Friday, August 15, 2014

Loncon - Day 2

It was a day to glimpse into the future. It was a day to hear the history of a made-up past. It was a day to see a Dalek in a hula skirt.

It was Day 2 of Loncon.

Another mid-morning start for me today, but, hey, any day where I can hit the con before noon is a good day. Gotta stay up late and file these meandering reports, right? I began the day at the "Genre and the Great War" panel — a fitting topic for this, the 100th anniversary of the First World War's opening year. As the panelists noted, you don't have to look very deeply to see the effects of the war reflected in the writings of those, like JRR Tolkien, who survived it. As one of the panelists noted, "World War I was responsible for modern fantasy, in that it reintroduced the values of virtue, heroism, and adventure." And yet, they also noted that it left deep scars. One of the panelists pointed out "in children's books written after the war, there are a lot of images of abandoned children — these images do more than just show that many children were orphaned; they're metaphors for how people felt about their state and life in general. Everybody in the 1920s felt like they'd lost something." Another pointed out that these cultural scars were, in some ways, permanent parts of modern science fiction: "Unlike US Civil War, and World War II stories, World War I seems to have no alternative — no alternate history. It seems to be a fixed point that had  to happen in our world." Another agreed, adding "We don't seem to be capable of believing in any other outcome than a World War I happening." This came up again when someone in the audience asked whether Lovecraft and Howard would have been the dominant influencers of modern fantasy (rather than Tolkien) if there hadn't been a First World War, and the panel, after some thought, opined that probably not, because it just didn't seem likely that there wouldn't have been such a conflict that would have ultimately inspired Tolkien or someone like him. A very absorbing discussion, and one that I would have liked to have heard more of, but I had to bail-out about half-way through to get in line for the next item on my agenda.

Which brings me to George RR Martin's reading. The lineup, as I expected, started early. Even though I arrived at the auditorium half an hour early, there were already a couple of hundred people queued-up. No problem: the auditorium looks like it seats upwards of a thousand. I figured, with the popularity of both the Song of Ice and Fire series of books and its HBO show, augmented by those of us who were fans of Martin before they came along, that there would be at least a thousand. Surprisingly, he didn't get that kind of heavy turnout. Not sure why, but I'm certainly not complaining. Better to have a huge auditorium where a couple of hundred can sit comfortably, than be jammed in cheek-by-jowl praying the AC doesn't break down. Anyway, those of us who did show up and wait in line were pretty stoked. The woman in front of me was so stoked, that she actually started hopping up and down with excitement at some point. Seriously. No provocation, no sight of GRRM himself across the lobby, not even a conversation with someone else in line about the awesomeness of the G-meister. She just started hopping, with this big ol' giddy smile on her face. Then she landed after her final hop and suddenly realized that, you know, there were a lot of other people standing around who might have been looking. She turned to me with a sheepish expression on her face, but I just smiled and said "We all feel that way." Because it was true.

So the doors opened, and in we went, and we waited for few minutes until Martin came out, and waited a few more while he waited for the organizers to bring out a table so he would have something to put his papers on as he read through whatever it was he was going to share. And then he shared.

I was hoping for an excerpt from the upcoming installment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I was really hoping that if he didn't, he'd bust out something entirely new and different, let us in on his next piece of awesome before the rest of the world knew about it, kinda like waaaaaay back at Worldcon in Winnipeg in '94 when he quietly sat down in front of a small room of about 20 of us and proceeded to read the prologue chapter for A Game of Thrones, when people were expecting an update on the Wildcards series, or a progress report on Doorways, or something. Didn't pan out that way this time though.

Martin shared a Westeros tidbit, but not quite what anyone was expecting. Seems he's been working on what he's calling a coffee table book about the world of the ASOIAF series (and that's probably no secret, because the book's due to hit the shelves sometime this fall), writing all kinds of little sidebar extras to flush-out the world we already know. Turns out, he's written a lot of extra sidebar material. Too much, according to his publisher. So, they've trimmed it down for the purposes of the coffee table book, but Martin says he's holding on to the longer versions of the sidebars because, once ASOIAF is finally complete, he plans to publish an extra book containing all of the extra world-building tidbits, at their full, original length. Sort of like The Silmarillion augmenting The Lord of the Rings. Today's tidbit was a historical text, written by some crusty old maester, detailing the lives of Aegon the Conqueror's sons, Aenys and Maegor, and their children. You don't get dialogue and tension, just an assemblage of facts and historical speculations, but if you're like me, and you love ASOIAF and you want to know everything you can about the world that Martin has built, this stuff is like candy. If someone would have told me beforehand that a supplemental coffee table book was coming out, I probably would have taken a pass, but now, knowing that extras like these are in it, Martin and his publisher have probably roped me in — and I'll probably buy the full book of extras when that comes out in several years too!

I have to hand it to Martin, despite his status and fame, when he comes into a room at a con to do a reading or appearance, he is completely committed to it and to doing right by his fans. The organizers had allotted him an hour for the reading, and he took most of it to go through his material (though not all of it - he still had a big sheaf of pages on the table), but when the end came, he really looked like he would have been quite happy to keep on reading to us. In fact, with only 5 minutes on the clock (which, strictly speaking, meant he should have called it quits, since the audience for the next session was chomping at the bit to take over the room), he opened the floor for questions, and again, gave every impression that he would have been happy to keep taking them, had the next session's attendees not stampeded in.

I've said it before: as a fan himself, George RR Martin knows what it's like to be in the audience listening, and he does right by his fans as much as he can. He's a class act.

Now, as if getting a Targaryen conquest-era history lesson wasn't enough, once the reading let out, I went into the fan gathering hall to meet my wife and get some pictures with/on an Iron Throne replica that was brought in today. Inside, I was hopping up and down with glee.

After lunch, I spent a good chunk of the afternoon just drifting through the dealers' room again. I was able to find a nice souvenir for my little niece at a crafter's table, which means I now only have to find something on this trip to take back for my nephew. Funny. I thought for sure he'd be the one getting something from the con, but so far, nothing's really grabbed me enough to make me think he'd flip for it. Oh well. Maybe somewhere else on our travels across the UK.

For myself, I stopped by a collection of used book tables run by a trio of old guys and found some old paperback copies of Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts and Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley at a reasonable price to take home. I got to chatting with the gents, and in doing so, caught a glimpse of a possible future. Initially, I'd thought they were genre lovers who had a second-hand book store somewhere. Turns out, they're actually just old fans who, in their final years, are selling their personal book collections. At this, I asked in mock-incredulity: "What? You're telling me it's actually possible for an old dragon to let go of his horde?" (because I can't conceive of it myself) But, as one of them said, they each came to realize that at their age, they weren't going to be rereading anything in their collections again, so there was no point in keeping the old stuff around. He added that none of them had grand-nephews or -nieces who were interested in science fiction, so it seemed best to sell their collections at the con, where at least the books would find good homes. And that's where I saw a possible future. Having no kids of my own, I don't have anyone to leave the entirety of my own dragon's horde of books to. Sure, my brother's trying to raise his kids right, to encourage them to grow up to be sf fans, and it looks like it might be taking, but they're still pretty young, and anything could happen. If not them, then would the collection fall to my paternal cousins (who are fans of sf, thanks to their father, my cool uncle who introduced me to Foundation and Dune) and their kids? Who knows? It could very well be me, in a few decades, chatting up the next generation (or two) of fans, hawking my beloved books.

I needed a laugh after grim thoughts like that. Luckily, I found one, after coming across a hula'd-up Dalek in the display area. Yup, grass skirt, coconuts covering its globes, and a Mai Tai at the end of its sucker appendage. All it needed was a ukelele. Or maybe that's the chosen weapon of the luau Cybermen; I don't know.

Waiting around for a panel a little while later, I got another laugh when some guy went walking through the hall, just as normal as can be, with a buddy at his side — except the buddy was telepresent through a remote-controlled robot (think Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory episode "The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification", or Holly in the Red Dwarf episode "Queeg") — when he walked through a doorway in a glass wall, and his 'bot-piloting buddy banged into the glass because the camera couldn't pick up on the glass of the window. A couple of dozen people nearby were just howling at this.

What wasn't so funny was when I went into the "Big Anthologies: Bookends or Benchmarks?" session, and the noise from the neighbouring room's sound system was so loud that it was interfering with the sound from our own room's panelists. Apparently, nothing could be done, so I and a few others abandoned it after a couple of minutes.

Instead, I ended up catching the "Classics in Speculative Fiction" session, where a trio of academics read presentations from some of their sf-related papers. I missed the first one, contrasting the experience of speaking to the dead in Percy Jackson versus The Odyssey. But the later presentations on "Ancient Philosophers as Characters in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction" (Plato in Bernard Beckett's Genesis and Roman emperor Julian the Apostate in Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock), and "A Common Thread: Representations of the Minotaur in London" were very interesting.

After a brief walk away from the convention centre for supper, my wife and I came back for the big symphony performance. No, this wasn't a gaggle of fanboys and fangirls sitting around with kazoos and cheap synthesizers, this was the real deal. Loncon 3's organizers gathered together members of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Britten Sinfonia to form an 80-piece orchestra, along with a conductor and a soprano. When the fan community of London tells you they're going to give you a little culture, they are not fucking around. The evening's selection ranged from classics like Gustav Holst's "Mars" to movie themes, such as John Williams' "Superman March", and Gary Lloyd's "The Bridge Redux" (created in memory of Iain Banks). I had to leave half-way through to come back to my hotel room to take a business call, but the performance was phenomenal. Bravo to all involved!

Tomorrow: well, more con stuff, of course.

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