Mataglap SF

mataglap -- an Indonesian word meaning "dark eye" or, probably, "dilated eye." It is an indication that someone is about to go berserk and start killing people at random. Used in Walter Jon Williams' novel Aristoi as the name of a berserk form of nanotechnology that devoured the planet.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Last day in LA
Last real day of vacation, tomorrow will be mostly on a plane and be three hours shorter than normal. I left the room at 9:30 this morning and grabbed another fruit frappacino and muffin at Starbucks on my way to the convention center, not something you’d want to make a habit of. I think I liked the tangerine better than the pomegranate. Just a few panels to see today, the first was two guys who call themselves the X Hunters, they go into the deserts around the air force bases of the southwest looking for debris from test planes that have crashed over the years. The air force has typically recovered the main fuselage years ago, but there is still plenty of stuff to be found, and they give it all back to the air force for its museum and for research. They went through a huge slideshow that covered every possible experimental plane, many of which crashed at least once, it was very interesting to see all of them and their various designs and purposes.

The next panel featured several members of the Cassini probe team, primarily I guess from JPL nearby. They had a short slide show and then went down the table variously describing their favorite moment, most anxious and most embarrassing moments on the project. You got the sense that they had been able to really bond as a team from all the time they’d spent together over the last several years, and since Cassini has been successful by and large there was a sense of accomplishment, with enough telemetry collected to keep them busy for quite some time.

The last panel featured an extemporaneous talk by Ray Bradbury, whom I’d only seen once before, at this very convention 10 years ago. He’s confined to a wheelchair now and doesn’t look or sound so good, going on 85 or 86 I think. He arrived 20 minutes late but got right up on the stage and talked for 40 minutes or so about his early days and how he got into sf and what it was like back then to be a science fiction writer. He said that as a boy in Waukegan Illinois he visited a carnival where he met a performer name Mr. Electrico who zapped him with an electric prod that made his hair stand on end and proclaimed “you will live forever”. He also spoke about taking the bus to New York from L.A. to meet a publisher who gave him the idea to assemble several of his Mars stories into a book, and while he was there they also came up with the idea of a fixup centered around the Illustrated Man, and he went home to his pregnant wife with $1500 as an advance, enough so that he could take the train instead of the bus. There was another huge line waiting on him for autographs afterwards, this is probably the last time I’ll ever see him, so it was kind of sad, but it was worth hanging around for.

In general, this convention was really good, very well put together, obviously the committee knew what they were doing, and the mix of programming was so vast and diverse that it seemed like you could only sample from some of the many tracks that looked intriguing in one form or another. It was good to see Ellison and Bradbury again, maybe for the last time, and McCaffrey for the first and probably last time. I didn’t see Fred Pohl, but he was supposedly there, and Ackerman, all the remaining members of the old guard (except Jack Williamson, whom I don’t believe I’ve ever seen and who may very well live forever), which is rapidly dwindling. You notice a significant difference in these people from 10 years ago when I first encountered them, and it will definitely be the end of an era when they’re all gone. The nature of sf back then allowed fandom to come into being, when the field was much smaller, there was much less distinction between writers and readers, and most people could keep up with all the significant work being published. Now the SF field is much more diverse and diffuse, spread out all over the country and indeed the world, and with the passing of the old guard, the multiplicity of writers coming into the field, all competing for a potentially dwindling readership, yet producing more books than anyone can possibly read, even in a subgenre of sf, plus the ability to keep connected through the internet, one wonders what the future of SF holds and whether a Worldcon in even 15 or 20 years will look remotely like what it does now. You definitely don’t see a lot of young people in the crowd, the vast majority are my age or older. A lot of newer writers come to conventions, but once established they seem to drift out of the picture and even out of sf, focusing on more lucrative pursuits or making the transition to mainstream fiction. A lot of other popular writers don’t interact with fandom at all. The generation behind the “old guard”, Martin, Resnick, Robinson, Willis, etc., still have plenty to say and are all friends as well, so that generation at least should keep things going as they are for a while yet, but what comes up behind them I have no idea. By all indications, Bob Silverberg will still be around, maybe he’ll take care of it.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Worldcon marathon
Today was a big day for panels, although doing six in a row is something I can’t seem to handle any more, plus you have to eat and I hadn’t really spent that much time in the dealers room. The first panel dealt with Heinlein, since next year will be his 100th birthday and the Heinlein foundation or society or whatever it is is about to publish a huge biography of him, and they’re holding a special conference next summer in Kansas City. The biographer was on the panel, along with Connie Willis (this year’s Worldcon Guest of Honor, who I seemed to keep missing up til now, although she was in plenty of things), and a couple of other people. Heinlein makes for an interesting study as the sf community would hold him up as their first great literary champion, although his influence in the field is probably strongest through the “juveniles” he wrote in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. His main literary claim to fame would have to be centered around Stranger in a Strange Land and Moon is a Harsh Mistress in the ‘60’s, but most everything from Number of the Beast on was self-indulgent crap. He also espoused a number of crackpot social and political theories, and one of them, some “polyamory” group called “Living the Dream” was represented in the front row and handing out flyers, as though if you like Heinlein and think he was an important writer beyond the genre that means you’re a good candidate for joining a group sex club.

I skipped the next panel to spend some time crisscrossing the dealers room, picked up the latest copy of Interzone plus the one with the Dominic Green Hugo-nominated story from last year from Interzone themselves. Since the magazine has changed hands its gone all slick and looks more like SF Age, hopefully the added production costs won’t kill it after 200-plus issues. One dealer had a huge number of paperbacks for sale cheap, and while I found some I wanted I didn’t have my PDA with me, so I didn’t buy anything until I’d had a chance to go back to the room and get it, and by the time I got back they were even cheaper, so I got a dozen or so. Also got the Tachyon Press edition of Kelly’s “Burn”, another nominee of which I only had the online copy. Grabbed some overpriced lunch at the convention center cafeteria while some guy was doing a magic show, then it was on to the next panel.

The next panel was not a panel at all but a stand-up act by the one and only Harlan Ellison, whom I don’t believe I’ve seen in at least 5 years. He’s 72 now and quite portly, sporting a Bobby Knight red sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, which he also wore to the Hugo ceremony this evening. Ellison spent the first several minutes practically 10 feet away from me by virtue of ignoring the stage and standing on the camera stand in the middle of the room. Mostly he was ranting about how he likes to insult people equally, looking and sounding more like Don Rickles than I’ve ever seen before. But after some of that he made his way up to the stage and took a few questions from the audience, each one prompting an answer in the form of a story that took at least 20 minutes with several sidetracks along the way. The longest had to do with a publisher that he tortured for not reverting rights to one of his books because of a contract dispute, from sending bricks in the mail postage due to hiring a hitman to finally mailing him a dead muskrat. He also said (and reiterated at the Hugo’s) that this would probably be his last convention. While he didn’t elaborate at the talk, later he said that not only was he getting old himself, but so many of his friends within fandom had died in the last several years that it was getting too depressing. I can’t think of anyone who comes close to taking his place, there are some with the ego, but none who are equally caustic and entertaining to go with it.

After the talk was over Ellison announced he refused to go down to the signing area in the back of the main hall to sign books, and would sign them right outside the door of the conference room, which he proceeded to do for at least a couple of hours, creating a huge line of people that blocked traffic in that area for most of the afternoon.

The next panel was to discuss the works of Connie Willis, with Pat Cadigan (who I don’t think I’ve seen before), Gardner Dozois, Nancy Kress, Kim Stanley Robinson and Bob Silverberg, and with Ms. Willis herself showing up shortly after it began and ending up spending most of her time up in front of the panelists. Since she was there, it was more of a lovefest, but the speakers made things entertaining, there was no consensus on which were her best stories and books nor on the ones for which she would be remembered. Even if she weren’t there, you can’t imagine anyone saying anything bad about her. After that was a panel with Alistair Reynolds, Robert Sawyer, John Barnes (who I don’t remember seeing before, although he looks remarkably like Greg Rucka), Greg Benford and Allen Steele, talking about the hard sf renaissance, a topic that has been done to death in the last few years since Hartwell and Cramer’s anthology, but I was there for the panelists more than the topic anyway. From these writers, who would all be considered hard sf of one form or another, there was much skepticism as to whether hard sf had really gone away, and if indeed there had been a renaissance starting in the late ‘80’s as Hartwell postulates, could you still consider it to be continuing this many years later.

After that I went back to the dealer’s room to finish up shopping and came back to the Marriott to have some dinner at Pizza Hut right in the hotel (turns out they have their own Starbucks here too and I’ve been going to the one in the Hilton across the street). Spent a little time in the room before it was time for the Hugos. They’d opened up the auditorium well in advance so there was no need to stand in line to get in, and in fact where I sat on the far right, up close to the front, didn’t ever really fill up, although there seemed to be plenty of people there. Connie Willis was toastmaster, and they dispensed this year with trying to do any sort of skit or production number and just let Connie be Connie, which involved a running gag with Bob Silverberg through the entire evening where he was trying to take over as MC. It was nice to see Forrest Ackerman not only getting the Big Heart Award that he helped found but that they were going to rename the award after him. He came out on stage under his own power, using a cane to prop himself up, looking a bit gaunt, but still alert. He turns 90 in a few months. Betty Ballantine got a special Hugo award, she’s well into her ‘80’s and still looks great, and later on Mr. Ellison himself got a special Hugo, which he tried his best to be gracious about, in spite of being up there in sweat pants. I was glad to see the “Empty Child” episode of Doctor Who got Best Dramatic Presentation in the short category, too bad Steven Moffatt wasn’t there to pick it up in person. Also nice to see David Hartwell get a Hugo after all these years, I think he held the record for consecutive losses. There’s some talk afoot of splitting the Best Editor category into two so that the less-visible book editors can be voted on independently of the magazine editors, who otherwise always win, I don’t know if this will change that or not.

For the fiction categories, I only voted on the two shorter ones and neither of my picks won. David Levine, who’s looking scarier every time I seem him, won for short story, this is always the popularity contest category, and if anything he proved he has more friends than Mike Resnick, who usually just dials it in but I thought this year had written a better story. Surprisingly Margo Lanagan, who had far and away the best story of the bunch, didn’t win in spite of the buzz around her effort. For novelette, Peter Beagle won for a very well-written, well-crafted if slightly sentimental story, I liked the Bacigalupi story better but I can see how this one would’ve been more popular with more people. For novella the guest of honor/mistress of ceremonies herself won her umpteenth Hugo, not one of her best efforts in an otherwise strong category (I would’ve picked Magic for Beginners). And for best novel Robert Charles Wilson finally got some recognition for his career with “Spin”, a perfectly good book and probably his best, breaking the fantasy lock on the best novel category from the last few years. I probably would’ve voted for it although I would have expected Accelerando to win. They managed to wrap things up by just after 10pm, but people will still be complaining in tomorrows panels about how late they stayed up partying tonight I’m sure.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

A day at Disneyland
Today was the day to go to Disneyland, so we got up and got going earlier than we otherwise would have, considering how late things went last night. Spent the morning there and by 12:30 or so it was time for me to take off back to the convention for the afternoon, so I left Beth and the kids and went back to the hotel to gather my stuff. For the convention, LASFS has published a collection of original stories based around the old Tom Corbett Space Cadet show, which I’ve never seen. Originally Tom Corbett himself was doing to be a guest, but he died several months ago (as did the fan guest of honor, Howard Devore). If I was Connie Willis I’d be a little jumpy. What was nice was that they arranged a signing featuring all the authors at the convention who wrote or edited for the book, all in one package. The line wasn’t terribly long but went pretty slow since a multiple-signers line is only as fast as the chattiest author (read: David Brin). Besides Brin, Mike Resnick, Nancy Kress, Greg Benford, Harry Turtledove, David Gerrold and a bunch of others were there, and I got them all except for Larry Niven, who had to leave to go to his next event before I got that far. So it was pretty much an hour by the time I was done going through the line, worse than any of the rides at Disney, but at least it was inside. I hadn’t eaten lunch and it was pushing 2:30, but I went to the next panel, which was a talk by Anne McCaffrey, whom I’d never seen before. She’s 80 years old and doesn’t move too well, but still sounded totally together and just talked extemporaneously for a while telling stories, then took some questions from the audience. I ate my lunch (a sandwich from the 7-11) during the panel.

Before the next panel started it was my last chance to vote on the site selection for the 2008 worldcon. For the first time in a while, there were 3 candidate cities on the ballot: Chicago, Columbus and Denver. I would have to expect that Chicago will win, but I voted for Denver, both because it’s somewhere other than Chicago and Columbus, and because it was the only bid that was not on Labor Day weekend, which is a feature I kind of like. Worldcon bid voting is very cliquey and people get all worked up about convention hall specs and the solidarity of the bid committee, instead of just picking a city that sounds nice. The only exception to that is if there’s a non-North American bid, which will almost always win no matter what the competition, but then hardly anyone will actually attend it. I’ve never figured that out.

The next panel was the annual “killer B’s” variety show, featuring Bear, Brin and Benford, with special guest Vernor Vinge, whom I don’t think I’ve seen since the ’96 Worldcon. The topic was the “bullets” we don’t see, i.e. things that could either impede or destroy a society or civilization that we haven’t thought about yet. Sometimes when these guys get together, Benford acts as the referee while the other two try to out-pontificate each other. This time they were more serious more of the time, Brin as usual did most of the talking and didn’t have much to espouse that he wasn’t already talking about the last time I saw him a couple of years ago.

After that was a surprisingly interesting panel considering the relatively trite question of “Can SF change the world?” Brin was on this too, along with Cory Doctorow, Sean McMullen and the founder of Craigslist, moderated by Cecilia Tan. Brin would have it that SF can change the world but we need to elevate the rest of the public that isn’t paying attention to it. Doctorow felt that more people than ever were engaged in SF, it just was taking on new forms, particularly with young people and online gaming and anime, etc. While the two of them weren’t necessarily diametrically opposed, Doctorow took exception to some of Brin’s pearls of wisdom, and Brin got kind of defensive, sniping a little bit back at Doctorow. The general tone of the discussion ended up on a bit of a downer, but it was still food for thought just because there was obviously different opinions on the question and what to do about it.

After that last panel it was back to Disney to meet up with the family, although it was after 7pm by the time I got there. Now tomorrow they’re off to Legoland, which seems ambitious although I suppose its no different than going back to Disney for another day. Since Legoland is a ways away from here, I’ll be spending the day at the con, there’s still plenty of people to see and stuff to buy.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sox win! Sox win!
First full day of the convention for me, everybody slept in and didn’t really eat breakfast.

Meanwhile, I was at the convention, where I saw some worthwhile panels. G. David Nordley gave a talk about the requirements of interstellar travel, what technologies would work and which wouldn’t, and how long approximately it would take to develop the missing pieces to do it. After that he was in another panel with Alistair Reynolds, Greg Benford, Walter Hunt and Sheila Finch about aliens, and what sort of aliens we might find (after we build the interstellar travel, or if they get to us first). I don’t usually go to too many writing panels, but there was one with Sheila Williams and a few others talking about how to rise above the slush pile and get your work noticed the first time. Then I saw a panel with the always entertaining Gardner Dozois (whom I haven’t seen for a few years), the always somnambulant Charles Brown and a couple of others go through all the Hugo fiction nominees and give their own votes and handicapping who they thought the winners should be. I was happy that they by and large agreed with my own assessments, and those where we differed I could concede (such as the McDonald story, which I’m sure is fine, but just not my favorite type of story). Brown was totally trashing Burstein, not just his two nominees but his general abilities as a writer, and none of the other panelists felt obliged to disagree. The last panel was a talk by Kim Stanley Robinson about the literary device of managing the pace of a story and how different authors would either write an entire novel covering one day (citing Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses), or one that covered much of the life of the universe (such as Stapledon). He had recently help uncover a brief correspondence between Stapledon and Virginia Woolf, who apparently read The Star Makers and was impressed by its ideas, such that her last novel, which I can’t remember the name of, touches on some of the same themes. It was a great, though-provoking lecture, which was surprisingly well attended, too.

There was still one time slot to go, but we had other priorities. I met up with the rest of the family back at the hotel and we were off to Angels Stadium to see the Red Sox. Josh Beckett pitched a solid game into the 7th, then was replaced before he fell apart by Timlin, with Papelbon coming in at the end for the save. Got to see Big Papi hit a solo homer for the first score of the game. It came down to the wire, final score, Red Sox 2, Angels 1.

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