Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MIND MELD: Is Science Fiction Antithetical to Religion?

Very proud to have had a hand in today's Mind Meld, which asks "Is Science Fiction Antithetical to Religion?"

The short answer is "of course not." But the long answer is fascinating, particularly as described by Adam Roberts, John C. Wright, and James Morrow. (And what I wouldn't give to see these three guys debate the topic on a panel at a con somewhere.)

Here's a sample from Morrrow: "To the degree that science fiction is the literature spun from human insights into the laws of nature, then it is indeed the last place a person should look for corroboration of the Christian worldview or any other frankly religious perspective. For better or worse - better, in my opinion - science has yet to provide a single molecule of evidence for the supernatural, and so far every attempt to make the empirical substantiate the ethereal, from the laboratory testing of the Shroud of Turin to the crude appropriation of particle physics by various self-styled mystics, has come to nothing. How appropriate that I should be composing this essay in the shadow of the death of Arthur C. Clarke, who spent so much of his creative energy reminding us that neither conventional theists nor 'New Age nitwits,' as he called them, will find any genuine comfort in science qua science.

"As always, however, the gritty observable is more complicated than the airy ontological. One thinks immediately of Michael Bishop, Gene Wolfe, and Orson Scott Card, three unapologetic Christians who've written novels and stories that are manifestly science fiction. No sane critic would argue that any of these authors has betrayed the genre's heritage or compromised the integrity of his artistic vision by filtering it through a spiritual persuasion - indeed, I suspect that something like the opposite is true for Bishop, Wolfe, and Card: their faith may give their fiction its edge."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Keep on Judging Those Books

Ron Hogan of Galleycat takes a look at the US and UK covers of Charles Stross's Halting Stateand Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel,in an article entitled "Leaving the Sci-Fi Covers Behind." Of Halting State's US vs UK packaging he says, speaking first of the US approach, that "'s a fine enough sci-fi cover, but there's still a part of me that wonders if Orbit's approach might not more accurately reflect the novel's near-future setting and ironic humor."

He goes on to look at the very similar packaging of The Execution Channel, and opines that, "Neither Stross nor MacLeod is achieving the crossover appeal by diluting the science-fictional aspects of their work. These are both full-on SF novels... But they are also excellent technothrillers as well, which with the right momentum could easily appear on mainstream bestseller lists. Don't be surprised if subsequent novels by either author make that leap."

The post is picked up on blog Specifically Spec Fic, where Scott Edelman pops up in the comments section with this analysis: "If you can create a cover that tells a science fiction audience that the book is SF without alienating the non-SF audience who'd like the book if the symbols weren't made so explicit and if the packaging was more modern, the theory is that you'd get the best of both worlds."

I agree with that whole-heartedly, as well as Scott's further assertion that it's sometimes hard to do in practice, but I think that's what Stephan Martiniere achieves with his two covers for Ian McDonald's River of Godsand Brasyl. Or this never-before-seen cover illustration for the forthcoming McDonald collection, Cyberabad Days. I also like both covers for Halting State, and I'm not sure the US one reads as "fantasy" as much as Ron Hogan thinks. When I first saw it, it struck me as being a departure from genre covers in a way I couldn't quite put my finger on, even compared to Stross' own work at other houses. I like the UK cover as well, though at first glance I think it looks almost like a non-fiction book (not necessarily a bad thing given the content and unusual, 2nd person narrative voice). I agree it is an effective cover. (Though if I am going to pick up one of these, you know it's going to be the US edition - not because of the artwork, but because I'm very big on supporting your favorite authors in your appropriate territory. If I really had to have the UK cover, I would buy both editions, which is what I do with China Miéville's Bas Lag books.)

Meanwhile, Orbit themselves weigh in on Galleycat's debate - what they term the "Great SFF Cover Debate/War" on the Orbit blog. They say, "It’s nothing to do with where the book is being published in the world; it’s to do with the question that every genre publisher has to ask themselves: do we want our books to stand out or do we want them to fit in? Most genre publishers would say both: they want their books to stand out by looking exceptional, but they also want them to fit in by being immediately recognizable to readers of similar books within the genre. Depending on where you put the emphasis, though, the cover for a particular book can go in some very different directions."

Again, agree. I think the problem arises when you shoot so far afield for that cross-over audience that you go too far and lose the home team. Or produce something generic and bland that fails to represent the book at all. I'm not saying either of the books that Galleycat focuses on does that. Now, speaking not as an editor but as a fan and collector, I know that I am very big on "the book as artifact" and disappointed when I'm asked to shell out $25 for something that is packaged like the latest James Patterson or John Grisham. And I do believe that in a long tail economy, we need to be careful about sacrificing what makes SF&F unique (and a part of that is its century-old history of illustration). And I want to be clear that I'm not saying Orbit does that. At all.

For instance, I really like the Orbit cover of Iain M. Banks's Mattervery much, both as a readers and as an editor/art director. I find that it catches my eye every time I'm in a bookstore, which is what you want a cover to do, and the subliminal connections I get to Dune (robed figure, desert) are probably not going to hurt with US readers too. Nor does it hides its SF light under a bushel - that image reads pretty clearly as "alien world" to me. I am the kind of reader who won't buy a book if I really hate the cover; with so many books to chose from, if I'm plunking down $25 and my reading time is limited, why not get the story AND artwork I want vs the one that only offers one of the two. So on that level, this cover succeeds, as it's been tempting me to pick it up every time I'm in a store. My reading time is so precious, and I already have quite a few books on the shelf I've promised I'll read first, but I'll probably end up picking this up before the year is out, and - since I haven't read Banks since The Wasp Factory - the cover of Matter will have been a lot of the reason for that sale.

Finally, regarding the "Great SFF Cover Debate/War," guys come on! It is a debate - a fun one - and not a war. There are hundreds upon hundreds of science fiction and fantasy titles published every year, and you are spot on when you say that you begin by asking of each specific title "what it is that excites us about a particular book/series/author." With that approach, and the breadth of SF&F output, there is plenty of room for all and every approach. We need not tar every book with the same feather. The way we packaged Starship: Mercenarywasn't the same way we packaged The Blade Itself(in this case, a reuse of the UK illustration), but I'm damn proud of both final products, and both are appropriate to their individual book's contents.

And let me use that as an excuse to segue into another concern of mine. Which is if there is a "war," it's with an indifference to reading in the wider world, not between authors or publishers. With very few exceptions (Baen, DAW), SF&F readers tend to follow authors and subgenres rather than houses. So thank God you guys are publishing Matter and Ace is publishing Halting State, because I suspect there is a lot of crossover between the readers of Charles Stross and Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod and our own Ian McDonald (and Richard Morgan and Peter Watts and Walter Jon Williams and William Gibson and, and, and...). It may take Ian McDonald another year to finish The Dervish House - and as a smaller-but-diverse list who only publishes 20 or so novels a year, I really appreciate that you are publishing excellent works in the literate, hard, "Hugo-worthy" science fiction subgenre, because your Iain will keep the reader base engaged and prevent them wandering off into World of Warcraft while my Ian finishes his next masterpiece, and vice-versa. That core SF readership we talk about tend to read 1 - 3 books a month, and Lord Knows I'm not publishing 24 or 36 other books a year in the same subgenre as Brasyl, so I'm glad that others are. Just as people who read David Weber and David Drake are buying our Mike Resnick and people who read our Joe Abercrombie are also buying your Brian Ruckley. I've said this before but I'll say it till I am blue in the face. I am grateful for every quality SF&F work published, no matter who publishes it, and I will always publicly and loudly applaud it when I see it, because every quality work retains and supports the existing readership, while containing within it the potential to grow that readership by attracting new eyeballs.

It's the bad books - those that an uninitiated reader wandering into our section of the bookstore for the first time pick up, dislike, and use to dismiss the output of an entire genre - that doom us all. If I'm in a war with anything, it's a war with bad books, and there ain't nothin' we discussed here today that qualifies as that.

Happy reading!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Saturn Returns and Takes the Ditmar

A HUGE congratulations to Sean Williams for winning Australia's coveted Ditmar Award for his novel Saturn Returns.

Meanwhile, this is a good occasion to mention that Sean's urban/epic fantasy The Crooked Letter - which draws comparisons to Stephen King, China Miéville, Ursula K Le Guin and Philip Pullman - is now listing as "in stock" at Amazon in it's just-back-from-the-printer trade paperback edition. Get 'em while they're hot!

The Fuzzier Crystal Ball

In "The Fuzzier Crystal Ball," Dave Itzkoff uses the occasion of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's passing to ask, "in a world where technology evolves so rapidly that the present already feels like the future, will a modern-day author ever inherit Mr. Clarke’s aura of prescience?" He called me for the piece, and while my comments don't make the cut, I'm happy to have pointed him to two of the four authors whose comments he does incorporate. He talks to Charles Stross, Walter Jon Williams, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ian McDonald. All have good things to say. I am particularly interested in Ian McDonald's remark that, "By concentrating only on what’s likely, it’s graying out that sense of wonder that scientists get from doing science."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned

So, in keeping with only taking the tree down a little over a week ago, I finally watched the Doctor Who Christmas Special, Voyage of the Damned. In two parts, and unfortunately I enjoyed the first part more than the second, where it really began to fall apart and drag for me. Some stuff to chew on.

1. In the wearing-influences-on-the-sleeve department: Didn't Douglas Adams and Terry Jones co-author a Starship: Titanic book a few years back? I'm starting to get tired of how close to home Russell Davies pinches his ideas.

2. The fat people in the interracial marriage, and the short alien cyborg die. The better looking white people survive (if what happens to Kylie Minogue is surviving, and I think the implication is that it is.) There's something not right about that, even given the speech at the end about the Doctor not being able to choose who lives and who dies.

3. I know this is par for the course for Doctor Who, but I'm tired of people coming from the vast reaches of time and space only to have cultures, ideas, values and class systems just like us. It seems like the era of original Trek and The Outer Limits was the last time aliens were truly alien. I miss that, and it's sad that 4 decades old television is more progressive.

4. I hate that the Doctor is clearly no longer vegetarian. Of course, since very incarnation is a new person, I should be cool with him falling off the vegan-wagon after the 8th Doctor. I fell off it too, after all. And around the same time apparently.

5. More seriously: I really am bothered by him making a direct promise to someone that he'd save their life and then NOT. Has he ever failed at this direct promise before? Don't the occasions when he directly promises to save someone carry special weight? Like the occasions when he gets mad? I think they've gone to both those wells too often for them to really impress.

6. In the geeky stickler for (dis)continuity department: The Doctor can't have both been traveling for 903 years and be 903 years old. He did not travel from the point of birth! Since McCoy's Doctor gave his age as 956 at one point, I think the Doctor has decided to shave off the 125 or so years he spent on Gallifrey before he was first called the Doctor for vanities sake, so he doesn't have to say he's in his second millennium. I.e. "The Doctor" is 903 years old. Like Bruce Wayne saying that "Batman" is ten or fifteen years old or whatever. On a related and more relevant note: I'm sorry they established that 3 years TV time has been three subjective years for him too. Historically, the Doctor aged between 70 and 150 years per incarnation (if you do the math) - plenty of room for all the missing adventures to fill in, but since the pilot episode has Christopher Eccleston checking himself out in the mirror as though for the first time, this move means that one year was really all the time the 9th Doctor ever got. That's sad.

Interestingly, I think the problem is that Doctor Who has raised its own bar so high with episodes like "Blink" and "Human Nature/Family of Blood" - both Hugo nominated as of today - that it can't get away with the kind of loosely plotted, stapled together nonsense scripts that made up the bulk of the original series. Even the worst of the new show is better than 98% of the old, and admittedly, were this old Who I'd probably love it. But it isn't. It's New Who, and New Who can do better.

Me, I'm looking forward to more episodes penned by Steve Moffat and Paul Cornell. There work can sit alongside the best of contemporary television, and that's the bar Who should always be aiming for.

2008 Hugo Awards Nominations List

The 66th World Science Fiction Convention has made public the 2008 Hugo Nomination List. And I am delighted to report that, counting the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer, Pyr has no less than four people on the ballot!

In the Best Novel category - Ian McDonald's Brasyl(published by Gollancz in the UK)

In the category of Best Professional Editor, Long Form - Yours Truly

And up for the John W. Campbell, both Joe Abercrombie (who I share with Gollancz) and David Louis Edelman.

I also have to extend my congratulations to three artists who have graced Pyr covers, Bob Eggleton, Stephan Martiniere, and John Picacio. And to our author Mike Resnick, for his Hugo nomination in the short story category for "Distant Replay" (published in Asimov's April/Nay 2007 issue).

A huge congratulations to all the nominees across the board!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mind Meld: The Appeal of SF&F Art

Thrilled to have had a hand in SFSignal's latest Mind Meld, "The Appeal of SF&F Art," which asks illustrators what drew them to genre illustration to begin with, and what place illustration has in our field. Brilliant, elegant answers from Todd Lockwood, Dave Seeley, Jeremey Geddes, John Picacio, Donato Giancola, Glenn Orbik, and Bob Eggleton.

Particularly like this great bit from Lockwood: "Art, like writing and movie-making, is an exploration into the unknowns without and within. It ponders realms that cannot be photographed or described with words, because they are ineffable and timeless. It helps connect the emotional and visceral with the cognitive and philosophical, the unreal with the real. At its best, it teaches or amuses, shocks or disturbs; it makes you look again, and then again – only deeper."

On a related note, I'm happy to see Sparth interviewed on Irene Gallo's The Art Department. Sparth is an amazing illustrator who just so happens to have done the cover for Theodore Judson's The Martian General's Daughterfor us, which should be hitting shelves in the very near future.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Books: The Multiverse

Norman Sprinrad's latest On Books column for the April/May edition of Asimov's, "The Multiverse", is a direct response to a piece by Bruno Maddox appearing in Discovery Magazine,Blinded by Science: Fictional Reality,” in which Maddox hauls out the tired old argument that in helping to build the present, science fiction is now obsolete. The article actually appeared back in July, 2007, and Norman's response was composed then (and kindly forwarded to me at the time, which is how it ends up quoted in the forward to Sideways In Crime),but Asimov's has taken their time getting around to publishing it.

In the meantime, the SF is Dead nonsense has cropped up again, in's "5 Reasons to Stop Reading Science Fiction." To be fair, io9 isn't so much making this claim, as aggregating five other sources who complain about the problems of writing SF in the SFnal world we inhabit now, the mainstream colonization of SF tropes, the intrusion of fantasy, the graying of fandom, and the disappearance of mass-market distribution.

But to them, and to Maddox, Spinrad offers this brilliant, elegant, and ultimate rebuttal:

Picture the sincere writer of serious science fiction—someone really trying to do the job—as standing in the bow of a boat in a moment we might call the present. The boat is human history and all scientific knowledge available in that moment, and the waters that the boat is sailing through is the ocean of time. The science fiction writer is riding the vessel of all that knowledge, and his or her mission is to peer ahead from that vantage into the fog-bank of the future ahead of the boat utilizing all the knowledge upon which he or she stands, “stands on the shoulders of giants,” as this sort of thing is often put.

Thus, while the accumulation of scientific and other forms of knowledge as well as the profusion of technological innovation may be accelerating as the boat sails forward through the sea of time, no matter how fast it goes, no matter how much cargo is accumulating in the hold, the science fiction writer is always standing in the bow of the boat looking forward.

That is why it is impossible for science, technology, evolution, or history to render science fiction obsolete. There are all too many ways that a civilization can end up destroying science fiction as a commercially viable literature or even as a visionary mode of thought, but the necessary visionary function performed by science fiction in a progressively evolving civilization can never be rendered obsolete. If nothing is performing that visionary function, it is the civilization in question that in the end renders itself obsolete, as has happened many times in world history.

That, in an of itself, is enough to make me kiss Norman's feet. But he goes on from there, in a response to Jim Gunn's assertion that Neuromancerwas the last work of science fiction to introduce a truly "big idea."

As counterpoint, Norman offers too big ideas that have emerged recently, the "Singularity" and what may "prove also to be its dialectic antithesis" - the Multiverse. He then makes a case that the notion of the Multiverse has moved from a literary construct to the frontline thinking in quantum phyisics, and in so doing, should be moving to the forefront of science fictional concern as well.

...quantum physics is now telling us is that the Multiverse is the ultimate reality, and not merely a literary construct. That a multiplicity of separate universes or realities must exist because of quantum indeterminacy.

...It is science which has fed science fiction an enormous morsel to attempt to chew on this time, and not the other way around. The Multiverse, it would appear, is not merely subjective perception, but the way things really are, the way our selves really are, our alternate selves, the truth of all existence on a quantum level.

To deal with this fictionally with anything like rigor, let alone convey it to the reader on an experiential and emotional level, is one daunting and even frightening task. But it is also a rich vein of thematic and speculative material only beginning to be mined on that level.

And then he goes on to look at three books that are mining it on just the level he describes.

One of them is Justina Robson's Keeping It Real,the first in her Quantum Gravity series, which Norman describes as, "Fantasy written as if it were science fiction. Like alternate-history fiction." He ties her book into multiple worlds theory when he says:

But whether Robson consciously intended to declare it or not when she titled the novel, keeping it real is just what Keeping It Real does, the “it” being that this Multiverse is literarily science fiction, not fantasy. Each of these alternate realities has its own more or less rigorous physical laws, call what’s going on magic or not.
Justina and I corresponded about this article recently, and she graciously grants permission for me to share her response here:
In case you wondered, the thing that he's talking about actually always was the point of the QG series, and I thought at the beginning I'd get to lay it out much sooner, but I've got 3 books down and still no sign of Quantum Bob ("But, Professor, how do these shattered worlds fit together?" "As you know, Bob, the nature of reality is the infinity -1 range of the external and internal worlds...")...

The reason for the fantastical nature of the few realities experienced in QG is down to the explosion of the internal into the external. The Quantum Bomb rendered, briefly, the distinction between internal (individual consciousness/mass consciousness) and external (physical, transphysical, temporal) irrelevant. In fact, that was more a revelation than an action as they probably always were interconnected to a much higher degree than contemporary views of reality (like the Dawkins' view) would ever countenance.
Which takes her a lot closer to what Norman is talking about when he talks about the need to convey the Multiverse to the reader "on an experiential and emotional level," something he says that Kathleen Goonan's In War Timesbegins to do when it uses the metaphors of jazz to portray shifting realities in her novel of alternate 1940s worlds. Norman says:
Kathleen Ann Goonan can’t overtly broach that concept in In War Times, since this is a period piece the maintenance of whose grounding in this wartime and early post-wartime past is absolutely essential for the novel to work. But she herself, writing in the present, does seem to comprehend it at least up to a point, and sidles up to it, using the progressive jazz of the period as an extended musical metaphor for the physics and metaphysics of the Multiverse.
Which brings us to Ian McDonald's Brasyl, which Norman says is able to take that last step and which confirms Ian McDonald as: of the most interesting and accomplished science fiction writers of this latter-day era. Indeed, maybe the most interesting and accomplished, and certainly the most culturally and musically sophisticated—the Frank Herbert, William Gibson, or arguably even Thomas Pynchon of the early twenty-first century, if only the early twenty-first century would allow such a writer to reach that kind of eminence.
Norman asks if it is even possible to "use language to actually create the virtual experience of multiversal reality in the human mind," and, in examining Brasyl, he concludes that:
Ian McDonald actually does it. He succeeds in putting a human face on, putting a human consciousness within, the naked quantum Multiverse, the infinite multiplicity of universes branching out fractally from every moment of time, with the infinity of her alternate selves exfoliating within it, and delivering the experience to the reader.
The result, he says, is "A science fictional dialectic... for what other mode of literature can even begin to approach such material?" and also "the opening act of the science fiction of the twenty-first century."

Thank you, Norman, for reminding us that far from being dead, science fiction may only just getting started. For what are the few decades behind us in the face of a literal infinite array of possibility.

Fast Forward 2: "True Names" Podcast

I'm very happy to announce that my anthology Fast Forward 2 is set for an October 2008 publication date. I delivered the manuscript to my production manager just a few weeks ago. I think it's even stronger than Fast Forward 1, which is saying something since FF1 saw seven stories reprinted nine times in four “Year’s Best" anthologies!

One of the highlights of the second volume will undoubtedly be a 32,000 word collaboration between Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow. "True Names" is a tale of galactic wars between vast, post-Singularity intelligences that are competing to corner the universe’s supply of computation before the heat-death of the universe. The title is, of course, a homage to Vernor Vinge’s famous story of the same name. Writing on his blog, Rosenbaum says that "This story came out of a conversation at the Hugo Loser's party at Worldcon 2002 -- the part about 'the second law of thermodynamics as the ultimate party-spoiler in a transhuman utopia of self-spawning consciousness'; it acquired shades of Jane Austen, Voltaire, megamillion year ideological warfare, gender theory, coming-of-age story, and musical theater along the way."

For those wanting a preview, Rosenbaum and Doctorow have begun podcasting "True Names" here on Cory's site. Now here's a peak at the rest of the TOC:

Introduction: The Age of Accelerating Returns - Lou Anders
Catherine Drewe - Paul Cornell
Cyto Couture - Kay Kenyon
The Sun Also Explodes - Chris Nakashima-Brown
The Kindness of Strangers - Nancy Kress
Alone With An Inconvenient Companion - Jack Skillingstead
True Names - Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum
Molly’s Kids - Jack McDevitt
Adventure - Paul McAuley
Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter - Mike Resnick & Pat Cadigan
An Eligible Boy - Ian McDonald
SeniorSource - Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Migration - Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell
Long Eyes - Jeff Carlson
The Gambler - Paolo Bacigalupi


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

RIP: Sir Arthur C Clarke

Sir Arthur C Clarke has died at age 90. Truly one of the greatest SF authors of all time. I never corresponded with him personally, though he was a decades-long friend to Pyr's parent company, Prometheus Books, and we were just about to send him a case of Pyr books. My son is named for him in part. Very sad, if not unexpected, news.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

OmegaCon: If You Build It, They Will Come

I'm back from OmegaCon, the first major Birmingham, Alabama convention in some time, which was held March 14th to 16th at the Sheraton Birmingham. This was a major undertaking - a hugely ambitious convention that - in addition to a literary track loaded even by the standards of a major regional convention - also featured media guests (Richard Hatch, Chase Masterson, Peter Mayhew, Richard Kiel, Richard LaParmentier, others), a paranormal track, an actual hard science track, a gaming track, round the clock music, and even a Celtic track. They were aiming for attendees in the thousands and perhaps biting off more than they could chew for a first time venture. So how did it go, you ask...

The con actually started for me a day early, when Mike & Carol Resnick, Louise Marley, and Kay Kenyon all arrived, and they joined me at a launch party at Books-A-Million for William H. Drinkard's Elom. Also at the party, Bill's editor Claire Eddy, author and editor Eric Flint, new Pocket books author JF Lewis, and Baen editor Jim Minz. I don't know that anyone there knew what a host of SF&F celebrities were milling about, but Bill knew and it was his night. And by the time I peeled off to take Louise, Kay and the Resnicks across the street to a dinner at Brio Tuscan Grill, about three-quarters or more of the enormous stack of Bill's books had been depleted. I think BAMM was very happy with that, and I know Bill was. The dinner itself was wonderful, though for the most part Mike wouldn't stop tickling Kay long enough to let her speak.

To be brutally honest, the con itself started off a clusterfuck - pardon me but that's the best way to describe it. Guests left at the airports waiting for rides, problems getting them into their rooms when they did get there, a "first come first serve" policy for assigning space in the dealer's room, no program book until 1pm on the first day (an hour into programming), and a host of other such failures to communicate that had me pretty worried, had a few of my authors visibly shaken, and had at least one major guest I spoke with apoplectic with rage. (How mad was he? I told him that when I said earlier that I was from Birmingham, I meant Birmingham, England.)

But thanks as I understand it to the Herculean efforts of Omegacon vice president Nathan Levan - all guests ended up safely in rooms (if not always the ones they were originally assigned). And program books did eventually materialize, and people began to figure out what was where. By late afternoon, we'd all managed to find our panels and - lo and behold ! - they were decently attended. It certainly helped that the hotel itself was very nice, recently renovated and spacious, and the main auditorium had a built in projector system that made for a beautiful presentation when I gave the usual "What's New With Pyr Books" PowerPoint show. In fact, the dedicated projector room and enormous wall screen meant that the presentation never looked so good as it did there. Really a wonderful space, and one that did justice to the original artwork for forthcoming Pyr books that I debuted from illustrators Stephan Martiniere, Todd Lockwood, Sparth, and Dan Dos Santos.

Meanwhile, the dealer's room was fairly large and dominated by the 60 feet or so of bookshelf space that convention sponsor Books-A-Million took up. A hugely impressive display, with hundreds upon hundreds of titles, and a major show of support from the third largest chain in America (who happens to be based in Alabama.) The pictures aren't going to do it justice, but here's Mike Resnick and Kay Kenyon posing with displays of their books. I know they were very happy with how they were presented, and the covers to Kay's Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near drew comments all weekend. BAMM was there in force, with multiple staff on site at all times.

The only other book dealer there (as opposed to small press with their own dedicated booths) was Edge Books, on hand with a wonderful selection which (thankfully) included a great many backlist Pyr titles. Owner Zane Melder also had a good number of Locus magazines for sale, towards which I steered several hopeful novelists looking for the source of industry insider info. Pictured is Mike Resnick with Zane and his fiancé Jo. (Zane reported that he had a reasonably good weekend and expected to return next year with even more tables.)

One room over from the dealers room was the official autograph site, where it was wonderful to bump into Chase Masterson, in town with writer/director James Kerwin to promote her new "sci-fi noir" film Yesterday Was a Lie. I knew from her days as Leeta the Dabo Girl on Deep Space Nine and was flattered when she remembered me as well. Chase was always one of the nicest people I dealt with on Trek, and it was really great to see her again.

By Friday evening things had settled a bit and started to find a rhythm, and a wonderful meal at icon Restaurant and Bar in the nearby Tutwiler hotel - courtesy of Jim Minz and in the company of Mike & Carol Resnick, David Drake, Karen Zimmerman, and Eric Flint - went a long way towards lifting the spirits. This despite listening to the old geezers tell horror stores about the history of publishing and con experiences far, far worse than anything happening here. (Aside: I must say I was proud all weekend of how many of the visitors to my city remarked on the great restaurants, with Highlands, Bottega Cafe, Hot and Hot Fish Club, Dreamland, and Surin West all receiving rave endorsements from those who went off-site for meals.)

So I went home Friday night with a very full belly and the assurances that "nobody is going to blame you for this" and the expectation of having a good weekend with friends despite the colossal disorganization, but without the expectation that the convention itself would be worth it.

Then Saturday morning hit. I drove up at around 10:00am and was amazed at all the people moving in droves towards the entrance. Before I was a block away I was getting Field of Dreams vibes. Over three thousand attendees by 9 am Saturday morning is the official word- I've heard figures from 3.5k to 4.5k for the weekend total but the con organizers didn't want to confirm that until they get an official tally later in the week - but they definitely had hit and broken through the 3k mark by 9am Saturday morning, and I saw lines at registration all day long well into the afternoon, so they must have gotten at least three and a half thousand and possibly more. And a good mix of people too, young and old, families, children.

Whatever the exact tally, by mid-afternoon they were packed. Crowds of people, all ages, and my authors coming up to me with very relieved faces expressing shock at the number of people who were there. By this time, everyone had figured out the program book, and the panels I were on were well attended, audiences in the 25 to 50 range for each panel, depending on the time and topic. The noon autographing with Yours Truly, Alan Dean Foster, Kay Kenyon and Mike Resnick - perfectly positioned at the entrance to the dealer's room - was fantastic, and we all signed quite a few books (Alan, I think, signed the most but Mike must have been a close second). My son, my wife, my mother, my oldest friend and his son all made an appearance at this point. The kids got to pet a real snake visiting from the Birmingham Zoo and theirs eyes popped out of their heads when the conventions sole Klingon warrior walked by. 'What was that?" they said in unison.

At 1pm I snuck out with Kay Kenyon and Alan Dean Foster for a trip to Bottega Cafe. Tales of Hollywood from two of us. A nice break before diving back in for all.

A 3pm repeat of the Pyr panel had fewer attendees than the Friday edition, but that allowed a more intimate back-and-forth with the audience that was a nice counterpoint to the one the day before. By Saturday afternoon, people like artist guest Brom were referring to the day before as "typical first year bumps" and generally very forgiving.

Saturday night we brought Mike & Carol Resnick, Kay Kenyon and Alan Dean Foster to my house for dinner, and a tour of "where it happens", complete with a brief-but-loud drum solo courtesy of my almost-three year old. A great time but it did have the unfortunate side effect of meaning we missed Louise Marley's band Earthwood in their reunion performance. I didn't return to the convention again that evening, so I don't know what sort of night life it afforded those staying on-site.

Sunday morning I went with Tor editor Liz Gorinsky to breakfast at the Original Pancake House in Five Points. Here is a shot of Liz with The Storyteller by local artist Frank Fleming. You can't see it in the picture, but five toads spit water in a fountain in what, from a bird's eye view, would be an inverted five-pointed star with the goat's head at the top. "I didn't know it was Satanic, honest." said the sculptor when this was originally pointed out. Only in the Bible Belt would anyone care about this. But then, only in the Bible Belt would they build a satanic stature in front of a church. It makes for a good story, when visitors come to town. (And it would make for a good story, now I think about it...)

Two more panels on Sunday, including a fun "Nightmares of Publishing" panel which included Minz and Liz. I was double booked, so I missed when Bill Drinkard presented Ben Bova with the inaugural "Ben Bova award", something that is set to be a recurring feature of the convention, but I'm told the award was beautiful and that Ben was touched. I had a few last minute conversations, and then the con wrapped. Minz and a host of Baen authors were heading to Surin West Sunday night, but at this point, I could barely walk, let alone talk or drive. In fact, despite not staying up late in the bar every night, I was more tired than I normally am post-con. My wife thinks that the difference between this con and others is that in addition to all the work I always do at cons, I was playing host a good deal of the time too. Add to that all my fears that Omegacon wouldn't come off, and the stress that that caused least my people didn't have a good time, and I think this one was a good deal more exhausting than the usual. When it did come off (for the most part), all that tension broke.

So did it work? Well, Kay (pictured here with my brother David) said she's be back next year for sure. And I hear Ben Bova said he'd like to return every year. Casting about the nets, I see some of the other guests reports are already up, and they seem to be saying about the same thing:

Steven Brust's Report: He characterizes the weekend as "poor organization and good hearts," and concludes that "I’d hate to guarantee it, but I have the feeling that, by next year, Omegacon will have ironed out most of the bugs and be ready to put on a good convention. As for this year, well, there was some fun, and I’m very glad to be home."

David C. Kopaska-Merkel's Report: "On the one hand, it's the largest first-year con on record: more than 2000 people. It was bankrolled by, among other entities, Books-A-Million, so they had plenty of money. On the other hand, I have never seen a more disorganized con committee. If it hadn't been the first time, no one would have cut them any slack at all. ...On balance, I give them a B. Considering it was their first time. I'm pretty sure they won't make very many of those mistakes next year. ...I plan to go back next year."

Kay Kenyon's Report: "A bunch of attendees told me they were thrilled to have a con in their backyard. It was the first ever SF con in Alabama, I think, and everyone worked themselves to death. The con staff went out of their way to help authors when things went awry, as was maybe inevitable for the first try. So again, thanks to all the volunteers for hard work."

JF Lewis's Report: "As to be expected of a first time Con, there's been a small amount of chaos that seems to be smoothing out nicely."

Louise Marley's Report: "Last weekend, kenyonsf and I were guests at the very first of what I hope--and lots of people in the South hope--will be many OmegaCon Science Fiction Conventions. There were problems, birth pains, if you will, but the enthusiasm of the 3500 fans who attended was a reminder of why this genre is a living, growing community....It was worth it! I met some delightful readers who have been following my work for ten years, and that in itself was worth the twelve hours of flying and waiting and frustration that it took to get to and from Birmingham, AL, from Seattle, WA."

So, lots of first year jitters, overall a good time, hope for an even better show next year. And towards that end, let's look at what worked, and what needs fixing.

What worked:
  • Incredible sponsorship - Books A Million, Best Buy, the McWane Center, 105.5 FM. The support of the City of Birmingham.
  • Incredible PR - front page of the Birmingham news, spots on Fox 6, radio coverage. The OmegaCon team did in-store appearances at Best Buy and Books-A-Million, and were out in force for "Boo at the Zoo" - a Halloween event that drew in 17,000 attendees. Their promotional for this convention was top notch, among the best I've ever seen.
  • A wonderful dealers room - huge and full of many good things. The aforementioned Books-A-Million presence was incredible - the displays for my authors really eye-catching and much appreciated.
  • Locating the signing next to Books-A-Million and right at the front door of the dealer's room was inspired. Apparently, BAMM was hesitant to do this at first, because they weren't comfortable with backlist and books bought elsewhere being signed along with the books they sold, but Alan Dean Foster showed them the error of their ways, and they were VERY happy with the result. As were we!
  • The information/operations desk was top notch. When I needed a laptop set up for my Pyr Presentation, they were on the walkie-talkies and it was up and running in no time. I would have sworn I was going to have to tap dance without my 50 pages of book covers to back me up, but no - they were on it with professional speed. And, as I said before, the presentation facilities were the best I've encountered. I wish I could have been in the audience myself!
  • The overall hotel facilities were wonderful and with the convention center next door, they have all the room to grow they will ever need.
  • Music! While I didn't get time to listen to it myself, the incredible number of bands that played at OmegaCon was really impressive.
  • The website, which is oddly down at this moment, was wonderful, better than that for a lot of conventions, and a great place to get information pre-con. Its discussion forum will be a great resource when it comes to smoothing out the bumps for next year.
  • Very friendly, very sincere people.
What needs fixing?
  • Guests left at the airport. Next year they need to assign one liaison/greeter for every major guest, someone responsible for getting that guest at the airport, checking them into their hotel, giving them their schedule (before the programming actually starts), and getting them to the hotel at the end of the weekend. If they had just done this one thing, they would have eliminated 90% of the complaints and ill-will they drew down on the first day. And since I spoke to a great many volunteers day one who were there but didn't know what they should be doing, I imagine finding these volunteers and assigning them to guests next year should be easy.
  • No con-suite. I almost never stop long enough to go in myself, but the old guys really need somewhere to rest their feet. Thankfully, the hotel kindly put out juice and cookies on Saturday, but there needs to be a place provided for people to relax, help themselves to food, and chill out. This is easily amended.
  • No room parties. Another easy fix, and something I suspect will take care of itself over time as they grow, particularly as more of the DragonCon crowd drop in.
  • A better grasp of the needs of the artists in the art show and an understanding of what they need to get out of a show. I'm told they couldn't do commerce in the actual room, and the layout was a little wonky. Good art though.
  • Program book - this was the biggest single problem from my perspective (though, remember, I didn't need a hotel room myself). The programming book was late, so the first hour of panels was a wash. When it did arrive, it was nigh impenetrable. Incredibly, it was organized by room, not by time, with each track given its own section, so figuring out what was happening when was impossible. I myself missed a 9am Sunday panel I never knew I was on, and when I needed to find Kay Kenyon at one point - and knew for certain she was on a panel - I was incapable of finding it. What's needed here is a good deal of responsible guidance, someone overseeing all the various track leaders, a pre-convention questionnaire asking guests their preferences (time of arrival, time of departure, earliest panel you'll do, latest panel you'll do, maximum number of panels, willingness to moderate, that sort of thing). And an Excel spreadsheet. Honest.
A lot of problems, to be sure, but none insurmountable. I think younger/newer writers who can roll with the punches can get a lot out of this major new avenue into southern fandom, whereas older established pros who "don't need to put up with this shit" and draw the same crowds everywhere they go aren't going to find this as good a venue as it stands right now. I could easily have seen Tobias S Buckell, David Louis Edelman, or Elizabeth Bear having an absolute ball here this weekend, warts and all (the conventions, not theirs). And maybe that's where OmegaCon needs to concentrate its literary efforts while they work the kinks out. That being said, Bova has said he wants to come back every year. And if they ramp up quickly, this will be a good venue for all concerned next time.

Most encouraging was the number of competent people I met who were on the edge, who confessed to waiting in the wings to see if the organizers could really pull it off before diving in with their full aid, and who have expressed interest in being more involved next year to help build processes and smooth things out. So it looks like OmegaCon has the added resources to draw on if they'll use them. As one person said to me, "It was a typical first year con." To which I responded, "That's okay, then. As long as next year is a typical second year con, and the year after is a typical third year con. And one day, they become a typical ten year con." In fact, even the most irate author I talked to said they still thought that the con had potential to be a major event in years to come, one which might even consider hosting a World Con one year once they are established.

Finally, my aforementioned friend's son, whose name is Christian and who is three and a half, summed up his experience like this. "Daddy, I'm coming next near!" And that is the exact sentiment of every attendee I spoke with, and what I'm tracking online as well. I hear the hotel is already booked, and they certainly did the numbers. If the con organizers will make a study of what went right, take a lesson in what went wrong, be open to criticisms without taking offense, and heed advice where it is offered, then they could well become a major destination convention in just a few years time, just as the author above opined, on the level of a Norwescon or a Boskone for the Southeast with respect for the literary community, but with an attendee size of a decent media con.

But... if they repeat the mistakes of this year again, they'll have a hard time getting guests back a third time. And that will be a damn shame. Because while I heard a lot of stories of disorganization from the guests, I heard only good things from the fans. I was really touched by all the people I met who came in from Georgia and Florida and Tennessee and Mississippi and even further, as well as all the people from Birmingham that were there (including two teachers from my brother's school and the manager of my favorite restaurant!) I had no idea that my hometown had so many genre readers, and the palpable hunger for this to succeed that they all shared was overwhelming. There was so much good will and enthusiasm for OmegaCon I felt bad for any of us ever being disgruntled. I have spent several years missing the vibe I had in cities like Chicago, LA, and San Francisco, and it's been amazing to learn that there IS a community of genre readers here that I never knew existed.

So, to those of "poor organization and good hearts" - congratulations! You did it. You set records for a first year con, and you showed the skeptics that Birmingham can pull in crowds in their thousands. You brought together a huge number of professional writers and publishers for a fledging effort - hell, you had a lot of authors even for an established annual regional! You got major news coverage (print, radio, and TV), and you pulled in major sponsors. All that counts for a heck of a lot. But most of all, you showed your fans a wonderful time. And for that reason, you know they'll be back next year. So, sleep for a week - you earned it and you need it. Then get busy. You'll have only 360 or so days until OmegaCon 2 when you wake up. You've got a lot of work to do, but we're all pulling for you. And like three year old Christian, I'm definitely coming next year. I can hardly wait!

Good luck.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lou's Media Frenzy

Last night, I was at Historic Rucker Place in Downtown Birmingham, for the launch of JF Lewis' Staked,just out this month from Pocket Books, where it was my privilege to introduce Jeremy at the event. (Small world - my friend Jen Heddle is his editor.) Also in attendance, fellow Alabamian and new SF author William H. Drinkard, whose novel Elomwas just released in hardcover this month from Tor. Staked cover artist Chris McGrath couldn't attend, but sent a beautifully framed print of the cover which Jeremy's mother-in-law presented to him as a gift.

Tomorrow night, we'll reunite again at a launch party at BooksAMillion for Elom, and I'll be dragging Mike Resnick, Louise Marley and Kay Kenyon along, so more on that later. Mike, Kay and Louise are in town for OmegaCon, which is pulling in well over 40 authors/publishing professionals last time I counted (including Tor, who are throwing a party, and quite a few staples from Baen, including editor Jim Minz, who is a party unto himself.)

Meanwhile, Bill and I were on Fox 6's "Good Day, Alabama" at 7:45 am this morning in support of the con. We talked with host Rick Journey about Bill's book, OmegaCon, and Pyr. The clip is already online here.

Update 3/13/08: Jeremy blogs his launch party here.

OmegaCon Panel Schedule

This weekend, March 14th to 16th, is OmegaCon, where, Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I will be appearing on the following panels:


3:00 pm
Science Fiction (Vision or Prophet)?
Ben Bova - Alan Dean Foster – Lou Anders – Van Allen Plexico

4:30 pm
“Wonderful World of Pyr Books”
Lou Anders - Mike Resnick - Kay Kenyon

6:00 pm
Trends in Science Fiction:
Ben Bova - David Drake - Mike Resnick - Alan Dean Foster - Lou Anders


10:30 am
Joy Ward - Lou Anders - Jeremy F. Lewis - Allen Gilbreath - William Jones

12:00 pm
Meet Pyr’s Authors: Autographs
Lou Anders - Mike Resnick - Alan Dean Foster - Kay Kenyon

3:00 pm
“Wonderful World of Pyr Books”
Lou Anders - Mike Resnick - Kay Kenyon

6:00 pm
Online Publishing:
Eric Flint – Lou Anders - Claire Eddy – James Minz - Van Allen Plexico

9:00 am
The Business of SF:
Lou Anders - David Drake - Eric Flint – James Minz - Claire Eddy

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Busy Editor at Home

I am often asked, "What is the life of an editor like?"

Well, um, we just took the Christmas tree down this past weekend.

That should probably give you an idea...