Le Guess Who: Day One

Since the demise of All Tomorrow’s Parties many have wondered if something would ever arise to take its place. Earlier this year my old friend and quaffing partner Mr B— asked me if I was interested in attending Le Guess Who in Utrecht. I was curious and as always am eager to hear exciting sounds, so I agreed to go, with the promise of a line-up based around strange weirdo music being the draw. This is an account of what happened there.

Le Guess Who is a city festival, with concerts taking place in venues across Utrecht but particularly focussed on the Tivoli Vredenburg, a central complex of multiple performance spaces, ranging from ones reminiscent of the Barbican main stage down to more intimate locales. As a city festival, Le Guess Who does not provide convivial chalet accommodation to its attendees; rather they must find their own places to stay, scattered across the attractive Dutch town. In our case we were staying in an Airbnb house in the university quarter, we being Mr B—, my beloved, Mr McG—, and myself.

The quaint olde worldeness of Utrecht
If you’ve never been to Utrecht and are wondering what it’s like… well it’s a bit like Amsterdam. Or rather all those olde Dutch town are like each other: canals, dinky buildings, sudden bursts of modernist architecture. Utrecht has less tourists than Amsterdam, but it makes up for the lack of stag party dickheads with another menace: out of control cyclists. It has also has a strangely non-Euclidean street layout that keeps feeling like it is approximating to a grid system when actually it is not. I think other people of less logical minds (and a willingness to let Google guide them around) found the city easier to navigate; for the first couple of days I was reduced to following them around hoping they knew where they were going. Anyway, let me adopt a day-by-day approach to the festival which may turn out to just be a list of people I saw as I am writing this a good bit afterwards and did not take any notes back then because I am a fule.

On the first night of the festival (a Thursday) an initial bug/feature of the event became apparent: it is massively multi-tracked. If you are lucky there are only five things to choose from at any one time, but there were sometimes more. So it was that I found myself missing DRINKS (sadly not a drinks reception but a two-person band featuring Cate Le Bon and someone else) and instead found myself in the Domkerk seeing an ensemble called ONCEIM performing a piece called ‘Occam Océan’. Who were they and what was this? Well ONCEIM are a contemporary music ensemble, the name being some class of acronym (in French, so I won’t write out the words as you would not understand them). ‘Occam Océan’ is a collaboration with Éliane Radigue, the French composer being bigged up by many cool members of Frank’s APA, the paper of record. The piece was a fascinating piece of edgy contemporary classical music, which broadly speaking might be my favourite class of music, and atmospheric environs of the church were a great place to hear it.

Forward thinking
ONCEIM were going to be playing again with Stephen O’Malley of SUNN-O))) but the festival’s multi-tracking and our own craving of varied experiences drew us away from the Domkerk to the Tivoli complex where after some exploration we settled down in front of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, legendary political jazz figures of yore (well they appear on that political jazz comp from SoulJazz). They were playing in the big main venue in the Tivoli, where every seat has a good view, and we looked down upon them like Olympians.
Then we hightailed it to another church, this one being the Janskerk, where the Jerusalem In My Heart Orchestra were playing. They had already started when we arrived and, as is traditional with church venues, bad sight lines meant it was a real struggle to actually see anything of the performance. Eventually though I managed to reach a point where I could see some of the musicians and some of the images being projected behind them, which looked like they were portrait photographs from the 1950s and 1960s by Lebanese photographer Hashem el Madani, about whom I remember reading on the BBC News website; his photographs are mostly portraits, of individuals (sometimes posing with guns) and friends. Musically Jerusalem In My Heart play Middle Eastern classical music. On this occasion they were joined by an orchestra from Beirut (suggesting that normally they are not actually an orchestra) and were playing some 1928 piece from Egypt. Readers, I liked it and wished I had caught the whole concert from a comfy seat with a good view of the stage.

At that point we could have headed back to the Tivoli to catch any number of acts who were playing late into the night but instead we heeded the call of bed.

Scratched photograph image source:

Mrs Baqari, by Hashem el Madani (BBC News Magazine – Zaatari and Madani: Guns, flared trousers and same-sex kisses)

More of my Le Guess Who photographs

More of my Utrecht photographs

Northumberland Fun with the Unthanks

Dunstanburgh Castle
For the last few years Januaries have seen me travel to Northumberland for a singing weekend organised by popular folk group The Unthanks. I am always a bit wary of writing about it publicly online, as the event is meant to be a private one. I have steered clear here of either reviewing the mini-concert the Unthanks treat attendees to on the Saturday or writing identifiably or critically about any of the attendees, but if any of my Unthanks singing weekend pals think I have crossed a line, contact me privately.

For those who are unaware of who The Unthanks are, they are a folk music group from Northumberland based around sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. Every year in the depths of winter they host weekends on a farmhouse holiday camp at which a few dozen people get to hang out with them and learn songs from Rachel and Becky. I started going to these as my beloved’s plus one some years ago and have kept going even after reasons stopped her from going, which is ironic as she sings all the time while the Northumberland weekend is almost the only singing I do all year. A lot of the other attendees are people who keep coming back each year, making the event feel like a reunion of old friends, but there is always a bit of a rollover, which keeps it fresh and stops it getting too car keys.

The weekends revolve around music and food. On arriving I consumed a copious quantity of cake and then the singing workshops began. A gentle commencement was a round from Bagpuss about porcupines, which we had to first sing as ourselves and then as the mice who sing it in the programme. More serious fare followed with ‘Three Ships’, an angry tune by Mike Waterson about how lax safety standards in the British fishing fleet led to the loss of three trawlers from Hull in a short period in early 1968. An odd feature of this tune was that the lows lead the melody, with the middles and tops doing the harmony parts; this was an unusually common feature of the songs this weekend. ‘Ah Cud Hew’, a song about a wrecked coal miner whose lungs are now full of dust provided more folkie sadness. Yet again I am struck by how mining folk songs are all either “Mining is shit” or “Oh fuck, they’ve closed down the mine”.

I did not cane it on the first night in Northumberland but an advancing cold meant that on waking in the morning I had almost lost my voice. Thus it was a struggle for me to participate in the Saturday workshops, but I did my best, with green tea and vocal exercise leading to something of an improvement. The big tunes in this session were ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ and ‘Bright Phoebus’. The former is by Cyril Tawney (composer of Unthanks weekend classic ‘Chicken on a Raft‘) and tells of a sailor who has fallen out of love with the sea after his heart has been captured by a woman back at home; Maddie Prior and June Tabor recorded it on their first album. ‘Bright Phoebus’ meanwhile is by Mike and Lal Waterson and was the title track on their album of 1971. Not having heard this song previously I was struck by how little it resembled what I think of as folk music, sounding like the kind of big tune that would boast massed backing vocals and big production when recorded. It is a great song, with lyrics about how great it is when your affections are returned. It is a great big brash good time tune – I love it.

Another key feature of the weekend is always going for a walk to see first a castle and then a pub. This time the castle was Dunstanburgh, now a cyclopean ruin that was apparently destroyed by cannon during the Wars of the Roses (its Wikipedia page is somewhat vague on this point). We sang some songs beside it and walked on to a beach, there to sing some more, and then made our way to The Ship Inn in the village of Craster where we drank hearty ales and delighted the locals. As well as group singing there were some individual turns. I was struck by the odd coincidence of hearing ‘Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe’ and ‘T Stands for Thomas’ only a few days after hearing the same tunes performed by Rue, particularly as the latter song is much better known as ‘P Stands for Paddy’. The big hit of the pub sing-a-long was however ‘The Citizen Chanty’, led by a chap who sings with the Commoners’ Choir. This takes the tune of ‘A Drop of Nelson’s Blood’ but changes the lyrics to be a riposte to Theresa May’s bullshit comments about rootless cosmopolitans and I really enjoyed blasting out the chorus about being citizens of the world.

Singing in pubs however provides opportunities for members of the public to join in the action. Some rugger buggers were in the pub, downing beers to make up for a match being cancelled. One of them came forward to lead a song, which did cause my pulse to race given the reputation for sexism and racism of rugby songs. Instead though he led a call and response thing that was like some kind of haka thing; we thanked our lucky stars. I was talking afterwards to a woman who found herself surrounded by the other rugger buggers during the haka thing; the swirling waves of testosterone had given her the vapours.

The evening saw the traditional dining event known as the stuffing of the faces before a mini-concert by the Unthanks. Things were discussed. A couple of us went outside to look at the clear skies of Northumberland, seeing such delights as the bow of Orion, Betelgeuse glowing scarlet, six of the Pleiades, and two passing satellites (or the same one passing by twice?).

Singing outside around a fire seemed less apocalyptic than last year, when the accession of Trump made it feel like we were at the brink of a new age of darkness. But as dreadful as that dipshit’s presidency has been, he has not yet either destroyed the world in a nuclear war or initiated a functioning dictatorship in the USA, so to me as we gathered round the fire it did not feel like we were desperately trying to banish the horrors of the wider world.

Inside there was a round of random sing song stuff, with people doing party pieces. To some extent this has become a greatest hits event for recurring Unthanks attendees but two exciting new renditions were ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’, a song featuring on the forthcoming compilation And Then We Bate The Shite Out Of Them, and’The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song’, which gets great mileage out of rhyming Hunt with every word possible except the one that first springs to mind [/spoiler]. Sadly I had not learned a song to perform myself and in any case my throat might not have been up for it, but I have already formed some ideas for next year.

One tune that turned out to work surprisingly well in this kind of jolly sing-a-long environment was Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’, which can be belted out with hand claps and foot stomps covering for the lack of synthesiser accompaniment. Try it in the comfort of your home.

As always, I came away from Northumberland thinking that singing is great and that I should do more of it. The problem is that I come away from Northumberland thinking this every year and then do nothing about it.

Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 5: Translation, Cats, award categories #Worldcon75

My account of the recent World Science Fiction Convention continues.

Fear the buffet

Saturday at Worldcon was the day on which I hate a disgustingly large lunch. Or so I recall and have the photographic evidence to prove that this event took place, yet when I look back at the programme I cannot see a gap in events I attended large enough for me to consume an obscenely large meal. This may remain a Flaming Carrot Unsolved Mystery.

Because of all the post Hugos excitement of the night before I arrived a bit late at the conference centre where Worldcon was talking place. The first event I made it to was a presentation by Ken Liu on translation that was so brainy it could have featured in the academic track. Liu is an SF writer himself but he is also a translator; the English version of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem is his. His talk was a quick run through the general theory and practice of translation before switching to a discussion of the particular questions surrounding translation to and from Chinese. The theoretical stuff (formal v dyanmic equivalence, metaphrasing or paraphrasing, domesticising v foreignising, etc.) will come in handy next time the London Review of Books has a big ding dong about translation and also had me thinking about my feelings with regard to translations into English of Tolstoy (broadly summarisable as Maude good, Pevear-Volokhonsky bad), with the different ways in which Denisov’s speech impediment in War & Peace is rendered in English being based on different theoretical approaches to translation.

He also talked about how power relations are hard to remove from translation, mentioning how Greek names are rendered phonetically in English but the names of Native Americans are translated. With that particular example I wondered if he might be over-egging things, taking two sets of conventions in translation that have emerged and making more of them than is really justified. I think I would need to hear Native Americans complaining that their names were being translated into English rather than rendered phonetically before feeling that this was another example of their oppression.

Still, this bit reminded me of how place names work in my own country. Most place names derive from the Irish language, with the English name being a corruption of the Irish pronunciation (e.g. Dublin in English is a corruption of the Irish Dubh Linn, which literally means Black Pool (though just to complicate things, the actual Irish name for Dublin is Baile Atha Cliath, which translates as Town of the Ford of the Hurdles or something)). The only exception to this seems to be those places that were originally given English names – in these cases the Irish place names tend to a translation (e.g. Newbridge is written in Irish as Droichead Nua). This may indicate that in Ireland the anglophone majority live under the iron brogue of the Gaeilgeoir.

I do not want to just summarise Liu’s talk as it would spoil the fun for any readers who find themselves with an opportunity to hear him speak in real life. Nevertheless I greatly enjoyed his account of how in the early 20th century Lu Xun translated early science fiction works by HG Wells and Jules Verne into Chinese. Lu Xun appears never to have come across the texts in the original languages and worked from versions in Japanese (a language he had studied for a year). His Chinese texts sounds like they are very far removed from what the original authors had written, yet sounded like they would make fascinating reading if translated back into English.

I was also intrigued by the discussion of how it is problematic to think of there being a single Chinese language or even of Mandarin as the official Chinese language. The relationship of regional dialects to a standardised formal version reminded me of the somewhat imaginary nature of Arabic as a single unitary language.

After that I needed something a bit less intellectually demanding so I went to a talk called Authors And Their Cats, in which authors talked about their cats. Jeff Vandermeer revealed an important top tip: always include a picture of your cat in social media posts. Here is my cat, name of Billy Edwards.

A discussion on future proofing the Hugos, chaired by none other than Hugos administrator Nicholas Whyte, was presented as being about how Hugo categories should be designed to accommodate changing practices (e.g. moves from print to electronic media, etc.). However it broadened out into a more general discussion of where the Hugos are going. One Hugo trend that I think is dangerous is category inflation. This year’s ceremony saw a new category introduced, for Best Series, while the business meeting of Worldcon has decided in its dubious wisdom to introduce a Young Adult fiction category to next year’s awards. Proposals have also been floated to split the best novel category into best science fiction novel and best fantasy novel. Other proposals have been made to split the current two best dramatic presentation categories into four (and in a way that would appear to exclude non- TV or film works like Clipping’s Splendor & Misery), with the best related work category also being eyed by some for division into multiple new award classes.

I mentioned previously that the Hugo Award ceremony goes on a bit. If all the proposed new categories were added then it would become interminable. I feel strongly that the addition of any new categories should be resisted and no additions made unless old categories are removed on a one-for-one basis. I also strongly oppose genre categories. Adding the YA novel category was a mistake and it would also be a grave error to split the novel into science fiction and fantasy categories (if nothing else, why would a science fiction convention be giving an award to a fantasy novel? And if it is giving awards to fantasy novels, why not also to fantasy short stories, novellas and novelletes?). I may have to start attending Worldcon business meetings and banging the table in front of me with a shoe while shouting “This aggression will not stand!”.

I need to go and lie down now but I will be back with more Worldcon talk soon.

Ken Liu image source (Wikipedia)

Lu Xun image source (Wikipedia)

More of my Worldcon pictures

More of my cat pictures

More of my pictures

Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 4: New Wave, Hugos #Worldcon75

Continuing my account of the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, this episode is mainly concerned with the Hugo Awards and the New Wave of Science Fiction.

The Hugos loomed large over my Friday at Worldcon. I had assisted with the preparation work for the Hugos in their earlier stages (doing the barest minimum quantum of work that counts as doing “something” rather than “nothing”). I also assisted on the day with a last-minute re-check of the ceremony’s In Memoriam scroll. At one point I was also going to be the person who clicked the next button on the ceremony’s PowerPoint scroll, but wiser counsel prevailed.

For various reasons I saw very little of the day’s programme stuff, being particularly disappointed to miss a discussion on The Prisoner. I did however make it to a session of the academic track that looked at the New Wave of Science Fiction. This began with a discussion by Päivi Väätänen on the influence of the New Wave on the fiction of Samuel R. Delany. Delany is one of those writers who sounds fascinating but whose work I have never got round to. The discussion focussed on two novels, The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Väätänen said that the two books are thematically somewhat similar but the second is much more experimental and “difficult”, with the difference arising from Delany’s discovery and embrace of the SF New Wave, in which ideas from modernist fiction and the counter-culture invaded Science Fiction.

The New Wave is again one of those things that I am interested in but have not read that much of. I know that some old school SF fans were very dismissive of the attempt to import modernism into Science Fiction (Kingsley Amis is very eloquent in this regard) while others saw the New Wave as a necessary reaction to a creeping formulaicisation of the genre. The New Wave opened the floodgates for stylistic experimentation and exploration of new themes in 1970s SF but in retrospect it seems sometimes to have been a failed experiment, with the rise of cyberpunk in the 1980s putting SF back into less literary and experimental territory. The 1980s was a decade of reaction so it is not too surprising that this was the case in SF too.

Coming away from this particular discussion I found myself thinking that it really is high time I actually read something by Delany and perhaps also the Gollancz SF Masterworks reprint of the Dangerous Visions anthology of New Wave short stories.

Then Audrey Taylor discussed Decision at Doona, an early novel by Anne McCaffrey that is apparently more formally interesting than McCaffrey’s later works (books I have a perhaps unfairly low opinion of). This one is about human-alien first contact on a planet called Doona, with deliberate misdirection being used in the chapters to mislead as to whether we are following events from the human or alien point of view. Taylor suggested that, unusually for McCaffrey, this showed the influence of the New Wave (or the ideas outside SF that gave rise to the New Wave).

Taylor asserted that normally in this kind of book we are presented with a Cowboys and Indians In Space setup where the human colonisers are portrayed as the good guys while they roll over the aliens. I felt like calling out “[citation needed]!” here, as I am unaware of books that take this line, being more used to books portraying colonisation as bad thing (which might be an effect of living in a country that was colonised). Be that as it may, in Decision at Doona the focus is more on the humans and aliens fumbling towards an accommodation and being determined not to repeat adverse events in their own histories of interaction with other species, all the while hampered by their difficulties in understanding each other.

The book sounded intriguing, playing with ideas of the kind of character who gets to be the hero and subverting normal plot models by having non-confrontational but still difficult resolutions of problems. I see also from looking at covers of the book online that the aliens are anthropomorphic cats, which makes this surely a book ripe for rediscovery as a lost classic.

That really was it for me until the Hugo Awards ceremony itself. Like many awards ceremonies, theses went on a bit. I am something of a slow reader so I had read none of the winning works or any of the nominees. I was a bit disappointed that Chuck Tingle did not win though I can see why voters might have decided to pick someone who had a more direct relationship with SF. Clipping did not win either though they did receive one of the biggest cheers of the evening. The most amusing moment at the awards ceremony was when the name of sinister dipshit Vox Day was read out as a nominee in best editor category; a couple of people clapped politely and then trailed off, with the other nominees all receiving thunderous applause. However the best bit was hearing my own name read out from the stage, though of course next time this will be because I have swept all the fiction categories.

For all that the Hugo Award ceremony goes on a bit, it nevertheless felt like an important celebration of the greatness of Science Fiction. These awards are voted by the fans and they reiterate the community aspect of SF. On that basis I have decided that I broadly approve of the existence of the various fan categories.

I must also praise the performance of Karen Lord as the Hugo Awards toastmaster. I would support having her do this at every Hugo Awards ever. I would also love to tell you about what happened at the post awards party in a Helsinki steampunk bar but Chatham House rules apply.

Hugo Administrator: Nicholas Whyte

Decision at Doona image source (Science Fiction Cover Art; artist: Bruce Pennington)

More of my own Worldcon pictures

Doona cover: http://www.djabbic.co.uk/BookCoverDetail.php?filter=1&ID=2&bookID=82&currentBook=14&totalBooks=64&currentEntry=0&totalEntrys=0&startCover=0&currentCover=1&totalCovers=2

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.)

More Worldcon pictures

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.

More Worldcon pictures

other image sources:

Viktor Shklovsky (Wikipedia)

We3 (Wikipedia)