CoNZealand part 4: apocalypses, old books, and near futures

This is the latest part of my write-up of programme items attended at CoNZealand, the recent online World Science Fiction Convention brought to the world from Wellington, New Zealand. Why not look back on part 1, part 2, or part 3?

Hugo Award Cat
The only thing I saw on the Saturday programme was the Hugo Awards Ceremony, but that went on for three and a half hours and has been extensively discussed elsewhere. So that brings me to CoNZealand’s Sunday, the last day, which for me started on Saturday evening and continued past midnight. By now I was a bit listless and had maybe seen a surfeit of Zoom panels and so perhaps did not engage as much as I could have done with the ones I viewed. Apocalypse as Insight, an academic session, saw Octavia Cade talking about the depressingly common tendency of dystopian fiction to feature women enslaved as breeding stock or to see the survivors of a post-apocalyptic world attempting to uncritically recreate the world whose faults led to the crash. Two books mentioned that buck against the post-apocalypse cliches were Sweet Fruit, Sour Land by Rebecca Ley, in which women refuse to have children in a situation of collapsing food supplies and Defying Doomsday, an anthology of short fiction about people with disabilities or pre-existing medical conditions making their way after a collapse in a situation of systemic collapse. Perhaps these books would repay investigation.

One late talk that I was completely engrossed by was a lecture by Ada Palmer (previously of the History and SF panel) entitled The History of the Book. I came late to this and it seemed to be primarily about early printed works, examples of which Palmer had for our delectation. There was some fascinating material here on the physical nature of old books, details I will mine for any Call of Cthulhu roleplaying games I ever find myself running in the future. One thing I was struck by was how relatively cheap a lot of old printed books are now – apart from a couple of star titles (e.g. Shakespeare’s First Folio), with most old books none of them are valuable enough to be worth forging, as the amount of labour involved in producing a convincing forgery would be phenomenal. Conversely actual old printed books can be acquired relatively cheaply, so cheaply in fact that if you ever see someone destroying a 17th century book in a film or TV series, the chances are they are destroying an actual book of that era, as it is easier and cheaper to buy such a thing than to make a convincing simulacrum.

My last programme item was the panel The Day After Tomorrow: Near Future SF, but I was a bit conned out by now and did not pay as much attention as the material deserved. Mention of the extent to which current SF is focussed on the near future was made, with this perhaps being driven by rising environmental concerns. The waves of interest SF has for different subjects was noted – 20 years ago there was lot of fiction about the technological singularity, something everyone seems to have now forgotten about, while the 1990s apparently saw a lot of material about first contact with aliens. Though frankly it is always hard to generalise – at any given time there will be writers producing all kinds of work, and while we are apparently now in a golden age of near future SF, this year’s Hugo winning novel was Arkady Martine’s brilliant Memory of Empire, set in an impossibly distant future.

And that is basically it for me and CoNZealand programme items. I was impressed by the technological solutions they had to the problem of running a Worldcon online. While I found participation by screen a bit alienating, it’s all we can manage in these troubled times in which we find ourselves, and I suspect it will be some time before there are in-person con events people can attend. Nevertheless, I hope one day to actually visit New Zealand – perhaps there will even be a future Worldcon there for us to corporeally attend.

More cat

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Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press)

CoNZealand part 3: history of science fiction, history and science fiction

Follow the links to catch up on part 1 and part 2 of my write-up of the recent World Science Fiction Convention hosted in Wellington, New Zealand, and accessed remotely throughout the world. We are now up to half way through the con’s third day.

Continuing my interest in the science fiction of yore I next found myself virtually attending a panel entitled The Second Golden Age: SF of the 1960s, featuring panelists old enough to remember the 1960s (e.g. Robert Silverberg) and younger ones who look back with a modern eye (e.g. Cora Buhlert, who writes for Galactic Journey, which looks back on SF from 55 years ago). Silverberg started by gamely stating that the 1960s golden age of SF was in fact the third, with the first being that of c. 1939 to 1942 (the early years of John W. Campbell editing Astounding, when he was publishing loads of new writers) and the second being in the 1950s (when a number of new magazines were giving writers freedom to experiment and to explore new directions). I’m guessing the first Golden Age ran out of steam when the writers started being called up to fight in the war, while the second ended abruptly when the company publishing many of the magazines went bust, leaving writers struggling to find outlets for their work (I have read separately that Silverberg spent a couple of years churning out pornography at this point).
As Silverberg put it, the third golden age of the late 1960s was basically the New Wave of Science Fiction, when there was an expansion of the paperback market for new SF and the emergence of editors (some from outside the SF field) who were generous in the freedom they gave to authors, leading to the emergence of new writers and the embrace of more experimental forms, including literary modernism. Unfortunately the New Wave was a lot more popular with writers and editors than readers, so a period of retrenchment followed after publishers noticed that this stuff wasn’t selling that well, with Star Wars providing the final nail in its coffin.

The New Wave is something I find very interesting but do not know too much about and wish to explore further, both in terms of the writing itself and critical discussion on it. Fortunately I have Adam Roberts’ book The History of Science Fiction to hand, with an entire chapter on the subject, while the Golancz SF Masterworks edition of the Dangerous Visions anthology probably provides a useful introduction to the sub-genre. My sense is that the movement represented a significant opening up of science fiction to new concerns and new voices, chiming well with the iconoclastic and semi-revolutionary times in which it appeared. Further investigation is required.

Nevertheless, at the panel, I was struck by Kathryn Sullivan flying the flag for the science fiction of the early 1960s (i.e. pre-New Wave), which was reminiscent of arguments about whether early or late Beatles music is best. There was also an interesting discussion of how the Vietnam War divided American SF writers. Mention was made of a survey of SF writers and editors co-organised by the Futurian Judith Merrill, the results of which were then published in a number of magazines of the era. To some extent this pitted younger writers against the old, while still throwing up a few surprises. One thing Silverberg noted was that the hard SF writers were more likely to support the war; mysterious.
Thence to a panel entitled History and SF, which looked both at how authors create convincing historical backgrounds in their work and how real history can be used in fiction. I love reading about history so there was a real together-at-last aspect to this panel, made even more so when panellist Farah Mendlesohn revealed herself to be a historian of the 17th century, one of the more fascinating periods of human existence. Some of what was talked about here was more history than SF, which was reasonably fine by me. I was struck in particular by Mendlesohn’s comments on destinarianism (the idea that people have a destiny to do particular things, something not uncommon in SF narratives) and how it does not really work in real life – people who think of them as Persons of Destiny tend to end up dead. In contrast you get people like Oliver Cromwell who eventually assume a pre-eminent position by being the last man standing (though I wonder in his case if he then came retrospectively to see himself as God’s chosen instrument).

Still with Cromwell, Mendlesohn noted that much of the bad reputation he enjoys in some quarters derives from Royalist propaganda, which often blamed him for things he did that were continuations of pre-existing policies of King Charles. She mentioned Ireland specifically here, which is something I would like to explore further, as my gut feeling is that the reputation Cromwell has among my Irish compatriots for being the most evil man who ever lived may be somewhat exaggerated.

A further interesting point made was how people in the past perceived life differently to how we do. Sometimes this differing perception was literal – the world was rife with sights, sounds and smells we do not encounter now (mention was made of a book about late mediaeval Florence by Niall Atkinson entitled The Noisy Renaissance), while in a time before the invention of glasses or hearing aids many people could not see or hear properly – but also conceptual, as people had radically different ways of conceiving how the world worked. That should perhaps be an inspiration to writers to remember that characters in their far future space books might well have very different ways of thinking to ours.

Further moments in this panel included Ada Palmer mentioning that the way characters randomly appear and disappear in the historical record can be rather unsatisfying in fiction. It was further noted that science fiction has not really caught up with the way historical fiction and history writing have now embraced writing about the small people in the background. I liked the point about how the losers of history (notably 17th century Royalists or the Confederates in 19th century America) have a tendency to whine about how harshly they have been treated, obscuring the ways in which they would have behaved towards their enemies had they won. And I was fascinated by Mendlesohn’s point about how it was servants themselves and not evil capitalist masters who drove the transition of domestic service from a pseudo-familial relationship to one of waged employment. Overall this was a most enjoyable panel and one that had me itching to read more of the panellists’ work, both fictional and historical.

That was it for me and CoNZealand’s Friday programme, though the magic of time differences meant that I saw all of those on my Thursday (or very early on Friday morning).

There will be another CoNZealand post soon, possibly tomorrow. See you then.

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Robert Silverberg (Three Rooms Press: What Would Robert Silverberg Do? An Exclusive Interview with the Sci-Fi Master)

Writers for and against the Vietnam War (Alex Cox Films: American Science Fiction Writers and the Vietnam War)

The Devil joins Oliver Cromwell and his associates (British Library)

CoNZealand part 2: Robert Silverberg, George R. R. Martin, and the dark future of 1970s SF cinema

This is part 2 of my write-up of the World Science Fiction Convention that recently took place online, hosted from Wellington in New Zealand. Read part one here. I am now coming towards the end of describing programming attended at the second day of the convention.

A Chat with Bob and George allowed CoNZealand virtual attendees to witness a remote chat between Robert Silverberg and George R. R. Martin. Martin is the author of the Game of Thrones books (known to some as the A Song of Fire and Ice books) as well as numerous other works; he is probably the biggest SFF writer in the world today. Robert Silverberg meanwhile first attended Worldcon in 1953 before becoming a professional and prolific writer. The two of them chatted away about science fiction and Worldcons of yore, with the 1968 Worldcon in Berkeley being particularly memorable for the way in which teargas being used on a nearby anti-war demo mingled with the acid many of the guests had been imbibing. I was struck also by Silverberg’s mention of how contentious divisions in the 1960s became between aficionados and writers of New Wave science fiction on the one hand and those more attached to the old school SF of the past. There was an intensity to these divisions, with many of the old school writers feeling pushed aside by the New Wave. And yet, he felt that this divide was more extreme than the divisions currently afflicting fandom; these words would prove prophetic.

Like a lot of panels featuring Robert Silverberg this eventually got a bit sadface. He is almost the last man standing of his generation of writers, so most of his friends and colleagues are now dead.

After that I went to bed. The following evening I logged into my next item, an academic track presentation by Cat Sparks entitled Closer Than Ever: Our World Out of Control – horror futures in 70s science fiction cinema. In this she looked at some pre-Star Wars SF films that warned of possible dark futures: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) (in which computerised control systems for the US & Soviet nuclear arsenals become self-aware and take over the world), Soylent Green (1973) (the horrors of overpopulation), and Rollerball (1975) (a corrupt oligarchy distract the masses with violent sport).

Of these Colossus is probably the most obscure, perhaps because it is relatively dispassionate, while being somewhat depressing in an almost existential sense: the computers do not go all SKYNET and seek to exterminate humanity, instead resolving to deny humanity our freedom in our own interests, because we have shown that we are not up to the job of running things ourselves. Rollerball meanwhile was reviewed unfavourably on its initial release but has since grown in stature. To modern viewers it invites comparisons with The Hunger Games and is also striking in its early evocation of the world of extreme reality TV.
Soylent Green is probably best known now for the shocking reveal that ends the film. What is perhaps most interesting about it is how it deviates from its source material, Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room. In the novel, there is no big reveal and no big villains – the characters are stuck in an awful situation (thanks to overpopulation and resource depletion) and while some are good and some bad, they are all just trying to make the best of it. Interestingly, while the book features soylent green as a foodstuff, the question of where it comes from is not a subject of any interest. But the film goes down a more Hollywood road, giving us big villains who are behind all the bad stuff, which is something of a cop-out: problems caused by malevolent individuals are much easier to solve than systemic issues arising from the deep structures of society.
I was struck here by Sparks’ reference to a phrase used by Harry Harrison regarding some of his own work: “background is foreground”. Jumping forward in film time to 2006’s Children of Men, Sparks noted here that the background detail around social dislocation and the harsh treatment of migrants is more key to the film’s appeal than the foreground plot around the collapse in birth rates.
Sparks concluded that the films she discussed failed as cautionary tales because at that point science fiction was still a marginal concern and anything contained in a science fiction film was easily dismissed. That may have changed post Star Wars, though the success of that film also changed science fiction (or science fiction cinema at least). She also made an interesting point about near future v far future SF, with the latter essentially being fantasy while successful near future SF has to have some kind of credible grounding in science and the workings of the real world.

More CoNZealand action soon!

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Robert Silverberg, in the past (Amazing Stories: Interview with SFWA Grand Master Robert Silverberg)

CoNZealand part 1: remote conventions, H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury

My record in completing write-ups of Worldcons I have attended is not great. Anyone looking back over this blog will see that my write-ups for Dublin 2019 and Helsinki in 2017 both remain unfinished, though on my older blog I do at least have a fairly complete account of my time at Loncon in 2014. But I have done a bit better this year with my write-up of CoNZealand, the first World Science Fiction Convention hosted in New Zealand. What you are reading now is the first instalment of my ay account of the programme items I attended, with the later instalments to appear here over the next few days, a mere seven weeks after CoNZealand ended.

I had of course been planning to attend CoNZealand in person, with the presence in Wellington (New Zealand’s capital and the city hosting the convention) of a friend who had recently moved there allowing me to kill two birds with one stone. But of course the Fates had other ideas. From the moment I started reading about some funny new virus that was wreaking havoc in a Chinese town I began to think that my antipodean trip was looking increasingly unlikely, and so it proved. As travel restrictions came into place and showed no sign of being lifted the CoNZealand committee bowed to the inevitable and recast the con as an online event. And I think credit is due to them as they did so early enough and then applied sufficient resources to the problem to ensure a technically impressive operation was in place by the time Worldcon opened its virtual doors.

I attended a fair number of CoNZealand’s virtual panels and events. I’m not sure whether I saw more or less events than I would have done at an in-person con. One great feature of the virtual con was that you could go immediately from panel to panel, unlike at the Worldcons in Dublin and Helsinki were queuing systems meant that it was not always possible to go from event to event. The virtualisation of the con meant also that the very important Hugo administration tasks I might otherwise have had to perform largely fell away. On the other hand, the con largely took place at New Zealand time, which is singularly difficult for persons located like myself in Ireland. While I attempted to adapt to NZ time through disco-naps and the like, there inevitably came points in proceedings where I found myself too tired to continue. And while I kept promising that I would take advantage of playback facilities to view interesting panel discussions after the fact, this went the way of so many of my good intentions. I suspect therefore that the various factors may well have cancelled each other out, leaving me seeing about as many events as I would have attended if i had actually been there in Wellington. However, looking back at my notebook, I definitely took less notes than I have done at previous Worldcons, and I am wondering if this was the result of tiredness or of the somewhat alienating nature of watching panelists on screen rather than in person.

Two early panels that I found interesting were one on Future Laws and another entitled Who, What, When and/or Where Inspired You?. The former looked at how strange legal questions will have to be answered as technology and society develop, also raising very science fictiony questions about whether intelligent non-human life would have protection under the law (or indeed legal obligations). The latter was a heroic attempt to take that most dreaded of questions to authors (“Where do you get your ideas?”) and engage fully with it (“No, seriously, where do you get your ideas?”); I was quite taken here with a quote by panelist Amal El-Mohtar of Mary Robinette Kowal: “Learn to tell if it is writer’s block or if you are depressed”.

At the few Worldcons I have now been to I find that academic track sessions tend to be a reliable bet if you are looking for good content. Unlike the panels, where the interplay of the participants might or might not produce gold, the academic presentations will always feature someone setting forth a structured series of thoughts on a topic, so if the topic is one that appeals you stand a good chance of hearing something interesting said about it, with which you can then agree or disagree. At CoNZealand I had my first “wow this is amazing” experience with an academic track talk by Lars Backstrom entitled The Human Mind and Perception of the Other. This looked at the Cthulhu Mythos fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, specifically making the case that the experience of humanity in Lovecraft’s universe is akin to that of persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the real world. Relevant features here are the confusion and disorientation Lovecraft’s characters experience when confronted with the full horror of the Mythos, as well as the behaviour of the characters (who are often loners with obsessive behaviours), which mirrors those of some people with Asperger’s. He also noted that Lovecraft’s story ‘The Outsider’ is particularly evocative of the world as experienced by ASD people.

Curiously, it was only in response to an audience question that Backstrom discussed whether Lovecraft himself may have been on the spectrum, noting only that retrospective diagnoses are difficult and that people have differing views on the topic. He also made the interesting point that even now, when Asperger’s has a higher profile, many people are unaware that they have the condition; he himself was only diagnosed at the age of 50.

I don’t think the text of Backstrom’s talk is available online but YouTube has an appearance by him on the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, where he discusses similar points.

I enjoyed the presentation by Jason Aukerman of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies in Indiana, on the occasion of the centenary of the writer’s birth. Bradbury is an old favourite of mine and the talk covered reasonably familiar ground, though I was fascinated by the revelation that Bradbury was one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s two favourite American authors (the other being Isaac Asimov, an arch-capitalist). The talk nevertheless convinced me that I need to go back and re-read The October Country and The Golden Apples of the Sun, as well as finally get round to reading Something Wicked This Way Comes. One thing I was struck by though was what felt like a slight hesitancy in the tone of the presentation, as though anyone taking an interest in older science fiction and fantasy has to apologise for this, given how unenlightened the writers of yore were compared to people working now.

Author readings at Worldcon can be fun, particularly as way of dipping into the work of unfamiliar writers. I logged onto a few readings by authors who didn’t grab me, whose names I will not trouble you with, but I enjoyed the reading by Australian writer Kat Clay from her weird noir novella Double Exposure, in which a photographer finds at a murder site that a dead body is only visible through his camera’s viewfinder and on the developed photograph.

That’s it for now… more exciting CoNZealand content tomorrow!

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CoNZealand logo (Wellington City Libraries: One Year Till CoNZealand!)

H. P. Lovecraft (Hothouse Literary Journal – The Monster Behind the Monsters: H.P. Lovecraft and the Search for a Divide Between the Art and the Artist)