The headliner on the card was Gregory Benford, who inspired the theme of the weekend with his famous remark about writing Hard SF being like playing tennis with the net up. (He admits he paraphrased it from Robert Frost describing free verse.) With one of science fiction's heavyweights present and two legendary editors as hosts, I was a little intimidated. (But only a little, thanks to my magnificent ego.)
Whenever I read memoirs of the early decades of science fiction, I'm always a little envious. They didn't have huge conventions with velvet ropes to separate the fans from the pros (and the minor-league pros from the big guys). Conventions in the pre-Trekkie era were often just a gathering at someone's house, with maybe a pilgrimage to the local movie palace and dinner at a convenient restaurant. Scrappy youngsters like Harlan Ellison or Samuel R. Delany would argue happily with established names like Fred Pohl or John W. Campbell.
Well, now I can say I know what those gatherings were like.
Westport, New York, is a little town on the western shore of Lake Champlain, within the boundaries of Adirondack State Park. The drive up wasn't hard, though after an hour or so on the road I did start to wonder if quaint New England towns were assembled from some kind of standard kit.
The event started on Saturday morning with a panel discussion on "Playing With the Net Up," which riffed off Mr. Benford's remark and the role of the Internet. Kathryn Cramer made the interesting point that while the 'Net makes research easier, it also makes it possible for readers to pounce on nonexistent errors in stories.
Note that when I call this a "panel discussion" it doesn't mean the usual convention program event with Authors sitting behind nameplates at a table at the head of the room talking to Other People sitting in rows of chairs facing them. This was actually a pretty free-form conversation involving everyone in the room. Other participants included (naturally) David Hartwell, visualization guru Brad Paley, well-known editor and fan Ann Crimmins, Elisabeth Malartre, and (later in the day) biologist and science writer Diane A. Kelly.
We resumed after lunch with an interview. Gregory Benford asked me to explain my writing methods, and wanted to know what stories of mine are my personal favorites. The flippant answer to that was "whatever I just finished," but after a little more thought I picked "Parsifal (Prix Fixe)" and "Balancing Accounts" as the ones I'm most proud of.
Elisabeth Malartre then read her story "Words, Words, Words" which originally ran in Nature magazine's "Futures" department. It's best described as a Hard-SF fantasy story, and we all enjoyed it. She also discussed her story "Evolution Never Sleeps," an ecology story about chipmunks developing some unpleasant but adaptive behaviors.
Late in the afternoon we reconvened for another panel about technological optimism, utopias, and happy endings. The underlying inspiration for this discussion was Neal Stephenson's essay "Innovation Starvation," calling for science fiction writers to return to technological optimism in a conscious attempt to inspire the next generation of innovators. I believe it was Gregory Benford who suggested the useful distinction among "Mytopia" and "Yourtopia" and "Histopia": one person's idea of a perfect society might match someone else's idea of a living nightmare. Given that, how can SF writers resume their role as propagandists for the future when we can't agree on what that future should be?
After that we knocked off for drinks and dinner, then a backyard tent reading by Kathryn Cramer as the stars came out.
Next: Day 2!