As you know, I had to leave WorldCon early because my boycat, Pushkin, became very ill back in the US. So I hightailed it out of Helsinki, missing coveted kaffeeklatsches with Ada Palmer (winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, 2017) and Mary Robinette Kowal (winner of the same award in 2008). I was sad to miss speaking with them in a smaller group but eager to get home to care for my kitty, who was in the ICU.
This was the first WorldCon I've attended and while I had voted in previous Hugo Awards, and attended other Cons (for instance NYCC) I was kind of taken aback by how non-commercial WorldCon is. A case is point is that there are no publishers hawking books at WorldCon, which, on the one hand is great because you don't get tempted to buy a bunch of stuff and spend a fortune shipping it home and on the other hand is bad because if you've travelled a long way with a carry-on only bag, you're probably packing clothes, not books for your favorite author to sign. Some authors take it all in stride, bringing their own small promotional items they can sign (Fran Wilde, Carrie Vaughn) or will happily sign anything that you set in front of them (Max Gladstone kindly signed a WorldCon postcard for my friend and fellow blogger Alex, who couldn't come to WorldCon because of Fiscal Realities of New Home vs. Sincere Desire. So other than some interesting panels (climate change in science fiction and fantasy, readings by Amal El-Mohtar and Annalee Newitz, while I can say that pigeonholing fantasy genres is not for me!) the author signings and beloved kaffeeklatsches, the latter limited to ten people, are the definitely the most exciting thing about WorldCon.
I was fortunate to attend Amal El-Mohtar's kaffeeklatsch. Amal spoke more with everyone about various life things and adventures rather than about her work. She quite successfully tried to engage all of us in attendance with info about ourselves. The following day I attended her reading from her Hugo Award-winning short story Seasons of Iron and Glass, which turns the princess trope on end by giving us young women who rescue themselves. I was very struck in her reading about her poignant experience in writing short stories steeped in mythos that was not reflective of her heritage as associated with her name but was reflective of her literary heritage in terms of what she had grown up reading. Her description of being told by a dear friend that she should write about what she knows, implying an Arabic mythos, instead of a Celtic mythos was a thought-provoking lesson about not really understanding an author's experience and perspective. From Amal's perspective what she knew was the Celtic folk and fairy tales she'd grown up reading. They were her experience! (More on such paradigm shifts later.) In any case, this made me reflect upon the poignant interface between your heritage and what you read, as expressed in her moving short story The Truth About Owls.
Next up was a fun and fascinating kaffeeklatsch with Max Gladstone, wherein we discussed writing, The Craft Sequence and a bit about why Elayne Kevarian is the way she is. Max cited a sort of PTSD stemming from the cumulative effects of her experience leading her to a place where she isn't exactly cold, but she is very careful about how she responds or makes herself vulnerable. Max was a real delight to listen to, and the next day at his signing I was able to ask him discreetly about the weird situation with his series not being fully available in audiobook and whether Tor.com, which is taking over publishing of Craft will be contracting for audiobooks. He mentioned that he has little control but that he and his agent were interested in audiobook publishers and did I know a good one? (Brilliance Audio is a good one!) I told him he ought to be talking to Mary Robinette Kowal, who, did you know, gives advice about both narrating audiobooks and audio publishers on her Patreon?
I also got to meet Fran Wilde and Carrie Vaughn at their signings. Fran Wilde confirmed how stoked she was to continue writing in the world of her Hugo Award finalist short story The Jewel and Her Lapidary and the deeply creepy short work The Topaz Marquise. I asked Carrie Vaughn whether her moving short story That Game We Played During the War, one of my favorite short stories read in 2016, was truly a standalone. Her answer was an interesting one- the story started as a fragment of a novel but she couldn't get the book to work. What she was most interested in was the interaction between those two central characters and not as much the world and the circumstances. She tried several times to make it into a book and ended up with that one kernel of their story as a powerful short story. It certainly worked as a short! I was moved to tears by that story. You can read it here on Tor.com.
As I mentioned above, one of the most important things I got out of this Con was a paradigm shift. First, there was that moment of hearing Amal describing being hurt that someone mistook her name as her literary experience. Do we mistakenly look at an author's name and think they will be writing to their heritage? That Nnedi Okorafor is only going to write about Nigeria or that Amal El-Mohtar is going to write about Arabic fantasy? Your name shouldn't define what we expect you to write! Second, there was a great conversation I had with Estonian and Russian freelance translator and writer Andrei Tuch. I asked him about Andrus Kivirähk's book The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a book I reviewed in 2016 and about which I had many conflicting feelings as a possible representation of Estonian culture. The book was a highly sexist folktale-inspired story that pairs the opposing force of a more pagan, forest style of living against that of a Christian, agrarian lifestyle (bread is the temptation here, not the proverbial apple). Well, Andrei kind of spun my head around with the idea that Kivirähk, who, of course, probably never contemplated being translated into English and being read in America while writing the book, was giving the Estonian reader social commentary, if not criticism, on Estonian society, its sexism, and its fear, self-loathing and small-mindedness. All this was totally lost in translation for me as an American reader. And that should give us all food for thought- what is lost when we translate not just a language but a culture? I was so sorry to have missed Andrei's panel on translation of names. To give a simplistic example, think of the connotation of names in Harry Potter. Take Malfoy, for instance. Or Umbridge? How are you going to get those names to convey the underlying character's nature in say... Russian or Japanese or Hebrew? And speaking of Hebrew, I had a delightful time with the husband and wife team of small translation publisher based in Tel Aviv, husband and wife Henry and Ella Harel. My friend Gloria and I enjoyed a lovely side trip to Tallinn, Estonia with Ella. (I have to go back! It was really lovely!) I also had some interesting discussions with Harry about the difficulties inherent in translating cultural aspects in novels. Some books lose so much in translation. So when you read a book that has been translated into English, maybe you really shouldn't exclusively judge fault with the author but with your own lack of experience with the milieu that the author may be writing in and capturing perfectly. Andrei, I have taken so much away from our conversation!
The other high point of the WorldCon was, of course, the Hugo Awards, which were exciting enough to live tweet. I was thrilled when Seanan McGuire won for Every Heart a Doorway, and when Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life won over Hidden Figures, which I am still annoyed was even nominated for a Science Fiction award because WOMEN DOING SCIENCE ISN'T FICTION, PEOPLE!!! (Sorry for getting a bit carried away on that point, but I've still got a hornet's nest under my bonnet on this one...) I was so happy for Amal El-Mohtar (though a bit sad for Carrie Vaughn, whose story I loved). But most of all, I was so utterly thrilled for Nora K. Jemisin winning back to back, for The Obelisk Gate. As readers of my reviews know, All the Birds in the Sky was not my favorite book. All the Birds had cleaned up at the Nebula Awards and Locus Awards and I really thought it was going to win the Hugo, as well. My two favorites of the finalists were Obelisk Gate and Becky Chambers' delightful A Closed and Common Orbit. (I struggled over third place between Ninefox Gambit and Too Like the Lightning.) Jemisin is only the third author to have won back to back Hugo Awards for Best Novel since the award's inception in the 1950's. It was exciting to see that the fans selected Jemisin for this honor. It was a firm, and hopefully final, salvo to the Sad and Rabid Puppies of Sci-Fi/Fantasy that writer diversity and work reflecting diverse real world denizens, are here to stay. (By the way, did I mention that whenever Vox Day, Castralia House nominees or other Puppy affiliates were announced in the finalist lists that the audience was largely dead silent, as opposed to applauding all the other nominees?)
Meanwhile, thankfully, my boychik Pushkin is on the mend. He still has a feeding tube but I can finally catch my breath and think about how interesting the WorldCon was, without thinking about it as That Time My Cat Nearly Died When I Was Off Playing in Helsinki.
P.S. Can I just say that the lines for George R. R. Martin to sign his books were the longest I've ever seen for any author? Ye gads! He must have been exhausted afterwards and he signed on two different days!