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Science Fiction Association of Bergen County

Convention Reports:

Philcon 96

A convention report by Taras Wolansky

[Editor's Note: This material originally appeared in FOSFAX, Issue #184, February 1997. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

Copyright 1997 Taras Wolansky

Table of Contents

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Philcon 60

Philcon 1996, "The 60th Anniversary Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference" (though actually only the 56th Philcon, due to World War II), was held November 22nd through 24th at its usual venue, the less-than-distinguished Adam's Mark Hotel in Philadelphia. I can remember when this convention had to share function space with African American social events, but in the last few years it has grown to fill the hotel's convention area. (Perhaps the convention will outgrow the Adams Mark altogether, a consummation devoutly to be wished.) Principal Speaker: author Frederik Pohl; Guest Artist: Thomas Kidd; Special Guests: authors Terry Bisson and Joan Vinge.

With or Without Justification?

Friday evening, a bunch of marginal people gathered to discuss "The Marginalization of SF": author Joan Vinge (slightly marginal), educator and failed Democratic Congressional candidate Elizabeth Anne Hull (rather marginal), author Rebecca Ore (marginal but getting better), and author John Norman (off the scale).

According to the program book, the subject was supposed to be the marginalization of SF relative to the literary "mainstream", but in fact the discussion wandered to other kinds of marginalization. One kind was the relationship between the science fiction of books and magazines, and what the general public thinks of as science fiction. "I could not give away a free membership to this convention, at my office," said moderator Ore, though people there would go to a Star Trek convention. Hull, who has taught SF courses, later wondered, "Maybe the ability to enjoy science fiction is not a widely distributed talent."

Perhaps people don't appreciate the science fiction genre because so much of what is written is bad. Someone made note of Theodore Sturgeon's

comment, that while 90% of SF may be crap, but then 90% of everything is crap.

Norman, whose own work has often been relegated to that 90%, wondered acerbically, "Did he apply that to his own work, do you know?"

Perhaps there is an element of jealous territoriality among mainstream literati who rule SF off the reservation. Vinge described a certain tension at San Diego University, between the English Department and her ex-husband, Vernor Vinge in Mathematics, over his success as a writer.

Early on, Norman had talked about the biased approach of mainstream critics to science fiction, comparing their attitude to the old cliche, "Are you still beating your wife." No, interjected Hull, that should be, "Do you still enjoy beating your wife!" I did not immediately catch that this was--probably--a dig at Norman for his S&M fantasy novels. If it was, however, he got his revenge later when, making some comment I do not recall, he referred to Hull as "Mrs. Pohl". When it was her turn again, Hull said she was still too astounded at being called "Mrs. Pohl" to respond. And after the panel she went over to Norman, at the opposite end of the table, to berate him for calling her that. But aren't you married to Frederik Pohl, asked Norman, affecting perplexity. Yes, she responded, but just as no one calls him "Mr. Hull", so no one should call her "Mrs. Pohl"! I think the poker-faced Norman went on teasing her this way for a few more minutes, but I didn't catch the rest of it.

Only as I wrote the above did it occur to me that, whatever she chooses to call herself, Hull owes her invitation to this and other conventions, and her participation on this and other panels, and the deference she receives from fandom, primarily to her status as--Mrs. Fred Pohl.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Late Saturday morning, three individuals with more courage than sense met to discuss "The Marching Morons", that is, to what extent C.M. Kornbluth's bitterly cynical tale from the early 1950s about the over-breeding of the stupid has proven out. The participants were authors Charles Sheffield and John Kessel, and Analog biography columnist Jay Kay Klein, who noted that the story's solution was to launch the "morons" on one-way trips into space. From the audience: "That's what 'Lost in Space' was about, right?"

Whenever the subject is anything to do with intelligence and heredity, people who know something about the subject tend to conclude discretion is the better part of valor, leaving much of the discussion to the uninformed or the fanatic. (Which panelist filled which role, I leave as an exercise for the reader.)

Kessel was willing to admit people are not all the same in ability, but somehow rejected nonetheless the thesis of "The Marching Morons", that people can be bred for or against intelligence. In my notes, next to Kessel's name it reads, "incoherently drones on and on, refusing to give up microphone"; farther down, merely the word, "ranting".

"It's very clear we can breed animals for intelligence," said Sheffield when he finally got his hands on the microphone; but where humans are concerned, it is politically correct "to reject that, even in principle."

Even so, he said, it has been suggested that the Irish, with their brightest going into celibacy for centuries, and the Jews, with their brightest becoming rabbis with large families, have been behaving so as to open up a gap in average intelligence between the two groups.

Kessel had frequently called upon the authority of Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, a history of the early days of IQ testing--a book which, incidentally, neglects to mention that, since australopithecus, evolution has tripled the size of the human brain. From the floor, I argued Gould uses his theory of punctuated equilibrium to assert that, while there had to have been hereditary differences in intelligence at one time for natural selection to operate on, these variations have evened out since. I also said I thought Gould is wrong; after all, variations in height have not evened out.

About half-way through the proceedings the audience was entertained when the doors in the back of the large room opened and a procession of "morons" (sic) marched in step through them and part way up the center aisle: Terry Bisson, Kathryn Cramer, Gordon Van Gelder, and Rebecca Ore.


Noon Saturday, the topic was the relationship between science and religion and science fiction; the title was obviously inspired by panelist James Morrow's Towing Jehovah: "Will the Drifting Corpse of God Be Spotted in Deep Space by the Hubble Telescope?" The other panelists were: SF-writing physicists "Eric Kotani" (Yoji Kondo), who has actually used the Hubble, and Milton Rothman, author of books on skepticism; chemist Richard K. Lyon, co-author of SF books involving religion; and, last but certainly not least, retired librarian and noted fan artist Joe Mayhew, who described himself as "a goliard, a Roman Catholic cleric", and who has written a science fiction story "in which Roman Catholicism is the 'science'". (I had hitherto heard the term "goliard" only with reference to medieval music; the American Heritage dictionary merely states, "A wandering student in medieval Europe disposed to conviviality, licence, and the making of ribald and satirical Latin songs." Sounds about right; perhaps Mayhew is older than he looks.)

In Japan, there is no conflict between science and religion, said Kotani, because most people are agnostic. 96% claim Shinto as their religion--and 96% claim Buddhism; thus, they have no real religion. Later, he quoted Confucius: "A gentleman does not speak of gods and demons."

"Science deals not with truth, but with objectively falsifiable speculations," said Lynch. Science can't give us ethics; we must take a "religious approach". Creationists think they are "rescuing ethics" from science, noted Morrow.

Taking up the theme of religion and ethics, from the floor I said that while I am personally an atheist I worry that, for example, the abolition of slavery--to the extent it has been abolished--was the product, not just of religion, but specifically of Christianity. The panelists had to agree, with varying degrees of reluctance, that such is the historical record.

At one point Morrow said, "Where science at its most elegant is a conversation, science fiction at its most elegant is a bull-session"; which, as a definition of SF, strikes me as pretty elegant itself.


The souvenir book, with color covers by Tom Kidd, was edited by Darrell Schweitzer and covers all the usual bases in better than usual style: appreciations of Fred Pohl by Jack Williamson, Tom Kidd by Geary Gravel (this one was suspiciously familiar), Terry Bisson by Michael Swanwick, and Joan D. Vinge by Jim Frenkel; plus a memoir of early days in SF by Pohl, and a brief satire by Bisson.

The "Who's Who" section contains a few gems. From J.R. Dunn's entry: "While working on his third [novel], which combines the Khmer Rouge with John Webster's revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, Dunn realized ('This happens to writers all the time,' he says. 'Believe me.') that he was in the middle of a trilogy concerning mass state terror, the 20th century's great contribution to the art of government. This is not as depressing as it sounds ..."

"Marina Frants was born in the Soviet Union, back when there was one, but left in a huff when she realized that no Soviet publisher had a decent fantasy line. ... She is married to Keith R.A. DeCandido, but asks that you not hold it against her."

"John Norman is perhaps best known for the Gorean series, beloved by generations of liberal critics, unceasingly praised by antimenite [sic?] activists, revered by statists and collectivists everywhere, but by some enthusiasts mildly reproved for its tenacious, sycophantic political correctness." (Norman really talks like this.)

The Pocket Program consists of a program grid of locations and times, backed by a list of program item descriptions which is organized, not sensibly in chronological order, but alphabetically. At least this one is not as bad as Lunacon's; the grid includes participants' names, so you don't have to refer to the alphabetical list as often. I've complained about these lists for years as, to find out what's going on at a particular time, I sometimes have to turn to as many as six different pages, and by the time I get to the sixth I've forgotten the first.

And that's assuming the compilers made no mistakes. In the past, I've had to read through such lists from beginning to end, just to find one item given different titles in different places. But take this year's: let's say you want to look up "I Tripped Over My Favorite Writer's Backpack" because you haven't a clue what it's about; do you look under "I"? No--it's under "T"! But "I Can Explain That" and "I Got Rejected a Hundred Times" are under "I". On the other hand, "Is Reality Obsolete" is back there under "R".

This is only a random sampling of errors; for the same reason such alphabetical lists are hard to use, they are impossible to proofread. And (light bulb goes off in his head) impossible to proofread, that's why such alphabetical lists are always full of mistakes! Yet another reason to arrange them by time.--Taras Wolansky.

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Addendum to Philcon 60 Report

Since my report on Philcon 60 was published in FOSFAX 184, Joe Mayhew has claimed the remark about science fiction being a "bull session", and also disputed the exact wording. He may well be right about the first point, as my notes attribute the remark merely to "JM". On the other hand, common sense dictates that notes taken within a few seconds of words being spoken are probably more accurate than recollections several months later.--Taras Wolansky.

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