Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A Soundtrack for the End of the World - The Top 10 Songs for the Apocalypse

With all the talk of the end of the world and post-apocalyptic wastelands at VCon this past weekend, I started thinking about music where global cataclysm was a central theme. Two or three songs came to mind right away, and I decided to put the question to some friends to see if we could flush it out into a good Top 5 or Top 10 list, and they came through with flying colours (or musical missiles, if we want to stick with the focus).

Many of the following selections deal specifically with the end of the world, its approach, or aftermath, but a couple are more about personal end or metaphorical annihilation.

Submitted for a jukebox in the wasteland waystation of your choice, I give you:

The Top 10 Songs for the Apocalypse:

10) "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd

9) "My City Was Gone" by The Pretenders

8) "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" by Monty Python

7) "The End" by The Doors

6) "Mad, Mad World" by Tom Cochrane

5) "If" by Bread

4) "When the World Ends" by the Dave Matthews Band

3) "99 Red Balloons" by Nena

2) "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" by R.E.M.

1) "Bad Moon on the Rise" by Credence Clearwater Revival

Honourable Mentions:

"Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell. Yes, to many listeners, by all rights, this classic should be in the Top 10. But it didn't make the cut this time around because, over the decades, it's just been so massively overplayed. Besides, when it comes to songs about the destruction of the landscape and the loss of culture, I much prefer The Pretenders' "My City Was Gone". My list, my rules.

"Don't Drink the Water" by Dave Matthews Band. A great song about cultural annihilation, but there's already a DMB tune on this list - one that actually ends abruptly with "...When the world ends-" which just fits too perfectly to not make the list.

"Slime Creatures from Outer Space" by Weird Al Yankovic. How can you not love Weird Al's tribute to destruction at the hands of alien invaders? And I do - just not quite enough to make the list, when the suggestions from the rest of the gang have been factored-in.

Thanks to William (first to jump in!), Nicole, Phoebe, Colin G, Catherine, and Colin F for your nominations!

So what about the rest of you? What are your favourite songs of impending doom for the planet or our species that should be on the list?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

VCon 2012 - Day 3 - I Went to the Apocalyptic Wasteland and All I Got was this Lousy T-Shirt

Okay, I admit, the venue was not a post-apocalyptic wasteland (only conceptually, as panels were discussing this year's theme for VCon; although sometimes the hotel had problems with the plumbing, in which case it approached cataclysm), and I ended up buying more than a T-shirt, and the this year's T-shirt was pretty cool - in part because it glows in the dark and under ultraviolet light - but I just couldn't pass up the opportunity for a lame T-shirt joke in the headline.

But that's all beside the point.

Today, much to my sleep-deprived brain's chagrin, I hit the con earlier than the previous days, which is to say noon. Still not early enough to make it to a science panel I really wanted to see, "The Red Empire" (what a cool session title!), about the prevalence of red dwarf stars in the Milky Way, and the likelihood that alien life might evolve on planets orbiting them, and what that would mean. Woulda been cool, aside from the subject matter, because the panel included Gregory Benford, and UBC astrophysicist, VCon veteran, and all-around interesting and entertaining dude, Dr. Jaymie Matthews. Oh well. Can't see 'em all.

What I did arrive in time to see was the "Dealing with Your Clone or Doppleganger" session, which wandered off topic somewhat due to the presence of Benford on the panel. Seems Benford has an identical twin, so much of the discussion turned to questions about, and Benford's reflections on, life as a twin, rather than clones and dopplegangers (although both were mentioned off and on briefly).

The best line on cloning, and what would you do if you were cloned and you ever met your clone, came from panelist, and Artist Guest of Honour, James Ng, who said "If I met my clone, I think I would learn a lot about myself - before we fight."

On what it's like to be a twin, Benford got laughs with "Of course we're unique - there are just two of me!"

After the session was over, I went down to the art room to see if I could buy a print I've had my eye on for a while, but it was too late, they were already packing up most of the works and preparing for the final art auction. So I ducked out for a quick lunch.

When I returned, I hung around the art room for a bit waiting for the auction to start (it was running very late, and I decided not to stay, especially since there was nothing on the block I was much interested in bidding on), then thought about, and decided against, attending the "Elron & Faned Awards" session (the Elrons are a tradition at VCon - mock awards for stupidity in science fiction and science). I've seen that award session a few times in the past, and while it's fun, it's not a "must-attend". So, I headed up to Uncle Victor's Movie Room. Last year, I spent quite a lot of time in the movie room - there were a lot of films on the roster I was interested in watching, Uncle Victor is a fun host, and there were a lot of time blocks last year where I wasn't interested in the programming. This year, there was a lot of interesting programming, and most of the movies I could take or leave. This time, I watched most of an hour of 2001 before moving on to another session.

That session was called "You'll Get My Books When You Pry Them from My Cold, Dead Hands". The panel and audience debated the merits of paper books versus e-books, and the likely future of publishing. Nothing new at all in the discussion, but I can't say I was bored or wanted to leave. I won't criticize anyone for reading e-books (I keep a couple on my iPhone, in case I've got time to kill and I'm without something from my bookshelves at home), because in an age where it seems fewer people are reading books, reading them in any format is a good thing. That said, my preference is very much for paper books. I prefer the sensory experience of a physical book, and I like to have my collection. Smaug had his pile of gold; my treasure is shelves of books. I also prefer to know that when I pay for a book, I own it and no-one can take it or mess with it without breaking into my home and fighting their way past the cat, whereas it's been demonstrated that it's pretty easy for publishers to put limits on the usage of electronic files on e-readers, or withdraw them or alter them, when the mood suits the company. No thanks. Not when I'm handing over my money for. I also want to be able to leave my book collection to loved ones when the page is eventually turned on me. I'd like them to get the same enjoyment and intellectual stimulation from them that I have, and, perhaps, in taking-in my collection as a whole, they might gain a little more insight into me.

Next, it was over to "Grocery Store or Gun Shop" where the panel and audience discussed strategies for dealing with a number of different types of apocalypse. The consensus: get out of big cities where unattended infrastructure and runaway fires or floods as a result of that could be hazardous, and where decaying bodies would pose a threat of disease. Head for the countryside, but be sure to stock up on food and medicines, and small but important implements like needles and fish hooks that would be hard to make in the wasteland. As to the question of whether to hit the grocery store or the gun shop (not that there are many gun shops in Canada - unless you count hardware/outdoors stores, like Canadian Tire, where they can be purchased), well, food's more important, and you have to figure that the people who own and work at gun stores will know how to use guns, and be fairly vigorous about defending their turf, and those who would try to take down a gun store would probably be pretty rough themselves. Let the bad guys fight it out while you get the resources that'll let you survive the winter - and go to the bookstore while you're at it, for survival guides, medical texts, manuals for brewing and distilling (alcohol giving you safe drinking liquid, and, if made strong enough, good for sterilizing wounds and equipment), and any other how-to books you might need. Besides, as one of the panelists put it, a bookstore or library is the last place you'll run into violent gangs in the wasteland.

The downside to the Grocery Store/Gun Shop session was I fear I've exposed myself to con plague. The person next to me was coughing and sneezing through the whole thing, and stopped to talk to me, standing right in front of me not two paces away at one point (I held my breath the whole time), so if I come down with a bug this week - the week before Thanksgiving, no less, when we're going to be hosting the family next weekend - I'll know I brought more than a T-shirt home as a souvenir of the con.

Anyhow, after contagion roulette, it was time for the closing ceremony. Highlights of this year's goodbye (where Benford left us with a "So long, and thanks for all the fish!") included a late presentation of an Aurora Award (Canada's top honour for science fiction and fantasy). Turns out the winner couldn't make it to the con in Calgary earlier this year, which was hosting the awards ceremony, so they forwarded it on to our con committee for presentation. Congratulations to Tarol Hunt, for winning an Aurora for his graphic novel Goblins. Congratulations to the others present who were presented with Aurora nominee pins. Well deserved, everyone!

The other highlight of the closing ceremonies was an impromptu charity auction. For the last couple of years, VCon has been fundraising for a local non-profit, Aunt Leah's Charity that helps young, single mothers with young children. Usually money from the Turkey Readings session (where panelists read from a selection of some of the worst SF ever written, while audience volunteers act out the plots, and other audience members bid money to try to make the "performances" stop, or to out-bid the stoppers and keep the torture going) and a few other activities goes to the charity. This year, in addition to those efforts, Author Guest of Honour Connie Willis heard about the fundraising, and donated copies of five of her books to the con committee to auction off. Willis was pleasantly astonished, blushing, when she saw how quickly the closing ceremony audience members stepped up to the plate. A paperback copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog went for $80. When Blackout and All Clear were offered as a package, the bids went back and forth until one guy landed them for $100. In all, the five books raised $290 for the charity in just 10 minutes. Way to go audience!

With that, there were a few more closing remarks, and VCon 37 was all over except for the "dead dog" party for organizers and volunteers (and any other die-hards who were still able to stick around).

Next year's theme: Pirates & Piracy - sea, space & web. If the committee does the same kind of job with that theme as they did this year, it's going to be a top-notch event.

Until then, all we can do is fondly remember this year's get-together, and maybe scream:
(sorry, couldn't help it)

VCon 2012 - Day 2 - Treasures from the Crash

Like any treasure-hunting expedition to the untouched ruins of a city hidden in some forgotten corner of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's a simple reality of going to a con that you're not going to get to everything. Sure, some try: die-hards, fueled on caffeine and willpower who pinball from panel to room party to bar to gaming room and so on in a desperate effort to take in EVERYTHING. And more power to them. Someone's gotta be the ultimate party animal. But even those intrepid souls can't do it all. Sooner or later, they choose one session over another, or crash from lack of energy. For the rest of us, there's resignation to the fact that you're going to pick and choose, and end up missing a bunch of potentially good stuff, and valuing the good experiences you do have, all the more, as a result.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I was completely bagged from staying up until past 3 last night doing post-con blogging, and I ended up sleeping-in this morning, then grabbing a late lunch with my wife, thereby missing a whole bunch of really cool-sounding sessions this morning: Parallel Universes in Science and Science Fiction, the James Ng Slideshow, Aliens Among Us, the Connie Willis Interview, the Gregory Benford Interview, and so on. But, hey, everything in balance, right?

Arriving at the con around 2 though, I was in for a surprise - a pleasant one - right off the bat. Today, I'd decided to wear my Ghostbusters hockey jersey (courtesy of Dave's Geeky Hockey, which is perhaps the strangest, but most awesome mashup of nerdity and sportswear I've come across). While coming through the lobby, I exchanged friendly nods with another con-goer who I've seen, and occasionally chatted with, at VCons over the years - no-one I'd say I really know, but familiar and friendly enough. After a second though, he did a bit of a double-take, looking at the jersey again, and came striding over...

"I've got something to show you," he says. "Come with me!"

"Um. Okay," I replied, and followed him to the elevator, thinking that this was pretty weird. But then again, it's a science fiction convention. The whole joint's weird. And it's not like I was getting a bad feeling off of the dude, and I'm solid enough to hold my own, if need be, so up we went. I stood in the door as he rummaged around for a minute, then he turns around and presents me with a lap tray - like the kind you're served breakfast-in-bed on - branded with the old cartoon The Real Ghostbusters.

My brother and I used to watch the show (anyone remember that Arsenio Hall used to voice Winston Zeddimore before he landed his talkshow?), but I hadn't thought about since... well, since it was on 27-or-whatever years ago. Certainly not something I'd expected to be reminded of, and definitely not a piece of merchandising I even thought would have existed in the first place.

I made the appropriate appreciative noises for the pop culture relic and made to hand it back, but the guy said "No, it's for you." I said thanks, but I couldn't take his find. But he said that he'd got it from an uncle a while ago, but realized that while he likes Ghostbusters, he's not a huge fan, and with limited space to store the treasures he does love most, he figured he might as well bring it to the con and give it to someone who looked like a fan of the franchise. No charge. No trade. Just wanted to find a home for it. He saw my jersey, and figured he'd completed his quest.

So, with many thank-you's, we proceeded back to the lobby, and I brought the tray down to my car so I wouldn't have to lug it around the con all day.

But what a nice surprise! How often is it that someone singles you out, based on what you're wearing, and just gives you something because they think you'd like it? As geeks most of us, at some point in our lives, have probably been marked because of something we were wearing, or some possession we had with us, but we were probably picked-on for it. How many other circumstances are there, other than SF cons, when a relative stranger points at you in a crowd because of your attire, and, without bullying or guile, gives you something? A genuine, simple act of generosity from one fan to another, knowing that the other person might appreciate a collectible? Outside of a con, not very often, in my experience.

Now I'll have something to balance my sandwich and drink on, next time I'm eating in front of the tube.

After that, it was on to my watch my first panel of the day: the live recording of the Caustic Soda Podcast, with guests Willis and Benford. Now, admittedly, until this point, I haven't been a follower of this podcast. It's something I'd heard about in the periphery of my attention at cons in the past, but for some reason never paid attention to the talk, or didn't follow up on it. My mistake. Today, I decided to give it a shot, since I'd seen one of their hosts yesterday and was pretty impressed, and because today they were bringing two of the con's guests of honour on board.

Wow. What a lot of fun! The boys from the podcast are smart and funny and keep that thing jogging along at one hell of a pace. I think they were recording for an hour-and-a-half, but the time just exploded by. Both Willis and Benford were a pleasure to watch in action as well, as the discussion bounced around the con's theme of Post-Apocalypse. As guests go, Benford was more reserved than Willis, but personality-wise, he seemed kind of like a straight-man in a comedy team: watching, waiting, timing, letting the others get the shots in, then quickly stepping in with a deadpan zinger that had everyone laughing. I'd love to quote some of the great lines that came up, but that'd be a spoiler, and it's much better all around if you just go to their site (or iTunes) and wait until this episode is posted and listen to the whole thing yourself. That said, well done, everyone!

While I didn't give the 'cast any thought before, today's show has definitely made a fan out of me. Before i head back to the con tomorrow, I'll be downloading a couple of their older shows and start making my way through their archive on the drive over.

Once the taping wrapped up, Willis and Benford were both kind enough to autograph a couple of books I'd been lugging around with me. I asked Benford to sign his short story in my copy of the Norton Book of Science Fiction, "Exposures". Willis signed the Norton as well, on her story "Schwarzschild Radius", and her story "Miracle" in the Christmas Stars anthology.

With a little time to kill, I went down to the Dealers' Room. Forgot to mention it in yesterday's post (weariness was blurring the details), but I had a good chat then with my friend Walter from White Dwarf Books - I don't think we'd had a chance to catch up since he joined me on a pilgrimage to the Canadian Barbecue Championship in Whistler this summer. I'd also spend a few minutes shooting the breeze with Karl Johanson, Editor of Neo-Opsis Magazine. It's been a little while since I've read an issue of the mag, but I have read them every now and then in the past, and enjoyed them. One of the things Johanson said that stuck out in my mind was that his first criteria for picking a story is "Do I like it?" - before theme, or style, or other considerations, because his initial enjoyment is the most important test as the guy who'll be offering those stories to other readers. That reminded me a lot of what an old artist and retired UBC art professor who's a friend of the family once told me about picking art: Choose what you like. Technique, symbolism, the artist's name and popularity don't matter anywhere near as much as whether you like what you're looking at. Definitely words to live by for any form of art. And speaking of art, I also enjoyed talking with a guy who makes Doctor Who and steampunk-inspired necklaces, keychains, and various nick-nacks. We had a bit of a debate over the question of whether nerds and geeks are the same thing (I maintain they are, the crafter maintained they're not - nerds being hyper-analytical and geeks being big-picture creative, in his estimation), which put me in mind of a diagram someone put online a few years ago, but despite our differences, we both enjoyed the exchange.

Anyhow, today's first trip to the Dealers' Room was made with the intent of fulfilling my VCon tradition - buying the latest addition to the Tesseracts anthology series (showcasing Canadian science fiction and fantasy) from the Edge Publishing table. Nice folks, in from Calgary, and what was even nicer was that they were offering a deal where you could pick any two books from the table for just $20. Pretty good, considering the Tesseracts volume was about $15 or $16 on its own. So I snagged it, along with a copy of KA Bedford's Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, which I recall had received some good buzz when it came out a while ago. Knocked another 2 bucks off the price of those books, because I remembered I still had my "con bucks" with me. Nice.

On the way out of the room, I had a nice exchange with a lady at one of the costuming businesses, which was a bit unusual, in that I'm not really into costuming, but that's the cool thing about cons, you get to talk with all sorts of interesting people, some of whom have similar interests, others completely different, but all of them with a lot of passion for what they follow and what they do, which makes for good conversation.

Then it was up to another panel: "The Shadow, Doc Savage & Sky Captain: The Pulp Movie Problem". The session analyzed why pulp fiction, which was so popular in the early 20th Century, somehow has not been able to come back and gain box office success in the movies. It started out a little slow, but built up momentum and became quite entertaining. Best comment off the top was probably Stan Hyde's "Pulp fiction is not what Quentin Tarantino thinks it is."

One of the interesting exchanges involved R. Graeme Cameron suggesting something along the lines of:

"Modern comics work in film because they are living pop culture. Most of the pulp fiction characters are fossils. They're dead."

To which Hyde responded:

"Pulp characters do work on film. There is a movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Good stuff.

After that, it was more good stuff - back in the Dealers' Room, though it was more good discussion, rather than a purchase. I had some time to kill before anything of interest, so I went down for another look at the SF Canada table, and ended up having an in-depth discussion of Tolkien with one of the ladies there. For an hour. How many times can I say it? That's what a con's about, good discussions with interesting people. As many others have pointed out about this and many, many other cons, some of the best times you'll have are outside of the sessions: in the bar, the hallways, the elevators, the room parties, and, yes, the Dealers' Room. Just a delightful way to spend time. At the end of it, she gave me an invitation to the SF Canada Members room party later on.

From there, I took in the Costume Contest, which was already under way by the time I got to the room, but there was still quite a lot to see. Nice work by many of the costumers. Lots of variations on the post-apocalyptic badass, in keeping with the con's theme, but there were a few that went their own way. Big kudos to the woman who made a working mermaid costume (meaning she can swim in it, not that she'd somehow bioengineered herself to be half fish), and the big guy who geared-up as Thor. Coincidentally, Thor had to carry the mermaid from her seat to the stage about half a dozen times, because, with the tail on, she couldn't even hop without losing her balance. The big prize of the night, however, went to a couple dressed as David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth - except the dude didn't have the frighteningly large codpiece bulge that the Goblin King was sporting in the movie. Worth checking back to the con website to see photos of all the entries once they're posted.

When that was done, I adjourned for dinner (very definitely offsite, this time) and when I got back, most of the panels were done and the socializing was well under way in the hospitality suite, dance hall, and room parties.

I tried to get one more session in though. Tried. "Randomness with Professor Whovianart" was truly painful. A few people came into the room and left after just a couple of minutes. I held out for about 10 minutes before I decided that listening to the guy at the front babble about the cool stuff he owned was too much. I dunno, I seem to be having bad luck with these end-of-the-night panels this year.

Anyhow, dancing's not my thing (and my wife wouldn't approve of me busting a move with another lady), and the hospitality suite was crowded, so I headed for the elevator and went up to the SF Canada room party. And stopped outside the door. And didn't go in. Part of this was because I don't know anyone who was there. Now, admittedly, I've just gushed repeatedly in this post about entertaining conversations with strangers at cons, but for me, there's something different between random chit-chat in the halls, and actually going into a party where you don't know anyone. I'm not saying I don't warm up at parties, I do, it's just a lot more comfortable - and fun - to go in when there's at least one person I know who I can start with. An anchor, a friendly face, or, let's call a spade a spade, a security blanket, if you will. And I was tired after a long couple of the days. But the nail in the coffin was a feeling of inadequacy. It was a party for authors and their guests. What am I? I'm a writer by profession, but not of fiction. In terms of fiction, I submitted a story that landed third place in an On Spec postcard fiction contest a few years ago, but those of us in the top three only had our stories posted to their website, not in the printed magazine (and I'm not even sure the link exists anymore). Not bad. In fact, it's something I'm proud of. And yet, there was that nagging feeling outside that door tonight that maybe I haven't earned my stripes yet to have a place in a party for authors. I dunno. Maybe that's true, maybe not - the invitation to come was extended with friendly intent, after all. Probably a missed opportunity to hang out for a little while with some cool people. Maybe it's something that'll motivate me to put some of the stories in my head to paper, finally. In any case, I went back down the elevator, got in the car, and headed back home to share my day's adventures with my wife.

And now to put my nagging self-doubts to bed.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

VCon 2012 - Day 1 - Posts from the Apocalypse

A lone man travels through a perilous land, facing hordes of hostile beings, in a desperate effort to reach a last sanctuary for like-minded individuals.

Sounds like the plot of any half-rate post-apocalyptic thriller, I know. But it's nothing so grand: merely a description of my commute this afternoon, fighting traffic through the Massey Tunnel and across the roads of Surrey on the way to Day 1 of V-Con - the 37th annual Vancouver Science Fiction Convention.

Given the similarities between the rush hour commute and the end of the world, it's fitting that this year's theme for the con is "Post Apocalypse."

By the time I arrived, it was about 4:30, so I hadn't missed much in the way of early programming. Plenty of time to register and poke around. I've been to this particular hotel many times on business, so I already know the lay of the land, but it's always a good idea to find out where all the amenities like the dealers' room and the art room are before immersing in programming.

And speaking of programming, this year's event looks like it's shaping up to be pretty good. Science fiction Grand Master Connie Willis is the Author Guest of Honour, author and astrophysicist Gregory Benford is the Science GoH, and James Ng, the local genius behind a series of Asian-inspired steampunk paintings, is the Artist GoH.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Wandering around...

A quick look in the art room revealed a mix of "the usual suspects" - the same artists who display the same stuff every year (some of it very good, other stuff... meh) - along with a couple of new additions. As always, Ng's works caught my eye, and this may be the year I give in and buy a print.

After that, it was over to the dealers' room for an exercise in self-control. I try not to buy anything on the first day, and definitely not on the first pass through the room. There's always something I want to pick up, and, by the end of the con, someone in the dealers' room is likely to part me with some of my money, but the first time through is when I get a sense of the room and start setting priorities for what I absolutely need to buy (books!), versus other nick-nacks that might be nice to have, but wouldn't be the end of the world (there's that inevitable apocalypse reference again) to pass up. This time, I found myself coming back to a table selling Doctor Who action figures, with an eye towards maybe picking up a Dalek, or one of the Doctors. But we're planning a move in the next couple of months, so maybe more toys are not what I want to be lugging around.

By the time I peeled myself away from the dealers' room and had gone upstairs to start attending the programming, the Opening Ceremonies were pretty much over, so I headed down the hall for the "The Plural of Apocalypse" session. What a thoroughly entertaining panel! Moderator and Caustic Soda podcast host Joe Fulgham, UBC biology researcher Kristi Charish, author Geoff Cole, and Willis were smart, personable, and an absolute riot as they chewed over different types of world-ending events, their likelihood, and their cultural and fictional significance.

The most memorable quote of the panel - and something to add to the "Things You'll Only Hear at a Science Fiction Convention" list - was Willis' remark during the introductions:

"I've ended the world in a number of ways."

Of all the different varieties of apocalypse discussed, the group seemed to spend the most time talking about the very real possibilities of diseases mutating (probably naturally), getting beyond our control, and significantly thinning humanity's herd, if not wiping our species out entirely. Everyone got a chuckle when Charish said:

"If the apocalypse is a disease, at least with my background I'll know when to run for the hills."

Later on, they moved on to other likely causes of destruction, like meteorite impacts - something common in science fiction, but almost completely overlooked by the public. I couldn't have agreed more with Fulgham when he said something to the effect of:

"The meteor likelihood is one of the reasons I'm unapologetically pro-tech. All those people who want to go back to living in the forest... Guess what? One of these days, that forest isn't gonna be there."

The session was over faster than a flash from a nuclear inferno, and the group could have easily done another hour without losing momentum or the audience (and they were a good bunch too, letting the panelists do most of the talking, but raising some good examples and questions from time to time too). What a great way to start the con. This is what a panel should be.

Bonus points to Fulgham for telling Willis early on "It's an honour to be on a panel with someone who was interviewed on Prisoners of Gravity." Anybody who references PoG is fairly awesome. Bonus points as well to the woman in the audience who gave Don McKellar's brilliant Last Night as an example of personal and society reaction to an impending apocalypse.

From there, I went back to the registration area and bought this year's con T-shirt (now glow-in-the-dark!), then took a break for an unsatisfying supper in the hotel restaurant that took far too long (I know, I know, get out of the hotel when you're looking for something to eat, that's the best way to get a good meal; but I tend to feel a bit guilty at these things if I don't have at least one meal in the host venue). By that point, it was a little after 9, and there wasn't much choice in the way of programming left.

I went to the "Post Apocalyptic Vampires?" panel, and ended up wishing I hadn't. Only two panelists, and it seemed like after about 20 minutes they'd exhausted every angle they could figure out for life - or unlife, as the case may be - for vampires after a major calamity. Seriously, from that point on, every 8 minutes or so, they kept asking if the audience wanted to leave early, or if anyone had anything else to mention. I don't blame them, aside from running through their material, there were a couple of people in the audience who were doing a lot of talking, and - though I can only speak for myself, I'm pretty sure a couple of others would have agreed - it was all stuff we could have done without. You know the types, the non-stop yapper who figures he ought to be on the panel; the guy who has to snarl everything he says as though it's all beneath him, even though he's inflicting his opinion on everyone fairly frequently; and the monotonous guy who suggests things that are, well, just dumb, goes quiet for a minute or two, then starts droning on about the same thing again as though no time has passed, then repeats. I'm no nosferatu or bloodsucker wannabe, but by the end of this session (yeah, it got relentlessly dragged along like a fresh victim with blood still seeping from the puncture wounds to the neck - all the way to the end of the hour) I was just about ready to drive a stake into my own heart. Why didn't I leave, well, within a minute of when I'd first entered and realized what I'd got myself into? A sense of politeness for starters, I guess. I would feel kind of rude getting up and leaving in the middle of a session when there aren't any other sessions going on and nothing else to see or do except hit the bar.  My mistake. Next time I'll bail.

Speaking of bailing, I've been up since far too early this morning, so, with nothing left to report, it's time to bail from this post. See you tomorrow, for another report from the apocalypse!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Another Pumpkin Has Been Lit on the Halloween Tree - RIP Ray Bradbury

Somewhere, the residents of a graveyard, followed by dinosaurs, and led by Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy atop a white whale, are staging a parade: off to a small Illinois town to join a tattooed man and a gang of kids and vampires in a dance around a pumpkin tree before boarding a rocket full of books to Mars. They're celebrating the life of a truly great author.

This morning I woke up and checked Facebook as usual before hitting the news sites, and was hit with some sad news: author Kit Reed passing along the word from io9 that Ray Bradbury was dead.

Anyone who's had the misfortune of perusing this blog more than once knows I'm a Bradbury fan. Hell, my first post when I hopped up onto this soapbox was about him. The man, quite simply, as many have said in touching tributes today, was a genius.

For someone who spent so much time in libraries, Bradbury's style of writing was for the ear as much as the eye - his stories were made to be read aloud: conversational and thus accessible to anyone, and yet poetic in their rhythms and joyously overflowing with a celebration of all manner of words and ideas. He was a master of making his point bluntly while still hiding meanings in metaphor that had to be teased out by really paying attention to what he was saying. He could be unflinchingly hard in killing characters like those in "The City" or, most painful of all, "There Will Come Soft Rains," and yet he was also so very gentle and able to show the feeling and humanity in even the most frightening collection of monsters, like those in From the Dust Returned. And the breadth of his imagination was stunning, making the huge, profound and ancient or distantly futuristic sit chummily side-by-side with pop culture, distant worlds bedding down with the rush of LA or the deceptively comfortable quiet of Greentown.

Oddly - and appropriately - enough, when I've read or listened to or participated in fan discussions over the years of favourites from Bradbury's body of work, the image that comes to mind is of a library. Just like in a library, there's a lot of common ground: areas that everyone goes to now and then, like the periodicals, say, which, in terms of his stories, most fans would agree are near the top - stories like the afore-mentioned "There Will Come Soft Rains." But then, especially if people are allowed to name more than one favourite, you start to find that everyone has their favourite section, quiet corner, back stack of his work that others may have glossed over for whatever reason or never read at all. Read through enough of his stuff, and you'll find stories that appeal to people of significantly different tastes. And yet, just as there are people like Bradbury himself who enjoy browsing in almost any part of a library, there are also those who enjoy pretty much everything he's written.

Though my wife and I generally have different taste in books, we both enjoy Bradbury. She'd heard me gushing about him a few years ago, seen the animated masterwork The Halloween Tree (with the author himself doing a marvelous job as narrator, with his wise-old-Mr-Owl voice), and decided to see for herself what the fuss was about. She randomly chose One More for the Road off of the shelf and fell in love with "Tete-a-Tete." It's now her favourite story.

For me, over the years, "Last Rites" - his highly original and heartwarming take on the time machine trope - has grown to become my favourite among his short stories. As tough as it is to read, "There Will Come Soft Rains" comes in a close second. Among his novels, the closest to my heart will always be The Halloween Tree, with its celebration of autumn and All Hallows Eve and youth and the wild, dangerous adventure of night and the unknown. From the Dust Returned comes in second, with its deeply sad chapter "Homecoming". And, of course, The Martian Chronicles rounds out the top three. What about Fahrenheit 451 you ask? Well, of course I like it, but it's not quite a favourite.

While it's sad that one of the most relentlessly creative and entertaining of the old gods of SF has left us,  I take comfort in the fact that he's left behind such an enormous body of work that even once all of his stories have been read, it's possible to go back and read them again and have them still feel fresh. He's also influenced many other creative folk, including author Neil Gaiman, film maker Guillermo Del Toro, and delightfully raunchy filk-ish singer Rachel Bloom, meaning echoes of the old master will always be around. Besides, with all his stories about ghosts, vampires and various other unquiet dead, you have to think that if there was ever an author who was inclined to come back for a visit, Bradbury might be the one to pull it off.

But for the time being, rest easy, sir. You will be missed.

Ray Bradbury was 91.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Top 5 Things You'd Only Hear at a Science Fiction Convention

Go to enough science fiction/fantasy/comic/anime/whatever conventions and you'll hear some weird things. Not weird when taken in context with the bounty of wonderful weirdness around you at the con, but certainly so far from normal when compared to what you'd hear walking through a crowd at a mall or in your office lunchroom as to make them utterly unique to the nerd scene.

Here now, for your entertainment, are some quotes from conversations I've overheard in the hallways and in panel discussions at various cons in recent years that, let's face it, just wouldn't be heard anywhere else (except maybe in your local genre book/comic/table-top gaming/video game store).


5) "I found a bunch of old machine gears and pipes and moded-out my flight suit to make it steampunk."
     -overheard at VCon

4) "I hate it when these poly[amory] panels turn into pickup joints."
     -overheard at Anticipation/Worldcon Montreal

3) "I dressed like the TARDIS for my high school graduation last year!"
     -overheard at Fan Expo Vancouver

2) "We gave James Cameron his wet dream."
     -from a panel discussion at VCon

1) "Sorry, we're sold-out of the Cthulhu cupcakes."
     -overheard at VCon

If I had to include some honourable mentions, they'd probably be extended conversations involving a 17-year-old boy lecturing a 40-year-old woman about how corsets are supposed to be worn, or the heated discussion between two dudes about whether a cut from a lightsaber would cauterize the wound or if the person would bleed-out because the laser wouldn't be in contact with the flesh long enough. But both of these were too long and involved for me to quote accurately or to work well for a Top 5 list.

So how about you? If you've attended cons, what are some of the things you've overheard that you just wouldn't hear outside of a geeky gathering?

Fan Expo Vancouver Off to a "meh" Start

I've come to the conclusion that going to science fiction/fantasy/comic/gaming/whatever conventions is like going out for supper. Going to a fan-run con, whether it's huge like Worldcon or something more intimate like your local or regional con, is like going to a pot-luck at a friend's place: there's a price of admission (price of admission being akin to the dish you bring), and you're not entirely sure who's going to be there or what's going to be served, but, because the aim of the evening is for friends to get together and have fun, you know the evening will probably be set up so that you'll enjoy yourself. A professional con, on the other hand, is like going out to a restaurant that's price fixe and pay up front, where you have no idea what's on the menu and whether it's any good. You're taking your chances. Maybe things pan out, maybe they don't.

The Fan Expo franchise has been running for a few years now in Toronto. As a Canadian SF fan, if you bother to watch Space, our national science fiction specialty TV station, you're teased with flashy footage leading up to the event and for weeks afterward - shots of cool geek gear, cosplayers in all manner of eye-catching garb, and the biggest draw of all: genre celebs, some as big as Stan Lee. But, all these years, if you didn't live in Toronto and didn't want to shell-out for a trip to Hogtown, that's all it was: a tease.

But this year the Fan Expo folks decided to expand. They took the franchise to Vancouver for the first time this past weekend, and Calgary's next on the roster. Since it was the first time the event was going to be open for business here on the Wet Coast, I decided to give it a shot and see what it was all about. My wife came along - her first con experience - as did a couple of our friends. We all got 2-day passes. My wife and I only bothered to go on Saturday; our friends took in both days.

My verdict: a resounding "meh". Fan Expo Vancouver wasn't terrible; I certainly didn't feel ripped-off. On the other hand, I certainly wasn't a big fan of it either.

Part of the problem was that the organizers seemed to be thinking small when they set the event up. To be fair, the dealers' room at the new Vancouver Convention Centre was big enough to comfortably land the Millennium Falcon in, with room to spare, and a lot of dealers were in it. But you'd expect a big and well-populated dealers' hall at a professional con where the entire point of the event is for the con organizers to make money. When I say it was a small event, I mean there wasn't a lot to do: there was only one track, just one room other than the dealers' hall, one room running celeb Q&A's in one-hour blocks throughout the day. So if you didn't like whatever celeb was up at bat, your only other choice was to shuffle back to the dealers' room. Unless you count waiting in line at the one set of men's/ladies' rooms allocated to the con to be an activity.

This is a pro con franchise with a proven track record in Hogtown, and a lot of money behind it. Even though it was their first time out in Vancouver, they could have put a little more effort into building the thing and added at least one more programming room with another track going on. What about a games room for tabletop enthusiasts? What about a movie room? Or any of the other options that give con attendees choices and thus allow them to have more fun and become more loyal to the event? The convention centre is certainly big enough. I'm not going to get into centre-periphery/West Coast vs Central Canada cultural politics or city/province-bashing, but it's like the con organizers didn't really know anything about the size of fandom in Greater Vancouver (and really, the entire West Coast fan region) and weren't even trying. Let's look at the other local cons: VCon's the venerable elder, but attendance isn't more than a few hundred on a good Saturday, the Vancouver Comic Convention (from what I've heard over the years) is also not too big of an event, but Anime Evolution (home of a lot of cosplayers that Fan Expo was definitely trying to attract) has had attendances in the thousands. Look south to the fan population in Seattle, and you've got the folks who go to NorWesterCon and PAX, and those cons are huge, and their attendees will travel if they think there's something worthwhile to go to. So, with the potential audience, the Fan Expo guys really didn't have an excuse for failing to offer us more things to do for the price of admission.

I also take issue with the guest list: given the size of the potential audience and the stature of the host city on the global stage, they certainly could have got some bigger names. On the media side of things, Adam West and Burt Ward were the biggest celebs, but, as entertaining as those guys were, the con organizers could have done a lot better. Really, Stan Lee was booked for Toronto and Calgary, why did Vancouver miss out on that guest appearance? Did Stan have scheduling issues? I'm pretty sure the con organizers could have landed someone of similar stature if he did. Some of the other media celebs they did land were okay, like John DeLancie, Mirina Sirtis and Michael Dorn, but I still get the feeling Vancouver got short shrift in terms of guests. In terms of notable names from the world of comics, there were a fair number of comic artists and writers on-hand, but since I'm not as involved in comics as I was years ago, I can't comment on their stature. In terms of science fiction authors, I'll give the organizers credit for bringing in the great Spider Robinson, but they should have brought in some of the other talented authors who live in the region. Again, it seems like there was a real lack of effort this time around.

Then there was the logistical problem: it was next to impossible to get a wi-fi connection - or even a standard cell signal - in the middle of the dealers' room. Don't give me that too much traffic crap either - it's the 21st century, and the VCC is a relatively new building. If you've got the physical capacity for several thousand people jammed into one space, there ought to be the wireless capacity to carry their signals. If I'm at a scifi/comic convention and I can't tweet while cooling my heels in an autograph line or standing in front of a merchant table, something's wrong.

On the positive side, there was a pretty large turnout on Saturday; several thousand by my guess, based on the size of the crowd outside the building waiting in line to buy on-the-spot tickets, and the number of people crammed into the dealers' room. And the crowd was in a good mood. People were having fun, lots of folks were buying merchandise, the turnout in the Q&A hall varied depending on which celeb was on deck, and there were a fair number of fans who turned out in costume - some of them extremely detailed and well-made. Among the cosplayers, there were members of the 501st Legion out in Stormtrooper gear, the Ghostbusters of BC, a trio of guys in various incarnations of Iron Man, an army of anime characters, super heroes galore, and one girl who kicked ass in a Predator outfit, even though she was just a tiny thing, barely topping 5 feet tall, rather than a 7-foot behemoth from space.

And I've got to hand it to Spider and the group of comic artists and writers - they were having fun and took the time to really chat with people who passed by. And they didn't charge for autographs - something that can't be said for the media celebs. You can make the argument that the actors depend on the $20 or $40 or $50 fee per autograph as a vital part of their income, but I don't buy it. I think the writers and comic guys have got it figured out: interact with your fans, sign things, let them take photos, and you build fan loyalty, which translates into fans buying your next whatever and fans demanding your presence in more cons or demanding that you publish more whatever - all of which makes writers and artists, etc more money. Writers and artists have figured out that, beyond their own status of members of the geek community who are interested in this stuff themselves, it's a good investment for them to come to cons and sign stuff and have photos taken for free. Fan loyalty = money. I think actors need to learn this. While I find some of the actors who were at the con interesting - some have played really entertaining or intriguing characters - I'm enough of a veteran of fan-run cons that I flat-out refuse to pay for an autograph.

At any rate, here's how the day unfolded:

My wife and I arrived around 1:30 on Saturday, later than I'd wanted to. She was sporting her new Dr Who TARDIS hockey jersey and I was wearing the Ghostbusters jersey she'd bought me for Christmas (both courtesy of Dave's Geeky Hockey, which does awesome custom-made hockey jerseys in nerdy themes). It was a sunny day, and the crowd outside the building was at least a couple of thousand, many wearing their various geek-related T-shirts, etc, and a fairly large number in costume. After snapping a photo of a Storm Trooper and a Halo soldier (I missed grabbing a shot of the dude rockin' an epic pair of 'chops for his Logan/Wolverine look), we went inside, got through registration, looked at the pitifully small schedule for the con, and started prowling around. I'd wanted to see the Q&A with John DeLancie, but his session was almost over, and I prefer to start cons by walking around and getting my bearings, so we took a pass on the last few minutes of his bit.

Like I said before, there really wasn't much to familiarize ourselves with at this con: dealers' room, Q&A room, washroom. That said, the dealers' room was big enough and had enough in it that we spent a fair amount of time weaving through the crowds and checking out the merchandise.

Within 5 minutes of walking into the dealers' room, my wife was approached by a girl who admired her  Whovian sweater - admired it (and admired my wife for wearing it) so much that she asked for a hug. Seconds later, others came up and wanted to take pictures of it. I smiled and told my wife to get used to it - that's the way of cons: fans like cool stuff that fits with their particular nerdy passion; when they see something especially cool, they feel a connection with the owner and want to chat and take photos. All in all, my wife took it pretty well and got used it it. Good thing too - she was stopped, pointed at, cheered, or chatted up at least once every five or ten minutes while we were at the con. My own jersey got its share of respect (especially from the members of the Ghostbusters of BC, who I'd run into at last fall's VCon, and are a real nice group of people), but my wife was the belle of the ball. With everyone asking where we got the jerseys, the afore-mentioned Dave got a hell of a lot of free advertising.

Fairly early on, I broke one of my rules of con-going. Normally, I refrain from buying anything in the dealers' room on the first pass. It's good to take everything in and resist the temptation to buy - walking away from it and taking time to think let's you figure out what's really worth having, and what's simply an impulse buy that you could probably get anywhere else. Saves a lot of money that way. But this time, since there wasn't much to the con, I figured I could break the rule because it wasn't likely that much would change in terms of what the merchants had on display, and because before I went in I had a fairly good idea about what I was looking for. And I found it. A few weeks ago, I'd been admiring the new Ghostbusters graphic novel from IDW at Golden Age Collectibles, but I'd held-off on buying it. Now, in the comic artists' & authors' alley, I came across the book's artist Dan Schoening. The crowd had actually been sweeping me past his stall, and I hadn't noticed him, until he complemented me on my jersey. I stopped to say "thanks", and while we were chit-chatting, I then noticed his work on the table and remembered I'd wanted to look for it while at the con. So I made the buy and Schoening was nice enough to sign it.

Along with the flow of the crowd through the displays again. We ended up stopping at the Ghostbusters of BC stand and talking with them for a while. Again, an exchange of admiration, my jersey and their very detailed, very cool proton packs, and I ended up making a donation to a charity they were collecting for in order to get a chance to try on one of the packs and hoist a 'stick. As I've said before, they're a real nice bunch of folks and really passionate about all things Venkman-Stantz-Spengler-Zeddimore-related.

Round about that time, Spider Robinson arrived, so we queued-up so I could get him to sign my copy of Very Bad Deaths. No surprise, the line formed pretty much instantly and was fairly long, and it was slow-moving because Spider takes a lot of time to chat with fans (which is very cool), so we had a chance to chat with some of the other people in line - which is part of what's great about the whole con experience: impromptu, one-off conversations with fellow fans. We got near the front and discovered our friend Walter, co-owner of White Dwarf Books, was riding shotgun with Spider, selling his books. White Dwarf didn't have a formal stand in the dealers' room. Turns out it was a last minute thing - Spider had been booked to come, and the con organizers realized that if he was going to be there, it would be good if someone was selling his books so fans could buy something to have signed, so Walter was asked to come in with some of his wares, and he obliged. Always nice to catch up with Walter, who, along with his wife Jill (the store's co-owner), is a pillar of Vancouver's SF community. When it was my turn at the front of the line, my wife took a photo as Spider and I shot the breeze. I've had a chance to talk with him before, a few years ago at VCon, and he's a real cool cat - er, arachnid. He's been through a terrible time the past couple of years, with the death of his wife Jean (met her at VCon too, a real nice lady) from cancer, and then his daughter's recent battle with cancer as well, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him come out to an event like this. But he had plenty of good news: his daughter is doing well in her fight against cancer, her chemo seems to be working; Spider's working hard on a couple of things (always good news for those of us who are fans of his stories); and he's going to be recording some new episodes of his podcast, Spider on the Web soon (a happy coincidence, since I started listening to the 'cast a couple of months ago and have been really enjoying his mix of editorials, story readings, reminiscences, and music selections). He's the kind of character who's a real pleasure to talk with, and who you could probably quite likely spend the better part of an afternoon chatting about everything with. We eventually wrapped-up our chat and I got my autograph and my wife and I left - but not before Spider made a point of telling her that she should start reading his books too. And maybe someday she will.

After that we met with our friends Denise and Brandon. Brandon's a fellow geek who's been to a couple of cons and was also introducing his wife to her first con experience. Insert your own metaphorical joke, the four of us certainly did.

We mosied over to the Q&A room where InnerSpace (Space channel's SF news show) hosts AJ Fry, Cynthia Loyst and Teddy Wilson were interviewing the cast of the soon-to-be-released Primeval - New World. I never really got into the original Primeval, so I wasn't terribly interested in the interview. We were just there because, having been through the dealers' room, there was nothing else to do. Not a fan of the Space hosts either. Over the past few years I've been increasingly annoyed with the direction the channel has taken, and the quality of the hosts has gone decidedly downhill. Fry doesn't look old enough to shave yet, doesn't sound like his voice will be changing any time soon, and on air, for some reason, he leans forward about 30 degrees with a 20 degree list to port - like he's doing a Will Riker walk without actually walking. Loyst was is less than impressive in her own right - a while later, during the West/Ward Q&A, an audience member asked West about his role on an episode of The Boondocks and Loyst, who was paraphrasing the question to West, didn't seem to understand that it was a show. Now, I'm not a fan of 'Boondocks, but I'm at least aware of its existence, and if I was a co-host on a national genre-oriented channel's "news" show, I'd damn well make sure I at least knew what shows were out there than the audience might be watching, even if said shows weren't on my station. She killed whatever geek cred she's pretending to have. Watching this bunch up there, I found myself wishing for the good old days of the news show's previous iteration, HypaSpace, with hosts Jonathan Llyr (currently of the very cool site Hard Core Nerdity) and Natasha Eloi, who actually knew about SF and had a firm grasp of what shows and movies were out there and had street cred in the nerd community. But of course, those where the days when Space was a better channel all around, and when they were allowed to talk about books, but that's a different rant for another day.

Anyhow, the Primeval the Next Generation gang made way for Nicholas Brendon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. I wasn't a Buffy fan either, but Brendan was, so we stuck around, and I'll give Xander credit, he was reasonably entertaining.

NB then made way for vintage Batman stars Adam West and Burt Ward, and that Q&A had a packed hall. Another worth-while session. Nothing terribly memorable, mind you, but a fun way to spend an hour.

After that, we did a final sweep of the dealers' room, and called it a day.

Over supper at the Steamworks Pub down the street in Gastown, the consensus was that the con had been worth while. I think Brandon enjoyed it more than I did, but again, I didn't hate it - I just didn't see the need to go back for day 2 on Sunday (he did, as it turns out). Most importantly, the wives both had fun. And that is important, because it's always nice when one's wife decides she likes geeky stuff and, even more, decides on her own that she enjoys going to cons from time to time - who doesn't like to share their passion with the person they're most passionate about? You can't force your wife to go to cons or to like going to cons (and in talking about this we chuckled over a reference to a particularly raunchy SNL sketch from a number of years ago), so I count myself pretty lucky that mine has said she'd go to another con, if it had the right stuff.

And to me, that's the central question for Fan Expo Vancouver: will it have the right stuff next year? Will the organizers, in their quest to squeeze money out of the Lower Mainland's fan community, rise above their mediocre start and put on a con that's worth all the hype? I certainly hope so. Meantime, I'm looking forward to VCon this fall, which may be smaller and less flashy, but is certainly a more satisfying experience.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pics from Once Upon A Time

If you're a fan of Once Upon A Time, like my wife, anytime you see the streets of Storybrooke, you're looking at the nearby village of Steveston, BC.
While it's pretty common for TV & film crews to be shooting around the Lower Mainland, it's pretty uncanny that almost every time I go into Steveston in the evening (I don't go every evening, mind you, just a couple of times per month) to eat in at one of the restaurants or pick up some fish & chips or something, this show's crew seems to be there.
And unlike a lot of shoots that you pass in these parts, this particular crew seems to like to take over several buildings - if not entire streets - at once.
These shots were taken last night after we went for a stroll around the village after supper at Ichiro (on Chatham - highly recommended for fans of Japanese food who happen to be in the area).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Where to Get Your Nerdy Jersey

For all those who are interested... If you're looking for the creator of the Ghostbusters hockey jersey I was sporting in the last post, the guy you want to order from is:

Lots of other cool "team" jerseys available from this cat. I'm enjoying mine so much I may have to order a Planet Express jersey, or maybe wear the colours of the Stark Direwolves.

The only downside is that the jerseys tend to be ordered in batches, so if you've missed-out on the order deadline for your favourite, you might be waiting a while before it's available again. Still, with so many cool designs, there's bound to be something to help you fly your geek flag at the rink.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Christmas Comes Late

Christmas came nearly three months late this year, but I'm not complaining! The Ghostbusters hockey jersey my wife ordered for me finally arrived in the mail today.

I saw a jersey like this (not quite the same) in the dealers' room back in '09 at the Montreal Worldcon and it was one of my regrets that I passed it up. I'd mentioned it in passing and that wonderful woman remembered. In the lead-up to Christmas this past year, she hit the net and track
ed down a guy back east who does custom batches of geek-inspired jerseys.

There were some pretty cool "team" outfits up for grabs on his site. I was especially impressed with his The Last Starfighter-inspired jersey, and the one for the Stark Direwolves was so good I almost - almost - wavered in my desire for Ghostbusters. In the end, I stood firm, but winter will be coming again soon enough, and I may just have to
add a Direwolf jersey, with "Snow" listed as the player, next year.

Bonus points for my wife: she ordered a TARDIS jersey for herself. Hasn't arrived yet though. Will post when it comes in.

Admittedly, you won't be seeing me sporting this thing on the ice. Unlike most Canadians, I can't skate to save my life. That said, I think it'll do well enough at cons over the next few years.

For those who are interested, I don't have the guy's site address close at hand, but when my wife digs it out of her files, I'll be sure to post the link.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reading (SF) Novels Is Good for Business

I read an article the other day that made an interesting point that you don't hear very often around most offices: that reading novels is good for business.

Anne Kreamer's "The Business Case for Reading Novels" (published in The Harvard Business Review, but which came to me via the professional news update feed that LinkedIn emails me on a regular basis) talks about research into the practical benefits of reading fiction indicating it helps develop the ability to understand and read emotion, thus improving "social skillfulness" and the ability to collaborate. Openness to new experience is benefitted. The brain's ability to set goals is stimulated. Kreamer noted all of these are key to success in dealing with colleagues and clients, and she also points to research indicating high emotional intelligence leads to raises and promotions, can reduce labour tensions, and increase productivity.

I hadn't run into the research Kreamer cites before (certainly my fault, not that of the studies' authors), but what she's saying certainly matches what I've picked up intuitively by watching other people in workplaces and how various different types of personalities (including readers and non-readers) operate.

And as a science fiction and fantasy fan, I'd take Kreamer's point a step further and make the claim that reading SF in particular is good for business.

Admittedly, I don't have years-long surveys of thousands of people to back my assertion, and admittedly, being an SF fan, I've got a fairly obvious bias, but based on observation of many people in many different types of workplaces over the years, I'd say that it's the case that the science fiction and fantasy readers tend to have a greater mental flexibility than their peers. After all, if you're consistently reading about places and situations ranging from the nearly normal to the completely strange, your brain has to be able to do a certain amount of acrobatics to be able to understand how the plot and characters will be affected - you learn to see things from a different point of view. This is especially true of the ability to understand different mindsets of other individuals. Some authors work very hard, and are successful at, portraying characters that are alien not only in their form, but in their use of language and imagery, and their thinking - maybe somewhat different, yet ultimately comprehensible like Simmons' AI Elder Ummon in Hyperion; kind of decipherable but not entirely, like the cast of Watts' Blindsight; or others that are just completely unfathomable (and here I'm thinking of any super-race that's so massively powerful and distant in its thoughts and agendas, like the Rama builders at the end of Clarke's series of the same name, or the gate builders in Wilson's Blind Lake). To deal with characters like that and not lose meaning so completely that the experience of the plot disintegrates and interest vanishes requires readers to really put forth an effort to understand. Not something that's demanded of readers of mainstream fiction to anywhere near the same degree.

From my professional background in communications, I'd also say the business advantage of reading science fiction and related genres/sub-genres is that there are some damn fine writers out there who can teach you a lot. Bradbury, first and foremost. I've gushed about old Ray on many previous occasions, but really, if you're in communications, hell, if you have to write anything at all, you can really get a lot out of paying attention to the old master's style. Bradbury knows how to write big, chunky, beautifully descriptive prose. But as large as his sentences and descriptions may sometimes get, they're still very much speakable. And that's the key to really good writing, something that broadcasters have figured out (again, my own bias is shining through here), but quite a few print-only journalists and communications pro's without broadcast experience haven't: that the best text is that which is written for the ear, not the eye. Human beings communicated verbally long before we started scratching our words on whatever surface would hold them. And so if you have to write for an audience, the best way to do it is to write as though you were speaking. And Bradbury's copy is just made to read out loud. Find a recording of him online and listen. Or better yet, grab one of his stories and try it yourself. You'll see. If more communications professionals bothered to read Bradbury, there'd be more compelling speeches and profile stories out there. Straczynski's good too sometimes - especially G'Kar's dialogue in seasons 3-5 of B5 (granted, the medium is television rather than a novel, and the point of this piece is the advantage of novel reading, but in general, JMS is a great writer). Science fiction authors also tend to be able to do a good job of making technical jargon easily understandable, or at least palatable enough to set the stage or introduce a plot device without detracting from the story (aside from the offerings of a few hard-SF authors who seem to wallow too much in the tech-talk). A few communications types I've known over the years could learn from that.

So the next time someone tells you to quit wasting your time with that sci-fi book, tell them it's not just entertainment, it's an investment in the success of your business.