Octocon Day 2

New friends
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.

Shady customers
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.

Not the Monster panel
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.

Octocon day 3 report coming soon.

Putting the ‘Irish’ into An Irish Worldcon panel image source (@jc_ie on Twitter)

See also:

Octocon website

Another view of Octocon Day 2, from blog name of Not Another Book Blogger.

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Worldcon is coming to Dublin

Next year the World Science Fiction Convention is coming to Dublin. This is the first time Worldcon has taken place in Ireland, which makes this an exciting event. But what is this Worldcon? Well, Worldcon is a science fiction convention that takes place in a different city each year. The first Worldcon was in New York in 1939, taking its name from the World Fair of that year. After taking a few years off for the Second World War it has been running continuously since 1946. Worldcon moved outside the United States for the first time in 1948, when it took place in Toronto, and made its first trip away from North America in 1957 when the first London Worldcon took place.

The first Worldcon saw just 200 science fiction fans meet at the Caravan Hall in New York. Since then the event has expanded enormously. The 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki had an attendance of just under 6,000 while the 2016 Worldcon in Kansas City had some 4,600 people attending. There will most likely be numbers of that magnitude attending Worldcon next year in the Dublin Convention Centre.

The scale of a Worldcon can be stunning to a first time attendee and Dublin 2019 will be no different. There will be thousands of science fiction fans attending, loads and loads of authors and hundreds of multi-tracked programme items. Worldcon attendees will have a vast range of events to choose from, including panel discussions (which I think of as the real meat of the convention though others may disagree), film screenings, author interviews, readings & signings, presentations by academics (brainy people saying brainy things about science fiction and fantasy), art shows and so on. There will be dealers selling books and other items and places for attendees to eat, drink and hang out. Some people will be dressed up as their favourite characters and the Masquerade event will see the most spectacular costumes compete against each other.

A key event at any Worldcon is the Hugo Awards ceremony. The Hugos, named after early science fiction editor and publisher Hugo Gernsback, are voted by Worldcon members and are the most prestigious prizes in science fiction (do not listen to disgruntled winners of other awards who have yet to receive a Hugo). In Dublin, awards will be given for works published in 2018, which will include categories for novels, short novels, short stories, films, artworks, and other things, with both professional and fan works being honoured. The Dublin Worldcon is also taking up the option of awarding Hugos for items published in 1943, to make up for there being no Hugo Awards in 1944. If like me you are not great at keeping up with contemporary science fiction you might find you have read more of the works nominated for these Retro Hugos.

Unlike some other conventions, Worldcon has no Mr Big behind it raking in the $$$$s. Worldcon is fan-run, with a chair and organising committee that changes each year. People who attend buy membership rather than an admission ticket. In fact, apart from the guests of honour, everyone at Worldcon has bought their own membership. George R.R. Martin attends every Worldcon and is probably the biggest author of science fiction and fantasy in the world right now, but he pays more to attend than a first-time Worldcon attendee.

At time of writing, Worldcon membership is €110 for a first time attendee. That sounds like a lot, but for that you are in for the full five days of the convention and get to attend everything at it – there are no hidden extra charges. That will also get you the Hugo Awards voter packet (digital copies of all or most of the nominated works, depending on generosity of the rights holders), whose value can be considerable. It is possible to pay by instalments and there a fund to support people who would like to attend but are unable to afford to do so.

Worldcon membership is due to go up in September, so buy now at the lower rate while you can. However I understand that the price increase will be only incremental, so if you do not get round to buying membership until next week do not think that it will have increased drastically to a completely unaffordable level.

More information on the Dublin Worldcon can be found here, with it being possible to join this important event here. If you are still curious as to what goes on at a Worldcon then I have a sadly incomplete series of posts about the 2017 Helsinki Worldcon here.

I hope you decide to join us. If you have any interest in science fiction you will not want to miss this.

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)

More Worldcon pictures

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)