This warm and friendly con began for me with a casual interview featuring Media Guest of Honor Sean Maher, “Simon Tam” in Joss Whedon’s TV and film series, Firefly/Serenity. Filmmaker Jaysen Buterin, with Mad Ones Films of Greensboro, NC, provided the kinds of questions that old friends might ask one another over a couple of beers. Maher answered with candor and humor. Very enjoyable hour.
After that interview, the weekend was a delightful round of panels. I appeared on six and attended several others, all on interesting topics. I’m describing here a selection of my personal favorites, ether for general interest or applicability to my novel in progress.
Fantasy World Building, Panelists: R.S. Belcher, Michael A. Ventrella, Liz Long, Steven S. Long, and Gail Z. Martin Photo credit to Judy Ross
Fantasy World Building
• Don’t give too much detail, avoid huge info dumps.
• Get the cultural flavor without too much specificity.
• Decide which parts of the world you will change and which will remain “real world,” and be sure to get the real parts right..
• Determine fixed points in time (keep them the same in the fantasy world as in the real world) and change other details around them. This allows suspension of disbelief .
• Make these things believable: government, foods, dress, inside jokes, slang, geography, climate, religion, architecture, etc.
• Maps help in getting the detail right in blocking the action.
• Sources for inspiration and details: Google Earth Street Level, historical markers, museum plaques, cemeteries, etc.
• Bad guys are real people too, with real emotions and motivations. A realistic bad guy makes the conflict that much more compelling.\
Elementals and Other Things that Go Bump in the Night
Panelists: Tally Johnson (M), Jeff Santos, Leona Wisoker, and Paula S. Jordan (me!)
The discussion frequently centered around the differences between two very dissimilar classes of supernatural beings that bear the same name. The classical elementals, associated with the four basic elements of the medieval world, are: gnomes – associated with earth, undines – water, sylphs – wind, and salamanders – fire. The malevolent elementals of horror and the gothic are the primal forces, demons, certain ghosts, and others, exemplified by the loathsome elemental of Leap Castle in Ireland.
Exposition in SF and Fantasy
The panelists concluded that, though SF and Fantasy require a lot of exposition, it can and should be handled subtly, avoiding data dumps by paring down the description to the minimum necessary for full reader enjoyment. Recommended techniques included:
• Divide the necessary exposition into small bites and provide each at the moment in the story when it is needed. Or hold it till later if you want to maintain a bit of mystery,
• Put your characters to work, have them discover it or work it out for themselves.
• Make brief exposition bites part of the action in action scenes.
• Drop in a little as part of the tag in dialogue.
• Less is definitely more!
“What If” Moments in History
Panelists: Tally Johnson (M), James Beall, Jarod Kearney, and Paula S. Jordan
What might have happened if certain pivotal events in history had gone another way?
Tally Johnson considered the affects on US history if the staunch segregationist James F Byrnes had been named vice president for FDR’s third term, as he very nearly was, and had succeeded him as president instead of less-segregationist Harry S Truman.
James Beall described the Battle of Dogger Bank, a North Sea battle of WWI. It was likely the German loss to the British in that battle that led them shortly afterward to a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Had the Germans won at Dogger Bank and so not been led to escalate submarine warfare, the US might never have entered WWI.
Jarod Kearney wondered how different our history might have been if George Washington had given in to some followers who urged him to a form of government more like the familiar European monarchies than the less-well-known classical republics.
I discussed how much brilliant learning by ancient scientists such as Archimedes, Euclid, and Hipparchus was lost in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and how advanced our science might be today had we not needed to spend some 1800 years rediscovering it – if indeed we’ve gotten it all back even today.
Aliens in Science Fiction
Panelists: Tedd Roberts(m), Michael Solontoi, Pamela K. Kinney, Steven S. Long, Paula S. Jordan
What makes us think we’d recognize alien intelligence? Is it true that science fiction about aliens can only be “literature” when its aliens are metaphors for humanity?
Moderator Tedd Roberts’ questions kept the whole panel with thinking caps firmly in place, each answering from his or her personal area of expertise. Novel approaches to identification of alien intelligence ranged from current experiments evaluating the exotic capabilities of Cephalopods to consideration of the differences in capabilities and behavior that could arise in sentient species from differing evolutionary environments and cultural histories.
As to the question of science fiction vs “literature,” the following opinion emerged: if an alien character is imagined based on solid scientific principles, from the design of its native planet to the development of a set of physical, psychological, intellectual, and behavioral characteristics that could reasonably evolve in response to the physical demands and cultural history of that planet, then that is clearly a science fictional character. Its story may or may not achieve the status of “literature,” but it need not have anything to do with metaphor.
Women in Space Panelists: Michael Solontoi, Paula S. Jordan, and Kim Headlee Photo credit to Judy Ross
Women in Space
This 9:00 AM Sunday panel drew two audience members initially, a situation which we three panelists addressed by circling the chairs and calling it discussion, with no moderator required. Three or four more arrived, yawning, in the course of the hour, and all joined in the conversation as they saw fit.
The kickoff topic was the one advertised, NASA’s female astronaut program, which we all interpreted to mean the first, little known one, The Mercury 13. In 1960 and 61, Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, who had conducted health and fitness testing of the (male) Mercury 7 astronauts, initiated an identical but secret, privately funded testing program for woman. Of the unknown number of women who applied, thirteen passed the complete physical testing program with flying colors, equaling the men’s scores in all the health and fitness requirements and exceeding them in several. So why have you never heard of them? Because they were never allowed to fly. The reason? NASA had set a reasonable regulation that all astronauts should have experience as test pilots. What was unreasonable – or would be to us today, in the age of highly trained and experienced female test and military pilots – was that at that time women were not allowed to be test pilots.
After this discussion, the conversation moved on to the excellent women astronauts that you have heard of.
In additional to panels, I attended readings by Gail Z. Martin, Jeanine Spendlove, and Leona Wisoker, and a reading and singing by Gray Rinehart. I thoroughly enjoyed them all and look forward to getting my hands on the books.