A few things make FOGCon different from other SFF conventions. One is its size; it’s a small convention, with probably not many more than 200 participants. FOGCon is very participatory, in the style of Wiscon; participants recommend panels, choose the final panels and volunteer as panelists. FOGCon is also unusual in that it always has a posthumous guest of honor, or as some folks say, “Ghost of Honor.” It’s held in Walnut Creek, California, in the San Francisco East Bay, close enough to Silicon Valley to be cool, and far enough away from it to be comfortable.
Terry Weyna and I both attended, and both participated in panels.
I went to Vylar Kaftan’s “Writing Warm Up,” Friday afternoon, the first day of the convention. Kaftan won a Nebula in 2014 for her novella “The Weight of the Sunrise”; she’s the FOGCon founder and a friendly, supportive person. She gave us each three random words, and we used them in a timed writing. Then she added a plot exercise and a character exercise. The exercises build on one another and they really do give you enough material to create a finished story later.
(I stole my neighbor’s words which included “pasta” and “raincheck” after the exercise and added them to mine.)
The Transformation of Fandom
This panel included Alan Bostick, Chad Saxelid, Emma Humphries and KJ.
There have been dramatic changes in the past 40 years. KJ, who blogs at Lady Business and defines herself as an underemployed librarian, talked about the internet and the various platforms that have supported fandom, starting with LiveJournal and now dealing with Tumblr. The panel agreed that the word “fandom” itself has changed; according to Saxelid and Bostick, who have been in fandom since the 1970s, it used to mean all people that were fans, with three general groups: print fans, comic fans and media (usually TV, some movies) fans. Now, the categories are much more granular; a common question is “What fandom are you in?” and the answer might be a book series, a TV series, a movie or a game. A woman in the audience raised the issue of the level of participation (and influence) fans can have, citing the pre-internet fandom of the TV show Highlander and how closely the showrunners listened to those fans, mostly through Highlander conventions.
Everyone agreed that the way shows and movies are developed and marketed has definitely been changed by the influence of fandom.
Technology and social media have definitely affected access to fandom. Media fandom, KJ opined, is female-dominated generally. Platforms like LiveJournal, Twitter, Tumblr and even Facebook gave traditionally non-dominant groups (people of color, people with disabilities, women) a voice. An audience member asked if the panel thought the Hugo issue last year, and GamerGate, represented an evolution of the platforms, or a backlash. The panel resoundingly concurred that it was a backlash, because a small group of people were upset that other voices and opinions were getting air time.
The panel was a little bit “inside baseball” for me, with a lot of fan jargon and stories of the old days, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Here’s a tidbit; in the Olden Days, people at cons got together and had @bang parties. Sounds risqué, right? @bang parties were for those special people who had e-mail.
Is 72 Letters Enough? In Search of the Perfect Language
I consider a panel “good” if I come away with new book titles to track down, or lots of ideas. By those two measurements, this panel was the best panel of the convention. Panelists included Ted Chiang, who took his inspiration from the Umberto Eco book In Search of the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe). The other panelists were Cathy Hindersinn and Steven Schwartz, with Michelle Cox moderating. There was another panelist but I don’t remember her name and it doesn’t appear in the program. Hindersinn studied linguistics before making a lateral move and becoming a computer programmer. Schwartz is part of the FOGCon committee and writes speculative fiction and epic poetry. He loves language and he loves to talk about language. Cox has an MA in Church History and theology and is a technical writer.
Chiang is scary-smart, articulate if a bit abstract at times, and serious, but he has a great wit, which was on display during the panel. This panel was held in the large room and, as near as I could tell, there was one empty chair. Several people were standing. The panelists were opinionated, and in some cases their passion outstripped their knowledge; the audience was the same way. It was brilliant.
Chiang used the Eco book as a jumping off point for a discussion and critique of the conceit of a “perfect” language; one that existed in the past, in humanity’s “golden age;” a language that all humans could speak and understand. There are two parts to that idea: universalism; the idea that there is one language every human on the planet can communicate in, (perhaps as a second language); and then a language that has the smallest possible divide between the signifier and the thing signified.
Is a completely precise language possible? If it is possible, can it be flexible enough to allow the speaker to express an ambiguity? To tell a lie? We all pretty much agreed that our imaginary perfect language has to allow us to lie if we choose to. Is this perfect language mostly mathematical? Schwartz argued that, by definition, mathematical languages are designed to discuss things that aren’t grounded in material reality. (Not to say that this couldn’t be changed.)
Schwartz imagined a language so accurate that the noun describing an individual would change based on whether the individual was sitting in a room or standing in a corridor. There already are languages that define within them the gender of the speaker, the gender of the spoken-of and in some situations the status of the speaker relative to the spoken-of.
Chiang came back to the idea of humanity’s (nonexistent) golden age, and how this mythical “perfect language” was the language of Adam and Eve before they were thrown out of the garden. He talked for a bit about the assumptions inherent in that scenario. Pretending to quote ancient scholars, he said, “So the perfect language is… French!” As the audience laughed, he said, “No! It’s Flemish!”
An audience member asked about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. I heard this as “a superior Worf” and was confused, but my friend sitting next to me explained. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis assumes that the structure of a language greatly influences or even determines the modes of thought and behavior of its native speakers. The “strong” hypothesis, that language determines or controls how a person thinks, is largely out of favor with linguists and other scientists, but the “weak” hypothesis is pretty well accepted. In my notes, this is where I wrote Embassytown and circled it. Must reread, and then reread Babel 17. And then read the Eco book.
The panel ran overtime and I could have listened still longer because it was so fascinating.
The Ethics of Magic
Marie Brennan, Garrett Calcaterra, and Madeleine E Robins, with Lee, who blogs as “metaphortunate” as moderator, talked about the wielding of magical power and the ethical questions it can raise. Brennan, who is currently writing the LADY TRENT series, says she wants to read books that show that the author has taken the ethical dilemmas of use of magic into account, even if the characters don’t. Lee raised the positive example of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart; where magic becomes like an addiction, and the wielder becomes less empathetic and more accustomed to power. Calcaterra, who wrote the YA DREAMWIELDER series, compared that to rising higher in a hierarchical organization, and growing farther removed from the impact of your actions.
One of my favorite lines came from Robins, in response to Brennan’s statement that on the television show The Vampire Diaries, the vamps wipe people’s memories all the time; the only question seems to be whether Elena wants them to. Robins said, “So, if Elena approves, it’s all right. That is an ethical system. It’s not a very good one, but it is one.”
Robins, who has written alternate history fiction and and urban fantasy, pointed out that there is often an idea that the beings who do not have magic are “lesser than,” as in vampire stories where the vamps refer to humans as cattle, or the pejorative “mudblood” in the HARRY POTTER series.
Mind control spurred most of the discussion, since magic that manipulated the physical world or gave someone great strength of speed seemed “covered” by existing legal and ethical systems. In other words, throwing someone against a wall and throwing them through a wall are the same action to different degrees. Mind control begins to address ideas of privacy. It’s not right to go rummaging through my memories; it’s not right to break into my house or hack my laptop either. Not surprisingly, some “good” characters came in for critique during this discussion; the good wizards in the Harry Potter books, who routinely change the memories of muggles, and the Jedi for their mind control. Are the Jedi even “good?” That was a serious question, and I think it’s a valid one, when you look at what some of the Jedi did during the “prequel” movies.
This panel took an entertaining detour when Brennan introduced her husband, who was in the front row, and they talked about an ethical dilemma with regards to gaming. Brennan’s husband played an orthodox Jewish rabbi who had become a vampire. He called up a Jewish friend to ask for assistance with the character’s ethics, and the friend responded, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that myself.” (Tip; to remain devout, Jewish vampires must see themselves as cursed, not dead. Since actions must serve life, if they are dead they have no reason to maintain their existence. And they can only drink blood from those who provide it willingly. No kosher issues were addressed.)
Jo Walton was in the audience and contributed a couple of examples of magical systems with ethical codes. Calcaterra pointed out that ethical questions work best when they spring from an underlying code or philosophy. The secondary question becomes, “Does the reader go along with our code of ethics?”
Good Villains and Bad Heroes
I participated on this panel along with Rahul Kanakia, who has had his work appear in magazines like Clarkesworld, (and who has a novel coming out in August, 2016); KJ, Suzanne K. Moses and Patricia A. Leslie. Leslie is an independently published writer whose work reflects her strong interest in Celtic history, mythology and music. Our moderator was Aaron I. Spielman, who is a professional artist and “professional computer geek.”
We focused on anti-heroes –protagonists who do not have “heroic” motivations –for a good part of the discussion. Our examples ranged from books to television, movies and comic books. Kanakia held firmly to the idea that “heroes” who do bad things, particularly in episodic television, often are just a vicarious power fantasy for the viewer; we’d do the things Dan Draper or Walter White did if we didn’t fear real-life consequences. Moses used the recent movie Maleficent to discuss a theory that some characters who were coded as villains in the 1950s and 60s don’t even “read” as evil to a younger audience; Maleficent was clearly an evil homewrecker in the original Sleeping Beauty, with her slinky black sheath, her red lips and her horns. Those elements don’t “land” as evil necessarily now. Kanakia pointed out that to be considered villainous in the 50s and 60s, all a woman had to do was act angry, or put her needs ahead of others’.
We talked briefly about “gentlemen thieves” and their function, often, as a fantasy of social readjustment (getting revenge on someone who is untouchable by law). Spielman talked about Roger Zelazny and the AMBER CHRONICLES, stating that those books were the first time he realized a compelling main character might not be a traditional “good guy.”
Leslie gave an example of an old folk song that evokes a Celtic goddess who has two aspects. She discussed the idea that beings of power might not be traditionally “good” or “evil” but contain elements of both.
We agreed that the perceived need for good guys to be unalloyed “good” might in fact be a relatively new phenomenon; many classical demi-gods and heroes do things that seem bad by our standards. KJ reminded people that the 1930s Hayes Code for movies made it nearly impossible for a villain to be seen to succeed or profit in a movie.
It was a wide-ranging discussion, and I came away with two or three new titles to look up.
More Than Meets the Eye
Terry Weyna shared this panel with Garrett Cascaterre, Madeliene Robins, Megan E O’Keefe and Michele Cox as moderator. The group discussed characters who are more (or other) than they first appear to be. Cox reads urban fantasy and contributed quite a bit to the discussion.
Whether it’s a god who transformed into a donkey, or a man who steals cakes in the marketplace and spouts nonsense that really should be listened to, the MALAZAN series has many characters who are more than they seem, according to O’Keefe. She also mentioned Eowyn in LORD OF THE RINGS. Robins mentioned her own character in the Regency-period Sarah Tolerance novels. Tolerance is a fallen woman for whom prostitution is considered the only avenue open to her, but she makes her living as an investigator. In the books, people are encouraged to underestimate her in other ways too.
Terry gave the example of the character of Alex from Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Alex seems like a weak, neurotic, self-destructive boy – in fact, he is many of those things – but ends up behaving heroically by his own lights and saving the day. That is not the behavior we expect from him when we first meet him.
As a writer, one way to create a character who is more than meets the eye is to be very conscious of the tropes, and then be playful with them.
Calcaterra said that in his own work, it’s often his secondary characters who surprise him with who they are and what they become. He said his best example of people who were “more than met the eye” were a group of high school students he taught in Orange County. The class was in a low-income district and he realized that his students, whose voices often weren’t heard, were more than met the eye. He said they inspired him.
Cox offered Lois McMaster Bujold’s character Miles Vorkosigan as someone who is often underestimated. So is Ista, also a Bujold character, from Paladin of Souls. The panel agreed that while the reader did not necessarily underestimate Maia from Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, his family and the royal court certainly did. Cox pointed out that sometimes, a character’s “superpower” is simply that they try to be decent and do the right thing.
Terry shifted the topic a little bit by saying that unreliable narrators are often different from what they first seem. My favorite comment of the panel came from the audience, where someone said that in China Mieville’s The City and the City, the city itself (or themselves) is an unreliable character. I really like that idea!
This was the last panel of Saturday night, and the panelists seemed comfortable, as if they were a group of friends talking about books. This one ran over time also, but I certainly didn’t mind. I left with another list of books to read, so I was happy.
I did not get to hear Jo Walton read, but I had a brief pleasant conversation with her in a corridor. She is accessible, friendly, and has a strong accent (Welsh?). Two writer friends attended the panel titled “The Best Advice I Never Got” in which writers shared lessons and tips; both found it to be funny, useful and validating. The Butler events included a reading of her work and a discussion of her influence on the genre.
The dealers’ room is small but mighty, with a heavy concentration of booksellers. Why, yes, I did buy books. How did you know?
The one complaint I have about FogCon is specifically with the restaurant manager in the hotel. The restaurant was under-staffed for the number of customers it had. I recall this being an issue last year as well. It stands out to me because every other aspect of the hotel experience was above average; helpful, friendly competent staff from the parking valets to the front desk to housekeeping.
I am growing to love this convention and can’t wait to see what next year’s is like.