Kontrast – Swecon 2012

Uppsala, October 5 – 7, 2012

Swecon in Uppsala was a hotel convention and apart from the worldcon this year it was the first time I stayed at the hotel where the con took place. It was very convenient to be able to fetch and leave things in the room. The hotel, Gillet, was well suited for the convention, although one of the programme rooms was too long. This would not have been a problem if the con had been less of a success. Now it was one of the biggest sf cons in Sweden with about 450 participants.

Linnéa Anglemark selling antiquarian books

I spent a lot of time with the antiquarian sf books of SAAM, the fund in memory of the deceased fan Alvar Appeltofft. This included transportation to and from the hotel and selling books, which was a very nice experience. Many books I sold were books that I had read with pleasure, but I also sold one Gor book by John Norman. I have tried to read one of them but could not stand it. I managed to listen to some panels and talks, when other fans and gophers took over at the desk.

Anders Björkelid, Joe Abercrombie, Linnéa Anglemark, Anna Bark Persson

The first panel I listened to was Fantasy with a twist: new writing in old clothes. Linnéa Anglemark moderated the discussion with Anders Björkelid, Joe Abercrombie, and Anna Bark Persson. I noted down a few comments. It can be satisfying when clichés are turned around in unexpected ways. An example is the elves in Richard Morgan’s fantasy books which have AIs. However, some readers prefer ”feel-good” reading, while others want surprises. There are also readers who try to control the text, saying ” you don’t want to kill N.N.” Fantasy can be used effectively to discuss gender roles, by using other settings than ordinary life. Steven Brust was recommended as a good fantasy author (I have not read him).

Vesa Sisättö, Gavin Grant, Niels Dalgaard, Jerry Määttä, Lise Andreasen

In the panel Science fiction and the future the first question from the moderator Lise Andreasen was whether sf is dying. The panel consisting of Vesa Sisättö, Gavin Grant, Niels Dalgaard, and Jerry Määttä considered that there is more good, hard sf now than ever before. It has always been a minority taste. Examples are Kim Stanley Robinson and Bruce Sterling. In sf it is possible to step back and look at our society, which is hard to do in other kinds of literature. There are always new things to write about and mainstream writers should if anything have less to write about. A problem can be a tendency to write sf about sf – an ingroup kind of literature that might turn away new readers, but mainstream authors do the same. In sf conversation between authors is fairly common, but this can be awesome for the readers.

In Finland there is a tendency just now to write dystopian novels. Regarding post-singularity stories it was said that when you can do anything as an uploaded individual, nothing matters. A question from the audience about animal stories was answered that they have to be antropomorphic to become interesting. An example is Brin’s Uplift series. Interestingly, cat characters appear mainly in fantasy whereas dogs appear in sf stories.

Peter Watts, Kelly Link, Karin Tidbeck, Lise Andreasen, Marianna Leikomaa

The short story and the idea was the title of a panel with Peter Watts, Kelly Link, Karin Tidbeck, and Lise Andreasen, moderated by Marianna Leikomaa. The panel felt that short stories is the place to go to test ideas. Kelly Link does not write novels, and says that in short stories you rely on the reader to fill in. Peter Watts thinks that in a short story you start in the middle of the story. Endings should both be logical and surprising. Some examples given of authors who mainly wrote short stories were James Tiptree, Jr., Fredrik Brown, and Ray Bradbury. To expand a short story into a novel is fairly common in sf, and it can work. Karin Tidbeck tells that Amatka started as a dream, then was a poem and finally a novel.

The audience was asked if they wrote short stories, and about half raised their hands. This surprised me but was about the same as at Chicon 7.

Niels Dalgaard

In Niels Dalgaard’s Guest of Honour Speech he talked about his 38 years in fandom, which started when he read Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles in Danish. This did something to him. He also entered a competition in an sf book with the first prize being a travel to the moon. When he went to cons he was impressed by the easy accessibility of sf authors, e g he talked with Arthur C. Clarke at the Brighton worldcon in 1969. He has had an academic career in sf, with a Ph D and teaching sf at the University of Copenhagen. Since its start he has been very active in SF Cirklen and been the editor of its fanzine Proxima and published many books. He told about a schism in Danish fandom during the last decade, mainly between those who like himself are purists and only are interested in hard, written sf and those who are also interested in fantasy, horror, films and tv series. He thinks that fandom as it was in the 60′s does not exist any more. I do not agree and remember that already in the 50′s and 60′s many fans were interested in films and fantasy – actually the Tolkien society in Sweden was founded by sf fans.

Nene Ormes gave an Introduction to Steampunk, and when I came into the room she was just showing a list of classic steampunk: Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, Sterling & Gibson’s The Difference Engine, and Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. In the “new wave” she listed Gail Carriger’s Soulless, Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. She also mentioned comic books by Bryan Talbot, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Grandville. Steampunk culture consists of clothes, DIY & modding, music, artists & makers, steam songs, and meetings (e g Burning Man). We were shown an mp3 player modded by Anna Davour. Clockwork insects are also popular. Steampunk in film and tv are e g The Prestige, Laputa, Warehouse 13, and Wild Wild West (from 1999).

Nene defines steampunk as aesthetics that mixes technofantasy, neovictorianism, and retrofuturism. It is as if sf had been written before the Victorian era and shows the future. She recommends tor.com where there is “the great steampunk timeline” and the site “the steampunk scholar”.

Jerry Määttä

Under the title Why do we like the end of the world? Jerry Määttä talked about catastrophes and showed some clips from films where a single human is surviving: I am legend, 28 days later. He thinks that these show what it is to be human. In Sweden this autumn there have been quite a few books about catastrophes, like Jesper Weithz’ Det som inte växer är döende (What is not growing is dying) and Mikael Niemi’s Fallvatten (Water from falls). He recommended an essay by Susan Sontag on the lure of apocalypses, The Imagination of Disaster. She considers it to be a substitute for religion.

The tulip bubble in the 17th century was similar to the IT bubble, and inspired painters to still lifes with craniums, “memento mori”.

The tv series Life after people was characterized as apocalypse pornography.

Johan Jönsson, Sara Stridh, Anna Davour, Peter Watts, Torill Kornfeldt

Science fiction and the scientist was a very rewarding panel where the panelists demonstrated their different opinions. Johan Jönsson moderated the Ph D student Sara Stridh who was studying kidney function, Anna Davour who has abandoned research in physics and works as science journalist at the radio, Torill Kornfeldt who also was a science journalist but a former biologist, and the author GoH Peter Watts who had also been a biologist.

Having been a scientist might influence the style, since science writing is devoid of style. It should be clear, but on the other hand it should also impress fellow scientists, so that when you do not understand you should suspect that the author is smarter than yourself. When writing sf you have to know enough of the subject so that it doesn’t show, otherwise you might think that you are imaginative when you suggest something that has been known for long. If you know your field you will also know the present questions. On the other hand too much knowledge might hamper your imagination, and scientists who write sf seldom succeed when they write about their specialist area, e g when Alastair Reynolds writes about neutron stars. A couple of cool ideas outside the author’s expert field that were mentioned were the visualisation of virtual reality as space in Gibson’s Neuromancer, the presence of different constants in different parts of the universe in Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and Delany’s brain-computer interfaces in the 60′s.

In sf the universe follows laws, whereas fantasy has another attitude. Star Wars is fantasy. Sf is driven by curiosity whereas fantasy rests upon faith.

A good book about science and how it works is Bellwether by Connie Willis. I completely agree and I think that it is her most entertaining book.

Jerry Määttä (far to the left due to a cold), John-Henri Holmberg, Niels Dalgaard,
Mats Linder

As I looked through the programme for Kontrast I had problems to understand what the panel The Contrarians would be about. Was it global warming contrarians? This was not the case, and the panel instead discussed authors and critics who had criticised the present view and execution of sf. Mats Linder led the panel discussion which at first only was between Niels Dalgaard and Jerry Määttä, since John-Henri Holmberg had been delayed. According to Jerry, being contrarian is quite mainstream in sf, and many sf writers have been contrarian at some point. Niels pointed to the new wave writers who were also political contrarians, being more left-wing. He considered Barry Malzberg to have behaved badly when he wrote rude things about other authors, and he mentioned Stanislaw Lem who was thrown out of SFWA after having said nasty things about all US authors except Philip K. Dick. In Thomas Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of sf authors are criticised for not letting sf live up to its potential; he saw mental laziness in other authors.

Jerry pointed out that the canons are different inside and outside the sf community: Heinlein is a major author inside, while Delany, Dick and LeGuin are major authors outside. John-Henri added that Bradbury was appreciated outside the sf world when he under a short period did his good stuff. Jerry, who has studied Wyndham, thinks that he was contrarian in his time by e g trying to reach woman readers, but Ballard and Aldiss were at least initially critical. In Denmark Bradbury was a “gateway drug” for many fans and he was published in slick magazines.

According to John-Henri Kim Stanley Robinson writes traditional sf, and he thinks that today’s contrarians may be John Varley, Allan Steele, and Joe Haldeman. They try to recreate the feeling that they got when they were teenagers. Heinlein was a contrarian who reoriented sf, and even during his late period he was contrarian when writing about aging and sex.

John-Henri considered that cyberpunk also was a result of a wish to relive the teenage period. The manifesto written by Sterling is actually a parody. Niels considered it unwise to write manifestos on what other authors should write, as exemplified by the mundane manifesto by Geoff Ryman. He also criticised steampunk for being alternate history that is hardly contrarian and rather escape literature, although it sometimes is feminist. John-Henri does not see much interesting now. The 70′s were enormously dramatic, with female writers coming in and gender issues being discussed.

Karin Waller, Mats Strandberg, Sara Bergmark Elfgren, Nene Ormes, Ola Skogäng

Fantastic literature set in Sweden of today was discussed in a panel consisting of Karin Waller from the Science Fiction Book Shop in Malmö, the authors of the popular Cirkeln (The Circle) Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren, Nene Ormes who has just published the sequel to her Udda verklighet (Odd Reality), and the comic book author Ola Skogäng. The magic city Engelsfors in Cirkeln and its sequels is a mixture of the Swedish town Fagersta and the tv series Twin Peaks. It is a depressed small city. The Sweden in these books is “here and in a time just passed”. Popular music, facebook and technical gadgets are avoided since they can rapidly be outdated. The authors think that it is better to include older music and techniques.

Udda verklighet takes place in Malmö with only minor changes. There are a lot of alleys and gargoyles. In Ola Skogäng’s comic books the main character is a big bear, and the setting is a twisted Stockholm with mummies, werewolves and vampires. He lives in Enköping which is boring. The readers like that the stories take place in Stockholm, but the editor wanted the setting to be New York instead.

Naturally there were awards ceremonies, and the sound expert of many cons, Jonas Wissting, got the Alvar. There were also a release party for new books by Karin Tidbeck and the GoHs Joe Abercrombie and Kelly Link, and the hotel had an excellent bar providing beer. Since I was busy packing up the unsold books I missed the closing ceremony where the head of the Fantastika 2013 committee, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf received the spirit of Swecon for release on October 18 in Sickla in the Stockholm area. However, after delivering the books I returned and had a good time in the dead-dog party at Pipes of Scotland.

Kontrast 2012 was an excellent con with a broad programme where a lot of fans seemed to have a very good time. The committee can really be proud!

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