For my considerable sins I have this year found myself serving on the programme team of Octocon, the Irish science fiction and fantasy convention. This will be Octocon’s 30th year and, because of the unpleasantness, its first as an online rather than in-person event. There will be the usual panel discussions, author readings, and fan chats, all accessible from the comfort of your own home. And this year Octocon is free to virtually attend.
Octocon always runs a book club, but this year we are going mad and running two. The first book is the Hugo-award nominated novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. Taking its title from the opening speech by the UN Secretary General on the Voyager probe’s golden record, the novel deals with space exploration by a team of astronauts searching for new planets for humanity to live on. I have not read anything by Chambers myself but I understand her to be good on human relationships and a writer who generally presents an optimistic vision of the future and our place in it, which could be something of a tonic in these troubled times of ours.
The other book is the anthology In A Glass Darkly by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (with the suggestion that if people are are stuck for time they just read “Carmilla”). In A Glass Darkly was first published in 1872 and presents a series of macabre stories loosely linked together as coming from the papers of one Dr. Hesselius. Octocon is running a number of Gothic-themed panels this year and having a bookclub for In A Glass Darkly allows us to look back at a classic foundational text of the genre. I have read these before and aside from “Carmilla” (a key influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula) I also recommend “Green Tea” (a warning against over-consumption of that stimulating beverage) and “The Familiar” (evocative of Le Fanu’s native Dublin in the late 18th century), but all of them are good.
Both of these books are readily available in bookshops. In A Glass Darkly can also be found on Project Gutenberg.
My write-up of this year’s Worldcon is almost but not quite complete. Since then I also attended Titancon/Eurocon in Belfast, but rather than write about that or my last day at Worldcon I am now going to leap ahead to a discussion of this year’s Octocon, which took place a week ago. This is the Irish national science fiction convention, normally taking place over a whole weekend but this year reduced down to one day, partly because some of its big programme items had temporarily migrated to Worldcon, notably the Golden Blasters (a competition for short science fiction films) and the Vault of Horror (man with cropped hair and stick shouts at audience members while playing scenes from bad films). This year’s Octocon was pitched as a quiet post-Worldcon catch-up for Irish SF fans and also as a con for people who are averse to enormocons. As with last year it took place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, with Janet O’Sullivan and Raissa Perez co-chairing.
After the opening ceremony, the first programme it, I attended was the Sunday Service, in which Janet O’Sullivan and James Brophy presented a rofflesome recap of the year in SF. This unfortunately served to remind me of how thanks to my boring World War 1 blog and time spent doing Worldcon stuff I largely missed all the big picture films they mentioned (though frankly I was also washing my hair every night I otherwise had free to see the latest superhero film).
Next I found myself attending a panel on the Fae in popular culture. There always seems to be a fair bit of Celtic fantasy Leprechaun fairy stuff at Octocon; this year it was the overall theme of the convention, with a number of programme items touching on the fair folk. In response to a question the interesting point was made that Ireland’s greater wealth of hidden people lore exists mainly because it was extensively written down in the Middle Ages. It was also noted that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Suggestions were made that people might want to investigate Dúchas, the Irish digital folklore project, and perhaps even volunteer time to assist in the transcription of items from its manuscript collection.
A panel entitled Preserving Nature in SFF Futures looked at ecologically themed SF, something which has been on trend for a while and which I suspect we will be seeing more of in years to come. The subject can be a difficult one, with it being very easy to just fall into writing dystopian grimness. One good point from the audience was that narrative conventions tend to focus on individuals but combatting the ongoing climate crisis requires collective action, something a bit more difficult to represent in fiction. There is also the danger of pushing people into the slough of despond by painting such a convincing picture of the horrors of climate collapse that they are left feeling helpless and without agency.
A couple of fictional works were mentioned at that panel that I though might be worth investigating. Peadar Ó Guilin mentioned Stephen Baxter’s novelette ‘On the Orion Line’, where perpetual war with aliens arises from humanity’s depletion of resources and need for continuous expansion to maintain its civilisation. John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up deals with near future civilisational breakdown due to ecological collapse and resource depletion (in a manner perhaps similar to Harry Harrison’s brilliant Make Room! Make Room!). The commercially unsuccessful film Downsizing was mentioned as one that attempts to look at the personal implications of the approaching end. Even The Hunger Games was cited both for its warnings that economic and political systems can be hard to remove (but also its prescient suggestion that one girl can make a difference).
I do find myself wondering whether the fundamentally depressing nature of climate collapse fiction means that readers will tire of the subgenre. I was struck previously by Morgan Hazelwood’s write-up of a Worldcon panel on Hopepunk, another emerging subgenre, in which writers offer at least some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. There is obviously a danger of switching from helpless despondency to complacency, but I think to make action possible to avert or minimise ecological catastrophe there needs to be some sense that the situation is not completely hopeless.
A writery panel on Suspending Scientific Disbelief looked at how far SFF writers can get away with flying in the face of established scientific fact. However one interesting point for me was when the panelists were invited to bring up examples of scientific facts so bizarre that they would be hard to include in a story. My favourite one mentioned was by Edmund Schluessel, who revealed that the resonating frequency of the cable in a space elevator is related to the resonant frequency of the planet it lifts from, so by twanging the cable one could make the planet explode, or something like that. More generally the point was made by Michael Carroll that while a good plot can survive bad science, there is only so much scientific implausibility the reader can take before they go “Ah here now come on”. I was also interested by the panelists’ mention of The Martian (book and film), in terms of how it dealt with the psychology of the abandoned astronaut and not just the purely physical stuff (which sadly has been somewhat superseded by scientific discoveries since).
And then to a panel on Romance in SFF. I’ve always liked romantic plots in SF and fantasy genres, at least in theory, as they suggest that the human characters are more than just problem-solving automatons. To some extent though I thought this panel talked more about romantic fiction (a separate genre) rather than SFF with romantic elements. Several of the panellists write romantic fiction, a genre with its own set of conventions (one of which mentioned being the Happily Ever After ending). My feeling however is that the appearance of romance in SFF does not require an adherence to romantic fiction genre conventions: the romance in SFF can mirror the romance in real life, where people aren’t always looking to live happily ever after or do not always manage to, and so on.
Nevertheless, the discussion of romantic fiction was fascinating. It is not a genre with which I have much familiarity, but I was struck by Ruth Long’s discussion of the idea people keep having that they could start writing Mills & Boon novels as a way of turning a quick buck. Long does not (I think) write Mills & Boon novels herself but she noted that for a writer they present some pretty unique challenges, with a rigid house-style and required set of characters and plot elements within which a writer is meant to produce something that the book’s readers will not consider a rehash of previous novels. That came across like a form of constrained writing akin to that practiced by Georges Perec and those Oulipo people. I was also reminded of a BBC News article some time back about Roger Sanderson, the one man who has successfully written for Mills & Boon, which provided further insights into the world and its readers’ expectations.
There was some discussion of what counted as examples of good romance in SFF, with Han Solo & Princess Leia being held up as the gold standard. I’ve always found that one of the more tiresome elements of the original Star Wars films, but I’m not sure whether that is because I find it reactionary or whether it is because fundamentally I can’t identify with Han (this in particular may be a romance designed to appeal to girls). For contrast, in my notes I quickly listed the first appealing romantic SFF plots that occurred to me, and here they are:
– Tarrant and Servalan in Sand, an episode of Blake’s 7 written by Tanith Lee. Notable for being one of the few moments in which the Servalan mask slips.
– Eowyn and Faramir in Lord of the Rings. Sad people find each other.
– Laurie and Dreiberg in Watchmen. OK maybe this is a problematic fave, but it is interesting as an example of how the dorky guy getting the girl does not actually resolve his problems and instead leads them down a whole rabbit hole of deeply problematic behaviour.
– K (as played by The Human Corgi) and Joi in Bladerunner 2049. Sad love between two non-humans, at least one of which may not actually be self-aware.
– The unnamed space traveller and the girl he left behind in ‘Spirit of the Age‘, by popular band Hawkwind.
– No spoilers, but a significant part of the plot of now somewhat forgotten film Strange Days is driven by the romantic travails of the male lead.
– Buckaroo and giant pound coin in Pounded By The Pound: Turned Gay By The Socioeconomic Implications Of Britain Leaving The European Union. Love is real, despite Brexit.
And then to Irish Sidhe 101, a talk by Lora O’Brien on the folklore, traditions and history surrounding the fairy folk in Ireland. Lora O’Brien describes herself as a Draoí (not a Druid) and has what might be called neo-pagan beliefs, including that the fairy folk have a real existence. She was also rigorous in her reference to the history of manuscript sources of information about beliefs surrounding them. I was struck by her mention of the Saga of Fergus Mac Léti, a very early manuscript that has descriptions of a class of little person somewhat similar to kitsch modern depictions of Leprechauns, but different in that they were associated with coastal areas and the sea; to me this illustrates how cultural beliefs shift over time.
The last full panel I went to looked at how the terrifying stories of yore find themselves transformed over time into cute bedtime stories. Disney was particularly blamed here, with that studio having so taken over fairy tales that for many people the Disney version is what they think of as the definitive version of the story (this is not always a bad thing perhaps, given how fundamentally unpleasant the original version of Sleeping Beauty is, which must surely be the case for other stories as well). When the panelists were asked about stories or monsters from other traditions that might be worth retelling or recycling things went into pretty bizarre territory. Mention was made of some monster from Swiss folklore that was a giant cow’s udder covered in eyes, which sounds like something from the worst nightmare of HP Lovecraft (sadly I can find no pictures of or references to this online).
The con ended with the closing ceremony and round-up of upcoming events, at which it was announced that after many years of chairing Janet is stepping down, with Raissa chairing alone for next year, which will be Octocon’s 30th anniversary. I then had to return home to attend to the needs of my cat, who had made a surprise appearance in The Observant Octopus. She is still basking in her new-found fame and has completely lost the run of herself.
Readers, apologies for the delay in bringing my Octocon write-up to a conclusion. In my defence let me say that I was very busy with my amazing World War 1 blog in the run up to the centenary of the Western Front armistice and then was away in Utrecht attending the Le Guess Who music festival. I also had my v important day job to attend to, but let’s be honest, the real reason this is so late is that I am a slack-ass and have spent my time in dissipation when I should be blog-writing.
If the time-lag is so long that you have completely forgotten what previously happened at Octocon then let me refer you to part 1 and part 2. And if you are too busy refer back to those, a quick reminder: Octocon is the Irish national science fiction convention, which this year took place in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Blanchardstown.
Sunday morning, I made it out to Blanchardstown too late to catch the Sunday Service, at which John Vaughan talked further about the worst films he has seen this year (possibly featuring further unsound comments on Hereditary) and rofflin’ James Brophy talked about television. I did however make it to Janet O’Sullivan’s interview with comics creator Colleen Doran, Octocon’s other guest of honour. A lot of fascinating stuff came up here, not least regarding the materiality of the craft, with Doran drawing attention to the non-durable nature of the original comics art from a surprising number of artists, which is often drawn onto paper that falls apart over time with paint that will degrade even if the art is kept in a cupboard. Although she does write comics (both for other artists and herself), Doran works primarily as an artist and I was taken by her praise for writers she has worked with like Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman; she mentioned how when Alan Moore writes very detailed instructions to artists it is because he has thought very deeply about how the comic should look, which is sadly not the case with some other writers who have also taken to providing artists with ponderously descriptive scripts.
However, the Colleen Doran interview really ramped up towards the end when the subject of Comicsgate and online harassment. I have not been paying attention to comics in recent years but it appears that all those Gamergate Sad Puppy dipshit man-babies have moved on to comics and taken to harassing comics creators. Doran noted that harassment is something she has had to deal with from the earliest days of her time in comics but that it has escalated of late as the dipshits use social media to swarm their enemies. At the same time she reports that it is somewhat easier to deal with now because the targets are able to talk amongst themselves, thereby realising that they are not being singled out for dipshit attention. It also appears to be the case that male comics creators are now receiving their own share of targeted harassment, making them suddenly aware of what their female colleagues have had to put up with for years. What is still a bit problematic about all of this is that the comics companies are pushing (sometimes requiring) the creators to establish social media presences but are being a bit slack about assisting them when they start attracting attention from the arseholes.
An unfortunate consequence of attending the wonderful Colleen Doran interview was that I missed a session on the new season of Doctor Who, but I did make it to a live recording of the CinePunked podcast by Robert JE Simpson and Rachael Kelly, at which they discussed the mid-1970s sudden and possibly coincidental appearance of three Frankenstein-related films in a short period, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Young Frankenstein (1974). The last two of these are obviously homages to vintage horror and SF films while the first one was the last film of old Hammer, making it almost a homage to itself (and featuring David Prowse, subsequently of Darth Vader fame, as the Monster). I have somehow never made it to a podcast recording before and have a surprisingly limited exposure to podcasts themselves (if I wanted to hear people talk I would turn on the radio or pay attention to the people at work) so I was fascinated by the process, in particular the completely and preternaturally fluid nature of the conversation between Mr Simpson & Dr Kelly. I was also struck by their comment on how much the 1931 Boris Karloff film defined how we think of Frankenstein and the Monster, introducing tropes like the hunchbacked assistant and the Monster being stitched together from corpses (Shelley herself never describes the monster thus and is deliberately oblique as to how the Monster was created or indeed what he looks like). The problematic sexual consent issues raised by all three of these films added to a troubling and recurring theme for the weekend. That said, for me the panel never really grappled with the question of whether the roughly simultaneous appearance of these three Frankenstein-related films was merely coincidental or whether there was something in the air that caused these three works to appear in a short period (and if so what that something was). The fact that roughly the same period also the Frankenstein-themed Doctor Who story, The Brain of Morbius (1976), so maybe there genuinely was something in the Zeitgeist. But what?
Much of the rest of my time at Octocon was taken up with the Golden Blasters, which is a science fiction short film competition run by none other than John Vaughan. This year previous winners were competing for the most golden blaster of them all, with winners of the Silver Blaster (the audience award) also thrown into the mix. This allowed me to see again films I had seen at previous Octocons in 2017 and 2015 as well as some works that were new to me. Olga Osorio’s Einstein-Rosen, the winner of both Golden and Silver Blaster in 2017 once again one both prizes. It is an entertaining tale of two kids who discover a wormhole to the future outside their apartment block, an amusing mix of just about credible funny science and some disarming performances from the child actors (the author-director’s sons), it was a worthy winner. I know, you’re thinking, “A cute kids film? I think not”, but there is a genuine charm to the two boys’ performances.
Nevertheless, with my own taste for darker fare made me prefer Sleepworking by Gavin Williams, a creepy tale about a future in which people can earn extra money by renting themselves out while they sleep to perform menial tasks as somnambulists. The creepiness comes in when two of the sleepworkers start remembering flashes of their slumbering labours, with the whole thing being very evocative of the confused state of those who are never quite sure whether they are awake or dreaming. On a lighter note, I was happy to renew my acquaintance with Andrew Chambers’ The Detectives of Noir Town, a film that manages in its short length to be more than just Roger Rabbit with puppets. I was also intrigued by John Kim’s Steadfast Stanley, an animated film about a good dog in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, and found Simon Cartwright & Jessica Cope’s steampunk stop-motion The Astronomer’s Sun to be both mysterious and poignant.
The call of a pint and convivial chit chat after the Blasters meant that I missed the last proper panels and the ever-interesting round-up of upcoming cons, but I did make the closing ceremony of the convention at which Chair Janet O’Sullivan revealed two pieces of amazing news. Firstly, even though Worldcon is coming to Dublin next year, there will also be a mini-Octocon, probably a one day event taking place once more in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown. The reasoning here was that for various reasons some people will not be able to go to Worldcon but will still want to get together with other science fiction fans at a smaller, shorter and more intimate event. The other piece of sensational news was that Raissa Perez (this year’s volunteer coordinator) is joining Janet as co-chair, putting Octocon into another pair of safe hands.
That was pretty much it. Some people found a way of watching the third episode of the current Doctor Who series (the one about Rosa Parks). I was one of these people. The experience reinforced my view that the current Doctor Who series represents something of a levelling up by the series. Perhaps more of that anon. It also reminded me of how much fun is to be had with shared viewings of good things. And then we were off first to enjoy a meal with houseguest Nicholas Whyte and then home to feed our hungry cat.
Octocon is the Irish national science fiction convention, which ran in the Blanchardstown Crowne Plaza hotel from 19 to 20 October this year. I have already written about what I encountered there on the Friday here.
Saturday morning saw me first of all working on the Octocon reception desk, where we dealt with registering convention attendees as they arrived. If you arrived at Octocon on Saturday morning then maybe mine was the friendly face that greeted you (or the surly jobsworth who couldn’t find your reservation). I made friends with some pandas who had come to the convention to examine Octocon’s Hugo trophy.
The morning also saw me make my debut as an Octocon panellist. As part of my efforts to promote the World Science Fiction Convention that is coming to Dublin next year I took part in a panel intended to drum up enthusiasm for volunteering at Worldcon. It turned out we were rather talking to the converted as almost everyone present was already volunteering for Worldcon, but this did allow us to gang up on the others. If anyone reading this is not a Worldcon volunteer then I encourage you to get involved, as volunteering is fun, a way of meeting people, a way of giving something back to science fiction and a way of seeing the inside of what will be the biggest science fiction event to ever come to Ireland.
More time on the reception desk and then my own interest in lunch meant that the next event I attended was the guest of honour interview by Octocon chair Janet O’Sullivan with Pat Cadigan, an American science fiction writer who now lives in England. I was not previously familiar with her work (which is more a reflection on me than on her as I am a slow reader and am unfamiliar with most writers). I found the interview fascinating, as any question would set Cadigan off on a stream of anecdote that would lead very far from the initial starting point. I particularly liked her favourable recollection of Robert Heinlein, someone who now is perhaps unfairly and simplistically pigeon-holed as a right-wing ultra, but whom she recalls as a very generous character. I was also touched by the particularly star-struck question from a member of the audience and Cadigan’s gracious response.
Cadigan also mentioned having previously attended some class of event called a relaxacon. I don’t know what these are but I want to go to one.
As you know, this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with it the birth of science fiction. Octocon had an entire programming strand engaging with Frankenstein’s legacy and I now found myself attending a panel discussion on the Monster’s perspective. This got a bit “could it be that we are the real monster?” but I was struck by the discussion of consent issues (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster badgering him to create a Lady Monster for him, taking for granted that she will want to be his mate). More general discussion of how a simple shift of perspective can make monsters appear like victims led to an interesting recollection by one panellist of a story they read once about people in the remote past fighting Trolls, where the reader realises that the Trolls are the last Neanderthals being hunted to extinction; it occurs to me now that another work of this kind is I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, where the book ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he is a monster to the vampiric new humans (I wish I had thought of this at the panel and established my remembering-things-about-books-I-have-read credentials by mentioning it). I was also reminded of various works in 2000 AD by Pat Mills, where his writing was very evocative of the non-human mindset of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures.
Of the panellists’ own works, Sarah Maria Griffin’s take on Frankenstein, in which a brainy teenage girl attempts to build herself a boyfriend, sounds like it might have a Christmas present date with my niece.
The last programme item I made it to on the Saturday was the Vault of Horror. This is always a highlight of Octocon but it is also an event that is hard to describe in a way that does not make it sound a bit rubbish if you have never experienced it. The Vault sees John Vaughan playing snippets from a terrible film and drawing attention to the film’s awfulness. He does this in a way that is actually funny rather than being some smug guy making fun of other people’s attempts at making films. This year he reported that he has almost run out of terrible films but then he had found a terrible Gerard Butler vehicle called Geostorm with which to delight us. He also provided us with the sad news that due to a progressive illness he will not be in a position to continue serving up the Vault indefinitely into the future, but he will next year be bringing the Vault to Worldcon and presenting one of the most terrible of the films with which he has previously charmed Octocon. Are you coming to Worldcon? Then you will come to the Vault, you will.
I sadly ate so much food for dinner at this point (a recurring theme for me at Science Fiction conventions) that I was too disgustingly full to enjoy the Monsters Ball and left early, thinking that next year is definitely the one where I find some kind of easy cosplay outfit to wear.