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!