7.14.2005

Campbell Conference Report

Aside: Matt Cheney and Hanah Wolf Bowen have given Readercon reports. (Cheney was proud to be captured on film. I was proud to have eluded capture.)

I wrote these entries at the moment of their occurence or later that night. I couldn't get online to reproduce them immediately. Sometimes I went back to fill in. All comments are approximate and may misrepresent intent. If so, I apologize. Let me know and I'll make corrections.

The conference essentially represents James Gunn's attempt to preserve the Core of SF: both the magazines and its original approach. Now he calls the core, hard SF, but when I refer to it, I mean an attitude (a subtle and, therefore, not overbearing mostly positivist philosophy toward science) and methodology (story approached through idea development).

***

Thursday, July 8th, 2005

There are two things about the Campbell Conference I enjoy. First, James Gunn has created a culture of SF from scratch, to appreciate SF not just in this university but in the country and around the world, educating writers and teachers everywhere. This may be unique in the United States. The second thing proceeds from the first: the many familiar faces. As one fellow from Canada pointed out, it is its own community. What excites me about the community is its openness. You're not famous? Ah, what the hell, I'll talk to you anyway. Maybe part of this is a product of Midwestern culture. Everyone's face held no mask. We are what we are.

Last year, it was the Valhalla of SF that arrived. This year a number of Gunn's success stories arrived. Karen Schwabach recently sold a children's novel [her first] to Random House, as well as Philip K. Dick nominee Ann Tonsor Zeddies, World Fantasy winner Bradley Denton, Writers of the Future Golden Quill winner and academic anthologist Matthew Candelaria [I believe he's the middle fellow in the grey short sleeve sweatshirt], and Chris McKitterick. (Pat Cadigan had to cancel last minute, and John Kessel was dragged kicking and screaming to Spain.) The Sturgeon winner will be here, but the Campbell winner will not (bastard!).

My room is on the eighth floor. A sticker on my window says (I am not making this up):
WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

Attempting to exit through the window is extremely hazardous and prohibited!

They will fine the corpse $125, and (assuming KU is a typical bureaucracy) if the corpse fails to show up to pay his fine, they assess progressive penalty fees.

The room costs $28/night for AC that has two temperature settings: ON and OFF. There's something called HI and LO, but the difference between them is too subtle to detect via modern technology. Lumps in the mattresses and creaks in the bed springs are free of charge, although sheets, pillows and blankets are extra. I made fun of Willycon dorm accomodations, but at least you got what you paid for.

Kansas summers are hot. It's the same sticky hot in Omaha. I don't know why these conventions aren't held in Alaska.

Kij Johnson read tonight from a story appearing in Datlow and Windling's new YA anthology, Coyote Road: "The Evolution of Trickster Stories... After the Change." It's part philosophy, part updated trickster anecdotes (some funny ones in here), and part dealing with what might happen if you handed language to animals (I don't recall mention of enhancing intelligence--the premise being, perhaps, that language increases intelligence).

I saved the most exciting find for last. I found an anthology of essays on SF that James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria edited. Half of it, if you read critical stuff at all, you've probably already read. Some of it is nifty. I never quite bought Gunn's idea of SF being the literature of discontinuity, but after reading his essay on "Touchstones" I understand. In fact, the essay title refers not to any abstract notion but something quite specific. Gunn goes through several key stories to point out what makes the transformative moment. I suppose it is SF's equivalent of the Joycean epiphany.

I shared a drink with a curious threesome who write this web cartoon series (?) that get about 10,000 hits a day or month or something: Bluecrashkit.com

Also, with Chris, Ann (aka Toni Anzetti under her other pubishing name), and an academic named Karen L. Hellekson (The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith and a volume on alternate history), I learned the appeal of alternate history (as opposed to secret history) and slash fiction, which wasn't horror fiction as I had mistakenly assumed--what a curious descriptor: it can only be immediately understood by those who know it.

All right. Back to work on that villainous Mundane story.

Friday, July 8th, 2005

The workshoppers celebrated James Gunn's birthday (next Tuesday) with strawberry pie. I nearly missed the Campbell/Sturgeon award ceremony for catching up on sleep from the night before (I apologize for sleeping through Robin Wayne Bailey's reading, about which I was told he'd written one of the more moving robot stories they'd ever heard). Far smaller crowd this year without the Science Fiction Museum and SF Hall of Fame people that came last year. Apparently, next year, a Fantasy Hall of Fame may be celebrated at the conference.

They played a 1980 video-taped James Gunn interview with Theodore Sturgeon. Gunn wore suit jacket and dress shirt. Sturgeon wore a powder blue T-shirt with a unicorn on it. He described how he became a writer: His father had torn up Sturgeon's hidden stash of pulp magazines and ordered him to clean up the mess.
Sturgeon said when he wrote dialogue, he asked himself why a character would say that. Also, he wrote stories by "asking the next question," which he symbolized by wearing medallion of the capital letter "Q" with an arrow through it. He believed that by asking the next question, you get at "basic truth," but you had to keep going since the search never stops (rock on, Sturgeon!).

The statue of the Sturgeon award is that arrowed Q. Second runner-up went to Robert Reed's Mere (Golden Gryphon), and first runner-up to Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State" (Sci Fiction). The award went to Bradley Denton's "Sergeant Chip" (F&SF).

Denton thanked his wife, whom he met at a KU party and who knew immediately Denton wanted to be an SF writer; his editor Gordon van Gelder for his editing suggestions (the good ones, anyway, and there were some good ones, he assured us), and Gunn for being such a fantastic teacher. Denton related a story of a creative writing class with Gunn, who defended a cloud-sculpting fantasy story of his against the onslaught of a realist.

Richard Morgan took first prize in Campbell Award. Surprise runner-up was The Time-Traveler's Wife, published by mainstream publisher. However, I believe Geoff Ryman's Air, second runner-up, was also published as mainstream volume.

Morgan talked in abstentia of upsetting his fans (ala Animal Farm, Handmaid's Tale) and called the Campbell award prestigious. (Cheney and Niall Harrison had reasons for objection.)

The party was at McKitterick's with crackers, spinach dip, a cheese ball, Chex mix, sugary nuts, wine, beer, and soda provided by the generous labor of the department secretary Lydia Ash. Ann Zeddies, Robin Bailey, and McKitterick all related their martial arts horror stories and how martial arts saved Chris' life. Prompted by the sight of Ringworld facing us on McKitterick's one-story-and-a-half tall wall of bookshelves, Zeddies and I discussed regionalism as it has shrunk somewhat over the past few hundred years (I'll have a second-look review of the volume on SF Site, shortly, if you don't know what prompted the discussion). Zeddies and Karen H talked all things fan fiction (who knew there was so much to say about it?).

***

"Science Fiction Past, Present, and Future: How writers, teachers, and editors shape science fiction, and where SF may be going as a result of these personal influences."


JG: He moved from hero pulps (Doc Savage) to Astounding, which had same quality plus ideation. Thought, as a kid, he was the only reader in Kansas City. Since, little SF at the time, fans were fanatics, felt ownership, and thought they were Slans. In 1952 at World SF Con discovered others like him. The major authors were all fairly young. Del Rey thought ghetto was self-made.

SF came more out of the Popular Science attitude rather than the pulp attitude. [I buy this argument; see Gernsback's origin and motivation; also readers have tended to go into or attempt to go into scientific fields.] At the time magazines were financially successful--major source of SF at the time, but never enough. Even Gunn, like many readers and writers, wrote in to dispute new stories like Fred Pohl's.

F&SF--Boucher's literary attempt by quoting literary figures.

Galaxy--Gold's attempt to become Saturday Evening Post through slickness.

Magazines get by now, by cutting costs, barely getting by--unlike original subscriptions up to 175,000 sold/month even during the depression.

RWB: Disappointed that readership is fractured. Readers don't wander into different types. New terrific SF book that come out once got read by everyone that all can discuss. Misses sharing common language.

JG: Agrees

Matthew Candelaria: Picked randomly off SF shelf. First convention felt alienated not having read the same shared books.

CMcK: Notes 2nd and 3rd place Campbell winners weren't marketed as SF. Did SF readers even get to see them?

ATZ: Wants to visit cites of past guide books. Thought of old SF as contemporaries. Now as midlist writer, disappointed that community that she thought was there is not.

BD: Similar experience to Zeddies. Grew up with Galaxy and F&SF. Meets new writers that have not. Other places to get SF fix (online free, video games, movies). Came along at transitional period. Not many new fans at conventions. New writers but not many new fans--not sure why: becomes a challenge to marketing to share common interest.

ATZ: SF Community now online.

CMcK: Online community great: It is an ongoing convention. SciFiction good.

BD: Wonders if online is depressing quality since anyone can do a magazine. [I object to this later, beginning with "There's entirely too much agreement here." I was later labeled a devil's advocate.]

CMcK: Thinks fandom is the true gatekeeper.

JG: SF too successful so that fan fiction quality has won.

Teacher: Freeze-dried pets--SF is now in real life.

AZT: Readers now aren't necessarily willing to experience change, but like the gizmos attached. Challenging ideas are problematic with family-type people.

JG: SF has won though new opposition arises when accepted.

BT: Losing aspects of "Asking the Next Question" -- wanting only whiz-bang.

Eric Reynolds: SF fans now claim to be fan but haven't actually read any of it (media only).

RWB: We haven't shaken off media SF image

JG: Dilution of the audience = dilution of material. Sturgeon nominees are increasingly less SF and more literary. The consequence of Humanist league (people are people). Difference between hard core (environment influences).

Teacher: New writers educated by english majors. HS readers now have difficulty with text she read in middle school.

Teacher2: SF should make you uncomfortable. HS kids resistant to change.

CMcK: That's what Richard Morgan was talking about.

JG: Need to turn on readers at 12 so can build their imagination. RFF [Reading for the Future] for teachers and librarians.

BT [? BD?]: Need a cannon.

JG: Agrees. We're building one.

RWB: Teachers, how many stories do you use that was published within the last decade?

Teacher3: laughs

Teacher4: Textbooks full of dead people. "Harrison Bergeron" is the newest story available.

ATZ: Steel Helix was taught last year in college, but now going out of print. Mass-market novels disappear so teachers can't teach once out of print.

Teacher 3: Can only teach recent if given copyright permission. Schools don't have enough money.

Teacher 4: AR (some reading program of minor controversy) has increased their library's circulation 40 times.

ATZ: Should we teach SF? Won't it destory the desire to read it?

JG: Didn't lose interest in any subject in school.

RWB: Are there stories targeted to kids?

BD: Recommends Nielsen Hayden's and Yolen's Best Stories for Teens to be stocked at libraries.

Daycare teacher: Thinks five year olds hungry for SF in picture books.

PB [?]: Due to backslide of scientists and engineers, need kids to read hard SF.

ER: Science books too brings readers to SF.

JG: Principle SF will die if readers don't support magazines.

Teacher 3: Give magazines to libraries.

JG: Submissions down 20%

BD: Against sending stories to online no-pay magazines.

TW: Tirade for writers grooming craft in small press. Resnick. [I basically said that the small press has allowed writers to grow; see Barth Anderson's excellent break-through-in-quality fantasy "Into Something Rich and Strange" which kicks the ass of much fantasy simply through his realistic portrayal of relationships, which somehow reciprocally makes its magic more real. Even Resnick, who condemns small press, recently pointed out in SF Bulletin that the magazines are dying. Even in the heyday of magazines when Cordwainer Smith published his first story in what was considered a lousy magazine that Fred Pohl happened to read for an anthology, good stuff was missed by the major magazines! Julian Todd circuated "Mining the Primes" (an incredible story mixing attributes of Ted Chiang and Cordwainer Smith) to all the major magazines and they sent out summary rejection notices. He settled on a no-pay market, which Yoon Ha Lee reviewed, "I still think the strongest entry both as a story and for the theme, hands-down, is Julian Todd's "Mine the Primes," which engages with numbers and math and has an absolutely wonderfully gonzo stardrive.... one of the two coolest stardrive systems ever. My husband agrees that it is indeed very cool. (Why two? I can't decide between this one and the one in Timothy Zahn's [Hugo Award winner] "Cascade Point.") .... [It] blew my brain open with sheer, unadulterated, unflagging JOY.... [F]or my money you could sell me a story on that alone. [emphases hers]]

BD: Agrees, then disagrees (if not published in big press, no good, which basically forgets my argument for Smith's discovery--a writer who may have never written for SF again if it weren't for Pohl. BD assumes perhaps that Todd's story was immature for the major markets. I disagree (although I did tell him it needed a minor bit of revising). It was at least better than 75% of what gets published in the average issue of any major pub. As Resnick himself demonstrated (perhaps unwittingly), there just aren't the short fiction markets to encourage and develop talent anymore.)

JG: Because no new novel recently, Gunn has no record of sales, so B&N won't buy his latest.

RWB: Computer inventory. You get two or three shots at publishing. If you vanish for three years, you fall off their inventory and have to start from scratch. (RWB had a bout with cancer and had to rebuild his career.)

JG: Consequence: lowest common denominator: write what increases sales.

CMcK: Microsoft provides for free increases sales.

***

John Kessel (via DVD recording): Left NY to learn from Gunn in grad school (MA, PhD). Gunn a pioneer in canon creation. TRTSF still best historical anthology. Still debates "Cold Equations." Learned from Gunn: respect for craft, stories are rewritten.

ATZ: Book marketing has not advanced to cover the present age.

RWB: Only make money as a writer, not a genre writer--which is to say, diversify your genres.

TW: Eric Flint method of making a living in the genre [page down].

***

Readings

Bradley Denton: Finished last draft of Laughing Boy, about terrorism, on September 11th, 2001. Sat on it. Circulated it later but large publishers wouldn't touch it. Subterranean Press is coming out with an edition.

Had high praise for Gunn as a mentor.

Ann Tonsor Zeddies: Read from Blood & Roses. It's part of a novel-series project John Ordover is using to help fund the anthologies of new writers--to get Phobos Books in the black. Mike Resnick wrote Dragon America. TW on this reading: Stick with Blood & Roses through to the end of the first chapter, and you'll be hooked.

James Gunn: I heard much buzz about this reading. People are excited about his latest, Transcendence, calling it his best. Because of market conditions (see above), Gunn is an unknown product to the present-day market and has had to publish in the small press, Benbella [Gift from the Stars, an early review before the book was completely written (it originally appeared as stories in Analog)]. He couldn't sell his latest novel on the basis of a synopsis and three chapters. That's too bad. It starts off slow (Trent dares to recommend cuts at front--a little too talky in its present form), but when the story kicks in later, it does grip. The overall concept is terribly intriguing. I'm not sure why publishers wouldn't bite what could potentially become a huge success amongst readers and, hence, the financially inclined publishers.

***

Sunday, July 10th

Writing Chat

BD: LeGuin in Left Hand: If I could sum it in few sentences, I wouldn't have had to write the story.

Changed his process. Before: sought story ideas. Now: Accumulates ideas until they come together to make a story.

"The Territory" Sam Clemens was two weeks in Confederacy, might have gone through this area.

"Sergeant Chip" empathy for dogs. Thinks he knows how dogs think--as much as anyone can. Warfare in general: Chechneya, Iraq, etc. Reasons for war seem irrelevant for those who are in its midst (even if in the "big scheme of things" it seems the right thing to do). Read stories of war dogs: WWII dog took out machine gun nest. Vietnam: sniff out prisoners, trip wires, claymores. All dogs were abandoned after war. Euthanized, given to family--but rare cases. Dog wouldn't understand what war is about. All that matters are people he's with.


ATZ: Typhon's Children fleeing from war and think genetic engineering bad. Had to write a prequel since a sequel might not sell as well. Not sure if memory is truth or not. Intermingling of species' genes. Spaceship would have to be more interesting than Star Trek's. Biosphere that's decrepit, filmy fungus on walls (same problem with Mir). What is a monster: Supersoldiers called the Rook, coerced by collar.

JG: Writes to correct romantic notions of SF, especially in film but also in books. Revisits canon and asks, "How would it really be?" Gift from the Stars: Sagan's Contact incorporated much from The Listeners (Sagan sent a copy of Contact to Gunn, inscribed "Thanks for the inspiration"), which had incorporated some of Sagan's original nonfiction speculations. Major question: Why did they send us these starship designs? Can we decipher alien intentions?

Getting into Hollywood is like getting lightning to strike. Problem with Hollywood is that all lightning does is destroy. [Denton loved this quote and wrote it down.]

The Immortals was an ABC movie of the week. At the time TV was tired of renting Hollywood movies. Somebody looked through old TV shows and thought The Immortals would succeed.

KH: Kylie Lee. Extrapolation: Fan fiction article--why began writing. Considers it a critical exploration.

BD: Still on journey to be full-time author. Wrote and submitted as much as could as TA. Foreign sales kept him in the black.

JG: Gift from the Stars already published in China. Easton Press and Benbella soon.

BD: Research: Science is fuzzy since eager to get to story. Learns just enough to get the science right.

ATZ: Research: Feels like needs PhD. Done enough research when the story starts to come alive. Gets interested in her situation.

BD: Googles name and titles. Finds someone says Brad really screwed [the research on] this one.

JG: Researches until runs out of likely stories.

CMcK: Research: Kij writes as much notes as novel. Chris wants to give readers the sense of awe of first looking at stars through large telescope.

JG: Philip Klass: SF experience like going into planetarium--awe, mystery and wonder. Gunn wanted to be a writer, failed at electrical engineering, went into journalism (learned who, what, where, when, 1st paragraph, unique conclusion, succinct prose). No wasted moments in writers' lives. Playwriting into radio plays, then went to stories. Theory of why some become SF writers: Catch a disease, break a leg. SF is a virus. Important first SF anthologies that made SF come alive: Adventures in Time and Space & Conklin's Best of SF.

ATZ: Had books everywhere in house to read. Galaxy collections.

BD: Began with [Donald A. Wollheim's] Mike Mars and Tom Swift books.

CMcK: Read science then discovered SF. Science + fiction!

BD: Trying to do novel and 3 or 4 stories at once. Buddy Holly script done.

JG: Budrys thinks need to write filmically. Nowadays, students come in through comic books which exagerate situations and people. [Presumably, this is difficult to unlearn.]

BD: Learned through Gunn how to write scenes. Tries to see story as film in first draft (was of TV generation), then focus on words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes.

JG: Radio was best for SF (X Minus One--Galaxy adaptations) because you don't have to do special effects.

BD: Sturgeon interview crytalized and made emotional: SF writer cannot give into despair, must ask the next question. [Re: terrorism] We failed to pass on SF ideals. Depressed, but then ask the next question and next, then you're writing a story.

ATZ: We're seeding our stories into the consciousness of others. Stories work on levels that people aren't aware of. SF _is_ a virus.

JG: Asimov thought that made a climate that helped put a man on moon.

Slipstream is most powerful new genre, has virtues, but is dangerous in that the core of SF is shrinking. If you have no center, what you have is ineffective. Our task is--should you choose to accept it [audience laughs]--to bring it a younger audience and to preserve the central nature of SF. Even despite JG's writing social SF, he's always had a respect for SF's core.

SF thinks that people as a group must change. Good SF believes you can recognize this and rise above.

TW: [Somewhere in here I debated the attributes of Mundane SF, which I thought would renew interest in the Core SF by debating the assumptions of the old tropes. Lest you think Gunn is entirely opposed to Slipstream, see that his latest anthology on SF essays includes one on Slipstream.]

Gunn had little trouble with new movements except when they claim to be better. He pointed to the New Wave. [To attendees: Does anyone recall what all Gunn said in response?]

After lunch, some of us met at Chris' to trash Mundane SF. Little do they know that we have plans to rule the world. Mu-a-a-a-a-a!