|The Early Days of a Better Nation
Friday, April 17, 2009
This year's Eastercon, LX 2009 was a blast. (For anyone who doesn't know: Eastercon is the largest annual British SF convention. A science fiction convention isn't - contrary to popular misconception - a gathering of people dressed as Klingons (not that there's anything wrong with that). It's a gathering of people dressed as Victorians. (Actually, that's an exaggeration too. A couple of nice photosets by Mark Bukumunhe and Ian Sales give a fair idea of what an Eastercon crowd looks like.))
The Night Sessions (just out in paperback, by the way) won the BSFA Award for best novel of 2008, and the awards are, as usual, works of art. I totally didn't expect this, given the strength of the list. I'd already read out the short-list and presented the Award for best non-fiction, and was delighted that it went to Farah Mendlesohn for her brilliant and original Rhetorics of Fantasy. Congratulations to all the winners.
Thanks to my
The Science Fiction Foundation's annual George Hay Lecture was presented Adrian Bowyer, on the RepRap machine, an attempt to build a useful self-replicating desktop factory. The lecture was perfectly pitched to a scientifictional audience (Bowyer had told Cory Doctorow: 'You write novels about what I'm doing!') and I was sold on the whole thing the moment I handled one of its products, a chunky and robust plastic coat-hook. RepRap ain't a Von Neumann machine just yet - it only makes all the plastic parts needed for another copy of itself - but the mad scientists are already working on a version that makes its own electrical circuits, and after that, who knows?
The very first BSFA lecture (the intended series will complement the Hay lectures by being on the humanities, rather than science) was given by historian Shana Worthen, on 'Visualising Time in the Middle Ages', and was about calendars and clocks. She began by wishing us a happy new year - one calendar, the Gallic, had the year starting, most inconveniently, on the moveable feast of Easter Sunday. Much that we take for granted had to be invented: the twenty-four hour day dates back to Babylon, but the length of an hour as measured by a sundial varied with the length of the day - and the first mechanical clocks tried to reproduce this. It's kind of heartening to know that the classic mistake of designing the solution before specifying the problem didn't start with IT departments.
Tim Powers was author Guest of Honour, and he was great. In his GoH interview, conducted by his bibliographer John Berlyne, Powers told lots of entertaining tales about his life and gave lots of advice about writing, including a method for finding or inventing weird events in history by looking for clues in biographies of historical characters: watch out for when the biographer says something like 'and then, inexplicably ...'; combine the subject's timetable with someone else's timetable or a known series of events (like Bordeaux good and bad years), spot any coincidences and ask 'Can this be coincidence?'; and always say 'Yes, but why did he really do that?' In short, write your own conspiracy theories! A consequence of doing this, Powers said, was that he could never take conspiracy theories seriously. It's like, hey man, making this stuff up is my day job. Go bother someone else.
In his talk on 'How to Plot a Novel', Powers gave a masterclass on the subject, which I can't begin to reproduce here (but may attempt some other time). One memorable tip was to start with 'placing imaginary bets' - to write down every idea that occurs to you, without editing (a process he said was inspired by a ridiculous system for winning at games of chance by first losing ten thousand dollars on imaginary bets, thus using up all your bad luck) and then critically examining the ideas: questioning them, reversing them, often enough rejecting them. As he pointed out, 'But I thought of it!' is not a good reason for keeping an idea.
Lots of other panels, mostly good. Kari ended one on 'Re-creating History' by revealing a closely-guarded secret of medieval historians: 'People knew how to hem.' Clute said the genres of the fantastic were born of ruins and futurity. At the panel on 'Alternate Socialist Britains' I kept my mouth shut, perhaps wisely. At 'SF as Protest Literature' artist GoH David Lloyd said that the Watchmen film was 'pretty good' and that he didn't mind surveillance cameras. On 'Bad Biology' Paul McAuley remarked that silicon-based life 'could be squishy'.
The panel convened by Farah Mendlesohn on 'Pacifism and Non-Violence in SF' benefited from being on a subject on which there is a manageably small amount of source material. The discussion led me to make one of my very few comments from the floor. A more articulate and argued version of that comment would be this:
We already know how to have peace over large areas of the Earth, and that is by having large states covering those areas. (The combat death rate for men of military age in typical stateless societies far exceeds that in inter-state wars, including world wars.) SF has in its default assumptions a way to get to peace without pacifism, and that is the World State. Even Starship Troopers gives this answer, just as much as Star Trek or anything by H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Heinlein's Federation is a World State, and (consequently) there is peace within the human species. It just has wars with aliens.
But there are no aliens. So we could have peace.