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Potlatch 16 Program Notes


Edited/Compiled by:

Lenny Bailes


Lenny Bailes, Bill Humphries, Judy R. Johnson



Effective Subversive Fiction

Participants: Ursula Le Guin (RL), Eileen Gunn, Vonda McIntyre, Kate Schaefer, Molly Gloss

Notes by Lenny Bailes


If they shave your head for collaboration, what do they do for subversion? Panelists offer a little red book of subversive action. Other panelists subversively inquire what subversion subverts. (This panel was put together by Ursula Le Guin at the request of Patty Wells.)

The Panel:

Ursula Le Guin: Thinks she has the most negative things to say. Bob Sheckley was subversive -- he couldn't help it. Ursula finds quite a number of writers who pride themselves on being subversive -- knocking down old bibles that were knocked down in 1910.

Subversion is neither good nor bad. It's just a tool. Solzhenitsyn took his life into his hands. He wasn't playing [writer's] games with his work. He took his life into his hands by doing what he did. George W. Bush also practices subversion. Bush has subverted the laws of the United States.

The question for the panel: if you are a subversive writer, what are you subverting? Why? Who pays for it?

Vonda McIntyre: Too many attempts at subversion fall into categories like "you're a feminist, so you must love this book." The writer wallows in abuses against women. I don't need to read books like that.

Ursula Le Guin: She's primarily interested in excluding (unnamed) authors who claim they're being oh so daringly subversive, but, in fact, are beating over issues that were settled decades or a century ago. Her ideal subversive writers are people like Solzhenitsyn and Zamiatin (whom she did name), who could have - and in some cases did - go to prison for their work.

Molly Gloss: Says she takes a different view of what subversive writing is. Solzhenitsyn was overt. Subversion happens sneakily. She is looking for ways to subvert western mythology. ".. in such a way that her dad (a Louis L'Amour fan) will be sucked into reading the novel. She succeeded in getting him to read Naomi Novik's Temeraire series (described by some readers as "Patrick O'Brian with dragons in it") by appealing to the fact that he is a fan of military stories set in the Napoleonic era. Her father was willing to tolerate the dragon fantasy component of the first novel, since it had equal parts devoted to military history. As the dragon component in the stories increased, her father gradually lost interest.

Eileen Gunn:  "I'm not subversive." She agrees with MG's concept of subversion, has a hard time thinking of what she writes as dangerous.

In successful subversive writing, you're unaware that your ideas of how the world works are being changed. The reader is brought into your world without awareness of this process.

Kate Schaefer: Almost any fiction, almost any art, can be subversive in the right circumstances. Whatever the case is now, something else can be the case later. Things can change. Recently I had read about two people in horrific circumstances who had used unlikely art as an instrument of subversion, a way to change who they were in relation to the world. One, Ishmael Beah, had been a child soldier in Sierra Leone, he managed to come out of his hopelessness by obsessively listening to the works of Bob Marley. The other, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent Islamic woman politician in the Netherlands, grew up in Somalia and Kenya, read the works of Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele to as a window into a world where women had some rights.

Ursula Le Guin: What you're describing is not subversion, but hope.

Vonda McIntyre:  Barbara Cartland did not intend subversion.

Ursula Le Guin:  Subversion is an invention of the writer.

Molly Gloss:  Subversion is not didactic.

Ursula Le Guin:  A subversive piece of writing is specifically designed to effect change without readers noticing. The characters in the Earthsea books are non-White, but readers don't find that out for several chapters.

Molly Gloss:  She considers The Left Hand of Darkness to be a subversive book because it makes people aware of gender in ways they didn't know before reading it.

In the 19th Century writers subverted the conventions of the day by having characters speak out on social and political issues: women should have their own bank accounts and equal rights to child custody. In these 19th Century stories, the characters would be punished for expressing unconventional points of view -- but the message got out without the character being the hero of the story.

Ursula Le Guin:  There's a quiet subversion in Little Women. Jo isn't pretty or self-sacrificing like Beth.

Audience (Jack Bell):  Maybe we need to draw a distinction between "grand subversion" and "petite subversion."

Eileen Gunn:  What's left to be subversive about?

When a book is sent into the wild, it does different things to different people.

Eileen realized that Heinlein books are fascist garbage when someone pointed it out to her. "Earlier Heinlein books are just as stupid. It's just harder to tell."

Vonda McIntyre:  Thinks Heinlein did subvert some of her liberal tendencies. There's an ongoing meme in his work of "boys are good, girls are secondary," and she found her subconscious buying into this after reading his books.

Kate Schaefer:  The merit (or "subversion") in Heinlein is that at the time he grew up, meritocracy was not taken for granted.

Audience: There are no positive books about people with autism.

Kate Schaefer: Recommends Delia Sherman's The Changeling.

Audience (Ellen Klages):  Does subversion mean "below the text? Really, truly subversive text can be read on the surface as onething and below the text as another.

Ursula Le Guin:  Uncle Tom's Cabin is a good example of a subversive book.

Eileen Gunn:  When she read Heinlein novels, as a teenager, she noticed that they did contain female characters who were superior to the men -- but only one per book. The Star Beast is her favorite Heinlein. It's great because it looks like the story is about the guy trying to save the human race, but the pet is actually raising people.

Audience (Lenny Bailes): In reference to Ursula's comment about her books not being subversive -- in the early Earthsea books, she gives us the paradigm of all-knowing wise wizards, who shepherd the world away from harm. But later, she shows us the wizards have their own human (and male) biases. They can and do make mistakes. In the Hainish books, we see a similar progression. So she successfully subverts her own paradigms.

Ursula Le Guin:  I just call that growing up.

Kate Schaefer: (Returning to MG's early comment about 19th century novels being subversive in the context of their time) ...In The Well of Loneliness [by Radclyffe Hall], it's a terrible thing to be a lesbian. But this is the first book that acknowledges lesbians exist.

Audience (Ulrika O'Brien) : In some sense, the writings of early Christian philosophers (St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) subvert the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Ursula Le Guin:  If you have to prove that God exists, that opens the possibility that it might not be true.


 Themes in Robert Sheckley

Participants: Lenny Bailes (RL), Sharon Sbarsky, David Bratman, Tom Whitmore

Notes by Judy R. Johnson, Lenny Bailes


Sheckley is one of our favorites, and yet finding people who know his work today is more difficult than it should be. Picking a book of honor that was in print would have been impossible without the help of NESFA Press. A discussion of themes and keeping them in print ensues.

The Panel:

Lenny Bailes: (Long-time s-f reader and fan, occasional contributor to New York Review of Science Fiction.) In preparing for this panel I came to it with strong feelings about the importance of Robert Sheckley's short stories compared with the novels. Sheckley's novels are fun to read through once; but in his 1950s short story collections, he becomes the O’Henry of Science Fiction.

But when I started paging through Dimensions of Sheckley [the Potlatch 16 book of honor], I remembered some things about the novels that I'd forgotten. Mindswap, which first appeared as a novella, was a small, humorous explosion in the field. Sheckley deconstructed the genre conventions of the s-f novels being published in his time, in the same way that John Barth began deconstructing his own mainstream novels -- by inserting satirical meta-commentary on shared cultural experiences. In this panel, I hope we can explore some of that, as well as the more obvious connection between Sheckley's novels and the later "galactic travelogues" of Douglas Adams."

Sharon Sbarsky: (Edited the two Sheckley books published by NESFA Press.) The Masque of Mañana is a collection of most of Sheckley's good short stories. Dimensions of Sheckley contains five novels: Immortality, Inc., The Journey of Joenes, Mindswap, Dimension of Miracles, and The Minotaur Maze.
At first, Sharon wanted to reprint all of Sheckley's novels. But due to size constraints the project was cut down to five. of them.

Tom Whitmore: (Co-proprietor of The Other Change of Hobbit s-f book store and longtime s-f reader.) Sheckley was not the only one who was changing the shape of the short story in science fiction. C.M. Kornbluth, Fred Pohl, Philip K. Dick, Anthony Boucher, and H.L. Gold also exerted a powerful influence in the early 1950s.

Lenny Bailes: Sheckley was s-f's first "literary cartoonist." (We had another Potlatch panel on literary cartooning in SF several years ago.) Sheckley refined the arts of parody and pastiche in his work. He lampooned academic posturing and introduced his own bits of pop philosophy into tightly-plotted stories that re-explored familiar science-fictional tropes

David Bratman: (Librarian and s-f scholar). Wants to familiarize fans with Sheckley's short stories, which are gradually slipping out of public familiarity. Sheckley's stuff has been characterized as "a bunch of one-punch stories." This description was intended sarcastically, but actually it was a good thing.

Lenny Bailes: Sheckley was a precursor of Douglas Adams as a science fiction humorist. Even non-fan s-f readers seem to pick up on this. The Internet is full of reader reviews that speculate on whether Douglas Adams actually read Sheckley's novels.

Sharon Sbarsky: People get precursors reversed. They have no idea of dates

Lenny Bailes: I wasn't sure about Adams reading Sheckley, myself, until I read a blurb from Adams on Wikipedia: "I had no idea the competition was so terrifyingly good." Some clarification on this is provided by Mike Backes, posting in a "Making Light" thread that commemorated Sheckley's passing:

"Douglas Adams loved Sheckley's work. I remember sitting about with Ron Cobb and Douglas reeling off our favorite Sheckley literary   dilemmas. Sheckley was the first "adult" science fiction writer I read as a teenager."

David Bratman: Dimension of Miracles is great; but the individual parts are better than the whole. Sheckley was a better short story writer than Harlan Ellison. Compare Sheckley's The Store of the Worlds with Ellison's Strange Wine. Strange Wine is the same story, much less effectively told (in my opinion). In that instance, at least, Sheckley is better than Ellison.

Lenny Bailes: Immortality, Inc., (1958) might have been the first "back from the dead" novel to appear in the s-f canon. (Silverberg's Recalled to Life and Born With the Dead were written in the next decade.) The "transplanted traveler" theme occurs in s-f novels a lot earlier—the protagonist visits the future by being frozen in suspended animation or through mystic time travel. (When the Sleeper Wakes, Armageddon 2419, etc.) Immortality, Inc. might have influenced Phil Dick's Time Out of Joint, with its similar premise of transporting a mid-20th century man into a future world.

The Journey of Joenes (1962) is an academic satire told in the form of Greek myth. John Barth subsequently used this frame for Giles Goat Boy (1966).

Sharon Sbarsky: The Minimum Man [a novella, reprinted in The Masque of Mañana] also used Greek myth.

Tom Whitmore: Sheckley’s spy novels are also worthwhile. Four Steve Gain novels are good popular thrillers. The Game of X is something else.

David Bratman: Sheckley was influenced by Kuttner.

Lenny Bailes: A lot of Sheckley’s tropes seem to have found their way into contemporary s-f TV shows. I think Sheckley would have been right at home writing episodes of Farscape.

Tom Whitmore: Pilgrimage to Earth is a hick on vacation

Lenny Bailes: A Ticket to Tranai – a utopia where "man is not bound to the wheel, where there is social justice and equality – stickups are legal. Sheckley might have gotten the idea of public booths to blow up the President (later adapted by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker books) from the Public Exploder in Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia, Ltd.

David Bratman: Sheckley was ahead of his time in writing about online dating services. The Robot Who Looked Like Me—Sheckley’s story— is about a man who has the robot do the wooing of his potential mate because he doesn’t have the time to do it. It turns out she’s doing the same thing, and they end up to be two couples

Lenny Bailes: Sheckley was well-read in several fields. Some of his short stories skewer Margaret Meade. He also makes fun of pre-existing science fiction stories.

David Bratman: The more you know, the more jokes you get. Sheckley is a satirist. Today’s reality shows are the things that Sheckley was satirizing then; he invented them, for crying out loud.

Lenny Bailes: I don't know whether Sheckley actually influenced John Barth, but it seems obvious that the influence went the other way. In Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera, Barth began his tradition of playing deconstruction games in the middle of mainstream narrative. In Mindswap, Sheckley inserted a parody of a contemporary TV commercial in the middle of his galactic travelogue: "My name is Juan Valdez and I come from the Fiesta Lands Below the Border to make my fortune here in the big city of Norte." Moreover, Sheckley used metacommentary to poke fun at other contemporary s-f novels."

The "Twisted World" segment of Mindswap appears to be a passing nod to Phil Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (with some burlesque of a Philosophy 101 class thrown into the mix):

....a few tentative rules might be adduced for the suicidal traveler to the twisted world.

Remember that all rules may lie, in the Twisted World, including this rule, which points out the exception, and including this modifying clause which invalidates the exception...ad infinitum.

But also remember that no rule necessarily lies; that any rule may be true, including this rule and its exceptions.

It is conceivable that nothing whatsoever will happen to you in the Twisted World. It wold be unwise to expect this, and equally unwise to be unprepared for it.

....The problem is always prediction: how to tell what world you are in before the Twisted World reveals it disastrously to you....

Do not expect to outwit the Twisted World. It is bigger, smaller, longer and shorter than you; it does not prove; it is.

Metaphoric Deformation, the disease of the interstellar traveller. In the middle of a section of Mindswap that appears to be a pastiche of a Western, Marvin Flynn and his girlfriend are suddenly transformed into giant insects. When I first read this, I wondered if it might be a throwaway reference to Philip Jose Farmer's The Lovers. You don't actually know whether the characters have exited "the Twisted World" at that point, or if they ever do!

David Bratman: Damon Knight and James Blish both disliked Sheckley. Sheckley is best when he is most limited, though, and Blish had no sense of humor; he disliked the Hoka stories, complained that Sheckley’s characters were dim; (true), but Sheckley did this on purpose and it worked.

Tom Whitmore: It's very difficult to do in a serious novel.

Lenny Bailes: Sheckley got away with it because he was thought of as the Court Jester. He could get away with being subversive because he was flying below the radar of the "important people."

Audience: How do you subvert in advance?

Tom Whitmore: Good point. Inventing a dystopia.

David Bratman: If you had then had the whole present panoply of different multiple Hugo awards, he would have gotten a few. He was well regarded by fellow writers and many readers. Robert Silverberg: That’s the kind of writer I’d like to be.

Tom Whitmore: Knight and Blish were trying to cut Sheckley down to size; ignore them as dogs in the manger.

Sharon Sbarsky: The blurb of this panel: he is still one of the lesser-known authors.

David Bratman: Sheckley was most prominent in the 50s; in the 70s, he was still a name to conjure with.

Audience: – Is comedy less well regarded by critics?

Tom Whitmore: I'm not certain that’s true. Doug Adams, frex.

Patty Wells: When I chose this book of honor, I was under the assumption that most people were aware of the short stories at least. I was shocked to find out how few knew who he even was.

Audience: His short stories didn’t make it into collections in my library when I was young in the 60s.

David Bratman: When people choose the best SF stories of the past, they tend to go for really heavy-duty gut-punchers. Sheckley's stories are lighter, and their effect is cumulative, so they tend to get overlooked.

Audience: … in other countries, I saw more of his collections in the UK.

Audience: A.E. van Vogt was popular in France, Sheckley in the Soviet Union.

Sharon Sbarsky: Italian newsgroups talk about him a lot; Sheckley was more popular in Europe.

[Bruce Durocher?]: Also, Starship had an article – ways to beat writer’s block by Sheckley. Very very good.

Lenny Bailes: Sheckley had a writer’s block throughout the '80s. But after his stint at editing Omni, David Hartwell rescued him by encouraging him to write mysteries.

David Bratman: Sheckley would translate very well [into other languages] – clean, spare style, focused on the content, and it would translate. Not playing with puns that don’t translate, but the situational satire comes through. Playing around with perspective.

In his treatment of women; sometimes he plays with clichés but sometimes they turn and rend him. The Seventh Victim is about a ruthless woman hunter who succeeds by fooling them into thinking she’s poor and helpless. The punch line only hits if you can accept, for the story, that women really are like that. But nowadays, when you read it, you know in advance that she really is that ruthless and that the guys are fooling themselves.

Lenny Bailes: It’s like watching reruns of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Sharon Sbarsky: Most of the stories still do read very well

Tom Whitmore: In that story, even more than the helplessness, he’s playing on the whole idea of romantic love – the victims are looking for it and so fall for it.

Lenny Bailes: The Twilight Zone is another show where some episodes hold up today and some don’t. Sheckley adopted a number of his stories for radio s-f (X Minus One).

Audience: Some of those shows are online.

Linda Deneroff: The Seventh Victim was dramatized on TV, and you buy into the mores of the era even now in the modern era.

Patty Wells: But I read it in the 70s as a teen and saw the ending coming and didn’t care and loved it – thought it was the most satisfying story I ever read, still do.

Audience: Sheckley‘s themes are universals, so they hold up.

Sharon Sbarsky: Retro TV is ok once you overlook the clothes and stuff; the themes are still valid mostly

[Bruce Durocher?]: Years ago, Spider Robinson did a collection: The Best of All PossibleWorlds. One author chose Seventh Victim, and Spider tried to get the movie rights, but was outbid by the Italian studio that did 10th Victim.

Tom Whitmore: Remakes are possible.

Sheckley was very early on doing deconstruction and literary techniques to get away from the science fiction golly/wow action genre.

Lenny Bailes: Sheckley was an absurdist, after the styles of the Pataphysicians: Eugene Ionesco, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau.

David Bratman: Sheckley might have been overlooked by the hard science fiction people because he didn’t have a lot of rivets, but his work is valid. nonetheless.

Audience: Where does Sheckley’s influence show up now?

David Bratman: Connie Willis

Lenny Bailes: Terry Bisson, Paul Di Filippo—deconstructing tropes and making fun of cliches.

Tom Whitmore: Howard Waldrop

Sharon Sbarsky: Mike Resnick was influenced by him; pushed the republication.

Tom Whitmore: Sheckley influenced space westerns; a lot of their timing is very similar: Santiago, the Prophet series.

Lenny Bailes: Grania Davis’s short stories in the 70s and 80s. I'm also tempted to say Eileen Gunn, but her stuff is more 3-D – you’re more aware of introspection. Sheckley’s stories are more like cartoons – humor, contradiction and absurdity.

David Bratman: His entire universe is made of cardboard (said a critic), but with Philip K. Dick you think that there’s reality – somewhere – but the reader just isn’t smart enough to find it. With Sheckley, ok, it’s cardboard, but who cares? The tale’s the thing.
Occasionally, Sheckley tells you what the protagonist is saying but he’s better when he goes at it sideway.
Frustration ... the planetary AAA Ace decontamination stories such as Ghost V – delightful ending. And this punch line is what I quoted as a memorial to him when he died. There’s one story, Specialist, where the spaceship is a symbiosis of living parts. The idea is great, but I'm not certain it can hold up for novel length. But the idea’s the thing.

Lenny Bailes: Specialist [a short story about a living spaceship made out of component members of different alien races] is like Sturgeon’s Baby Is Three. Sheckley was an absorber of the current s-f canon. He constantly transformed it and continued it in his own work.

Patty Wells: Choosing Sharon for the panel, as a representative of NESFA Press, was deliberate. I’m not certain we’re doing such things on the West Coast. We’ll be reading Bad Medicine after the auction.

Lenny Bailes: We'll eventually post the discussion notes for this panel, along with the handout on the Potlatch website.

Audience: Why do you have an asterisk next to The Accountant in your list of favorite Sheckley short stories?

Lenny Bailes: I really liked that one.

David Bratman: The Accountant - that’s pure punch line.

Lenny Bailes: In the Making Light commemorative thread, there's a remembrance of Sheckley by Martin Olson. (Olson was a longtime friend of Sheckley's as well as being a professional comedian and script writer):

"I 'll end with the best thing this craggy Jewish leprechaun ever said to me. He said all of his stories started with the same premise: Sympathy With All Things. In a universe in which a god and an apple have the same signficance, no more, no less, the most terrifying monsters have their personal problems, and gods get self-absorbed and annoying just like the rest of us. Therefore there really are no monsters, no gods. We're all the same, stuffed in different sausage-casings, connecting when we have Sympathy with one another. Bob's simple message, packaged with paradox. Served with his delicious, ruthless wit. And always with a whimsical kindness and forgiveness for his characters, who were always in need of money, food and sex. Like the Man of a Thousand Disguises in Options, and the Gods in Dimension, they were all, blatantly, Himself."

LB reads poem by Thich Nhat Hahn, posted on ML by Martin Olson.]

Additional References: Handout on Sheckley prepared by LB.

Panel Notes by David Bratman (also includes commentary on other Potlatch Panels):



Ethical Issues in Science Fiction

Participants: Debbie Notkin (ringleader), L. Timmel Duchamp, Stef Maruch

Notes by Bill Humphries and Lenny Bailes


How do various stories raise, deal wikth, and duck issues of ethics and fairness?

The Panel:

Debbie Notkin: Introduces panelists.

The subject of the panel is a discussion of the ethics of being a writer, and of being a reader. [What does the writer owe the readers. What do the readers owe the writer?] [Some theories of ethics also believe the writer has responsibility to the characters in his/her story.]

L. Timmel Duchamp: On writers' ethics: she sits in a cafe and subjects the patrons to surveillance, taking notes. "I think every writer does this. Writing will cause someone pain." You are appropriating [their lives?]. That makes problems.

Stef Maruch: She grew up in a subculture that she doesn't much like. Its values come out in her writing. So she doesn't write much—yet.

Debbie Notkin: [About readers' ethics]: Ethical reading consists of respect for the intentions of the author. About pain: beyond a certain limit it's not the writer's job to protect the reader.

What about publishing ethics?

L. Timmel Duchamp: Publishing wish-fulfillment stories is unethical. (She feels queasy when she reads them.)

Debbie Notkin: Editing is a vastly unexplored craft. It's not formally taught. [Should there be] a National Novel Editors Month?

Stef Maruch: Worrying about being ethical is one reason she doesn't write.

Debbie Notkin: Raises the question of ethics in a writer's treatment of characters.

L. Timmel Duchamp: Characters don't exist outside of stories. But they have their own internal logic, which must be respected.

Audience: Are the ethics of writing fiction the same thing as the aesthetics of writing fiction?

L. Timmel Duchamp: Science fiction is a tool for evaluation of the ethics of technology. Science fiction gets to explore experimental emotional responses to technology.

Debbie Notkin: What kind of stories are we teaching people to want? [There's a difference between an entire culture and individuals. One rape fantasy may be OK. A genre of rape fantasies is trouble.

Every story that has more than one character has ethical content.

[LB: Some discussion ensues about Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga stories. In this series, the protagonist has a strongly biased point of view. Some people were taken aback after reading the first story and assuming that Resnick was advocating (or sympathetic to) the protagonists point of view and decisions. A question was raised about whether it was justified to make this assumption. The panelists agreed that Resnick was guilty only of employing a clever, interesting storytelling strategy.]

Audience (Alan Bostick): Wonders whether ethical theories about responsibility and justice imply that having unearned gifts in one's life makes one's life evil?

Audience (Ursula K. Le Guin): You are not a book!

Debbie Notkin: Says that this is an interesting question, but off-topic for the panel, since the discussion is about ethics in writing and fiction, rather than questions about how people should feel about events in their personal lives.

Audience (Lenny Bailes): What about setups? A fake environment? Buffy?

[LB's memory of that question and follow-up comments .....

Lenny Bailes: Asks whether it's unethical for an author to create a rigged universe in which the protagonists are forced into taking action that makes sense in that universe, but not in the real world. Mentions that he's felt the writers of Buffy The Vampire Slayer do this kind of rigging: "Buffy's world is hell, and nothing the grownups do seems to be able to help her. It's no wonder she decides to jump out a window to kill vampires instead of taking a school test in one episode. Staying in the classroom is presented as an alternative that only a dull, sheeplike non-moral agent would choose.

Debbie Notkin: I thought that where you were going with that question might be to cite stories such as The Cold Equations. Rigged scenario, where the protagonist is forced to make an idiotic decision.

Audience: In that particular episode of Buffy, jumping out the window instead of taking the test is shown to have consequences. She has to pay for her decision, later on....]

L. Timmel Duchamp: What if the viewer enjoys experiencing a lie? Is that OK?

Audience (Kathleen Kells?): Ethics are about the other; aesthetics are about the self. Do we agree?

Debbie Notkin: No. Fiction is the form that most directly addresses ethics.

Audience (Aahz): What about the [questionable] ethics of bait and switch? The first story is good, the next ten are bad.

[Some discussion about Birth of a Nation ensues]

Audience (TexAnne): It's important to maintainthe distinction between art and propaganda.

Debbie Notkin: In the domain of a subculture, propaganda that agrees with the subculture is called "art."

Audience: Asks for recommendations of authors who deal honestly with ethical issues.

Suggested authors: Lois Bujold (Vorkosigan novels), P.C. Hodgell. J.R.R. Tolkien.



Environmental Disasters: Beyond the Hollywood Version

Participants: Mary Rosenblum, Marilyn Holt, Amy Thomson.

Notes by Judy R. Johnson


We all know the awful things that could happen. Rising oceans, nasty plague, the seven point nine quake off the western US—Hollywood plasters it all over the screen. But what do they really mean—as in getting up tomorrow, paying the rent next month? Long term disasters or short term, what do you need to think about next time you go to the store, deposit a check, or vote?

The Panel:

Mary Rosenblum: (S-f bibliography here.) In 1990, she wrote a novel for which she needed to to a lot of research on global warming. She was shocked that the world hasn’t, until now, gotten worried about this problem.  What worries her is that what was predicted to happen in 2030 is happening, now, already. She doesn't mind playing Cassandra, but  she is now is alarmed that the consequences of global warming will happen during her own lifetime instead of during the lifetime of her kids.

Marilyn Holt: She inherited a certified organic farm as well as being a writer and a reader.

Amy Thomson: Has a degree in Agriculture that she earned in early 1980s, has a long-term interest in global warming and environment, and also writes s-f.

Marilyn Holt: During Carter’s administration, global warming was predicted by the government.  Now, the Bush administration has made it a prison offense for a government scientist to talk about global warming.  "I’m now – amazingly – ready to write an article saying that Heinlein was right: the Crazy Years are here. If you google “food supply” and “global warming,” you can get thousands of articles. The USDA website has the weekly weather and crop report [showing the changes in recent years?].

Mary Rosenblum: Agricultural interests are paying attention; vintners are buying land in the Pacific Northwest, because as the climate changes it will become the place to grow big [reg?] grapes. Also, E. coli proliferates in California, because there’s very little ground water in California that isn’t contaminated.

Marilyn Holt: War in Africa is about food; not about the other issues.

Mary Rosenblum: The typhoon system is being affected by global warming.

Amy Thomson: You were talking about the corn and hay shortage, and the consequences thereof.

Mary Rosenblum: There are indications, this year, of large quantities of hay lost to drought and fires. There is no hay available at this point.  Also, ethanol production has driven the price of corn up.

Marilyn Holt: "Roundup-ready" crops are frightening; the inert ingredients are pesticides. And they’re called "inert" because, that way, they don’t have to tell you what the ingredients actually are.  Soil is an organism itself—and just the herbicide in "roundup-ready" treated seeds is killing the soil and causing greater runoff.

Mary Rosenblum: Most major crops in this country are R-ready.  The soil essentially becomes dust and blows away.

Amy Thomson: The increasing middle class in China is going online as consumers; and they want to become just like us.

Marilyn Holt: Rice producers in Texas are benefiting because Southeast Asia is building houses over the rice paddies.

Audience:  There is also utilization of fossil water [by Texas rice producers?].  If you look at the inefficiency of our food-raising systems, maybe increased pressure will lead to rationalizing [these systems].

Marilyn Holt: We raise cattle, but we recycle our fertilizer.  This is dairy waste.

Amy Thomson: Plugs the Worldwatch Institute – State of the World report. Very accessible. She also suggests reading their “Plan B.”

Linda Denerof:  Heinlein wrote something about “We’re all going to be getting a little hungry by and by.”  When does it begin? 

Audience: It already has, but we [in First World countries] will be the last to feel it.

Marilyn Holt:  look for the movie that George Clooney’s father did – Nick. 

Audience: Food [consumption preferences] will shift from carnivore to omnivore to vegetarian – protein use is going up in China, etc.

Mary Rosenblum: But where people are losing out, the fraction of protein to carbs is going down.

Marilyn Holt:  I won’t buy and eat krill-like shrimp, because that’s whale food.

Mary Rosenblum: A problem that gets the least media attention is that a number of marine biologists believe we’ve already killed off the oceans—and it’s just taking a while for the effects to become obvious.  Trawl fishing’s devastation is unimaginable.

Audience:  The Sahel is actually recovering because of local efforts.  Photos show it.  Humans do sometimes wake up.  To deal with gradual change is hard, but there are a lot of threshhold places in the environment.

Mary Rosenblum: But you can get irretrievably too far past those threshold points before they are recognizable enough to beat back the doubters.

Judy Johnson: Malnutrition for women around Aral Sea devastation is more frequently mortal [fatal?] than for men and children, because women eat last.

Audience:  We can stop growing lawns, frex.  But then the government will subsidize the lawn people.

Marilyn Holt:  Companies like Monsanto and Cargill are suing people who are growing and distributing heritage seeds, because they have patented some of the dna.  It’s basically like saying “I’m going to take out a patent on Chihuahua dogs.”   You need to kvetch at the local newpapers and correct all the frequent pieces of misinformation they put out.

Mary Rosenblum: Many of these foul deeds are done in legislative bodies, as riders, and under misleading names—so that you won’t notice. 

Marilyn Holt:  Monsanto hired an aerial sprayer to find out who was growing organic wheat and [then] sued them on the grounds of pollen polllution. Write letters, act up [to fight these kinds of practices].

Audience: Heritage strains in Europe are not sold, but distributed free, non-commercial.

Amy Thomson: We have do have seed savers here, with a catalog.

Mary Rosenblum: One ordinary residential garden can feed an extra two families or even more. 

Marilyn Holt:  Even under less than ideal growing conditions.  CSA=community-supported-agriculture. You contract with the farmer for a percentage of seasonal production.

Mary Rosenblum: Even if you’re not totally self-sufficient you can take some of the burden off.

Marilyn Holt: Agitate that you don’t want all of your organic food grown hydroponically, and that you want local self-sufficiency.

Mary Rosenblum: Tell Safeway that you’re going to another supplier because they’re not providing according to you’re standards.  Shipping is a huge burden.

Marilyn Holt: Buying seconds for canning is good, too.  And pay attention to developer pressure to put organic farmers out of business.

Amy Thomson: Join Seattle {Til?] and go to their plant sales.

Mary Rosenblum: Portland is rife with farmers’ markets, and Oregon Tilth.


Marilyn Holt: There is two times the incidence of Parkinson’s in the agricultural community.

Audience:  The loss of biodiversity leads to rise in parasitism; that applies to politics also

Marilyn Holt:  The Bush administration has decided the energy crisis will be solved through nuclear – Kerr- McGee and Halliburton love it.  The cost of solar cells is high because not enough are sold to be competitive.

Amy Thomson: In Germany they have popular movements to have your grid run backwards.

Audience:  I don’t see nuclear as inherently evil

Marilyn Holt:  Maybe not. But the money is going in that way instead of to other forms of sustainability.  Even solar cells pollute [through] their manufacturer-uses of silicone.

Mary Rosenblum: Scientific American, in September 2006, put out an issue on carbon-neutral and carbon trading and global warming.  Mary wrote an article that the Christian Science Monitor bought—in response to another article that had the wrong slant on this.

Amy Thomson:  For every problem a solution can be found that is elegant, simple, and wrong.

Mary Rosenblum:  we can stop subsidizing Hummers, frex.

Audience:  Branson has offered a prize for anyone who can come up with something to solve the energy crisis.  If we used the same proportion of nuclear [energy] as France does, that would solve it.  But my point is that it takes not one overarching solution, but a whole raft of them.

Audience:  Don’t do it just because it’s the right thing to do, but because organic tastes better.  Commercial is grown for shipping and storage, not taste.

Amy Thomson: The best way is to grow [produce] yourself, or support local farmers who do.

Mary Rosenblum: The rise in organic [farming] is not for moral reasons so much as because people want those products.

Marilyn Holt:  If you pick out one element that you want complain about, make it "roundup-ready"—for an issue to yell about.  And bovine hormone use is actually declining, so consumer kvetching does do some good.

Audience:  Patent reform is an extremely good thing to go after, too.  You can affect the business model through it.

Mary Rosenblum:  Actually, it is working its way through the legal system right now.

Amy Thomson:  BT pollen and butterflies.

Mary Rosenblum:  That’s a whole other topic.

Amy Thomson:  [Use] rain barrels if you’re going to garden.  [

Judy Johnson:  Screen them.

Audience:  There actually are a lot of simple answers available.

Audience:  Surface water use is illegal.  [There are] governmentt regulations.

Linda Denerof:  All the food issues stem from overpopulation. We need to pressure the government to allow all the possible birth control methods.

Mary Rosenblum: Overseas financing for birth control has been cut off by the Republican administration.

Marilyn Holt:  The answer is to starve them, apparently.  And not every bit of climate change is human caused.  But that means that we have to work hard at what we do affect.  Remember we live in a system that’s bigger than we are.

Amy Thomson:  When you write your congress critter or charities, mention population pressure along with the rest.  Divide your charities so that you know that some is going locally, some nationally, and some internationally.

Marilyn Holt:  Also investments.

Amy Thomson:  Don’t invest in companies that hurt the Earth.

Audience:  Some companies advertise that they are securing water rights in potentially drought-stricken areas [on an international basis].

Amy Thomson:  In South Africa, WorldWatch Newsletter says they provide kids playground whirlies to pump water into a water tower, so that women don’t have to carry water.  Sometimes things are done right.

Marilyn Holt:  Heifer charities.

Audience: One of the first offspring is supposed to go to somebody else in the local community to get them started too.

Audience:  Any recommendations for green investing?

Audience:  Better select your own.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is recommended. Also, The Edge of Disaster by Stephen Flynn



Humor in Science Fiction

Participants: Ellen Klages, Jay Lake, David Levine, Eileen Gunn.

Notes by Judy R. Johnson


Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.

The Panel:

Ellen Klages:  There is no way to be funny about being funny without being serious.

David Levine:  It can be a trap, as when everything gets a laugh even when trying to be taken seriously.  Groucho Marx accepted an award and said, “I wish my brothers were here.” And everybody laughed.

Ellen Klages:  I get people wanting funny on demand. But funny only happens in context.  You go at a right angle to where people expect the context to be.  There is no humor in space. 

David Levine:  A joke sets up a context and then violates it.

Ellen Klages:  My sister’s Ph.D. was on Helen Keller.   On a panel, she she told a joke about Helen Keller, and half laughed and the others thought it was politically incorrect.  She reeducated the audience about.

Jack Bell:  There is no humor in a vacuum.

Jay Lake:  Humor is only funny once. There's a distinction between being funny and being humorous:  Robert Aspirin and Piers Anthony rely on puns, but they lose their flavor on the bedpost overnight.

Eileen Gunn:  Why can you read a Sheckley twice?

Audience (Lenny Bailes):  You can reread it because you've already forgotten it.

Ellen Klages:  There's something built in so you don't remember.

Jay Lake:  Like giving birth.

Audience (Lenny Bailes):  Sheckley's like Jonathan Winters. Give me an object and I'll do something unexpected with it.

Ellen Klages:  A lot of it is timing.

David Levine:  An example from square dancing:  There are three forms of rotation:  around the axis of an individual; second around the axis of a couple, third around the axis of a square.  If you botch it, it doesn't work.  The same in the structure of humor. 

Some words are funny in and of themselves.  Then, you can write a structural thing.  There are different time scales. 

Ellen Klages:  As an example from square dancing; if you think about these things while you're doing them, you'll fall down.  You might be reading to an audience and get a laugh you didn't expect.

Jay Lake: [From the journal of? ] Lewis and Clark: there was a dog called Seaman, and when it was read aloud, the line "Seaman erupted from the bushes" got a roar of laughter.

David Levine:  If you set out to be funny, you will probably fail.  I've seldom set out, except with the purple giraffe, and that was meant to be a tragedy.

Audience:  How does Terry Prachett keep doing it?  He doesn't seem to be going stale, he gets better.

Ellen Klages:  He starts with something inherently absurd and then acts as if it's serious.  He never does the "wink wink to the reader" thing.

Audience (Jack Bell):  He has DEATH do it.

Audience:  The characters can be humorous and react to adversity in a humorous way.

David Levine:  And in both cases you have to take your characters seriously.  We, for instance, have to treat our serious world humorously.

Eileen Gunn:  I'm a contrarian; I don't think Doug Adams took his characters seriously; they were straw men—to be bent to his convenience.

Audience (Tom Whitmore):  In Goon shows the characters take each other seriously, even if they themselves are ridiculous.

Ellen Klages:  It's easy to make somebody cry, but hard to make him laugh.

Jay Lake:  Carl Reisen  [?] can do it.

Audience (David Bratman):  W.S. Gilbert has his characters take things seriously, but it's what they take that is silly. 

Ellen Klages:  Connie Willis does slapstick and yet it's so very different from Pratchett—or the safe falling on the last little dog in A Fish Called Wanda. There's   nothing   funny   about   pain, yet she was beating her leg and hurt herself on the last beat—and everybody laughed.

David Levine:  Humor works on many levels, so even if you don't get every one of the references you still laugh—usually.

Ellen Klages:  But when it falls flat, it's very flat.

David Levine:  But it might be funny to somebody else.

Ellen Klages:  There's an energy exchange with an audience, a give and take. When you are reading it, you're not getting feedback to the author and it's much more difficult. 

Eileen Gunn:  Bruce Sterling doesn't get enough credit for being funny; he cackled when he wrote some of his stories, his wife says.

David Levine:  Patrick O'Brian is a laugh riot, but not meant to be.

Audience:  Ron Davidson could make the end of the world funny.

Eileen Gunn: Iit was often nested and intricate; and, in itself, becomes wondrously amusing.

Ellen Klages:  At the Academy Awards, it was said that it is rare for comedy to win an award.

Jay Lake:  The role of satire has dimished.  Our field has taken over what [satire] used to do.

Eileen Gunn:  Satire peaked in the first century, AD.  How many of you grew up reading Mad magazine?  How many lately?  Almost none.  It's dead.

Audience:  No it's not. It's just online.

Audience (Mary Kay Kare):  People who make you laugh you can love; but you can't love somebody who doesn't make you laugh.

Ellen Klages:  If you're in a situation where there's no humor, you're in a bad place.

David Levine:  It's symptomatic of a situation that is bad.  Maslow's hierarchy:  wonder where humor falls.

Ellen Klages:  One of the reasons we come to cons is to be with people who have a similar sense of humor.

David Levine:  And what is it you hear from newbies at conventions?  "Finally.  A whole roomful of people who get my jokes."

Ellen Klages:  I'm hard-pressed to do that in a roomful of insurance agents.

Audience (Janice Murray):  That's an American ideal, perhaps. (A Russian woman she knows wondered why making you laughing was so important.)

Eileen Gunn:  Being joyful together will do. 

Ellen Klages:  Venn diagrams of  joy and humor and delight overlap a lot.

Audience (Art Widner):  Satire is alive and well in political cartoons: Cheney getting coal in his Xmas stocking and being delighted.

David Levine:  The more you know, the more jokes you get. Corollary:  the more you know, the fewer people get your jokes.

Ellen Klages:  Sometimes the audience supplies a context and cultural reference for something inherently unfunny.  It's a shared thing.

Eileen Gunn:  I would draw a distinction between a catch phrase not being as funny as associatively funny.  It's just above a pun.

Ellen Klages:  Adults take their kids to Shrek, but like it themselves.  A pun is only funny once.

Audience:  Humor is related to shared culture. Are food fights funny?  Yes, if you're watching it on TV. But not in reality. I, as an African American, have remembered hunger in my culture.  And somebody has to clean it up, afterwards.

David Levine: Some puns work in multiple languages—but darned few.

Audience (Jerry Kaufman):  What about inadvertently funny? 

Audience:  The Victorians are funny to us because they were themselves so serious and high minded.

Summing up:

Jay Lake:  Thepun is the highes form of humor.

David Levine:  Humor is like square dancing.

Ellen Klages:  I'm doing the auction tonight.

Eileen Gunn:  Brevity is the soul of ….



Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings

Participants: Dave Clements, Grant Kruger, Peggy Rae Sapienza, Nisi Shawl

Notes by Judy R. Johnson


Even a well-intentioned traveler can commit a horrid faux pas because of deep-seated cultural differences. These cultural misunderstandings can be humorous or horrific or both, and they can make great fiction. What can we learn from today's world that can be used in the future?

The Panel:

Dave Clements:  [says he is not from around these parts.  He's an astrophysicist on his way back from Mauna Kea as well as a frequent panelist in s-f convention science tracks.] Dave is interested in how cross-national cultures (specifically scientific cultures) interact with one another.  What you hear someone say is not necessarily what they intended to say.

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  [is a long-time s-f reader, fanzine fan and convention runner] Wait; how come they're answering unexpectedly? If you help to organize worldcons, you run into this.   How to minimize misunderstandings that can't be made to go away.  If there is other intelligent life, then this could be a relevant skill.

Nisi Shawl:  [is an s-f writer, critic, and scholar] At NASFIC in Seattle, last time, I ran into moments where I felt isolated and unwelcome.

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  Everybody, whenever you go to a con, search out somebody who looks lost and make them feel welcome—it will pay immense dividends throughout successive years.

Nisi Shawl:  Carl Brandon was a fictional member of science fiction fandom [[invented by Terry Carr, Ron Ellik, Pete Graham, and Dave Rike, a bunch of fanzine fans in the 1950s]] Carl's inventors created a talented fanzine writer who was also black man.  The Carl Brandon Society, an organization created at WisCon to increase public awareness and representation of people of color in the science fiction writing community, adopted Carl's name.

Dave Clements: Living in a foreign country is a bigger wrench than going from con to con.  Once you have lived out of your home country, it changes you permanently.  There are also plenty of amusing things that happen.  In Bavaria, they have an awful lot of public holidays, but everybody knows when they are, so they aren’t publicized—they're stealth holidays.  Shop hours are weird, too. At 1pm on Friday, everything shuts.  Petrol stations and restaurants are allowed to remain open. 

Nisi Shawl:  Bruce Sterling told me that to be a SF writer, you had to have experienced being an outsider – foreign country, or maybe a long stay in a hospital.  But although I had lived in Scotland, the principal outsiderness I claim is being an Afro-American.

Dave Clements: A useful phrase anywhere is "two beers and my friend is paying."  What would that be in Japanese?

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  I don't know in Japanese; but you don't pour your own alcohol.

Audience:  Nor in France, if you're a woman.

Audience: :  Or a hotel bar in Japan.

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  You can buy beer and saki even in vending machines.

Audience:  There is a standard set of questions you get quizzed with, when you're a foreigner, because people are trying to place you—so they know how to treat you.  Small offenses are one thing, but what happens with a biggie?

Dave Clements: That depends.  [Tells a story: In Germany, he observed someone discussing personal problems, in a lunch cafeteria, who was reprimanded sternly.

Audience (Judy Johnson): Had the experience, in Morocco, of traveling alone. "The train authorities bumped second class ladies up into first class to chaperone me. I was treated with contempt and given bad food that made me sick."

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  In Japan, the first 10 percent of getting things takes forever, because of the formalities. Finally, everything speeds up.

Audience:  I was raised bilingual and bicultural. US/Mexican laughter is extremely different in the two cultures.  I never realized I was automatically switching, as appropriate, until I saw this difference in a mixed, multicultural setting—and the confusion it caused.

Dave Clements: In Britain, the only people in tube trains who are talking to each other are usually Australians.

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  I don't think the slow openers-problem is just politeness; but [instead] it is establishing a group mind.  We tend to start on something and work out references as needed.  But in Japan, they do the references first.

Audience (Amy Thomson):  My first husband was Japanese. I watched a lot of working out of hierarchies at the beginning, and also being very guarded, so that face isn't lost, later.

Dave Clements:  I'm involved in a Japanese satellite instrument planning project, in the early stages.  There's normally a lot of negotiation, But with the Japanese, it's cut and dried—with no possibility of adjustment.

Audience:  Book recommendations: Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience, French or Foe?

Audience:  What was the Japanese position on sex slaves during WWII?  If it comes up in conversation, how do you handle it?

Audience (Amy Thomson):  Don't mention it at all; they won't.

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  The Japanese position on World War II is cool, and it's still on their minds.  [She went to their WWI museum, which never mentioned Germany.  Somebody Japanese said to her that if  Japan had been invaded, even more lives would have been lost.

Audience:  Scientists might get along better than ordinary citizens.

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  Fans there are very much like ours here; they do room parties and filk.  And the women are not all "dominated."

Audience:  Re World War II: the United States hasn't had a major war in 200 years, which is why we reacted so strongly to 9/11.  Other countries are not so sensitive. 

Dave Clements:  With regard to science, nothing is ever incontrovertibly fixed and complete except in mathematics.  You can, however, disprove something. In re global warming: when a scientist says "it is likely," they are actually assigning it a very strong probability. Politicians see it as: "well, it isn't proved." And so the muddle goes on when, in reality, it's time to stop pretending there's realistic uncertainty.

Nisi Shawl:  In re dialect and bad English: corporate culture penalizes differences, in format, in grammar, in accent.  I do code switching and don't use precise grammar when talking to people who would feel insulted.

Dave Clements:  On scientific subjects, I definitely speak differently.

Audience (Amy Thomson):  Talking about Southerners being discriminated against on the grounds of accent, she's known people who expunged their southern accent because it was a handicap.
Grant Kruger: Daylight Saving Time made me late; I hate it.  I'm from South Africa, a computer programmer—and have been treated with contempt. "You're from Africa, do you know what a computer is?" In South Africa, the translation for "traffic light is "robot.:"

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  Not only is English different in different countries; but also within regions, states, and groups.  English is enormously ambiguous.

Audience (Amy Thomson):  In Japanese, we don't use words to insult people; we use grammar.

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  The Japanese don't expect us to have [the grammar] straight. But the people who have it rough are those of Japanese descent who only partially learned Japanese from their parents.

Grant Kruger:  In South Africa, in tribal territory, it is attractive to be large-bodied for either sex; it shows prosperity, but the more westernized don't [have the same aesthetic].

Audience:  In Mexico, a man brags that his wife is fat, showing him to be a good provider, but he wouldn't brag similarly about his mistress.  "Gordita" is an endearing term for a wife.

Audience:  In Greece, a shopkeeper shaking his head means "May I help you?"  Also, faint praise means different things in different places.

Grant Kruger:  In South Africa, we have British influence from colonial days, American from media, Indian from its large population demographic.

Dave Clements:  It's possible to be bi-, or even tri-lingual within English. 

Audience (Judy Johnson):  Is there a scientific body started to deal with potential alien sentence communication?

Dave Clements:  Yes, SETI is working on it, mostly using mathematics and drawings.  They gave this to a group of graduate students to see if they could work it out, and they didn’t work it out!

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  I discovered that I had a taboo that I didn't know I had.  Horsemeat.

Nisi Shawl:  There are different cultures within this country.  Have we dealt with this adequately?

Peggy Rae Sapienza:  Well, it was a premise, really.

Grant Kruger:  I was struck within America as to how subtle the differences are; they weren't apparent to me for a long time.

Nisi Shawl:  People like to categorize themselves. Somehow; it's comforting.  With regard to SF: in the future, what difference will computers make?

Audience:  There is code switching between fans and "mundanes." In fandom, it is polite and welcome to correct people; outside of fandom, no.

Audience:  You need to talk to the minority members of a subculture to find out about them, because the majority might not have noticed the differences. 

Grant Kruger:  Isolated communities are more attached to their culture than mainstream cultures.  Indians in South Africa revere and hang onto their culture as it was a century ago.

Audience:  Sometimes someone's occupation changes who you think they are.  [He cites an example of Mongolian guides who only spoke Russian, but when he played cards with them he found out they were all graduate engineering students.]

Audience (Amy Thomson):  The Mongolians visiting in the U.S. judged it in terms of grazing possibilities.

Grant Kruger:  The speed of language slows down in the southern U.S. Cremora advertisements are a hit in South Africa, but not in the U.S.

Nisi Shawl:  Cultural differences are an important part of writing sf—as much so as rivet-type stuff.

Dave Clements:  Functional communication is important, otherwise you can have cockups [much laughter].

Grant Kruger:  Apologize for cocking up daylight saving time [audience:  clocking up].  The process of discovering cultural differences is very enjoyable, especially among fen.

Peggy:  thank you all very much.



Potlatch 16 panels report
By David Bratman

Potlatch panels were good this year: topics with moral and critical juice to them that were not purely political. I attended four of the six. Full write-ups are on the Potlatch website elsewhere; these are my impressions.

1) Ursula K. Le Guin gathered a group of women together to talk about subversive fiction. UKL herself was primarily interested in excluding (unnamed) authors who claim they're being oh so daringly subversive but in fact are beating over issues that were settled decades or a century ago. Her ideal subversive writers are people like Solzhenitsyn and Zamiatin (whom she did name), who could have - and in some cases did - go to prison for their work.

Others said such writers are more revolutionary than subversive, that subversion has to be under the radar, eating away from beneath the reader's expectations. But maybe the subversion can be so far underneath readerly awareness that it's beneath the writer's awareness too. So what about work that subverts without the author's intent? Uncertainty as to whether that qualified as subversive fiction. Lenny Bailes from the audience said that UKL's own later Earthsea and Hainish fiction subverted her earlier work in those settings. UKL: "I would just call it growing up."

Eileen Gunn asked what happens when everything has been subverted. Others seemed to find this question rather naive; UKL had in fact provided an answer earlier when she pointed out that subversion is not necessarily good: GWB is very subversive of the Constitution, international law, etc. I'd draw the conclusion that no matter what well-founded conclusion society may come to on some matter, someone will want to overturn it and go back to the bad old days. Bush and Cheney want to go back to the Imperial Presidency. So maybe even that is not as settled an issue as we all thought three decades ago.

2) Debbie Notkin led a session on ethical issues in SF. Her panelists looked as if they'd be happier contemplating this topic in solitude for a few hours and writing carefully considered e-mails or blog posts rather than sitting in front of an audience in real time, forced to say something right now. Ethics was defined as "behavioral choices based on moral beliefs," and the ethics of both writing and reading were considered. On the latter a most interesting point was made, cautioning readers against blaming the author for giving them pain.

And yet, and yet ... however often authors say, "I am not my characters," at the same time there are stories which do try to commmunicate the author's ethical and moral beliefs, and can readers be blamed if they can't always tell the difference from stories in which the author is just trying to depict unethical behavior without explicitly denouncing it? I brought up Mike Resnick's "Kirinyaga", a portrait of self-righteous wilfulness leading to pretty objectionable ends. The story is actually a set-up, but the later installments in which the protagonist gets his comeuppance weren't published until years later. I wasn't fooled by it, but I don't think Resnick saying "I am not Koriba," or critics saying "Don't judge the story until the whole thing is published," are sufficient answer to those who were.

One objection made: to stories which depict characters getting unearned rewards. Alan Bostick from the audience protested this: he's had many unearned rewards in his life; is all that to be excluded from fiction? UKL (from audience): "You are not a book." Elaboration from others: nothing's wrong with depicting characters with unearned rewards (you can write about them grappling with this, for instance), just don't make their very acquisition the moral of the story. Fiction is selection and shaping of reality, and this is only one example.

In the same connection Lenny Bailes from the audience brought up the existence of stories which claim to be illustrating universal ethical principles but in fact are describing highly implausible specific conditions with no exterior lessons. Unfortunately, instead of illustrating this by citing didactic "If X then Y" Campbellian SF like "The Cold Equations", he torpedoed his own point by denouncing his regular bete noire Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and as usual completely misreading the show's ethical content.1

3) The humor in SF panel rambled a bit - I didn't take any notes - but seemed to me to keep an excellent balance between itself being humorous and talking seriously about humor. One reader's hilarious is another's stone-faced, that's for sure.

4) The Sheckley panel, which I was on. I'd rather talk about his short stories than than his novels, as I find them much better. Damon Knight* said Sheckley was (especially in his early work) a "one-punch" writer, whose stories are very short and are designed to make just one point. Unlike Knight, I find this to be Sheckley's strength: to make his point briefly, he can set up simplistic or implausible situations that couldn't be sustained at novel length; and the points are strong enough that they tend to conflict when yoked together in a novel. Dimension of Miracles has some wonderful individual scenes, but reading a series of solipsistic entities yakking away loses its savor, and the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Re-reading Sheckley for the panel, I found his most striking feature to be his conscious mastery of cliche. He can make them roll over and do amusing tricks, especially cliches about male-female romantic relations, as in "Pilgrimage to Earth" (about a naive man seeking Romantic Love with capital letters) or "The People Trap" (a completely florid Thirties-style pulp romantic adventure story made wry by being set in a bleak hopeless future). These stories were written in the 1950s with a Fifties sensibility and viewpoint; can they still be read from that viewpoint today? What about "Seventh Victim", whose surprise depends on readers falling for a now-abandoned cliche? Audience to me: Sure, reading "Seventh Victim" for the first time today we can see the surprise coming, but it's still a good story. Me: Well, that makes sense, because I find Sheckley's stories quite re-readable; the joy is not in being surprised by the ending, but in watching the author's elegant way of setting it up.

And Sheckley doesn't pall because many of his stories aren't shockers anyway. There are completely upbeat, cheerful stories like "Specialist" (the one about the spaceship made of living creatures that form its walls, engine, etc.): the conceit couldn't be maintained at novel length, and the role of humans in the spaceship isn't credible, but for a short enough story this doesn't matter. It's a delightful little story and is Robert Conquest's favorite Sheckley.

*not in person (posthumously) on the panel, but in his 1950s reviews collected in In Search of Wonder, one of the first books you should turn to for discussion of 1940s-50s SF, along with James Blish's Issue at Hand volumes.