Recap of MarsCon 2019, Friday

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I missed MarsCon the first year I was living here in Virginia. I saw the name come up on a list of area conventions, and assumed it was a technical and semi-technical con specific to Mars and Mars colonization (like a Mars Society convention or something), not a sci-fi and fantasy con. Then this year, I was expecting to not be able to make it at all due to work travel, but here I am furloughed with all official travel cancelled so… against many headwinds, here I am at MarsCon 2019!

Today I attended two panels. The first was entitled Writing Military Themed Stories, featuring John “Cal” Baldari (Army veteran and a professor of military ethics), Chris Kennedy (Navy veteran and author and publisher of military science fiction), and moderator Kacey Ezell (active duty Air Force helicopter pilot).

We discussed several themes and motifs that appeal to readers, and give war stories lasting appeal: the ideals of duty / honor / sacrifice / service / etc, the vicarious power to use authorized / sanctioned / “moral” force (when in modern civilian life violence is generally prohibited), and the inner journey of becoming a soldier and pushing oneself beyond previously perceived limits to do great things.

We also got several recommendations from the panel for books/movies/stories that they felt portrayed some aspect of the military experience well: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (for the day to day experience), Full Metal Jacket for the training portion, Twelve O’Clock High for the how and how-not-to on leadership and command chain, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller for the insight into military bureaucracy, The Black Company for the moral ambiguity, and several others

The second panel I attended was Moral Conflict in Genre Fiction, which featured Michael D. Pederson (moderator), Professor John “Cal” Baldari, Jason Gilbert, Kettle Macaulay, and Valerie J. Mikles. The panel was less a primer on how to create morally conflicted characters (which is what I was hoping for) and more a discussion of of characters that create moral conflict for the reader/viewer, such as sympathetic villains (which was still interesting). However, I still got several useful nuggets from the discussion. Particularly, I was intrigued by the idea of science-fiction and fantasy settings being actually advantageous for presenting the audience with contemporary moral challenges, as the speculative elements help control / hone the message while cushioning against defensiveness that can arise in real world depictions of complex issues.

The most useful takeaway for me personally from the panel was a realization that I think I have a tendency to try to provoke moral conflict in the reader, and use that to get around creating characters that are truly morally conflicted themselves. It was an epiphany that caps off some recent reading of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas. It goes to show that participation in these types of in-person con discussions can often prompt synthesized realizations that may not be obvious from simply getting the information content from somewhere!

Looking forward to tomorrow’s panels, as well as a chance to meet the rest of the RavenCon planning committee for the first time. (I’ve been helping with the new Science Track.) Onward to Day 2!

Review of “Exit West”, by Mohsin Hamid

Rating: 3/5 stars.

When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saaed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black rode.

“If you don’t pray,” he said, lowering his voice, “why do you wear it?”

They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screen-down between them, like the weapons of desperados at parley.

She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.

“So men don’t fuck with me,” she said.

The quote above appears at the end of Chapter One, and sums up the essence of what I like about the novel. It does equally well as an example of what turns me off as well.

I love that the setting and characters give me a unique and interesting perspective on the world, one which I seldom have access to. They surprised me, and confronted me with assumptions and prejudices that I wasn’t aware I harbored, even considering myself fairly open-minded and educated about the world. In this way, Exit West demonstrates to me that there simply aren’t enough diverse voices from a Middle Eastern lens that are making it into the mainstream consciousness, leading to a limited set of narratives from which we draw our judgments and conclusions about its culture and diaspora. I appreciate that this novel expands that perspective. Further, the characters are likeable and I immediately sympathized with their position, foibles, and desires.

With such strengths, it might seem odd that I am giving a rating of 3/5 stars. The fatal flow in the novel is this: despite the unique perspective and sympathetic characters, it was hard for me to feel engaged with the story itself. The tone, while sometimes genuinely funny and surprising, often just comes off as smug and cheeky to me. The style is literary and detached; even violent deaths are described matter-of-factly, and it feels like it takes a very long time for things to happen. Given the violence and suffering of the backdrop of civil war, I found myself craving something more direct, clear, and raw to bring it home emotionally.

That, or perhaps I’m just not literary enough to appreciate the excellently crafted prose when the plot feels understated and beneath the surface… I’m no pulp reader — lack of character depth and hacked-together stocked plots do really annoy me. I do want to think when I read, but in the sense that I want to learn something new, maybe have my mind blown, and perhaps be inspired. I don’t want to be craving more connection while applauding politely, as artisan turns of phrase pirouette on by.

Overall, I’m glad this novel exists, and I don’t think I wasted my time reading it… but you won’t find me singing it’s praises or strongly recommending it to friends.

Sci-Fi Story Elements That Really Hook Me!

For well over a year now, I’ve been spinning my wheels on a sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. Despite the well-known writing advice that the first draft will be crap and you just have to power through it, somehow the three drafts I’ve started and scrapped so far seemed to have more wrong than merely being ordinary first-draft crap. Something really fundamental felt like it was missing.

So I finally took a break from trying to write the fourth do-over and decided to just freewrite about what I love in the sci-fi novels that I read. I analyzed my very favorite speculative fiction novels for common threads, and tried to distill them into individual motifs. The results were enlightening, and subsequent work has helped me re-plan and restructure the work-in-progress to better align with the elements of speculative fiction that I find exciting.

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