The 66th British National Science Fiction Convention
3-6 April 2015, Park Inn Radisson Hotel, Heathrow
GoHs: Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire, Herr Döktor, Caroline Mullan.
A Heathrow Eastercon not at the Raddison Edwardian!.
We left home at 10 am to drive to Dysprosium 2015, the 66th British National Science Fiction Convention (‘Eastercon’), in the Park Inn Hotel near Heathrow. After admiring parts of the M25 from our stationary car for a while, we finally arrived at the hotel close to 1pm. The hotel was easy to find; a parking space less so. After driving around the entire car park, we finally squeezed into a space that was right outside the Aviator Suite, where many of the programme events were happening. Fortunately the opening ceremony wasn’t scheduled until 1:45, so we had time to check in and grab something to drink.
Then it was down to serious sitting on chairs, listening to panels and talks. First was a panel on The Things We Learned From Pratchett: An exploration of fantasy, storytelling and ethics. (LonCon was dominated by Iain M. Banks; this Eastercon by Terry Pratchett. I hope this isn’t going to be a new trend.) The panelists talked about his professionalism in his relationship to his fans; how Discworld series is a collection of subseries; how the structure of the books is a “classic screwball comedy” where events domino; and how there are inconsistencies in his world, but that doesn't matter.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Human Spaceflight, SpaceKate gave a quick overview of the history of spaceflight, with several interesting anecdotes.
The panel on Cryptids (a species unknown to science, or believed extinct) covered both the panelists’ own inventions, and “real world cryptids”, from mythical (BigFoot) to real (recent discoveries of new species large mammals, as well as insects, amphibians, and funguses). One panellist didn’t want Bigfoot disproved, as belief in its existence is a valuable conservation tool! Cryptids are urbanising: they used to live in the wilderness, but that’s running out, so they are moving into our towns, just like foxes. Seanan McGuire recommended Warren Fahy’s Fragment, as like Jurassic Park with mantis shrimp: “If you want a fun book about tearing people apart, it’s brilliant!” But as the panel noted, many real species are being driven to extinction: “We people the wilderness with the monsters we want, while we are exterminating the real wonders.”
The Ultimate Urban Fantasy Panel followed on neatly from all this talk of Cryptids. Now the unknown species are wizards, elves, fairies, and whatnot. There was a discussion of how urban fantasy is different from paranormal romance: it was claimed that urban fantasy focuses more on the world-building, paranormal romance focuses on the relationships (although I suspect the real difference is “urban fantasy is stuff I like; paranormal romance is stuff I don’t like”). A jet-lagged Jim Butcher described how he’d come to write the Dresden Files. He had been writing a lot, but his writing professor didn’t like any of it (Roger Zelazny claimed that every writer learns by writing a million words of crap). So he set out to prove her wrong, by writing something that conformed to all the practices she advocated. He wrote a couple of chapters, and she said it was saleable! So he sat down and planned out a 20 book series…
We rounded the evening off with a performance of John Robertson’s The Dark Room, a combination of stand up comedy and text based adventure where all routes (seemingly) end in DEATH. Hilarious!
Saturday, and the first full day of Dysprosium 2015, the 66th British National Science Fiction. After enjoying a breakfast replete with mushrooms, the first item we attended was Liam Proven on Retro Computing. This was billed as a repeat of the heavily oversubscribed item at LonCon, where it was a panel. Liam apologised that he was the only one to turn up for this, and that he hadn’t really prepared, and then proceeded to wax lyrical about old hardware, languages, operating systems, and virtual machines for the next hour. His main point: what we have today is faster improved versions of the cheap and cheerful 1980s solutions, not better versions of the then-impractical but actually much superior solutions. We’ve gone up a blind alley. (I blame it all on Moore's Law, myself.)
Next was a panel on Unseen London, which had a focus on underground railways, rivers, sewers, and other tunnels, some known, some forgotten. All I can say is some people (not only on the panel) have a ridiculously deep esoteric knowledge of the most marvelous things.
Helen Pennington, plant biologist, gave a talk on How Crazy are Biologists and what do we really do?. (Essentially, pipette clear liquids into other clear liquids.) I learned lots of fascinating things about plants and fungi, and implementing 4 bit computers in cockroaches. After the main talk, there was a brilliant Q&A session. For me, the best bit was how to destroy the world with super-rabies zombie children (you had to be there).
The first of the Guest of Honour sessions was from Caroline Mullen, and her life in fandom. This was a pre-prepared read talk, and was fascinating (I use that word a lot: I go to SF cons specifically to be fascinated!). Caroline says her talk will be published at some point, which is great, as I get to read it again. This was followed by Jim Butcher’s Guest of Honour slot, where he was interviewed by Charles Stross. As well as his Dresden Files books, he talked about another series, Codex Alera, which he wrote as a bet: you can’t take this cliched idea, the Lost Roman Legion, and write something good with it. Since he’s written and published six books in the series, he reckons he’s won the bet.
After a late lunch/early dinner (regular mealtimes are impossible at cons) we went along to the BSFA lecture, an annual event where a speaker from the Arts and Humanities is invited along to tell us something interesting (fascinating, even). These are usually a highlight of the Eastercon, and this year was no exception. Simon Trafford talked on: “Runar munt þu finna”: why sing pop in dead languages? The dead languages tend to be either Latin (old folk, ethereal goth), often used to summon some form of spiritual otherness (with the language shrouding the lyrics’ Christian origins, or even their complete lack of meaning), or dead vernaculars (folk metal, pagan metal), often used to invoke a barbaric warlike golden age. So it was that in 1973 Steeleye Span had the honour of recording the first Latin song to chart; Gaudete: Latin with a distinct folk accent. One interesting point he made was that a lot of these sort of bands blend medieval with world musics, which is a dubious orientalising practice, because the other is be equated with medieval His talk was interspersed with lots of musical clips, and much hilarity.
Next was a talk by Brenna Hassett on TrowelBlazers: Women trailblazers in archaeology, geology and palaeontology. There are many famous male archaeologists, but they were accompanied but women whose stories we don’t know nearly so well: Margaret Murray, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Kathleen Kenyon, Dorothy Garrod, are some of the better know, but there are many more. Not only that, these women weren’t a few isolated anomolies: there were several women-only digs. The TrowelBlazers project is documenting their history and contribution.
The final event of the evening was a concert. Playing Rapunzel supported Talis Kimberley and friends. Seanan McGuire was supposed to perform, but had a bad voice, so merely provided hilarious introductions and commentary.
Another mushroom-rich breakfast, another day at the EasterCon.
In Quintic Equations: Symmetry and Tragedy, Nicholas Jackson gave one of his famous talks on mathematics and mathematicians. Here he went through the history of the roots of polynomials, where everyone seems to die tragically early, culminating in, but not restricted to, Abel (26) and Galois (20). The surface moral might be “don’t work on polynomials!”, but the deeper moral, from the ridiculous and tragic stories around the discoverers of the cubic and quartic solutions, is “competition is a really really bad way of discovering new knowledge”. (I suggested: we want to stand on the shoulders of giants, not cut them off at their knees.) University funders, take note.
Next, Sarita Robinson discussed The Psychology of Dr Who. She linked regeneration and teenage psychology, given the violence of the associated emotional and physical changes. Teens exhibit poor judgement and risk taking, because their brains are still developing: they find it difficult to keep track of multiple thoughts and consequences, and difficult to access critical memories and emotions for informed decision making. She also discussed the qualities needed in a companion: not neurotic (capable of doing more than screaming!), extrovert, trusting, and open to new experiences.
Then we had the remaining Guest of Honour sessions. Herr Döktor was interviewed about the steampunk gadgets he crafts. And then Seanan McGuire ran a Q&A session. It had all the usual things: how to pronounce her other name (Mirr-ah, not MY-ra); frogs; how to kill everyone on the planet with a designer virus; newts; how one of her Maine Coon cats snuck into her luggage, which she didn’t discover until on the plane. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breath. “I am exaggerating for effect, but probably not as much as you think.”
In The Day They Launched a Woodpecker, Jerry Stone told many anecdotes of the early days of rocketry, with clips. (No woodpeckers were harmed during this talk.)
Mancunicon won the bid for EasterCon 2016 (wow, it’s seventeen years since the last EasterCon in Manchester; it feels like only yesterday!), and Pasgon in Cardiff for 2017. We bought memberships. We also bought pre-supporting memberships for the Helsinki bid for WorldCon 2017. I’d love to go to Helsinki for a WolrdCon!
The day concluded with an item on the recent Hugo Award nominations. “A political act needs to be met with a political response.”
Final mushroom-soaked breakfast, final day at this year’s EasterCon.
First up, a panel on Faeries: The not-so-nice creatures at the bottom of the garden. In particular, fairies were originally quite nasty, but “tweeification” (it’s a word now!) has made them smaller and somehow less threatening. Or is it the fae themselves corrupting out image of them, so they can get closer? Is it them persuading us to replace iron with plastic? Barrie knew a lot of historical folklore: he had Tinkerbelle as a murderous little thing, and Disney kept a lot of that. But the fair folk are not evil as such: they just have a completely different moral code, incomprehensible to us, which they stick to rigorously. This makes them hard to deal with. “I wish the goblins would take my baby brother.” So why do you get so upset when the goblins help you out by fulfilling your wish?
This year’s George Hay Memorial Lecture, To the stars and beyond – making the most of what we have, was presented by Anna Croft, on green chemistry. “Chemistry: the science of things that are taken for granted.” We will have limited resources on other worlds, and will have to make the most of what we have. We are starting to do that now. Fossil fuels are the basis of a $3tn chemical industry, irrespective of the fuel economy. We need to replace volatile organic solvents. There is a lot of interesting progress with using carbon dioxide in its supercritical phase, where it has both liquid properties of a solvent and gas properties so it can permeate into small spaces; it leaves no toxic residues and is recyclable. The other big advance is ionic liquid solvents. These are non-volatile, non-flammable, and there are over a million different types, compared to ~200 organic solvents. Some are switchable, between miscible and non-miscible forms, so no distillation is required. Then there’s 3D printing with dissolved Yak wool keratin…
We ended on a high note: a panel called Not For The Squeamish. It wasn’t for the squeamish. Dr Bob talked about her work watching dead animals rot for a living, taking living things and turning them into fossils; the smell of rotting squid can’t be removed from glassware, even after an industrial acid dishwash. Necrotising fasciitis smells very bad. “Gangrene has a very distinctive smell and taste: I’ve tasted my own gangrene.” “You win!” Seanan McGuire (in her Mira Grant persona) just wanted to listen to doctors talk about dead stuff. Nevertheless, she told us about the “six perfect poopers” in the US: they have never had a course of antibiotics or gastric infection, and they are vegan (so have never eaten antibiotics in meat), a great source for fecal transplants. They want to sample the Amish, who eat meat, but without antibiotics. A slightly less squicky factoid: archaeologists fall into two groups when they find unexpected bodies: they either faint or run away; or go oooh! and steal the skulls.
So, another great EasterCon ends. Time to check out and drive home. The hotel was straightforward to find; escape was not so easy. I took a wrong turn, and was inexorably funneled into Heathrow’s short stay car park. However, once exited from that maze, the route was straightforward, and the M25 less clogged than on Friday. Next year, Manchester.