Readercon, Day 2, Part 2 (Friday)

I had planned to take a short break at 2pm but I ran into Barry Malzberg who was about to go on one of his walks around the parking lot and so I went with him. It is always great to chat with Barry when there are no crowds around. Even though I’ve taken these walks with him on several occasions now, I still find myself halfway around the parking lot thinking: Man, oh, man, I am walking and chatting with Barry Malzberg! It’s no secret that Barry is my favorite living writer and I think back to those days when I first discovered his book–when I first read that absolutely brilliant Beyond Apollo–and I don’t think in my wildest dreams I ever imagined becoming friends with him and walking around a convention parking lot.

We got back from the walk just in time for me to make it to John Joseph Adams‘ reading. He read a couple of stories from the upcoming September issue of Lightspeed Magazine. I enjoy going to readings like these. I am not particularly font of audiobooks, but readings are a different matter. I like listening to the reader, watching the audience smile, smirk, laugh as the story is told. The combination of reading and being there to see the audience react to the stories is a kind of immediate reaction that I think all writers wish they could get from their stories, and which, of course, we rarely do. John did a nice job reading the two pieces, both of which were the high quality fiction you’d expect from Lightspeed.

When the reading was over, I headed over to the dealer’s room, which had finally opened. I brought with me a list of the issues of Astounding that I am still missing for my Vacation in the Golden Age. I figured that I would certainly be able to find a few of them at the Readercon dealer’s room. Here, I was disappointed. The oldest is use of Astounding that I came across was from 1951, which is the year after my Vacation will end. There was one dealer who had a bunch of old pulps, even some Astoundings, but they were from the early 1930s and that predates the Vacation. This was disappointing, but I’m trying not to dwell on it. Much.

At 4pm was the panel “SF as Tragedy”. It was described in the program as:

Gardner Dozois’s collection Geodesic Dreams has an epigraph from James Tiptree, Jr.: “Man is an animal whose dreams come true and kill him.” In Dozois and Tiptree, protagonists fail—and often die—because of something inherent in their biological or social makeup (cf. “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” “The Peacemaker,” or “A Kingdom by the Sea”). Where classical ideas of tragedy involve unwise choices, the characters in Tiptree-esque tragic SF ultimately have no choices at all. What other works of speculative fiction do this? How does the science fiction setting accommodate the expansion of the tragic argument? And what makes these bleak stories so appealing?

Panelist on this one included Barry Malzberg, Graham Sleight, Gardner Dozois, Chip Delany, and John Clute. Once again, like most Readercon panels, this was an interesting and engaging panel with, at time, lively discussion. The initial interpretation was science fiction stories as tragedy, but as Barry Malzberg pointed out, the title could be interpreted as a reflection of the history of the genre itself.

Gardner made the interesting point that there really are no happy endings. A story ends where the author chooses to stop–at a moment frozen in time–but what happens beyond that moment contains it’s share of tragedy. The guy who gets the girl at the end of the book, will undoubtedly die one day, either before or after his mate, and suffer the kind of personal tragedies that we all go through. Happy endings are, therefore, a kind of illusion.

Perhaps the most amusing–and yet significant–observation made about tragedies during the discussion was that tragedies don’t have sequels. (Hollywood notwithstanding.)

When the panel was over, I left the hotel and went to dinner with Barry Malzberg and his wife, Joyce. Now, I love Readercon, love conventions and hanging out with writers and fans. (And here, I am certainly more fan than writer.) But I have to say that the dinner with Barry and Joyce has to be among the top highlights of my life in science fiction. I feel inordinately lucky; lucky beyond my deserving. How many people get to hang out with their heroes and be treated as a friend and peer? How often does this happen? I never expected it would happen to me and it is perhaps the most rewarding result of my becoming a science fiction writer.

Upon returning to the hotel, I went to a panel on Tom Disch. I haven’t read much Disch but he seems to be idolized here. I recall reading (and enjoying–as much as one can enjoy tragedy) Camp Concentration. I read most of it while sitting in the jury pool room of the Hollywood courthouse sometime in 1997 or 1998. It was interesting to hear the stories his friends and colleagues had to tell about him; to hear how his life and his experiences influenced his work; and to hear about the struggles he had as a writer.

But the big moment of truth came when that panel ended. It was 9pm and I was about to moderate for the first time. My panel–the one which I had proposed for Readercon and which I had been given and assigned–was called “Capturing the Hidden History of Science Fiction”. It is described as follows:

Science fiction has a rich history. Some of this history has been explored in books like Alva Rogers’s A Requiem for Astounding. Some of it has been uncovered in recent biographies like Mark Rich’s C.M. Kornbluth and William H. Patterson’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century. And of course, many of the dialogues by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg that appear in the SFWA Bulletin contribute to this history. This hidden history teaches us a lot about our genre. What is the best approach to getting those who were there to tell their stories? Who are the right people to talk to? What does such a history contribute to the field? And how much is best left hidden?

Originally, the panelists were to be myself, Barry Malzberg, Fred Lerner, Eileen Gunn, Darrell Schweitzer, and David Hartwell. David Hartwell couldn’t make it to the panel, but Barry managed to “volunteer” audience member Michael Dirda into engaging with the panel.

As a moderator, I think I was only moderately effective. Nevertheless, there was enough experience around me that I think the panel was effective in addressing the topic to the satisfaction of the audience–and let me say that to my surprise, it was a standing-room-only audience.

I would try to describe the panel in detail for you, but I was so engrossed in what was going on–and in attempting to divide my time in moderating, that my description would be inadequate. fortunately, Scott Edelman, the Dean of YouTube panel posts captured the entire panel on video. That video is available on YouTube in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

When the panel was over my stress level dropped considerably and yet I felt like I had learned a lot, both about the subject, as well as moderating a panel. And remarkably, afterward, I had a number of people come to me and tell me how much they enjoyed the panel. Even this morning (I am writing this the day after) I’ve had a few people mention the panel to me in a positive light. That, of course, makes me feel good, but the read people to be congratulated are Barry, Eileen, Fred, Darrell, and Michael.

From that panel I dashed over to the Cordwainer Smith awards where Katherine MacClean was announced as the winner. And for the first time ever, the winner was there to make a speech. For my friends who don’t know about this award: it is a juried award given to a science fiction writer who has been “forgotten” but is worthy of being remembered.

Katherine, 85 years old, got up onto the podium and made a delightful speech that wandered over all kinds of topics. And I could kick myself. I have 3 issues of Astounding–2 from 1949 and one from 1950–with MacLean stories in them. If I had known she was going to be here, I could have brought those issues along with me for autographs.

The Meet the Pro(s)e party followed immediately thereafter, but by then I was fading rapidly. Scott Edelman was going to open a couple of durian fruit as he did at Balticon. Since I had experienced it at Balticon I felt I didn’t need to go through it again and headed off for bed.

I read myself to sleep with the introductions to Chip Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.

It is noon on Saturday as I conclude this post and there has already been a flurry of activity and panels today–and a lot more to come. This evening I am having dinner some of my SF Signal companions this evening. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to report later tonight or early tomorrow.


  1. Barry’s correct (there’s a shocker): knowledge of an author’s life can radically effect how their fiction is preceived and understood. For example, it is a totally different experience reading “A Momentary Taste of Being” or “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” believing that a guy named James Tiptree, jr. wrote ’em rather than the Alice B. Sheldon as depicted in the Julie Phillips biography.

    And how knowledge of the secret history of SF changes our understanding is not limited to fiction: what was the impact of the polyamory of the Alma Mahler of sci-fi Judith Merril upon the post-war SF community? Was George O. Smith’s running off with John Campbell’s wife the direct cause Dianetics? How many times did Dr. A get his bone smooched during his convention week-ends and how did this impact his non-fiction science essays?

    1. Mark, we couldn’t get into nearly as much as I would have liked in the 50 minutes we had. And I was a first-time moderator and it showed (although Barry helped me out, especially by wrangling Dirda into the discussion). One question that didn’t really get a good answer (and perhaps there is none) is whether knowledge of this information has an impact on a fan’s enjoyment of the work, as opposed to a scholars interpretation. Is this hidden history important to fandom in a significant way. (It is vital from an academic perspective, I think.) There are cases where some inside knowledge doesn’t really affect the work for me–Bester is an example. His end is tragic but it came at the end and I don’t read his work differently because of it. In other cases, there is more shock value than actual impact. I remember reading Janet Asimov’s epilogue to It’s Been a Good Life and finding out Isaac had actually died from AIDS acquired in a blood transfusion. That was a shock, but I didn’t read his work differently, either, although I noticed very little mention of HIV in his later science essays.

      I haven’t read the Julie Phillips book yet. I tried finding it in the dealer’s room at Readercon and either they didn’t carry it or they’d sold out quickly. Murray Leinster’s daughter was there and she has written a biography of him, which is scheduled to come out in about 2 more weeks. That will be another fascinating one.

  2. Jamie, I had a very similar experience to yours, the first time I met Barry M. It was at a small convention in Dallas. I approached Barry reverently with copies of Engines of the Night and The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton and told him that I’d been waiting twenty-five years to meet him. Later at the con, I got to moderate a panel with Barry and Robert Sheckley on “Forgotten Giants of SF.” It was heaven. Hearing the two of them go back and forth hit my pleasure zone like little else ever has. I had a “sh_t-eating” grin on my face the whole time. So I smiled when I read about your feelings walking around that Readercon parking lot with Barry.

  3. “… tragedies don’t have sequels…”

    I don’t think that’s correct. _Oedipus at Colonus_ leaps immediately to mind; surely that is the sequel to _Oedipus Rex_.


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