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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