Books Conventions Fiction

ReCONvene 2020, Thoughts and Reflections

A few weeks ago I attended ReCONvene 2020. It was a one day virtual science fiction / fantasy (SF/F) convention, and my attendance showed just how much things have changed for me in the last several years.

NESFA logo
New England Science Fiction Association Logo

When my husband first introduced me to SF/F conventions in 2007 I didn’t see what the appeal was. I spent a few minutes in the book store looking for something to read (I wasn’t particularly interested in science fiction or fantasy), then spent the rest of the convention sitting in the lobby of the Burlington Marriott with my nose buried in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. My husband attended various panels, Kaffeeklatches, visited the hospitality suite, and found the book store far more enticing than I had.

Tom went to a few more conventions without me. But in 2011 I decided to give it another try, and I went with him.

This time I looked at what the different panels were actually talking about, and found that many of them focused on writing. In 2007 I hadn’t written fiction in over ten years, but in 2011 I was thinking of going back to it. While I still wasn’t particularly interested in science fiction or fantasy (as a reader or a writer) there are certain universal truths about writing a good story, and these panels had a lot to offer me.

More than that, writers of speculative fiction have a particular way of looking at the world that appeals to me. It may not inform my writing directly, but it gets me thinking about certain questions that inform who I am as a person, and how I choose to approach the world (in life and as an author). But more on that in a minute.

Since 2011 we’ve also added Boskone to our repertoire. That’s a SF/F convention sponsored by the New England Science Fiction Association each February in Boston. Even my kids go to that one. And this year’s was held on schedule, just before the pandemic hit the US.

No one’s counting on the convention being held as usual next February. Readercon, which is usually held in July, was cancelled entirely this year and rescheduled for July 2021. Maybe we’ll have enough of a handle on the pandemic that conventions are a possibility by then. But by February? Probably not.

But for all that SF/F as a genre deals in alternate realities, magic, and mind-boggling technologies, the people of the New England Science Fiction Association are well-grounded in reality.

So they decided to do a trial run of what a virtual convention would look like in case the usual, in-person convention is not an option.

Enter ReCONvene 2020, held on August 15.

Unlike those conventions between 2007 and 2011, I attended this one but my husband did not. He prefers the aspects of a convention that just can’t be done virtually. Tom likes to spend hours picking up physical books and looking through them, sometimes talking with the authors who are standing behind or around the sales tables themselves. He likes to sit in the Con suite chatting with whomever might happen to be in there, about all things science fiction (he’s not much into fantasy). He enjoys attending Kaffeeklatches, sitting around a table with his favorite authors and a handful of other fans. He’ll attend some panels, but those are the least interesting parts of the convention to him. SF/F conventions provide Tom with a crowd he’s comfortable in, and that can’t be moved to a virtual world.

But I go for the panels, and I attended five of them at ReCONvene 2020.

First I went to ‘Glimpsing Climate Recovery’ with Vincent Docherty, David Brin, and Vandana Singh. Next was ‘The Distant Future in Science Fiction’ with Sharon Lee, Steven Barnes, Jennifer Marie Brissett, Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ (yes, a Jesuit monk was on this panel!), and Adrien Tchaikovsky. That was followed by ‘The AI Amongst Us’ with R.W.W. Greene, Ted Chiang, Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, and Martha Wells. After three solid hours of panels I took a break, then tuned in for ‘Finding our Humanity in Horror’ with Christopher Golden, Charlaine Harris, Justina Ireland, Stephen Graham Jones, and Paul Tremblay. I ended the day with ‘Worldblending in Speculative Fiction’ with Ellen Kushner, Aliette de Bodard, P. Djeli Clark, Dr. Carlos Hernandez, and Cerece Rennie Murphy.

ReCONvene 2020 was virtual because of the pandemic, and it wasn’t surprising that the pandemic made its way into several of the panels’ conversations. But I found it refreshing that these authors approached the pandemic in a way that’s more real and honest than many of the people around me. There was no question that this is truly a global health emergency, or that masks and social distancing are crucial. No one was asking when we might get back to normal; it was a given that humanity in general and western culture in particular has to make serious adjustments to the way we live moving forward. The more important question was what will the world look like after the pandemic? Related questions focused on what should the world look like after the pandemic, and how will we get there?

Personally I’ve been feeling pretty hopeless about the state of the world and the direction it’s heading, particularly in the United States. But being among people who are thinking critically, realistically, and imaginatively about the present and the future was encouraging. My favorite line of the day was from Vandana Singh, who said, “I’ve given up on both hope and despair. I think our way forward needs to be based on something stronger than either of those.” I’ve been giving a lot of thought since then about what that “something stronger” might be. My knee-jerk reaction is faith, but I need to flesh out what that actually means and looks like a little more.

“I’ve given up on both hope and despair. I think our way forward needs to be based on something stronger than either of those.”

-Vandana Singh

Not every conversation revolved around the pandemic, though. Several of the panels talked about what constitutes intelligent life, whether in regards to aliens or artificial intelligence. Br. Guy Consolmagno offered, “If something has intelligence and free will, it has a soul.” That led to a discussion about all the ways humanity would try to encumber and even deny that free will in order to justify our refusal to accept an alien life form as a life worth valuing. Another panel raised the question as to why people always assume artificial or alien intelligence will always embody the worst aspects of humanity (such as the impulse to destroy entire civilizations or even worlds).

While alien intelligence is (for now) the domain of speculative fiction only, artificial intelligence is a part of our current reality, to a limited extent, anyway. The question that has been haunting me ever since it was raised is what drives our need/desire for AI? Is there anything beyond stripping agency, consent, or free will from human slaves? This is rich fodder for speculative fiction, but it’s also worth considering as our society moves toward increasing automation, and the human costs associated with it.

Yes, participating in these types of discussions is my idea of a good time. In my opinion, ReCONvene 2020 was a success, and I will most likely attend a virtual Boskone next year. The biggest downside (for me) was not being able to browse an actual bookstore and pick up titles I heard about in the panels. (Although my wallet says that’s a good thing!) I still identified four titles I HAD to have. (Bonus when I discovered one of them was already in my husband’s collection!)

So check out these books, check out the authors I listed earlier, and keep reading fiction to inform how you approach real life!

(Please note that this is an audiobook!)

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