where the writers are
And it's in the books...literally...

After having a day or so to recover from Readercon (surprising how tired you can get walking from air-conditioned room to air-conditioned room, but three days of it'll take something out of you!), I thought I'd post a few of my thoughts about the event, for whatever they're worth--and I'd love to hear other people's takes too, since one person can only get to so many parts of a given convention. With apologies to Clint Eastwood:

THE GOOD:

--There were a lot of excellent fantasy/sci-fi authors at the convention...a whole lot, actually, given its relatively small size. I recognized a number of them from previous conventions, and some from reputation alone...even a few from Jim Hines's blog list, which (by the way) confirms how crazily connected he is into the LiveJournal SFF community. Either way, the large number of authors meant a pretty good reader/author ratio, and that was good even if you happened to be a presenting author yourself. I also found my fellow authors to be on the whole a really pleasant bunch, willing to talk to people after panels and not vanishing as soon as their own stuff was done to hit the restaurant or the road.

--I had always heard that the convention was thematically focused on literature, and that was unquestionably true. Don't get me wrong; I dig the gaming thing as much as anyone (I'll be at GenCon next month, and not totally for writing purposes!), but I have to admit it was nice for a change to be able to consider books exclusively without having to elbow out the Magic players on one side and the Warhammer people on the other (no offense to either group, but you folks take up a lot of space with your materials. Especially the WH players, who need their own warehouse to really set up properly. ;) ). Sure, there was the occasional Cthulhu T-shirt for sale, but on the whole this really was a conference for writers and readers.

--A lot of the panel ideas were interesting...and challenging, which itself was a nice change from the "Are Comic Book Heroes Really Heroes?" type stuff you see at a lot of conferences and conventions. Here you got stuff about the connection between fantasy and cognitive science, quantum mechanics and children's literature, and--my personal favorite title, and it should be yours if you remember anything from The Hobbit--"What Has It Got in Its Apocalypses?" It's a panel about post-apocalyptic literature, but seriously, who cares? With a title like that you know it's got to be good.

--Readercon was, for the most part, very well organized. I didn't notice any major disruptions--everything started and stopped more or less when it was supposed to, and there weren't any serious issues which cropped up during the convention that were really evident from the outside. These folks (all volunteers, by the way) clearly know what they're doing.

But nothing can be perfect, of course, and thus:

THE BAD:

--There were way, way, way too many panelists. On one panel which I attended about religion and fantasy/sci-fi, there were eight panelists...for an hour session. Inevitably that setup meant that by the time each person introduced him or herself and talked briefly (in fairness, some could have used a refresher on the definition of "brief") about his/her take on the topic, nearly three quarters of the time was gone...and we hadn't even hit the panel discussion portion yet, to say nothing of audience participation. Given that a lot of the panelists were pulling four, five, six or more panel duty, this was more than a little excessive. Lengthening the session to two hours, or even better cutting the panel participant amount in half, would have helped a lot. (I wondered at first if this was just my problem, but a quick perusal of blogs discussing this year's Readercon reveals that a lot of people had problems with how panels were constructed.) And this was made worse by the second issue:

--Some panelists really need to read their topic sheets. Look, I understand that there's no obviously linear way to approach a lot of these subjects, and I'm all for the fun and adventure of "exploring tangents." But there were more than a few cases where the panels veered horrendously and permanently off course, and that meant missing out on a really interesting discussion about, you know, the subject of the panel. In most cases this was simply the fault of a very engaging conversation which drew the participants in, but in a few situations it was one or two of the panelists (in one case even the moderator!!) who decided to hijack the whole business for his/her own hobbyhorse. I only saw one of these instances where one of the other panelists forcibly returned the panel on course--thank goodness--but in any case, I hope the Readercon committee uses the recordings they made of all the panels to make decisions about who should and shouldn't be moderating or panel-presenting next year.

--Despite the pleasant feel of the convention, Readercon did strike me as a bit cliquey. Turnout at readings was wildly variable, and not all of this had to do with whether the author was a known quantity or not; there were lots of groups hanging out with lots of other groups, and in some cases the very clear vibe was "let's go hang out in that corner" while the new people kind of milled around aimlessly in the bookshop. Now I was running around quite a bit from panel to panel (and on Friday I was preparing for my own reading as well), and since I was with my family and got a chance to meet up with friends myself this didn't really bother me--but those friends were all from outside the convention, and I'm not sure that there were very many attempts made to involve the "non-veterans" with the rest of the crowd.

This may reflect a larger issue in the SFF community, which is that the constant complaining that these genres get marginalized (I can't tell you how many references I heard to the "ghetto-ization" of the field, which strikes me as a bit of an odd way to word it) doesn't take into account how much the SFF community can, at times, put up its own "Do Not Enter" signs to the rest of the reading public. Is this reasonable? Well, sure; to some extent every group identifies as much with "not others" as with itself. But I do think SFF is guilty of more than its fair share of xenophobia, and given how much it's supposed to imagine the world as it could be, you'd think it would be careful to be a little more consistent with its ideals. Sci-fi, at least, has always been way ahead of the curve on matters of race and gender; why not practice what it preaches in real world environments too?

THE UGLY:

--No, no, nothing really ugly. A lot of the writing at the "Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition," maybe, but that was the point, after all!

On the whole, then, Readercon 2008 was a success, and I had a good time there; kudos to the entire committee (particularly Eric M. Van, who was not only pleasant and communicative leading up to the convention but is also a contributor to The Noise and the Sons of Sam Horn message board--he's a statistical consultant with the Boston Red Sox. How cool is this guy's life?!). I'm looking forward to next year, particularly if we can get more panels with titles like "When Neurons Meet Saurons." Those are practically worth the price of admission by themselves.

Greg

P.S. Almost forgot to mention that I met my book-to-game conversion collaborator (BGCC?) for The Third Sign, Alex Hugon, in person this weekend, which by itself was pretty cool. I confirmed that he's as nice a guy in person as he is over the phone, and that his father designed Pole Position II and Track and Field. Those are some serious video game genes he's working with, people!

G.