Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The WorldCon is Not Enough

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Well, it's probably a little of both: after a month of couch-surfing, con-crashing, clan-bonding fun in the Pacific Northwest, I'm finally home again. I don't think the cat remembers me, but we'll work on that.

If you look closely, you can see the banana peel on the back of the Prius.
Because we're Thompsons, and this is how we motherfucking roll.
Anyway, so WorldCon.  Look, I don't need to tell you that I had a terrific time. I might as well tell you that I metabolize oxygen. And I don't need to tell you that this year was a hugely political and contentious one for the Hugo Awards (because if you know what I'm talking about, you're already sick of hearing about it, and if you don't, have a Wired article.)

And yes, it is AWESOME that two translated works got the Hugo. Yes, it is GREAT that Helsinki won the bid to host in 2017. And I am absolutely delighted to see women and minorities receive more critical attention for producing truly master-class work. All of these are tremendous achievements, and part of what I hope will be a larger continuing trend.

But I don't think we can act like we just blew up the Death Star.

The thing is, WorldCon itself is still a huge ivory-tower event. It always has been. It has to be. A ~$200 ticket, plus airfare and hotel and meals for the better part of a week practically guarantee that anyone not within driving distance will be dropping at least the better part of a grand on this event.  It's great that you don't need to attend to vote on the awards - but that $40 supporting membership still means that we're only hearing from people who can afford to drop $40 in the ballot box.

With that said, the Gallifreyan contingent may be saving significantly on travel.

As Selina Rosen put it on Facebook (lightly edited by yours truly),
WorldCon is for people with lots of disposable income. It's for the big pros, the big publishers, and the big fans. It's not for people like me. [...] For me, a WorldCon is a huge affirmation that I have failed to make a name for myself in the business, and it has cost me more than I will ever make back. Most of the debt I have left to pay is because of the many WorldCons I attended. 

So I get it that you're all having a good time and that so many of you wish you could be there. I'd rather stay here and stick twigs under my fingernails, thank you very much.
And y'know, she's not wrong. The only reason I got to do this is because I signed with a publisher who could afford to pay me a good advance, and because I have a lifestyle that allows me to stuff that advance in a big sock and spend it all on traveling and self-promotion. I've truly enjoyed getting to be a part of this club, but I'm acutely aware that there are many, many people who are getting caught behind the velvet ropes, and I'm one bad die-roll away from being one of them.

And to be clear: this isn't strictly a WorldCon issue. Movement takes energy, which costs money. Space costs money. Time costs money.

To be fair, the wildfire smoke and eerie Kryptonian sun were complimentary.

So at the end of the day, any event that requires in-person travel is going to exclude a whole lot of people. Thus it has ever been. If we have a reason to feel better about this now than in decades past, it's because the Internet is helping us broaden the conversation to include the people who can't be physically present - and that is a great thing.

But speaking as someone who got to watch the Hugos at WorldCon and simultaneously follow the online feeds, it feels to me like what we have is two different conversations - maybe even two different communities.

From everything I saw, the mood at the event was overwhelmingly joyous. The people in my posse were ECSTATIC that Laura Mixon won. We were DELIGHTED for Wes Chu, and Wendy Wagner, and Julie Dillon - because for most of us, those people are our colleagues and friends.

By contrast, most of what I saw online was about who lost. The Puppies lost. Bigotry lost. Slate voting and awards-gaming and the Evil Empire lost. The virtual conversation seems to be much more about promoting ideas than individuals - and if we are talking about an individual, it's usually to rip them apart.

And of course, this is hardly an objective analysis. Everything I see and hear only amounts to a single anecdotal data point.  But I worry that the convention-going subset of our community is diverging significantly from the rest. It bothers me that the online medium seems to reward hyperbole, stifle nuance, and feed anger. And I hate that the forum where we get to see each other face-to-face, where we're naturally prompted to treat each other as real human beings, is also the smallest and least accessible.

I talk a lot about 'getting on the wagon', but a con lets you
and Team Novelocity literally GET ON THE WAGON.
This is fantastic! I want this for everyone!
I don't know how to fix that. I do know that I want to keep supporting causes like Con or Bust!, that work to bring fans to conventions, and throw more weight behind traveling circuses like WorldCon, WesterCon, and NASFiC, that serve to bring conventions to the fans. And I want to work on my digital game, because I know I'm missing out on a ton of cool people that I won't get to meet in meatspace.

I also know that it's my bedtime in at least two time zones, so I'll close here. All navel-gazing aside: thanks for a grand time, world-conveners. Until our next great conjunction...!

Be excellent to each other.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

SASQUAN COMETH: WorldCon Demi-Schedule!

Yep - it's almost here. Geekdom del Grande. The Big Enchilada. The Conferminator.

As you might know, WorldCon is the biggest literary (notice I say literary!) sci-fi and fantasy convention out there - frequently north of 6,000 people. The Hugo Awards are given there. It moves from year to year, like a barbarian king feasting on the seasonal largesse of his thanes - this year is Spokane, last year was London, the year before that was San Antonio, and before that I was a zygote floating in an oblivious creative placenta.

1956 WorldCon in New York, with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.
I missed ALL the good stuff.

And though I still harbor fervent fetal dreams of one day making it onto WorldCon programming, the reality is that I am still a pretty small fish, and in my world, that is the biggest pond there is. So I didn't officially make it onto the schedule.

But I've done a fair bit of convening, and I'm getting pretty good at working my way into the party anyhow, like an ambitious piglet angling for the tit.  So my dance card is filling up fast - and if you're going to be there, I'd love to join you for a reel!

((Weds, 9-11PM - Writers Workshop reception))

Thurs, 12-2PM - SFWA autographs & tabling - Riverside Exhibition Hall A, E16 & E17
I'll be signing autographs from 12 to 1 and then manning the table from 1 to 2 - come find me!

Thurs 7-11PM - Drinks With Authors - Black Label Brewing Co., Saranac Commons
The fabulous folks at r/Fantasy are at it again! Come rub elbows with a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic folks - there's food to be eaten, drinks to be drunk, and books to be won!
This con is gonna roc!
((Fri 9 AM - Codex breakfast))

((Fri 10 to 1 - Writers Workshop section 13))

((Fri 7 PM - redacted))

((Sat, 8AM - redacted))

((Sat, 9-11AM - SFWA consuite))

((Sat 5PM - Codex dinner))

((Sun, 10-1PM - Writers Workshop section 19))

((Double parentheses are for membership-limited events - I put them here to help me keep my own schedule straight, and to advertise in case you-the-reader are also part of the club!))

But taking this particular con aside for a second: if you interested in being part of this kind of social scene, let me just reiterate again what huge, huge value there is in volunteering, in joining organizations, in putting your ear to the ground and your hand in the air almost every chance you get.  Some of the above groups did require book-publishing bona-fides in order to get me past the velvet rope, but you would be amazed how much work goes into putting on a capital-E Event like this - and how many great connections you can make just by pitching in a little.

Anyway, I'll be largely off the grid until next week, and if all goes according to plan, I will be exhausted, euphoric, and hopelessly monosyllabic by the time I make it back to Texas. Plan on it!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Guest Post: Straight From the Marginalized Horse's Mouth

Well, guys, it's like this: when somebody as devastatingly great as Ally Bishop says, "hey, there's this really cool guy I know, and you two should totally share crayons and trade pudding cups"... you listen.

And when he turns out to be William Galaini, you make everybody else listen, too.

See, it turns out that William and I have a lot of the same ideas about fiction - about what we love to read and write, about who's not showing up often enough on the bookshelves and how we can help be part of the solution, even though we're both members of an already well-represented cultural majority.  (That sounds so much better than "raining down social-justice hellfire from my privilege-encrusted mayonnaise throne", doesn't it?)  Spoiler alert: you really can't do a good job writing about other people if you haven't ever stopped to listen to them.

Anyway, so William's been out practicing what I've only preached, and I am so, so excited that he's agreed to come practice HIS preaching here on the blog.  Take it away, buddy!

Straight From the Marginalized Horse's Mouth
by William Galaini

The imagery evoked from the word ‘diversity’ can be overwhelmingly… diverse. This is understandable given the breadth of sexualities, ethnicities, religions, physical conditions, and ideals that comprise the human condition. But culture, novels particularly, has yet to catch up. ‘Diversity’ is a buzz word at conventions and perhaps a signpost for quirky genre-fiction, but we have yet to see the larger scope of writers and publishers not only explore the ocean of diversity but embrace it.

Tex wanted me to do a blog post for her. She wanted it to be on diversity, and my publicist encouraged me to do so because my new novel due in November has a homosexual main character.

But I’m no authority! I’m as vanilla as it gets. I’m a white, heterosexual cismale with daddy issues and high blood pressure. Truth is, I have zero right to assert any thesis on bi-sexuals, asexuals, trans-sexuals, homosexuals, women, men, etc. 

So I went to the experts. I found three souls who are directly connected with the issue of diversity in pop literature but to protect their anonymity, I will only disclose their gender and sexual orientation. I asked each of them the same five questions, and here are their answers:

1.)    How is your sexuality represented in pop literature?
a.    ‘Billy’ is a demisexual transgender male: “My sexuality is not represented in pop literature. In fact, there's very little light on demisexuality at all, and I've never ever read of an asexual (which is similar in some aspects) character in mainstream literature.”
b.    ‘Katie’ is a bisexual female: “It really isn't. I have yet to read a ‘popular’ book (or any book, really) with a character that even slightly represents my sexuality.”
c.    ‘Noah’ is a homosexual male: “I don't think it is represented in pop literature.”

2.)    In what way did public school literature influence your exploration of your sexual identity?
a.    Billy: “I don't recall it ever influencing me to explore my own sexuality. Outside media (I wouldn't exactly call it literature) prompted me to explore myself far more than anything I ever read in public schooling. Though, that's assuming I did most of the readings.”
b.    Katie: “It didn't. There were never any class assigned books mentioning anything about relationships past the lines of: the guy gets the girl, and there was much rejoicing.”
c.    Noah: “If anything, it's hindered it. There's not much of a sexual side to public school literature, but when there is it's always the annoying cliché of the guy gets the girl. Rejoicing.”

3.)    What would be the most AWESOME protagonist you could imagine that would represent YOU?
a.    Billy: “Oh jeez. Honestly, I would like to see a man portrayed as asexual, or demisexual. I'm not sure who, as it would take a considerable amount of thought. Perhaps someone of influence, whether it be a warrior or military personnel. A president or a prime minister. Someone with the power to do with as they will. Those who are often viewed as sexually deviant because of their position.”
b.    Katie: “Honestly, I'd rather have a character that represents me be the antagonist. But, as far as protagonists go, a girl that isn't really wimpy or overly touchy-feely about most things would be a great start.”
c.    Noah: “I can't think of a PROTAGONIST that is a selective extrovert, very sarcastic, doesn't suffer fools, and is smart, to be perfectly honest. (That sounds stuck up-ish, but I feel it's accurate).”

4.)    Why do you not encounter more sexually diverse characters in mainstream and genre novels?
a.    Billy: “I think because it doesn't appeal to the masses, to read of someone perhaps loving someone of their gender, or being open to loving someone of their gender. With a majority of our population being heterosexual, it's easier for the readers to identify with a heterosexual protagonist, when they inevitably find someone and fall in love. It gives it that extra sense of normalcy. I've only ever read one pop culture series that has an openly gay couple whose story is not abandoned or tossed around like dead weight. It was approached with care and a realness to it. However, it was side characters, so it was only a small story arc, but it was there.”
b.    Katie: “Because sexually diverse characters don't represent the majority of the people reading those types of novels.”
c.    Noah: “Because sexual diversity isn't necessarily mainstream; by the act of making a character sexually diverse, the chance of a book becoming mainstream is significantly reduced.”

5.)    If every single author and publisher was reading this, what would you want them to know about diversity?
a.    Billy: “I would want them to know that sexual appetite is not the solitary fuel to a character. As a writer myself, I try to focus on those of the lesser known orientations and genders. For example, take my own sexuality into view. I'm demisexual, and hardly anyone knows what that means. Even with a proper explanation, it can be taken entirely out of context. My sexuality means that I cannot find someone sexually attractive until I first get to know them. And then, maybe, just maybe, I might find them attractive sexually. Hence why it is either often confused to be asexual, or I've actually been asked "So you wanna fuck all your friends?" No. That is not what my sexuality means. It just simply means that I am sexually attracted to personalities, not bodies. And even though I have figured this out, I still question it. I still wonder if maybe what I feel isn't sexual attraction, and I'm really just asexual. Or if it's my gender getting in the way of my sexuality.”

b.    Katie: “I don't think it's really their fault, to be honest. They're writing to the largest part of their audience, meaning they only have a select amount plot lines, stereotypical characters, etc. to choose from. Straying from those options don't usually work out in the author's favor, so every book ends up being the same to a certain extent. But it is a little disheartening to not be able to find a character that I can truly connect with.”

c.    Noah: “I don't feel it's necessarily the author's or publisher's fault for there being a very obvious lack of sexual diversity in literature. Most authors will write what they know will sell, while settings and names may change, rarely is there an original plot. When you add diversity, sexual or not, it makes it difficult to use time-tested plots. But I would say to come up with original plot lines that don't require the use of hetero-normative and/or cisgender people.”

So, what can we learn from this? Let me speak from the perspective of a vanilla American male. Here’s my takeaway:

•    MANY of the books we read exist for money. They are written by money and for money. Money typically does not represent human diversity. Money represents money.

•    These three people are amazingly gracious about being overlooked on a consistent basis. Has our society conditioned them to accept being ignored? How have I, as a vanilla, perpetuated this either overtly or even covertly?

•    The Hero With a Thousand Faces really nailed a lot of the cultural impact behind the idea of a ‘protagonist.’ I greatly suspect that even Campbell would concede that it could be “Hero of a Thousand Genders” or “Hero of a Thousand Sexual Identities.” So why don’t we see more high-profile novels of this nature? It’s 'Hero with a Thousand Faces', not 'Hero with MY Face'.

•    Until vanilla people like me stop blenching at “diverse” protagonists in literature, these authors won’t be getting the exposure and support they should.


So there you have it, y'all: the bad news is that we still have a long, long way to go - but the good news is that every new kind of author or story you try, every new kind of person you (thoughtfully, carefully) include in your own writing, every time you step outside your comfort zone makes you part of the solution.

And if you're looking for something new, may I recommend William's Trampling in the Land of Woe? Frankly, he had me at "journey into Dante's steampunk hell" - but this time the hero is Hephaestion,  braving the city of the damned to rescue his soulmate, Alexander the Great, and I could NOT be more excited.

Seriously, seriously check it out - and while you're at it, head over to he's got a wonderfully sharp and insightful writing blog, including an amazing 'how-to' series about how he successfully crowdfunded this book. Don't miss this guy, regardless: we might be too late to get in on the ground floor, but I bet we can catch him if we take the stairs!


Monday, August 3, 2015

Galacticon Recap: Parts and Pieces

Well y'all, it's Sunday evening and I'm freshly arrived in Portland, silently bearing witness to Auntie M's wonderful hospitality, not to mention her incomparable car-packing skills.

Yes, that is a black-mesh banana containment field. Your argument is invalid.

This is fresh on the heels of Galacticon, which was – well, a first for me in several ways. 

Back in June, I was hugely surprised and delighted when the programming director took me on board, even though I was applying less than six weeks out – and then took all three of my panel suggestions!  "Hot damn!" I thought. "This is going to be a great time!"

And it was!  Just not in the way I'd originally planned.

See, it took a bit of doing to get there (an hour and a half of busing, another hour of me wandering around the Seattle Center like a clueless rube because I was too dumb to check my email and actually look up where registration was).  That was kind of sweaty.  And I was a little nervous to realize (way, way too late to do anything about it) that media cons don't work like literary cons – you have to bring your own panelists. Which meant that I was going to be by myself for mine.  But finally I made it to the panel room... and nobody was there.

I may have had a diva moment.
But I stuck around, and eventually a couple of folks wandered in, and then a couple more, and they all had the same question: "what's this panel about?"

That was when I realized that all the schedule said was "What Does God Need With a Starship?" And that there were no panel descriptions in the program.  And that they weren't on the website either. So people had literally no way of knowing what this one was about. (I'm so lucky they were curious enough to come find out!)  Not only did I not have a bio or photo anywhere, my name wasn't even under the panel title on the schedule, so nobody who enjoyed one of my events would have had any way of knowing that I was also running two others. (And, as I found out the next day, the printed schedule didn't match the online/emailed schedule, so I showed up for an 11:00 panel that had theoretically started at 10:30. Ouch.)

Later that night, I checked the Twitter tag and found out that Galacticon was having major, major issues.  I can believe it: I was there all three days, and didn't see a single panel in my corner of the world with more than ten attendees. (Word on the street was that the mainstage activities and events were super fun and well-attended; I just didn't get to stay for them because of the commute.)

But you know what, y'all?  It was a really, really good time.  I had five to eight people at each of my three panels, which meant that it was the easiest thing in the world to deputize them as co-panelists, pull the chairs into a circle, and have us a good hearty gab. It was genuinely fun and wonderful and relaxing, that was what – easy and stress-free in a way that sitting up at a head table in front of a room full (or half-full) of people can't be.  It worked out great when this happened at CONvergence, too – there were sixty people in the room instead of six, but the spirit of the thing was the same.  It felt like the invisible wall between the audience and the panelists disappeared, and we were genuinely part of a single shared conversation.

From left to right – Nicholas, Joel, Jessica, Catherine (whose name I am almost certainly misspelling) and Emily. I am so happy to get to say I know them!
You know, there's a trend in education right now, which trains teachers to think of themselves not as the 'sage on the stage', but as the 'guide on the side'.  And the more I see that in action, the more I love it. Some of the most rave reviews we got at DFWcon this year came not from the classes, but from the workshops – where people bring in their work and their questions and get help with both.  Some of the most fun I've had at conventions has been at kaffeeklatsches and 'literary beers', where you pull a drink and a seat and get to have a ten-person totally unscripted chat with the author of your choice.  I know that's not always feasible or appropriate, but I also know I want more of it.

And as for the con itself... you know, I don't know nearly enough about the whys and wherefores to venture any opinion about it, except to say this: anybody who invests their time in a convention wants it to be a success. It is a hard, grueling, invisible and thankless job, often sucking up hundreds or even thousands of hours for the higher-ups, and I'm amazed that it works as well as it does as often as it does.  I know that Galacticon didn't turn out like its organizers intended – but everyone I interacted with, from the first email to the programming director to the last wave to the janitor, was pleasant, professional, and working their hardest to make this event a good time for everyone.

Well, I didn't have a good time. I had a GREAT time, and I couldn't be more impressed or grateful for their efforts.  At the end of the day, you can break fandom into as many parts and pieces as you want - staff vs. attendees, panelists vs. audience, fanficcers vs. cosplayers, whatever. But we are fundamentally one community, and the more I see that community come together, the prouder I am to be a part of it.  Thanks for a wonderful weekend, Washington - I'll see you again for Worldcon in two weeks!

So say we all!