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How Not to Stalk the Guests at Worldcon

The Agony Column for August 30, 2003

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


Yesterday's schedule, crumpled and frail.

We haven't read any Discworld books.

We don't like Firefly.

We're not stalking Charlie Stross.

As I look at my much folded, crinkled, parchment-like schedule from yesterday, I'm rather glad that without my glasses, I can't see anyone around me. I must be something of a sight here in the lobby of the Royal Fairmont York. I've captured a little round table in the lobby, twisted a chair about and pushed the lamp aside so that I can work on my laptop while my wife sleeps. I did a fair amount of coughing last night -- what with the 10 PM dinner and all -- and she deserves, no she'll need some rest for today's festivities.

My day began early yesterday. I got up at 5.20 AM and wrote out the column that posted yesterday, then headed over to the Convention Center to see what was up with the Kaffeeklatsch signups at 7 AM. I managed to find a couple of folks over there who would have happily had a long conversation while I waited patiently, had I actually waited patiently. Instead, they very kindly told me that they were registration that their day started at nine AM, thankyouverymuch, and that the folks over at the info desk who ran the signups would probably start at that time as well.

I returned about an hour and a half later, having made some major headway into David J Schow's new novel, 'Bullets of Rain'. It's great to have Dave back in the novel business, let me tell you, and not a little relief to be reading something very much other than SF at an SF convention. Upon my return there were four people milling about, and I was very kindly informed that the line for the Kaffeeklatsch signups started back there. After about five minutes of standing up, I sat myself down and read Schow's novel while a line formed behind me.

Some of these people may have been disappointed.

That line got pretty long, long enough so that some folks at the end were going to be disappointed depending on who they were signing up to see. And we were all disappointed as 9 came and went, 9.15 came and went, and while the info desk filled up the signup sheet lady never showed. When she arrived late and harried, she explained she had overslept. Fine, great, but it happened that the first girl in line had waited in vain because there were no indications before as to who would be available for signups. But I wasn't disappointed; today I'll be talking to China Mieville, John Clute and Ellen Datlow.

George R. R. Martin reads his latest at WorldCon.

Post coffee, post everything, the wife and I showed up for the George R. R. Martin reading. My wife and I enjoy the readings because well, we're both readers. Hearing an author read his work is an immensely rewarding experience that is unpolluted by the contributions of well-meaning audience members of the panels.

My first George R. R. Martin purchase.

While I've read quite a bit of George's earlier work -- I bought a very seedy paperback collection ages ago in the Monterey Park bookstore -- I haven't read any of the more recent fantasy work that he's been doing. It all comes very highly recommended by people I trust, but the fact of the matter is that the radio station introduces a rather welcome uncontrolled element to my reading list, so I don't always get to read what I think I'd want to read, and neither has my wife. But the reading convinced me that there's a reason why everybody loves this new work so much. Martin has some great prose, and in the reading the pictures he painted were crystal clear, in spite of my utter unfamiliarity with his entire setup. Alas, at times the partitions that were pulled between the rooms allowed the sounds of those next door to impinge upon my consciousness. Still, the performance was powerful. I'm ready to sign up for his saga, and mayhaps will start reading them with the aim of catching up to his part of the saga slightly before the fourth book comes out. But it's clearly not yet done, and the six-book limit that Martin set for himself seems pretty porous at this point. I guess that originally there was to be a five-year gap between the end of book 3 and the beginning of book 4. That's now shrunk to a five-minute gap. One of the most interesting things about attending a convention is to see writers struggling with their own creations, to see them fighting battles with their own fiction. Martin wrapped up about five minutes before the end of the session and had just enough time to explain where things were. Then Claire and I were off to the races.

From noon until five PM, we shuttled from panel to panel to reading to reading to panel. It was pretty hectic. On our way from the reading to the panel, I saw Charlie Stross, and stopped and asked him about an interview for this column. I rather regretted it. Charlie is sort of the belle of the ball here -- from what I can tell -- and he quickly acquired the look of a butterfly contemplating the pin that was about to affix it to a Styrofoam display board. I had seen his posts on Usenet for a bezillion years, from back in the Quotron Days, and I'd obtained his signature on my convention book last year, in a line of one person. That's no excuse. I had seen him a couple of times the day before and I could see the desperation quotient rising as he scuttled about between the seemingly constant panels he'd been assigned to. What made it worse was that I had attended those panels, as they were actually in topics that interested me. On this final stop, I felt really bad, like some sort of stalker, which I wasn't. Really. I'd seen a couple of other writers I knew -- Cory Doctorow, and even Liz Williams the day after we'd had out Kaffeeklatsch. Claire identified the sort of walk that these writers have to assume. It's a quick stride, eyes fixed firmly on the sidewalk about six inches in front of their feet. The pressure to pack in a year's worth of publicity must be quite intense. On the other hand this may all be some sort of terror-noia (thanks Mr. Doctorow!) on my part. It's most likely that I'm fairly invisible.

John Clute's novel for three. If so, I'm in good company with Thomas Disch.

Having rather embarrassed myself, I was happy to head to the next panel with...Charlie Stross. This was on quote The Maturing of SF and Fantasy unquote. Everybody concerned thought that the panel was a bit on the vague side. As usual, so far, half the panel didn't show. Gordon Van Gelder opined that the maturation of SF&F was a bad thing. I'm not so sure I agree, but then van Gelder admitted that he felt his audience was the well-read 13 year-old boy. I can tell him it's a shrinking market. He'd better start editing video game magazines if he wants a retirement plan. Charlie talked a bit about deep science fiction, that is SF that requires a fairly thorough knowledge of the genre before you can enjoy it, and about the kind of SF novel that only three people can enjoy. I was apparently one of the three who enjoyed John Clute's 'Appleseed', the book in question if I'm not mistaken. But there you go. I'm the kind of guy who wrote a column on difficult reading.

Jack Chalker's novel of fantasy and mathematics.

I was really impressed by Jack Chalker, and once again, here's the reason to attend a con and the panels at a con. Chalker opined that some readers probably looked at his books and considered him something of a commercial writer -- guilty as charged. But when he spoke of his writing, he made clear his commitment to thoughtful, entertaining fiction. He talked about how 'Midnight at the Well of Souls' drew an equal response from the Tolkien-loving fantasy readers and math professors. That made it sound pretty damn intriguing to me, and just what I need -- another book that sounds entertaining. And out of the seminar and on to the next.

This time round it was a panel on 'Buffy: the Triumph of Characterization'. With Ginjer Buchanan, I knew it would be well-run and fascinating, and I was not disappointed, and more to the point, neither was my wife. We're both big Buffy fans, and it was interesting to hear what editors, writers and fans had to say about the series. Of course, as in Dilbert, there is often a Loud Guy, and there was one here. I might actually be the Loud Guy, were it not for the mollifying presence of my wife, so I have some sympathy. But still, it does make one wish for the Human Mute button, and point out the problem of the panels, that is, that they're no better than the attendees. Sheer statistics would lead one to conclude that this could be a problem.

#1 in the series of books that we haven't read.

Thus, we were more inclined to attend the readings. Here, there was none of this pesky audience participation, including from YT, who would not have an opportunity to embarrass himself. Our next stop was a Terry Pratchett reading. The previous day, when Pratchett asked in the Discworld 101 panel "Who here has not read any Discworld books?", my wife and I were the only two to raise our hands. But we really enjoyed the panel --which was mostly Pratchett ("How do you talk about God when he's sitting next to you?"), and we thought the reading would be entertaining. It certainly was, but it wasn't only Pratchett who was entertaining. The panel next door was a hullabaloo of yelling, shouting, clapping and laughter. I had a hard time hearing Pratchett. Moreover, the people next to us had brought their very small daughter, and I'm glad for them that they did, and I'm sure it was nice for her, but she also yakked a bit until they took her. Having had two children myself -- who are now teenage boys -- I felt for them. But the real entertainment was the gentleman who came in late and sat a couple of chairs down from me. Like him, I enjoy listening to reading with my eyes closed. Unlike him, I don't fall asleep and snore loudly, tossing and turning. I loved what did manage to hear from terry's new book, which is terribly relevant in these tough times. I can't wait to sink into it when I return, in addition to the other books I intend to buy today.

Next up was China Mieville's reading, in a much smaller room. It eventually was packed, and China read a riveting and very funny passage from his newest Bas-lag novel. Damn that guy can write. He told us he'd be done by the end of the year and that the book would be out mid/late next year. Apparently, the title is being passed about on the Internet, but I haven't come upon it, and China is superstitious about his writing, and wishes it wasn't out and wouldn't tell us the title. There was 20 minutes or so for questions and I asked about his comedic tones. He replied that he didn't put them there deliberately for the most part, and that he was mostly dark, dark, dark. Then he made everybody laugh with a dozen witty replies. Go figure. To my mind there's a nice tone of dark humor that runs throughout his work, and the scene he read was openly funny. I'd like to see more of that. Dark is fine --and it's also funny. Great questions here for the most part (except for mine).

James Barclay's two most recent releases; the wonderful 'Light Stealer' and the as-yet unread 'Shadowheart'

Claire and I were getting a bit ragged by this time, but there was one I had to attend with James Barclay, author of 'Dawnthief', 'Noonshade', 'Nightchild', 'Elfsorrow' and 'Light Stealer'. The theme was 'Fantasy economics', and the entire panel showed and they were all great. Ed Greenwood had been on the Terry Pratchett Discworld 101 panel, and had hardly said a word. More's the pity, because he was quite witty here. Carol Berg and Cheryl Morgan were also witty and erudite; Cheryl's up for a Hugo this year for her Emerald City website. Bill Fawcett showed up late with a passel of problems and insights for the economics of games. The repartee was compelling, with Bill Fawcett's tales of computer game woe being something of a standout. Barclay was funny and very straightforward; considering economics helps give your characters depth. His novella, 'Light Stealer' displays this to a great advantage.

After the panel, I met Simon Spanton, the young editor from Victor Gollancz who has brought the world some of the best SF&F writers we've seen in the past five years. It was an honor to talk to this behind-the-scenes guy responsible for much of the best fiction out there. Here's a way to choose your fiction via imprint. If you can find an editor like Spanton, who clearly has a vision of great fiction, follow him. Darren Nash, once of Earthlight books has a similar sensibility. There are others -- but that's a different column.

Whipped, beat and pulped, Claire and I tried to eat in one of the very weird Texan restaurants here in Toronto. We literally had to run away. We finished up the evening in a panel on 'Why Did Firefly Fail and Angel Succeed?' Well, it seemed pretty obvious to us; 'Angel' looks great with nice art direction and set design, while 'Firefly' always had a sort of bargain basement look. It all looked very stagey. So, we get into the panel, and they ask: "Who here likes 'Firefly'?" Everybody but us raises their hands, cheering. "Who here doesn't like 'Firefly'?" We raise our hands, to some scattered booing. I felt like Donald Sutherland looking at a busload of bodysnatchers. And thus was the tone of the final panel set. It was really informative, and yes, I might give the show another chance on DVD. But just try being a heretic at an SF convention. Outcast, stalker, outcast. I tried not relish the roles, and rather failed.