July 21st, 2008

Green Kiki

A day to forget

Things I forgot to do today:

1. Remove the car keys from my pocket. Meaning that 'song has no access to car or the associated house key.

2. Place either the book I'm reviewing for PW (which is due a week from today) or the Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy back in my backpack.

3. Remove the copy of Who's Afraid of Beowulf from the small hidden compartment of my backpack into which I'd shoved it after finding it on the freebie table at Readercon. This is fortunate, as I at least had some reading material for the bus ride.

4. Press the button for my stop on the bus. At least I noticed right away.

5. Probably something else, but I can't remember.

I'm running on three hours of sleep, after nasty insomnia (not helped by the storms) last night, and being woken by yet another power outage this AM. Grr. Arg.

Readercon Report #1: Over the Hills in Farah's Way: Four Categories of Fantasy

Panelists: Ellen Asher, John Clute, Gregory Frost, Greer Gilman, Sarah Micklem

This was a discussion of Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, and was as a mixture of a summary/presentation of the core themes, and a discussion/reaction to them.

I had not yet read the book, and this panel convinced me that I needed to. Alas, Wesleyan Press sold out before I could grab one in the dealer's room, but they're sending my copy by mail at the con discount rate, which is nice (although it turns out that I'd have saved a buck or two via Amazon, since we have Prime, but that's water under the bridge).

Quick summary of the summary (or, if you prefer, oversimplifications of the oversimplifications; all mistakes are likely a result of sloppy note-taking, not stupid panelists. I did foolishly try to come up with my own examples as I was taking notes, and the odds of my being able to read my own handwriting run only slightly higher than the field's):

There are four general categories of fantasy:

Portal-quest fantasy -- the protagonist is roused from his/her safe haven and enters a world of adventure, eventually emerging unscathed and returning to his normal life. This can involve actually leaving our world (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Glory Road), or simply leaving a safe area of another world (LotR, in which case I'm guessing it's really just a "quest" without the portal). In these cases, the protagonists and the reader both learn about the fantastic world simultaneously.

Immersive Fantasy -- the protagonist is already a part of the fantasy world, and the fantastic is considered the norm. This is, as often as not, what I suspect most non-genre folks assume when thinking of fantasy. There's an automatic gap at the beginning between the understanding of the world possessed by the protagonists and by the reader, and the reader is forced to learn about the world to comprehend the story, even if the protagonist gains no new knowledge.

The Intrusion Fantasy -- something fantastic breaks into the world of the protagonist; this is largely horror's domain, with Lovecraft, King, and Stoker all obvious examples. That said, dark fantasy often goes here, as does a lot of mythic fantasy. Props to Clute, btw, for noting again that horror at its best is inherently a transformative genre, not a conservative one.

The Liminal Fantasy -- elements of the other categories apply (most often the intrusive, from the discussion), but the reactions of the protagonists differ from the "expected" reactions the read would apply. Little, Big was an obvious example here, as is Aiken's "Yes, But Today Is Tuesday." This is the toughest category to describe (especially given the limited time of the panel and the fact that I don't yet own the book), but as I understand it, it's essentially one that forces a clash between the reader and protagonists on some level.

Random notes from the panel:

First, although the book grew from an article that aimed for a taxonomy of fantasy, it was a given that the categories are presented as useful concepts to employ when analyzing a book, but books could certainly shift between categories, or employ elements of two or three categories (de Lint's The Little Country springs to mind).

Ellen Asher noted at the begining that this was "the worst-edited book in years," something that I doubt, since I cannot imagine a book with worse editing that Keith Hartman's The Gumshoe Gorilla. That said, I do hate the idea that good ideas might be lost behind bad editing (and hope that turns out to not be the case).

The Portal-Quest section drew some frustration from Asher and Micklem. Asher felt that Mendlesohn, after claiming to be non-judgemental, held the portal-quest in low esteem. Micklem felt that Mendlesohn was also pushing the Liminal over the Portal-Quest, and noted that as a reader, she doesn't "want to argue with the author." Both argued for the value in escapism.

Great quote by Clute at some point: "What is very difficult for a critic to do is to respond positively to someone else's idea." He managed to respond pretty positively, anyway.

There was some discussion about the emotions Mendlesohn associated with the various categories, particularly the use of ennui for the immersive fantasy. That's something I'll have to wait on until I read the book itself.

This panel will eventually inspire a rant about why the Werewolf Fucker mini-genre is neither horror nor intrusive.

My notes contain the question, "does Clute understand Pratchett?" I wish I could remember what I felt he bungled. I think he was claiming that Pratchett's works were immersive and didn't require a connection with or understanding of our world, which is the complete opposite of what they really are, but that seems too extreme to be the case, and I suspect I'm conflating multiple discussions from that panel in my head.

There was a mention of a fifth category, but it's at the very bottom of my page (as it was, it seems, not one of the core ones mentioned in the book), and my handwriting is useless at that point. I believe I have it as "subverting," which likely should have been "subversive."

Overall, this was one of those panels that was worth the price of the con (and which would have worked wonderfully as a two-hour panel -- something I saw at Readercon 2007 with the Slipstream Panel, and would like to see again). I'm very much looking forward to getting my copy of the book.

(This is the only panel which is getting a full write-up, btw; expect two or three other posts to wrap up the con as a whole.)

Blogathon auctions!

As you know (Bob), this is the time of the year when we Blogathon. And by "we," I mean not me, because I don't do all-nighters any more. But shadesong is organizing a group, and is personally blogging for The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC). She'll be playing the role of a future anthropologist, analyzing a number of "artifacts" created by some very nifty folks. You can read all about it here.

In anticipation of the Blogathon, she's auctioning all of the artifacts, and you can find the beginning of the listings online now (expect the rest over the course of the day). There are some amazing pieces here, including jewelry by the likes of azhure, kythryne, and JoSelle Vanderhooft, tambourines by fiddle_dragon, and lots of other stuff I'm currently forgetting (keep watching the page). All are run through EbayGivingWorks, the money will go straight to BARCC.

Readercon Report 2: Other panels of note

A few other panels I attended (in the order in which I remember them):

(As always, any mistakes are likely mine due to crappy notes and a faulty memory.)

1. Generation Dark -- The concept here that there is anecdotal evidence that horror is skewing young. The reality is that everyone on the panel and in the room thought the topic was stupid and wrong. The extra reality is that one panelist pulled stats out of her ass (damned-near literally -- I fully expected her to bend over and lube up to grab some of the numbers she tossed out there) about safety and the like, and actually uttered the question, "have you heard of this game called Grand Theft Auto," as if it was some fresh unholy evil whose very existence would break our puny brains.

The discussion that actually ensued wasn't bad; they rightly noted that the presence of creatures like vampires and werewolves does not necessarily make a book horror (dismissing Twilight explicitly here), That said, given the silliness of the topic, the discussion never gelled into anything really solid, either.

2. Economics as the S in SF:

In his con report, Matthew Cheney writes: I didn't attend too many panels, because after seeing a few, I began to get immensely frustrated with people who didn't know when to shut up. Panels are almost always unbalanced, since it's difficult for everybody to speak for equal amounts of time, but it wasn't unbalance that bothered me -- it was hijacking. In one case, it involved an insufferable moderator who thought the entire point of being moderator was to pose questions to himself.

Worth noting: Cheney was sitting in the row in front of me for this panel. I'm not saying that Ernest Lilley, this panel's leader, was the person in question (especially for reasons that will follow), but he was definitely the wrong person for this panel. That's not so much a critique of his knowledge of the category as it is of his personality as it meshed with those of the other panelists. He was just the wrong sort of extrovert to bring out the knowledge that some of the other (more introverted) panelists had. He did try (repeatedly, in the case of David Louis Edelman), but nothing seemed to gel, much to the frustration of much of the audience.

3. Triumphing Over Competence:

A response to Jeff Vandermeer's essay, this was a great panel to attend, but not one with a lot that I can boil down to bullet points. The major points of interest were the idea of the importance of authorial voice and the fact that for some editors, a story that's perfectly "publishable" isn't enough. Cecelia Tan noted that the competence level is rising; whereas previously, 50% of her rejections were utter trash (bad grammar, hokey plots, and other stuff that could be rejected on page one), at least 80-90% of current rejections were "competent," and that's without a rise in the overall rejection rate. Theodora Goss noted that, when editing Interfictions, there were often stories that she loved, but Delia didn't, and vice versa. Carl Frederick in turn noted that he knew a story had succeeded when his critique group responses had two peaks, one that loved it, and one that hated it. Someone (not sure who) then suggested that the mixed reaction was the sign of a great story, a theory I'm naturally wary of, as it removes the possibility that the vocal minority could actually be on to something. I suspect it does tend to be true, but I'm not inclined to take it to its logical extreme (and that opens up a greater discussion on personal aesthetics that I'm just too tired to think about).

4. The Critical Review: Griffin, Gorgon, or Sphinx?:

Correct answer: It's actually a Hydra with a Minotaur on its back. No. Wait. This panel was actually a good discussion of critical reviews, not necessarily organized or with any particular conclusion to reach, but a good panel with mentions of some classic pieces of criticism, discussion of M. John Harrison, the use of political and literary agendas in criticism, and more. John Clute made the point that the fear of spoilers often cut into the quality of the review, and that many critics and reviewers had serious problems with endings. Good, entertaining panel, just not one that I've got a lot of notes for.

More panels, readings, etc to come in the next report (tonight or tomorrow).