Monday, August 18, 2014

Loncon 3 - Day 5 - Time to Say Goodbye

There's a point in the late summer where you step outside, and the wind has changed, and you know that summer's over. There may technically be a few days, a week, or even the better part of a month left before September, and the sun may still be hot, but the sky has changed colour slightly, and the breeze blows a little cooler and has that first hint of a snap to its taste, and you know then that autumn is on its way in.

That was (and always is) what it was like stepping out on the morning of day 5 of Worldcon: the last day of summer. Most of a full day of robust programming ahead, but it's the last day, and the dealers and the information display people and the artists are all packing up, and for all that's left to do, the energy's gone, and looking in the faces around you, you can see that everybody knows it.

But we all take part because everyone wants to hold on just a little bit longer. It's been that good. And so we go to Monday's panels and activities and make the most of them; make the most of our last day of nerdy summer.

For my part, here's what I did:

It was a later start to the morning for me; I didn't show up until about 10:30, to take in Patrick Rothfuss' reading. Rothfuss, who can be deliciously foul-mouthed when he wants to be, despite being exceptionally well-spoken, got things up and running with a short speech about the joys, and appropriateness, of cussing, when asking if there were any kids in the room that he'd have to be careful about cussing around. That led to his statement, which was so perfect that I had to tweet it, even as we were all putting our cell phones away so that he could get started with his reading: "I don't swear because I have a bad vocabulary. I have a maaaaarvelous vocabulary." Fuck yeah.

Anyhow, he shared a short bit from a new piece of fiction with us, which, of course, piqued our interest and left us wanting more (as he said it would). He also read a scathing review he wrote about a children's book. So severe, in fact, that it didn't just outline what was wrong witht he story, it went much, much farther, taking the tack of schooling the author in how it should  have been done. Rothfuss drew from his own abilities to devote much of his column to rewriting the story to make it better, smarter, and more appropriate for children. And his critically-driven correction/rewrite was so good, it made me think that I'd like to see Rothfuss actually try his hand at writing a children's book sometime. I'd certainly buy it for my nephew and neice if he did.

When the reading concluded, I met up with my wife to head over to "The World at Worldcon: Chinese SF/F". My wife is Chinese, from Hong Kong, and was interested in hearing about the sci-fi scene of the Mainlanders, and for my part, as you've seen from my program attendance pattern over the past few days, I'm keen to learn about what's happening in sf literature and fandom all over the world.

During this group's presentation (it mostly seemed to be a series of speeches from its participants, rather than a real discussion), we were able to decypher a couple of interesting points about the nature of modern Chinese sf. According to one panelist, Chinese science fiction is different from that in the West because it draws from its own cultural traditions which don't distinguish between fantasy and traditional beliefs. This is illustrated by Wu xia stories, where martial artists have impossible powers (like leaping up walls or knocking a man over from across a room without touching him, by using the power of chi), but this isn't considered to be something made up, simply accepted as the benefit from having a great mastery of kung fu. A panelist also noted that Western writers tend to use metaphors and try to create deeper meaning, where Chinese writers do not, and instead include ambiguity in their stories (one reason why, it was claimed, they're big on Kafka's work).

There were, however, a couple of points raised that were rather hard to believe.

One panelist, an editor, emphatically claimed that the Chinese government "does not censor the ideas of the writers, only the behaviour of the market." Yeah. Sure. A government that regularly censors or out-and-out blockades social media and other internet communications channels (I can recall being unable to access Facebook, Twitter, and my internet service provider's webmail site while in Beijing a few years ago) and search engines; and that is notorious for leaning on Hollywood production companies to comply with its standards for movie content, else they run the risk of not being allowed to show films to the vast Chinese audience; a government that jails dissident artists; and, let's be honest, that is the same party responsible for the madness of the Cultural Revolution, and this guy wants us to believe that this government isn't censoring the writers who live there. Whatever. The guy then went on to say that as long as a writer doesn't "write a specific person's name in a critical way" (I'm guessing he means government official) or specifically mention the Tiananmen Square atrocity by name — or even refer to its date! — then the writer is okay. Yeah. No censorship there, dude. Right.

The panelists later made the claim that most Chinese science fiction writers are interested in science (stories about things like spaceships), not politics (like the never-to-be-named Tiananmen Square), and so alternate history isn't really a sub-genre that's explored much, except for some stories that focus on the ancient past. One has to wonder though, if writers might be interested in experimenting with alternate history stories if, you know, they weren't at risk of being sent to the gulag. On the same topic, the editor on the panel claimed "In my opinion, alternate history stories are not good for writers because readers can argue with them." I think someone's missing the point. But whatever; it's their scene, not mine, and they can have it.

After that, we took one last walk around, watching as the displays started to come down and things began to get packed up. We wandered into the dealers' room, and had one last chat with the old guys who were selling-off their collections. Nothing on the book pile to tempt me today, but it's the conversations that have the real value.

From there, we headed over to the last of the plays being performed at the con: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)". It ran a little longer than I thought it would, but the performance was absolutely hillarious, and the actors knew how to play to the audience, throwing in a barrage of sci-fi references, including Highlander's "There can be only one!", a debate about when certain types of Earth Alliance destroyers came into service in the Babylon 5 universe, and, most appropriately, Shakespeare "in the original Klingon". If this show comes to a playhouse in your community, it's definitely worth watching.

And then it was time to go. Sure, there were other panels running through the afternoon, and the closing ceremony, but we'd had our fill. The Loncon 3 organizing committee did a monumental job of putting on this event. It wasn't just a con. It was a statement: this is how you bring the members of a diverse and far-flung community together and educate, entertain, and engage them. This is how you ensure that every single person who attends gets everything they possibly can out of the experience. And it was really, really fun.

But just like that last true day of summer, you know when the wind has changed. We looked around from our lunch table and saw people wandering around trailing their suitcases, with tired eyes but happy smiles, and giving each other just one last warm handshake or squishy hug of farewell. It was like that scene at the end of Meatballs: summer camp was over, and we were all just waiting for Bill Murray to appear and hop on his motorbike with Roxanne and lead us home.

Goodbye, Worldcon. Goodbye, summer. Thank you for everything.

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