Being an entirely personal and partial account
of my first trip to America and a US convention
Planning my visit to the Boskone SF convention back in September, I had no idea we’d fly out of Heathrow on the day the more hysterical tabloids expected terrorists to have a crack at a jet with a ground to air missile. Accordingly, security was more rigorous than I’ve ever seen it, with horrendous queues as absolutely everything bar basic clothing passed through X-Ray and more than half the travellers won a pat down search. I didn’t warrant that, presumably because I had two hugely excited small boys in tow; it being half term, we’d decided to go as a family and spend a few days being tourists afterwards. With no SAM incident stopping us getting safely airborne, the lads examined the blankets and cushions, the freebie eyeshades, socks and travel toothbrushes and generally made themselves at home. Once we were fed and watered, we all plugged themselves into the seatback video screens. I watched Solaris and the latest Bond, quite a treat given how rarely we parents get to the cinema for anything over a 12A these days. Not having read either the book or seen the original film I found Solaris intriguing on many levels and hope to see it again when I’m not simultaneously playing Beggar My Neighbour with a 7 year old somewhere over the North Atlantic, for whom cartoons on an endless loop had finally palled.
I don’t know if I can also claim a visit to Canada but about half way through the flight, a chap came past us on his way to the loo and collapsed about six feet from our seats, breaking his nose and quite possibly his jaw. Cue very efficient dealing with crisis by cabin crew but somewhile later the pilot informed us we were being diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, to get the poor chap to hospital ASAP. There were a few resigned groans but everyone accepted that while this was a pain for the rest of us, the delay hardly compared to waking up in a Canadian hospital with your luggage in Boston and goodness knows what complications ensuing. Anyway, I can report sunset over the fjords and snowfields of Newfoundland was quite spectacular.
We finally got into Boston at 9 pm local time i.e. 2 am UK time. Having filled in our forms saying we’d never committed crimes of moral turpitude, we got through immigration and baggage reclaim and went off to find a taxi. At which point we decided it was jolly cold and tried to remember how to convert Fahrenheit temperatures to Celsius. Husband Steve did the sums and we thought ‘Minus 14, that can’t be right. Or possibly it can, since my ears have gone numb’. Anyway, taxi was found, on to the hotel, and I left Steve and the lads sorting themselves out in our room while I went to find the convention.
Registering was straight forward but finding one of the organisers, to let them know I had arrived didn’t prove easy, since the remarkably full Friday night programme was already in its final session. However I had the great good fortune to encounter Nomi and Michael Burstein, first of the many friendly and welcoming New England fans I met over the weekend and they gave me a steer towards the right rooms and people. Then to bed, since I was so tired, I was barely coherent.
I got a refreshing night’s sleep but with the time difference, was still awake bright and early at 5 am local time so dozed till about 7 and then got up. At which point we began discovering things about America. US newscasters really do sound like Kent Brockman off The Simpsons and do maintain that breathless ultra-serious urgency you see in films. The quantity of adverts is remarkable, even put in the middle of a programme’s end credits and, like The Simpsons, they really do contain warnings not to try this at home or a rapid set of comprehensive disclaimers. Personally, I feel a glossy presentation for some drug complete with aspirational lifestyle images is rather undermined by a quick-fire voiceover detailing possible side-effects and ‘may cause vomiting and nosebleeds’. Anyway, after discovering the all-you-could-possibly-eat breakfast buffet, I went off to be The Author at the convention while Steve and the lads explored the enormous shopping mall that you could reach direct from the hotel and had a brief scamper about in the few inches of snow. Brief, since it was still perishing cold and getting colder.
Meanwhile, I was finding my way around the enormous Boston Sheraton hotel, or as one bemused fellow fan dubbed it ‘Escher Towers’. Comparing notes over the programme’s essential maps soon became a handy way of getting to know people. My first appearance was on a panel to discuss ‘How the Martial Arts Help’, which we soon decided should have been subtitled ‘the female of the species is more deadly than the male’ since it comprised me and Judith Berman as practitioners of Aikido together with Ann Tonsor Zeddies and Cecilia Tan, both students of Tae Kwan Do.
Since this was a 10 am session, we had a small audience but an interested one and enjoyed a wide ranging discussion on the applicability and utility of martial arts not just to writing but to life in general. On the writing front, we agreed you learn how short real fights are compared to what you see in the movies and how important the element of surprise is. This is particularly applicable to women, since we are rarely meeting strength with strength. Judith and I agreed that Aikido’s principle of getting out of the way and not getting hit promotes a lateral-thinking approach to fighting and writing about fighting. I was interested to learn the same can be said of Tae Kwan Do. I was also interested to learn that the flashy spinning kick does actually have a purpose beyond looking good on Buffy, in that it increases the speed of the foot that finally connects with all the more force. As a group, we touched on psychological as well as physical impacts; how an air of confidence or one really good throw can knock opponents off balance metaphorically as well as literally. We agreed studying a martial art helps with understanding the realities of fighting and in translating static pictures or description from source books as well as in conveying what the writer is picturing to the reader through prose. It also teaches you a lot about the physical workings of the body, what you can and cannot do to yourself and to others. Modern life doesn’t offer too many (comparatively) safe opportunities to learn such things. And if you do get something wrong in the dojo, you’ll learn just what a shock a smack in the face can be, without losing your wallet along the way.
This friendly exchange of comment and anecdote was very similar to my experiences at British and Irish conventions. What was different was the open acceptance that these events are commercial opportunities for authors. In the UK there’s a polite, unspoken understanding that you’re there at least in part to prompt people to go and look up your work. The US routine was far more ‘and now we’ll let the panel introduce themselves and plug their latest book.’ Which was refreshing, if initially unexpected.
After that panel, I grabbed a coffee in the green room for programme participants, a most welcome facility, and watched with admiration as the various committee members kept everything and everyone on track. This was by far the largest convention I’ve been to with some 1200 attending and with up to six panels plus miscellaneous readings, anime and other things going on at any one time. Managing all that can have been no easy task but from what I saw, the organisers rose to the challenge. For the fans, when overload threatened, there was the common room to collapse in, with free soft drinks and invariably someone to chat to. This served the same function as the bar does at UK conventions but had the big plus as far as I am concerned of being a smoke free zone. It did make a nice change not to finish a convention feeling as if I’d been lightly kippered, which is an occupational hazard. With the drinking age in the US being 21, the convention was also largely a ‘dry’ event as well, with people sticking to coffee, soft drinks and the iced water that ubiquitous hotel staff provided in every room. While I’ve never encountered problems due to alcohol at a UK convention, I didn’t see its absence spoiling anyone’s fun here. Everyone continued very friendly and welcoming, and concerned to assure me that New England wasn’t usually this cold! Well, apart from the chap from upstate Vermont where apparently all 15 ft of snow in your backyard means is you use the front door for a change.
I visited the dealer’s room and could have filled a suitcase with some lovely jewellery, fabulous ornaments and endless fixes for my book habit. I resisted temptation, mindful of the fact we were flying home, and was happily distracted by a couple of booksellers flagging me down to sign their personal copies of my books and then to sign a stack of stock. The consensus was that I sell well to a loyal readership in the US, which was gratifying to hear. A friendly second hand dealer commented that she often can’t supply customers looking for my titles because people simply aren’t selling them on in sufficient numbers to meet demand. I had to ask her to excuse me for not finding that bad news. Over the weekend, enough folk asked me to sign their books to flatter my ego as well as expressing interest in The Assassin’s Edge and the new series I’m working on, reassuring me it had been worthwhile making the trip.
Of course, I go to conventions as much as a fan as a writer and with the wide variety of panels in the programme was positively spoilt for choice. I decided to sit in on a session asking ‘Did Tolkien Harm Fantasy?’ This proved an interesting panel, notably because of the radically different views of Jo Walton and David Brin. The pro-fantasy camp were prepared to acknowledge that pale imitations of The Lord of the Rings do the genre no favours and that few people are ever going to equal the eccentricities of style and method unique to Tolkien, but still argued forcefully that the genre would be much diminished without all he gave it. David Brin on the other hand was inclined to argue Tolkien set the fantasy genre on the road to a romanticised view of feudalism and a bias to the pastoral rather than the urban, that is profoundly backward looking. The debate grew increasingly acerbic with some unhelpful contributions from the floor, especially when Jo Walton attempted to look for positive aspects within feudalism which David Brin wasn’t about to accept. You can read an essay by David Brin covering much of his argument at his website. I certainly found his position thought-provoking, though I’m not about to accept any blanket characterisation of fantasy as unthinking nostalgic romanticism set against the enlightened democratic vision of SF, even though Brin’s argument is rather more complex than that. Incidentally, I wasn’t doing much socialising in the evenings, with having my family along and anyway, still largely on UK time, we were all ready for bed by 9pm at the latest. So I’m afraid I can’t shed any light on reports of Jo Walton dousing David Brin with coca-cola later that night.
My next panel was on world building, along with George RR Martin, Gregory Frost and Laurie J Marks. This proved a good humoured exploration of what an imaginary world needs by way of research, to provide the reality that underpins the fantastic. We debated the pros and cons of maps (nice but not essential) and of religion (a constraint that can either help or hinder, so use with caution) as well as a basic framework for trade, languages, social and political systems and so on (pretty much mandatory, if you want your world to hang together with any coherence). Tribute was naturally paid to Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland . Overall, a light touch was advised; we all agreed the scenery must never overwhelm the plot or characters. World building should always serve the story in hand.
Then it was time to find a late lunch and the children introduced me to their big discovery; The Food Court in the Prudential mall. Lots of tables and chairs and a wide range of fast food counters all around cooking food very fast to order, none of the UK’s tired, tepid offerings here. This was popular throughout the week since the lads could get a burger and chips while Steve and I could have a more grown up choice like Chinese, Japanese or Cajun. There was also a Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream which was a real hit. Later, we discovered a Canadian development of this idea – the Marche Restaurant – where you can choose from a dozen or more cooking stations, get each chef to stamp your card and have the bill is totalled on your way out.
The last scheduled event of the day I went to was David Brin’s Guest of Honour Talk. Weary as I was, there was no danger of falling asleep as he challenged those present with his judgement that as a cult, SF is looking a lot like the Shakers. He raised more than a few laughs with his tale of a specialist bookshop who had started out with an enthusiastic high school clientele and over the years had been encouraged to find the customer base becoming college kids, graduate students and latterly, post-graduate students and teachers. But there was a serious warning in this, he told us, along with the fact that WorldCon attendance has apparently been dropping since 1985. Where is the new blood? Where are the high school kids now? While I’m not sure the situation is quite as dire as he was suggesting, certainly not here in the UK, it’s a fact that when he asked for anyone under 25 in the room to stand, there were precious few. I’ll certainly agree with his judgement on those fans who see themselves as keepers of some sort of holy grail, who refuse to deal with SF on film or television as somehow beneath them. ‘Just listen to yourselves!’. I’ll also second his call for anyone working in schools or libraries to spread the word among the young and for the rest of us to do all we can to help out. Let’s become a proselytising cult, getting out among the great unwashed – and start brainwashing!
Sunday began with the Weather Channel getting hysterical about being on Orange Alert for the President’s Day Storm! Over the weekend, huge quantities of snow had been dumped on Washington DC and New York and it was heading our way! Since there was not a lot I could do about that, I went to listen to Nancy C Hanger, Terry A McGarry and Teresa Nielsen Hayden discussing the vexed topic of exposition, or ‘As you know, Bob,’ conversations in writing. Because, as they made clear, such conversations are entirely unnatural, especially between people with any degree of shared familiarity. On the other hand, you do need explanation, especially in SF&F when there is so much you can’t assume your reader already knows. But how to avoid the data dump? I felt a key piece of advice here was ‘never explain anything until your reader is interested in it.’ The need for accessibility was explored; readers certainly don’t want to feel they’re studying for a test and the ways in which exposition and explanation can be gradually threaded into the book, again avoiding the data dump and also keeping the reader’s interest, as they look for the payoff. Of course, there then has to be a pay off and too many pending topics will just become confusing. Discussion also covered the way that a character’s reactions to what he is seeing can both enhance that character as well as informing the reader and at the same time furthering the narrative.
With this being my first trip to the US, I felt one particularly useful analogy was the way we learn about a foreign country when visit. We get a first impression and then we go deeper, learning more detail about things we encounter and things we need to know. Such as the way America runs on quarter dollar coins and just how confusing paper money can be, when it’s all the same size and colour. Another valid point made off this was the way we all tend to trust things we’ve learned by personal observation more than things we’ve been told in bald statements. So, certainly a panel full of good ideas for aspiring writers and offering up a few cautions for established ones.
Then it was my turn sitting up at the front again, along with Marina Fitch, Rosemary Kirstein, Don Sakers and Laurie J Marks, to discuss what Fantasy writers get out of reading SF. Mostly, we concluded, we got enjoyment and in fact, that was our main criterion for advocating reading across a wide range of genres, with crime and historical fiction being particularly popular. We could pinpoint useful things we learn from reading other genres, such as useful techniques for exposition from history novels and also, the source material for fantasy that comes from reading actual history. I made the point that one thing I do occasionally get from reading SF is bored by scientific detail that is way over my head and expounded in wearisome detail. This is always a warning to me not to do the same thing in fantasy terms in my writing; stupefying my readers with some historical information that only I find fascinating. We explored what we would and wouldn’t recommend aspiring fantasy authors might read; the way that reading a lot of fantasy can stifle originality but on the other hand, how a lack of knowledge of the genre can lead to reinventing the wheel in plot and character terms. We even found arguments in favour of reading bad writing, from mass-market fiction in all its forms to radical libertarian SF. It’s a fact that romance novels and schlocky thrillers sell by the shed load, so there’s something to be said for reading them to identify the reasons why. As for rabid polemic on either side of the political spectrum, it does at least challenge you to get your own ideas in order, to counter such arguments and see how clever writing can make them seem persuasive.
As with all good panels, this one could have run on and on but other people needed the room and anyway, I needed to eat before doing a reading and an autographing session, which were further opportunities to meet new and friendly people and chat about all and sundry. I rounded off my Boskone with a session on Great Cliches in SF&F where Michael Burstein, Keith DeCandido, Leigh Grossman and Don Sakers enjoyed a highly entertaining romp through some of the classic cliches and how they achieved such status. The conclusion that as soon as something appears on television, it’s a cliche won nods of agreement all round, though for the most part, this session was more laughs than serious debate, which was a splendid way to round off the convention. Michael Burstein pointed us towards The Evil Overlord list as a seminal work on the topic and having looked it up, I reckon it should be required reading for all aspiring authors.
And then it was farewells and clearing up and people either hurrying away to try and beat the weather to get home or to try and book an extra night in the hotel, on account of cancelled planes and closed roads. We sat tight and watched the Weather Channel and marvelled at the American determination to deal with snow as fast and as thoroughly as possible, given at least one sizeable fall is expected every winter. As conditions worsened, federal highways were closed and anyone driving on them faced huge fines and possibly jail time. Which meant that once the snow had stopped, the roads were ploughed and salted very rapidly. As far as getting around on foot went, there were men out with snow shovels and blowers from the start of the snowfall and we learned there’s a legal requirement to clear the sidewalk in front of your house. You’ll be fined if you don’t. Still, given Monday night saw Boston’s heaviest snowfall on record at 27.5 inches (though records only go back to 1898) people were given twenty four hours to comply rather than the customary three. Once the snow had stopped falling, the news turned to discussions of who was going to pay, since the budget had already been pretty much exhausted by earlier storms. It seems the price American cities pay for being able to clear snow so rapidly and efficiently is about a million dollars an inch.
Being British of course, we weren’t about to let the weather stop us doing anything and with the splendid Boston underground system, we found we could get to most of the places we wanted to see without incident. After the storm passed, we had a few crisp, clear and sunny days and with the efficient snow clearance, Boston was up and running as normal. On the tourist front, we visited the Children’s Museum, the New England Aquarium, the Museum of Science and the Naval Yard, complete with history presentation about the Battle of Bunker Hill. All these places were very well thought out to appeal to kids and adults alike. We also walked some of the historic trail, where we did find it curious to see what would be an otherwise unremarkable Georgian building in the UK, barely warranting a second glance sitting all alone among the skyscrapers and treated with great reverence as a historic monument,a reminder perhaps that we shouldn’t be so casual about our heritage. And of course, we went to Boston Common for a snowball fight.
I’m happy to say we had an entirely uneventful flight home. Weatherwise, we had timed it exactly right; Logan Airport had three days to clear the runways and Friday was a beautiful day, whereas Saturday was threatening rain and possibly more snow. The lads opted for non-stop cartoons again while I watched xXx and The Truth about Charlie, both highly enjoyable. A lazy weekend while at the same time making an effort to get up in the mornings paid off and we were all back to work and school on the Monday morning without feeling too badly jet-lagged. So that was our trip to America!