Valby, Denmark, September 7-8, 2013
Fantasticon this year was an intimate and well organized convention in one floor of the building used for the Eurocon in 2007. Since I have been pretty busy with our own convention, Fantastika 2013, some time has passed since the con and the memories are now a bit vague. I listened to some panels in Danish but sadly I have big problems to understand it when spoken.
Still, I listened to the panel Lovecraft på Dansk (Lovecraft in Danish), with Jakob Friis Andersen, Henrik Harksen and Thomas Winther. I had heard Henrik before, Jakob had translated At the Mountains of Madness and Thomas produces a fanzine about Lovecraft. Should the science be that of the 30’s or should it be altered based on what is known today? It was considered better to have an explanation at the end, as for example regarding the bluff with the Piltdown man.
I read Danish fairly well and was thus interested in the panel Ny dansk fantasy (New Danish fantasy). In this panel Bjarne Sinkjær interviewed some authors. Avalons arm by Svend Damgaard Ørnstrup was defined as “English fantasy”, Natdværgen (The Night Dwarf) by Asbjørn Rune Bourgeat was said to be YA crossover sf/fantasy and is the first part of a trilogy, and Toke Riis Ebbesen was not yet published if I understood correctly. In the discussion fantasy was said to be the dominating way of telling a story, and the power play is of interest since it demonstrates what happens when you have power.
I was very happy that Tricia Sullivan was Guest of Honour since I greatly admire her novels and did not visit Åcon this year where she was. The interview was conducted by Klaus Æ. Mogensen. She is interested in the duality between mind and body, identity, and transformations. Now she studies physics, which is unusual for women. She has also experienced sexism in publishing – men are more confident. The 70’s and 80’s were a better time for woman writers. She has written fantasy as Valery Leith, and the reason for this is that she wanted to be free – sf is more rigorous. The publisher wanted another name than that used for sf. Moving to UK enabled her to write about USA, which she does in Lightborn. This novel is not about the future; it has the same cultural references as today but she has put a novel technology into it. In Double Vision there is some martial arts, but she does not believe that it is of any use against sexual harassments. She does not write short stories since that is harder for her.
One of the organizers, Lars Ahn Pedersen, moderated the panel Writing in English, that had to be moved to another room when a rock concert started just outside the window. Karin Tidbeck felt that she had to switch to get published, and she thought that there are some benefits to come from a non-English speaking country – Sweden is hot right now. The time at Clarion meant everything for her career, you need someone to read your stuff if it is not your own language. Still, translating is hard since the language is “hardwired” into us; there is a lot of cultural baggage in our words. Some concepts are really hard, as e g “Dansband”. She tries to retain a Scandinavian flavour in her texts. She ends by saying that you have to manage your own language first. Henrik Harksen writes in English since he reads horror in English and gets his ideas there. He has tried to get published in English but almost gave up after several rejections. He now sends his texts to friendly writers to get feedback, and has recently managed to get published. Michael Kamp had similar experiences; he also writes horror which is a narrow field. He writes in English and pays an editor to go line-by-line.
With female Guests of Honour it might seem unnecessary to have a panel called The women men don’t see, but with Majbrit Høyrup as moderator the discussion was revealing and rewarding. Tricia Sullivan started by mentioning an interesting author I haven’t read, Sophia McDougall, who “hates strong female characters”, which are cardboard cut-outs. All the smurfs have lots of character except the female one – it is enough that she is female. George RR Martin has recommended that authors should think of women as humans. According to Karin Tidbeck it has more status to read stories with male heroes. She was discouraged to read stories with female characters. When Tricia Sullivan wrote with “female gaze” instead of “male gaze” she was accused of homosexual writing. She also pointed out that when writing in historic settings you have to consider that the sources are written by men. Nene Ormes pointed out that there is male imaging at all times. The female British authors Tricia Sullivan, Liz Williams and Jaine Fenn were said to sell too little, and Justina Robson to be struggling.
This panel was very interesting and has been the subject of much debate after the con. There was a similar panel at Fantastika 2013 but I have not seen that it led to any similar debate. And unfortunately I did not listen to that panel.
At the dinner I and Margareta shared a table with Maybrit Høyrup and Bente Riis from the club Science Fiction Cirklen. They very kindly moved to us since we were alone, and we had a very nice time with them. At the morning coffee Tricia Sullivan came over to our table and I could tell her that I am a great fan.
Liz Jensen was interviewed by Martin Schjønning. She said that novels should not be propaganda vehicles, but voyages of discovery – “what if”. There is a futuristic style in The Rapture and her latest, The Uninvited. She uses a first person narrator; this “gets her away from being me”. In The Uninvited she has to be an anthropologist with Asperger’s, which is an exercise in perception.
SF is optimistic, even if there is an eco-catastrophe. If you have children you have to be optimistic. Still, we live in interesting times, with nasty but necessary shortcuts in GMO and nuclear power. The near future is far more interesting than now or history. For inspiration she reads a lot, newspapers, Google etc. In The Rapture there is a mixture of science and supernatural which she considers could be possible. The precognition in the novel could be similar to the feelings that animals have before an earthquake. Personally I had problems with that aspect in the novel which I otherwise liked.
Being a journalist she has learnt how to structure a story, and she is not shy to go to people for help. Especially scientists are very open.
Her first three novels were comedies, and she has also written satire and love stories. The Rapture and The Univited are parts of a loose trilogy. As influences she mentions Ballard, Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Huxley (The Doors of Perception), H G Wells, and Cormac McCarthy (The Road). And she says that you should trust “the boys in the basement”, the subconscious.
The Swedish Guest of Honour Karin Tidbeck was interviewed by Lars Ahn Pedersen. She tells that after five weeks at Clarion her stories were longer, more like the American ones. Her stories were exotic and fresh to the Americans. Her novel Amatka has a peculiar history: She started by writing down her dreams, and mapped the place she visited in them. She wrote short prose pieces which were converted to poetry, part of which has appeared in the Swedish journal Lyrikvännen. When Catharina Wrååk at the publishing company Mix asked her for a novel she wrote Amatka in two months, based on the poetry. One question in the novel is “Is it always correct to revolt, even if you hurt other people?” The world that is described was colonized in the ‘70s, with that atmosphere.
She teaches creative writing, especially sf and fantasy, and this makes her consider how she writes. Fantasy and sf are to a large extent heteronormative and she tries to change this.
The industrious Lars Ahn Pedersen moderated the final panel about Mixing Genres. Karin Tidbeck told that she writes without thinking of genres, but she can play with the tropes in them. Tricia Sullivan felt that there are now more mixed genres, which she finds liberating. Peter Adolphsen mentioned P K Dick and Svend Åge Madsen as writers of stories in mixed genres. A recent example was Nina Allan’s The Silver Wind, which has an introduction by Tricia Sullivan.
My wife Margareta made some notes at the programme items I missed. Thus, she listened to Bjarne Sinkjær interviewing Flemming Rasch and Gudrun Østergaard. Flemming has now published his first book in many years, a short story collection “from the drawer”. Several of the stories are humorous. Gudrun says that she is new to the genre – she did not understand until 2002 that she wrote sf. She uses sf for social criticism because she sees sf to give good models by shifting the perspective from the present although that is what she actually writes about. Flemming also thinks that what he writes is in a way social criticism. They both find it harder to surprise the reader today, and consider most so called sf films not to be sf, they just show airships and space pistols.
When asked how they work Gudrun told that she writes down her ideas but most often starts with a description of a mood, then the story goes on by itself. Flemming only writes short stories but he has a plot before he starts, and he changes a lot in rewriting. They think that editors are important, but mainly for improving the language and they also point out characters which have to be better described. The readers today do not accept impossible technology, and sf is more demanding than e g The Da Vinci Code, it has to be sharper, and cut threads which are not good enough. Right now Flemming writes a humorous story set in the far future, whereas Gudrun is in the process of “interviewing” her characters for a new book.
The philosopher and Batman expert Carsten Fogh Nielsen talked about Superheroes and Philosophy. Comics with superheroes have been attacked both with the argument that they are dangerous for the young, and the argument that they are just entertainment. However, art is always a lie since no depiction is complete. As soon as something is popular the elite is horrified – this will destroy society and democracy! Later on it is considered harmless and mild, and then it may be incorporated in the culture, e g that drawers of comics make fine art. And suddenly it is considered that the superheroes maintain the law and protects society against evil.
Flemming Rasch moderated the panel about Science in Fiction, with Tricia Sullivan, Liz Jensen and me. The original reasons for science in sf, as proposed by Gernsback, was for education and for prediction. This is not the reason today; it is rather the stimulating effect, the sense of wonder that can be achieved. Tricia Sullivan has been an author for 20 years. Perhaps she writes more fantasy but she wants to include science, and she feels a pressure to be correct when she writes about science. Liz Jensen says that she uses and abuses science, and she does not want to be completely wrong and be revealed as ignorant, but she has no performance anxiety. She is married to a scientist and has two children who also are scientists.
Do readers know enough science to understand the science in the literature? It has to be believable even if you do not have to understand, and science is so important in society today that it would be strange if it was missing in any literature. Media and literature also drive the interest; forensic science became hot after application in a tv series. Old sf is mechanic, it is more complicated today and much that was predicted has become reality.
Utopias were often based on science, but today dystopias are written which show how dangerous science can be. Still, it is sad that there are so many dystopias for young – why not more about the possibilities? Lots of science is missed by the genre, like e g neuroscience.
Science in fiction does not have to be true, thus FTL travel is common in sf. It has to be distinguished from magic where it not even has to be made plausible. There is a contract between the reader and the writer – any scenario is acceptable but you have to stick to it.
Liz Jensen tells that she checks the facts with scientists. There is a problem with writing about environmental problems – they develop so slowly! Actually this is the same problem as with real space ships.
There are stories set in scientific environments as e g laboratories, and there is a website dealing with this kind of literature. Connie Willis and Gregory Benford have written sf set in believable research institutions.
You do not read sf to learn science, that is better done by reading non-fiction. There have been attempts to use sf stories in the classroom, but there is a danger of killing the pleasure of reading. The two authors deny that there is any educational perspective in their writing. However, the stories may help in looking at the world in new ways.
When we were in Copenhagen we also visited some museums. In the Design Museum I was fascinated by an illustrated book, and by an email exchange with an employee there, Anja Lollesgaard, I was informed that the pictures were done by the Russian artist and architect Iakov Chernikhov, and his futuristic visions can be seen on the web. Some of them remind me of Piranesi.
Finally, thanks to the organizers, and to Henrik Harksen and Martin Schjønning for corrections to the text above.