The 67th British National Science Fiction Convention
25-28 March 2016, Deansgate Hotel, Manchester
GoHs: Aliette de Bodard, David L. Clements, Ian McDonald, Sarah Pinborough.
We left our friends to drive into the centre of Manchester to the Easter science fiction convention. The con is in the Deansgate hotel, which recommended the snappily-named adjacent NCP Manchester Great Northern Warehouse car park for parking, at the special con rate of only(!) £12/day, reduced from the standard £20.50/day. This car park is accessed from Watson Street. We discovered there is another Watson Street, in the suburbs, thanks to the sat nav. So we arrived a little later than planned, but still in good time.
The first session I attended was a panel I was on: the Comma Press sponsored (Don’t) Ask the Scientist. This revolved around bad science in SF, and whether the author has a responsibility to get the science right. I caused a minuscule amount of controversy by saying they didn’t – but I did add that they do have a responsibility to be honest.
Next was a panel on Twisting the Story: about the different kinds of plots twists, and how to do them well. One writer revealed their secret: “I once discovered I needed a twist. So I went and read the book as it was so far, reading as if I knew author had set up a brilliant twist. And I found one!”
Guest of Honour Ian McDonald was interviewed by Peadar Ó Guilín. He spoke about how he sets his novels in places where he can go and do tax-deductible research: Brazil, India, and the like. His latest novel is set on the moon…
The panel Revealing History, Revealing Now examined whether the history in historical fantasy or alternate history fiction needs to be right. (Clearly “being right” is a perennial theme in the SFnal community.) And if you make a change, particularly to introduce a fantastical element, you need to think through the consequences of that change: it will affect the rest of the world, too. The important point is that the real history is usually much richer and more diverse and stranger than the history we are taught, and that is enough to make readers think the author has it wrong. Beware governments who try to control the history curriculum: look carefully at what they want the children to believe about where they and others have come from.
In the evening we had the panel What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, or, good ways to kill a lot of people. After the panel introduced themselves, they realised a problem: none of the panellists is really an expert in mega-death. Or maybe that’s not a problem… The discussion riffed off solar flares, disease, revolutions causing famines, resource exhaustion, asteroids, nuclear war, bioweapons, climate change, ice ages, super-volcanoes, rogue black holes, gamma ray bursts, and Vogons. We don’t have the ability to reboot civilisation after a global catastrophe, and so we need to colonise space to avoid most of the problems. Just your standard apocalyptic scenarios, then.
We rounded off the evening watching a session of Whose Line is it Anyway?, with various improvised scenarios.
Saturday at the Manchester Mancunicon Easter science fiction convention started in the traditional way, with a cooked breakfast including a generous serving of mushrooms. We then made the mistake of returning to our 4th floor room, to pick up our stuff for the day. It was a mistake, because the 23-floor hotel has a paltry three lifts and no (usable) stairs. After a 20 minute wait, seeing lifts fly by, or full lifts stopping, we finally managed to squeeze in one. But because of this we arrived late for the 10am session (Dave Clements’ talk on How Space Science Happens), to find the room packed to overflowing. So we went to the Art Show instead. And didn’t make the mistake again of trying to use the lifts during the day.
So the first talk of the day for us was Rachel Dickinson’s BSFA lecture on Crafting the Future: Ruskin, Textiles and Visions of Futures Past. As usual at EasterCons, the annual BSFA lecture was excellent. Ruskin was all about individual making aesthetically good and beautiful choices, particularly through choice of textiles and clothing: a universal interest, for everyone wears clothes, which should be comfortable, functional and attractive. He contrasted individual-based craft work with the mass produced products of the grim, dark textile mills blighting the landscape around Manchester. What was fascinating was the reaction of the mill owners: some wrote to Ruskin explaining that they would go out of business, with accompanying loss of employment for their workers, if they followed his approach. He was aware of the issues, and wanted people to follow the overall picture, if not all the details. Is this a more realistic vision today?
After the BSFA lecture was the annual George Hay memorial lecture, sponsored by the Science Fiction Foundation. This year Colin Wright spoke on The Mathematics of Juggling. Hilarious, brilliant, a technical tour de force (complex juggling while talking!), and with some deep maths to explain the patterns, leading to the deduced need for a time-travelling ball. He’s going to be a hard act to follow. The admiration was a two way street: he complimented the audience for getting all his technical and SF jokes.
Next came a talk by Verity Allen, on Designing the Supercomputer for the World’s Largest Radio Telescope. The radio telescope is the proposed Square Kilometre Array, and it will produce a truly prodigious amount of data: 5 thousand Petabytes/day (1 PB = 1000 TB) initially, then up to 100 thousand PB/day if phase 2 gets built. This amount of data offers interesting engineering issues, covering input, storage, buffering, memory bandwidth, and processing. And they need to architect the system for hardware that hasn’t been invented yet.
Then off to hear Ian Whates in conversation with Guest of Honour Sarah Pinborough. This included discussion of why she went into teaching (the grant was better than the alternative wage) and her pupils’ reaction to being shown The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her ex-father-in-law coming to live with her while he was dying, and, sometime, her books. Hilarious and eye-opening.
The Ecology of Doctor Who had Smuzz talking through how stories in Dr Who were alternately mirroring, or pointedly ignoring, a variety of ecological issues happening in mundania, backed by relevant clips (once the technology started working).
And continuing the Dr Who theme, we wrapped up the Saturday with An Adventure in Time and Space: 53 Years in 53 Rels: the entire Dr Who canon performed by five people in 53(ish) of your earth minutes. Rib-achingly funny, and clever. The Reduced Shakespeare Company has a lot to answer for!
The first item for Sunday at the Mancunicon Eastercon was a panel on Terraforming Planets and Living in Space in SF, excellently chaired by Helen Pennington, who used a sequence of well-designed questions to move her panelists through an interesting discussion. The scope gradually increased, from bases in orbit, to the moon, solar system planet, and beyond. Ian McDonald is taken with the idea of moon bases, because people on earth would be able to look up and see the lights on the moon. We could try terraforming Venus with earth extremophiles: take a few litres of silt from the deep sea tranches, and see what happens; it could destroy any Venusian life, thereby following a long earth tradition. The discussion moved on the economics of generation ships, travel between colonies, and how to contain diseases (you can’t).
The panel If You Don’t Scream You’ll Laugh discussed how to blend horror and comedy. There were varied attempts to define both horror and comedy, which led on to a definition of cognitive dissonance. Both horror and comedy are a tone that can be used in any genre. By adding a layer of comedy, it is possible to go deeper into the dark, and laughter can be a reaction to unease: black humour is daring the audience to laugh. Horror can sometime be unintentionally funny when it just gets ridiculous. Humour is cultural: Americans laugh at Hamlet.
Next came a panel on Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon. Since I’ve been reviewing (nearly) all the book I read for (nearly) 20 years, I was interested to see what people thought of reviews. One of the panelists writes his reviews for exactly the same reason I write mine: to help us remember what we have read. The panel drew a distinction between an opinion, a review (a supported opinion), and a critique (a more objective, analytical review). You don’t have to enjoy, or even read, a book to enjoy a good critique of it. (So my own pieces range from opinions to reviews, and are definitely not critiques.) Blog reviews aren’t important for sales: a terrible review in the New York Times will sell more books than a great review on a blog. But some Amazon reviews are in fact critiques: seek these out; the 1 star and 5 star reviews are telling you what the reviewer thinks; critiques will tell you whether you will like it.
Next was Kari Sperring in conversation with Guest of Honour Aliette de Bodard. This covered a range of topics from demons in her fictional Paris, to Vietnamese language and cooking.
This segued nicely into a panel on Food, Glorious Food – Cooking in SF&F. One panelist, describing moving house: I had 120 boxes, 115 were books, half of which were cookbooks; the other 5 boxes were kitchen equipment. Aliette de Bodard noted that the recipes on her website get as much traffic as her books. Even when fiction includes food, which it doesn’t often (books can include not a single meal), it rarely talks about cooking it. There are some earth species that eat infrequently: maybe some aliens eat only once a week? What about cooking in zero g? Most cooking techniques rely on gravity. And, of course: To Serve Man.
After this, it seemed appropriate to round off the day with a nice meal with friends.
The last day of the Mancunicon Eastercon started (after the traditional mushroom-rich breakfast) with a panel on The Deeper the Grief, the Closer to Life?, or “the cheerful panel”, about grief, death, and other forms of loss. Grief is due to loss; death is the most common loss, but you can be grief-stricken over the loss of a pet, some much loved artefact, or separation from a person or place, or even in anticipation of loss, especially due to slow dying and dementia. The loss is a loss of a part of yourself, and you have to restructure yourself. Hence rituals for death: funerals, wakes, provide community support. Revenge is a plot device to avoid dealing with grief. The classic five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. SF tries to deny death with immortality or time travel, but this can lead to grief due to the inability to die. Death is a subtext of all the new Doctor Who. Much of Tolkien is the world grieving for a lost way of life. Authors can feel loss on finishing writing a book: leaving all those characters behind.
Then our final item was Farah Mendlesohn in conversation with Guest of Honour Dave Clements. This covered his professional life in astronomy, and his fannish life in conrunning.
We debated whether to stay for a final item, but decided instead to hit the road and drive home.
So, another Easter, another con. As ever, this one was full of fun, interest, cleverness, and unexpected information. Next year, in Birmingham!