According to Gérard Kraus the fandom in Luxemburg is small and not organized. There will be an exhibition celebrating Hugo Gernsback who was born in Luxemburg. Kirill Pleshkov with 20 years in Russian fandom told that there are usually thousands of participants at Russian cons, but they are mainly professionals. The programmes are in Russian. Cheryl Morgan mentioned Finncon which she likes. It has been very big since it has been an Animecon at the same time, but this will no longer be the case. She also mentioned a free French con at the end of May with very little programming in English.
Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf gave an amusing talk called Patent Your Flying Saucer! showing patent applications for some very strange spacecraft and appliances that could be useful in space, such as a helmet with plants in it to provide you with the oxygen needed. Space ships should of course be driven by the whatness of light…
At the Worldcon Bid Launch Party it was announced that there will be a bid for a Worldcon in London 2014. The venue will be in the Docklands.
Saturday morning started out with the question Living Forever – Is it a Good Thing? with Mike Cobley as moderator. Julian Headlong started with some historical roots like Gilgamesh, Morpheus and the tree of immortality. Paul McAuley wondered whether it is immortality if you make a clone and kill the original, and Martin McGrath commented that eternal life has not always been considered a blessing and mentioned the Sisyphos myth. It was mentioned that the cancer patient from whom HeLa cells originally were taken can be considered to be immortal since her cells live on. By extension bacteria are immortal since they divide. (But then we are all immortal?) Greg Benford was said to be working on longevity by breeding nematodes for it in a biotech company. The consequences were discussed. Breeding has to stop (and to me that is a major drawback that definitely makes it undesirable), or a small core of people could live forever. Probably the technology would spread if it exists, like the mobile phones. A comment from Paul McAuley that rings only too true while going through old papers in the attic was that after 40 you become a curator for your own life.
The Guest of Honour Interview of Iain M. Banks was performed by Jane Killick, and was very entertaining, with humorous descriptions of a writer’s life.
This was followed by another entertaining talk, Bad Science – Ben Goldacre. He writes a column in Guardian where he exposes various questionable claims concerning nutrition, pharmaceuticals, and health scares.
Some SF authors like Gregory Benford and Robert J. Sawyer have described life in the scientific laboratory in a way that I have found fairly accurate, being an old lab rat myself. The panel LabLit – Fiction Set In the Laboratory dealt with mainstream literature set in the lab. It was moderated by the scientist Clare Boothby and the participants were the astrophysicist David Clements, Henry Gee who is in charge of the SF in Nature, and Jennifer Rohn who is a scientist who has written LabLit and has a website devoted to it. She expressed her surprise over the rarity of novels set in the lab as contrasted with detective or police stories. This might reflect an attitude towards science with people being afraid and seeing scientists as wizards. Another problem could be the plot; trying to get funding might be less interesting than finding the murderer. Fermat’s Last Theorem and Longitude are popular examples, as are also novels by C. P. Snow. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica was also considered to be LabLit. The goal of LabLit could be normalization of science by for example removing the erroneous stereotype of the evil scientist who is working alone.
Bridging the Gap – SF/F and Social Media sounded fun but it was actually quite boring to listen to people having contact via Twitter on their advanced phones instead of talking.
The panel Geoengineering – A Broader Perspective was a discussion of ideas raised in the George Hay Lecture which I did not listen to. Still, there were some issues of interest in the discussion between Jonathan Cowie, Phil Huggins and Oliver Morton with the moderator John Coxton. Reducing the amount of sunlight might be achieved by solar sails or aerosols, and more CO2 could be taken up by the oceans if the algae growth was increased by iron addition. Acidification of oceans is a problem since this reduces the dissolved carbonic acid.
The critics couple Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, together with the Foundation editor Graham Sleight and the moderator Owen Dunn, had a discussion on Reading Critically. None of these has a background in literary critics; they have studied history and philosophy. Edward James cannot turn off being a historian when he writes about literature.
- In critics you do not have to worry about spoilers since they are meant to put the work in the historical context.
- A better word than reading critically could be reading thinkingly, with a set of tools for reading more intensely.
- Critics can sometimes find things that the author did not know or realise.
- Mack Reynolds’ utopian novels are written in an awful style but are historically interesting.
- Sf books are often responses to criticism of other books. This apostolic succession has to be understood and may be a reason why other people blank off.
- As a critic, you cannot tell an author that he should have written another book, as exemplified by Adam Roberts’ critic of Farah Mendlesohn’s book about fantasy.
Since the geometry of the hotel was very Euclidean I staid and listened to Nicholas Jackson describing Non-Euclidean Geometry, which was entertaining but hardly mind-bending.
Big Biology – What Are the Biggest Biological Tropes in SF? Paul McAuley started by discussing the limits, e g is micro-RNA life, and Gary Stratmann thought that life on other planets probably would have arisen in similar ways as here, with carbon-based life, whereas the moderator Sharon Reamer wondered if arsenic could be used instead of phosphorous. Liquid water may be present on some of the moons in the solar system like Triton and Ganymede, making life possible there. Stephen Gaskell raised the reasonable question, has life arisen more than once on earth? There is extreme life on earth, extremophiles, like archaebacteria, and this indicates that life as we know it may be present on other moons or planets.
The GoH talk by Alastair Reynolds suffered from computer problems making all pictures to be in black-and-white, and much of the talk was the same as the one I heard at Finncon 2009. Since it was dark in the lecture hall it was difficult to write, but I have a note that he considered Paul McAuley’s Eternal Light to be good hard sf and he also recommended Arthur C. Clarke’s early The Sands of Mars although it is no longer accurate.
The Eastercon Bid Session resulted in Illustrious as the Eastercon 2011 in Birmingham Metropole Hilton and the themes military sf and sf throught the ages. For 2012 Eastercon will get back to London Heathrow with another ancient greek name, Olympus.
Not the Clarke Awards was interesting as usual. Claire Brialey moderated the panel composed of Tony Cullen, Edward James, Ruth O’Reilly and Graham Sleight. From 40 books on a long list six have been chosen for the shortlist. First to go from that list was Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding, since it did not have the same quality as the others. It was considered to be entertaining steampunk, but misogynist and shallow. Next to go was Far North by Marcel Theroux, a cold postapocalyptic story reminding of McCarthy’s The Road. It was considered to be an interesting take on apocalypse, with likeable characters, but more a book about society than sf. Next to go was Adam Roberts’ novel Yellow Blue Tibia which is a novel about sf rather than sf. Roberts uses sf as a critic of sf. However, it is also a comment on society, the story works and it has a sense of atmosphere. Galileo’s Dream is not a novel where Kim Stanley Robinson appears to have had fun, it is preachy and overly long. It takes place mainly in Galileo’s own time and would have been better if it had only been a history novel. It was slow to read and Robinson can do better. Next to go was Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit, a Monte Christo story with a female hero. It is a standalone and a good book, and the most sf-nal. Although the main character is very well drawn it was hard to fell passionate. The City and the City by China Miéville was considered to be the most worthy, and did actually win. It describes an aspect of city life, that you can avoid seeing beggars and homeless people. It appears to be set in the late Soviet Union. Ruth O’Reilly did not think that it worked as a novel, it had a destructive plot. Tony Cullen did not agree, and also thought that it made you think. It is not much sf, but feels like sf and the “breach” (when you see people in the other, parallel, city) is sf or fantasy. Although I have not read the other books I am quite content with this winner; a very original and thought-provoking sf where the “science” is psychology or sociology.
For a book to win the award there has to be consensus in the committee, which might make it difficult for really pioneering and outstanding books to win. The shortlist might be more interesting, and this year the panel considered it to be very interesting. The panel suggested that Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia and Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War could have been added to the shortlist.
An extra panel was called What do we Mean when we say Mainstream: Iain Banks’ black and white novels. This sounded interesting so I listened to Chris Hill, Graham Sleight, Ruth O’Reilly and Farah Mendlesohn, who first tried to define “mainstream”: Stories where the foreground consists of what happens in society and the characters, with a consensus of the world that is usually assumed. It is acceptable to readers who are not genre readers. If it can be read as metaphor it could be acceptable as mainstream, e g Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. Banks’ mainstream novels were considered to be politically pessimistic and have an interest in families, like Italian movies, e g The Crow Road. Complicity is a crime novel that the panel did not like. As the best mainstream novels they mentioned The Wasp Factory, The Bridge and The Crow Road. His books have naïve characters and quite a few are set in Scotland. He is not an easy author, and you have to pay attention to how they are written. Walking on Glass is difficult to read, and Dead Air is his weakest. Excession, Player of Games and Use of Weapons are three well-written Culture novels. M John Harrison’s Viriconium was mentioned as influence, and Banks was considered to be a gothic novelist with grimy cities and moral. He writes about vast physical structures like buildings and bridges. Transition is an sf novel with space ships, and was not liked by the panel. It is similar to Chris Beckett’s Traveller stories.
The Guest of Honour Interview of Liz Williams was performed by Elizabeth Counihan, and I noted one additional fact that I did not know: Liz Williams does not like children, which explains the harsh treatment she gives them in the excellent book The Ghost Sister. There children are put out into the wilderness with no help, in order to learn how to survive, and thus become adult.
Elizabeth Counihan was also present in the panel Fantasy and SF – Differing Attitudes to YA and Adult Readers. The other participants were Terry Edge and the moderator Sabine Furlong. Rowling’s Harry Potter-books were thought to be boarding school stories with fantasy decorations. The panel liked to read YA fiction since the stories are good yarns. Diana Wynne Jones’ stories were considered to be complicated but good, whereas Twilight and its followers got kids to read. It was asserted that YA fantasy is read by working class children. Technically YA in UK is written for the age group 13-18 years, but in Germany it is written for the 10-14 years old ones.
Humour in SF and Fantasy was discussed by the dark fantasy writer Raven Dane, the writer and editor Esther Friesner, the humour fantasy author Jonny Nexus (Gamenight) and the writer and stand-up comedian Donna Scott with John Coxon as moderator. The panel declared that Nebula awards never were given for funny fantasy. Pastiche novels cover the market now, e g by Terry Pratchett (best: Equal Rights) or Tom Holt. The best humour makes you think after laughing. The cartoon history of the world makes you think all the time. The comedy market in general is closed today, e g Punch is no longer published. Web comics are read, and the examples given were The Order of the Stick, Super Stupor and The Lord of the Peeps. An idea on how humour works was the exclusivity: some jokes are fun just because only you (you think) understand it.
Caroline Mullan and Greg Pickersgill discussed Fandom as Gerontocracy, i e the eternal problem of the lack of rejuvenation in fandom. This was fun but I have not noted more than that the fanroom at cons is now obsolete.
Another eternal question was raised by Andrew Patton in the lecture Intelligent Life in the Universe: Still a Believable Concept? The benefit of this was a list of interesting books: Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan and LS Shklovskii from 1966, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter Ward and Donald E. Brownlee from 2000 (arguing that the moon is necessary but rare), and the recent (2010) The Eerie Silence – Are We Alone in the Universe? by Paul Davies.
Jane Killick moderated a panel called Researching Fantasy – How Do You Research the Imaginary? MD Lachlan writes werewolf stories and doesn’t think that it is necessary to do research. He is not inventing a world and finds it enough to do research on Wikipedia to get details. Jaine Fenn mainly writes space opera, and her background in role-playing helps her to have e g the economic system in her head. She leaves out things that the reader can figure out, and she does not describe details that are of no interest to the protagonist. Liz Williams does research before writing, and for her it is not a conscious choice what to leave out for the reader to fill in.
Finally I listened to a panel on Clarke’s Law – Is Today’s Technology “Magic” to Most People? The only note I made was the statement from the moderator Martin Easterbrook: “We have a name for alternative medicine that is tested, and that is medicine.”
OK, it was a great con, and if any organizer, panelist or lecturer reads this I would like to thank you. Since I can only be at one item at a time and also had to spend time selling memberships to Eurocon 2011, to say nothing of time spent drinking beer and buying books, I missed a lot of the programme. Much of the programme did not interest me at all, like Sock Knitting or Bondage Workshop, but still there were often several interesting items at the same time making it difficult to choose.
The day after the con I went to visit Tate Britain for a look on Turner’s paintings and watercolours (which I don’t think I have seen before). I strolled along outside the House of Parliament where there were huge barricades which could apparently withstand a tank, possibly and hopefully just at that time because of the coming elections. In the National Gallery I enjoyed an exhibition of works by the Danish 19th century painter Christen Købke before I continued to Foyle’s, the book shop I try to visit every time I am in London. From the cosy atmosphere there it was shocking to enter Hamley’s toyshop on Regents Street. It was crowded with kids but the real problem was the absolute segregation into a girls’ floor with dolls and kid cosmetics, and a boys’ floor with toy cars and toy guns.