The 68th British National Science Fiction Convention
14-17 April 2017, Hilton Birmingham Metropole
GoHs: Pat Cadigan, Judith Clute, Colin Harris.
This year’s 68th Easter Science Fiction convention saw us driving to the Birmingham Hilton Metropole, next to the NEC, the same hotel as used for Illustrious in 2011. We left plenty of time for the drive, as the travel-pundits were predicting road chaos. There was no road chaos. That left us plenty of time for lunch before starting to go to the sessions.
The first session I attended was a two-person panel on Biotechnology and the Law. Dr Helen Pennington and Dr Colin Gavaghan talked on a variety of aspects of how the law is maybe failing to keep up with scientific advances. CRISPR/Cas9, a technique to edit out genes from the genome, was mentioned a lot, including the fact that it can be used to produce GM organisms that are indistinguishable at the DNA level from organisms “naturally” bred to have the gene removed. The consensus was that items should be labelled so consumers could exercise choice: some don’t want to eat GM food, some prefer GM food, as it doesn’t tend to have the trace amounts of natural fungal microtoxins that organic food does. Nevertheless, Scotland and New Zealand have banned the growing of all GM crops, not just food crops, in order to present a clean “green” image; this is ironic, given that Scotland does not exactly have a healthy food reputation! The current “over the counter” availability, cheapness and ease-of-use of CRISPR led on to discussion of potential dangers; the panellists weren’t too worried, given the difficulty of keeping the GM organism alive: “any back-garden bio-terrorist is likely just to kill themselves, and a couple of neighbours”. Given the potential untraceability of GM organisms, the suggestion was the most important legislation change is to require registering trials and publishing results, as is now beginning to happen for medical trials, to stop the covering up of “mistakes”.
Next I went to a talk on Dinosaurs in fact and fiction by Dr Will Tattersdill. Dinosaurs are complicated: there are the “real” dinosaurs that existed in Deep Time, and there is our changing knowledge of dinosaurs since their discovery in Victorian times, to our better but still imperfect knowledge today. They form a perfect link between the “two cultures” of arts and sciences: you can’t have a dinosaur without scientific activity and physical evidence, but you need imagination and art to “flesh out” a whole animal from a few bones or partial skeleton. As science advances, our knowledge increases, but out dead images, our wrong images, stay with us, too, in books, in toys. Arguing that these “old” dinosaurs are wrong is robbing us of our pasts, of our childhoods, in much the same way that arguing Pluto is not a planet does. We have a nostalgia for outmoded science. In his essay “Dinomania” Stephen Jay Gould writes “When I was a child, ornithopods laid their eggs and then walked away forever. Today these same creatures are the very models of maternal, caring, politically correct dinosaurs.” Just look at the tenses and model of time in that quote! Will speculates that dinosaurs are perfect for SF readers: we have the “cognitive agility” to hold multiple worlds, each with their own rules, and complex models of time, in our heads; this skill is needed to hold all the different “human pasts” of dinosaurs, too. The talk covered more: history, cultural imperialism, phylogenetic trees, gender, SF stories, … you name it. Brilliant stuff; I’m looking forward to his book due out end of 2019.
Next came David Allan’s quiz, loosely based on Pointless. The team of 4 did well, hampered as they were on occasion by one of the options not appearing on their sheets, only on the screen visible to the audience. Picture round: Name the alien. Alternate letter round: Fictional planets: _A_I_O_R (Majipoor), _A_L_F_E_ (Gallifrey), A_R_K_S (Arrakis), M_D_E_I_ (Midkemia), Title of First Novel in Trilogy on Being Given the Second, … When the surprisingly low scores for some of the more obvious options were revealed, the audience demanded to know who on earth the consulted panel were.
Then it was time for the opening ceremony. As traditional, the Guests of Honour were invited up onto the stage, as were the con committee, for applause. Afterwards, Dr Emma King from the Royal Institution gave an excellent presentation that involved lots of things going bang.
For the final item of my day, I went along to a panel on Making Money from Art and Craft in the SFF Community. I am not myself an artist, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a friend who is, who sells a few fantasy-related items on eBay. I went to find out if there is more they could do. In summary, and unsurprisingly, if you want to make more than just your costs back, you are going to have to move from a hobby to a profession, which many crafters don’t want to do. But I did discover the existence of something called silver clay. I won’t do anything with this knowledge, other than enjoy the fact that I now know about this.
To start our Saturday at Eastercon, we visited the Art Show and the Dealers’ Room.
It is noticable how over the years there is a higher proportion of tables in the Dealers’ Room
selling various artefacts—clothing, jewelry, models, etc—rather than books. We also assured the Helsinki and Follycon tables that we were already members, and bought a pre-supporting membership for Dublin’s 2019 worldcon bid.
The first event was the BSFA lecture, an annual talk about “ideas of interest to SF fans, but not SF”. These have been uniformly brilliant, but I was concerned about this one, as it was about Revolutions and Revelations in Hamilton, and I haven’t seen Hamilton the musical, and didn’t know much about it, not even that it was hip hop, or that it casts across race and, sometimes, gender. [Yes, I do live under a rock, it seems.] I needn’t have worried, prior knowledge was not a requirement, and Dr Sarah Whitfield gave a excellent presentation: informative, funny, and thought-provoking. The talk included several YouTube clips, demonstrating how the work follows traditional musical theatre structures, such as the I Want song—illustrated with a clip from the Buffy musical episode unexpectedly accompanied by an audience sing-along—and also references many earlier hip hop songs. In addition to lauding the staggering success of Hamilton, Whitfield was also careful to point out some of its shortcomings: its minimal coverage of Hamilton’s bisexual reputation; its “whitewashed” version of history, ignoring the contribution of people of colour at the time; the fact that it being lauded as “the most diverse musical ever” wipes out the extraordinary racism of Broadway and the history of PoC in early musical theatre. This layered history, combining the historical events being depicted and the history of the medium in which they are depicted, provided a nice parallel with Will Tattersdill’s talk on dinosaurs the previous day.
Next off to Colin Harris’ Guest of Honour talk about his Life in Pictures: how he became an SF art collector, and his role in various SF conventions.
The panel Timeless Speculative Technology. Or Not discussed when tech in SF becomes outdated,
and how to write about the near future without running into problems.
There are parodies that describe real life as if it were SF: how you walk up to a door, press a lever, push to open, and so on.
[I was tempted after this to write a parody of hotel breakfast buffet tech,
such as how if one passes a slice of bread through the provided bread warmer multiple times,
it eventually gains a gently singed surface.]
Tech should not be over-described – it should be real and almost invisibly embedded in the culture – but should also be somehow dreamlike, to evoke a different feel. It is easier to predict tech than its knock-on consequences: it is easier to predict the car than the traffic jam, and once you have predicted the ship, remember that there is now the possibility of shipwreck.
In Galaxy Quest the aliens had to reverse engineer the tech from what the actors were doing. Computers are difficult for visual drama: hacking into a bank, doing taxes, and writing a love letter all look exactly the same. MS-Word has the wrong metaphor, of a giant scroll: it encourages over-editing at the top of the scroll, rather than allowing more even attention across the document that you get with individual pages. The mobile phone, once magical tech, has now become so ubiquitous that there is a resurgence of period crime drama, to a time before so many plot tropes became unrealistic. That past was different: 25 years ago, think what would happen if you said “I have 500 people following me...” The future is looking bleak, though. However, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels show how to imagine a way out of climate change; they demonstrate a responsibility to synthesise something positive, not wallow in dystopia.
Next was the George Hay Lecture, a science-themed talk at Eastercons. Prof Debbie Chachra, a materials scientist, talked on 3D Printing, Biology, and Futures for Materials. 3D printed materials can be carefully designed to have even loading and strength just where it’s needed, and then they can come out looking remarkably organic. Biological materials are fascinating; they have structure on all levels from atomic to macroscopic, and each level’s structure contributes to the overall properties. For example, spider silk is not only stronger than steel, it absorbs impacts, otherwise flying prey would just trampoline off a web. Biology provides a form of nanotechnology: not the precisce atom-by-atom placement of The Diamond Age, but a more stochastic yet reproducible model where biological machinery creates organisms from the bottom up with many levels of structure. We can engineer biology on the nano-scale, too. CRISPR allows DNA editing.
DNA codon degeneracy (64 triplets code for 20 amino acids, plus punctuation) allows us to design in new amino acids. We can create new DNA bases beyond ACGT. This is all highly complex machinery, and we are only just beginning to understand what is possible. However, materials are the infrastructure of design.
Then everyone trooped into the plenary room, to watch The Pilot episode of Doctor Who, which introduces new companion Bill Potts. This is very much an introductory episode, educating new viewers on the Doctor, the Tardis, and Daleks. The Doctor is in hiding, from what we don’t know, teaching at St Luke’s University, Bristol, where he has an academic office larger than that inhabited by many Vice Chancellors, and gives a lecture course that has probably not had its official learning outcomes approved by any sort of Teaching Committee. Once it was over, we flooded back to the fan food room – which had stopped serving 10 minutes earlier, because there was no-one around. So off for a short walk around Pendigo Lake to find dinner: a lamb, avocado, and chorizo burger at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen; yum.
Sunday at Eastercon: the busiest day, with eight different events!
First was a panel on Biohacking, defined as “amateur biological science and body modification”. Of course, some body mods already exist for medical purposes: pacemakers, insulin pumps, contraceptive implants, … The panellists included academic biologists and medical researcher. Quizzed about their “dream body mod”, their answers ranged from chloroplasts (they would be green, would need to eat less, and would have an excuse to stay out in the sun), enhanced vision (telescopic eyes for bird watching, microscope eyes for work), breathing underwater, and wifi connection directly in the brain.Social implications of these could be interesting: wifi would make pub arguments more complex, and might have a short term effect on exams (exam halls with wifi blockers) and a longer term effect (questions change to how well you can look things up). And microscope eyes would be bad for germophobes. On the amateur biology side, it was again noted that it is now possible to run a microbiology lab in your garage. There is a lot of good kit on eBay, from labs that have shut down due to loss of funding. Some things are easy, but when you start trying to produce new things, there will still be issues with contamination and variability. As the kit becomes cheaper, more small companies could set up producing designer meds, and more small companies could set up to analyse the purity of such meds.
Then was a change of scope, from inner space to outer space, with the panel strangely titled Seven New Planets! Squeeeee, about the seven “terrestrial” planets recently discovered orbiting red dwarf TRAPPIST-1. (Moderator Nicholas Jackson dryly observed that “squeeee” was not a word he tended to use himself.) The panellists included biologists and astrophysicists. Conversation ranged over the physical characteristics of the planets, to the psychology of space exploration.
Next was a panel on Expanding Artificial Intelligence: is it already here, or will it never arrive? Panellists included people interested in the legal and ethical implications of AI, in trying to spot AIs being used for trading, and in processing big data using machine learning. A small amount of time was spent discussing how it is not easy to even define AI. It was also noted that a fair number of human posters on Twitter are indistinguishable from trash bots: these people fail the Turing Test! Will Asimov’s Three Laws be needed for cases like autonomous cars? [Personally, I think any AI that truly followed the second clause of the First Law – “or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” – would be useless for its designed purpose, as it would immediately be off to relieve Third World hunger, cure cancer, or whatever, or become a gibbering wreck as it realised it couldn’t do all of this.] SF has become fact: we all walk around with a device that is both a Star Trek communicator and the HHGTTG. But there is still a huge way to go to a device that can intelligently recognise images (even just cats are hard), and recognise speech, and move and manipulate the environment, and … Maybe the right way to go is hybrid intelligences: us, plus our super-smart phones.
Pat Cadigan’s Guest of Honour talk was an hilarious romp through the two times she died (once as a small child, once after anaphylactic shock brought on by penicillin), and her current two-and-a-half years into a two year prognosis for terminal uterine cancer. It was hilarious: trust me, you had to be there (and it explains the T-shirt). From all this, she has learned that “you might not be able to cure it, but you can treat it”. She exhorted us: “don’t hate your life”: even if you can’t make it perfect, you can change it for the better. Fandom’s reputation for monomania can be summed up by one incident from this talk: Pat’s the anaphylactic shock story included a part where she, while dazedly waiting at home for help, decided she needed to get a book to read in the emergency room, so crawled to the bookshelf to select one; one audience member asked, “what was the book?”
The panel on You Want A Revolution? I Want A Revelation! complemented yesterday’s BSFA talk on Revolutions and Revelations in Hamilton, discussing incidents in SF, from Star Wars to The Hunger Games, from Orwell to the graphic novel series Saga.
Revolution needs a change in thought; the revelation gives the reason for needing that change, that things can be different. Real revolutions need a narrative, and sometimes fiction can provide that narrative, such as the relationship between Braveheart and Scottish Nationalism. Even bad art can inspire: “I don’t need accuracy to be emotionally inspired”. However, revolutionary fiction can often have an undercurrent of small-c conservatism: the protagonist is special for some reason, and the fight is to return to the status quo. And the metaphors need to work: the X-Men may be a minority, but their mutations make them physically dangerous in a way that being gay/black/female does not.
Simon Bradshaw, RAF engineer turned lawyer, and long term con-goer, gave a fascinating talk on
Vorkosigan’s Law: Legal Concepts from an Imagined Universe.
He analysed several incidents from Bujold’s series, ostensibly to pick apart the legal system of Barrayar, but actually to educate us in aspects of English law. His talk was illustrated with some interesting real life cases and laws: the snail in the ginger beer bought by a friend, divorce law, the Human Fertilisation Act, Murray Pringle and inheritance law, the Lord Chancellor and land rights over Grand Junction Canal, General Pinochet’s extradition hearings, and more, all linked to analogous events in the science fictional series. Fascinating.
The final panel of the day was In Search of Optimistic SF. Everything seems to be grimdark or dystopian: where is a better future depicted? It is hard to believe there’s a future at all! Bad things can happen, yet the underlying tale be optimistic, to have a sense of hope: it needs a belief that things can get better, and that there are things we can do to make those things better. [Shades of Cadigan’s GoH talk here.] Even a post-apocalyptic story can do this: Station 11 argues that survival alone is not enough, there needs to be more. But as SF has upscaled timescales and distances, it has upscaled villainy: the psychopathic plutocrat who kills millions to hide the kidnap of the plot token. Yet upscaling the villainy runs the risk of normalising these atrocities. Stories help us construct our world – what we believe possible, who we are, where we are going – they provide vision and imagination, and so authors have a responsibility. Real life good news stories, such as scientific and medical advances, are not very dramatic, because they are collective efforts: these don’t fit our conventional narrative structures. There are three main classes of SF: rejecting the other, embracing the other, becoming the other. The first could be optimistic if it is about maintaining community, not being engulfed by a larger, less fair society; the other two are more optimistic forms. SF can have a special passport to saying things other genres can’t – but there’s a time to be influential: 1984 inoculated society to some degree … but only for a while. Writers and stories influential in their time –
Joanna Russ’ The Female Man,
Delany’s Dhalgren, … – can be sidelined, as later works (eg cyberpunk) argue only against the big writers of the time (Heinlein, Niven etc).
The final event of the evening was the Thomas Bloch and Pauline Haas Recital. featuring an Ondes Martenot, a cristal Baschet, a glass harmonica, oh, and a harp. The Ondes Martenot sounded like something the early BBC Radiophonic Workshop might have invented, and that might have inspired The Clangers sound effects. The cristal Baschet sounded like a bull in a scrap metal shop. The glass harmonica sounded like someone playing a load of wine glasses. Okay, I’m not a modern music aficionado.
Our final day at the Eastercon, with only three events we wanted to go to – so we spent a lot of time chatting to friends, plus a quick walk round the lake to the retail outlet in search of a new teapot (we failed).
First was an illustrated talk on Science Fictional Pub Signs. Due to technical difficulties the pictures weren’t available until well into the talk. The presenter did a sterling job of presenting without slides, then rapidly re-presenting once the slides appeared. The signs were mostly fantasy rather than SF, such as Mermaid, Angel, and Unicorn, but there was one nice one, Vulcan, depicting the Roman god of fire and a bomber and Leonard Nimoy.
Some of the signs are double-sided, with a different picture on each side. Interesting fact for the day: up to the 18th century, the signs were getting bigger and bigger, then one collapsed and killed four people, and so they were restricted to their current size.
Next was a presentation by Dr Amy Chambers on Prospecting Futures and Expert SF Readers. This was about a current academic research project Unsettling Scientific Stories, which I first heard about when I was on the (Don’t) Ask the Scientist panel with Amy at last year’s Eastercon. Amy talked about how readers can engage with multiple story worlds, keeping them separate (echoing Will Tattersdill’s dinosaur talk on Friday). The engagement is with the entire storyworld, built up from individual stories and from other inputs, so each actual storyworld is personal to the reader [which might help explain disagreements about how interesting various worlds actually are]. For example, Bladerunner (set in 2019!) is an adaptation of the storyworld, rather than of the novel, and it is a hyper-detailed storyworld. Interesting discussion ensued. For example, the term “expert” reader put off many in the audience: we might consider ourselves experienced, possibly even skilled, but probably not expert. If you want to get involved in the research, as an experienced reader, you can start by filling in the quick survey on the project website. And there’s going to be a 3-day academic conference in York immediately before Follycon (in nearby Harrogate) next year, to present the project’s findings.
The final event of the con that we attended was Nicholas Jackson’s now almost obligatory talk on some fascinating aspect of mathematics. [Maybe he should entitle the series Serious Mathematical Talks or something?] This year his talk was on Mathematics and Language, enlivened as usual by anecdotes (like the head of a university maths department telling a visitor “any other way of caring for these people would be more expensive”),
mathematical jokes (“I used to say that I can still think in a normal way, but then I realised that ‘normal’ means ‘at right angles’”), and historical details (with jokes, like a slide titled Galileo Galilei (Galilis, Galilis, Galilorum) – which is apparently an Eddie Izzard joke). The language of mathematics is like a Matryoshka doll of concepts: you can keep unpacking definitions, illustrated first by defining a group, defining the terms used to define a group, defining the terms used to define the terms... A mathematician needs to internalise, to grok, each level, which can then be used as building blocks for higher level concepts. So we end up with things like “a quantum group is a quasitriangular Hopf algebra”, where “a Hopf algebra is a bialgebra with an antipode”, and so on. Oh, and a quantum group is not really a group, and not especially quantum; but then a peanut isn’t a pea and isn’t really a nut. The talk moved on to notation, including the Kauffman Bracket for calculating properties of knots, and then “generalised abstract nonsense” (category theory), by which point most of the audience, myself included, were totally lost, but happy to be along for the ride. It concluded with a description of technical vocabulary, and how a couple of mathematicians came to grief in an airport when they were discussing ”blowing up points on a plane”. [My own favourite example is the physics phrase "the moment of a couple in a field".]
Then it was off to drive home. We tried stopping at a couple of places for dinner, but they had each shut early. Clearly, the hordes of people all travelling home on a Bank Holiday are not going to want to eat.