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LonCon3 ended on Monday, after five glorious, busy, action-packed, panel-filled, people-meeting, face-learning, discussion-having days of just geeking out as one more fan among many… but of course, it wasn’t all perfect, and you’d presumably like a little more detail than that!
The con actually, for me, got off to a fairly bad start; between trains here being cancelled or hugely delayed and a broken suitcase, Zoe and I barely made it to the Ritz in time to meet the wonderful Alisa Krasnostein, Julia Rios, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Jenny, Alisa’s mother-in-law, for tea – but we did just about manage it, and am very glad we did; not only were the grown ups wonderful, Alisa’s 9-month-old joined us, and Alisa let me hold and play with her! Discussion freewheeled around all sorts of things, and I got to pick up my copy of Kaleidoscope, with a number of signed stories, directly from the editors, which was pretty damn awesome. After tea it was off to the hotel to unpack, sort ourselves out and crash before registration; which, by the time we got there at around half five, was down to a fine art unless they lost one’s badge. Which they did mine, before providing me with a sharpie to edit my badge-name.
After all that chaos, it was finally time to head to my first panel of the weekend… Universal Language: Good or Bad? With a panel largely made up of people for whom English was not their first language, this was an especially interesting discussion, touching on the problems of a lingua franca, the way cultural imperialism elides indigineous languages, the assumptions that anyone creating a conlang brings with them from their own cultural background, and a fascinating discussion on language as a marker of power. The ranges of experiences and expertises brought to bear on the questions raised by the panel made it a more interesting discussion than could have been the case, reminding attendees of the power of a WorldCon to draw on a wide variety of cultural backgrounds amongst its participants and panellists.
A few hours later, and in stark contrast, that greatest and most ridiculous of all panel games was played; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, also known as the antidote to panel games. Lee Harris presided over an hour of well-ordered anarchic fun, including an appearance of the excrable Scottish accents of Emma Newman and Paul Cornell as Hamish and Dougall and some amazing singing from the three female players of the game, especially impressive from Seanan McGuire who was unfortunately really rather ill. In contrast to Only A Moment at Nineworlds, all the panellists seemed to be very much up for the game and having a huge amount of fun with it, as well as being properly pre-prepared, an absolute necessity for something like this.
After a good night’s sleep, then, it was back into the fray not for panels, but for signings, the Fan Village and the Dealer’s Room; indeed, until three, I didn’t attend a single panel. The Dealer’s Room was a thing to behold, with an amazing array of exhibits including a display of whisky bottles in honour of Iain M. Banks and a semi-recreation of John Clute’s study; but the dealer’s room, with publishers from Gollancz to Tachyon, from Twelth Planet to Titan, and smaller still, in attendance and selling books; academic presses like Liverpool University Press attended, with an amazing array of non-book-selling stalls too; and the art was truly amazing. Despite a couple of artists who rather missed the mark – Chris Foss’ T&A obsession, Anne Sudworth’s self-conciously twee-goth work – there was also some truly beautiful art on display; John Harris’ Ancillary Justice triptych, an appropriate tribute to a now-Hugo-winning novel, chief among them.
But of course, I was mostly at LonCon for the panels. My first of the day, The Politics and Economics of Cover Art, was fantastic; Justin Landon’s barely-concealed disgust at the hooded man, Irene Gallo’s counterpoint of practicality combined with her joy at the free range offered by Tor.com, and especially Sarah Anne Langton’s personal experience as both a graphic designer and Forbidden Planet employee, combined to give a fascinating array of views on the book-cover industry. The discussion skimmed over the issues of whitewashing, but did have an interesting discussion of the ways covers are gendered and the folly of that (as Justin noted, women are over half the book-buying population), which was good to see.
From there, I went to the packed ‘Imagining Fantasy Lands’ panel, which jumped off the back of Kate Elliot’s blog post on the topic. The panel was a brilliant exploration of how that status quo works in worldbuilding, and the ways in which it erases people, places, issues; indeed, the topic of history-versus-histories was, and not for the first time, discussed on the panel in some detail. Unfortunately the moderator, Mary Anne Mohanraj, inserted herself strongly into the discussion and didn’t spend enough time bringing some other panellists out to speak more; but Tobias Buckell’s brilliant points about race and racial perception – as a mixed-race Caribbean who is often perceived as white – were fascinating in the light they cast on the failures of popular racial narratives and their flexibility in different places.
Continuing the political-economic theme of the evening, I attended a panel entitled ‘Liveship Trading’, mainly to hear Max Gladstone and Juliet E McKenna on the topic. The wide-ranging discussion of different economics systems that have historically been used, from barter-economies through fiat currencies to discussion of the idea of gold as carrying value and conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately, the discussion of gift economies was abortive and rather unsuccessful; it failed to engage with the historical idea and practice of gift economies, as opposed to economies where gifts were seen as signs of wealth. However, the discussions of the failings of capitalism – especially from Juliet McKenna and the way economics works as a kind of magic – and fiat currency as a shared illusion, and Max Gladstone’s reworking of that as soul-as-currency – were absolutely fascinating and brilliantly held, well-worth attending. Unfortunately, the questions section of the session rapidly became a discussion between panellists and members of the audience, who did not have any amplification; as someone sitting at the back and with minor hearing difficulties, this was incredibly frustrating as an end to an otherwise great panel.
I slipped out early, and went to find Kate Elliot, with whom Zoe and I had arranged to have dinner. Lovely on the internet, she is at least as lovely in person; talking to her about life, conventioning, and so on was an absolutely lovely experience, and demonstrated once again that not only are authors people too, but that many authors are the best among people. Kate was patient and thoughtful, and unfailingly polite; a really wonderful experience, added to by the wonderful opening of the poem she handed to me, the start of the Beatriciad, whose conclusion I am patiently and joyfully anticipating!
Like any con, LonCon for me seriously hit its stride on the weekend. Saturday morning started at ten, and panels ran until nine with a break of only two hours in the middle; and that’s before we include the barcon of the blogging community at which I finally met the wonderful Book Smugglers in person, who are perhaps the most glamorous members of the reviewing community out there. I also fitted in a beer with Catherynne M. Valente – not a private beer, unfortunately, but a Literary Beer; ten or so people sat around a table talking to Cat about her work, her travels, future projects and inspirations, and more. It was a wonderful experience, although not with the same kind of informality as dinner with Kate had been; a really nice idea.
As far as panels went, I started the day with a panel on The Politics of Utopia, a fantastic panel looking at how white and male, and indeed American, fantastical utopias often are, and the troubling colonialist implications they tend to have; with a diverse panel those issues were reasonably well explored, as well as the idea of who decides what a utopia looks like and the problems of distribution of power in a utopia – Maureen Kincaid Speller noted that she was unwilling to be sidelined politically in order to live in a utopia, and yet that is a trope common to them.
Imaginative Resistance was a very different panel; a less diverse panel but with Sarita Robinson attending as an academic psychologist at UCLan, Jeff Vandermeer’s moderation ensured an interesting discussion which dug down into some of the more interesting issues around our suspension of disbelief. The discussion of where we draw the lines, politically – what we find ourselves unable to read or write, the way we deal with historically different settings and ideas – was beautifully covered, and although the panel didn’t discuss what I was hoping to hear about, the nonpolitical points where we lose our belief in a story, what it did look at and analyse was fascinating.
More pertinently for this blog, ‘The Review Is Political’ was a discussion which I intend to take forward and incorporate into my blogging. What we review, how we critique the politics of what we review, the kind of things we focus on in our reviews – all these things matter, and are political decisions. The panellists noted the extent to which we tend towards the default, the extent to which we don’t notice when someone’s politics are the status quo and therefore don’t challenge that in their work. There was also discussion of the role of review; inevitably, the choice of who one is talking to, what one is trying to do with reviews, and what one is trying to say, are all political decisions, and one I will be trying to take a lot more care to think about in future.
The evening’s panels were similarly brilliant. ‘Full-Spectrum Fantasy’ demonstrated Mary Robinette Kowal’s unique approach to moderation, starting with audience questions to focus the panel on before starting the discussion; in an hour-long panel which already had a reasonably precise description this was perhaps a mistake, but the panel itself, which focussed on the way disability is (mis)represented in fantastic literature, was brilliant. The discussion touched on, among other things, the failed representations of depression which are not only rare but also very poor; the narrative of the cure, including a lot of discussion about agency, cure-as-desirable, and the forced-normativity of many stories, which undermine their positives by truly wrecking their treatment of disability. More treatment of class would have been appreciated, although it was covered somewhat especially in the context of different class systems in different countries, though!
From there I ran to ‘Imagining the City’, an hour long self-advertisement panel from Kathleen Ann Goonan. While the rest of the panel, the moderator included, engaged in an interesting discussion about cities, the writing of cities, the individuality of cities, and even the idea of “city”, drawing on their own works and those of others (Simon Spanton brought up Jan Morris’ Hav) to discuss the different ways cities work in fantasy and the different reasons for them. Discussion of things like Trantor, the technological upper-limit on city population, Scott Lynch’s focus on cities in his fiction, and the benefits and risks in drawing on real cities to create one’s fantastical urban environments; had Goonan engaged more with the panel and less with self-advertising this would have been a brilliant hour.
The last of my Saturday panels suffered a slightly different problem; ‘Chivalrous Critics of Fannish Dimensions’ could have benefited from a moderator more directly interested in the topic and also more interested in letting the panellists run their mouths off a bit, rather than the impressively disciplined Myke Cole. In some panels his moderating style would have been massively appreciated, keeping panellists and audience in line as he did; but here, it kept the discussion a bit too locked down. While discussion of the role of critic, the purpose and target of reviews, and of course, Liz Bourke’s wonderful review of Theft of Swords was interesting, as was the discussion of epic fantasy, one got the feeling the audience and panellists were waiting for the formality imposed by Cole to drop so they could simply have a good time.
Sunday was lighter, in part because of the truncated evening; but began well, with ‘Seeing the Future, Knowing the Past’ suffering from Karen Miller’s determination to justify her own use of prophecy but also including the impressive, intelligent, well-sourced and well-informed rants from Kari Sperring and Liz Bourke on the historical nature and role of prophecy. Each brought their considerable expertise to bear, both from the point of view of fantasy readers and of academic historians; they tore apart the stereotypical and dull use of the trope of prophecy, completely shredding the way fantasists use it as a lazy approach to storytelling. It was a real sight to see, and one not to have been missed!
‘A Queerer War’ followed, which also seemed to be a bit of an unbalanced panel; Tanya Huff threw herself on every question-grenade happily and enthusiastically, while S. J. Groenewegen tended towards being quite a quiet panellist who considered what she wanted to say before saying it. Ann Leckie put in a decent performance but, with her lack of military experience, was a little sidelined and seemed happy to be so, although she contributed some excellent things to the more literary side of the discussion; while Huff and Groenewegen talked about the decriminalisation, across various armed forces, of homosexuality amongst serving members and the closet queers preceeding that. Despite some utterly foolish questions and a not entirely on-the-ball moderator in the form of Duncan Lawie, productive discussion was had by most.
The Kameron Hurley-inspired panel ‘We Have Always Fought’ followed a rather different path, almost totally diverging from historical female warriors and also from the fantastic; it was, instead, something of a Feminism 101 panel in some ways. Jeanne Gomoll didn’t appear to have prepared for the panel and was incredibly flustered – perhaps understandably – and the rest of the panel seemed only a little more prepared, talking more about women’s achievements in the last century than before that, and really failing to talk about the issues of erasure of women from earlier history, let alone how we can and indeed are reassessing things to ensure we recognise the role of women.
After that, I wanted to do something relaxing before the Hugo Awards, so attended Elizabeth Bear’s reading. In honour of the Hugos that night, she read her Hugo-winning work ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’, or at least the first half of it – which mentions the Retro-Hugo-winning War of the Worlds audiodrama. It was a good session, and Bear, unsurprisingly, has a real knack for reading her own work; a couple of ad libs thrown in and the emphases she put on different parts of the story were fantastic, really aiding in the effects of a by-turns amusing and dark story. Unfortunately you can’t find her reading it online, but another reader did so for Starship Sofa, and I strongly recommend listening to the story!
I’ll pass over the awards themselves in favour of a little discussion of the ceremony at the Hugos. First, the drama of the ceremony’s opening was very well handled; beefeaters guarding a fantastic display stand that opened into a frame for the beautiful array of Hugo statues, a veritable wedding cake of awards. Unfortunately, all the glamorous assitants who assisted the presenters and award-winners with the ceremony were pretty women in sparkly dresses; given Geoff Ryman’s sparkly tiara, it would have been nice to see either a man in a sparkly suit or a dark tuxedo taking that traditionally-feminine role too. I’ll talk more about the winners themselves tomorrow, though…
Monday, of course, was the day everything wound up. I attended just one panel, ‘Space Colonies’; while Tony Keen moderated and avoided inserting himself into the discussion too much, four Americans discussing how space would become a libertarian paradise so long as it looked like a white American small-town, or a survivalist colony, was terrifying. The number of unchallenged assumptions, thoughtless political conservatism, and the amount of closet-racism and classism was seriously shocking, as was the disablism directed at the non-neurotypical; psychopath and sociopath became interchangeable with violent murderer, and children of the educated middle classes were assumed to be strong, intelligent people while the children of the working class were assumed to be less worthy disaffected idiots, and the only place from where criminals came. A poor note to end the LonCon panels!
That wasn’t the end of my WorldCon though; there were two more social engagements. First, tea with a group of critics and fans – Liz Bourke, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Paul Kincaid and Maureen Kincaid Speller, and more. It was a great discussion about the con, about books both good and bad, about future cons, and more; an excellent experience and a great meeting with people I’ve conversed with for a while on the internet but never actually met in person before. The evening was taken up with a meal with Tansy Rayner Roberts, Jenny, Alisa Krasnostein, and her baby; the talk was not, inevitably, of the most deep kind, as much of it was a sort of gentle blathering about post-con plans, future works, some con experiences, and of course, I got to play with the baby again, giving a nice kind of symmetry to the whole weekend. A very good experience, all told!
Liz Bourke has written for me before, reviewing Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, and of course I mentioned her as one of the better writers on diversifying fantasy in <a href="https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/queering-the-genre-a-personal-project/" my post last Monday introducing the Queering the Genre project. I was also privileged to stand in for her at Satellite4 losing out to Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook for Best Nonfiction. So, as she says, I asked her to write me something about queer speculative fiction, and being an amazing friend, she obliged!
Dan asked me to talk about queer speculative fiction. Of course, I said yes; but a request to talk about queer speculative fiction is an odd thing for me to receive. My personal genre categories contain no overarching category of “queerness,” no particular group of works that I think of primarily in terms of their gender-bendy-ness.
When I think about it, I can come up with any number of works that involve queerness, or that challenge set gender roles: the oeuvre of Joanna Russ; Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; the oeuvres of Elizabeth Bear and of Melissa Scott (alone and in collaboration); others, like Nicola Griffith, Ellen Kushner and Tanya Huff, in both short and long form; but with the exception of Joanna Russ – because Russ never lets you forget – I’ve never really thought of them primarily in terms of their approaches to gender and orientation, but rather in terms of the wide variety of stories they choose to tell.
(Which probably goes to show that queer characters are characters first.)
There are groups of texts that I categorise by the gender and sexual orientation of their protagonists: but “lesbian SFF romance” and “entertainingly bad lesbian SFF romance,” while running counter to the narrative priorities of the heterosexual economy, are only as queer as their protagonists. They form a separate subcategory of texts, and one that is rarely discussed in any major consideration of queer speculative fiction. Indeed, it is noticeable that the figure of the lesbian, outside some of the specifically feminist texts of the 1970s and early 1980s, is a latecomer in discussions and works involving queerness in speculative fiction. I’ve heard more about Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett’s Point of Hopes (works which feature queer men) than I ever did about Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (which is all about women): it is only, it seems to me, in the last decade, and especially in the last five years, that lesbian protagonists and main characters have entered the mainstream of science fiction in any numbers.
This isn’t to say, of course, that those numbers amount to any great sum, but they are a noticeable increase.
I started reading lesbian SFF romance by accident. I didn’t realise that Jane Fletcher’s books were about women in love with other women. But they were, and it was a rather mind-cracking-open moment for me.
As this post points out, women have a hard time thinking about a female sexuality that doesn’t involve men. Women aren’t brought up to see female bodies are normal, as normative; lesbian sexualities threaten the heterosexual economy and the male-dominant penetrative model of sexuality in ways that gay sexualities may not necessarily do.
Since my first introduction to SFFnal lesbian romance, I’ve made a habit of seeking it out. There are a handful of really interesting, good, or fun writers working in this subgenre: Heather Rose Jones, with her debut novel; Sophia Kell Hagin; Andi Marquette; Jane Fletcher; Barbara Ann Wright; but with all my heart I wish this sort of thing could be more common in the mainstream of SFF. Because it is the literature of speculation, of testing ideas to destruction – and the heterosexual economy is an idea whose destruction can only lead to the telling of more interesting stories.
Stories that reflect a wider variety of human experience.
Science fiction and fantasy – “genre” – fiction has, over the last few years, increasingly been the subject of a number of conversations about the dominance of the kyriarchy not in telling stories so much as deciding what stories are worthy; women have always written, to paraphrase Kameron Hurley, but their writing, like the writing of queer people and people of colour, has been erased. The same has happened to characters who break out from the unmarked default; novels centring on women, on people of colour, on queer characters, on people who sit on multiple arcs in oppression, have been erased from the canon, whether conciously or not.
Joanna Russ is, of course, both an exception to this rule (The Female Man is one of the few non-straight, white, cis male centred novels published as a Gollancz Masterwork) and the most cited descriptor of it (How To Suppress Women’s Writing is a classic of feminist critique of literary conservatism, and incredibly readable to boot). But what of the queer, the female, the non-white narratives that have been erased? As a sexually queer and genderqueer genre reader, I rarely see myself reflected in the novels I read; and so, I am embarking on a project to follow in the footsteps of others, and try to read (and possibly unearth or resurrect) some of these erased works.
This isn’t a novel project, of course. Tor.com has published, and continues to publish, similar quests by both Alex Dally MacFarlane and Brit Mandelo, both more widely read and more incisive than myself, and I intend to use those resources as recommendations for my own reading; similarly, Liz Bourke’s BSFA-nominated column Sleeps With Monsters has also touched on the topic, as have any number of other projects elsewhere both online and off. I am not breaking new ground with this project, and the only reason it is even slightly radical is because, as a genre, we continue to embrace the unmarked default; from behemothic publishing companies down to the level of individual readers, we aren’t working hard enough to overturn it, to queer the genre, and this will be my own small contribution to that effort.
So, for a little while I’ll only be reading “queer” genre fiction – that is, featuring either genderqueer and/or non-heterosexual characters; and I’ll be reviewing and discussing those works. I also hope to get some guests in to write about the topic, and as I go I intend to write a few more discursive pieces of my own on the topic. We kick off tomorrow with a review of Shadow Man by Melissa Scott, followed on Wednesday by Stephanie Saulter talking about ‘Gender, Language and Understanding’, and we’ll see where it goes from there – preferably with your help and recommendations! For now, keep queering the genre; D out!
Oh, and if anyone is willing to do me a logo design for this series – a basic rocket in the pride colours, say – I’d be incredibly grateful! Thanks to Alyssa Hanson for a fantastic logo, as seen at the top of this post!