Category Archives: Dig Deeper

22 Aug

Paneling while light, but not white

I just got back from London, and would love to be uploading pictures and talking about two weeks spent in Europe, but I’m catching up on bills and getting into the swing of work. And my kids start Kindergarten. And the dogs need picked up. So I’ll be a little late.

However, a few people have pinged me about a couple of blog posts that reacted to the panel “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding.”

London Worldcon had a fascinating vein of programming with an openness to discussion about diversity, challenging status quo, and world viewpoints. Noticeably more so than past Worldcons. It’s a far cry from the first time I attended a worldcon, and there was just a sole obligatory ‘race in SF’ panel and that was the one (maybe only, outside corridor meet ups) place to find this discussion.

This panel was another one of London Worldcon’s varied pieces of interesting programming. It featured Mary Anne Mohanraj, me, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victoria Donnelly, and Ellen Kushner. The panel description goes thusly:

Fantasy world-building sometimes comes under fire for its pedantic attention to detail at the expense of pacing or prose style. Do descriptive passages clog up the narrative needlessly, when reader imagination should be filling in the gaps? Where does that leave the landscapes and cultures that are less well represented in the Western genre: can world-building be a tool in subverting reader expectations that would otherwise default to pseudo-medieval Euro-esque? If fantasy is about defamiliarising the familiar, how important is material culture – buildings, furnishings, tools, the organisation of social and commercial space – in creating a fantasy world?

Two people in the audience were a bit taken aback. Blogger Not By Its Cover (I’m not sure of their name) was upset when I demurred talking about being ‘light but not white’ for the panel and was pressed by panelists to keep on the subject:

He repeatedly said in his response that he doesn’t usually like to talk about his experiences of race, that people outside the Caribbean find his presence in discussions of race disturbing and confusing, that he doesn’t have the energy to deal with that, and that he does not want to be an educator. What enraged me was that, in response to his saying this, a couple of his fellow panelists exclaimed that he absolutely should participate in discussions of race precisely because people found it so problematic and that even if he didn’t wish to participate…

Kate Nepveu also noticed this and commented on it in her panel notes.

So on this panel, I talked about the fact that looking white but not identifying as such due to my bi-racial background complicated discussions. I’m happy to engage in this in some situations and in certain contexts where I known I don’t have an audience that’s still struggling with race 101 level stuff, but for the panel itself I didn’t come prepared and wasn’t expecting to become a focus of the panel. Partly because I came a bit more prepared to talk about what went into creating a fantasy world and how it’s done more deeply, and because I wanted to interrogate and poke at pseudo-medieval constructs.

So, the panel swerved to a bit more of ‘how we authors’ try to deepen work and use our backgrounds to do it. Panels swerve quite often, but I was unprepared for this and tried to demur. I was tired, as I’d just come out of three weeks of travel (promoting Hurricane Fever, teaching a workshop, then a week in Spain, and finally London Worldcon). My ability to switch tracks wasn’t there, I was very exhausted. I was also trying to monitor the panel’s conversational flow and make sure the sole non-writer on the panel, our archeologist Victoria Donnelly, who was making her first appearance at a science fiction panel, was not overrun by us authors and our opinions (even though I was sure Mary Anne wouldn’t do that, I wanted to make sure, as I thought Victoria had a very interesting background we could gain a lot from).

So I demurred, and the panel thought that I might have interested things to say and they…

…keep in mind Mary Anne and Kate and have known me a while…

…pulled a bit at me.

On the panel itself the fact that the audience felt my reticence and responded was not surprising. I didn’t want to talk about the complications of being light not white as a working writer right there because sometimes I have to carefully consider the impacts of my words. And I was tired. So I was worried about making mistakes.

But we muddle our way through. I wasn’t upset with Mary Anne or any of my panelists at the time, just momentarily trying to change the entire set of ‘stories’ and conversations I had arrived with loaded into my mental ready-state.

So why was I reticent?

It’s that if I get up and talk about my struggles, in some cases I can easily negate the even harder struggles others have. Look, I look and ‘read’ white to most people (including non-whites). I therefore complicate discussions about diversity due to living in a culture that takes race as binary. Look, I see the president of the US and see a bi-racial dude from a mixed family background. Most Americans are all like ‘dude’s black.’ And so are a lot of non-white Americans.

So I roll up and talk about how it’s personally annoying when people of all kinds don’t want to recognize me as bi-racial and that’s sometimes problematic. Here are writers struggling far more than I have who come from a legacy and background of far more vicious racism than can be even sometimes explained. So what if I’m left off most lists of diverse SF writers. Boo hoo, right? (And this has mostly been on my mind because I’ve been told by some that I’ve been taken out of articles or such for not being ‘properly diverse’ and just as someone who wants to be part of the tribe of diverse SF/F authors doing amazing things it pains to be excluded on a personal level, but on a larger societal level, shit, injustices against the people of diversity is vastly larger) People read me different than I read myself, I’ve been dealing with that for 35 years. It’s cool. But trying to talk about the complexities of it mean I can inadvertently suppress other narratives, right? I don’t get the *right* to say who gets on a list of diverse writers or how I’m considered at large, I can only keep conversing and trying to add to diversity and talk up good things. So when someone suddenly asks about the complicated nature of how I’m perceived or received in genre, or what my struggle has been, I freeze.

But even as that happens, I also get annoyed with narratives that try to require me to fit into a certain ‘type’ of diversity. It seems the white power structures like immigrant narratives and magical realism from brown-identifying folk. Man, is that ever true, and even allies can fit into this. There’s been a heavy pressure on me to drop doing the action and to write about magical immigrants. I’ve been offered book deals and better money, and it’s funny, I’ve had three editors in the last ten years point blank sketch out the outline of the same novel: immigrant from the Caribbean arrives in the US and does something magically realist.

So, you know, it’s complicated. I’m writing Caribbean Space Opera and have had historically black media *and* white editors tell me they’ll pay attention when I do a magical realist book and I want to keep doing what I’m doing and I’m slowly building this wide audience of people who are digging diverse characters in high octane adventures. Do I want to appear not grateful to make a living doing what I’m doing in public? No. I’m building something, and I’m trying to make sure I spend less time annoyed with people who don’t get what I’m up to and more time sharing excitement with those who totally get it!

So let’s end this positively. I’m all good. The panel was fascinating and was a sign of a fantastic convention (for me at least, I didn’t get to a ton of panels). I was delighted to be up there with amazing minds. And I’m impressed that the audience felt defensive on my part and thank them, but I bear no ill-will or negative feelings towards any of the panelists.

02 Jul

NRG CEO says solar will be competitive with local electricity in half the states in the US starting next year!

Some utility companies are starting to realize what’s happened abruptly over the last couple years:

“David Crane, who runs NRG Energy, says that in fully half the states of the union, electricity from residential solar panels will be cost-competitive with that delivered by local electric utilities by next year.

DON’T MISS: Will Solar Panels Destroy Electric Utilities’ Business Model? Yes, They Say

Crane was quoted two weeks ago in a blog post by Navigant Research, which focused on his company’s aggressive efforts to migrate to solar power for a growing portion of its portfolio.”

(Via Residential Solar Competitive With Electricity In 25 States Next Year: NRG CEO.)

I guess he’s just a hippy green type.

Interestingly, a few energy companies are spinning off all their alternative energy portfolios into brand new companies called YieldCos. Sort of like rats deserting a sinking ship.

Not only that, but they’re doing it in a clever way. The parent company gives them to right to acquire their alternative energy assets that they build in the future, thus taking up the mantle of up front capital that the newer, smaller company can’t sustain. The smaller company then sets up to funnel profits back to shareholders and parent company (sort of a quick and dirty master limited partnership).

While MLPs structures have a long history, if you assume dirty fossil fuel will collapse in the long run, it’s also a great way to shelter assets so that the green division’s ability to generate profit and income isn’t taken out in a collapse. Hedge your bets by granting stock in the new yieldco.

I’ve found the sudden interest in yeildcos on Wall Street interesting. Because, you always follow the money. And when the money wakes up to the basic facts on dirty electricity generation, it gets fairly fascinating.

Speaking of which, Barclays just downgraded the entire electric utility sector.

Guess why?

Electric utilities… are seen by many investors as a sturdy and defensive subset of the investment grade universe. Over the next few years, however, we believe that a confluence of declining cost trends in distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation and residential-scale power storage is likely to disrupt the status quo. Based on our analysis, the cost of solar + storage for residential consumers of electricity is already competitive with the price of utility grid power in Hawaii. Of the other major markets, California could follow in 2017, New York and Arizona in 2018, and many other states soon after.

In the 100+ year history of the electric utility industry, there has never before been a truly cost-competitive substitute available for grid power. We believe that solar + storage could reconfigure the organization and regulation of the electric power business over the coming decade. We see near-term risks to credit from regulators and utilities falling behind the solar + storage adoption curve and long-term risks from a comprehensive re-imagining of the role utilities play in providing electric power.

The question isn’t whether we’ll be transitioning. It’s how fast, and who gets rich off the change?

20 Jun

A voice from the Islands: Stephanie Saulter talks about her novel Gemsigns

Gemsigns 12 9 133

Stephanie Saulter‘s first book, Gemsigns, is available in the UK and Commonwealth and in the US from Jo Fletcher Books. It arrived not too long ago on my doorstep, and I asked Stephanie if she’d like to post on this blog because I thought my readers might be interested in her work (see Boing Boing’s excerpt of the novel here).

Stephanie has a Caribbean connection, like me. And has had some very similar experiences visiting the US.

Read on:


Gemsigns has made it to America, almost thirty years after I did. I’ve been contemplating that fact a lot lately. Although it’s been well received everywhere, I’ve observed with interest the way reactions to the book differ between the United Kingdom, where I’ve lived for over a decade now and where the story is set, and the United States, where I went to university and lived and worked for many years. Above all it’s been a revelation to discover just how much of what I ended up embedding in the novel can be traced in a straight line back to what was embedded into me, when I came to America all those years ago.

One of the things that every incoming freshman in 1988 received was a work of fiction: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to be precise (it wasn’t my year but I somehow ended up with a copy anyway). It was part of a program to try to encourage a broader range of interests, and in particular an appreciation for the arts and humanities, amongst a resolutely nerdy student body who tended to focus exclusively on their core math, science and engineering subjects. The initiative aimed to develop social and political awareness, alongside scientific and technological expertise. There were concerns about what I remember being called ‘the arrogance of intellect’ – the sense that exceptional academic ability confers a kind of entitlement to do whatever you like, to follow the threads of your curiosity and ambition wherever they may take you, regardless of the impact on others; indeed, the feeling that consequences are for other people.

The university’s response? A recognition of fiction’s ability to provoke the imagination; to unsettle and challenge; to ask difficult questions about the consequences of wealth, and arrogance, and entitlement. To engage instead of harangue, persuade instead of criticise. To speak truth to power.

It was one of the most potent lessons I learned as a college student. It’s stayed with me.

Another lesson soon learned was about race, and appearance, and expectation. I’m from Jamaica, and one of the most common refrains I heard back then (and to this day) was, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were white Jamaicans!’ – Uttered always by some white person, regarding me as though I were a pleasingly exotic discovery.
‘There are, but I’m not one,’ I would (and still do) reply. ‘My family is mixed race. I just happen to be on the vanilla end.’ This would be greeted, more often than not, by a stunned silence. I had no idea why anyone found it so shocking, until an African-American friend explained things to me.

‘You could pass,’ she said bluntly (and then had to explain what ‘passing’ meant). ‘No one would know if you didn’t tell them. In this country, having even the smallest amount of black ancestry means you are black. Period. You’re choosing that.’

Given that the majority of people reading this post will likely be Americans, I don’t imagine I have to explain the significance of that apparent choice. What was a simple matter of fact for me – like having brown eyes not green – was in the minds of others a hugely impactful decision to reject privilege. It gave me a strangely honorary status. It opened my eyes. Although Jamaica is also a country of great and grave inequalities, it was in America that I really learnt about the politics of race.

That lesson’s stayed with me too.

So, on to the ®Evolution. When I set out to write the story that would end up being Gemsigns, I knew that every aspect of the plot would turn on how people dealt with difference. In my near-future, post-apocalyptic scenario, genetically modified humans – ‘gems’ – have only recently been emancipated from a system euphemistically referred to as indenture but in truth little different from slavery; they’d been the property of the biotech corporations that created them. These pillars of industry have now, essentially, been asset-stripped. The gems have received their liberty, but little else. The norm population is facing an influx of people into their communities whom they’ve mostly only dealt with at arms length, if at all, and have been brought up to think of as other, alien, inferior, and often dangerous.

The result is massive social and economic upheaval, public unrest, and general uncertainty. Emancipation is all well and good, but what form should freedom take? What’s the best course for the gems – to assimilate, slip into the norm population and hide the truth of their origins? For some, whose visible differences amount to no more than their glowing, jewel-coloured hair, this may be possible – though not necessarily agreeable. For others, whose anatomy has been more radically altered or whose minds have been too terribly damaged, it isn’t an option. And what about the norm majority? Public sentiment may have turned against the indenture system, but that doesn’t mean there’s any kind of consensus about what should replace it. Should gems continue to live and work separately? Should integration be encouraged? What about the threat from gems harbouring deep resentments, and possibly even deeper psychosis? Might norm fears not be justified?

It sounds like I must have mapped it out, doesn’t it? Drawn up a chart of the politics and prejudices of the real world, and then ticked them off as I created equivalent scenarios in my invented one. I swear to you I did not do that. It wasn’t until quite late on in the editing process that it even began to dawn on me just how much this tale of a possible future drew on the realities of the present, and the past. And in fact I’ve heard from many readers who’ve enjoyed the book without noticing any parallels with the history of the Caribbean or the American South; or who, if they relate the gem/norm dynamic to contemporary events at all, see connections with local controversies around European immigration or economic inequality.

Of course those parallels are just as accurate as any other, but I suspect it was what bled into my awareness back in the 1980s that led, a generation later, to my imagined tale of the 22nd century. Because what I learned then, and what I know now, is this: We tell stories in order to understand the world. Stories are where we replay past events, and test future possibilities. They give us a way to examine our prejudices, our fears, our hopes and our dreams. They are how we map uncharted territory to the terrain we know, and thereby find a safer path. They’re where we can tell each other, and ourselves, the truths that are sometimes too hard to speak. They are the sleeper agents of the unconscious.

Hello, America. I’m back. I wrote a story. I hope you like it.



Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she earned her degree at MIT and spent fifteen years in the USA before moving to the UK in 2003. Her first novel, Gemsigns, was published there in 2013 and released in the US in 2014. The second, Binary, is already out in the UK and will be released in the US next spring. Gemsigns and Binary are the first two books of the ®Evolution trilogy, and are set in a near future London, in the aftermath of a pandemic which required human genetic modification in order to prevent extinction. The novels take a look at the conflicts, compromises and relationships between the different types of human that result.

05 Jun

A voice from the Islands: R.S.A Garcia talks about how she came to write her science fiction novel Lex Talionis

I recently asked R.S.A Garcia if she wanted to take over my blog for a day to talk about her latest novel, LEX TALIONIS. I did it because I was getting ready to give it a shout out, then thought ‘why not let her tell you all about the book?’ Publishers Weekly recently called it a ‘stunning debut’ and gave the book a star. She’s gotten props from and SF Crowsnest, and hopefully those are the first of many reviews.

Now, this is something I don’t do too often, but I thought that if you read about her story, some of my readers might find some overlap with what I’ve been up to as well, as R.S.A Garcia hails from the south Caribbean (Trinidad).

Seriously, read on:


Thanks, Tobias, for giving me this opportunity to talk about my book, LEX TALIONIS, a space opera mystery that just launched from the small press, Dragonwell Publishing.


On one of Earth’s planetary outposts, a young woman dies–and is brought back to life by a mysterious alien.

Inside a military starship, a wounded soldier is stalked by an unseen enemy.

When Lex reawakens in a clinic, she doesn’t remember who she is, or who killed her. All she remembers is a phrase she does not understand. Lex Talionis. The law of revenge. Stripped of her past, Lex focuses on the only thing she can. Retribution. She will find the people who murdered her and she will make them pay.

What Lex doesn’t know is that she’s being hunted. The alien who saved her and the soldier fighting for survival are the keys to her past…and her future. She must discover what they know before the hunter finds her. Every clue brings her closer to powerful enemies. Everything she learns draws her nearer to the person who almost destroyed her.

The only man she has ever loved.


‘Lex Talionis’ is available on Kobo, Barnes and Noble and Dragonwell Publishing.



As a child I was a terrible bookworm. I preferred reading over sleeping, which frustrated my mother no end at bedtime. While my many cousins were out climbing mango trees, or plum trees, or guava trees (depending on the season), I would remain inside, devouring the latest Enid Blyton book, or Nancy Drew novel, or Hardy Boys mystery. When I did go outside, it wasn’t long before I wanted to go back in again, which made my cousins laugh at me and deride me as strange and weird.

I didn’t care. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t love books as much as I did. I thought they were the weird ones. I started writing stories at 8, and finished my first collection at 10. One of my stories was about a soap dish. Ground-breaking stuff, I tell you. Despite all this, I didn’t actually realise I wanted to be a writer until I was 14 and a school friend asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. As soon as I said it, my heart sank because I knew it was true, and I knew how impossible it was that a girl from a tiny West Indian island would ever publish the kind of stories I liked to read. I had no hope of ever leaving my island to go form ties with the right people in other countries, and no possibility of being discovered while at university in the UK or the USA. But I decided in that moment to do it anyway. I would become a writer, and I would be published.

Publication in the West Indies was all about post-colonial fiction. Our close ties to the Commonwealth and England had given a voice to many revered and talented authors who wrote contemporary literature, but no one wrote modern commercial fiction. That was the down and dirty stuff. The common stuff. Everyone wanted to be Derek Walcott and win a Nobel Prize.

I was different. I wanted to write stories. Absorbing stories. Heart-stopping stories. Stories that people actually bought from bookstores. Not the stories they read because it was on the school curriculum or because it was all the rage in certain circles.

And it wasn’t because I didn’t like the other kinds of stories. Are you kidding? You’ll never begin to understand the meaning of Carnival to Trinbagonian society until you read the amazing and poetic The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace. You haven’t been scared until you’ve read My Bones And My Flute by Edgar Mittelholzer. You haven’t laughed until you’ve read Samuel Selvon.

But the truth was, none of these writers made me save money for months to buy their stuff. No one lined up in bookstores to get their books. In my country, that honour was reserved for people like Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Alex Haley and VC Andrews.

And for people like me, the books that moved me were even less popular because they were about something West Indians somehow didn’t seem to think they were part of.

The future.

I spent my formative years in the library reading stories by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Katherine Kerr, Anne McCaffrey, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, L. Ron Hubbard, Margaret Weis and Ursula K. Le Guin. And don’t get me started on my fantasy list, or my mystery list, or my horror list, or any of the other genres I was into. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a lover of genre fiction. Even more importantly, I was in love with speculative fiction before I knew what it was.

My library was outdated, of course, so I didn’t even discover writers like Octavia Butler until I was an adult, after the Internet opened up the world to my corner of it. No, before the internet, I was eating a steady diet of people from other countries and other societies, and there weren’t that many women in those stories that were more than just the girl the hero gets.

I started thinking about that. Really thinking about it. Because a little known fact of the West Indies is that women rule here. We hold the family unit together. Grandmothers often babysit so mothers can go to work. Grandmother’s word is often the law, whether there is a grandfather or not. Strong women are the norm here, a holdover from the centuries of slavery and the splitting of the family unit that came with it. The children stayed with the women. So it was then and even now, it’s often the same. Wisdom is the old women in the neighbourhood. Families emphasize to girls that they have to get an education if they want to get up and out.

At the same time I started noticing how important the women in my family were to the family as a whole, I fell in love with space opera. Star Wars and Star Trek changed my world. Dr. Who was wildly popular in my school. Any story that featured multiple aliens and cultures had my attention. Was that because I was growing up in a society that was more cosmopolitan than most in the West Indies? Perhaps. Trinidad and Tobago is no Canada, certainly not in size, but it has a diverse population and I grew up with best friends who were East Indian, Chinese, American, Creole, Spanish and so many more. I am a black woman, but I am also East Indian, Chinese and Spanish, and that’s just what I know of up to my great-grandparents. The rest of my large family’s past is clouded by the centuries.

All I knew for sure was that I loved this. I loved thinking about the what ifs, and the future and the big ideas. I didn’t have much access to science articles or the latest advancements, but along came the internet and everything changed. Suddenly, my library wasn’t so outdated. And if it was, a simple search at my workplace after hours could change that. The stories I’d been writing had always had bits of my Trinbagonian heritage and mythology in it. Now I could branch out into the future too.

LEX TALIONIS was partially born of this. I wanted to write about a strong woman. I wanted her to be part of those space adventures that only men got to have in the books and movies I grew up with. I wanted to write a story about how it feels to be a small cog in a big machine, a tiny island in a big world. A story that came at the future from a slightly different angle–what if humanity was a tiny, unimportant world in a universe of strange and powerful races? What if we were discovered by the aliens and they didn’t want to blow up our seats of government, or take our planet–they wanted to trade? What if we spread out amongst these huge galaxies and almost no one knew that we carried within a singular bloodline the most important part of the universe’s future?

Yes, I cheated a little. Yes, I made humanity simultaneously important and not. But that reflects what I believe–that even the smallest amongst us has a purpose and can be important in the vast scheme of things, whatever their history. I think I’ve told a story about a strong woman, with an unusual background who overcomes her past and takes hold of her future.

It’s something the West Indies has done and is still struggling to do. We are struggling to find our place in the world and the discussion of power going on now. As a region, we are trying to make our voices heard over the more ‘important’ ones. To chart a course in a vast, unfamiliar world that touches ours more and more intimately every day. And I think, whether we are successful or not, we deserve a chance to talk about this journey, in our own words.

In the end, I hope that’s what LEX TALIONIS is. Part of a discussion on power and morals and so much else that society makes decisions on every day. A personal journey that looks into the dark side of humanity and tries to pin down what the light side is and isn’t–and how much that might matter to our future.


R.S.A. Garcia lives and works on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean with a large family and too many dogs.

Her debut novel, LEX TALIONIS, a science fiction mystery, is out now and has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and advanced praise from award-winning author, Elizabeth Bear.

You can find out more about the author at her website, She’s also usually hanging out on:

Twitter: @rsagarcia

28 May

An appreciation of Jim Hines

For no particular reason, I’d love to share with you the Guest of Honor appreciation that I wrote for Millenicon earlier this year in honor of Jim Hines being their guest.

Jim is one of my favorite human beings in the world, and I’ve known him for a long time. So when the folks at that convention asked if I’d write up the appreciation, I was genuinely excited.

Here we go:

So the humble task of writing a few words about this year’s amazing, multi-talented, Author Guest of Honor has fallen to me. And, although I’m told I shouldn’t let that get to my head, I have to say I’m pretty excited. I’ve never introduced a real life, honest-to-goodness Guest of Honor before! Oh, the things I could say. The power I’ve been given!

But I shall restrain myself.

I’ve known Jim Hines for-just about-ever, it feels. We’ve been soldiers in the finger-bloodied fields of writing, pulling each other across craters made by heavy verbs and dodging errant adjectives together since the very beginning. Jim’s a part of my cohort, the group of writers I have a special sort of regard for because we broke into the field at the same time. If ever there was a man I wanted covering my back with a keyboard at the ready, it would be Jim.

For Jim and me, boot camp was short story writing. We cut our chops selling our first short stories to the same magazine, Jackhammer, both in 1999. Basic training continued with Jim winning a Writers of the Future anthology slot that year (I managed to imitate him a year later), and we both shared the experience of shambling zombie stories through The Book of All Flesh anthology. Since then, Jim has gone on to see almost 50 more short stories appear in a variety of venues.
Jim answered the call of bookish duty with his first novel, Goblin Quest. An engagement I’m proud to say I witnessed. From that book’s first beginnings as a limited hardcover (I still have that version, I expect it to be worth a lot some day), to Jim’s joining the same agency I was in, it was cool to share his journey. Even when Jim was nervous about the ups and downs of negotiating the Goblin Quest’s sale, I never had any doubt he was heading out to become a strong voice, a leader in our field.

And what a leader. Let’s be clear, Jim’s been incredible for the field. His advocacy for equal rights and diversity in the field has started many conversations and helped us move into the new century. His gentle (and not so gentle) mocking of cover poses is renowned, but it’s just a more visible part of a conversation Jim’s been dedicated to since he was a volunteer at a rape crisis center long before he won a Hugo for striking a pose. His recent advocacy has not been something he took up recently, but a commitment for as long as I’ve known him.

However, while all of his success was the result of his hard work, his dedication, and none of his success is due to my friendship, I will say this: the leather jacket he wears?

Totally stolen from me. My idea. One hundred percent.

What can I say, Jim’s got impeccable taste.

Jim’s a good guy. A fun conversationalist. An engaging writer. A thoughtful essayist. Award-winner. And he’s my friend. Be sure to say hello to him. Because we’re all luckier for having him as our Guest of Honor.

15 May

I was recently invoked by The Abyss and Apex, and would like to talk to you about me, dialect, and Caribbean stories

I realize I’ve never talked that often about including dialect in my own fiction right here on this blog. Certainly in panels, and in interviews, and in passing. But I’ve never sat down and done a big post about it.

It was one of the hardest things about writing my first novel, Crystal Rain.

Me and my dialect

In 2004, when working on the first draft, ten years ago now, I was nine years away from living daily on the islands. The words were all still with me. A mix of dialect picked up from Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. And also a friend from Anguilla.

Mind you, as much as dialect was always around me, I was a semi-participant. I am a confusing individual. My father is Grenadian, my mother, British. I lived, for many of my years, aboard a boat. So even when growing up in the Caribbean, I often was isolated.

In Grenada, with some friends I would have an accent. With my mom, on the boat, I had an accent as well: received pronunciation, with some New Zealand (my mom grew up in England and New Zealand). With some friends I had that accent. To be honest, from learning how to speak to age 9, I never thought too much about it.

Hanging out with friends in the BVI I would slip into the dialect around me. That was usually happily accepted by my friends, but people would occasionally report back to mother (I saw your son today, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying) or upbraid me for not ‘speaking correctly.’ On the other side, some people in the BVI would give me grief for trying to talk like them.

When I moved to the USVI, I began to switch over to a somewhat mid-Atlantic American accent (I still struggle to pronounce France or aunt with a hard ‘aaaa’). Some friends would get the brunt of my Tortola-learned accent. But no matter what I spoke, many friends had dialects.

In the meantime, I was also learning Spanish pronunciation as well, from my neighbors.

Even to my friends in the USVI, I know that even when I had a slight accent they weren’t hearing it, but my college room mate was doing home work while I was on the phone to a friend back in the islands once, and by the end of the call he had stopped working and started staring at me. “Okay, now I really believe that’s where you came from,” he told me.

So in my head, I don’t know what I should sound like. But in 2004, I knew what I missed hearing: dialect. And I knew what I wanted to try to put to paper. Particularly as each year put me further and further away from the islands I missed and grew up in.

Writing dialect

But I had a few examples that inspired me. Literary fiction, Dickens and Twain, and a little bit of James Herriot.

I was told, in workshops and when reading books about how to write, over and over again that dialect was to be avoided.

But Dickens and Twain and a little bit of James Herriot, no?

In the Caribbean, I wasn’t given a lot of Caribbean dialect. Teachers there gave me canon, mainly.

But Dickens and Twain and a little bit of James Herriot, no?

And what about Clockwork Orange?

And what about…

I read an article where Dante was asked why he wrote in Italian instead of Latin. This when Italian was still called a dialect, a lower version of Latin. And he had a defense. And so did Chaucer for writing in English. And the more I delved into my English major, the more it seemed that, well, language is a big world.

People still used Shakespeare, which read differently to us now. That involved an old dialect that required me to work hard to get through it.

Writing Crystal Rain

As I wrote Crystal Rain, I did my best to bring in some of the rhythms and sound I grew up with. I knew in some ways I was trying to reinvent the wheel, and in some ways failing. Art is so imperfect, and filled with tough choices.

I tested out whole lengthy sections using spellings that replicated what I’d heard for dialect, phonetic spelling, new combinations. And I tested out ways where I used the words as they were, kind of, intended without the accent in the spelling. I tinkered, and tested, and played, and eventually settled on a system very similar to what Shakirah of Get Write covers here:

I attended a workshop were one facilitator was adamant that we should never “bastardise the English”, that is, spell the word how it is pronounced. She didn’t believe that we should use “tuh” for to, “yuh” for you, “de” for the, etc etc. She believed that if it sounded the same in Standard English, there was no need to change the spelling. Another facilitator was an advocate for writing dialect as it is spoken, because he believed that was the only way to make a true representation of the language, for example, “wunna” for you all, “wha” instead of what.

They both made good points.

I personally find it difficult to read full blocks of dialect, simply because there is no standard spelling, and we are taught to read in Standard English. I find it difficult to read newspaper columns written in full dialect like Cou-Cou and Flying Fish – it gives me a headache.

So, I made a compromise between the two. I rarely change the spelling of words that sound the same in Standard English, for example “de” for the, but then I also try to capture the rhythm of the language in how my sentences are structured. So a Barbadian person would read it and naturally hear the accent, and a foreigner would hopefully be able to hear that voice as well, but still be able to easily read the language.

That last paragraph is basically my approach. Trying to create something that allows both my readerships to plug in, with my Caribbean readers ‘getting’ an accent that I’m hinting at.

I don’t always succeed for either side, I’ve had some Caribbean readers feel I missed the mark. I’ve had non-Caribbean readers complain I make things too hard (they should see the drafts I first created).

I came to this decision after almost two years of playing with drafts of Crystal Rain, and folded it into my general approach. But let me tell you, it was not made lightly or easily, nor am I fully convinced I got it perfect. It was the best, and is the best, that I can do. It works with me, my fiction, and the stories I’m trying to tell. It’s one way of doing it.

In some ways, I know using any dialect lost me readers. I know it’s made it harder to sell books (I know this particularly for translation sales, I’ve had some very honest discussions with people who’ve read the books overseas but say they can’t buy them to translate because of the dialect). I know in some ways, I’m not quite capturing the Caribbean just so. It’s an imperfect piece of art…

…but it’s *my* imperfect piece of art. I made all the decisions in Crystal Rain, for better or worse. I made the calls. I bear all the responsibility. And even though it was hard to sell, I’ve made a career on the books and my mission of adventure and characters from varying backgrounds. I wanted to see a book *just like this* exist, and now it does. And the proudest moments of my life have been reading these books on Caribbean soil to Caribbean readers, and talking to readers of diverse backgrounds who saw what I was doing and got in the game.

On Being Invoked

It became important to write all this because recently my name was invoked in an article titled ‘Authentic Voice, or Clarity?’ at The Abyss & Apex.

…1) the author they acquired a story from, Celeste Baker, is someone I’ve read before and so recognized the name. She has two previous Caribbean stories with fantastic elements in them.

The first one is from the Caribbean Literary magazine Calabash, based out of NYC, Jumbie from Bordeaux (and if you’re from the Caribbean you can see the fantastic right in the title). A snippet:

I strut off to find everybody, hands in me pockets like a big man. Plantation quiet quiet. Even though I don’t like to get up, I like de morning cause de air smell like it just bathe. We high up from de sea but when de morning breeze blow it bring de sea smell.

More recently, Celeste also published a story that I linked to on twitter called Single Entry in Moko Magazine:

Carnival time come, and I a single entry. I not in any troup or nothing. I just parading in me costume, all by meself. Everybody asking me what song dat is and where me music coming from. I tell dem I write de song, which is true, and it coming from a iPod and dese little speakers ringing me North and South Poles, which not true. I projecting de song from me core, but dey ain’t need to know dat.

So, I hope a few more people read Celeste’s stories and get to see what she’s doing with dialect there. I really dug it, I hope she continues writing more and that she contributes more to our field.

My next reaction is to this phrase in the editorial:

We looked to Grenadian author Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose) as an example of an author who used authentic island patois without overwhelming the story to the point where he alienated a large portion of his non-Caribbean readers.

2) I am *an* example. That’s it. *An.* And an imperfect one at that. I hope I’ve made that clear via my history, my explanations above, and showing you my compromises.

Because the way I do it is not the only way, nor is it the right way, or the best way, or more commercial way. It’s just my middling negotiation with my art and my career and my own path.

If there’s one thing I hope to get out of this, is that I don’t want to see myself invoked as the ‘safe’ or ‘smart’ or ‘best’ way to be any kind of Caribbean writer. I’m *one* path and that’s it. It was only because other people took risks and departed from the usual paths that I had the courage to do what I did. I hope to show the same. If I’m held up like this, it subverts that.

Please do not hold me up in this way. For one, it is dangerous to other writers seeking to find their voices. It’s dangerous to me, as you sell me out as a brick in the wall. And it adds to a potentially dangerous view that there is a proper way to do dialect at all. I’m one way, and I’m always flattered and humbled when I’m held up as an example. But only that. *An* example.

Please, please do not ever use me as an excuse to change dialect or the way someone speaks. I’m a suggestion. A possibility. A way.

And that is it. That is all I can say for myself.

Is dialect too much for science fiction readers?

My first reaction is always back to Junot Diaz:

“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

But also, are science fiction readers now fragile, trembling people with such delicate sensitivities that some dialect is going to ruin them? Mainstream readers are completely able to handle this. As assistant editor Tonya Liburd, herself of Trini background, ably points out, mainstream readers today currently are able to handle Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

Here’s Trainspotting, which is written in Scottish dialect:


That’s entirely a valid choice. And in now way does it invalidate the novel in question, nor has it hurt the novel’s accessibility or readership.

So if mainstream readers can read that, are science fiction readers somehow less courageous? Less literate?

To be honest, I think that’s a bit unfair to science fiction readers. Probably, it would be best to let them decide.

Back to this editorial

So back to this Abyss and Apex article, which people keep asking me about.

The assistant editor, Tonya, who is Caribbean, has editorialized her experience of trying to birth a story from a writer of Caribbean and trying to navigate Wendy’s confusion with the accent. There are some interesting exchanges in the narrative here:

I found myself completely code-switching when I had to talk to Wendy while reading the submitted story for inconsistencies and nitpicks. But we got it done. And then this controversy arose.

I talked to Wendy about the point well made with Shakirah Bourne’s GetWrite article “On Dialect – How Caribbean people supposed tuh talk in a story, eh?”

Wendy then promptly mentioned the example of George MacDonald, which she goes into detail in her section, above.

So the chief editor put on the brakes with this example of a Scottish novel from 1900, 114 years ago, to demonstrate that making the dialect ‘more accessible’ helped the novel sell more copies than when it first came out.

This is a horrible example, because this happened 114 years ago. At the height of a time when dialects were looked down upon, nay, even suppressed. But the more recent example of Trainspotting is ignored when Tonya points to an article that references it.

That’s… pretty awkward.

Tonya didn’t initially want to be included in the editorial. Again, the awkwardness comes across here:

She started talking about a judicious use of spice in food as an analogy for accents; I said, “But then spice is seen as an ethnic thing isn’t it?” So again…

Then Wendy got frustrated. “I’m feeling like a failure (about handling accents and racial issues).”

I said, “Yer not a failure! Why are you feeling like that?”

“Because I don’t seem to be quite getting the cultural context of what you’re saying.”

So, I wasn’t a fly on the wall when this happened. But if Tonya is representing this exchange fairly, it’s another extremely awkward moment. Because I believe the focus is all wrong. This isn’t about Wendy. This is about the story, and the dialect. Can it work, is it worth the (possible, but I think entirely surmountable based on Trainspotting’s success) ‘challenge’ of the dialect? Are they committed to publishing the piece, yes or no? Instead, Wendy is upset because she feels like a ‘failure’ but that’s not the point of all this.

Some people refer to this as White Womens Tears phenomena, when a white woman gets uncomfortable and begins to get upset about a tricky situation (or outright racism).

Please do not read this as me calling Wendy racist. I’ve only met her a few times and barely know her. The Abyss and Apex folk, as far as I can tell, have been cool cats about building up some careers of writers of color and international voices. However, the tactic of getting frustrated and making it all about your pain, and your feelings when trying to get through a complicated conversation like the above: that’s not fair to the work or the person of color trying to educate you.

But to be honest, I wouldn’t have fixated on it, if it weren’t for Wendy’s introduction:

Would you accuse me, a woman with the maiden name of Campbell, of “racism” because she found the thick, authentic Scottish accents in the original novel obscured the story? Then let’s not complain that a reviewer felt that over-using phonetic dialect in a story was, in her opinion, a flaw.

So, there are two things being conflated here. Wendy is trying to pre-empt accusations of being a racist for asking the story have the dialect watered down, and she’s trying to defend a reviewer at Strange Horizons who was recently taken to task for being dismissive of dialect.

So now we’re looking at a mess of an editorial that really isn’t an editorial, really, but a defense against being called racist and a defense of that other review.

Make of that what you will. Mostly I feel very awkward for Tonya getting caught in the middle and being asked to change the story. She seems to have tried to do her best in an awkward situation. I’d hate to see Tonya take heat, as far as I know she’s the only Caribbean assistant editor in the field. I also am curious to see how the author felt about all this, and whether this was a positive experience or as awkward as it looked. The power differential for both Tonya and the author is unbalanced, as the author is trying to get published and make the sale, and Tonya trying to be an assistant editor.

Mostly I see a train wreck that could have been avoided by focusing on making the story be the best it could be, and not focusing on whether it was ‘accessible.’ Abyss and Apex, after all, publishes poetry, which is often not ‘accessible’ and requires work to be read. Sometimes art is a little challenging. And that’s okay. We don’t need to buff out the diamond’s edges for it to be worth something. We need to cut it to let it shine.

And those are my thoughts.

21 Jan

Dear Mr. Gee: you don’t punch down

This is pretty fucked up:

“Henry Gee is an editor at Nature magazine. I’ve met him: he’s smart, he’s interesting, he’s extremely opinionated and often obnoxious, so we have at least one of those things in common. He and Dr Isis have a long-running feud — it may have begun with Gee publishing an awful piece of short fiction called Womanspace, or it may have been something to do with an argument at Science Online, but I don’t know and don’t care.

But now it has blown up in ways that are ultimately going to be damaging to Gee. Dr Isis is a pseudonymous blogger and scientist, and rather vindictively, Gee has outed her. Why? Because she was mean to him.”

(Via Oh, Henry » Pharyngula.)

I’m a science nerd, I even considered a degree down that direction, but realized my passion more aligned with spending time with story. But Nature was one of the magazines I used to pore over in the library, or when I hung out at the college’s science center. I had two stories published there, and it was really one of those full circle, realized dreams moments.

However, I after reading the links and following this up, I can’t in good conscience say that I’d feel comfortable supporting or submitting my work there again given what is done to those who bring criticism.

Criticism is healthy. Henry Gee is in a position of power, and as I’ve said before, you don’t use power to punch down. Mr. Gee did exactly that.

Punching down is a concept in which you’re assumed to have a measurable level of power and you’re looking for a fight. Now, you can either go after the big guy who might hurt you, or go after the little guy who has absolutely no shot. Either way, you’ve picked a fight, but one fight is remarkably more noble and worthwhile than the other. Going after the big guy, punching up, is an act of nobility. Going after the little guy, punching down, is an act of bullying.

I’m far from a prominent scientist, or a major SF figure. But I don’t think I care to be associated with this.

Fuck this shit. I’m out.

You won’t be seeing anything from me in Nature in the future.

01 Oct

American healthcare was already socialized by Reagan, we’re just fighting about how to pay for it

Today the US government shut down. Ostensibly by Tea Party Republicans to try and stop socialized medicine from becoming a reality. In fact, false equivalence reporting has lent an air of respectability to the effort (they might be fighting a losing battle, and the polls are low for congress and Republicans, but they’re fighting for their minority opinion).

By the way, false equivalency is when you’re a news organization and someone says ‘our party believes the world is round’ and you have someone on saying ‘the world is flat’ and the reporter says ‘opinions differ’ and offers you poll results about what people believe after the two talking heads hash out why the world may or may not be flat.

So here we are.

But the fact is, US medicine has been socialized since the year 1986.


In 1986, President Ronald Reagan passed a bill called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, or EMTALA.

See, up until 1986, hospitals and doctors could turn people away if they didn’t have the money. So could emergency rooms.

Let’s repeat that.

Up until 1986, in the USA, hospitals could turn a dying person away at the door if they didn’t have money, or refuse to treat.

As you can imagine, costs were kept down.

In 1986, Republicans passed EMTALA. What did EMTALA do? It socialized healthcare and made emergency rooms just like police, or firemen, or roads. It said people showing up on a door step of an ER dying *could not be refused* treatment.

Why did this happen. Because patients were being, literally dumped, by hospitals to prevent having to assume the expense of treating them:

Congress passed EMTALA to combat the practice of “patient dumping,” i.e., refusal to treat people because of inability to pay or insufficient insurance, or transferring or discharging emergency patients on the basis of high anticipated diagnosis and treatment costs. The law applies when an individual has a medical emergency “and a request is made on the individual’s behalf for examination or treatment for a medical condition.”

Here’s what that looked like on the ground:

Ron Anderson, M.D., president and CEO of Parkland Memorial Health and Hospital System in Dallas, was the medical director of the emergency department at Parkland in the early 1980s, and he knew all about dumping. “I would see patients transferred with knives still in their backs, or women giving birth at the door of the hospital, simply because they were uninsured.”

These, and many other shocking incidents, caught the attention of the CBS investigative show 60 Minutes, which, on March 17, 1985, broadcast an episode titled “The Billfold Biopsy,” about the dumping of unstabilized patients at Parkland.

So basically, Ronald Reagan set up hospital emergency rooms as socialized healthcare, and then…

…didn’t fund them.

It’s an unfunded mandate.

So it’s illegal to let patients die on your doorstep. A step forward in society (Reagan at the time said it allied with American’s Christian principles and his own). But the Republicans of the time never paid for it. They kicked that particular can down the road.

As a result, hospitals saw emergency room visits drastically increase. Insurance companies, because many of the uninsured used emergency rooms as care (to which they’re legally allowed, it’s how to collect the payment later that’s in issue), try to refuse to pay for the increase. Hospitals got clever at burying costs into healthy patient’s procedures, or anywhere else.

The system gets distorted.

So we already have socialized healthcare, it’s just that the hospitals, the government, and the insurance companies are all putting their fingers on their noses and saying ‘not it!’ due to that single fact: the 1986 bill was an unfunded mandate.

The thing is, one way or another, we do pay for it. Via taxes. Via higher costs of procedures. Via too much red tape caused by this giant game of ‘not it.’

Because of EMTALA.

Hillary Clinton tried to create a way to pay for it, so that all citizens chipped in. It looked too socialized. The Heritage Foundation suggested that all citizens just be forced to carry health insurance, and that if it cost too much for poor people the government chip in a little. Much like using the road (only, because the road is ‘being alive’ everyone has to have car/health insurance because you can’t get off the road, except for by dying), everyone has to have insurance. Massachusetts adopted this model, and it’s not perfect, but it’s way better than the current situation.

Obamacare imitates the Heritage and Massachusetts model. But it’s being fought by anti-Obama Tea Party folk because it’s socialism.

No son. Socialized medicine arrived in 1986.

What is being fought out is a case of ‘will we now be fiscally responsible about the socialized medicine that Ronald Reagan signed into law or will we continue using the expensive, unfunded mandate via emergency room payment system that has been a mess since 1986?’

The current House Republicans claim to be fighting socialized healthcare. If they were, I’d respect their ideological position. But none of them are filibustering or trying to repeal EMTALA. I haven’t seen a single attempt to repeal EMTALA by any of them.

So stopping the government, all the fits thrown this week, all this misery and the high, high cost of this shutdown to the economy, will come merely because Republicans refused to pay for a mandate their party created in 1986. (also, if you’re a Republican or Tea Party and not campaigning against EMTALA, I don’t take you seriously if you say you’re fighting socialized medicine, because you’re not, you’re just fighting to not have to pay for it).

Right now, ACA lets freelancers and people in between jobs get healthcare. It lets people outside of large corporations get healthcare. It lets small businessmen get healthcare.

It makes the practice of insurers dumping people with preexisting conditions illegal.

It makes it easy to find a healthcare package.

It has already been shown to be slowing down the rising cost of healthcare in studies.

And people want to try to stop it. Because it might help people not have to wait until they’re hurting in front of the emergency room to get the benefit of that 1986 law, it’ll let people start taking care of themselves ahead of time.

It’s been working in one state very well for a long time. It works well in other countries. We know how the ground game goes.

One group is doing everything they can to stop it, because this refinement of how the 1986 law is handled society-wide is coming from someone they didn’t vote for. That’s not a reason to hurt millions. It’s the biggest, saddest, childish thing I’ve seen.

Remember it come the next round of elections.

Remember well.

Here is Healthcare.Gov.

21 Sep

Core SF’s visions are getting almost 100 years old, let’s bold on a few new ones?

An interesting thought by Alex Steffen:

While a lot of people think SF/F is futuristic, and shiny, one of the things I’m noticing about some of the discussions being had about stuff that’s just over the horizon is that the ideas that many fans at conventions want to focus on end up being a lot of those symbols of that 100 year old stuff. I was especially thinking of the fetishizing of rocket technologies (what Winchell Chung points out to as Rocket Punk):

However, regardless of whether the proposed science fiction background is Rocketpunk or something more like NASA, there is the elephant in the room to consider. Basically, there currently is no reason compelling enough to justify the huge investment required to create an extensive manned presence in space.

Yes, I can already hear the outrages screams of SF fans, and the flood of arguments attempting to refute the elephant. Just keep in mind [a] you are always free to ignore the problem in the same way most SF authors ignore the difficulties associated with faster than light travel and [b] chances are any arguments you have are addressed below, so read this entire page first. Since everybody is busy ignoring the elephant in the room, nobody will notice if you ignore it as well. Like I said about FTL travel: you want it, they want it, everybody is doing it.

It was interesting to run up against the religious belief that rockets would give us all super cheap energy with a solar mirror at the last Worldcon I was at, and see the tremendous outrage and anger at the suggestion it wasn’t economically realist anytime soon. Rocketpunk has a fundamentalist streak with some followers.

I do like playing with the symbols and ideas in rocket punk, as a child of the cyberpunk years and having been born post-Apollo, my own baked-in impressions of rocket punks religious regalia are not so nearly wide-eyed.

And it’s not that I mind a spirited clash of ideas, I think Elon Musk might well get us to swerve around a grim, no humans-in-space mode, but we have a lot of technology to invent yet. He’s doing more to make it less horrible, but there are still major challenges.

The other thing that fascinates me is how Elon is fast becoming a saint in some techno-fetishist circles. With his double threat of leading both electric cars and space access, he’s fast on his way to embedding there (and he’s doing SolarCity as well).

But, while these things do play with bread and butter SF, some of the most amazing thinking is coming out of authors not playing with some of the obvious symbols. And that disappoints me slightly, because after almost a hundred years, we can’t remain defined by only those older technological obsessions.


05 Sep

Conventions and authors

If you read my summary of the last Worldcon you’ll notice that most of my pictures and summaries recount tales of me hanging out with other authors. There are a lot of Worldcon summaries worrying about the aging of Worldcon, or how accepting it is, and to be honest, I can’t speak to those things very well. Madeline Ashby, I think, does an exceptional post about market demographics here when she says:

“YA is what Clayton Christensen would call a ‘disruptive innovation,’ a product that addresses the needs of a neglected customer segment not being served by the dominant incumbents in power. That some of the fiction isn’t terribly innovative doesn’t matter. What was innovative was treating teens like the serious market demographic that they are…”

(Via Memento mori. (Or, how Worldcon’s youth problem will resolve.) | Dangerous to those who profit from the way things are.)

Ashby goes on to say:

They don’t care about you. But you know who cares about them? Marvel. Warner. FOX. CW. EA. Microsoft. Sony. Blizzard. FUNImation. Kodansha. The list goes on. They’re better served by corporate interest than they are by the people who made the geek economy possible. Sit with that. You may feel a slight sting. That’s not pride, fucking with you. It’s failure.

Sure, you have a nice big con now, and a nice big awards ceremony whose online streaming never seems to work. You have internecine debates about why the big fish didn’t get enough panels (please, somebody, get these folks a waahmbulance and World Fantasy registration). But you don’t have major comics creators as GOH. You don’t have voice actors. You don’t have manga-ka. You don’t have game companies. You don’t have play-testing, or LARPS, or teahouses, or fashion shows. You are offering a room full of vintage first-edition hardbacks to a group of people who read books on their phones.

I’ve never approached science fiction conventions of any kind as a fan, I’ve always been a writer. I have no experience on that end. I don’t know if getting these things would fix a Worldcon, but it certainly seems to speak to a difference that is organically shaping a very big divide that is now growing between places like DragonCon, Comic Cons of various sorts (that are popping up across the country and growing), and some of the larger conventions that I’m hearing buzz about.

When I broke into print, I was then invited to attend my first convention. This colors all my interactions with a sort of selfish ‘what is my relationship’ lens that many writers can have. I did not initially attend as a fan, nor have I volunteered. And, rightfully so, many fannish organizers do not want to hear yet another damned writer or outsider whining, impugning something the volunteers have invested long hours, organizing an event for thousands, created solely out of volunteers’ spare time…

…and yet…

…I can feel some wincing…

…and yet…

I like Worldcon and would like to see it continue and I think it’s worth considering Ashby’s words.

Every few years there is a big soul-searching about what Worldcon *is* and *means* from attendees after a major Worldcon. Newer writers, newer participants, who have strong feelings about what is missing, pipe up.

Since I’ve been blogging about this stuff since 1998, there are usually a few reactions. Either their comments get folded in (remember the great wars to get electronically published material eligible for awards? I do.). Or people demand that those challenging issues join (though from many accounts if you’re an outsider to the culture it can be hard to figure out *how*). Or… the improvements show up in some other convention and the benefits accrue to it.

I’ve seen Confusion in Detroit grow from a very aged and greying regional convention to a growing, younger, more vital convention. I’ve seen conventions that were at the same state it was in ten years ago continue their slow slide. Often they’re happy to continue the slide. This is who we are, dammit, we’re happy about it.

I’d like to change that, but since I’m not volunteering, it’s not my place. Maybe it’s okay to watch some things wither away from the point of view of the bar with a scotch in my hand, and look forward to the more vital, crowded place full of a more diverse crew…

…but it’s not the fate I wish on any given event. So I sometimes rue in public. And I hope Worldcon doesn’t follow that fate.

I worry aloud because I care. And because I’m a writer and I like to see venues thrive and readers thrive and I would hate to see the Hugo Awards dragged down. Because seeing those happy writers win an award voted on by the readers was amazing. I love that.

* * *

Are Worldcon numbers dropping? This has actually been hashed out before by Cheryl Morgan. In 2010 she wrote an article, reposted at now as a response to something written by authors who had discovered DragonCon was more happening (see, three years later we’re all hashing over an already argued online argument!).

Here’s the basic chart:


Worldcons have grown from inception until the early 80s, at which point they settled into a rough size of 3-5,000 (depending on location, but the range holds fairly true).

“If you take into account different attendance levels in different parts of the world then attendance has been pretty much steady from 1980 onwards. Canadian Worldcons have  never exceeded 4,000 members, so Montréal was not unusually small.  British Worldcons just exceed 4,000. The numbers in the USA are more varied. The largest Worldcon ever was L.A.Con II in 1984 which drew 8,365 people. It did that, at least in part, on the back of being the first venue ever to show the original three Star Wars movies back-to-back. Of course that would not be a draw these days. No other Worldcon has exceeded 7,000 members. Of the 20 US Worldcons from 1980 onwards, 13 of them have had fewer than 6,000 members. Two have had fewer than 4,000. Both of those have been in Denver.”

(Via A Future for Worldcon? | SFWA.)

Judging by that plot, baby boomer SF/F fans have pretty much settled into a pattern that looks like it will probably hold true for at least another 15-20 years, depending, of 3-5,000 person Worldcons.

Some have claimed interest in Worldcons and Hugos are up, due to higher votes and nominations in the Hugo voting process. I would believe that probably has more to do with the fact that voting is *easier* now than before thanks to a) electronic ballots and b) packets with nominees in them and c) pin numbers automatically sent to you from last year’s con that allow nominations for the next. That has gotten hella easier than when I first entered the field.

By the way, if you want to understand a lot of just how much we’re rehashing arguments, current writers should read the above article I linked by Cheryl, that does an amazing job of explaining some of the… ins and outs and what have you’s…

* * *

Before my heart defect took me out of the game for a while in 2008, I did a great deal of travel (some of it on my own dollar, other trips as a guest). I got a chance to participate at DragonCon and San Diego Comic Con, in addition to regional conventions like Boskone, and smaller local conventions. I spent a lot of money in 2007 and 2008 going where I could.

Since 2008, I’ve also tested the waters of GenCon (the 40,000 person plus gaming oriented convention), been invited to the 2-3,000 person AnimeKon Expo in Barbados, been a Guest of Honor at local conventions in the midwest, and attended as a guest lecturer to various events around the country.

In the beginning common wisdom was that we should attend conventions to build our readership. I used to attend everything I could afford, and put out brochures with story snippets (CDs with free stories, etc) and more on them. The higher access to professionals ratio at the smaller fan cons meant I got to meet some writers, some who were very friendly to an up-and-coming newbie like myself.

When I started getting out to the big SF cons it was a heady experience. Authors I loved at the bar, or hanging out at parties (who sometimes talked to me!). Going on panels in front of 30-100 people (depending on the lineup). Signing at the autographing line. Seeing people wait for me to arrive at the KaffeeKlatsch (how cool!). Meeting readers in the hall, at parties, waiting for me at the end of a panel.

But there were issues. The greying of fandom. Lack of diversity. Those stood out at me. Often they could be depressing, weathering casual prejudice by sometimes other panelists or audience members when I was asked to talk about race.

This seriously dampened my desire to want to participate or engage.

But I forged on out of a desire to interact with my readers and grow my readership. It was gratifying to see my work come out in the long list of books nominated for Hugos… on the long list, if you will.

* * *

I had to make some tough decisions in 2009. Faced with medical bills and debt from not being able to make as much, twins arrived, and education debt, I couldn’t justify convention attendance as an investment in growing my readership.

Some very incredible con-runners keep asking me when I’ll be able to attend XYZ con, and I have to be honest and explain that I cannot, in good conscience, attend a convention on my own dime these days. Not until I’m completely debt free.

I will occasionally go to a major Worldcon, or a WFC. Usually if it’s close by, or if it’s subsidized by another business trip or concurrent travel (this year I altered the ticket back from Barbados to swing me through San Antonio). But it’s rare.

More often than not I show up without trying to get on panels or anything like that. I’ll explain why shortly.

* * *

Mike Underwood on a Reddit post related to our twitter conversation has the summary that best summarizes the various categories of conventions:

Small fan-cons (Balticon, ReaderCon, etc.) – These regional cons are very focused on the SF/F literary world, and tend to provide a very intimate experience – access to professionals is high, due to a lower fan:pro ratio.

Big SF cons (WorldCon, EasterCon) – Explicitly SF/F lit focused, with notable, if often greying, fan presence. This is based almost entirely on experience at WorldCon (2012 and 2013).

Big Multi-Media Cons (Convergence) – Explicitly multi-fandom, but SF/F lit has a place at the table. In 2013, Convergence had a full age spread, with a strong youth presence (esp. in Steampunk and anime).

Huge Multi-media cons (GenCon, Dragon Con) – notable SF/F lit element, but SF/F lit is not the focus. These cons shew young, with notable numbers of teens, 20-somethings, etc.

Huge Media Cons (Comic Cons) – More than 50K up to 100K+ attendees. Some literary presence, but it’s definitely an also-ran compared to the central theme.

I would probably lump the last two into one category for myself.

Having attended the full range of those categories, the one thing I began to realize was that plugging myself into them meant differing results.

At GenCon the Author Alley moved hundreds of dollars of books, covering my gas and the motel room, thus paying for itself. I also was exposed to a lot of new readers who introduced themselves, took bookmarks with directions to download free samplers. I saw a bump in sales afterward.

Comic Con saw me paired up with Mysterious Galaxy, a long time supporter and fantastic crew of booksellers who moved a good number of books and put my face in front of a larger crew than normal. I was also able to make contacts outside the usual suspects of fellow SF/F authors. Broadening my horizons.

DragonCon, again, paired me up with a bookseller and allowed me to stand at a table for the better part of a day.

At the core regional and Worldcon conventions, usually the routine is a couple of panels a day where I am co-panelist with a wide variety of people, and a varying audience, with a rendering or one hour autographing session at some point if I’m lucky. A check of the dealer room usually indicates a few copies of my books sold.

I’ve also done a city book fair where I sat at a table and shook hands and met people and sold a couple hundred dollars worth of books.

At the first AnimeKon Expo in Barbados I sold hundreds of dollars worth of books standing at a booth, and hundreds of dollars more again this year (the most books sold record holds for both AnimeKons). To be fair, I was a Caribbean SF author in the Caribbean *at an SF oriented convention*. I have however been at an academic conference in the Caribbean, invited as a guest, where I did… a reading, and a quick autograph session, with much lower sales (a few books). So I do suspect layout and approach actually do have a huge impact.

* * *

So the question is, what am I doing at a convention. And there are many variables that plug into this.

First, what stage am I in as a writer?

I make a living (or a good chunk of it) as a writer (and freelancer). I’m in a different stage than when I was just a writer trying to sell some short stories, or even when I’d just sold some, or even than when I’d just sold my first novel and was first trying to find readers.

Secondly, what is the purpose of the event I’m at for myself, in my current role? What’s my job, per se, at different events?

In my own sphere I’ve come to regard Worldcon as a ‘water cooler’ event. A place I spend money to attend, that then allows me to catch up in real life to all manner of friends. I’m starting to prefer to attend those without panels and obligations so I can just lightly float through the social circles I wish, retreat to my room when I need to nap, and so on. The thinking is, as very few books will sell, why not focus on the thing that seems locked in more to what I’m there for.

At events where I shake hands and am at a booth to sell books, my focus is to gear up and do that. Let’s move some books.

If I’m invited as a Guest or Guest of Honor, my way paid, then it doesn’t matter how many books I’ve sold. I’ve been flown somewhere to meet people and be available. That then, is my focus. I will do my best to go out of my way to attend all the room parties, go to as many panels as I can, and walk around the hallways so people can meet the guest.

Last year, I went to a Worldcon that was nearby and didn’t attend programming. I had a marvelous time networking and chatting with friends and not having obligations outside of that. The focus worked.

This year I tested out attending panels. It was fun, but again, very few books sold via the dealer room system and a remarkable lack of youth and diversity. Again, that isn’t Worldcon’s focus, they’re oriented at a different demographic. That makes me think it works best for me as a water cooler convention. I have to hope the demographic collapse 10-20 years off is navigated for the sake of the Hugos, which I love. If I really want that diversity, I can, as a consumer, simply opt for another event (there are many).

However, that isn’t fair of me. If I write this off completely as a way to interact with readers, I write off all the readers that *were* at Worldcon. Graying readers don’t mean they aren’t reading new fiction. Lack of diversity doesn’t mean there aren’t white, older readers digging what I’m doing. It would be short-sighted of me to do this. At my one hour signing I spent about 35 minutes signing for people who showed up (not just collectors), and I was grateful to have their support and attention. It was awesome.

And I know readers wanted to interact more, because while I was skulking around outside the bar I heard readers express how intimidated they were by the writers’ takeover of the bar, creating a space that while seemed to some like a ‘no readers’ zone. From the inside perspective, it was just friends who all have something in common (reading/reviewing/art/long friendships/industry attachments) catching up and meeting friends of friends. From the outside?

So there is a desire to connect. The Drinks with Writers was a successful event for mingling a bit more. Room parties as well, though it’s always tough when they’re spread out a bit, and the quality depends on where and how they’re hosted.

As for moving books, I was impressed by Angry Robot, who used a booth and customized business cards per writer to really promote and sell a lot of their authors’ books. I understand that at 3-5,000 people, investing a lot of time and energy into something like that may be a tough calculation, but it certainly impressed me.

The post-Worldcon examination often has people offering up all manner of suggestions. I don’t have pronouncements, but I think if we want Worldcon to survive well past the demographic drop off, it needs more youth and diversity. I do think other cons will be happy to pick up to serve that need if it doesn’t. I hope it does.

As for how I’ll interact, I’m not sure. I like the idea of attending when I can afford to as mostly a networking event unless something changes. I was tired enough this year I think in the future I’ll do what I saw one author do: limit the events to just a single day so that I have energy and time to nap and be social on my own schedule. I certainly don’t want to blow off fans, so maybe an autographing and reading if I’m allowed? I’m very aware I’m there only if the volunteers arranging it want me to be, so I would understand if they found that to not be enough of a commitment… on the other hand, I’m volunteering my time and effort as well on panels. Some people see panels as a reward, or a geek promotion, but I invest time, energy, and thought ahead of time on them and am often tired afterwards. It’s not free, there is a cost for me.

My publisher in the UK will have a presence at the next Worldcon, and I might be called upon to do a lot more, which would be fine as well. I’d act as if it were a shake hands and stand a booth sort of con, meet new readers. That’ll be fantastic too. Worldcon, by virtue of being in a different place every year, also has the additional frustration of changing in tone each year, and changing what the author might need to view it as. A chance to meet overseas readers and editors might be a good networking opportunity. Worldcon is not a monolith.

At my next US Worldcon, I certainly also would consider buying a table, possibly with another author. I still want to test out a stand-and-shake approach to Worldcon would be like while selling my own wares.

The danger in this, I’m told, is that I will upset dealer-room booksellers. And I don’t want to do that. Some of them are excellent ambassadors out representing one’s books to a myriad of other, smaller, regional conventions.

I’d hate to get blacklisted, or something like that.

On the other hand, there were only a couple book dealers at Worldcon this year, and nothing at all like the larger rows of booksellers I first saw at my first Worldcon in 2001. Are they fading away as well? When do you begin to try and compensate? And is this really a zero sum game we’re playing where we jealously guard these little kingdoms? I was able to figure out how to sell both my books and a booksellers at a recent event with everyone making money.

* * *

I think, mainly, we’re possibly not experimenting enough. All of us. It’s easy to do what worked before and stick with a rut. I fell into the three panels, a reading, a quick autograph session myself. But having done some other things, it can be electrifying to shake it all up (and then also find more readers, sell more books, inject more excitement in).

I would like to buy a table and write something live, like Howard Taylor does live sketches.

I would like to participate in Ignite type events. 5 minutes, don’t talk about your book (or whatever you’re hawking). Maybe we authors could do it guerrilla style. We have a reputation for being boring at readings, so few attend. How can we shake things up, and train ourselves to be better presenters?

I want a panel of all minorities… who talk about anything but ‘minorities in SF.’ Make the topic ‘near future space access’ or something. It’s something we can propose?

I’d like to participate in more mixers. We can do these.

How about some Skype sessions with people across the world for more diversity?

These are all things that aren’t demands for Worldcons to change, these are things we can sneak doing ourselves.

I have very limited energy (damn heart issues), or I swear I’d try to move more of these forward. Mostly, after this very long entry, I hope I just gave you some interesting links and things to think about for the next round.

I think we can do interesting. I’ve seen it happen.

PS, it’s interesting to compare the website of a Phoenix Comic Con and a Worldcon. And I’ll note, that I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome at an event like this, even though I wasn’t a headliner. Sure I’m not in the main guest room with famous actors, but it’s been very fun to attend as an author. The main issue is that so many people show up it’s hard to navigate!

PPS: I don’t demand that a con should return on investment. Obviously if I’m designating it as a water cooler event, I look it as just that. But I have to say, it really helps if selling books can create ROI. Why? I’m asked to do a LOT of events. Right now, due to my medical debt, I simply turn most of them down unless it will be a fantastic water cooler event, or my way is being paid. But if I were able to get more of an ROI (like GenCons), cons might find more people showing up because they’re at least not costing themselves lots and lots of money to attend lots of these events.