#Readercon Retrospective

Posted by on Jul 14, 2014 in General Chaos | 0 comments

This past weekend I attended Readercon for the first time. This was only my second con, so I don’t have a huge history to draw from, but Readercon is definitely my favorite. I came away from it with wonderful memories and fantastic ideas. There was a really diverse cross-section of people and it felt a little more up-to-date than Boskone. I’ll give you the goods and the bads first, and then if you have a burning urge to read the more in-depth analysis of the panels I attended, that will be at the bottom.

Highlights:

Seeing so many of my Viable Paradise classmates again. They are an amazing, funny, and stunningly intelligent bunch of folks. If you haven’t yet, please check out the VP section of my links and go to their blogs. Every one of them is worth reading and knowing.

A Most Readerconish Miscellany – Two hours of amusement and the only cost is whatever you would like to donate to two great causes. Music and poetry and prose all in one place. It was wonderful and I highly recommend it to anyone attending next year. The range of experience and emotion evoked by enormously talented people showing off what they do best was nothing short of miraculous. C.S.E. Cooney made me cheer, Amal El-Mohtar made me cry, and Daniel José Older made me laugh.

The Booty Don’t Lie: A Cheeky Discussion of Butts in Literature – Okay, so there wasn’t much literature discussed, but this was a great panel nonetheless. Silly and fun in all the right ways, and the audience definitely learned a thing or two. I had never heard the story of Hottentot Venus before and I found it both tragic and enlightening. There was also a pretty racy discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which may actually get me to pick up a book on Arthurian legend again.

Lowlights:

The hotel restaurant was slow. Tragically, painfully, shamefully slow. I’m not sure why exactly, but there’s really no excuse I’d accept for a two and half hour lunch during which one of our party had to fetch someone each time we wanted something, like say a menu.

Things I learned:

More people than I imagined in the publishing industry are looking for stories that don’t fit into the classic Fantasy and Science Fiction archetypes. I’m encouraged by the amount of diversity among panelists, and how committed many in the industry are to changing the dominant paradigms.

Science and Magic are more closely related than I would have guessed.

Plot without conflict is not only possible, but other cultures tell their stories primarily without conflict. Dovetailing interestingly with this is the idea that empathy can be used to propel stories rather than conflict.

Experiences in the life of an individual can impact gene expression not only in that generation, but in all subsequent generations. (This seriously blew my mind, more details below when I discuss the presentation.)

The emphasis on traditionally masculine characters has more to do with our definitions of heroic rather than anything particularly beneficial about that character model.

Things to remember for next year:

Next time, take an actual camera. Yeah, my phone has one, but I find when I actually want to take a picture it’s always almost dead. Plus I can keep the camera out without being tempted to look at my Twitter or whatever.

Seasons 52: It’s a tasty restaurant near the hotel that will get you a meal in less than three hours.


Panels:

You can see a run down of all of the programming at Readercon here. I’ll give a brief impression on the panels I attended.

Empathy, Identification, and Stories – A great panel about how empathy benefits a story and how to create it with a particular emphasis on connection to the reader. My first introduction to Guest of Honor Andrea Hairston, who really impressed me with her wit and presence. The overall message was that needs and wants are the best way to assist your readers with connecting to characters they don’t immediately identify with.

The Difference Between Magic and Science – This was one of my favorite panels, mostly because the discussion seemed almost circular at times. The definitions of Magic and Science have a great deal of overlap in the most fascinating ways. There was also much discussion on exactly what constitutes technology and how that fits into the discussion. This panel was a wealth of civilized, thoughtful disagreement that is everything a great panel should be. I could have listened to the panelists for an entire day, but alas it was only an hour.

When the Magic Returns – For me, this panel veered off course a bit, which is not to say that it wasn’t interesting, just not what I expected. They didn’t really touch on what I felt like the core issue of the panel was, why the future and fantasy seem so incompatible, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable discussion of magic. Having been in the Science and Magic panel just before, I was left with the impression that fantasy may be a way for those of us in a modern society to be sentimental about our more innocent past. Now that science has removed so much of the mystery of the world, is fantasy our way to connect with that bit of naivete we’ve lost?

Plot without Conflict – This panel of all the ones I attended at Readercon may be the one that changes my writing the most. It was a discussion on storytelling without the traditional conflict model. They mentioned that stories in other cultures don’t rely so heavily on conflict. Of particular interest to me: Masala movies use balance rather than conflict to shape their stories. Japanese storytelling uses a totally different structure and as a result emphasizes change rather than conflict. Expect more posts about this kind of thing in the future!

Can Heroes Be Happy – Tempest Bradford ran a very organized, amazing panel about why we feel the need to make our characters suffer. They focused much of their time on why the suffering hero trope is used so often, and what we can do to change it. Why can’t a superhero (or any protagonist) have a happy home life? We need more stories in the world where the hero is a loving parent and or spouse.

Romance Recs for Spec Fic Fans – This panel was exactly as advertised. Basically, a long list of romance books that would be of interest to fans of speculative fiction. I came away with a long list of new books to add to my to be read pile, as if I needed anymore. Check out the list of recommendations in the hashtags #romancerecs and #readercon. Many thanks to Rose Fox for livetweeting the list for those of us slow at taking notes!

Parallels Between the Evolution of Human Language and Genetics – J.M. Sidorova is one of the unexpected gems I discovered at Readercon. She wowed me first on the Science vs. Magic panel, and with genetics being so near and dear to my heart, I decided at the last minute to go to this presentation. Mostly this was a pretty light-hearted look at the parallels between language and genetics. Sidorova showed how genetic ‘words’ can be looked at through a similar lens as language. It was a unique perspective I really appreciated. What really blew my mind about this panel, though, happened at the end. Sidorova closed with a recent study by Michael Meaney and others dealing with how gene expression in mammals is passed down to subsequent generations. Understanding this might require a brief review of what gene expression is. Basically, when organisms encounter different environmental stimuli, the genes they express can change. This is most commonly associated with bacteria who when put in solutions devoid of certain nutrients can cause different proteins to be synthesized which will produce the necessary item a different way. The study involved stress hormone generation in rat pups as a result of handling the mothers. Gene expression is eminently heritable, which is really sort of mind boggling when applied to mammals. I’m going to read up on that and will probably have a longer post at some point because holy crap that’s fascinating.

Imaginative Resistance – An interesting panel about the interplay between morality and suspension of disbelief. It morphed into a bit of a discussion about the resistance being specifically present when readers can’t identify with the protagonist.

How to Write for a Living When You Can’t Live Off Your Fiction – I don’t have much to say about this one. They did offer a few good nuggets of information, but nothing earth-shattering. Probably the best bit of advice is that it is okay to write for free for exposure, especially when you’re trying to get jobs writing non-fiction online to build up your portfolio. They gave a link to Resources for Writers which may have some good information available, I haven’t had the time to check it out yet.

New Models of Masculinity – Another one of my favorite panels. There were some great ideas about how to make male characters less traditionally masculine, but the thing that really impressed me about this panel was that there were actual editors there saying they wanted out-of-the-box characters in no uncertain terms. They emphasized the need for more paternal characters that aren’t villains, stories featuring men being good dads, and characters that derive their self-esteem from cooperating, rather than dominating. A really great idea for a new model of the masculine came from one of the panelists about the men who stay home rather than go to war (for a reason other than disability or injury), and the strength it takes to make that decision in the face of ridicule.

The Booty Don’t Lie – I mentioned most of the important stuff in my highlight above, but really just a feel-good panel that had the audience laughing and cheering almost non-stop. Fun, and awesome.

Variations on Unreliable Narrators – I only got to sit in on the second half of this panel, so I think I missed most of the meat. What I remember most about this panel was afterwards John Wiswell told me about a really interesting sounding book about a schizophrenic protagonist that I feel like I have to read, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl which he enthusiastically recommended.

Publishing and Marketing – An unremarkable panel for me. Different ways you can market but most of them I’d heard already. The big takeaway was that the best way to market changes constantly because people hate being to marketed to.

Phew! This turned into a much longer post than I intended, but there was so much to talk about. As I said there will probably be more exploration of some of this stuff at a later date. For now, I have to get writing non-blog stuff because I have so many ideas my head may soon explode if I don’t unburden it.

Hearts and puppies,

-C

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