The Washington Science Fiction Association's Capclave, Conference, Silver Spring, MD, USA (November 2003)

Friday, November 21.

Capclave is a short story writer's conference. Because of this, it lacks many of the trappings of a "con." No gaming, little in the way of masquerades, vestigial filking. The panels are an hour long. Quality ranges from "participants met 10 minutes before start time to figure out what in the world they would talk about" to excellent. Capclave registration is a scene of genial chaos. Throngs of very casually dressed forty- and fifty-somethings mill about in a small, overheated mezzanine of Silver Spring Maryland's Hilton Hotel.

I have first-hand knowledge of why the panels are so haphazard. After months of assuming that the panel I'd volunteered for had been scuppered, the moderator e-mailed me on the Wednesday before the conference to say that we were still on. She sent me the title of the panel, "Variations on a Fandom: Tolkien's Impact on Fans Then and Now," but no details. Over the last couple of days, my panel has been moved from 1 p.m. to 2 pm to 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Now it appears that it will be moved to 11:30 a.m. tomorrow. I have just discovered that there are only two of us on the one-hour panel and I've got top billing. Moreover this is the first time I've seen a description of what our panel is actually about. This reminds me of the nightmares I have about taking a final exam in a class that I somehow never got around to attending. Panic sets in and I spend the rest of the evening scrawling frenzied notes on 3x5 cards.

The Comic as Short Story.

Program Description: Many of today's comics are more literary than their predecessors: is a graphic novel a short story dressed up?

Participants: Eric Pavlat; Michael D. Pederson; Steve Stiles; and Michail Velichansky.

The panel was firmly focused on technical detail. I gleaned the following nuggets from the shop talk. Background detail slows down the eye. Use details for slow, sensitive scenes such as conversations or romance. For action, simplify the background. Color is very important in depicting emotion. Milt Caniff of Terry and the Pirates pioneered this. To view some of Caniff's cartoons, go to this Web site.

Michael Pederson says he writes comics as though he's writing a novella or short story.

Big trend: Girls and Manga. The panelists warmly recommended "Iron Wok Jan," a cooking manga that describes a war between two rival chefs. The Animated Bliss Web site gives the basic plot, "Jan is a talented young chef at a top class restaurant in Tokyo called Gottancho. Jan is really arrogant and full of self-confidence regarding his cooking technique. He always challenges Kiriko -- a talented chef of Gottancho. Both Jan and Kiriko have entered a cooking competition. Who will win?"

The Appeal of the Supernatural.

Participants: Robert Chase; Brett Davis; Scott Edelman; David Hartwell and Tony Ruggiero.

The panel participants couldn't decide what they should talk about so the workshop was a discussion of what they should discuss.

David Hartwell suggested the following formulae: SciFi=Awe + Wonder Horror=Awe + Fear. Both involve an encounter with the sublime.

The panelists recommended the following books: Brewsters Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. There is an on-line version here.

Story, Robert McKee.

Saturday, November 22

Mixing the Genres.

Program Description: Why do so many writers try to break out of the genre box? How do publishers decide if a mystery solving cat or robot goes on the mystery shelf or the SF/F Shelf?

Participants: Donna Andrews; Myke Cole; Peter Heck; Tee Morris; Lawrence Watt-Evans; and Michael Swanwick.

Panel leader Donna Andrews is a mystery writer who blends Sci Fi elements into her novels, which have titles like Revenge of the Wrought Iron Pink Flamingos. She has coined the term "technocosy" to describe the resulting genre mix.

She says that what makes a good story good, has nothing to do with genre at all. Genres exist for the convenience of marketers. Genres aren't about writing; they're about selling. She recommends John Gardner's books on writing to those who want to learn how to write a good story.

The panel agreed that if you cross genres, you have to satisfy the reader's genre expectations -- you have to include the right elements. You can turn them inside out, but you can't ignore them.

Variation on a Fandom: Tolkien's Impact on Fan's Then and Now

Participants: Emily Richter, Liz Milner and "Movie-Goer"

My panel. Luckily the schedule gave a one sentence summary of what the panel was about: "three different introductions to Tolkien's works, and three of the different areas people belong to within the fanbase: The Reader, The Academic and the Movie-Goer." More luck: In the nick of time, Emily, our moderator, has been able to recruit a "Movie-Goer" so I won't have to race around the table to fill that role.

I figured I'd talk about what it was like to be an early adopter in the days when the ACE pirate paperbacks of LOTR had just come out, and how various aspects of the books played to an 8-year old in 1964/5 when there was no Idiot's Guide to Middle-earth. I'd also explain how the cultural context of the time made understanding the book even more difficult. (I initially read Sam as an "Uncle Tom," and I thought the opening scenes in Hobbiton were a cruel slur against the people of Appalachia -- the pipes, the bare feet and the convoluted family trees had me thinking that the Hobbits came from somewhere near Skyline Drive.) Our moderator introduced me as representing "the older generation of Tolkien Fandom" which caused much consternation in the room because many people there were older than me (I'm 47). There were ugly mutterings from the audience, so I shouted "She meant to say "Eldar," not "older!" and peace was restored.

Emily did a fine job on academic aspects, but movie-goer played it safe and would only speak to the technical excellence of the movie. The audience was less reticent and I was intrigued to find that while earlier literary critics dissed Tolkien for his failure to adhere to the rules set forth in Aristotle's Poetics, there's a whole new generation that diss him for failing to follow the rules set forth in Syd Field's Screenplay. Even more disturbing were the people that said they could never imagine Middle-earth in as rich detail as Peter Jackson, therefore they accept his authority. Look out! It's the "Stepford Hobbits!"

Sunday, November 23

Satire in Science Fiction.

Program Description: In the past, many writers like George Orwell used Science Fiction as satire to make points about their own time. Are writers still doing this and why? What can SF satire do that writing about our current world cannot? What writers have done satire well?

Participants: Brett Davis, Peter Heck (author of Mark Twain Mysteries -- titles include "Tom's Lawyer" -- and co-author of Phule's Company Series which he describes as "Intergalactic F-Troop"), Tony Ruggiero and Guest of Honor, William Tenn.

Tenn: "Good satire has to be dangerous. You have to tremble as you write." It should leave you with great, memorable unforgettable lines. Saturday Night Live is satire-lite. It's safe and goes against the petty foibles of the time. It's really parody, not strictly satire.

Tenn explained that parody is a Greek term that literally means "a sung beside." It parallels a piece of work whilst exaggerating the work's absurdity. Parody tends to focus on a specific piece of work. Satire, by contrast, targets the entire society. Aristophenes wrote satire, while Lucian wrote parodies.

Character development is less important in SF and satire -- the focus is on the broader society, not the individual protagonist.

Tenn says that C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet was written as a satire on HG Welles' belief in progress. Lewis took Welles at face value and may have missed elements of satire in Welles' work.

Tenn believes that Political Correctness is the prevailing ideology and satirists are wimpy about critiquing the foibles of the Left. Groups covered under Title IX have become sacred cows. For example, when he wrote a satire introducing a new political movement called "Maleism" he got oinked. I said his suggestions for future satire sounded like kicking underdogs in the teeth, but he politely suggested I was brainwashed.

Warped Tolkien Concepts Workshop.

Program Description: Lord of the Rings as a Communist Manifesto; Sauron as a musical theater star, etc.

Participants: Brenda Clough; Rob Gates; Darrell Schweitzer; and Lawrence Watt-Evans.

The presenters say that this workshop is inspired by Straight Dope's LOTR Parodies.

The LOTR as Communist Manifesto, as one might expect, was a bit heavy-handed and doomed to failure. The Committee reached the conclusion that "Hobbits are imperialist lackeys who suffer from insufficient self criticism." We then moved on to A-I LOTR, where the audience suggested how the A-I version of LOTR would read:

Sauron is an A-I Mainframe. The Ring holds the encryption key that will give Sauron control of the Network. Saruman, meanwhile, is a programmer trying to hijack the source code. The Nazgul are the Marketing Team. Elrond is from The Matrix, obviously, and Klingons are descended from the Orcs in the 5th age. Klingon Cliff Notes to LOTR explains that the Orcs found their honor at the end of the War of the Rings because they died in a hopeless cause and the Klingon concept of honor was born. After a few moments of silence for the noble Klingon ancestors, we moved on to LOTR as Feminist Tragedy. We started out with a Jungian approach, the Ring (female symbol) vs busted sword (male symbol). The Jungians were quickly overwhelmed by the feminists who advanced the argument that women are marginalized in the Shire -- witness the vilification of Lobelia Baggins who is labeled as a shrew because she wants to take control of land distribution. Arawen is a brain-washed traditional woman, while Eowyn is taken to the houses of healing to re-educated into a docile female.

Science Fiction writer and panel moderator Brenda Clough performed selections from her version of the musical LOTR, tunes courtesy of The Music Man. The audience contributed such gems as "I want an orc just like the orc that mangled dear old dad"


"When you're an orc, you're an orc all the way / from your first skewered elf to your last dying day."

At this point, our local folk rock music critic, who came dressed as a cheerleader, performed an enthusiastic cheer but lost his footing and landed flat on his butt. Everyone agreed it was a fitting end to the workshop.

[Liz Milner]