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Attending the Nebulas

This has been a lifelong dream of mine. When I was a student, waaaaaaayyyyy back, I used to read about the Nebulas and dream of going one day. The Nebulas, for those not in the know, is the most prestigious conference in science fiction and fantasy in the world. The Hugos are more widely known and attended; their attendance is generally in the thousands. The Nebulas are traditionally a lot smaller - typically a few hundred participants, and most of these are themselves writers. The Nebulas are organized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA or "sifwa" to the in-crowd), the professional writing association of science fiction and fantasy writers. The title says "of America", but the SFWA actually includes members from all over the world.

This year, because of the worldwide pandemic and the fact that travel has become no more than a trickle and almost everyone is in "lockdown" in their homes, the Nebulas were run as a virtual conference. Partly because of this, participation was up. This year they had over 700 people registered, almost twice their usual attendance. It was also extremely well organized. Virtual conferences can be very chaotic and sometimes even dehumanizing. This was not at all the case here, quite the contrary. Once past the registration stage, I received several reminders about upcoming events. I had a technical issue with the website and received prompt help on solving it. A friend of mine, who is a student, signed in as a student member and even got a personal interview with the head of the SFWA and the person responsible for the conference this year (science fiction writer Mary Robinette Kowal).

The organization arranged for a virtual reception a week before the conference itself was slated to occur. They had a system in place where you logged onto the main Zoom screen which was used as a lobby area to send people "deeper" into the party, to one of a number of smaller groups where one interacted with other people in online video chat ("breakout rooms"). Over the course of the event, I moved to several of these "rooms" and met many fascinating people. Later, checking with other friends who were participating, I discovered that they were also present, although we never ran into each other. It was superbly managed. Ms. Kowal also moved from room to room to participate in the discussions, another highly personal touch that was greatly appreciated by this participant.

The conferences and panel discussions were organized separately, by a streaming service run side by side with a transcription service and a chat window. Questions were picked up from the chat window, along with often lively discussions that ran parallel to the panel sessions themselves, and the streamed panels were delayed slightly allowing the transcript to be simultaneous (or sometimes slightly in advance of) the streamed presentations. The Nebula awards were similarly handled by a streaming service involving a live emcee or animator and either pre-recorded or streamed introductions by various guests (George R.R. Martin, Levar Burton, Lois McMaster Bujold, and others) and the Nebula prize winners. Since all the panel discussions were recorded, they can be viewed up to a year after the event by attendees or others who pay a small fee for the privilege.

One of the highlights of the event, aside from the smoothly run organisation, was the use by Mary Robinette Kowal of highly inventive storytelling as a way of dealing with the technical hitches. They had used green screen techniques to project images as if a ship were moving through space, and anyone could have their own portal on their zoom screen. Whenever the ship hit "turbulence", the crew and passengers were moved back to the main lobby for a safety session (essentially, allowing the system to be rebooted to iron out problems in the way the breakout rooms were functioning). It was all great fun and felt like a superb adventure rather than the technical glitches which underlay all this activity!

The exchanges reminded me strongly of those I have experienced with staff and animators of the QWF. Not surprisingly - both are professional associations of writers. What I mean is that the association itself is focussed towards protecting and serving its professional writers. They engage in mentorship activities for young writers, but have a slightly inward focus otherwise. This is not a criticism, just an observation. What this meant is that although exchanges between people in the chat rooms were open-ended, the discussions of professional matters were skewed towards the issues of professional writers. So, for example, the panel session on multiple careers wasn't a discussion about writers managing several different careers, but the need for writing professionals to shift their writing focus following changes or setbacks in the publication industry. I understand the focus, but I was slightly disappointed nonetheless.

Still, the weekend was a huge success for me personally. In a way, it extended the lessons already learned in the six workshops I took over the course of April and May by filling in knowledge gaps in other areas in and around the issue of writing. Hence, for example, there was a great panel on the process of developing audiobooks and hiring appropriate talent to produce these. There was a cool panel on sword fighting and fencing for people with disabilities, including motor impairments but also sensory deficits. A great panel in the issues of diversity in science fiction and fantasy writing. I also attending panels on writing for Young Adult and Middle Grade readers as well that I found inspiring.

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