Readercon, My Favorite Speculative Convention
by Bracken MacLeod
This past weekend in Burlington, Massachusetts I attended Readercon, a conference as they describe it, devoted to “imaginative literature” — literary science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the unclassifiable works often called “slipstream.”
This is one of my favorite speculative cons as it is devoted (like my other favorites, Necon and Anthocon) to literature–no cosplay, no gaming, and almost no media (there’s plenty of talk about movies in panels because movies can inform prose story-telling, but no movie panels). Although the conference is usually weighted a little more toward Sci-Fi and Fantasy than horror and slipstream, there are excellent horror writers in attendance like Gemma Files, Laird Barron, Nick Mamatas, to name only a few, and the guests of honor this year were dark fiction legends, Peter Straub and Caitlin Kiernan. Sadly, I will have to defer to other NEHW contributors for a recap of Mr. Straub’s contributions to the con as his panels and readings were concurrent with other panels I attended.1 Instead, let me give you a short recap of what were the high points from the panels I attended.
The dystopian fiction panel led by NEHW member Jack Haringa, “Through a Glass Dystopianly,” was an excellent deconstruction of the recent trend in YA literature to make everything The Hunger Games. I’m not being fair. There’s a lot of good YA (and adult) dystopian fiction out there. But there’s a lot of drek too. As a genre, Leah Bobet seemed to nail the intention of YA dys fic with her deliberate oversimplification of it as the literature of mom and dad (i.e., the repressive government) won’t let me have the car or stay out late, so I’m going to escape to the forest and drink and have sex as much as I want! Or if you prefer that idea to be unpacked, the idea being, that dys fic is a reasonably fertile ground for young readers to identify their own struggles with autonomy and authority by imagining themselves as potent agents struggling under the dystopian regime. When pressed on the issue of dystopia versus utopia versus post-apocalyptic setting, Haringa threw out my third favorite bon mot of the conference: “All science fiction is optimistic because it all assumes we have a future.”
Next on the list of favorites was the panel titled “Wet Dreams and Nightmares” about weird and transgressive erotica. This panel stayed blissfully distant from paranormal romance and actually addressed real erotica and transgressive sex in a mature and unflinching way. Would you expect anything different from a panel featuring Caitlin R. Kiernan? The give and take between Gemma Files and Kiernan regarding their distinct approaches to erotic body transformations and what they individually find sexy made this panel pure gold.
The panel on horror and the social compact (another one featuring Dear Leader Haringa) presented some interesting viewpoints on the scope of horror versus science fiction, wherein it was posited that it is actually very difficult to discuss horror in the context of a Hobbesian social contract. With a few exceptions (e.g., Soylent Green—which I’d say is both sci-fi and horror), most horror is about violation of trust and/or autonomy on a personal scale as opposed to a societal one.
This panel shared an interesting deconstructive quality with one on Sunday titled “Uncanny Taxonomies,” where the conclusion was also reached that taxonomies of speculative fiction (i.e., genres) weren’t all that helpful for anyone other than book marketers and possibly consumers. It was during this panel that Kiernan gave my second favorite line of the convention: “All [novels], by definition, are fantasy; they did not happen.”2
My second favorite session of the weekend was Dr. Laura Knight’s slideshow titled “Autopsy and Postmortem Primer for Writers,” which gave the audience a basic rundown of the process of a typical autopsy and human decomposition. The con organizers grossly underestimated the appeal of a dead body slideshow to fantasy and sci-fi (and a few horror) fans and about a quarter of the attendees to the session were left sitting on the floor or standing when all the seats filled up. One poor woman who was standing in the back of the hot room (possibly with her knees locked) fainted when Dr. Knight put up the slide of decompositional bloat and a little body degloving (I am sure the heat and having to stand were also contributing factors). Sadly, that attendee missed the next slide of the two people whose little yappy dogs had partially eaten their faces. (Cat lovers take note: Dr. Knight commented that in over 2,000 autopsies, she had yet to see a feline case of filiaphagia–but those nasty little dogs… they’ll turn on you in a minute.)
Finally, at the top of my list of favorite events at Readercon (unrelated to standing in a blacked out hotel bathroom staring at disintegrating atoms in a spinthariscope—look it up—and drunken yoga in the hotel lobby) was “A Story from Scratch.”
The basic conceit of the session (in several parts over three days) was that using models from the audience and props provided by celebrity guests, Hugo-winning writers Michael Swanwick and Elizabeth Bear will crowd source a story outline and write a short story to be professionally brought to life by photographer Kyle Cassidy and illustrator Lee Moyer. On Sunday, the story would be read aloud by Swanwick and Bear accompanied by a slide show of the work that Cassidy and Moyer produced. Bear provided a very condensed version of her course on effective fiction writing and the small crowd of participants began throwing out ideas for the story. What eventually took shape was the sad tale of a Chinese restaurant owner whose wife has been taken hostage by the Yakuza (I know), and must find the ransom before her wife (it is Massachusetts after all) loses all of her fingers and her entire memory (somehow stolen with each successive finger chop).
When the call was made for volunteers to be photographed by the amazing Mr. Cassidy, of course I volunteered. Given my cuddly and welcoming appearance, I was immediately cast as one of the Yakuza gangsters. The short version of the rest of the story is that, as one could predict, this became another instance of “and then Bracken took his shirt off” at a con. Fortunately, this bout of semi-nudity led to Cassidy and Moyer making me look like the coolest fucking American Yakuza since Viggo Mortensen and Bear and Swanwick crafting a Philip K. Dick style story containing my single favorite line of the entire Con: “Tom and Bracken were evil men, but not brutal.” (As soon as the story, titled “Dismemberance,” and photos are posted online I’ll be sure to link to them.)
The bottom line is, if you have a broad taste in genre literature, you could do a lot worse than attend a Readercon, but you’re going to be hard pressed to do better.
1 I know. I know. Revoke my horror fan card if you must.
2 Other excellent lines came from Michael Swanwick: “Wincing equals good fiction,” and Elizabeth Bear, “The worst reaction a reader can have to your story is ‘Fuck you!’”