|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, March 30, 2004
Homage to Catalonia
On Monday morning I got back from Barcelona, to find Mrs Early asleep, Master Early asleep, and Zhukov (the Early dog) very much awake. Stitch and Split was interesting and worthwhile. Its poster deserves to become a classic of SF art, though even with the full-size version you may need a magnifying glass to spot some of the jokes, like the Culture ship names in tiny print, and the Giant Egg-Laying Insect, and the sunken city of Shanghai. My participation was invited, and expenses and fee paid for, by the Fundacio Antoni Tapies, to which much thanks.
I arrived in Barcelona on a rare (they say) wet weekend, so felt quite at home. It wasn't raining when I arrived, so there was no problem taking a bus in and lugging my stuff from Catalunya square to the Hotel Banys Orientals. It's a good modern hotel, where I found a handy pass for free lunches and dinners and a couple of faxes of directions from the organiser, Nuria Homs. So I left my luggage, looked at the map, and slogged off up the road a mile or so to the Fundacio Antoni Tapies, where the event was taking place.
In an auditorium under an art gallery I met three young Belgians, Laurence Rassel, Nicolas Maleve and Pierre de Jaegger, who introduced me to Nuria. Pierre took me out for a beer and we'd just got in a second when Nicolas arrived to advise us that the show was starting. Jordi Sanchev-Navarro talked about cyberpunk films. Laurence translated for me while he was talking. Every time a film clip came on - no matter how interesting or bizarre - I went out like a light, but she was too polite to comment. Every so often Laurence would break off her translation to say 'But you know this!' This was being polite too. For me it was all educational.
After the talk we went to a nearby bar and I asked Jordi if he knew of a film festival called Dead By Dawn. 'Of course,' he said. 'I know Adele!' We all talked for a bit and Laurence, who'd read all my books, asked: 'But what I want to know is, how did you become a feminist?'
This was a difficult question to answer since nobody had ever called me a feminist before.
The Belgians then took my out to a fine restaurant above a bookshop, where I ate fish. This was to become a theme of the weekend. Back at the hotel I crashed out, and woke in time for breakfast. I'd intended to wander around, and I did, as far as the rain allowed, to the foot of the Rambla (antique market, a lift up the column and a lot of photographs of Barcelona in the rain) and part of the way up. Umbrella sellers came out like mushrooms. By lunchtime I was feeling hungry and the hotel's adjacent restaurant was on the list that my card gave me a pass for, so I went back and ate fish. Out in the rain again and up La Rambla, and on to the Fundacio again, where I read, snoozed, and got ready for my talk. This involved selecting passages from my novel The Stone Canal for Laurence to photocopy for the translators, who were on hand to provide simultaneous translations over nifty skiffy radio headphones into Spanish and English, and who (in the event) did their job well. A little later, as the hall filled up, I met an enthusiastic reader, Professor Louis Lemkow, and a Spanish SF publisher (not mine) Miquel Barcelo Garcia, and the rest of the panel.
The other members of the panel were Manuel Moreno, Jordi Lamarca i Margalef, and Carme Gallego. Carme kicked off with a refreshing Enlightenment attack on the whole notion of identity, starting from the insight of the Scottish philosopher David Hume that even personal identity is a fiction. Collective identities, she argued, merely multiplied the fiction.
Jordi spoke about one of his interests, autobiography, and its role in shaping identity and the quest for what he called a 'middle term' between collective and individual identities. (The vagueness is all mine.)
I then, bracketted with readings from relevant passages from The Stone Canal, said something like this:
Is it possible for human personalities to be recreated in computer systems? Personally, I doubt it. To create a software model of the brain and its body and environment is difficult enough even in principle, let alone in any foreseeable practice. To enable that programme to run, to iterate, to take even one step, is a difficulty of a far greater order. Perhaps I'm just being stubborn, but I remain unconvinced that it's possible at all. To claim that human personalites, with real continuity with those they've been copied from, can exist in a virtual environment raises philosophical questions far deeper than most stories on the subject even consider, and far too deep for me to go into here.Manuel Moreno followed up with an entertaining survey of 'selves and territories' in the form of aliens and their environments, taking classic SF examples such as Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity and Frederick Pohl's Man-Plus, as well as amusing examples of getting it wrong, from Barsoom to Hollywood.
Discussion, as you might expect, followed. Then another visit to the bar, and another seafood dinner. I had forgotten what fresh mussels taste like, and never known what razor-shell clams (wasted as bait in all my experience) taste like. And other alien life-forms ... 'You are a marine biologist,' said Nicolas. 'You must know how to dissect a lobster!' I did my best.
In a wine-bar found by Louis, much later, I heard about the events of two weekends ago, which - tragic though their impetus was - were for a few hours revolutionary - 'You could reach out and touch it!' said Nicolas - as millions of people in the street discovered through rumour and text message and website that they'd been lied to, and that much well-meant comment was misinformed. 'Even your weblog - !' Laurence had said earlier, to my embarrassment. The city, I should say, is spray-bombed with graffiti, its shop and office windows postered with anger and mourning, the black ribbon and the Catalan flag.
I said goodbye outside the hotel to Louis and the Belgians, finished my wine left over from lunch and read Buckle. The following morning, mercifully sunny, I shopped for gifts in the back streets and then headed for the airport. My flight to Heathrow was delayed long enough to make me miss the last flight to Edinburgh. Iberia, the airline responsible, put me up for the night in the Radisson Edwardian, a hotel I's last been in at a long-ago Eastercon, Evolution. When I walked into the bar I laughed out loud. Everything was still the same: the saddle-shaped bar stools, the seating, the paintings of horses. Entire conversations flashed back. I spent two quid on a half pint and went to bed; woke at 4.30 and caught the first plane home.
In the late evenings at the hotel and waiting for flights I'd finished reading Buckle's History of England, Volume 3, the one about Scotland. Its reading has, I think, changed my entire sense of identity, but that's another story.