Arisia schedule (Panels saturday night + filking)

arisia-icon-2017.pngThis weekend is my favorite sf con, the always awesome Arisia in Boston. It's got something for everyone — sf, fantasy, print, film, anime, cosplay, music, the whole waterfront. By coincidence, it's at the Westin Waterfront, right next to the convention center. It's a full weekend of delightful geekery with all of the region's fandoms. I wouldn't miss it for anything.

I'm on a couple of panels (I'll also likely be hanging out in the filk room late into the night.) If you're gonna be there, hope to catch up!

Saturday, 7pm
Another Look at the Bad Old Days
Hale (3W), 7pm - 8:15pm
Jonathan Woodward (moderator), James Hailer, Heather Urbanski, Sarah Lynn Weintraub, John G. McDaid
A lot of SF has aged very badly. A lot of it bore appalling elements even for its time. There's some usual suspects, but let's look at the older works of SF with awful elements as a whole. Is there anything worth looking for in those stories? Who deserves to make problematic fave among the problematic horde? Are there lessons that are relevant to modern readers and authors to be found among the stories that make us wince?

Saturday, 8:30pm
The Prisoner at 50: Be Seeing You
Douglas (3W), 8:30pm - 9:45pm
Mark L Amidon (moderator), John G. McDaid, Michael A. Burstein, Justine Graykin, Jared Walske
Fifty years ago, *The Prisoner* helped redefine the spy genre and bring various counterculture themes of the '60s to the forefront in a groundbreaking science-fiction show. Attempts at reboots -- an '80s comic and a 2010 AMC series -- have failed to capture any of the magic of the original. What keeps this classic show so popular after so many years, and where (beyond obvious tributes like The Simpsons) can we see its influence in pop culture today?

02871, localbllogging, sf, Arisia

"New York Collapse" brings artifactual richness to "The Division"


If you've been playing "The Division" since it dropped a week ago, you're probably familiar with the challenging environment of a New York City decimated by an engineered virus, quarantined from the outside world, and degenerated to lawlessness. The companion book, called "New York Collapse," offers a rich artifactual journey through the city's descent into chaos and provides tantalizing hints and lore that will enrich your gaming experience.

Written by science fiction author Alex Irvine and produced by Melcher Media, the conceit of the book is that it's an (in-universe) survival guide.

The text is ostensibly written by a quasi-spook named Warren Merchant who seems to know far too much about the particular challenges that an engineered virus — and its paper money vector — would bring to New York. On this level, the text functions as robust, 170-page guide to surviving an urban apocalypse through preparation (what to keep in your "Go Bag"), analyzing risks ("Avoid high-rises"), finding or improvising essentials (did you know you can make a solar water purifying still with a couple of plastic containers and some tubing), and urban tactics (how and where to cache materials you may need later.)

On this level, it's pretty compelling — nothing new if you're a pepper, but some good pointers, with a focus on Manhattan Island. (Near Spuyten Duyvil would be the best place to try a raft, but it's almost certain to be guarded, Merchant warns.)

But where the book really shines is in the annotations, which recount the last month since the spread of the pandemic "Dollar Bug" from the point of view of one April Kelleher. Her late husband, Bill, was a biotech researcher killed early in the pandemic under mysterious circumstances. April is trapped on Manhattan Island by the quarantine, and is forced to learn to survive, using Merchant's book. She scribbles in the margins in different colors of ink, as she finds and loses writing implements, which gives the text a recursive, palimpsestic feel (and also serves to provide chronological pegs for her observations).

And it's a pretty grim story, from the death of her husband, her struggles to find safe places to stay, her efforts to avoid the roving gangs which begin to crop up as civilization decays (the Cleaners, Rikers, and LMB you'll be familiar with from the game), and her quest to piece together an emerging mystery: Who is Warren Merchant, really? How did he know about the Dollar Bug? And why does he seem to be planting clues in the text for April to find?

You pretty soon find yourself as hooked as April, scanning the pages for embedded puzzles and clues. Some of them are obvious (odd things in illustrations) and some are subtle (Nah, Merchant is not going to make a mistake in how much a gallon of water weighs). After a couple of hours, you'll find yourself looking for patterns in capital letters and wondering if that stray green dot on page 120 is just a printing artifact.

In addition to the faux-distressed paperback guide, the package contains an array of stuffed-in objects: a map (with creases expertly printed to simulate wear and an enigmatic clue scrawled in marker), a "missing" poster of April (with a suspect phone number), a hand-drawn "trading card" of her husband, a torn-out page of a book on WWI Dutch musicians (yes, you'll figure out why), and a plastic transit fare card with holes strategically punched in the surface. (You'll need find where to put the sticky note first to figure out how to use this decoder. And, yes, it does point to something in the game.)

I'm a sucker for artifactual fictions, and this one is extremely well done, both in the multiple textual layers, and also in the high production values of the whole package. It's a captivating read with fun puzzles and an overall experience that adds significant depth to the time you're undoubtedly spending in the game itself. Highly recommended.

Full disclosure: I attended the Clarion Workshop with Alex in 1993. I purchased this book and received nothing in exchange for this review.

02871, Localblogging, sf, books

My Arisia schedule

This weekend, Jan 15-18, the always awesome Arisia science fiction con kicks off at Boston's Westin Waterfront hotel. This four-day event features as guest of honor the inimitable John Scalzi and offers rich, diverse programming for all sf and fantasy tastes. There are multiple tracks with sessions featuring anime, comics, film and video, gaming, science, literature, media, writing and more, plus there's LARPing and filking, an always awesome masquerade, art show, and dealers' room — all with very cool fans in a most congenial space full of cosplay and whimsy.

I'll be on a couple of panels — one on interactive fiction and one on the Terminator franchise, plus I'll be one of the presenters at the Ig Nobel readings, and I'll likely be hanging out in the filk circles late into the evenings. Hope to see you there!

5:30pm Friday
40 Years of Interactive Fiction - Gaming, Panel - 1hr 15min - Alcott (3W)
Since Colossal Cave Adventure’s release in 1976, text adventures and interactive fiction have been an important part of gaming. Now with tools like Twine and Inform 7, the genre is being put into more hands and pushed in new directions. Panelists will look at the text adventures of old and tell us where interactive fiction is going.
John G. McDaid, Caelyn Sandel, Rebecca Slitt, Carolyn VanEseltine

9:30pm Friday
Improbable Research and the Ig Nobel Prizes - Trackless events, Participatory Event - 1hr 30min - Grand CD (1W)
Highlights from Ig Nobel prize-winning studies and patents, presented in dramatic mini-readings by luminaries and experts (in some field). The audience will have an opportunity to ask questions about the research presented—answers will be based on the expertise of the presenters, who may have a different expertise than the researchers.

11:30am Monday
Terminator: Is There any Hope for Salvation? - Media, Panel - 1hr 15min - Marina 4 (2E)
Terminator Genisys was not only a (domestic) box-office bomb, it was a critical failure and a mess of a movie. But the franchise doesn’t have to be terrible; we’re only a few years removed from The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which were as well received as anything since the second movie, and there’s clearly still a ton of potential here. What, if anything, can be done to save this former A-list franchise? What went so horribly wrong with the last two films?
Bob Chipman (m), John G. McDaid, Jennifer Pelland, Santiago Rivas

02871, Localblogging, sf, con

Reading tomorrow night with ARIA authors in Cranston

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.29.38 AM.pngTomorrow night, three local science fiction writers will be reading at the Elephant Room in Cranston, and I'll be one of the folks on the program. The event is part of the monthly "Lively Literati" reading series, sponsored by the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA).

The event will feature readings by Tabitha Lord, K.H. Vaughn and yours truly, and will run from 6:30-8:30pm at the Elephant room, 2170 Broad St., Cranston. Maps and contact info on the Elephant Room web site.

If you're in the neighborhood, hope you'll consider dropping on by.

02871, Localblogging, sf

Why people leave town: thoughts on the Hugo nominations

A genuinely hilarious video (although perhaps not for the reasons intended), attributed to Vox Day.

I live in a small town, and have spent the last ten years or so involved in small town politics. I've learned a few lessons, some the hard way. Science fiction is a small town, and in this year's Hugo nominations — the awards voted on by members of World Science Fiction Convention — I'm seeing unfortunate echoes of the way local politics can be gamed and hijacked by a small but determined group.

You may need some context; if so, you can take a peek at these posts by The Slate, Mary Robinette Kowal, N.K. Jemisin, File 770, and George R. R. Martin.

Back in the oughts, my town of Portsmouth became one of the first battlegrounds for the anti-tax crowd in Rhode Island; proto-Tea Partiers before there was such a thing. In 2006, the local "Concerned Citizens" group managed to use a procedural technique — a referendum on the local budget colloquially referred to as a "tent meeting" — to slash the budget for Portsmouth's schools and town in what was the index year for all subsequent tax levy increases. By rallying ten percent of the town's electorate, they were able to override budgets crafted by the duly elected School Committee and Town Council.

In local politics, you learn that angry people show up to vote. And it's far easier to drum up an angry mob than to communicate nuanced positions on issues.

Folks in a small town expect local government to handle things without a lot of drama. They vote for people on the Council and School Committee without necessarily a whole lot of thought about party affiliation; it's not like national politics. You may know this gal from church, or that guy coached your kid's Little League team. There's a general sense that the people running for office all have the town's best interests at heart — I mean, they're stepping up to do a several-year stint for very little pay. That assumption of good will works to an attacker's advantage.

Local elections can be swung by a few hundred votes. If you can get a core group of even 50 people riled up about an issue — in local politics, taxes are always handy (as are sewers and arsenic) and each of them reaches out to their network, you've got enough votes to change the leadership of a Council or School Committee. Not that those people, once elected, will necessarily show a lot of interest in post-partisan governance (or even, in some cases, serving out their term). They are more interested in advancing an agenda, and they will take hold of the levers of local control for a couple of years and run things into the ditch. (I say this, admittedly, as a one-time candidate for school committee who got my ass handed to me by a couple of the darlings of the anti-tax faction, so, obviously, I am biased.)

The parallels to science fiction fandom should hopefully be obvious. Worldcon is effectively a small town, albeit a temporary and peripatetic one, as it re-creates itself in a new host city every year. The same attacker's advantages accrue in voting for the convention's awards. The total number of ballots cast for Hugo nominations this year, 2,122, is the kind of number you see in a small town election. That's the kind of number you can swing with the torch-and-pitchfork crowd. Get a few hundred folks riled up about an issue — and it can be as illusory as arsenic in a landfill — and they wield an influence all out of proportion to their actual numbers, because the people of good will may not even be aware of their activities and the strength of the majority is diluted.

These are the kinds of things that can make people throw up their hands and figuratively leave town by abandoning local politics. Some people — even those who are well-intentioned — see a false equivalence and blame "both" sides.

It doesn't have to be that way.

The cynics (λυπημένος κυνικός) may win in the short term. They have absolutely scored a major victory, both in the composition of the Hugo nominations and the amount of ink and angst generated over their actions. But they underestimate the true power of small-town politics: regression to the mean. There are many more citizens than cynics, and their votes can not be gamed. The collective notion of the genre has been moving, inexorably, in the direction of more progressive, inclusive science fiction. Those of us who share that vision need to speak out, generate recognition among the majority of people of good will, and show up at the polls. That's how you overcome reactionary extremists. That's how you turn things around in local politics.

In case you're so inclined, you can get a supporting membership to Worldcon here and vote on the Hugos.

02871, Localblogging, sf, worldcon, hugos

Arisia this weekend in Boston! (and my panels)

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 7.44.45 AM.pngMy favorite regional science fiction convention, Arisia, kicks off today in Boston, and I'm looking forward to three days of outstanding panels, great conversation, films, cosplay, an always-amazing masquerade, and just generally kicking back with a great group of sf folks.

This year, I'm especially excited to get a chance to hear Guest of Honor N. K. Jemisin, one of sf's most brilliant new writers. In addition to her outstanding fiction, she has also been a vibrant voice for equality and diversity in the sf field (see her speeches at the 2013 Continuum and this year's Wiscon.

Oh, and I'm on a couple of panels. Looking forward to having some interesting discussions with these cool panelists.

The Medium and the Message
Hale Sun 5:30 PM 01:15
Heather Albano (mod), Thom Dunn, John G. McDaid, Sarah Smith, Alexander Feinman
A story can be told in a multitude of formats. Anything from short stories and epic poems to graphic novels and screenplays can be used to convey a narrative. How do the various formats compare? Do certain genres work well in one but not another? What about translations from one medium to another? How can you tell which works best for your story?

Does It Matter If SF Is Wrong About the Future?
Marina 2 Sun 10:00 PM 01:15
Erik Amundsen (mod), Ian Randal Strock, John G. McDaid, Walter H. Hunt, B. Diane Martin
For decades, many have believed that Science Fiction writers from Verne to Gibson were also futurists. Because of the belief that a main purpose of speculative literature is to predict the future, works are often scrutinized and criticized when they get things “wrong.” Does it matter if SF is incorrect about the future? What are writers really trying to do when they write about the upcoming years and their developments?

02871, Localblogging, sf, Arisia

Doctorow's "Information Doesn't Want to Be Free" now in audiobook

idwtbfsmall.jpgInternet activist and sf author Cory Doctorow has produced an awesome audiobook version of his latest nonfiction book, Information Doesn't Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet Age." Read by Will Wheaton, with incidental music by Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls, the audiobook is available for $15 on Doctorow's web site. In an e-mail sent to his mailing list, Doctorow explained:

Both Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman contributed forewords to this one, and Will reads them, too (of course). I could *not* be happier with how it came out. My sincere thanks to Will, the Skyboat Media people (Cassandra and Gabrielle de Cuir and Stefan Rudnicki), John Taylor Williams, and to Amanda for the music.

The book is $15, is DRM free, and has no EULA -- you don't need to give up any of your rights to buy it. It should be available in Downpour and other DRM-free outlets soon, but, of course, it won't be in iTunes or Audible, because both companies insist that you use DRM with your works, and I don't use DRM (for reasons that this book goes to some length to explain).

Audio edition:

I've got it on the speakers right now, and it's Doctorow in classic form: informative, accessible, and very smart about the issues around copyright, intellectual property, and surviving as an artist (or, really, anyone who does stuff with their computer) in the Internet age. If you're looking for something to listen to on plane rides or car trips over the upcoming holidays, this is fifteen bucks well spent.

Here are a couple of reviews of the print version:
Wall Street Journal
Boston Globe

Full disclosure: I have known Cory for years; I paid for this book and received nothing of value in exchange for this post.

02871, Localblogging, sf, Tech & culture

Book review: "Harvest Night" and the brutal banality of evil

harvest_night_cover.jpg"Harvest Night" by D. A. Madigan is an unremittingly dark, wrenchingly violent horror novel told with considerable skill and in-your-face brio and all the more chilling because, at its core, it is a story about the slow decay of the American century.

A required warning: This is not a book for anyone who finds violence, especially sexual violence, problematic. Madigan recounts with everyday simplicity the horror that follows from the premise of amoral humans who worship the Lords of the Abyss. This is not a gratuitous element, rather, it's integral to the story, but nonetheless, if you find graphic descriptions unacceptable, this is a book best skipped.

Imagine you move to a small town called Redhaven somewhere in the far Northeast, say, perhaps Maine. You expect a few odd local traditions. Like "Harvest Night," the eve of Thanksgiving, where everyone who has moved to town in the past year is invited to play "Hounds and Hares," a harmless game where evading pursuers to means you get a break on your property taxes. It's about becoming part of the community. The Mayor, the Town Council, and the Chief of Police are on board, so it's all good fun.

Anyone who has actually lived in a New England town will recognize this sort of thing instantly (Cabbage Night, anyone?). It's an example of the deeply ingrained traditions that the region passes down, generation to generation. And it's from this point that Madigan begins: what if this tradition was actually a malevolent performative reenactment of an ancient struggle between settlers who had given themselves over to the service of absolute evil and their innocent victims.

What if *everything* in the town was like this. What if beneath the wooden shingles on their saltbox houses, Redhaven is completely run by human monsters? That they are ruthlessly brutalizing and killing their fellow citizens, brainwashing their own children with torture and drugs, and offering human sacrifices to a pantheon of dark Entities. People outwardly normal, yet *purposefully* evil. As the founder of the town puts it one of the chapter epigraphs, "No matter where you are, no matter what time it is, no matter what is going on around you... if you listen closely enough, you can always hear someone, somewhere , screaming in pain. This is the world we live in -- it is a world of pain and s**t and horror and we are only alive in it for a very short time and when we die, we are gone forever. So while you live, do not be one of those whom can be heard screaming everywhere one goes. Be one of those who makes them scream."

Anyone who has moved to a New England town has probably harbored suspicions along these lines too.

Now suppose that there may be something like an immortal vampire in the mix. Not a sparkly one, no, this vampire is utterly inhuman, and its aims may not always be aligned with the other Entities. And yes, there are some "good" folks too. Some accidental (perhaps a youngster or two who have managed to avoid or survive their cultural indoctrination) and a few from outside the town who have infiltrated under deep cover as part of a so-secret-it-doesn't-exist task force on occult criminal conspiracies. To say more would be to give away much of the plot.

Madigan moves the action along a a brisk pace and judiciously deploys the supernatural, keeping the Lords of the Abyss appropriately offstage where they are always scarier. He brings the story to life by taking us inside the heads of a diverse group of POV characters (some who, frankly, you may find utterly repellent) and intercutting tales from the history of Redhaven to frame the action. The stakes Madigan sets up here are high: from the time these demon worshippers took up residence during Colonial days, they have progressively infiltrated government and society, using innumerable small acts of covert terror to bring America to a state of chaotic susceptibility.

And therein lies the harmatia of those who run Redhaven: Even the totally corrupt can be tempted, and the town elders have begun to see their own brutally brainwashed children as a profit center, without regard even for maintaining their own (admittedly twisted and evil) culture. "Redhaven has sold its generational legacy of conscious viciousness in exchange for vast sums of worldly wealth and power, and the adults who currently run this city are the last generation of the volitionally damned that these families will bring into the world."

As Stephen King famously noted, horror is really a displacement of the anxieties and terrors of everyday life. As we read the novel and spend time as inhabitants of Redhaven, we can't help but see in it a mirror of the centers that have failed to hold in American life: the tradeoffs we have willingly made to preserve our "security," the shallow meaninglessness of treasured institutions, the loss of a sense of possibility for the next generation, the hopeless fragility of human relationships, and the ultimate, existential horror:

“There is no battle of Good vs. Evil. That is mythology... no, it is not even that. It is a fairy tale, a childish bed time story that mundane minds chatter to each other. The truth is much simpler –- there is brief existence and endless darkness, and the darkness is always hungry, and in the end, the darkness eats us all.”

For those who can tolerate this level of unblinking bleakness, there is much to appreciate in "Harvest Night."

Required FTC disclosure: I went to Syracuse University with D.A. Madigan and we occasionally hung out at watched movies at the awesome UU Cinema program, but we hadn't talked in 30 years until we ran into each other on Facebook. I received nothing of value in exchange for this review.

02871, Localblogging, Review, sf

Arisia this weekend (and my schedule)

arisia2014.pngThis weekend, Boston hosts Arisia 2014, the region's "largest and most diverse science fiction and fantasy convention." If you've ever been to Arisia, you know what an awesome, something-for-everyone con they run. If not, and you're looking for something fun this weekend, hey, check it out.

If you're there, please drop by the panels I'm on and say hi.

What Does 'Games Are Literature' Mean?
Saturday, 1pm Alcott (3W)
Alan Wexelblat (moderator), James Meickle, John McDaid, Mark "Justin du Coeur" Waks, Emily Lewis
Gamers have spent years defending their genre as a "legitimate" form of "literature" without having a clear sense of what that means, or more than one or two examples. This panel will explore literature in a medium where one or more live people co-create a story - action, characters, challenges, plots, resolutions, adventures - with a game's authoring team. We will focus on titles that go beyond Joseph Campbell's monomythic "hero's journey" by offering more than one person's saga.

Wearable Electronics: Beyond Google Glass
Sunday, 4pm Alcott (3W)
John McDaid (moderator), Percival, David Larochelle, Andrew Van Zandt
Google Glass has premiered with mixed results. What other sorts of wearable computing will be seen in the next few years, and what are some potential ramifications of this technology? Forbes asks the question: what happens when FitBits are implantable? Where is the line between wearable tech and cybernetics?

Looking Forward to Last Thursday
Monday, 10am Faneuil (3W)
John Chu (moderator), Ellen Larson, John McDaid, Justine Graykin, Heather Albano
There have been myriad methods of portraying the time travel story. What specific challenges arise for the writer in portraying conflict and character development in chronologically displaced setting? Are some methods of time travel methods easier to portray and keep consistent than others? What of non-linear story narratives? Is the ending the best place to start? Can a time traveler be anything but an unreliable narrator?

Gonna be a fun time — hope to see ya there!

02871, Localblogging, sf

RIP Fred Pohl

Science fiction writer, editor, and agent Frederik Pohl passed today, at 93. (See Locus, io9, Wikipedia). He was one of the great voices whose career spanned the Golden Age to the present day, and the impact of his work as an editor, agent, and shaper of the science fiction field cannot be overstated.

I still remember the first time I read The Space Merchants, the devastating critique of advertising he and C. M. Kornbluth wrote in the early 50s. I read it twenty years later and it was frighteningly prescient then — in any world that valued speculative fiction appropriately, it would be taught alongside 1984 and Brave New World. His amazing literary output spanned the 40s to the present, with the final entry on his blog posted the morning he passed away.

Not only a writer, Pohl was an editor, agent, and anthologist who helped shape and publish some of the defining works of the field as his entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction attests.

Fred Pohl's unimaginably generous autograph on his 1996 Sturgeon remarks.

He was also a gracious, warm, generous person. When I won the Sturgeon in 1996, Pohl presented the award (there's a picture on the Midamericon site, if you scroll down a bit, and here's a PDF of his remarks). Having the opportunity to spend that weekend just hanging out with one of the greats of science fiction and talking about writing is a treasured memory.

All of the science fiction field stands on his shoulders. His family, friends, and fans are in my thoughts today.

02871, Localblogging, sf