So, Philcon happened, and it started with a wonderful surprise and kept on being excellent.
As I was waiting in line to register, a couple of men in yarmulkes walked up to me and asked if I would join their minyan. I grabbed my roommate freeradical42
and together with the already assembled folk there were seven men and one woman gathered to pray in one of the hotel meeting rooms the Con was using. We started praying the afternoon service and then when that was finished, we began Kabbalat Shabbat, the special prayer service welcoming the Sabbath. And as we started singing Lecha Dodi, the song that is the heart of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, more people started coming in. We got an eighth man, and a ninth man, and a second woman, and as each person entered the room the singing grew louder and more spirited and more joyful. And then the tenth man came in and together we all sang "Bo'i V'Shalom", the final stanza of Lecha Dodi, which ends "Bo'i Kallah, Bo'i Kallah": "Come to me, Sabbath Bride, come join me."
This was my fifth time at Philcon and the first time I've been able to find a minyan. It was definitely the biggest crowd of Jews I've seen at a convention. And the experience put me in such a good mood to start the Con, because it felt like such a powerfully integrating experience. Sometimes going to Philcon means I have to feel like I'm making compromises- doing things that aren't in the spirit of Shabbos, or doing things not in the spirit of Fandom, but opening Philcon with a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service made me feel like I could do both without having to compromise. That I could share in the joy of two of the communities that are most important to me- three communities, really, since my five roommates/companions for the Con were Alcovians, another of my most important communities.
After davening I made kiddush and motzi and then met up with nathanielperson
. Together we attended a panel on terrible science fiction we love anyway. The most enticing recommendation was a particularly bitter recommendation from one of the panelists for an alien romance novel called Captive Surrender
Then I went to the Opening Ceremony and bailed after ten minutes when it became apparent that there was going to be nothing happening at the Opening Ceremony, while nathanielperson
went to a panel on the Square Cube law in SF and bailed after ten minutes when it became apparent that it was going to just be a panel about Godzilla. So we met up and caught the end of a panel on how laughable it is when old SF gets future predictions wrong, and then went to a really cool panel on the mechanics and history of the Antikythera device, an amazingly intricately geared mechanism that apparently was used to reasonably accurately model patterns of eclipses, lunar phases, and various other astronomical information approximately 100 BCE. Then a couple more friends showed up and we hung out for a bit and then I wen to sleep before midnight because I was exhausted and I knew that I needed the sleep if I were going to survive the weekend.
Saturday morning began with a really good panel on Sexism in Fandom. It was really well moderated by Orenthal Hawkins and after the requisite griping about how terrible gamergate is, it started to explore the psychology of the harasser and the way in which the growth of geek culture has forced these cultural confrontations out into the open. So that male geeks who had formerly established their own exclusionary hierarchy in opposition to the conventional mainstream hierarchy were being forced against their will to acknowledge that they no longer have as much power to act as gatekeepers to the geek hierarchy, and they are trying to abuse what power they still have left to hold on. But the panel also spoke about how parts of geek culture that aren't as public, places like Philcon that have sometimes been a bastion of male fandom in the past, also have to work to keep fighting sexism and make it so that there aren't places in fandom that offer a safe haven for bad behavior by abusive trolls. And everyone was well behaved and there was hardly any mansplaining and the panel just went off shockingly well.
Then we sat in on a panel on "Literary Hard Science Fiction" and whether the demands of "literary fiction" and the demands of "hard science fiction" were at odds. It took the panel all of six seconds to agree that they weren't, but what I really liked about this panel was that it didn't end up just being a panel of listing examples of literary hard SF that works or arguing about genre definitions, which are two things that could have happened and which wouldn't have been the end of the world, but which get tiresome. Instead, the panelists, all thoughtful writers led by Michael Swanwick and Tom Purdum, took a pretty sharp look at the challenges of pulling off both ends of the mashup. One panelist cited a Golden Age editor as telling their writers not to try to do anything too complicated with characters because it would distract the reader from the delivery of ideas. And obviously the New Wave pushed back in the other direction with SF that tried to add more emphasis on characters and prose styling, but it was interesting to me that the Golden Age model actually had reasoning behind it, rather than merely being (as it often imputed), fueled by lazy, bad, hasty writing. The conclusion the panelists drew, more or less, was that pulling off Literary Hard Science Fiction involves juggling a lot of pieces and is really hard to do well for that reason because both elements are fighting for the reader's attention.
Which led to an interesting observation that threw the panelists down an interesting tangent: As mentioned in the Friday panel about incorrect future predictions, readers find technology that doesn't match our experience of the world to be distracting. It requires time and thought to assimilate these new ideas and technologies. On the other hand, when reading about technology that we have already assimilated into our heads, this adjustment and thought isn't needed. Therefore, there is some literature, such as the work of Verne, that has sort of retroactively become literary because the tech no longer seems futuristic, and we can pay attention to the story and character elements.
So I think the trick to working effectively with both big technological/cultural ideas and big character ideas, to bridge the gap between rigorous SF and rigorous literature, is to make both unobtrusive. It's a tough trick, but I think framing it in that way makes it seem more approachable. The great thing about this panel was that it was completely from the writer's perspective. I don't think you would hear critics talking about literary hard SF in the same way.
Afterward I'd volunteered to be the locus for a meetup of the Central Jersey Geek Meetup, as I did last year. As also happened last year, nobody showed up. I sat in the lobby for twenty minutes reading a book and then cool people who weren't involved in the Central Jersey Geek Meetup showed up and we talked for a while. Then I had lunch and went to the game room for the first time.
Philcon has a really awesome game room. The folks who run it started out just getting a suite and hosting gaming because they didn't like the way Philcon ran gaming, and eventually after a couple of years of this Philcon realized that John and Ginny knew their shit and started supporting their game room and including it in programming. They bring dozens of games, they bring lots of snacks to fuel gaming, and they offer up their time to make sure everything runs smoothly.
I had brought a game I kickstarted called Coin Age
, a little pocket sized microgame played with coins and a single custom playing card sized board. I'd wanted to try it out and I easily found someone willing to play with me. It turned out to be exactly what I'd wanted- simple, easy to teach, and shockingly complex strategically for such a simple game. I played it several times over the course of the weekend when I had time to kill, after this. Everyone enjoyed it.
Then, a great panel on Jewish folklore in contemporary Jewish fantasy. I got so many recommendations of authors and works out of this, and I got to share a few of my favorites- Benjamin Rosenbaum's Biblical vampire story "The Book of Jashar"
and Richard Dansky's Pirate Rabbi adventure "The Thirty Ninth Labor of Reb Palache"
There was a lot of discussion of the Golem and how often writers and TV people get it wrong, and how as the most well-known Jewish folk tale it gets incredibly overused when other Jewish fantastic devices would have actually been more appropriate. There is so much else going on in Jewish folklore! There are thousands of years of tradition, traditions from all over the world.
I mean, in my own fiction alone we have the demon Ashmedai
, the prophet-king Melchizedek
, Noah's dove
, and my own strange take on the Golem story
. Plus dybbuks in a D&D oneshot I ran and Solomon's secret wisdom in my Storium game. There is a hell of a lot to work with.
After that, we sat through freeradical42
's two panels, one on Ebola and epidemics and one on common medical mistakes in media. Jon and I spent the former panel making radio telescope jokes and cracking each other up, but they were both good panels.
I skipped the transformative works/ fanfiction panel in order to run a D&D game, but I do want to say a few things about it. First, I heard a few people say that the panel turned out well, and I have no doubts about that. My complaint was never that the panel would be bad, just that it wasn't a topic I thought needed to be talked about anymore. Second, I went to the feedback panel at the end of the convention and delivered a version of my rant from the previous post
and almost got cut off, they were so fast to respond with "We're aware it's a problem, it's at the top of our list to fix next year, and it's a very high priority in particular for our new Head of Programming." So that sounded like very good news.
My D&D game was worth skipping the fanfic panel for. I ran a small section of the megadungeon Dwimmermount
, converting it on the fly to D&D 5E. It's a really astonishing dungeon product, featuring 13 incredibly massive levels full of complicated interconnections and factions and story hooks. And it's so well designed and well laid out that it feels even bigger than the massive book that contains it.
After I ran the game, the people who run the gaming room asked me to poke them during the year about running a game next year, so that it can actually get listed in the program. So that may happen, and would be pretty cool.
The party, which called itself Three's Company (because they were sponsored by General Three), consisted of a human noble fighter, a human peasant fighter, and a halfling rogue. They entered the dungeon in high spirits, mocking each other and jostling each other, making so much noise that they alerted a group of orc guards watching the entrance. They defeated the orcs pretty handily, including the ones who split off to sneak around and ambush them from behind, then examined the room, which contained a group of large idols that had clearly been altered to feature the head of a heretical deity. They tried to smash the heads, but failed several times and eventually gave up.
Then they moved on in their explorations. Passing through a couple of hallways, they found a room with terrifying Thulian masks on the wall and started pulling them down off the wall without thinking, triggering a poison gas trap. The noble fighter survived the gas and was able to catch a gasp of fresh air, but for some reason the curious halfling rogue decided to lick the mask and died from the concentrated poison residue. [Fortunately, at just this point a wizard showed up and joined up with the newly renamed Four Minus One's Company.] The two fighters decided to take the masks, clean them carefully, and wear them for the added intimidation it would give them, then the exploration continued. They found a locked iron door and bypassed it, and then found a small chapel with six columns along the side walls, dedicated to the heretical deity Turms Termax. Inside, animated reliquary bones were primed to attack any visitors who did not worship Turms Termax, and so the party found itself defending itself against flying femurs and phalanges. One of those femurs knocked the noble fighter unconscious, but the peasant fighter managed to defeat the bones with some help from the wizard, and suddenly a cleric showed up (tealdear
, tired of the DC2017 party) to heal the fighter.
The recovered Four Minus One Plus One's Company noticed that an altar in the back of the chapel showed evidence of being moved back and forth, and they pushed it out of the way to reveal a secret door to the chapel's treasury, where they found LOOT!
Then we all decided to call it quits so we could go to the Eye of Argon reading, an annual Philcon tradition of attempting to read the worst fantasy story ever written without laughing or misreading (saying a typoed word correctly count as misreading). Eye of Argon was great. It was decided to relocate to a party room when the actual turnout at the panel was low, so we had lots of booze and we had lots of unsuspecting people to initiate into the horror that is the Eye of Argon. After we made a good show of the Eye of Argon, we repaired back to our room, where we drank more booze and talked for a while before sleep sometime after 3AM.
In the morning my first panel was the only bad panel of the con, a panel on the topic of "Separating an Author from their Work" that I knew better than to attend. I totally knew better, but I didn't realize quite how terrible it would be. Highlights:
-Sharon Lee saying that she didn't understand why her friend thought she needed to recommend Lord Peter Wimsey with an antisemitism warning, "because Lord Peter is a progressive!" and when I tried to explain to her that seeing Lord Peter unexpectedly palling around with Nazis felt like a slap in the face and I would have loved to have gotten a warning, she shook her head and told me that I was being ridiculous.
-Peter Prellwitz, in the aftermath of a discussion about how to feel about Marion Zimmer Bradley in the wake of the revelations about her complicity in her husband's child abuse, declaring that it was unjust media harassment that killed Joe Paterno.
-A long rant from Oz Drummond about why everyone needed to understand that Requires Hate was a terrible person whose stories should never be read, in the midst of a panel where any criticism of Orson Scott Card was met with cries of "CENSORSHIP!"
-Ian Randal Strock repeatedly declaring his glee that after a similar panel at Arisia had been full of panelists who felt that Orson Scott Card's homophobia was reason to stop buying his books, this panel was full of rational people.
So yeah, it was a charming panel and I was nearly the only person in the audience challenging any of the things they were saying. Though I was really grateful that when I suggested that the Berkeley fannish community separating Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen as authors from MZB and WB as people was part of what had allowed the fannish community to ignore the mounting evidence of child abuse, someone else in the audience actually stood up for my position and backed me up.
Grah. I went back to my room afterwards to check out and rant at my roommates for a while. Very grateful that they let me rant myself out.
Um.. what else happened? There was a filk contest that produced a "My Favorite Things" filk about Klingons in tutus. There was some workshopping of one of my fanvid WIPs over lunch. There was a panel on Non-Binary Gender in SF that produced lots of interesting seeming recommendations and little else, and stalled out when nathanielperson
challenged the panel to name any SF featuring actual human transpeople instead of aliens with non-binary genders. And then the con ended with the aforementioned feedback panel where I was reassured that next year we might actually get decent fanfic panels at Philcon. Yay Philcon.
It was a most excellent weekend and then I went home and sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeept.
Holy fuck, three thousand words of con report.