Sunday, 20 August 2017

Worldcon 75: Thursday

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.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Worldcon 75 : Wednesday

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.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

ready for the WorldCon

We arrived in Helsinki today, ready for the Science Fiction WorldCon starting tomorrow.

The flight from Heathrow was unenventful, and getting the train from the airport to the main station was very smooth.  Given we had luggage, we decided not to wrestle with trams, but got a taxi to the hotel.

Then we scoped out the location of the tram stop for tomorrow's trip to the convention centre, and had an evening meal.  Reindeer was on the menu, but I opted for pork this time.  And no tar ice cream.

Back to the hotel for a good night's sleep (hopefully) that recalibrates our internal clocks to the two hour time difference, ready to hit the fray tomorrow.