Cora’s Adventures at the Virtual 2021 Octocon

Octocon 2021 banner

As I mentioned on this blog some time ago, I spent the first October weekend at Octocon, the Irish National Science Fiction Convention, which was virtual this year for obvious reasons.

But before I get to my adventures at Octocon, I first want to point you to another great discussion I was involved in at the Hugos There! podcast last weekend. Hosted by Seth Healey, a panel consisting of Ivor Watkins, Alan Bailey of the If This Goes On… Don’t Panic! podcast, Lise Andreasen, Sarah Elkins, J.W. Wartick, Lori Anderson, Haley Zapal and Amy Salley of the Hugo Girl! podcast as well as yours truly met to discuss the 2021 nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

You can listen to the podcast here or – if you prefer to see the panelists as well as their pets – there’s also a video version available on YouTube.

So let’s get back to Octocon. The con started on Friday, but my first panel was the international comics panel on Saturday morning. True to form, we were a very international group of panelists. Moderator Sakuya from France, Ann Gry from Russia, Christopher Hwang from Singapore, with whom I was on a similar panel at the Dublin Worldcon in 2019, and me from Germany. “Is anybody here actually from Ireland?” someone asked during the pre-panel chat.

Every virtual con is bound to have technical issues and this panel was the one that was affected, because the stream didn’t go live until ten minutes after the designated start time. We panelists were a tad confused – “Are we live or not?” – since we were discussing quantum mechanics (like you do) rather than the comics we were supposed to discuss. Eventually, we got hold of an Octocon volunteer and the panel went live.

We discussed our own comics experience growing up, different regional comics traditions, the impact of American superhero comics (everybody wants their own shared universe a la Marvel now) and how well comics translate across cultures (remarkably well).  This was a fascinating panel, especially since I know very little about Russian comics and not a lot more about comics from South East Asia.

As for how well comics translate across cultures, manga is read and understood by millions of people worldwide, even though it often requires reading in a format that westerners are not used to. Also, Asterix is one of the most reprinted and translated comics ever. And people all over the world have no problems understanding and enjoying the stories, even if they are not familiar with the historical background. The many allusions to French politics in the originals (sometimes translated into allusions to local politics) are also lost on international audiences. In fact, much of what I know about the Roman occupation of Gaul I know from comics like Asterix or the lesser known Alix. The rest is from reading Commentarii de Bello Gallico by Gaius Julius Caesar (a biased source, if there ever was one) in high school Latin class. The Latin teacher was a huge Asterix fan BTW. And pretty much everything I know about the Eighty Years War a.k.a. the Dutch war of independence against Spain comes from a Belgian comic called De Geuzen.

The thing about virtual cons is that you are both at a con and at home, so I went to make lunch after the panel and took care of some other household stuff. Then I returned to the computer for my next panel about the fantasy genre before Lord of the Rings. Unlike the previous panel, this one was all-Irish except for me. The moderator was Elaine McIonyn and the other panelists were scholar, author and editor Jack Fennell and Dr. Helen Conrad-O’Briain from Trinity College.

I was the resident specialist for American pulp fantasy, mainly Weird Tales and Unknown and their mainstays like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft (yes, he was a racist, but you also can’t ignore the huge influence he had), C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, etc…, whereas the other panelists contributed knowledge about authors like E.R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake and of course Ireland’s own Lord Dunsany. We had great discussion, covering e.g. that secondary world fantasy was extremely rare pre-Tolkien – most fantasy was either historical fantasy (Conan is historical fantasy, since the Hyborian Age is supposed to be our past that never was) or contemporary fantasy (Weird Tales published a lot of what we would now call urban fantasy) or portal fantasy – with the fantastic being placed either someplace far away (difficult to do once the previously blank spots on the map vanished) or in the distant past (again difficult as historical knowledge increased).

As for Lord of the Rings, the interesting thing is that it was a true slow-burn success. The Hobbit came out in 1937 and was viewed as a children’s book. The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out in hardcover in 1954 and 1955 and received a positive, but not enthusiastic reception. The trilogy was also far from a runaway bestseller, largely because hardcovers were really expensive. The runaway success of Lord of the Rings didn’t begin until 1965, when Donald Wollheim published a not quite legal paperback edition of the trilogy (Tolkien sued and Wollheim paid him 8000 US-dollars in royalties, a huge sum in 1965, which also defused Tolkien’s prejudice against paperbacks), which sold like the proverbial hotcakes and also put the already simmering fantasy revival of the 1960s (see the Galactic Journey article about Cele Goldsmith Lalli, editor of Fantastic) into overdrive.

But the fantasy that was published after and often directly as a result of the huge success of The Lord of the Rings in paperback were not the Tolkien clones that dominated the fantasy shelves in the 1980s and 1990s. No, the first of those – The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, on which I may have been a little hard on the panel – was not published until 1977, twelve years after the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings and four years after Tolkien’s death. Instead, paperback publishers printed any kind of fantasy they could get their hands on and so we got the Lancer Conan reprints, which ushered in the sword and sorcery boom, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collections, anthologies like the Flashing Swords series, the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which reprinted a lot of the classic pre-Tolkien fantasy by authors like Lord Dunsany that were discussed on the panel, and 1960s classics like The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle or A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The glut of bad Tolkien clones in the 1980s and 1990s is not Tolkien’s fault – he wrote a unique and amazing work and had no idea nor any intention to create a genre – anymore than Robert E. Howard is to blame for the glut of bad “Clonans” of the 1970s and 1980s, published decades after his death by people who didn’t understand his work. It’s not even Terry Brooks’ fault, cause Sword of Shannara was just one book that eventually became a series. No, the reason that the fantasy genre became overrun by bad would-be Tolkien tomes were the economics of publishing. Tolkien clones sold, more than the more idiosyncratic works. Plus, rising printing costs drove book lengths upwards throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And epic fantasies are often big fat books in lengthy series. whereas e.g. sword and sorcery tends towards shorter length. No wonder publishers loved them.

How would the fantasy genre have looked if Tolkien had never existed or at least never written Lord of the Rings? I suspect we would have seen the rise of fantasy anyway, because that trend was already underway by 1965, though it might have been less meteoric and would probably have looked differently. The sword and sorcery boom would probably still have happened, if only because the sword and sorcery revival was already in progress by 1965 and the Lancer Conan reprints, which fuelled the boom, would probably have happened anyway. The bust of the 1980s would probably have happened as well, though I suspect sword and sorcery would not have vanished as completely as it did, if big fat epic fantasy hadn’t been there to fill the void. As for other trends, it’s possible that contemporary fantasy would have reappeared earlier than it did. And without Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin might have become the dominant voice in the genre via The Chronicles of Earthsea. Maybe we would have seen more fantasy in non-western settings such as Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro series or Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen series.

After the fantasy before Tolkien panel, I switched over to watch Angeline B. Adams‘ fascinating presentation about disability and the roots of heroic fantasy. Then I had dinner and in the evening went to an open Zoom chat for Octocon members, which was a lot of fun.

On Sunday, I was on the panel about “Uncovering the Hidden Treasures of the Past” with Michael Carroll, who was also the Octocon Guest of Honour, Cheryl Morgan, Deirdre Thornton. Ian Moore was the moderator. This panel was recorded and may be watched along with other great content at the Octocon Twitch channel.

Now everybody who knows me should know that I love talking about old SFF and the many great stories and novels of past decades that are not nearly as well known as they should be, so that was exactly the right panel for me. We agreed that reading and discussing older SFF is valuable, because it shows us where the genre came from and how it got where it is now. Besides, actually reading older SFF and not just the few books anointed classics either is also the best antidote against the common claim that women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, [insert minority here] were not writing SFF before the current time, because women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, etc… were always part of the genre, we have just chosen to forget and ignore many of them, denying the writers who follow role models.

Finally, we also discussed why some works are remembered, while other equally good or better works are forgotten and came to the conclusion that quite often the editors of reprint anthologies are to blame, e.g. Isaac Asimov’s and Martin H. Greenberg’s Golden Age year by year anthologies drew disproportionately from Astounding while ignoring many of the good stories published in the likes of Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories or Weird Tales (which Asimov famously disliked), cementing the belief that Astounding was the best magazine of the era, even though that isn’t true, if you read the actual magazines. Also, it really helps to be a white cisman to be remembered and reprinted, though it’s no guarantee.

Because one of the recommendations for a work that should be remembered more was The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. Now I absolutely agree that we should remember The Sheep Look Up, it’s just a pity that we forgot it in the first place. Also, I remember reading an article lamenting that everything by John Brunner was out of print in SFX magazine sometime in 1995/96, i.e. twenty-five years ago. Now, in 2021, at least some of John Brunner’s work is in print, but we still need to remind people to read him.

Another recommendation were the Witch World books by Andre Norton, another seminal series that really shouldn’t be forgotten. Also, it’s a pity if we are on the verge of forgetting Andre Norton, considering how prolific she was and for how many people her works for younger readers served as a gateway into the genre. Especially since Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles are in no danger of being forgotten. My own recommendations were for Margaret St. Clair and Rosel George Brown BTW.

Octocon also had craft workshops and projects, including one where you could crochet your very own version of Octo, the Octocon mascot. The actual workshop conflicted with one of my panels, but then I can crochet and read a pattern well enough not to need a workshop, though crafting with others is fun. So I also made an cuddly Octo during the weekend – from yarn I had brought back from the 2019 Worldcon in Ireland. You can see him below:

Crochet Octo

A cuddly crochet Octo.

The pattern, courtesy of Kat Dodd, as well as photos of other cuddly Octos may be found here, by the way.

All in all, I really enjoyed Octocon. The program offered a variety of fascinating items across a wide range of subjects. In fact, I found the Octocon program much better than that of some much bigger cons.

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