Saturday, October 09, 2004

A Report From the National Mall

The National Book Festival was held today, on the heart of the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C. This is, I think, the third year for the festival, and they seemed to make a real effort to get a broader range of authors, mixing in both well known and the lesser known, genre and mainstream, fiction and non-fiction (and even poetry).

The whole thing felt like a slightly polished up version of the comic book and Star Trek conventions I went to as a kid. People wore their comfortable, geeky clothes like sandles and t-shirts with pictures of Poe or Rimbaud on them. I even saw a man buying 30 copies of Neal Stephenson's newest novel, and heard him utter the words "investment" over and over again.

Yep, I was at home here.

Far, far away at the distant end of a massive line of people sat Neil Gaiman, patiently signing copies of books for fans. I saw him once several years ago when he toured for Neverwhere, and age has defenitely started hitting him a little. Although still sporting the leather jacket and shoulder-length hair, a small shock of hair on his left temple had turned grey and his face was covered with a generous black beard. He carried it well, though, at least from what I could tell. Since I didn't bring anything for him to actually sign, I turned around and headed to the S/F and Fantasy tent.

Ben Bova was speaking. Instead of reading from his work, Bova spoke elegantly and knowledgeably on topics like the space program, colonization of other planets, and the potential for discovering life on Mars. His talk was peppered with quick reference to some of his books, as well as the writings of other S/F gurus like Arthur C. Clarke. Afterward Bova answered a questions ranging from the X-Prize, to UFO's, to editing for Omni Magazine and how he strikes a balance between using real scientific theory and creative license (he feels he's free to invent anything so long as no-one can prove his ideas wrong).

Neal Stephenson was next on the schedule. Although I haven't delved into his new Baroque Cycle trilogy, I think of his S/F novels like Snow Crash as the last great gasp of Cyberpunk inspired fiction. Cryptonomicon, likewise, is a masterful work of cross genre-fiction. Anyways, enough ego-stroking for Mr. Stephenson.

With a shaved head, fuzzy goatee and moustache, hyper-faded blue jeans and a blue dress shirt, he looked every bit the Geek-Chic author. After an intro from Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, Stephenson opened with some ego-stroking of his own by by shouting, "Raise your hand if you know who I am!"

Instead of reading, Stephenson immediately jumped to a Q&A session, citing his own longwindedness and time constraints as an excuse. It turned out to be a good thing, though. He took everyone's question seriously and somehow managed to answer nearly everything with his tongue just slighly in cheek. Questions covered topics like further use of the Baroque Cycle characters, his ideas on wisdom, and what he does when he's not writing. For someone with a little bit of reputation for hating anything taking time away from his writing, Stephenson was an amusing and rather gracious speaker.

Although there were certainly others I wanted to see (Gaiman, Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates to name a few) my day job called me away from the festivities. Perhaps next year.


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