Fourth Street panel schedule (mine)

Fourth Street Fantasy convention’s schedule is up! and on it the specific panels I’ll be participating in. In addition, I’ll be one of the workshop leaders for Friday morning, but if you’ve signed up for that, you’re already stuck with me, and if you haven’t, it’s too late. Otherwise, here’s where you can see me on panels:

Saturday 2:00 PM: You Don’t Own Me: Concepts of Freedom in the Work of John M. Ford

Pamela Dean, Marissa Lingen, Elise Matthesen (M), Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Distilling the work of the late John M. Ford down to a few key points is a mind-bending and questionably plausible endeavor, but there are some recurring themes we can at least pretend to conclusively discuss in our too-short time together. One subject that peeks out from the fog of invention over and over again is that of freedom in multiple aspects. Whether it’s freedom of identity and freedom from imperial conquest (The Dragon Waiting), freedom from erroneous stereotypes and cultural traps (The Final Reflection), freedom from colonization and from the boundaries of parental control (Growing Up Weightless), or even authorial freedom from every established constraint on the demeanor of a franchise (How Much for Just the Planet?), Ford was on the case. We miss him and it’s been awhile since we talked about him deliberately. Let’s fix that.

(Note: I think that this discussion will actually be a really good intro to Mike Ford’s work if you haven’t had one–it’s a deep dive, but on theme rather than plotting. I think everyone on it will be motivated to try to make it a conversation everyone can understand rather than going into the weeds with details that will lose you unless you’re a hard-core Mike fan.)

Saturday 5:00 PM: Talking Across Ten Thousand Years

John Appel, Elizabeth Bear, Casey Blair, Marissa Lingen (M), Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Time is big. Really, really big. You might think it’s a long anxious wait to get to the bathroom after a 4th Street panel, but what about gulfs of time longer than the recorded history of our civilization? SF/F deals frequently with the concept of Deep Time, but how astutely? Can a human society really hold a consensus cosmogeny together for a million centuries? Can a wall of ice really be manned by the same order of guards for 8,000 years? We already look at the people of just a century or two ago as something akin to aliens. This panel will also address the essential challenges of communication and interpretation across vast spans of years— for example, the U.S. Department of Energy has a mandate for the permanent warning signs and symbols in place at its deep bedrock nuclear waste storage facilities. They need to somehow work ten thousand years from now, when the assumption is that our culture, languages, histories, and data will be gone… but our hazardous atomic waste will still be dangerous. How can we talk when only our words are left, and even the words have no context?

Useful Reading: This Place Is Not a Place of Honor by Alan Bellows

outage

There are two standard cultural narratives about being unexpectedly deprived of internet, at this point in our relationship with that piece of technology. I bet you’ll recognize them both.

The first one goes: I didn’t realize how much I was missing by looking at the internet until we had an outage and then I stopped and smelled the daisies and talked to my family and my life was so much richer and I resolve to do without the internet loads of times going forward yay. The second: I didn’t realize how dependent I was on the internet until we had an outage, and then I was frustrated and agitated and could not cope and oh golly I guess I have a real problem here and I resolve to do without the internet loads of times going forward yay.

You can see why these are stories, I guess, because “I already knew this thing and lo here it is” is not much of a story. Except when it goes against the standard cultural narrative, in which case sometimes maybe it is.

We had a long internet outage yesterday morning, and it completely disrupted my morning routine. Usually I read social sites and news of various types while I’m reading my breakfast in the morning, and I use streaming video to watch something during my workout. Yesterday I checked my phone to make sure there was nothing urgent, read the newspaper with my breakfast (instead of with my lunch as usual), and watched video on DVD with my workout. In short, I coped just fine, there was no failure of cope, there was not even a moment where I wailed, “But what will I do?” But it was an annoyance, and I feel fine about that because I have considered how I use the internet in my morning routine and am happy with it. The internet is a tool, I’m happy with what I use it as a tool for, there does not need to be a ritual chanting of “fie upon you, get away foul internet.”

I have also said several times recently that I want to improve my relationship with doughnuts. Specifically, I currently eat a doughnut between zero times a year and twice, and I feel that three or even four doughnuts in the course of a year would be superior. People are making lots of fancy gourmet doughnuts these days, and I feel that trying a few more of them on rare occasions would improve my life in a tiny but measurable way. I do not have to participate in ritual decrying of doughnuts as bad for me. Of course they would be bad for me if I was eating tons of them all the time. But I think that my current doughnut count is actually slightly low. As a sometimes food, sometimes could come around more often. Not a lot. Just a little.

So…I think it’s worth noticing, when the shape of the narrative isn’t fitting. I think it’s worth noticing when the story doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. I get on the internet in the morning, I check in with my friends, I read a bit, and I’m good with that. I’m happy with my tools. I hope you can be happy with yours too.

My grandpa’s books

No one asked me to read all of my grandpa’s books. It was not assigned, not requested, and in fact I don’t remember having any kind of deliberation process for whether this was a good idea. He died on a Monday, the funeral was on Saturday, and on Sunday I packed up and went home, with a box of books in the trunk and the understanding that the rest would come to me as it was convenient, as Mom and Grandma got the house sorted. There was one box that almost went awry because it had a few decorative items that were going to another family member. We got it figured out because I asked after those books, because I knew what was on my grandpa’s shelves. I knew my grandpa’s shelves.

When I was really tiny, when I went to stay with my grandparents, they had my crib in their bedroom to give my parents relief, and to be with their only grandchild. But when I got a little older, my designated place to sleep at my grandparents’ house was on a day bed in my grandpa’s basement office. With his books and his desk and his model airplanes. I did a lot of my own reading down there, a lot of writing, a not-inconsiderable amount of daydreaming. And I looked at his books. Some of them I read. A lot of them just waited around until I was older or in a different mood. There were hundreds, and I had time.

It turns out I did have time, and now I’ve taken that time.

I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to do it all at once, because that would have changed a good way to know my grandfather better into a grim slog, and I would have resented it pretty much immediately. Instead I worked them into my regular reading–a lot at first, then fewer as time progressed. I was in no hurry to finish, but at the same time I did want to finish. I didn’t want this to be a permanent intention and never a reality.

The first of Grandpa’s books I read after his death was David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents. He had actively recommended it to me before he died; it was a gift I bought him that he thought I’d like too, and I did. Pietrusza has a very engaging style, and I wish he’d write more presidential election books. I’d read them all.

The last one I read–yesterday, Sunday, June 3, in case you wanted to know–was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I deliberately saved something solid and well-written for last–I didn’t want to spend the last of my grandpa’s books going “meh,” or, “shut up, that guy.” This book did not disappoint. It horrified in several spots, but it didn’t disappoint.

In between, there were books about birds and national parks, books about the Marine Corps and early aviation. There were lots and lots of spy novels and mystery novels. Things I remembered him getting at Christmas, one thing he got at birth as a gift from my great-grandparents. There was a book that had been his father’s–I think my first time looking at my great-grandfather’s handwriting. Some of them ended up feeling like they were probably desperation presents when someone in the family didn’t know what to get him–either noted down in the front, or I could remember or sometimes guess. Others were books he had loved passionately and read over and over again. I reread classics. I reread things Grandpa had read to me. Other classics–The Red Badge of Courage, Mari Sandoz, Ambrose Bierce–I had never quite gotten to.

I became acutely aware that we–my mother and my grandfather and I–had done a certain amount of division of history knowledge. World War I, for example, was my province; if anyone else in the family needs to know anything about WWI, they can ask me and I will either know or have a solid idea where to find it. Ground warfare in WWII is Mom; air and sea was Grandpa. I took the Seven Years’ War, including the US portion known as the French and Indian War in most American schools. The US Civil War was Grandpa’s. This became clear as a fairly big problem when Grandpa died and entire swaths of history went missing. Reading Grandpa’s books was part of solving that problem. Only part. It was an entire worldview shift. It’s an ongoing worldview shift.

It’s lonelier. In that one direction, even though my life is not lonely. People are not fungible. The person I most wanted to talk to about this project, the person I had the most to tell about it…was Grandpa.

I’m really glad that I have established the tradition of buying myself a book Grandpa would have been interested in, that I am also interested in, for his birthday every year. When I explain this to people, I say, “I’m not ready to be done sharing books with my grandpa yet,” and that’s completely true. But in another sense…when I put The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the shelf with the other German history yesterday, I cried. It’s my book now. It’s my book that I inherited from my grandfather, like the Kipling was Grandpa’s that he inherited from Great-Grandpa, and now is also mine. But what it meant was that in a very real sense, ready or not, I am done sharing books with my grandpa.

He was a big library user, so I know this wasn’t all the books he read, not by half. That’s part of what made it simultaneously interesting and possible. If he wasn’t such a big reader, books wouldn’t have been important to him enough to make this project worthwhile–and yet, if I wasn’t such a bigger reader, even this pace would swamp my own reading and make it overwhelming.

I have noticed how many fewer books there used to be. Literally. There were just fewer books available, total. Part of Grandpa’s collection growing late in life is that he had both the time and the money to read in retirement, but part of it was literally more books. He read almost exclusively white American men–through no hostility toward other categories, through the kind of omission and affinity that can become natural–but it meant that when I was reading a lot of his books early on, I became aware of how much I valued diversity of all sorts in my reading choices, how glad I am to have those choices and not have to hunt through the literature of 1940 to get the best I can in that regard. I learned a lot about the books aimed at men his age, though, especially war stories. They’re surprisingly focused on romance, on the girl left to wait behind, and also on friendship. That’s a conversation we could never have had out loud. That’s an insight I had to gain this way, after. There have been lots of others, along the way.

A few people who have heard I did this have been horrified at the idea that someone would read their trash as well as their treasures, but for me that was part of the point. Grandpa’s Ten Best Books would have taught me something, to be sure, but there are all sorts of Ten Best lists. The ins and outs and intricacies of his hobbies and obsessions, the places where he put his feet up and read and interchangeable mystery novel–that’s at least as much the person as the things he thought were wonderful and wise. I feel so lucky to have had the chance and the choice to do this.

No one ever checked up on me, no one ever said, are you really doing that, haven’t you quit yet, haven’t you finished yet. No one jostled my elbow. Like so many things in his and mine life, this was between me and Grandpa. I’m the only child of an only child. There wasn’t any question of a group outing, a horde of grandchildren, a pack of us, what would we all do. There was just me. Just me and Grandpa browsing the bookstore, just me and Grandpa for hours in the library, just me and Grandpa stopping off to get an Orange Julius after, or a coffee for him and a hot chocolate for me, and having a companionable read together when we got home. I can talk to people about the individual books, but in the end this is something that I shared with my grandpa. And I’m so very glad I did.

“We’re like a faaaaamily.”

Perhaps you saw the actor Jason Bateman disgracing himself and his upbringing around the internet recently, rushing to defend a male co-worker’s abusive behavior with bleats about faaaamily and process while the abused female co-worker cried and struggled to find space in the conversation at all. That hit pretty close to home for me, because two years ago I listened to a convention chair complaining from the dais at opening ceremonies that we shouldn’t even have to have a Safety Officer because we’re like a faaaamily. I said, in a bright, clear voice, “Because everyone knows abuse never happens in families!” And the people around me grimaced, and some of them laughed in the way that you do when something is not funny.

But I want to come back to it again just to say no to it again. No. No, again.

I am a big believer in chosen family. A startlingly large percentage of the people I mean when I say “my family” are no biological, legal, or marital relation to me; even the tag “my cousin” most often applies to a woman who is, in fact, only my cousin as a relationship approximation–which, considering how many cousins I have through biology, legal adoption, and marriage, is quite a feat.

But when people push it on you from the outside. When, instead of looking at a particular friend and saying, aww, cousin, sibling, auntie–you have someone in authority telling you: you must view this set of people in that fashion. That is an absolute red flag. And even when it’s someone who is on equal footing with you, it’s worth checking: when you choose to be family, do you mean the same things by family? are you choosing the same things? The more you’re choosing en masse–choosing one particular convention or “fandom” as your family–the less you can be sure that you are. And the more you can be pretty much certain that at least one person in that group hears “family” and thinks “people who aren’t allowed to have boundaries with me” or “people who aren’t allowed to tell anybody when I hurt them” or some set of hierarchies that you might not even be able to describe once you’ve been experiencing it for years.

Sometimes the people who are most toxic about a group being a family are the ones who are sincere about it. Other times it’s people who don’t mean a word of it but are perfectly happy to weaponize it against others. Either way: especially when it’s someone speaking to a large group–especially if they haven’t met all the members of that large group–it’s time to be skeptical.

Because abuse does happen in families. Abuse gets swept under the rug in families. But even not up to that point, some families have horrible dynamics about how no one young is worth listening to, or about never visiting the elderly, or both. Some families have horrible dynamics about who does all the work and who gets to put their feet up. And–especially in times like the interview with Jason Bateman and his co-workers. Especially in moments like the con chair at that convention undermining the safety officer. The question is: why are they using this now. To what end. Who benefits, if they start leaning on family rhetoric.

It’s really great to have chosen family. It really is. My godkids’ parents sat down with us before we accepted the job, and we talked it through: what does this commitment mean to all of us, are we on the same page, because this is a role that culturally and personally varies so much. Those people are my family. I am so glad of them every day. I really, really don’t want to undermine anyone’s actual chosen family with this post. I just want to flag how prevalent this is, in how many industries.

And if you go to report harassment, assault, abuse of any kind, and they invoke family rhetoric to try to minimize what you are reporting, THIS IS WRONG. THEY ARE WRONG. Even if they are your actual family. Even if they are your family in every way, even if they birthed you and raised you and were there for you on holidays and happy occasions and sad ones and everything a family can be. If your actual family treats you that way, I am so, so sorry. But I need you to know that THEY ARE WRONG TO DO IT.

And if someone who is not in any of those ways your actual family pulls out the “we are family” like you’re supposed to dance out of the end of “The Birdcage” with them? NOT ONLY NO BUT HELL NO. NO MORE. NO MORE OF THIS. WE ARE DONE.

think twice, maybe it’s not all–maybe it’s not all riiiight

I’m teaching the critique workshop at Fourth Street later this month–it’s June oh good gracious it is June–and there are all sorts of things that we are just not going to have the chance to talk about, since we’re only doing a little bit of panel discussion and a lot of critiquing. I watched a movie about an improv group, Don’t Think Twice, that made me think of a topic that is certainly outside the scope of that panel discussion, so here we are! I really liked the movie, and I recommend it to people who are in creative pursuits, especially people who are in creative relationships.

The thing that they can’t really fit into a well-composed movie of about 90 minutes–and oh gosh I am glad they kept it to that rather than letting it sprawl–was…well. I feel like, especially early on, especially the first time you get a well-functioning creative group, whether it’s improv or a band or a writing critique group or what. Even if it’s a group of two. I feel like there is a certain sense that you will never have something like this again. That it must be preserved at, if not all costs, certainly very, very substantial costs, because it is your only chance at such a creative synergy.

And…it is. And also it’s not.

A well-functioning creative relationship is worth working at. It’s worth preserving. Definitely not to be thrown away at a whim. And when you look back at someone’s life as a whole, there are clearly creative partnerships, working relationships, in which they functioned like no other time. People and dynamics that were better for their work than any others, that turned out to be irreplaceable.

But.

You can’t tell in advance which ones those will be, necessarily, and which ones will just be really intense for the person in them and kind of useless for the work. You can’t tell which will be lead-ups to something even better, even more fulfilling and interesting.

Which is not an excuse to treat other humans badly. I mention this because of the opposite: it is a reason not to be treated badly yourself, not to stand by and watch while someone is treated badly, on the theory that the creative relationship is indispensable. It’s even a reason to pay attention to whether the work that was wondrous and irreplaceable a few years ago is still going that way. Because “this isn’t working well for me” is enough reason not to keep critiquing together, not to keep performing together, whatever it is you’re doing. It’s not trivial to find people to work with. Sometimes it’s not even possible. But that doesn’t mean that the person or people you’re working badly with now have to be clung to and endured no matter the cost to yourself or others.

So how do you evaluate? Well, I don’t honestly know for other creative relationships. But for writing critiques, there are several things: Do you still want to work with the person/people? Are you looking forward to their feedback, do you think it will be interesting? If you had to choose someone to work with now, would you choose this person/group? Do you think you know in advance what they’re going to say about everything you do, and if you think that, are you right? Do you find yourself unproductively annoyed or frustrated by more of their feedback than not? (Sometimes useful feedback can be annoying on the way in, and it’s up to you how much of that you’re up for. But unproductive annoyance is another matter.)

One of the tricky ones: if these things are true, how enmeshed in a group situation is the person? How possibly would it be to get yourself out, and how worthwhile? Sitting through “I think you should describe the living room in excruciating detail on the first page” is annoying; being in a crit group with someone you know to be a bigot is far worse. Disagreeing with someone persistently about what a story should do is bad; being in a group where someone is allowed to treat you with contempt while the rest of the group doesn’t seem to mind it is in a different category of bad. Sometimes it’s worth enduring a group where the fit has gone slightly awry if it’s mostly still a good group. But there have to be limits, and some part of you will know where they are.

“This isn’t working for me” needs to be a fine thing to say in critique relationships. “I just don’t have the time to dedicate to this group that I used to/that I feel it deserves/etc.”: an entirely valid reason not to do it. A lot of times writing groups just quietly reach a natural end date even if they’re working well when they do meet, because the rhythm of people’s work isn’t conducive to the rhythm of the group. But if you don’t want to get feedback from people on your work, you do not have to. Even if it’s otherwise working fine. Even if “everyone else” seems happy with the status quo.

Especially if you went for long stretches of your life without anybody caring about your creative work, it can be really hard to let go of the people who first do that. And sometimes you get really lucky and meet someone in high school or college or in your first workshop–even if your first workshop is in your middle age–whose feedback you’ll value for the rest of your lives. Sometimes someone who was awesome when you were both twenty will still be awesome when you’re both sixty. It’s sad when this turns out not to be the case, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect on you. Sometimes it doesn’t reflect on either of you and you’re both still awesome, you’re just not the right people to critique each other’s work any more.

Sometimes this means taking a leap. It means striking out without a new crit buddy, a new group, a new situation that you understand. Sometimes it’s really useful to identify why something isn’t working (wrong genre? wrong category? wrong life assumptions? wrong schedule?) in order to get at something else that might. It’s worth iterating. But always, it’s worth knowing that there is no last chance for as long as we’re alive. Be kind, be thoughtful, but also be clear that there are many forms and types of critique relationship available, and you don’t have to endure indefinitely in one that isn’t working for you.

Books read, late May

The sea of DNFs in this fortnight’s booklog is daunting. DAUNTING. Also I am in the middle of two very long nonfiction books. So! Short post this time.

Vera Brosgol, Be Prepared. Discussed elsewhere.

John Crowley, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr. I enjoyed most of this book. The more crows, the better I liked it, but it was a giant mythic century-spanning thing, and I’m down for that. My problems came in with little asides that frankly felt completely extraneous to the book, like, why is this even here, Crowley? Why do you have a young Native character with fetal alcohol syndrome to be…not even a sidekick, basically a few sentences worth of prop at the end? Why have throwaway lines about crows being gender essentialists when you don’t really have that data and it isn’t going to matter to the rest of the book? Why…why, Crowley. Why. When the crow Orpheus section was so good. There were large thoughts about death, and then the places they went were…a little too large, a little too conscious of the idea that this would be a masterwork, a little too sprawling I think, with small elements not treated with enough respect, especially where they touch on actual human lives. This could have been better for trying to be a book instead of the book, I think. (And self-awareness about persons not like oneself, sheesh.)

Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. Hurston interviewed the last surviving person who had been transported to the US to be a slave under legal chattel slavery (I phrase this carefully to acknowledge the realities of human trafficking in our time), and the book just came out now. Her interviews with him are preserved in meticulous detail–not just what he said, but what she as an interviewer did with him to build rapport, what gifts and assistance she provided. In an era when the first person was almost never used in academic writing, I can see why this would not have been a popular approach, but today it’s fascinating context, extremely edifying. This is short and in places emotionally grueling, and very, very much worth reading.

Paul Krueger, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. A fun urban fantasy with a bartending angle. The ending had some interesting twists–not all the ones I was thinking it would, and some I actively wished it wouldn’t–but I still enjoyed it enough to hand it off to a friend immediately, and to keep an eye out for Krueger’s next.

Hope Larson, All Summer Long. Discussed elsewhere.

Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City. Seasteading eco-SF disasterfuture Arctic whosis. As I was reading this, I kept thinking this, this is what people claim Kim Stanley Robinson is doing, that he is not in fact doing. Short chapters, diverse cast, very fast and exciting read.

C.L. Polk, Witchmark. This is a gorgeous book, and I can’t wait until it’s actually out in print so that you can all squee about it with me. (This is an ARC, but not a publisher-provided one.) Magic and mental health care in the aftermath of a war, in the ongoing wreckage caused by colonialism and its ills. Relationships developing organically in a fraught situation. This is exactly what I want out of fantasy these days, and then some. Bicycles and trains and consequences. More. More.

Django Wexler, The Fall of the Readers. The last of this MG series, and there’s really no reason not to start at the beginning, but here we are at a satisfying conclusion, so if you’re concerned about series that go on and on, this is definitely not one. Threads are tied up and implications followed up on. I devoured this all in one go one morning when I had been cranky about literally seven other books on my pile.