March 16, 2018

FOGcon 2018 Report

I attended FOGcon last weekend, the eighth year of this speculative fiction convention and my eighth time participating. I had a great time, as I do every year. It's always a delightful mix of familiar and new experiences and people.

This year (like last year), both honored guests contributed to many of the high points of my weekend. In preparation for the con, I started reading the work of Ada Palmer -- I've raved about TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING and am still in the midst of the second half of that story, SEVEN SURRENDERS. It was great to hear Palmer speak several times about her series and her areas of expertise. She gave a captivating presentation on the history of books and book censorship that demonstrated she's as skilled a storyteller in person as on the page. I also attended a fascinating panel Palmer wasn't involved in that focused on the gender aspects of her novels, and I really appreciated hearing critiques from a range of perspectives.

I didn't make enough time to read Andrea Hairston before the con, but now I can check out her work (maybe REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE) with her lively voice in mind. In addition to writing novels, Hairston is involved in theater as a playwright, director, and actor, and her performance skills were evident whenever I saw her this weekend. I was glad I didn't miss her dramatic reading of passages from her work, accompanied by music from Pan Morigan. Another attendee shared a brief video clip with the accurate word "mesmerizing".

I found the programming this year to be particularly strong, so I was happy to spend most of the weekend in conference rooms listening to people talk. Writing Sexual Assault was a thoughtful discussion of when and how sexual violence can be effective in fiction rather than a tired trope. The panelists for Acting Normal shared their experiences with disability and neurodiversity, whether they do or can try to act "normal", and the idea that normality is a myth. I was impressed in both panels by how well these difficult subjects were covered.

The panel on architecture in fiction was a lot of fun, with great examples of city and building design in Palmer's series and others. Playing And Writing The Alien, about how aliens are used in stories and how that relates to otherness, was another entertaining discussion that included Hairston's tales of imagining the body language for alien creatures in her plays.

I was excited to participate in a roundtable discussion called Whither Programming? that brainstormed possible ways to evolve the events at this con in the future. I'm looking forward to whatever the next FOGcon will bring!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Monica Byrne's talk for the Texas A&M Science Fiction Lecture Series, Instructions for the Age of Emergency, examines the future Byrne imagines for her next novel and how it stems from the present: "In 3012, there are no borders. There are no nations. There are no families, aside from the human family. We call every other person 'carnala,' a Mexican Spanish term meaning 'a blood relation.' The average life expectancy is 130 years. The world population is steady at one billion. We roam the earth as permanent nomads, and, by common agreement, only own as much as we can carry--this is why the system is called Laviaja, a feminized form of 'El Viaje,' Spanish for 'the journey.' Those of us who cannot move or walk are accommodated so radically by mutual aid, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality that the very concept of disability no longer exists. In fact, many of us choose to have what we think of as disabilities, and call them 'gifts,' because they are ways of creating community." (Thanks, Jennifer!)

March 7, 2018

February Reading Recap

I found time for a bunch of reading in February, including some preparation for FOGcon this coming weekend:

TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING by Ada Palmer, one of this year's FOGcon Honored Guests: Before the narrative even begins, this book presents a baffling list of endorsements, such as "certified nonproselytory by the Four-Hive Commission on Religion in Literature". Then the narrator's introduction explains that eighteenth century literary styles will be used to recount these important historical events from the year 2454 ("You must forgive me my 'thee's and 'thou's and 'he's and 'she's") because the philosophies of the Enlightenment influenced the transformation that rocked the twenty-fifth century. Only then are we plunged into the action, where someone referred to as a Cousin and a sensayer, who's very much at home in this world the reader doesn't yet have the slightest handle on, shows up in a flying car at something called a bash'house and witnesses a scene they don't understand any better than we do.

I love a book that throws readers into the deep end, as long as there's a skilled writer keeping us afloat with well-placed bubbles of information and the promise of a solidly built floor underneath. Palmer succeeds admirably at this feat, which I found more and more impressive as the full complexity of the story and world became apparent. If there were half as many things going on in this book, it would still be great, and my mind is boggling over how many pieces Palmer imagined, developed, and wove together so effectively.

This novel contains multitudes, both in its large cast of memorable characters and in the many subjects it covers. The 2454 setting introduces us to new approaches to religion, family, citizenship, and gender, many of which are discussed in relation to Enlightenment-era philosophy. The narrative plays around with language and reliability. The intricate, suspenseful plot involves political intrigue, secrets, and murder. From start to finish, TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING delivers surprise after surprise, some delightful, some horrific.

Only one surprise was somewhat frustrating: This volume doesn't conclude the story, which continues into SEVEN SURRENDERS. I'll be happy to read on immediately, but I wasn't planning for it when I started this book. And that's just as well, because if I'd known it didn't stand alone, I might have skipped it, and then I would have missed out on one of my new favorite books!

TURF by Elizabeth Crane: I picked up this collection after reading an excerpt of the longest story, "Today in Post-Apocalyptic Problems", and needing to know what happened next. The rest of the story delivered just what I was hoping for, an exploration of family dynamics in a world that's fallen apart. I happily read the whole, delightfully odd collection.

Many of the stories feature some form of off-kilter reality. Some are wildly surreal, like "Star Babies", in which celebrities or babies of celebrities (the story isn't hung up on the exact details) somehow take over and become the entire population of the United States. Others are closer to the familiar: "Here Everything's Better" blends the mundane experiences of grocery shopping and vague discontent with the weirdness of discovering someone living in a store's bulk foods aisle.

Crane uses lists frequently within stories, or builds stories entirely around them. "Some Concerns" is a litany of fears that starts with "I am afraid that this shirt does not go with this sweater" and escalates from there. "Everywhere, Now" opens with a series of snapshots of what people around the world are doing, but then the narration loses the thread in a meditative and amusing way. Meta techniques like a narrator struggling to control the story also appear several times in the collection, most emotionally in the attempt to resolve parent issues in "Notes for a Dad Story". (Where possible, I've linked to online versions of stories, which sometimes differ from the versions appearing in the book.)

As with most collections, I connected more with some pieces than others, but the ones I liked best, I liked quite a lot. I recommend TURF to other readers drawn to stories that play around with styles and formats.