Category Archives: Books

Reading The Green Glass Sea

There aren’t many novels that I wish I’d written – as opposed to simply wishing I’d written something as good – but The Green Glass Sea and its sequel White Sands, Red Menace, by Ellen Klages, are two. They’re historical novels aimed at middle-school readers, but they feel like science fiction in a number of important ways. They have scientists absorbed in an important problem, working on the exclusion of it to all else. The worldbuilding – something that’s important to science fiction – is impeccable, in the choice and depth of detail that builds out an unusual perspective to a well-told story. The Green Glass Sea starts in 1943, with a ten-year-old girl, Dewey Kerrigan, being put on an overnight train from St Louis to join her father at an unnamed destination. The unnamed destination is a place called Los Alamos. The scientists who are working so intently are working on the first atomic bomb. That includes Dewey’s father, who is a mathematician, and both Suze Gordon’s parents. Its sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, moves on to Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1946, where Suze’s father is involved in the first peacetime experiments with V2 rockets built from parts and plans captured from Germany, with the help of emigré German scientists. The military want these rockets for their ability to deliver payload. The scientists want these rockets to lift them into space. These experiments will lead a quarter century later to the landing on the moon.

The two novels aren’t science fiction, but they do a lot of the same things that science fiction can do, and they deal with a time and an event that was significant to history and to science fiction. They’re about the community of science, about the culture of science – and that includes the science fiction of the time. The teenagers in White Sands, Red Menace are passing around copies of Analog, and talking about the early stories of Ray Bradbury. The novels are also about the innocence, conscience and culpability of science. And they have some specific advantages over science fiction in dealing with certain narrative challenges.

For one thing, they don’t have to explain the technology and its significance, a technical problem that SF writers have to solve all the time. Too much for some readers is too little for others. But the majority of readers know the basics of how the atom bomb worked, know what it does, know what it means. So Klages shows the viewpoint of the time, and lets the reader fill in the context. Towards the end of the Green Glass Sea, Suze’s father takes the kids out to the test site of the first atomic explosion. They walk for a few minutes on the vitrified sand left by at ground zero, collecting interesting glasses. As someone who has worked with radioactivity in the lab, that freaked me a little, but that’s what people did. At least Suze’s father had a geiger counter and wouldn’t let them take home anything that was too hot. On the way back, they catch a fragment of a sentence on the radio about the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Suze flicks it off. It’s war news; they can always get more later.

I mentioned the worldbuilding and the unusual perspective, a child’s perspective of school and hobbies. Their interests were expressed through their hands, with the building of hobbyist equipment as a serious leisure activity, and in handcrafts projects – In their rented house in Alamogordo, Suze and Dewey collaborate in assembling a collage mural from Dewey’s cogs and parts, cut-outs of superheroes, anything that strikes their interest. This is something I remember growing up with, but which has been largely displaced in popularity by television and computing. I really like that Klages is faithful to her time, and does not disguise, apologize for or editorialize on situations that were commonplace and unremarked for wartime, but that we would not find appropriate today: Ten year old Dewey rides an overnight train to Los Alamos, unchaperoned. Dewey and Suze spend evenings alone and together, when their parents are caught up in the lab. The children raid the dumpsites at Los Alamos for discarded equipment for their hobbies, and late in White Sands, Red Menace, steal parts from the crash site of a failed rocket.

There’s another challenge in portraying science in fiction that using an historical event gets around. Science happens within social networks. Scientists have colleagues, students, correspondents, rivals, and friends. Scientists need to talk about their work. Probably under the influence of film, there’s a strong push in genre towards fast-moving plot-heavy stories. One of the ways that storytelling gains speed is by stripping down the cast. That tends to feed into the mythology of the genius working alone, whereas in actuality, an isolated scientist is often a compromised scientist. One of the points that Horace Freeland Judson made in his history of the early years of DNA – The Eighth Day of Creation – was that Rosalind Franklin was working largely in isolation, and it may have slowed her in seeing what was in her own diffraction photographs.1

That’s where The Green Glass Sea has a big advantage, narratively. There’s a cast of walk-ons we already know from the history books, people like Richard Feynman (I let out an audible squeak of pure geekish glee when he introduced himself, since a visit from Feynman was one of the highlights of my undergrad), Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer. In another scene, the reader sees through Suze how much her parents delight in being able to bounce ideas off each other. Terry Gordon also assumes an important mentoring role for Dewey, being able to explain ideas and physical phenomena to her.

I’ve been interested for a long time in the way fiction portrays scientists, and that’s another way that Green Glass Sea is true to scientists and its time. The scientists are smart, dedicated, enthusiastic, slightly naieve. They are working for the patriotic end of winning the war, they’re allowed to spend all their time doing what they love to do in the stimulating and nourishing company of the world’s best. There’s a charming bit of characterization in the way Dewey’s and Suze’s parents named their daughters for their enthusiasms. Dewey was born on the twelfth of December, so her full name is Duodecima, the Latin for twelve. Terry Gordon’s favourite scientist and role model is Marie Curie, so Suze’s middle name is Sklodowska, Curie’s maiden name. The girls first bond over their mixed pride and embarrassment.

Another thing I really liked is that Dewey, who builds radios and gadgets and wants to go to MIT, doesn’t fall into the stereotype of the socially awkward nerd. Her mother left when she was a baby, and her father has been away for 4 years, so she’s had to learn to be self-sufficient. She’s used to ignoring people who make fun of her, and always ready to approach people who share her interests. Late in White Sands, Red Menace, her social skills enable her to resolve a painful personal situation respectfully but to her advantage. She loves Los Alamos, because she is surrounded by people to whom a fascination with science and technology is normal. At the same time, she has some of the same moral and political blind-spots as her elders.

Suze is the emerging artist of the pair, but she’s also the more awkward and needy; at the beginning, she’s desperate to belong, to the point she’ll show off by taking a shortcut through a restricted area, or join in bullying Dewey (“Screwy Dewey”). But she’s the one who stands up when her social science teacher tries to gloss over the suffering caused by the Bomb, while Dewey, equally aware, remains uncomfortably silent. Once in Alamogordo, she becomes friends with a girl from the other side of Main Street, crossing a legally enforced divide between the community of mainly White incomers and the Hispanic and Native American long-term residents of the area. Asked to produce a social sciences project on “My Almagodoro”, she creates a 3D collage depicting this division. Her moral vision grows increasingly complex:

As the truck bounced over the rutted gravel track, Suze looked at the dial in her hand with mixed feelings. She had taken it because the V-2 launch had been her first experience of Alamogordo. A whole day spent with her dad, a good memory, before the rockets had taken him away. The dial was still warm from lying in an American desert, but it had been made in a concentration camp. If a rocket did go to the moon one day, far in the future, most people probably wouldn’t remember that. She’d save this piece, along with her white sand and green glass, so she wouldn’t forget.

After Hiroshima, after Nagasaki, Phillip Gordon throws himself into the rocket experiments, still not acknowledging their dual-use potential, or that they are using parts made in work camps and working with former Nazis, while Terry Gordon joins the lobby headed by Einstein and others to stop further development and use of the Bomb. “We built it,” she says. “We’re the only ones who can stop it.” Their marriage starts to break up – it’s a microcosm for what is happening within the science community. The atomic Bomb wasn’t the first time that science had to confront its culpability – chemistry, for instance, had had its moment in the trenches of the First World War – but it was a crucial event both for science and for science fiction.

I both hope and don’t hope that there will be a third novel about these characters, though now they’re entering the fifties, with all that means for the stifling of women’s aspirations: Terry Gordon with her determination to get back to her own work, having spent a year in Almagedro as a trailing spouse, Dewey with her ‘unfeminine’ interest in technology and ambition to go to MIT (there’s a ghastly encounter with a school guidance counsellor, as well as the mandatory training in manners and etiquette; I wish it were a caricature), Suze with her awkward social conscience, and Suze’s friend Ynez with her ambition to use her skill in hairstyling and makeup for an entree into Hollywood and a career writing and directing films that portray her community as it really is. Maybe I’d rather leave them as they are, Dewey, Suze, and Terry, driving out of Alamogordo, heading for Berkeley, with Dewey at the wheel.


  1. SF does have a bunch of favourite conventions and settings that allow it to portray science as a community. Aside from more conventional lab and company settings, SF has everything from militarized exploration starships like the Enterprise to campuses in space like the setting of McIntyre’s Starfarers quartet or Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier. Or there are the colonization narratives in which a group of people in an unfamiliar environment have to use applied science to stay alive, like the hundred scientists sent to settle and terraform Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, or my own Cavalcade

Ad Astra, 2014: A convention report

Why is it that, no matter how I travel to a convention, I always seem to wind up with not enough space in my luggage on the return? If I'd my copy of The Curse of Chalion to hand, I'd pull out Cazaril's quote about overflowing saddlebags, although this trip's luggage crisis was made up of two parts: I had left my larger duffle bag on the other side of the continent, and I needed to pack business casual clothes for a second conference immediately after Ad Astra.

So it was with a snugly-packed small duffle bag, a computer case, and a Vancouver Public Library book bag with copies of the Darkborn trilogy – just in case – I headed out on Friday morning, April 4, to meet my ride to Ad Astra, and the launch of Breakpoint:Nereis – minus, it transpired, my camera and dental floss. Half way to Toronto, we met the forecast rain-front and spent the rest of the way in intermittent grey outs.

Ad Astra was at the Sheraton Parkway Hotel in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, where World Fantasy Convention was a couple of years ago. I was staying at the associated Best Western Hotel, along with several hockey teams from a med school charity meet. I was in a suite: tucked under an arch to one side of my room was a small bar area. I didn't spend much time in the suite, though. I made it into the swimming pool twice, on both mornings – one of the swimming pools, since I only discovered the Athletics Club with the second swimming pool on Saturday evening, looking down from the tenth floor party suite, and only went looking for it, wet swimsuit in hand, after the second swim, after I realized that geometry made it impossible that the pool I had swum in was the pool I had seen. Next time.

I was scheduled for three panels and a book launch (mine).

The aesthetics of SF, with Donato Giancola (artist), Michael Martineck (writer), and Zainab Amadahy (academic/activist, who proposed the subject and prepared a slideshow that looped on the screen throughout).

Colour schemes in 'serious' science fiction and fantasy tend to be muted – even monochromatic – messes. Is it because we equate bright colours with children and immaturity, or just plain ugliness? Which (if any) SF/F works get away with a colourful palette? Open your mind, and maybe your crayon box, for this colourful discussion.

We talked about trends in illustration and visual design for film, and how it anecdotally did seem to be moving towards a more muted display, with examples from the field of artists being asked to desaturate their colours. About whether that was due to the current fashion for dystopia, which tended to hark back to the grimy drabness of 1984 and post-WWII Britain, and how drab seems to be 'right' for poverty to the Northern-Western eye, even though in Latin American and Asian cultures, poverty keeps a vivid palette. About how colonialism influences our aesthetics, by associating bright colour with tropical 'primitive' cultures. We compared the available, living palettes of the tropics and the north, and the economics of colour. We brought in the influences of militarism, and religion – austerity was one of the ways that emergent Protestantism (particularly its strains of Calvanism and Puritanism) contrasted itself to Catholicism. We considered the gendering of colour, how in North Western societies the allowable palette for men's dress is much more muted than that for women (though professional women are advised to emulate the male), and how women's dress historically was for attracting mates and displaying family wealth. We got a bit into the uses of colour by writers, and how the meaning of colour changes across cultures. I mentioned how I had used the colour yellow in Contagion:Eyre (sequel to Breakpoint:Nereis), and brought up JM Synge's use of the meanings of white, black, red and grey in Irish mythology to heighten the fatalism in his plays Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows.

The Once and Future Plague, with David Stephenson (see the panelist page), Hayden Trenholm, Katrina Guy, Stephen B. Pearl.

From the Black Death to schistosomiasis to zombie hordes, infectious diseases and the plagues they cause have made for many a fascinating read. Even as we progress towards eradicating disease, we continue to tinker with tailor-made germs. This panel will explore how historic traumas shaped classic stories, and where the fear they create overlaps with present-day anxieties to create something altogether new, yet familiarly terrifying.

Alas, I scrambled in late, and I missed everyone's introductions. But we talked about forensic anthropology and accidental rediscoveries of burial grounds from the Black Death and other epidemics, SARS and how it exposed a the vulnerability of healthcare workers as well as the effect of political distraction and denial, what kind of fatality rates would change society forever, vaccine politics and renascent outbreaks, accidental releases and bioterrorism, synthetic biology and the eventual possibility of rolling our own bad bugs, and the fact that the most devastating infections might not affect us directly, but might affect our food sources. As a finale, we got a chance to speculate on how a devastating pandemic would play out in the here and now. My answer was it depends – largely on whether we recognize and react soon enough. (Which you can guarantee not to see in fiction; after all, where's the fun in that.)

Biotech, Identity and Personal Freedom, with Shirley Meier.

In Donna McMahon's Second Childhood, one of the characters comments that nobody living in the twenty-second century can know for certain that memories and thoughts are one's own. In this panel, discuss this concept along with whether advances in biotech and greater understanding of our genetic makeup will make us more free, or less.

This is a topic I've pitched before, and it's different every time, depending upon the constitution of the panel. Shirley talked about the tech, since her interest was steampunk, artificial intelligence, and identity, and mine was in neurobiology, psychology, and ethics. We coincided on the subject of liberty and internal and external threats to freedom, whether resulting from programming or our own biological circuits.

The Bundoran Press launch on Saturday night, for Strange Bedfellows, Breakpoint:Nereis, both from Bundoran Press, and Robin Riopelle's Deadroads, from Night Shade books. Strange Bedfellows is Bundoran's kickstarter-funded anthology of politically themed science fiction. Deadroads is a novel about family, ghosts and devils, three Louisiana siblings who have inherited their parents' paranormal abilities, as well as their – in several senses – demons. Hayden read from Gustavo Bondoni's short story “Gloop” from Strange Bedfellows, I read the scene from the cover of Breakpoint:Nereis, of Aeron Ivesen reluctantly visiting a relic of the pre-plague settlement, Robin read a scene in which Baz makes what is clearly going to be a very bad deal in exchange for the whereabouts of the sister he has not seen since she was a small child – spooky and a perfect length for a short reading, and Andrew Barton read from his short story “Three Years of Ash, Twenty Years of Dust”, also from Strange Bedfellows.

As for the rest of the weekend, I didn't leave the hotel, though occasionally I noticed there was bright sunshine out there. I had a couple of hours stint in the Dealer's room, watching books get sold. I dropped by the SFCanada table, hosted by Ira Nayman. I met Matt Moore, of the Ottawa ChiSeries readings, and Annette Mocek, of the Merrill collection, and James Alan Gardner. I said hail-and-farewell a few times in the hall to a Doppler-shifted Julie Czerneda. I signed books. I finally got to meet Derek Newman-Stille, of the Speculating Canada blog, in person. I met my editor (Hayden), and Bundoran Press' publicist (Beverly Bambury), and Alyx Dellamonica, author of Indigo Springs (winner of the Sunburst Award), Blue Magic, and a memorable and – dare I say it, very Canadian – urban fantasy from Tor.com, “The Cage”. While I enjoy butt-kicking heroines as much as the next woman, I love civilization even more. Dellamonica's heroines in “The Cage” defend themselves and each other with guile, law, and community. Her forthcoming novel, Child of a Hidden Sea, promises to scratch more of my itches: portal fantasy, with oceans. Anyone I missed mentioning, sorry, not on purpose! I did not meet the guest of honour, David Weber, which was a shame, because, yes, I'm an Honor Harrington fan, but I know he's coming north again this year.

Book tally, in my overflow bag (remember the Vancouver Public Library bag in the opening act):

  • Eight author's copies of Breakpoint:Nereis
  • Michael J Martineck's The Milkman.
  • Robin Riopelle's Deadroads
  • Tom Barlow's. I'll Meet You Yesterday.
  • Plus two geeky T-shirts from Antimatter Apparel.

Darkborn goes academic

Derek Newman-Stille, author of the Speculating Canada blog*, who previously reviewed Darkborn, has just published an academic article on “Where Blindness is Not (?) a Disability: Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy” in the September 2013 issue of Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature. He examines the trilogy in the context of literary portrayals and conventions of disability in general and blindness in particular, and compares and contrasts those with the descriptions of blind people themselves as to how they perceive the world. He points out the parts that worked, and the parts that did not, in places because of accommodation to genre and in places because, yes, I did not think something all the way through. It’s a very enjoyable read**, accessible to the non-English academic, and my one niggling criticism is that Mosaic is not open access. But I’m sure Derek has reprints.

* Which just last weekend won the Aurora Award for Fan Publication
** Which is not just authorial ego speaking!

Where’d the web go?

I had a minor bowl-of-petunias moments a while back. I was looking at another project compiling a list of works by women in an attempt to make them visible, when a quiet voice said in the back of my mind, “Oh no, not again.”

Because the list didn’t tell me why I should care about these books. It didn’t tell me why I should read them. It didn’t tell me where to start. It didn’t capture what was in them, how they were like and unlike each other, how they spoke to each other, to their moment, to the history and conventions of genre, which were romps and which were sober, which were controversial, which broke new ground, which refreshed the old, and which did neither but were still fun to read. It didn’t contain any indicators of if-you-liked-this-then-you’ll-probably-like-that or if-you-loathe-hate-and-despise-this-then-touch-not-that-book-with-tongs (so the reader doesn’t get ticked off and fire off one of those “SF/F is all _____” denunciations) . . . for which covers are a dismal guide [1].

All of that is already out there. People — many much more incisive and more knowledgable than I — have already said a great deal about these books, spanning several decades. We have reviews, articles, commentaries, forum-posts, critiques and commentaries and defences and controversies of decades, and they might as well be invisible to such lists. There wasn’t even an indication of such discussions even having happened.

Collective forgetting is a significant problem with women’s writing. We keep having to start at the beginning again, remaking the lists, rediscovering the books, rediscovering that other people knew about the books, and we all have to do it one at a time.

Back when I first learned HTML, several epochs and browser extinction events ago (I think it was the Mosaic-Navigator boundary), I made lists, too. I’d open my editor and a page, write out “a href=”, paste in the link, remember to close the quotes. These days, I’m still doing pretty much the same thing, though I get to click a button with an icon of a link and fill in form fields, and I only have to hack HTML if something breaks.

What I’d like to be able to do is, for example, directly connect someone else’s mention of Vonda McIntyre’s (terrific) Starfarers Quartet (1989-1994) to the ebook that’s available on Bookview Café, to the article McIntyre wrote about its inception (“It started out as a hoax”), to the article on “Changing regimes: Vonda N. McIntyre’s parodic astrofuturism” that DeWitt Douglas Kilgore published in Science Fiction Studies. Directly. So that if someone finds one, it will lead them straight to the others. Without having to do what I’ve just done, which is having to create an entirely redundant new web-page and stick myself in the middle where I don’t need to be when I’ve nothing new to say. (Although yes, it would be essential to flag the source of the new connections, in the interests of transparency, disclosure, and attribution).

It’s a challenging programming problem; although I am not a librarian or an information scientist, much less a programmer [2], I know that much. Not only to do it, but to get the interface not only straightforward but appealing enough that it could be widely adopted. It might not even be possible. But I also have the feeling that we could be further along than this, and I wonder if one reason might be the influence of commercial interests shaping development of the web over the past decade.

In its beginning, Google search was a significant advance, returning results that reflected links made by humans who were informed and interested on a topic, so that the substantial material would rise to the top, and the first page of a Google search was a valuable snapshot of the good material on any subject – or book. Google became the go-to aggregator of information.

Then the web went dot-com, and Google got into the advertising business. SEO became an industry, and now what floats to the top of a Google search for a title is Amazon et al, and Goodreads, and Wikipedia if there’s an entry, but where the citation quality is extremely variable, and assorted high volume review blogs which are so spoiler-fixated that they don’t even get past the skin, never mind anywhere near the bones of the book. Meanwhile the 3000 word (“tl;dr”) thoughtful consideration published 8 years ago in plain-vanilla HTML — which once would have been at the top of the search rankings — might show up around about page 7, and the three richly detailed articles published in scholarly publications and archived in JSTOR might not show up at all and even as they did, would be inaccessible to most people [3].

And now there’s social networking, and everything’s still lists, and everything’s still linear, and moreover, links vanish into the silos of Facebook or Google or Delicious or Goodreads, although with RSS (however long that lasts) or IFTTT, at information can be propagated across silos.

With the result that we’re still making new lists, we still struggle to be aware of previous work, and we still have the perpetual first steps phenomenon.

… Wanders off grumbling to brood on this more.

—-

[1] Something I remember realizing when picked up early Joanna Trollope on the basis of the very similar cover design to Mary Wesley‘s novels. Trollope is a fine writer, but (at least in her early novels) was the antithesis of the very thing I most liked in Mary Wesley – Trollope’s characters who defied convention were always punished.

[2] I have been known to describe myself as a geriatric script-kiddie, although such facetiousness is begging to be misunderstood. I am law abiding (except when cycling the streets of Montréal, which is an exercise in getting in touch with one’s inner anarchist) and I can usually figure out what’s going on in several programming languages.

[3] And as someone who has been an supporter of open access academic publishing since the days of the first Harold Varmus proposal in 1999, all I can say is have we lived and fought in vain.

When Words Collide 2013: A convention report

Summary

  • Skipped doing panels (not organized enough to propose ones or get onto the ones I would have been able to contribute to; resolve henceforth to do better)
  • Friday: Flew Montreal to Calgary in the morning, arriving just before noon, made it to the hotel (via public transit from the airport, glad I packed light – Eagle Creek small holdall), checked in, waited for the elevator (10-floor hotel, one working elevator, locked stairs), mastered the key elevator card (went up and down a few extra times in the process), picked up registration package, talked to people, wandered around spacey with sleep deprivation for what remained of the afternoon, and headed out to see a friend for supper and the evening. Thereby missing all of Friday’s programming. After I got back to the hotel, I went back to my quiet room, and slept for about 10 hours. Thereby missing all of Friday’s parties.
  • Saturday: Surfaced just in time for the 9 am communal breakfast on the 10th floor, a excellent innovation from SF Canada for larks and easterners, attended panels (see below), had fascinating conversations, worked two stints on the Bundoran table in the dealer’s room, and had an extremely sociable, very tasty, but desperately slow supper at a adjacent Indian restaurant that could not possibly have anticipated an invasion by hungry con-goers. Thereby missing all Saturday evening programming, including the Bundoran launch. Next year, we have collectively resolved to warn them.
  • Sunday: Breakfast in the hotel restaurant (pancakes), panels, conversations, a swim in the hotel’s enticing outdoor pool, crystal blue water, excellent temperature, decorative sprays. Second elevator still down, but stairwell was now open and getting much use, particularly between the first and second floors. Checked out, adding my orange holdall to a substantial hoard behind the main desk, snatched lunch at Starbucks, attended panels (see below), hit the dealer’s room one more time, and, failing to find anyone else heading to the airport for a late afternoon flight, availed myself of the hotel’s offer of a subsidized taxi ride out to Calgary airport … wishing I’d stayed until Monday.

Books bought

(It was a little holdall.)

  • Right to Know (Ed Willett), Bundoran Press’ latest, a generation ship story.
  • Shanghai Steam (edited by Ace Jordan, Calvin D Jim, and Reneé Bennett), an anthology of steampunk wuxia stories
  • Healer’s Sword (Lynda Williams), seventh in the Okal Rel series

Later in my trip I added

  • Beyond the Blue Horizon (Brian Fagan), a fascinating book about very early seafaring and exploration, which has just come out in trade paperback, and which I have already paid library fines on
  • A Distant Soil: The Gathering (Colleen Doran) The remastered, definitive version of Doran’s long-running epic space opera (which I started reading when I was doing my PhD thesis), now finally on the home stretch.

The Alien (reconstructed human) as metaphor

Nina Munteanu, Peter Halasz, Lynda Williams, Candas Jane Dorsey

  • Lynda mentioned the risks to understanding others, the fascination and danger. I identified one source of danger as the risk of being estranged from one’s culture of origin without necessarily being accepted in the adopted culture. The loss of family and community. The writer can wave his/her narrative magic wand and make up those losses, but the real-life experience of exiles, dissidents, and even migrants who have simply sought better opportunities elsewhere, shows it isn’t necessarily that easy … By the third book of CJ Cherryh’s foreigner, series, Cherryh has brought Bren Cameron to that position of estrangement without acceptance; acceptance comes later, by several books.
  • My other thought was that the interest in aliens was rooted in the childhood experience of trying to learn social rules, which were frequently bewildering and apparently arbitrary.
  • A lot of writers wanted to address the problem of humanity in a way that does not raise hackles (by invoking current concerns).

Academic Papers I-II

  • Jessica Bay, on “Kisses and categories: blurring genre definitions through relationships”, talking about two series, one of which I had not read, the Kate Daniels series, by Ilona Andrews, and the other the Mercedes Thompson series, by the con guest Patricia Briggs, talking about the crossing over between a romance and quest plot.
  • Paula Johansen presented on “Looking for Ghosts in The Curve of Time.” The Curve of Time is a memoir by M. Wylie Blanchet, who spent multiple summers travelling the BC coast with her children in the ’30s. Paula traces the movement from invitation to a haunting in an abandoned house (which the narrator flees), through her encounters with deserted first nations longhouses and arboreal burials, to her awareness of the eerie movements of the wind and the trees – a reversal of the usual progression of a ghost story from suggestive and non-specific spookiness to the climactic encounter.
  • Aida Patient talked about “The Centennial Reader: Online publication and reading practices”.

“Pantser, plotter, or quilter”

Amanda Sun, Jodi McIsaac, Susan Calder, Patrick Swenson

As a member of the Ancient and Proud Order of Literary Pantsers[1][2], I had to go to “Pantser, plotter, or quilter” where Amanda Sun, Jodi McIsaac, Susan Calder, Patrick Swenson compared the merits and demerits of the various modes[1] of getting from idea to finished story. Having written technical documents according to guidelines and templates, I know how pleasant it is to have a sense of the shape from the very beginning, and how peculiarly relaxing it is to know exactly where you stand in relation to the end, even if the relaxation is one of limp hysteria at the disproportion between what remains to be done versus what time remains to do it in (no, never happens, never) …

Unfortunately, I snuck in late, missed the introductions, and was too far away from the speakers to read their nametags, so I cannot properly attribute the following pearls

  • “How many characters actually listen to their author??”
  • “Plotting removes the organic energy of the story”
  • “One of the best pieces of advice I received was that, while it was impossible to think of 20 good ideas, it is also impossible to think of 20 bad ideas.”

[1] Pantser[2] = flies by the seat of their pants, outlines retrospectively and/or only when compelled to do so. Plotter = prepares a prospective outline, usually in (obsessive, from the pantser perspective) detail. Quilter = writes out of sequence, as pieces come to them. Probably could be a special case of either of the previous categories.
[2] Battle cry: “Outlines? We don’t need no stinkin’ outlines!” Mayday: “Help! I’m stuck in the middle!”

Patterns of recognition in humans and what it means to writers

Patricia Briggs and Lynda Williams.

  • The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. One of the cardinal problems of artificial intelligence is that computers have difficulty recognizing patterns
  • The writer can make use of this pattern recognition: one does not have to work so hard to join up the dots
  • Characters contribute a huge pattern to the story. When they enter, they are neutral, and then they gradually define themselves. Tropes can be very valuable (Lynda), but with main characters, the readers should not be able to recognize the tropes (Patricia); tropes are, however, useful for secondary characters.
  • One strong pattern is that of cause and effect; readers expect that cause and effect will match
  • The writer needs to be careful as to what patterns are invoked. If a pattern is invoked, and then contradicted, the reader may get confused, or see it as a betrayal. Eg, in Mooncalled, Patricia killed off a character early in the novel, “and got crap for it”. [He was one for whom the pattern demanded better treatment (he was young, innocent, a victim, and seemed to have found rescue).]
  • How well subverting expectations works depends the skill of execution, the reader’s expectations, and the character. You can break the pattern for some characters, but not others.

Examples mentioned:

  • Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman, which begins conversation between a man and his mistress in which the time and place are never specified but is somehow is still utterly clear
  • Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, where the central character is an archaeologist who regards herself as a proper Victorian lady, but by the reaction of the other characters is clearly a holy terror.
  • As an example of breaking of a pattern, Patricia cited the death of Colonel Blake in MASH, a random and capricious accident of war overtaking an everyman character whose role in the series was principally as a foil to the others
  • Patricia also cited the death of Bothari in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice, both because it is unexpected (a retribution from a generation before) and because it is unexpectedly tragic. Readers do not expect to mourn monsters. (Bujold does this all the time, subverts patterns.)