Kim Stanley Robinson’s look of distaste could not be traced to cider and jet lag alone. It was my idiocy putting him under visible strain. “You’re telling yourself a science fiction story!” he bleated. “You’re living in a fantasy world!”
It was an overcast Saturday afternoon, the sixteenth of August at five o’clock in the middle of nowhere—nominally London’s East End—and our epic bad first date coincided with the third day of the seventy-second World Science Fiction Convention. I had suggested that given the certainty of global warming, humankind might want to focus on viable adaptations. Vacating the shoreline, maintaining wild rivers as corridors. Nature conservation, that sort of thing.
“This is an extinction event,” Robinson said darkly. “The twilight of the gods.” Our rejection of fossil fuels must be “frantic,” he added, or it will be too late. Prairies will turn to dust, oceans will die, large animals will vanish. Humanity will see its numbers dwindle to something sustainable, a number he feels may be rather small.
We perched, our posture disastrous, on low armchairs near the restroom of the Aloft Hotel lobby bar. Unstoppable, I pressed my case to the bored and weary prophet of sustainability, author of the respected Mars trilogy, which asks what economic model, if any, might fill and subdue the diminutive Red Planet without leaving it as FUBAR as Earth. His fans circled, waiting to hobnob.
Since its inception in New York in 1939 (attendance 200), Worldcon has wandered. All-volunteer collectives bid for the right to host it, funding each con by enrolling members in an otherwise nonexistent World Science Fiction Society (dues start around $50 and rise as the convention nears). This year’s Worldcon—held in conjunction with Loncon 3—drew a record 10,000 advance memberships, 4,000 of them from the US. In the end more than 7,000 “warm bodies” thronged five days of discussions, lectures, receptions, demonstrations, concerts, parties, kaffeeklatsches, Literary Beers—twenty-nine “tracks” all told, with sometimes twenty events running simultaneously.
Gatherings this large cannot occupy cozy surroundings, and “ExCeL” (the Exhibition Centre London), a building long enough to have two stops on the Docklands Light Railway, combined the charm of a hub airport with the vastness of interstellar space. Attendees streamed ceaselessly up and down its escalators, stood in line for coffees costing three pounds twenty, or crowded the indoor shade tent where Finnish fans dispensed complimentary akvavit as part of their bid for Worldcon 2017.
Well over a hundred thousand fans descend each year on Comic-Con in San Diego, where models in candy-colored latex tout movies and games for deep-pocketed exhibitors including Disney and Nintendo. Science fiction conventions, in contrast, are staffed and run by fans. Crafts and informational displays dominate the exhibit spaces, and merchandise leans heavily toward concert-like souvenirs. (LONCON CALLING T-shirts sold out on day one.) People come to see the writers and artists they admire. The action is invisible. Tucked between book covers, secure inside strangers’ heads. There’s not a lot to look at.
Which is not to say there’s nothing to look at. Wandering through the art show (monsters, psychedelia, sexy updates of Joan of Arc), I saw an African villager in a loincloth raise his knife to ambush a white raver in a purple skirt, sequined vest, and green ringed tights; her bulbous black sword appeared the more powerful weapon, but she was oblivious to the threat. Both were being hastily sketched from life by a master class. I saw a game of quidditch—the infantile approximation of polo popularized by Harry Potter—where the self-propelled ball whose capture can end the game was played by a ponytailed gymnast, and university students wrestled her one-handed, hampered in all their movements by sawed-off canes clenched between their thighs. I saw many sage-green bustiers, brass goggles, and SMOFCON T-shirts. (SMOF: Secret Masters of Fandom.)
The main attraction at Worldcon was Connie Willis, a seventyish Coloradan. Her gloomy time-travel thriller Blackout/All Clear (history grad students do fieldwork in WWII—it can’t end well) swept the 2011 awards season, and she has a reputation for being acutely funny live. Long lines outside conference rooms were generally traceable to her, including the longest line of all, in which hundreds of people waited for hours to see Willis talk to George R. R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones. Martin never misses a Worldcon. You can meet him next year in Spokane.
I didn’t meet Martin. I was briefed for my mission by my elder brother, David, who never mentioned him. David repeatedly insisted that the man I needed to interview—the nicest, most knowledgeable expert in all fandom—was Prof. Gary K. Wolfe of Roosevelt University in Chicago, reviewer for Locus magazine. (Not to be confused with Gary K. Wolf, originator of Roger Rabbit.) But David made Wolfe sound so decent and unassuming that I hesitated to bother him at such a busy time. I imagined him having serious casual conversations with other experts and meeting dozens of old friends. Instead I thought back to the press conference on opening day and booked an interview with guest of honor John Clute. (Not to be confused with John Klute as played by Donald Sutherland.)
Clute has occupied the same apartment in Camden Town since 1969, excepting glamorous interludes such as seasons on the isle of Hydra. His readable and enlightening criticism, which encouraged characterization and other concessions to English majors, helped give rise to science fiction’s New Wave. In 1982 he cofounded the British science-fiction fanzine Interzone, and he went on to write a well-received novel, approximately half of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, insightful lexicons of useful terminology for talking about literature and even life itself (Swedenborgian “vastation” is my favorite so far), and many other things.
We met at 11:30 AM on black sofas in a dedicated room in the Loncon 3 press office. Clute was lanky in a suit and tennis shoes, handsome, 74. We had trouble finding things to disagree about. He told me that ecosystems will not survive our putting price tags on them. His favorite cuss word was “fungible.” We shared a happy smile as I compared his stance to that of Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques. He even nodded when I remarked that his fellow guest of honor, Jeanne Gomoll—writer, graphic designer, and founder of longstanding feminist institutions WisCon and the Tiptree Award—had dismissed cyberpunk as nothing more than a “male backlash.”
Feminist science fiction in the 1970s was ambitious. It sought to remake society, and what with Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed in use as a primer of anarchism, there is agreement now that much of it was extremely good. The Empire struck back with “virtual reality,” in which identity and the body diverge. As a revolution, virtual reality has a long way to go. Change your name to Daenerys Targaryen and numerous governments will roll their eyes and cooperate; try declaring yourself an heiress, or even a citizen, and facts intervene. Good cyberpunk, like Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson), recognizes that online existence cannot be a utopia. But lately there has been an awful lot of mogul-led, lavishly financed boosterism about virtual worlds. Clute closed his remarks to me by declaring himself “radically disappointed” by youth who “think they own the Matrix,” living in self-imposed paralysis “under the hypnotic Medusa gaze of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
Before we parted, he slipped me a copy of his book Pardon This Intrusion (2011) and a printed invitation to a party that night at 6 PM—a book launch for his new collection Stay.
I began to understand his line about Medusa later that day at a panel on “Being a Fan of Problematic Things.” It was tagged as part of the “Transformative Fandom” track. The topic under discussion was Game of Thrones.
I had thought “Transformative Fandom” might aspire to transform society, but actually it transforms TV. It does it by writing fan fiction, recasting the worlds of which the writers are fans as tolerant and inclusive. The milieu advocates strict content labeling so that readers can make informed choices and be protected from post-traumatic stress. An example of why such labeling might be necessary arose almost immediately. Without warning, an elderly Englishwoman in the audience used the N-word in a not necessarily hip question about bowdlerization involving Huckleberry Finn. A burly panelist began to quiver, recalling instances in childhood when he was teased about his skin color. “I am getting so triggered right now!” he said, rising almost to his feet, white-knuckled. Until then I always imagined “triggered” people rolling up in the fetal position and weeping, but he seemed closer to going postal. How do sensitive people justify binge-watching atrocities? Might it not be more fruitful to regard Game of Thrones fandom as an addiction?
A panelist whose dainty antlers neatly framed her pointy ears admitted she is triggered by verbal mentions of rape. She said that each episode keeps her online for hours, working through the trauma of having watched it. She concluded with a grateful tribute: “Without my community, I couldn’t consume media at all!”
O tempora, o mores, I said to myself. In one room, old folks discussing how society might function if rulers were programmed to be wise (Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels); in the next, young people defiantly setting the conditions under which they will watch TV.
In Pardon This Intrusion, Clute writes that “fantasy treats the present world as a mistake . . . which must be refused through the creation of counterworlds and secret gardens,” while science fiction “treats the changing world as something which may be made to work.” Science fiction, Clute feels, arose with the French revolution, reached its peak with the cold war, and may have passed from relevance on September 11.
Now to find examples that aren’t genre fiction (circular) or TV (patronizing): In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, environmentalist Walter Berglund initially attempts a science-fiction-style solution to his bird problem, terraforming West Virginia as Kim Stanley Robinson did the red planet in his Mars trilogy. (“Mars would be a great place to backpack,” Stan told me.) But Walter’s red state does not aspire to sustain life, and he retreats into fantasy, establishing an isolated refuge as sadly vulnerable to climate change as the Shire was to the Eye of Sauron. In a world we can’t afford to quit, science fiction is unionizing, and fantasy is having wine with lunch. Science fiction is joining the debate team, and fantasy is finding your tribe.
In theory, they’re two genres of fiction. At Worldcon, they seemed more like two hostile camps with a generation gap in between. On one side young people enjoying mass culture, working to expand its reach by chipping out niches in its facade, their motto “First, do no harm”; on the other, older people clinging wide-eyed to the mast of a planet they see as disintegrating, no longer one world, a Spaceship Earth perversely intent on exchanging its ideal fantasy landscapes and idealistic science fiction institutions for devastation and mechanized horrors (drones, the WTO). Even Clute’s normative style of definition—oriented toward the future, designed to influence the thought and creative work of others by prescribing or suggesting that science fiction do this while fantasy does that—is old school in a world where bookstores use virtual tags. To shelve a book, you have to decide, but you can tag it as many different ways as you want.
At 6 PM I met Clute again at his book launch, in a room devoid of furniture on a corridor so long it seemed an illusion produced with mirrors. There were two flavors of wine, a strict one-hour time limit, and among the assembled crowd, none other than Gary K. Wolfe!
Wolfe was every bit as nice as my brother said he would be. He defended The New Yorker’s June 2012 Science Fiction Issue. Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem: these fiction contributors were not the usual suspects slumming, but in fact legitimate genre artists in their own right. That vanishingly short essay by trending genre master and covert humanities geek China Miéville? (His Embassytown strands sophists on a pre-Socratic planet; The City and the City overlays parallel universes through shifts in focus, like your New York and your dog’s.) Yes, if Wolfe had commissioned it, it might have been longer, or fiction. His secret wish: that readers might better appreciate Gene Wolfe (no relation), perhaps with a Nobel Prize, in particular for his 1975 novel Peace.
The party ended suddenly, with an announcement that we were not drinking enough. At 7 PM it was time to find seats for the Masquerade, the costume pageant each con sponsors on its day of peak attendance.
First, the junior entries. Two young sisters appeared as characters in the story collection Velveteen vs. The Multiverse. (Playboy-bunny-inspired superhero Velveteen is the creation of rising star Seanan McGuire, 36, who also publishes zombie novels as Mira Grant.) In the girls’ skit, Velveteen’s steampunk-inspired roommate Victory Anna pursues her lesbian passion for go-go-booted Sparkle Bright through time and space. But an unexpected twist thwarts her love: time travel has rendered Sparkle Bright underage. The End.
The entry that preceded it had been innocent in a more conventional way. A solemn little girl had sewn and embroidered an ice-blue gown from the Disney movie Frozen. After her award for “Best Workmanship,” she was called back to receive an impromptu award for “Most Beautiful.” And she was.
The adult competition that followed, with around thirty entrants, veered wildly between the amusing, the stunning, and the hauntingly embarrassing, as is usual at Masquerades. Some highlights: Over panniers that lent her the shape of a terra cotta vessel, one woman wore a huge appliquéd dress and cape depicting events from Homer’s Odyssey. Another presented a 1950s-style party dress modeled after a Dalek (wheeled alien with fenders who fights Dr. Who) with matching heavily armed chapeau. A slender figure trudged in from the wings wearing blue workmen’s coveralls and a rubber octopus mask. “The Ood Girl,” her entry was called.
“This one will be sexy,” the novelist Avner Shats whispered to me. He had come all the way from Israel—“a country based on a science fiction novel,” as he likes to point out (Herzl’s Old New Land)—in support of his daughter’s Dr. Who fandom. Hila was sitting next to him, but failed to tip us off that Ood are a Dr. Who thing. All we saw was an unhappy Cthulhu, pawing its facial tentacles in seeming agony, then dropping its coveralls to reveal a young woman in hot pants inexplicably overjoyed at her possession of a six-inch pink plastic sphere. (Subsequent research revealed that it was her external cerebellum—in Ood, the seat of the will.)
None of them had a chance, because the competition in every category was crushed by the night’s final entry, “Aratalindale.” Eight friends of Maggie and Mike Percival, seamstress and electrician respectively, wore robes and headgear identifying them as gods from Tolkien’s Silmarillion. When the lights went out, the outfits commenced to shimmer. Arms wide, the eight contestants formed circles and paraded slowly to otherworldly sounds. Their dignity moved the judges. You could see they wanted to give another unscheduled award for “Most Beautiful.” Most buttoned-up, most unspoiled, most ethereal.
The next night, the Hugo Award for the year’s best novel—selected online by all paying members of the con—went to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, in which a sexless consciousness grapples dangerously with gender pronouns.