Last year’s Capricon science fiction convention: one of covid’s better memories

If the pandemic has taught us anything, many of its lessons are bitter and involve loss, disappointment, and loneliness. Good memories are few, but here’s one. This is what I wrote in February 2021 about the online version of Capricon, inspired by the poem “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian, by Ross Gay.” This year’s Capricon will be held on February 3 to 6, and I’ll be there! More about that in a coming post.


Capricon is a Chicago science fiction convention. We come together for four days in February at a hotel convention center, and we call ourselves family, except that in 2021 we did not come.

We met alone together, hundreds of us, with cameras, microphones, and keyboards, and we recreated what we could. Art, games, panels, films, freebies, kid’s activities, the guy in the goat costume, other people in costumes, music, parties — some with DJs — and of course the commemorative tee-shirt. It depicted a goat wearing a face mask.

At a science fiction convention, fans and authors, scientists and singers, costumers and gamers are the same, energized by ideas and self-expression. We gather to share our love for our mutual passions. It’s a tradition. The 2021 Capricon was the forty-first annual event.

With the freedom of non-meatspace we could welcome people from Vietnam, Brazil, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and thirty-eight states, not just Chicagoland and those who could travel. No hugs, but we enjoyed a wider horizon and intentional inclusion. We had special early hours so distant fans could share their dinner with our breakfast. Two hundred activities were offered to do over a four-day weekend, including bartenders to help you mix your own drinks at home during the evening parties. The box fort got built. Bar Fleet had its discotheque, this time virtual, not in a hotel suite crowded to sweaty capacity.

At a Zoom panel I ran, discussing the power of the short story, we wondered how short a short story could be, and an audience member wrote a three-word story in the chat box: “Hindsight is 2020.” There was a lot to unpack in that, but I just laughed, glad to be looking back.

Our convention had a theme: “Creating the Future We Want.” We talked about the future, and how it was made, both by intention and opportunity. We considered various futures after global warming. With or without police. With or without forgiveness. With enough room for a few grudges to hold their distance. With enough closeness to fill the space with thanks.

We tried so hard to have fun, to give each other fun, to be the family again.

We set out our intentions for the coming year’s convention with the theme of music, and we planned to meet at a hotel already reserved, brick and mortar, flesh and blood. We hoped to have again the future we were working to create. Sing us in, 2022.

2021 publishing roundup – update

I’ve discovered that one more work of mine appeared in 2021, a republication of my translation into English of the short story “Francine (draft for the September lecture)” by Maria Antònia Martí Escayol, at Apex Magazine on December 28. This evocative, haunting story will make you wonder what’s real: after Renée Descartes’s daughter dies, he and his fellow scientists try to bring her back to life using 17th-century science.

As a reminder, here are my works that were first published in 2021 (and eligible for awards):

Immunity Index, a novel, published by Tor (read an excerpt). It’s about a coronavirus epidemic, but a much better one than our own covid-19 — because it’s over at the end of the book. Also, the novel includes a very loveable woolly mammoth.

“Embracing the Movement” by Cristina Jurado, which I translated into English, published in Clarkesworld Magazine’s June 2021 edition. The original short story, “Abrazar el movimiento,” won Spain’s Ignotus Award for Best Short Story 2021, the equivalent of a Hugo Award. The story’s lush prose hides horror.

Two of my short works were republished in 2021:

“Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons,” a novelette about robots in a fight to the death on Mars, in Clarkesworld Year Twelve: Volume One (Clarkesworld Anthology).

“In the Weeds,” a short story about plants fighting climate change, in Over the Edge Again: The Edgy Writers Anthology. Other members of the Edgy Writers Critique Group shared some thoughts about their stories in these posts: “Sport” by Z Jeffries, and “Wild Heart” by Samuel Durr.

Guest post: conflict through misunderstanding

My writers critique group here in Chicago recently released an anthology, Over the Edge Again: An Edgy Writers Anthology.

In this essay, Z Jeffries shares the story behind his story in the anthology, “Sport.”


I was eight years old when I was given Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. For those reading who don’t know, it is a very violent, very adult comic book. I didn’t read it at that age, thank God. I totally saw some inappropriate art on those pages before I probably should have, but I didn’t read it until I was in my early teens. I was still too young to have read it then.

I also vividly remember watching the film Lord of the Flies when I was too young. It turned my stomach and made me cry, but I couldn’t look away.

I think most of us have stories like this: consuming media before it was appropriate. There is a suddenness in experiencing something through storytelling and/or art before our mind understands the context. The jarring feeling of consuming media about sex or violence before we’re ready comes with a high. Sure, forbidden acts give a jolt of adrenaline, but being faced with concepts foreign to us creates a misunderstanding. I believe this type of misunderstanding is a universal concept most people experience growing up.

There’s an old theatre anecdote that I love to apply to my writing. Two actors are in a scene on a dinner date. The director (or teacher) asks the actors where they are. One actor thinks they’re in a fine dining restaurant, the other says they’re in a fast-food joint. The actors are in conflict through misunderstanding, and that conflict affected the scene. That conflict made this an anecdote that has now been passed along.

Conflict is key to fiction, that’s a basic principle. I’m sure there are obscure exceptions, but conflict is paramount to a good story. If all characters are in agreement, there’s no tension, no stakes, no story. But while it’s fun to read about opposing characters butting heads, I believe one of the most underrated forms of conflict is misunderstanding. Sure, fight scenes and clever wordplay can entertain, but misunderstanding can make a reader too afraid for the main character to even continue reading.

Here’s another scenario for the theatrical scene — both actors are in a fine dining restaurant, only for one, it’s the fanciest restaurant they’ve ever been to, while for the other, it’s a sad place that reminds them of an ex. They’re in the same location, but each character has a context that creates a conflict through misunderstanding. Is this a fancy place or one that is sad and full of memories? That question affects the scene — are they celebrating or sadly reminiscing?

And isn’t that almost always true of settings in real life: the context of our experiences colors our perception of the world around us. We carry our context with us into each scene, creating our own reality by how we perceive it.

I feel disingenuous when my characters share context about their surroundings. I feel like someone’s perspective has been lost if they both exist in the same setting with the same context.

Writing younger characters allows another fun way to skew perspective: ignorance. Everything a person knows was learned and there was a time before that person had learned it. So it’s fun for young characters to be incorrect, to misunderstand the meanings of words, to misinterpret the context of a situation.

A gap of knowledge in which the reader or audience understands something a character does not is known as dramatic irony. It’s useful for creating tension (oh no, don’t go in there, favorite character of mine!) as well as creating sympathy (it’s not their fault, they didn’t know any better!). With younger characters, most books are filled with dramatic irony.

In my short story “Sport,” the point-of-view character is young and prone to misunderstanding. I had a chance to really play with an unreliable narrator. John Harris isn’t lying, incapacitated, or mentally ill, common types of unreliable narrators. John Harris just doesn’t understand the adult situation his family is in, in a very similar way to the pictures in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns I didn’t understand.

Hopefully, understanding what John Harris does not will give the reader an emotionally impactful experience. I wonder if anyone who knows of Frank Miller’s work might have gasped a little reading the opening line to this blog, might have had a tiny one-sentence-worth of an emotionally impactful experience.

In “Sport,” John Harris, this innocent boy, worries about the fate of fictional heroes, while it’s the reader who knows John Harris’s world is crumbling around him. The burden of this boy’s reality is borne by the reader, gasping as this kid reads his comic books.

2021 words of the year: few surprises

What the hell did we just live through? In case, like me, some of your memories are already getting hazy, here are some reminders. Various dictionaries and websites have announced their words of the year.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary 2021 word of the year is vaccine. “In everyday use, words are useful tools that communicate assertions, ideas, aspirations, and uncertainties. But they can also become vehicles for ideological conflict,” the Merriam-Webster website says. “The biggest science story of our time quickly became the biggest debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine.”

NPR notes the choice with the headline, “Merriam-Webster’s 2021 word of the year is, of course, ‘vaccine.’” Of course.

For Oxford, the word is vax. “When our lexicographers began digging into our English language corpus data it quickly became apparent that vax was a particularly striking term. A relatively rare word in our corpus until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year.”

NPR notes dryly, “It would have been pretty difficult to get through 2021 without hearing the word vax at least once.”

For Cambridge, the word is perseverance. “It’s a word that perfectly captures the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up, despite the many challenges of 2021.” But that’s not all Cambridge has to say. “Prior to 2021, perseverance didn’t appear noticeably in lookups on the Cambridge Dictionary website. However, a spike of 30,487 searches for perseverance occurred between 19–25 February 2021, after NASA’s Perseverance Rover made its final descent to Mars on 18th February.”

By contrast, Collins Dictionary’s word of the year is NFT, the abbreviation for non-fungible token, the unique digital identifier that records ownership of a digital asset, a word that has nothing to do with the pandemic. One of its runner-up words, however, is double-vaxxed.

CNN points out in its commentary to the Collins choice that NFTs made the news in 2021. Yes, there was news besides the pandemic.

Because I speak Spanish, I’m interested in las palabras del año as well.

The FundéuRAE [Spanish Royal Academy Foundation] has chosen vacuna [vaccine]. “Everyone wants to picture the hope this word brings us, which is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.” Last year’s word was confinamiento [lockdown], and, Fundéu says, “the word of the year for 2022 could be very different.”

Other candidates for the Fundéu’s word of the year include cámper [camper van], carbononeutralidad [carbon neutral], criptomoneda [criptocurrency], negationista [denier], and variante [variant].

Meanwhile, readers of La Página del Idioma Español [The Page of the Spanish Language], have chosen covidiota, a word created in 2021 from the English word covidiot. The word resiliencia [resilience] came in second.

Although I don’t speak Catalan, the language used in northeastern Spain, there the word negacionisme [denialism] has been chosen as the word of the year by voters in a poll run by the Neology Observatory of the Department of Translation and Language Sciences at the Pompeu Fabra University and the Institute of Catalan Studies. The word podcast came in second place.

In case you’ve forgotten the year 2020 (lucky you), here’s my post about those words of the year. They also involve a lot of coronavirus-related terms.


In other year-end news, the Time Magazine Person of the Year is Elon Musk. An opinion piece at Politico says it should have been Rupert Murdoch, “someone who is both undeniably influential and undeniably malevolent. It was always the magazine’s intention to recognize impact, not virtue.”

The National Toy Hall of Fame has inducted three playthings for 2021: American Girl Dolls, the board game Risk, and the “universal plaything” sand. There’s nothing like a sandbox to inspire the imagination, even at my age.

Some links before the holidays

I’ve had a busy month so far.

On December 10 and 11, I was on a couple of panels at C2E2. At the first panel, science fiction writers Timothy Zahn, Delilah S. Dawson, J.S. Dewes, and I discussed world-building — and Andrew Warrick of The Beat took notes and wrote an article about the hour-long panel. Many people in the audience wanted to learn more about how to write, and we shared what we’ve learned along the way.

The next day at C2E2, J.S. Dewes and I talked about women in science fiction, and Andrew Warrick was back. His article is almost as good as being there.


Blogger Tasshin has written a long and thoughtful post about ethics in the Semiosis duology. In particular, he discusses the moral character of Stevland, the rainbow bamboo. Beware, the analysis contains spoilers.


Finally, I attended Discon III, the World Science Fiction Convention held in Washington, DC, from December 15 to 19. For obvious reasons, simply holding an event for 2000 people involved monumental challenges, but everyone was vaxxed and masked and, as of this writing, it doesn’t seem to have been a superspreader event.

Among the activities, I took part in a panel called “2020 Ruined My Novel.” Other writers spoke about how they’d faced problems with works in progress due to pandemic distractions or plots that had to be changed. I had a novel published about a coronavirus epidemic during the pandemic — with a coronavirus in the cover art!

I explained that the book, Immunity Index, differs greatly from our reality. “It has a happy ending,” I said, “because it has an ending.” With that tempting description, I managed to give away a few copies for holiday reading.

May 2022 be better for us all!