Intervention: Eastercon '97
The 48th British Easter Science Fiction Convention
28-31 March 1997, Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool
GoHs: Brian Aldiss,
Octavia E. Butler,
David Langford, Jon Bing.
This year's Programme Book's cover wins no awards for its artwork! [The
desired effect was more like the glossy black cover for Ken MacLeod's The
Star Fraction, but the publisher waited until the last minute to
advise against it. Pity.]
Media-fest: a BBC film crew were making a 'fly on the wall' documentary
about the Adelphi Hotel; a South Bank Show film crew were doing a piece on
Iain Banks. Someone wondered whether
the crews would end up filming each other...
I felt there were rather too many panels, and too few prepared talks,
this year. Some people like panels, but I find they tend to wander
aimlessly over well-explored ground, unless firmly chaired. The imbalance
may have been due to the choice of GoHs: Brian Aldiss and Dave Langford
usually give excellent talks, in addition to those given by the guests of
Panel -- Future Slang: Inventing a New Language
How does one produce an idiom that can seem alien yet remain
- It's easy to get it wrong: remember the Battlestar Galactica
fleets that were microns apart?
- Burgess invented the teenage slang for Clockwork Orange
- Iain Banks hopes the slang in
Feersum Endjinn evokes a feeling of being a child, with
everything around being too big.
- Brian Aldiss: "my Confluence language is a mixture of
speech and posture" -- cf tonal Chinese. Iain Banks: "The
Culture's stupid starship names were influenced by Confluence"
- OED attributes many words to Shakespeare, and to Lewis Carroll (eg,
'chortle'). Brian Aldiss is credited with a 100 words and phrases -- "mainly
disgusting ones". William Gibson invented many new words, for a
technology that doesn't exist, and that he doesn't understand.
- It's very difficult to invent new words, because they are new to the
reader, too, and so don't have the right resonances. Iain Banks coined
feeb, with (correct) resonances of dweeb and feeble.
- A spoof article tries to show that all computer terminology is
obscene, with its floppys, RAMs, peeking and poking. "And does
anyone know what a Texas Instrument really is?"
- Despite its Universal Translator, Star
Trek has managed to spawn an alien language which people all over
the planet can speak: Klingon. "It sounds like throat-clearing, or
swearing. Why didn't they use Welsh?" "Probably more people
speak Klingon than Welsh!" There's a Klingon course in Germany.
- English has an awful lot of words -- most of which stay in the
dictionary! People don't tend to say 'excellent' or 'superior', and
certainly not 'double plus good', but instead 'mega good'. Is it because
they are illiterate, or just because it sounds cool?
- English is almost-universal. It provides a core language to a very
broad and diverse range of peoples, plus many specialist sub-languages
(which are what SF writers tend to invent). These are 'cultural
dialects' rather than 'regional dialects'. "Jargon is a virtual
- Calling an alien riding animal a 'horse', and then having it eat
slugs, can give a better alien feel than calling it some word with lots
of 'x's and 'h's.
- The name-with-apostrophe has become a cliché. And is it
supposed to be a glottal stop, or a click, or what?
-- Do You Think that They will Think that His Arm is Permanently Stuck in
How we have, and how we might, try to send a message to worlds
Given the timescales of any response, these are all more of an
inward-looking PR exercise.
- Pioneer 10 plaque, other Voyager and Pioneer probes
- Aricebo radio telescope transmission of a digitally encoded
- Cassini/Huygens mission to Titan: digitally encoded signatures
- Unintentional, but more likely to be received: The I Love Lucy
effect: an expanding 50 light year sphere of our proud cultural
heritage. The Earth outshines the Sun in the radio.
- Anticryptography: trying to make messages easy to
understand. Example: the size of a digitally encoded picture should be a
multiple of prime numbers. A team of undergraduates were given such a
picture, of a haemoglobin molecule. They managed to decode it, but since
none was a biochemist, they decided it was a picture of Mickey Mouse! [A
strange test: how many alien scientists would be any more
familiar with haemoglobin?]
- What should we put on our next space probe? "The best sculpture
is the spacecraft itself" -- including the technology used to build
it -- the medium truly is the message here!
- How far can we bootstrap a message before it gets misinterpreted by
the aliens? [Interaction may be necessary for communication.
Example: some hearing children of deaf parents had access to a TV, but
never interpreted the sounds as speech.]
Panel -- Newspeak: Vocabulary and Imagination
Was Orwell right in claiming that if something cannot be spoken then
it cannot be thought?
- Visual memory and verbal memory function separately. SF fans are
relatively well educated and literate, and may be looking for problems
where none exist.
- Language organises perception. Example: the Russian word for
fruit excludes raspberries, blackberries, etc., which are
included in the category of nuts.
- To get rid of a concept, you have to remove all the evidence, as well
as the word. Once physical evidence has been destroyed, the concept can
be passed on only by oral culture. Messing with the language does make
that more difficult.
- In order to commit Thought Crime, you would have to reinvent all the
concepts. The existence of a word draws attention to the
- Children would probably rapidly creolise the pidgin-like Newspeak
into a fully-fledged language.
Panel -- Expanding the Universe Within
Science fiction and science at the microscopic level
- How much of what we value in ourselves spiritually is in fact
biological? A woman growing up in a Huntingdon's chorea family, who
eventually discovered she did not have the disease, nevertheless "had
her life screwed up by it".
- Could 'diseases' make you 'better than well'?
- Ecology: if you remove something from an ecosystem, something else
will move in. So if we remove relatively benign diseases, such as the
common cold, what will we get in their place?
- Diseases have evolved along with us, and shaped us. (An argument can
be made that the potato blight was responsible for the assassination of
JFK!) E. coli makes out vitamin B12
for us; we are too complex to make it for ourselves.
- There are always unpredictable effects of technology. Changes to
complex systems always have a myriad of side effects -- we are
only just beginning to understand chaos theory.
- The human genome project: some people won't be able to get health
insurance; the rest won't need it!
- We are fairly large organisms, and we don't easily think on small
scales. Also, we still have a 17th century hierarchical approach. But,
small does not mean simple.
- Biotechnology is a the 'beta test' stage; nanotechnology is still
vapourware. But even if we had nanotech tomorrow, we couldn't use it to
do genetic engineering yet; we still don't know enough.
Panel -- Messages from Starfleet: FTL Communications
Can't design 'em; can't live without 'em
- A signal (Mozart's 40th) has been transmitted at 4.7c over a
distance of 14cm, using the quantum mechanical tunnelling effect.
(Worried about the distance? Remember, the Wright brothers' first flight
was only about a hundred feet.)
- FTL comms are probably necessary to maintain an interstellar empire
- The home planet develops faster than the colonies, except when you
have First Contact, which is most likely to occur at the edge.
- In Star Trek, information
travels at the speed most appropriate to the plot. ("No, it's
instantaneous. The occasional three week delay is just the internal mail
- It may be that we get FTL communications, but not FTL travel. [The
final push to full-scale telecommuting?] Even contemporary stories have
lots of 'travel' and little 'telephoning': comms does not seem to be
high up in our consciousness.
- You don't need to know how a technology works to use it, or even to
explain problem symptoms to an expert. So your characters can use FTL
drives without having to explain how they work [and what contemporary
fiction explains the physics of the internal combustion engine anytime
someone jumps in a car?] Design your drive to fit the requirements of
the plot, then invoke the Patrick Stewart effect: 'make it so'.
-- The Fantasy Encyclopedia
Tales from John Grant,
Diana Wynne Jones, Chris Bell
- "'Science Fiction': that area of Fantasy that panders to the
scientific pretensions of its readers."
- On cross references:
- "We did go round for about three months saying 'see nunnery'
whenever anyone mentioned 'women'."
- Best cross reference: GUYS: see
- Suggested game: "if you throw a 6, go to this
- The entry on magic was very difficult to write. Diana Wynne Jones
based it on her Tough Guide
entry: "it's easy to get things straight when you're being funny".
- There were problems with the length...
- "I did 7500 words on PLOT DEVICES
and was asked to cut it down to 2000 words"
- "I was asked to do RIVERS in 100
Panel -- Why Should We Care What They Think?
The thorny relationship between fandom and the press
- Fanzines are produced for the readers. Professional magazines are
produced for the advertisers -- their major source of revenue.
They cater for the readers only in order to raise circulation so that
they can sell more advertising. And fandom is only a small section of
- Any magazine putting the X Files on its cover (at the peak of the
show's popularity) could guarantee a 25% increase in sales.
- Journalists and photographers are busy: they want to be in and out in
15 minutes. Write good press releases: then at least you will get the
names spelled correctly! Have a good background prepared for a
- Local reporters want an angle -- and will find their own if you don't
give them one. They will not have heard of any authors (except
Terry Pratchett) and will think
SF = Star Trek (and will
call it sci fi). You have to be proactive, and manage the interview.
Give the journalist something good enough that they won't fall back on
- [Related point: Although the BBC 'fly-on-the-wall' producer insisted
that they weren't interested in us or our con, just in the Adelphi
staff, they ended up filming the visually-attractive Masquerade. (But I
bet they'll be too embarrassed to show any of the excellent
Dr. Who entry...) [added
after transmission: They were :-( ] ]
Panel -- Where are We Headed?
Trends in biotechnology
- We keep making the same mistakes. Example: we can increase
phytoplankton, which lock up CO2, by
adding the nutrient iron. So we sprinkle iron in the Pacific Ocean. But
phytoplankton emit sulphur, which affects rainfall... Be suspicious of
quick fixes: you can't make just one change.
- New choices mean new decisions. Example: genetic counselling. Many
people don't want to have to make these decisions.
- We have biotechnology. But we don't understand biology nearly as well
as we do the 'made up' sciences of physics and chemistry.
- You can't take the politics out of biology -- even now politicians
are panicking about cloning (or rather, what they think their
constituents think about cloning). Dolly is being presented as "the
anitchrist in sheep's clothing". But we can't outlaw cloning,
without outlawing tissue cultures, roses, bananas, and identical twins!
- What is the net O2 output of rain
forests? Zero: because they aren't laying down any coal, oil or chalk.
We ought to preserving them for their biodiversity, not for
their oxygen production.
- One cubic metre of soil contains about a million different species
(mostly bacteria) of which we have named and catalogues about 1/1000th.
Greg Benford has suggested that we
should 'save the soil bacteria' by freezing plugs of earth in liquid
- People have been over-grazing and over-fishing for ages. Example:
there were about 40000 species of Polynesian flightless birds made
extinct, by the natives, before the dodo. And it's not just people:
grass is 'hell on wheels', and would have probably wiped out the
dinosaurs if the meteor hadn't got them first. [I sometimes wonder how
those poor dinosaurs lived so long!].
Panel -- Will the Keyboard Kill the Love Letter?
- Email is replacing the telephone, rather than letters (which were
themselves replaced by the phone). Or rather, it is replacing some uses
of it -- those better conducted by email. "Email never importunes."
- Email may resurrect written communications. Short emails are
perfectly acceptable -- you can shoot off a two line email, which you
wouldn't dream of doing in a letter [these people have obviously never
seen any of my letters!]. Quoting makes 'shared creations'
possible, and make it unnecessary to have long context-establishing
- Email allows you to revise, change, and ponder over your words (not
that many people seem to bother...)
- The complaints against the Internet echo complaints originally made
about the telephone, which would allow women to have conversations with
men other than their husbands, and that people could talk when
not fully clothed.
Panel -- Tales of First Contact
- The first American Indian met by the Pilgrim Fathers already spoke
English, Spanish and French. There is often more communication going on
than we might realise.
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind: "these aliens travel
billions of miles across space, yet can't even open their doors wide
- Culture shock is worse when things look similar for a while, then a
difference smacks you in the teeth. Example: going to LA was more a
culture shock than going to Japan, because of the initial similarities.
(Japan is often used as the basis for alien cultures, because it is one
of the most alien [to Western eyes] that we have.)
- James White's
Sector General series
has continual first contact stories, including alien-alien first
- We tend to think of aliens as roughly our size, sometimes much
larger. But much smaller can be alien, too.
- Both sides of the contact first need to realise the the existence and
intelligence of the other, and want to communicate. (We've taught chimps
sign language, but they don't have
anything interesting, to us, to talk about!)
Panel -- Adaptation: The Medium is the Message
There are problems with adapting from one medium to another, but
still maintaining the essence
- Dr Who on TV has 'austere' plots
-- chalk pits and so on -- because of budget restrictions. We are used
to this; it is part of the viewer expectation. A book can have
mega-spaceships and millions of aliens; a film can have a beautifully
equipped Tardis -- this gives a 'culture clash'.
- Adaption must conform to these conventions, else the viewer feels
cheated. A problem arises when the conventions are the result of
restrictions that don't apply in the new medium. Also, viewers who don't
have the experience of the original medium can feel cheated if their
chosen medium conforms to 'unnecessary' restrictions.
- The vast majority of TV and movie aliens are 'man in a rubber suit',
if that, because of animation limitations.
- In novels, authors can convey any internal information they
want to. On TV, we usually get to see only the external view.
- 'Classic horror' -- all off screen and done by suggestion because of
limited budgets -- can be very effective (our own internal sfx
generators are quite good!). With higher budgets, are moving to 'body
horror' -- in-your-face gore and splatter.
- Really successful things get translated into many
different media: film, TV, novels, comics, merchandising,...
- There is a translation needed even between the visual media of TV and
movies. Example: the different feel of close-ups on TV (used simply
because it's a small screen) and on film (where it conveys a very
different message). In Star Trek movies, for example, we are watching TV
characters in a cinema film.