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Stumbling towards Ceremony

The Agony Column for August 31, 2003

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


It's funny how each day of a conference can seem so different. While our Friday was a mad dash of stalking and talking, our Saturday was in comparison a day of pacific calm and relaxed repartee. I'll say this much; it really pays off to get yourself into the Kaffeeklatsches, no matter how early you have to get up or how long you have to wait, or really, how much you know about the writer with whom you are having one. Having sat myself down in the early morning in the lobby, I found myself talking to a man --whose name has passed through the porous barriers of my brain and into the general foggy ether that surrounds us -- who had written for the comics Creepy and Eerie. These were the very same comics that jump-started my interest in the macabre and Sfnal, and I surely remember seeing them in that seedy Covina liquor store as if it were yesterday. I can still smell the tobacco. I have to give this kind and interesting gentleman the brush-off. It's not like I'm an actual writer or anything. I'm here as everyman fan. But feeling the crunch of time as my appointment with China Mieville approached, in a 10 AM Kaffeeklatsch, I'm pretty sure that my facial expression began to approximate that of the fix-pin contemplating butterfly look I'd seen on a number of authors during the conference.

But really, I had a good excuse.

No excuse.

I did get the column posted on time. That was something I probably won't be able to say today, having overslept in this funereally sealed room, and contemplating another 10 AM deadline, this time to interview James Barclay for Fine Print and this site. With luck, you should be able to hear the results in later today or early tonight. I find myself in with the delicate job of balancing between attending the conference and covering the conference.

A newsgroup response to my post about Worldcon updates.

Before I plunge into the day's events, I do want to address a subject I've been hearing a bit about, in the Usenet newsfroups and here at the conference as well. That would be the so-called disorganization of the conference. I can't say that it's had all that much of an impact on this very average attendee. I heard this about last year's Worldcon as well. Yes, there were a couple of panels where some of the folks didn't show up. But enough people did show up that the panels were certainly enjoyable. Yes, there is often a look of desperation and confusion on the authors' faces as they dash hither and yon to wherever they're supposed to be. And, yes, I've only been to two of these damn things, so maybe I've never been to a really well-run one to compare.

But it strikes me mostly as a bit of whinging that's really rather off-base. These conventions have to be a huge logistical nightmare, subject to an enormous amount of changes at the last minute, changes the staff just can't possibly foresee. Moreover, in general, it's been really fun. The schedules are updated every day; so what? You get the sheet and go. I managed to pick up a sheet for the last two days last night while floating about the hotel. Now, if you're a participant, and you were scheduled for panels when you told them you wouldn't be here, well, that's another matter. Of course, my perspective is skewed by the fact that our school district couldn't even manage give our son a full roster of classes with their new computer program. Welcome to the US; precision bombing, yes, precision school districts, you'll have to wait a bit. I'm not going to whinge about program updates when I'm enjoying the program so much. Of course, I will point out that the Kaffeeklatsches didn't seem to include coffee; whatever.

Look, he's a nice guy who drinks tea with milk (we'll excuse that) and has an apple for breakfast.

And yesterday was a model of relaxation. All the Kaffeeklatsches were being held at our hotel, so there was no mad dash across the street, no bustling through crowds to find the right room. Just before 10 AM, we moseyed on down to the conference room level, found the quite lush suite where the klatsch was supposed to take place and sat down. The meeting rooms at the Fairmont are much, much nicer than the rather Spartan accommodations at the convention center. China showed up a couple of minutes early, then it was off to Bas-Lag with China Mieville. For a guy who is as talented, as famous and feted as Mieville is, he's just a one hell of a nice guy to hang out with, and that's what he brought to the klatsch; a feeling that we were all just mates, hanging out in a particularly lush pub that served ice water only.

Moody urban. Monster guy.

Here's the deal with China's fiction -- according to China. "I'm in it for the monsters; that's why I'm here." China loves his creations and it shows. He emphasized that he's in it for the grotesque and not just the gross-out. He also talked about his politics a bit; he's an ardent socialist, to the left of the left, and his novels are as political as he can make them as long as they're also great stories. His upcoming novel will be his most political yet, and features a return to New Crobuzon. The hour went quickly, as any hour spent having a good time with your chums will. I think China would have sat there for hours had they not showed us all the door. For a guy who doesn't do humor, he ws very funny. When we were braking up to take his picture, he was asked why he looked so cheerful in person yet rather threatening in his DJ photos. He informed us of the obvious; that DJ pictures were selling the book, and his books were "moody urban", so his picture was damned well going to be moody urban. See above; this moody urbanite is going somewhere and leaving lots of others in the dust. Very nicely, mind you.

That gave us half an hour to get a cup of coffee and croissant from the train station across the street, which we could get to via an underground pathway. Lots of Toronto is underground, for reasons that seem fairly unclear to me; my wife says that it's because it snows here, she's probably right.

Science fiction's oracle, genius, scholar.

Half an hour after later, we're in the room across the way from our Mieville klatsch (I refuse to type that whole damn word) waiting for John Clute. This kitsch had a totally different feel than Mieville's. Clute is almost like an oracle, words and wisdom spill out of his mouth so fast he can barely keep up with himself, and if you're in his audience, then you'd better hang on to your brain. His take on the four genres was just a joy:

Horror: This is the way it really is.

Mystery: It's our fault.

Fantasy: We fucked it up, this is not the way it's supposed to be.

Science Fiction: We can fix it.

This is one of the smartest, most entertaining speakers I've ever had the chance to hang out with. He talked about his work with the upcoming science fiction museum in Seattle, financed by one of the Microsoft bezillionaires. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, make sure you're there. He embodies the "mind boggling" essence of science fiction when speaking about science fiction. Just as the concepts of science fiction stretch the brain, he stretched the brain when speaking about the reader's relationship to science fiction. He has a new book out of essays from Old Earth books, titled 'Scores', but it's so brand new it's not on their web site. Make sure you find him if he speaks; listen if he speaks.

We whirled out of John Clute's klatsch and over to lunch with Simon Spanton, the editor of Victor Gollancz and James Barclay. Lots of fun, but not much writing talk going on; mostly we all whinged in varying degrees about politics, politicians, lies and damned lies. We practically had to run away from lunch to make the klatsch with Ellen Datlow.

Smart and powerful women. Ellen Datlow and Pat Cadigan strike a happy pose.

Mostly, Ellen answered questions about short stories; getting them published, how she chose them, what stories she chose, what stories she did not choose, what criteria she looked at when she chose a story. The panel was for the most part writers, aspiring writers and damned writers. [I'll slot myself into the last category.] Ellen was immensely generous, pulling in an overflow that probably doubled the allowed size of the klatsch and adding a half hour on the length just because she could. As a finale, Pat Cadigan joined the panel, admonishing us with the threat of a lead-lined, rolled-up newspaper. There were a lot of 'zine editors there as well; Fortean Bureau and Ideomancer were both represented. This was definitely the place for aspiring [damned] writers.

We'd spent most of the day thus far in the comparative calm of the Royal York and klatsches. It was a nice break from the more hectic room-to-room runs in the convention center. So having a bit of spare time on our hands with nothing urgent to attend to until the 6.00 PM James Barclay reading, we rambled over to the CC to check out the art show. Yikes. I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry, and yes on Usenet they said (see above) that there were customs issues that kept things from arriving. But yikes. You'd hope that there were more pros represented but in general the art show was fairly barren. I mean, at Con Jose, the space was fairly well filled; here there were far too many empty racks. They made us bag our camera when we went inside. The majority of the racks were naked plug board. I know the folks who organize the art show. They work themselves silly, but here was the first indication that in spite of the excuses that I might want to have made for the con -- written not 8 hours earlier -- things were going slightly awry. There were some very fine examples, but the pros, the folks who do the wonderful Djs that sell us our books were conspicuously absent. I don't think any of those nominated for Hugo awards were there, and I can't understand why they weren't. Oh, I'm sure there were reasons, but at some point excuses stop making much of a difference in the experience of the convention.

Liz Williams' new novel has a very nice evocative cover.

We bopped next door to the dealers room, where the pickings were also thin. I was hoping to see Andy Richards of Cold Tonnage, but no such luck; the genre bookstores were represented mainly by the famous Bakka books. Surely an icon, but when I have a hard time finding something to buy, then there's probably a disconnect. On the other hand, Liz Williams was doing a signing, and we bought her latest book, 'Nine Layers of Sky'. This book has zoomed to the top of my to-read list. Liz is a fascinating writer. No the writer is not the book, but the writer writes the book. Our experience with Liz Williams was the exemplar of why you go to a convention. First, on something of a whim, we attend the klatsch. Liz is charming, smart, the klatsch members are interesting and let both Liz and one another have a word. Then we go to the dealers' room, where we can get the book, and have the author sign it. The entire circuit is completed; from writer to book to reader. Why the Worldcon? This is why.

A totally cool cover that you can take home and display to show you're an adult reading kick-ass fiction.

Likewise with James Barclay. When I was sitting in his reading, I could imagine that a mere five or six years ago, it might have been George R. R. Martin in that room. James has a wonderful voice -- you'll hear it in his interview -- and his ability to pluck words and put them together in a picture in the reader's head is every bit as powerful as Martin's. He read my favorite scene from 'Elfsorrow', a riveting bit of battle writing that reads like a cross between 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Predator'. Note the predominance of motion picture choices in my comparison; this is the stuff of immediacy, of bestsellerdom. Barclay currently has no US publisher at the moment, and every day that passes without one is a day some publisher is shooting himself in the foot. The folks over at Gollancz have conquered the cover problem, and they've packaged the books at the adult fiction they are; not adult in the sense that there's sex or excessive violence, but adult in that they are stories about characters you'll come to care about. You'll have to give it a bit of time. 'Elfsorrow' and 'Light Stealer' both show Barclay growing significantly as writer. But that's what's fun about reading; finding a new writer getting caught up in the growing process as they go from good to great.

We returned tired and rather distracted, only barely considering what to do with the evening. We'd seen some notice about the celebrating the Hugos, but while the history of the awards was of some interest, clearly the awards themselves were what we wanted to see. When we asked one of the conventioneers about this 'celebrating bit, we got the idea that the Hugos themselves would be Sunday. Now look, this is my second convention, so what do I know? Last year, when the con was in town, I was definitely not up for 16 hours of hanging about and tacking on an hour and half drive afterwards, so I didn't go the Hugos. And to be excessively concerned about them seem like worry more about the destination than the journey. So we headed back to our rooms to crash for the night. Maybe, we though, we'd rise and check out some of the Saturday night parties. Maybe. Maybe we'd go to this history deal; fiftieth anniversary and all. But the convention wasn't that disorganized, was it?