Now that I’m back from Finland and suitably recovered from jetlag to do substantive work, I feel ready to tell you all how it went. Curious? Read on!
One of the primary reasons for me to go to WorldCon this year was to just check out Helsinki, as I rather doubt I’ll have many excuses to get to that corner of the world again. Overall, it was a really nice place – calm, clean, and easy to get around. The convention gave all members a metro pass for the duration of the convention, which was super convenient.
Though I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of the city, what I did see showed me a few things about how much nicer some American cities would be if they made necessary investments into public transit and bike infrastructure. The noise level in Helsinki was surprisingly low, traffic and congestion were minimal, and everybody seemed fairly calm. The quality of life there looks pretty high.
I was worried when going over that I would have trouble communicating, as I was having a hard time picking up any Finnish. Lucky for me, most of the Finns I met spoke enough English for me to get by (and a great many were wholly fluent). Everybody was very nice and I really don’t have much to complain about regarding my stay.
The Convention Center
It became clear really early on that the Finns had vastly underestimated how many people were going to want to go to WorldCon this year. This wasn’t exactly their fault – they based their estimates on previous years’ WorldCons in Europe and expected, based on membership sales, to host about 3500 people. They evidently got about 6500, many of whom purchased in the final week leading up to the kick-off.
Messukeskus, the Helsinki Convention Center, isn’t the biggest convention hall and, with that many extra bodies, it was really crowded. The corridors were kind of narrow, making it hard to get around, and getting into panels was difficult. You really had to line up at least a half-hour ahead of time to make it into any given panel, meaning the best you could hope for was a panel every other hour. The first day I was there (Thursday), I failed to get into most of the panels I wanted to because I hadn’t quite figured this out yet. It was a bit frustrating.
To their credit, the organizers *did* manage to get some extra space for Friday and Saturday panels, but even still it was a mob scene.
My book signing was on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t exactly crowded, but I did manage to sign a few things and even sold a book to a convention goer (I had brought 4 books of my own, since the dealers floor didn’t have any of them – largely my own fault, as I should have been in better communication with my publisher). I also met urban fantasy author Russel Smith (writing under RA Smith), who was sitting next to me. We had a lovely chat.
Of the panels I attended, perhaps the most interesting was the last one – it was on how to write a fight scene and featured Elizabeth Bear, Sebastien de Castell, and a few others whose names are slipping my mind at the moment (sorry! Can’t find my program schedule!). Anyway, there was a lot of back and forth about how detailed a fight scene should be, but the biggest take-away was that fights aren’t interesting or entertaining unless the stakes were clear and the audience is engaged with the characters’ plights, which I agree with and is good to be reminded of sometimes.
I attended a bunch of other panels – too many to go over individually – but one thing I will say is that this particular convention had a much more academic slant than other conventions I’ve been to. Pretty much every panel had one or two academics on the subject present, rather than just a table of writers, editors, and agents. This gave a lot of the panels a more serious tone than usual and meant that a lot of the discussions reached into realms of literary criticism and academic theory rather than concrete craft-building advice or idea brainstorming. The academic side of me found this really interesting (at times), but the writer in me kinda wanted a little bit more practical and concrete writing discussion and less theory.
My own panels went well. The first – “Any Sufficiently Immersive Fantasy is Indistinguishable From Science Fiction” – featured me as moderator, Max Gladstone, Finnish academic Hanna Rikka-Roine, and British academic Farah Mendelsohn. The discussion was basically a genre distinction discussion: does Science Fiction do worldbuilding differently than Fantasy? The basic answer there was “not necessarily” and we talked a bit about what allowed fantasy or science fiction to be what was termed as “immersive.” One interesting point brought up was that science fiction more often had a clearer “what if” driving concept that affected how worlds were built, whereas fantasy often did not. Of course, all of these distinctions were subject to exceptions and variations and we were hasty to point out that rules in literature were made to be broken.
My second panel, on Saturday, was “It Can’t Happen Here.” It was a panel about the horror show of modern politics and how science fiction and fantasy can (or should) work to improve the world around us. It featured Cenk Gokce as moderator, me, Edmond Barret, Evil Ivo, and Cat Sparks. Overall, this panel was a surprising amount of fun (especially considering the subject matter) and, while we did spend a lot of time complaining about politics, we also spent a lot of time talking about how science fiction has the means to potentially reach people, give them ideas, and present problems in such a way that future generations can be inspired to find solutions. That is, of course, if global warming doesn’t kill us all first, I guess. Fun times!
While there, I met with my agent and my editor (good discussions both) and saw a few friends. I also made a bunch of new friends, too, including Russel Smith (my signing buddy), fellow swashbuckling fantasy author Sebastien de Castell, German military scifi author Robert Corvus and his friend Martin Schneider (who runs one of the best scifi conventions in Germany). I met a variety of Finns (Pasi Kallinen, in particular – hello!), Dutch, Irish, Americans, and British – new friends all. I also spent quite a lot of time alone, riding the trams and looking at the city.
I saw Max Gladstone (again) – I seem to see him at every con these days – and I met Joe Abercrombie for the first time (though I doubt he remembers me). I saw George RR Martin everywhere I went, but I didn’t talk to him (he always had a gaggle of fans around him). I met my editor’s wife (whom I gave a copy of
my book), and met a great many other people besides.
Overall, a successful trip to Finland for WorldCon 75! Hopefully I’ll be able to go next year, too. Maybe I’ll see you all in San Jose!
I am beginning to plan out my convention-attending plan for the year. As of a few years ago, I’ve made it something of a point to go to two or three each year. I’ve found them to be useful networking opportunities, I’ve usually come away with a few interesting ideas to turn over and apply to my writing, and I’ve always wound up having fun. So far, I’ve been restricting my travel to the lower 48 states. This year, though, a new opportunity presents itself:
This year, the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) is going to be held in Helsinki. I had a lot of fun at WorldCon last year – met up with some old friends, made some new ones, ate some good food, and so on. I’d really like to go again. Finland, though, presents some difficulties. For one thing, I’m not really sure anybody I know is going this year (Finland is a bit of a hike for most of my writer-friends). Going to an American city all alone is one thing, but going to a completely foreign city where I don’t speak the language and also don’t know anybody sounds even more lonely. My first convention experience was just me wandering around a convention hall, not talking to somebody, until an acquaintance pulled me out of the crowd and started introducing me to people. Would this happen in Helsinki? Maybe. But I’d also be paying more money for that gamble – that first convention I just drove to.
Then again, there are some really good reasons to go, too. This year I might get to sit on some panels, which would be worth it. The cost is actually surprisingly low (living in Boston, I have probably the shortest distance to go compared to anybody in the US)–it would cost me about as much as it cost to go to Kansas City last year (well, a *bit* more, since I’d probably stay an extra night or two to make the 13 hour flight worth it). Also, from a sheer adventure standpoint, when is the next time I’ll have an excuse to go to Finland? That seems pretty cool, honestly.
So here I am, still going back and forth. Perhaps, as I often do, I should go back and read the old masters and follow their wisdom. Most notably, the gentlemen of Monty Python:
Hi there! Haven’t posted in a while. Did you think I was dead? Well, I was. As it’s Halloween, however, I have risen from my grave to tell you what I’ve been doing in the
Underworld Columbus, Ohio.
That’s right – just got back from the 2016 World Fantasy Convention! Great times were had and now, in brief and pithy statements, I shall explain such times to you.
First off, I have to say that, despite my little crack above, Columbus is a pretty nice little city. The food was good, the neighborhood around the hotel was really cool, and the weather was downright pleasant. As a highlight, I got to go to a burger place that served not just regular hamburgers, but also burgers made of turkey, duck, elk, wild boar, or bison. I had an elk-burger with bacon, pepper jack, and a variety of interesting mayonnaises and it was quite the flavor explosion. I could probably eat at that particular restaurant every day for a year and not get sick of it.
WFC is a convention of readers above all else. Nowhere is that more noticeable than in the book bag you get as a bonus for attending. Check out this spread:
Them’s a lot of books, folks. So many books, in fact, that after stuffing said haul into your suitcase by some feat of spatial gymnastics and raw strength, on the way into the airport on the trip home the TSA will yank that suitcase out of the X-Ray machine and hand examine it. The guy unzipped my suitcase, peered inside, and offered up a non-plussed “it’s…just a fine selection of books…”
Yes, TSA guy. Yes it is.
I went to see several panels over the course of the weekend and even sat on two myself (I’ll explain those two later). The panels and the highlights were basically as follows:
I Believe I Can Fly was a panel on the mystique of flight in fantasy fiction. I saw it because my friend, Dan Koboldt, was sitting on it and I knew he and I would be on a panel later together on a similar topic. I was worried I didn’t have a lot to say about flight, but it turned out that I totally did and I wound up talking a bit much during the panel itself even though I wasn’t on it (sorry, folks). One of the better comments came from Curtis Craddock (I think) who said that, as mammals who sleep on our backs and look at the stars, flight has always been important to us. Alan Smale was also on the panel, and his alternate history novel Clash of Eagles (where the Roman Empire has survived to the 13th century and invades North America) sounds cooler and cooler every time I hear him talk about it.
Trilogies? Small Stuff! This was possibly the best panel I saw. You got to watch Mercedes Lackey and Lee Modesitt argue over who has longer running series and more books altogether (the answer is Lackey, by a country mile as it turns out), got to listen to David Drake and Sharon Shinn and Kay Kenyon talk about how to keep from getting burned out (a lot of them switch protagonists or POV as the series develops) and all of them talked about the size of a story you were planning to tell. Quote of the panel was probably from Lackey: “My muse is my mortgage.”
L.E. Modesitt Jr. Guest of Honor Speech Listened to Lee Modesitt talk about how he wound up being an author (basically spending a lot of his life working in jobs he was poorly suited to), how he writes (2.5 mile walk in the morning, then breakfast, then writing from mid-morning until 7 or 10pm, with breaks to shop, eat, etc.), and how he wound up writing fantasy (he found himself as a junior author on a panel as the only scifi writer among fantasy authors. When asked “what do you think about modern fantasy authors’ takes on economics and politics his flustered response was “they don’t seem to know anything about either one of them!”).
Sword and Sorcery Today: Still Slashing Away featured moderator Scott Andrews (of Beneath Ceaseless Skies) trying in vain to get panelists Mercedes Lackey, David Drake, SM Stirling, and James Moore to talk about contemporary sword and sorcery but instead they mostly argued about what it was and whether they wrote in the genre or not and why it mattered.
How Does Who We Are Affect What We Read was an interesting one featuring Robert J Sawyer, David Coe, and others wrestling with the interaction between reader and text and, more importantly, to what extent can we or should we learn from past writers who held reprehensible beliefs by today’s standards (HP Lovecraft, for instance). I found the discussion really interesting and the panelists got very contentious at times, which itself was instructive. No clear answers were arrived upon, as expected.
Old Stories, New Twists talked extensively about re-tellings and fairy tales – a topic that I’m professionally interested in as a professor, even if I haven’t done that myself. The panelists explored how you get into your head to retell something (the stuff that annoys you about the classic tale and exploring that further) and what new you can bring to old texts. There was also a shout-out to the fact that Belle’s behavior in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is textbook battered wife syndrome, which is something I’ve discussed at length before on this very blog.
The Mass Book Signing!
On Friday night, all authors who were on panels or otherwise part of the convention gathered in the ballroom to meet and chat with fans and sign any books of theirs that happened to be present. To my mild surprise, I had a name tag and everything and was entitled to a seat at the table with everybody else!
Now, I had but one copy of my novel and none were for sale in the dealer’s room, so I figured I wouldn’t be doing much signing. I parked myself next to Sarah Beth Durst (read The Queen of Blood, by the way – it’s great!), who I expected was going to get a lot of traffic (she did!) and maybe, just maybe some of those folks, while waiting in line, would talk to me. It worked pretty well, actually, and I maybe convinced 4-5 people to buy my book.
Then, to my complete surprise, two people (separately, without coordination) came up and asked me to sign my short story “Lord of the Cul-de-Sac” in May 2016 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. So I did get to sign stuff, after all – cool! Of course, next year I need to remember to bring actual books or see that they’re stocked in the dealer’s room, at least.
I got to sit on two separate panels, both of which were a blast.
An Aviary of Beasties was a panel all about flying critters in fantasy and what kinds were at our disposal and what to do with them and so on. It was me, Dan Koboldt, EJ Stevens, Rajan Khanna, and Susan Shell Winston as moderator. I mostly talked about the difficulty of owning or training flying mounts in a fantasy world (what do you feed them? How do you train them? What do you use them for? How expensive are they?) and a fair amount about the evolutionary role such creatures should or ought to play in your environment. EJ Stevens talked a lot about the role of various fey creatures in her own novels and some discussion was had about the dichotomy between the really big flying things (Dragons, the Roc) and the really little ones (Pixies, sprites, etc.). Dan talked a bit about the meeting of high-tech drones and dragons in his work, and Rajan discussed how his post-apocalyptic airship setting had to do a lot with how flight was an escape – freedom, essentially. Me, being the party pooper of a modernist that I am, talked about how that could also be taken as a myth – how conflict can develop from wishing you were free and then finding that you aren’t.
The second panel, and the last panel of the convention, was Atheist Fantasy: Is God Dead? This one was a real treat, with me getting to share the table with Max Gladstone, Lee Modesitt, Larry Hodges, Kevin Maroney, and Jeff Minerd. This, as you can imagine, was a really heady one. We discussed the origins and purposes of religions and how such things were (or were not) distinct from belief in or the existence of a deity figure. I offered the question of whether or not you could have supernatural, super-powerful beings and not have gods (isn’t a god just a supernatural being with a fan club?) and where the line was drawn. Max, of course, was all over the topic (and if you’ve read the Craft Sequence, you know why. If you haven’t, do so!) and Lee Modesitt was an able and provocative moderator. He left as soon as it was over, though, so I didn’t get a chance to ask him to sign my copy of The Magic of Recluse. Alas.
Much of the purpose of these conventions is to meet people – fans, other writers, editors, agents, etc.. In that regard, this convention was a great success – much better than last year, where I knew no one and nothing. In addition to catching up a bit with Sarah Beth Durst, I met fellow Harper authors Kelley Grant-Kelley, Dan Koboldt, and Laura Bickle. I saw CC Finlay and met Gordon VanGelder (both of whom are the nicest people!). I went out to dinner with a whole lot of authors and editors, had lunch with aspiring authors and fans alike, chatted with people about Neal Stephenson and The Grapes of Wrath and Black Mirror and on and on and on. It was fantastic, and I’m excited to go again next year in lovely San Antonio.
That’s about it about that. I’ll be back to my regular posting habits soon, I’m sure. Just as soon as I beat back this encroaching con-crud. Ugh…
Has to be a downside somewhere, right?
…which is the song I’m going to be humming in my head the whole time I’m at WorldCon later on this week (I’ll be getting in about midday on Thursday). As I have never been there, I cannot vouch for the sanity of their women nor am I going for the express purpose of acquiring one. I am going because I plan to meet with a bunch of friends, possibly run into my editor (or agent), and basically take it all in. As I didn’t get my act together this year to put in for a panel (mostly because I didn’t think I’d rate one), I am not there in any official capacity. You’ll be able to find me sitting by myself in the back of various rooms, standing alone in corners, and maybe even awkwardly trying to insert myself into conversations with writers I admire and then completely and utterly embarrassing myself so that I will never look at nor speak to that person again.
So, you know, my typical convention experience.
I have high hopes this time around, anyway, that this will be more fun than I typically have at these things. You see, now I know people (well, virtually) who I will be able to link up with and whom, possibly, might not object to my presence or company. That’s the goal, anyway.
In the meantime, I am editing a novel (which is currently a torturous, miserable train wreck of a book), getting ready for the arrival of the fall semester (sigh – why does summer have to end?), and planning for my Book Signing and Reading at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA.
I’ll be there between 7pm and 9pm on Thursday, September 8th. If you’re in the area, come on down, hang out, get a book signed, and check out the Boston area’s best scifi/fantasy book and game store.
Anyway, gotta run–I’ve got to bash my head against this intractable manuscript a bit more. I’ll be back next week with a full recap of the magic of WorldCon!