Friday, August 24, 2007

ArmadilloCon: my first experience as a moderator

... on the "That's a FACT" panel.

It wasn't bad. It was just as I expected. It was made easier by the fact that there were only about 6 people in the audience. Which was also as I expected. :-) Two of those people were not even from Austin, but from places like Minneapolis, so I'm not sure what they were hoping to get out of this panel. I could fantasize that they came to hear advice about running a science fiction reading group, so that they could start one in the place where they live, but I think it's more likely that they were just killing time on Sunday afternoon before their flight home. :-)

According to the program, the panelists were supposed to "...go over the books they have read over the past year letting you know which ones got a thumbs up and which ones were stinkers. They will also talk about how you can join the bi-weekly reading group." We followed these instructions to the letter. :-) As a moderator, I made a list of books that received the best reception with the FACT reading group, and wrote it on a whiteboard. We briefly talked about each of those books, as well as the "stinkers".

The FACT reading group holds power over authors' careers :-)

AT, the reading group coordinator (who wasn't supposed to be on the panel, but joined us halfway into the panel -- the game of Pictionary ended prematurely :-)) told an amusing anecdote about a time when a certain author received an especially bad reception with the reading group. She called AT during the meeting so that the readers could ask her questions about her book, in case they needed her to clarify something. However, people were so unimpressed by her novel that they couldn't think of questions to ask. They unanimously decided that this author didn't know anything about the three main elements of her book: private investigators, Catholic church, or the internet. According to AT, a highly negative review of her book on the FACT reading group website kept her from selling her subsequent novels, and she had to start writing under a pseudonym.

The thumbs-up list

And here is the list of the thumbs-up books. (I won't post the list of the stinkers, because I've already critiqued them in separate posts on my blog, and I don't want to dwell on the negative. :-))

John Moore "Bad Prince Charlie" -- a light, humorous urban fantasy everybody liked

Terry Pratchett "Going Postal"

Jasper Fforde "The Big Over Easy"

Charles Stross "Family Trade", "Atrocity Archives"

Naomi Novik "Her Majesty's Dragon"

John Scalzi "Old Man's War"

Cordwainer Smith "We The Underpeople"

Stanislaw Lem "Cyberiad"

Vernor Vinge "Rainbows End"

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Center For Inquiry presence at ArmadilloCon

At this ArmadilloCon I spent a substantial amount of time in the dealer room -- on the dealers' side of the table! I was volunteering at the Center For Inquiry table. We would grab the passers-by by their sleeves and proselytize to them our doctrine of freethought and rationalist mindset. No, I'm kidding. We did not try to engage anyone in the conversation against their own will. And the nature of materials on the CFI table -- books and booklets on freethought, skepticism and humanism -- indeed had an ability to make some people uncomfortable. Jenni (the person who coordinated the CFI activities at the ArmadilloCon, and who spent quite a few hours at the table) observed more than one person scurrying away after taking one look at the titles of books on our table.

CFI booth at ArmadilloCon 2007 CFI booth at ArmadilloCon 2007

Still, some other people struck up conversations with us. Long ones, sometimes. I guess that compensated somewhat for their scarcity. One guy argued that religious fundamentalism is losing its strength and is on the way to extinction, at least in the US if not worldwide. We pointed out there were a lot of signs to the contrary, such as (to take the most obvious example) encroachment on abortion rights.Then he started a long discussion on why the recently passed laws to curtail abortion rights in several states aren't really important. Since I stay away from politics in this blog, I'll say no more, but it suffices to say it was an interesting discussion. It could have gone on even longer, but at some point we were joined by a woman who brought a different perspective to the discussion. She teaches at a university, and in the last few years she has had hard time with some students who demand that she bring a religious perspective into the classroom. I don't remember the exact way she phrased it, but I think she was saying some students want her to address the subjects she teaches from a biblical perspective. They are a minority, but a vocal one, and they have gotten increasingly louder over the years.

By joining our discussion, she drew the guy's argumentative zeal towards herself, and soon they drifted off into the crowd where they continued their agitated debate.

Jenni talks with Matt Cardin Jenni talks with Matt Cardin

We also had a handful of people sign up for the CFI email list. Another thing we did -- with less than stellar results -- was sell books. All the books were from Pyr, a publishing house that has a close relationship to CFI. They sent us a shipment of science fiction and popular science books at a discount, so we could, in theory, make a profit selling them... but we sold only about 7 books throughout the entire weekend. The dealers' room was teeming with booksellers, and the competition was stiff.

Center For Inquiry volunteers at ArmadilloCon 2007 Center For Inquiry volunteers at ArmadilloCon 2007

I can't say if participation in ArmadilloCon was really beneficial to CFI in terms of attracting new members, but I personally had a nice time sitting at the table and chatting with some people (mostly with fellow volunteers, and sometimes with other congoers who wandered by).

Here are more of my pictures and blog posts from ArmadilloCon 2007.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Create a World: an ArmadilloCon 2007 panel

Every ArmadilloCon has a world-building panel, where the panelists and the audience "create" a science-fictional or fantasy world by collective brainstorming. Artist R. Cat Conrad often participates by drawing scenes from this world on a whiteboard.

For starters, the panelists and the audience decide by voting: are they building a science fiction or a fantasy world? The audience is almost equally split between the two, but, but science fiction prevails by a small margin.

The submerged city under a dome of a force field

To keep the scope of the task manageable, we'll focus on one city in this world we are building. The city is half-submerged in water. Or it maybe be fully submerged and exist under a dome of a force field. What kind of inhabitants will it have? What kind of conflicts will arise in this society? They may arise from the different species' fight for dominance, or natural cataclysms. What kind of religion will they have, and what part will it play in the conflict? What myths will this society tell itself? And finally, some silly touches.

The whole article can be found on my web site.

Here are more of my pictures and blog posts from ArmadilloCon 2007.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

What I Should Have Read This Year: an ArmadilloCon 2007 panel

I've noticed over the years that some of the "What I Should Have Read" panelists have tastes so unlike mine, it's as if we are from different planets. (It's different people each year, by the way.) For example, some people's idea of good science fiction is a Sherlock Holmes-type detective story with time travel, as you'll see further in the text. I'm sure a time-travelling Sherlock Holmes can be done very well, but... I've already read the original Sherlock Holmes, so why would I want to read the same story again? I read science fiction for something new, although it becomes increasingly harder to find. But the moment I truly realized I landed on a wrong planet came when I listed to Rick Klaw praising a comic book "I shall destroy all the civilized planets" by Flether Hanks. (More about it behind the cut). I sat there thinking, well, I'm not against weird, but I would never read SF just for that. Even the weird needs to have logic.

I found it a bit comical that while the panelists praised obscure, bizarre books like the one mentioned above, they had hardly anything to say on this year's Hugo nominees. A person in the audience asked which of this year's Hugo nominees they would recommend most highly, and Willie admitted he drew a blank on who the nominees were. Jessica Reisman corrected the situation somewhat by recommending "Blindsight" by Peter Watts.

Without further ado, here is the list of the recommended books.

Some of this year's must-read books garnered nominations from more than one panelist, and we shall start with them.

Books recommended by 2 people:

Two-handed Engine, a Henry Kuttner story collection. Joe Lansdale says: "Kuttner is one of the best SF writers, although he's a better short story writer than a novelist. The reason Kuttner still survives is because he's a damn good writer. Ideas, charcters, writing -- he's got all that."

"Thirteen" by Richard Morgan

Books recommended by 1 person:

Rick Klaw and Jessica Reisman at ArmadilloCon 2007 Rick Klaw and Jessica Reisman.

Here is the list of Willie's recommended science fiction books (each title is followed by Willie's short comment):

Brasyl by Ian McDonald -- In McDonald's "River Of Gods" it was India taking over the Universe, now he's doing Brazil taking over the universe.

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds -- a quintessential space opera.

Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod -- an almost mainstream thriller that has pretty amazing stuff in it.

Mainspring by Jay Lake -- trying to imagine a world where Newtonian clockwork idea is in fact true, and where the world is composed of springs.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon -- alternate history.

Hurricane Moon by Alexis Glynn Latner

Here is the list of Willie's recommended fantasy books (each title is followed by Willie's short comment):

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville -- the villain is amazing.

Renegade's Magic by Robin Hobb -- a conclusion to her current series.

Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill -- Stephen King's son who writes under a pseudonym.

Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves

Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

Ysabel -- Guy Gavriel Kay

Legacy -- Lois Bujold

Here are books recommended by CJ Mills. (All of these books were more than a year old.)

The Prodigal Troll by Charles Coleman Finlay

The Terrorists of Irustan and The Maquisarde by Louise Marley

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Books recommended by Joe Lansdale

Pearls from Peoria and The Best of Philip Jose Farmer: story collections by Phil Jose Farmer.

Books recommended by Jessica Reisman:

Territoryby Emma Bull -- alternative history.

Precious Dragon by Liz Williams

Jessica Reisman, Bill Crider and Joe Lansdale at ArmadilloCon 2007 Jessica Reisman, Bill Crider and Joe Lansdale.

Books recommended by Rick Klaw:

Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders -- a pretty incredible anthology. It's got an incredible Robert Charles Wilson story. There's also a story by Tony Balantyne about a world operating system, infected by a virus.

Acacia by David Durham. It's a violent fantasy with no magic. It's closer to George R. R. Martin, not to Lord of the Rings.

Michael Moorcock's detective stories -- they essentially Sherlock Holmes stories. They go to plaes you would never expect.

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: the Comics of Fletcher Hanks. Rick Klaw says: "You have these cosmic power shadow charaters who would punish people for doing the wrong things. They would freeze people's heads, they would dissect them. There is a guy there with flaming hands who goes around killing people."

Or -- and I'm not sure I got this right -- there are people who want to kill everyone on Earth except themselves, so they tie themselves to Earth and spin up the Earth so that everyone would fly off of it. The last idea sounded so absurd that I really don't know if I got it right. At that point I just sat there thinking, well... this panel is going to be less helpful to me than I hoped.

Books recommended by Bill Crider:

The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig -- a riff on Hamlet. A dark, but hilarious book. And if you've read Hamlet several times, you'll get a lot of in-jokes about Hamlet.

There was also a book that, in my calculation, collected 0 nominations, despite being mentioned by two people. One of the mentions was positive, the other negative, so I guess they canceled out. That was Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.

Here are more of my pictures and blog posts from ArmadilloCon 2007.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A few quotes from ArmadilloCon 2007

John Moore

John Moore

From the panel "The story unwritten" (A discussion on what stories are left to be told and why they haven't been written yet): "Fortunately, writers today are no longer shackled to the idea that writing is original creative process," said John Moore. If you can think of a spinoff, go with it. "For example, who's to say Dudley Dursley shouldn't have his own fantasy series? In each book he could team up with another 10-year-old wizard," he said.

From "Mythology/Schmythology" panel
Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman: "Is a hero someone who knows he has a destiny, or someone who fights against the odds to do something heroic? Somebody like Harry Potter, who knew he had a destiny, who was told by everybody he was special, and people trained him for that and protected him? I don't think that's a hero, that's cannon fodder."

Here are more of my pictures and blog posts from ArmadilloCon 2007.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Con disaster stories: an ArmadilloCon 2007 panel

Some of the panelists started accumulating material for this panel since the very beginning of their involvement with fandom. One panelist was drafted into working an art show at a convention because she packed a short, low-cut dress. Another was told that her background as a medical professional working in a psychiatric ward made her eminently qualified. That's not to say she did not get creeped out by things she saw at cons. A certain con in the Pacific Northwest has mock slave auctions, where (if I understood correctly) teenage girls are "auctioned off". The panelist did not go into details, except to say "sometimes they're kissing auctions, sometimes they are creepy. Lingerie is usually involved."

The program book said: "Want to hear about the best disasters in the fandom world?" Indeed, some of the fiascos, or merely weird stories, mentioned in this panel, were real pearls.

They swooned over Brad, even though he wasn't Pitt

To stir things up, put a dyslexic in charge of printing the program

Sprinklers are not a sex toy

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2007 can be found in my photo gallery.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Losing my writers' workshop virginity

Ah, the ArmadilloCon writers' workshop.

This is the first writers' workshop I've ever been to -- actually, the first time I've had my writing critiqued. It's like crack. I'm hooked. I want more, more of this experience!

Not because the critiquers praised my work. Of course they didn't, nor did I expect them to. I'm very aware of the flaws in my writing. But it was so interesting to have other people read -- really read -- my work and analyze it in detail, and tell me what they did and didn't like. This was so much better than reader comments I received on some of my stories that were published in fanzines and on the internet. Those were limited to "it sucked" or "I didn't get it". This was the whole new dimension of critique.

Louise Marley, Sarah Arnold and Chuck Emerson at ArmadilloCon 2007 writers' workshop Author Louise Marley (the teacher of our group), and students Sarah Arnold and Chuck Emerson. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2007 are in my photo gallery

As I said in one of my earlier posts, due to size restrictions I could only submit half a story. Because of that, I did not expect to get helpful critique, but what I got exceeded my expectations. To summarize the readers' comments: my ideas were interesting and BIIG. But the story wasn't so much a story as an outline. For a novel. Some comments were of a nature "this sentence needs to be a chapter", or "I really want to know how this or that happened". I guess that's not too different from the ole "show, not tell". There were infodumps in some places. Several reviewers commented that the story was completely devoid of setting and the action was totally internal -- and that's very true. All the reviewers asked me to put in more images, some sensory stuff, to help them see the characters. That's an entirely valid comment. My characters are devoid of external descriptions. Not just because descriptions are desperately difficult for me to come up with. I don't see my characters as 3-dimensional people... or even 1-dimensional ones. They are just moving points in space that draw trajectories connecting my ideas.

Steve Wilson, Patrice Sarath and Matthew Bey at ArmadilloCon 2007 writers' workshop Patrice Sarath, the coordinator of the writers' workshop (center), Steve Wilson, and Matthew Bey (instructors). More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2007 are in my photo gallery

The most fascinating thing for me was to see how people saw different things in my story than what I've put in there. A topic I thought was secondary, they perceived as primary. And they had very few comments on the topic I myself perceived as primary -- perhaps because the primary topic does not reveal itself in earnest until the second half of the story, which they didn't have a chance to read.

A curious fact: based on the text alone, only 2 of 6 critiquers figured out English isn't my first language. That's not to say they didn't find flaws in my writing style; they did. The most common criticism was repetitiveness.

In any case, the workshop experience was rich beyond my expectations. I still haven't had a chance to absorb all the comments. What I said here is just scratching the surface. What saddens me is that the aspects of the story that require fixing are probably beyond my skills right now... and may be for a long time.

Here are more of my pictures and blog posts from ArmadilloCon 2007.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Louise Marley "Glass Harmonica": a book review

Louise Marley will be a Guest of Honor at this year's ArmadilloCon, so I made an effort to read one of her books. I like to have an idea what the Guest of Honor is "about". "Glass Harmonica" was a fun book to read.

The most straightforward plot I've seen in years

It's set in the near future about a decade from now. The protagonist is a young woman named Erin, a world-renowned musician who plays glass harmonica, the title instrument of the book. It's a device that's played by running one's fingers over the rims of spinning glasses. Her twin brother, Charlie, is a composer who suffers from a neurodegenerative illness that made him incapable of walking. He undergoes an experimental treatment that supposedly has a chance to help him walk again.

Then there is a parallel story line set in the late 1700s in England, where the protagonist is a teenage girl Eilish, a street musician who, too, plays a glass harmonica. She's been lifted out of poverty by Benjamin Franklin when Franklin constructed a glass harmonica, and needed a talented musician to play it and help him improve its design. He was impressed by Eilish's talent and employed her in that capacity.

And that's about it. This pretty much describes the plot of the book. It is very straightforward. There are no twists or surprises. Not any major ones, anyway. It's so devoid of mystery or suspense, that you start to wonder, will anything notable, shocking, or simply unexpected, ever happen in the book? Even as things get worse for some characters, they do so in a very gradual, predictable manner.

Science and pseudoscience

I'm actually not sure I would call this book science fiction. Maybe science fantasy. Actually, Louise Marley once said her favorite genre is science fantasy. There are two kinds of science-fictional elements in this novel:

(1) the two girls occasionally see one another as a ghost-like presence;

(2) Charlie's experimental treatment consists of stimulating his brain by certain sounds, to help route neural impulses to his legs around the damaged neuron pathways.

(1) The ghosts are "explained" by "quantum weirdness". As soon the word "quantum" is uttered, the characters throw up their hands and admit they don't know first thing about it, yet they believe they found a good explanation. Because hey, everybody knows quantum physics is "weird", so who's to say it can't explain ghosts? As well as a whole slew of paranormal phenomena, such as remote viewing? Maybe I'm being unjustly sarcastic here, as well as oversimplifying a little, but pseudoscience irks me. Anyone who actually understands quantum physics (not that I do) will tell you that quantum physics can't explain paranormal phenomena... if they really exist. And I don't believe they do. I wouldn't be involved in the Center For Inquiry otherwise.

Louise Marley at ArmadilloCon 2007 Author Louise Marley at the ArmadilloCon 2007

I find (2) a lot more credible than (1). Some research into rerouting neural impulses in the brain is already taking place. There's been some fascinating research that suggested it may be possible for blind people to "see" with their tongues (video signals from a camera are routed to a sensor placed on a person's tongue, which translates them into electrical impulses that "tingle" the tongue in certain patterns. The patterns the tongue senses are interpreted by the brain as images). Similarly, people suffering from chronic vertigo can use a tongue sensor to teach the brain to compensate for confusing signals from inner ear (that are causing the vertigo). In light of this, reprogramming your brain with sound doesn't seem too infeasible, but I still have strong doubts. Since it's a relatively low-tech concept, it would seem somebody would have tried it already. Perhaps someone had. But we haven't heard of any discoveries in that area.

A perfect escapist book

However, if you don't ask too many questions, this book can be quite enjoyable. It's a fast, lighthearted read. So fast it practically read itself! Such a contrast to several "high concept" SF books I've read lately that were loaded with plot speed bumps. The story in this book flows smoothly like a melody from a musician's fingertips (not that I ever heard glass harmonica music, so perhaps my metaphor isn't appropriate.

The main characters are all likeable, and it's fun to get glimpses into a rarefied world of classical musicians, their jet-setting lifestyle of concerts, press interviews, and spur-of-the-moment jaunts to London. And romance is handled very well in this book! It's not something I see often in SF. In most books I read (perhaps because they are written by male writers) the romance storyline consists of two scenes: first, the heroine and the hero find each other attractive, second, they fall into bed. That's it. How boring. Where's the suspense, the mystery, the pining, the uncertainty? Not so in "Glass Harmonica". There's plenty of suspense here: will the two would-be lovers get together or not? There's plenty of pining, and shyness, and teasing, and pulling back at the last minute. Very well done! It is, in a word, a perfect escapist book.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Me -- a moderator!

I will be on one of ArmadilloCon panels! Not only that, I'll get to play a moderator! :-) Fortunately, the panel is on a subject I have some experience with.

That's a FACT: The FACT Reading group will go over the books they have read over the past year letting you know which ones got a thumbs up and which ones were stinkers. They will also talk about how you can join the bi-weekly reading group.

It's at 2 pm on Sunday.

Since the initially assigned moderator bowed out, I volunteered to moderate and was allowed to! So now I have to think of smart questions to ask panelists (referred to below as W, M and K). I need to come up with some open-ended questions that will let them talk a lot. On the other hand, the potential questions are already listed in the panel descriptions. So I guess it may go like this:

Me (addresses the panelists): "so, which books got a thumbs-up? What do you think, W? M? K? "

Then I'll go:

"And which ones were the stinkers? W? M? K?"

I hope this will be enough to fill the panel time. :-) But maybe I shouldn't worry about that. I was told that two of the panelists are rather talkative and that it may be hard to keep them in check. Actually, I know them both and I haven't really noticed them monopolizing the conversation, at least not in the book group. So we'll see.