Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Two Panels Diverged

While shouldering my way through a particularly grinding commute this week, I found myself with the time to listen to a pair of mp3’s that had been sitting on my phone.  The first was a recording of the 2016 Worldcon panel on “State of Short Fiction" that saw its moderator, Dave Truesdale, ejected from that convention in particular, from Worldcon in general, and from all of polite society.  The second was the much less well known Appendix N seminar held at GenCon 2016, which was sponsored by the crew over at Goodman Games. Listening to the two back to back provided a clear example of the stark contrast between the tiredness and tedium of the leaders of the dinosaur publishing outfits and the passion and creativity of the new school guys working out on the fringes of the genre.

Brief aside:  If your attack or defense of Truesdale includes the notion that he shouldn’t have recorded the panel, you’re an idiot, and I’ll reject the remainder of your analysis out of hand.  A panel discussion is a public event in which the participants have no expectation of privacy.  You are also signaling that the views expressed by ‘your side’ don’t stand up to the light of scrutiny, and if you don’t have enough faith in your views to allow that, then why would anyone else adopt them?
That said, this isn’t a post about the merits of Truesdale’s ouster.  Admittedly, that was my own initial impetus for listening to the WroldCon Panel; I originally listened to the first to try and get a handle on what sort of nonsense goes on at your typical Worldcon.  I’ve never been to Worldcon, being 100 pounds under the apparent weight limit for entry, and wanted to hear firsthand what went down, what so triggered the SJWs, and what the ‘industry insiders’ sound like when they discuss a matter such as the “state of short fiction”.  What I heard was a cantankerous old cur fighting to steer the conversation towards the political culture built by the major publishers of short fiction on one side, and four boring midwits who clearly aren’t nearly as intelligent as they sound in their heads. 

The question of Truesdale’s ouster quickly became secondary to the far more interesting question of how such boring people came to be tasked with writing, editing, and producing for a market that one would think was supposed to provide non-boring materials.  Sci-fi and fantasy should be the realm of rockets and rayguns and wizards throwing lightning bolts.  It should feature big creatures and big explosions and big science.  Even when it tells stories about ideas rather than dragons or rayguns, those ideas should be big ideas with world shaking consequences.
The only idea expressed by the WorldCon panelists was “diversity”.  They have it.  They have more of it.  Anyone who thinks they don’t have it is wrong.  And if they don’t have what you want that’s because what you want is bad and doesn’t fit within the narrow bands of acceptable diversity.  Every attempt to steer the conversation was an attempt to drive it towards a group wide back patting over everyone’s successes in promoting ‘the right people’ and keeping ‘the wrong people’ out. 

There was no discussion about big new ideas. No one mentioned of exciting new voices.  No one talked about interesting new developments in short fiction (hello, Cirsova!).  No one mentioned a story by name, even as an example.  No one mentioned exciting new characters or writers.  It was all vague and airy and completely tepid.  Even with Truesdale’s chain yanking, it may have been the most boring panel discussion that I’ve ever heard.  That’s really saying something coming from a man who once spent three years working as a hotel bartender, which meant standing in the back of countless panels listening to everything from insurance salesmen talking about actuarials to the state of the breakfast cereal industry to Democratic fund raising efforts – and not nationally relevant or salacious efforts, either, but the petty, local, small change efforts to squeeze nickels out of school teachers and easily conned elderly people.
What struck me most about the panel was utterly banal and pedestrian the whole thing was.  It sounded like a bunch of tired parents bickering about whether or not the next bake sale should be traditional or only include healthy organic choices.  You wouldn’t expect that from a panel featuring the leading lights of the most exciting genre of fiction in the world, but here we are.

Listening to the second panel, hosted Goodman Games, purveyor of fine role-playing adventures for various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, was one heck of a palette cleanser.  Here you listened to four guys excited about sci-fi and fantasy, discussion big ideas, concrete events and characters, and how the writers of yesterday continued to influence the writers of today.  The panel was wide ranging; it discussed literature spanning more than sixty years, and drifted off into related topics like artwork and publishing.  The panel was engaging; it featured laughter and disagreements.  The panel was informative; even an old hand at Appendix N literature could come away with some new fragment of information they hadn’t seen before.  (Personally, there were a few things about Frank Frazetta’s career arc that I hadn’t heard before.) The panel was everything you would expect from a group of people excited to work in an exciting genre like sci-fi and/or fantasy.

Listening to these two panels back to back was enlightening just because of the contrast it provided between the two camps.  It showed beyond any shadow of a doubt what the ultimate effects of Convergence are on a company, and industry, and a culture.  One the one hand you have grizzled and bland old dinosaurs desperate to hang onto positions of influence, and to use that influence for political purposes.  On the other hand you have energetic and excited idea-men who just love fantasy and sci-fi, and who just want to learn from the old masters and take their ideas in brave new directions.
That’s the choice before fans of sci-fi/fantasy today.  The well trod and potentially lucrative road of the dinosaurs, or the less travelled road of the fun loving idea men.

As for me, I'll be following Robert Frost down the road less travelled.

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