The 75th World Science Fiction Convention
9-13 August 2017, Helsinki, Finland
GoHs: John-Henri Holmberg, Nalo Hopkinson, Johanna Sinisalo, Claire Wendling (unable to attend), Walter Jon Williams.
We had scoped out where the number 9 tram stop was yesterday evening, so we confidently went along to it in the morning. The tram arrived promptly, and promptly terminated, disgorging all its passengers. Fortunately there was another right behind, so we boarded that. There were lots of other fannish people on board, so we decided it would be easy to know where to get off. And it was, not just by following the hordes, but because the venue was visible from the tram stop.
|fen converging on the prominently-named venue|
Although programming didn’t start until noon, we went along early, to make sure we could find the way, and because we were anticipating a long wait in the registration queue. The way was easy to find, and registration was remarkably efficient, taking only a few minutes, so we then had a couple of hours to get a coffee, and explore the venue, finding the locations of the various programme rooms.
12 noon, and off to my first item. But. Huge queue, tiny room, filled before I got there. So, off to my backup item. Huge queue, tiny room, filled before I got there. Hmm. Even at the packed Loncon, I had managed to get into a backup item. I went and explored the fan area instead.
1pm; I had joined the queue early, and just got into the panel on Invented Mythologies.
The panel comprised writers and people with degrees in history and in mythology and folklore. First of all, a definition, to distinguish mythology from hero tales, legends, folklore, and fairy tales. A myth is a sacred narrative held to be true and metaphorically true by the population, about how the world came to be as it is. Myths involve gods, whereas legends involve demi-gods or mortals. Over time, mortal protagonists can be “promoted” in status, moving from legend to myth. How can we remix existing mythologies while avoiding cultural appropriation? The advice was to restrict use to cultural systems not currently being observed by existing people, and to beware of using traditions of people over whom the writer’s cultural group currently has a power relationship. How much backstory should we invent? Answers diverged here, from the “just enough for the story” to “fully worked out”, but there was a definite consensus on “no infodumping”—just throw the reader into the story and let them puzzle out the background—and “no homogenous nations/planets”—have some complexity, diversity, blending, and inconsistency, as in the the way real world mythologies evolve over time.
2pm, and I again failed to get into either my first choice or my backup item, so I went for lunch instead. At the far end of the venue was a nice “all you can eat” hot buffet (plus a good selection of salad laid on for the various alien species who eat that sort of food) for 15 Euros.
3pm, and early joining of the queue got me into a panel on Obsolete Science Ideas. Which old ideas from science, that are now obsolete, nevertheless manage to live on in SF today, or at least lived on in SF for a while after their disproof? Since one of the panellists had to drop out, this was a panel of two. They covered Hollow Earth ideas (proposed by Edmond Halley, to explain anomalies in compass readings), dinosaurs still living today, Venus with oceans, Mars with canals, anti-gravity fields in small shuttles, faster-than-light travel (and what you see out of the window), interstellar empires with feudal politics, habitable planets with a single climate zone and only predators, RNA as a memory carrier, counter-earth, and so on. Such ideas persist because they are poetic, because they make good stories, which messy contingent complex reality often doesn’t.
4pm, and it’s the familiar story: long queues, no room. At least the art show was open.
5pm, and off to learn about Destroying The Universe With Vacuum Bubbles. This was a scientific presentation on why some people had been worried that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) search for the Higg’s boson might destroy the universe, and, even though that didn't happen, how the universe definitely will end because of vacuum instability, if the current Standard Model in physics is right. The Standard Model (plus the currently known values of particle masses) imply that the vacuum is unstable, and quantum mechanics allows “tunnelling” to the more stable negative-energy ground state. That would create a vacuum bubble that would expand at the speed of light, inside which spacetime itself has collapsed to nothing. It doesn’t just destroy everything in the universe, it destroys the universe itself! We don’t need to worry, though, because the half-life for this tunnelling is 10600 years. People were worried about the LHC, because they thought that the energies involved might allow the system to jump over, rather than wait to tunnel through, the energy barrier. But it turns out that elementary particle collisions can’t produce enough energy density over a large enough volume for this to happen (phew!) But anyway, some cosmic rays are orders of magnitude more energetic than the LHC, and they haven’t initiated a vacuum collapse yet. A more interesting question is why primordial black hole catalysed vacuum decay hasn’t occurred: is this demonstrating there is something missing from black hole theory, or from the Standard Model, or that the particle masses are different enough from current measurements that the ground state does not have negative energy and so does not expand? That is, does the universe’s continued existence provide evidence that our physics is wrong? All in all, this was an excellent talk, full of great science, with a light-touch delivery.
6pm, and again, no chance to get in anywhere as there was not enough time to join one of the queues directly after the previous item. So we went and grabbed a bit to eat. We met a member of the programme staff I knew from work, and discussed the queuing situation. I said how I had recently joked that, given the number of parallel sessions, I would miss almost as much or the Worldcon as someone not attending. But it seemed I was missing more than that! Apparently many more people (like, every SF fan in Finland...) had registered than they were expecting, and had then come along on the first day when there wasn't as much programming as there might be. Hopefully it will be better tomorrow, with more items to spread out between.
We started queuing early for the evening concert, which had, sensibly, been moved to a larger room than originally scheduled. The blurb for the event said: “Another Castle is the geekiest women’s choir in Helsinki. Riverside Castle is the geekiest women’s choir in Turku”, sort of implying there are other geeky women's choirs in these two cities. The joint choir started off in a way sure to please this crowd: doo de-do, doo de-do, doo de-do, dee di-di, woo-wooooo! The Doctor Who theme sung a cappella by about 40 voices was amazing. They continued with a variety of science fictional themes from film, TV and games. Their finale was greeted with a standing ovation. This must have taken them slightly by surprise, because the choir leader apologised to us that they had no encore prepared. “Do the Doctor Who again!” yelled a voice from the audience. “That will work”, she said. So they did. And it was excellent again.
9pm-ish, and still quite light. So we walked back to the hotel.
Day 2 of the Worldcon had more programming, so the attendees were distributed over several more rooms. This meant I got into more programme items, if not always my first (or even second) choice items.
First up was the panel In Defence of the Unlikeable Heroine. This discussed the double standard: a hero is allowed to have flaws, to be unlikeable, and we forgive him for this.
But give the same traits to a heroine, or even less extreme ones, and suddenly she is unforgivably unlikeable. Men can be heroes or antiheroes, but women who cross the line become villains. Characters don’t need to be likeable, though: we want to read about interesting rounded compelling characters doing interesting things; we don’t necessarily want to sit down and have a cup of tea with them. In films, a female protagonist can be strong and assertive, provided she is also sexy, to soften her for male audiences. Think of Katniss from The Hunger Games: her youth and hotness compensates for her unlikeableness, yet her unlikeableness merely stems from the fact that she doesn’t want to die. Moreover, the plot is manipulated so that she only kills in self-defence; a male lead would be allowed to strike first and not be apologetic for saving his own life. Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren can play cold ice queens because they are beautiful. Older female characters can get away with being unlikeable—Granny Weatherwax has no fucks to give—but there is a dearth of such older characters too. Some of the issues might be from the way audiences code “female” as “mother”, and that unmotherly becomes unlikeable. Part of being a mother is putting your children ahead of you, part of being motherly is putting everyone ahead of you.
Next was Nalo Hopkinson’s Guest of Honour interview, and then Walter Jon Williams’ Guest of Honour presentation. I always enjoy hearing about authors’ lives: they are often unusual in some respects.
Next was a panel on Asexuality in SF. Jo Walton was on the panel, and commented that her first novel, The King’s Peace, has an asexual protagonist, which fact got zero attention (except from asexual people recognising themselves), yet when her novel Farthing came out, everyone was saying “there are so many gay people in this book” that she had to come out as straight! Why the difference in attention? Is it because it’s hard to notice the lack of something? A lot of early SF left out sex; it was essentially asexual. Now that it can include sex, there’s no more room for asexual characters. Historically there were a lot of asexual and celibate people, who are being reimagined as gay. Yet people like Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t have been closeted, because their Renaissance pals were writing about their homosexual relationships all the time. Authors play with pronouns, and the reading of the characters’ relationships as sexual or not can depend on this. Ann Leckie uses “she” for all in the Ancillary series. Ada Palmer uses “they”, except for the narrator who uses “he/she”, but coded for social role, not gender. Delany, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, uses “she” unless you desire them, when it changes to “he”. The experience of reading with this ambiguity is interesting. [I was wondering how it works in non-gendered languages, like Finnish, but that was another panel.]
After a break for lunch, I went to a panel on the Role of Secrets in Speculative Fiction.
There are different sorts of secrets: the true identity of a character, something being hidden from the character, something a character knows that they couldn’t possibly know, secret histories, conspiracies, and so on. The reveal shouldn’t be too early, losing tension, but it shouldn’t wait until the last page, turning everything on its head; it is best to reveal large secrets of the world slowly, letting the reader puzzle them out. It shouldn’t be over-signposted, but shouldn’t be a rabbit out of a hat. It should be important to the plot, and should stand up to re-reading.
Next came a panel on Science Fiction and Fantasy in musical theatre. Musicals are inherently not realistic, but how to make them science fictional? There are more fantasy-based musicals, as there often needs to be less world-building: Wicked as a prequel to Oz needs very little context setting, as the audience can be expected to know the story.
Musicals allow for breaking the fourth wall and other such devices; the audience is willing to suspend a lot of disbelief. An adaptation needs two female and two male roles, for the range of voice parts: this can be difficult for adapting many SF stories!
Long-form Storytelling in Scifi Videogames was an interesting lecture by Ivaylo “Evil Ivo” Shmilev, about requirements for the interactive story basis for videogames that require a significant time to complete. The requirements boil down to sufficient non-trivial diversity and complexity that the players maintain interest, and a range of ways to achieve this. Even if a game is very linear, the complexity can result in a kind of urgency that keeps the player engaged.
I then went along to a presentation on The Perils Of Book Collecting, by James Bryant, covering what to collect, how to store, and when to dispose of items. People collect different things: incunabula, first editions, all editions or all translations of a particular work, autographed copies, complete works of a single author, works of a small publisher, and even books you want to read. For storage, the main perils are water (falling from above, rising from below, or seeping in from outside), inadequate floor strength, and children. A tip re damp: build shelves with a lip at the back and a gap between them and the wall, so books can’t touch the wall, and air can circulate. Make sure books are insured for replacement price, not cover price. Have your paperbacks in electronic format (not textbooks, illustrated, signed or other special editions, though), well backed up. You can get 5000 paperbacks on an SD card, so you can have your library with you everywhere, without need to access the cloud; it’s great on aeroplanes, for searching for passages, for making the font size bigger. Leave your collection in your will to someone who wants it, and understands what they are getting, otherwise it will get thrown out.
I looked in on Adventure Games, but only stayed for about 20 minutes, as it was mostly a list of games, and once he got past the ones I knew of, it wasn’t that interesting to me.
[Yes, I played Colossal Cave on an IBM 370 mainframe in the early 1980s.]
The final panel of the day was Bringing SF into University Courses: Experiences from the Field. There are Masters courses on SF, and more undergraduate literature courses are including SF modules. It’s being pushed by academics interested in the area, and pulled by student interest. There is still some snobbery about it, but after all, mainstream is just another genre: it has its own shelf in the bookstore! It also provides an opportunity for cross-disciplinary teaching, such as: teaching physics by ruining Hollywood movies; an Environmental Studies programme seeing how the Anthropocene is tackled in SF.
Then it was off for supper with a couple of Finnish fan friends I first met at a Narrating Complexity workshop in York. It’s a small world.
The third day of the Worldcon saw several programme items moved to larger rooms, increasing the probability of getting into items of choice. Also, the innovation of keeping each session to 45 minutes, allowing 15 minutes of travel/queuing time, worked well.
To start the day, I went to the panel on The Times That Shaped the Science, addressing the question: How do literature/politics/art shape the way people did (or do) science? Galileo had a strong background in literature and the arts, which meant that when he looked at the moon through a telescope, he could recognise it as a round ball, and paint it as a round ball. He loved the epic poem Orlando furioso (it was the LotR of its generation, or the Alice in Wonderland, with enormous popular impact, and even fanfic). From this and other literature of the time, to Galileo a hero was someone who fights against all odds. To him, being attacked and persecuted showed he was the hero, so he would go out of his way to be attacked. Nowadays we have this history of tension between science and the organised church – narratives of Galileo and Bruno – but actually these types of encounter were incredibly rare: other less confrontational people weren’t getting into trouble, despite believing similar things. The church wasn’t interested in things that were “obviously stupid”, only in things that were “nearly true”, plausible heresies that might convince the learnèd. We tend to locate agency in individual heroes and villains – historical heroes with modern opinions – and assume that the advancement of rationalism was by firebrands, and people who look like us intellectually. There were a few like that, but major changes often came from mainstream workers, confident that their results would confirm the orthodoxy, because they believed that both religion and science were true, so couldn’t be in disagreement. We only realise in retrospect that there’s a conflict between these views. Many advances were made by quiet people we’ve never heard of, by individual boring people who are nevertheless incredibly important. The interesting questions depend on society of day, and what is a satisfying answer changes over time, too; when Newton said: I do not feign hypotheses, he was reframing what was an acceptable answer. One major change occurred as the printing press made books common: it started earlier and grew exponentially, so initially there were only a few books. But by 1700 an author could live on book sales, rather than needing a patron: reputation became dependent on the masses, rather than the elites. [Well, that was all jolly interesting: much more engaging and intelligent than history lessons at school.]
Next was a talk from Ian Stewart, the Science Guest at the con, on How to Tell the Ducks from the Rabbits, or a simple mathematical model of optical illusions. Many illusions of ambiguity (like the rabbit-duck, the spinning dancer, and the Necker cube), and illusions of binocular rivalry where different images are shown to different eyes, can be modelled with simple inhibitory/excitory networks.
This was a beautiful explanation of a lot of weird perceptual processes. There’s a YouTube video of a slightly longer version of the lecture given earlier in the year: well worth watching.
Then on to a panel on The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Writing Space Opera. This is possibly the most nostalgic form of SF, and closest to fantasy without getting caught: epic tales of alien megastructures, galactic empires, space pirates… There are similarities to historical tales, now set in the oceans of space. They have a sense of wonder and romance: the oldest is the Odyssey: travels through a bunch of islands with beautiful women, updated as Star Trek. Of course, empires are fundamentally unstable forms of governance, so what makes such societies work in space? These grander schemes may form the backdrop universe, whilst the central story is focused on a single planet or ship. Hard SF and space opera can overlap, but they not the same thing. Yet hard SF can make for good space opera, because it puts limitations on the tech, and those limitations can drive the story. Series can fall into the Lensman trap: save the world, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe…!
From one extreme to the other: next was the panel on High Fantasy: Is it Still Relevant? As often, start with some definitions. High fantasy is set in a complete secondary world; low fantasy can happen in our world with added magic. High fantasy has elaborate sorcery; low can have obscure, mysterious, and intermittent supernatural events. High fantasy has consequences on the world level; low is more personal, on the city level (urban fantasy) at most. High fantasy is about the destination of the human soul en masse, a clash of powers, a vastness of magic and wonder; low is more the individual soul or life impact. Teresa Neilson Hayden defined genre fantasy as “numinous landscapes and significant personal actions”. There are exceptions to these definitions, particularly where ordinary humans travel from our world to the other, as in Narnia or Oz. [I was amazed no-one said "portal fantasy".] Some fantasy is “just” historical fiction in a secondary world context; all historical fiction involves worldbuilding, with different mindsets and worldviews. Fantasy can use the trope of the little shepherd boy/kitchen maid/apprentice who makes good: how an individual becomes great, or at least a rite of passage to adulthood. This allows the reader to discover the world along with the character. But it can also feature noble protagonists, although more usually in fairy tales. French salon fairy tales are about women in trouble in French courts, using fairy tales to explain their own upper class problems. The Grimm fairy tales are peasant folk tales about how they have survived the Napoleonic wars, and are going to rebuild German values.
Having enjoyed the previous interview with GoH Nalo Hopkinson, I went along to Nalo Hopkinson and Farah Mendlesohn: a Conversation, framed as a late night Skype call.
More interesting snippets: Farah always asks interesting questions I would never think of.
How Science REALLY Happens was a panel about, well, how science really happens.
There are no single lone hero (or even mad) scientists. It’s simultaneously cooperative teamwork and competitive, it’s long tedious applications for funding, it’s negotiating ethics panels, it’s slogging through field work, it’s writing papers and responding to referees, and it’s all about uncertainty.
The final panel of the day was on the Future of Doctor Who. I got into this despite a huge queue; the room seemed bigger on the inside. The hope was for more writers bringing more variety, and no jokes about the Doctor’s new gender. During the hiatus (1989-2005, ignoring the Paul McGann film) there was a lot of fan fiction, with female doctors, black doctors, and more: it was an age of endless possibilities. Dr Who changes yet remains the same, much like a football team. All the previous Doctor incarnations are still with us: will there be joint episodes as before? Recall how the last thing Bill said to the Doctor was “you know how I’m usually all about women and, and kind of people my own age”? Ooooh!
The last event of the day was the Hugo Awards Ceremonies. A lot of applause. Three of the acceptance speeches were anti-puppy: one managed to be so without even mentioning them!
Day 4 of the Worldcon, and the queuing is getting more efficient.
First I went to a panel on Why Are Finnish Schools So Good? Finnish schools do have a good reputation internationally, and a couple of teachers tried to explain why. But it seems that maybe they don’t really know why. They suggested it could have something to do with the autonomy of the teachers, trusted to roam freely in their teaching within certain guidelines. There is also a low authority gap between teachers and students, with mutual respect rather than scary teachers. But this does mean it is hard to push lazy pupils. All teachers are well-qualified, with Masters degrees. However, not all is well. Refugee children do worse on average, maybe because they aren’t expected to excel. And boys do worse than girls, because they don’t read. The culture doesn’t allow them to be enthusiastic about reading, and it isn’t cool to get good grades. They recover later in the system, but the lack of reading reduces their vocabulary; reading from the web doesn’t seem to build as much vocabulary.
Next to a panel on Gender and “Realistic History”. Some people who are happy with elves and magic in their medieaval fantasies object to female or gay characters as “unhistorical”. But such people were much more prominent than later histories would lead us to believe. Some erasure happens deliberately. There’s a book about Inca beliefs, written in Spanish after their conquest, which has a section on a cult who worship a particular deity; the Spanish original talks of “hermaphrodite native people”, which was deliberately erased by the English translator who said only “native people”. All written history says more about the time when it was written, than the time it writes about: we can’t look at the middle ages without all the subsequent times being “melted” into them. History is narrative, and stories leave things out. Narrative focuses on protagonists, heroes, villains; people not important to that narrative get left out, and minorities are not seen as critical to events. Most women in historical Paris had part time jobs – we know this from tax records – and they included barbers, night guards, locksmiths, goldsmiths… Don’t tell others that their narrative is wrong; instead say, here’s my narrative, it’s better.
The panel on Maintaining Your Scientist Character’s Credibility discussed ways not to drop readers out of their immersive experience by having a scientist character do something utterly ridiculous. Don’t put in unnecessary detail that can trip you up. Some writers are tempted to prove they have done the research, even if it doesn’t add to the story; the characters need to be perceived as the experts, not the writers! Don’t include a number you don’t need: someone will do the calculations to see if you are being consistent!
The science can be right, but the environment wrong: laboratory practices; hospital dramas are unwatchable because of the lack of hygienic procedures and ethical concerns.
Risk management is consistently handled poorly. The further in the future the story is set, the more you can get away with: things can have changed. The problems arise with things the writer doesn’t realise are important. Get experts to be your beta readers: they’ll love pointing out the mistakes. [Personal experience: never be a beta reader for a family member writing their first book.] Very credible phrases to have your scientists say: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”.
The next panel I attended discussed Science Fiction Gone Wrong: science and predictions that SF got badly wrong. Stapledon’s Last and First Men purports to predict the next 2 billion years of human evolution, from the early 1930s on. There are vast changes, 18 successive species, it’s a staggering visionary work. But wherever we can check on a prediction, Stapledon gets it wrong. He failed to see Hitler, and has Germany as a pillar of enlightenment while France conquers most of Europe. Most evolutionary changes are natural biological mutations, but the 2nd men eventually discover gene editing, 40 million years from now. The 7th men discover space travel. When the book was re-released in the 1950s, the publisher deleted first 6 chapters, because they were all wrong. Later editions have restored them, but they are still all wrong. Yet it’s one of the greatest SF novels; it’s not a work of prediction, but of poetry. On the other hand, the Handmaid’s Tale seemed totally implausible in the 1980s: how could a mature democracy evolve that way? Today, it seems more prophetic. Political situations can change seemingly overnight, think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Atwood says that world is far too complex for speculative fiction to make accurate predictions; its role is to conjure a possible scenario. Sometimes errors can be useful. MIT students proved Ringworld is unstable, so Niven made his next book about fixing the engines that kept it stable! Try to understand as much about how the Earth works as possible – ecology, geography, climatology, everything – and then use that understanding in your world building.
After a break for lunch, I went to the panel on Portrayal of the Scientist and Science in SF. The bad: every single variant of the Frankenstein archetype of the lone mad scientist building something that gets out of control. BBC’s Horizon, for a period, got it into its head that the way to tell a story was to have a hero, and make the story is about him, which does not reflect reality. A couple of good examples of scientists as part of teams: Sagan’s Contact, and Arrival. It is easier to make the hero be an engineer than a scientist; there’s more action in building things than working things out. In Armageddon, for some reason it’s easier to teach Bruce Willis to be an astronaut than to teach an astronaut to use a drill; it’s part of the anti-intellectualism, the suspicion of intelligence. Real science, of course, is 99% tedium; when scientists write up their own work, even they leave most of it out. Mathematicians do this too: Gauss would only publish when he had polished to perfection; the reader couldn’t work out how he got there. He would say, when a fine building is finished, the scaffolding should not be visible. Jacobi said Gauss is like the fox who erases his tracks in the sand with his tail. Science in SF is not about the process of doing science, but about the changed worldview when the new body of knowledge becomes current, about the world where this new science exists. Frighteningly, the only view most people have of science is from books and movies.
After three panels on science and scientists, I next went to a panel on Folklore and Myth in the Fantastic. This had some overlap with Wednesday’s Invented Mythologies; see there for definitions. Myths are deeply embedded in their cultures: how do we create a myth that feels embedded in that way? Accounts can be emic or etic: etic is the outsider’s experience and account of another culture – emic is an insider account of one’s own culture; it’s more emotional, closer to the heart. We should look for this emic, not the etic, view. Folklore was often designed to answer questions alien to our culture yet very important to the culture in which they originated; it was devoted to the violation of mores, which differ across cultures; it can be incomprehensible to us, being set in a social mileui we don’t share, so we can’t tell when it’s funny, or why the ending is satisfying. The original tales were often gnarly, violent, and socially destructive; the prettified Victorian versions we know were adapted to fit a view of what’s a satisfying story or ending. What groups your group has been in contact with will work its way into the stories, and stories will be rework to re-understand the world when things change. As myths and legends develop, they may co-opt earlier myths, which may have been designed for different people in different circumstances. Imagine the folklore of a people that says “we have always lived on water” being told in a future when there is no more water. All these reworkings are layered on each other, with multiple versions of each story, which gives a richness to the mythology.
Back to SF with a panel on the Morality of Generation Ships. You set off sub-lightspeed for a far distant world, forcing your children and theirs to grow up on a generation ship. Is this moral? The first question: why are you doing this? Are you facing certain death if you stay, or “just” emigrating? Is it the first attempt, or is it commonplace? Do you know the conditions at the destination, or is this a shot in the dark? The context frames the moral questions. To get an idea of timescales: if the Neanderthals has launched a space probe 10,000 years ago, going at the speed of Voyager 2 [57,890 km/h], it would only be half way to the nearest star. [Actually, it would be much less than half way: only be half a light year away!] If they have been living on the ship for so long, why would they want to stop and move to a completely unknown environment? If the ship could go at near-relativistic speeds, the passengers wouldn’t experience a long duration; but it’s hard to get to these speeds, and then you have to slow down again. How big would the population need to be to maintain technology? Literacy reduces the number of people needed to maintain working knowledge; take along eggs and sperm for genetic diversity. The technology for building and maintaining such ships would be a spin-off from self-sustaining space colonies; if we have these, why build the ships? Is it moral to raise children in space colonies or on the moon, where the low gravity means they can never come to Earth? Is it moral to emigrate and raise children in a foreign land, or in a different societal structure like a commune? [Is it moral to have children at all?]
My final panel of the day was The Singularity: Transhuman Intelligence in Fiction and Futurism. There are two paths to the Singularity. The first is building super-intelligent self-improving AIs. The second comes from Fyodorov’s Russian Orthodox Christian heresy of transhumanism: striving for immortality and, as a corollary, colonising space and bringing people back from the dead. Most modern transhumanists are atheist rationalists, but they have latched on to a Christian pattern! The idea of the singularity is that we cannot predict what the world will be like after: the transformation will be too great. Hence it is difficult to write about a post-Singularity world. But the Singularity has already happened – twice! The first was 75,000 years ago, with the invention of transmissible culture. The second was 250 years ago, with invention of limited liability companies; these are very slow alien intelligences, but they are getting faster as they replace their biological components [us!] with computers. Augmenting human intelligence is limited by the size of brain that can pass through the birth canal; the answer is kangaroos: gene engineer us to be marsupials! AIs are being used to identify email spam; spam bots are being engineered to fool these; there’s a fully automated Turing test arms race in progress: the first AI to pass Turing test will be a spambot.
The final event was the Masquerade. There were excellent great entries, classified into the Novice and Open classes; there were no specifically Journeyman or Master entries. I suspect the more experienced go to the dedicated costuming events nowadays. During the judging, we had a great concert by Sassafrass, including their complex songs about Norse mythology, some Renaissance music to change the tone, and an emotional Somebody Will. They had to keep on going until the judges returned. The judges gave out a variety of awards for many of the entrants. When Halley cam to Jackson in 1910 (Halley’s Comet) won Best in Show: a stunning first entry by Olivia Flockhart, who refused to enter the children’s class in favour of the novice class.
Masquerade Entry No. 1: Olivia Flockhart with Ian Flockhart; Entry Name: "When Halley came to Jackson in 1910" #Worldcon75 pic.twitter.com/efExzvXyzs— Worldcon 75 (@worldcon75) August 12, 2017
So, only one day left!
The last day of the Worldcon: how time flies!
I first went to a panel on Book Blogs; I have been known to post the occasional book review. The biggest reason by far that people buy a book is because they have read and enjoyed something by the same author. Next is because it was recommended by someone they know and trust, which might be a blogger. Blogs can affect sales, but only the big blogs like BoingBoing seriously affect sales. Great bloggers, like Jo Walton, start conversations others want to join. Is there a pressure to write only good reviews, lest the publishers stop sending you ARCs? No, that would be really stupid of them, because you would write about it! Some authors don’t understand how the internet works, and push back against poor reviews. Fans can be worse! There’s a difference between legitimate bad reviews and just shit-posting. Bad reviews can be easy to write, and be entertaining to read, but have no influence on the reader’s choices. Moderate your comments: there is a population of badly behaved commenters – if you let their comments stand, you will lose the thoughtful, engaged commenters. You can always make a video of the worst comments: they are very popular, and make money! If you want to build and maintain an audience, you have to put material out with some regularity. Why do people make video reviews of books? You can read a text review much faster! It’s just a different medium for different people: there are 25 minute long reviews of beds, with 50k views.
Next off to a panel on Systems of Magical Healing. There is usually some cost involved in healing: to the healer, to the patient, to a third party, to the land. There needs to be some limitation or jeopardy: maybe you can heal others but not yourself, or only one person can do it, or a rare artefact is needed, or a lot of training and knowledge is needed. The approach used in role playing games is necessary for the game dynamics, but is inherently ridiculous, so doesn’t translate to books. Is the insistence on limitations a reflection of how healthcare is a limited resource in the real world? What if there was unlimited healing available? What if old age and death can be healed? Vampires! Excalibur’s scabbard could heal all mortal wounds, but it’s not used much. The only place with a cure-all is hell, so that the torture can continue. Research into medieaval healing herbs, but for the poisonous ones, make those up, so that no-one can use them in real life! If you know how to fix someone, you know how to take them apart: healers can do damage, too.
On Wednesday I went to a panel on Obsolete Science Ideas. This neatly book-ended my next panel, on Tomorrow’s Cool SF Physics. Certain physics ideas get used a lot: many words, wormholes, hyperspace, time dilation, etc – but what other physics might make for cool stories? Wheeler’s “It from (qu)bit” programme, that everything is information at the bottom, has potential. New materials, meta-materials built from artificial atoms, might actually allow deflector shields, invisibility cloaks. They are good for deflecting waves: what if you could deflect gravity waves? What if you could transport gravitons along special “wires”? Most of the matter in the universe is dark matter: what are its properties? Could there be dark matter stars, planets, creatures, civilisations? And what if we could communicate with them? String theory has more dimensions, the extra ones we can’t see are “small”, but could support parallel universes “close” to ours; these are very different from many worlds type parallel universes. Talking of extra dimensions, what about more timelike dimensions? What if we are living in in a simulation?
After lunch I went along to Writing about Plants, Landscapes, and Nature. Finland has lots of forest, with huge rocks: there are so many words in Finnish for rocks, many types and sizes of rocks. Setting can be treated as a (secondary) character in its own right, or as a place for the characters to inhabit. It’s much easier to write a setting like the ones you know, otherwise you have to do a lot of research to get the details right. The USA has a detailed soil database: for every location, it has information on the soil type: what colour, what it smells like, what it feels like like, what’s blooming. You can go down the research rabbit-hole just to get the sentence: “the soil was red”. The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants is a huge book with descriptions of every woody plant in the US, useful for getting exactly the right kind of oak with flashy fall colours. It has no pictures! You have google for the pictures. There’s nothing like physically experiencing the setting to get the feel: you don’t necessarily need to go to a jungle, just to a suitable botanical garden. Don’t just rely on visual descriptions – use the other senses too, to see the world through different “eyes” – go into a forest and close your eyes and listen. Landscapes change depending on time of day, on time of year; wild animals have their own rhythms. There’s a tradition of Finnish nature magazines, with long articles describing the environment – they don’t write like journalists or fiction writers, but somewhere in between. As ever, the problems are the things you don’t know are different elsewhere: in New England, fireflies are part of the summer landscape – they are “lower stars” (or actually lower planets, because they move) – but you can’t transplant them to a European setting, where you have glowworms on the ground.
Next up was the panel What Science Fiction Gets Wrong About… My Profession. The professions represented on the panel were: anthropologist/archaeologist, quantum physicist, infectious diseases physician, and behavioural geneticist. Most professional life is email, teaching, answering questions from students, reading documents, writing reports, meetings, ethics panels, coding, checking data, public outreach – other people tend to do the hands on work. Not all anthropologists work in obscure isolated places, they might also work on things like the cultural anthropology of My Little Pony fandom. Brendan Fraser Mummy movies: boy is the archaeology wrong! They are picking up artefacts with their bare hands! They are removing things from their context! We do things differently now: past archaeologists kept only those artefacts bigger than 2 inches, now we keep everything. Every show gets computer use wrong. Seanan McGuire’s (as Mira Grant) Newsflesh series has very plausible science. Orphan Black gets clones right: they are not duplicates, but different people. Don’t write veterinarians who don’t have pets.
The final programme event was Allen Stroud’s presentation on Defamiliarising Europe. This was a lecture based on an Adam Curtis 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation. The talk wove together mythology, Brexit, and fractured dystopian Europe SF. Dystopian fiction is based on something gone wrong in society, and is designed to reinforce support for the status quo, because the alternative is the dystopia. When reality is systematised and simplified [the thesis of the documentary], then some things, some people, are left out of that smaller “reality”; a mythology evolves at the margins, which might one day come back as the truth. But truth itself is complex. Some people are very direct – they make strong statements – “X means X” – and move on before their statements can be questioned. They can race ahead of the thoughtful. Criticism comes too late, because the argument has already moved elsewhere. Curtis’ documentary is itself just another very direct narrative, however.
And finally: the Closing Ceremonies. Lots of thanks and applause. We discovered that this Worldcon was the second largest ever (second only to Loncon3), with, by the end, over 10,000 memberships, and nearly 7000 attendees. This was many more than expected, which explains some of the crowding issues on the first day. Dublin has won the site selection for 2019: I hope they are taking note in their planning that the European Worldcons are getting record-breaking attendances, otherwise we will be queuing again in two years’ time!
So, another con ends. Now to get ready for the flight home tomorrow.