fantasy

Ad Astra 2013

Ad Astra is a speculative fiction convention in the outskirts of Toronto (specifically Markham) that I've attended now for several years. (2012 and 2009 recaps). Last year they moved to a new hotel for the convention, and it looks like they've started to fix some of the problems with last year's event. There were fewer tracks of programming this year, which was helpful. This reduced the heavy load on the elevators from last year, and made panel decisions easier.

Panels scheduled in the smaller rooms on the lower level were a real problem for me, as the rooms seem designed to devour sound. There are no microphones or speakers, and the panelists tend to be soft spoken. I had to bail on one panel because the sounds of people in the hall were far louder than the people at the front of the room.

Book launches and readings

Book launches are always fun to attend. This year, I attended a reading by Kitchener author Suzanne Church. Suzanne read a piece from her upcoming anthology Elements, as well as a few chicken stories that the anthology editor decided didn't fit with the anthology. They were amusing, but don't match the tone of the rest of her work. They would probably fit in with an anthology of Derek Künsken's stories though... He's written about monkey assassins and clown farts lately. Which, now that I've mentioned it, is going to draw some strange searches to my site.

Speaking of Derek, there was also a Bundoran Press launch party for the digital editions of the Blood and Water anthology (review forthcoming), as well as one of Matthew Johnson's stories. A number of authors read selections from their stories in Blood and Water, including Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Ryan McFadden, Kate Heartfield, Douglas Smith, Derek Kunsken and Julie E. Czerneda.

Julie E. Czerneda also had a reading from her new novel A Turn of Light. Something which I will have to pick up the ebook for shortly.

I didn't attend the reading from Robert J Sawyer's Red Planet Blues. He will be in Kitchener later this month, when he's not competing against other panels.

Doctor Who

A Dalek in the halls of Ad Astra

Wandering the floors of the convention, I turned a corner and almost ran into a life-size Dalek. Thankfully, it did not try and exterminate me. Later in the night, there was a group showing of the night's episode of Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten. A number of Whovians were in costume (mainly the fourth and seventh Doctors), and sonic screwdrivers were waved at the projector to resolve technical issues.

The Dealer's Room

I spent more time in the dealer's room this year, as I was helping out at the Bundoran Press table. Sitting next to the ChiZine table was fun. Brett Savory has a sharp wit, as does the rest of the CZP posse.

This was also the first year where I didn't walk out of the dealer's room with a backpack full of books. Since I started using my Kobo Glo at Christmas, I have read mostly ebooks. This decision was difficult at the con. Some new releases from authors for whom I have their entire backlist signed. This was a struggle between the collector, and the reader. For now, the reader has won.

Panels

I did manage to attend a number of panels, although not as many as previous years. Ad Astra has become more of a social event for me, catching up with friends from the Internet.

Alternate realities

This was a fun panel, and I wish that I had taken more comprehensive notes. There was some good advice, including suggestions to look outside the traditional Western European history. Post colonialism at work.

Building an audience

This was a solo lecture featuring Rob Sawyer. A few people bailed when they realized it wasn't a discussion between multiple panelists. There is of course a difference between a discussion and a lecture.

For the most part, Rob's advice makes sense. You're not trying to sell a particular book or story to everyone. Just like a particular story won't be right for a given editor, a story can also not be right for a particular reader.

Rob instead advised the audience to sell a brand: yourself. It's more of a soft-sale technique, where through exposure to your brand, and a continues, personal interaction, fans will buy your books. Some of the folks in the dealer's room should have been here. Some vendors were trying the hard-sale.

How to write high fantasy

While I'm not trying to write high fantasy, I found the panel on this topic entertaining. Some good perspectives by K.W. Ramsey, Catherine Fitzsimmons, Gregory A. Wilson, and Marie Bilodeau. It did end up going a little off topic, when the panelists started discussing ways to create believable female characters with real motivations.

How do you know it's done

This panel included Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Gabrielle Harbowy, Marie Bilodeau, and Douglas Smith. It was a really good discussion of the merits an limitations of Heinlein's third rule of writing, limiting the endless editing of finished work. It was really quite fun to see Gabrielle and Marie joking with each other. This is what a really good editor/author relationship is like.

I'm going to come back to this topic in a later post, after I've had time to organize my notes.

Space propulsion

As interesting as this topic is, without a story driving particular research on my part, I really didn't get much from this panel. Escape velocity requires expensive thrust, and can't be nuclear. When in orbit, interplanetary transfers can be fast and expensive (major talk about nuclear options) or slow and efficient for non-human transport. Some interesting facts about solar sails. The guys on this panel would be great people to query with particular story questions. It's all really great information, it's just not very useful to me now.

The parties

a shot of our Aliens game in action

While waiting for the parties to start up, I met up with Adam Shaftoe, James Bambury (who does not yet have telekinetic powers while drinking), Beverly Bambury and David Lamb for an Aliens board game. It was pretty epic. Shaftoe in particular had some awesome moments, even if the acid splash from the Alien caused someone else to fall down the elevator shaft.

The ChiZine party has an epic event. Just like the TARDIS, it must be bigger on the inside, judging by the number of people there. I bet the Doctor has stronger air conditioning though, although perhaps not as free-flowing of a bar.

I Grew Up on Trashy Fantasy Novels

While I often write about science fiction, I actually grew up on trashy fantasy novels. Well, maybe not quite trashy. Certainly formulaic. More than one Dragonlance novel imparted a subtle grace to my bookshelves as I grew up. Seemingly the very definition of stereotypical characters, written as part of the TSR Dragonlance roleplaying game. This is certainly not to impugn the writing of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The character of Raistlin for example, provides an interesting look at the balance of morality. Long after I stopped reading the tales of Raistlin and Caramon, I've continued to read other series by these two. The Rose of the Prophet trilogy was particularly memorable, and took a somewhat more nuanced approach to morality and religion, showing the power of the gods as different aspects of an integrated whole, and the quest to regain balance.

The Darksword trilogy took a different look at magic and technology, again with elements of self-sacrifice. This series was memorable for me as being my introduction to the idea of a city inside a bubble.

One of the most important novels I believe either author has written is actually Tracy Hickman's novel The Immortals, which examines quarantine death camps for those inflicted with AIDS. This novel is actually science fiction, not fantasy, but the message it contains is a powerful message against hatred and brutality.

Other series I read growing up included Anne McCaffery's Pern novels. In grade 6, we actually studied the Harper Hall trilogy in class, which was the first time I studied a book for class which I had already read.

I was also a fan of Raymond E. Feist's Magician series. The Magician: Apprentice and Magician Master, as well as the Empire trilogy cowritten with Janny Wurts are still among my favourites.

David Eddings' Belgariad was fun, although again it tended to oversimplify some things. The whole "this country is a jungle, that one is a swamp" thing sort of seemed a little like the Ice Plant Hoth, the Desert Planet Tatooine after awhile. Definitely an epic fantasy.

Among the more recent fantasy series have been those which more closely follow historical periods. Guy Gavriel Kay's works are great. Tigana is a great novel about the importance of memory. His most recent novel, Under Heaven, is a great story influenced by Chinese history.

I certainly can't fail to mention Jack Whyte, who has written one of the most interesting tales in the Arthurian legend, covering the span of time before Arthur is crowned king. Whyte's novels are told mostly from the viewpoint of Merlyn, but in a way which completely avoids the use of magic, in a much more realist setting.

Fast Ships, Black Sails

I picked up Fast Ships, Black Sails at Worldcon this year, and have finally gotten around to finishing it. This is a pirate themed, science-fiction/fantasy anthology of short stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and published by Night Shade Books.

  • "Boojum" by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
  • "Castor on Troubled Waters" by Rhys Hughes
  • "I begyn as I Mean To Go On" by Kage Baker
  • "Avast, Abaft!" by Howard Waldrop
  • "Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves" by Kelly Barnhill
  • "Skillet and Saber" by Justin Howe
  • "The Nymph's Child" by Carrie Vaughn
  • "68° 07′ 15″N, 31° 36′ 44″W" by Conrad Williams
  • "Ironface" by Michael Moorcock
  • "Pirate Solutions" by Katherine Sparrow
  • "We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars" by Brendan Connell
  • "Voyage of the Iguana" by Steve Aylett
  • "Pirates of the Suara Sea" by David Freer and Eric Flint
  • "A Cold Day in Hell" by Paul Batteiger
  • "The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth" by Rachel Swirsky
  • "Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake" by Naomi Novik
  • "The Whale Below" by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
  • "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" by Garth Nix

The VanderMeers start this anthology off with a bang with "Boojum", where we are introduced to a living entity being used as a spaceship, and being attacked by pirates. This immediately brings the fantastic elements of this anthology.

Sparrow's "Pirate Solutions" was perhaps the most unexpected of the stories, as it deals more with data pirates than high seas pirates. It didn't quite match the same feel as the other stories, but was still enjoyable.

Another favourite was "Pirates of the Suara Sea". Freer and Flint do an excellent job of characterizing the alien Altekar: "There are lots more deck-planks. Maybe even... five."

"The Voyage of the Iguana" is an absurdist piece, and quite amusing. It's a series of short journal entries documenting the voyage of an incompetent captain and his crew.

Paul Batteiger's "A Cold Day in Hell" was an interesting concept of piracy on the high ice sheets, in a world undergoing a new ice age. The ships, instead of floating on water, skate over the ice.

Perhaps the most memorable story in the collection is Rachel Swirsky's "The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail". In this tale, the pirates are black hearted rats. It's a wonderful little story, although I was disappointed to see that in this story, ships guns were called canons instead of cannons. It's not a musical piece,  nor is it a selection of works of literature or art.

Novik's tale was another enjoyable fantasy tale, with elements of magic.

Garth Nix's story "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" is an excellent one to end the anthology. I wished it was a much longer piece, as the characters and setting were quite intriguing.

Overall, a good anthology. There was a great depth of literary references throughout the stories, such as to Lavinia Whateley in "Boojum", and Edward Teach in "Pirates of the Saura Sea". Some stories re-imagine pirates entirely, while other stories are a more traditional retelling, with some added fantasy elements.