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Readercon

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By Michael Dirda


 

Every July for the past several years I’ve flown to Providence, Rhode Island, for a midsummer getaway from work and family. The focus of this long weekend is Readercon, a science fiction and fantasy convention held at the Marriott Hotel in nearby Burlington, Massachusetts, about an hour’s drive from the home of one of my favorite couples, the writer and critic Paul Di Filippo and the knit-wear designer Deborah Newton.

A recent issue of Locus, the trade magazine of sf and fantasy, featured Paul on its cover, calling him the field’s great “chameleon,” the author of brilliantly imagined fiction, such as The Steampunk Trilogy (which popularized that term), Roadside Bodhisattva, and A Princess of the Linear Jungle, but also of humor pieces (some collected as Plumage from Pegasus), essays, serious reviews (many for a regular column for the online Barnes and Noble Review) and author profiles. His most recent book, written with Damien Broderick, is Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010.

Even Paul’s envelopes and book mailers are distinctive, since he decorates them with gonzo collages, somewhat reminiscent of those of Max Ernst in The Hundred Headless Woman. Paul once sent me a book in a large brown mailer, its outside cover enhanced with a large still from an episode of I Love Lucy. Sitting at her breakfast table, Lucy is reading The Washington Post. There’s no trickery here. But Paul has inserted a thought balloon above Lucy’s head that says: “I never understand anything that Michael Dirda writes.” I look at this picture every day because, framed, it hangs above the bureau in my bedroom.

As for Deb: I once mentioned my friendship with her to a distinguished poet—whose jaw proceeded to drop. I actually knew, had spoken with, eaten meals with, clasped the knitting hand of Deborah Newton. You would have thought that I’d said I was a pal of Hillary Clinton or Angelina Jolie. I soon learned that if you murmur Deb’s name to a serious knitter you should be prepared for a caesura of pure awe. Her books are knitting bibles.

When I travel to Providence, most years I join a number of other Di Filippo/Newton houseguests, usually including the SyFy Channel columnist Scott Edelman and writers Howard Waldrop and Michael Bishop. As you might guess, things tend to grow maniacally festive pretty quickly—even before we reach the con itself. But this year Mike couldn’t get away, Howard decided to fly in through Boston, and Scott was obliged to report on San Diego’s Comic-Con, which was held the same weekend this year. Still, Scott did send a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself to prop up outside the main hall of the convention.

The first time I made this Readercon pilgrimage I insisted that Paul stop en route so that we could all pay our respects at the grave of H. P. Lovecraft, who spent most of his life in Providence. This year Paul took me to the house where the visionary writer passed the last decade of his too-brief life. Should you be interested, as of July 14, there was a “Studio for rent” sign outside the front door. I can already see the kernel for a short story—Lovecraft fan M. Dirda moves in, but soon grows increasingly reclusive, explaining that he’s busy with researches into the suppressed “ur-text” of The Necronomicon of the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred. When concerned friends finally knock at the door they discover the apartment inhabited by a gaunt, long-faced figure in old-fashioned black clothes. He explains that he is “subletting” from Mr. Dirda who was suddenly “called away.” The air in the room is stale, with a peculiar fetor. …

Hmmm. Too obvious.

But what is Readercon, you ask? Readercon provides a chance for writers, editors, critics, and scholars to gather together and discuss science fiction. There are no masqueraders, no media tie-ins, no Hollywood celebrities—look for these at Comic-Con. This is a highly literary convention, built around four- to six-person panels, a dealer’s room packed with new and used books, and a large hotel bar where people talk and drink late into the night.

When I say this is a serious conference, I mean it. Panels this year included: “Theological Debate in Fantasy and SF,” “The Works of Shirley Jackson,” “Genre Magazines in the 21st Century,” “The Future of Copyright,” “Book Covers Gone Wrong,” a “Speculative Poetry Workshop,” and perhaps 30 or 40 more. Peter Straub and Caitlin R. Kiernan were the two guests of honor. Regular attendees, besides those already mentioned, make up a who’s who of fantastika’s most honored writers and professionals—John Crowley, Samuel R. Delany, Ellen Datlow, David Hartwell, Michael Swanwick, Paul Park, Liza Groen Trombi, James and Kathryn Morrow, Joe and Gay Haldeman, Gregory Feeley, John Kessel, Kit Reed, Darrell Schweitzer, Jeff VanderMeer, Kathleen Ann Goonan, John Clute, Elizabeth Hand, Gordon Van Gelder, Graham Sleight, Kelly Link, and, an especial treat, the doyenne of sf, Katherine Maclean. There are many others as well: This year, for instance, I ran into Bradford Morrow, editor of the literary magazine Conjunctions. Sometimes Junot Diaz comes, joking that he’s just Chip Delany’s driver. Alas, one pillar of the con, the brilliant, crotchety, and much-loved Barry Malzberg, was laid up in New Jersey with severe knee and back ailments.

Every year I look forward to talking with most of these people, nearly all of whom I count as friends. But this year was different. Not only was I particularly busy with panels, but I also participated in a podcast, moderated by Karen Burnham, for Locus Magazine (check it out later in the summer at http://www.locusmag.com/Roundtable/). For an hour and a half Locus’s senior critic Gary K. Wolfe and I talked about reviewing, the state of the field, the breakdown of genre barriers, and the forthcoming American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s. This two-volume Library of America set, which Gary edited, doesn’t publish until September, but you can read essays about the chosen novels, by William Gibson (on Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination), Neil Gaiman (on Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time), Connie Willis (on Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star), and others just as distinguished, at the website www.loa.org/sciencefiction. (I write about Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants.)

This Readercon was different, too, in that I spent much of my time talking about old books rather than new ones, with Robert Eldridge, Henry Wessells, and Robert Knowlton. All of them are professionally involved with the antiquarian book trade. Eldridge is a cataloguer for the premier purveyor of collectible science fiction, L.W. Currey; Wessells works for the New York dealer James Cummins; and Knowlton is the manager for Contact Books in Toronto. The two Bobs also possess fabulous personal collections of rare fantasy, horror and sf—and seem to have read everything and remembered it all.

To spend time with these three was an incredible treat, as well as an education. We chatted about such half-forgotten authors as Leonard Cline, Gerald Biss, Ann Bridge, J. F. Mitchell, Gerald Bullett, Stella Benson, and Kenneth Morris, about truly scarce books such as Swept & Garnished by Donald Armour (a chilling novel in need of a modern edition: see Eldridge’s enthralling essay in the Autumn 2011 issue of the journal Wormwood), shared our enthusiasm for Peter Washington’s Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon (a history of Theosophy), and recalled unexpected treasures found in unexpected places. There is no better conversation in the world than talking about books with longtime dealers and collectors.

But then this is the joy of a science fiction and fantasy convention. Writers and readers mingle, you can chat with a favorite author and get his or her books signed, there are tables of paperbacks, fanzines, and old pulps like Thrilling Wonder Stories, you might pick up a T-shirt for your youngest son emblazoned “Bow Down Before Your Robot Masters” or a belt buckle depicting H. P. Lovecraft’s dread Cthulhu. There are panels during the day and parties at night, and you are surrounded by people who share your own passions.

Anyway, Readercon is over for this year, though I’m still recovering from its late nights and from downing more beer than I usually consume in a month. Happily, there’s the regional Washington, D.C., convention Capclave to look forward to in October and then, in early November, the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. Not even Cthulhu could keep me from being there.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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