Ad Astra 2015 con report

I’m back from Ad Astra! It was, like last year, exhausting and great.

I branched out this year in the number and type of panels that I did. Last year I felt that I was dipping my toe into the water, and stuck to safe topics – what is it like to be a writer, who are my favourite villains. This year I was a little more adventurous. I signed up to be on the Identity and Diversity panel as well as Mental Health in Fandom, even though I was scared they’d be a little too intense for me. Turns out that the panels with lively discussion on an important and meaningful topic are actually my favourites! Who’d have thought? I definitely want to do more of this in the future, now.

I also was super pleased and surprised to see how many people on the different panels WANTED to hear about autism. When it was relevant (and on 3 of the 5 panels, it was) I mentioned in my introduction that I write a blog about representations of autism in science fiction, but almost in a sort of apologetic way, like I didn’t want to go on about that the whole panel if people were interested in other things. Instead, people were interested! Really interested! Like 50% of the Big Bang Theory panel and 50% of the Mental Health panel turned into people wanting to talk about autism, which was amazing. And then I realized that I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is fandom, after all. I’ve heard it referred to as “the world’s largest Asperger Syndrome support group”. My special power is not that I have it, but that I talk about it and have been talking about it for a while now, and doing the research so I can talk about it even more and in more detail.

I also ended up recommending Meda Kahn and Luna Lindsey (among others) to people on the Identity and Diversity panel and they actually wrote it down. So this satisfies my life goal of continuing to promote Meda Kahn everywhere.

(To do for next year: Prepare longer list of people to recommend. At EVERY panel.)

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to branch out very much in my other con habits. I’m still trying to figure out how to do conventions as anything other than “do the panels and readings that I was assigned, go to maybe 1 or 2 other things and wander around a little, but mostly just hide in my room between assigned things recharging from the sensory overload”. Figuring out how to balance my neurological needs with my desire to participate more fully, and how to socially approach people in general, is still a work in progress.

Related to that – Amal El-Mohtar, Michael Matheson, James Bambury, Charlotte Ashley, and others! HI! I saw you around (except for Charlotte who I thought I was going to see at a panel and then didn’t) and went, “There’s that person! I should say hi to them!” and then didn’t. But I think you are great! Maybe I will see you and go “There’s that person!” again next year! That would be excellent.

This sort of thing is really great, I think. Definitely worth the travel and the con crud. I think I need to do it even more than I am doing.

What Makes a Great Villain? Panel Summary

Since Rhoda asked, here is a panel summary. 😀 I was on this panel with Matt Moore, Thomas Gofton, and either Gregory A. Wilson or Rob St. Martin – one of them didn’t show up and now I can’t remember which one. UGH. As you can see, I am having a bit of trouble remembering who said what, but the actual content is still pretty fresh in my mind, so let’s see what we can do in point form, without attribution.

There was no official moderator, so the panel was a bit of a free-for-all, but I think the four of us worked together pretty well. Villains are a complex and fascinating topic, and there was only time to scratch the surface on many of their aspects.

So what does make a great villain?

  • Villains are often the most active characters, the ones who set the plot in motion
  • Villains have to be powerful enough to create a truly challenging situation for the hero
  • The villain also has to have motives that make sense, and a reason to be creating this situation
  • The villain is a “hero” in the sense of having goals and working towards those goals, and having a story where they could plausibly succeed or fail, and where the audience cares about which one happens – even if their actual goals are horrible.
  • So in some sense writers who are employing villains in their storytelling need to treat the story as if it has “two heroes” – the villain has to work towards their goal just like the hero, and to be concerned about failing, and the author needs to get just as deep into the villain’s head as the hero’s

How should the audience feel about a villain?

  • My opinion: the best villains are the ones the audience “secretly likes”.
  • Or, as another panelist put it, the ones we “love to hate or hate to love”
  • An author’s goal is to make readers want to know what happens next; wanting to see what the villain does next is part of that
  • Other panelists mentioned the opposite: villains who stuck with them because they had been awful and dislikeable and hadn’t received their comeuppance, and years after seeing the movie, they still wanted to go up to the villain and smack them!
  • Also there can be problems when a villain is more compelling than the protagonist, which is why certain 80s horror movies have so many sequels centred around the villain and not the Final Girl; the villains were the ones that audiences had questions about and wanted to see more of.

Villains and morality, part I

  • Some of the most compelling villains start out as good people, who might have stayed good if things had been even a little bit different, but a series of events and misunderstandings happens that bring the villain to a point where they are dead set against the hero, in a way that no longer has a simple solution
  • Others have a good goal (e.g. trying to save the environment) but go about it in unacceptable ways, believing the ends justify the means
  • Most (all?) great villains believe that they are the hero, and the hero is the villain; they are right and the hero is wrong
  • But villains can also be compelling when they are “moral black boxes” (e.g. The Joker or Hannibal Lecter). Their villainous behaviour becomes fascinating because it is so far from what we consider acceptable that it implies a completely alien way of looking at the world.
  • Even “moral black boxes” have to have a goal and care about something
  • For example, in The Dark Knight, the Joker wants to upset the status quo, and will allow himself to be hurt or even killed to achieve this goal

Female villains

  • About halfway through the panel, someone in the audience pointed out that all the villains we had discussed so far were men. WHOOPS.
  • This led to a lot of discussion of people’s favorite female villains
  • Fandoms suggested by the audience for having lots of interesting female villains: Batman, Disney, anime
  • Female villains are frequently sexualized in specific ways, using their sex appeal and/or apparent vulnerability as a weapon
  • Some audience members did not think this was a problem; a villain who is seen as attractive should logically be able to use that to their advantage
  • While this is logical on its face, I pointed out that not every villainous woman will happen to be conventionally attractive, nor will they necessarily have the skill set or interests that would make sexuality a good choice of weapon for them
  • Some examples of non-sexualized female villains suggested by the audience: the Borg Queen from Star Trek, Ursula from The Little Mermaid (although someone in the audience was like “what are you talking about, Ursula looks great!”), Mother Russia from Kick-Ass 2, Stephen King’s Misery, someone from Mobile Suit Gundam Wing whose name I can’t remember anymore >_<
  • There was also a very brief discussion of maternal villains
  • While maternal villains are still potentially problematic, they can be a refreshing change from compulsory sexiness
  • We agreed that we wanted to see more options for female villains in general

Villains and morality, part II

  • We continued discussing this sort of at the same time as female villains
  • Villains who are completely evil for evil’s sake (e.g. the devil) are very hard sells today
  • Post-Vietnam, and especially post-9/11, there is increasing interest by the American market, in particular, in morally gray fiction. Heroes who are not necessarily in the right, villains who kinda have a point or who retain their humanity / remain sympathetic despite doing things the hero finds unacceptable
  • This also relates to the trend of retelling old stories from the villain’s point of view, making the heroes of the story into the real villains – e.g. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked & the upcoming Maleficent movie
  • Villains reflect underlying cultural unease in this way because villains are one way in which we culturally work out some important moral questions. How should we think about people who seem to have the power & intent to harm us, or who do things we find abhorrent? How should we treat them? How hard should we work to understand their perspective? Can they be understood? How do we know if they can be rehabilitated, or if they are even in the wrong in the first place? What do we as a culture call evil, and how should we think about evil?

It was a very lively audience discussion. We reluctantly ended the panel at five minutes to the hour, mostly because I was getting worried about going overtime and messing things up for the panel that came after us. We agreed that there are whole books that can be written about villains, and that we would love to talk more about them; we have only scratched the surface.

Ad Astra Convention Report!

I am back from Dinosaurcon Ad Astra and it was AWESOME. I am not very coherent right now because of post-convention splatbrain and also some mild con crud which has been held back with Advil Cold & Sinus (I will post a more detailed summary of the villainy panel later, when I have brain again, because I know someone here asked me for that), but in the meantime here are some things that happened.

Convention Highlights

  • Meeting people who I had only talked to very briefly online before, or who hadn’t been on my radar at all, but who are SUPER COOL AND NICE. I get the sense I did less hanging out and chatting than most people do at conventions, but I enjoyed the chatting (and, when I was watching someone else’s panel, the observation of chatting) that I did do. I found out belatedly that there are also other ways to interact that would work for me (like… staying and allowing people to come up to me and ask questions following a panel/reading, instead of RUNNING AWAY at the end of my reading like a silly person) and which I will try next time.
  • Doing a reading! (I read “Transitional Chords”, a Lovecraftian music school story which is currently out of print! It was very dramatic.) Having people SHOW UP at my reading who weren’t my family or Internet friends and had no reason to be there except they thought the reading might be cool! Having these people APPLAUD VIGOROUSLY after the reading, and then tell my mom (since I was worried about looking attention-hungry or something and left very quickly, as stated) how cool it was. SO HAPPY ABOUT THIS. I WANT TO DO ALL THE READINGS NOW. <3

Convention Low-lights

  • They spelled my name wrong on all of my author material. 😛 😛 😛 EVERYONE DOES THIS. But they were super apologetic about it and gave me a Sharpie to draw the second “N” on my placard, so it was mostly just funny.
  • Showing up at Klingon Karaoke and then realizing that it had been an incredibly long day and I had no tokens to actually do the karaoke. I wanted to sing, but I was just sitting there being vague and confused and unable to figure out simple procedures, and my partner was like “Ok, let’s go back to the room.” 🙁
  • In general, I was experimenting the whole convention with how to pace myself. I wanted to be very careful since I had some pretty late night panels to do. As a result I did not see as many other panels and readings as I would have liked. I think I’ve learned some useful things about how I operate in these circumstances and will be able to do more next time, but we’ll see.
  • Making concluding remarks at my reading with a dramatic sweep of my arms, which knocked over my water bottle and spilled water all over the place. LIKE A CHUMP. 😛

Convention Huh?!-lights

  • The “How To Be an Effective Panelist” panel for new panelists at which the actual person doing the panel was 1/2 hour late. LOL. You can guess what we decided the first rule of being an effective panelist was.
  • The dude who cornered me in the dealer’s room and said, “I loved your panel! I loved the part where you said you wanted to stab yourself in the eye with a toothpick!” Um… Thanks? *blink*
  • Being fast-talked into buying Girl Guide cookies from Erik Buchanan. Wait, what? These aren’t even SFFnal. What is going on. *takes a bite* These are pretty good cookies, though.

More ephemeral emotional stuff

You guys, I’ve been to conventions before, but I’m usually a dealer’s assistant (and spending all day in the dealer’s room makes me PRETTY DAMNED LOOPY, lemme tell you). This was different. This was me dressing up in real clothes and being a professional and being taken seriously by people who are just as excited about the field as I am. Really! I was on panels with people like Julie Czerneda and Stephanie Bedwell-Grime and I had as much to say as they did! And no one thought that was weird! Also have I mentioned that PEOPLE SHOWED UP TO MY READING.

It’s one thing to see this happening in parts of the Internet and another thing to see it in real life, concentrated into one place.

I’m so happy. Now if only the room would stop spinning.

Dinosaurcon 2014

Around this time of year I start to see a lot of complaints about cruel April Fools’ jokes, and how loads of people on the spectrum despise this occasion. Which is totes valid. I don’t want to be cruel. But at the same time, I have a healthy appreciation for absurdity; and the best April Fools’ jokes have much more to do with absurdity than with actually trying to fool anybody.

So, bearing this in mind:


A convention promoting the use of dinosaurs, synapsids, pterosaurs, sauropterygia, and other prehistoric beings in speculative fiction. (Sharks, crocodiles, vampire squid, etc are also accepted, due to the fact that they (a) are about as old as dinosaurs, and (b) are badass. Cockroaches, however, are discouraged.)

Friday, 6:00 pm: Applied Ethics for Apex Predators

So your protagonist is seven-ton pile of pure lethality, capable of swallowing a human in a single bite. Good for her. But, without blunting the fangs that made her awesome in the first place, how do you make sure readers look past the terrifying killing machine to see a relatable character they can root for? And how do you stop her from crossing a Moral Event Horizons simply by feeding herself? We share some tips and tricks learned from experience.

Friday, 9:00 pm: Dinosaurs and the Human Life Cycle

Were you one of those children who could list the full Greek or Latin name of every dinosaur when they were 5, or did you come to appreciate paleontology later in life? Share your stories and relate how the love of dinosaurs shaped you as a person.

Saturday, 11:00 am: Reading

A joint reading by Ada Hoffmann and Merc Rustad. Expect MANY RAPTORS, considerable squid, and some surprise sneak peeks at forthcoming work. It will be especially surprising for Merc, since I didn’t tell em e was going to be on the panel until this post happened…

Saturday, 2:00 pm: They Just Have Way More Dinosaurs Now Than They Did When I Was Five

Why is Anzu wyliei called a “chicken from hell”? Is Nanuqsaurus hoglundi cute or just a sad imitation of its larger cousins? What do you think of Pegomastax africanus‘s bristling hairdo? Catch up on the latest paleontology gossip with our team of experts.

Saturday, 5:00 pm: The Permian-Triassic Extinction

Known as the “Great Dying”, this disaster was almost twice as deadly as the famous asteroid-induced death of the dinosaurs, even though it gets less press. What happened? How did life on Earth recover? And could it happen again?

Saturday, 10:00 pm: Dino Song Sing-Along

A karaoke/filk session composed exclusively of songs from all of those awful “Land Before Time” sequels. Prepare to be amazed.

Sunday, 2:00 pm: University of Etobicoke Room Party

Come join our fun-loving local scientists for snacks, drinks, cupcakes, and the special guest appearance of 2 recently genetically reconstructed petting-zoo velociraptors. Unlike in certain movies, these girls are only three feet tall, and are covered in soft, iridescent feathers. So cute! Nothing to be scared of. What could possibly go wrong?

Ad Astra Convention Schedule

I’ve been keeping quiet about this, but it’s official: I’m going to be a Professional Panelist at Ad Astra, in Toronto, April 4-6.

I’ve been to conventions before, but usually as a regular person. (Actually, no, that’s a lie. Usually I’m a dealer’s assistant. Long story.) This is the first time I’ve been invited to actually, y’know, do stuff. The con staff were very good about putting me on a few, widely spaced panels so I don’t get overloaded, but I’m hoping it will work out well and I’ll be able to do more at conventions in the future. Here’s my schedule:

Writing When You Have A Day Job: Friday, 9 pm. (In which I talk about writing and grad school.)
The Writing Life: Saturday, 10 am (In which I talk about writing EVEN MORE, lol)
What Makes a Great Villain? Saturday, 9 pm (In which I geek out about Darth Vader, Disney villains, Loki*, and whoever else I am feeling excited about at that point)
Ada Hoffmann reading: Sunday, 2 pm (30 min. In which probably no one shows up except my family and then I read bits of my stories or possibly other stuff, and everyone just kinda hangs out. That’s my prediction, anyway. :D)

I doubt there are a lot of folks in the Toronto area who read this blog, but if I know you even vaguely in any capacity, I’d love to see you there!


*Since our last discussion of characters/villains on here, I’ve actually, y’know, watched both the Thor movies. So now I can have intense discussions about Loki and why he has so many fangirls without sounding like a total doofus, YAY! 😛 😛 😛