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Towards a Farthing Party con report: Saturday afternoon

The work of John M. Ford. This panel ended up more memorial than analytical. Both are worthy, but I think with Mike’s work, there’s so much variety that it would be hard to talk analytically about more than one or possibly two at the outside, just to bring the focus into something manageable for an hour-long panel. In fact one of the issues discussed was that Mike didn’t do just one thing, and that this was a blessing and a curse for him as a writer. He changed the rules of each form he worked in and had a horror of being obvious. There was also substantial discussion of his focus on triumph over despair and his firm moral sense.

Make a will make a will make a will make a will no really I mean it make a will.

Families and Generations. I was on this. We talked about the primacy in many speculative genres of romantic relationships but not the aspect of romantic relationships that gets to be familial–negotiations and “roommate stuff” and like that, which shows up a lot more in mimetic genres. Someone proposed that the mimetic genres have more room for this stuff, since they’re not having to build the world from scratch, but on the other hand the speculative genres have more need for it, since what we don’t build is not there. What I want, and what I think several people present wanted, is not necessarily for families to have to play a direct role in every story but that they should cast their shadows on it–that characters’ places in their families should be clear from characterization, that they should think of their families and be influenced by them in various real-world ways–at least some of the time.

We talked a bit about how the timing of the story matters as to what kind of dynamic you can have–little children have a very different story dynamic with each other and with parents than do teens or grown children. It’s also possible with younger grandparents in a story to–gasp shock amazement–have a story with grandparents wherein the grandparent does not have to die.

There was also some thought about how difficult it is to write a sequel to a romance, how it require some kind of destabilization of the previous ending or in fact of the character’s lives in general.

Works discussed: Pilgrim’s Progress, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Minerva Wakes, the Moomin books, pretty much all of Pamela Dean, Saga, Pacific Rim, superhero comics (in that some companies are walking back nearly all their familial relationships–but not the Fantastic Four, the Fantastic Four is all family!), Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Steve Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, Jay Williams’s The Magic Grandfather, Among Others, Aliette de Bodard’s “On a Red Station, Drifting,” C. J. Cherryh’s family ships, Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, Suzette Hadin Elgin, Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, Robert Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones, Brave, Buffy, Medium, Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population, Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet, Piers Anthony (very very badly), and Marge Piercy’s He, She, & It.

Ends of the World: every age its own apocalypse! There was a strong theme of different apocalypses being popular in fiction for different generations: while plagues and environmental disasters are good perennial staples, their forms do vary. Overpopulation and nuclear war are out of fashion. The Yellowstone supervolcano and the underwater cliff out from the Canary Islands are much more de rigeur perhaps.

The cyberpunk motto (or at least a cyberpunk motto) was apparently, “Apocalypse is boring.” Humans tend to muddle through.

“Apocalypse” means revelation: you will understand everything on the last page. That’s part of the appeal. Another theory proposed was that there was a certain amount of processing of the possibility of nuclear war through more fantastical apocalypses. Also there is a certain sense of the cozy catastrophe–the idea that if only these other people weren’t around, how grand things would be. This is in some ways apocalypse as high school escape fantasy rather than nuclear war processing. The 14th century’s huge European population drop resulted in improved property and labor conditions for the remaining humans, so there’s something to the coziness, even if it’s sometimes creepy and sadistic. Another panelist theorized–I think possibly quite correctly–that it’s a lot easier for some readers to consider mass extinction than their own personal individual deaths.

On the other hand, the panelists who had lived through urban disasters reported that people behave much better than writers theorize. JG Ballard’s personal experiences are at least something of a counterexample, but they relate to war, not other disasters.

Works discussed included: Joanna Russ’s “We Who Are About To…” (the anti-“The Cold Equations”!), American Psycho, Breaking Bad, Iain Banks’s Complicity, Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven’s “Inconstant Moon” and Fallen Angels, The Stand, Spider Robinson, Alan Nourse, Earth Divides, Fourth Horseman, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s The Time of the Fourth Horseman, The Screwfly Solution, John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, Peter Watts, Thomas Disch’s The Genocides, Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island, Keith Roberts’s The Furies, John Christopher, Good Omens, Kim Stanley Robinson’s capitol trilogy, Vinge’s The Peace War, Barry Longyear’s Sea of Glass, Z for Zachariah, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Lord of the Flies, Revelation Space, Spin, John Varley’s “Air Raid,” Ilsa Bick, Childhood’s End, The Child Garden, Left Behind, and Bruce Sterling.

Also, if various calculations are correct, Dante is due to exit Purgatory in 2017. Surely some fun can be had with this.

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Towards a Farthing Party con report: Maybe It’s Sunspots

I’m going to talk with names on this, because it was a very personal panel, and there was a lot of “this works for x but not for y.” It featured Jo, Greer, and me, since we are all having very productive years. One of the important points Jo made was that productivity is personal–Greer is having a very productive year for Greer, and while that meant she was a little startled by the word counts Jo and I were discussing, it didn’t make her productivity less real or less important. Jo talked about how we are improving on ourselves, not reproducing others.

I quoted Alec as saying, “Thinking is the most important part of writing,” and it sounded like we had been substantially thinking in advance on these books, so that they were more ready when we got to them. Someone–I didn’t note who–described chunks of book falling on them with flaming swords through a blizzard. For me it’s more that everything I’m writing is much closer. It’s like I would usually have to stretch a little to reach it on the shelf, and now it’s all just sitting on the desk within reach.

One of the notable points of commonality is that these bouts of productivity did not, contra suffering artist cliches, come from times of great suffering. Greer was coming out of the first flush of a great grief, and Jo and I had less physical interference than we sometimes do with writing. (I should note that the plane ride home was through a thunderstorm and has kicked up my vertigo–and that this has not turned the spigot off. Which is in some ways a relief and in some ways pretty alarming.)

Greer apparently had her book fall on her head while eating strawberries with creme fraiche and brown sugar. And to this I say: this is excellent advice for young writers. Those who have strawberry or dairy allergies can modify it slightly. But think of all the things we tell young writers as advice! Some of these things are potentially harmful! Eating strawberries, on the other hand, might not help them with their stories but is highly unlikely to do any harm. The next time someone tells you to outline or freewriter or talk it out with a friend or keep it bottled up inside or whatever else they tell you as writing advice, feel free to substitute, “Or strawberries. I could eat strawberries and think of my story. It might work, and if it didn’t work, at least there would be strawberries.”

I bet this works for other art forms, too, at least as well as it works for writing.

Anyway. I talked about the three rules I was following (discussed in this post, and Jenett and I had a good laugh about how well they map to the 4H pledge), but that’s by no means universal. A lot of people don’t try to keep up with doing everything else while they’re having an unusually productive period, or else can’t even if they do try, and that’s okay; the unusually productive periods do not last forever. One of the audience members once wrote a contract novel in 56 hours, playing Richard Thompson on repeat the whole time. This audience member still appears to be on speaking terms with their family.

Honestly, folks, I expected this panel to be a retrospective. Gosh, I had a productive month! 2/3 of a novel and 8 short stories! Wasn’t that productive! But so far it’s still going. I have one or possibly two short stories to finish up this week, and then it’s straight into the next book, for which I have [counting] five pages of notes on paper sitting on my desk. It’s doing that thing where if I don’t actively think of something else, the book says, “Helllooooo, book here, you wanted this plot point, didn’t you? I could tell you did. Also here is some worldbuilding! You’re welcome!” I think it was during the process panel (more on which anon) that Jo talked about if she didn’t want to do the laundry, getting a character in her head who thought the washing machine was awesome modern technology, so much better than having to drag it down to the river and pound on it and etc. And I do that too. Except, for example, if an opening act at a concert is no good and it would be rude to snark out loud about it, if a novel is going well, there’s usually at least one character in the novel who would snark about it too. And then the snark starts telling me worldbuilding things about the character’s assumptions about education or art or whatever else. And then there it all is. Which is a lot more diverting than a bad opening act, don’t get me wrong! It’s just that it’s there all the time.

And this is part of why I’m writing another novel: because the fire hose is still turned on, and sticking short story shot glasses under it to catch the water is only partly useful. And then there’s this novel! So who knows how long the fire hose will keep going, but…there’s this novel! So here we are. Still. Okay then.

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Critiques and completion

Before I get back to my Farthing Party panel notes, I wanted to talk about why I prefer to critique completed works rather than excerpts or partially finished drafts. Recently I did a crit as a Kickstarter reward for Daily SF, and the promised crit had been on “a short story,” but the person sent me the first few chapters of their novel instead. I want to hasten to add that I am not upset with them about this–I just feel they got less value for their dollar.*

Here’s the thing: there is hardly ever such a thing as good writing in a vacuum.** You can show me, say, a really beautiful sestina about a moth.*** But you can also show me a hard-boiled detective story for which plunking the sestina down in the middle would not improve the story in the slightest. Context is all.****

So I can tell someone what is or is not working for me about the first few chapters of a book. I bounce off the first few pages of a great many books (two just this morning!), so it’s a lot easier to hit the “this is bad writing in a vacuum” buttons. There are plenty of those. But–for example, if my thought at the end of Chapter 3 is, “I really want to know what happened to Maud,” that doesn’t mean that you screwed up by not putting Maud’s fate in Chapter 2. It will depend on what comes after. If Chapter 4 starts, “Maud wiped the blood from her sword and considered her options,”***** then wanting to know about Maud at the end of Chapter 3 is a feature, not a bug. If you wait for Chapter 27, when I have long since ceased caring, or worse, Book 3, then it’s important that I was wondering what happened to Maud from the end of Chapter 3 on.

Everything ramifies forward, but it also ramifies backward. You can say that you want to read onward, or that something is bothering you, or that the whole thing smells of unwashed socks. But a wonderful beginning can be completely undone by an ending that does not follow its implications and ramifications. This is even true at the series length. This is why series that don’t have midpoint endings are so problematic: you are cantilevering a greater and greater weight of story, and eventually it all goes crashing into the river.

And we are once again reminded of what we have said about me and metaphors when I’m tired. But still: the more complete, the more I can turn over the ramifications and see how they fit together, and this is a good thing for me as a reader, but it’s an even better thing for you as a writer, because one of the best things about being a writer is that you can get help from the smart people you know to make your stuff even better. It is not a live-action art form. It can be fixed later. Hurrah for that.

*I get that not everybody has short stories in the first place, so the person may have gotten the most possible value for their dollar. Let’s say, then, that they got less value compared to a hypothetical other person who was giving me the same number of words to critique but in a finished short story instead of a novel partial.

**When Alec said this on Twitter earlier this week, I agreed that there are not at all enough stories with speculative science set in hard vacuum. Pls to be getting on this; kthx.

***Please do.

****If you write me a hard-boiled detective story in which a really beautiful sestina about a moth is crucial, I will love it forEVAR.


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Towards a Farthing Party con report: Saturday morning

(I did not wake up in time for the Good Reads panel. I hope it went well.)

Mad Science. I moderated this panel. We had a lovely time talking about human subject research, grant funding, and parallels with/outgrowths from mad alchemy (the idea that the worst times come from the best results–someone pointed out that mad alchemists are almost always students, inflating their claims while fleeing from city to city). Wernher von Braun was mentioned as a Mary Sue figure, getting to run an entire program while Tsien (? Chinese scientist) was thrown out of NASA for much less. Works discussed included Girl Genius, those Bujold novels with Enrique, Frankenstein, Cyteen (particularly with the bad parenting/mad science parallels of Frankenstein), Narbonic, Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor, Manhattan Projects, the Laundry novels.

There was also some discussion of why comics were coming up a lot in this list, and a few of the answers proposed included that mad science is visually striking and that you don’t have to pay extra for the kind of thing that would break the special effects budget in a movie. Scale was proposed to either underscore or undermine the madness of a particular bit of speculative science: it’s much harder to read something small and subtle as mad science. It’s also harder to read group endeavors as mad, even though the results can be far madder than the strereotypical lone scientist in the lab with an Igor or two.

Someone proposed that autism was replacing madness in portrayals of science: that the stereotypical scientist who would Show You All in years past was much more likely to be hyperfocused and want to be left alone in current portrayals. Mad science is in some ways past visions of the future. Someone also quoted, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and proposed excessive faith in one’s model as the root of mad science.

Finally, biopunks were proposed to all be a bit mad. Jon has glow-in-the-dark plants, and who knows what next. Teresa said, very plaintively, “We’ve been good. We deserve to have pygmy mammoths.” (Yes. Very true.)

Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine. Five Rivers Press has just reprinted this hard-to-find book. Isabelle told of finding it when it was new and she was a college student: “I opened the book again, and the sentence was still there.” That made me smile. Hardly anybody seemed to have just bought the book in a normal way when it first came out. It’s on the cusp of at least four genres (SF, fantasy, gothic, and horror) and refuses to choose between them rather than neglecting to do so. Someone suggested that the title should be taken as a warning, not to read this on an empty stomach, to take it slow. There was strong sense that everything on this planet was distributed unevenly, like tech and supplies are on our own planet. It was compared favorably to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, which some panelists felt handled the subject matter in a way that was far more fetishistic than Black Wine‘s sense that people form a sense of normal that is local to their own circumstances.

Other works and artists it was compared to included Bernini, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Eleanor Arnason (particularly A Woman of the Iron People), Gene Wolfe, Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day, and Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder (this was the most successful insight for me–I had thought of LeGuin but not of Finder, but it’s very Findery in some ways, in its mosaic composition of a world and in its local normals and in some of the awful things that just happen but do not detract from the good things that also just happen).

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Towards a Farthing Party con report: Joy of Reading

My notes are full of random story things for myself and several bits of amusement that are non sequiturs. Also there was so much amazing food eaten I will not even try cataloging that. So. Con report, panel report, whatever. I think everyone who’s been to more than one con knows that some of the best parts are having a meal with someone you’ve been missing for months, or walking along getting to know someone you’ve never met who has a great deal in common with you, or things that can’t be put into a con report. Therefore: panel notes, and paraphrasing of them. I’m going to try to be careful about listing things by people’s names, because I know that some people who go to Farthing have had issues with family or professional stuff with their names online, so when I am concerned that it might not be okay with them and yet the comment really needs attributing, I will use first initials. This is more con report than I generally do and more than I will probably do in the future, but I have a friend who was supposed to make it to Farthing and could not, and I want to share as much of it with her as I can.

Of course in con notes, there are the random quotes I can no longer connect to anything. Debra: “If it’s good enough for 10% of Welshmen, it’s good enough for me.” Unrelatedly, Theresa: “I wasn’t sure if I was going to go with creeping fascism or ducks, but it was one or the other.” And Timprov: “Jack, you have debauched my Horta.” Oh, and me: “Nobody plays the banjo by accident, so you get to skip to once is enemy action.”

The Joy of Reading. This is the Sunday morning panel where people bring short things to read to make people laugh and think. I wrote down who read what in which order, and I’m pretty sure I got it all right, but corrections are welcome. We had excerpts from:
CJ Cherryh’s Cyteen
Ada’s forthcoming novel from Tor
a short uncollected John M. Ford story from Asimov’s
a bit of Eric Frank Russell comedy
Italo Calvino If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler
Meg Huchinson’s “Google Thinks It Knows Me”
some Charles Wright
some Sue Charmin Anderson
Jo Walton’s “The Baseless Fabric of This Vision” (which you can now read yourself on Jo’s new website)
Superman Miracle Monday
Tim O’Brien’s “How To Tell a True War Story”
Shamus Culhane’s thing about animation and inspiration
and a great deal of Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp, which is the one about Mr. Earbrass writing a novel.

This list: it is a bit like saying who you had meals with in terms of conveying what it’s like. I really like the Joy of Reading panel concept as it plays out in a group like Farthing Party. (Possibly I would only like it at Farthing Party. I don’t know.) It’s cozy and companionable. I don’t have to like everything that gets read to like the fact of the reading together.

I’m hoping to condense some of the notes I have on actual panels so that it’s not one post per panel, but on the other hand, I’d rather just post this than leave it sitting around on my computer until I do more. So: more panel reports later.

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Books read, late September (belated!)

Striking thing about the last fortnight: I bounced off zero books. Zero. That basically never happens. I think in part it was that I read somewhat fewer library books going into a week of travel–I don’t like to travel with library books, it makes me nervous–and so it was a higher percentage of stuff I was pretty sure I wanted in the first place. But even so I often bounced off things on my Kindle when traveling these days. Who knows.

Ann Aguirre, Grimspace. If you’re looking for something incredibly fast-paced, this is it. I read it on an airplane, so I didn’t really have any reason to come up for air, and neither did the characters, so things! and then more things! thingsthingsthingswheeeeezoooom! I tend to prefer a bit more introspection, but this kind of pacing is a rare skill and should be appreciated in its context. Also it had aliens I wanted to know more about, which is also not as common as I would like in the current market.

Joan Aiken, Bridle the Wind. Kindle. Another early 19th century swashbuckling Spanish thing. One of the central plot twists was obvious to the meanest intellect, I mean seriously, seriously, if you have ever read a book before, you will see this one in neon letters. Nor is it the most deftly I have ever seen this trope handled. However, there is still swashing and buckling, on which I am mightily short in my life, and so I will still read the conclusion to the trilogy.

Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Incrementalists. Discussed elsewhere.

Nina Burleigh, Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt. Indifferently written and almost completely not about Egyptians. While the naturalists and proto-archaeologists of the Napoleonic era are moderately interesting, this set was actually less colorful than the period average (which is admittedly quite colorful). Only recommended to those who are particularly interested in the topic.

Ally Carter, United We Spy. Last in her YA spy series. Frothy fun.

John M. Ford, TimesSteps+. I have no idea where this came from. It’s a set of Mike’s poems, and it’s so lovely. I have several of them in other formats, but I’m still glad to have this one. The last poem in the volume is the sort of thing that makes you catch your breath, but Mike left us all sorts of things for after his death, so…this is one of them. Yes.

David Quammen, Spillover. About zoonosis and epidemics. The sort of thing I find comforting and cheerful while I’m finishing a book. Informative, colorfully written, recommended to those who have a strong stomach for plagues and their symptoms. (Since I have just written the line, “‘We don’t know, but it’s hemorrhagic,’ he said grimly,” I am firmly in this camp.)

Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography. Highly recommended. Much detail on the development of French language, culture, and national sense. Many maps of great utility. (The one of “percent of parish given saint names,” for example, was illuminating.) Much anecdote and also data.

Greg Rucka, Walking Dead. Not about zombies. It’s a metaphor, kids. Seriously, it’s the last Atticus Kodiak book, and I’ve watched Greg Rucka end a series before. He must be one of those people who have an easy time getting little children convinced that the horsey rides are at an end for the afternoon. Aaaaanyway. I do not recommend this unless you’ve read the rest of the series, but it is no less fun than the others and a great deal more fun than, for example, Shooting at Midnight, my land.

Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom. Answer to the subtitle: bugger all. Or if it does, this is not the man to reveal it to you. He has started with a premise, and all evidence will by God fit it. I spotted holes in this when it came to medieval Iceland, which makes me suspicious of the places where I know less. Political scientists: can’t live with ’em, and you have to use their tricks in order to be allowed to dispose of them.

Django Wexler, The Thousand Names. Colonialism fantasy. Not of the fluffy sky-colored colonialist fantasy, either. Obvious tropes recognized as obvious up-front and not kept horribly secret; much better than the Aiken in that regard. Bureaucracy and its paperwork join violence in portrayal of a colonialist army. And also there’s rather nasty magic at work. I am glad to have this series.

P. G. Wodehouse, A Wodehouse Miscellany. Kindle. Essays, poetry, short stories. Wodehouse. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s rather funny on, for example, librettists and their woes. Also it’s a very fast read.