For those of us born back in the halcyon years of the last century, the year 2020 always seemed like a futuristic milestone. Would we be jet-packing through blue skies in our post-scarcity economies? Or would we be picking through the ruins of our wrecked planet, Mother Earth?
We seem to have made it to 2020 even if the prognosis is not too good. Are we now in a human-centric age: the anthropocene? Well, if you interrogate the anthro part of that concept, you know things ain’t going to be pretty.
Meanwhile, that mad amoeba: fandom – unshapen, unknowable, and impossible to kill – has survived to 2020 for the 57th Boskone. And the gathering of the tribes for Boskone 2020, was excellent!
Guest of Honor
Kim Stanley Robinson was GoH, which itself demonstrates an enlightened perspective on the world today. KSR’s views on planetary environments in our solar system, and the need to focus on the reality faced by us human beings here on our blessed Mother Earth, were thoughtfully expressed in the GoH interview.
Speaking about his famous Mars novels, KSR said that he tried to show what it would really take to terraform the red planet. He wasn’t actually advocating that we humans should try to save ourselves by escaping from a ruined Earth and settling on Mars. “Insane is the crucial word for that idea,” he said. But he wanted to understand the science, and in the planetary space mission reports, the scientists provided all the details. “The Viking Missions gave us Mars.”
As for other esoteric details, (what kind of gloves would be suitable for the low-atmospheric pressure but extremely cold surface of Mars? ), KSR turned to the strangely obsessive reports from the British Interplanetary Society.
And then, how could we even support our form of life on Mars? KSR pointed out that there is some water, possibly quite a lot of it, but there was scarcely any Nitrogen, absolutely essential for plant life and a breathable atmosphere. Where would that Nitrogen fix come from? KSR speculated that it might take 30,000 years to terraform Mars into a livable planet. Even that didn’t take into account of all the poisonous perchlorates embedded in the surface of Mars.
“Let’s face it,” KSR said, “we have time, because in 30,000 years, we are either still alive as a species having achieved some kind of stability on Earth; or we’ve already gone extinct because we completely screwed up our own home planet.”
As for interplanetary travel, KSR thought that it’s a case of humans looking out into the night skying and observing the profusion of stars in our galaxy and the greater Universe, but having to face the fact that we’re never going to get there. In his own novel, Aurora (2015), he dealt with the subject of the multi-generational ship. In reality, he said, “even after traveling for generations across interstellar space, when you actually arrived at another planet you wouldn’t even be able to land there. You’d be stuck in your spaceship until you could find exactly what kind of bugs (bacteria) existed there. Are they benign? Are they deadly?”
KSR pointed out that Science Fiction is a story space where we can experiment and explore alternative histories and futures. “How will the future feel?” he wondered. “Will we all be starving? Will we have a post-scarcity automated form of communism where the goods are shared?”
“Today we are still living in neoliberal late-Capitalism (since Reagan & Thatcher), in which a global capitalist elite has enriched itself by depriving everyone of their pensions, their health insurance, and the future itself: by ignoring climate change.”
“Can we save the planet by reforming our concept of the commons, in which we all have a shared destiny? Can we find solidarity and a collective form of government to replace our current crisis of representation? We have little representation in the nations where we have membership as citizens, and zero represetatation in the global system, the biosphere where we actually live.”
In his novel Aurora, the survivors of an interstellar journey must face the enmity of their own species when they “return” to the planet Earth, a planet which they have never seen. Their mission is criticized as the product of “criminally negligent narcissists.” Trying to cope with life on Earth, after sea-level changes have wrecked the coastlines, they turn to grinding their own sand to reconstruct the beach.
About the difficulties presented to humans for survival in such a future, KSR remarked: “Optimism is a moral position. You choose your brand of optimism, then beat people with it like a club. Take for example the sea level rise in New York City that I wrote about in New York 2140. People have criticized me for giving the impression that the city could even survive such a drastic change, and said my false optimism is dangerous. But the fact is that the future is an ever shifting zone between today and various possible long term futures. There will always be young people who come of age at these moments of change who make their way forward no matter what the conditions are, and regardless of how people clinging to the past fear the changes taking place around them.”
Novels That Don’t Work
In this session the panelists looked at books that they thought didn’t work and the reasons why. Candidates for discussion were not necessarily failed or unpopular novels, but books that had large enough flaws to consider them not working. Examples included Dune, The Three Body Problem, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars novels, and The Stand.
The complaints about Dune and Three Body Problem centered on overused info-dumps. Most of the panelists agreed that action worked better than exposition for the most part. Larry Niven was discussed, as an author who often started his stories with long essays of scientific info-dumps. Michael Swanwick mentioned one personal example, his novella “Titan” (Analog, Dec 2002) which starts off with a very long description of the atmospheric chemistry of Saturn’s moon.
When he accepted the story “Titan” for Analog, editor Stanley Schmidt commented, “we typically don’t allow that much science in Analog stories.”
About Stephen King’s The Stand Bracken MacLeod complained about the deus ex machina at the climax of the novel; a literal finger of God that appeared out of the sky and ended all of the tension built up in all of the character arcs all at once, without any actual resolution.
These complaints fell under the general rubric of “flaws in the process” of writing. Another type of failure was when the “flaws were baked into the concept.” Examples of the latter included the series of novels by Mack Reynolds, such as Commune 2000, Equality 2000, Police Patrol 2000, etc. In these books, Reynolds would invent all sorts of socialist utopias and their counterparts in authoritarian dystopias. Despite his often appealing stories, they all suffered when we reached and then passed 2000, and none of the social forms he postulated took hold.
Swanwick mentioned a frequent criticism of the conceptual aspects of William Gibson’s works, in which a cyberpunk dystopian near-future never came into being. The collapsing cities, with their pockets of high-tech enclaves surrounded by decay, and the sense of punk rebellion against the extreme forms of authoritarian and instrumentalist governing systems… where are they now? But Swanwick points out that Gibson was not actually postulating about a dystopian future at all, he was just describing the actual terror of living in the dystopian Reagan years of the 1980s!
Allen Steele noted a concept fail in the space stations featured in Curt Siodmak’s novel, City in the Sky (1974), which were apparently cribbed from design concepts by Krafft Arnold Ehricke. But at the same time, Steele credits Siodmak for getting video conferences exactly right.
(Perhaps it should be noted that the novelization of a Siodmak screenplay for Riders to the Stars (1954) was demolished by none other than Damon Knight. In the ninth chapter of In Search of Wonder, “More Chuckleheads,” Knight describes the plot: the US government finds that their rockets sent up to establish satellites get melted into crystallized chewing gum at an altitude of 126 miles by cosmic rays. The answer: send up rockets equipped with jaws like a shark to bite the meteors and find out what their impervious surfaces are made of. With sincere respect for Damon Knight’s criticism of all the bad prose that plagued (and still plagues) science fiction, I should add my personal disclaimer: I still love the wacky imagination of Curt Siodmak!)
The Art of Creating Fantastical Creatures
In this session the panelists showed slides of their own artwork and talked about how they came up with the ideas, the design, and the processes they used for creating fantastic artworks. Ingrid Kallick showed her monochrome piece Frost Dragon, with it’s feathery details like the natural windings of ice fractals on a sheet of glass, as well as her Elemental Dragons series, for which she has already painted Tsunami, Volcano, and Tornado.
Sarah Morrison explained how she constructed a maquette model of a dragon out of wire, foil, paper, that would perch on her shoulder so that she could understand the lighting for her Self-Portrait with Dragon.
Jonathon Hunt showed his illustrations and sketches, describing his method of grasping for the wierd and the bizarre. His intense illustrations of monsters and wierd beings contributed to his commission to draw the “demodog” monsters from the streaming series Stranger Things. “I try to find anything slimey or boney, or that has holes in wierd places,” he said, about his method. Hunt mentioned that he likes to participate in both Inktober and Mer May which are online illustration venues to encourage daily drawing, similar to NanoMo (for writing).
Ruth Sanderson talked about her search for various dragons in the Western and Eastern traditions.
Bob Eggleton showed off some of his more recent personal works, saying: “For me, it’s all about the monsters! They don’t fit in, they’re trapped in a world they never made.”
Eggleton explained his fascination for the origin stories of the kaiju giant Japanese monsters. Take Rodan, for example, a monster that appeared out of an exploding volcano in Mexico, with flaming lava for wings.
Bob also noted his preference for live-action costumed monsters. “Sure, I like computer graphics, but if it’s a puppet or somebody in a rubber suit, there is so much more personality in their movements. Over the years I became friends with some of the actors who portrayed Godzilla. They would tell me about some characteristic motion that they added to the flailing monster performance inside those heavy suits. That was my trademark move! they told me.”
Fairy Tales from the Dark Side
Theodora Goss started off this session by noting that she spent some years of her childhood in Budapest and that she takes particular interest in the fairy tales of Hungary, with their typical strong heroines. She went on to say that fairies vary quite a lot, not only in different cultural traditions, but depending on the date and conditions where they were formed. Victorians had their small flower fairies, for example, and subtle messages could be presented in the form of fairy tales about feminism or other social and political movements. Think of the women brewing eels, bats, herbs, and potions. The fairy represents the human encounter with the magical other.
Isabel Yap noted that Filipino fairies do not play by human rules. They are not so clearly anthropomorphized and might often turn into fish, or other creatures. These fairy tales might be quite violent, and the fairies are not on our side.
Jeffrey Ford remembered the fairy tales from his grandmother in the Irish tradition, which encompasses all manner of small folk and other-worldly beings, from leprechauns to screaming banshees. What he really liked about traditional fairy tales, like those of the Brothers Grimm, was that the plots could turn on a dime and all the characters might be transformed. In particular, he recalled an interesting fairy that came into extistence only when a sand castle was being built on the beach, and who could only survive until the next tide.
Holly Black talked about fairies existing in “the borderlands: numinous, transmutable.” She said that her high school in New Jersey was situated facing a graveyard, where an old mauseleum was missing part of its roof and was being overtaken by vines and tree branches. “The magic can still be found in these liminal spaces.”
From Book to Silver Screen
This was basically the Hollywood is evil session.
Michael Swanwick told the story of his book, Bones of the Earth which very nearly was optioned by a studio, but in the end was turned down “because another dinosaur movie was coming out the same year. That movie was Sound of Thunder, a total flop, which lasted about one day in the theaters. But I got the message from Hollywood: pitch new stuff. I realized that my chances of getting an idea across were infinitisemal, but the possible pay off is huge. So I thought about it and asked my agent for advice. But my agent just said: ‘Those Hollywood pests? Tell them to fuck off!’ So I did that. But then, they were twice as hot for me now, because they know I can talk dirty.”
Holly Black had a treatment floating around in Hollywood. She got an urgent call. “Send us your notes by tomorrow, they told me, we’ve got somebody on board to write the screenplay. So I sent them my notes and by the time they got my message, the guy was already fired. This back and forth went on and on. Then finally I got the word: it’s for real, we’ve got the green light on the movie and we are ready to go! I went straight to the liquor store and saw the really big bottle of Cristal champagne on their display shelf, all covered with dust. I want that one! I told them. And they were like, that one’s really expensive. But I didn’t care, and when I had taken it home and popped the cork, that’s when I got the call: it’s all off! How the hell does a person get a cork back into the champagne bottle?”
Talking about options, Swanwick said, “Your agent doesn’t actually read every word of the contract, but you have to. You’ve got to be especially careful to look for bits that have been weaponized against you. They will put in endless loops and branches of clauses and exceptions in there – if you have a movie that turns into a t.v. series, or if it turns into a cartoon, or if a foreign film is made based on the cartoon, and so on and so forth, going down the rabbit hole of every possible type of future income. So you have to read absolutely every word and by the time you get to the bobble-head rights you want to scream. But you know it’s all money porn. None of those income streams are real.”
“But you’re not getting paid to write anything,” Swanwick added, “you’re getting paid to put up with them and their bullshit. Eventually though it’s too much and you start screaming at them and packing your bags. You’ll be yelling ‘To hell with this place, I am never coming back here ever again.’ And then, just as you’re climbing into the cab to LAX airport… that’s when they hand you a check. You take a close look at it, and see how many zeroes are on on it, and you think: well maybe just one more time!”
1) Paul Lehr painting, Mobilization of the Fourth Reich (1997)
3) Photo of KSR in his yard, see WIRED The Climate-Obsessed Sci-Fi Genius of Kim Stanley Robinson
4) Davis Meltzer painting for Equality in the year 2000 src
5) Ruth Sanderson painting “Dragon Serenade” (2011) src
6) Bob Eggleton painting, Godzilla cover for Rue Morgue src
8) Still with Bogart and Scott from “Dead Reckoning” (1947) src