Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Swancon - reviewed

First a note of explanation. It occurred to me that overseas folk may not know about Swancon. Swancon is the annual Western Australian Science Fiction convention which this year also encompassed Natcon, the annual Australian National Science Fiction convention. It's held over the Easter long weekend and, despite its name, includes all aspects of speculative fiction. You would probably get a hint when you walked into the lobby and found the Tardis. Some intrepid folk went inside. Not me. I know what happens if you wander into the Tardis. You could end up anywhere!

All right. I'll get serious. I intended to update my blog daily but...

Overall, as a first-time Swancon attendee, I wasn't disappointed. It's hard to say what was most enjoyable - the varied and stimulating panels, the interesting and at times controversial academic papers, browsing the book stalls, the art show, the photographic display, the chance to talk to some of my favourite writers or the opportunity to meet up with friends. In fact there was so much that I found selecting what to do a challenge at times.

I certainly came home tired and so did many others to judge by the faces in the lobby at the end of the closing ceremony on Monday. Swancon stretched from Thursday evening to Monday afternoon which makes it longer than most cons. Add in that Swancon has a stream where academic papers are presented in addition to the usual writing and fan panels and a gaming stream and you have a packed Easter weekend.

The panels generally worked well, being entertaining and informative. I'll list in chronological order those I particularly enjoyed:
Flash Fiction: Lee Battersby, Zara Baxter and Martin Livings
Girl Meets Boy:Romance and Fantasy: Satima Flavell Neist, Ju Landresse, Glenda Larke and Juliet Marillier. A slight misnomer as the discussion ranged over many and mixed relationship possibilities.
From an Idea to a Publishable Book: Avoiding Beginner's Mistakes. This workshop by Glenda Larke was an eye opener.
A Point of Difference: Standing Out in Fantasy Fiction: Glenda Larke, Juliet Marillier, Bevan McGuiness and Karen Miller.
The Big Stage: Space Opera and Setting: Ken McLeod, Karl Schroeder and Sean Williams
Horror: State of the Art: Lee Battersby, Stephen Dedman and Shane Jiraiya Cummings
Critiquing: how Much Feedback is Too Much: Lee Battersby, Satima Flavell Neist, Robert Hoge, Juliet Marillier and Cat Sparks
Is Democracy Inevitable: Glenda Larke, Paul Kidd and Ken McLeod
Writing for Televison: a Guide For New Writers" Rob Shearman, Grant Watson and another whose name escapes me.
This is, of course, only a sampling. I went to and enjoyed many others too but I'd have to give you practically the whole programme to list them all.

One of the few panels that disappointed me was one on race and other in science fiction. I am particularly interested in how science fiction and fantasy has evolved away from the largely male US/European focus of its early days. I like the way it can be used to infiltrate provocative ideas so that the reader is forced to view their own beliefs from a different angle. Just look at work by writers like Ursula le Guin, Sherry S. Tepper and C. J. Cherryh or read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. These are all writers whose work can be enjoyed at a superficial level as a good read but have much more to say.
So I was looking forward to a reasoned discussion on the subject, one that included recent writers, in particular those from other cultures, and the women, who now form a large part of the field, and who have explored other concepts and constructs of societies and ethnicity. I got none.
The panel focussed largely on science fiction and fantasy (they didn't seem to understand the difference) on US television and criticised the writers for things like having the alien characters speak English. Given they are being made commercially for an English speaking audience I'm not sure what other options they have. Subtitles do tend to slow things down a tad. In another example they objected to the homogeneous nature of the colonies in Stargate and, when it was pointed out they actually originated as identical cloned colonies, that didn't matter because they still formed stereotypes. The most ridiculous statement was the one where a panelist said she had read one of Glenda Larke's books and saw it as more white culture being perpetuated until two thirds of the way through when she realised it was set in an Asian based culture - a comment that revealed a lot about the speaker's cultural bias. This was despite the description of the characters and setting early in the book that she apparently missed.
More irritatingly, no mention was made of writers of speculative fiction from other ethnic and cultural groups such as India, China and elsewhere nor of the many women who certainly do not perpetuate the stereotypes of "middle class white American males". It's a pity because a real discussion would have been much more interesting not to mention accurate.

Despite that disappointment the general standard of panels was high. Speculative fiction fans, readers and writers tend to be well educated in their field and expect panelists to treat them as such. Swancon certainly provided that.

To sum up, Swancon had a lot to offer. I'm already looking forward to next year. I hope you'll be there.

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