Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nebula Awards Banquet 2012

Although I’ve been a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) for many years, I’d never attended a Nebula Awards banquet. (For my non-science fiction readers, the Nebulas are one of the two major awards given for achievements in science fiction; the other one being the Hugo Awards.) This year, the event was being held in Washington, DC, last Saturday (5/19/2012), so I decided to go.

To my surprise, I was invited to be on a panel, “World Building: Follow the Money,” on how writers should think about the economic and resource issues underlying the worlds they create. My fellow panelists were Myke Cole, a Coast Guard officer whose book Shadow Ops: Control Point, has recently been released; R. J. Anderson, a Canadian author of young adult fantasy, including the recent Ultraviolet; and Franny Billingsley, also a YA fantasy author, whose most recent book is Chime. Both Ultraviolet and Chime were nominated for this year’s Andre Norton Award, which is given at the Nebula banquet.

We were almost joined (seriously) by Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Dr. Paul Krugman, who, it seems, is a big science fiction and fantasy fan himself, but alas, Dr. Krugman couldn’t make it. It’s a shame; I would really have loved to meet him, and sharing a panel with him would have been too cool for words.

Although none of the panelists could bill ourselves as experts in economics, and in any event would have been a pale shade next to Paul Krugman, I thought my fellow panelists (and several audience members) made some good, useful suggestions to writers both experienced and striving.

My own observation came from animation great Chuck Jones, who said that the more rules and restrictions he placed on his characters, the funnier the cartoons became. In the Road Runner cartoons, for example, the roadrunner can never leave the road, or make any aggressive actions. Nothing made by Acme works as expected. If the coyote runs over the edge of a cliff, he won’t fall until he looks down and realizes what he’s done. And so forth.

I think the same principle holds true in any kind of writing. By establishing the available resources and basic economic underpinnings of whatever world, you create obstacles and challenges for your character, and that’s a good way to make any story stronger. It’s more than just money, of course: any scarce resource can serve as a motivator for your plot.

Thinking about the economic underpinnings of your story helps create a sense of realism as well. It doesn’t matter whether you share the details with your reader; it may be better if you do not. When you know much more than you’re putting on the page, that comes across to the reader, and the reader is more likely to believe in your world.

* * *

Gregory Benford had emailed me about meeting up at the Nebulas (I’m friends with his twin brother Jim), and showed up toward the end of the panel. Although I’d met Greg before, this was the first time I’d had a real conversation with him. (I was intrigued to learn that Greg's father, an Army officer, woke Douglas MacArthur up to tell him that the North Koreans were invading the south back in 1950.)

However, I had to run home, change for dinner, and pick up my wife Debbie, so we agreed to meet at the reception in a couple of hours. I got home to find Debbie getting gingerly out of the car, helped by our son James. It seems she had stepped wrong at James’s soccer game that afternoon, and broke her foot.

We didn’t know it was broken at first — Debbie hoped it was just a strain — but our 16-year old son, who’s been a volunteer firefighter for the last six months, knew better. He organized her trip to the hospital with professionalism and skill. It helped that he’d gotten his driver’s license the previous day. I went back to the awards banquet, and called my friend Mark Davis, a former White House speechwriter with an interest in science fiction, to take Debbie’s place.

We met up with Greg Benford and had a few drinks and pleasant conversation before the banquet hall opened up, then joined my friends Eileen Gunn and John D. Berry at their table for dinner. John, an expert in typography and book design, had presented a seminar earlier in the day on ebooks, which I found very useful and informative. Eileen was the presenter for one of the two Solstice Awards, given this year to the late Octavia Butler. (John Clute received the other one.)

Astronaut Mike Fincke, who holds the record for most time in outer space (over a year) gave the keynote. I got to meet him briefly afterwards. Connie Willis, newest SFWA grand master, gave a wonderful speech. (For a complete list of nominees and winners, click here.)

The party continued into the night. Greg, Mark, and I continued to talk, and finally about midnight I realized that the parking garage near the hotel was going to close, so that was the end of the evening.

Debbie was home and resting in relative comfort when I got back; she’s on crutches for the next couple of weeks. We’ve seen too much of hospitals lately. I'd been visiting my dear friend Humayun Mirza, author of From Plassey to Pakistan, who had been hospitalized after a serious fall, each day. (He's now at home and doing much better.)

As for me, I’m watching my step.

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