Words, Words, Words

November 11, 1999

Okay, time for my World Fantasy Convention report. I stayed at the Westin, the main con hotel, which had the following toiletries in the bathroom: buttermilk cleansing bar, oatmeal & peppermint body bar, bath gel, body lotion, exhilarating mint conditioning shampoo, and a shoe mitt. I still don't know what a shoe mitt is.

For lunch Thursday I walked down to the Arcade, the oldest indoor shopping mall in the U.S., with Tom Powers, where we had Greek food. Too much of it, but I wanted the falafel plate and the grape leaves, so I ate what I could. The building was rather nice--a wide central corridor extended up three stories to let in the sun through ceiling windows--but while the food was good it was nothing really special.

Then back to the hotel, where we hooked up with Christy Hardin Smith, Kytte Burke, and Fiona Avery, and hung out in the corridor outside the soon-to-be-con-suite waiting for registration to open. Eventually we wandered into the not-officially-open room and picked up our stuff, and not long after that we moved into the con suite and started talking. My big lunch served me well, since I was able to get by the rest of the night on the cheese, fruit, and cookies in the con suite. Eventually we smuggled supplies for the Friday night SFF Net party into Gordie Meyer's suite and continued the conversation there, and Fiona revealed her fondness for "hot spiced spider".

Friday I got up early for the panel called "What's Your Agenda? -- Subtext in Literature". There were a bunch of people there, which prompted me to comment as I sat down: "I must be confused. I thought this was a 9 a.m. panel."

This was the first of three panels Samuel R. Delany did at the convention. He made some interesting points, including that much early 20th century fiction had patterns that were rife with subtext (every woman who had an abortion died; every time two men made love, one would get drunk a few weeks later and drive his car into a tree; a lower-class man who had an affair with an upper-class woman would eventually strangle her out of feelings of inadequacy) and that it was the fiction that came later, that eliminated the subtext, that was perceived as having the agenda. He also had a good quote about people who don't read s.f.: "They've grown up in a world where difference gets you in trouble." And in response to the comment that a monster is something we haven't faced, Delany said, "In New York City, nobody looks at things they don't like. If somebody is staring at you, start a conversation."

After that I needed a short break, so I went into the con suite and had some lemonade, then wandered through the dealer's room. I was careful not to buy too much because I had only wheelless carry-on luggage, so I ended up with only half a dozen books: The Immortal Storm by Sam Moskowitz (a notoriously inaccurate but nonetheless seminal history of science fiction fandom, very hard to find), The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (which I last read half a lifetime ago), Deepdrive by Alexander Jablokov, The Space Eater by David Langford (a long-out-of-print novel by a famous Hugo-winning fanwriter), Dragon by Steven Brust, and Portrait of Jenny by Robert Nathan.

Then I went to the second half of "True Grit: Quests Are Hard, and War is Hell!". (The line "Quests are hard!" make me think of Talking Military Adventurer Barbie, but never mind.) Quotes from this one include Ian McDowell's comment "I'm embarrassed to admit I remember that better than the Gene Wolfe story" and Robert Silverberg's "The Grail doesn't exist. The vessel in which the blood of the Savior--good grief, I'm Jewish, the Savior doesn't exist."

Then back to the con suite, where I found a working popcorn machine. This was a very nice con suite, not just because it had good snacks and drinks like lemonade and cider, but because the layout had plenty of spaces to sit and cluster in small groups. Great place to hang out and talk.

During a tour of the art show I ran into Josepha Sherman, who told me that she'd gotten a six-book contract with an educational publisher based on one line in her resume: "likes horses". I commented on how hard it must have been to find a female fantasy writer who actually likes horses.

"The Cartography of Fantasy: Mapmaking For Imaginary Lands" was another intelligent, articulate panel with lots of good points by the panelists which I'm going to reduce to a couple of snappy quotations. Well, okay, and a neat factoid: In the 1920's Eisenhower took a military column from the Atlantic coast across the United States to the Pacific to see how long it would take(40 days). I think it was John M. Ford who commented that a map of the Earth with Australia on top looks very different; the South is an ocean hemisphere. He was also the one who said "I think around the Second Age of Middle Earth they invented the Mercator Projection."

"Knowing Too Much: How Can a Sophisticated Reader/Writer Enjoy Fantasy?" discussed books that have complicated structures or an unusual narrative voice and nonetheless read naturally. The Princess Bride was an example of this: it would be almost impossible to establish the Buttercup really is the most beautiful woman in the world without some kind of extended commentary that in some way acknowledges that the whole idea is rather silly, but nevertheless gets the reader on its side. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden said, "All it takes is a perfect ear." (She also commented, "As an editor I cherish a certain multiplicity of mind, as well as a short attention span.")

Michael Kandel suggested that readers of fantasy want to immerse themselves in the world and don't want the narrative voice to throw them out of it. Someone else later said that many people are bothered by Gene Wolfe's fiction because they see levels they can't grasp. (Which is similar to my oft-stated theory that a key bloc of Hugo voters are the ones who like exactly one hidden level of meaning. They won't vote for something that's too simple, but they like to feel like they've gotten it all.)

Someone on the panel mentioned an interesting study on nurses. The characteristic that best distinguished good from bad nurses (in terms of whether their patients had successful outcomes) is that the good ones can turn their patient's history into a narrative.

I have several more pages of notes, but that's enough for one night. More to come.

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