The Stars Come Closer: WorldCon 76

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[Not a real George R. R. Martin, but one of the four Martin impressionists at large]

As most of you know, I spent this last weekend in San Jose, at WorldCon 76. It’s why I overhauled the blog and restored the Books and Stories page. Right now, I’m gonna talk about why. Why I went to WorldCon, and why I want to bring the stars closer.

My wife used to work for Ten Speed Press. They are definitely not a science fiction and fantasy publisher; their forté is more cookbooks, self-help, and New Age. Our Matron-of-Honor, Abigail Simoun, is a writer in her own right, a seasoned editor, and runs Red Fox Literary, the prestigious children’s/YA agency. Melissa’s confidante, Danny, only has finer taste for hard bop jazz than he does for American literature, his walls lined with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami. When I first met Melissa, she thought I was an arrogant upstart writer and I thought she was a snobbish New York literati type. Turns out we were both right.

All these literati have been, for the last six months, looking up from my manuscripts with shocked and impressed eyes and telling me that it’s high time I got an agent and a publishing deal. Indie is all well and fine, and I intend to continue publishing that way, but even I have to admit that New York can distribute and sell books better than I can.

Even after clarifying that I am, in fact, a commercial writer, and not Haruki Murakami or something, they have stood behind their opinion that my writing is good and needs representation yesterday. And I have to admit, having so many capital-L Literary people who believe in me has been a shot in the arm.

That’s when I found out WorldCon would be in San Jose this year. My round-trip train ticket cost $70. Membership in WorldCon was $250. I phoned up my Aunt Nona in San Jose to have a place to stay. Yes, I said, I think I can do this.

WorldCon is the oldest, and most prestigious, continuously-running literary SF/F con in the world. It floats from continent to continent, city to city, year after year. At the first WorldCon, in New York City in 1939, Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury all attended. As fans. While Comic-Con is larger, WorldCon is the industry event of the year if you’re involved in genre publishing.

WorldCon is also where the Hugos, “the Academy Awards of science fiction,” are awarded. Comparing them to the Oscars is a bit imprecise, though, as the Hugos are awarded by the collected membership/attendees of WorldCon, in other words, the fans. Fans assemble the nomination lists and fans vote for the winners. You may remember, a few years back, when the alt-right tried to stage a coup.

I printed business cards and polished my query letter (and stopped polishing when Abi told me what she’d do to me if she found out I accosted an agent at an industry event with unsolicited queries). I practiced my pitch. I annoyed the shit out of Aaron Ochs with publicity questions. I drove pretty much everyone around me up the wall. When a friend called with a job offer, I said “perfect timing – I’m so busy worrying about WorldCon I don’t have any nerves left over to worry about a job interview.”

And on August 16, 2018, Wednesday, I waved goodbye to Melissa as the train pulled out of Paso Robles. I was on my way to WorldCon.

The next four days are kind of a blur. I remember asking Mary Robinette Kowal to sign my notebook, furiously taking notes at N. K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding class, demanding to know how in the Hell Neil Clarke can have a response time of less than forty-eight hours with 1500 submissions a month, shooting the shit in Mandarin with the crew of SF WORLD, realizing with dawning horror as Caroline M. Yoachim talked that I wasn’t revising nearly enough, getting congratulations from Sheila Williams for a sale twenty years ago, making an ass of myself in French, and sitting in Callahan’s Bar with new friends as the world turned upside down.

 

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Neil Clarke, Liz Gorinsky, Emily Xueni Jin, Chen Qiufan, Regina Kanyu Wang on Chinese science fiction. Not pictured: invisible sixth member Ken Liu, ten feet tall and made of awesome.

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Me with Yang Guoliang, the editor of SCIENCE FICTION WORLD in Chengdu, where Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem was first published.

At the panel “selling strategies for short fiction,” I thought of my half-dozen stories out in the mail, each with at least a half-dozen rejections each, and I asked the panel: “When should I retire a story?”

Caroline Yoachim leaned forward and said: “When you stop believing in it. It doesn’t matter how many rejections it gets, if you look at it, revise it, and still believe in it, send it out again.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. It was the one I needed.

(And on that note, I am retiring “Only the Good Die Young.” Completely. I’m removing it from Amazon and taking down the description from my bibliography. It’s a better idea than it ever was a story, and the moment when that story would have worked is past. I no longer believe in it. I’m retiring it. Thank you, Caroline!)

I must have passed out a few hundred cards to authors, editors, agents, reviewers, and general fans. I collected just about as many. I’ve filled in half my notebook and a ton of comments and marginalia in the program guide besides. I’ve learned a lot about writing and about being a writer, so much I’ll probably spend years processing it all.

But the biggest part of WorldCon 76 wasn’t about me.

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N. K. Jemisin

On my way out the door on Saturday night, I met a couple of Chuck Tingle buckaroos who know that love is real.

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Pictured: buckaroos.

We fell in together and went out to dinner, and agreed to meet up at Callahan’s for the Hugos the next evening. That evening, Sunday, we sat around our table with new friends and sipped beers, the liveliest table in the bar as the awards ceremony wore on. We were comparing notes on which story or novella we’d voted for and why, making bets on who’d win, cheering Rebecca Roanhorse and Lynne and Michael Thomas and others as they ascended the stage.

All through, one of my new friends kept nervously glancing at the end of the awards program, at Best Novel, muttering “God, I hope she makes it…” and “What if she really did?” I knew what she meant, of course. After the Sad Puppies’ attempt to hijack the Hugos, in 2015 and ‘16, the very Black, very female, very academic, very proud N. K. Jemisin won Best Novel for her amazing The Fifth Season – the antithesis of everything the Puppies had stood for. The next year, she won again, for the sequel The Obelisk Gate. Now, Jemisin’s third book in the Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky, was on the shortlist.

And when Joe Pacacio announced that The Stone Sky had been voted Best Novel, Callahan’s went batshit. N. K. Jemisin had pulled off a threepeat, the hat-trick, the power trio, I’ve heard a dozen names for it. Here’s the truth: one trilogy, three years, three books, three Best Novels. It was something no one, no one, in the history of the award had ever done. Not Asimov, not Heinlein, not Gibson, not Stephenson, not Gaiman.

There was laughter and tears, screams of joy and stamping of feet and thunderous applause. Callahan’s shook.

And Jemisin strode up on that stage, resplendent in golden constellations, and she gave this speech.

That was an amazing moment in science fiction. The world turned upside down.

And I’d been there to see it.

I’m still processing a lot of what I saw, and did, and heard, and said. But the big thing is what Ms. Jemisin said: let 2018 be the year the stars come closer for all of us.

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About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at rjeanmathieu.com and buy his books at fedoraarts.com. View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

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