Over Queen's Birthday weekend 2009 (May 29th - June 1st) I went up to Auckland for ConScription, a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention organized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand. While I had been to several Armageddons before (see my various reports), I had never been to a proper SF&F con. In fact it had somehow escaped my attention that New Zealand even had its own regular con.
The con sessions were in general very good. They ranged from the missable to the completely brilliant, and included quite a few pleasant surprises. In general I found that the most successful presentations were the ones where the speaker had prepared a talk in advance. The ones that were unprepared chat sessions tended to be less successful. There was lots and lots on - at some points over the weekend there were three sessions on in different rooms at once. It was impossible for me to attend all the sessions I wanted to. The bulk of this report consists of my impressions of each of the sessions I did attend.
Unfortunately the great content of the sessions was somewhat let down by the overall (lack of) organization. While the bad organization was usually only annoying, it occasionally tipped over into discourtesy, like when the MC forgot to welcome two of the guests during the opening ceremony, or when it turned out that the con bookstall didn't have any copies of one of the guest's books for sale. On the one hand I feel like a bully for complaining about lack of organization when the whole show was selflessly put together on volunteer power alone, and I by no means expected (or wanted) a flash, slick, high-production-value experience. On the other hand I feel it behooves me to point out that with only a modicum of extra effort things would have run much more smoothly and I'm sure everyone would have enjoyed the great sessions all the more. I certainly do thank the ConCom for their efforts in putting together a great weekend for the fans.
During the ceremony the International Guest of Honour Julie E. Czerneda, a terrific Science Fiction writer, was welcomed to the con with a pleasingly surreal salmon-based variation of Monty Python's Fish-slapping Dance. The giant salmon that ended the dance put in regular appearances during the rest of the con.
My favourite moment of the ceremony came when a group of the con volunteers (some of whom had superb singing voices) sang a song set to a well-known tune. The punchline was, "Why did we volunteer? It must have been the green green grass of home."
The ceremony also featured a couple of very sweet performances by a high school Pacific Culture group, doing traditional dances in Polynesian garb.
(Saturday 9am. Presented by Helen Lowe.)
In this very interesting session Helen posed and gave her answers to the following questions: Why is YA (Young Adult) fantasy so popular at the moment? And why has there been no corresponding uptick in interest for YA Science Fiction?
She started off by saying that YA is very popular at the moment in the wake of such massive successes as Harry Potter and Twilight, and that authors who usually write for the adult market are increasingly turning their talents to the YA market.
She characterized the factors that distinguish YA from adult books as featuring romance rather than sex, adventure rather than war and violence, and that the 'moral order' of the world usually prevails in the end. Also, YA books tend to have stories that resolve in each book, even those that are part of larger series.
For kids, Helen thinks that the appeal of YA is about being special: Harry has his scar, Eragon his dragon, Bella her hunky vampire boyfriend. Another key component is that the books all have a sense of wonder.
Helen's final conclusion was that YA books succeed because of their 'emotional authenticity': the settings are fantastic but the protagonists tend to be very real, and the fantastical elements hang off the realistic ones.
Helen came across as having thought deeply about the issues, and was in her element explaining her ideas.
(Saturday, 10am. Presented by Nic Harrison.)
In this well-attended and well-received demonstration, Nic worked backwards in time through the various epochs in sword technology and sword-fighting styles. He concentrated largely on the Italian styles, basing his demonstrations on a series of treatises written by Italian sword masters.
The styles he and his opponent demonstrated were:
The last was probably the most spectacular demonstration, as the two-hander was such a monster. Nic claimed that no two handed / dual swords duels were attested to in the literature, but that the individual styles were. By the end of the demo Nic and his sparring partner were clearly having to work very hard indeed.
After the demonstration the audience was invited to check the weapons out. No-one got hurt.
(More pictures of this event are available in the main image gallery.)
(Saturday 11am. Presented by Mike Hansen and Tina Helg.)
Mike and Tina showed us a series of movies they'd made on very small budgets, ranging from $7 all the way up to $30. One was a Frankenstein flick, another a zombie movie that they and some mates had slapped together in three hours on a Sunday morning. It looked like it had been a lot of fun. Another movie was a good demonstration in making silk purses from sows ears. They'd filmed a re-enactor army unit performing a demonstration, but had somehow greatly overexposed the sequence. Rather than toss it out entirely, they did some digital fiddles with it, turning it grainy and black-and-white, making it look more like footage shot under actual combat conditions. Footage shot under actual combat conditions with happy picnickers in the background watching on, that is.
Finally they showed us a doco they'd made about a group of Auckland Roman re-enactors called "Legio II Augusta" (after an actual Roman legion stationed in Britain). After the doco the legion featured in it marched about a bit (their Centurion commanding them in Latin), before the founders of the group answered questions about the provenance and authenticity of their armor and weapons.
(Saturday 2pm. Presented by Peter Raynard.)
This was the session in which the shambolic organization was at its most pronounced. Peter certainly had an interesting story to tell, but the circumstances in which he had to tell it were not the best. For a start the previous session ran ten minutes over time, leading to confusion as to whether we had the right room at all. When the previous presenter finally ceded the floor, Peter started off by saying, "I have a video to show you, but there's no video player. But never mind! I have the same content on DVD! But there's no DVD player either." So the poor guy started his talk without the props he had prepared. About 20 minutes after the session began two guys came in with the AV equipment, leading to further disruption while they set it up. And while all this was going on, for some reason other people were using the room to prepare their costumes for the costume party, and so Peter had to cope with endless sounds of tape being ripped off the reel, styrofoam being sawn up, and crepe paper being rustled. I felt very sorry for the guy. He battled on bravely through all the tribulations, but shouldn't have had to.
Anyway, now for the good: Peter spent fourteen months in LA trying to wrangle his way into a script-writing career. Sadly he never quite made it, but he did get close. He set himself the task of becoming one of the official script writers on Star Trek: the Next Generation. To this end he sat down and watched all the eps that had been screened up to that point, then (by unspecified means) got hold of the writers' and technical guides, and then started writing and submitting scripts. He didn't explain how he managed to get his scripts noticed, as the production studios are notoriously closed-shop about such things. But somehow he got someone in power to start reading his scripts. Eventually, the producers started buying scripts off him. But none of them ever got made into a full episode. What would happen is that the producers would pay him $20,000 for a script, and then maybe extract a character here or a plot thread there and insert them into the scripts that actually got produced. Despite selling many scripts, he never got a screen credit. He reckons he got within a whisker of being asked to join the official in-house team of script writers, but it was not to be.
(Saturday 2pm. Presented by Helen Lowe and Julie E. Czerneda.)
This session took the form of a discussion between Helen and Julie and the audience on different aspects to world-building for SF&F stories. Julie started out by saying that early in her career she'd given little thought to such matters, but that now she obsesses over the world-building phase of a project. She is of the opinion that the place is sometimes as important as what happens in it, and that world-building is important even though 80% of it never shows up in the finished book.
Helen talked about the difficulty of finding the right amount of exposition to put in a book: some people like SF in which everything is described in great detail, others find that an annoyance. In terms of planning she said that on one end of the scale Tolkien never planned anything about his books, whereas Kafka made synopses of every paragraph. She also talked about the problem of how to communicate information about the world that all the characters in that world would know to the reader.
Helen demonstrated the progression that the map for her up-coming series The Wall of Night went through, from a vague biro drawing of where everything was in relation to each other, through successive increasingly sophisticated maps to a final professionally done map.
Julie warned of the dangers of world-building forever: at some point you have to start zeroing in on your characters and story.
She gave two examples of world-building from her own work. In one case a city is built on the ruins of another city, which is built on still older ruins, and so on. Some of the layers are from human occupation, others from alien occupation. Thus it becomes clear that the world is very old, and the site has been important to many different civilizations over the years, without the need to detail the civilizations precisely. The second example concerned how she wound up building a whole world based on an illustration of a pen that she came across. The pen set her researching the real history of pens and inks, and this research eventually evolved into a magic system based on writing.
There was quite a bit of discussion about whether info-dump appendices, glossaries, and dramatis personae lists are a good idea, and if they are, how to avoid spoilers in them.
Rather than talk about his work as a Fantasy author, Russell elected to present a fascinating talk dealing with the presence of SF&F themes in music. In particular, he used a series of hit songs to outline what he sees as a sea change in public opinion towards science from the beginning of the 50s to the end of the 60s. He says that, at the beginning of this period the future (according to the pop songs of the day) was bright and optimistic and nuclear-powered. Towards the end of the period science and technology was going to be our doom, and the songs started adding New Age components. He claims that this sea change in opinion corresponded with a decline in the popularity of Science Fiction (which he characterized as forward-looking), and a corresponding increase in the popularity of Fantasy (which he characterized as backwards-looking). The songs he used to chart this sea change were:
Russell illustrated his points by playing the songs to us, with the lyrics up on the screen. He concluded his talk by showing some videos from the 90s which used Fantasy and New Age images to make Science Fictiony songs more palatable to modern sentiment.
It was a fascinating and thought-provoking talk.
This was a panel discussion in which the con writer guests talked about the realities of being a full-time writer. They talked about the difficulties of dealing with interruptions while working at home, and of convincing friends and family that when they were in their offices typing away they really were working just like anyone else. Russell made the telling remark that it was very much more difficult to convince friends and family that he was serious about the work early in his career, before he actually had anything concrete to show for it. The panel concluded that there are many different approaches to making a successful career as a writer, and that it was up to each individual to find a process that worked for them.
Nalini started off by saying that she was enjoying being at the con, as "it's nice to be with people who just get you." She then gave a chatty, friendly, and entertaining talk about how she became a full-time writer. She said that she was a lawyer when she first started writing romance novels and submitting them to Harlequin. Her first manuscripts were rejected. She attributes her eventual success to tenacity. She kept submitting manuscripts to Harlequin, and her first sale was made via an editorial assistant who pulled her manuscript out of the slush pile because she recognized Nalini's name from all her previous submissions.
Nalini moved to Japan at one stage, deliberately choosing to live in a rural area where everything shut at 8pm and on Sundays there was "no sound but the wind in the rice stalks", in order to free herself of distractions. While in Japan she decided to shift from romance to paranormal romance, and wrote the first draft of her first PR novel in just three weeks around her day job. Until that point she had not used an agent, but decided to engage one for this new novel. The agent managed to set up a bidding war between competing publishers, and the resultant payday was big enough to enable her to move back to New Zealand and become a full-time writer, and she has concentrated on paranormal romance since.
One of her recent books made it on to the New York Times bestseller list. She arrived home from a walk one morning to find a sequence of frantic email and voice mail messages from her editors and agents with the good news. She revealed that as a kid she dreamed of becoming a New York Times bestseller - without really knowing what that was!
She talked about rewarding oneself after finishing a book. After she finished her most recent novel, she decided to reward herself by watching Battlestar Galactica, but had to give up half way through as it was too depressing.
Nalini had a bunch of her books from various markets, showing how different markets package her work differently. The strangest example was when one of her books was converted into manga. She was puzzled as to why anyone would want to do this, as she thought of manga as primarily action rather than romance. When she first looked through the comic she realized that they'd made some changes: "I'm sure there were no CIA agents in my original book."
I've never read a paranormal romance book, and I don't imagine that it would be my kind of thing, but I wanted to buy one of Nalini's books anyway. I happened to bump into her at the con bookstall, and asked which of her books I should buy. She said, "Since you're a guy I'd recommend Angels' Blood: it's got more of the action and less of the romance."
(Sunday 9am. Presented by Julie E. Czerneda.)
This unexpected and delightful presentation was something of a meta-talk, in which Julie told us about how she gives talks to children using clips from famous SF movies to teach them about science and important social issues.
It's common - and reasonably so - for people who actually know something about science and how it is done and how it works and what scientists are like to complain about the execrable way that science is mangled and scientists portrayed in modern movies. Julie takes a completely different approach, using the kernels of truth that do exist in the movies to teach kids important lessons about the reality of science. This strikes me as a clever and inspired idea.
Some of the examples she demonstrated to us were:
Julie came across as having irrepressible enthusiasm for science and for explaining it to kids.
(Sunday 10am. Presented by Julie E. Czerneda, Helen Lowe, and Barbara Clendon)
The panelists talked about a subject that Helen had alluded to in her earlier talk: there is lots and lots of YA Fantasy being published, but there is almost no YA Science Fiction available, and what there is is from the 60s and 70s. Why should this be the case? Julie was of the opinion that the demand was there, and Helen suggested that YA SF needed something to do for it what Buffy did for YA Fantasy. The suggestion was made that too much SF is not character-based and that too much is dystopian in nature - both barriers to appealing to the YA audience.
When talking about adults reading YA books, Barbara said, "'When I became a man I put away childish things...' WHY???!!"
Barbara reported that sales of SF&F accounted for about 10% of all book sales, and that the split within the genre was about 80% Fantasy to 20% SF.
There was some discussion over whether 'Speculative Fiction' was a useful label.
The final part of the session was a discussion about book covers, and the increasing trend of publishers to publish the same book under different covers to appeal to different sectors of the same market. Barbara described having a spaceship on the cover as the "Golden Arches" of SF!
(Sunday 11am. Presented by Julie E. Czerneda.)
I was very impressed with the way Julie had conceived of an alien species in her novel Survival, and so I was particularly looking forward to this talk. I had imagined it was going to be a writers' how-to on how to create 'realistic' aliens with believable biology and convincing social structures. Perhaps there would be bullet points. But no.
Julie had arranged for a pile of plastic plates, cardboard egg cartons, multi-coloured pipe-cleaners and glitter to be present, and told us to make an alien with these items.
When Julie said this, I must admit I rolled my eyes inwardly (and who knows, maybe even outwardly!) What was the point in such a kindergarten-level activity? I briefly considered leaving and trying my luck with one of the other sessions, but decided in the end to stay. And I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be a very interesting session.
Before starting on our aliens, Julie specified the environment in which the creatures had to live. This place had:
At the end, everyone presented their aliens and described their features. It was fascinating to see the wide range of adaptations people had come up with for the set conditions. As a means of brainstorming, the activity was a neat idea. Plus it was way fun.
At one stage Julie told me that she had done this activity with a group of professional astronomers. At first they had been very resistant to the idea, but by the end some of them were so taken with their creations that they wanted to take them home!
(Sunday 12 noon. Presented by Julie E. Czerneda.)
This talk was another delightful surprise, and probably my favourite session of the whole con. In it, Julie told us about the long working relationship she's had with a Spanish artist called Luis Royo. He has done the artwork for all 13 of her novels.
You often hear writers say (with varying degrees of bitterness) that they have no control at all over what their publishers put on the covers of their books, and most writers seem to have at least one horror story of what has appeared on their covers. While this strange state of affairs has affected Julie's work a little, it would seem that she is luckier than most, and has some degree of input into the final look of her books.
Julie showed us how the process for creating her covers works: to my surprise it often starts well before the book is even finished, with Julie emailing the scene she has in mind for the cover along with a bunch of reference photos of trees, mountains, city skylines or whatever to the artist via her editor. Then Royo will send back a concept sketch, which might go through several incarnations in the back-and-forth between writer, editor, publisher, and artist. Once a concept is settled on Royo paints the scene. In the final step the image is overlayed in places with titles and barcodes and whatnot. Julie showed us images illustrating each step of this process. ("It just never gets old seeing my name up there" she said, looking up at a giant picture of one of her finished covers on the screen.)
Since the process of creating the cover arts starts well before the book is finished, Julie often incorporates little touches that Royo comes up with back into the book. In one case this even extended to Julie completely changing the described appearance of a major character when a miscommunication resulted in a cover that, while very cool, didn't actually look anything like how the character was originally described in the book.
While in general Julie is very pleased with the work Royo does and the amount of input she has into the process, even she is not immune to the vagaries of the publishers. For the Russian edition of her books for example the publishers decided for some unfathomable reason to use Royo's paintings - but on the wrong books!
The session was a very cool look into a fascinating part of how the publication process works.
(Sunday 2pm. Presented by Matthew Pavletich.)
This session was a high-speed, information-dense, gorgeously-illustrated blast through the current state of various nation's space programs, and their plans for the immediate future. Matthew is clearly deeply knowledgeable, and had put together some terrific pictures and video snippets. His enthusiasm for the subject was such that he covered the material so fast that I couldn't work out how he found time to breathe.
I found Matthew's most interesting observations came when he was talking about Project Constellation (the US back-to-the-moon program that is supposed to replace the Shuttle). He raised grave concerns about the project, claiming that it was a needlessly and massively expensive system, and that NASA's own engineers, working on their own time, had come up with Shuttle-derived heavy-lift systems that could do the job just as well as Constellation, more simply and at a cheaper price. He put NASA's decision to stay with Constellation down to corruption caused by vested interests not wanting to miss out on the construction contracts.
He suggested that the US would give up on the idea of returning to the moon, but that the Chinese were working effectively towards that goal, and would likely be the next nation to land people on the moon.
He also gave us the welcome news that Richard Branson has decided to lower the price on trips into space with Virgin Galactic (scheduled to start flights soon) because of the global slowdown. If you act now, a sub-orbital hop can be yours for only US$200,000 - a discount of US$50,000!
I was really looking forward to this session. Trying to predict what part - if any - libraries will play in a future society dominated by on-demand downloadable available-to-all content is a fascinating exercise, and what will happen to libraries over the next few decades will probably make for an interesting sociological phenomenon.
Sadly, this talk was a complete bust.
It started 15 minutes late for no apparent reason, one of the three panelists didn't turn up at all, and most of the brief directionless discussion dealt with Auckland's libraries' current web-based systems. There was brief mention of electronic paper and libraries as sources of downloadable content, but nothing of much interest and nothing with a horizon beyond a year or two. And to think I missed Nalini's talk on "Sex in Literature" for that!
Julie gave us a great talk about her writing career, coming across as a charming and bubbly person.
One of her books is set partly in New Zealand - a country she had never visited before the con, and she still hasn't visited the parts of the South Island in which the action takes place. She researched NZ extensively before writing the book, and had pictures of the area up on her walls for years. She hopes to one day visit the parts around Te Anau and Milford to see if she got the descriptions right.
She read a couple of passages from the book, both describing bucolic scenes (in both cases her hero Mac was "taking a break from the trials of intergalactic furor and graduate students") - one set in New Zealand and the other set in Canada.
She talked about how she had stumbled upon Science Fiction as a kid by working her way through the library in alphabetical order - when she got to "N", she discovered Andre Norton.
Before switching to fiction she was a biology text book writer ("Bugs and slime and fish - that's me"). While writing the texts she was working on fiction on the side, with no intention of ever doing anything with it. Eventually she was coaxed into submitting her fiction to publishers. ("At the time I would much rather have walked outside naked.") She didn't know any other fiction writers ("I rather imagined they were all dead.") She also had no idea of the existence of the convention circuit until someone told her about one happening locally. So she put on a business suit and went along. The first person she met said, "What a great costume - are you an FBI agent?" So she went home and changed into a tee-shirt, and has been attending cons ever since.
When trying to get her first book published she submitted to Tor and then to Baen. Then someone suggested DAW. But she felt unworthy of submitting to DAW - after all they published Andre Norton! But eventually she did submit to them, and they agreed to publish - after a delay of a mere six years. Since then she has had a total of 13 books published, all by DAW, all agentless.
She talked about how at one signing she was presented with a copy of one of her books to sign: it was swollen and in a plastic bag. The owner had been reading it in the bath and had dropped it in. She also talked about her delight in hearing that her book had been stolen from a library - "That's love!" She reflected on the irony of winning an award for science writing - ten years after switching from writing biology text books to writing SF!
Julie ended the session by saying that she was working on her first-ever Fantasy book, and that she was still contracted to DAW to the tune of five books, a situation she described as "job security slash terror".
The idea behind this event was that the audience could ask the panelists (consisting of guests and con committee members) questions they liked on any topic at all, and that the panelists would freely lie in their replies. It quickly turned into a very good-natured excuse to sling outlandish accusations around. Topics covered included webcameras, superpowers, tattoos, moose-droppings, and ah... anal bleaching. Being funny on demand is of course a big ask, but all the panelists did really well, and there were many hilarious exchanges. It was a great idea for a warm-down event at the end of the con.
The launch of Russell's new book was very well attended, although one hopes that this was because of the book rather than because of the venue - the bar.
The banquet and presentation of the awards was a great event. It was well organized, well attended, and well MCed, and everyone was happy and relaxed and lots of stories were swapped.
The Sir Julius Vogel awards are New Zealand's awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and are given out at each year's con. Sir Julius was an early Prime Minister of New Zealand, who in 1889 wrote a book called Anno Domini 2000 about a future world in which women could vote and attain high office. It is usually considered New Zealand's first SF novel.
This year Christchurch writer Helen Lowe won both the YA Novel award (for her novel Thornspell) and the Best New Talent award. The YA Novel win was particularly impressive given that she was up against such luminaries as Margaret Mahy.
In accepting his award for Best Novel (Adult), Russell Kirkpatrick made the interesting comment that just a few years ago Kiwis had to read overseas authors if they wanted to read SF&F, but now we are increasingly reading Kiwi authors.
The award statues are very cool. They have pictures of the Earth with an oversized representation of New Zealand, a swooping 1950s-style spaceship, and Maori motifs.
(Monday, 12 noon.)
The closing ceremony was mostly a confused and needlessly-protracted muddle, but there was one very interesting presentation right at the beginning. The committee organizing next year's convention, Au Contraire!, gave a spirited talk. The committee consists mostly of women under the age of 30, and they started off by asking a question that I'd wondered at myself: given that there are clearly thousands of people in New Zealand interested in Star Trek, Buffy, paranormal romance and other genre works, why do so few people go to cons? So the committee has set themselves the ambitious goal of reconnecting SF&F fans with the convention circuit. They plan to do this by keeping the registration fee very low, but actively promoting the con, and by shifting the emphasis of the con from guests towards the fans themselves, by covering activities such as fanfic. All good and laudable stuff, and I certainly wish them the best with it.
I had a great time at the con. I think the guests were all great people with endlessly interesting things to say, and I certainly appreciate their time and effort in letting us fans know about the SF&F profession. And for all my comments about the lack of organization, I do thank the committee for putting together this event - I can certainly appreciate how much hard work it must have been.
I'm now very much looking forward to AussieCon4. It'll be very interesting to see what a World SF convention is like.