Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Back from Arisia 2017


I'm back home from Arisia 2017 and other than being completely exhausted I'm feeling very good about the experience.

To sum up my impressions of the panels, experiences, and spectacles of this year's con I guess I'd say the theme was communication.

Me at the "Alien in Aliens" panel, Arisia 2017 (photographer: Lauren Crooks)
During my first panel, Putting the Alien in Aliens with Steve Popkes, Dennis McCunney, and Sonia Taaffe, the conversation centered around this question of communication. In comparison to other panels centered on this topic - the creation and appreciation of truly alien extraterrestrials - the focus here was not so much the biology or composition of the aliens as the limited ability of we poor human beings to understand any potential creature from another solar system. Is this even possible or plausible? Or is communication with aliens one more implausible feature of science fiction we all collectively ignore like faster than light travel?

The elephant in the room, addressed relatively late by the Sonia Taaffe, was the existence of the movie "Arrival," which dealt with these very issues. As I've stated at least twice on this blog, I absolutely adored this movie. Adapting Ted Chiang's original story was not an insignificant task; balancing the conflicting needs of preserving the original themes of the story while finding elements that would translate (sorry) well for the screen.

This movie helps in understanding two things representing best practices for handling the appearance of extraterrestrials in fiction. Firstly, aliens should be very different from humans. How different? As different as the writer can get away with and still tell a compelling story. Secondly, no matter how different these aliens might be, a writer should seek to make some aspect of their existence explicable. If aliens are not explicable, not comprehensible in any way shape or fashion, then their role in a story is different from simply an alien being. They become another force of nature: something to be dealt with or survived. That misses the chance to expand the ability of our human race to empathize with others.

One of the reasons I think the aliens of "Arrival," do succeed is that the movie plays out like a mystery story. The aliens are here and through hard work, desperation, and a little luck, humans are able to understand some piece of what their motive are.

Saturday I went to the Belly Dancing panel to see my wife, Lauren, take part explaining some of the history of belly-dancing at Arisia. This was a great talk, and it's always an incredible experience to see Lauren absolutely kick-ass when describing something she loves. Then, to top it off, I saw her dance in not one but two face-melting performances in the aforementioned Geeky Belly Dance show. She was part of the opening troupe of dancers and then did a hysterical homage to the most recent Ghostbusters! The second people saw the stripes on the costumes, they knew they were in for a show.

Sunday I went to a bunch of panels before heading to the "Preacher, Gone to Television" panel with Hildy Silverman (mod), Randee Dawn, Antonia Pugliese, and Dr. James Prego. One of the joys of being in a panel is having a conversation at length about a single topic. I always find the value of this is not only getting a chance to put into some semi-coherent form, my thoughts on a work of art, but also to learn what other thought of it. In the case of this panel, I left with a bit more excitement for season 2 than I thought possible. The show was not completely successful but when all is said in done, it stands a decent chance of being one of the greats.

I also caught a panel on Star Wars. Scheduled opposite to the Carrie Fisher memorial panel and the line to get into the Masquerade show, it was not as completely packed as I would have thought. The panelists there were all pretty much unanimous in their support for both recent Disney owned Star Wars movies (TFA and Rogue One). Uniform love of Star Wars can be a recipe for boredom in my experience but somehow that was not the case here. Despite the flaws of these new movies, there is a great reserve of optimism about the project overall. I realized at some point during the discussion I really want to see the next movie. I'm excited to find out what happens to Rei, Finn, Ben, and Poe. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, fandom is not the most important topic ever, but it's nice to know there's at least one thing to look forward to in 2017.

I had a couple of Monday panels this year, one on "The Uncomfortable Genre," moderated by Sarah Smith and one on "Short Sharp Shocks," moderated by the incredible Gillian Daniels. I've been on panels with both of these excellent writers and enjoyed the experience a great deal.

The first of the two panels, which also included Dennis McCunney, and Meredith Schwartz, was a strange duck. The description of the panel reminded me of one of my own ideas during brainstorming this summer so I made a pitch for it knowing full-well that what I wanted to talk about might not be quite what the other panelists wanted to talk about. As it turned out, I think it's safe to say none of us were completely 100% on what this panel was supposed to be. Essentially I wanted to talk about Cosmic Horror and Dark Realism and got the chance to do that. Other panelists brought up works that I've not had the pleasure to read but now have on my reading list. I came away from the panel with a few new ideas and a couple of thoughts for the last panel.

"Short Sharp Shocks" which included myself as well as MJ Cunniff, Andrea Corbin, and Keffy R.M. Kehril, is as close to a "Year in Literature" panel as Arisia had this year and it rocked! Part of the reason I like short fiction is that it is an easy and very convenient way to join in on speculative fiction's ongoing conversation. No story exists in a vacuum. Gillian Daniels talked about Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," a story I already intended to use in as an example and I praised last year's "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander before Daniels, who reviewed it in her own bi-monthly column on short fiction in the magazine "Fantastic Stories of the Imagination," did. I wanted to talk up Gwendolyn Kiste's story in Nightmare which Andrea Corbin also raised as an example of short fiction's power to use something like a list to organize a complete story. I left the panel encouraged and excited.

Add to that all of the other encounters and conversations conventions encourage and you're talking about a hell of a weekend. Arisia was a great chance to catch up with a bunch of friends: Matt, Alex, Melanie, Nalin, Ken, John (first year at the convention) and of course Wendee and Dan.

Conversations about science fiction and fantasy stretch back centuries right up until this very moment. The works that I love from the past few years strike me as powerful because they modify, rebut, and address the points of the past. You can't walk away from the past of speculative fiction. You can't pretend that the stories of the past didn't happen. What you can do is update the concerns of the so-called Golden Ages of science fiction for the needs and worries of the present.

Chances are, you like something, in places like Arisia you can find others just as passionate about that thing too.
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