Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I haven't been to many science-fiction conventions. Or, more precisely, I've been to a few conventions several times, they being annual affairs.
The Vancouver science fiction convention, VCon, I've attended since VCon 6, not counting a semi-accidental attendance of VCon 3, when I was in highschool, to hear Frank Herbert speak, because I'd just read Dune. (I was in highschool, okay? I got over it.) I did Anglicon, a British media con based in Seattle, from Anglicon 5 to 16, shortly after which it sank gracefully away like the British Empire.
In 1979 Mark and I were in England, fortuitously in time for both Worldcon in Brighton and the Cambridge Beer Festival. Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert Silverberg were at the former, and I met Richard O'Brian (Rocky Horror Picture Show) in the dealers' room. That's the only Worldcon I've been to. I think it had 3, maybe 4 tracks of programming. I understand they've become larger since.
Other than that, NonCon, the Edmonton sf convention, the year it was held in Vancouver because much of Edmonton fandom had migrated to the West Coast; ICon, the Island sf convention that crashed shortly afterwards (not my fault! they'd kicked me off the concom months before!); Westercon 44 which was VCon 19, with a fanzine workshop by Teresa Nielsen Hayden where I learned many things about Gestetners (later bought one, and a cute little Roneo as well), and a jellypad mimeo session in the fanzine room, which was major nostalgia for me, as my dad used to duplicate test papers that way. He said the biggest problem with jellypad was that in the poor rural areas where he taught first, the children would sometimes eat the gelatin.

But that's preface (and I refuse to take responsibility for any mistakes in chronology). My thoughts (or thots, for Molesworth fans) on Potlatch are coloured by those experiences, narrow but moderately lengthy. Otherwise I wouldn't bother mentioning them. Oh, I might anyways, though as bragging goes, it's not that impressive a boast.

Potlatch is a small, low-key convention with a literary emphasis.
Everyone involved seemed experienced, and there was little need for volunteers. Registration, a dealers' room (all booksellers), hospitality and one programming room. Memberships sold out--something I'm not used to, since VCon and Anglicon always seem to be scrambling for members.
Very much a cosy, family feeling, with most attendees knowing each other, particularly evident when questions were asked at panels, and questioners were identified by name. "Tom, we're going to let Judy ask first, then you, then Alan." Not that I felt excluded, only that it was evident how long the regulars had known each other. It happens, obviously, in other long-running cons, especially ones supported by longterm local fans, but I found it particularly marked here.
I think it would be a difficult con to become part of, if one came from away, because it seems to rely on long-standing and local relationships more than most. The self-sufficiency, while admirable, doesn't open avenues for strangers to make themselves useful and thus accepted.
I'm fairly used (from travelling alone to distant SCA events) to being the stranger at the feast, and since I tend to be more observer than participant anyways, I was comfortable, especially having the other VPX and AW contacts--and rooming with Lucy, who knows everyone. For someone new to the scene, or more uncertain, I could see it being perhaps off-putting, even intimidating. All those people who know one another.
I also noticed, more perhaps than at VCon, where it's crept up on me, the greying of fandom (which includes me, yes, right by the ears). I saw at most half-a-dozen people who looked to be in their early twenties. Of course, that's a whole 'nother topic, whether sf cons are losing their purpose as sf/f becomes more mainstream and less an embattled and misunderstood minority. Yes, and whether it still is an e.&m.m. is yet a third topic. Which I'm not qualified to discuss.

Local hotels were quite full due to a scrapbookers convention and to cheerleader try-outs, both at the nearby convention centre. Young and extremely energetic girls percolated through the halls at all hours, shrieking randomly and giggling frequently. By the second day they had discovered the staircases and the exterior landings, and were rushing through those instead of waiting for the elevators.
The scrapbookers were mostly middle-aged women, distinguishable from the con attendees by virtue of not wearing t-shirts with arcane slogans. There were several in the breakfast room, chatting about the papercraft classes. Apparently attendance was down considerably from previous years, so perhaps scrapbooking as a craft has peaked?

I listened to three panels: Effective Subversive Fiction, Humor in Science Fiction, and Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings.

Subversive Fic was the most worthwhile, probably because of the more focussed panelists, primarily Ursula Le Guin, though all were interesting. I was pleased to see Vonda McIntyre, whose work I've liked since Dreamsnake (though I skipped the Star Trek adaptations). I've started The Moon and the Sun, but finding it rather slow going. I think I need a long bus trip to really concentrate on it. All of the panelists were clueful, but I felt that some of the questions from the audience were more designed to call attention to the questioner than to bring up a particular point.
This is one reason why I don't ask many questions during panels, particularly when people I admire are present. There are one or two (or three or more) memories of my voice raised in a question or observation that...okay, never mind. No one remembers those moments but me, thank heaven. The lesson 'No one is really interested in what you have to say' is an important one, and I wish I'd learned it earlier.
I felt there was a prevailing sense of 'subversive fiction is the stuff that leaves me feeling complacent but makes other people uncomfortable, because other people need shaking up', an attitude that was challenged once or twice. I appreciated the suggestion that fiction may be subversive without having been originally intended that way--an example was given of Barbara Cartland's romances showing a young woman in the Middle East that there were other ways of leading one's life than the one presented in her society. Certainly Barbara Cartland wouldn't see herself as someone challenging the conventions, rather upholding them. It reminded me of the one fan-letter Georgette Heyer appreciated, from a woman who had been a political prisoner in Roumania, and who supported the spirits of her fellow prisoners by telling and retelling the story of Heyer's book Friday's Child, which she had read just before her arrest.

The Humor panel had several funny moments, so I wasn't bored, but was more 'what is humour' and 'how is humour in fiction different from verbal or visual humour' than about humour in sf/f. A few examples were given, mostly from Robert Sheckley's work, though he was called up more in a general way, as a sort of hovering presence of humorous sf, smiling down on the company, rather more benevolently than he might have done in life.

Misunderstandings was the least focussed of all, turning very quickly into anecdotes from panelists and audience about funny or unfunny things that had happened to them while travelling, and 'what my Japanese/Mexican coworker said'. Relevance to sf/f was pretty much nil, and some knee-jerk responses (certain cultures or subcultures being assumed to be monolithic or dismissable) that made me a trifle uncomfortable.
Worse for Bart, since he belongs to one of said subcultures. Being a West-coast Canadian, I probably would have gotten a rubber-stamped politically correct pass in Portland. Though not in Seattle, because of the sewage issue with Victoria (several billion dollars for a sewage treatment plant, mostly because of pressure from Seattle, and it won't do any good because most of the problem is from faulty septic fields...but never mind, I learned not to get into that argument at Anglicon.)
A very DC Comics irony to a panel on cultural misunderstandings promulgating cultural misunderstanding.
One anecdote I have socked away in the memory because it did seem to have some potential application for fiction. A woman travelling alone in a Middle Eastern country, on a train, first class carriage. The train is held up for some time, and eventually a tribal woman with her attendant rushes in. Woman guesses this to be some important matriarch, for whom the train has been held. Later in the journey, tribal woman leaves, and middle-class woman with her female companion enters. Female companion speaks some English, and woman learns what the attentive listener figured out earlier, that the train was held while respectable women from 2d or 3d class carriages were rushed in to first class to preserve the modesty of the train by accompanying the lone foreign woman.

Probably the best part of the con was hanging out with people. VPXers formed various groupings in restaurants, bars, shops and hospitality rooms, like an amoeba that kept changing its mind about cell division. MacAllister took the reunion to an extreme by not attending anything, I think, only visiting with VPXers and AWers. Which might have been the path of wisdom, really. I met (in person) Dawno, Medievalist, and PThom from AW, renewed acquaintance with Evan and Bart, and got better acquainted with Lucy, whom I hadn't really known at VP. Lucy would make a good Buddha. She has the small curled smile and the air of contented detachment (or detached contentment). Everyone knew her, even though she hadn't attended Potlatch before.
Saw the Chinese Gardens, which are rather grander than the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens in Vancouver, and imagined scenes from Story of the Stone, like Bao-yu having dedication verses demanded of him after the visit of the Imperial Concubine. This refined literary allusiveness was a bit hampered by my also imagining wuxia swordsmen flying suddenly into the scene and cutting everyone down in a flurry of silk and steel.

I bought more books than I should have, both in the dealers' room and during two visits to Powells (although Bart saved me, the second time, by engaging me in discussion about writing-and-stuff so that I hardly had the chance to be tempted.) Every time I went near books I'd try to remember that I was non-vehicular and dependent on the goodwill and cargo-capacity of others and that I didn't need any more books anyways.
And yet...
One frustration at Powells. They have several (though not all) volumes of Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, but not in the shop.
At the Quimby Warehouse, which is not on Quimby Street, and possibly not in Portland, or even in the same state. I wanted to look at them, figure out which volumes they were and which edition they were, and so on. But each volume is $80-90, and the only way they leave the warehouse is with the undertaking that the requester will buy them.
On the other hand, I found Stith Thompson's book on the Folktale for a reasonable price, and it was much easier to carry around. Katharine Briggs on Fairies, with a totally inappropriate cover showing a cheapo magic wand topped with a glitter-star suggestive of kiddy crafts. And the Ralph Mannheim trans of Grimms Tales complete, damaged, for only $5. Hurrah!
In the Dealer's Room I bought two Dave Langford books, one of which has been snatched from me half-finished, by my husband. Harrumph. Also lucked into some thank-you gifts for my friends Tony and Lin, who had put me up for a few days and driven me hither and yon, and who (though I didn't know it then) would be waiting for an hour at the train station to pick me up Sunday night. Autographed copies of one of the Simon Green Nightside books for Tony, and one of the Southern Vampire books for Lin. And an autographed Barbara Hambly for a birthday present coming up.

Oh, autographs. I was able to torment Zoe, in a good cause. This is how it goes: Zoe is a great admirer of Le Guin. I saw that Le Guin was attending the convention, and so I brought a copy of the last Earthsea book, just in case. I didn't say anything about this, because I wasn't sure if Potlatch was going to be appropriate for autograph gathering. I didn't even mention that I would be at a convention, just that I'd be in transit and offline for most of a week.
After the Subversive fic panel, Lucy kindly brought Bart and me to Le Guin and asked if this would be a good moment to have books signed. Yes, if it wasn't a pile of books. Ursula Le Guin is thin and slightly stooped. Her eyes are bright and alert, and her face is sharp, almost beaky. The combination suggests a bird that may suddenly peck at you, and that it would be best not to be wormish in her presence. Her hair is a creamy white, cut in a Dutch-boy bob (do they still call it Dutch-boy? It was my invariable and dreaded summer haircut). I asked her to sign her book for Zoe, and told her what Zo had said once (along the lines of 'if I could write half as well as Ursula Le Guin, I'd die a happy woman') because it's always a good idea to pass on nice things that other people say, and I held Zoe's book up (having it with me) for the purposes of spelling her name right. Le Guin admired the cover, which is lovely, and asked who the publisher was. I said Walker, Candlewick in the States, and she said that she'd started with Walker Books. And that was it.
Before going to bed, I went online at the hotel's internet, found the thread on ABE books, and posted to Zo "Ursula Le Guin likes your book cover." Then I went to bed. Zo's in England, so while I slept the sleep of the just (just something, anyways), she received the benefit.
The next day I read a string of replies, starting with What? Who? Where? What???, a suggestion that I'd be sorry if she had a stress-induced heart attack, and finishing with a heartfelt cry to the heavens that she couldn't believe I would leave her hanging like this.
Heh heh heh.
It was almost a pity to end the suspense. But all was forgiven when explanations were made. (ooh, two passives in one sentence)

Notes on travel: I took the Amtrak from Edmonds to Everett, a little train running along the coast. Sitting on the side away from the water, and looking out, I couldn't see the beach most of the time, only the sun on the water. It was like being in the train from Spirited Away.
At least until it hit the rocks some helpful person had balanced on the rails. Glassy shattering noises and things flying by the windows. The train stopped, and people in jackets walked up and down the tracks. No announcements, because the electrical system was damaged. Instead we were informed by mouth. Eventually it started up again, pushed by an engine in the back and thus about half-speed. The usual cameraderie and acquaintance that small disasters inspire had flourished in the car, and I wasn't scheduled for anything, so I didn't fuss.
I took the Amtrak from Portland to Seattle (Bart was a real gent, and pulled my rollie suitcase to the station). The train fare was about $15 more than the bus fare, but I've travelled by bus too many times not to appreciate the difference. Heaps more room between the seats, lap tray, the ability to get up and walk around, and a toilet that doesn't smell of urine (usually). Oh, and a restaurant car.
Then the train stopped in Centralia for about an hour. This time it was something mechanical. So I plugged in my laptop and wrote a bit, I walked to the restaurant car and got some tea, and I read. Other than being sorry I didn't have a cell and couldn't warn Lin and Tony to wait, I was content. And by the time we were approaching Seattle, I was nodding off, waking repeatedly to check the station signs.
The next morning Tony dropped me off at the Clipper, in plenty of time to get my ticket and go through the Customs check. Plenty of time, as I discovered on buying my ticket, because due to stormy weather, the Clipper's departure was indefinitely delayed.
I bought breakfast at the astoundingly-poorly-laid-out caff next to the Clipper office (Honestly. It's as if the Bizarro World Frank Gilbreth had worked it out.) The crowning touch for me was that the teabags were tastefully arranged according to the colour of their packets, but I was able to pluck an English Breakfast (red) from the ranks of the Ruby Mist before the people behind in line trampled me. The 2% milk was hidden behind the counter and had to be asked for specially, although flavoured milk was in the cold drinks case, visible.
When the Clipper was able to sail, it took the scenic route, skirting through the islands and avoiding the open waters, where waves were several feet high (I think 9ft waves were mentioned). However, all drinks were $1.50, instead of the usual $4-5, so I had a glass of wine and enjoyed the scenery. I rather wish I could have mapped our course, but I didn't make notes.
And thus home again. I've missed talking about the drive down to Portland, and the jacuzzi, and Voodoo Doughnuts and so on, but I'm already thinking I should have split this up.


avo said...

At Powell's, I thought *you* were distracting *me*. I never did manage to buy that copy of Yoga for Suits we were looking at.

batgirl said...

Mutual Agreed Distraction, obviously.
I thought we decided it was fun to look at but not worth keeping? Or am I delusional again?