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Odyssey Con 2012 got off to a stimulating start, with a series of panels discussing everything from space combat to the morality of Amazon.com.
The convention, which is affectionately nicknamed ‘OddCon,’ has been held in Madison since 2001, and is dedicated to all things fantasy and science fiction. This year’s theme is ‘Apocalypse Cow,’ in keeping with the convention’s longstanding tradition of having a bovine mascot.
One of the first offerings was a panel on combat in sci-fi and fantasy. Moderated by Alex Bledsoe, the panel also consisted of Nicholas Beeson, Shane McCook, Patrick Tomlinson, and Lee Schneider. Bledsoe, Beeson, and Tomlinson are all sci-fi or fantasy authors, while McCook is heavily involved in stage production. Schneider is a military history buff.
The panelists started by discussing some of the most egregious examples of inaccurate portrayals of combat, before elaborating on the nitty gritty of combat. Although there are plenty of instances where authors did not do their homework (fiery explosions in space, for example), there are also authors and directors who get it right. Schneider singled out Babylon 5 in particular as an example of excellent ship design, and Tomlinson praised David Weber’s Honor Harrington series for its realistic space combat.
After mulling lasers and spaceships, the panel took a technological leap back in time to discuss fantasy combat. Tomlinson, who has a plethora of real-life combat experience (including two knife fights), explained that swords are much heavier than they seem, and so it would take an extraordinarily fit person to swing them around as energetically as we see in the movies.
The panelists also reminded the audience that, in real life, combatants try to defeat their opponents as quickly as possible, without the elaborate thrusts and parries that are depicted on the silver screen. “If your opponent sees your knife blade before it’s in them, you’re doing it wrong,” said Schneider.
The next panel Toonari Post attended was about the suspension of disbelief in speculative literature, which included Shane McCook, Alex Bledsoe, and Monica Valentinelli. Unfortunately, this one proved to be less well organized than the others, and the discussion meandered around quite a bit. In essence, the panelists believed that the key to suspending disbelief was the reader’s ability to identify with the protagonist. But if that connection is severed, everything collapses.
Valentinelli cited the example of the ‘midi-chlorians’ from the Star Wars universe. In the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker was just an ordinary young man who had greatness thrust upon him. But the advent of the midi-chlorians in the second trilogy turned the Force from something mystical to something biological. In essence, being a Force adept was no different than being left handed or having red hair. According to Valentinelli, this makes it difficult for viewers to identify with the Jedi, since the Jedi are now superhuman from birth.
The panelists also agreed that general believability can also help foster a connection with the reader/viewer. According to Valentinelli, one of the reasons Dan Brown’s work is so phenomenally successful is that it is grounded in just enough fact that it seems plausible. The line between fact and fiction can be hard to see: Valentinelli cited a survey in Britain that showed a 20 percent rise in the number of people who believed that Christ had children, following the publication of Brown’s books.
By far the best panel of the day was the one about Amazon.com. It asked a simple question: are they an evil empire, or a writer’s best friend? Sitting on the panel were Benjamin Billman, Anna Black, Lori Devoti, Fred Schepartz, and Kimberly Gonzales.
Although all the panelists were broadly supportive of the online superstore, they voiced a certain ambivalence about its effect on readers and authors alike. While Amazon offers readers access to a dizzying array of goods, every dollar spent with Amazon is a dollar denied to main street retailers.
Because of Amazon’s vast buying power, they are almost always going to be the cheapest option. Yet brick and mortar stores do have one thing going for them: atmosphere. As panelist Benjamin Billman explained, “when I want something specific, I go to Amazon. But if I just want to browse, I go to Frugal Muse [a bookstore in Madison].”
But while Amazon’s business practices may generate controversy, many panelists believed that the company had done a great deal to help authors. For example, Amazon offers royalties of 70 percent on books published through the Kindle, which is far above what an author can expect to receive from a traditionally-published book.
Also, Amazon offers authors whose work is aimed at a niche audience (and is therefore ill-suited to traditional publishing) a chance at publication. According to Lori Devoti, Amazon also makes efforts to ensure that the books they publish are free of typos, and they will even go so far as to take books down if readers complain of errors.
Given Amazon’s dominance of the book trade, it is not hard to see them becoming a monopoly. Overall, the panelists were quite sanguine about the prospect. Billman said that it did not matter, provided they maintained the same high quality that they have now. But, as Devoti pointed out, consolidation in the publishing industry reduced overall selection. Anna Black said that the internet, which allowed Amazon to rise to power, could ultimately prove to be its undoing, by ushering in the next wave of technological progress.
Paradoxically, the evening ended with the opening ceremonies. The main event was a playful skit performed by OddCon’s organizers. This being Wisconsin, much of the humor was cow-themed. After a group sing-along to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” the conference goers dispersed for some late-night fun, including a sci-fi poetry slam and a wine and chocolate reception.
Stay tuned for Toonari Post’s continuing coverage of OddCon!
Eli Parke contributed to this report.
Image Courtesy of http://odysseycon.org