Copyright 1997 Evelyn C. Leeper and Mark R. Leeper
"In the Jan. '91 NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION, John Clute posits that every SF text, regardless of the year it claims to be set in, has an underlying 'real year' which shines through, the secret point in time that gives the work its flavor. The closer the 'real year' is to the present, the more cutting- edge the fiction reads; but most authors have a characteristic real year, one often based upon key childhood or adolescent experience and concerns. Is it possible to forcibly update your real year, in order to write sharper fiction? Doesn't the real year actually have two different elements, a scientific/technological one and a social/cultural one, differently amenable to updating and requiring different revision techniques?"
Clute, ever the stickler for detail, noted that it was originally "real decade" and that it was a flip phrase; "It was not intended to be a serious entry in the sweepstakes of critical theory." Nor, he said, was it intended to be argued in this fashion. His polemical point was not that science fiction couldn't be set in the future, but that it often isn't. In his review of Michael Swanwick's STATIONS OF THE TIDE, he said that it had a real year perilously close to 1990 (the year it was written), and hence had an immediacy to it.
The panelists agreed that Ray Bradbury's real year was almost always 1927, and the post-World War II Heinlein had a real year of 1940. Philip K. Dick had a real year of 1950.
All this may be partially due to "a readership increasingly inclined to confuse a sense of wonder with nostalgia" (Clute's phrase), or maybe that is the cause rather than the effect.
Cramer said, "Insofar as I buy the concept of real year, I don't buy the idea that fantasy is radically different." She said that the real year depends on what books were "imprinted" on the author (i.e., what they read when they were fourteen), what cultural trends were important when they were writing, and how we view the future at any given time. She left the latter is perhaps more specific to science fiction than to fantasy, but exists even in fantasy.
Crowley expressed the opinion that Cramer was throwing cold water on Clute's idea. "Since whatever you predict isn't going to happen, you need to predict something different from everyone else." But Crowley did say that his one book about the future (BEASTS?) really did reflect the year in which he wrote it (1967) even though it didn't come out until much later.
Keller asked what the real year of Brian Aldiss's BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD is, since it such a Joycean derived text. Crowley responded by asking, "Is real year determined by content or by style?" Clute diverged somewhat by saying that Aldiss's latest book, SOMEWHERE EAST OF LIFE, has the same Eastern European sensibility.
Clute also noted that Pathfinder is not the Mars story we were taught; writers were caught in the old story of large capsules and are now fossilized (this seems to connect to many of the issues at the first Panel I went to, "The Moon Is No One's Mistress Anymore"). Clute did say that he doesn't necessarily imply a pejorative meaning by using "dated," "archaic," or "fossilized," though one wonders why he uses such loaded words if he doesn't mean them.
From the audience, Jennifer Stevenson said she thought that the panelists are saying this is more about memory than about history. Clute responded that all work is autobiographical ("Asking an author if his work is autobiographical like asking a spider, 'Where do you get your silk?'") The importance of memory is used by Ray Bradbury in "Mars Is Heaven," according to Clute, where the Martians read people's minds to get material to trick them with, but are unable to trick the Holocaust survivor who has repressed memory syndrome.
Stevenson said, "We as scientists invalidate personal experience as opposed to replicable evidence." But Clute said that people gave up on science as the obvious hope of the future around 1967 anyway. We can't write plausible yet publishable science fiction, he claimed. Cramer responded that the book THE TRUTH MACHINE (by James L. Halperin) seemed to use the "megatrends" method of futurology and is very tiresome. Clute worried that science fiction is being used as a security blanket, but Cramer thought science fiction was being used as an antidote to boredom (or terror).
Crowley asked who was writing in the present as their real year. Clute named Douglas Coupland in SHAMPOO PLANET and Jonathan Lethem. Crowley said that Robert Stone's DOG SOLDIERS is also written in the present. Someone in the audience said that fantasy is addressing current social issues.
Another audience member asked if cyberpunk made people update their real year. Someone else pointed out that some people didn't want to update their real years, and cited Robert Silverberg's recent column in ASIMOV'S about this. Clute felt that Silverberg's works since DYING INSIDE don't seem to have a real year anyway. Clute did say that cyberpunk pushed things forward and also dislodged the basic story structure from one of being in control of the world to one of being streetwise about the world. In this regard, he said, "[William] Gibson is quintessentially Canadian in writing about not being in control of his world." Relating cyberpunk to the reality we are in, Clute added, "Everything is wrong with Net except the fact that it prefigures what is coming."
Carver said one problem is that cutting-edge is what is in a four-year "real-year" moving window, but when the window moves, it's no longer cutting-edge. Clute said that cutting-edge and retro are flip sides of the same card.
Someone in the audience (can someone tell me who?) said what became one of the catch-phrases of the convention: "Cyberpunk dragged science fiction into the 1980s--and left it there."
Clute said part of the result was the "pathos of an author trying to write about characters fifty years younger than themselves, and it just feels wrong."
Candas Jane Dorsey said that she was disturbed by the thought that people have that the cyberpunks got ahead because of their advanced language and their advanced technology; Dorsey felt that the cyberpunks were more the "Neuromatics" with very retro ideas about women, race, etc. She gave as an example THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which she said was the most popular of these novels because it puts the real year and story year together. Cramer agreed, saying that Gibson once claimed nothing interesting happened in the 1970s in science fiction; someone responded to him that feminism happened, and that his not recognizing that said something about him.
An audience member suggested that the reader also had a real year, and that what makes a story scary is if the story's real year is greater than reader's.
Budrys was not officially part of the panel but as he was sitting right there on the stage, it was clear that he would hear everything that was said. Luckily it just turned out to be entirely positive. No disrespect intended to Budrys, but his presence may well have had a stultifying effect. In any case, the discussion went from low-key to no-key. So that may or may not have been a good idea. The panel was monotonously positive with a little bit of substance about his background and a lot of praise. The praise was about his writing style which was likened to that of Theodore Sturgeon and his review style which was likened to James Blish. No disrespect to Budrys, but I would say that he has his own style. David Hartwell was very positive on Budrys's HARD LANDING of a few years ago, and I am told he had previously named it the best of its year. Hartwell, who used to show up to science fiction conventions well dressed with a flamboyant tie has now changed his style. He wears clothing that is obviously intended to make him one- man fashion Kirk Poland contest.
Budrys said that Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND was a terrible novel but that the film THE OMEGA MAN is not bad. (I disagree on both.) Budrys ended by talking about his career.
His parents were very restrictive and would not let him see science fiction. When someone--decidedly not his parents--let him see the Sunday comics he especially liked the science fiction comics. That inspired him to write science fiction for himself.
When WHO? was published his father saw a copy. His Lithuanian-born father was particularly impressed with the Russian (Azarin was his name, I think) who was a particularly ruthless sort. The elder Budrys was surprised Azarin was so well-characterized when, as he said, young Budrys knew nobody like that. What Budrys did not tell his father is that the father was the model. In any case, his father learned to respect him on the basis of that.
When that father decided he could not break up his son's announced wedding to an American woman, he told Algis's mother when Algis was getting married, "It's you and me against the universe."
In another anecdote GALAXY magazine ran a contest for the best amateur writer, but got nothing of value so awarded the prize to Fred Pohl and Lester Del Rey who wrote as a team under a pen name.
Budrys resents A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ because it was not really supposed to be eligible the year it beat ROGUE MOON. It was beaten by THEY'D RATHER BE RIGHT and when the fans realized that it was a good novel they extended its eligibility. They made it eligible for another year, enabling it to beat ROGUE MOON. Budrys is still unhappy about that.
"Certain things in fiction are, by convention and for good reason, not strictly realistic---dialogue, for instance, is a highly edited version of real speech. Is history one of these things? When we devise a fictional history (either an alternate past or a history of the future), can and should it represent the way history really works (choose your own theory), or is doing so antithetical to good fiction? Isn't the dramatic structure we look for in most novels absent from real history?"
Jablokov began by saying that Thucydides, Herodotus, and for that matter, the author of Samuel I and II used fictional techniques to write history, while Sir Walter Scott influenced historians such as Macaulay. In science fiction, he particularly likes the history theorist on the Space Beagle, but only because he (or rather his purpose in the plot) is so ridiculous. He then said to the panelists, "Make a policy statement: history, for or against."
Crowley began a continuing thread by mentioning that ten years ago Francis Fukiyama came up with the idea of "the end of history," meaning we recognize that there is no method to history, not Spengler's, Hegel's, not Marx's. Fukiyama thought that the arrival of capitalism meant that nothing would change any more. The panelists were asked which of them had read THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN (Fukiyma's book). None of them actually had, and Crowley said, "It's not a book you read; you read about it." (Robinson browsed through it in a bookstore.)
Crowley said there seems to be a current belief that history no longer has to make sense, but is "one damn thing after another." He, however, is not completely convinced of this. In any case, he said, authors propose a form on history because that's what authors do. Crowley admitted imposing a very arbitrary form in LOVE & SLEEP by saying that all of history could change, even the past, for ludic (sp?) reasons ("just for the hell of it").
Crowley also said in passing that post-modernists reject the very idea that history can be divided into pre- modern, modern, and post-modern. Robinson responded that we try to comprehend the past by breaking it up into periods (pre- modern being before 1815, modern being from 1815 to 1970, and post-modern from dates variously set between 1950 and 1973). The notion of historiography comes from Marx (more echoes of why literary theory is Marxist in nature). Robinson felt that Fukiyama decided this was "the end of history" because he likes what we have now and doesn't want it to change.
Robinson recommended Olaf Stapledon's novels as the greatest histories of the science fiction field, saying that every paragraph had enough ideas for a novel.
By this point, Asher said that she felt as if she should have prepared a thesis but she hadn't. But she felt that history is not one damn thing after another, because human life is not just one damn thing after another. (This seems to reflect the modern idea that one progresses through life, rather than the medieval idea of a more static state. That is, we--at least in the United States--have a feeling that if one works hard, one can better oneself. In earlier times, though, people thought that their station in life was fixed. The best they could hope for was to achieve success in the afterlife.)
Asher also said, "If you're writing historical fiction, it's much more important to have verisimilitude than to have accuracy." For example, if you're setting a novel in France, you don't write the dialogue in French. That would be more accurate, but hardly conducive to understanding--at least outside France, Quebec, and assorted other Franocophone areas.
Sherman gave her view: "I tend to think that history is chaos in the macrocosm." Not everything happens in the same way each time. She also added, "It doesn't matter whether you're writing about the past or the future: your task is very similar. You are of the 20th Century," and you need to convey a different time.
Grossman felt that when reading older novels, one problem is that humor is very contextual. Jablokov said that erotica is also very contextual. "There's a weird specificity to the transgressions" of 18th Century erotica (e.g., scenes of people whipping nuns and such).
Asher said that she once read all of Shakespeare's plays in a single semester and by the end was so immersed that she started thinking like the characters. "If you immerse yourself in a period with a reasonably open mind, you can come to understand [the people of that people] them even if you don't agree with them."
Robinson felt that history is an attempt to understand a flow leading to the present (synchronic) rather than a cross-section of time (diachronic). Crowley observed that the events in every novel are over when you're reading it and you're therefore reading it as the past. (I'm not sure this completely applies to novels written in the present tense.) And Sherman said, "History doesn't have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it just has a middle."
Crowley mentioned that he does writing for historical documentaries for television (including THE LIBERATORS). "People want to believe that there is an actuality in history [even though it] may be concealed or revealed." He seemed to feel this was unreasonable, and the producers' asking him whether the black troops did or did not liberate the camps was meaningless. He claimed that as oral history it was true that they said it, but that was all that could be determined (or possibly all that mattered). Asher took issue with this, saying, "This attitude that facts don't matter has been enormously destructive. The interpretation is important but you have to have facts to interpret." Yes, people's perceptions are important, but the actuality is important too.
Robinson said that the original "Foundation" trilogy is 1940s Spenglerian history. "Science fiction is so historical in its working principles, even more than mainstream," he claimed.
Crowley observed that historians have the same "broken coastline" theory of history as chaos theoreticians. That is, look at any level and it's equally complex, from the Stapledonian range to a single day or less. Jablokov agreed, saying he had just read 1587: A YEAR OF NO IMPORTANCE by Ray Huang about the Ming Dynasty and found it full of detail about a basically unimportant year. Grossman said that A. J. P. Taylor says we think what we know what ancient Greece was like because we know so little about it.
Grossman also said, "Civilizations try to define everything in their own terms" but she didn't agree with someone's claim along these lines that everyone tried to renumber the years to start with their period.
Jablokov observed that it takes newer events to shed light on older ones: "Kafka is not Kafka-esque until Borges writes."
Crowley asked, "What makes the pasts of the futures that we write convincing or unconvincing?" Jablokov said that expository lumps made it unconvincing: "In normal life people do not sit you down and tell you the history of the past fifty years." (Maybe he's just traveling with the wrong set of people.) He felt that what was important was the suggestion that you know the whole history and could tell it if you chose. Jablokov said this was like painting gold braid in a painting: you hint at it, but if the viewer looks closely s/he will see that the tiny details are not all there. Jablokov felt that encyclopedia entries work best when the supposed author of the entry is clearly tendentious.
Robinson closed by saying that secret histories are really interesting in that they are the desire that history make sense.
"Readership of speculative fiction is in decline. Actually, readership of just about everything is in decline. Is SF suffering more, because its special appeal is being uniquely met by the media? If this is so, does it also provide unique opportunities to reverse the trend? How could we do this?"
Hartwell started by saying, "My readership has been declining for years." (Actually, he meant his reading-- not a good start for an editor.) Ryan said his readership was declining as well (he may have actually meant readership).
Nielsen Hayden took issue with the premise, saying that he doesn't see readership in decline. He claimed that most "evidence" along these lines is anecdotal, and also tends not to count science fiction that the claimant feels is "garbage." He did claim that the mass market distribution system has collapsed ("You know, your fifty-cent, dollar- and-a-quarter, four-fifty, seven-ninety-nine book"). (Perhaps, but I still see a lot of mass-market paperbacks floating around.)
Ryan said that he felt one should not count media tie- ins when determining science fiction readership. He also felt you could definitely say that readership of short fiction is down (because you can point to circulation figures for the magazines being down).
Nielsen Hayden thought that the naysayers come from a group of people who are grumpy for some reason. Hartwell said that fifteen years ago, the claim was that fantasy was taking over. Now it's that media is taking over.
Nielsen Hayden said that Tor publishes 170 books per year. Malzberg asked him approximately how many copies the average one of those sold, but Nielsen Hayden wouldn't give details. Malzberg pressed him-- since after all, without some statistics, his claims are also merely anecdotal--but Nielsen Hayden interpreted this as Malzberg questioning his integrity. Finally, Ellen Asher in the audience said that the Science Fiction Book Club expects a new book as an alternate selection to sell between 2000 and 4000 copies.
Hartwell gave some other figures. In 1970, mass market books printed about 60,000 to 70,000 each and expected to sell half, and there were thirty books a month. In 1980s, the print run was 30,000 to 35,000 with 60 to 70 books a month. (One presumes sell-through was still 50%.) Now, print runs are under 25,000 per title, but there are more than 100 books a month. So the number of volumes is relatively constant, but there are fewer copies of each of more titles.
Nielsen Hayden admitted that it was now harder to make a start in science fiction, but said again that it's not because of a decline of the number of readers. Hartwell wanted to distinguish between regular readership versus occasional readership (but didn't).
Nielsen Hayden pointed out that science fiction spawns off other genres like the techno-thriller and the near-future thriller, which are science fiction but don't get counted that way.
Ryan thought that the total numbers are up but what they're reading is declining, and other media are competing for new readers. "What we're suffering from is our wish coming true," at least in terms of having a lot of choices.
In regard to competing for new (young) readers, Nielsen Hayden said that writers are no longer getting a lot of ego- boo from other writers for writing for twelve-year-olds, so they don't. This means that books are more "adult" (in theme, etc.) than they used to be. Malzberg disagreed somewhat, saying that writers were always looking for approval from other writers. (However, I think there may have been more of it for "juvenile" literature before. Of course now "juvenile" or "young adult" fiction is a whole separate genre.)
Malzberg said that actual readership hasn't expanded since the 1960s, but books and authors have, meaning there is less audience for each author. He feels there is an audience of 500,000 (plus or minus 50,000) for genre fiction. (I have o idea where this comes from.) "Science fiction is boom and bust because new publishers misunderstand the expandability of the audience," he continued. Hartwell thinks there are 30,000,000 potential readers (based on what? the ticket sales for STAR WARS?), but they won't become regular readers. Still, science fiction needs a large pool of occasional readers to replace loss of regular readers.
Hartwell also thought that science fiction is suffering from the fact that there hasn't been a major bust in the last thirty years. The last great influx was in 1968, when STAR TREK fans started reading science fiction in desperation when the series was canceled.
Someone asked, "What can be done to increase science fiction readership?" Malzberg responded by asking if we did want to expand the readership. It has already expanded for some areas. "One gets the kind of readership one deserves." Hartwell said if we said we wanted to expand the readership, the next question (argument) was about whose readership we want to expand. Asher said her concern at this point was that the core readership of science fiction is overwhelmingly white. (One notes that this is a declining market, at least percentage-wise.)
The "summary" seemed to come from Stephen Kelner in the audience, who asked, "Where is the Heinlein of yesteryear?" The panelists' answer was that we have abandoned the audience of Heinlein to media fiction.
I didn't attend most of this, but was there toward the end. When I came it, Budrys had just been asked what he disliked in story submissions. He dislikes folded-over manuscripts; manuscripts with no name or with unnumbered pages; stories where hero wakes up with amnesia for ten or twelve pages; where the hero runs, jumps, dives off ridges, or swarms up trees with no purpose; stories with a plethora of made-up things or names; and stories with backwoods planets filled with natural philosophers.
Asked why TOMORROW magazine went electronic, he said it was because the hard-copy distributors went belly-up. As for TOMORROW SF's future, he said simply, "I don't know."
TOMORROW SF can be found on the Web at http://www.tomorrowsf.com.
Robinson started with some biographical information. He grew up in Orange County, went to the University of California at San Diego for his bachelor's degree, then to Boston University and Clarion, then back to UCSD for his doctorate. He said he didn't read much science fiction because he was a methodical reader--starting with A and working his way through--and the science fiction was after the Z's. When he read Asimov he liked it, but he knew that Asimov was a big name. So he read another science fiction book he picked at random: Clifford Simak's GOBLIN RESERVATION. Then, he said, he decided that if he could read a "random unknown author" like Simak and find something that good, he should read more science fiction.
In college he wrote mostly poetry. "One thing about lyric poetry is that you can finish one even if it is dreadful." But this inspired him to try to write something better. He tried writing science fiction once and gave up, but had better success second time trying to write science fiction.
But he still hadn't made contact with the field. "I didn't know conventions existed because the books don't tell you about that." He went to a Harlan Ellison reading, and on the advice of a practical joker, asked for the address of Clarion. Ellison gave him a hard time, but also gave him the address and said, "Here, kid, I hope you make it." All Robinson could think driving home was, "Wow, this is quite the community."
His fellow students at Clarion included Michael Talbot, Gregory Frost, and Michael Armstrong. He said he found Clarion one long party. He also said that he experimented with first person variable, present tense, etc., but Clarion hammered on him for this. Because of this sort of thing, he doesn't automatically recommend Clarion--he said it has too much of a "shooting gallery" atmosphere which doesn't reflect real readers. And, as he put it, too many editors are "children of a dysfunctional workshop" and believe that honesty means brutality. (And Ellison is part of this problem, he noted.)
Asked about his first sale, he said that his submission story to Clarion in 1974 was shown to Damon Knight for ORBIT. Robinson was driving across the country at the time, and called home from a truck stop in Rawlings, Wyoming, oonly to have his mother tell him there was a letter from a Damon Knight. When he asked her to open it, she told him that Knight wanted to buy his story for $200. He said it was a very strange experience, capped by his sleeping in a rest stop under a fifty-foot statue of Lincoln's head.
When he was in graduate school, he said, he treated his graduate work as a job to be done in twenty hours a week to leave him time to write. His academic performance suffered, but he did sell several stories. He said he kept sending stories to Knight and that Knight would buy some of them. He also sent to Robert Silverberg's NEW DIMENSIONS. "At the end of reading it, Knight might look up and say, 'Can I buy this?' That's great criticism."
Frederic Jameson at UCSD said one day that Philip K. Dick was the greatest living American writer ("not the greatest living American science fiction writer, but the greatest living American writer"). Robinson decided to try Dick, and read GALACTIC POT-HEALER (which he called GALACTIC POT-BOILER). This novel didn't seem to support Jameson's statement, but other novels by Dick did.
After Knight's ORBIT series went out of business, Robinson went a couple of years without selling, then sold "Venice Drowned" to Terry Carr for UNIVERSE. Based on submissions for that series, Carr then decided to do a first-novel series. Robinson sent him three chapters of THE WILD SHORE, and got $7000. When Carr told him about the contract, he explained it was a good contract and to be happy with it, but Robinson was happy just selling it for any amount and didn't need convincing.
Hartwell asked if EARTH ABIDES was a source for THE WILD SHORE. Robinson said yes, and also that he included sentences from all the post-holocaust novels he read as sources. From EARTH ABIDES he included "I am the last American." From DR. BLOOODMONEY he included something about a DJ stuck in space.
Robinson said that he was unhappy about what had happened to Orange County, with people cutting down the orange groves and building housing developments and urban areas, and so bombed it back not to the Stone Age, but more to Hannibal, Missouri. (But see Kathryn Cramer's comment on the "Science Fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson" for another perspective on this.)
Because THE WILD SHORE was the first of a new line by a major editor, it got lots of attention, so Robinson thought that whenever you publish a book, you get fifty reviews. He therefore had to get used to the "normality of science fiction life" (as he put it) for his subsequent books.
Asked about the 1980s, he said there were no high points he wants to discuss. "The 80s were the 80s; let's get past them as soon as possible."
Robinson said he was frustrated by THE PACIFIC EDGE, because he wanted to write a Utopian novel but also a working novel. The Utopia requires a complete description of how you achieve Utopia; the novel requires that you focus on characters. Writing RED MARS, he said, gave him the opportunity to do both. When he finished RED MARS, it looked like it had too many expository lumps, but he found that liked it that way. Without expository lumps, he said, you can't write science. But he approached the Mars trilogy more as Utopian than as hard science fiction. "Hard SF isn't doing what it claims to do. The hardness is a hardness of attitude."
Robinson said that he found himself pegged as literary science fiction author. This was bad both in a marketing sense and in an aesthetic sense.
Hartwell asked him, why Mars? Robinson said that he wanted to do Mars, and was interested in wilderness, and wanted to do Utopian, and they fit all together.
Cramer (who was co-interviewing with Hartwell) asked about how Mars seemed to move from a scarcity economy to a post-scarcity economy without any intermediate step of a middle class. Robinson felt this was justified and that we could, if we wanted to, switch to a twenty-hour work week. (I have a lot of questions about this but this is not the place for them.) He said, "The capitalist world order wants to looks massive and permanent, but in a hundred years we won't be working in the same economic system."
Cramer asked about other socio-political aspects of the series. For example, Robinson spent a lot of time documenting the necessity of political conventions. Robinson responded that he realized "exposition could be interesting if you made it interesting." He agreed, however, that political exposition is harder to make interesting than scientific exposition. Most novels try to fudge how the political system works or whether it works. He decided to try to avoid this. The result, he noted, was that the review of RED MARS by Michael Bishop said it had "a brutal overload of information." Robinson said he wished that had been one of the reviews cited on the back cover!
Cramer also asked about Robinson's view of extended longevity as opposed to that of Bruce Sterling. She noted, "BLUE MARS is heavily involved with these older characters beginning to lose their memory." True, but Robinson still thought people would remember more than Sterling seemed to. (Sterling's characters forget they had been married to each other, for example.)
Cramer also asked about the classic debate between the Great Man vs. the Tide of History theories, saying that when John Boone and Hiroko vanish, some other characters think that they would make a difference if they were around, but the books seem to deny this. Robinson wouldn't say, claiming he tried to avoid taking sides in the book as well. (Hartwell noted that it is uncommon in science fiction for writers to avoid taking sides on this issue.)
Hartwell asked, "Who of contemporary science fiction authors do you feel most in sympathy with?" Robinson replied, "My friends." "Who are your friends?" "Well, it's big crowd. ...." He did name Carter Sholtz, Jonathan Lethem, Karen Joy Fowler, Paul Park, Michael Swanwick, John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly, Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Terry Bisson.
Hartwell also asked, "Are there any particular trends in science fiction that you wish to deplore?" Robinson started by saying, "No, not really. It's going great as far as I can tell," but then went on to deplore sharecropping and media tie-ins.
Hartwell asked Robinson his favorite recreations or work outside of writing. Robinson said first of all was parenting his eight-year-old and his two-year-old. He thinks one of the evils of our economic system is that it drives fathers out of the house and away from parenting. He also gardens, does sports, and goes up in the mountains. "My time above 10,000 feet is golden time," he said. "I'm a hiker mostly. I've tried a little bit of climbing but I'm scared of it. ... I feel high when I'm up high."
Hartwell asked, "Is ecology the most salient political cause you have espoused?" Robinson said that he was trying to work out a leftist ecology. He describes himself as a leftist, but admits that leftists (that is, socialists and the Eastern bloc) are not ecologists. (The Eastern bloc has pretty much crippled the ecology of that area.) But "right- wingers" are definitely not ecologists either. "To capitalists, people are the bio- infrastructure. I'm trying to live some version of what I'm theorizing. Otherwise it gets too weird." But he said there were problems. "The economic and physical structure [we have] make it harder to build community."
Someone in the audience said that Daniel Quinn's "Great Forgetting" (in ISHMAEL) had the idea that our whole culture is based on totalitarian agriculture, but Robinson felt this was attacking the wrong thing. "It's hard to curse agribusiness after you've tried to grow your own food," he explained, saying that we needed agribusiness to feed the current world population, and referenced the book FULL HOUSE: REASSESSING THE EARTH'S POPULATION CARRYING CAPACITY by Lester Russell Brown.
The Kirk Poland Competition consist in large part of making fun of "bad writing," though of course never any of the writing of the convention's guests. Many people complain it's mean-spirited (among them Mark Leeper and Elizabeth Carey); I would add that it's not even funny.
They say they keep it because it's a tradition. I thought the Readercon Small Press Awards were a tradition too, and a much better and positive one. Those don't seem to exist any more.