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)

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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)

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Doona cover:

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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