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Welcome to Torcon

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

The Agony Column for August 28, 2003
The view from our hotel room is quite nice, though it damn well would be nicer if they weren't in the midst of erecting a wall of skyscrapers towering directly over the waterline. Welcome to Worldcon, Toronto, 2003. While I'll try to keep this journal updated, I can't make any promises. At least I'm not driving 50 plus miles each way to the convention. Chances are you won't have to see a property damage report scan this year.

The journey here was long but relatively uneventful. I came here with my wife as a sort of vacation. We left at 3:45 AM, and got to the San Jose airport at 4:30 AM. Typing this I just realized it was a sort of tag team event; we left from the site of the last Worldcon to attend this one. Another coincidence for the Fortean list. While we were waiting to get into the plane, we saw two other gentlemen who were clearly headed to the con as well, and they followed us through all the stops there.

I was particularly looking forward to seeing the made-famous-by-Harlan-Ellison book kiosks at O'Hare. In case you don't know the anecdote, Harlan (I believe, but I could be misremembering this) once wrote about how the paperback books at O'Hare were replaced with a frequency determined by how long it took the guy replacing them to drive around the airport. If you sold well you were restocked, if you sat around you were pulled in favor of someone else. It's stuck in my mind as the dominant method of bookselling and to a certain extent it seems to have birthed the bookstores we have today. Yes, you do get what you pay for.

The stock at these stores was actually pretty surprising. I saw Japer Fforde's 'Lost in a Good Book' prominently displayed next to the unavoidable stacks of Dan Brown's 'The DaVinci Code'. Most of them were WSmith(?) alcoves filled with Janet Evanovich (my wife read one and made no further requests), Stephen King and Dean Koontz, candy bars, funny hats and T shirts.

There was one larger --well not really a store, more like a book station -- that stocked only books and seemed to be independently owned; that is to say, it was not stamped WSmith. I was pleasantly shocked to see China Mieville's 'Perdido Street Station' shelved with mainstream fiction here, probably due to the fact that the cover illustration didn't show a unicorn. But the original gate had been changed, and we were hurried on to Toronto. Once we escaped the very LA look of the under-construction airport and made it to the waterfront, we were pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the city. Hotel -- check; Charlie Stross in the lobby trying to connect to a feckless wireless net set up for PCs with windows using an iBook -- check; Registration with the very entertaining Eloize Beltz-Decker, editor of Rain on Cherry Blossoms -- check. By then, we were starting to feel as if we'd been in an episode of 24, so it was dinner and night-night.

They do have a butt-kicking Cisco setup here for in-room networking, for which they're extracting an arm. Now it's off to the Convention, which started 17 minutes ago. More photos, interviews and news to come. Stay tuned!

8/28/2003, 9:18 AM EDT

8/29/2003, 5.59 AM EDT

As usual, a day late and a dollar short. I'm constantly hoping to get time to write about the convention, but I'm also constantly attending it. Funny that. Once we got off, we didn't really manage to get back until 11 PM.

Liz Williams in repose at Worldcon. Her stuff is heading straight to the top of my list in particular her latest.

Our first stop was a Kaffeeklatsch with Liz Williams. Lis is one of those authors that I've read review after review of, and whose work I've wanted to read but not got round to, so I thought it would be interesting to sit and speak with her -- and I was right. Also in the group -- which consisted of only six people -- was Earthlight fantasy author Miller Lau. Kaffeeklatsch is something of a misnomer; the Royal York was happy to offer the room and water, but coffee you had to buy. Oh well. Liz told us about her four novels,each of which sounded excellent. Her summary of her last novel, the acclaimed 'The Poison Master' was outstanding: "Victorians on drugs in space". She described her work as science fantasy,a and we talked about the vagaries of publication on one side or the other of the Atlantic. She was picked up by an American agent and first published in America, which meant that some folks in the UK might not have seen her books. She was famous as far as I knew, so I found it almost hard to believe that she had to bring the US copies of her own books to parties and such to make her point. Now she's published in the UK by Macmillan/Tor. Now That was an interesting topic. The two companies have the same colophon, but none of the same authors, which sort of does and sort of does not make sense.

Miller Lau -- actually Debbie Miller talked a bit about the Earthlight situation, which is basically that the authors were waiting for the other shoe to fall. The imprint has been closed down, but most will be published by Pocket books, and none thinks they'll last too long. That of course led to a discussion about publishing as a business and the backwards logic that seems to govern it. Here's the deal; you're a new author, nobody knows about you, and the publishing company won't spend a dime publicizing you. It's mind boggling. Then if by some coincidence, you hit it big, once everybody does know about you, then the publishers will publicize you.

What the hell? Now, I've known this but to hear it stated so baldly by those affected most was both absurd and heart rending, Well, that's where folks like myself -- who really enjoy actually reading the damn books come in. We're the front lines between the OUT door at the publishing houses and abyss that writers fall into if they never manage to hit it big after three or four books. Oh you can go on writing, but not under your own name! Liz and Debbie explained that it's sort of like bankruptcy. If your books don't move well enough, the booksellers will eventually just tell the publishers that they don't want to buy books from put your name here. You have write under another name a for a five to seven years until the booksellers forget, then, your good to go again. Of course all this happens under diminishing advances and pay. Demoted and extended. meanwhile, you cannot avoid Stephen King, Dean Koontz or any other big name.

Of course, this is not unusual in the arts business. It seems that nobody in the moneymaking world of publishing (or movies, or music, or whatever) has ever figured out why people buy books (movies, music, whatever). We buy it because it is good. We keep buying because we like it and can easily find it, or are reminded about it by sites like this one and dozens of others. We buy books/* not because they are like the last success but because they are different from the last success! Get it now folks! We don't want another vampire book! We don't want another book like whatever was big last year -- though we'll read that as well,possibly, if you shove it down our throats with standees and counter displays! We simply want books that are good to read. Ask people who read what is good. Give the new writers a lot of publicity and a lot of chances. Let them develop. Old and established writers will take care of themselves. If they're not -- advertise them lightly. But don't fercrissakes shove a bestseller down our gullets.

OK back to Worldcon.

Our next stop was the "Is Farscape the best TV Show ever?" Alas, it proved to be not to our taste; It was in a large room with all sorts of multimedia equipment, but they weren't showing clips. I was tempted to stay and cause trouble -- because one of the panelists said it was one of the best shows ever, and I wanted to make them defend their "best ever" position. But instead we bailed and went to the "John W. Campbell Awards Winners" panel, with Cory Doctorow, Nalo Hopkinson, and one other writer we couldn't identify because none of the name tag worked, and anyway, we were too far away to see them even if they would stand up on the desk. This panel was very funny, even though only the young half of their projected members showed up. You can see why there's such a buzz about these folks though; they were all very funny. The JWCA is awarded to short story writers along some rules and guidelines that I can't quite fathom; two years, no three years you're eligible after your first publication. Lots of jokes about those quirky little awards like Oldest Living Fan, and the impact it makes on their careers; basically, you get one book deal out of it, and if that books flies and flies well, great. It's actually publicity that the publisher is willing to invest in -- once. After that, you're on your own. And on to the next panel.

Ed Grimwood, Terry Pratchett and Agnes Nutter, er Alixandra Jordan.

That would be Discworld 101 with Terry Pratchett, Ed Harrison and Agnes Nutter. Well she was dressed as Agnes Nutter. I was going because Terry Pratchett is coming to bookshop Santa Cruz, and I was hoping to get a sort of leg up, thinking that the panel would actually talk about and discuss the basic of Pratchett's incredible and loved series. Again, another author I've not quite got round to reading, beyond of course, 'Good Omens'. (Don't expect that or any other movie, though Terry did say that 'Truckers' is looking good from Dreamworks, and even if it never gets made, they've paid him quite a lot of money for it, so he's happy.)

So, after some brief warm-ups, Terry asks "Is there anyone here who hasn't ever read a Discworld novel. My wife and I are the only two people in the audience who raise our hands. OK! Well, terry then goes on to entertain the listeners for a solid hour of nonstop hilarity. You can see why he's so popular -- he's an absolute hoot. Decided; I'll buy a few Discworld novels while I'm here.

From there it's off to "Has science fiction failed as a fiction of science?" Now I had hoped we'd talk about how SF has failed to cover past science, as Carter Scholz did so brilliantly in 'Radiance'. BUT no, we were talking about Vernor Vinge's singularity and why writers haven't written about it more. Well, my wife whispered to me "What's the singularity?" -- so really, before they started, I asked. And it was off to the races with Charlie Stross, John G. Hemry (author of 'A Just Determination', Hal Clement, and Jean Louis-Trudel. What we found interesting was how the panelists managed to talk about what they wanted to talk about. When one participant asked the third question about sigmoid versus exponential curves but mentioned Ancient Rome, well, hell, we were going to hear about ancient Rome! And it was fascinating. Now to my mind there's not a lot of questions about why we haven't had a lot of post-singularity fiction. Jean Louis-Trudel put it best; humans are insignificant. So who wants to read or write about incomprehensible entities? And I must admit I was tempted to throw another [what Charlie Stross described as] "unpleasant object" in the punchbowl and mention that Lem had been to the Singularity long before Vinge, in both 'Solaris' 'Imaginary Magnitude'. But I exercised restraint. Charlie Stross made the excellent point that such beings wouldn't be inimical, but rather very agreeable; but you'd never be able to get one over on them.

At six, we broke for dinner. I met up with Jay Lake, author of 'Lake Wu', while looking for our final stop for the night, the hilarious and often touching 'Conversation with George and Howard', wherein George R. R. Martin and Howard Waldrop covered their 40 years of writing and fandom. George R. R. Martin described a 197? Mid-somethingcon where Howard had created a very special costume that was so unique he covered it up with an old green bathrobe until the penultimate moment when he revealed himself in full and perfectly created droog regalia. He jumped upon the table and performed a rendition of 'Singing in the Rain' to a drop-jawed silent audience. Afterwards, George took Howard aside and informed him that 'A Clockwork Orange' had not yet opened in the Midwest. Oops. For his part, Howard retaliated by letting us all know that George's enormous and important fantasy series was originally the story of turtles and parakeets, the only pets that George was allowed as a teenager; one king turtle had gone under a refrigerator, never to return from the 'Mordor for turtles'.

And now I'm off to sign meself up for a Kaffeeklatsch or two. Alas, all this work and I can't even post immediately, as my ISP has chosen this weekend to "improve their services". Oh, I've been in that Sysadmin hot seat. I hope they're enjoying the slow roast. I know I did!

..and finally, it's a good idea to reflect occasionally how thin the line is upon which we live.

The US from space during the blackout. We could have been in the midst of that had the convention been only slightly differently timed.