberpunk?
Panelists and audience members match our departed greats with today's popular
types of stories, themes, and tropes.
Genre-Switching For Fun and (Lack of) Profit.
It's widely considered the worst possible career move:
changing genre from novel to novel. (In fact, even changing subgenres is
considered unwise). Yet writing in multiple genres was once rather common
(Anthony Boucher, Leigh Brackett, Frederic Brown), and there are still writers
who have managed a career while enjoying the freedom of writing whatever they
felt like without regard for commercial consequences.
The Open-Ended Horror Story.
There's a type of horror short story which eschews
explanation and neat causal chains and instead adopts ambiguity and stresses
atmosphere. Instead of a solution to a horrific mystery, the reader is left
with vivid images and feelings, and a need to bring their own interpretation
to the narrated events. Such stories can exploit the truth that what we don't
see and are forced to imagine is often scarier than anything an author can
Education and Social Control in Speculative Fiction.
The role of the individual within a successful
totalitarian regime is one of the most compelling and enduring themes in
speculative fiction, explored by Zamiatin, Orwell, and many others. These
stories are often concerned with the obvious importance of education in such
societies, especially in the training of the powerless and the very young.
What are the mechanisms of social control and indoctrination in these stories,
and how they are used to establish and enforce social rules? Must mandatory
conformity always breed a certain amount of rebellion due to human nature?
Experiencing Sense of Wonder for College Credit: Teaching SF in the
A discussion of the past and present of teaching sf as
literature at the college level. How has the explosion of “sci-fi”
in pop culture changed the attitude of students towards our classics?
Both Sides Now: Presenting the Opposing Argument.
“Almost any interesting work of art comes close
to saying the opposite of what it really says.” —Gene Wolfe,
“What I Know About Writing.” For instance, you are unlikely to
find a stronger, more sympathetic argument in favor of the existence of a
torturer's guild than in The Book of the New Sun. The argument for a
given point of view is always more effective and forceful when the opposing
argument has been presented — and done full justice, not just held up as
a straw man. Examining the depth of the opposing argument may be an underused
The Separate Pleasures of the Mystery Novel.
At past Readercons, we've talked about how the sf and
mystery genres overlap in the pleasures they provide to the writer and reader,
so that the desire to combine the two is, for some, irresistible. But just as
clearly, both genres do things that the other cannot, and this attracts many
readers and some writers to pure examples of both forms. As with sf, there are
distinct subgenres of mystery (private eye, police procedural, courtroom
drama) that have their own separate attractions.
2003-2004: The Years in Short Fiction.
Including a look at the state of the magazines
(professional and semi-pro).
The Career of Joe Haldeman.
The Career of Kate Wilhelm.
The Fiction of Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore.
The New Cordwainer Smith Winner: An
The Rhysling Award Poetry Slan.
(A “poetry slan,” to be confused with
“poetry slam,” is a poetry reading by sf folks, of course.)
Climaxed by the presentation of this year's Rhysling Award.
The Best of the Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition.
Our traditional evening entertainment, named in memory
of the pseudonym and alter ego of Jonathan Herovit of Barry Malzberg's
Herovit's World. Ringleader Craig Shaw Gardner reads a passage of
unidentified but genuine, published, bad sf, fantasy, or horror prose, which
has been truncated in mid-sentence. Each of our panelists — Craig and
his co-moderator Eric M. Van, champion Glenn Grant, returning
provocateur Yves Meynard and a new challnger TBA — then reads an
ending for the passage. One ending is the real one; the others are imposters
concocted by our contestants (including Craig) ahead of time. None of the
players knows who wrote any passage other than their own, except for Eric, who
gets to play God as a reward for the truly onerous duty of unearthing these
gems. Craig then asks for the audience vote on the authenticity of each
passage (recapping each in turn by quoting a pithy phrase or three from them),
and the Ace Readercon Joint Census Team counts up each show of hands faster
than you can say “Bambi pranced.” Eric then reveals the truth.
Each contestant receives a point for each audience member they fooled, while
the audience collectively scores a point for everyone who spots the real
answer. As a rule, the audience finishes third or fourth. Warning: the
Sturgeon General has determined that this trash is hazardous to your
health; i.e., if it hurts to laugh, you're in big trouble. This year's contest
includes one round each from Readercons 3 through 7, and features both classic
and freshly minted “answers” from co-moderator Craig Shaw Gardner
(as well as new “answers” from the other contestants).