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Bittercon: Any Sufficiently Detailed Magic System Is Indistinguishable from Science

(This will be my last formal Bittercon post for ConFusion. However, I'm going to keep the list of other topics for inspiration for future posts.)

Most of us are familiar with Clarke's Law: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to the uninitiated. But what about the opposite: the carefully systematized magic that operates in predictable ways to get the desired result. Doesn't it start feeling more like a parallel system of technology than the magic of folklore and fairy tale? Sometimes to the point where you start wondering if the Big Reveal is going to be that it's in fact taking place thousands of years in the future, so far that the characters have forgotten they are the descendants of technological humanity after a long Dark Age.

Jack Chalker's Soul Rider series is a good example of that last (although I spoiled it for myself by acquiring Book Four at a garage sale and reading it first, and only then reading the first three with the knowledge that these people were the descendants of the people who settled an exoplanet). So when I read Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan and City on Fire, I understood them as science fiction. Here you have a world-city reminiscent of Trantor or Coruscant, although it is capital of nothing, instead being enclosed in a mysterious shield that allows nothing to pass. The flux is enough like the psionics that appear in a lot of science fiction that, while it would probably be pseudoscience in the Primary World, I can suspend my disbelief for it as a feature of the Secondary World Williams creates.

So I was rather surprised when I was trying to find out about the third book that seemed to be promised by certain little bits of the second, and saw the author describing it as fantasy, not sf. But as I was thinking about it, I could see parallels in other works of fiction in which magic is something the principal characters use or learn how to use. If it isn't systematized, with clear limits and weak points, it can easily become a rampaging plot device, or even outright wish fulfillment.

And there are some times when a fictional world works better when the magic stays numinous, not under the beck and call of the protagonists. For me, this was one of the problems with the third trilogy of Jacqueline Carey's Legacy of Kushiel series. In the early books, magic was something the protagonists often experienced, but was never under their command, even when they became its vessels. But as the series progresses, we encounter more and more characters who view magic as something to be studied until it is understood and can be manipulated -- and not all of these characters are villains. As this progressed, I found some of the charm went out of it for me -- and I may not have been the only one, since she has not written any further books in the world of Terre d'Ange, although I would've loved to see her takes on Japan, Australia and Polynesia in that world.
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Bittercon: Fandom in the Family

This is a panel from the fandom track at ConFusion: how to pass your love of sf fandom on to the next generation.

This immediately makes me think of something some other dealers mentioned to me at last year's Windycon: namely, the relative dearth of young people. When I started attending Windycon (and Capricon, and Duckon) back in the 1990's, there were a lot of people my own age and younger. Not just kids who'd come with their fannish parents, but older teens and twenty-somethings coming on their own, walking around with some friends.

Somewhere along the line, the demographic changed. I'm not sure exactly when, especially since there were a number of years that we didn't attend Windycon. But I've also noticed it at ConGlomeration, which we have pretty much attended every year until last year (when it conflicted with Anime Matsuri). Most of the younger members of the convention are the children of established fans -- and once they grow up, they drift away.

It's quite possible that they haven't abandoned fandom entirely, but have instead gravitated toward the larger media conventions. I see a lot of younger people at anime conventions and comic cons, so it's not like the younger generation is abandoning speculative genres in their entertainment, or abandoning the whole idea of getting together to enjoy it with other fans at a big venue. But there seems to be something about the traditional science fiction convention that is no longer attractive to the younger generation, such that the "graying of fandom" is leading to long-running conventions like Windycon and Capricon shrinking and quite possibly dying altogether like Duckon.
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Bittercon: The Ancient 80's

Or the 1980's are further away than you realize. Another panel for writers, about writing recent history.

I was a bit amused to see this one in ConFusion's programming schedule, since I'd written a blog post about the difficulties of rewriting a novel set in the 1980's now that a few decades have passed. It was particularly interesting for me to realize I was having to consciously put myself back in that period as I worked, because the earliest drafts of that story were written only a few years after it was supposed to be set.

And it can still be a problem even closer to the present -- Eric Flint has written several notes reminding would-be contributors to Grantville Gazette that the Ring of Fire took Grantville in 2000, so writers need to be careful about pop culture references. Uptimer characters are not going to be referring to a whole range of bands that started recording after that date, or remembering any movies that came out after that time. For Catholic uptimers, the uptime Pope they left behind is John Paul II, not Benedict XVI or Francis. All those little details that are so easy to forget when writing, and need to be caught and edited out.

What other ways can it be harder than expected to write something set in a specific period in the recent past, whether as historical fiction, time travel, or alternate history? Can the wealth of available information actually be a detriment rather than an asset (forest for the trees problem)?
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Bittercon: Last Exit Before the Worst Timeline

Here's an interesting one for writers and readers of alternate history: what is the last point at which a major historical catastrophe could have been averted to create a timeline with considerably less ugliness?

A lot of writers of alternate history seem to take the "we live in the best of all possible worlds" approach, and write alternate histories in which the points of departure result in markedly worse worlds than the one we know. I've even read arguments that one should write alternate history that way, so as to avoid devaluing the experiences and especially the suffering of real people in the real world.

But there are writers who try to imagine worlds in which things end up better as a result of the changes. For instance, I remarked in my review of Allen Steele's V S Day that its upbeat ending was a marked difference from his other novel-length take on the Antipodes Bomber, The Tranquility Alternative.

Joseph T Major's very first indie novel, A Man and a Plane: An Alternate Germany imagines a world in which Manfred von Richthofen survives and ends up spearheading an effort to outflank the rise of Naziism. It's not a world of unicorns and rainbows -- because the Nazis end up a defeated and marginalized political movement, the fundamentals of fascism are not discredited so absolutely, and thus remain within the Overton Window of public discourse.

What other alternate histories have you read that explore how things could've gone differently at key points in time and averted some very ugly parts of history?
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Bittercon: Spoilers and the Mechancs of Surprise

Now here's a contentious subject -- spoilers. Some people hate them, and will go to great lengths to avoid them. Other people actively seek them out, especially when wanting to avoid distressing content, be it over-the-top gore or downer endings.

JJ Abrams is reputed to have told the cast of the latest Star Wars movie that he would destroy the career of anyone who let any spoilers slip before the theatrical release. Other creators, especially writers, have made a practice of tossing out little tidbits for their audience, on the grounds that knowing a little bit of the story but not how it fits into the whole can actually increase anticipation of one's latest work, rather like a little bit of food can whet your appetite instead of sating it.

I'm weird on spoilers. I can read endless spoilers on the Web, but a single one told to me can completely destroy my interest in a book. I've even had heated arguments with people who just had to tell me all about this wonderful book they've just read. When I tell them that I plan to read it and would prefer that it not be spoiled, they insist that they're not spoiling it, and will not accept the validity of my experience. By the time I've got the stream of unwelcome words stopped, I'm so angry that it spills over onto the book.
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Bittercon: The Care and Feeding of Your Subject Expert

This is a panel for writers. ConFusion has always had a fairly substantial writing track -- I remember being a panelist on several back in the days when we were going there fairly regularly.

Especially if you're writing science fiction and fantasy, there will probably be things that you don't know well enough to even try to research on your own. You don't know where to begin, or you bog down in a "forest for the trees" trap. You don't know enough to tell reliable sources from off-the-wall garbage.

This is when it's time to reach out to someone who knows the subject. A few years ago I wrote a post on contacting subject experts when researching for fiction. In that post I was primarily examining the situation where you need one relatively well-defined piece of information and are making a one-time contact with the person.

However, it's also possible that you will end up needing various bits of information in the same field multiple times. Over the course of writing a novel or a series, you may end up developing a working relationship with one or more people who have strong subject expertise that are critical to some aspect of your plot or worldbuilding.

Then things become a little more complicated. You start having to think a lot more about the impact you are having on their ability to get their regular work done, especially if you're needing a lot of information. And as you do a lot of work with one person, you tend to get to know them. You start feeling less need to be formal, to carefully plan and ask specific questions -- after all, they know you're not just some kid trying to get them to do your homework for you. But there's always the danger of "familiarity breeds contempt," of becoming careless and presuming upon this person's willingness to geek out for your benefit.

And then there's the sticky question of what you owe this person for all they've done for you. Is a word of thanks and a mention in the Acknowledgements section sufficient? A free copy of the book, sent at your expense? Or does there come a point at which you really need to think about compensating this person in a more substantial way, especially if they're not just whiling away an idle hour or two, but taking substantial amounts of their discretionary time to discuss possibilities with you?
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