Thursday, July 20, 2006

2006 Campbell Conference

Okay, I am way late on blogging about the Campbell conference. And now my new/old friend Robert J Sawyer has beat me to it, and most elegantly too. But here goes...

The conference was held July 5-9, 2006, at the J. Wayne and Elsie M. Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I came in on Wednesday night, to sit in on the writing workshop held in advance of the awards weekend, and in good ol' workshop tradition, was taken out by a group of students for too many beers on my first night. But I had a wonderful time - thanks guys. You are all wonderful, and I hope I didn't talk your ear off too much about Robyn Hitchcock. Not my fault they had him on the jukebox.

As Rob reports, one of the best aspects of the week was the ability to have ongoing, weekend-long discussions with a few interesting people, as opposed to the chaos of conventions where you have a hundred five-minute discussions. Rob, Paolo Bacigalupi, and I really hit it off, and the conference wouldn't have been the same without them there. As Rob writes on his blog, "Indeed, Lou, Paolo, and I were so simpatico about what's right and wrong with SF, and about how the art form should be practiced, that it was like I'd found two brothers I didn't know I'd had." Rob, I am both deeply honored by and in complete agreement with your sentiments. And congratulations to you both on your respective awards. (Btw, Paolo has a new blog, Windup Stories. Stop by and say hello.)

It was also wonderful to meet in the flesh Pyr author George Zebrowski, along with Pamela Sargent. George and I have had many long telephone conversations, but this was the first time we'd met in person. George is an extremely good man, and his keynote address (we each delivered a speech on Thursday night) was a stirring talk on the importance of integrity in writing and publishing. George is a fierce defender of SF as art for art's sake. As he says you "tighten your belt" and shoot for excellence without compromise or surrender. Counterbalancing this, was Saturday's talk by John Ordover, who argued that science fiction couldn't achieve commercial success comparable to that enjoyed by fantasy novels unless it was willing to forgo innovation in favor of tried and true tropes. Ordover felt that fantasy was accessible because it was instantly familiar and that SF's greatest strength - its commitment to the new and unknown - was its greatest handicap. He argued for a return to Star Wars style space opera, though his "balanced porfolio" analogy made more sense to me that the rest of his talk.

Which, obviously, generated some controversy. Personally, I'm closer to George (and Rob, Jim Gunn, et al.) than John, though I still maintain that a work can be both commercially successful and artistically meaningful. I cite our own River of Gods as an example, as well as Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon and most anything by Charles Stross. I would also suggest that the previous age of lowest common denominator entertainment reaching the widest audience is fading, as online commerce drives more and more consumer eyeballs away from the short selection available in traditional retail and promoted by traditional marketing to the near-infinite and user driven choice offered on the internet (a la Chris Anderson's The Long Tail) and that just as the growing importance of the DVD boxed set has raised the overall narrative complexity of television, so to will quality in writing out in the minds of the consumer in publishing as well. But I digress...

Suffice to say it was a fantastic time. I hope what I had to say held meaning. Certainly, I learned a lot myself from all the discussions. Thank you to Jim Gunn and Chris McKitterick for having me, and to all the students, guests and participants. I would come back in a heartbeat.

9 comments:

A.R.Yngve said...

Whenever someone talks about "commercial success", inevitably he refers to that elusive, nebulous entity called "the mass market" or simply "the masses".

Who are these "masses", and how come nobody I know admits to being part of "the masses"?

Tim Akers said...

I'm personally a fan of intellectually engaging novels that are also entertaining. The two aren't mutually exclusive, I hope. You mention Morgan, who is one of my favorite authors, and I would pitch in Mieville as another fine example of that tradition. I think that's what made cyberpunk a success in its day. High literary standards, but also a commitment to a consistent and logical narrative thread, equal parts action and academia.

I'm glad you've gotten to know Paolo. I still remember reading "The Fluted Girl" for the first time and just being crushed by his talent. And he's such a nice guy!

Lou Anders said...

Agreed on both counts. And I think the list of commercial successes of artistic integrity is quite long, and you can throw names like Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson in there as well. And now Hal Duncan.

ian mcdonald said...

What kind of fantasy did John Ordover mean, I wonder? Certainly, literary, literate and profindly uncomfortable fantasy --as uncomfortale and alienating as he seems tot hing SF is --can be hugely successful: China Mieville, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials, --even Jonathon Strange and Dr Norrell does something new ( whereas Naomi Novik, I feel, is cosy and derivative, but that's speaking as a Patrick O'Brian fan). Kelly Link is likewise uncomfortable and literary. Or does he mean multi-epic cod-medieval fantasy? I feel that this essentially conservative literature --arguewith me of you like-- reflects conservative times --it seems to me as o at the start of the 21st century, e're dazzled by the headlights of future. We're suffering a kind o future-shock where we imagine the new cebntury is a continuation of the 2oth --in a sense, the 2oth century didn't really begin until after the horrific trauma of the First World War. And from the West, it looks like a pretty hostile century. Nice, then, to withdraw to a simpler age and a simpler world order. And of course this is going to sell, but and, increasingly, readers of mainstream fiction who will read Imaginative Literature (Jo Fletcher's term, not my own), appreciate and enjoy it, if it marketed as that.
Does SF need to reclaim the future? Perhaps? In this I'm not too far from the Munadnistas (then again, in other things worlds away) in hoping for an SF --a '21st Century', to borrow another phrase, from Cheryl Morgan this time-- that addresses adventutously, speclatively, thrillingly and funkily this coming century. At some point the rebound will come, I think --as cultures we will turn towards the future. I expect more big, bold, exciting books.

Lou Anders said...

Recently, I made a study of books, both SF and F, that I considered to be challenging, literate, intelligent - works I would have been proud to have published at Pyr had the occassion arose - which also enjoyed commercial success. It was quite a long list w- hich included many newer & even first time authors - and sales figures (as reported by Bookscan) went into the 100,000 of units for some titles, leading me to conclude that there was nothing "niche" about quality.

However, I think Ian is also approaching something I've been considering here when he talks about this century finding its feet. I've noticed more interest in real world space science in recent years - as typified by CNN's coverage of the Titan probe - than I've seen in decades. I think our increasingly technological society, where, when everyone walks around with bluetoothed Borg implants on their head, is becoming increasingly hard to deny that we live in the future. I think the studios and publishers who bend over backwards to deny that what they produce/publish is SF are actually a last gasp of a dying perspective and that SF will rise again (yee-haw) as the pendulum swings back our way in the next few years.

Tim Akers said...

I'm pleased that Ian mentioned Novik, because I happen to be reading that *right now*. I'll admit that it's a sort of comfort food. I like a complicated Shiraz after dinner, but I like biscuits and gravy, too.

Here's something unrelated and pathetic. I'm excited about going to WFC in Austin this year, not just because it's a rare opportunity to meet the people I work with and talk shop face to face, but also because it's in Austin. About 1/3 of my joy is in the anticipation of being able to find a good greasy spoon for a breakfast of biscuits, gravy, country ham and grits, with the blackest, cheapest coffee EVER.

Lou Anders said...

Me, it's the Tex Mex I'm looking forward to. Just the word jalapenos makes me salivate.

Re: gravy and Shiraz - I understand. I have thoughts on this that may find there way into a blog post.

Trent said...

It was good to hear what Robyn Hitchcock had been up to, actually. I haven't followed the alternative music scene well since the early to mid 90s. I'd thought it disbanded.

You might want to deny some of the statements I "transcribed." Almost done blogging the conference. Sheesh!

Lou Anders said...

I deny them all, even the statements other people made. Even the statements no one made. Especially those.