Sunday, July 09, 2006

Readercon 2006

Readercon is the literary SF convention. Imagine if you will, a science fiction convention free of Trekkies and Furries and costumed crazies. A science fiction convention lacking an anime room, a tabletop gaming room, or even a crazy lady selling dragon t-shirts and cheap, gaudy jewelry. Held annually in Burlington, Massachusetts, it is a convention focusing solely on books; reading them, buying them, talking about them. It's my kind of place.

The guests of honor this year were China Mieville and James Morrow, with the memorial guest of honor being the seminal Jorge Luis Borges. Other attendees included R. Scott Bakker, John Crowley, Thomas M. Disch, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, John Scalzi, Paul Park, Paul Di Filippo, Nick Mamatas, and Ellen Kushner.

The mood of the crowd was a bit more dour than in years past -- it seems that this was the smallest Readercon attendance in years, and the dealer's room was hit worst of all. The American economy seems to be hurting some of the specialty book dealers.

But some of it is their own fault. How absurd is it that not one bookseller at the convention had a first edition hardcover of Towing Jehovah or Perdido Street Station? These are the signature books from your guests of honor, people. Wouldn't such commodities be a no-brainer? Not a Borges book worthy of merit, either. Well, what about Camp Concentration or 334 you say? Nope, Tom Disch was not in evidence either. The pinnacle of Crowley collectibles, the UK Little, Big from Gollancz? Nowhere to be found. I'm pretty sure I didn't see any Kushner books, either, and those aren't even hard to find.

I wonder sometimes if dealers even glance at the guest lists.

That's not to say I didn't buy anything -- I can't escape a dealer's room at any con without dropping a few bills. Small Beer Press was there, and I couldn't escape without picking up the first book in Peapod Classics line, Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller. I also spent quite a bit of time talking up the second in the series, Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison, a true gem of a childrens book. The third in the line, Howard Who? by Howard Waldrop had unfortunately not made it back from the press in time for the convention.

I also stopped by Old Earth Books and picked up a new reprint hardcover of Davy by Edgar Pangborn. Davy is a lesser-known classic of science fiction; a coming of age story set in a post-apocalyptic world. OEB's edition is beautiful, a quality reprint from the company that brought back Edward Whittemore's magnificent Jerusalem Quartet.

John Kuenzig from Kuenzig Books was there, and his wares are always a highlight of a dealer's room. He's one of those guys who has or can get anything you want. A great help to collectors.

I also ran across a table run by a website called SFRevu. They were selling the ARC's and hardcover review copies that company's had sent to them for review. Call me crazy, but I see this as a bit of a breach of trust. Companies do not send you free review copies so that you can undersell the retail price and take money out of the author's and publisher's pockets. These were not old books; some of them were very recent releases such as Dave Duncan's Children of Chaos and Charlie Stross's The Clan Corporate.

That wasn't the best, though. The best was that they proceeded to tell me that these were all books that they did not like, and that they refuse to review books they did not like. "There are enough 'good' books released each month that we never have to talk about the bad ones."

I'm quite certain I lost brain cells talking to that poor, poor man.

So anyway, if you ever happen to click on SFRevu, just look at the pictures. If you see a cover of a book, that means they liked it. No need to, you know, read the content.

So, the programming.

I missed out on the Friday programming due to that pesky employment thing, but my wife and I were ready for war when Readercon opened on Saturday morning. Admittedly, I didn't make it to many panels this year. I spend most of my time in the Dealer's Room or at signings and readings. Once or twice a day there is a panel that seems especially attractive, and on Saturday there were two that seemed like sure fire, can't miss, enthralling discussions.

The first was Everybody Dies with James Morrow, Thomas M. Disch, Beth Meacham of TOR, and some people I'd never heard of. (Despite the fact that I follow speculative fiction with every waking moment. I'm not saying that such filler is common, and I'm not insinuating that such people should not be on panels, but, well, such people should not be on panels.)

That's a good segue: What the hell is up with nobodies on panels? It never fails that if you were to go to a panel featuring J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, and H.P. Lovecraft, there would also be Pete Smith and Tanya Jones on the panel -- and these bloody nobodies would proceed to monopolize the conversation. Sorry Jenny Johnson, but I came to hear Ms. LeGuin -- so shut yer damn mouth.

Ok, so back to Morrow and Disch and Everybody Dies.

Nobody number 1, 2, and 3 have taken up the majority of the initial 20 minutes. Nobody #3 even seems incapable of stringing together a cogent sentence. Mr. Morrow is able to step in for a moment and make a lucid point, before being interrupted by Moderator Nobody. Mr. Disch had yet to say a word, and I was a bit concerned over whether they would bully him out of the opportunity to speak at all.

Well, I needn't have worried.

Remember now, the topic is Everybody Dies. Gothic Nobody #2 seemed to be glad at the opportunity to kill off the worlds population and was mumbling something about how hope in the face of a cataclysm was evil. Hope is disgusting, just ask the Greeks! Despair is truth or somesuch. I was pretty sure she had forgotten her medication, and I couldn't stop myself from starting to hum Love Song by The Cure.

Anyway, then comes Tom Disch. He was literally mumbling and gesturing incoherently. Complaining, I think, that no one could hear anyone speaking. (Though he was by far the hardest to hear of the group.)

Then he turned to us, pulled a microphone close, and chastised the panel for not mentioning the word tragedy with respect to the topic. Then he started to speak about Hamlet, and that's when he fell apart.

I thought he was acting at first. Then I thought he was drunk or high. He was crying uncontrollably -- into the microphone. I laughed at first, then I thought perhaps he had suffered a recent loss. Then I wondered if perhaps he was having a joke at our expense, and finally I mused over whether the man was truly bugfuck insane. I can't say I know the answer to this question, but it was certainly a panel for the ages.

And don't ask what happened next; the answer is nothing. Disch proceeded to cry and occasionally speak of poetry and tragedy and movies for the next half hour. It was incredibly disconcerting. At the very least it worked to quiet the Nobodies, but I don't wish that panel on anyone.

And so we looked to the next panel to remove the bitter taste from our tongues. This one promised to be the best panel of the convention -- Embracing The Uncomfortable with R. Scott Bakker, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Paul Park, Ellen Kushner, and David G. Hartwell. Each participant was at least somebody, and Link, Bakker, and Mieville are some of the top minds in the field.

The problem began with the panel's moderator -- the esteemed David G. Hartwell. I had drill instructors on Parris Island who were less structured and micro-managing. I suppose that's how it was done in the golden age of SF or something, but really, sometimes editors should just let the authors talk. I would pay money to listen in on a conversation -- any conversation -- between Mieville, Link, and Bakker in a bar, but Hartwell did not so much encourage discourse as ask specific questions and call the panelists to heel if they stepped outside the questions. It was so tedious and boring that I believe Bakker tried to challenge the belief of form vs content in literature simply to liven up the thing. We seemed on the verge of an interesting exchange between Bakker and Link, who were both right in their own way, when Hartwell exerted control.

After the travesty that was Jim Frenkel vs Scott Bakker and Gary Wassner at World Fantasy Con last year, it truly seems as if TOR editors have it out for Mr. Bakker. I honestly don't know. Hartwell is the same guy who disrespected PYR Books and bragged about passing on River of Gods by Ian McDonald, and Jim Frenkel is the editor for one Terry Goodkind -- so who knows what goes on in their minds.

Anyway, the panel was boring. Mieville was charming and well spoken as always, but didn't get much of a chance to talk. Bakker never got a chance to explain just what it was he was talking about, and Link was probably the gem of the panel, though she was interrupted twice.

It's sad when a discussion with such possibility wilts on the vine. Alas.

Sunday was a bit more of the same. I attended two more panels, but of all the SF conventions I have ever attended, this was certainly the least worthwhile in terms of panel content. I was, however, cheered by a comment of Hartwell's in Sunday's panel on SF criticism when he stated that no reviews online were worth reading. (He singled out Emerald City to disdain.) Oh, but reviews and criticism sure were great back in the old days.

Yawn.

I had intended to attend a panel on the New Weird in which Nick Mamatas was a panelist, but got sidetracked by Scott Bakker offering to buy me a beer before his reading. I simply could not pass up such an opportunity, but was lucky enough to at least meet Mamatas before the panel, and got him to sign my copy of Move Under Ground. Nick was a very nice man, and I say that for the record because he is known mostly for his acerbic and dastardly wit on his very popular livejournal account. He didn't make me cry, and so I considered it a good outcome.

Neil Clarke from Clarkesworld Books was at the convention, attaining signatures from seemingly every author in attendance. If you're interested in signed books from any of the authors mentioned, Clarkesworld would be a good place to get them. He was gracious enough to have a drink at the bar with my wife and I, and then he paid me quite handsomely to say nice things about him.

There was a small Brotherhood Without Banners presence, in the form of myself, my wife, and Stilgar. Maureen and I heard over and over again from friends, acquaintances, and people we simply could not recall how wonderful the Boskone party was and how memorable it had been. I repeatedly told them to "Wait until you see Worldcon."

Our final adventure at Readercon was R. Scott Bakker's reading from his forthcoming science fiction thriller, Neuropath. It's nothing like The Prince of Nothing, but it's very much Bakker at the same time. I think he said the word 'fuck' over 50 times in the half hour reading and made me consider my existence -- it was a great way to end the day.

Comments on "Readercon 2006"

 

Anonymous Jay Tomio said ... (4:37 PM) : 

Good stuff William, very interesting reading.

 

Anonymous Neil Clarke said ... (6:42 PM) : 

Great seeing you again! I hope that check doesn't bounce too high, or did I give you the one that bursts into flame on contact with sunlight?

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (9:58 PM) : 

That was some of the funniest shit I have ever read. The first panel still has me in tears laughing. Thanks for the post.

 

Blogger Ed S. said ... (1:15 AM) : 

1. I don't think it's fair to criticize people for selling ARCs. Would you rather they just throw them in the garbage???? In particular, if the money goes towards supporting a web site then there's even less reason to criticize as opposed to say simply personal profit.

2. Yes I have noticed a number of sites which selective only seem to publish only positive and usually very positive reviews. One would think we truly live in a golden age where no bad books are being written! This is a lousy trend and I can only hope that over time such one sided sites sink into the mud and disappear.

3 "The American economy seems to be hurting some of the specialty book dealers". While it is certainly true that people are putting their money into the gas tank rather than into books I also can't help wonder if specialty dealers are being hit with other factors. Specifically:
(a) a plaque of small publishers popping up and flooding the market with a glut of mediocrity which if not actually turning off buyers is certainly thinning the money out over the larger number of titles.
(b) Efforts by some small presses to significantly increase direct sales through their newsletters and heavy direct to buyer sales offers, often at huge discounts. Why buy a book from a dealer for about $40 when the publisher will sell it to you for $20? Do dealers enjoy being in competition with their publishers????
(c) Competition from the big guys like Amazon which carry many specialty books now, heavily discounted and with free shipping.

Interesting report and there's more I could say but I've taken up enough of your wallpaper.

 

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Blogger banzai cat said ... (12:12 PM) : 

Wow. I know I'm late reading this but that was a lot of good anecdotes. I had to de-lurk and ask: is David Hartwell really so hard up against Bakker and Pyr? And online review sites? Why? And what happened in that thing between Frenkel, Bakker and Wassner?

As for SF Revu, I normally check it out to see the upcoming books for the month. But what really got to me was when someone reviewed GGK's "Last Light of the Sun" and made it to be the first few pages only. That was the only time I went on GGK's forum to complain.

 

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Blogger Farah said ... (5:52 AM) : 

Hmm. No on-line reviews are worth reading?

I review for both NYRSF and for Strange Horizons. What makes my reviews in one more worthy than my reviews in the other?

 

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