Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 3: Moomins, Clipping #Worldcon75

My write-up of Helsinki Worldcon continues. I am still discussing the second day. The previous episode can be seen here.
After the Tanith Lee discussion there were a lot of potentially interesting things happening but we felt that we had to go to a session on the Moomins (entitled Moomins!). As you know, these are character that appeared in books written and illustrated by Tove Jansson of Finland. They started life in books and then progressed to comics and subsequently to a succession of animated TV series. If you’ve never heard of them, the Moomins are vaguely hippopotamus shaped creatures that live in a house in Moominvalley and have a variety of strange friends and adopted family members. Moomin stories are pretty cute but also deal with subjects a bit darker and more existential than is normally expected in children’s books.

The discussion was interesting, with the panellists’ enthusiasm for the subject being evident. I enjoyed the trip through Jansson’s life with the Moomins, particularly the revelation that it was a British newspaper that commissioned her to write and draw the Moomin comic strip and that it was intended primarily as a diverting read primarily for adults rather than children. Jansson appears to be one of those writers who found herself almost resenting the demands made on her by her most successful work, feeling that time spent on the Moomins was keeping her from more important artistic activities (something those of us in wage slavery can readily sympathise with). However for all her tendency to include dark elements in the Moomin books, particularly the later ones (e.g. Moomintroll waking up early from hibernation and having to spend the winter alone in Moominvalley Midwinter or the Moomins’ friends’ sadness at the Moomins’ absence in Moominvalley in November), I did not particularly get the impression that she lived a life of misery and despair.

The panel discussed screen presentations of the Moomins. Sadly none of them were particularly familiar with the Polish stop motion animation series of the early 1980s, which for me is the definitive TV version, capturing the strangeness of the stories and the interplay between cuteness and menace (particularly well seen in the episode of the Hobgoblin’s Hat). While the 1990s cartoon was mentioned as having brought one of the panelists into the Moominverse, it appears to have left out all sinister elements and gone solely for the cute, cementing in the eyes of many the idea that the Moomins are only for kids.

I was thinking afterwards that it was a shame there was no discussion of the Moomins on the Worldcon academic track. The Moomins look like animals but behave like humans and so are clearly interstitial beings, thus clearly unheimlich and creators of an intense feeling of estrangement.

After that we caught a panel with the exciting title of Beyond the Cash Nexus, based on an injunction by Ursula Le Guin that SF writers should be imagining post capitalist futures. The panel was however a bit poor, with the panellists limiting themselves to trotting out a fairly simplistic list of anti-capitalist 101 complaints against the currently existing world economic system without even the shadow of any suggestion as to how a post-capitalist society would work; anything they said that moved towards policy suggestions was in the character of reforming the current system than modelling how it might be replaced. There was also a strange paradox between the panellists railing against bureaucracy and then proposing measures that would require a massive bureaucratic overhead to implement. And I was particularly struck by the naivety of a claim that industrial action by their workers will inevitably force corporations to pay their taxes, as it took no notice of the collapse in unionisation private sector organisations have seen over the last 40 years.
The final thing I saw that evening was a performance by the hip-hop act Clipping. Hip-hop is not normally a thing at Science Fiction conventions but Clipping’s album Splendor & Misery had been nominated for a Hugo Award in the best dramatic presentation (short) category. That category is normally contested by individual episode of TV programmes or short films but Splendor & Misery is a concept album telling the story of a revolt on a spaceship carrying slaves to another planet; Clipping are consciously placing it in the afro-futurist tradition of Sun Ra, Parliament/Funkadelic, Drexciya and so on. As a narrative and a fairly short album, the record met the Hugo eligibility requirements.

Clipping’s performance took place in one of the conference centre’s large function rooms. It was a strange place for a hip-hop concert, with everyone sitting in rows of seats as though they were going to be listening to a lecture. When Clipping came on though they informed the audience that there was space at the front and in the aisles, which led to a rush forward and the concert then progressed on more normal lines. Thereupon they bombed through the songs from their (short) album and delivered us some other exciting tunes.
Hip-hop is one of those things I am only so interested in on record but it always seems to pack a punch live. This performance was no exception, with Daveed Diggs proving to be an impressive frontman. The accompanying music recalled the fractured beats of artists on the UK’s Warp label more than what I associated with US hip-hop. At one point the music appeared to be nodding towards Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of the Doctor Who theme, but that may have been projection on my part.

Clipping certainly won over the audience present, though of course by this point the votes for the Hugo Awards had already been cast.
After this we tried going to a party hosted by the Dublin Worldcon bid team but they had run out of booze and the convention centre bar was overwhelmed by the number of thirsty SF fans, so we escaped back to where we were staying and had a last drink in the Tintin Tango café.

Moomin image source (Wikipedia, comic cover, fair use etc.)

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Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 2: Saunas, Robert Silverberg & Tanith Lee #Worldcon75

On Thursday I did not quite get up in time to make it from where I was staying to the convention centre in time for the presentation on Tove Jansson’s illustrations for The Hobbit (which apparently appear only in Scandinavian editions of the book for Tolkien-estate reasons). I did make it to a panel on Bland Protagonists. One of the panelists was Robert Silverberg, a star of Worldcon and a living link to the heroic age of Science Fiction. He is a great raconteur and such an entertaining panelist that I wonder whether people do not want to appear on panels with him for fear of being overshadowed.

While some objection was made to the word “bland” (and roffles about misreading it as “blind” or “blonde” when agreeing to do the panel), the panelists made obvious points about how having a relatively ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances makes for a good narrative device, as does having an ordinary narrator of a story that is really about someone more extraordinary (e.g. The Great Gatsby, any Sherlock Holmes story apart from the one Holmes narrates, and the complete works of Joseph Conrad). I was struck though by no one mentioning the bland elephant in the room: that at least in days of yore SF writers were so fixated on amazing SF ideas that they did not really have the energy or ability to write convincing characters and so ended up with books and stories in which identikit people find themselves in strange situations (e.g. the complete works of Isaac Asimov). However I was intrigued by Robert Silverberg’s recollection of an unnamed writer whose characters became more and more unpleasant as his own life deteriorated, with the result that people stopped reading his books.

Ursa & Me
It began to be apparent that there would not be the same problems getting into events today as yesterday. There were more events on for one thing but also the Worldcon organisers had severely reduced the number of day tickets they were selling. And the queues in the narrow corridor were now being more effectively managed, making for happier attendees all round.

So it was that I was able to go straight to a session on the Finnish sauna. Sadly this did not take place in a sauna but it did feature fan and folklorist Linn Gröndahl revealing the secrets of this mysterious Finnish practice. Apparently tradition has it that Elves live in saunas and need to be kept onside; the Elves cannot abide people swearing in the sauna (annoying Elves = bad idea). A subsequent talk on cats in SF meanwhile proved to be a list rather than anything particularly analytic; when it finished with the Siamese cats song from Lady and the Tramp I was surprised no one reported being offended by its Asian stereotypes.

I particularly enjoyed a later talk on the life and work of Tanith Lee. I have never read anything by Lee but she wrote ‘Sand‘, one of the great Blake’s 7 episodes. The talk made her sound like an interesting writer whose work would be worth exploring, albeit one who did not achieve commercial success perhaps because her books were a bit too literary for SF audiences of the time (and too SF/F for literary audiences). She appears to have been a striking prose stylist and adept at characterisation that went beyond simple binaries of good/bad (the latter very noticeable in the Blake’s 7 episode mentioned above, where Servalan is presented much more sympathetically than was usually the case). Tanith By Choice, an anthology of her short fiction picked by her friends and relations, is coming out later this year. Panelists also recommended The Secret Books of Paraydys and her historical novel The Gods Are Thirsty (about Camille Desmoulins, which would make it an interesting companion piece to Hilary Mantel’s The Place of Greater Safety).

Because the panelists were people who knew Lee professionally and personally there was a sense of her beyond her writing. I was impressed by her prolific output and her apparently generous assistance to other writers. I hope to explore her work in the future.

Tanith Lee image source: (Telegraph: Tanith Lee, writer – obituary)

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Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 1: estrangement, We3, crowds

The World Science Fiction convention was first held in 1939 and has been held every year since (apart from a break while the USA was fighting the Second World War). This year the 75th Worldcon was held in Helsinki in Finland. I was there, as was my beloved. We had previously been to the Worldcon held in London in 2014 and had liked it enough to give this one a go.

The event was being held in the Messukeskus conference centre. Arriving there by public transport involved walking through an urban passageway that felt like it could easily serve as a setting for some kind of Ballardian dystopia. However we were not at any point attacked by gangs of once-civilised people who had reverted to barbarism.

Registration proved to be quick and smooth (just the way I like it), a pleasant contrast to Loncon where it had involved queuing for a bit. That left us more time to get our bearings before going to our first event. This turned out to be the opening of the academic track of the convention. The bulk of programme contributions at SF conventions is provided by fans and authors, but Helsinki and London both also had an academic track in which brainy academic people delivered short papers on topics relevant to SF and fantasy. Often these brainy academic people are also SF fans and/or authors but it is in their brainy capacity that they appear on the academic track.

Merja Polvinen of the University of Helsinki introduced the academic track, which was taking place under the auspices of FINFAR (the Finnish Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy Research), which in turn publishes Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research. The theme of the academic track was “100 Years of Estrangement”.

Tomi Huttunen introduced the concept of Estrangement, which derives from Russian art theorist Viktor Shklovsky who discussed the topic (Ostrananie) in an article in 1917. Huttunen and others on the academic track offered varying definitions of the concept, noting that different people in the past had come at this in a different way. For all that he was someone primarily associated with the avant-garde, Shklovsky’s own definition appeared to imply that all art involved a process of estrangement because of the difference between an actual thing and its artistic representation. Brecht later attempted his own definition, which appeared to be more about uncanny valley or the German concept of the unheimlich, which I found interesting as for all his ground-breaking approach to theatre Brecht had not particularly involved himself in work that strayed into non-realistic territory.

We left that session of the academic track early to attend the opening ceremony of the convention as a whole, but we could not get in as it was full. This proved to be a recurring theme of the convention’s first day, as there appeared to be too many people present for the number of events on and the sizes of the rooms in which they were being held. The congested nature of the corridor outside the rooms where most of the events were being held did not help matters either. Thus I missed a number of potentially interesting events, such as a presentation on cosmological alternatives to the Big Bang (an old favourite of mine as little precocious me flew the flag for the now largely forgotten Steady State theory) and a discussion on languages (like Finnish) that do not have gender-based grammar.

The next event I was actually able to squeeze into was another academic track session in which the boundaries between human and not human were discussed. I found Clare Wall’s discussion of works by the Canadian SF writers Larissa Lai and Margaret Atwood particularly interesting, which in both cases (the former’s Salt Fish Girl and the latter’s MaddAddam trilogy) deal with genetic engineering and things that look like people but genetically are not or which do not look like people but start to display disturbing human-like traits. I found myself thinking of other works that explored the human-animal boundary, like H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau or Stephen Gallagher’s Chimera (which dealt with genetically engineered human-animal hybrids that could be used for organ transplants or medical experiments without legal consequences).

And then there was Jani Ylönen on We3 from 2004 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, in which a dog, a rabbit and a cat are fitted with exo-skeletons, have their brains upgraded and are turned into killing machines. It is one of my favourite comics, managing to be a cute animal story while featuring scenes of terrifying violence and moments of heartbreaking pathos. The human-animal boundary here breaks down when the animals become intelligent enough that they start being able to talk to their human handlers, which shocks the project’s backers enough into ordering the animals’ destruction (triggering the plot as they escape and go on the run).

That a dog can be a killing machine that can talk to its handlers but still exhibit dog-like behaviours (he keeps asking “is good dog?”) is as unnerving to us as it is to the project’s backer, but Ylönen situates this in a continuum of “post-animals”, where human action has moved animals along from their natural animalistic state, as is the case with pets (and domesticated animals generally?). We3‘s plot resolves by the animals shedding their exo-skeletons and brain implants, becoming ordinary beasts again. That this reversion is presented positively calls to my mind the ambivalence about sentience seen in such religious legends as the consequences for Adam and Eve of consuming the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Those two academic track sessions were all I got into on the convention’s first day. I left the centre somewhat dispirited, fearing that I was going to be spending the conference not getting into things because they were full or queuing to get into things for half an hour instead of being able to go from one event to another. I was also irked by the lack of food outlets in the conference centre that opened in the evening.

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other image sources:

Viktor Shklovsky (Wikipedia)

We3 (Wikipedia)