I went to Worldcon.
People. So many familiar faces! Many were expected; others less so. Some made for good company from time to time, others I barely glimpsed across a room. Some I see most days, others I last saw a decade or two ago. Some people I only even know were there from Twitter. Sorry if I missed anyone!
Programme. Huge and packed and not a chance of getting to see everything I’d have liked, on the upside that also meant little chance of spending much time bored. Some of the panels were a bit hit-and-miss but everything that I attended with a single person presenting about what they did (research, creating comics, etc) was excellent. There were solid academic and comics streams, and I think every academic item I went to told me a lot of stuff I didn’t know but nevertheless didn’t leave me feeling out of my depth. I made notes with varying degrees of coverage and legibility which I summarize below. The embedded recommendations cover anything I heard of at any time, so don’t take them as personal endorsements!
Hugo Awards. Massively pleased to see Ancillary Justice win, though less surprised than the author seems to be. Catherynne Valente was robbed. Randall Munroe inarguably had the best acceptance speech, using Cory Doctorow as a proxy, though Jon Chu’s reaction to winning was certainly the most affecting.
Art Show. Definitions of art often involve some notion of producing a response in the viewer. Too often I found the response was “oh, another spaceship” or “oh, another scantily clad woman”, though. A couple of things did catch my eye though, Vince Jö-Nés’s sculptures and Sarah Clemens’ paintings, especially Joyride.
Venue. The fairly linear topology of the much of the venue was very good for bumping into people at random, particularly when going for food. It was also located well for hotels meaning we got cheap rooms at the Travelodge 5-10m walk away.
Less positively some of the programme rooms were much too small for some of the items scheduled into them, and there was a severe bottleneck between the main collection of programme rooms and everywhere else, to the point that at one point I had to step smartly to the side when coming off an escalator to find the crowd in front had unexpectedly stopped. And at one of the food outlets I actually timed out and went elsewhere, something I’ve not done for many years. The rest were perfectly prompt though. (With one exception I ate within the venue. Given one of the tales of food faff I heard I think that was the right decision…)
Thursday. Not with a Bang, but with a Metaphor. The panel discussed apocalyptic and dystopian futures. Not many notes here other than someone observing that YA allowed a degree of genre freedom, an observation that surely has wider application.
Methane: The Dangerous Little Gas that Saved the Planet. Entertaining speaker Euan Nisbet gave an interesting talk on the history of methane and its relationship to the Earth’s climate over the course of its existence, plus some discussion of its likely near-future role. He mentioned the amusing possibility of a brontosaurus suffering from an excess of methane from its digestion being abler to float; and should it somehow be able to produce a spark from its teeth, well… The talk was complemented by a stand in the displays section where you could discover how much methane you exhaled (which for me, like most people, was no more than the atmospheric background).
Experimenting with Comics. Karrie Fransman, another very entertaining speaker, talked about the history of sequential art and past and present experimentation with the form. Current experimentation includes various kinds of immersivity (digital and otherwise), different underlying media, complicated applications of perspective and time to the framing rather than content of comics, use of comics for journalism, huge variation in style between the Earth’s various cultures, and so on. Very visual.
Jupiter: King of the Solar System. Caitriona Jackman gave a talk on Jupiter and some of its satellites. Factoids I noted down include its magnetosphere reaching the orbit of Saturn and its continued emission of heat left over from its formation. The most challenging question was, essentially, “say something nice about Io”, from someone who I think had been naming their offspring after moons; if it got an answer I neglected to record it.
Friday. How Does Bookselling Shape the Genre We See? The panel discussed the bookselling industry. Apparently bookshelf space in W.H. Smiths (but not Waterstones) is basically rented by retailer to publisher. 10-12 copies is a “bit of a risk” for a one-off local buy. Backlist and shelf presence mattered a lot; for obvious reasons it’s hard to sell the second or third parts of a trilogy to someone who can’t buy the first part. Building on this point: Borders represented 50-60% of US backlist sales so its demise represents a serious problem for publishers. An approach one publisher adopted was to release the members of (Tepper? Cherryh?) trilogy at one month intervals a rather than 1-2 year intervals, which worked well (but of course requires the whole work to be essentially complete before it can be sold at all).
The panel thought that bookshops still solve the discovery problem better than online sellers, but also recognized that trustworthy review sites (i.e. ones willing to pan things) also addressed this and were likely to supplant this feature of bookshops. Print on demand had poor economics and poor quality; I only have one POD book which I think is of adequate quality implying it can be done right, but it was a gift and I don’t know how much it cost (I suspect lots). Fixed costs are still challenging for ebooks despite the negligible marginal cost. Hardbacks are still going (incomprehensibly, in my view, but there you go).
Sympathy for the Zombie. Panel discussion of zombies as Other and of works that attempt to rehumanize them. Scribbled notes: “desire to be a vampire as class treachery” which I think was to do with the observation the the obvious allegory between zombies and the masses was neatly complemented by one between vampires and (literally…) extractive elite; and “conservative zombies?” but I can’t remember if there was any more to that notion particular than the idea. Recommendations: The Girl With All The Gifts (prose, Mike Carey); In The Flesh (TV series); and a Jonathan Lethem story I didn’t catch the name of.
How to Make a Dwarf Mammoth. Tori Herridge talked about dwarf elephants and dwarf mammoths, fossils of which are widely found (along with other fun-sized mammals) on Mediterranean and other islands. The smallest reached only 90cm high with newborns as little as 30cm. She talked a bit about how to tell the difference between adults and juveniles given just a bone and discussed the numerous factors suspected to be involved in island dwarfism (and gigantism: small animals get bigger in the same environments). Elephants (and presumably therefore also mammoths) turn out to be excellent swimmers, using the trunks as snorkels (and apparently someone once swam their elephants in Loch Ness, leading to the obvious speculation.) “Massively enthusiastic and engaging speaker” according to my contemporary notes, and she was also in the panel I went to next, which was…
Fake Science for Fun, Profit and Disaster. Much of this ended up consisting of an enumeration of particular hoaxes, spoofs, etc., but generally in an interesting way, keeping my attention and making it a one of the high points among the panels items. Things I noted down:
- Rhinogrades (a spoof rather than a hoax);
- early reports from train travelers who happened to observe the Wright Brothers being treated as hoaxes despite their accuracy;
- the rather gruesome Fiji Mermaid;
- the possibility of Teilhard de Chardin being involved in the Piltdown Man hoax;
- the problem of publication bias toward positive results;
- the famous errors in Ringworld and fix-ups in the sequel as a “peer-reviewed novel” with the logical outcome that when, after enough iterations, all the problems have been solved we actually build one;
- the possibility that nice people were more amenable to the placebo effect.
Under the circumstances I make no claims whatsoever about the accuracy or likelihood of anything in this paragraph!
Ian Stewart Interview. Nick Jackson interviewing Ian Stewart, leading to an interesting ramble through his life. I didn’t make many notes here other than the remarks that in Portugal and Brazil maths tended to be seen as a woman’s job, a pretty sharp contrast to the anglosphere, and that the professor once played support to Screaming Lord Such while in a student rock band.
What's New in Maths. A panel responding to the recent award of fields Medals, to among others Maryam Mirzakhani, in whose person are united both the first woman and the first Iranian to win the prize. I felt it was a bit short on what was actually new in mathematics, unfortunately. My notes say that the legend about Alfred Nobel leaving maths out due to an affair between his wife and a mathematician is not supported by any evidence.
Drawing the [redacted]: comics and censorship. Jude Roberts discussing the history of censorship of comics. Things in my notes: book-burnings in 1940s USA; the incredibly restrictive Comics Code only being formally abandoned in 2011. (If your model for censorship is based on film and TV then you might expect restrictions on e.g. sex or violence; in fact the Comics Code also contain substantial restrictions on possible plot lines.) Looking at analogous efforts outside the US, comic censorship existed in Mexico but was relatively ineffective due to poor funding, and the UK analog saw an unlikely alliance between the then Archbishop of Canterbury and the Communist Party.
More recently and about as bizarrely Singapore banned the Archie issue featuring a same-sex marriage but not the X-Men’s, apparently on the grounds that the latter was “balanced” by containing a character who objected. Also recently corporations such as Apple have acquired a reputation as enthusiastic censors, with brand management and anticipation of state action perhaps behind it, though they seem to be at least somewhat amenable to public pressure. Fascinating presentation.
Saturday. Revealing the Real World Through Comics. A panel discussing the use of comics outside fiction: in journalism, biography, memoirs, etc. The panel observed that comics can make it more evident that mediation is going on between the reader and whatever the author so; also that the collaboration between writer and artist adds an additional layer of mediation; also that self-insertion could be a mechanism for de-privileging the authorial voice. Comics provide more ways to getting inside someone’s head, with example of visual representation of body dysmorphia. Comics allow a mutable ‘interface’ (TV is a fixed box but comic panels can do anything you like); but long speeches or arguments are tricky in comic form (but notice that the R. Crumb Genesis fits all the begats in…) Biographical comics seems to be leading a bit of a charge into mainstream literature, e.g. Mary Talbot having so many invitations to literary festivals after Dotter of Her Father's Eyes that she can’t keep up. Observation that people have to learn to read comics (which made me wonder why they were deprived of the Beano as a child…) Recommendations: Maus (Art Spiegelman), Palestine (Joe Sacco), Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Mary Talbot), www.graphicmedicine.org.
Grandville and the Anthropomorphic Tradition. Bryan Talbot’s Guest Of Honor talk, about the long history of anthropomorphic characters in comics and their antecedents. He mentioned, among others:
- Le Roman de Renart;
- the Birds’ Head Haggadah;
- African and North American Indian traditions and interactions between the two resulting from the slave trade.
There was a bit of talk about the history of comics; Lord Northcliffe apparently made his money in comics (e.g. Comic Cuts) before going on to less intellectually respectable ventures such as the Daily Mail.
Anyway huge amounts of this historical background is referenced in Grandville, a comic series he is writing and drawing. It turns out that several now-famous comics initially self-published (Cerebus, Usago Yojimbo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), something I’d not previously been aware of. Quotes: “You can’t go wrong with a badger with guns” (the speaker’s grandmother voicing a sentiment which applies well to Grandville but also to emperor’s T-shirt); “Rodin of course did want to use badgers [in The Kiss]”. Recommendations: Blacksad; Grandville (Bryan Talbot).
Setting Up Your Comic Book Press: New and Old Models Examined. The moderator didn’t turn up but the panel turned out to be self-starting and in no need of any external moderation, leading to another high point among the panels, which followed on nicely from the observations about self-publishing above. Someone (Ian Sharman I think) observed that it “helps” if you pay the artist. Debbie Lynn Smith held up a mockup (proof? I can’t remember the right term) of her comic, which it took $6,000 to get to and that’s not paying herself as writer (she set herself up as a publisher in order to maintain control.) In short: don’t expect to make any money from self-publishing or indie comics.There was lots of discussion of Kickstarter - what works and what doesn’t. Overachieving is tough, because you basically have to do your own distribution. International shipping is a massive problem (individually hand-written customs declarations!?!), the response being digital-only rewards or overcooking the shipping costs. Realism really helps, so does doing the maths up to make sure the project is actually plausible. Succeeds breeds success even within a single Kickstarter, since people like being involved in something that’s really taking off. Scaling up from an issue to a series works, lining up hidden rewards helps. Panel didn’t think much of Patreon yet but considered it early days. In a brief discussion of marketing: Facebook was thought to be hopeless, tumblr helped build an audience, attending conventions was vital. Online vendors include: DriveThruComics (PDF download), Comixology (online-only); I think both were relatively popular with the panel, who really disliked offline distributors.
There was some discussion of gender: apparently Girl Genius is mostly female-read, something I’d not even begun to suspect. Comics conventions tried to address gender imbalance by male panelists refusing to be on panels with under 50% female representation but ended up with same few women on all panels, i.e. the industry remains deeply out of kilter in gender terms. Recommendations: Pet Noir (Pati Nagle; prose with comic adaptation in the pipeline); Alpha Gods (Ian Sharman); Gates Of Midnight (Debbie Lynn Smith).
Dead Girls, launch event for the graphic novel reimagining of the book by Richard Calder. I was lucky enough to spot the book on sale in the dealers room and Terry Martin told me about the launch event, which the programme guide seems to have neglected to mention, so now I have a well-autographed copy which I made some progress through in occasional downtime and on the train home. Recommendations: Malignos (and everything else by Richard Calder but I’d not heard of this one).
The Post Human Future. Martin Rees talked about space travel (“dangerous sport” seemed more appropriate than “space tourism”), global existential threats and possible responses to them. Geo-engineering is alarmingly practical and politically incredibly difficult. Reference to visualization of Kepler discoveries.
Masquerade. Highlights: Tang Fei as an Ood dancing to No Limit; William Spratt’s Stark pun. Maybe I wasn’t taking it very seriously.
Sunday. Writing And Pitching Comics. The panel thought it was the hardest medium to get into, with Paul Cornell reporting that he got into it when a colleague suggested he write a comic and Mary Talbot’s approach being to start by being married to a famous writer/illustrator. Joking aside, Mike Carey reported a more traditional process of working up from the bottom, and as alluded to above Debbie Lynn Smith was taking the risk of setting herself up as her own publisher. The panel found that there was no such thing as a standard pitch or script format, though some publishers did have house styles (e.g. numbering all the dialog items, which was thought to be a good idea). Smith and Talbot both basically presented a complete script to publishers. Having all the answers to potential publishers’ questions helps.
The panel talked about instructions to illustrators. Getting across the emotional tone of the scene mattered; detailed directions weren’t a good idea, i.e. say what happens, not what the viewpoint is. The best results came from letting the artists use their visual imagination. There was an anecdote about a script stating that someone burst into a room with a large chopper, leading to a depiction of a helicopter. Some writers publish their scripts. Drawing stick-man layouts helps make sure that scripts can in fact be depicted (even if nobody but the writer ever sees this). Some things need to be learned, e.g. no surprises on a right-facing page (Bryan Talbot talked about this kind of thing in a later item too). Recommendations: Sally Heathcoate: Suffragette (Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, Bryan Talbot).
A Queerer War. “It’s not where the book is set, it’s where it’s written from” (Duncan Lawie). More room for maneuvre when writing outside real cultures. The panel mention the presence of some common sense in practical application of the law concerning homosexuality and the military prior to liberalization. Someone talked about an ?admiral who caused his wife to burst out laughing when he expressed a wish to talk to some gay people about the issue - he’d not realized how many of his immediate staff were gay. Recommendations: The Thousand Names (Django Wexler, who was present), The Shadow Throne (Django Wexler again; I think a sequel to the previous); God’s War (Kameron Hurley). (See also: Alex’s partial transcript.)
Bryan Talbot: ‘How I Make A Graphic Novel’. Talbot discusses his creative and practical process. He writes down everything and does extensive research (my notes say “tens of books”). As well as refining the initial ideas this also generates many new ones. He makes extensive use of photo reference. He related an anecdote about being accosted by a policewoman when photographing on Westminster Bridge for The Tale Of One Bad Rat. It’s important to recall that a panel is an instant, not an interval. Balloon order matters (nothing worse than reading things out of order). Readers engage in panoptic reading or lissage: they will be taking in most or all of the page at once, the construction of pairs of facing pages must be sympathetic to this. The obvious response of course is to put scene breaks at the end of a pair of pages, if this isn’t possible for some reason then some other means of differentiating scenes is necessary, with the example of black vs white bordering being given.
He discussed the subtle visual effects in Augustus: the Emperor is always depicted from below except in his dreams; the light shifts and garbage builds up during the course of the day. (Gratifyingly I’d spotted the latter two techniques in one of my many readings of it, but not the former.)
He discussed some compositional techniques: make elements that appear in multiple panels (e.g. the characters) collinear; make them scale consistently along the line. There was loads more that I didn’t manage to write down! Recommendations: Metronome (Veronique Tanaka, who is really Bryan Talbot), Heart Of Empire (Bryan Talbot).
”We Have Always Fought”: Warriors vs Llamas. Turned up not least because Rachel was on the panel. One panelist observed that writing characters as men and then reassigning some of them to women afterwards produced betters characters, recognizing own internal sexism. The panel gave numerous examples of historical female warriors and other high-fliers: the swashbuckling Madame la Maupin, Turkish fighter pilot Sabiha Gökçen, the Russian Night Witches, multiple Russian fighter pilot aces and many more finishing with Jean d’Arc, who I think was the only one I’d previously heard of, and perhaps the same is true for you. There was also some mention of a viking grave in Turkey with something like 30% female burials with military grave goods.
Moving from history and archaeology to literature, someone on the panel mentioned of a case in which a female author sued for libel, and won, over the remark “obviously her husband wrote it” in a book review, though if anyone involved was identified I failed to write it down. James Cameron and Gene Roddenberry were thought to be a cut above the average among creators (Roddenberry reportedly wanting trousers for all the Enterprise’s crew but being overruled). Recommendations: A Long Fatal Love Chase (Louisa May Alcott), The Handfasted Wife (Carol McGrath), Altered Carbon (Richard Morgan), Jenny Casey series (Elizabeth Bear), Quantum Gravity series (Justina Robson), Illicit Passages (Alice Nunn), Django Wexler again (and he was present again); and of course We Have Always Fought: Challenging The ‘Women, Cattle And Slaves’ Narrative (Kameron Hurley), which just won two Hugos; A Person Paper on Purity in Language (Douglas R. Hofstadter); How To Suppress Women’s Writing (Joanna Russ). (See also: Alex’s partial transcript.)
Monday. Pew! Pew! Where Have The Lasers Gone? The panel observed that lasers tended to be used for destructive purposes when they did turn up in SF and medicine and playing with cats in real life; another contrast was made between the Empire’s giant, planetbusting laser and the Foundations’ miniaturization of everything imaginable, the latter being rather more realistic. Lots of discussion of real life military applications which I can’t be bothered to summarize here. It could be that the present absence from SF just fashion? Perhaps there’s just better ways of doing things, nobody cooks on an atomic stove; lobbing rocks around is a better approach to planetary-scale destruction than giant lasers. There was a tangential observation that short-term predictions tend to over-reach but long-term ones under-reach (smartphones are way beyond what most early SF ever imagined).
The Politics Of The Culture. There were early observations that by definition there can be no politics in a utopia and related question of what politics is left when resource allocation is solved (in the Culture’s case by overwhelming plenty). Fairly naturally a lot of discussion focused on the periphery of The Culture; a utilitarian analysis of the cost of nondevelopment leading to an imperative to intervene, with the occasional appalling disaster mitigated by the much more numerous successes. Recommendations: Use Of Calculators (Ken MacLeod), Look To Windward (Iain M Banks; I’ve read it before but the panel left me wanting to revisit it).
The Productive Old Age Of Stars. Anita Richards gave a fascinating account of how ‘stardust’, of which it is a cliché that we are made, is actually formed. “What happens when stars get to about my age…” Red giants mostly produce light elements, expelling them over an extended period (see below for where the heavier ones come from). Natural masers form in some of the output, for instance silicon oxides and (further out) water; this emits at a predictable wavelength but in moving clouds, so you can measure movement via the doppler effect. The speaker asked for examples of maser weapons in SF, the only one she knew of was in Hyperion. (She was pretty good at dropping SF references into the talk.) Stellar spots seem to be involved, on red giants (where observable) they are much bigger than the sun’s spots and seem to be size-correlated with water clouds (as measured by maser emissions); they are also unexpectedly hot in radio. The early universe seems to be dustier than predicted by current models, speculation that there were proportionately more massive stars in the early universe but no idea why that might be. Dust accelerates outward from stars which was unexpected; the speculation was that it’s the result of radiation pressure from lower-altitude dust cooling. There’s some compounding of this stuff around stars but most of the chemistry happens in interstellar space.
There was a bit of discussion of nanodiamond inclusions in meteorites with isotope ratios apparently inherited from distinguishable supernova sources (carbon isotope ratio depends on temperature of supernova). But most of the supernova stuff was in…
Your Atoms; From Star To Star. Jane Greaves talked about nucleosynthesis, starting off with the big bang in which substantial Helium was formed (the reason for the He preponderance being obvious from the digraph of possible nuclear reactions: all roads lead to Helium). Substantial gas clouds trailing the Magellanic clouds, probably consisting of elements formed in the Big Bang. In stars you get all the way up to Iron, with the star being layer, lightest elements on the outside; too much Iron in a big star and it collapses, the rebound being a supernova and heavier elements being formed in nuclear reactions only possible in extreme conditions. “Primordial cosmic whatnot”. There is still plenty to discover, e.g. phosphorous as a supernova output only established as recently as 2013, and interstellar phosphine synthesis in the last few months. There was some discussion of the chemical requirements for life: Silicon a questionable replacement for Carbon because oxides are solid, a challenge to exhale; but ammonia-based life seemed more realistic. Additionally exotic amino acids have been found in meteorites suggesting the possibility of an exogenous origin for the basic chemistry of terrestrial life.