Readercon 22, Day 1 (Thursday)

As anyone who attends science fiction conventions knows: conventions typically begin the moment you walk into the hotel lobby. A big part of a convention is meeting up with friends and colleagues, catching up, chatting, networking, making new acquaintances. And that was certainly true yesterday. But a convetion like Readercon “officially” begins with the first round of panel discussions.

Readercon’s Thursday evening programming is free and open to the public, which is nice because people who might not otherwise attend can come in and see what it is like. And Readercon is not like most science fiction conventions. You won’t find people in constumes here: there is no costume party. You won’t find rooms reserved for all-night gaming. This isn’t a gaming convention. Readercon focuses on written science fiction–that is, the literature of the genre. It’s one of the reasons why it is my favorite convention.

There was a special significance to the first panel I attended at Readercon last night, “We All Produce/We All Consume.” It was my first time ever as a panelist. Kelly and I had been playing phone tag, and she left me a message not long before the panel was to begin. I stepped outside to call her back and told her why I missed her call:

“I went into the room in which the panel was to take place to find a good seat,” I said. “I like getting there early so that I can get a seat in the front row. But when I got there, I realized that I didn’t need a seat in the front row because I was going to be up on the dias.

In the programming, the panel is described as follows:

In a 2008 blog post, Leah Bobet connected the dots of increasing media interactivity and increasing independent authorship. Both trends have only escalated in the years since. When every blogger is an author, every commenter is a reviewer, and every work is assumed to be the start of a conversation, how does that change the experience and culture of reading? Was it ever possible to be a passive reader, or are we simply bringing our marginalia and book-flinging out into the light?

The panel was led by K. A. Laity and the other panelists included Paul Di Filippo, Robert Killheffer, and Gemma Files. I was definitely the new kid on the block.

But it turned into a great discussion, the focus of which was how the Internet has changed (amplified) the interaction between fan and writer. We talked about our own social profiles on the Internet. We talked about reviews in light of Amazon’s reviewing system, where Robert Killheffer pointed out that Amazon made everyone into a reviewer by labeling them as such (“Write a review!”) We talked about the nature of discussion on the Internet and the speed with which it could spin out of control.

I pointed out that this was nothing new. Looking at the Brass Tacks column of Astounding from 1939 and you’ll see some viscious back and forth. But the key differences were the immediacy and the sheer numbers of people involved.

As this was my first ever panel, I tried to make thoughtful contributions and I tried to be a little funny. (When it came my turn to discuss my social profile, I told the audience to give me a second, I needed to update my Twitter feed.) But mostly I listened, observed and tried to learn.

And I must say that I was particularly impressed with Paul Di Filippo as a panelist. He comes across as calm, self-assured, but unassuming. Every time he speaks, he has something important to say (often funny, too). And he makes an effort to include the other panelists in the discussion. I have now taken Paul’s performance as a model for what a good panelist should be, and that is perhaps the most significant thing that I personally got out of that panel.

From there, I dashed around the hall to catch the next panel that I wanted to see, which was “The Infulence of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency”. The panel is described in the program as:

Scott Meredith (1923-1993) founded a literary agency which is arguably one of the most influential–and controversial–in all of modern SF. Russell Galen, Barry Malzberg, and Richard Curtis among many others worked there, and clients at one time or another included Poul Anderson, J.G. Ballard, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, and Timothy Zahn. Can a literary agency really shape the development of a genre? What is the actual effect of the Meredith agency on the last half-century or so of science fiction and fantasy?

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Panelists included David G. Hartwell (leader), Barry N. Malzberg, Eric M. Van, and Gordon Van Gelder. This was a fascinating panel. For my friends outside of science fiction, Scott Meredith was the most important agent in the history of the field and through his agency, altered the face of publishing. He started out as an agent in the 1940s and continued until his death in the 1990s.

David Hartwell and Barry Malzberg told stories from the agency days (Barry worked there for many years) and while there was some humor in those stories, there was some raw emotion as well.

I don’t know anyone with a memory as impressive as Barry’s. Isaac Asimov was always known for his remarkable memory, but I am convinced that Barry Malzberg has him beat. He quoted, from memory, the long version of the standard outline for a science fiction story that the agency used. It was remarkable. The audience cheered.

I tried to keep up, taking notes, but there was too much good stuff going on. Fortunately, Scott Edelman managed to get the whole thing recorded and once he gets the video posts, I can watch it again and learn more. You should watch it to, if you want to get a flavor for what Readercon is really like.

That was the last panel discussion of the evening, but of course, the convention doesn’t end there. Some would say it just begins. Outside the conference room, Barry, Scott Edelman, Gordon Van Gelder and a few others stood around chatting about old science fiction magazines, about John Campbell and about some of that “hidden history” that I’ll be leading a panel discussion in this evening. I just tried to take it all in.

Scott and I wandered over to the bar and sat down with a group for a while. The group grew larger and larger. Ellen Datlow and Eileen Gunn joined us, and at about that time, there began a flurry of picture-taking. Flashes were going off everywhere. I felt I needed to join in so I snapped this photo of Scott, who was in turn taking pictures:

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Shortly after that, I called it a night. It was approaching midnight, which is remarkably late for me, and I have a long day today. There are so many fascinating panels that it is difficult to find any time to do anything else.

I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to do a post between panels today. I’ll try to, if I can manage it. Otherwise, you can expect the Day 2 post late tonight or early tomorrow.

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