Fallout from Quincy Adams: Readercon 2016

It’s strange to think about the fun-fest of Readercon — which it always turns out to be — as a hotbed of controversy where ripples of fallout will radiate outward for weeks and months after the event. On the other hand, science fiction fandom is a sort of canary in the coal mine of society at large. The feuds and alignments and banishments and rapprochements that swirl around fandom, punctuated by mass scrimmage events (also known as cons), are now inextricably linked to the culture wars raging around us.

It wasn’t always this way. Long ago, in never never land, cons were communal freak-outs held by like-minded escapists as a sort of exhibitionist rebellion against the bleakness of mundane culture. A con was where your propellor beanie, flowing cape, Vulcan ears, and purple velvet bag-of-holding concealing a pint of scumble were perfectly normal, and you were surrounded by fellow fen celebrating the freedom to be weird.

Not that this spirit of letting our freak flag fly has changed all that much, but what has changed is the sense that certain values, certain codes of conduct, and the moral obligation to represent people of color, women, Moslems, GLBT, or any group that has been under-represented until now is no longer an option.

It is this feeling of political correctness acting as a form of coercion that has become a lightning rod in recent years. Personally, I can commiserate with anyone who feels oppressed and alienated in this crazy consumerist society we live in. I think tearing down the patriarchy is a good thing: and I would like to tear down Wall Street, the military intelligence complex, industrialized farming, and big Pharma while we are at it!

The more panels we have on Afro-futurism, women writers, alternate cultures, and tree frogs the better! (Disclosure: I also like tree frogs.)

What I hope we can avoid is to shed the old normalized social forms of oligarchy and privelege and exchange them for a new vanguard of behavioural gate-keepers who are going to dictate to us what is the new norm. That could be dangerous.

The impression that this has already taken place is the raison d’être of the so-called Rabid Puppies. They seem to think that a secret cabal of SJWs is pulling the strings of fandom, loading the Hugo slates with works by women and minorities, in a way that is unfair and disenfranchises them, whoever they are. This theory is, to say the least: totally fucking crazy.

Just to promote the books you think are deserving of recognition does not enlist you into a secret cabal. By contrast, to promote a particular slate of works and recruit as many people as possible to vote for exactly the same slate is to form a public cabal. If the intention is to disrupt the nomination process of the Hugo awards, then this is a form of conspiracy. It is a group of people deliberately conspiring to bombard a public process with monkey-wrenches. Yes, there are some wild monkeys who throw shit at everyone and scream. People who emulate this behaviour should not be the ones to decide how others behave. Did these people not get the memo?

Consequently, the recriminations and accusations that resulted from this whole debacle tends to make con-runners and SMOFs more defensive and more rule-oriented than they were in the past. Of necessity cons must remain open and inclusionary. Every type of fan should be welcome and feel safe among their fellow fen. On the other hand, this requires some rules and boundaries to be set. We can no longer assume that unwritten codes of common decency are effective, and therefore things have to be written down. And this, of course, just seems to reinforce the paranoid notion that there are some SJWs hiding out on secret committees to enforce their concept of appropriateness.

What a mess. From my humble rock on the bottom of the pond it seems like the crazies have poisoned the well. They came screaming out their echo chamber to sabotage the commons. I feel like I am in one of David Bunch’s Moderan stories. The uber-paranoid attack dogs have gotten off their leash. Who the hell knows what will happen next.

But this is not what actually happened at Readercon 2016. What actually happened is that the con moved from the bucolic green sward of Burlington to the (pardon my French) ass-end of Quincy. Many people were happy with the new hotel and location. I thought it was a miserable nightmare, perched on an outcrop of rock and cement overlooking bleak highways, and at the very end of a long, steep, searingly ugly driveway untrodden by human beings. William Hope Hodgson might have liked this spot, as a model for the gateway to a dimension of terror. But I didn’t find very nice.

Okay, I am being bitchy. Maybe for people who only drive in those apocalypse-inducing internal combustion bombs the Quincy Marriott is fine. But for me, riding public transit, it was hell. Two solid hours it took for me to get from Alewife to Quincy Adams.

A full month has passed, and I am still a bit queasy from the mess that the T made of my trips to Readercon this year. Okay, it is not entirely Readercon’s fault. The repair work that forced a bus connection from Kendall to Park is not supposed to be permanent: but it should have been predictable! And the same goes for the fact that trains simply DO NOT run beyond JFK on the weekends. Typical waiting times at JFK are 20 minutes, so if you are switching from an Ashmont train to a Braintree train you are just shit out of luck. This is all something that Readercon must have known.

Gripe-fest concluded, the con itself was pretty damn fun, as usual. Except for the grief that we all felt for losing David Hartwell — his framed photo and tie standing in mute tribute in the Dealer Room — everyone I met was in a fine mood.

From the New Paltz writer who had gafiated for two decades, to the regulars like George Morgan, Mark Borok, Diane Weinstein, Ed Koenig, Frank Wu, Neil Clarke and so on… it was an amazingly fun time.

One faanish highlight were a my conversations with Jean Berman, who was John H. Costello’s partner for many years. Last year, she was largely responsible for making his entire book collection available for free, and several boxes remaining from that huge stash were still visible on this year’s freebie tables.

I bought my usual stack of goodies in the Dealer Room, and had a terrific time talking to Neil Clarke, Jean Gonzalez, and various people wandering around the tables.

On Friday, July 8th, there were a preponderance of panels on Dystopia and Apocalypse… do we wonder why? In the mundane real world we have an actual proto-fascist running as the nominee for POTUS. Let us retreat into our world of “cozy dystopias” and hide!

But of course, the coziness is not all fun and games. Looking at Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts, as an example, the panelists of Cozy Dystopias were quick to point out that extra-judicial killings and soul-suckings that take place at the talons of evil Dementors are not exactly cozy.

The Ministry of Magic also functions as an oppressive government — with no transparency — and is utterly restricted and elitist. Many of the main characters and their family members, though they benefit from their appointments or relationships with the Ministry, are also subject to it’s capricious decisions, and often have no idea what is going on. Indeed, it was only the mud-blood, Hermione, as an outsider to the elitist system of social mobility, who establishes the House of Rights. Being outside, Hermione can bear witness the injustices that are otherwise ignored.  And why is it Hermione, not Harry, who becomes an activist?  She’s smarter than him, for one thing.

In a session called Author Trademark or Personal Cliché the panelists explored the writing of various authors, looking for particularities that represent their individual styles. Are these traits in an author’s work intentional or subconscious? Gillian Daniels said that “Writing is like presenting a view of yourself in the mirror that you don’t want to show anyone; but you do anyway!”

How to get inside the head of a writer and know what they were thinking? Trying to grasp another writer’s obsession: that would be an interesting challenge, the panelists agreed.

I missed the panel Integrating the Id, which apparently explored all manner of sexuality. But a choice quote from Chip Delany made it to the twitter-verse: “Be ready for someone to tell you: ‘I am sorry. The last time I had sex with a camel, it was nothing like that.’ 

On Saturday morning, there was a lack-luster panel called Sorting Taxonomies, which had great panelists — including Peter Straub and Greer Gilman — but was often constrained by the narrow questions from the moderator, Nepveau. She wanted the panelists to rattle off a bullet list of characteristics that define genre, but the panelists contrarily went off on their own tangents, speculating on what constitutes the voice and vision of certain authors.

Gilman said that it is not so much a set of traits that attracts her to a certain type of writing, but rather the “details of what the author is filtering out of the Universe for me to notice: a drowned arm… with bracelets! Walking out to look for the evening star… then the Evening Star comes to life and becomes a character!”

It was nonetheless interesting to watch Straub, snapping his neck around suddenly, to peer at someone with awesome intensity; or to watch Gilman, as she stares up to the sky while speaking in general (usually poetic) terms, then looks down at others when making a point.

 Overheard in the con-suite, first fandom's David Kyle was talking
 about an astronaut returning to Earth who picks up radio signals
 that were originally broadcast decades earlier from stations
 and transmitters that no longer exist.  "It's quite possible,"
 Kyle speculated, "that certain kinds of radiation or vibrations
 exist that can last forever.  They might go on echoing through
 the Universe for all eternity."

While attending the Sorting Taxonomies panel, I managed to miss Beyond Strong Female Characters, which seems to have generated the most controversy this year. In a session described as a shit-show, the moderator managed to insult the only African American woman on the panel, Mikki Kendall. Kendall’s reaction seemed measured, while others responded with more anger at the situation. This reached a boiling point with a blogger who expresses volcanic eruptions of anger with hair-trigger sensitivity.

Sure, it is fine to be angry, and never to back down on issues of racism, sexism, bigotry, and injustice. I am 100% down with that, and support the need for action. But, call me whatever you want, (I’m not trying to be the tone-police, here), I just find it counter-productive to constantly be attacking and insulting everyone who you don’t approve of.   Somebody with the track record of Vox needs to be cut down to size, but I don’t really perceive Ellen Kushner as the enemy.   Sounds like she was being snobby and bitchy.  There has got to be a better way to carry this conversation forward and improve our society. In truth, I think Mikki Kendall and Ellen Kushner working this out in public is the best thing that can happen, and I hope it leads to more interesting and better integrated, more open and less hostile discussions all over the place.

Another bit of flak erupted in the Blue Collar SF panel, which surprised me mostly by managing NOT to mention labor history, socialism, the Wobblies, or anything else very political.  Bud Sparhawk spent a lot of time talking about his own stories that featured working class characters, including one case where the machinists working on some sort of space-tech had to take matters into their own hands because the designs provided to them by a huge team of designers and engineers had flaws when it came time to actually assemble the stuff.  The moderator, Allen Steele remarked: “too many chiefs, not enough injuns.”  This comment was careless, in poor taste, even insulting to Native Americans.  No doubt about that.  According to one reviewer, the statement caused several in the audience to get up and leave, but she stayed on because it’s hard to look away from an accident,” and she hope that “clueless leaders will experience a corrective from their co-panelists.”

But on the other hand, I was there, and I specifically heard Sparhawk’s story that prompted the comment. It was a poor choice of words, yeah; but later I saw a posts on twitter questioning why Steele was even on the panel in the first place and insinuating that he was a racist.  Well, it’s pretty clear that Steele writes near-future SF about working class characters… that was why he was on the Blue Collar SF panel. And he did write a novel with a Native American protagonist, Clarke County Space.  Though some people have dumped on his “Colonialist” Coyote series, I think Steele has done a fairly decent job of writing about people from different races and backgrounds in his books.

Do I wish there were more Native American SF writers, and more SF books featuring Native Americans? Hell yes!  I’m a big fan of G. C. Edmondson’s Chapayeca (aka Blue Face), for one example.   As for Steele’s character, Detective John Bighorn, he is not perfect, but he doesn’t come across as a cliché, or seem quite the noble savage template of Andre Norton’s Beastmaster.   My reading of Steele gives me the impression that his intentions are good, whereas I’m not sure if I would cut the same slack to the cultural appropriation in J. K. Rowling’s Native American wizard “history”.

In sum, I just think that we can be prickly, we can call each other out, but we can also smoke a peace pipe and build a better society to live in! Let’s get on to that constructive part, because the real racists, bigots, and right-wing reactionaries would absolutely LOVE to see us divided and squabbling forever… If we go on that way, Vox and his friends will be cackling like vultures on their Saguaro cacti.

We’re science fiction faans. We started all this shit: fandom, zines, cons, sub-cultures, ultra-networked self-reflective agents of social change. We can do this. This is our community mission, and we are shit out of time, with no room for failure. We’ve got this.

On a lighter note, it was terrific to attend the GOH Interview with Tim Powers, conducted by Gary K. Wolfe. Though I am a huge Powers fan, my main reason for this is his novel Anubis Gates. There were a few other books of his that I couldn’t quite get through. But after hearing this lively interview, I’ve definitely rekindled my interest.

For instance, Powers said “when it comes to ouija boards, tarot, and the like, I think it’s all nonsense. I don’t believe ANY of it. But, I’m scared of it!”

And “writing within the bounds of actual historical events is like working within the lines of a tennis court to play a match. What I do, is not to reconstruct the entire historical narrative… I just look for cool things to pluck out, and then I string them together.”

Ah, that explains it!

“You approach the research of historical facts with an honorary paranoid-schizophrenic squint: did you know that Edison’s last breath was caught in a test tube with a cork! Really, it’s in Dearborn, Michigan, in the Edison museum. So when History just gives you details like this — and it ALWAYS DOES — you just go with them.”

“To draw the reader into the supernatural story, you seed in references to the real world… That sonnet. Those cave paintings. Did you know that the body of the poet Shelley, having been drowned, was found with his face and hands eaten by fish. Yeah, RIGHT! By fish! This stuff just writes itself.”

Since we all have that primordial part of the brain that lights up in terror, I say: let’s light that up!”

Inspired by Powers anecdotes, I then bought copies of Declare and John Berlyne’s Tim Powers Secret Histories which is just a mammoth Bibliography of Powers’ works. The Berlyne book also has an essay on Anubis Gates by China Mieville, which is worth the price of admission.

Anubis Gates is a carnavelesque of amazing generosity. It revels in its magicians, its historical conspiracies, its beggar-princes, its identityless brawling poets, its philosophizing monsters, its eggshell-sailors, its cross-dressing investigators, its quasi-werewolf body-jumping serial killers. Among other things.”

Indeed!