Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: Klingon-Free

Boston's Readercon offers a rewarding counterpoint to the costume-fueled science fiction scene.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Say "science fiction convention" and a whole host of images come to mind, especially in the wake of the recent Comic-Con, a dazzling overwhelm of costumed fandom that gets plastered all over the Internet. That event is one of a few flagships among science fiction conventions, and features, in addition to some number of normally dressed gawkers, fans dressed as Star Wars characters, comic book characters, and anything else that's alien, fantastic or just imagined.

That West Coast blowout, however, has a counterpoint. It takes place in Boston, and it's called Readercon. That "con" name may still bring up plenty of thoughts of prosthetic foreheads, but Readercon is a very different happening. It doesn't generally involve costumes; no gaming takes place; video screens are hard to spot. Instead, Readercon is all about the written word.

This year's Readercon took place last month, and I tagged along with Readercon veteran and Valley writer Robert Redick, author of a nearly completed four-book fantasy series called The Chathrand Voyage.

Redick had assured me up front that Readercon was not the usual lowest common denominator science fiction fan scene—that it was, rather, the hub of something more akin to a subgenre devoted to science fiction and fantasy of far more literary parameters.

"Readercon is one of the smartest and most enjoyable science fiction and fantasy conventions in the country," says Redick, by now an attendee at plenty of others. "It's also a tremendously supportive space for writers working in the field. My own introduction to the wider SFF community began there in 2008. It was a fantastic place to start."

He also told me he'd long ago begun assuming that everyone he met there, even the attendees without the orange-striped name tags denoting writers and publishing professionals, was a writer.

That was quickly evident. The first random stranger with whom I struck up a conversation told me of his several writerly efforts, and nearly everyone else I met had a book, published or otherwise.

Readercon is a regionally focused effort, though its guests of honor might hail from anywhere (this year's were Geoff Ryman and Gardner Dozois). The Valley is often called a hub of literary activity, and that reputation is well deserved; even in the narrowly focused world of Readercon, writers from the Valley are important. Redick was joined by Valley-based writers Andrea Hairston, Gavin Grant, Kelly Link and Jedediah Berry. Other names from New England included John Crowley, Greer Gilman, Paul Di Filippo, Vandana Singh, Delia Sherman, Theodora Goss and Barry Malzberg (among many others).

The scene was small-scale in its charm, nothing but a corner of the Burlington Marriott with ballrooms, most of them host to panels discussing things that sounded more like grad school seminars than SF fan freakouts. They had names like "Animal or Alien: How Body Structure Shapes Mind"; "The Pseudo-Religiosity of Teleological SF"; and "Feeling Very Post-Slipstream."

That last, like many an event at literary conferences, featured a group of writers who seemed a touch unsure just what it was they were supposed to be getting at, but were nonetheless getting at it. Maine author Elizabeth Hand even coined a term which may well percolate into, as the academics say, "the discourse," dubbing "post-slipstream" work "failstream."

Despite the general whiff of academia in the air, Readercon never seemed to be deadly serious. In stuffier literary circles, panel discussions can feel like dares to admit you don't know the obscure author and/or critic some wag decides to pull into the conversation. Some attendees at Readercon seemed bent on a similar mission, raising their hands only to stentoriously deliver things like, "This reminds of the work of [fill in the blank]." Most, however, seemed to find the whole affair occasion for lighthearted fun and generating a list of new authors to read.

At the heart of the con was an SF reader's dream, a hall full of booksellers and small press representatives. It was a stunning wealth of new and exciting material, and a quick wallet-emptier. Easthampton-based Small Beer Press was present, and was joined by similarly worthy contenders, publishers who specialize in finding new and exciting ends of the science fiction and fantasy world, including San Francisco's Tachyon Press, Toronto's ChiZine Publications and New Jersey's Wyrm Publishing.

Readercon was an exhaustive and exhausting pleasure. Hopping from one panel discussion to another offered worthwhile discussion and fuel for thought and writing. To see so many writers trundling around a Marriott in search of inspiration, connection and the work of their fellow writers felt like a comfortable, New England-y space between the churn of ambitious hobnobbing that often defines literary confabs and the dreck-fueled fan celebration of a garden-variety SF con. Among its many hundreds of attendees, I did see one offering a half-hearted attempt at costuming, a writer adorned with something akin to an off-kilter horn of hair. That writer, happily, had no competitors.

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