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Oh my, what a mess. There are a few good things that you can say about Torcon 3. One is that it was a classic example of how hard it is to wreck the event, no matter how bad the management. The combination of thousands of fans determined to have a good time, hundreds of whom are now adept at the mysterious art of Invisible Mending of Broken Conventions meant that a good time was had by most people on site. You can also say that Torcon made ConJosé look really good, but I have this horrible feeling that it was also an example of what ConJosé could have been like if a few of us had not launched a coup a couple of months out.
As usual, this September issue of Emerald City has an awful lot of Worldcon coverage, most of it very depressing. But there is some very good news in the section on the Hugos, and all of the usual book reviews are available. There are some seriously good books in this issue. So if you want to skip the Worldcon stuff, go right ahead.
But before you do, if you havenít already been checking out the web site, go take a look at the fabulous artwork that Frank Wu has done for me. It is linked directly off the home page. Thank you, Frank!
In this issue
Watching the Wheels Fall Off Ė Worldcon in Toronto reinvents some classic conrunning mistakes
Torcon Hugo Analysis Ė Cherylís in-depth look at those confusing voting figures
Scientists Behaving Badly Ė Neal Stephenson re-writes the 17th Century
Fighting Fashionistas Ė Tricia Sullivan gets some action in down at the maul
From Russia with Hope Ė Liz Williams delves deeply into central Asia
A Sick Mind Ė Jeff Vandermeer spreads sickness and corruption amongst innocent authors
Itís The Wolf! Ė Neil Gaiman finds scary things in the walls
Ring of Freedom Ė Cherith Baldryís tale of slavery, sex and religion in Venice
Land of the Lost Ė Steve Cockayne produces a very confusing fantasy
Book of Thorns Ė Greg Keyes finds danger in a fantasy forest
Of Beasts and Men Ė Isabel Allende finds nobility up the Orinoco
Short Stuff Ė Short fiction from Ursula Le Guin and others
Two Years or Three Ė Tom Whitmore gives his side of the current WSFS hot potato
Miscellany Ė All those Worldcon award results
Footnote Ė the end
Watching the Wheels Fall Off
A Perfect Storm
In Worldcon terms, Toronto pretty much ran into a perfect storm. A lot of this was their own fault, and much else an alarming combination of circumstances. Letís start with the avoidables first.
There are two main things that generally act to prevent Worldcon committees from getting it right. The first is the presence in the convention city of a large and successful annual con. In this case the major cause of trouble was probably Toronto Trek, which these days is by no means only a Trek con and which attracts some 2,000 people every year. You might think that this means that there would be a large group of experienced conrunners willing and ready to work on the Worldcon. Far from it.
Worldcon is different. Although only twice the size of Toronto Trek, it stretches traditional conrunning practice beyond the breaking point. Through bitter experience we have learned that it needs a whole extra level of management or it will fall apart. Also it has an international committee, something that people who only work on local cons have little experience of. And large local cons generally have very predictable budgets and are able to give staff free memberships. You canít do that with a Worldcon because youíd risk a major and messy bankruptcy if anything went wrong. So having a large local con doesnít give you the knowledge and experience you need to run a Worldcon, it fools you into thinking that you have it already.
In addition, some of the Toronto Trek people were outraged that important folks like themselves were expected to buy memberships to Worldcon; never mind that the likes of Larry Niven and Bob Silverberg ("who are they?") had bought theirs. This again is by no means unique to Toronto. We get it from some BayCon regulars too.
The second major problem that Toronto suffered is that old chestnut of "we donít want to run an Evil American Con, we are going to run a British/Australian/Canadian one instead." There was an enormous amount of reluctance amongst some of the Torcon 3 committee to take advice, especially if it came from Americans. This is sad, because ConAdian in 1994 was a wonderfully effective international operation. The Winnipeg folks knew that they could not cope by themselves and accepted help willingly. Toronto failed to learn that lesson in time.
Doubtless a lot of the blame for the problems of the convention will fall on the shoulders of the con chair, Peter Jarvis. However, this would be somewhat unfair. Peter is a very nice guy, and very early on in the process it became clear that he had been chosen as chairman for precisely that reason. A Worldcon chair needs to be widely respected and able to take decisions. Peter was chosen because he was widely liked and would be reluctant to take difficult decisions, especially if they involved upsetting anyone. Probably the various factions in Toronto fandom all thought that they could bully him into doing what they wanted. In addition Peter had to work with one hand tied behind his back by his Board of Directors. Rumor has it that any expenditure over CA$1000 (about US$730) had to be approved by the Board. This is absurd, and represents a ridiculous level of micro-management. As a comparison, the similar approval point for ConJosé was US$50,000.
And then fate took a hand. There was SARS. There was mad cow disease (never mind that it was in Alberta, many fans are seriously geographically challenged). The US dollar tanked on world markets, resulting in an effective 12.5% price increase for Americans visiting Canada between ConJosé and Torcon. One of the conventionís Guests of Honor, Frank Kelly Freas, broke his hip and had to cancel (Frank is OK, he just canít travel). And two weeks before the con there was a major power outage. This sort of trouble would have stretched an efficient con committee. For an inexperienced group that was working poorly together and that, by the time of the power outage, was in major crisis mode, it was a disaster. More of this later, but first some literary stuff.
More on Canadian SF
I got to Toronto on Wednesday morning and hit the ground running. There was a one-day academic conference on Canadian SF taking place at the Toronto Public Library (which also houses the famous Merril Collection of SF books and magazines). Had I known earlier I would have come in on Tuesday so that I could have attended the whole thing, because it was very good.
The Guest of Honor, believe it or not, was Margaret Atwood. Given some of the things she has said about SF over the past couple of months you might have expected her to have run a mile from such an event, but there she was happily participating. Sadly I missed her opening speech as I was still in the air. Peter Halasz tells me that Atwood claims the whole dispute has been a misunderstanding. Iím not entirely convinced by this, because it wasnít an isolated incident. She repeated her disdain for SF in several interviews and on her web site. However, I now think I understand how her thought processes are going.
Because I was scheduled to appear on a panel on the future of Feminist SF, I decided to tackle Atwood during the afternoon coffee break and ask her about The Handmaidís Tale. Much to my surprise, she claimed that it wasnít feminist SF because it depicts a world in which men still rule. She admitted that it contained feminist messages, but apparently this did not make it feminist SF. Based on that it occurs to me that Atwood is someone who has very narrow definitions of what is what, and who sticks to them rigidly, often in the face of all evidence to the contrary. That would be very fannish of her, and it might explain why what she means by "science fiction" is totally at odds with what the rest of us mean.
It is rather a shame that neither John Clute nor Robert Sawyer made it to the conference, both of them being Canadians who have savaged Oryx and Crake in reviews. Sawyer commented to me during the con that Atwood had no issues with having The Blind Assassin described as a mystery novel, and was happy to accept awards for it on that basis. He mischievously suggested that the reason Atwood wanted to distance herself from SF was because she knew that Orxy and Crake did not compare well with good quality SF writing.
The conference had some very good papers (so congratulations to organizer, Allan Weiss). I was particularly interested in Dominick Graceís piece on Phyllis Gotlieb. I had been impressed with Gotliebís work on Mindworlds, which I reviewed last issue, and from what Grace said it sounds that the book is merely part of a richly imagined and well argued vision of a galactic empire. I had hoped to pick up some of Gotliebís earlier work at Torcon, but sadly I could not find any of her earlier novels in the Dealersí Room.
After the conference I had dinner with Veronica Hollinger, Andrew Butler and couple of new friends, Adam Guskowski and Stuart Chamberlain. Veronica directed us to an Indian restaurant with the unlikely name of Woodlands. It turned out to be very good. If you are looking for a good curry in Toronto, it is on College just west of University.
Meanwhile, back with the burgeoning train wreck that was Worldcon. I turned up to register on Thursday morning to discover that there were no souvenir books, no pocket program books, and no ribbons. The registration people were handing out little tickets to everyone with the promise that you could collect the additional documentation when (if) it arrived.
There were program grids available for Thursdayís events, but most folks seemed to have very little faith in them, and no one had any idea what was going to happen on Friday. Pre-con I had been scheduled for two Friday panels. My program participant pack contained a schedule that included only one of them, despite the fact that Iíd had confirmation that I was still on both two days earlier.
SMOFdom assembled was, of course, in a state of chronic catatonia as a result of the absence of the traditional con ribbons. The story was that they had been shipped in good time, but had been turned back by Canadian customs because of faulty documentation. They had then been sent back to the factory in Texas whence they came and were currently on their way back again. Oh dear.
Thankfully both pocket programs and ribbons turned up on Thursday afternoon. By the evening I had seen a copy of the souvenir book. Pat McMurray was facing the need to print many copies of the WSFS Constitution for Friday morningís WSFS Business Meeting if the souvenir book did not turn up. Having more reason that most of us to care, he had been following developments and had acquired a copy as soon as they arrived at the loading dock. So all was sort of well by Friday, except that programming was still in complete chaos.
The Programming Meltdown
The pocket program that arrived on Thursday afternoon was little more than an historical curiosity. It did contain the usual maps of the facilities, though they were printed so small that they were almost impossible to read. But the panel timings and make-up may yet get a few literary awards for Best Fantasy. Program Operations were issuing complete new grids each morning, and even those sometimes contained mistakes, though far less of them towards the end of the con.
So what went wrong? One of the obvious causes was that the program participant form came out late and was massively over-complicated. Terry Fong, the head of Programming, tells me that a lot of people liked the form, but I cannot for the life of me see why. Kevin and I, who are both software professionals, saw it as a classic example of geek obsession over usability. Both Liz Williams and John Clute complained to me that they found it hard to use, and were relieved when I said that I did too. Iím sure that a lot of program participants ended up telling programming the wrong thing because they misunderstood the form.
The first draft of the program appeared on the web site in mid-August. This was way too late. Normally Worldcon program divisions try to get it out early in July at the latest. This gives time for a couple of rounds of changes and corrections as scheduling conflicts are discovered and participants request changes to fit their personal schedule or preferences. Torcon had no time for that, and therefore it was inevitable that what went into the pocket program would be full of errors. They might have been able to buy a little time for corrections if their publications people hadnít been in crisis mode as well (see later) but as it was they were hosed long before they got to the con. It was a classic train wreck. You could see the two locomotives headed towards each other on the same line, you knew that they could not stop in time, and that disaster was inevitable.
Consequently, when we got to the convention, there were a lot of very confused program participants. I have bitched a bit in the web log about what happened to me, but I was by no means the only one. My friend James Daugherty was listed as being on program even thought he had told Torcon that he would not be attending. Michael Swanwick was listed for five panels: he wasnít there either. Isaac Asimov was down for one panel, but he got there, albeit as a recording. Liz Williams had mysteriously been allocated to a panel called "how to be an artist." John Clute, Liz Hand and China Miéville were also listed on panels that they had said that they could not attend or did not want to be on. Iím sure that they would like me to pass on their apologies to any disappointed fans.
Of course by the end of the convention we discovered that people even more important than Clute and China had been irritated to distraction by Torconís programming, and were sufficiently angry to say so very publicly. More of this later.
So why was everything running so late? When I spoke to Terry Fong on Monday night he was very up front about the whole thing. He kept using phrases like "out of my depth" and "didnít find out until it was too late." He had never programmed anything the size of a Worldcon before, and he had little idea what he was letting himself in for. There is no doubt that he presided over a screaming disaster, but then again it is hard to see how the people who appointed him could have expected him to get it right.
Probably the most serious mistake that Fong made was not to use any of the established, proven convention programming software that is available from various fannish sources. Instead the Torcon scheduling was done in an Excel spreadsheet. There was presumably some sort of database back end, but Iím told that Program Operations suffered all sorts of software glitches during the convention. This message should be repeated loud and clear to every future Worldcon. There is software out there. You donít need to write your own. And you should certainly not be trying to write your own at the last minute.
Another major error is that all of the individual program sub-committees apparently scheduled their own panels independently. This works OK if and only if each stream of programming has its own set of rooms and if you can guarantee that no one who is in, say, a literary program item, is not also on a political item, or doing a reading, a signing or a kaffeklatsch. In other words, on a large convention it is a completely dumb idea and liable to lead to all sorts of silly scheduling problems.
Meanwhile, back with Program Operations, both Fong and his deputy, Alex von Thorn, expressed their admiration and gratitude for the head of that department, Tammy Coxen. Just as Janice Gelb almost single-handedly rescued programming at Aussiecon III, Tammy's team gradually brought the program under control. Janice and Jim Mann were members of that team (and also Emerald City's Anne Murphy). By Saturday night it was solid enough that they issued schedule sheets for both Sunday and Monday. Without Tammy and her colleagues, Torconís programming would have been on a par with the legendary Nolacon disaster. Toronto has some good opportunities for food and tourism, but it is not exactly New Orleans. I suppose we could have all taken a day trip to Niagara Falls. But instead a bunch of experienced conrunners who were determined not to let a Worldcon fail pulled the fat out of the fire. At ConJosé Kevin and Tom handed out "Hero" ribbons to people who had worked particularly hard on the con. If the same sort of thing exists for Torcon, Tammy Coxen should be first in line to receive one.
[Neepery note: the usual job of Program Operations is to make sure that the program runs well on the day. They do things like sending out the guys with the "5 Minutes" cards, and inevitably there are occasional last minute problems that require minor schedule changes. Program Ops does not normally have anything to do with creating the program or with the initial scheduling process. But they have to do it on the fly when they inherit a disaster.]
I would also like to put in a good word for Terry Fong. Yes, he presided over a disaster, but he put his hand up and admitted it. "The buck stops here", he told me, "I owe fandom an apology." Given that most of the Torcon committee were busily blaming each other for what went wrong, Fongís attitude is refreshing. Furthermore, I discovered later that Fongís mother had died earlier this year and that he was executor of her will. Terry made no attempt to use this as an excuse. He didnít even mention it in his conversation with me. I only found out because Alex von Thorn asked me not to be too hard on Fong because he had other demands on his time. This is clearly an area where Torconís senior management was at fault. Peter Jarvis should have known that Fong had other priorities and should have kept a much closer eye on him that would normally have been necessary. Personally I donít think that someone as inexperienced as Fong should have been given the job in the first place, and alarm bells should have rung in Peterís mind long before programming got into crisis.
One of the strangest stories of the convention was how Cliff Goldstein, the manager of the Trailer Park, came to be fired. The Trailer Park is the part of the con where movie trailers and excepts are shown. Goldstein was in charge of selecting the material, and fans attending an afternoon session were horrified to discover explicit sex scenes in the material. There were children in the audience. OK, so it was anime, not real people, but even soÖ
It turns out that Goldstein was hired directly by Peter Jarvis before the Programming management were in position. Subsequently both Terry Fong and Alex von Thorn begged Jarvis for permission to fire Goldstein on account of his unsavory reputation in local fandom, most particularly because of his habit of making improper suggestions to female fans. Jarvis, who as I have already said is too nice to upset people, would not allow them to do it. So he ended up having to do it at the con instead.
Members of the Torcon committee are still wondering what the "adult content" material that Goldstein was planning to show in the evening might have been.
The Publications Fiasco
The one name that came up more than any other in my conversations with angry members of the Torcon committee was that of Michelle Boyce, the head of Publications. Iíll get to the rest of the pre-con story in a minute, but for now I want to focus on what happened in the month leading up to the convention. According to one senior Torcon staffer, Ms. Boyce took a weekís holiday, incommunicado, in August. There was also another week when she was uncontactable due to problems with her cell phone. Just under two weeks out, with the Program Book and Souvenir Book not yet at the printers, Ms. Boyce resigned very noisily and publicly on the committee mailing list. She had a few choice words to say about most of the rest of the committee, including Peter Jarvis, along the way. Part of the reason for the blow-up was that she had inserted comments into a draft of the pocket program book blaming Fong for the delays in production.
Boyce did eventually deliver the two missing publications to the printers, but Peter was left scrambling to find people to take over the at-con Publications duties. As usual, fandom at large immediately volunteered to help. Chris Barkley, who wasnít even planning to attend the convention, offered to come and run Press Office, and Mike Nelson volunteered to run the newsletter. Chris spent the next week or so frantically pulling together a press pack and emailing various journalists (no press contact having been made prior to the con). Mike was busy with things like trying to find some photocopiers so that there was something on which to print the newsletter.
I have not been able to substantiate the rumor that Boyce deliberately sabotaged the Torcon message board. However, it did go down mysteriously just after she resigned, and it did apparently reside on her server. Boyce apparently claimed that it was a technical problem. Another informant suggested to me that the board was closed down on the orders of the Torcon senior management because they were afraid that discussion of the committeeís internal feuds might find its way onto the board.
A few days later Ms. Boyce graciously announced to the committee that she had withdrawn her resignation and would be resuming her duties. Peter Javis was probably as surprised as anyone else, especially as Boyce had been removed from the committee email bounce. Her message was posted for her by Larry Hancock, who is a member of the Torcon Board, so it all sounded very official. The fact that Mr. Hancock is the significant other of Ms. Boyce presumably had nothing whatsoever to do with this.
I understand that Peter was not too keen on taking Boyce back, but with Hancock being one of his bosses he was under pressure to do so. Over the weekend Mike Nelson still thought he was running newsletter. On Monday he was travelling and out of contact. When he arrived in Toronto on Tuesday he discovered that he had apparently talked things over with Boyce on Monday and had agreed to let her take charge of the newsletter again. Understandably, Mike has no recollection of this conversation with Boyce, he having been in the air at the time, but under the circumstances he decided that it might be a good idea not to press the point.
At this juncture Iíd like you all to think back to the events surrounding ConJosé last year. As you may remember, there was a significant amount of in-fighting a couple of months out. The most serious casualty of this was Michael Siladi, who was summarily fired by Tom Whitmore for his part in the dispute. Siladi had more cause than most to be angry about what had happened. He was also a member of ConJoséís board of directors. He had supporters on the board and could have made life much more difficult for Tom and Kevin than he actually did. But instead he accepted a junior position with Kathryn Daugherty in the programming division and worked his butt off to make sure that, unlike certain conventions I could mention, we had a solid program schedule by the start of the con. Possibly Ms. Boyce and Mr. Hancock might like to reflect on this, and perhaps come to the conclusion that Siladiís actions were rather more honorable than theirs, and certainly far more in the best interests of the convention.
Oh, and letís not forget what went on well before the convention. People with a bit of experience could tell right from the start that Boyce was trouble, because she kept on telling everyone how she was a professional in the publishing industry and did not need any advice from mere fans. Being a professional apparently included being unable to keep the costs of the publications down. This is a problem in Canada, which is why Conadian in 1994 got a lot of its printing and posting done in the US. Interaction, the Glasgow Worldcon, is doing the same thing, as the majority of their members are expected to come from the US. Torcon elected not to do this, at ruinous expense. (Kevin has calculated that merely posting PR#6 from Canada cost Torcon over US$4000 more than the equivalent cost of posting from within the US.) I donít suppose the fact that the printer they used was a personal friend of Ms. Boyce had anything to do with this. However, it has been suggested to me that other members of the con committee sought out a local printer who could do the pocket program in less than half the time and at less than half the cost of Boyceís printer, only to discover that Boyce had committed the con to her deal and had paid in full in advance.
The souvenir book, although late, was impressively large. Unfortunately that was about the only thing impressive about it. The print quality was awful, although I understand that this was the fault of Ms. Boyceís friendly printer rather than the souvenir book editor. For some reason there was no art by Frank Kelly Freas in the book, aside from some background in photos of him and material about the Merril collection, whose logo he drew. The usual Worldcon tradition is to have the artist Guest of Honor do your cover. I have had one report that Kelly did produce some art but the Torcon committee rejected it due to what they deemed excessive mammary exposure.
One of the casualties of the cost of publications was that Torcon put a cap on the number of pages of fannish advertising it was prepared to accept for the Souvenir Book. Apparently the usual fannish page rate was well below the cost of printing a page, because of the excessively high price charged by the printer. Consequently I was rather surprised to see that there were over 20 pages of material about local fan groups and conventions. Normally you do a few pages of this stuff, but nowhere near the quantity that Torcon did.
Something that souvenir books have persistently messed up is the Worldcon history list. Sometimes they just blow it completely, like ConJosé did last year. Other times they fall victim to lobbying by various persons who insist that they were secretly co-chairs of past Worldcons and must be included in the list. This year we decided to get it right. There is a formal WSFS committee whose job it is to adjudicate all of the various disputes and produce a definitive copy of this list. This can then be presented to souvenir book editors to make sure that they get it right. And what did we get in return? A snide remark from the editor, Cheryl Freedman, to the effect that she had been forced to print all this stuff and implying that she would have liked to cut most of it. This, together with her bitching in her introduction about Howard Waldrop and John Hertz not submitting their GoH biographies (of George Martin and Mike Glyer respectively) electronically is a classic example of the arrogance and lack of respect for Worldcon that rather too many of the Torcon committee exhibited. To them this was not a Worldcon, it was a large Toronto convention that the rest of us had been lucky enough to be invited to attend. Iím mildly surprised that they didnít award the Auroras on Saturday night and relegate the Hugos to some tiny back room. Iím sure they probably considered it.
The Restaurant Guide looked to be very good, though I never got the chance to put it to use. It covered a lot of establishments (none of which were in Las Vegas, thank goodness) and had a very clear layout showing you immediately whether the restaurant was handicapped accessible, allowed smoking, took credit cards, required reservations and so on. The excellence of the information was somewhat marred by some very strange choices of font color (black on dark gray?), but a lot of thought and work had gone into the production. There was, of course, no map. But this was not Marah Searle-Kovacevicís fault. She had provided one, but it got lost in the production process.
When Boyce resigned, one of the jobs that had not yet been done was to post Progress Report #6. This was the Progress Report that told you useful things like you might need a visa to visit Canada and that it would be wise to apply 6 weeks in advance. I believe the PR was scheduled for publication in July. A copy was available on the convention web site in mid-August and a lot of people downloaded it from there. And after Boyce resigned, Torcon spent a lot of money posting it (from Canada ó see the comments on the ruinous cost of this above). Many members, including me, did not get it before leaving for the convention.
Progress Report #7, which was due to mail in August, never saw the light of day.
I should add at this point that the newsletter that Boyce produced at the convention was a competent if unexciting piece of work. She did repeat the idiotic idea of using a folded format, and inevitably the folding machinery on the copiers broke down causing much volunteer time to be wasted folding copies by hand. But we got eight issues in ample quantities and I didnít spot any major inaccuracies. Also Chris Barkley said that Boyce was very helpful and cooperative despite his having been appointed to a job she had intended to keep to herself. (I wonít comment on the wisdom of trying to run Press Office and Newsletter at the same time.) There were things that Boyce did well, but overall her impact on the convention appeared to have been very negative. I noticed that she never wore a badge during the convention. Perhaps she didnít want people to know who she was.
Handling Publishers 101
No, no, this is just too embarrassing. I donít want to talk about it. Suffice it to say that if a major publishing house offers you sponsorship it is a good idea to treat them with courtesy and respect, and not to assume that you can produce marketing material on their behalf without consulting them.
I know that a few Random House employees read Emerald City, and I want to assure you folks that what happened at Torcon is an aberration. Most Worldcon committees would never, ever behave like this.
You would have thought that it would be hard to completely mess up Worldcon opening ceremonies. All you need is a big room with lots of seats, some Guests of Honor to introduce, and a chairman to welcome everyone. Torcon, however, managed to concoct what could have been a very serious incident.
Some clever person had decided that the opening ceremonies would be followed immediately by a Spider Robinson concert. Thatís a nice idea, Spider being a good musician. However, to make it happen more easily they took most of the chairs out of the room. So we ended up with 1000+ people crammed tightly together either standing or sitting on the floor. Kurt Siegel, who was our safety officer at ConJosé, was horrified. It was clear that there was no Fire Marshall. If there had been the whole event would have been closed down immediately. By good fortune, nothing terrible happened. We just had a whole lot of really grumpy and sore fans. But it could have been so much worse.
The ceremony itself went OK. Kevin discharged his last formal duty as co-chair of ConJosé (Tom Whitmore was sadly unable to attend). In the great traditional of Bay Area silliness, Dave Clark presented Peter Jarvis with a ceremonial toaster. Some truly awful puns were committed (I know, I wrote them). Spider did a great job of introducing George Martin, the absent Kelly Freas, and Mike Glyer. Unfortunately he miscounted the number of Hugos that George had won, and George took every opportunity to remind him, good-naturedly, of this error throughout the rest of the con.
A surprise appearance was the Ghost of Honor, Robert Bloch, who materialized on a balcony and addressed the assembled throng. As usual with the dead, he went on rather too long, but it was good of him to make the effort.
Toronto as a Site
OK, enough of the depressing stuff for a while. Letís take a look at the site. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre is situated in downtown Toronto at the foot of the giant CN Tower and next door to the Skydome, the home of the Blue Jays baseball team. It is, in many ways, an ideal location for a Worldcon. There are plenty of places to get food, ranging from posh restaurants down to hot dog stalls. And there is an excellent public transit system that allowed the more adventurous fans to seek out restaurants in places like China Town and Greek Town.
I note in passing that the existence of hot dog stalls on the pavement outside the Convention Centre was a potential cost to the con. The Convention Centre did have food outlets inside the halls and as part of their contract the con was obliged to guarantee a certain level of revenue from those outlets. If the assembled fans did not eat enough Convention Centre food then the con would be obliged to make up the difference. Given that various fans have commented to me on the excellence of both the burgers and the fries at the pavement stalls, the con may be called on under that contract.
It was also clear that the Fairmont Royal York was a very good headquarters hotel. It had a lot of function space, and beautiful architecture, though its age did mean that the rooms were a little small. Dave Langford and Paul Barnett complained to me about the quality of the beer in the bar, but they easily found alternative watering holes. And most importantly the party suites were all on the first two bedroom floors (actually the 5th and 6th floors by American numbering ó I did say that there was a lot of function space). This meant that it was possible to party-hop by stairs should it have been necessary. Fortunately, however, it wasnít. There were ample elevators, they didnít have to travel far, and the only times that there were major queues were immediately after the Hugos and Masquerade let out on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
The only thing that the Royal York got wrong was blocking of party areas. A depressingly large number of mundane guests were billeted in amongst the party areas and fans who had asked for rooms on the party floors did not get them. This is always a problem at Worldcons, but with only two party floors it is difficult to understand why things went quite so pear-shaped this time.
Iíd also like to add some praise for the Toronto Hilton, which is where I stayed. It wasnít an official con hotel, but it was $20/night cheaper and I had sufficient Hilton points to get two nights free. I ate one evening meal in the hotel restaurant, and it was one of the best meals I have ever had in any restaurant in the world. I discovered later that the head chef was also the captain of the Canadian culinary team, and that one of his assistants was also a member of that team. It showed.
The Academic Panel
I didnít get to a lot of panels at Torcon because I was busy helping with the International Rescue operation, but I did do a few and some of them were very good.
You might think that a panel on science fiction and academia would be a minority interest at a Worldcon. Clearly the Torcon programming staff did, because they put it in a room that seated no more than 50 and as it turned out over 100 attended. And that doesnít count those people who saw all of the crowds and chickened out (Mr. Butler, Ms. Hollingsworth). I mean, Nalo Hopkinson, Candas Jane Dorsey and Scott Westerfeld were sat on the floor. How often do you see that?
Anyway, it was a great panel. Lots of interesting discussion about the role of SF in schools and universities. It really sounds like we are starting to win the culture war there. Nalo was particularly pleased to announce that she had just got a job to teach a writing course at the University of British Colombia, an establishment that not too many years ago would not allow her to be a student because she wrote that SF crap.
The Sunburst Panel
The Sunburst Award is a judged award for Canadian science fiction and fantasy. That makes it somewhat similar to the Arthur C. Clarke Award, except that the Clarke is for any book published in the UK whereas the Sunburst is for any work by a Canadian, regardless of where it is published. The Award is relatively new, being in its third year. You can find out more at the web site.
As with any panel about a judged award, much of the discussion concerned the question of how the judges reach a decision. Do they really read every book that is submitted? Of course not, with many of them you can tell after a couple of paragraphs that it is not a contender. Is there a formal vote with a set of rules for determining the winner? Preferably not. That is a path to a potential result that no one wants. Consensus building is a much better option (although of course you may always find one judge who refuses to be part of a consensus).
There is an open question as to whether judged awards are better than popular vote awards. The panelists (including Clute, Nalo and Candas) seemed to think so, but then as ex-judges they would be expected to have faith in their work. Generally I would have said that both types of awards have their place, and that the Hugos and Locus Awards, being popular votes amongst a fairly select electorate, often manage the best of both worlds. Of course the results of this yearís fiction Hugos have seriously strained my belief in that dictum.
This panel was in some ways a mirror image of the academia event, in that it was in a room that seated at least 100 and there were only 12 people in the audience. This meant it was up to big mouth Cheryl to ask questions. Fortunately I had one prepared.
At the recent Edinburgh Festival M. John Harrison was invited to participate in a judging panel for a film competition. Mike freely admits that he knows very little about movie production, but he was surprised and delighted at how much respect he got from the film professionals on the panel and how valuable they found his outsider insights. So Harrison has been musing about whether we should get some outsiders on SF judging panels. I asked his question for him.
The answer from the Sunburst folks was equivocal. I was pleased to note that they do make an effort to include one non-genre writer on the judging panel each year. Nalo and Candas both said that they found this useful. On the other hand the panel was unanimous in asserting that the award was for excellence in literature and that therefore they would not want anyone on the panel who did not understand how to identify such excellence. In other words, they would not accept a judge from outside of the publishing industry.
The Feminist SF Panel
As I mentioned in my coverage of the academic conference, I was originally scheduled to be on a panel about the future of Feminist SF. I was really looking forward to this. I accepted the assignment even though it was an evening panel and I had asked not to be put on panels in the evening. I got confirmation that I was on the panel 2 days before the con. But when I got there my program participant pack made no mention of it. What had happened?
Of course I had no way of telling. The schedule was in such chaos that anything could have happened. All I could do (short of annoying the undoubtedly overstressed Program Ops staff) was wait for the Friday schedule. So Friday arrived, and the panel was not at the allotted time. It was in the early afternoon instead. I wasnít on it. Neither were two of the other original panelists. There were four new people on it. Only Ctein had survived from the original version.
I went to the panel anyway because I was interested to see what was said (and because I had this input from Margaret Atwood that I hoped I could get in somehow). Lisa Tuttle, one of the other original panelists, turned up too. Three of the new panelists said that they had no idea why they were on the panel. They hadnít asked to be on it, and they hadnít prepared anything. The fourth did not turn up. That is a measure of how much chaos programming was in on Friday.
As it turned out, the panel didnít work too well. A huge amount of time was wasted going over old arguments about "what is Feminism?" No, you do not have to be a butch dyke and want to kill all men in order to be a Feminist. I thought we would be over that by now. And ladies, I know that we all have things to be angry about; sometimes very angry. But is it really necessary to shout all the time? I came away from that panel with a splitting headache.
However, we did manage to get some decent discussion in, so letís summarize where I think we are.
First of all, Margaret Atwood was absolutely right when she said to me that there was still a great need for Feminist fiction. The Handmaidís Tale may seem somewhat far-fetched, but look at how women were treated under the Taleban. Perhaps more pertinently, look how easily hard-won civil rights vanished in a matter of months in the USA under the guise of "Homeland Security."
Less dramatically, attitudes donít seem to have changed much. I see this a lot at work (and sometimes on con committees). I can talk until I am blue in the face at meetings, but many of the men present donít appear to hear a word I say. Yet if one of them makes the same points that I have been making they get all excited and tell him what a clever chap he is. No, the need for Feminism is not over.
Having said that, much of what was written in the field of Feminist SF back in the 70s was a product of rage and frustration. It had a role at the time, and it may still have a role in the future. But rage is not a terribly useful debating technique, and if we want to make our point we need to do so in a more constructive and/or subtle manner. See the review of Tricia Sullivanís Maul later in this issue for an example.
I could go on about this at great length, but I have a Worldcon to report upon.
Fantasy Economics Panel
This one was very nearly a Torcon rarity. SMOFish legend has it that only four panels at the infamous 1988 Nolacon were unchanged from the original schedule. I understand that someone at Torcon had counted five unchanged panels. This one almost made it. It was in the right room, at the right time on the right day, and four of the original panelists were on it. We had been expecting Steve Jackson (US, of Steve Jackson Games), but we got Bill Fawcett, a computer game designer instead.
The audience was heartwarming. Given that the topic of the panel was economics, I was surprised to see around 110 in a 100-seat room. Maybe this was because the panel was actually as advertised. As usual for Torcon, no moderator had been assigned, so our first job was to elect one. (One story I have heard is that moderators were assigned but the information was lost in one of the database crashes.) James Barclay pointed out that I was wearing a hat that said "bloody idiot" on it (Melbourne readers will understand this, for everyone else it is left as an exercise). And being a power-crazed lunatic I immediately accepted the job.
I had originally asked to be on this panel because it had one of the stupidest panel blurbs I have ever seen. The person who came up with the panel idea seemed to think that the existence of magic and dragons would somehow cause the fundamental laws of economics to change. This, if you think about it, is rather like saying that the existence of aliens and spaceships will change the laws of physics, which as all good engineering officers know, you canna do. Thankfully all of my fellow panelists agreed with me, and we got down to a useful and animated discussion of how the laws of economics affect fantasy worlds, and how good application of those laws can help you write better books and games.
The game angle was particularly interesting. I had to encourage Bill Fawcett to let the rest of the panel get a word in occasionally, but there is no doubt that a computer game that gets its economics wrong is in deep trouble so Billís contribution was invaluable. Bill and game-book author Ed Greenwood had also worked with TSR, and we were regaled with entertaining stories about treasure inflation. Yes, you are right, the Bag of Holding was invented precisely to allow adventurers to carry all of the loot that they picked up.
All in all, it went very well. There were some excellent contributions from the audience, and everyone seemed very jazzed at the end. It is one of the best panels that I have ever participated in.
Romance in the air
So how many Worldcon programs have included an official wedding ceremony? Probably this was the first. Ontario has recently passed a law legalizing same-sex marriages, and the convention put space aside for a group ceremony. Four happy couples tied the knot, and Rob Gates tells me that he knows of at least two other couples who had private ceremonies over the weekend. Iím not sure if that includes Janis Ian, who is a Worldcon addict now having been lured to MilPhil by Mike Resnick. Ian married her long-time partner, Patricia Snyder, in Toronto and the pair honeymooned at Worldcon.
I didnít get to the Auroras. I had meant to, honest. But the actual ceremony wasnít on the program grid. There was a pre-ceremony reception, but that was listed under the wrong room. By the time I found out when and where the actual ceremony was, I was in no mood to be told that it was going to be at least 2 hours long. There are only 10 Auroras. We get through 13 Hugos and all of the hanger-on awards in two hours.
Anyway, the full results are in the Miscellany section. I was pleased to see Don Bassie win, because I like his web site, though I was very disappointed for Lloyd and Yvonne Penney. Perhaps the most interesting result in the Auroras was that Robert Sawyerís Hominids was beaten by Karl Schroederís Permanence. As Sawyer pointed out to me on Monday, this means that it canít have been home field advantage that gave him a Hugo. Given the choice, the Canadians prefer Schroeder.
Before I get on to talking about the major events I should say a few quick words about use of space. The Convention Centre apparently has a very nice theatre with raked seating and a proper stage. There have been various explanations as to why we didnít use this, including cost and number of available seats. The room was not gazumped by the Canadian Idol TV show, Torcon 3 had already decided not to use it.
Instead one of the main exhibition halls was converted into a theatre, so we got a temporary stage and folding chairs. So it goes, we have survived that before. However, due to a combination of layout and cost, only one set of escalators was available for exit after the events. And local city regulations stated that one of those always had to be running up, even if we desperately needed it to go down. There were other escalators in the building, but using them would have required taking people out past the Art Show and Dealersí Room and that would have meant a lot of extra security guards getting lots of overtime. So we had an exit problem. Tom Galloway and the house management team dealt with it pretty well on Saturday, but it was to come back to bite them later.
It occurs to me that the lack of awareness of safety issues shown by the Torcon staff at the major events (opening ceremonies included) was probably a function of a lack of experience of big events. Smaller conventions tend not to have safety issues on such a scale, and of course they never have anything like the media exposure of a Worldcon. It is another example of how Worldcon is not just "our local con only bigger."
Before I start on the ceremony itself I would like to include some praise for Mike Nelson. Being the Hugo Administrator is a difficult and lonely job ó I know, I have watched Kevin do it ó Mike had a couple of awkward situations to deal with when the nominees were first announced, and he coped very well. The final ballot went flawlessly. For those of us caught up in the process, having an Administrator that we can rely upon is very important. So thank you Mike, for a job well done.
Praise is also due to Franklyn Johnson for what is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful Hugo ever created. The rocket is gold rather than silver, to recognize the fact that this is the 50th time that the Hugos have been awarded. The base has a maple leaf design, but unlike Kevinís design for the 1994 Hugo, where the leaf was horizontal, this time the leaf is vertical, flanking the rocket. The sections of the leaf thus appear to represent the exhaust gases coming from the rocket as it takes off. Take a look at the photo on the web site ó it is gorgeous. Robert Sawyer tells me that Johnson is also the regular designer for the Aurora trophy and the Hugo design, as well as being quintessentially Canadian, also reflects elements of the Aurora trophy.
Prior to the ceremony Worldcons traditionally hold a reception for the nominees, acceptors, presenters and their guests. The main reason for this is to bribe people with free food and drink in order to get them all in the right place at the right time. Torcon did very well here. The room was big enough, and the food was rather better than we had at ConJosé last year. As usual everyone wandered around admiring and photographing each other. You will see from the photos on the web site that this yearís Emerald City Best Dressed Award went to Feòrag NicBhride. Meanwhile, having been his official minder last year, I was wondering where Neil Gaiman was.
Neil was not late. He finally arrived a few minutes before we were due to head off into the auditorium. Where had he been? At a signing in Toronto. For seven hundred people. Neil is superbly good at signings ó I have seen him do them. But he can only get through about 100 people an hour. Can you imagine what his hand must have felt like by the end of it? And how hoarse he would have been from greeting and thanking all those people. And you thought the life of a famous author was glamorous.
And so to the ceremony. Or rather so to sitting through 45 minutes of charming and worthy presentations that have nothing to do with the Hugos. We seem to have prevented the Cordwainer Smith Award from becoming a Holy Worldcon Tradition, but it still grates somewhat that the support acts continually try to upstage the main event.
Most of the results were pretty much as expected, the only major surprises being in the fiction categories. The full list of winners is available in Miscellany below, and there is a separate article analyzing the results. Most of the excitement in the ceremony was provided not by the winners, but by the crew.
Torcon 3ís Toastmaster was Spider Robinson, and he did a fine job of his speech. He may not have been the first Worldcon toastmaster to include a couple of musical numbers in his presentation, but heís the first one I have heard of. However, late in the ceremony Spider made what could have been a fatal slip-up. Somehow he managed to start introducing the presenter for Best Novella before Best Novelette. Those of us in the audience who know the running order off by heart stirred uneasily in anticipation of impending disaster, but it never happened.
To understand what the ceremony crew achieved here, you have to know a bit about what goes on backstage. Firstly there are presenters who are probably nervous and who know only the job that they have been hired to do. Then there are the Hugos and envelopes, all of which are lined up in the correct order and now need to be shuffled. And finally the tech crew has a PowerPoint presentation of slides listing the nominees, which they now need to edit on the fly so that the right names come up at the right time.
Everything worked perfectly. Julie Czerneda and Guy Gavriel Kay improvised jokes to cover up the confusion; the right Hugos and envelopes came out on cue; and the right slides were displayed. Many of the audience never realized that a mistake had been made. Hey, anyone can do a job well in good conditions, but it takes real class to recover so well from potential disaster. Huge congratulations are due to Perrianne Lurie and all of her team.
Acceptance speeches are often good fun or interesting, and this year was no exception. Sue Mason was unable to attend, so Mary Kay Kare accepting for her promised to do the traditional 3:00am (UK time) phone call. Sue didnít hear it. She says that she heard the cat going crazy, but that was entirely normal so she went back to sleep.
Dave Langford, in contrast, was actually at the ceremony for once, and was deeply nervous that he had somehow jinxed himself. Of course this was foolish of him. He won Best Fanwriter as expected. In his speech he gently suggested that people might think of voting for someone else next time. But why should they? He is quite clearly better than the rest of us. Yes, I would like to win, but only if I deserve it.
Both of the Best Dramatic Presentation acceptances went well. Josh Whedon had sent along Jane Espenson, one of the scriptwriters of the winning Buffy episode. Peter Jackson was busy editing Return of the King and could not attend, but he made a video acceptance speech. Both of them commented during their speeches that as kids they had sought out Hugo-winning novels because they knew the award was a mark of quality (or at least a mark of something that their parents would worry about). It is good to see that the Hugos have had such a long career of corrupting youth.
The writer Guest of Honor always gets to make a speech before presenting Best Novel, and George Martin was no exception. George regaled us with a humorous tale of how, despite having won four Hugos, he could never get girls because he had not won "the Big One" (Best Novel). This particular joke came back to haunt him at the closing ceremonies when the Noreascon 4 committee presented him with a giant, inflatable rocket (see photos).
George, of course, famously lost a Best Novel Hugo to a boy on a broomstick in 2001. Robert Sawyer, in his acceptance speech, warmly thanked J.K. Rowling for having been late delivering her latest magnum opus thus leaving the field open for the rest of the authorial community.
And so at last we came to the traditional Hugo Losers Party, courtesy of the kind folks from Boston. I have never known Gay Ellen Dennett run a bad party, and this was no exception. Furthermore, all of us brave losers got a lovely gift. It was a tote bag which, on one side said, "I was nominated for a Hugo, and all I got was this lousy bag", and on the other said, "Bookbags can get you through times of no Hugos, but Hugos arenít very good for carrying books."
Of course it was at the party that Mike Nelson presented me with a copy of the voting breakdown, at which point all sense deserted me and I spent the rest of the evening guzzling champagne, taking silly photos and generally not believing what had just happened to me. See the Hugo Analysis article for full details.
If the facilities set up was bad for the Hugos, it was doubly so for the Masquerade. There being no spare space in the hall being used as a theatre, the green room was located downstairs and the costumers had to be ferried up and down via the freight elevators. As there were two dragon costumes and several other entrants who could not see well in their costumes, this was a major problem.
The event was 45 minutes late starting. This is hugely annoying because over the past five years or so we have managed to get away from the impression that the masquerade is a flaky event that always causes trouble. Of course the usual Worldcon masquerade crew were largely absent from backstage (except where in costume). The Canadians felt that they could do everything themselves, and as a result they ended up making a bunch of old, tired and stupid mistakes. One of these was to have the same person doing workmanship judging and presentation judging. As any experienced masquerade green room staffer can tell you, having the leeway to finish workmanship judging while the early acts are going on stage is one of the best ways to overcome the fact that the costumers are always late for the start of the show. If you canít do that, then your show is late.
As the crowd got steadily more restless and boisterous, someone finally had the smart idea of giving them something to do. Torcon 3 had got hold of some video of its predecessor, Torcon 2 from 1973. Boy it was strange. There were all these guys, most of them quite young, in really loud clothes and with masses of hair on their cheeks. And as for the women, none of them were wearing any clothes. There were more bare breasts in that video that in a whole week's worth of email spam. Could that have been us? We were rather worried that it was. Then whoever faked up the video made a silly mistake. They had some actor playing Bob Silverberg, but they had given him dark hair. Bob has looked the same for as long as anyone can remember. He doesnít get older, right? He has one of those picture things in his attic. So the video must have been a fake.
Eventually the show started. It got all the way to half way through. And then it stopped again. Then we had to sit through a display of famous Canadian costumes from past conventions. And finally we got the rest of the show. Very odd.
What had happened was this. The costume display was originally intended to be the half time show Ė the thing that you watch while the judges are out deliberating. However, because of the safety issues with getting people out of the hall, Tom Galloway wanted to bring the lights up for ten minutes after the show so that people who wanted to leave could. After all, anyone who has been to more than one Worldcon knows that this happens every year. There are good reasons for it. Some people have just had enough of sitting down, others have parties to organize and need to rush off to get set up, and many of us know that half time is a great time to catch contestants wandering around still in costume and hoping to get photographed. Typically between a third and half of the audience do not stay for the half time show, however good.
At this point the person running the half time show (the program says her name is Laurie Brown) threw a hissy fit and threatened to withdraw if the audience was allowed to leave before her show came on. Which is why we ended up with the half time show in the middle of the contest. Also, of course, once they realized that there would be no half time show, and bearing in mind that with the delayed start and the enforced fashion show it was now very late, as soon as the contest finished the entire audience bailed. Which meant that the prizes got presented to an audience consisting solely of the contestants and the tech crew. (This wasnít helped by some enthusiastic Convention Centre staffer locking the doors once the audience had gone. Tom didnít find this out until it was too late, and has proffered his apologies, but it seems unlikely that many people would have bothered to come back.)
Hissy fits aside, having a high quality fashion show (and most of the costumes in it were really good) in the middle of the contest is a really dumb idea. No matter how good the show, it will annoy some of the audience. It breaks the concentration of the judges who are trying to compare the acts. (They have Polaroids, but that doesnít help with presentation.) And finally it is seriously unfair to the contestants, many of whom were novices, to upstage them with a selection of magnificent costumes. As far as I can make out, the people staging the event didnít really care about the contest. To them the fashion show was the main event and the contest just a sideshow.
Which is a shame, because much of the contest was very good. The MC, Gord Rose, managed the requisite collection of bad jokes and had an excellent repartee with the audience. The child entries were all well behaved. I was particularly impressed with the little girl dressed as Medusaís daughter. The plot had her accidentally see her reflection in a shiny stone, and she then had to stand stock still while the stage ninjas came on and removed her on a stretcher.
There are a lot of masquerade photos on the web site. They are not as good as I would like as they were taken from the press pit rather than a proper photography area (I was shepherding journalists for the evening), but they do give a flavor of the event. If you want to see photos taken from the official photography area, Sharon Archer has a good collection in the SFRevu Worldcon report.
Best in show, as expected, went to the large "Trumps of Amber" entry, which included many of the management team from ConJoséís masquerade: the Pettingers, the OíHallorans, Father John Blaker. They had some beautiful costumes, but sadly far too many of the audience had either not read Roger Zelaznyís Amber books, or had forgotten a lot of the plot. Consequently the careful staging didnít mean nearly as much as it should have done.
The unexpected star of the show, however, was a journeyman entry called "Winter is Coming", based on George Martinís Song of Ice and Fire books. I spoke to some of the Amber entry on Monday and they admitted to having been quite worried. The one good thing about being in the press pit is that I was able to capture the dry ice effect that the entry used. It is worth taking a look at the photos.
Finally I have to end on another sour note, the judging. Everyone knows that you have to give a prize to each of the child entries. Everyone also knows that the judges like to give out extra prizes beyond the Best in Class stuff. But there is a limit. Torconís masquerade had 33 entries. The judges gave prizes to all but eight of them. As I have said before, the effect of this is that, instead of singling out the entries that they think are good, the judges are highlighting the small number that they think are not good. This is cruel, and they should stop doing it.
Torconís dealersí room was best characterized as being full of white space. The aisles were broad and the crowds sparse. Truly I have seen a better dealersí room at a Westercon. There are reasons for this. Kevin tells me that the dealersí room in Winnipeg was no better. There are customs and tax issues for the Americans, and presumably a lack of local dealers in Canada.
On the other hand, the con could have done better. Some of the dealers complained that they could not get a straight answer about what the tax and customs regulations were. Furthermore, Torconís staff were not exactly proactive. If you signed up as a dealer then they would give you some information, but prior to that there was little help and encouragement.
On the other hand, those dealers who did brave the regulations were very happy. There being so little to buy, those who were there did better than expectations. And the con goers seemed to have good taste. Mike Walsh sold out of all of the copies of John Cluteís book that he had, and all of the copies of Edward Whittemoreís books, which are hardly mainstream reading.
As usual I was a little late getting to see the art show. I really must try to remember that they start disassembling the darn thing on Sunday afternoon. However, because I was late, I did get a guided tour from one of the staff, for which I am very grateful.
The thing that most people commented on was the lack of contributions from big name artists. Frank Kelly Freas was there, of course. And there was a welcome contribution from Frank Frazetta. Beyond that there was not much. As far as I know, none of the other Professional Artist Hugo nominees contributed anything.
Having said that, there was plenty of art. I was particularly struck by Jim Plattís paintings on feathers. Apparently this is some sort of fashion these days. One of the star exhibits, however, was something called "Constantly Ticking" by Dave Howell. This was a clock that, instead of having integer markings on the face, had a collection of scientific and mathematical constants (the Planck Constant, Pi, Avagadroís Number and so on). Each one was scaled by powers of 10 so as to fit within the 1-12 limits, and each was correctly positioned on the clock face. Very clever. It had a reserve price of $40 and fetched $450 in the auction.
The show seemed to have been well run, and my guide was at pains to point out that the team who ran it (known as "The Team, eh?") tried to keep themselves as independent as possible from Torconís management. Interestingly, although the team name is Canadian, they had a lot of Japanese staff. Hicaru Tenaka, the guy who is hoping to run the art show for Yokohama in 2007, should they win their bid, had worked art show for ConJosé and this time had brought a team of volunteers with him. This is exactly the sort of thing that people from Worldcon bids should be doing. Well done, the Japanese.
Talking of staff, least anyone think that these big name authors have it easy at conventions, this yearís Worldcon art show staff once again included a Mr. L. Niven, doing his usual bit of taking a guided tour around the show. That sort of enthusiasm and commitment (from someone who has, in George Martinís terms, got the Big One), is why us Worldcon regulars look so poorly on the whining of Important Local Fans who think that anything they do for the con should entitle them to a free membership and comped hotel room.
WSFS Business Meeting
Torcon provided a major success for the WSFS Business Meeting. For the first time ever, all of the past Worldcons (even LoneStarCon 2) managed to submit their financial reports on time. Congratulations are due to Peggy Rae Sapienza for having finally laid Bucconeer to rest.
Of course there was then debate about precisely what Worldcons should be allowed to spend their surpluses on, and whether seed money for a local convention counts as a loan or an investment. (Considering the trouble that SFSFC had with the Corflu that they sponsored, Iíd say it is most definitely an investment.) Thankfully a full-blown debate on accounting standards was avoided.
There was a fair amount of business brought up by the aptly-named Nit-Picking & Fly-Specking Committee, all of which was aimed at simplifying the WSFS Constitution and removing any possible source of ambiguity. This largely went through on the nod, aside from the regular attempts by Louis Epstein to channel the ghost of Robert Sacks but failing because he had misunderstood the wording of the motion in question.
The main attraction at this yearís Business Meeting was the introduction (yet again) of a motion to reduce the lead-time between site selection and actually running a Worldcon from three years to two. Last time this idea was debated, the Torcon people spoke strongly against it. This year Peter Jarvis admitted to Kevin and I that he had been wrong and he was now a convert to 2-year lead times.
In fact, with the exception of the folks from Chicago, every past and seated Worldcon chair that I have spoken to who has had to work through the 3-year lead time, and a few who have not, are in favor of the 2-year motion. The Chicago situation is anomalous. They have just launched a new bid, and they are concerned that a change in the site selection rules will make life difficult for them. That is understandable, and most of their points are well taken, but I think it sad that Tom Veal and his people are putting the good of their own bid before a motion that almost every other Worldcon chair says is desperately needed for the good of the convention.
Iím not going to go into the argument for the 2-year cycle here. There is a guest article by Tom Whitmore elsewhere in this issue which puts one view, and I may run others in the coming year. What I will say, however, is that the opposition (Tom Veal apart) appears to come mainly from people who have little or no high level of experience of running Worldcons. Worse still, the mere fact that so many people with decades of hard-won experience are in favor of an idea has led many people to assume that this must mean that there is some Evil SMOFish Plot afoot. One speaker even had the nerve to claim that everyone who was in favor of shortening the lead time was a "despot". Thankfully he either came to his senses later or was brought to them by wise words from others, and he has asked me to apologize publicly on his behalf in these pages, but it is desperately sad that well-meaning attempts to make Worldcons easier to run, and result in less burnout and fewer feuds, should be met with this sort of snide name-calling.
The consequence of all this is that we are seeing large numbers of earnest posts on the SMOFs mailing list explaining that Worldcon would be easy if only the posterís simple 10-step program were followed. This is approximately equivalent to saying, "you know, Mr. Schumacher, if only you learned to drive properly you would run off the track a lot less often." But of course, as we all know, there is a secret conspiracy of Grand Prix drivers who nefariously prevent ordinary car drivers from competing in races by spreading ridiculous rumors about the dangers of driving at speed. I mean, how hard was passing a driving test, right?
I know, I shouldnít be sarcastic. Many of these people mean well. But it is bad enough that Worldcon committees should have to be rescued from themselves year after year, it is bad enough that those of us who care enough about Worldcon to do the rescuing should have to miss most of the con because we are busy papering over the cracks, but to then find ourselves described as "despots" because we care enough to try to put the problem right just beggars belief.
Enough. Read Tom Whitmoreís article. Heís been closer to the sharp end than me so he can make the case better.
One of the things that occurred to me during the Business Meeting is that many hard-working Worldcon staff are being disenfranchised because they cannot leave their posts during the meeting. Chris Barkley is a classic example. As head of Press Office he let the rest of us go and vote while he minded the fort. There has to be a better way. WSFS procedure does not currently allow proxy voting. Perhaps it is time to introduce by-mail voting for ratification of constitutional amendments. It would certainly be more democratic, and as we already do mail-in voting for the Hugos and site selection all of the practical issues have been solved. Something to think about?
The Time Travel Worldcon
There are those people who think that the Business Meeting is quite the most boring part of a Worldcon. Much of the time they are right. But even hardened SMOFs are capable of a little hilarity now and then. This year it came in the form of the Time Travel Worldcon.
It all began at a late night panel at Minicon 38. Geri Sullivan, being one of the panelists, attempted to discourage the audience from leaving by commenting something like, "the next person who leaves the room has to chair a Worldcon." Some time and rather more beer afterwards, Geri was in urgent need of a break and, forgetting what she had said, headed off for the restrooms. On her return she was stunned to find a pile of money waiting for her, this having been donated as pre-supports for her Worldcon. However, being quick-witted she refused to name a year for the event. Thus the Time Travel Worldcon was born, and the money raised was passed on to future Worldcons. As is only proper, Geri presented a financial report to the Saturday Business Meeting.
Then Louis Epstein, scoring a major success at last, suggested that we refer the report of the Time Travel Worldcon to the Business Meeting of the 1939 Worldcon for ratification. There was a five-minute recess while Kevin recovered enough from his fit of giggles to get back to chairing the meeting. And that, perhaps, might have been the end of it, butÖ
On Sunday Dave Kyle turned up at the Business Meeting. Dave was quite possibly the only member of the 1939 Worldcon who was a member of Torcon 3. It is just as well that he was there too, for it turns out that the Time Travel Worldconís report had indeed been received and ratified. Nothing was entered into the minutes, as there was concern about time paradoxes, but Sam Moskowitz, the 1939 Con Chair, had written us a message, entrusted it to Kyle, and sworn him to secrecy for 64 years.
Moskowitzís message was mostly full of admiration for the achievements of the 21st Century. Time Travel, after all, is pretty spectacular. However, a note of sad irony was struck by this postscript: "have you had a convention on the Moon yet?"
And so to Sundayís Business Meeting and the Site Selection results. Los Angeles won the race for the 2006 Worldcon. LA won on the first ballot by 754-680. It is a shame for Kansas City, because I liked what I heard about their site and it would be nice to go somewhere new. However, seeing what an awful mess Toronto had made of things, I was overcome by a sudden compulsion to vote for a tried and tested team rather than an organization whose capabilities were something of a mystery to me. I suspect that many other voters felt the same. In this respect, Torcon has done a grave disservice to new groups hoping to run a Worldcon.
L.A.con IV, as it will be known, will take place over 23-27 August, 2006. Note that this is the weekend before Labor Day. The LA bid committee maintained all along that they would be using an earlier date in order to make it easier for kids, teachers, college students and academics to attend. They will be using the usual location in Anaheim, right next door to Disneyland for those of you who like that sort of thing. The Guests of Honor will be Connie Willis (who needs no introduction), James Gurney (most famous for Dinotopia), Howard DeVore (who has been working on Worldcons since 1959) and Frankie Thomas, the star of the TV Series, "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" (this ties into the space cadet theme of the bid). The chairman will be Christian McGuire, ably assisted by Bobbi Armbruster, Craig Miller (chair of L.A.Con II) and Elayne Pelz, not to mention a cast of hundreds. For further details see the con web site.
Margene Bahm of the Kansas City bid was gracious in defeat and declined to roll over the bid to a later year. She reminded us that Kansas City had been hoping to have a Worldcon on the 30th anniversary of their previous one in 1976. Rather than roll over, they had decided to go for a 60th anniversary, at which point she introduced Miss Samantha Myers (aged 6) who would chair the 2036 bid. Poor Miss Myers looked a little overwhelmed, all the more so for the muttered chorus of "sucker" from the assembled SMOFs.
There was a NASFiC election too, and this was very close. On the first round of voting, Seattle led Charlotte by the narrow margin of 191-187. Seattle did not have a majority of the votes cast, so the preferences of the various write-in votes were redistributed, bringing the count to 194-188 in Seattleís favor. Finally it was necessary to redistribute the preferences of those who had voted for None of the Above. This resulted in a Seattle victory by 204-198. There have been some rumors going around that several of the Charlotte committee spent the weekend at Dragon*Con and forgot to vote. Oops.
Anyway, Seattle are the victors, so the 2005 NASFiC (a convention only held when the Worldcon is outside of North America) will be at the SeaTac Airport Hilton on September 1-5, 2005. That is Labor Day weekend. The 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow is 4-8 August (which is a holiday weekend in Scotland) and the associated Lord of the Rings 50th Anniversary convention, organized by the British Tolkien Society, is 11-15 August. Yes, I am planning to attend all three. There is a French NatCon in one of the intervening weekends too. Yes, you are right, I am crazy.
The Seattle convention will be called Cascadia Con (Cascadia being the name for the area of the US/Canada around the Cascade Mountains). I would have preferred ConCascadia myself. It trips off the tongue better, and it avoids any confusion with CascadeCon, a Portland, Oregon event. The Guests of Honor will be Fred Saberhagen (now thereís a blast from the past), Liz Danforth (creator of many beautiful images for trading card games), Toni Weisskopf (executive editor of Baen Books) and some guy from California called Kevin Standlee who once ran a Worldcon in San José.
There is a silly story to go with this. Bobbi DuFault, the chair of the Seattle bid, had been using Kevin as her advisor on WSFS affairs during the bid. At Westercon this year Bobbi asked Kevin if he would continue in the post should the bid win. Kevin, who had recently been approached about being Fan Guest of Honor, muttered something about possible conflict of interest and wondered why Bobbi was asking him. Bobbi, who had delegated the selection of Guests of Honor to a subcommittee and had no idea who they had picked, looked confused. Kevin went very red (as he does). Thankfully it was all sorted out with much amusement on both sides.
Next yearís site selection vote will be between Yokohama, Japan and Columbus, Ohio. Both of these bids are by groups of people with very little Worldcon experience, and it was clear from the short time available for questions that this troubled the assembled SMOFs. Quite right, it troubles me too.
So I had a word with the lady from Columbus afterwards (Kim, I think her name was). It turns out that they have some positive things to say. MarCon, the local Columbus convention, is almost certainly the largest regional convention in the US. It apparently has a Worldcon-style management structure. And the bid committee includes Larry Smith who has a wealth of Worldcon experience (including running Exhibits for ConJosé). None of this, however, is mentioned on the bid web site which instead features a clever but hugely annoying firework display and lots of stuff about their facilities.
The Japanese, as I have mentioned above, have been trying to learn on the job. Apparently they provided a lot of volunteers for the ConSuite as well. But aside from their art show crew it is also uncertain how good their people are. A report of their 2001 NatCon on their web site suggests that it was about the same size as a MarCon (3600 warm bodies), so I guess they must know something. But how much is hard to tell.
The trouble is that most Worldcon bids do not promote themselves. They promote their facilities. Clearly that is important, but frankly there is no point in bidding for a Worldcon if your facilities are not up to the job. What the voters need to know, particularly in the wake of various fiascos in Toronto, is can the committee do the job? I think that it behooves both Columbus and Yokohama to explain a bit more about their abilities and how they intend to run the con. If either of them would like space in Emerald City to publish a manifesto I would be happy to oblige.
Meanwhile years further out continue to fill up. Chicago is definitely interested in doing something soon. Their current position is that they are bidding for whichever year will be voted on in Los Angeles. Currently that is 2009, but it would become 2008 if the 2-year lead-time motion is ratified in Boston next year. They canít settle on a year yet because if Columbus wins 2007 then the current zoning rules, which are designed to prevent local fans from overwhelming the site selection process, would make Chicago ineligible for a vote in Columbus (you can see why Tom Veal is concerned about this). Stephen Boucher is now starting to sound serious about the Australia in 2010 bid. A group of fans was going round looking for pre-supporters for a putative bid for Washington DC in 2011 (or maybe 2009). Mike Nelson, who is their supposed sacrificial victim for con chair, is fervently denying all knowledge of such a bid, which of course means that it is true.
I spent much of my time working in the Press Office which, as explained above, was very much a last minute affair. The Torcon committee list in the souvenir book includes Edo van Belkom as "media handler", which shows how much respect they had for the press. Apparently he quit between the souvenir book going to press and the con.
One of the problems with a late start is that it is very difficult to get all of your journalists lined up beforehand. Chris Barkley had done a lot of frantic emailing around, and we had a bunch of folks registered and press badges made for them. However, we were getting a lot of walk-ups, especially as we were just across the road from the offices of the CBC. Here we must thank Linda Ross-Mansfield, the head of Registration. It takes a lot of faith to give out a bunch of blank press passes, which are essentially free memberships. But Linda knew what was involved, and she trusted us to manage the situation, which we did. (In case anyone is wondering, we do make sure as much as possible that the journalists give their press passes back when they have finished with them.)
The first major embarrassment that we suffered was on Thursday morning when an article appeared in The Star, a local newspaper, announcing that Neil Gaiman had won a Hugo for Coraline. This sounded terribly like a leak, but although we often give out the results under embargo just before the ceremony, there was no way that the paper could have got word of the results that early. So we phoned them.
Here I must give credit to my colleague, Anne Pinzow, who handled the call, firstly for her patience in working through The Starís automated call handling system, and secondly for the magnificent way in which she laid the law down. A Hugo, she explained, can make or break an authorís career. Winning it can be worth millions of dollars. And by suggesting that the results were known beforehand The Star was casting doubt on the validity and integrity of the voting process, and therefore on the awards themselves. It was a wonderful performance.
As it turned out, however, the editor in question was already duly contrite. Murray Whyte, the journalist who had interviewed Neil and written the piece in question had already phoned up and complained bitterly about his article being butchered. It turned out that what had happened was that an enthusiastic sub-editor had not understood the difference between being nominated and winning, and had "sexed-up" the article to make it sound better. There were red faces all round at The Star. They printed an apology on page 2 on Friday, and on Sunday they devoted half of page 2 to a report of the Hugos.
The Globe and Mail, Torontoís other major newspaper, had much more in depth coverage of the convention. Their reporter, Hal Niedzviecki, spent a lot of time at the con, going to panels and soaking up the atmosphere. And he wrote what I thought was a very perceptive piece.
Most fans that I spoke to were furious about Niedzvieckiís article. "He called us Ďpedestrian and ploddingí," they wailed. And he was right. By and large, fans these days are old, fat and rather conservative. You only have to compare Torcon 3 with the video of Torcon 2 to see that. The articleís claim that the median age of attendees was around 45 is perhaps an exaggeration. There were a lot of children at the con. But most of the kids were only present because their parents were members. If you want to find teenagers at a con these days your best bet is an anime convention.
Authors I spoke to about the Globe article were much more positive. They latched onto the fact that Niedzviecki had presented SF as a serious literary form that is studied in universities. The article spent a lot of space on an interview with Alan Weiss, the organizer of the pre-Worldcon academic conference and, probably quite deliberately, mentioned Margaret Atwood as having attended.
In essence, what Niedzviecki said was the exact opposite of what we normally get. These people are not weird, was his message. "Where once adults who read and talked sci-fi seemed like perpetual adolescents, they now come across as exceedingly mature compared to the legions of grown-ups who devote themselves to pursuits ranging from bungee jumping to Elvis impersonation."
The reaction of fans to Niedzvieckiís article goes a long way to explaining why we get such poor press coverage. To many fans, unless a newspaper article expresses the same enthusiasm for SF and conventions that they themselves have, then it is an evil, biased rant that must not be tolerated. This is hugely unrealistic. A journalist covering a convention is almost certain to be an outsider, and he or she will view us from that perspective. A calm, rational assessment of the convention, such as provided by Niedzviecki, is about as good as we can hope for. And with careful handling of the press we will continue to get coverage like that. But if we get all frosty and offended over an article that was really very positive then we are going to get in deep trouble.
I didnít have much to do with the newspaper folks, but I did spend much of one day looking after a journalist from CBC Radio (hi Brandi) and finding her Canadian authors to talk about. (Nalo is superb for this, she has a voice like melting chocolate: rich, warm and succulent.) Also, much to my surprise, I got interviewed by a freelance journalist called Lynn Fraser. By good fortune I managed to spot Richard Lynch and drag him in as well, so Lynn had two fanzine editors to talk to. I have no idea whether anything will come of this, but if it does Iíll let you know.
Overall, I think that we did very well. Chris Barkley and his wife, Naomi, deserve special praise for dropping everything and rushing up to Toronto at the last minute because we needed someone to run Press Office. But it also seemed to me that the Canadian media were far more civilized and receptive to us than the newspapers that I am used to in the UK and US. Kevin tells me that they had similar success with the newspapers in Winnipeg, so I guess it must be a Canadian thing.
The Rebecca Eckler Story
Of course there is always one. Canada has this "newspaper" called the National Post, which is a sort of cross between USA Today and Britainís The Sun. One of its star contributors is Rebecca Eckler, but unlike the ladies of The Sun, Ms. Ecklerís lack of clothes has more to do with fairy tale emperors than shapely bodies on page three.
Doing a little research on the web after the con, I discovered that Ms. Eckler is pretty much universally despised by her fellow journalists. It is not hard to see why. A shallow and vacuous view of the world, coupled with inept and artless bitching are her trademarks. Sheís the sort of person who, when sent to write an article about a long Greyhound Bus journey, makes the trip in expensively fashionable clothes because she would not be seen dead in anything less, and complains afterwards about the lack of "normal" people on the bus. She idolizes Martha Stewart. She burbles delightedly about being such a good shopper that she has found wedding dresses at a mere $4000. In short, she is so self-obsessed that she would be unlikely to notice anything at a Worldcon unless it was fawning at her feet offering her discount vouchers on designer clothes and kitchen furniture.
Some of the comments of other Canadian journalists about Eckler are far more excellent examples of the sort of barbed wit that she aspires to but fails to emulate. On the mildly bitchy front, one comments that, "Rebecca Eckler is someone who has built her entire journalistic career around the type of writing that should have been confined to a weblog." Rather better is a comment from Lena Sin in Thunderbird magazine. Reviewing a book by chic lit author, Marian Keyes, Sin compares someone who can actually write with the National Postís infamous 20-something. "Eckler writes with her trademark conversational voice, which comes across like a whiny little girl who youíd rather tune out." But perhaps the best comment on Ecklerís work comes right from the horseís mouth. In the same article about the bus trip, Eckler says of herself, "The funny thing is, I don't care about my stuff. I mean, I care enough that I want to write a good piece, but at the end of the day I just don't care."
So yeah, Rebecca Eckler came to our con. She wrote a report on it that she probably thought was magnificently insightful, funny and bitchy. The rest of us know that it is not hard to poke fun at an SF convention if you put your mind to it. And those of who were there and know how many lies Ms. Eckler had to insert into her report because she wasnít smart enough or persistent enough to find something real to complain about, well, we will just shake our heads and sigh and hope that Starbucks never stops serving Ms. Ecklerís favorite type of coffee because the poor dear just wonít know how to cope with life if they do.
Indeed she is having enough trouble in life as it is. A fellow Canadian journalist recently hoaxed her most magnificently. The story is in the Toronto Star. Check it out now, as their stories are only online for a couple of weeks.
And on a final note in favor of Canadian journalists in general, as opposed to Ms. Eckler in particular, I note that the first letter of outrage that was sent to the National Post did not come from a fan at all. It came from Lynn Fraser, who explained to Ecklerís editor how much good story material Eckler had managed to miss at the con. Thank you, Lynn.
Given the amount of chaos with program and publications, SMOFdom assembled was all braced for a huge Registration meltdown of ConFrancisco proportions. It didnít happen. Partially this will have been because the membership numbers were much lower. Torcon attracted a total of around 3650 warm bodies on site (we are still waiting on final figures, which may be a little higher).
On the other hand, credit should be given to Linda Ross-Mansfield and her crew. There were problems. The Locus staff, of all people, had trouble getting let in on Wednesday. But by Thursday morning when I registered things were running smoothly.
My only complaint about registration is, yes, you guessed it, badges. Why is it that so many Worldcon committees get it into their heads that it is far more important for the badge to show off the conventionís name and some speccy piece of artwork commissioned for the purpose than to show the names of the members in readable type? ConJosé got it right, without causing any security problems. Why canít others do it too?
One possible explanation is that the WSFS Business Meeting, in a fit of desperation at MilPhil, passed a resolution recommending that names on badges be no smaller than 24 point bold. (I will gloss over the interminable debate on typographical jargon that ensued.) Someone at Torcon seems to have read that resolution and decided that it meant that names must be exactly 24 point bold. Sigh.
One of the things that was exercising SMOFs prior to Torcon was the state of their hotel contracts. As usual they had neglected to take advice from people with experience in the field and had done everything themselves. The story I had was that Alex von Thorn had somehow got involved with the contract negotiations, and had been bragging online about how easy it was and how well he done, and when people got a look at what he had negotiated they all buried their heads in despair.
The main problem was apparently the attrition clause. When you book a hotel for a function and negotiate a reduced room rate you also have to promise to fill a certain number of rooms. If, come the day, you donít sell all of those rooms, you have to pay the hotel some sort of compensation. In Torconís case the agreed compensation was alarmingly high.
Alex, of course, has a different story. He explained to me that while the contract did have draconian attrition payments, there was a clause allowing the convention to renegotiate the number of rooms they promised to fill a year out, so they could take account of economic conditions, how sales were going and so on. According to Alex, the people responsible for facilities on the Torcon committee forgot about this until it was too late.
Assuming Alex is right, and I have been unable to get anyone who is an expert on hotel contracts to talk to me about this so I have to take Alex at his word, there was a missed opportunity to save money here. There was another missed opportunity following the SARS scare. All sorts of conventions in Toronto immediately put pressure on their hotels to renegotiate prices in order try to stem the flow of cancellations. Apparently the Torcon committee decided not to even try to approach their hotels.
Another issue with hotel contracts is the need for a clause whereby the hotel promises not to sell rooms on the day cheaper than they have offered them to convention members. Hotel prices in Toronto have fallen steeply because of SARS, and there were a lot of rumors going around before the con about getting cheaper prices by approaching the hotels direct. I think that eventually Torcon got out of this. At one point they were facing a bill of $25,000 from the Fairmont Royal York for failing to make their promised room totals, but they pointed out that a lot of con members had booked direct rather than through the con and the hotel caved in.
Convention center prices are a worry too. Indeed, convention center rental and preparation is the largest single budget item for a Worldcon (over US$200,000 for ConJosé). Somehow Torcon managed to end up paying CA$9,000 for the water service in the program rooms. ConJosé got this for free. Possibly there were other trade-offs, I donít know, and I donít know enough about facilities contracts to comment further.
Despite these worries, it looks like the con will be solvent. Bruce Farr, who ran the at-con treasury (surely a thankless task as he had to spend most of his time saying "no") was fairly confident about that. But breaking even is only part of the job. Torcon received far more in passalong funds than is usual. This is because Chicon 2000 was so late finalizing their accounts that they did not know how much they had to give until Torcon was the only con that could benefit. MilPhil and ConJosé got US$6,000 each from Chicago. Torcon got US$20,000.
Furthermore, the objective of a Worldcon is not to just avoid bankruptcy, it is to have enough of a surplus to be able to pass money on to its successors and, more importantly, to refund the memberships of its staff and program participants. The way things look now, Torcon will not be able to do either of these things.
Use of space
More generally on facilities, use of space seemed to have been OK. I happened to attend two program items where the room size was a dramatic mis-match with the size of the audience. However, looking at other con reports on the web I may have just been unlucky. The Royal York was a bit of a hike from the Convention Centre, but it was a comfortable walk, especially in the very pleasant weather.
The only people who I heard complain bitterly about their space allocation were the gamers. They had been put in the dungeons of the Crowne Plaza, in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. What more can I say?
As I have said earlier, the layout of the Fairmont Royal York was about as good as it gets for Worldcon parties. The rooms were a little small, but that was a small price to pay for the absence of elevator clog.
Unfortunately I did not see much of the parties. Being billeted at the Hilton a few blocks away, and wanting to get back to my room regularly to update the web log, I didnít fancy staying late in the Royal York.
There were no party reports in the newsletter. Bob and Brenda Daverin, who ran newsletter for ConJosé, were slated to do the job, but they had to pull out of attending at the last minute and no one was appointed to replace them. Somehow I doubt that Michelle Boyce would have seen the point of party reviews anyway.
It isnít really the done thing to fill your con report with travel stories, but I have a couple of mildly amusing ones to relate.
On our flight out, we were taxiing towards the runway when our pilot came over the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen", he said, "Iím terribly sorry, but our computers have crashed and we need to go back to the gate to get them re-booted." Does this mean that Airbus is now using Windows?
And on the way back we had dinner at Chiliís in Minneapolis airport. We were given plastic knives as a security precaution. The leather goods shop across the way from the restaurant was selling Swiss Army Knives.
The Gripe Sessions
One of the best places to go and look for gossip about a Worldcon is at the daily gripe sessions. Anyone who is truly upset will turn up there to complain. I was way too busy to get to any of them, but a few interesting stories have reached my ears. One is that the staff of the Information Desk turned up to complain that they could not get any information out of the Torcon committee to give to people.
The most spectacular gripe session, however, was the final one on Monday. I will gloss over Carole Parkerís now legendary harangue of the programming staff. It was certainly well deserved, but several people have commented since that not all of Caroleís points were well made. I donít know, I wasnít there.
However, someone who was there was Parris McBride, otherwise known as the long-term partner of George R.R. Martin. Parris was upset, and that probably meant that George was upset too, but was too polite to say so. Parris made it very clear just how upset she was. A particular beef was that George and Parris had been asking for three years about getting Parris on program, but Torconís programming people had ignored them. However, from the depth of anger expressed I am sure that there were other issues too. I heard about all this at the Past Worldcon Chairsí Party on Monday night. The sense of shame at this new slur on the good name of Worldcon amongst the assembled con chairs was palpable. Running a bad Worldcon is one thing, but having one of your Guests of Honor mad with you is quite another. This should not happen. Period.
The Blame Game
Much blame was busily being apportioned on Monday night, with a fair selection of victims. Many people pointed the finger at Peter Jarvis. Being the chair, it is of course his duty to accept this. But having seen things develop over the past 3 years Iím not sure how much influence Peter had over what went on. Clearly he must bear a share of the responsibility, but those who were busy maneuvering him are guilty too.
Alex von Thorn was a very popular target. As Terry Fongís deputy he must bear a share of the blame for the programming fiasco. But I have found it surprisingly difficult (in the absence of anyone prepared to comment on hotel contracts) to find anything that is actually Alexís fault. I suspect that his main problem is that he comes over way too self-confident online. That, and a stubborn refusal to admit any fault, is not endearing him to fandom.
Other people have pointed the finger at Peter Halasz, the original chair of the Torcon board, who resigned last year due to ill health. It has been suggested to me that Halasz was responsible for creating the "Toronto convention for Toronto fans by Toronto fans" atmosphere on the committee, and for alienating local media fan groups. Again, I donít know, I wasnít there. I list these people simply to illustrate that the story is not simple and that in fact many different mistakes may have been made by many different people.
Even the Torcon board is hard to pin down. There are seven of them, and rumor has it that they were split 4-3 on many important issues. I find it hard to believe that someone who has been to as many Worldcons as Linda Ross-Mansfield, and whose husband has chaired a successful Canadian Worldcon, could have been happy with much of what Torcon did. Iíve also noticed many people praising Lance Sibley as an unsung hero of the convention.
But collectively the Board must accept the blame. The buck stops with them. Rather too many of them, and rather too many of Torconís senior management, have little or no Worldcon experience, and it showed. Last year, in the wake of the much smaller but no less depressing (because they were ours) mistakes at ConJosé I wrote:
Managing a Worldcon is difficult, and putting in a new and inexperienced management team each year is a recipe for disaster.
That is clearly a mistake that Torcon made much more dramatically than we did. It is also something that terrifies me about the Yokohama and Columbus bids.
What I do have to say, however, is that the debacle of Torcon should not be blamed on Canada. There was a perfectly respectable Worldcon in Winnipeg only 9 years ago. Canadian fans can get the job done, and they have proved it. Hopefully they will prove it again, albeit on a smaller scale, with the Calgary Westercon in 2005.
Nor should Torconís faults be blamed on Toronto fandom. Many Toronto fans either elected not to get involved or were actively told that they were not wanted. And many of those who did work on the committee in lower positions probably did a fine job. Kevin has been full of praise for Torconís webmaster, Drew Mathers. Given the speed and good nature with which Drew has been handling input from Kevin, it seems likely that any shortage of information on the convention web site was a supply problem.
There was considerable worry after ConJosé that the infighting we went through would cause irreparable damage to Bay Area fandom and that weíd all end up dead against doing any more major cons (much like many British fans have been adamantly against having any more Worldcons). That hasnít happened. But to some extent we dodged the bullet. Hard work and commitment turned what was looking like a disaster 3 months out into a fairly successful event. And now everyone is thinking that we did quite well and that the structural problems that ConJosé revealed donít matter. They do, and they need fixing (more of this next month, I suspect, she says ominously).
Toronto fandom is in a rather different position. On the Monday night of the convention I dropped in on a party of younger Toronto fans. There was a clear sense there that something had gone badly wrong, and that the good name of Toronto had been blackened. Rather than showing resentment, these folks showed a clear determination to learn some lessons and put things right. I hope that they do.
And finally, I want to come back to that T.H. White quote with which I opened this report. It seems quite ironic now, doesnít it? Kevin and many other experienced Worldcon runners who were involved with the Torcon committee spent a lot of time watching things go wrong prior to the con and not being able to say anything because they would have been accused of interfering. It must have been hard for all of them. Now at least someone can say that their fears were justified. There will be many people in fandom who will thoroughly disapprove of this con report, and who will regard it as further evidence that Cheryl is a Menace to Fandom. Iíll live with that.
Some people have declined to talk to me about their Torcon experiences because they have their own Worldcons due up soon and they donít want to criticize people for making mistakes that they might make too. That is understandable. Others seem to believe that we should not say anything bad about a Worldcon because it reflects badly on Worldcon as a whole, or because it is somehow unfair to ever say anything nasty about anyone. Those attitudes, I believe, are wrong. If we do not recognize our mistakes and learn from them we will never get any better.
More to the point, Worldcon itself may start to disappear. This year Dragon*Con attracted over 20,000 people. The main draw was some guy from Buffy, but they had plenty of authors, headed by Anne McCaffrey. OK, so the writers will always be a minority interest at such an event, but sheer numbers mean that they may still get to meet more of their fans than they do at a Worldcon, and the organization will be better. If you were an author, which convention would you go to? If we want Worldcon to continue, we have to do a good job of putting on the show.
I think I can best illustrate what was wrong with Torcon by talking about how their most senior management behaved during the con and comparing it to ConJosé. At the major events (Hugos and Masquerade) they had special reserved seating right at the front for members of the Torcon board and their partners (which included Michelle Boyce). At the Hugos they were in front of the nominees. At the masquerade they were in front of the press photographers. At ConJosé there was no special seating for the con management or the SFSFC board. There was a special seating area reserved for "staff", but that meant anyone with a staff ribbon. Of course you would not find Tom or Kevin in such areas, nor their vice-chairs, Cindy Scott and Craige Howlett. They were all somewhere working their butts off to ensure the success of the con. You see the difference? At ConJosé, despite all of our feuding, the convention always came first. Torconís management never understood that.
Fandom is a gift economy. It has a lot in common with the "Whuffie" economics espoused by Cory Doctorow in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The Whuffie economy works on respect, and so does fandom. As Kevin is fond of saying, if fans donít do what is expected of them, the only comeback we have is public ridicule. The senior management of Torcon 3 has been very clearly derelict in its duty to Worldcon, to fandom, to the science fiction industry, and I might add to Canada. It is seriously deserving of some public ridicule. This is my contribution.
Torcon Hugo Analysis
Fuck, I nearly won a Hugo!
So there I was in the Hugo Losers party looking at this long and complicated list of numbers that Mike Nelson had given me. And that is how I came to discover just how close I had come to winning a Hugo. On first preference votes, Emerald City was actually in the lead by 79 votes to 75 for File 770, 63 for Plokta and 62 for Mimosa. Had it been a first-past-the-post election, Emerald City would have won, and Mimosa would have come fourth.
But Hugo voting is more democratic than that, so votes got redistributed. First of all there were the No Award votes, of which there are always a lot in the fan categories, mostly from people who vote No Award because they want the fan categories scrapped. Plokta and Emerald City picked up one vote each. Everything else was unchanged. Next the votes for Challenger were redistributed. Emerald City got 11, File 770 got 4, Plokta got 12, and Mimosa got 19. Miraculously, my lead had increased.
And so it came to redistributing the Plokta votes. That is a British zine, right? So their supporters would tend to vote for me rather than the Americans? Not in the slightest. Emerald City got 15 preferences, File 770 got 16, and Mimosa a whacking 32, catapulting it into the lead. From then on I was stuffed, and after much additional vote counting Emerald City finished third behind Mimosa and File 770.
I should say first that I am absolutely stunned and delighted and enormously grateful to everyone who voted for the zine. Thank you, folks!
I also want to say that I still think that Plokta is the best zine in the field and that it deserved to win.
And, of course, congratulations once more to Richard and Nicki (and thank you for retiring!).
Preferential voting is a fascinating process and, I believe, much fairer. I might have got the most first preferences, but the majority of people wanted something other than Emerald City to win, and eventually that is what happened. The voting system allowed the voters to settle on a compromise of Mimosa because that is the result that most people were most happy with.
What happened to Emerald City is by no means unusual. It is a common fate of an "odd-work-out" nominee. China Miévilleís The Scar was running a strong second in the first round of balloting but eventually finished fourth as the preferences of the four pure SF books on the ballot were redistributed. David Hartwell had a solid lead on first preferences in Best Professional Editor, but lost out to Gardner Dozois as the preferences from other magazine editors (David edits books) were applied. Frank Wu lost out in Best Fan Artist because he was the only one of the five who doesnít work predominantly on fanzines, and there must have been something unusual about Pat Fordeís novella, "In Spirit" because it came second on first preferences but finished sixth.
So there it is. Am I unhappy? Of course not. Emerald City is apparently viewed as the best online fanzine in the world, and the best fanzine that actually talks about SF. That sounds pretty good to me. And as the saying goes, it is an honor to be nominated. Thatís really all I can ask for.
The Fiction Categories
Something very strange happened in the fiction Hugos this year. Of course everyone expected Coraline to win best Novella, and it duly did, polling more than twice as many first preferences as its nearest rival. That Michael Swanwickís "Slow Life" beat out Ursula LeGuinís "Wild Girls" is something of a surprise, given the esteem that LeGuin has. Then again, it was a hugely impressive field for Best Novelette. Greg Frostís "Madonna of the Maquiladora", which finished fifth, is a superb story. So are all the other nominated novelettes that I have read. But as for the other two fiction categories, oh dear.
OK, so I have my own tastes, and obviously they do not coincide with those of the Hugo voters. But is it just me? I think not. It is always instructive to compare the results of the Hugos with those of the Locus Poll. The August Locus listed the top 27 SF novels from the Poll, and the top 18 Fantasy novels. Hominids did not feature in either list. The other four Hugo nominees were respectively the top three in Best SF Novel and the winner of Best Fantasy Novel. There were 29 short stories listed. "Falling onto Mars" was not one of them. The other four Hugo nominees placed 2nd, 4th, 10th and 18th. So call me contrary, but I think the Locus Poll has the right of it here. Locus does apparently publish a recommended reading list, and works on that list are more likely to get voted for in the Poll. But even so you would have thought that something good enough to be a Hugo winner would have got in somewhere even if Locus staff had initially overlooked it.
Incidentally, the winner ("October in the Chair" by Neil Gaiman) and third place ("Familiar" by China Miéville) short stories from the Locus Poll both came from Conjunctions #39, which had very limited distribution. The fifth placed story, "In Paradise" by Bruce Sterling, missed the Hugo ballot by one nomination. So those two winners aside, the agreement between the Locus Poll and the Hugos is remarkably accurate.
I am actually very happy for Robert Sawyer. He made a great acceptance speech and was an absolute angel with the press all weekend. Iím sure that Geoffrey Landis is a very nice guy too. But really, something went very wrong here.
Explanations are harder to come by, but one of them is the pathetically low number of nominations you needed to get on the ballot in Best Short Story. "Creation" by Jeffrey Ford topped the list with 31 nominations. Molly Glossís "Lambing Season" only got 22. It took 38 nominations to get on the ballot for Best Fan Writer, and 44 for Best Fanzine. There wasnít a shortage of nominations. In fact there were more nominees for Short Story than for any of the other fiction categories. It seems that the votersí tastes in short stories are very varied indeed.
I have commented somewhat already on Best Professional Editor but Iíd like to do so some more. Book editors matter, and David Hartwell has bought a number of very fine and thoughtful SF novels that many other editors would not touch. It is about time we recognized this. He came very close to winning this year (far closer than I did). Next year letís give him a Hugo.
Commiserations are due to Justine Larbalestier and David Levine, both of whom polled fairly poorly. I reiterate that it is a huge honor to be nominated. This is particularly so in Justineís case because trying to win Best Related Book with a piece of academic criticism is about as serious an uphill struggle as it gets.
The Two Towers was a runaway winner in Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form. Like The Fellowship of the Ring before it, it won on first preference votes. It seems very likely that Return of the King will complete the hat-trick for Peter Jackson. On the other hand, the new Short Form category was by no means the runaway victory for Buffy that everyone had predicted. There was a massive vote for No Award (71 first preferences!) but the vast majority of voters were happy with the category. It had the third largest number of ballots cast, behind Long Form and Best Novel, which is surely a testament to its fitness for inclusion in the awards.
Ansible came third in first preferences for Best Semiprozine, but a long way behind Locus and also trailing New York Review of Science Fiction. Interzone managed to work its way into second in the second round of balloting, which will doubtless be a great relief to David Pringle.
Iím absolutely delighted that Sue Mason won Best Fan Artist. Iíve been pushing people to vote for her for years and finally she has her rocket. Now she needs to collect a few more. I am very worried about the weight of rocketry in the Reading area. A few more of the things in Manchester might help prevent England from tipping up under the strain. Of course Frank Wu also did very well, and those of you who have complained to me that he doesnít do fan art should go take a look at his Emerald City picture on the web site. Us fanzine editors love all fan artists because they do such good stuff for us.
Iím also very pleased for Wen Spencer. Sheís a lovely person and an entertaining writer. Hereís hoping that she does not become one of those Campbell winners who vanishes.
The End of the Flynn Saga
Poor old John Flynn. Some of his supposed friends made a huge fuss about his removal from Best Short Story (see here) and mightily offended fandom as a result. Flynn, as far as I can see, managed to distance himself from the mess, but he paid the price anyway. In Best Fan Writer he polled only 18 first preferences (compared to 36 for No Award) and he came within a whisker of finishing below No Award after redistribution.
Of course Flynn has admitted that he gets much of his support from friends, family and students at the university where he teaches. If more people nominated things like this would not happen.
The Also Rans
As always, perusing the list of people who just failed to make the ballot is often even more interesting that seeing those who did. Somebody called Cheryl Morgan placed 6th in Best Fan Writer, just three nominations short of a place on the ballot. This is one that I will never win as long as Dave Langford keeps writing, but once again it is a huge honor to be nominated and Iíll keep hoping.
I was delighted to see that M. John Harrisonís Light got 32 nominations. That is well short of the 69 needed to get on the ballot, but it is a superb performance for a book that was not published in the US. Light will be published by Bantam in 2004, so assuming that the Eligibility Extension continues to be renewed, it will get another chance.
More happiness came from Best Related Book. Eighteen people sent in nominations for Bad Astronomy and Mapping Mars. So there are 17 of you out there who have taste as good as mine.
Odd things occasionally happen in the Dramatic Presentation awards, and I was staggered to see the ConJosé Masquerade Half Time Show get 19 nominations in Short Form and miss the ballot by 3 votes. I wish I had seen it now.
A huge potential row is lurking in the Dramatic Presentation categories over Lilo and Stitch. The film is short enough to be within the gray area where an Administrator can assign it to either Long Form or Short Form. The spirit of the Constitution says that it should go to Long Form because it is a massively big budget production and would have overwhelmed the TV episodes in Short Form, so that is exactly what Mike Nelson did. But a small number of excessively literal-minded people who cannot abide any form of human interpretation, and a larger number of people who hoped to discredit the new Short Form category by getting a movie on the ballot, had nominated it for Short Form. Had Mike put it in that category, it would have topped the nomination list by a massive margin and would probably have won easily. So an embarrassment was avoided by sensible action on the part of the Administrator, but I expect there to be a fuss anyway.
There are some interesting things bubbling under in the Best Fanzine category. Lady Churchillís Rosebud Wristlet, by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, placed 8th. It would be fascinating to have a fanzine produced by professional writers on the ballot. And in 9th place there was Ernest Lilleyís SFRevu. Iíd love to see that on the ballot. After all, that would mean that more SFRevu readers would vote, and their preferences would be more likely to come to Emerald City than to the traditional paper fanzines. I would not be the odd one out any more.
I note in passing that Emerald City only got 49 nominations (placing 4th). If the 79 of you who voted it in first place on the final ballot had all nominated it would have topped the nominations list. And I suspect I might have got on the Best Fan Writer ballot. Nomination is important, people.
Which brings me to another point. A number of people have commented to me that I must have been very grateful to Dave Langford for moving Ansible into Best Semiprozine because if he hadnít done that Emerald City would never have been nominated. I would like to point out that Emerald City placed 4th in the nominations list, and therefore would have been nominated even if Ansible had still been in the category. Change is possible if enough people nominate.
And finally, commisserations to Lloyd Penney who has been keeping me company in the nether regions of the Best Fan Writer category for many years. Being a Toronto native, he had high hopes of this year. Iím disappointed that the local Toronto fans did so poorly by him.
A Modest Proposal
As usual, much hot air has been expended on what to do about categories such as Best Fanwriter and Best Semiprozine where the same people seem to win every year. Here is a suggestion.
In baseball it is possible to avoid the necessity to pitch to top class batters by issuing an "intentional walk". This puts the man on base, but avoids the danger of his making a big hit for several bases. It happens to Barry Bonds all the time. (For cricket fans this is the equivalent of giving a single to a recognized batsman so that you have an opportunity to bowl at his partner who is a tail-ender.)
So, the proposal is that if all four of the other nominees agree, a hot favorite for a Hugo category can be "walked". The effect of this would be that s/he would get a nice certificate and be removed from the ballot. Voting for the Hugo would then be between the remaining four nominees. The official records would show the "walk" so that it would be clear that the eventual Hugo winner was, by their own admission, only second best that year.
I donít expect this to happen often. For example, I canít imagine Jim Burns or Michael Whelan agreeing to "walk" Bob Eggleton. But it might be a useful way of keeping Reading from sinking into the Thames and Oakland from opening up the Hayward Fault. Iíll now pass the idea over to the SMOFs mailing list for discussion. Iím sure that Kevin can draft an appropriate constitutional amendment.
What? Serious? Moi?
Of course it is now time to think about what might go on the ballot for next year. The Recommendations list is already open. As to what to put on it, my thereís some good stuff.
The one novel that is firmly on my list is Justina Robsonís Natural History. Sure, it was only published in the UK, so it is unlikely to make the ballot, but it is a brilliant book. Iím also very impressed with Tricia Sullivanís Maul, K.J. Bishopís The Etched City and Jeff Vandermeerís Veniss Underground. But of course we have Illium (Dan Simmons) and Quicksilver (Neal Stephenson), both books by past winners. And lurking on the horizon are Absolution Gap (Al Reynolds), A Feast of Crows (George R.R. Martin), 1610: A Sundial in a Grave (Mary Gentle) and The Salt Roads (Nalo Hopkinson), to name but a few books that I am very much looking forward to.
In Best Related Book we have the new John Clute review collection, Scores. I also think that the Lambshead Guide is eligible for this category. It isnít a story, so it canít class as a novel. Nor are the entries in it short stories, so they canít qualify separately. Best Related Book is a catch-all for books that donít fit anywhere else. I asked Kevin for his opinion and he agreed with me, citing The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as precedent. Obviously we are, to a certain extent, at the mercy of whomever Boston appoints to administer the Hugos. But if enough of us nominate the book they will have difficulty ruling it out, right?
I believe that Cowboy Bebop: The Movie qualifies under the eligibility extension. It was released in Japan in 2001, but I donít think it got US release until 2003. Someone better versed in movie trivia than me may correct me on this, but until they do Iím nominating it.
The personal and magazine categories will mostly be more of the same. As Iíve already said, Iím rooting for David Hartwell. Karin Lowachee and David Levine are eligible for the Campbell for another year.
Scientists Behaving Badly
Last time we met Enoch Root he was prospecting for abandoned Japanese WWII gold on an island in the Pacific. That, of course, was in Cryptonomicon. Now we encounter him again, some 250 years earlier, in colonial Boston. He is in search of one Mr. Daniel Waterhouse, whose descendants we are already familiar with. Root has enlisted the aid of a young boy called Ben who has an inquiring mind and a ready wit. Possibly the lad will grow up to be a Philosopher in his own right one day. But for now Rootís main interest is that Ben and young Godfrey William Waterhouse (doubtless named after Leibnitz) are best pals and that therefore answering Benís questions is a small price to pay for getting where he needs to be.
"Then I nipped up to Oxford, meaning only to pay a call on John Wilkins and pick up some copies of Cryptonomicon."
"What is that?" Ben wants to know.
"A very queer old book, dreadfully thick, and full of nonsense," says Godfrey. "Papa uses it to keep the door from blowing shut."
The Rev. John Wilkins was born in 1614, a turbulent time for English clerics. He rose rapidly through the ranks of the Puritans, eventually marrying Cromwellís sister, Robina, in 1656. After the Restoration he managed to make peace with King Charles II and was eventually made Bishop of Chester. Much of his attraction to Charles may have been his role in founding a great philosophical society, later adopted by the King and named The Royal Society.
Wilkins is also known as the author of one of the first (depending on how one classifies Deeís work) books on cryptography. Indeed, Wilkins is credited with introducing the word "cryptography" (well, "cryptographia", but this was the 17th Century) to the English language. The book was called Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger. This is the book to which Enoch Root refers when he speaks of visiting Wilkins. The element mercury, of course, is also known as quicksilver. And thus it is entirely feasible that a book called Quicksilver is actually a book called Cryptonomicon, or rather an early chapter thereof.
That, dear reader, is but a small sample of the intellectual games that Neal Stephenson plays in this, the first volume of his giant prequel to Cryptonomicon. According to Gary K. Wolfe in Locus, Quicksilver is but the first part of a gigantic project comprising three volumes, "each the size of checked luggage." Stephenson, ironic comments about weight aside, confirms this on the bookís web site (www.baroquecycle.com). The other two novels are The Confusion and The System of the World, to be published in spring and fall of 2004. The whole thing is to be known as The Baroque Cycle. My proof copy of Quicksilver is over 900 pages long. The mind boggles. Ah, but it is worth it.
So what, exactly, is Stephenson up to? Is this another book about cryptography? Is it in any way shape or form science fiction? Is it just a big, fat historical novel? Or is it all of these things and more?
More is always a good guess where Stephenson is concerned. Yes, the book is about cryptography, given that one of the characters becomes a spy for William of Orange at the court of Versailles. The cyphers that she uses were invented by Liebnitz and rely upon binary arithmetic. Liebnitz also invents a calculating engine (yes, he really did). So in some ways the book is about the history of computing. More to the point, it is about AI, because Stephenson has cleverly drawn parallels between the religious debates of the time and the debate over whether AIs can exist.
One of the principal differences between the Catholics of the time (on the one hand) and the hard-line Protestants (at least those of a Calvinist stripe) was the question of Free Will v Predestination. The Catholics believe that God gave man free will. The Calvinists and their allies believe that everything that we do on Earth is predestined, just as if we were a computer program that God had wound up and set going. AIs, by definition, have free will.
Although this is all heavy stuff, Stephenson gaily mixes serious debate and humor. Here Daniel Waterhouse is attempting to discern how Liebnitzís computer might be capable of independent thought and therefore have a soul.
"But your Engine does computation. And so I am compelled to ask, at what point does it become imbued with the incorporeal principle of Thought? You say that Cogitatio informs the body, and somehow organizes it into a mechanical system that is capable of acting. I will accept that for now. But with the Arithmetickal Engine, you are working backwards ó constructing a mechanical system in the hope that it will become impregnated from above ó as the Holy Virgin. When does the Annunciation occur ó at the moment you put the last gear in place? When you turn the crank?"
"You are too literal-minded," Liebnitz said.
Much of this debate, however, is probably reserved for future volumes of the book. Quicksilver is about more mundane things, such as politics, and about near-divine things, namely Newton. Waterhouse, though official history books scandalously neglect to mention this, was a roommate of Newton in his undergraduate days at Cambridge, and became a lifelong friend. Indeed, we suspect that he will play a pivotal role in the dispute between Newton and Liebnitz over the invention of the Calculus. It also allows Stephenson to talk in some detail about Newtonís Principia Mathematica (as any good SF writer would want to do) and about Newtonís interest in alchemy (as any good fantasy writer would want to do). Somewhere bound up in this there may be an explanation as to why Enoch Root is still alive in the 20th Century, but that too is probably a volume or two away. Treatment of the Royal Society also allows Stephenson to spend much time concentrating on traditional 17th Century London habits such as coffee houses, pubs and cavorting with comely wenches, all of which everyone except Newton indulges in with great gusto.
Politics is also very much present. Two of the other young undergraduates at Cambridge in those days were a bastard son of King Charles II, best known to the world as James, Duke of Monmouth, and a law student by the name of George Jeffreys. Anyone with a smattering of English history can tell where this little subplot is going.
[By the way, on behalf of citizens of Bridgwater down the ages, and Admiral Sir Robert Blake in particular, I wish to protest most strongly about the fact that Stephenson has expunged our town from history. Gah!]
Poor Daniel, of course, cannot be everywhere. Although he manages to interact with just about everyone in the Royal Society and British nobility, he canít tell us everything that we need to know about the wider political scene. At the time when the action takes place, Europe quails beneath the brilliance of the Sun King, Louis XIV, Defender of the Faith and scourge of all Protestant heretics. Their only hope is a small country, mostly underwater but rich from commerce, and its bold and tenacious prince, William of Orange. To tell this side of the story, Stephenson needs some new viewpoint characters.
Enter, therefore, the Brothers Shaftoe, whom we can guess from having read Cryptonomicon will be soldiers. At this point we might be starting to think that we have met the Ws and the Ss and that there will be other Robinsonian souls as well; the only reasons that we havenít seen any scenes in the Bardo being that a) Stephenson is going backwards in time and b) the books are quite long enough as it is. Whatever, we have Waterhouses and we have Shaftoes; the Waterhouses are scientists and the Shaftoes are soldiers. Well, Bobby is anyway. Sergeant Robert Shaftoe is a trusted aid of General John Churchill, and our knowledge of British history tells where that subplot is going too. His brother, on the other hand, is something of a rogue. Jack doesnít go much for military discipline, and instead follows money and adventure. Much of the latter is hilarious and causes him to be identified with the legendary French hero, LíEmmerdeur, a sort of Robin Hood with custard pies whose name translates as "The Bloody Nuisance" (or less politely as "He who dumps shit on things").
Then there is Eliza, a young girl from the imaginary Northern European island of Qwghlm, which we first encountered once again in Cryptonomicon. Eliza was captured by Barbary Pirates at a young age and sold into slavery in the harem of the Grand Turk. Of course she escapes eventually, and proves to have a fine and nimble mind that allows her to appreciate Natural Philosophy, pick up cyphers with ease, and cause havoc in the commodity markets of Amsterdam.
It is at this point that we realize that we have arrived somewhere else entirely. This really is a big, fat historical novel, and it pays due homage to a giant of the field. Stephenson has dedicated the book "To the Woman Upstairs". Stephenson has since revealed that this is a reference to his wife ó his office is in the basement of their house. However, when I read it my first thought was that it is not to be interpreted physically, but is rather a metaphysical reference to a superlative lady writer who has passed on recently. If she is looking down from Heaven on Stephensonís work she will find sections of Quicksilver in which he has captured her style beautifully.
But then again, most of what Stephenson does is beautiful. It amazes me the way that he is able to flip so quickly between wry humor and serious debate or spine-tingling description. Here he has been commenting on the fact that, due to peculiarities of Admiralty Law, pirates cannot be hanged on land like ordinary criminals, but must be executed somewhere in the inter-tidal regions over which the Admiralty has jurisdiction.
New England seems to have at least as many pirates as honest seamen. But here, as in so many other matters, Providence has smiled upon Massachusetts, for Boston Harbor is choked with small islands that are washed by high tides, providing vast resources of pirate-hanging real estate. Nearly all of it has been put to use. During the daytime, the gibbets are obscured by clouds of hungry birds. But itís the middle of the night, the birds are in Boston and Charlestown, slumbering in their nests of plaited pirate-hair. The tide is high, the tops of reefs are submerged, the supports rising directly out of the waves. And so as the singing slaves row Daniel out on what he assumes will be his last voyage, scores of dessicated and skeletonized pirates, suspended in midair above the moonlit sea, watch him go by, as a ceremonial honor-guard.
So there we are: a book about the history of science, and computers and cryptography in particular. Also a very fine historical novel that includes as characters Newton, Liebnitz, Hooke, Boyle, Hyugens, Wren, Pepys, Locke and little Benny Franklin; not to mention diverse royal personages and military heroes such as John Churchill and díArtagnan. A book that contains a full-blooded naval engagement between the infamous pirate, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, and a Dutch vessel under the command of a Captain van Hoek (who has, of course, lost a hand). A very long but beautifully written and at times very funny book with a promise of much more to come in the very near future. The good news is that this volume does achieve some sort of closure, although many threads are left unraveled. If you have an interest in history and the patience to work through a long book, it doesnít come much better than this.
By the way, Stephenson has set up a web site through which fans of the book can post additional annotations and background information about the material he is writing about. This is based on the Wiki web encyclopaedia system. You can find it here. It is somewhat confusing to find your way around it, and note that it does not work under Netscape 4.7, but I think once more people have read the book and are starting to contribute it could get very interesting.
Quicksilver Ė Neal Stephenson Ė Heineman Ė publisherís proof
Tricia Sullivan is an American. She lives in Britain, but she has been known to talk funny. You need to know this in order to understand the title of her new novel. The book is called Maul. This is a pun.
In a shopping mall in a near-future version of New Jersey, two gangs of teenage girls fight it out for fashion supremacy. They have lipstick, they have Hello Kitty, they have guns.
In the far future in a world where targeted viruses have wiped out most human males, a scientist is busy testing the latest strain of terrorbugs.
Somehow these two stories will come together. This (as a cosmetics ad might say) is the new face of Feminist SF.
Why did men have to be so freaking rare ó are rarefied? What happened to the good old days when men paid women for sex and not the other way around?
Letís meet our heroine. Her name is Sun Katz. Thatís "sun", not "son" ó the book is full of sly bits of wordplay like that. Sun is pretty much an ordinary teenage kid. She is into music and the Internet, and she despises her kid brother. I mean, who wouldnít? But Sun has written something rude on her web site about a girl from another gang, and a showdown would appear inevitable. This is scary, because Sun has yet to do many of the things that teenage girls look forward to, such as Have Sex With A Boy. It is entirely possible that Sun might be too young to die. And this is sad, because her enemies, while perhaps not having her philosophical perspective, seem to know a darn sight more about the way the world works that she does. Feistiness, it appears, is her only hope.
Sometimes I worry about books written by adults with teenage characters. OK, you can make them dull and middle class. Thatís easy. But if you want to put them out there on the edge (and Sun is magnificently both on the edge and dull and middle class), then you have to know something about teenagers. And of course everything you thought you knew became out of date 10 seconds after you discovered it. So Iím not entirely sure about Sunís taste in music. I mean, George Clinton? Really? Then again, the story is near future, so perhaps there is a Funkadelic revival just around the corner.
Still, all will be explained at the end of the book. Indeed, if you are smart you will realize what is going on rather earlier than that. But Iím sure not going to spoil that one for you. Not when you have chapter after chapter of Sunís wisdom to look forward to.
Itís a well known fact that TV is more real than real life so when people say get a life what they really mean is, get on TV. Because either youíre watching TV or youíre on it, and if you are doing neither itís a little like Schrödingerís cat, neither alive nor dead till observed.
Meanwhile, in the far future, Dr. Madeline Baldino is busy working on terrorbugs. But like most of us adults (and unlike Sun), most of what Maddie spends her life doing is nothing to do with what her job is, it is all to do with the nonsense that surrounds having a job, and having a life at the same time, and desperately trying to escape from both of these things. So Maddie is concerned with what her conniving bosses are up to, and what her clone-daughter, Bonus, is up to, and with managing to consume enough chocolate and vodka to wash away the worries caused by the other two. And of course there is always sex. Or at least there would be if there were anything like enough men to go round.
The world in which Maddie lives has, at least in part (because it says so in the Acknowledgements), been inspired by Sheri Tepperís classic The Gate to Womenís Country. But just suppose, Sullivan asks herself, that in fact we were not the cunning and competent superwomen who set up Tepperís utopia. Suppose that in fact we were the people we are now. I mean, sure, all men are pigs, and weíd be better off without them, right? A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. But then againÖ
Meanwhile the boys have holed themselves up in secure enclaves where they can hide from the dreaded Y-Plagues that have taken so many of their brothers. They can no longer rule the world, because they are terrified of going out in it. Power and influence have been, of necessity, ceded to women. All that men have left to trade with is sex. Well, semen anyway. Which is why they all compete in the Pigwalk, because it is just about the only thing left to compete in. And Maddie, of course, reads the catalogs, watches the TV coverage, and dreams about one day being rich enough to afford to make daughters the old way.
Real life, of course, is never that simple. Because we are not the people of utopian fiction. Some of us, even the women, are cunning and ambitious and ruthless. There are power pyramids in every world. And sometimes poor, innocent scientists get caught up in the games played by those they prefer not to think about. Which is how Maddie ended up doing a favor for hot-shot Pigwalk favorite, Arnie Henshaw. And it is why she ended up with the rude, uncouth and Entirely Unsuitable Snake Carrera in her experiment tank along with the terrorbugs. Not to mention coming into contact with an underground organization called Bicyclefish, and coming to the attention of persons of considerable influence.
"I could have you detained, of course. I could force you to comply with my wishes. But I would prefer to avoid the use of force. Itís so male and clumsy."
So Maddie, poor dear, is just like us: a raging bundle of desire, as Mike Harrison might say. A product of our all too corrupting consumer society. Just like Sun, she is caught in a war in a world dedicated to sex and shopping.
This maul is a roach motel for humans, it sucks us in and spits us out with pitiless regularity, and we like it. Visible poison in the form of tidy stacks of clothing, the roles we are meant to fit ourselves into. The lives we live that will never measure up to the commercials.
As I would have said on the Torcon panel on Feminist SF, had I actually been on it, there are feminist books that are the product of rage, and feminist books that are the product of thought. Rage is all very well, but it sits better with Snake Carrera than with Sun or Maddie. Thinking, I would contend, is rather better for you. Maul is most definitely a book that makes you think.
It is also wonderfully funny in places.
And it has this really cool cover. I mean, it is just gorgeous. Youíve only got to see that on the shelf in a shop andÖ
Maul Ė Tricia Sullivan Ė Orbit - unbound proof
From Russia with Hope
No one can ever accuse Liz Williams of being stuck in a rut. Her last novel, The Poison Master, was about John Dee, drugs and jackal-headed aliens. The new one, Nine Layers of Sky, is about Russia, Mongol hordes and inter-dimensional travel.
That, however, tells you nothing. Of far more import is the knowledge that Williams spent a couple of years living and working is Kazakhstan. This is not a book set in the former Soviet Union because that is a cool and fashionable place to set a book. It is a book set in a place that the author knows and loves and cares deeply about.
According to Buddhist legend there exists a mysterious kingdom in Central Asia known as Shambhala. The Russians have a similar myth. They call it the Byelovodye, the land of white waters. Perhaps it exists. Perhaps all we need to do is learn how to get there.
A better known Russian myth is that of the Bogatyri, the warrior heroes. These characters, like the knights of King Arthur, wander the land doing good deeds and protecting Mother Russia from her enemies. The greatest of them all was Ilya Muromyets.
Continuing our tour of Slavic myth, we come upon the water nymphs, the Rusalka. They are malevolent creatures, known to lure unwary travelers to their doom in icy rivers and lakes. Ilya Muromyets knows far too much about the Rusalka. They are the reason that he is not yet dead, but has been forced to live again and again that he might finally witness the death throes of his beloved country.
Once upon a time the Soviet Union had a myth. It was one that they shared with science fiction fans, for it was a dream of man in space. That dream lived at Baikonur. Elena Irinovna used to work there as an astrophysicist. She too had dreams of going into space. Now there is no money, and the Americans have come. Nothing can be done without NASAís say-so. There are few jobs, and no pay for those who have them.
But Baikonur is not in Russia. It is in Kazakhstan, a conquered country, a part of the Soviet Empire that has now won its freedom. The Kazakhs, and their neighbors such as the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, have their own myths. Mostly they involve driving the hated Russians from their land. The Kyrgyz have their own national hero, Manas, who once famously fought Ilya Muromyets to a standstill. Manas is not dead either.
There are dreams that live, and dreams that die. There are dreams that will not die and dreams that perhaps should have died. Maybe there are even dreams that want to die but cannot. The Soviet Union and its space program are dead dreams now. But in a mystical place like Byelovodye dreams may live yet. Whether they live in peace or not may depend on what other dreams might find them.
Liz Williams makes no judgement calls about the Soviet Union, nor about the nationalist aspirations of their newly freed subjects. She just paints a tale of broken dreams, fills it with action heroes for dramaís sake, and asks us to feel their pain. If nothing else, we will understand the former Soviet Union far better after reading this book. But we shall surely be well entertained as well.
Nine Layers of Sky Ė Liz Williams Ė Bantam Ė publisherís proof
A Sick Mind
Your Honor, I submit to you that Mr. Jeffrey Vandermeer is a wicked and sinful man. As you are well aware, he has, in the past, committed such egregious Crimes against Sanity as the publication of works treating of intelligent giant squid, mushroom people, talking meercats and elephant-headed men. Until recently, however, Vandermeer has confined his madcap imaginings to himself, and to the poor, deluded inmates of the Voss Bender Memorial Institute who have been foolish enough to read his works. Now, however, he has taken it upon himself to spread his vile corruption most widely and evilly into that brave and noble corps of persons who make up our body of literary wordsmiths. He has engaged in most foul temptation of his fellow authors.
Your Honor, I now present to you Exhibit 1 in the case for the Prosecution. You will see that it is entitled, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. However, this is a falsehood. No such Dr. Lambshead exists. Nor do any of the diseases listed within the pages of this so-called Guide. Indeed, the only disease that might be associated with the book is the state of uncontrollable giggling to which many of those unfortunates who have attempted to read it have been reduced. It will not be long, Your Honor, before a new and vast influx of patients is queuing at the Institute door.
But I digress. In this book, Your Honor, Vandermeer and his no less wicked and culpable assistant, Mr. Mark Roberts, have included all sorts of imaginary and untrue descriptions of diseases, each of them devised by a different writer. Some of these persons are already beyond hope. Mr. David Langford, for example, has been an inmate of the Institute for many years and is laboring under the delusion that he is collecting a vast fleet of rocket ships with the aid of which one day mankind will be able to leave Ambergris and journey to the stars. Mr. Cory Doctorow is well known for his delusions concerning the possible invention of microscopic computing devices and alternate economic systems. And Mr. Brian Stableford was sentenced by this very court for inventing an absurd game to be played with a red leather ball and lumps of willow wood that would take five whole days to complete.
Others, however, are veritable pillars of our community. Mr. Neil Gaiman, Mr. Michael Moorcock and Mr. China Miéville are, I submit to you, Your Honor, Persons Who Should Know Better than to associate with the likes of Vandermeer. Yet more are young and impressionable souls foolishly seeking to attain fame and fortune by hitching their careers to what will undoubtedly become one of the most notorious books in the history of publishing. And what is more, Your Honor, Vandermeer has even stooped to corrupting sweet and innocent Ladies such as the delectable Miss Elizabeth Williams. Truly his villainy knows no bounds.
I ask you, Your Honor, where will this stop? Will Vandermeer not be content until every writer in our fair city is a raving lunatic such as himself? Does he intend for the entire population of the city to descend into giggling incapacity and be consigned to the Institute, there to board Mr. Langfordís rocket ships and leave us forever? I submit to you, Your Honor, that Something Must Be Done. Preferably Before It Is Too Late. Burn these books! Have them cast into the river as food for the King Squid. I implore you, do anything necessary to destroy them before they are loosed on our unsuspecting citizens and disaster ensues.
And furthermore, Your Honor, I respectfully suggest that Mr. Vandermeer and Mr. Roberts be confined for the duration of their natural lives in a corrective facility for wayward authors, there to be set to work on constructive and morally improving tasks such as writing Thrilling Adventure Tales for Boys of All Ages. Or Harry Potter novels.
Your Honor, I rest my case.
J. Philoneius Gribblethorpe, QC
Well, I donít know, I found it bloody hilarious myself, what?
Lord Justice Madnok
Government Health Warning: reading this book can result in serious mental incapacitation, fits, conniptions, convulsions, epileptic attack, paroxysm, spasm and urgent desire to consult a Thesaurus. Not suitable for young children, nursing mothers, anyone in the act of taking food or drink, and persons of a sour and conservative disposition. Use at your own risk.
The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases Ė Jeff Vandermeer and Mark Roberts (eds.) Ė Nightshade Ė publisherís proof
Itís The Wolf!
"There are wolves in the walls," Lucy said to her mother. "I can hear them."
And in the tradition of little girl heroes in childrenís books everywhere, Lucy was right. And her mother and her father and her little brother were wrong. So it was just as well that Lucy was brave and sensible, because nobody else was, including the wolves.
OK, so a picture book for kids is a million miles away from American Gods, and a fair distance off from Coraline. Neil Gaiman likes to write at all levels, and his latest, The Wolves in the Walls, is aimed at a pretty young target audience. But a picture book means that Neilís old partner from Sandman, Dave McKean, gets to do beautifully what only Dave McKean can. If you like McKeanís art, this is definitely worth buying. If you have kids, this is definitely worth buying. And if you refuse to grow up, and enjoy a silly story, aw heck, why not?
And if you do have wolves in your walls, and you are in the habit of making homemade jam, you need to buy this book so as to understand what trouble you might be letting yourself in for.
The Wolves in the Walls Ė Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean Ė HarperCollins - hardcover
Ring of Freedom
Cherith Baldryís future vision of Venice is a combination of the mediaeval Dukedom and some interesting biotech. The city is still ruled by noble families living in rich palazzos, and everyone is a devout Catholic (although that word never gets used). Yet somewhere to the north, probably in Germany, Imperial scientists manufacture all sorts of technical marvels including the mechanical constructs (robots), and genics ó human-like creatures genetically engineered for various purposes. The Holy Father (whom we canít call the Pope, just in case) has ruled that genics, being manufactured beings, have no souls and are thus animals that can be bought and sold. The fact that they can speak and reason just like people has no bearing on the legal situation.
The title of the book is The Reliquary Ring, which refers to a mysterious artifact found by impoverished nobleman, Leonardo Loredan, in a bricked up tomb in his crumbling palazzo. Documentation found with the ring suggests that it contains a genuine hair of Christos himself. Naturally this causes a great deal of panic in the city as the Church and various noblemen try to get their hands on the relic. Loredan is forced to hand it over to the evil Count Dracone in payment for debts, and the Count, one of the few Venetian noblemen prepared to traffic with Imperium scientists, has interesting plans for his new toy.
If this sounds all a little straightforward and simplistic, it is probably because Baldry has written young adult books in the past. There are no Clute-like delvings into long buried strata of the English language, or fabulously convoluted Gene Wolfe plots, for her. However, this is no Harry Potter novel. Baldry deals with very grown up themes. Ostensibly, of course, the book is about slavery. But there are undercurrents that are more thought provoking. Count Loredan, for example, has an interesting relationship with his genic, Gabriel, whom he has discovered has an incredible talent for painting. Gabriel is openly gay, and Leonardo, young and honorable, is prepared to befriend him in defiance of social convention. Until, that is, he becomes the cityís main hope for preventing Dracone from being elected to the Dukedom, at which point political necessity requires coming to an accommodation with the deeply conservative Count Dandolo.
Meanwhile, other relationships burble along. Young Caterina Dandolo has developed a deep friendship with Serafina, the genic maid of the ditzy blonde, Giulietta Contarini. Serafina, on the other hand, has become the student of Hyacinth, an extraordinarily beautiful genic musician who was made male but given a womanís name. It is all quite complicated, for all that it is simply told.
And here, I suspect, we can find the true meaning of the book. The real Catholic Church (as opposed to the one in the book) is indeed dubious about genetic engineering. But there are no real genics for it to declare to be non-human. There are, however, many people whom the current Pope (though by no means all of his followers) has declared to be abominations. These people include gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Cherith Baldry, whom I suspect to be a devout Catholic given the way she writes about religion in the book, clearly does not approve of the Popeís actions, and is saying so in the way that science fiction authors can. More power to her pen. (And perhaps a Spectrum Award nomination as well.)
The Reliquary Ring Ė Cherith Baldry Ė Macmillan - softcover
Land of the Lost
This is a book I had been very much looking forward to. China Miéville had blurbed it. Farah Mendlesohn had been enthusing about it for months. But when I finally read Wanderers and Islanders (Book One of Legends of the Land) by Steve Cockayne I found it a terribly damp squib. Possibly I was expecting too much, or possibly Cockayne set his sights rather too high.
The first thing that is obvious about the book is that it is full of misdirection. Whenever you think that you have a handle on what Cockayne is trying to do he heads off in a completely different direction. If there were an award for upsetting expectations in a fantasy novel this book would be the hot favorite. There is one particularly brilliant piece of obfuscation, but it is one thing to play tricks on your readers. It is another to confuse them utterly.
A good example of this confusion is the timelines. There are three, and it isnít until you have got some way into he book that you start to realize that things are happening on very different time scales. One time line is taking place over many years, one over a few years, and one over a single year. They do actually come together at the end, but unusually for me I found the structure very disorienting.
The other thing that you eventually notice about the book is that it is dealing with the conflict between a purely rational view of the world and a view in which magic may or may not exist. It does this on a range of different levels, and this is where Cockayne really comes unstuck.
Perhaps the most traditional fantasy tale in the book is the thread concerning Rusty Brown. We first meet him as a young, fatherless boy of above average intelligence living in a small village. As the story progresses, he grows up, goes to college in the big city, and then has some rather unpleasant experiences that are very much at odds with what we might have expected from the beginning of his tale. It is in Rustyís story that we get most exposure to the "Legends of The Land" which are purportedly the framing device of what will be a multi- (hopefully three-) volume trilogy.
Problem number one: The Legend of the Wanderers and Islanders, as told in Rustyís story, sounds like something that a Californian New Age group might come up with. Or maybe Tom Arden in one of his more satirical moments. So the Great Being created the world and his favored races (the Wanderers and Islanders of the title) and gave them magical powers. But they were lazy and slipshod and things went bad. And then the "Wounded Ones" arrived. They didnít do magic but they were good with weapons and accountancy so they took over. Oh, come on!
Problem number two: It is by no means certain that Cockayne is serious about this. He might want us to believe in all this Wanderers and Islanders stuff. It might just be an old myth. By the end of the book it looks like it is all supposed to be true, but there has been so much misdirection that it just might be the case that we will get to book two and discover that it was all a bad dream. There doesnít appear to be any point to all of this obfuscation, other than to continually derail the reader.
Now for our second character. Leonardo Pegasus is the Royal Magician. He serves his monarch by conducting what appears to be a magical equivalent of simulation modeling. Leo sets up a model (as in a model railway, for example) and through some clever application of the As Above, So Below principle he is able to analyze what is going on and thereby predict the future. It is not exactly clear whether Leo gets any decent results out of this, but we are given the strong impression that the practitioner should not include himself in his simulations.
Problem number three: If this is the rational view of the world that the Wounded Ones are supposed to have then it is a rather outdated view. Predictive simulation modeling of this kind is something that no one sensible has believed in since Asimovís Foundation. The real world is stochastic, both in the microcosm and the macrocosm. If Cockayne has picked a target, it is a bad one.
Unfortunately for Leo his patron dies and the new king doesnít think much of old technology. The old king was an 18th Century sort of guy, happy with pomp and ceremony. His son is a 1970s business school graduate who wants everyone to go around in gray tracksuits, carry clipboards and eat health food. He does all his futurology using magical abacuses. Poor old Leo is quickly out of a job.
Problem number four: Either Cockayne expects us to swallow this massive overnight change in the nature of the world, or he has dropped a Douglas Adams parody in the middle of a fantasy story. Neither interpretation works.
The final characterís tale is much more straightforward. Victor Lazarus, a retired soldier, is hired to renovate an old mansion. He hires good help, but his efforts are frustrated by the actions of Lee, a "shadow", who haunts the house. And if that sounds perfectly ordinary to you, you should know by now that you are being set up.
I really tried hard to like this book, because I have great faith in the good taste of people like China and Farah. But in the end I decided that either Cockayne had confused me so much that I had completely missed the point, or that he has confused himself so much that there is no point.
Wanderers and Islanders Ė Steve Cockayne Ė Orbit - softvover
Book of Thorns
These days my reaction to a new big, fat fantasy book is "oh no, not another one." Fantasy has become way too dull and predictable a genre to make it worth taking a chance on. However, if I have a good recommendation that is a different matter. When Peter Lavery at Pan Macmillan tells me that a book is good it is very likely that I will agree with him. And when Roz Kaveney recommends the same book then I know that I really need to read it. Hence you are getting a review of The Briar King by Greg Keyes.
In the distant past, the inhuman Skasloi ruled the world. Mankind was simply their slaves, all the more entertaining in their suffering for the fact that they were intelligent animals. There were revolts, of course, but none of them stood a chance until humans learned to use magic too. The fall of the Skasloi was accomplished by a small but brave army led by a human queen, Virginia Elizabeth Dare, who is more like a cross between Red Sonja and Elric than Elizabeth Tudor after whom she seems to have been named. But there is always a cost to revolution. The last of the Skasloi lords bitterly explained to Dare that she had triumphed only because she had dabbled in forbidden sorcery, and that her heirs would forever be at risk. One day, thanks to her presumption, the world would end.
The Skasloi, being incredibly long-lived, view affairs on a much broader canvas than humans. It is centuries later, with Skasloi rule almost forgotten, that the debt of the Dares is called in. Deep in the forests, something is dying. Rot and decomposition spread unchecked. Worms and maggots multiply. A fearsome greffyn, whose very touch is poison, is seen abroad. Cultists perform human sacrifices at long-abandoned shrines. And in a long-hidden valley, vines and creepers move together with purpose and form. Slowly and inexorably, the Briar King is wakening.
Put baldly, almost any fantasy plot sounds silly. The important point is whether or not the author can carry it off in the novel. There are two essential elements to this. Firstly the mythological side of the story has to work. Hopefully I have shown that Keyes has got this right. His bad guy is not some brainless Evil Overlord whose overwhelming desire to conquer the world is matched only by his staggering inability to kill off the hero when given a chance. The Briar King is a vast chthonic entity that barely notices that humans exist. He is way more scary than the gods in most fantasy novels.
In addition the author has to do authorly things well. That means interesting characters who live real lives and a believable plot that doesnít depend entirely on the hero being predestined to succeed. There are some odd things about Keyesís characters. For example his heroine is a tomboyish princess with a passion for horses called Anne. Her father is trying to persuade the country to let women inherit the crown because his only son, Charles, is a drooling idiot. I think that Keyes is trying to tell us something here. But dabblings in British politics aside, Keyes has done a fine job of telling his story. Roz Kaveney compared Keyesís to that of George R.R. Martin, and sheís dead right. If you like Martinís work, you will almost certainly enjoy The Briar King as well. Of course you know that this means that that the book will end with half of the cast dead and the rest in awful trouble, and that there will be several more books before everything is resolved, but that comes with the territory of blockbuster fantasy. The new Martin is due out soon, and that will give us all something to read while we are waiting for Keyes to produce his next volume.
The Briar King Ė Greg Keyes Ė Macmillan Ė publisherís proof
Of Beasts and Men
Isabel Allende is famous for many things. Most notorious, of course, is the fact that her uncle was once President of Chile, but she is also a well-respected mainstream author with many best-selling novels behind her. Much of her work is categorized as magic realism. But if you donít know that she is from South America you would classify her first young adult novel, City of the Beasts, as a straightforward fantasy.
The story centers on Alex Cold, a teenage boy from California. Because his mother is dying of cancer, Alex is sent to live with his grandmother in New York. But Granny (or Kate, as she prefers to be known) turns out to be a world-travelling, pipe-smoking, thoroughly disreputable investigative journalist. Kate has just been hired to cover an expedition to the Amazon to try to find a Yeti-like creature called The Beast, and that means Alex has to go too.
From here on the story is a fairly classic piece of Conan Doyle meets Rider Haggard with an environmentalist twist. Thereís a wicked developer who wants to get rid of the Indians so he can chop down the forest, a pompous anthropologist who must be Belgian because he speaks just like Hercule Poirot, a beautiful lady doctor over whose affections the men all compete, an absurdly laid back British photographer, and lots of soldiers all of whom should be wearing red shirts. For Alexís benefit, and to sell to girls as well as boys, the native guide has a brave and pretty daughter, Nadia. The only person missing is Sting, but heís sort of mentioned in passing whenever the book comments that important people are interested in protecting the forest Indians.
As is traditional with YA novels, the adults turn out to be largely incompetent and the kids end up doing all of the hard work. Alex and Nadia get to meet the local Indian tribes, find El Dorado, talk to the Beasts, and generally sort out the mess that the adults get themselves into. The plot is simplistic, but with a powerful conservationist message and some really great writing. Allende manages to both make her prose simple and approachable, but also drop in some wonderful descriptive passages. As a blurb from The Literary Review said, "there is more to life than Harry Potter." Too darn right, there is.
If I have any concerns about the book it is that it is something of a Noble Savage piece. Quite possibly the forest Indians are happy as they are, but Iím sure that their lives are far from idyllic and that they die very young. But all the same, Allende is quite right to maintain that they should not be dying simply to make room for mines and ranches. She has made a powerful point, and she has done it in an entertaining and beautifully written story. It is not a book that will appeal to Republican Senators, NRA members or people who think that pipe-smoking grannies are deeply unsuitable, but otherwise this is an excellent YA book.
Iím not entirely sure what age group the book is aimed at. Alex is supposedly 15, Nadia a few years younger. But then I remember that when I was a kid no girl over the age of 12 would be seen dead reading a magazine entitled Just 16, so maybe a similar dynamic works here. And of course by the time I was 15 I had read Lord of the Rings years ago and had started on Michael Moorcock and Phil Dick. Those of you with kids will know their tastes better than I do, so make up your own minds.
City of the Beasts - Isabel Allende Ė Flamingo - softcover
So there you are, stuck at the airport again. You had a scheduled two-hour layover, and now your inbound equipment is delayed and the gate attendant seems to have no idea what is going on. The only food available is McDonalds, and your fellow passengers include above average numbers of small babies and choleric businessmen, plus an entire football team of hyperactive 11-year-olds.
Been there? So has Ursula LeGuin. And on one such occasion it occurred to her that instead of changing planes what she really wanted to be able to do was change planes. That is, move to some other plane of existence, meet new and alien people, and generally enjoy the period of enforced idleness. Her new book of short stories, Changing Planes, is based on the idea that a sufficient level of indigestion, discomfort and stress will allow the human mind to free itself from earthly concerns and go elsewhere.
It is the elsewhere, of course, that is interesting. Many of the stories are based on oddball anthropological ideas. What would we make of a society in which people hardly ever spoke? What if people migrated like birds? What would society be like if we could share each otherís dreams? This is out on the edge of SFís "what if" philosophy, and ideally suited to short story exploration.
There are times when the book gets a bit repetitive. We all know that LeGuin is in favor of non-technological societies and we really donít need to be told for the fourth or fifth time that war is stupid and destructive but men do it anyway. The book has plenty of good ideas, but way too many of them are described in the same dry, almost academic style. LeGuin only really lets rip in two stories that are much more obviously satirical.
The first is "The Royals of Hegn", which appeared in Asimovís in 1999. This postulates a world in which almost everyone is an aristocrat, and commoners are consequently a fascinating rarity. The story manages to make fun of aristocracy in general, the obsession with Princess Diana, and of course Eastenders. Oh, how the other half lives. Very silly.
If one satire is aimed at the British, the other is aimed squarely at American consumerism. It postulates a plane that has been taken over by Texan entrepreneurs and turned into a collection of theme parks, each of which is based on a national holiday. You can go Christmas shopping all year round and visit the Holy Land without fear of meeting actual Arabs. You can have a New Yearís Eve party twice a day, every day. And you can prove your patriotism by living in a permanent state of the Fourth of July. The story is called "Great Joy" after the company that runs the plane. It is the only one in the book that had me laughing out loud, and Iím nominating it for a short story Hugo.
Changing Planes Ė Ursula LeGuin Ė Harcourt Ė hardcover
One of the questions that writers like least at signing sessions is that perennial favorite, "where do you get your ideas from?" The people asking this question always seem to think that there is some secret store of fictional ideas and that, if only you can get access to it, you can be a writer too. Of course it doesnít work like that. To write you need imagination. But sometimes it is fun to kick the imagination into gear with some external stimulus.
This review is about the third in the series of Imagination Fully Dilated books. These are anthologies of stories inspired by the work of artist Alan M. Clark. The idea is simple: Clark makes a bunch of his pictures available to the writers, each of them picks one, and they each produce a short story based on their chosen picture. The result is an anthology containing the stories and prints of the pictures that inspired them. This latest book in the series, Imagination Full Dilated: Science Fiction, is devoted entirely to SF stories and mainly features up and coming writers. It is published by Fairwood Press, which is run by Patrick and Honna Swenson, the same people who produce the Talebones magazine.
A project like this will inevitably have some contributors who enter more into the spirit than others. The story which is best tied into the painting is "The Artist Makes a Splash" by Jerry Oltion. The picture in question shows a building made to look like droplets of water falling into a pool, and Oltion has done a fine job of imagining why such a building might be created. Other pictures are rather easier. Elizabeth DeVos picked a scene of the phoenix immolating itself and wrote "Out of the Fire", an amusing piece about how the fabulous bird one day decided that it didnít want to die, and the legal and business complications that arose from this. Although much of the story is comedy, the idea that Right to Life campaigners should try to force the phoenix to die because that was the only way its child could be born makes a very pointed contribution to the abortion debate.
In other stories the connection to the picture is very tenuous. Patrick OíLeary picked an image of a distorted face and wrote a lovely little tale about a dream. This is the story in the book that has the best "stop and make you think" ending, which so many SF short story writers aim for. The picture didnít have much physical interpretation so under the rules of the game OíLeary had a very free hand.
Melissa Scott was a little more creative in finding her way around a strange image. She also picked faces, but faces made out of stalagmites and stalactites in a cave. She interpreted this as minds in a VR environment and went on to write an interesting piece about the sort of brain damage that you can get if a hyperspace jump goes wrong. Maybe it is a bit of a cheat, but then "The Sweet Not-Yet" is one of my favorite stories in the book.
I have a couple of reservations about the book itself. Firstly it is sad that Clarkís work could not have appeared in its full glory. There are full-color thumbnails on the back cover, but the page-sized black and white reproductions inside are a little sad. Also the picture chosen for the cover is one of the least attractive of those on offer. But these are minor quibbles. This is a fun anthology with some very nice ideas. As with any anthology, it is patchy, but then we all have different tastes and the stories I least liked may be much more attractive to others, and vice versa. In any case it is a good way to discover a lot of new writers.
Imagination Fully Dilated: SFĖ Robert Kruger & Patrick Swenson (eds.) Ė Fairwood Press - softcover
Two Years or Three
The WSFS Business Meeting is currently debating whether to shorten the lead time between a Worldconís winning the site selection vote and actually taking place from three years to two. The motion passed narrowly in Toronto and will be up for ratification in Boston.
As regular readers will remember, Tom Whitmore and I did not exactly see eye-to-eye over the running of ConJosé. But one thing that we are absolutely agreed on is that things would have been much better with a two-year lead time.
In this article Tom explains some of the difficulties of running a Worldcon and why his plan of taking the first year as a rest year did not work out. For a future issue of Emerald City I am hoping to publish something from a Worldcon chair who tried to run a three-year planning cycle so as to demonstrate why that doesn't work either.
Over to you, Tom.
The experience of ConJosé is still pretty fresh in my mind. As most of you will remember, I was the sole chair of the convention for quite a while ó Kevin's job as bid chair burned him out to some extent, and we decided between us that it'd be better to have me chair the convention. After all, bidding and running conventions are different skill sets, right?
Well, they are, but there are Other Reasons (as E. Nesbit might say). Other considerations, at least. I'd talked a lot with experienced Worldcon organizers, and we all agreed that the work done in the first year is mostly wasted. So I decided to try taking the road of doing almost nothing in the first year. I talked with many people, and worked on figuring out who would be likely to make good division managers. I'm still incredibly pleased with most (that means more than half, for you pedants out there, it doesn't mean all) of my choices. My goal was to put people in place who would be more likely to manage than to try to do all the work. I'd like to single out John Blaker as the best example of that. For personal reasons, he made very few committee meetings ó his Events Division, however, was usually represented by someone who was up on what was happening, and he recruited an amazing group of people who managed the events with much aplomb. He has management experience ó in the real world, he's a priest, a job which requires serious management skills. I don't think he'd even been tapped to manage a department at a Worldcon before, and he was someone I had no doubts about, and have no regrets about, in his management job. He's not the only one.
Very few people who become Worldcon chairs have experience as executives. At best, they have experience as managers. The job of manager is as different from the job of executive as the job of grunt is from the job of manager. We get to learn as we go. Deb Geisler [the chair of the forthcoming 2004 Worldcon in Boston] is kind of an exception, as she teaches management and so understands what the next higher level is. Let's face it ó we're mostly a bunch of wannabes. If we're lucky, we learn enough from our convention experience to apply it in our jobs ó but find me an executive out in the real world who wants to herd volunteer cats for six years for no money in order to put on a million-dollar (or so) event! We're blessed with a lot of really good line-managers and workers; we have a serious shortage of middle-to-top managers and executives.
My inability to know how to manage people properly (hey, I'm great with the people who know what they're doing, but so would most people be!) led to many of the board of SFSFC, ConJosé's parent corporation, losing faith in me. I believed I was managing a proper ramp-up, with exponential growth in work and responsibilities -- they felt they weren't seeing enough done soon enough. I failed to communicate what I thought was going on adequately enough to convince them. This is going to be a problem with most Worldcon organizations (the distinction between board and committee hats) ó I think ours was worse than most. The results certainly were. I lost faith in some members of the board, and fired a Division Manager that I felt I could no longer work with. I'd do it again, in the same situation ó and I'd rather have prevented it than come to that end.
The main difference between the two-year lead time and the three year lead time is ó duh! ó time. More time is not always good. To look at a simple example from Torcon III, more time would not have made any difference to Spider having trouble with the novelette category (misplaced post-it, most likely ó the reason is completely irrelevant). What made the problem almost disappear was a batch of people who could think on their feet and make the problem disappear for most of the audience. Similarly with the Best Novel tie at ConFrancisco ó I was the one bringing out the Hugos for that, and I learned about it 20 minutes before the presentation (well, shortly, anyway!). There wasn't time to get fancy about it ó I just had to arrange to be standing there with one Hugo, and when everyone was distracted with the opening of the envelope pick up the second which an assistant was waiting to hand me. Net result ó as with most magic tricks, the misdirection made people think I'd materialized the second one.
Well-used time is much more important than simple extra time. We don't all know how to use extra time well. Thinking about which foot to move next is what paralyzes the centipede. Control freaks do not understand this.
I try to put off decisions until the last appropriate minute. With a two-year lead-time, the urgency is higher ó I'd have put off fewer decisions. With three years, I put more off for too long than I would have if I'd only had two. Most of the specific tasks that make a Worldcon work ó Program, Hugos, Masquerade, for example ó work best on a 12 to 18 month cycle. It's folly to think that giving them three years is better than putting them into the cycle that actually comes closer to reflecting their time needs.
It's not about being tired. It's about seeing that extra time results in management or executive levels getting into details that should be left to the people doing the work. I didn't care who put the gels into the lights at ConJosé; what I cared about was that my Division Manager cared about who was finding someone to put the gels in the lights. We work a lot with misdirection, smoke and mirrors ó and in general (which doesn't mean that any of you can't find specific counterexamples) we get good, if not great, Worldcons from doing so.
ConJosé had problems. Every Worldcon does. How many of those problems affect the next Worldcon for either the vast majority of attendees or the majority of regular attendees? Not enough to keep you, or me, or most other people from coming back (allowing for personal financial or emotional issues).
I hope you'll think about what I have said when the Two-Year lead time resolution comes up for ratification next year. I deeply believe that two years is better, from my experience working with committees with some local, some national, and some international conventions.
Oh my, so many awards, so little space. Here we go.
Best Novel: Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer (Analog Jan-Apr 2002; Tor);
Best Novella: Coraline, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins);
Best Novelette: "Slow Life", Michael Swanwick (Analog Dec 2002);
Best Short Story: "Falling Onto Mars", Geoffrey A. Landis (Analog Jul/Aug 2002);
Best Related Book: Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary (Between the Lines);
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Conversations With Dead People" (20th Century Fox Television/Mutant Enemy Inc.; Directed by Nick Marck; Teleplay by Jane Espenson & Drew Goddard);
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (New Line Cinema; Directed by Peter Jackson; Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson; based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien);
Best Professional Editor: Gardner Dozois;
Best Professional Artist: Bob Eggleton;
Best Semiprozine; Locus, Charles N. Brown, Jennifer A. Hall & Kirsten Gong-Wong, eds.;
Best Fanzine: Mimosa, Richard & Nicki Lynch;
Best Fan Writer: Dave Langford
Best Fan Artist: Sue Mason
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer [Not a Hugo]: Wen Spencer.
These being the popular-vote awards for works by Canadians.
Long-Form work in English: Permanence, Karl Schroeder (Tor);
Long-form work in French: Le Revenant de Fomalhaut, Jean-Louis Trudel (Médiaspaul);
Short-form work in English: "Ineluctable", Robert J. Sawyer (Analog Nov 2002);
Short-form work in French: "La Guerre sans temps", Sylvie Bérard (Solaris 143);
Other work in English: Be VERY Afraid!, Edo van Belkom (Tundra Books);
Other work in French: insufficient nominees, no award made;
Artistic Achievement: Mel Vavaroutsos
Fan Achievement (Publication): Made In Canada Newsletter, Don Bassie, ed. (webzine);
Fan Achievement (Organizational): Georgina Miles (Toronto Trek 16);
Fan Achievement (Other): Jason Taniguchi (one-man SF parody shows).
The awards for works translated in Japanese went to Greg Egan's "Luminous" in the short fiction category and to Robert J. Sawyer's Illegal Alien in the novel category.
Those Other Awards
These are the things (other than the Seiuns) that form the warm-up act for the Hugos.
First Fandom Hall of Fame Award: Philip José Farmer, and posthumously to Philip Francis Nowlan;
First Fandom Moskowitz Archive Award for excellence in collecting: Rusty Hevelin
E. Everett Evans ĎBig Heartí Award: John Hertz.
The one that was not presented at the Hugo ceremony this year (and is therefore not a Holy Worldcon Tradition) is the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. This year it went to Edgar Pangborn.
The Sidewise Awards
These are judged awards for works of alternate history.
Long Form: (tie) The Severed Wing, Martin J. Gidron (Livingston Press) & Ruled Britannia, Harry Turtledove (Roc);
Short Form: "Empire", William Sanders (Alternate Generals II Harry Turtledove, ed.; Baen, Jul 2002).
The Spectrum Awards
Once again a judged award (though with an open nomination process). This time the awards are for works with positive gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered content
Novel: Fire Logic, Laurie Marks (Tor);
Short Fiction: "Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland", Sarah Monette (Lady Churchhill's Rosebud Wristlet #11);
Comic Book/Graphic Novel: (tie) Green Lantern: Hate Crime (Issues 53-155), Judd Winnick et al. (DC) & The Authority (Issues 28-29), Mark Millar, et al. (Wildstorm/DC);
Other Work: Queer Fear II, Michael Rowe, ed. (Arsenal Pulp) (anthology);
Hall of Fame: The Tale of the Five, Diane Duane; Shadow Man, Melissa Scott; The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin; The Holdfast Chronicles, Suzy McKee Charnas.
The Chesley Awards
Aha, something slightly different. The Chesleys are given solely for artwork. The awards are administered by the Assocation of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (ASFA).
Cover Illustration, Hardcover: Todd Lockwood, Cover of The Thousand Orcs (by R. A. Salvatore; Wizards of the Coast);
Cover Illustration, Paperback: Tristan Elwell, Cover of Briar Rose (by Jane Yolen; Tor/Starscape);
Cover Illustration, Magazine: Todd Lockwood, Cover of Dragon Dec 2002
Interior Illustration: Scott Gustafson, for Classic Fairy Tales (by Scott Gustafson; Greenwich Workshop/Hallmark);
Color Work, Unpublished: "The Storm", Richard Hescox;
Monochrome Work, Unpublished: "The Skimmer's Lagoon", Maurizio Manzieri;
Three-Dimensional: "Con José Dragon", Kim Graham
Artistic Achievement: Tom Kidd;
Art Director: Irene Gallo (Tor Books);
Gaming-Related Illustration: "Spider Queen", Todd Lockwood (Forgotten Realms supplement "City of the Spider Queen", WotC);
Product Illustration: "The Light Ship", Dean Morrissey (fine art print for The Greenwich Workshop, April '02)
Contribution to ASFA: Geoff Surette
Wonderful to see that dragon getting an award. Interesting to see such an emphasis on artwork for games companies.
The Prometheus Awards
It is official: Terry Pratchett is a Libertarian. Nightwatch is apparently this yearís best Libertarian novel. "Requiem", by Robert A. Heinlein, won the Hall of Fame award (fighting off stiff competition from Tolkien and Lewis, both of whom would have been quite stunned to discover that they were Libertarians).
No, this is nothing to do with being a Libertarian. It is the Heinlein Societyís new award for excellent in hard SF. Michael Flynn was the winner. A special posthumous award was made to Heinleinís widow, Virginia, who died earlier this year.
The Golden Duck Awards
And finally in our long list of awards presented at Worldcon, something for the kids.
Hal Clement Award (Young Adult): Feed, M. T. Anderson (Candlewick Press);
Eleanor Cameron Award (Middle Grades): Andrew Lost, J. C. Greenburg (Stepping Stones Books/Random House);
Picture Book: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones - Incredible Cross-Sections, Curtis J. Saxton, illustrated by Hens Jenssen & Richard Chasemore (DK Publishers);
Special Award, Best Science and Technology Education: Tales of the Wonderzone, Julie Czerneda, ed. (Trifolium Books).
A Terrible Warning
Kindly and enthusiastic people who know about Emerald City keep asking me when I am going to write a novel. I explain to them that I am a literary critic and therefore I know just how bad my own fiction is. But they donít seem to believe me, so I have decided to prove the point.
Earlier this year Steven Silver was asking for contributions for his fanzine, Argentus. The articles he wanted would be reports of visits to famous science-fictional or fantasy places. So I wrote this short story about how Kevin and I went to Gotham City to check out its suitability as a Worldcon site. You can find the appropriate issue of Argentus here.
Now, no more silliness about me writing novels, OK?
Clarke Award Loses Funding
It has been a bad year for SF institutions. Hot on the heels of the problems at Clarion East comes the news that the Arthur C. Clarke Award is to lose much of its funding. The prize for the award is donated by Sir Arthur personally and is therefore safe. However, the administrative costs had been paid by Rocket Publishing, Sir Arthurís UK representatives. It is understood that the company is making major cutbacks and stopping funding the award is part of this.
Paul Kincaid, the award administrator, tells me that he has a number of potential sources for funds and he hopes to get the award back on an even keel again. However, there are ongoing administrative costs and one-off donations to help out in the short term would be very much appreciated. If you know of anyone, or any organization, that might be interested in supporting the award please contact Paul by email. For the latest news, see the award web site.
Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I have pushed the review of Graham Joyceís The Facts of Life back an issue. It will appear next issue along with the other unreviewed World Fantasy Award nominee, Patricia McKillipís Ombria in Shadow. Other featured authors will include Charles Stross and Rikki Ducornet. Possible inclusions (depending on when the books arrive in my sweaty paws) include Mary Gentle, Al Reynolds, Nalo Hopkinson, Karin Lowachee and Scott Westerfeld. If anyone has read the new Sheri Tepper and thinks that it is worth my bothering with, please let me know.
I have also delayed the report on Foolscap because there is quite enough convention material in this issue. That will also be in #98.
Love Ďní hugs,