Words, Words, Words

November 13, 1999

The last panel I went to on Friday was "Historical Fantasy". At this point my notes start to get skimpy. The only quote I wrote down was from Madeleine Robins: "There is nothing worse than a historical novel in which all the [good] characters come from 1990." I also observed that Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay are way too young. I mean, they've been writing for just about forever, from my perspective anyway, and in person they look like they could be my age. Weird.

Friday night I'd arranged to have dinner at the Agora, the fancy restaurant in the Weston, with Amy Sheldon, Alan Mietlowski, and Doranna Durgin. The service was lousy, but the company was good. Unfortunately Doranna had to leave early for the mass signing, so her pomegranate sorbet just sat at the table melting while the rest of us ate our entrees. (She just had a salad and dessert, and asked the waiter to serve them in time for her to go sign. Unfortunately the waiter told us they were a little backed up because there was a convention in the hotel--who could have anticipated that!)

That was also the night of the big SFF Net party, which was a little too big for me. I suppose I should have stuck it out, but I hate sitting in the corner watching the action over there, or standing over there thinking "oh god i've got to sit down", plus I'm shy. (I think background noise intimidates me. At dinner Saturday I was at a long table basically between two conversations, and I didn't feel good about raising my voice to join either one. Now that I've analyzed it I could probably do better, but at the time my instinct was to wuss out.) I did talk to a few people, and I was down in the con suite when the SFF Net raiders came in search of crackers to bring upstairs (I helped cover them by the buffet table--"I'll stand here looking bulky"), but most of the night I spent finding quiet places to rest and read. Oh well.

There weren't as many panels on Saturday that looked interesting, and my notes mostly cover the panels. For some reason I tend not to pull out a notebook when having an interesting conversation. So the first thing I wrote about was the noon panel, "Rules of Engagement", which discussed Delany's proposal that reading science fiction literally takes special skills which the ordinary reader often doesn't possess. For example, Vonda McIntyre begins a story about Aztecs with the sentence, "She gave up her heart, quite willingly." To the s.f. reader, that's a clever bit of wordplay, but to a reader not skilled in picking up double meanings it could be confusing--not what you want from the very first sentence. (Other examples: "He turned on his left side.", "Her world exploded.") The sentence "He rinsed his face with water from the salt-water tap" implies the existence of fresh-water taps, and that salt water is significantly cheaper. An s.f. reader will automatically add this data to the picture of the world he's building up in the back of his head. A reader who hasn't learned this skill won't even know he's missed something important.

A nifty discussion involved the sentence "Green ideas sleep furiously", which Noam Chomsky has proposed as an example of a sentence which is grammatically correct but meaningless. Delany cited philosophers who point out that the sentence can be made meaningful with the right context; their example went something like, "Old brittle brown ideas look sternly over society with an authority they do not actually possess, but green ideas sleep furiously."

And "she would no longer receive his letters" is a sentence that seems meaningful to us, but is more meaningful when you remember that prepaid postage was invented around 1840. Before that, the recipient paid to receive letters, so refusing to receive a person's letters meant you would no longer pay for their mail. After 1840 the custom was no longer necessary.

The only other panel I went to that day was "The Story as Quest/The Quest as Story". Robert Silverberg asked, "How many of you were at the panel yesterday on quests?--oh dear." And in fact the panel did not cover much new ground. Oh well.

That night a bunch of us went to India. (Several people commented that that was a long way to go for dinner, but I explained we wanted the food to be authentic.) The place was packed. Evidently Providence really isn't big enough to accommodate a major convention easily, and the restaurant guide was (to put it mildly) inadequate. Fortunately we'd made reservations; even so, service was slow, the waiter had to be reminded a couple times to bring certain items, and there was at least one mistake on the check (which included an 18% service charge, since we were a big party). But at least the food was good.

I got back a little late for the theatricals, but I caught most of the slide show presentation of "The Tempest", with various people reading Shakespeare's dialog. (It was really, really odd to hear Esther Friesner playing Miranda.) Then came John M. Ford's "Another Part of the Trilogy", a musical revue that had clever parody lyrics but was underrehearsed and had equipment problems.

Then I went up to Gordie Meyer's suite, where the SFF Net party had been Friday night. I was a little nervous, since nobody had actually invited me and I wasn't quite positive that people were hanging out there, but I thought I'd be welcome and it turned out I was. And for the first time at WFC I felt comfortable in a conversation. Ten people in a hotel room seems to be the ideal environment for me; not so few people that you need to work at keeping the conversation going, nor so many that I feel like I have to hide. I hung around there chatting until around 11:30, when I thought it would be decent to excuse myself, then went down to the con suite for a little while before attending the midnight cabaret.

The Minneapolis WFC had a great cabaret (plus a Snotty Elitist Music Party in the smoking con suite, that I was tipped off to), which raised my expectations higher than perhaps they should have been. But there were some good performances, and a sense of fun about the whole thing, abetted by the efforts of Tina Jens as Mistress of Ceremonies. The acts included David Hartwell singing "Teen Angel"; the Don't Quit Your Day Job Players doing three rock songs; Janny Wurts playing the bagpipe; a trio of Charles de Lint, Mary Ann Harris, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden; Chris Abbey; Darrell Schweitzer reciting more poetry than he really ought have done; Mattie Braun a capella; and Rain Graves. There may have been others, but at 1:30 I decided to bail and get some sleep. Which brings me to the end of this installment.

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