The 49th British National Science Fiction Convention
10-13 April 1998, Jarvis Piccadilly and Britannia Hotels, Manchester
GoHs: Ian McDonald, Martin Tudor,
This year's Programme Book's cover
wins no awards for its
The Britannia and Piccadilly hotels exhibit changing hotel design
brilliantly: Britannia has a marvelous broad central staircase,
vertiginously running the entire height of the building, and a couple of
inadequate lifts discretely off to one side. The more modern, but freezing
cold, Piccadilly has a shabby back stairwell hidden in a maze of twisty
little access passages, presumably because the three centrally positioned
lifts are intended to be the only transport system to the ground floor
(naturally the main entrance is on the first floor, in from the car park,
not on the ground floor, in from the street). Lifts are designed for a
steady trickle of passengers, not the entire population of the hotel
changing floors every hour on the hour.
And why are the chairs always scrunched up too close together?
Many of the panels seemed rather ill-prepared, and so tended to meander
a bit aimlessly, or re-cover well-covered ground. A panel needs a good
chair, who can let the panelists talk when they're being interesting, but
can fill in awkward gaps when the flow of ideas dries up, and can draw out
some of the quieter panelists. And
was a good name for
this convention, being the faculty needed to work out where rather too
many of the programme items had been rescheduled to, often annoyingly back
in the other hotel where one had just run from. Quite a few items were
cancelled completely, partly due to non-arrival of speakers, because much
of the south of England was a few feet under water at the time...
GoH Panel -- Why does SF exist?
The role of SF in literature, science, the media, advertising,
fandom, art, and elsewhere
CW: First we invent something, then we use it for something
different. The answer phone is now used to screen calls. Fax machines
are used to order pizzas. Computers are used to play games. And as for
IMcD: We often invent lewd uses: cars for sex, porno Web sites,
telephone chat lines. Once we get videophones, we'll get strip lines!
Literary criticism is like a tapeworm: it needs a corpus to adhere
to. But now it thinks that
is the cat, and that the cat is
SF is the Universal Set of all possibilities. Everything else,
romance, Westerns, mainstream, is a sub-genre. SF can look at
contemporary events with perspective.
If you walk into a room and announce which side of the abortion
argument you are on, virtually no-one will hear what you say next. You
want to write a story that leaks into people's subconsciousnesses, and
15 years later they wake up and say "Ohmigod, that was about X..."
You can't write social commentary parody, because the real world is
so bizarre. It is also impossible to parody the tabloids.
Iain M. Banks
-- Taking the
Fantastic out of Fiction
Iain M. Banks (SF writer) and his alter ego Iain Banks (mainstream
writer) discuss crossing genres
The "M" stands for "Menzies", pronounced "Ming-ies".
No "M" in
The Wasp Factory
, because the
publisher thought it fussy, and had bad resonances with Rosie M
Banks, a really bad novelist in Wodehouse.
Then got grief from my uncles, because Menzies is the family
Decided to put it in the SF, to help distinguish them (as well as
putting "an SF novel" and a picture of a spaceship on the
Use Of Weapons
: I originally wrote it chronologically, but
then Ken MacLeod said 'Why don't you put the climax at the end of the
book?'. Brilliant idea! Why didn't I think of that?
The non-SF works have some SF elements.
The South Bank Show
probably thought they were doing me a
favour by not mentioning the SF. The excuse was that they had enough
Mainstream pays better, and it's more interesting to write in two
The mainstream works don't repeat, but the SF ones keep returning to
The Culture. I'm addicted. I have a love affair with the Culture. And
it's easy to do.
so much, I'd let anyone film it just
to get it filmed.
Player of Games
is the only one optioned.
was fabulous to look at, visually stunning --
but the plot was rubbish
Screenplay writing is a
different skill -- more
different than short story
novel writing skills.
Panel -- When the Aliens Land
Are we projecting our worst qualities onto aliens?
Hostile Aliens (As in
War of the Worlds
, or its remake,
) are useful when it's hard to find PC enemies -- it's just
writers being lazy
Would we be overwhelmed/assimilated? Japan wasn't overwhelmed -- they
absorbed only what they wanted. We would be able to provide them our
Aliens as Refugees/Nomads/Outcasts. Why are they refugees? What if
they had polluted their own planet with all this tech they are now
offering us? The Greens might stop
accepting it, but the 3rd
Cults and religions tend to take the long view. They might be the
only ones with the motivation to make long interstellar journeys.
Why are alien cultures always monolithic? A holdover from the "Soviet
Bloc menace"? "All foreigners look alike"?
When diplomacy exists between nations, to stop them fighting, it
allows other cooperative organisations to exist, like International
Telecomms Union for allocating bandwidth.
Aliens as aggressive explorers. "The Meek will inherit the
Earth. The rest of us are going to the Stars."
Aliens as Tourists. We trade our culture, not our technology.
We should not assume that the aliens that turn up are representative.
Panel -- How to Save the Universe
Why do we like blowing people up?
Wanted -- a version of Quake with colleagues faces morphed over the
Doc Smith used negaspheres and ravening beams to destroy planets;
modern SF drops rocks on them!
The only modern military SF not based on US carriers is the
on the Napoleonic model.
"Shoot the women first" -- standing orders in
anti-terrorist organisations -- because they are more dangerous.
Requires a much higher level of dedication to become one.
"The Honour of the Regiment" is required to make soldiers
do dangerous things.
A lot of short stories are "firefighter" style, like
Why are interstellar civilisations always empires?
Alternative to Empire -- East India Co model. This depends how easy
FTL is, and why you colonise.
The Culture is not really an Empire. It uses statistics to prove it
is interfering only for your own good. And it's not military -- unless
you annoy it.
Empires are popular because they give you individuals to write about.
In practice, an Empire has a life of its own, and the Emperor is not
that important, unless the Empire is growing rapidly.
Aristocracy -- one person you trust -- helps if comms are bad or
slow. Democracy requires good, fast comms.
Empire can be advanced by the very colonists trying to get away from
Empires need heroes, iconography and mythology. Who you pick as your
heroes reflects your ideology. Also need a way of involving the common
people in the Empire -- external threats help
Amanda Baker, Anne Gay and Stan Nicholls -- Sex in the New Millennium
The gory biological details
Sex is to do with biology; gender is to do with social roles
HIV and other STDs are forcing a new morality: is sex
about more, but practiced less? Syphilis before antibiotics was just as
dangerous as AIDS today.
If you have sex with your clone, is that incest? masturbation?
What if you can decide what sex you are going to be this month?
Aldous Huxley: "It's sapiens to be homo".
What moral right do infertile couples have to treatment in an
We are already seeing biological parents
Dolphins are great responsive partners, but afterwards, you
have to sleep in the damp patch!
-- Just How Likely
We tend to get biology wrong because we don't think about death.
Starlings tend to die of "suffocation complicated by digestion"
-- something eats them. Nearly
sexually reproducing animals
If we ran evolution lots of times, what kinds of things would happen?
A different fish leaving the sea would give a different result. But
you can't tell
at the time
which are the important events. "Ant
country" looks like an infinite suburbia -- we can't say where "it"
Universals -- things that have happened many times -- would
happen again. The four Fs: flight, fur, photosynthesis, mating.
Going multicellular. Leaving the sea. Eyes. Intelligence.
Parochials -- things that have happened only once -- would
probably not happen again. Pentadactyl limbs in particular.
We require other people. A baby trains its mother by rewarding her
with a smile. Symbiosis -- recursive relationships.
Animal icons: sly and cunning fox; wise owls -- but only in Western
culture. Animals icons are everywhere.
Princess Diana had
ordinary "princess" icons
(The Princess and the Pea, etc), which are not the same as Royalty's "princess"
icons. She was pursuing the wrong icons.
The Theory of Everything can be written on a T-shirt. Does it explain
why, when you bought the T-shirt, you were given the wrong change?
Extelligence: there's a very large amount of stuff outside us -- just
consider a library. The "make a human being kit" interacts
with the human being.
Simplex, complex, multiplex explanations. SF fans "revel in the
phase space around the actual".
Many biologists have the simplex model "it's all DNA".
Ian McDonald and
Growing the Future
any future must have its roots in the past
In 1930, "life in the 1980s" was just technology slapped on
the same social structures --
-- but it's the social
stuff that has changed most. (
is funny, because
they are finding technology equivalents with stone tools; with
, they have the technology and just do it.)
had old stuff in it -- any future will have a
The present is littered with bit of the future that never came to
pass -- tower blocks, etc.
Failed futures: Betamax, Edsel
Democracy, Socialism, Feminism, etc were obscure ideologies of the
19th century, mainstream ones of the 20th. So take equally 'dingbat'
ideas of the 20th century, and make them important in the 21st. Eg,
balkanisation, neo-tribalism, but with interest groups rather than
SF gives vocabulary and terminology for dealing with new tech. It
helps assimilation, even if the details are wrong.
SF fans suffer from "Past Shock" -- we are so familiar with
the future, we are surprised that some stuff has only just happened for
real. Eg, most of us have been through the ethical debate on cloning --
we just never thought they'd use it to make
! "Do SF
Readers Dream of Identical Sheep?"
Nanotech: families can be self-sufficient -- certain skills will be
valuable, and so will land and time. Every PC user has the capability to
wipe out humanity. Social immune systems to cope with people going
A desirable society can't be monolithic -- need a place for the
Every socialist Utopia has slavery or forced labour somewhere.
What would the literature of Utopia be? There tends to be a lack of
libraries in utopias.
One night, "Civilisation" passed the Turing test. The
Egyptians realised I was the real player, and if they won, it would be
the end of the game for them. It's the only thing that explains their
-- The Despised Bastard
the relationship between science and fiction
[one of the better prepared and run panels]
C. P. Snow's Two Cultures: Arts
Science: each despise
the other. SF is an offshoot of both, despised by both?
SF characters are often equally at home in mythology, maths, biology,
In the past, both were valued: Newton thought he would be remembered
for his commentaries on the Bible.
Science education in schools is so dull and boring, and stops around
1900. No QM or relativity. Yet the students are wearing watches that use
QM. (Nuffield syllabus is better -- but more expensive.)
One can no longer be a "Renaissance Man" -- there is too
much to learn even in a single field.
Some scientists, even if they know nothing about a subject, are not
intimidated by anything. If they don't know, they'll look it up. Others
are very overspecialised, and know nothing about even closely related
areas. A form of cowardice?
There are good popular science books available nowadays.
Melvyn Bragg used the radio show "Start the Week" so that
could learn about science.
Many young SF writers are scared that if they get any science wrong,
they will be mashed flat. So they put in none at all. But if you are
, the "real" scientists will forgive you.
A lot of people express interest in cloning, but not in genetic
engineering. They don't know enough to know they are linked.
The majority of the SF classics have very little overt science in
them. They just "use the world" to tell human stories.
English majors are not terrified of Thomas Hardy just because they
don't understand techniques of rural farming.
Nowadays SF is going "white" again, because authors are
criticised for getting other ethnic groups "wrong". It's
One of the key things about the scientific method is making mistakes.
If your experiment "doesn't work", you've
Before you can terraform a planet, you have to dream of terraforming.
SF isn't about predicting the future. It isn't even about guessing.
playing with possibilities
. But you have to be
trained to think constructively in this mode.
-- I Sing the Body Eclectic
the ways there are to be human in science fiction
using Australopithecines as servants.
We can never say "this child is human, its parents are not".
Biologists use many words, like "alive", that have no hard
edges. There's no point in arguing over the edges. If you start trying
to define these words, you get into terrible problems.
A currency is a transaction in a 2D phase space: (currency, value).
It will get more complex (eg EMU), not less.
Everything alive now took 4 billion years to get here -- we are all
products of evolution -- no one superior to another. It is just as
correct to talk of the "man-like ancestor of the ape" as the "ape-like
ancestor of man"; indeed, of the "man-like ancestor of the
amoeba" as the "amoeba-like ancestor of man".
talks of the "thin
veneer of civilisation" over the genes. That's like saying a word
processor is just a thin veneer over the computer -- all those bits
could just leap out at me!
Embryos born under different gravity or other different conditions
may be very different. It's not just the DNA, it's also the hardware the
DNA runs on. Sending DNA into space doesn't matter -- the aliens won't
know how to play it.
Is it human to stay the same, or to get lots of wonderful prostheses
to improve us?
Disproof of telepathy: we each train our sense organs as we grow --
so even if we each have a grandmother cell, it's a
cell in each of us. But twins separated at birth do have a lot in common
(eg, one in a 1000 people walk into the sea backwards, 2 pairs of twins
-- but in one case the concordance was due to
the same sociologist testing them.
There is no "conservation of complexity" -- there is more
complexity in a developing feather than in the cells of the entire
chicken, depending how you look at it. How much information is there in
the utterance "Go to Canton and change trains"? -- most of the
information is in the context, in the listener.
DNA is both data and instructions. If humans were just "initial
conditions and a program" we could duplicate one. But we develop.
Starting from a simple egg, there is a cascade of changes. We are
different at 25 from the way we were at 15.
"It's human if you take your hat off to it."
We can't predict the way people will think in 2000 years time. As the
context changes, we change, and change the context further.
10% of our own body weight is bacteria.
Lots of animals change their environment to suit themselves. But once
we invented, say, insulin, we started evolving differently: previously
diabetics could not reproduce, now diabetics are increasing at about 1%
every 10 years.
No modern ecologists talk about "balance" any more. The
environment is not in equilibrium, and never has been. Think what a
change photosynthetic bacteria had on the environment. And grass was
Colin Jack -- The Future of Getting Into Space
how to get into space without being strapped to high explosive
At the time of Apollo, we were promise an era of cheap space travel.
But it's been $6000/kg ever since Werner von Braun -- the Shuttle is
even more expensive, at $20000/kg. Even liquid hydrogen probably can't
get much below $2000/kg.
H-O: 4.8 km/s
H-F: 5 km/s
Nuclear thermal (like submarines): 8 km/s
metallic hydrogen: 16 km/s -- tricky to keep metallic!
antimatter: 300000 km/s -- need grams, currently manufacture an
atom at a time
Maybe we don't want a self-contained vehicle? Let's scrap the rocket
-- there are plenty of other proposals. Sound physical principles, we
just need the enabling technology.
But not all ideas work
Gyroscopes are no good. They can climb field lines, but would
need at least x100 bigger field before a superconducting coil could
do it, and then the internal forces are too great.
Zero point energy rocket drive? Casimir effect -- accelerate a
conducting plate in a vacuum to get a small force -- a
External assist -- not all the propellant in the vehicle
Laser ablation -- 100 GW (which we can currently do for about 1
femto-second). It's difficult to focus in atmosphere, and 100 GW
does rather tend to start convection currents!
Nuclear volcano -- explode an atom bomb in a big tank of water,
and ride up on the jet of steam.
Microwaves -- beam it up with a phased array. It's easier to beam
it through the atmosphere, but what to do with it at the spacecraft?
Beanstalk -- needs to be long, 20000 miles, and very strong.
Current materials break under their own weight at:
steel: 36 km
kevlar: 250 km
dynema polythene: 384 km
graphite whisker: 1246 km
Sky hook -- a few 100 miles long, a few times stronger than
kevlar, in a circular orbit about the earth, spinning so the ends
move at 8km/s relative to the centre point. As an end approaches the
ground, it is relatively stationary, so just grab on. The tether
loses orbital energy, but it can be powered with ion thrusters.
HOIST -- Horizontal Orbital Insertion Space Tether. Grab on to a
cable trailing out the back of a spacecraft, and use "frictional
force" -- electromagnetic eddy currents -- to accelerate you.
Need to keep the cable
straight, and not actually touch
Jules Verne's "Columbiad" gun. If you use a 'biconical'
shape and non-ablating carbon, can pass through the atmosphere.
Gerard Bull's "supergun" -- needs huge accelerations
Rail gun -- electromagnetic propulsion. Tries to "sell"
one to NASA as a "reverse wind tunnel" testing device,
with stationary wind and a moving test object -- then would only
have needed to leave the end wall off the tunnel!
Coil gun -- like a particle accelerator. Clever overlapping coils
give a nice smooth acceleration. Snag: accelerates payload in about
1s, so consumes 10 GW for a small time. Need to store this energy.
Nowadays possible to build
high energy density
capacitors that can be discharged
Sandia proposed to build one on Hawaii -- nice straight sided
mountains -- 400 kg to 6km/s at 30 degrees elevation -- 2250g
acceleration. The cost per Joule is still rather high -- would
need 1000 payloads before it paid for itself.
A very long launch track, say 100 miles long like Pikes Peak
-- wouldn't need pulsed power -- could use US grid. 15g
acceleration for a minute, payload of a few tons. Recent
advances make this more feasible: insulation, large current
switching semiconductors, heavy duty superconducting coils.
$3000/kg for one launch a month, $130/kg for one launch a day,
$1/kg at extreme high frequency launches.
A lot of sane aerospace engineers are researching this sort of thing
in their spare time.
The civilian market is growing: commsat networks,
weather/environmental surveying. There's a potential for launching
several thousand satellites per year.
Maybe the era of cheap exploration
John Jarrold -- Short Stories Never Sell
' short story
The State of the Art
] sold only about one-third that
of his novels.
Short stories are a training ground for novelists -- it helps you
practice writing and selling. (But a novel isn't just a long short
story.) Having published short stories, it's easier to get agents and
publishers to take you seriously.
70-80% of the market is Fantasy, not SF. Some SF writers have been
asking "will I sell more if I write my SF in Fantasy Quest style?"
and the answer is yes. So expect to see more SF writers writing SF
stories using Fantasy tropes. Also, the public tend to buy fatter books
at the same price, to get better "value for money".
There are more good SF books selling now than 7-9 years ago.
The anthology/collection market is better in the US. Wonderful sales
figures in the UK are merely average in the US. Can sell 50000 there,
but maybe only 3000 here, which isn't enough. The Great Anthology Glut
of the 70s helped destroy the market for a while; it's coming back
Interzone haven't raised their word rate for about 10 years. Once you
become an established novelist, short stories become a labour of love.
It's easier to write a reasonable novel than a reasonable short
story. And a reasonable novel will sell better than a wonderful short
About 12% of the paperback fiction in the UK is F&SF, which is
the largest subsection of the market. (Thrillers are 9%, as is Crime)
Marketing spin is a s much to convince the trade to carry the book as
it is for the public.
Maybe what's needed is to make a glossy magazine like SFX take short
fiction? Need to persuade the media in general to take SF more
seriously. (Crime used to be in this state. But now P.D. James, Colin
Dexter, etc can get reviews.) A lot of people in the book trade see SF
Media SF -- aren't we as guilty of being elitist about this as the
rest of the world are about us?
"90% of all people who have a book in them should keep it there."
Writing a book can be cathartic, but to be a
you have to write what sells (whilst keeping your individuality).
Gets 40 books a week from slush pile, 30 from agents. Has bought 2
books from the slush pile in the last 10 years. The majority is badly
written, badly typed, badly presented. Reads about 10 pages -- if not
hooked by then, sends it back. Doesn't always have time to give a
A story should have one new thing - the idea. It can use SF
'furniture' like FTL. It should
use another new thing to
solve the problem with techno-magic.
Audiences today are not interested in classic stories. In the past,
could sell Hugo anthologies with old stories in them. (Also true of
Crime. Penguin used to republish a lot more than they do now.) No "Classic
SF" list does well.
If I don't know an author, I'd rather pick up a collection. It gives
me an idea of their range, and is easier to dip into. But you have to
change mental gear at the end of each story.
A short story has less background than a novel -- there's not room
for everything. It has different pacing -- like the difference between
an oil painting and a charcoal sketch. Short stories can be sharper and
more vivid. They are perfect for making one point, perfectly. Some of
these points might not be worth writing a whole novel to make.
Fantasy shorts are harder, because it's harder to put in the
background you need. There are some cliches you can use. Shared worlds
In a novel, it's easier to get away with infodumping in the "Chapter
2 Lecture". Can't get away with the "Paragraph 2 Lecture"
in the short.
When plotting, think in terms of the Whodunit: clues, red herrings,
surprises. For pacing, think in terms of the Thriller. When writing,
think in terms of "literature" and poetry, using the best
A novel is a passage of time. Characters journey from here to there.
A short story is a snapshot, or a single pivotal moment, or a strong
vivid idea. A novel can get away with a weaker idea, by giving more
depth, more background. In a short story, every word has to be right; a
good novel can get away with rough patches.
Panel -- Moving On
what is the minimum we could take off planet to preserve our
Should we take the opportunity to winnow the publication dross? Each
published paper has an average of 0.7 readers. Or should we take
everything, and index it well? Or should we take nothing, and make a
Is SF fandom a viable culture? You'd need just paper mills, mushroom
farms and breweries!
A problem with having "everything in the computer": the
colonists might think this is the best that could be done -- like the
stifling Greek influence in the Middle Ages -- and end up with a culture
Need a team of "Mongolian Motor Mechanics" -- who can fix
A language group needs a minimum of 5000 native speakers to survive.
So we are probably talking of a mono-culture.
A mixed bag of colonists might have no shared culture
the shared mission imperative.
Send a single island population, who have already survived together
for generations. Or make the group live together for 10 years first?
-- Closing the Doors
to the Future
recapturing the optimism that got us to the Moon
[one of the better prepared and run panels]
Arthur C. Clarke
: the transistor
killed the manned space program. There's no need for maintenance crews
to change the valves in a commsat.
Many people think the virtual experience, watching it on the Web, is
Every new advance in biology results in an ethics committee to stamp
it out. There's a real worry that technophobia might stop, or at least
delay, space exploration.
Ariane 5 -- three years ago it was criticised for being too large --
now it's clear it is too small. The Iridium satellites required so many
launches they saturated the launch capacity of three nations. But this
rapid advance is short term, not long term research and exploration.
The Shuttle is like a V2 with air-conditioning. The basic technology
hasn't advanced at all. Compare Antarctica: Cook used a wooden ship, and
predicted no-one could ever go further south. Then came steamships.
Scott and Amundsen got to the South Pole, but only planted a flag. It
took another 40 years to go there "in anger". We need a "steamship
breakthrough", which can put the technology in ordinary hands.
There appears to be a beginning of a backlash against the
anti-technologists. The Channel 4 series
. It is interesting to see that such
programs could be made at all.
Surprised not to see a "Preserve the Moon Water" campaign
yet. We'll never terraform Mars -- we could never get the Environmental
Impact statement through. Anyway, the planets are so intrinsically
interesting in themselves, maybe we
terraform them. Go
for the asteroids.
The danger is that space exploration research is required to be
summarisable as a 30 second sound bite.
When the 2028 asteroid was first announced, there were probably a lot
of people rubbing their hands together saying "Yes! We'll need a
The overcrowding of geostationary orbit is important enough to
kickstart companies into thinking of more ideas. Having the
infrastructure to maintain the satellites could help bootstrap further
There are 10,000 people already willing to spend $100,000 to go into
space. If Mir were more reliable, there would be tourists there
Molly Brown and
Just Make It Up...
the value of research
Much research material is written by academics for people with prior
knowledge. Imagine trying to research Regency England if you didn't even
know what the Regency was! For really new stuff, you might have to start
with children's primers.
the Middle Ages. I only set
there because that was when the Black Death was. It's the details that
are difficult. A character looks out the window -- what were windows
made of? Can't assume
. Had mittens been invented? Were
they knitted? Made of rabbit fur? Fur inside or outside? ...
Some things you just cannot find out. You have to change the scene,
or get vague.
The research can give parts of the plot. You have to do your own
research, because only you know what you are looking for -- the details
to drive the story and give it shape. You may not recognise it until you
find it. Example: you knew the plague was coming when you heard the
funerals being tolled increasingly, and then the bells stopped -- so the
church passed a law to silence the bells.
There's no such thing as "too much research". But you are
not writing a treatise -- you are trying to transport yourself to that
time. If you get something wrong, it can kick the reader right out of
the story. And the more stuff you get right, the more the mistakes stick
Don't put in details that have nothing to do with the story. If you
want to show off your research, put it up on
. And there's loads of research material available on
the Web: Constitution of the Roman Republic, Plutarch's Life of
Corilanus,... What's on the Web isn't always accurate, but it's usually
obvious what's okay, and what's crackpot. (But crackpot sites have great
story ideas!) But even different reference books have different "facts".
There is a danger of getting blocked by too many details closing down
Sometimes you find stuff that's too good to be true, and can't use
it, because no-one would believe it. Fiction has to have a level of
plausibility, not too many coincidences. You couldn't write a
"Titanic" -- real life has very bad plotting!
"But then I look at Hollywood, and wonder why we bother?"
Fully intended to set
in the summer, with a
harvest scene. Then discovered the plague hit that area in winter. So I
changed the story.
Research cannot save you. The story is what's important. Readers are
more willing to forgive technical errors than poor stories.