Minicon 50
I spent all this last weekend at Minicon 50. Brief summary: best con I ever went to.

To be fair, I haven’t been to very many cons. I attended Potlatch several times, and I traveled to Vancouver for V-Con once. Minicon is actually at an awkward time (Easter weekend), but since I’ll be moving later this summer, and since the guest lineup was amazing, I made time to go this weekend. It was totally worth it.

This was the first con that I’ve gone to as a professional author. This was the attitude I took: I’m not a fan who wants to write; I’m not an aspiring writer; I’m a professional who has published a book and a bunch of short stories and I deserve every part of the credit that this implies. I’m still a writer at the beginning of my career, for sure, but that doesn’t mean I have to sell myself short on what I have accomplished so far.

This turned out to be a really good headspace for attending the con. First, I was there with Big Names. Brandon Sanderson and Larry Niver were the author guests of honor, Michael Whelan was the artist guest, and Tom Doherty was the publisher guest. You’d be hard pressed to find a more illustrious set of four people in the SFF industry than that. And that’s not all: other attendees of the con included Emma Bull, Lois Bujold, and Steven Brust. There was room to be intimidated. But why would I be intimidated? While I don’t for a moment claim to be on the same level as Sanderson and Niven, I am in the same category: professional writers.

So I’m coming back from the consuite on Saturday morning, with a little breakfast for myself and my kids, and I see Tom Doherty coming back from his morning swim at the same time. We got in the same elevator, and we talked about: my book, the editors at Tor and what they like, his morning swim, and my kids. Totally professional. And then I got to squee about having made a literal elevator pitch to Tom Doherty, without appearing to be an ass.

(An aside: the consuite was amazing. They had a ridiculous amount of food, much of it very good, and they didn’t run out. It was possible to eat three actual meals at the consuite without feeling like you were hogging the food.)

On Friday night there was a Magic: The Gathering draft hosted with none other than Brandon Sanderson, and let me warn you that the rest of this paragraph is not going to be terribly interesting if you don’t know anything about Magic. This was my first draft with DTK, and it was tons of fun, a little simpler than Khans, but with some cool archetypes such as the Exploit deck (which I wound up drafting). The person passing to me opened a foil Sarkhan and a Dragonlord Silumgar, which meant that I got the Silumgar, which turned into the backbone on a pretty decent UB deck with a lot of Exploit and removal. I went 2-1, losing only to the aforementioned foil Sarkhan, and then, at the end, I sat down for a bonus match against Sanderson…. except that he had to go to dinner. He promised me a game later.

I kept him to that, politely reminding him of his promise and getting him to sit down with me on Sunday afternoon after a panel. It was a brief game in which I talked again about my writing, got some advice on the agent/editor front, chatted about Magic, and otherwise got in everything I would have wanted. I wasn’t directly looking for an agent or editor referral from him (he has never read anything I’ve written, so he could hardly do that), but he was helpful and encouraging and generally very nice. This actually sums up his entire demeanor for the whole weekend. The vibe I got from him was that he is very practiced at being the biggest name at a con, so in many cases it felt like he was giving canned/boilerplate recommendations, not because he didn’t care, but because everyone wanted a bit of his time and he wanted to be considerate without killing himself. As another professional artist, that was an attitude I could respect.

Then there were tons of individual bits of insight and advice. Sanderson is more prolific than I had thought, and he got me thinking about some ways to increase my own productivity and create more things for people to buy. Also, the single best quote of the weekend: “When you become a writer, you are becoming a small business owner.” (Sanderson Megacorp employs six people!) There was a terrifically fun panel about coffee on Saturday morning, some really interesting reminisces from Doherty about the history and state of the SFF publishing industry, and good conversations with other writers and fans. I talked to several people about both Storm Bride and my upcoming works Heir of Iron and its sequels. I did everything I wanted to accomplish.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how great the Rumpus Room was. It was the children’s area, and they had a fantastic array of toys, games, and activities scheduled every half-hour. My kids were with me, and they would head into the Rumpus Room when I went to my first panel, and they never wanted to leave, what with all the paper airplanes and sock puppets and candy sculptures they were making. This was without a doubt the most kid-friendly con I’d ever been to.

This was Minicon’s 50th anniversary, and apparently it was about twice as large as last year’s con. I’d definitely come again next year, but I won’t be in the country then. Still, if you’re ever in the area, I’d heartily recommend it.

N.K. Jemisin recently blogged about magic. I quote:

It’s hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there’s all these rules I’m supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines. For example: I keep hearing that magic has to have rules. It has to be logical. It has to have limitations, consequences, energy exchange, internal consistency, clear cause and effect, thoroughly-tested laws with repeatable results and –

Waitaminnit.

This is magic we’re talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder.

I couldn’t agree more. The point of magic, the whole reason why it’s magic and not science is that it does not submit to rational analysis. Magic is unempirical. Magic is non-repeatable. If you can reproduce it in a lab, or bottle it, and sell it on shelves, it ain’t magic. Read the Jemisin article for more details.

Having made this declaration, however, I find myself at a loss for what to call the many "magical" systems one finds in books which are not mysterious, unempirical, or non-repeatable. This category of non-magic includes Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Modessitt’s Recluce books, most of Brandon Sanderson’s books, and almost everything that goes under the rubric of D&D or other RPGs. "Crypto-science" was the first thing I thought of: the magical systems in these books basically operate under the same principles as any other scientific technology, though their mechanisms are completely fictional. Sometimes magic is distinguished from technology by requiring an innate "spark"; in other cases magical talent appears to be more like a talent for art or math, where some people have a special aptitude, but the basics are teachable to anyone.

What’s notable, though, is that in all of these cases magic is impersonal. It doesn’t depend fundamentally on who you are or who you’re dealing with. Magic, like science, works the same for everyone. So I settled on the terminology of impersonal magic to describe these systems.

We can contrast this with personal magic systems, in which the identity of the magic-user is crucial to the working of magic. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says the Elvish word for "fire", strikes the wet wood with his staff, and a fire starts. The other characters could talk Elvish and swing sticks around all night and not get anything other than splinters. Gandalf’s magic works the way it does not because he’s tapping into secret forces which anyone could invoke, but because he’s Gandalf.

This is different even from Robert Jordan’s case, which it superficially resembles. Rand from the Wheel of Time may be the Dragon Reborn, but his identity as the Dragon merely means that he can channel really, really well. The One Power that he channels is not any different for him than it is for anybody else, and his abilities differ in degree but not in kind from those of every other channeler in the series. The one exception may be the prophecies regarding the Last Battle, in which the person of the Dragon might play a role beyond that of merely channeling a lot (it’s not exactly clear). But if that happened it would be an exception, a mere glimmer of personality shining through what is otherwise a very impersonal system.

Analyzing the difference in terms of personality illuminates why I prefer the personal systems to the impersonal. Under an impersonal system, using magic is a technological activity; under a personal system it’s a social one. Impersonal magic derives from what you do; personal magic derives from who you are. This difference allows the personal systems to illuminate different aspects of the human experience. An impersonal system will tend to be about intellect, analysis, and power, while a personal system will tend to be about passion, relationship, and love. This doesn’t mean that I dislike impersonal magic systems, necessarily — intellect is a fine thing, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise — but ultimately I find the metaphorical range of the personal magic systems more to my liking.

In The Wedding of Earth and Sky, magic is intensely personal. The driver of the plot is a spiritual strife between two of the Powers of the world, and the problems that it causes cannot be solved by mere power, but only by reconciliation. This is the sort of story that can only be told with a personal magic system, and that’s why I wrote it.