It’s all over but the workshops. Yet Another World materialized in the San Carlos for one night and three exhilarating days, and then it was over. What’s left is the post-Seminar letdown … and a massive new reading list.
I promised further explanation of this year’s theme. Can’t say I can, other than to reiterate that it isn’t really dystopia — though there was a good bit of that — nor scifi, or speculative fiction as high-end scifi is frequently styled these days. The subtitle was “Literature of the Future” and the guiding texts were 1984 and Brave New World, if that helps. In his introduction in the Seminar’s program, Program Chair James Gleick writes this, referring to the writers gathered for the Seminar: “What they do share — what their work reveals — is a deepening awareness of past and future, which also means an awareness that our world is not the only one possible.”
I won’t even try to come up with a coherent report about what the Seminar covered or explicating further on the theme — keep an eye on the Seminar’s always-expanding Audio Archives for recordings of individual sessions. Here, instead, is an episodic report of stuff I heard that I thought was interesting (and short) enough to jot down in my notebook.
Interesting information new to me
In his opening introduction, Gleick told us about a religion newly officially acknowledged as such in Sweden: Kopimism, or copyism, it is a religion dedicated to file sharing. Ctrl-C and Ctlr-V are sacred symbols. “That is not speculative fiction,” Gleick said. “That is Wikipedia. And it wasn’t there yesterday.”
Sharks save swimmers, according to Jonathan Lethem. How? Because after a shark attack, the number of drowning deaths decreases for a few years.
Year of the Flood, according to Margaret Atwood, is not a sequel or prequel to Oryx & Crake but a simultaneal.
Colson Whitehead’s first piece of professional writing, for the Village Voice, was a think piece about the series finales of Who’s The Boss and Growing Pains.
After finishing a novel, Cory Doctorow buys a steampunk bondage mask from some specialty shop in Bulgaria. According to William Gibson.
After Chronic City was published, Wikipedia had to lock down the Marlon Brando page because fans of the book were trying to revive him in keeping with the book’s plot.
“Paranoid art, unlike paranoid persons, also distrusts itself.” — Jonathan Lethem
“Technically every woman is the woman I never married. So why not call her Marie?” — Charles Yu, from How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
“The real versus the unreal doesn’t mean what it used to.” == Jennifer Egan, discussing how much of our lives are now conducted virtually
“We may be tempted to dismiss books with ghosts and monsters in them. Scary is really hard to do.” — Michael Cunningham, who is currently adapting The Turn of the Screw for the screen
“I’ve always found someone like Beckett to be a form of high realism.” — Colson Whitehead
“MacArthur Park is an investigation of the artist’s journey.” — Colson Whitehead
The human mind “is a factory for processing metaphors.” — China Mieville
“Everywhere I go, the empire collapses. The State Department is desperately trying to send me to China.” — Gary Shteyngart
On paranoia: “It’s essential as a sensibility and it’s disastrous as a world view.” — Jonathan Lethem
“The past is rumor. The future is speculation. The present is over. So where are we, as writers?” — Valerie Martin
About that dystopia thing
Margaret Atwood has coined a term “ustopia” that covers both dystopia and utopia, normally cast as opposites. “They’re much more like the ying and yang,” she said. “Within each dystopia there’s a little utopia and within every utopia there’s definitely a little dystopia, especially for people who don’t fit the plan.”
About that steampunk thing
The Seminar’s major disappointment was the spoiling of the panel addressing steampunk by the moderator’s insistence on trying to make the panelists define the term (Why steam? Why punk?) — and by the way the panelists were Dexter Palmer, China Mieville and William freaking Gibson. And when the panelists did offer definitions, and hints that it might be broader and more interesting than just young guys in funny mustaches, the moderator kept interrupting them and narrowing it down. Infuriating.
Despite that, the three extremely smart and extremely patient men managed to say some interesting things about steampunk as a genre, ethos and lifestyle choice. Mieville’s definition was two words: Fantastical Victoriana. Gibson’s is a little longer: Technologically driven alternative history.
When Mieville finally got to talk, he made a really interesting point about why steampunk has become so popular in the last 12 years. Victorian Britain, the epicenter of steampunk, was built on the proceeds of the Raj, Mieville pointed out. Yet in classic steampunk texts, there is no Raj. Steampunk, he said, expresses a “particular anxiety about resurgent imperialism.” Mieville’s disquisition met with loud applause from the audience. Unfortunately the moderator did not take this as a hint that he should get out of the way and let these guys talk. Oh well. Every Seminar has one. It was just too bad that this year’s happened on the panel I was most looking forward to.
Books mentioned by Seminar authors that might be worth checking out
Futuredays by Isaac Asimov (mentioned by James Gleick in his program intro, includes the program illustrations by Jean Marc Cote)
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (mentioned by Jennifer Egan and Michael Cunningham)
Pavane by Keith Roberts (mentioned by William Gibson)
In Praise of Shadows by Junichuro Tanizaki (Gibson again)
Pandemonium 1660-1886 by Humphrey Jennings (yet another Gibson)
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell (mentioned by Valerie Martin)
Writers who could probably make it as TV stars and/or stand-up acts if the writing thing goes south
Margaret Atwood & Joyce Carol Oates (on some PBS Charlie Rose-style show)
Margaret Atwood & Gary Shteyngart (on some late night Craig Ferguson-style show)
Cocktails created by Jason Rowan of Embury Cocktails for Seminar receptions
(Detailed descriptions appearing gradually … )
Future Perfect Continuous
In which I assert my coinage of the term Conch Gothic
Years ago, I came up with a term for the particular weirdness that occasionally erupts around here: Conch Gothic. This is more a sensibility than a literary genre, at least so far. The perfect exemplar of Conch Gothic would have to be the story of Elena Hoyos and Carl Von Cosel. Though I’m pretty sure serious weirdness has been going on here long before that. It’s the island thing, I think, where isolation allows weirdness to develop in ways that other places might nix earlier — paradoxically combined with the seaport diversity that gives places like this (and New Orleans and Savannah, for example) a live-and-let-live nonjudgmental ethos. I write this because 1) China Mieville said any movement or school of thought/writing needs to own its name and the name needs to be cool and 2) I mentioned Conch Gothic to William Gibson at a party Saturday night and he seemed to like it so if it shows up in a work of his fiction in the future, you’ll know where he got it.