Reader, I made it to a WorldCon!
LonCon was the biggest WorldCon to date in terms of number of members, and as expected the ExCel was very busy on Saturday. However, the size of the venue and the smooth running of the con meant it didn’t feel busy: if I was at all worried I had been too harsh on LFCC, my experience at LonCon disabused me of that notion. What a difference it makes to have access to several toilets that remain clean throughout the day; to have enough places to buy food that you don’t have to queue up for 35 minutes for a bad sandwich; to be able to move around without stepping on and/or elbowing people: in short, to be at a busy event that’s actually prepared to handle large crowds.
Also, even though the LonCon programme was overwhelming in the sense that there was just too much good stuff on (often at the same time), once I made my choices and printed out my personalised programme I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all. I said that YALC was a bit too much for me, but that wasn’t the case here — at least not in the same sense. There were maps and clear signage, plus lots of friendly volunteers ready to answer questions. My main concern was that I’d end up getting lost on my way to something I wanted to see, but I found the space extremely easy to navigate despite its size and I could get to everything I was aiming for without any issues.
I want to tell you about the programme items I attended in detail, but first, a quick virtual tour of LonCon:
The view from Level 3.
Tiny light sabre wielder!
The exhibitions hall.
ALL the books!
ALL OF THEM.
A rather lovely display on writers and their cats.
...and another on the Tiptree Award.
A tribute to Iain Banks.
A Hugo Award! Well, a replica anyway.
The arts and crafts zone was pretty awesome.
The Fan Village.
Kari Sperring (who I admire so much and really wish I had been brave enough to say hi to) also read from a work in progress: I missed the introduction, as I had to run down from a panel on level 3, but by the sound of it it’s a work set in the same world as The Grass King’s Concubine. The piece she read us was wonderfully written and deeply concerned with women and power, which is more than enough reason to get this book as soon as it comes out. It was also amazing and raw and the kind of thing you almost flinch to see read aloud in public, because it’s still so rarely voiced — only of course we should speak of it in public, because the whole problem is that we don’t.
(My LonCon book was Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things, and it was interesting how many points of contact there were between what I was reading during downtime and what I was hearing and encountering at the things I chose to attend.)
...and Connie Willis!
Connie Willis’ reading ended up becoming an impromptu mini-talk, as she thought it would be more fun to tell is a bit about what she’s writing at the moment and answer audience questions (and it was indeed a lot of fun, so no complaints). Willis said she’s working on a novel (currently called The Very Thought of You but likely to change) whose premise is the following: there’s a new procedure you and your significant other can have, a sort of “outpatient brain surgery”, that makes you perfectly attuned to each other’s emotions. You become not exactly telepathic, but empathic: you can pick up each other’s moods and etc with perfect accuracy, and it’s supposed to solve communication problems once and for all. The surgery only works is people are really emotionally invested in each other, though, so couples have begun to use it as a kind of “technological equivalent to a pre-nuptial”.
Of course, in reality this is a terrible idea (Willis said she believes that having the right to private thoughts and feelings is crucial, even within the context of intimate relationships, which YES) — the first thing that goes wrong is that the protagonist, who is talked into the surgery by her partner, becomes fully telepathic rather than just empathic, and it all goes downhill from there. Willis said the novel is actually a romantic comedy (which she called her favourite genre), and I absolutely can’t wait to see what she does with this premise.
So yay: three readings/author events, three books I’m ridiculously excited to get my hands on. Last but not least, there were the panels I attended. I took a lot of notes, though as always they are very much partial and filtered through my brain, which means I unintentionally zoom in on my specific areas of interest and on some panellists more than others. Hopefully I’ll still be able to give you an idea of what they were like.
To KV Johansen, wonder comes not so much from familiarity but from otherness. And for a child reader, there will be many things that will be “other” simply because their experience of the world is more limited and they could be encountering whatever is included in a story for the first time. It could happen with historical fiction, for example, because the past is different and new. Fantasy elements can of course bring about this sense of wonder, but it can also happen with quite ordinary things.
Jo Fletcher associates wonder with yearning, but unlike McDonald she believes this yearning is for something that seems to be just around the corner, rather than for something completely far removed. It doesn’t feel unattainable, and that’s what fuels the wonder.
Lastly, Farah Mendlesohn said that a sense of wonder and a half-belief in fantastical worlds was never what got her into SFF. Part of it, she said, probably has to do with being more the “geeky science fiction type” who wanted to take engineering classes and figure out how everything works. She also talked about how she spent her childhood reading books full of children doing things she wasn’t physically capable of doing due to illness, and that was more of a factor than wonder in what drew her to stories.
Jo Fletcher brought up the fact that children have a far less firm awareness of genre than adult readers do. They haven’t necessarily decided that they don’t like certain things, and that makes them more willing to embrace different types of stories. Genre categories help people decide where to shelve books, but young readers don’t necessary draw a distinction (which brings us back to what Johansen said previously about wonder not being exclusive to SFF).
Moving on to the “spectacular feats of worldbuilding” bit of the panel (aka the “I need to read ALL the things” bit), KV Johansen brought up Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master Trilogy. She also mentioned Philip Reeve’s Larklight, which she said is “full of wonder and comedy” and which her 8-year-old nephew loves. Both Fletcher and Mendlesohn brought up Diana Wynne Jones — especially, Mendlesohn said, the second Dalemark book, which “tears apart every trope about revolutions in a society”. It’s also set in an industrial fantasy world, and was written a good twenty years before we started seeing more of those. Here Johansen intervened to say that Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books do something similar (I have no idea why I haven’t read those yet).
Returning to Diana Wynne Jones, Farah Mendlesohn said it’s no coincidence that she was part of the first generation of writers directly influenced by Tolkien: she figured out how he did what he did, and then she did it better. Then just as time was running out, Mendlesohn asked her fellow panellists to conclude with the names of their favourite YA worldbuilders: they mentioned Philip Pullman, Diana Wynne Jones and Frances Hardinge. I can’t think of a better list to finish with.
Nussbaum said that as an editor, she keeps an eye on the number of women Strange Horizons reviews, on the number of women reviewers they work with, and also on who to assign a specific review to. She knows that each of her reviewers will have a different focus that will make them highlight different aspects of a book, and that in itself is a political decision.
Tansy Rayner Roberts mentioned the very successful Australian Women Writers Challenge, and how participants increasingly realised that even simply keeping an eye on your reading stats can make you aware of their political implications. This has been my experience too: ever since I switched to an Excel spreadsheet that makes me aware of the diversity of my reading as I enter data throughout the year (rather than just calculating my stats come December), the fact that my reading is still less racially diverse than I’d like has been on my mind more, and that has driven me to action far more than only thinking about it at the end of the year would.
Alisa Krasnostein said that creating Galactic Suburbia, a podcast where three women discuss SFF from a feminist perspective, was a political act: they were creating a space where they got to be heard. This made me happy because it’s not at all different from the logic behind the creation of Lady Business.
Kevin McVeigh reminded us that a lot of the time these conversations are still hindered by the belief that men are “just not interested” in reading books by women, and that this disinterest is seen as politically neutral (which YES: see everything I was saying about Joanna Russ last week). Tansy Rayner Roberts added that part of it is down to the fact that people still believe the world is a meritocracy: that the “best” books are the ones rising to the top and getting the most coverage, and therefore making an effort to promote more obscure diverse authors will mean compromising quality.
The panellists agreed that the political choices you make as a reviewer go beyond gender, of course: they also involve race, sexuality, disability, country of publication, etc. Elías Combarro said he makes an effort to review more obscure books because what could you possibly have to say about a work like Game of Thrones that is new? Abigail Nussbaum offered a counterpoint to this: although there is value in seeking out works that are getting less coverage, it’s also interesting to see different perspectives on popular things, because different reviewers never highlight the exact same aspects.
Alisa Krasnostein and Tansy Rayner Roberts agreed that your political perspective is not really something you can switch off, and this is not at all a negative thing. You don’t get to take a break from being a woman, or a POC, or lgbtq; you can’t unsee things or step away from a perspective that’s informed by how you experience the world. But bringing your experience into your criticism makes it more exciting: who would want to read a review written by a robot anyway? To Tansy Rayner Roberts, deciding which reviewers you read also has political implications. Who do you listen to? Who do you take seriously and why? What is it about their perspective you value?
Rayner Roberts and Nussbaum also highlighted the value of engaging with flawed media that nevertheless drives you to talk about. Nussbaum said she spent a lot of time a few years ago writing about Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse, two series that were full of problems but also of meaty stuff that she wanted to discuss (having recently finished Dollhouse myself, all I can say is YES. It infuriated me and there were things I was incredibly interested in and I’m dying to write about it).
There was a question from the audience about what each of the panellists’ political focus was and whether it was always the same: Nussbaum said this is something she’s been thinking about more and more and that has become a concern of hers. She said she’s a woman and hers is a primarily feminist focus, but there’s a danger that she’ll end up writing reviews that are a checklist of representational problems and issues she cares about. At the same time, though, these issues are important and merit discussion. She’s been trying to strike a balance between her own personal filters and reading the book as it was written. McVeigh added that no review can include all possible focuses (or even all the ones you care about, I’d say), so the important thing is to be aware of which one you’re picking and how you’re framing your review.
Frances Hardinge said that the way education is portrayed in fiction is more benign in some stories than others. It’s benign in the ones where the emphasis is on teaching the young protagonist how to think, and less so when it’s on teaching them what to think. There’s often an unpicking point in YA narratives where the protagonist realises that there are gaps in what they’re being taught. She also said she’s extremely interested in deprivation from education as a form of disempowerment, and in writing narratives (like Fly By Night) where seeking out education therefore becomes a form of subversion.
Gail Carriger added that realising the fallibility of the instructor is often a crucial part of the process of education, while Zen Cho said the conversation thus far made her think of Discworld: Pratchett presents a system of high learning for wizards that exists alongside the unofficial passing on of knowledge of the excluded witches. One is prestigious but abstract; the other is low in status but “deeply involved in the stuff that really matters”. The dichotomy is of course deeply gendered, and the books explore that. (I need to reread Equal Rites.)
Frances Hardinge then brought up the completion of one’s education, whether by orthodox means or not. She said the Harry Potter books transition from MG to YA as Harry and his friends learn more and more about the world, and that to her it made perfect sense that they don’t go back to Hogwarts in the final book. By then they know more than what a formal school setting can accommodate. This is visible in Garth Nix’s Sabriel too: the protagonist leaves school in chapter two, and when she comes back at the end there’s a deep contrast between what she learned fighting the darkness and the “frail and ordinary reality” or what at first seemed like an exciting magical school.
To Hardinge, part of the appeal of boarding school stories is that they’re safe, but not too safe. They’re fantasies of freedom from parental supervision, because even when the school functions as a parental replacement of sorts it doesn’t command the loyalty that usually comes with family ties. You can choose your own friends and enemies, and eventually breaking the rules becomes an inevitability.
Gail Carriger then said something that I just loved, and that made me want to get her Finishing School series immediately: she said she likes school settings because she likes to write “vastly networked protagonists”. She very much doesn’t want to write Hero’s Journey type narratives, where it’s a single person against the world, and school settings give her protagonists the chance to make lots of friends who then become allies and sources of support. She’s very much invested in writing stories that portray this as a good thing.