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Thursday, August 3, 2023

My Confluence con report

Kevin Hayes and AJ Smith announce the Parsec Short Story contest winners during the Confluence opening ceremony. Hayes served as the convention chairman, and I got to talk to him and tell him how much I liked Confluence. (Photo  from the Confluence website). 

There is a pretty big overlap between science fiction fans and fans of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea; I thought it might be interesting to at least some of  you to post a report on Confluence, a science fiction convention held July 21-23 in Pittsburgh.

Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea both attended science fiction conventions, Shea probably more often than RAW. I know that Shea attended at least three worldcons. 

Convention reports are a big tradition in science fiction fandom; fanzines commonly run con reports. Robert Shea wrote a con report for a worldcon in Chicago which was published in the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society. As many people reading this blog may not be familiar with SF conventions, I will briefly describe them. 

Whether a science fiction convention is a worldcon or a small regional convention like Confluence, the main expenses are a hotel room (unless you crash on the floor in somebody else's room, which at sf conventions is a thing, I once crashed in a room with a bunch of other people) and the convention membership, which is always cheaper if you buy it in advance. I paid $55 in March to attend the full convention (one day passes typically also are offered). I saved on my hotel room by using the convention rate.

SF conventions have common elements regardless of size or the particular emphasis of the convention. There are typically multiple tracks of programming. The programs include panel discussions featuring writers, editors, artists and fans; readings by authors; scheduled autographing sessions;  and music performances, using mostly "filking," i.e. folk music performances of songs with science fiction or fantasy themed lyrics, speeches by guests of honor and an opening ceremony. Some conventions also have award ceremonies (such as for the Hugos at worldcons), film screenings (although this  has declined in the age of streaming), sessions for games, a costuming show and informal coffee meetings with authors. Conventions will often have parties hosted in various hotel rooms, to campaign for  worldcon bids or to promote a publisher or some other cause, although I did not notice much of this at Confluence. 

Almost all conventions will have an art room, where you can both look at art and buy it; a dealer's room, for selling books, magazines, costumes, jewelry, memorabilia and anything else fans might be interested in, and a con suite,  which offers free food and drink to anyone with a convention membership, including in some cases beer. The food is usually more "snack" than "full meal," but it can be pretty substantial; Confluence was serving chili  one night.

Of course, science fiction fans often have friends in fandom, so getting together with your pals is usually a big element of conventions. When I  lived in Oklahoma, I would see many people I knew. That changed when I moved to Ohio, and I've been to conventions in Michigan where I basically knew no one. That can be  lonely,  although of course it's not hard to strike up a conversation with people with whom you have shared interests. 

Confluence was just the sort of convention I like,  with an emphasis on fiction and the written word; there was no costuming event, not even much in the way of hall costumes. I didn't see a light saber all weekend. There really wasn't much there for "media fans," i.e. people who are mainly interested in Star Wars, Star Trek, comic book movies, etc.

I was determined to attend this year's Confluence when I  found out the main guest of  honor would be Ada Palmer. And I also didn't have to worry about not knowing anybody at the convention. Gregory Arnott and his wife, Adie, are huge Palmer fans. They live in West Virginia, not terribly far away from Pittsburgh, and they agreed to go as soon as they heard about the convention and its guest of honor.

The convention registration did not start until 2 p.m. Friday, with the first convention panel discussion at 3 p.m., so I was able to drive in from the Cleveland area, where I live, and have time to get into my hotel room at the Pittsburgh airport Sheraton and get my convention badge without missing anything. Gregory and his wife and daughter were already there.

We picked up our convention stuff right as registration began, but there was one bit of business we could not take care of right away. The convention  had scheduled a Kaffeeklatsch with Ada Palmer at 1 p.m. Saturday, i.e. an intimate meeting of Palmer with some fans, and Gregory, Adie and I were all very anxious to attend. Laurie Mann, the convention stalwart who was running registration, explained that the person in charge of the Kaffeeklatches hadn't show up yet with the sign up sheets. So we hung around in the hotel lobby for about an hour,  periodically checking to see if the sign up sheets had arrived yet.

At 3 p.m., we went to oue first bit of convention programming, a panel discussion on " Forgotten Classics: Science Fiction and Fantasy from the 1950s through the 1980s that You Should Have Read but Probably Haven't," featuring panelists Jim Mann, Grant Carrington, Mark Tiedeman and Susan Dexter. The panelists and the audience threw out lots of names of people who remain worth reading, and I wrote some of the names down, although to be  honest, finding something to read isn't a problem for me. My problem is finding the time to read all of the books I already have. I did not know until I watched the panel that Jim Mann is an editor at NESFA Press. If you like to read science fiction and you aren't familiar with NESFA Press, check out the organization's website. 

One of the women in the audience who spoke up, someone named "Marie," turned out to be Marie Vibbert, a Cleveland writer whose stories have been nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards. It is a peculiarity of living in Cleveland that I apparently have to go to other cities to find out about SF writers in Cleveland. In spite of the fact that Cleveland once hosted a worldcon in the 1960s, there haven't been any good conventions in Cleveland since I moved to the area 20 years ago. To go to a good convention, I've had to go to cities such as Pittsburgh and Columbus and Detroit. I also found out about another Cleveland writer at the convention, Charles Obendorf. I bought the latest issue of F&SF magazine at the convention, and it had a novella by Obendorf I haven't had time to read yet.

Grant Carrington, one of the panelists, was a name from decades in my past. When I was a teenager, buying SF magazines in the 1970s, F&SF was the best magazine, but Amazing, edited by Ted White, seemed the friendlist and the most fannish. I recognized Carrington as the name of White's assistant editor, and someone who had contributed at least one story to the magazine in those days. 

Marie Vibbert, left, with two other Cleveland writers who were at the convention, Hugo Award winning writer (and NASA scientist) Geoffrey Landis, and his wife, Nebula Award winner Mary Turzillo. All three were at Confluence, although in fact this photo was taken a few weeks before. Decades before I moved to Ohio, I had Turzillo's book about Philip Jose Farmer. (Photo courtesy Marie Vibbert). 

After the panel, Gregory and I checked again, and the sign up sheet for the Ada Palmer Kaffeeklatsch was on the registration table, so we got signed up. Another person, obviously less deserving, had already taken the first spot, but we occupied spots two, three and four.

A convention always has a table where people can leave flyers and give away stuff. The Libertarian Futurist Society has a flyer that we use for conventions, so I had run off copies at a Staples. I left a pile of the things on the table, as I always do when I go to to a convention, although I never know if that results in our group recruiting new members. 

Friday was  also my first pass through the dealer's room, which wasn't huge but which had some good stuff. I knew that Michael Swanwick would be at the convention, and I had carefully targeted a couple of Swanwick anthologies which seemed  to have  many of his stories which had won many of the major awards. It turned out that none of the dealers had those  books. Determined to find a Swanwick book that I could get autographed as a convention souvenir, I settled for a novel that looked interesting,  Chasing the Phoenix. The book at the top of the stack was autographed. I wanted to have an excuse to get Swanwick's autograph at his scheduled autographing session, and so, feeling like an idiot, I went through the stack trying to find one that wasn't signed, until the dealer explained that all of them had been signed. So I finally bought  a copy. 

Friday also was spent attending another panel (on optimistic SF) and I went out to dinner with Gregory, Adie and Lucy. I also went to my room to spend some time working on blog posts for this blog. The blog is kind of like a part time job that doesn't really pay anything but which requires constant work.

I had emailed Ada Palmer a few days before the convention to request an interview and didn't get an answer. Well, I thought, she's busy and she doesn't have time to do everything. Friday night, though, while at the convention, she wrote back with a "Sorry I thought I replied to this already" and agreed to an interview, asking if Sunday would be OK. Of course, I wrote back and said sure. 

Saturday was my big day for convention programming. But my day began as I stayed in my room for awhile, with my phone turned off, reading a short story that Adie, an aspiring writer, had given me to read. It turned out she's a good writer! I then raced to a nearby Chipotle for a quick lunch, hurrying back to the convention for the 1 p.m. Ada Palmer Kaffeeklatsch. 

I can't remember if it was before or after the event, but I ran into Grant Carrington outside the room, and I was able to tell him how much I had enjoyed reading Amazing when I was a teen. I remembered a story of Carrington's that had run in the magazine, about a plaque that had been placed on Earth, to mark (if I recall correctly) the exact center of the universe. Carrington did not consider the story, which was not very long, a deathless contribution to world literature,  but the story had been reprinted over and over again, earning him a considerable sum of money. It was like a "B" side on a single which turned out to be the hit.

The coffee event with Palmer was excellent. She really takes  care of her fans, and she gave away memorabilia from the world of her Terra Ignota series -- I came away with a flag for the Universal Free Alliance, a flag for Utopia, and a Utopia sticker. I was determined to mostly keep my mouth shut, as I had an interview that was  being lined up and figured others should get  to ask their questions  (Gregory and Adie had very detailed questions). But I could not resist speaking up at the end to mention that Gregory and Adie had met and bonded over their shared love of Palmer's work, and so Gregory and Adie explained that they had connected via Tumblr.

Swanwick's autographing session was at 2 p.m. He was sitting at a table in the lobby with another writer, Mark Tiedemann. I presented the novel I had bought, asking Swanwick to personalize the autograph by mentioning Confluence.

Swanwick was getting all of the attention at the table, and he suggested I buy a book from Tiedeman on the spot and get it autographed, too. I figured Tiedeman probably was pretty good if Swanwick recommended him, so  I quizzed him about the two books for sale on the table and bought an historical novel, Granger's Crossing, which Tiedemann duly autographed.

Michael Swanwick. (Creative Commons photo by Mike VanHelder (source). 

It is to Confluence's credit that although it's  not a huge convention, there was more interesting programming than I could get to. Because I went to the Palmer coffee event, I had to miss the panel on the SF of 1973, 50  years ago, when I vividly recall getting some of the books that were discussed through the mail via the SF Book Club. And I also missed Marie Vibbert's 2:30 p.m. reading. 

Then at 3 p.m., it was time for Ada Palmer's guest of honor  talk, a lecture on the history of censorship. While she spoke, Palmer passed around books hundreds of years old which were the products of Renaissance censorship.  One of the books was a copy of the Epicurean poem "On the Nature of Things" by the Roman writer Lucretius, in  Latin.  It was dangerous to print the thing in Italy, as the Catholic Church frowned on its anti-religious passages. So the book claimed to have been printed in London and was supposedly smuggled into Italy from England, although in fact it had been printed in Italy.

At 6 p.m.,  Ada Palmer gave a reading from her upcoming Viking-themed novel, Hearthfire. Then it was time for pizza, and we then rushed to the 8 p.m. concert by Sassafrass, Ada Palmer's music group. I didn't know anything about the group, but it turned out to be Palmer's group. Think Paul McCartney and Wings, with Palmer as Paul McCartney. Palmer writes all of the music, and the others are clearly her side musicians. She obviously runs the group in concert, too.  The performance was a song cycle based on Viking mythology, informed by Palmer's study of medieval and Renaissance music. The performance lasted more than 90 minutes; I  had to leave before it was over to call my wife. Then I went to Palmer's 10 p.m. discussion of the Terra Ignota series. When I told my wife about the day's events, Ann commented that Palmer was working really hard. It wasn't the convention taking advantage of her; Palmer told us the next day that she kept asking if she could add events. She really goes all out when she does anything.

A couple of book recommendations from Palmer for people interested in Viking history: The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia by Neil Price, and Norse Myths, Carolyne Larrington. 

Ada Palmer on Maybe Day 2023 at Confluence (my photo). 

I had lined up an interview with Palmer at 10 a.m. Sunday, so at the appointed time, I found her in the lobby. She was wearing a mask for much of the convention (and I wore a mask when I talked to her, to be supportive) but she suggested we do the interview outside, so we could take the masks off. I sat on a bench with Palmer, and Gregory and Adie and a fan listened while I did the interview, which was periodically interrupted jet planes screaming overhead (the convention hotel was next to the Pittsburgh airport) and even a guy asking for information about parking. The interview is about 51 minutes long and I got to ask most of the questions I had prepared; I  hope to post the interview here soon.

Sunday was Maybe Day, July 23, so I wore my Boing Boing RAW t-shirt and Gregory and I discussed the announcement we'd seen via email that Lion of Light, the new RAW book, had been published, a book that includes a discussion by Gregory. I asked Palmer during the interview if she had read Illuminatus! and she said she had read parts of it. 

I had to get back to Cleveland, but I hung around to hear Palmer's 1 p.m. talk on Viking history, at the tail end of convention programming. (As I said, she went all out. She squeezed in the interview with me before appearing at an 11 a.m. panel discussion). Then I had to reluctantly say goodbye and go back to Ohio.

Gregory and Adie Arnott on Maybe Day 2023. Gregory has a Utopia pin pinned to his scarf. Adie is wearing a jersey for a 25th century Humanist Olympic team that Ada Palmer gave her. Both items reference Palmer's Terra Ignota series. 

Confluence is a long-running (since 1988) SF convention in Pittsburgh, and I recommend it to anyone who is serious about science fiction as literature. The main guest for the 2024 convention has not been determined yet, but some of the past main guests have been Neil Clarke, Martha Wells, Tobias Buckell, Catherynne Valente (in 2018, when Gregory, Bobby Campbell and I attended presented programming on Robert Anton Wilson, mostly to each other, our talks are available at the right side of this page), Joan Slonczewski, Seanan McGuire, Robert Sawyer, John Scalzi, Joe Haldeman, Geoffrey Landis, Allen Steele, Michael Swanwick, Hal Clement, David Hartwell and many others. 

1 comment:

Lvx15 said...

Completely enjoyed this report!