Monday, October 14, 2013

FenCon X Recap - Part 2

You can find the first half of my FenCon X panel writeups here. Now, on with the rest!

Death as a Character

Michele Bardsley (@michelebardsley)
Rhonda Eudaly (@reudaly) 
Amber Benson (@amber_benson)

Hoo boy. I don't even know what to say about this panel, other than it was awesome. We spent about 5 minutes talking about personifying death as a character (or a corporation, in Amber Benson's case) and the rest of the panel talking about the Ball-Jointed Doll panel, which the death panel had replaced because of a scheduling snafu.


Now, I want to start out by saying that I don't want to denigrate anyone's hobby. I spend some of my days cooking fake food for fake adventurers, so there's nothing inherently wrong with collecting or making dolls. It's actually pretty cool on paper. But that doesn't make it any less disconcerting when you (or Erin to be specific) walk up to a woman to compliment the cute baby in her arms or stroller and OH GOD NOT A BABY


Before the panel started, we joked with Michele Bardsley that the doll makers were going to curse us, using either voodoo or some previously unknown form of fetich magicks. Only when Rhonda Eudaly entered did we find out the doll people were actually upset with the change. We teased Amber Benson about crossing the Ball-Jointed Doll picket line, but maybe it's not a joke. If you see a  news story about Ms. Benson being injured in a horrifying accident involving tiny plastic arms, let this writeup serve as evidence.

Worldbuilding

Barbara Ann Wright (@zendragandt)
T.S. Rider
Rob Rogers (@robcrogers3)
Lee Killough
Skyler White (@WordworkWitch) [No relation to Breaking Bad AFAIK, but I bet she LOVES hearing that constantly!]

I loooved this panel! So much useful information and interesting discussion. The audience was engaged and asking questions, which is always preferable over the panels with 5 bored people staring at the clock.

The nice thing about this panel is the mix of approaches from the authors, proving that the only real rule of worldbuilding (or more broadly, crafting a story in general) is that there aren't really any rules. For instance, we discussed how to start a story, and the panel was pretty well divided between "Start with the world, put your characters into it" and "Start with your characters, build the world around them as you need it." I generally fall into the latter camp, but there are benefits and downfalls to each method (mine being that my settings sometimes feel too perfunctory and empty).

The panel also stressed the importance of pruning out your worldbuilding details. It's easy to get carried away with fantastic details about your setting, but in general, that's not why people are picking up your book. Story is still king (which, in my opinion, is defined primarily by character development, but you may quibble with that). If, while writing, you lose your character in favor of history or setting or whatever, you've gone too far.

Reading Suggestions: Dune, Dark Tower, Hal Clemens, China Mieville, John Meaney, Lee Kilough (Her chapbook "Checking on Culture" is a great quickstart guide to crafting a believable world).

Politics in Genre Fiction

Cory Doctorow (@doctorow)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden (@tnielsenhayden)
Steven Brust (@StevenBrust)

A topic that might bore some people to tears, but had me on the edge of my seat. The conversation flew quick and the wit was sharp, so I'm just going to paraphrase some key lines instead of putting together a summary. Let me stress that this is a paraphrasal. For the most part, there are no direct verbatim quotes here.

--

CD: The main nod toward politics for a lot of science fiction is the "war room scene," a la Dr. Strangelove, Mars Attacks, etc. The Bin Laden assassination picture is a good example. But by the time we get to that point, all the interesting politics are already over.

SB: Politics is like stage magic. Both are finished much earlier than the audience is meant to believe. The rest is just misdirection.

--

CD: The Great Man theory of history is the science fiction theory of politics.

PNH: Politics are complex. Most fiction portrays huge political achievements as the work of a few singular individuals, when then reality is not as simply.

--

CD: Commodification of ideology is a problem. We're now selling counterculture.

SB: Building off of CD's comment, the problem with the New Left was that it wasn't an ideology, it was a mood.

CD: "...astroturf..."

SB: Astroturf? That's not a thing.

Audience: Yes it is!

[Note: Astroturfing refers to someone pretending to be an independent supporter of a cause while actually being bankrolled by a corporation or government. 'Shill' is a similar term. CD points out that 'astroturfing' is so named as it is 'fake grassroots.']

CD: Astroturfing is a serious threat to any ideology. Similar to agent provocateur. Some groups are somewhat immune to this. It's hard, for example, to believably emulate the nihilistic lunacy of 4chan as an outsider.

[Note: There's a term for this: shibboleth.]

CD: "Great Man Theory" + "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog" = Locke and Demosthenes from Ender's Game. Ender's siblings are a prime example of astroturfing.

--

SB: The interesting part of politics is in how a need transforms into an action. Who calls whom? Who gets the ball rolling?

PNH: That's a hard question to answer, and one that's susceptible to conspiracy theories.

--

CD: Automation can disrupt the status quo in an industry, but it can also be used to defend it. Anonymouth is a tool that can be used to anonymize your text, remove your voice from it. But it could also be used to emulate another author. Make pitch-perfect Harry Potter fanfiction? Start a war by pretending to be a jihadist? It's possible.

SB: I think you've just started the conspiracy theory that J.K. Rowling is a terrorist.

PNH: Lots of nutty people in the world come up with conspiracy theories, but it's also true that humans conspire quite often.

SB: Calling something a conspiracy theory in order to dismiss it is too simple and problematic. The key question is: how many people would have to keep this secret in order for it to succeed? If it's more than ten or so, it's not a very realistic conspiracy.

--

TNH: Speaking of science fiction politics, I have to bring up Stick Figure Libertarianism, a desire to boil down complex problems into simple overly-utopian solutions. "If we just do X, everyone will be Free and Equal!" It occurs in all ideologies, but seems to occur more often to Libertarians.

CD: But sometimes science fiction can function as a thought experiment (what would happen if x was true) rather than a realistic prediction of what will happen. This is often used with respect to technology, and can also be used with politics. Or sometimes politics can simply be window dressing.

PNH: Used to make readers believe in the world just long enough.

SB: One of the keys to good political fiction is to give the "opposition" good, logical lines along with your heroes.

[Note: I think The West Wing often did this well. The creators didn't shy away from their message and what they thought proper solutions were, but the conservative characters often got good zingers. Also worth noting The West Wing as Steven Brust talked about Qumar for a while before correcting it to Kuwait. It was early, and he was not yet fully caffeinated :-)]

--

CD: Using politics in fiction is sort of like a computer simulation of a rock. Simulate with not enough detail, and it's a pointless exercise -- you can't draw any conclusions from it. Simulate with too much detail, and it's not very efficient. The conclusions you draw are way too specific and narrow.

SB: Some things take less computation to simulate than others, though.

CD: I am willing to accept that it takes less processing power to simulate you than me, Steven.

--

CD: Boredom with politics is a defense mechanism of the status quo. A common strategy is to wrap political activism / change with so much bureaucracy that no one but those will a lot of time or patience can participate. An interesting side effect of this is that Google Translate is drawn from EU documents, thus, most English translations end up being written in Eurocratic speak.

Reading Suggestions: Alan Clark Diaries; Neal Stephenson & Stephen Bury, Interface; Mack Reynolds; Ken MacLeod; Times of India

--

To end, I'll leave you with a song from the fabulous Jonathan Coulton. Have a great week!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

FenCon X Recap - Part 1

Here it is! For any of you that had to miss FenCon this year, I've got links to authors and writeups of the panels I attended. Enjoy!

Modern Good vs. Ancient Evil

* Barbara Ann Wright (@zendragandt)
* Vivian Caethe (@VivianCaethe)
* Julia S. Mandala 

First panel of the con! And of course, HUGE expectations. Well, not really. More like tired audience and tired panelists, especially on a Friday afternoon after driving 3 hours. But thankfully, these three women overcame that and facilitated a pretty interesting discussion.

- The panelists noted that a lot of the obsession with modern good vs. ancient evil comes from modern society being impressed with itself. In my own experience as a liberal bordering on communist ... yeah. This is sometimes true.

- It's fun to have a simple, easy-to-understand evil force to defeat, compared to a modern threat like terrorism whose root causes are difficult to understand and even more difficult to remove.

- However, there have been portrayals of ancient evil against which modern forces stood no chance. Lovecraft comes to mind. Also an interesting parallel in that Lovecraft's views on race and sex are pretty abhorrent by modern standards.

- Cabin in the Woods is a fantastic representation of modern good vs. ancient evil. Without spoiling too much, it definitely tends toward the Lovecraftian side of things.

- A great idea developed by the panelists: crowdfunded evil. A Kickstarter for a Dark Empire? I would read that story.

- Heroes used to be protective of the status quo. Think Lord of the Rings. Sauron disrupts the normal flow of life, and Frodo and friends struggle to protect it. Many modern good vs. evil stories are the opposite, featuring rebels or usurpers overthrowing evil. What does this change represent in societal views?

- One of the women in the audience made a fantastic observation that the modern good vs. ancient evil trope is mirrored in industrial vs. nature stories. Nature in these stories (think The Andromeda Strain or Alien) is often set up as an ancient force getting revenge. This is a little complicated by the fact that it's sometimes science that provokes nature's revenge, but this is also sometimes present in good vs. evil stories (Wheel of Time comes to mind).

Reading suggestions: Larry Correia, H.P. Lovecraft

Beastly Fans

* Barbara Ann Wright (noticing a pattern?)
* Kathryn Sullivan
* Mary Turzillo
* Rosemary Clement-Moore (@rclementmoore)

This panel was nominally about the lasting power of certain common fantasy creatures. Dragons, griffins, that sort of thing. What it really was about was dinosaur porn. Yep. Beasts led to Beauty and the Beast, which led to bestiality which led to the phenomenon of dinosaur porn. Blame Rosemary for leading us down that particular road.

Regardless of everyone's ability to stray offtopic, it was awfully enjoyable. Sort of a "had to be there" thing. Panelists were hilarious, and I especially enjoyed hearing about Mary Turzillo's risque escapades.

When Action Gets in the Way of Story

* Barbara Ann Wright
* Kevin Hosey
* Rob Rogers (@robcrogers3)
* Steven Brust (@StevenBrust)
* J. Kathleen Cheney

This panel was pretty much as described. When is action too much? How do you balance an awesome chase scene with, you know, actual plot and character development? As the discussion progressed, the panel lumped sex in along with action, which make complete sense as they serve pretty similar functions in most stories.

- Every scene should be worthy. This sounds obvious, but it's so important that it's worth stating. Steven Brust had a fantastic line here that he applied to both action scenes and sex scenes (though it works for any scene, really): Action scenes should be transformative, meaning something changes about the character. To that, I add 'revelatory.' That is, the character doesn't necessarily have to change if the purpose of the scene is to teach the audience something about a character we didn't know before. Brust's example was the 'fight' scene in Temple of Doom where Indiana Jones is confronted with a giant sword wielder and ends the battle with a single bullet. That's not particularly transformative, but it is exceedingly revelatory.

- A good trick to making action/sex scene meaningful is to focus on the dialogue. Dialogue is where character is revealed -- as long as you stay away from cheesy action one-liners.

- Another Brustism: "When a fish tells me about water, I'm bored." Avoid overexplaining, especially in things that the character would already be familiar with. It doesn't make sense for a character to stop and think about the mechanics of a hovercar or laser gun if they use one every day.

Copyright 101

* Patrick Nielsen Hayden (@pnh)
* Cory Doctorow (@doctorow)
* Paul Herman

FenCon is attended by a lot of writers, and as such, there's a lot of shop talk about the actual craft of writing. The copyright panel took a slightly different path. It wasn't related to writing specifically (though writing certainly overlaps here), but with the utterly broken copyright system in the US.

- The United States Patent and Trademark Office is funded directly by patent applications. This gives the USPTO a huge incentive to affirm patents.

- Non Producing Entities (a fancy word for patent trolls) don't produce any products, and as such, they can't be countersued. That makes them much harder to defend against than big companies, who pretty much know they're all infringing on each other in some way.

- What's the metric for judging the success of an intellectual protection system? We never got a good answer to this, which is unfortunate, but it's clear that "number of patents" makes absolutely no sense as a measurement.

- Once established, it's very hard to take away property rights. The interests involved are too powerful. Thus, gradual reforms are far more likely than a broad revamp of copyright.

- Copyright trolling falls under the corruption problem. Stated simply, it's hard to punish someone who benefits by hurting society, since their benefit (and thus power) is concentrated, and the harm is diffuse. Requires all the people harmed to band together, which can be difficult to manage.

- The Magnificent 7 Solution: Every year we can pay the bandits, or we can get together and hire the mercenaries. Crowdfund patent troll defense. Now, this was just a brief discussion, and my notes are sparse, so *please* don't nitpick Doctorow's solution on the basis of my writeup. But the gist is that people in risk of being sued (or who have been sued before) would dedicate money to a Kickstarter-like fund. Then, whenever one of the participants is sued, that money would go to legal defense to beat back the troll, which any legal fees won going back into the system. According to Doctorow, it would be self-sustaining; the more lawsuits patent trolls opened (which they'd have to ramp up, since they'd be losing money), the more money the fund would gain.

Now, the main problem I had with this problem is that it seems to assume that most (or all!) of the cases would be won by the defendants. This is a problematic assumption in a couple of ways. First, not all of the defendants are actually going to be innocent of infringement. And second, even when they are, there's no guarantee a court will actually see it that way. Courts are notoriously overprotective of IP.

When I raised this concern, Doctorow admitted that if it went wrong, it could create some very bad precedents, and you'd have to be careful. But he didn't really have a solution for the problem of losing cases. To be fair, his discussion was more general, rather than a fully fleshed out plan ready for production.

- "...gaping buttsex..." -Cory Doctorow. He was talking about porn and copyright, but that doesn't matter. What matters is I want to see that quote on next year's FenCon program.

- The panelists cited a study which said that most artistic work has a 14-year life span. That is, after 14 years, it's not really generating money for the IP holders any longer. Now, I haven't seen that study. I'm curious if it's still true in the age of digital publishing, where long tails can be loooooooong indeed.

- Doctorow floated the idea of a compulsory license for fiction. In the same way that you can cover a song on a CD or a bar for a flat fee without the permission of the artist, you'd be able to write fanfiction (for profit, even? maybe) for a flat fee. You'd probably have to make sure this only applied to individuals, and not, like, WB adapting your novel into a movie without paying. This probably isn't a workable solution, though, since authors are notoriously hardheaded about "owning" their work.

- Cory Doctorow's Utopian Copyright Solution: separate individual users from participants in the copyright industry. Adding on to the previous point, it is absurd to treat fanfiction and a movie adaptation with the same copyright rules. Absurd to treat someone downloading a copy of Harry Potter and someone opening a multimillion dollar Harry Potter theme park based on the same per-use measurement.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Back from FenCon!

Hey all!

Just got back from FenCon X, the world's foremost furry convention. Depressingly, most of the yiffing seems to have been replaced by the equally ghastly-named filking, as well as science fiction and fantasy discussion. Sad, but I managed to have fun anyway.

Quick shout-out to some of the people who made the weekend great:

- Barbara Wright (), author of the fantastic Pyramid Waltz series, my chauffeur and traveling companion. Her worldbuilding tips captivated the Red Oak Room while her constant references to stabbing frightened a significant portion of it. Go forth and check out her work!

- Erin Kennemeyer (), my second caravan comrade and obsessive-to-the-point-of-annoyance filk fanatic. She also served as Barbara's unofficial publicist, and managed to get a request for one of her own unpublished stories apropos nothing other than being her normal awesome self.

- Jim Reader, hometown friend and longtime convention attendee who threw a bangin' room party Friday night and brought all the boys (and girls) to the bar on Saturday. Had us cracking up as usual, and surprisingly, I didn't find his caramel-tasting Jack Daniels Honey to be too unappealing, which is high praise for a teetotaler like me.

- Rosemary Clement-Moore (), an unbelievably charming author and apparent purveyor of dinosaur porn who hit it out of the park in her panels with her wit and improv skills. You better believe I grabbed a book from her, straight out of the trunk all classy-like. You can buy her stuff from Amazon, which is possibly more convenient but not near as awesome.

Michele Bardsley (), hilarious and prolific author of the Broken Heart and Nevermore series...es (serii? Aggregate nouns are awful). Barbara, Erin and I showed up a half-hour early for a panel about death to find Michele preparing, and far from being dour, we proceeded to laugh ourselves to death talking about ball-jointed dolls and convention grudges. And that was before Amber Benson and Rhonda Eudaly joined the conversation ... you know, actual panelists, instead of we three comedy saboteurs. It was both the least educational and most enjoyable panel of the entire weekend.

- MaryJanice Davidson, who prevented me from getting a book deal by throwing Patrick Nielsen Hayden over a balcony just as he was about to make an offer.

Of course, I had many fleeting interactions with other authors and fans, including the little brother himself, Mr. Cory Doctorow. I'll have a more in-depth writeup coming soon (likely in two parts), but I wanted to throw out a quick mini-recap before I crash and wake up tomorrow confused why I'm surrounded by my own things (video game hardware from the 1990s and collectible porcelain otters, natch) instead of by a half-eaten midnight poboy and a room service menu.