military sf

2016 LibertyCon Report

I’m back from LibertyCon in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s a smallish, old-school SF&F convention, limited to 750 people, and definitely tending toward military SF and Baen Books authors. One of the best things about it is the author-fan ratio — heavily tilted toward authors, so unlike most bigger cons, you have a good chance of spending a little quality time with your favorite authors up-close and personal, and authors have more time to hobnob with each other.

It’s also a little harder to get to since Chattanooga is a small city with limited air connections. Most fan attendees live close enough to drive. Coming from a small city in California, I was lucky to get there with only two hops, three on the way back. Many fly into Atlanta or Nashville and rent a car to drive the rest of the way.

The venue: The Chattanooga Choo Choo, a hotel built around the old train station, with several old buildings scattered around the station and two “trains” of passenger cars repurposed as hotel rooms. The conference center across the street is just the right size for the con. Be prepared to do a lot of walking if your room is in faraway Building 3!

Some photos of the facilities:

Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel Entrance (Old train station)

Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel Entrance (Old train station)

The Engine

The Engine

Plaque in front of the train engine

Plaque in front of the train engine

Room cars on the passenger platform

Room cars on the passenger platform

Station Public Restroom

Station Public Restroom

The first day I felt a bit out of it. It was like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, but they are all good friends. Being typically introverted, it took me awhile to start meeting people. I dropped into Sarah Hoyt’s room party and started meeting people I knew from FB but had never met IRL — Sarah and her family, Paul and Sarah Clithero, Dorothy and Peter Grant, Tully Roberts, and more. Larry Correia dropped in — I expected him to be bigger!

The next day I was on a panel about Militarized AI, which was my first panel experience — no one died! Good conversation with smart people. And some audience members (hi, Sub Man!) knew more than we did about their specialist fields.

One obvious difference at LibertyCon — it’s a Red Tribe con, meaning most attendees are in the liberty-loving, military-respecting, rural-BBQ-and gun-loving population typical of the US away from the coastal urban enclaves. Since I grew up with those people and understand them well, I’m not frightened by guns, blades, military uniforms, seared meat, or the occasional less-than-sensitive remark.

In more Blue Tribe and progressive terrain, it is entirely possible for one intersectional-class person (say, a lesbian) to commit heinous offenses against another (say, a gay man) which will be a subject of endless commentary and second-guessing by an online community positively eager to defend the weak from slights they didn’t witness by people they don’t know. Many in the social justice headspace need rules and some daddy-authority to back them up over often-imagined sins — not that there aren’t real assholes around, but I encountered none in the homeland of the militaristic Baen Books-loving racist-sexist-homophobes (that’s a reference to a certain editor at Tor’s comments.)

The following day I was on a panel in the big theater on Military SF as probably the least experienced in actual military service — I am more the analyst type, trying to understand defense and military issues from book learning and analysis. Which was one of the main topics: can you write effective and engaging military SF without any actual military experience? We concluded you could, with enough research and consulting with the more experienced, since there are plenty of examples of convincing novels written by armchair soldiers. The panel included Doug Dandridge, Charles E. Gannon, Peter Grant, James Young, and Kal Spriggs (who can all out-talk me about anything military) — so I felt honored to be included. I must have been chosen to fill in for someone like Brad Torgersen, who couldn’t make it. I was a little shaky since that’s the biggest audience I’ve been in front of since I was on a similar panel questioning Jonas Salk around 1974.

After that panel, one of my readers came up to say kind things about my books. I wanted to take him home with me for moral support. I don’t have that many readers yet, but it was a nice surprise.

Here are some photos of various sessions I attended:

Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, Larry Correia, and Toni Weisskopf on MHI panel

Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, Larry Correia, and Toni Weisskopf on MHI panel

David Pascoe and the Hoyts reading

David Pascoe and the Hoyts reading

One interesting session featured Peter and Dorothy Grant discussing self-publishing, contracts, marketing, and the alternative publishing houses like Castalia House offering better deals for authors than the Big Five:

Dorothy Klapp (Grant) and Peter Grant on self-publishing panel

Dorothy Klapp (Grant) and Peter Grant on self-publishing panel

This was interesting, since while I get much higher royalties publishing myself, I don’t get good distribution outside Amazon, which is the one thing Big 5 publishers still have to offer. The situation is fluid, but anyone waiting for a contract with a traditional publisher is probably making a big mistake at this point – if your work is good and you are able to do some promotion, you will do better on your own. Advances for SF&F novels from the Big 5 are down to $3K or so and most don’t earn out. Is $3K per novel enough to survive on? No. Meanwhile, a few years of writing quality, entertaining books can bring in enough to live on through ebook sales alone, and more if you’re willing to produce your own audiobooks. They comment that publishers now look for guaranteed sellers, meaning one of the few ways to get their attention is to already be successful as a self-published author — if your fan base is big enough, they need you more than you need them. Meanwhile, conventional publisher slush piles take six months to a year to return a 99.9%-probable form rejection.

Dropping into the vendor area:

Vendor room

Vendor room

Michael Z. Williamson's Blades

Michael Z. Williamson’s blade display

At the airport waiting for my flight out, I ran into Chuck Gannon (who had been at the other end of the Military SF panel) finishing a plate of french fries. He reassured me I did okay on the panel, giving me this blurb-worthy quote: “A distinctive voice!” — Chuck Gannon

LibertyCon is a close-knit, fun group — for many there, the family they wish they had. I hear the 2017 memberships are already up to 500 of the 750 limit, so if you want to go, sign up soon.

Review: Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson

"Freehold" by Michael Z. Williamson - cover photo by Baen Books

“Freehold” by Michael Z. Williamson – cover photo by Baen Books


On the plane back from LibertyCon I was able to finish up Freehold, first in the series by Michael Z. Williamson.

Looking over the reviews at Amazon, I see many five-star reviews (completely justified) and lots of one-star reviews apparently motivated by hatred of the book’s libertarian bent. One review starts out, “I really wanted to like this book, but it quickly became a tired repetition of Libertarian fantasy…” — that review’s not marked as verified purchase, so I suspect it’s just anti-libertarian axe-grinding.

What’s amusing is that Williamson’s “libertarian paradise” of planet Freehold, a breakaway colony of an Earth ruled by a micromanaging UN, is far from a paradise — it’s just different, relying on individualist philosophy, much as in the US Blue Tribe urban areas are politically very different from rural Red Tribe areas. These differences are exaggerated in this future, but neither Earth under the UN or Freehold under its minimal government are portrayed as perfect. Those negative reviewers illustrate exactly the issue addressed in the book — the collectivist Earth government can’t tolerate even the peaceful co-existence of a civilizational cousin that shows them up by thriving and outdoing them in growth and technological progress without the endless regulatory bureaucracy they believe in. People who believe in the One True Church of Government cannot tolerate even a fictional exploration of alternatives, where every individual is held accountable for their actions and those who don’t work, don’t eat. Heresy!

Aside from the politics, this tale of conflict is superbly-written and engrossing. Kendra Pacelli is a UN Forces worker in logistics, framed for embezzlement and forced to escape to Freehold. Williamson spends the first half of the book detailing Kendra’s escape, exposure to the individualist culture of Freehold, and training for the armed forces of Freehold. She goes through old-school boot camp, contrasted with the soft training she had received on Earth for the much less disciplined UN force. She also meets two attractive love interests and loosens up enough to enjoy Freehold’s casual nudity and permissive attitudes toward sex, which are contrasted with Earth’s prudery and acceptance of rape as something that happens but is no big deal.

So there is more on Williamson’s mind here than libertarian politics. Some action-oriented readers will find the first half slow as he builds up detail about Kendra’s character and contrasts her military training with Earth’s (and we are seeing this relaxing of training standards going on right now in the US.) But this buildup pays off in the second half, as UN forces invade Freehold and the surviving Freehold forces fight back with guerrilla warfare and incredible sacrifices to free their planet.

The lack of respect for liberty and military mindsets is an increasing problem with the academic, government-reliant culture of the pampered urban citizenry in the US. If you are unable to identify with Kendra, who is one of the best active female characters I’ve seen in fiction, you need to get outside your bubble more. Government schools no longer teach the history of Western civilization, and it shows when supposedly educated people recoil in horror at realistic depictions of war and frontier society.

Williamson is an increasingly rare type — the fully-civilized man, capable of violence and aggression when called for, but also a well-read student of history capable of great emotional sensitivity. Some passages brought me to tears, and he keeps the political commentary incisive and plot-driven.

I’ll Be At Libertycon July 8-10 in Chattanooga

Planning to attend Libertycon to see the people and hobnob with some greats. I think they’re almost sold out of tickets, but you might check. My schedule:

Scheduled Programming Events Featuring Jeb Kinnison

Day Time Name of Event
Fri 01:00PM Weaponized Artificial Intelligence
Fri 05:00PM Opening Ceremonies
Sat 01:00PM Perspectives on Military SF
Sun 10:00AM Kaffeeklatsch

 

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