When all was said and done, the Nebulas were an amazing conference for me in many ways. One of my favorite parts of the programming was they offered a short 10-15 minute one-on-one with an expert. You could talk to for instance, Sheila Williams, Editor of Asimov's, or in my case, with Ken Liu, whose translation of The Three-Body Problem won a Hugo for best novel (the first translated novel ever to win it!).
Expert Meeting with Ken Liu
This is my second time talking with Ken, the first was during a coffee klatsch at the fantastic Readercon. Before Readercon I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding Ken, but hadn't read anything by him. At the klatsch Ken talked a lot about how he wrote in short 45 minute intervals on his commute to work as a lawyer, stealing time to write while raising a family. I was really impressed with his drive and the way he spoke about writing. I have a lot of respect for people who fight to carve out time for the craft they love.
It was a good klatsch, up there with other great discussions I've had at Readercon with greats like Betsy Mitchell or Sam Delaney. On strength of that talk I went out and bought The Grace of Kings, his debut novel which was nominated for a Nebula!
The Grace of Kings was a very solid epic fantasy. (though I absolutely recoil at the idea of a silkpunk subgenre, or describing anything else written after 1988 with a -punk suffix). It's well paced, with a few breakthrough moments of beautiful description, compelling characters, and with occasional nods to the mythic that I absolutely adored. My only quibble with it was that a few sections broke my suspension of disbelief pretty hard, (Looking at you, submarines) but in general I would give it about an 88/100.
On Zakscale, that's a book that I enjoyed reading so much I recommend it to other people, maybe even buy them a copy, and may re-read in the future. I will definitely read the sequel.
Why I needed advice:
My sprawling in-progress novel RUB (140k words and only about 60% done!) has a character from mainland China who flees to Nepal in one of the most egregious violations of 'write about what you know' that I have ever committed. (RUB is pretty much a cover-to-cover flaunting of that axiom). It was one of those situations where I'd done a fair bit of research, but knew I was going to have to run it by someone better informed than me.
I was incredibly fortunate to have a chance to talk with Ken about the project. I learned an incredible amount in our short talk. Winners like:
- The city I described as the character's origin didn't exist at the time I described him living there
- A term I was using was incredibly antiquated and slightly offensive
- I had misidentified the type of Chinese my character would likely speak given his origin
- The character would have faced significant racism in one segment I hadn't considered
I was also happy to find I'd gotten quite a few things right in my research, and that overall I'd come up with a plausible story that could easily be modified to ring true. So I might not have to take a cross-China roadtrip to get that character right.
It was fascinating to talk with Ken and get some of his insights about translation, and the help he could offer in the short period was enormous. He was incredibly knowledgable and friendly. If all I had gotten for my nebula ticket was a chance to talk with Ken Liu for 20 minutes, I would have considered it money well spent. But of course, there was much more to come!
I managed to get some time to wander around and scrounge some breakfast taking a few pictures. I had never really liked Chicago much the last couple times I visited, but really enjoyed it this time around. I think both the previous times I'd visited were in the dead of winter. Downtown is full of smoking alleys and el trains and in general makes me feel like a superhero movie could break out at any point.
The Moral Responsibility of commenting on the Moral Responsibility of Storytelling Panel
Alyssa Wong - Michael R. Underwood - Helene Wecker - C. S. E. Cooney - E.J. Fisher - Naomi Kritzer
Here's a panel that was destined to be difficult from conception. (Description links to panel description and bios of panelists)
Society is shaped by narrative. What moral responsibility do storytellers have to consider the larger context in which their work appears? And how do we handle that responsibility, especially when writing outside of our own experiences, or presenting ours when they don’t fit dominant Western (esp. American) narratives or ideas of what a certain story ‘should’ be?
It wound up being a rather nebulous prompt which the panelists had some difficulty grappling with. Some time was spent on struggling with the definition of morality and its distinction from ethics. At the end of the panel, an audience member actually defined the terms in a way that seemed universally acceptable to panelists, and I remember thinking it was a shame. Had terms been defined at the start, I think it would have been a far stronger panel with more room for exploration. Definitely a takeaway I'll remember if I'm ever forced to moderate a panel at gunpoint.
It was still a rewarding panel to attend, one where you could keenly see the discomfort of the panelists in navigating the potential minefield. Given the extremely socially-conscious tone of the conference, this was a brave panel to appear on. Panelists were pretty cautious about saying something that could be misconstrued or taken out of context, and it took a while for the discussion to really open up. When it did, I was treated to a few really interesting insights.
Mike Underwood talked about realizing he had fridged two of his female characters in a book, and having to rewrite it. I was unfamiliar with the term, but C.S.E. Cooney jumped in and asked what he meant, and he was able to explain the term and its origin. Throughout the panel, Cooney talked with a kind of darting, exuberant insight. I'd heard good things about her book Bone Swans earlier, but I'm definitely going to check it out after listening to the author.
Eugene Fischer also distinguished himself to me as an eloquent speaker, I remember reading his story The New Mother in Asimov's, I wound up talking with him in the post-awards party, a very sharp guy that I'm interested to read more from.
C.S.E. Cooney and Helene Wecker got a laugh from the crowd at the start of the panel when Cooney breathlessly realized who Wecker was and couldn't contain how she'd loved The Golem and the Jinnni, and even bought a copy of it for her mother. I had to laugh, I'd bought a copy for my mother too! If you missed it, it was a sublime mix of Jewish and Syrian mythology set in turn-of-the-century New York. I loved it, and was very pleased to hear a sequel is in the works.
Helene had a very soft-spoken, personal style at the panel, where she self-identified as Lawful Good and talked about an ethical decision she had made in the Golem and the Jinni. Though she had many opportunities to pepper in Yiddish throughout the book, she decided not to do so because she could not do the same in turn of the century Syrian Arabic.
It was an interesting decision to me, to try to represent both mythos evenly, though one I didn't necessarily agree with, as I'm a sucker for well-borrowed words. I also found the Jinni sections more compelling overall, so perhaps this was a case of too much restraint? Regardless, the book was superb and I was very happy to see Helene speak. I talked with her a few times during the weekend and she was incredibly nice and positive each time. I wish her tons of luck in her follow-up.
Overall, a very revealing and interesting panel. I thought the authors were well spoken and did a good job of sensitively dealing with a tough prompt.
Of course, I disagreed with almost EVERYTHING the panelists said. I don't believe storytellers have a moral responsibility. I'm not a fan of censoring ableist language. I don't worry about cultural appropriation. My own views on the matter were perfectly captured by Thirstin Howl III in the very first bar of John They're Stealing Part II:
To wit: if it ain't tied down, it's mine now.
Sitting there and watching the panelists largely agree with each other, I felt this panel was just crying out for a heel to present the opposing viewpoint. They either needed either a moderator to play the devil's advocate, or for one of the panelists to be an asshole. Alas if there was one thing in short supply at the nebulas, it was assholes. Everyone couldn't have been nicer. So a win for civility and polite discussion, but a loss for lovers of chaos and conflict.
Fonda Lee - Mike Underwood - Patty Garcia - Ellen Wright
An extremely informative panel that gave me a lot of insight into how publicists at traditional houses work. It was really interesting to see listen to description of how publicists pick up the "gazing into the unfeeling void" torch from the author once a book is finally accepted for publication. After the beleaguered author tosses manuscript after manuscript into the inky gears of slush pile after slush pile until they finally get a bite, it then falls on these heroic people to sail across an ocean of indifference to try and persuade reviewers and media outlets to pay attention.
It was definitely a role I hadn't really thought about, but I was struck by the way they all spoke. They really want their books to be successful, they hunger for the ebullient strike of landing a big review, and some of them are trying to get ten books a month noticed. It makes me tired just thinking about it!
Moderator Juliette Wade - PJ Schnyder - Rachel Swirsky - Charles Gannon - Fonda Lee - Mysterious Stranger
In early SF, aliens were often used as stand-ins, to represent groups of Others in our own societies. They are still sometimes inappropriately inserted into lists of marginalized groups by people attempting to downplay bias. In SF worlds where the human condition is portrayed with full diversity, what new roles can aliens take on to keep their relevance to their core genre?In early SF, aliens were often used as stand-ins, to represent groups of Others in our own societies. They are still sometimes inappropriately inserted into lists of marginalized groups by people attempting to downplay bias. In SF worlds where the human condition is portrayed with full diversity, what new roles can aliens take on to keep their relevance to their core genre?
At first, this threatened to be just another panel that I have attended before at other cons which boils down to just "aliens are a stand-in for communists \ aliens can be more than just silly putty on foreheads" piece, but there were some dynamic tensions in this slate that made things interesting.
In the midst of a pretty detailed talk between Charles Gannon and another hard SF author (whose name I sadly can't recall, I will update this article once I find the gentleman's name) about what it took to write about scientifically plausible silicon-based life forms, PJ Schneyder waded in and talked about the potential for interspecies romance, making a reference to Urotsukidōji (intentionally not hotlinked, google at your own peril). The look on Gannon's face was unforgettable.
Throughout the panel, I felt a pronounced rift between the two hard SF writers and the other panelists who were more story-focused. At times I half expected one to leap up from their chair and shout "It's the SCIENCE that makes it Science Fiction!" while brandishing a bronze bust of Asimov, but sadly there was no such outburst. I felt their pain, while I don't think every single story has to be grounded in flawless science, surely something has been lost...
A brief aside: One point of the panel that keenly stuck out to me was Charles Gannon lovingly describing the a classic scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey , where the bone flung by one of the augmented apes tumbles through the air, cutting at its apex to a shot of an orbital ICBM. From the first weapon to the last. Definitely something that had slipped by me when watching it.
Other interesting points were discussions of the difficulty of writing from a truly alien perspective. PJ brought up the topic my mind immediately leapt to, which is use of a random system like dice or tarot cards to produce unexpected decisions. I've been thinking about writing an article about generative writing using divination systems, so it immediately grabbed my interest. As you may know I've been studying Tarot rather intently as I develop the RAPAXORIS game, which uses the a 78 card deck as its base.
Overall another interesting panel, if only to see some modest sparks fly between two factions of SF.
I also managed to sneak in a game of MYSTERY RUMMY, an old favorite. I'm a huge fan of just about every Mike Fitzgerald Game.
Blowing off the Banquet
We made the questionable choice to skip the awards banquet which was pretty expensive and would have required putting on a suit, something I try to avoid at all costs if no one is dead and I'm not in court. Instead we took a train to Wicker Park to explore.
Again I was surprised by what a fun town Chicago was, there were a ton of great places to eat, people were friendly, a far cry from the frozen and desolate hellhole I remembered. We had our own banquet at Oiistar, which is even better than Ganso, my favorite ramen in New York.
Sadly, my only horse in the race Grace of Kings did not win the Nebula. Sorry Ken, I was rooting for ya. After the awards we went to the afterparty in the Con Suite which was an absolute delight. I got to talk with a group of excited men about the 1632 project, a collaborative science fiction piece that is now eleven million words long. Eleven million words! It's an interesting premise, an entire coal mining town from the late 90s is transported back in time to 1632 and plonked in the middle of Germany. History-rewriting hijinks ensue. I will have to check out the initial novel by Eric Flynt who gave some really useful advice at the Long Term Career Strategies panel.
The party itself was a wonderful blur. One moment I was being denounced as a Teemo main by an irate Nasus player (I gave him a copy of SURVIVAL MODE to make amends for wrecking approximately 11 million Nasus jungles during my league career), the next Bud Sparhawk was telling me the secrets to writing a good short story and subtly chiding me for dressing like a bum. I got to talk at length with a radiation safety engineer wearing a slide rule tie tack about a short story I was working on about orbital debris, to hear John Joseph Adams explain the mechanics of building an anthology, to talk with Eugene Fisher about antimatter and too many more great conversations to list.
It was a great end to an incredible conference. Everyone I met couldn't have been more friendly and welcoming. The panels, the convention staff, and the hotel were all fantastic, and I will definitely be attending again next year, and for many years to come.
Thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to SFWA, the convention staff, and the volunteers for putting on a great conference I will always remember!