Madcon 2010 Report (or how I survived a weekend with Harlan Ellison with my dignity intact…sort of)

Well, I did it. I went to Madcon last weekend, and to my utter surprise, I survived. Actually, no, I’m not surprised . It went exactly how I figured it would go.

Now, I never heard of Harlan Ellison until last year when I read about the whole Realms of Fantasy cover art Kerfluffle on K. Tempest Bradford’s blog. That went on to this post which gave me a first taste of what he was like. The next post was an apology from Harlan himself, but by then, I had learned about what he did at Worldcon 06 in grabbing Connie Willis in a place he shouldn’t have. Long story short, the man scared me, and I figured if I ever came across his work, I wouldn’t have anything to do with him on the matter of principle.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I popped in the third season DVD of Babylon 5 and saw his name come up. D’oh!

When I heard he was going to be Guest of Honor at this year’s Madcon, I confess, I was a little intrigued. Intimidated, but intrigued. I mean, come on, how often do you get to meet a controversial writer face-to-face? It would’ve been stupid to blow such an opportunity. Still, I waffled quite a bit until I decided to attend a couple of weeks before Madcon started.

Once I decided to go, I gave myself a week to do a crash course on his work. Mostly I read his short stories—I aimed for all his Hugo Award ones, as well as a few that sounded interesting. Reading all of it proved to be a daunting task. Don’t get me wrong—most of the stories were brilliant. But they were also some of the darkest, bleakest, most disturbing stories I’ve ever read. One story, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, I had picked because Neon Genesis Evangelion used this as a subtitle for episode 26 (with a rather delicious pun, I may add). And just like Evangelion, the story had me hunched in a corner for a couple of hours, sucking my thumb and humming aimlessly while I waited for the BIG BAD THING to go out of my head…

But enough about that.

Madcon. I understand that it’s being revived after a 10-year hiatus. It’s different from OdysseyCon and Wiscon—definitely smaller. There weren’t a whole lot of panels—most of them took place in two rooms. You didn’t have much of a choice in where to go for panels—it was either one room or the other, and if you weren’t interested in what took place in either rooms, well, you had to find something else to do. And most of the panels were  centered around Harlan or his work, so there wasn’t much variety. I’m still learning about the whole con thing, though, and one thing I’m beginning to understand—not much happens on the first day. People are still flying in and getting settled. Still, I spent most of Friday wondering why there were so few people there.

The festivities kicked off with Harlan doing a signing at the Frugal Muse Bookstore. I had considered going to that, but in the end didn’t. That turned out to be a wise thing. If I had gone to the signing, and subsequently, gone to the dinner afterwards with Harlan and most of the behind-the-scenes folk to Old Country Buffet (and why would you take Harlan Ellison to Old Country Buffet? I…don’t know. But man did Harlan have a lot to say about that), I would’ve probably not taken a single step into the Crown Plaza. Harlan of course boasted about it later—he took great delight in telling how he stomped on a fan’s cell phone at the bookstore and made a little girl cry at Old Country Buffet. You think I’m kidding, but no, there are witnesses.

They had arranged Harlan’s schedule so that he would spend a couple of hours talking each day in an speaker/audience setting. The first one was held Friday night. I came in a little after he had started speaking, and I had barely taken two steps into the room when he let out a slew of F-bombs that set the tone for the evening. The man has no filters. He has no problems telling you what he thinks, which is usually direct, straightforward, and has not been edited for TV audiences. He hates niceties and he don’t put up with crap. He loves to pick on people, and will go on and on picking until the person laughs in embarrassment or gets offended and leaves. No one is spared. No one. Whites, Blacks, Christian, Gay, no one is spared from getting ragged on. If you catch his eye, you’re done for. Which is why when I came in, he pointed at me and said, “See? She’s not scared .  Black people aren’t afraid of me. And she’s the only black female in the room. Are you afraid of me?” To which I quickly shook my head and said, “No, no, no…”

(Actually, I took a perverse sort of pride that he singled me out.)

Watching him speak that night, I realized that behind his rough, obscenity laden exterior was a guy who knew how to work an audience. He’s not an idiot—he knows exactly what he’s doing, even when it appears he’s babbling in obscene tongues. He likes to play people, trying to get some sort of rise out of them, and he’s good at doing it. He even said as much that first night. “I’m running a con on you folks,” he kept saying. “This is all a con.” He doesn’t care if he hurts your feelings; he just wants to get that emotional response, be it laughing or walking out. He thrives on attention, and loves it.

For instance, there was a 16-year-old kid that had come with his mother. Oh, boy, you can tell how that went. Harlan picked on him throughout most of the weekend. The kid’s name was Shawn, and Harlan called him John for most of Friday. The kid would try to correct him, “no, my name’s Shawn,” and Harlan would nod and say, “Yeah, anyway, John…”

Another thing he did was that he would start to tell a story, then he’d interrupt himself and go off on a tangent. For many, it was like he was rambling and going on and on about things and talking in circles like, well, like a cantankerous, forgetful old man. For instance, he’d start telling us the story about how he made the little girl cry at OCB, but then he go off on a tangent, then go off on another tangent. Then he’ll say, “So…the little girl at the Old Country Buffet…” which, inevitably, would make some smart-ass yell, “Finally!” Which would get Harlan off on another tangent and drive people crazy

(Oh, by the way, it was me. Sorry.)

Come on. He knew full well what he was doing. He was baiting us. It’s a storyteller’s gimmick. Give just enough to hook your audience, then slowly give out tantalizing bits until they’re begging you to tell the story. Inevitably, he did get around to telling the story on Sunday. It was weird, really. Friday we saw him extremely vulgar and hyped-up. Come Sunday, he was so low key. It was freaky. He barely swore (barely), he read us a story, straight-laced, without interrupting himself. He wrapped up all his tangents. It was like we were seeing the real Harlan. I mean, he can’t be that vulgar all the time…can he?

For some bizarre reason, the more I watched Harlan, the more I was reminded of my grandmother. The only real similarity between them are their ages–My grandma just celebrated her 80th birthday. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching my grandma as Harlan spoke. F-bombs aside (which I don’t think I ever heard her say. Oh, she swears, don’t get me wrong, but I haven’t heard the F-bomb come out of her), she’s also in the last stages of their life, she’s very direct and she don’t put up with crap. I almost told Harlan that, but I was too intimidated to (I did go up and shake his hand, and he told me a story about some reality star who had been at his house a couple of weeks ago, and one of her black hanger-oners didn’t recognize a photo of Jomo Kenyatta that sat on his desk, and it pissed Harlan off and he told her to get the hell out his office, and I just nodded politely because I wasn’t about to tell Harlan I had no clue who he was either. Stupid public education keeping me from knowing South African history.) I guess that’s another thing he and my grandma have in common—neither of them tolerate stupidity. And they’re both at the age where they’ll openly say so.

Vulgarities aside, I actually liked Harlan. I’m glad I went instead of staying home being intimidated. It was cool to just hang out in the audience and listen to him tell stories. But I doubt I would want to, say, go out to the bar afterwards and hang out with him. He’s just far too cantankerous and in-your-face. I chose not to go to the banquet on Saturday because of that, and maybe that was a good thing, because I heard he pretty much dissed a woman who needed to go to relieve a babysitter but didn’t want to insult Harlan by leaving during his talk. (BTW, I was quite disappointed that Alex Bledsoe wasn’t on any of the panels. I mean, he’s a published writer too…)

The good thing about Madcon was that even though it was so Harlan-centric, there were other people there who I could hang out with. Got to see Patrick Rothfuss again, that was nice. I got to hang out with John Krewson, a writer for The Onion(how often does that get to happen?), writer Nick Ozmet and Electric Velocipede editor John Klima. And I made some friends. Got to meet a pair of brothers who drove all the way up from St. Louis to meet, not Harlan Ellison, but Gene Wolfe.

Now, I have never heard of Gene Wolfe before Madcon, and obviously I’ve never read his work.  In person, he’s a little hunched-over old man with a little old wife in a wheelchair. And the two of them make for the sweetest couple ever. Gene was the anti-Harlan. He’s quiet, thoughtful, and knows a lot about the writing biz (you know, come to think of it, Harlan told a lot of stories, but he never did talk *about* writing). He’s got quite a bit of fire to him, too. Even Harlan pretty much treated him with respect.

It was through Gene that I got a clear picture of how a con should be. Those two brothers from St. Louis told me that they had read all of Gene Wolfe’s books and were excited to meet him in person. They went to all the panels he was on and got some books signed by him. On Sunday morning, I had come in for the last day of the con. I passed the dining room/coffee area to see Gene Wolfe and his wife at a table, chatting with the two brothers. Just having a nice talk, and it appeared that they’ve been doing so for a while. I stood there, thinking, “This is the epitome of what a con should be like—writers having good conversations with their fans.” Then I went over and joined them. Just like that.

Harlan is okay, but he’s got this celebrity thing going that puts him way on a pedestal. On the one hand, it’s cool, but on the other hand, it makes him completely unapproachable. On the other side of the equation, you got Gene Wolfe, who is down-to-earth, quite casual, and very easy to talk to. Seeing him talking with his two fans made me want to go out and get his books. I would love to read more of his stuff.

Wow. This has gone way, way, wayyyy longer than I intended. I guess I had a lot to process. So in short, Madcon was okay. Would I go again? Um, I don’t know. Would I go to see Harlan again if he comes back? Probably not. For one thing, he has made it abundantly clear that Madcon was his last con ever. Because, you know, he’s dying. There’s probably truth to that. He did seem to lose steam quite a bit throughout the weekend. Would I buy any of Harlan’s books? Nah. I loved the Babylon 5 series, but I don’t think I’ll buy any of his books. If I want them, I’ll get them from the library.

Now, how will this compare to seeing Neil Gaiman at the end of this month? That will be a most interesting blog post indeed.

6 Responses

  1. You saw Gene Wolfe? GENE WOLF!? Geez, that guy is brilliant! I’m so envious. And I’m glad he turns out not to be a jerk. 😉

    Any time you want to borrow a big thick book of his blow-you-away short stories or the New Sun novels, just say the word.

  2. Thanks, Andy! I still got your other book, so maybe at some point I’ll come over and switch. I still need to see your house!

    Yeah, Gene was so sweet! I felt bad for never hearing about him, because a lot of people have been going “You met Gene Wolfe?!?!” Of course, I didn’t hear about Harlan either until last year. I’m looking forward to reading Gene’s stuff!

  3. Do yourself a favor and read some of Mr. Wolfe’s work. The reason Harlan was respectful of Wolfe is because Harlan knows that Wolfe is one of the best writers alive, period. Not only in SF, but in fiction. And yes, I’m serious. The only other living writer I hold in equal regard is Jack Vance. Thanks for the above post. Very good read.

  4. You are right that Wolfe always gives the most practical advice on writing. And he genuinely enjoys a personal connection with his fans.

    Gaiman and Wolfe are friends and mutual fans of each other’s work. Here is Gaiman’s article “How to Read Gene Wolfe” from F&SF Magazine’s Gene Wolfe tribute issue (04/2007).

    I try to dissuade Wolfe readers (usually to no avail) from starting with “The Book of the New Sun”. Start with his short story collections (“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories” [sic] is the most popular but “Innocents Aboard” is my favorite *collection*) or if you must start with a novel it should be “Peace”. It was the novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” that convinced me he was, hands-down, the best writer in SF of any time. (I realize that sounds like over-hype, but it is entirely accurate.)

  5. Thanks, James. I love short story collections, and I’m going to see Gaiman next week. In November, I’ll make a special trip to the library to get some Wolfe story collections. I promise!

  6. Thanks for the post! Yep. The Wolfe you describe is the one I recognize. He is wonderfully generous and infinitely approachable. But – he does not suffer fools lightly, and has little patience for the disingenuous. A warning about his writing: he is a fox in Wolfe’s clothing! He will lead a reader down a wooded path if they are lazy and do not pay attention. So, PAY ATTENTION. He will reveal much to the eyes which are watchful and the attention which is sharp. Like others who posted before me, I will tell you he is the greatest living American writer in any genre. Bar none. No exaggeration. He is THE master craftsman of the written word. Now, let’s go read some more Wolfe and enjoy ourselves. He may confuse us, but we can trust that he will make us better and smarter along the way!

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