Monday, January 22, 2018

Casella's 2017 SFF reflections

This past year has been like...submarines below their depth, and sinking further. Pressure creaking, unsure what hatches are safe to open, long tense moments listening, wondering what's next. I can't believe the piece I wrote after the election is over a year old—it feels like yesterday, and it feels like decades ago.

The political reality has had me one moment ready to write off all this genre fascination as escapism & trivialities, and then the next I'm convinced that it's exactly what we need right now: this cocktail of imagination, empathy, curiosity, silliness, willingness to dream but also to care deeply about reality, about the world and each other.

Also, as you may have seen from my reduced output here: I got busy otherwise, day job taking up a bit more time than previously, so I haven't had as much energy for Positron as I'd like.

But the books have been good. The discussions, the friends and fen, have been a bright spot.

Around Chicago, so many positive things going on.

All the book clubs on my radar are doing so well. Classic Sci-Fi has grown so much in membership that there's usually a waitlist. Chicago Nerds have survived a weird migration period to their new home at Open Books, who've been super-welcoming, and has been joined by some great folks. Weird & Wonderful has captured some new members, transitioned to a brave new anarcho-socialism, and remains tons of fun. Think Galactic is just the best.

I haven't dropped in on as many other clubs as I'd like, but, as you can see from the calendar, genre book-clubs are going very strong in the greater Chicagoland area.

The Theatre was perhaps my biggest discovery this year; Chicago science fiction & fantasy theatre, that is. Starting with the House Theatre's "Diamond Dogs", I was delighted to discover a trove of amazing theatrical productions:
  • Otherworld's "A Princess of Mars", which was just one of the most fun things I've seen on stage.
  • EDGE of Orion's "Illyria", a heavily-fantastic Shakespeare medley that I am fiending to see again (this script, golly gee).
  • New Millennium's "The Incredible Hank", a high-energy superhero farce.
  • Otherworld's "The Rogue Aviator", an ambitious dieselpunk romp.
  • Otherworld's "The Speed of Light", the review of which was a victim of my work schedule. A close character study in a big hard-sf/space opera world; the feeling of high science in a doomed world put me in mind of Le Guin's "The New Atlantis". Also seemed to be channeling a little bit of Babylon 5, which is nice.
  • The outstanding "Paragon Play Festival", a 2-day affair with 40+ one-act SF/F plays. Lots of variation, lots of Twilight Zoniness, lots of exploration of robot relationships, and a few surprisingly heavy, well-charactered/well-built-world pieces. Also, "Space Cat Academy" will be in my brain 'til I die.
  • Not of the stage variety, but int the family: the "Juggernaut Film Festival", showing short SFF films, was also just delightful.
Discovering a professional theatrical community that intersects with science fiction/fantasy fandom was a truly unexpected delight of my 2017, and I'm looking forward to a lot more.

Bookshops in Chicago, with a few unfortunate exceptions, seem to be doing great.
  • Volumes has been killing it with events & author talks, and is now home to Deep Dish, a quarterly SFF reading even that might, like, become a thing.
  • Bucket O'Blood is rocking their new digs in Avondale; the store looks great, and they've been hosting tons of awesome events, including an eclectic selection of SF/horror/metal-related academic talks.
The Dial's opening party
  • Delighted to see a new bookshop downtown: The Dial, taking over the recently-vacated Selected Works space, and run by the folks from Pilsen Community Books. It's a really gorgeous space, make a point of going there if you're down in the Loop.
  • Lots of great stuff going on at City Lit, Unabridged, 57th St./Seminary Coop, Open Books, Women & Children First, Roscoe Books, and the Book Cellar.
  • Really sad to see Bookleggers and particularly Bookworks close.
  • The Amazon store on Southport is a strange, dystopian experience.
  • Myopic is a rock, Quimby's is a staple (and now has an NYC location?!), Uncharted looks to be doing well, The Gallery and Ravenswood Used Books are still packed full of good stuff, relative newcomers Book Ends and Beginnings in Evanston are magical. The last Chicago Powell's better never close, by golly.

Lots of cons & events for me this past year, which was great.
  • Capricon, Columcon, C2E2, Printer's Row, Chicago Zine Fest, CAKE, & the Chicago Book Expo. I missed a few other cool-sounding ones, but it was a good spread in Chicago this year.
  • Lots of good readings: a special Chicago edition of Charlie Jane Anders' Writers With Drinks, Volumes-hosted Deep Dish, as well as ongoing genre-friendly reading series Unreal Open Mic. I still need to make it to Bad Grammar Theatre, Gumbo Fiction Salon, and Tuesday Funk...
  • The Harry Potter DePaul Pop Culture Conference, surprising no one, was great. Got notes on The Banality of Evil, The Occult Potter, and keynote Defending Tom Riddle. They're doing "A Celebration of Slashers" for 2018.
  • Cool talk about Nature & Science Fiction at SAIC as part of their Anthropocene series.
  • Lots of great stand-alone author talks, including Ada Palmer (mentioned on our first podcast) @ 57th St., Jeff VanderMeer @ DePaul & Volumes, Cory Doctorow @ Printer's Row, and Annalee Newitz @ Women & Children First.
  • Wiscon, of course, which was, as always, spiritually vital and amazing. This year was also the inaugural BikeCon, aka "a bunch of us ride from Chicago to Madison". All Think Galactagons, this year at least. We wrote surprisingly little of Wiscon/Bikecon up for for Positron, but you can hear Michael & I talk about it on the podcast. Particular highlights included Think Galactic's "Resistance is Not Futile" party, and Amal El-Mohtar's speech finally convincing me to watch Steven Universe, perhaps the best decision I made last year.
  • I went to my first ReaderCon in Boston. A really wonderful, intimate con, with an intimidatingly high pro:fan ratio, and a great focus on the craft of the written form. Finally talked to Gary Wolfe about hypothetical Cherryh projects.

The Podcast, oh yeah! We hit an unexpected production lull, but it's coming back for 2018, hoping for bimonthly. These were unexpectedly fun/challenging to put together.
  1. Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota books.
  2. Neil Gaiman's American Gods (with Leah von Essen).
  3. Jeff VanderMeer and the Weird.
  4. The Hugo Novels.
  5. Wiscon & BikeCon.

Books! What it's all about, supposedly. I was less good than usual at keeping track of what I read (outside of club reads), but I knocked out a good number. Notable SF I read from 2017:

  • Hurley's The Stars Are Legion. Massive organic spaceships, all-woman societies, body horror and space-opera writ gigantic. Relied a little too heavily on "amnesiac POV" for me, but that aside this is just great stuff. Oddly evocative of pulpy/weird adventure stuff in parts.
  • VanderMeer's Borne. Loved it. Funny, brutal, imaginative. It's rather a bit more blockbustery and adventurey than The Southern Reach, and a bit easier to describe. Contains best flying monster-bear of 2017, probably the century.
  • KSR's New York 2140. This was the book I needed to read this year. So much righteous anger at klepto-capital mess we're in, the loss of biomes—but also with this huge sense of energy and optimism, that we can and will get stuff done, not with magic solutions, but in committee, in community, in solidarity, small steps forward. Has some weird blind-spots, but overall delightful and really uplifting. KSR's also developed a kind of sneaky confidence and humor in/at his own writing style, which I very much liked.
  • Doctorow's Walkaway. Maybe my favorite Doctorow to date. Punky/maker-culture utopia, preachy as always but in a great way. Really optimistic, pacifistic, energetic, in a way that is sorely appreciated. It's also nice to see the Whuffie inventor continuing to think of different kinds of life/economics, which is an imaginative vision we need.
  • Newitz's Autonomous. More fun, more cyberpunkiness, with more robots. Skads to love here; find myself oddly disturbed by some of the morality/amorality herein—which itself might be echoing critiques of early cyperpunk, so, success?
  • Lee's Machineries of Empire series. Continue to be great and weird.
  • Kessel's The Moon and the Other. A novel out of time: separatist feminism on the moon. Well-done, but I'm not sure what it really says or adds to the conversation on gender & sexuality in SF.
  • Sloan's Sourdough. Light, gentle, and entertaining, this was a real surprise.
  • Palmer's Terra Ignota series. These continue to be mind-blowing and just a cerebral delight to read; I'm a bit concerned that plot itself has overtaken some of the other elements in The Will to Battle, but I can't wait to read the next.
  • Bennett's The Divine Cities series. Finally got around to finishing these up (CNSC read City of Stairs way back when). Love the world-building (divinely-powered magic in a technologically developing global setting), and it's grappling (a bit fuzzily perhaps) with some deep questions of colonization, appropriation, and reconciliation.
  • Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland. More fun Lovecraftian riffing, this one with genuinely good noir stylings.
  • Wells' Murderbot Diaries series. Really looking forward to reading more of these; grim-but-funny cyborg POV.
  • Habash's Stephen Florida. Deeply weird & unsettling page-turner about college wrestling? Really glad book-twitter tossed this on my radar, maybe the single best novel I read last year. Not genre, but has this real uncanniness kind of slipping around the edges of the picture.
  • Mastai's All Our Wrong Todays. Just the worst. Need to finish just to confirm.
Lots of great book club reads, of course, too many to fruitfully list, and other re-reads. Largely thanks to VanderMeer, I launched into a long and on-going reading list of new ecological/philosophical stuff. Going a bit nuts for object-oriented ontology as expressed by folks like Timothy Morton and Graham Harmon.

Incidentally, VanderMeer/Morton Weird Eco-Philosophy, coupled with some great book-club and post-book-club discussions, has finally connected some dots for me in terms of a writing project I've been toying with for years, concerning some aesthetic and thematic developments in Gibson's work. We'll see how that goes!

That's it, I reckon. Hard to believe Positron's going into its 4th year. I remain very impressed with, and very thankful for, the fan and reader community here. Hoping to do lots of cool stuff with the site this year, but as always just check out the calendar if you're looking for a club or event.

Thanks for reading.

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