Report from science fiction’s Readercon


Mine is an enviably privileged if essentially fuddy-duddy life built around reading, writing, daydreaming and occasional household chores. Dull routine suits me. Nonetheless, as D.H. Lawrence declared in “Sea and Sardinia,” every so often there “comes over one an absolute necessity to move.” At such times, I frequently travel to some sort of literary conference to hobnob with old friends, make new ones and, more often than not, just lounge around in restaurants or bars talking about books.

Consequently, in mid-July, I drove — with my wife, Marian, as navigator — to Readercon, an annual science fiction convention held in Quincy, Mass. I was signed up to be on panels devoted to “The Craft of Reviewing,” “The Enduring Legacy of Jules Verne” and the work of Arthur Machen, author of “The Great God Pan” and many other unsettling weird tales, most of them written in the 1890s.

As its name implies, Readercon focuses on books. Nowadays, many science fiction conventions — not just San Diego Comic-Con and its offshoots — emphasize what one might call spectacle: blockbuster films, television series, video games, cosplay. But at Readercon, print is still king. At the entrance to the booksellers’ room, a little table displayed a memorial photograph of David Hartwell, the most important science fiction book editor of the past 50 years, who died in 2016. It bore the legend “Hero of Readercon.”

Bored with a book, I set off for New York, where I … bought more books

This year, two longtime regulars, Samuel R. Delany and John Crowley, author of “Little, Big” and other fantasy classics, missed the festivities, but the hotel’s halls, lobby and patio were still crowded with plenty of other writers. The two guests of honor were the multitalented Jeff VanderMeer (author of “Annihilation” and much else) — who would be interviewed hilariously by his wife, the award-winning anthologist Ann VanderMeer — and the YA novelist Justina Ireland (author of “Dread Nation”).

The con ran from Thursday evening, July 13, until Sunday afternoon, July 16. Each day featured up to eight tracks comprising panel discussions, readings, autograph sessions and Kaffeeklatches, in which writers answered questions from a small group of fans. Panel subjects ranged from “Billionaires in Science Fiction,” “COVID’S Effects on Literary Tone” and “The Queer Tropes of Speculative Literature” to “The Fantasy Fiction of Sylvia Townsend Warner” and “Do Short Stories Still Matter?” Offered so many appealing topics, I found it hard to choose which panels to attend, finally settling on “How We Shape and Reshape Older Works,” “The Pyrite Age of Science Fiction” (a revisionist look at science fiction’s so-called golden age of the 1930s and ’40s), “Space: The Ultimate Locked Room,” “Speculative Memoir” and “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.” This last took the form of a conversation between two of its editors and contributors, John Clute and Graham Sleight, who pointed out that the field’s major reference work, now in its free online fourth edition, was fast approaching 7 million words.

Science fiction is more than just a reaction to the present

At this 32nd Readercon, its Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award honored D.G. Compton, whose best-known novel, “The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe,” was recently reissued as a classy New York Review paperback. That odd name, Cordwainer Smith, by the way, was the pseudonym of Washington’s own Paul M.A. Linebarger, an expert on Asian politics and psychological warfare who wrote wistfully and inimitably about a future populated by cyborgs (“Scanners Live in Vain”) and animal-derived “underpeople” (“The Ballad of Lost C’Mell”).

Readercon also hosts the Shirley Jackson Awards, named for the author of both “The Lottery” and that unsettling masterpiece of psychological disintegration “The Haunting of Hill House.” This year, Sophie White’s “Where I End,” published in Britain by Tramp Press, and Gabino Iglesias’s “The Devil Takes You Home” (Mulholland Books) tied in the novel category. The short-fiction prize went to Kim Fu’s “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867 “(from her Tin House collection, “Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century”).

Who did I talk with at the con? I munched on fish and chips with novelist and frequent Post reviewer Elizabeth Hand, who has just completed an authorized sequel to Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”; drank Irish coffee with critic and fiction writer Gregory Feeley; and chatted all too briefly with the multi-award-winning Michael Swanwick and longtime Locus Magazine columnists Gary Wolfe and Rich Horton.

More reviews by Michael Dirda

I also caught up with Gil Roth, literary podcaster and interviewer extraordinaire (check out “The Virtual Memories Show” and his zine, “Haiku for Business Travelers”), and short-story writer Eileen Gunn, who in her earlier years was director of advertising at Microsoft — one of her best-known stories is the appropriately wry “Stable Strategies for Middle Management.” At various times, I bumped into horror writer Scott Edelman, who in his youth worked at Marvel Comics, and exchanged greetings with Paul Witcover, author of that provocative mash-up “Lincolnstein,” and Neil Clarke, editor of the magazine Clarkesworld. During a Saturday night mixer called “Meet the Pros,” I gratefully sipped a gin and tonic with the distinguished anthologist Ellen Datlow and met a dozen young writers.

My lively Machen panel was moderated by the eminent antiquarian book dealer Henry Wessells and comprised Michael Cisco, a professor at the City College of New York and author of “Weird Fiction: A Genre Study”; the fantasy artist known as The Joey Zone; Hand and me. On the Verne panel, I sat next to Sarah Smith, a novelist and pioneer of hypertext (“King of Space”) who has spearheaded the recovery of my late friend Thomas M. Disch’s long-lost computer game “Amnesia” and brought out its full text and programming notes in the book “Total ‘Amnesia.’

In short, I enjoyed myself immensely. Up in the eighth-floor “Con Suite,” I even encountered a science fiction fan named Jean Rossner, who turned out to be the psychotherapist daughter of Judith Rossner, author of the once-notorious bestseller “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” To my regret, however, there were many people I never got to say hello to, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Philip K. Dick Award winner Sarah Pinsker — whose latest book is the short-story collection “Lost Places” (Small Beer Press) — and The Washington Post’s current science fiction columnist, Charlie Jane Anders. Happily, both will be guests of honor at Washington’s local science fiction convention, Capclave, which runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1.

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Me being me, I couldn’t resist spending a couple of hours in the con’s “Book Shop.” Fred Lerner, a historian of libraries and science fiction, pointed me to his annotated edition of John Myers Myers’s “Silverlock” (NESFA Press), a fantasy classic that features cameos by many of the most celebrated characters in fiction. From Canadian dealer and collector Peter Halasz I bought a beautiful copy in dust jacket of George Orwell’s “The English People,” a monograph in the “Britain in Pictures” series that its author never allowed to be reprinted. I even picked up a couple of paperback originals: “The Best of Walter M. Miller,” a volume of short fiction by the writer who gave us that masterpiece of American science fiction, “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” and Fredric Brown’s collection of short-short stories, “Honeymoon in Hell.” The latter includes, among other treasures, “Arena,” filmed as one of the most famous episodes of the original “Star Trek.” When biologist and writer Tom Easton graciously donated several boxes of books to a giveaway table, I scooped up three old Terry Carr fantasy anthologies.

Alas, fun must always be paid for. It took nearly 10 hours — many of them in heavy, blinding rain — to drive back to Washington. The next morning, though, I was happily settling back into my usual comforting regimen of reading, writing and daydreaming.

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