The 1996 British National Science Fiction Convention
5-8 April 1996, Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow
GoHs: Vernor Vinge, Colin
Greenland, (science) Jack Cohen, (artist) Bryan
Talbot, (fan) Paul Kincaid and Maureen Kincaid Speller
Once I had reminded myself this was a British Eastercon, and not a
Worldcon (how we do get spoilt), I stopped thinking "a bit small,
isn't it?" and started enjoying myself.
The Radisson Edwardian Hotel has to win an award for most confusing
layout --- all very long, absolutely identical corridors --- "you are
in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike".
Panel: Balkanising Britain
Why is the idea of a fractured Britain so fascinating to British
- A less perjoritive term is Cantonisation, as in Switzerland
- It isn't that long since the Superstate was an obvious good idea.
That inevitability has gone.
- Large governments will be weakened, as strong encryption turns
the economy totally 'black' to them
- Virtual communities are not the answer: they have no clout
because they have no tax base. The Internet community couldn't stop
the CDA (Communications Decency Act)
- Smaller, but non-virtual, communities may be natural evolution
- "I realised that I've never voted for anyone who was ever
elected -- neither has my father, who is 71!" -- Cantonisation
makes your vote count more?
- Anyway, it's a useful SF device for writing about many different
societies without having to do much geographical research!
- South American countries such as Brazil don't seem to have 'identity
craving': is it a 'European' phenomenon?
Dave Clements: The Long Term Future of the Universe
Can we survive the death of the solar system? And can that event be
- How long life can exist depends on whether the universe is open
(continues to expand forever) or closed (ends in a Big Crunch).
- Local survival problems:
- Environmental: global warming or cooling
- Comet and asteroid impacts
- There appears to be a mass extinction approximately every 250
- Shoemaker-Levy 1994 impacting Jupiter makes it seem more
- We are lucky Tunguska 1908 didn't happen during the Cold War.
- Nearby supernova: although supernovae were necessary to make
life, by making the heavy elements ["We are Stardust, We are
Carbon" as the song nearly goes] a nearby one is bad news. The
neutrino flux alone may be fatal. There is a nearby supernova
approximately every 250 Myr.
- Death of the Sun
- The sun will die (start burning helium) in about 7*109
yrs. It will expand and cook us, throw off material as a planetary
nebula, and turn into a White Dwarf star.
- David Griswell, in Interstellar Migration and Human
Experience suggests Star Lifting as a palliative.
- Remove material from the sun, until it is like a White Dwarf.
- Slowly feed the material back on, increasing its lifespan by
about 4 orders of magnitude.
- This rate of burning, if all used, can support a population
of individuals using up to 200 kW each, of 1021
- Longer term problems (in an open universe)
- 1.25*1011 yrs: our galaxy collides with the Virgo
- the hot intergalactic medium in clusters is a source of
- the interactions stir up matter in our galaxy
- 1012 yrs: star formation stops. All massive stars are
now Neutron Stars or Black Holes, so there is no more recycling of
matter for new stars.
- 1014 yrs: even low-mass stars are now White Dwarfs.
- 1015 yrs: all planets detached from their stars, by
- 1017 yrs: White Dwarfs have cooled to 5K.
- 1019 yrs: Neutron Stars have cooled to 100K.
- 1031 yrs: protons decay.
- Dyson: in an open universe, we have fewer, more diverse
resources. If we reduce energy requirements by 'slowing the clock', life
can exist for the infinite age of the universe, but have only a finite
- Tipler: in a closed universe, as the universe collapses,
matter and energy density increases. We can 'speed up the clock', and
can squeeze in an infinite amount of experience before the Big Crunch.
Panel: Rocket Science in the Real World
- Now using ex-Soviet missiles to launch small satellites.
- Using off-the-shelf parts makes satellites cheaper, so it is more
cost-effective to launch shorter-lived satellites.
- Can launch today's technology, not 1970s space-qualified
- Less research into radiation hardening; but this is still needed
for long-lived deep space probes
- Unlike NASA, ESA has 'guaranteed funding' and a stable environment.
Programmes don't need to go back to the politicians every year. (But
this may soon change.)
- Comet Hale-Bopp arrives next year: we can't launch anything to
intercept, because we have no 'quick response' capability. We can only
go and look at things we know are going to happen (like Halley).
- Each satellite is a one-off design, and there is no feedback from
users to designers. Design is driven by engineers and politicians, not
by the users of the data. Example: the Infra-Red Orbital Satellite's
orbit will miss either the Galactic centre, or the Orion
star formation region.
- Unobserved data
- Large scale survey missions produce lots of data, only some of
which is looked at at the time. The rest is archived.
- The Russians are recycling the silver nitrate from their original
- It is easy to lose the data format, lose the technology that can
read it, lose the separate calibration data without which it is
- Hipparcos is to print a star catalogue on acid-free paper, using
a typeface that is easily machine-readable.
- Launch turnaround
- The Shuttle takes 5000 people 6 months to turn around a launch.
(Mainly because they have only three and a half shuttles, and have
to strip parts off one for the next.)
- The target is 5 people, 1 week turnaround.
- Space debris
- Upper launch stages are a big problem, but manufactures are now
designing around this.
- No-one is test-destructing satellites anymore.
- Low-lying stuff will burn up in about 20 years.
- The Space Station is designed with Kevlar armour
- 'Debris avalanche': if one satellite blows up and scatters debris
into the orbits of others, they could also blow up, until eventually
there aren't 600 satellites, but 6 billion scraps, in orbit.
- Asteroid deflection
- Clementine: SDI sensors looking at the moon. It was to look at an
asteroid, too, but failed first.
- Clementine II, 1998. Fly by small asteroids, launch small probes
at them, to find the composition.
- No asteroid is seen to be spinning faster than is consistent for
a non-solid gravel body. Such would be hard to deflect.
Panel: Living Through the Singularity
- When machines become as creative as humans -- and then more! -- there
comes a point beyond which you cannot see or predict.
- We simulate reality. We will make devices that can simulate reality
faster and better than we do.
- Information is key
- We are now developing information sifting tools
- Explosion of Web search engines of greater complexity -- some now
do contextual searches
- Misinformation is a problem: "The Net of a Million Lies"
- Norbert Weiner once said "A milestone has passed: the amount
of information on how to make information available is now too great
to be known by one person."
- Ubiquitous, pervasive computers -- the computers disappear, become
part of the environment, eventually part of us. "I already
feel my computer is part of me."
- How fast will it happen? "On any exponential curve, tomorrow is
an emergency and yesterday is tame."
- Hard take off -- days -- nanotechnology's
Grey Goo scenario;
Greg Bear's Blood Music
- Soft take off -- 100-150 years -- easy to manage, those
participating will hardly notice -- Hans Moravec's Mind
- Unlimited technological advance might not be all good -- what if the
cost of immortality and infinite intelligence for a thousand people was
the destruction of the solar system?
Bryan Talbot: GoH talk
This was heavily illustrated (naturally!), and structured around his new
graphic novel about child abuse and Beatrix Potter The Tale of One Bad
Rat. Since this is a mainstream novel, not genre, he tried not to use
too much of our "acquired knowledge of comic grammar", in order
to make it more accessible. He explained some of the techniques he did
- Use diagonal lines to indicate speed and movement
- Make the hero's face big in the frame
- Putting the reader's eye level at about a character's chest level
makes them look heroic
- For sympathy in Bad Rat, where the hero is a child, make the
reader's eye level the same as hers, and hence lower than most of the
other characters. Also the vanishing point is often between her eyes.
- Notice how Rupert Bear is in every panel, wearing the same
clothing: this makes him very easy to identify.
- Use red in Bad Rat to indicate subliminally something bad.
- Sometimes design a whole page around the lettering positions
- It is possible to use 'split screen' techniques much more effectively
than in film, because the reader has time to study both screens.
- Tromso, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, forms the topography of
the Tine home world in A Fire Upon the Deep -- makes it easy to
- Likes to illustrate his own work: pictures of a Tine pack, diagrams
of the various galactic Zones
- 'Visual dictionary' of Tines performing 'everyday actions' --
reaching for a book, making a gesture -- as a group mind. It would
probably look very unsettling. (Someone suggested it would make a good
- There are some inconsistency problems in A Fire Upon the Deep
-- "but you can always turn a problem into a prequel"
- Earth is in the Slow Zone -- so the Singularity cannot happen here --
we are in "The Age of Failed Dreams". Technology improves for
a while, then tails off -- software gets too complex, hardware stops
improving -- what will it be like after 6000 years of legacy software?
- If two asteroids almost collide, tidal forces can affect the
'loose stuff' on their surfaces, and hoist a satellite into orbit about
either asteroid, and form tidal moraines.
Caroline Mullan & Greg Pickersgill: Fandom as Gynocracy
- Women are in the minority in Fandom, but are able to be leaders.
- "You are making the classic sexist mistake: you are exaggerating
the contribution of women, because you perceive women being active as
anomalous, and hence over-count their contribution."
- There are proportionally more women in Star Trek Fandom -- "some
of the contempt levelled at media fans is just plain sexism"
Panel: Tall Technical Tales
Some very odd things go on in labs late at night...
- Jack Cohen's PhD on feather development at
Hull U. Had a vivisection licence to pluck no more than 20 square
centimetres of feathers from anaesthetised chickens. Panic on the day
the Vivisection Inspector visited: the monkey had plucked a chicken
- Spray nitrogen tri-iodide (which explodes at the slightest contact)
onto a window, and wait for the flies to land.
- "A human brain looks a bit like spaghetti in tomato sauce, and
almost nothing like what you see in films."
- Bringing back a 6 inch cube sample of concrete from a Saudi Arabian
airstrip, for structural analysis, neatly packaged in its own wooden
box. Customs cut it into 216 one inch cubes before they would believe
nothing was being smuggled.
- Jack Cohen was flying blue-tongued skinks in from Australia. They
require burping, to stop them haemorrhaging because of the reduced
pressure. In a holding pattern over Heathrow, going up and down for two
and a half hours, he had the whole plane burping his skinks.
Jack Cohen: GoH talk
Jack Cohen's life in science (and on the
- Spinoza's Ethics had a big effect on him. The person teaching
him to be a Rabbi told him: "Don't read Spinoza, he's an atheist".
"But there's God on every page!" "Alright, he's a
pantheist." If the person teaching religion doesn't
know the difference between an atheist and a pantheist...
"That was when I stood up to
be counted. As usual, the count was one."
- Research on feather development, hair, pigmentation, embryology
- Schools lectures on "What does a Martian Look Like?" What
is universal (so might also be seen in aliens), what is parochial? The
universal four Fs: fur, photosynthesis, flight, mating.
- On BSE: Cows have been eating chicken droppings as a nitrogen source
- 1974. The Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction (a chaotic chemical system of
propagating circular or spiral waves) ought to be made easy for teachers
to demonstrate. The Winfree-Cohen system is now the one everyone uses.
- Why are so many sperms produced? Genetic crossover often goes wrong,
only the sperms where it is right succeed: nearly all sperms are coated
with antibodies and killed. Hence, more crossovers, more sperms
- Cervical smears: showed that some apparently pathological ones are
actually just ordinary physiology. Reduced false positives by about 25%.
"I reckon I've got about 10
years left, and it's still interesting!"
Panel: Elves in Spacesuits
Far future SF: "Any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
- An 'operational description' and a 'magical description' are often
the best shorthand description of what is happening.
- It is a mistake for magic or religion to align itself closely with
the science of the day, because science dates. Example: Thomas
Aquinas 'explained' Transubstantiation in terms of Aristotelian physics,
where form and substance are distinct.
- "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from
- Story summary: in the 1600s the witches wised up, and invented
science. An old lady on a broomstick gets burned and old lady in a 747
is okay, even though there is a broomstick in each 'nacelle'.
- Try pretending you are an historical figure, then go about your
everyday life: try reading reality
Panel: 21st Century Odyssey -- SF as Travelogue
- In Fantasy the quest, and its achievement, is the point. In SF, the
journey is more important than the arrival. Example, in Fantastic
Voyage, the purpose of the journey is of no importance at
all, the real purpose is "to boldly go".
- Much of SF is exploration, of planets, of technology, etc.
People who are interested in SF are people who are more interested in
questions than in the answers.
- In SF, one can do far more than in other kinds of writing, one can
put words together in new kinds of ways. Example:
Heinlein's "The door dilated".
But there is a new burden of metaphor versus literalness, examples:
"her world exploded"; "the
sun exploded over the horizon"; "he turned on his left side".
So SF metaphors have to be a bit more elaborate.
I'm still looking for old-time fan Chuck
Harris's werewolf yarn which opens with the legendary line: "The
family were changing for dinner."
-- Dave Langford. SFX 51,
- Kim Stanley Robinson once said "In SF, you can get there from
here; in Fantasy you can't". A fantasy world is either
self-contained and self-sufficient, or you get there by magical means,
like through the back of a wardrobe. In SF, you can get there by living
long enough, or travelling far enough, or backing up the time stream
until you reach the forking point.
- SF is a Conspiracy of Dreams.
- Hal Clement's Mission of
Gravity is essentially a travel book.
- Ursula K. Le Guin argues in "The
Spaceship and Mrs Brown" that you need human characters. But as
well as a character-centered 'Portrait Novel', you can also have a
plot-centered 'Landscape Novel'. Criticising these for a lack of
characters is like criticising the expressions on the faces in