World Fantasy Convention 2008, Day Two

I just got back from the convention a few hours ago, and so I now have the chance to give my take on day two–and a couple of general thoughts about the convention as well.

I got started on Saturday morning (after a great breakfast at Thompson’s Restaurant in the hotel–and if you’re ever in Calgary, you’ve got to try their pancakes!) by attending some readings–the first by David Anthony Durham, who read an excerpt from the sequel to his novel Acacia (good stuff), and then to Dave Duncan and Minister Faust. I was particularly intrigued by Faust, whose style is kind of a cross between Neal Stephenson and Ishmael Reed–particularly in his second book, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, a self-help books for superheroes. Seriously. And Faust knows both his superheroes, as a long-time comic book aficionado, and his satire, which is immediately in evidence in the first few pages of the “self-help” book. He’s agreed to appear on a future episode of Upon Further Review, by the way…stay tuned.

Then it was on to my first panel of the day on the language of fantasy–which was an interesting discussion ranging from how to create a specific tone in a work of fantasy to why making a world its own character is usually a bad idea…or so said Farah Mendlesohn, who as a leading fantasy /science fiction critic ought to know. Good as it was, this panel was also a bit frustrating, as the panelists often seemed to be heading to some really interesting territory but veered off before the subject could really be adequately explored. (For example, at one point Mendlesohn claimed that all writing is manipulation, going on to say that such skill is what “sucks you in” to the world. Perhaps, though I’m not sure that I buy that manipulation and engaging writing are the same things–but we’ll never know for sure, since the idea was quickly dropped in favor of yet another sub-topic.) A panel on the killing of significant characters followed, with Tad Williams, Steven Erikson and of course George R. R. Martin–Williams pointed out that the panel really should have been subtitled “A Tribute to George R. R. Martin,” which I think would have been fitting. Martin doesn’t seem to really be that aware of his reputation on this score, though he admits to getting upset reader mail on the subject…but it hasn’t kept him from throwing his mainstays under the bus at an alarming rate. He did mention that one particularly bloody scene was very difficult for him to write, so much so that he avoided doing it for as long as he could–which was good to hear. Authors do have to feel the emotional impact of their characters if they expect their readers to do the same, and it was nice to see all three of the panelists agree at least on that point.

Readings with Erikson, Jay Lake and Ken Scholes followed (Scholes’ debut novel Lamentation is due out next year–he recently got a five book deal with Tor, the first two books of which are coming out within ten months of each other. That’s some serious productivity, even in fantasy terms, and it’s a sign of how much Tor loves this guy…which, given his short story prowess, seems like a reasonable stance to take.). And finally I went to a genre-crossing panel, where the five panelists (including Lake and Faust again) talked about the combining of two or more bizarre elements in one work…which some of the panelists were more comfortable with than others. The panel seemed to be geared for humor, but by the end it actually shifted into a fascinating discussion about politics in fantasy. Faust made the point that too much of current fantasy relies on genocide as a solution to problems, and while I don’t agree with him that the wipeout of Tolkien’s orcs was really code for a horrific real-life example, I think the idea (which several audience members raised) that the subject of politics doesn’t belong in fantasy is ridiculous. It’s impossible to avoid, for one thing…and for a second, some of the great fantasies in the field have explicit political content (Animal Farm and 1984, anyone?), which I pointed out during the audience discussion portion.

And then we arrived at the fateful moment of my reading. I went to the assigned room, only to find it occupied by other readers–and soon learned that the session had been moved (within the past few hours) to another room, which was a bit unfortunate. As a result of the confusion I had a small but enthusiastic group for my reading, but since the other author never showed up I was able to take longer, which was a nice change…and the audience seemed to respond well to the reading, so on the whole I’d label it a success. I finally headed back to my room for some much-needed sleep, and left for home the next day (getting the chance to meet more authors in my area, which is always a good thing–one of them literally lives down the street from me, albeit far down. Seriously, what does it say when you have to go to Canada to find your New York neighbors?).

So, taken all in all, what’s the bottom line on World Fantasy?

1. It’s got a lot of movers and shakers. Seriously. There were executive editors, publishers, agents, big name authors…if you wanted to find the center of gravity in the fantasy fiction world, it was in Calgary this weekend. And getting the chance to meet, talk to, and hear major authors speak about their chosen genre was a pleasure.

2. Unfortunately, these movers and shakers seem to move and shake with each other a lot. Like Readercon, there were times I felt like this convention was a bit more for people who already knew each other than for the newcomers, and that’s unfortunate–particularly because introducing new blood into the industry is a critical key to its future success. Here the vibe was a bit isolating, and I wasn’t so crazy about that.

That said, this was unquestionably a worthwhile event, generally well-organized and structured, and one I’ll be attending again. Though having the actual copy of my book in hand next time around will be a nice boost…so long as I don’t get any more “bags o’ books” to bring back with me. Do you have any idea the looks the airplane crew was giving me? Seriously?