Copyright 1997 Evelyn C. Leeper and Mark R. Leeper
"Fifteen hundred years ago people knew the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago people knew the earth was flat. Fifteen minutes ago you knew there were no space aliens living on the earth. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow." [--J in MEN IN BLACK]
Readercon 9 was held on July 11-13 in Westborough, Massachusetts. If Boskone is hard to get to via public transit, Readercon is even worse, or maybe it's just that the directions given in the Progress Reports for public transit are vague. There is only one bus a day that stops at the Marriott, and it's in the mornings. An explanation of local bus service from Worcester to places within a reasonable taxi ride from the hotel would be nice.
However, we were driving so this didn't directly affect us. What did affect us was our inability to leave work before 4PM, so we didn't arrive until almost 9PM (we got to Registration just under the wire). This meant we missed all the Friday night panels.
Meet the Pros(e) Party
The Moon Is No One's Mistress Anymore
How March the Morons?: Satiric SF
The Suicide Club, or the New Arabian Nights
Critical Theory: Means or End?
Saturday Morning Live: Other Early Influences
Updating Your "Real Year"
The Career of Algis Budrys
History and Fictional History
The Declining SF Readership
A. J. Budrys Interview
Kim Stanley Robinson Interview
Kirk Poland Competition
The Science Fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson
Critical Theory: One or Many?
Nanotechnology and Clarke's Law
Science and Science Fiction
Panels at Readercon seem more stable than at other conventions; that is, there are fewer panelists changes or no-shows. It's true that Boskone's winter schedule makes travel iffy, but I think it's also a more committed attitude towards Readercon. Many people seem to go to Boskone because they feel they should, but they go to Readercon because they want to.
For the panels, the panelists were in a semi-circle around a coffee table. Unfortunately, this meant there really wasn't any place convenient to put the name cards.
The Bookshop (what at other conventions would be called the Dealers Room) was basically Boskone's Dealers Room minus the non-book tables. However, the dealers did seem to stock a better quality of book. For example, I was able to find both Diana Wynne Jones's TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND and John Clute's LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE. Both are nominated for the Hugo for Best Non-Fiction, but both are also hard to find. (They also had the other three nominees available as well: THE FACE OF FANTASY by Patti Perret, SILENCE OF THE LANGFORD by Dave Langford, and TIME & CHANCE by L. Sprague de Camp.)
There was apparently a serious overbooking problem at the hotel (and one party was effectively evicted from its space), and they put out an hors d'oeuvres buffet on Saturday afternoon and gave away two free nights at a free raffle at the Kirk Poland Contest as compensation.
The panel rooms were really cold in the morning (the thermometer Sunday read 64 degrees!).
I guess parties are supposed to be more dimly lit, but given the dark-colored backgrounds of the badges, this made it very hard to read people's badges to see who they were.
We spent most of the time talking to Daniel Kimmel and Nomi Burstein about the rather abysmal choice for the Hugo Awards this year--in both the fiction and dramatic categories.
"There was a time when the Moon and Mars were both special settings for SF. But the recent resurgence of fictional interest in the Red Planet has not been matched by any similar boom in lunar fiction. Is there simply a 'been there, done that' element intrinsic to SF? Or has Mars proven to be a genuinely more interesting place? Will the recent discovery of frozen water at the moon's South Pole help even the score?"
In answer to the first question from the moderator, Burstein said that his name is pronounced "Bersteen." And it was pointed out that there was an editorial by the Guest of Honor Kim Stanley Robinson in today's NEW YORK TIMES.
Getting on to the actual topic of the panel, Burstein said that he disagreed with the implication that no one is writing lunar fiction any more, and pointed out that last year's Tony Daniels' "Life on the Moon" was nominated for a Hugo. And there is the Artemis Project to go back to the Moon which is being led by science fiction authors. It's not that stories about the moon are disappearing, Burstein said, but that we're seeing more stories about Mars. And also, he added, "There's been a recent spate of alternate history space programs."
Steele responded, "I'm guilty on all counts: I've written about the moon, I've written about Mars [LABYRINTH OF THE NIGHT], and I've written alternate history space programs [THE TRANQUILLITY ALTERNATIVE]." What we're seeing now is what he had predicted: a "Martian land rush." For a long time, scientists who wanted to promote Mars had to work at "underground" conferences on "The Case for Mars." And Steele said that the recent big Mars books [RED MARS, MOVING MARS, MARS, MINING THE OORT] all drew on the proceedings of these conferences.
Several panelists mentioned THE CASE FOR MARS by Robert Zubrin, about "Mars Direct," which is about why we don't need to go back to the moon.
Trudel said that he personally thinks "been there, done that" pertains more to Mars now, at least as far as the books go. At one point, they were both unknown globes on which one could set life. Then as realism came in, we started to see a more realistic look at Mars and the Moon. "Mars offers a wider variety of possible settings or possible stories." However, Trudel said, "If you're looking for ... the industrialization of the solar system, the Moon deserves to be as much in the forefront as Mars." But most near-future stories are about exploration rather than industrialization.
Meskys said that there are four places in the solar system where we can have long-term settlements: the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and space habitats. Of these, Meskys said, "Mars is the exciting place." But he agreed that there is still lunar fiction. For example, he mentioned John M. Ford's GROWING UP WEIGHTLESS as being set on the Moon. And he noted, "You don't hear much about asteroid mining any more."
Steele said that basically Mars is the current bandwagon that authors are jumping on, but not only do we see some lunar fiction coming, he is writing KING OF INFINITE SPACE about asteroid mining and is working on the sequel to "The Death of Captain Future" which will involve Venus. He pointed out that almost all space exploration and colonization plans involve using lunar resources.
Cox said that John Kessel is also starting work on a novel set on the moon, and then asked if there is a better established genealogy for Mars than for the Moon. He said that Mars had Wells, Burroughs, Bradbury, and now Robinson (adding that there is no truth to rumor that they are renaming it "Stan's Planet"), while the Moon had Wells and Verne and then ...? Other people noted that the Moon had more older stuff: Kepler, de Bergerac (who, as Mark points out, was the first to suggest using rockets to get to the moon). In fact, lunar fiction is an older tradition, predating telescopes, because it was obviously a world even then. Trudel said, "science fiction is propelled by new discoveries."
Burstein said again that he would argue with the statement that there is no lunar literature, adding Robert A. Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" to the list. (I pointed out that Burroughs also wrote lunar fiction. One of the panelists asked, wonderingly, "Why do we have to be reminded of Burroughs' lunar fiction?") All the panelists agreed that "The Man Who Sold the Moon" made them think of Ross Perot. Given the title of the panel, I would have to label it as astonishing that no one (including myself) thought to mention Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS!
Someone said that the moon is too close to be a good setting for a story. "That's our backyard. You can set stories there, but ..." Steele returned to the idea of "too much knowledge," saying that Mariner made a lot of old Martian stories obsolete, but then Burstein pointed out that THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES was obsolete when Bradbury wrote it, which didn't stop him from writing it. Burstein also pointed out that Ben Bova had written a lot of stories set on the moon before 1969.
Someone in the audience said that there were stories in other cultures about the moon as well, and claimed that there were "realistic" lunar stories in Scotland in the 1500s (using a cannon to reach the moon, etc.). I'm skeptical, and would want some definite proof rather than just this statement.
As people pointed out, almost all these stories are about voyages to the moon and later, "moon stories were about getting there," while Martian stories tend to be about living there. Alternate history space programs sort of get around this problem. Steele notes his "John Harper Wilson" was an attempt to write a post-1969 "first trip to the moon" story.
Cox made the claim (repeated by someone else later) that Pathfinder cost less than WATERWORLD. I think Pathfinder cost $225,000,000 and WATERWORLD was less than that, though I think TITANIC will be more.
Cox said that one advantage the Moon has as a setting is the "potentiality for nationalistic conflict" because it is closer (or for corporate conflict, according to Steele). Cox said, "The moon has a metaphoric content that other barren rocks don't." Steele added, "The moon is like a lost continent of Earth; it just happens to be a quarter of a million miles away."
But why the excitement about space now?
Burstein said, "NASA has learned that they need a good PR person." Also, he noted, "Any time you announce the possibility of life, you're going to generate some excitement." This is because, he continued, "The possibility of life on Mars in the past implies the possibility of Mars supporting life in the future."
Steele attributed it more to the X-Files phenomenon, millennial fervor, and Roswell, though to me it isn't clear which are the causes and which the effects, assuming they are even separable. Cox ended by saying, "The X-Files does have its own logic, but it's not the logic of Greg Bear or Gregory Benford--it's the logic of Philip K. Dick."
Button seen: "Common sense is what tells you that the earth is flat."
"We recently overheard someone opine that the awful warning satirically inherent in C. M. Kornbluth's opposite. And while there's no evidence that the average I.Q. has dropped significantly, something in Kornbluth's masterpiece rings true today. SF satire frequently lampoons things which haven't happened yet, and which may come 'true' in ways unforeseen by the writer and contemporary readers. Kornbluth anticipated the 'dumbing down' of America (i.e., the decline not in intelligence but in knowledge), but he got all the details wrong. Our panelists will discuss SF satire, beginning with this story."
This was my first panel and I noticed The setup was considerably less formal than usual. The panelists sat in rolling chairs, almost like office chairs around a small oval coffee table. This meant that the panelists at the ends were a fair distance from the table and it did them little good. This arrangement makes things look initially a little more friendly, but it is more trouble than it is worth. The panelists do not have tables directly in front of them so they do not have a good place to make notes for themselves or put down personal belongings and it was a long reach for the water pitcher. Putting the mikes on the coffee table did not make for very good acoustics with sound bouncing off the tops of the tables. The panels quickly learned that it helped to put the mikes on the floor. Since the chairs were up on a platform and most of the people had no table in front of them the women complained that if they wore short skirts the audience got a view of them from a Sharon Stone sort of angle.
The panel was a reconsideration of the story "The Marching Morons" by Cyril M. Kornbluth. The premise of the story, presented somewhat acidly, is that as time goes by, the public allows itself to become more stupid and more and more the willing dupes of Madison Avenue and the media.
Algis Budrys began the discussion by saying that there was a lot to the basic concept of the story that is coming true. He believes that the public is not yet to the state described in the story, but that the trends are in the wrong direction. He felt that the time was indeed coming but has not yet come when we would have a largely mindless and manipulated public.
Paul Di Filippo asked if the story really was all that original. He asked if this pessimism about the public intelligence perhaps hadn't been a trend in science fiction for a long time. He gave the example of the story "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster. Other examples might include some of Wells's future history or Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD. Barry Malzberg asked what was Kornbluth's attitude in the story: was he amused by the lowering standards of intelligence or did it terrify him? There was a discussion of whether this was an admonition of the complicated city life. In several of his stories Kornbluth seemed to imply that a return to the soil might be the best thing for society. However, Kornbluth's own attempt at simple farming was a short one and quickly given up. Beyond the one short experience, Kornbluth never really lived the simple life and never understood it. Budrys added that he himself grew up on a farm and "it was the pits."
Rich said that Kornbluth did not really trust the intelligentsia. There is a recurrent theme in his stories of the horror of the atomic bomb created by the intelligentsia. There a lots of different interpretations of the "The Marching Morons." One writer--Lawlor in the fanzine FOUNDATION--particularly hates the story. He call it "the ugliest 'fans are Slans' story." Here he refers to the A. E. Van Vogt novel in which there is a persecuted super- race living in hiding among the more normal people. The story represents what the elitist science fiction reader thinks of the population large. Lawlor thinks of the story as Kornbluth as a sort of self-styled Joseph Mengele. Di Filippo said Tom Easton said the world would be better if 90% of the population were gone. Nielsen Hayden said that she knew she would be in the 90%. Budrys suggested that might have been reading too much into his story. It will not be known because Kornbluth never talked much about his work. Budrys suspects even Kornbluth did not know about the deep meanings of the story.
From there the conversation moved from the one story to satire in general, led mostly by Di Filippo. A career of satire does not last long, satirists either burn out or be mediocre. And what is popular satire varies with time. In the 50s Kornbluth and Fred Pohl were on top of satire and Robert A. Heinlein was more the backwater satirist, now that is reversed with Heinlein considered the better satirist.
Di Filippo asked if satire has to be funny. Rich evaded the question by saying that if you read Huxley's APE AND ESSENCE, it certainly is. And Nielsen Hayden asked how much of modern satire actually comes from Warner Brothers cartoons.
Budrys brought the conversation back to the 50s, saying that at that time ASTOUNDING was no longer the "cock of the walk" of science fiction magazines and that GALAXY got the authors who could not stand ASTOUNDING editor John W. Campbell. The result was stories like Fritz Leiber's "Coming Attraction," which has a hero in the ASTOUNDING tradition who turns out to be a simpering idiot, the exact opposite of Campbell. ASTOUNDING's grip on the field of the short story was finally broken when stories started coming out in paperback.
Di Filippo got some discussion going around a quote from Philip Roth saying that satire can no longer keep up with real world. Discussing styles of satire, Nielsen Hayden suggested that Piers Anthony is the literary descendent of Kornbluth while Douglas Adams is close to the tall tale tradition of story telling.
Nielsen Hayden suggested that America might actually be getting smarter. Today CNN is on 24 hours a day. (I would claim that is more because CNN has found ways to dumb down the news to the level that it can afford to be on 24 hours a day.) Children are learning more. Di Filippo disagrees, saying maneuvering through our culture the most that is required these days is facility with ATMs. [-mrl]
"John Crowley speaks on divers topics of interest to the assembly, and of the smaller worlds within the large."
According to Kate Pott, who attended this one, Crowley put the following list on the board and then proceeded to speak for an hour, connecting each to its successor and everything tying them all together:
"A lot of highly intelligent readers seem to get along without knowing any critical theory. Doesn't this suggest that knowing theory may not be necessary to understanding fiction? Do we practice critical theory because it makes us better readers, or just because we like to exercise our brains that way? How does knowing theory affect the experience of reading fiction?"
Olsen began by saying, "Theory is the kind of thing that students love to hate." Also, he said, "There is no such thing as a naive critical perspective [meaning that] you undermine the whole concept of innocent reading." On the other hand, "You revitalize your perspective of the text."
Delany said it wasn't just students, "Professors love to hate it too." He explained that it is not necessarily true that if you're in academia, you're pro-theory. "A lot of people [in academia] see theory as very threatening," because not only does it undermine the notion of an innocent reading, but also of a critical privileged reading as well. "We in the humanities department are an extension of the entertainment industry: we teach you how to get more out of your leisure time," he admitted. The most threatening part of theory, according to Delany, is its undermining of the authority structure of the university.
Lewitt said that any reaction to the text is a form of critical dialogue, but theory gives us a vocabulary so we can talk to each other. As she said, it's very easy to think about text without theory, but it's very difficult to discuss text without theory.
Hartwell agreed, but said what we end up with in this field is theories that get presented but not developed ("The Fantasy of Manners" that Donald G. Keller postulated, a.k.a. "Mannerpunk"). As Hartwell explained, "The science fiction field is a hotbed of unexamined preconceptions" which become unwritten laws; e.g., "science fiction should have good characterization" eliminates most of the classics of science fiction from consideration. (Houghton said later that Hartwell has been pointing to characterization for several years now, but "in science fiction, the character is the world around you.")
Olsen felt that "we're moving into a post-genre aesthetic." (A recent article in INTERZONE certainly agrees, listing an enormous number of books that are arguably science fiction but not marketed--or thought of--as such.)
Delany spoke at length, noting, "Theory doesn't mean just any old theory." He said that in 1968 Hopkins brought structuralism and post-modernism over from France and started the whole "literary theory" trend over here which he says is "now getting the shape of an orthodoxy." The problem, as he pointed out, is that "there's no way to talk about it without studying it." "Criticism can be that encounter of the seven-year-old with the text; theory is why was the response 'wow' and not 'yuck' and where does 'wow' come from?" And he added, "everyone talks about the definition of science fiction, [but] the more people use the term 'the definition of science fiction' the less aware they are of where it came from."
After Delany's long dissertation, all Lewitt could say was, "Exactly" and Olsen added, "That's what I meant to say, too." Lewitt did add, "You're not aware of the shape and expectations of your own culture. We have difficulty thinking out of these boxes. And theory can be a very limiting box" for both readers and writers.
Hartwell pointed out that theory was a very broad term, saying that "John W. Campbell's idea of science fiction was a theory of science fiction" and that in fact it became the dominant theory of SF. It wasn't until it stopped being dominant that the science fiction field was able to perceive the flaws in it, he continued.
Not counting Campbellian criticism, Hartwell listed Marxist criticism, Freudian criticism, and post- structuralist theory as methods that can be applied to everything. But, he asked, even if they are valid forms of discourse, are they interesting and useful when applied to science fiction?
Robinson said that at one point he worried, "If you know too much theory, will it gunk up the works?" But it turned out to be a false fear, he said. "It's when it's done wrong that it becomes a problem." He compared the two methods to "the Palefaces versus the Red Indians" (which he described as Henry James or T. S. Eliot versus Ernest Hemingway). This seems to me more a difference of style than a knowledge of theory (certainly there are many authors more of the James/Eliot style who did not know a lot of theory).
Robinson also compared Philip K. Dick and Marcel Proust: Dick avoided theory and was intermittently successful; Proust was very structured and very successful. He spoke about how his training in literary theory came from Frederic Jameson and said, "When we're talking theory we're really talking Marxism--it's a code word we use." But he concluded, "As a Marxist, as a science fiction writer, and as a California beach boy Red Indian, I find all these things reconcilable."
Delany disagreed with Hartwell, saying that it is not the case that any theory can be applied to everything. Post- structuralist theory works wonderfully with philosophical texts, but not with fiction. Freudian criticism works well with texts that already have long critical traditions, but not with new works that lack a "sedimented tradition." But all of this is sort of an outgrowth of Marxism in that "theory" is the theory for a materialist practice, hence Marxism.
Delany said that theory could be carried too far. For example, some would say, "There are no living, breathing characters in books. Living, breathing characters do not inhabit books; words inhabit books." He continued this idea, saying that the notion of "living, breathing characters" is called "the tyranny of the subject," with all its pejorative connotations.
Robinson said that he learned that characters are bundles of "actants" (French, meaning people who do what is necessary for the book/plot/story to advance). That is, the characters are written to do things, not to be characters per se. (In passing, Robinson said that Virginia Woolf is the writer who has impacted him most in the past ten years.)
Delany said that one aspect of this "tyranny of the subject" is that all that students ever talked about in high school was characters, and that they needed to learn how to see other aspects. Lewitt said there is currently "an attempt to bring this genre into compliance with the general theoretical level" of everything else, particular what you read and analyze in high school. "Theory is a tool. It can be extremely useful. It can be destructive. You can do the same work without it but not as well. [But], in general, we have to stop worshipping our tools."
Olsen felt that the different theories were all valid, just as it is valid to render bodies in impressionism, X- rays, CAT-scan, etc. He quoted Jameson as having said, "Whenever you're writing something, know whom you're polemicizing against" and Thomas Mann's statement "Any philosophical position exists to remedy the evils of the opposite position." (To which Lewitt, replied, "How Hegelian!")
From the audience Dave Shaw asked where the theory seemed to start, and where we should start. Someone mentioned Jonathan Color's work, Delany recommended his own "Politics of Paraliterary Criticism" (I think this appeared in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION), as well as Frederic Jameson's PRISON-HOUSE OF LANGUAGE and MARXISM AND FORM, Terry Eagleton's ON LITERARY THEORY, and Raymond Williams's work.
But Delany warned again that most critical theory is for philosophy or classics. "Criticism," he said, "is what you do of the works; theory is analyzing why the criticism came out that way." Robinson added that theorists want to take on texts that fit with that theory (so novels with strong characters are examined vis-a- vis the tyranny of the subject and so forth). He pointed out that TRITON includes the theory at the back of the book, "which tends to slow theoreticians down."
Robinson closed with Michel Foucault's observation: "All intellectual performances are a species of comedy."
Each of the panelists was ask to list an influence on their writing. Friesner, claiming to be old, said that when she was young comics were ten cents. Sawyer said he was young and got interested in science fiction through television. Edelman listed Stan Lee comic books. Gardner when he was ten the Universal monster movies were on television at dinnertime. THE TWILIGHT ZONE was on just after his bedtime and so he built it up in his mind as better than the series really was. He has gone through life thinking the real goodies are just out of reach. Gravel watched Irwin Allen science fiction series. Every week he was disappointed but expected the next week it would be great. Clough liked "Batman" and "Legion of Super-heroes" comics.
Asked what they learned from these early influences, Friesner talked about seeing THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and looking at the Cyclops and part of the fun was seeing zipper up the back. It taught her to always look for "the zipper." Edelman pointed out what I would have if I was on the panel. The Cyclops was a stop-motion animation figure and had no zipper up the back. (I would add that there is an embarrassing zipper in a Sinbad film, but it is in the 1977 SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER. It could be, however, that Friesner is one of those people with a talent for finding "the zipper" where it is not.)
Sawyer talked about how it was bad plotting to have Smith in LOST IN SPACE making stupid mistakes that got him into trouble and he learned not to plot this way. Seeing the same program Tuesday and Thursday nights taught him a great deal about story structure. He could see the story on an entertainment level, then the second viewing told him how the effect was achieved. Edelman, who grew up in New York, did him one better since the "Million Dollar Movie" would play a film like MIGHTY JOE YOUNG again and again in a week, and he would watch it over and over. He also said that everything he learned about morals he learned from Stan Lee comic books. These remembrances started the panel talking about "altered" viewing conditions for films. Geary Gravel suggested that the whole watching experience was different before the days of VCRs. You could see a film only once. It was fleeting and if you missed something, you could not see it again. These days you have a film on tape and never have to watch it again. Gardner added that there was a sense of television community. Everybody would see a television show at the same time and could discuss it the next day.
Clough liked the fact that every super-hero had to have an origin in the comics. To him this demonstrated that things don't happen for no reason. We live in an orderly universe and if there was a super-hero there, something must have created the super-hero. Friesner took this thought a step further and pointed out that each super-hero had to have some weakness, that no power was absolute. Superman was the victim of kryptonite, Green Lantern could not control anything that was yellow. (Jeez, can you imagine what his bathroom smelled like? I wonder if even in antiquity super- heroes had Achilles Heels?)
Edelman has a bit of a problem looking at the films being heckled on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Often these are films that he thought were good at the time. (Side thought: just because a film is heckled does not mean that it is bad and worthy of getting heckled. Back when Boskone would show films they were very tolerant of heckling. It started with films like KING DINOSAUR being heckled and eventually even films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS were getting heckled by the audience. Those who saw the MST3K movie will remember that even THIS ISLAND EARTH became fodder for heckling. Even the supposedly mature Readercon has the Kirk Poland to heckle authors who do not meet the convention committee's high standards of literary merit. Can you spell "elitist?")
Geary Gravel claimed that he was the fan of comic books nobody else ever saw. He found out only years later that the ones he liked were really obscure. He showed examples of "Brain Boy" and "Cosmo the Martian." Sawyer said that he liked that "Classics Illustrated" comics, especially horror and science fiction. Of course, the classic among classics was the comic book of H. G. Wells's WAR OF THE WORLDS.
Gravel mentioned liking the Fleischer Superman cartoons which were delightfully dark. Friesner talked about Fleischer's other cartoons that left an impression on her. In discussion with the audience other influence listed included television shows like the Japanese anime STARBLAZERS, TARZAN, and CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT. [-mrl]
This year's attendance was 470. Next year's Readercon will be July 10-12, will have Lisa Goldstein and Bruce Sterling as the Guests of Honor, and will be at the Westborough Marriott again.