It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Fantasticon 2019

Fantasticon happens every year in Copenhagen, usually in September. It’s not the only con of that name, but it is the only Nordic con of that name. This year was my third Fantasticon. For the past few years, it’s been themed, and for 2019 the theme was Afrofuturism, and the guest of honour was US writer Nisi Shawl.

On previous visits – I’ve now visited the city over a dozen times – I flew from the UK, but now I’m resident in Sweden, and there’s a regular train service between Stockholm and, as we say here, Köpenhamn. Train travel is much superior to flying. And Swedish train are vastly superior to UK trains. In the company of Johan Anglemark, who had not attended Fantasticon since it moved to its current venue, I caught the train from Uppsala to Stockholm Central Station, and changed there onto the train to Copenhagen. The trip was unsurprisingly stress-free. We sat on the train for about five and a half hours, and though we crossed an international border we didn’t have to show any ID. This is not something I’m happy to give up just so a handful of very rich old white men won’t have to pay their fair portion of taxes. Fuck’ em. Better yet: lock them up.

Do you know how difficult it is to take a good photo of the Öresund while crossing the bridge on a fast-moving train?

We were joined on the train at Malmö by a Swedish fan from Göteborg, Patrik Centerwall. On arrival in Copenhagen, we trekked along Vesterbrogade from the main station to our hotel, where we bumped into a couple more familiar faces. After checking in and dumping our stuff in our rooms, we headed for the Serapions Order, where the con was taking place. It’s the lodge of a sort of Danish Masonic order, in Frederiksberg, a weird sort of enclave within Copenhagen. No sooner had we met up with various other fans, then around a dozen of us, led by Danish fan Sanna Bo Claumarch, caught a bus for the now-traditional Friday night oysters, at a French restaurant, L’Éducation Nationale. Some people also had snails. I played it safe and had entrecôte. We stayed until the restaurant closed, and a group of four of us – Johan, myself, Sanna and Sidsel Pedersen – set off to walk back to Frederiksberg, a distance of about 2 km. We stopped off en route at another bar. And closed that. And then Sidsel had to catch a taxi to Valby because Edmund Schluessel’s key wasn’t working on the entrance door to his hotel. The three of us left walked back via Sankt Jøgens Sø, and I was in bed by about 3 am.

The next day, I spent the morning briefly at the con, then headed into the centre of Copenhagen – basically a march the length of Vesterbrogade to Rådhuspladsen, where I met my sister. We went for a bite to eat, followed by a wander around the comics branch of Faraos Cigarer, and then the games branch. I returned to the con in time for a programme item celebrating Samuel R Delany and his work.

Saturday evenings at Fantasticon are typically taken up with a banquet, at which the guest of honour gives their speech. I’ve attended at all three of the Fantasticons I’ve, er, attended, and the food has been excellent. After the meal, there is filk. I am, I admit, not a fan of filk. I don’t get the appeal of rewriting the lyrics of folk songs so they refer to science fiction works or fannish traditions. Apparently, the Nordic filk tradition is very much a singalong style, unlike the UK and US traditions. Unfortunately, the person invited to lead the filking did not know this. So there wasn’t much of a singalong. Also unfortunately, the lyrics to the half-dozen songs performed, which were projected onto a screen, were hardly appropriate: one featured the term “nancy boys” and jocular references to rape. The most recent sfnal reference in them was Return of the Jedi (1982). Fortunately, I’d spotted a racial slur in the lyrics sheet as the projector was being tested, and asked for it to be removed. Which it was. Shit like that should not be happening in 2019.

After the banquet, and filk, had finished, a group of us headed to Vesterbro Torv. The bar we’d visited the year before had gone, replaced by some sort of posh pizzeria. So we ended up at a bar next door, which was not as good. At midnight, they packed up the outside tables, and only Sanna, Sidsel and myself moved inside. After we’d finished our drinks, we made our way to Mikkeller, probably my favourite bar in Copenhagen (in my defence, I have not visited that many). I was back in my hotel bed by about 2 am.

View of Tycho Brahe Planetarium across Sankt Jørgens Sø

Sunday morning demonstrated I really am getting too old for this shit. I had a bit of a lie-in – but still managed to catch hotel breakfast. I sat about and socialised for much of the day until my interview. 2019 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I am allegedly knowledgeable on the subject – which no doubt explained why I was put on four panels about Apollo and the Moon at Worldcon this August, including two featuring an actual NASA astronaut (one of which I moderated). This likely explains why Flemming Rasch interviewing me about the Apollo programme, and my Apollo Quartet, was added to the Fantasticon programme. Amusingly, Johan had told me earlier that day about his experience at a con some years previously interviewing Iain Banks. He’d been asked to interview Banks for the programme booklet and had done so. On arrival at the con, he was then asked to interview Banks again as part of the programme. But, as he pointed out to Banks just before the programme item, he’d already asked the questions he wanted to ask. So he asked Banks if he would cooperate… and Johan admitted he asked only four questions and Banks gave 15 minute answers to each…

Which is sort of what happened in my interview. Flemming asked a question… and I was off. He managed to squeeze in another three questions. And even then he had to cut me short because the hour was up. I hadn’t actually prepared for the interview, so everything I said was completely off-the-cuff. I’m of the opinion that writers discussing how they write is boring, so instead I decided to focus on what I wrote – which I thought was interesting in its own right: the Apollo programme, Mercury 13, bathyscaphe Trieste, astronaut biographies… Plus, of course, how I came to write the Apollo Quartet, and the many non-genre inspirations I folded into it: the films of Douglas Sirk, Michael Haneke and James Benning; the fiction of Cormac McCarthy and WG Sebald… I enjoyed myself and it seemed the audience found it interesting. I was actually surprised at how much I’d managed to retain (although apparently not enough to turn straight to a page in All That Outer Space Allows to read an excerpt to demonstrate a point; oh well). Of course, as soon as the interview was over and I was back in the lounge area, I thought of loads things I could have mentioned…

View from Frederiksberg Have

Finally, there was the closing ceremony, in which con chairperson Knud Larn handed the baton over to Flemming. And then there was the dead dog party, which takes place in Cafe Asta, next to Hotel Fy og Bi, in Valby, a 2 km walk from the con venue. (Fantasticon used to be held around the corner from Cafe Asta. Fy and Bi were a Danish silent film comedy duo.) A group of us took a route there through Frederiksberg Gardens, which features one of Copenhagen’s few hills. After sushi, we joined the others at the Cafe Asta. Which closed at half past nine. Boo. Sanna, Johan and I walked back to Frederiksberg, this time detouring through the Carlsberg Brewery, which is in the process of being gentrified into posh offices and apartments. Johan and I looked for a bar that was still open in Vesterbrogade but without success. So it was an early night. Which was probably just as well as our train back to Stockholm departed at 8:23 the next morning.

Somewhere in the Carlsberg Brewery

So that was my third Fantasticon. Nisi Shawl was an excellent guest of honour, extremely approachable and friendly, and very knowledgeable. I purchased three books – well, four, as one was an Ace double – for 5 Danish crowns each (the con was selling off a late fan’s book collection of old sf paperbacks). That’s better than I did at Worldcon. Even if three of the books I already have in storage back in the UK. There’s definitely a Nordic fan group coming together, one that attends cons in all five Nordic countries, numbering between a dozen and two dozen people. You can always be sure of spotting a familiar face, whether the con is in Reykjavik or Helsinki. One of the excellent things about this group is its multilingualism, even if it often uses English as a lingua franca. At Fantasticon, I witnessed a Danish fan and a Swedish fan in conversation, and they were each speaking in their native tongue. Of course, the Scandinavian languages are to some extent mutually intelligible, although not to everyone; but I certainly found myself understanding more Danish than on previous visits after studying Swedish for four months.

Fantasticon is not a big convention – around sixty to seventy people – but it’s a friendly one. And Copenhagen is a lovely city. It’s definitely worth attending. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open to learn what next year’s theme will be and the identity of the guest(s) of honour…

(Apologies for not name-checking everyone I met and spoke to during the weekend.)

 


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A Tale of three cons

In the past four months I’ve attended three science fiction conventions in three different countries. Three con reports in one post would be a bit much, however, so I’ll keep these short.

The first was Åcon, in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, a part of Finland. I hadn’t initially planned to attend a con so soon after my move north, but was persuaded to go by members of Uppsala fandom – well, one member: Johan Anglemark. And I’m glad I bowed to the pressure. The trip to Mariehamn was ridiculously easy – and the first time I’ve travelled to another country with liquids for many years. A group of fans from Malmö and Copenhagen came up to Uppsala by train the night before, and the following morning we all caught a coach to Grisslehamn on the coast. It takes about 45 minutes. Then it’s two hours on a ferry to Eckerö in the Åland Islands, followed by another 45-minutes coach-ride. It’s been many many years since I was last on a ferry, but they don’t appear to have changed much: a bar with a band murdering hits of the late twentieth century, a huge duty-free store (and, in fact, the chief reason why people take the ferry), and gently shifting motion that had me thinking I was a fraction of a degree away from falling over most of the time.

Åcon takes place in the Hotel Adlon, which may share its name with the Berlin hotel which appears in Philip Kerr’s excellent Bernie Gunther novels set in Nazi Germany, but is entirely the opposite. Sort of. It’s perhaps a bit tired these days, but it’s only a year or two past needing refurbishment and, to be honest, being a little behind the times seems entirely fitting in Mariehamn. While I was there, I actually saw someone delivering newspapers to people’s doors. I didn’t see a milk float, although I don’t think they’re a Finnish or Swedish thing, but if they were, they’d be still be using them in Mariehamn. It’s a bit like time travel. Which is, of course, entirely fitting for a science fiction convention.

Åcon is characterised as a relaxacon, with a single Guest of Honour. This year, the GoH was Amal El-Mohtar, a Canadian writer of Lebanese extraction who used to live in Glasgow, and who I last met in 2013 when she had a quite pronounced Scottish accent. To be honest, I’d thought then she was a Scottish writer. The Åcon way is to schedule 60-minute programme items 90 minutes apart. Everything is in English.

On the first night, I accompanied the GoH and several others to Dino’s, an upmarket burger/steak place. I like eating in Finland. Finns suffer from lactose intolerance, as I do, to such an extent that pretty much all eateries cater to both lactose- and gluten-intolerant diners to a massively better degree than any other country on the planet. The sports bar attached to the Hotel Adlon, for example, served only pizzas, but they were all made with lactose-free cheese… because it’s easier to do that than cater for those tolerant to it and those who aren’t. I love Finland for that.

I was put on two programme items at Åcon, one on how the genre treats the six senses, which I moderated. Yes, six. Because proprioreception is generally considered a sense now. That went so well, it overran its spot and I had trouble bringing it to a close. My second panel was about fairytales and I was probably the least-qualified person on the panel to discuss the topic. Oh well. I attended a couple of items I was not on. I do that at Nordic cons. I find their programmes more interesting because they scratch more itches as a science fiction fan. I was also chosen as a team captain for Jukka’s infamous quiz, but we lost by a single point.

On the Saturday, myself and a Finnish fan called Orjo visited the nearby Sjöfart Museum (Maritime Museum), which includes one of the last sailing ships used in trade by the Åland Islands. That was interesting. In the afternoon was a con-arranged trip to a craft brewery, Open Water Brewery on Lemland, one of the other Åland Islands. There we were given a quick lecture on brewing, and tried several of the breweries beers. Including its cider, new that year. And, I think, the first ever made in the Åland Islands (which actually provides 80% of Finland’s apples).

The final programme item – other than the “gripe session” – was a William Shatner karaoke. This turned out to be performing songs in the style of William Shatner. So, no actual singing. Which I cannot do. I have often said I could not carry a tune even if it came in a bucket. William Shatner karaoke sounds like something worth running from. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It was definitely one of the funniest things I’ve seen at a con for years. Shout out to Regina from Shanghai, who not only travelled all the way from China to Åcon but also performed a jaw-dropping Mandarin song in William Shatner style.

My second convention was Replicon, the annual Swedish national con, Swecon, this year held in Västerås. Which is west of Stockholm and 80 minutes by coach from Uppsala. The con took place in the CuLTUREN, an old copper foundry (hence “Cu”) converted into function space. Replicon occupied the central foyer and made use of three function rooms – two for the programme, and one for the Fantikvariat, a charity that sells secondhand genre books, mostly UK or US. There were a couple of smaller rooms used for other programme items. The venue boasted a small coffee shop and a restaurant – which normally serves Lebanese food but for some bizarre reason decided for the con to become a pizzeria. I’d jokingly said the year before that eating Lebanese on the first night of Swecon had almost become a tradition (we did it in both 2017 and 2018). And this year, while I didn’t have Lebanese food on the Friday evening, I ate in what is normally a Lebanese restaurant. So I think that counts.

Anyway, I arrived at CuLTUREN and immediately bumped into the Anders. Who I’d not seen for over a year, and who was unaware I was now living in Uppsala. He took me to the Bishops Arms for a few beers. The Västerås Bishop Arms is the original one. There are now over 40 scattered around Sweden. After a couple of beers, we headed back to the venue for the Opening Ceremony. Which introduced the two Guests of Honour, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, both names known to me but I’ve not read anything by either. I didn’t attend that many programme items – there seemed to be more Swedish-language ones than in previous years; hopefully, by next year’s Swecon, that will make no difference to me. I spent both Friday and Saturday evenings in BierKeller with some Swedish and Finnish fans. This did entail the drinking of a couple of beers that cost 199 crowns each (in 500 ml bottles), although myself and Anders split both the cost and the beers.

While I may not have attended every programme item – although the ones I saw were good, particularly Anna Bark Persson’s talk on “Female masculinity in SF” – I did better in the Fantikvariat than I’ve done recently in dealers’ room: I bought eight books, two were in Swedish and four were books I already owned (but in storage in the UK). For the past couple of years, I’ve bought more second-hand books at Nordic cons than I have at UK cons. Go figure.

Replicon was a smaller affair than other Swecons I’ve attended, but it was well-organised, the venue worked, and Västerås is a pleasant town. In Swedish terms, I think Västerås fandom well and truly put themselves on the map in terms of con-running. Should they ever plan to run another Swecon, they’ll likely get more attendees.

The big con this year was, of course, the Worldcon, which took place at the Convention Centre in Dublin. I last visited the city when I was two years old so I remember nothing of the trip. And it’s undoubtedly changed a great deal since then. (I mentioned this to the cab driver taking me to the airport after the con. The area where my hotel was sited has been extensively redeveloped, and for all of the buildings we passed he pointed out what had been there before.) I’d booked rooms in the Grand Canal Hotel, a ten-minute walk from the Convention Centre, which no doubt contributed to my 10-km a day average for walking (when I normally average 8 km a day). But then there were a lot of floors in the Convention Centre and a lot of walking required between the various rooms. There were not, in fact, many chairs. Seriously, given the greying of fandom, cons need to provide more areas where people can sit down and relax.

The other notable aspect of this particular Worldcon was the queuing. I didn’t actually attend any programme items other than those I was on (more on them below), but I was told it was almost impossible to leave one panel and then get into the next because of the queues. Several people told me during the weekend that high levels of attendance for the programme seemed to be a new thing. Dublin2019 was only my third Worldcon, and while I remember lots of queues at Worldcon75 in Helsinki, I don’t remember any at Interaction in Glasgow in 2005. Fandom really has changed over the past decade; and for the better. There seems to be far more engagement, and it’s less of a private club.

But. My panels. The first was Apollo at 50, first thing on the Friday, with Dr Jeanette Epps, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dr David Stephens and Geoff Landis. When we arrived in the room – the 600-seat room – only two of the microphones were working, those in front of Epps and Kowal. So they suggested they talk while tech fixed the other mikes. And the subject they chose was… going to the toilet in space. It became a bit of theme during the panel. I thought the discussion went really well. The panellists were excellent, especially Dr Epps. Later that same day, I was on Artemis: Apollo’s Big Sister, again with Dr Epps and Geoff Landis, but also Becky Chambers and moderator Alan Smale. The panel went reasonably well, but I would have enjoyed it more if Becky Chambers had not sat with her back to me for its entire length.

My next panel was early afternoon on the Saturday. It was about Alternate Apollos. It came very close to becoming the Panel from Hell. It is my practice when moderating panels at cons to contact the panellists by email a week or so before. So we can introduce ourselves to each other and get some discussion going, and no one is ambushed during the actual panel. One member of the panel managed to offend another. The day before the panel. I demanded the person send out an apology. They objected, but sent the apology (which was, to be honest, pretty much a non-apology apology, you know the sort). The next morning I get an email asking me to visit Programme Ops. I’m told one member of the panel has dropped out (the offeendee, so to speak), and the offender has been removed from the panel. They’re looking for replacements, but not having much success. I spend half an hour running around the con, trying to find replacements of my own, before making my way up to the green room to break the news to the remaining panellist. Except, it turns out her partner is just as qualified for the panel and is downstairs queuing for it. “Get him up here,” I tell her. He joins us. And when we get to the room, it transpires Programme Ops has managed to get one of their alternates to volunteer – and my preferred choice, too. After all that, the panel went pretty well. I hadn’t wanted to get too space-geeky, but we had an audience of space geeks, and they seemed to enjoy the panel. But I didn’t enjoy running around trying to rescue the panel in the hour before it started.

Happily, my final panel, on the Monday morning, went reasonably smoothly. Admittedly, after four days of Worldcon, my ability to brain was badly impaired. The topic was lunar depictions in science fiction and fantasy, and I didn’t want it to turn into fifty minutes of recommendations of books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Panellists Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffrey Reynolds and GoH Ian McDonald, however, managed to get some intelligent discussion going about depictions of the Moon in historical and mythological texts around the globe… and then we ended up recommending books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Ah well.

The highlight of the con for me was being approached by Dr Jeanette Epps on the Sunday evening as I was heading out for a meal. she told me I was her favourite moderator. It’s not every day an actual astronaut says something like that to you. (To be fair, the  Apollo at 50 panel was good. It was informative and entertaining, and it stayed on topic. But I had excellent panellists and, even if I say so myself, it was probably one of the best jobs at moderation I’ve done in twenty years of appearing on panels at cons.)

I suppose I should mention the dealers room. It was big. But, unfortunately, the only books available were either brand new or self-published. No second-hand book dealers. I returned home with a single book purchased at the con:

My next convention this year will be held in a fourth country: Fantasticon in Copenhagen, Denmark. Maybe I’ll see you there.


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Me at Worldcon, with Apollo

So it’s the Worldcon in two and a bit weeks, and this year it’s in Dublin. And I’m going to be there. Last time I was in Ireland was around fifty years ago, so my memories of the trip are pretty much non-existent. Something else that happened fifty years is the Apollo 11 moon landing. And, somehow or other, I seem to have been put on a bunch of panels on that very subject…

My schedule looks like this:

Apollo at 50
16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:00 – 10:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Getting men on the Moon was certainly an achievement, but it is nearly 50 years since anyone was there and the Apollo launchers, unlike Soyuz, have been abandoned for years. Beyond the obvious spectacle, was Apollo all for nothing? Was the spectacle itself enough? Panellists consider the legacy of Apollo.
Jeanette Epps, Ian Sales (M), Dr David Stephenson, Geoffrey A Landis , Mary Robinette Kowal

Artemis: Apollo’s big sister
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Recently NASA selected three lunar landers for taking scientific instruments to the Moon. This is the start of many steps towards the goal of returning to the Moon in 2024. What needs to be done, what is planned, and how does this compare with initiatives from other countries?
Jeanette Epps, Becky Chambers, Alan Smale (M), Ian Sales, Geoffrey A Landis

Alternate Apollos
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Hall-1 (CCD)
We know how the Apollo landings turned out, but it could have gone quite differently. Armstrong and Aldrin could have crashed, or landed safely but been unable to take off again. What might have happened if Apollo 18 and the Apollo Applications programme hadn’t failed? If the Soviet N1 launcher had succeeded, could they have reached the Moon first? Panellists consider alternate histories of Apollo.
Henry Spencer, Ian Sales (M), Dr Laura Woodney, Gillian Clinton

Shoot for the moon: lunar depictions in SFF
19 Aug 2019, Monday 11:00 – 11:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)
For as long as there has been science fiction there has been a fascination with the moon. What role does the moon play in cultures around the world and how do those cultures incorporate it into their speculative fiction? Our panel will discuss why the moon holds such a powerful allure as a subject for writers and whether the discovery of more distant heavenly bodies has had an impact on lunar fiction.
Ian Sales (M), Ian McDonald, Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffery Reynolds

The good news – sort of – is I’m moderating three of the panels, which means I don’t have to say anything intelligent, just keep the discussion moving. Which is just as well since most of the other panellists are actual rocket scientists. On the one hand, the above are good meaty topics, ones that interest me – one of the reasons, of course, why I wrote the Apollo Quartet. On the other, actual rocket scientists.

The more observant among you will have spotted the names of some successful sf authors above, including a Hugo Award finalist. And, er, also a Guest of Honour. Coincidentally, I’ve read some of their books, although not necessarily the ones appropriate to any of the panels.


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Apollo 11 x 50

Today is  the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. So the media is full of science fiction writers commenting on the event, many of whom weren’t even alive when it happened. To be fair, I was only three when Armstrong took his “one small step”, and the only Apollo mission I actually remember watching was ASTP. It’s not like science fiction writers are even experts on the Apollo missions, or indeed actual realistic space exploration. Not unless they’ve written a novel about it. Which some have.

I did too. It was a few years ago now. The Apollo Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.  I’d planned to publish an omnibus edition in time for today, but then I went and moved countries… So, sorry, no omnibus edition. But the four individual volumes are still available on Amazon, in paperback, audiobook and Kindle editions.

1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains

2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself

3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

4 All That Outer Space Allows

All four are based on alternate visions of the Apollo programme – except for All That Outer Space Allows, which takes place during the actual Apollo programme (but is still alternate history).

For those wanting more realistic space-based science fiction, there is also Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories.


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Fools like us

So a well-respected literary author goes and writes a novel that everyone knows is science fiction, and that everyone knows he probably knows his science fiction, but he decides to claim that not only is his novel not science fiction it actually covers ground not covered by science fiction and perhaps this is a ripe area for exploration by literary authors…

Do I really need to say who, what book and the specifics of his argument?

Naturally, he was roundly condemned by science fiction writers, critics and readers – some more than others – but, just as naturally, their condemnation was as damaging and misguided as said literary author’s misguided, but likely entirely self-serving, remarks had been.

As genre fans, we’ve been there before, perhaps too often to count:

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is not science fiction:
I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t even think of them as “tourists”, as some do. They’re approaching genre tropes from an entirely different direction, they don’t have the history, they don’t have the context; and, sometimes, that’s exactly what the trope needs to shine new light on it, to view it from a fresh perspective.

The literary author who uses a science fiction trope but claims it is entirely their own invention:
This one is pretty much indefensible. Who these days would write a story without bothering to research it? “Hey, I’ve just written a novel about artificial people and no one else has ever done that before” is just so lacking in self-awareness, it makes its utterer a perfectly legitimate target of every critic and pundit in existence.

True, literary authors sometimes make a complete fucking hash of their science fiction tropes – see Spaceman of Bohemia on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. On the other hand, some novels published as sf make a complete fucking hash of their sf tropes – see Sea of Rust on last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

It could be argued any such complaints about either of the above points are invalid unless the critic has read the book in question. Which is bollocks. It’s not the work itself being criticised, it’s the trope’s origin or history, as given by the literary author, that’s under discussion. And you don’t need to read through 100,000 words of jewel-like, or whatever, prose to know that.

I actually like it when literary authors make use of genre tropes in their fiction. They have a tendency to deconstruct the trope because they’re not invested in its history and prior usage. Sometimes, that manifests as “re-inventing the wheel”, but even so they frequently bring a new approach to something that has probably been deployed uncritically in genre circles for decades. And most genre tropes need a critical re-appraisal. All those fucking robots… I mean, it’s the twenty-first century and we’re still writing uncritically about a metaphor for slavery?

Which neatly brings us back to the not-so-cunningly disguised novel which kicked off this blog post. I freely admit I’ve not read Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us, and have no plans to do so. I gave up on his fiction after 2005’s Saturday, although I did mistakenly read Solar (2010) some years later. I probably should have given up on his fiction back in 1997 or 1998. I don’t need to read Machines Like Us. There’s been an extensive publicity machine promoting the book. Because McEwan is a writer who gets that treatment, whether or not his books deserve it. A cynic might even suggest the whole “I’ve done AI better than the entire corpus of science fiction” thing is just part of the marketing strategy.

I have also read other genre works by literary authors who claimed not to write genre, or were reluctant to accept the label when called out on it, and I admire their books: Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc and Nunquam, John Fowles’s A Maggot, Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks… But then it’s not like I need to reel off titles as there are no end of highly-regarded novels which make use of genre tropes but are never identified with the genre.

As I said, I don’t have a problem with that.

It’s nice when they give the nod to genre – as Michael Chabon has done, as Margaret Atwood eventually did, as Doris Lessing has done, as Michel Faber has done… There are some blindingly good genre works available from those four names alone, none of which were published as genre. Genre is not a private club, it just has some members who are a little more… invested in it than others, and they can be somewhat over-protective.

But then the publicity machine for Machines Like Us comes along, and it’s like we’re back in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s like genre is still a ghetto of its own making, but this time it’s someone outside who’s shoring up the walls. It feels like a step backwards because it is a step backwards. Genre writers are forever handicapped by being seen as genre writers.

But literary fiction is just a genre, I hear you cry. Except, well, it’s not. No one really sees it as that. True, it often doesn’t sell as well as actual genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy. It has the prestige genre fiction lacks (and any claims that genre fiction doesn’t need that prestige are just reverse snobbery), and occasionally there’s a break-out literary fiction novel which knocks an author up a level, like McEwan’s Atonement, not that advocates of literary fiction would use anything as crass as units sold as a metric of quality…

There is genre fiction, there is category genre fiction, there is fiction written within the tradition that is genre. There is also fiction that might look like any one of those three, but has only a passing knowledge of them. That neither invalidates it nor makes it inferior. It is what is in the fiction which defines it. But it is also the ur-text which defines it. And ur-text has as much loyalty to genre as any individual trope does.

Having been so in the past does not make it so now or in the future. Which is a horribly vague way of saying that some tropes have actually been handled better by non-genre writers. Alternate history is an excellent example. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a superior example. But even populist novels, such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB, often seem more exemplary of the sub-genre than alternate history novels published as category science fiction.

We should be applauding how genre tropes are used, not where they are used. Had McEwan written something truly groundbreaking with Machines Like Us, then yes, fold it into the genre conversation. It seems he hasn’t, so that’s pretty much academic. But when the genre can co-opt, for example, The Underground Railroad, and even include it on genre award shortlists, what’s the problem with the genre conversation incorporating non-category genre works?

Fault them for their quality, as you would a genre work. Not for their choice to use genre tropes.


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A weekend in Reykjavik

Last weekend was Icecon 2, a biennial science fiction convention in Iceland. I was at the first Icecon in 2016, and had every intention then of attending again in 2018. Which I did. There’ll be a third in 2020, but I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to attend. Brexit and all that…

Thank you 17 million stupid voters for fucking up my future so comprehensively.

Anyway, Icecon 2… Which was nearly scuppered by the UK’s useless transport infrastructure. I’d ordered a taxi to take me to the railway station, and given myself forty minutes leeway – plenty of time for a car to travel about 5 kilometres. But no taxi turned up at the appointed time… Ten minutes later, I decided to take the tram, but there was no guarantee it’d get me to the station on time… Fortunately, my taxi chose that moment to appear, so I arrived at the station in plenty of time. And the train even included the coach containing my reserved seat! (Unlike on my trip to Copenhagen.) Even so, travelling by train is just getting too stressful. Fighting to get on board, the worry over your seat, the far-too-common delays… I’d built plenty of leeway into my travel schedule, but even so it came close to falling apart.

The security check – again in the basement – at Manchester was very quick, and the transit lounge was not especially busy. But when the gate for my flight was called, and I made my way there, there were hundreds of people waiting to board the aircraft. The plane was a Boeing 757, so larger than those in which I’d flown to and from Denmark two weeks earlier. And I suspect a good eighty percent of those on my flight to Reykjavik weren’t visiting the country but just transiting through Keflavik to the US and Canada.

As the minibus drove me around Reykjavik from the BSÍ bus terminal to my hotel (or rather, a bus stop around the corner from it), I spotted a lot more restaurants in the area where my hotel, and the con venue, Iðnó, were sited. Things had changed considerably since my last visit in 2016.

I arrived at my hotel – the same one as my previous visit, Hotel Apotek – around half past four. I arranged to meet up with Kisu and Carolina for something to eat before the Icecon meet & greet at Klaustur bar at eight o’clock. Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I looked up real ale bars in Reykjavik… and discovered craft beer culture had arrived in Iceland. There were four craft ale bars with five hundred metres, and even a branch of Mikkeller a couple of hundred metres further away than that. I decided to try Skúli, and had two very nice IPAs from Iceland. I was meeting the others in the American Bar but, confusingly, the Dirty Burger place next to it looked like it was part of the same establishment. And I went in there. So did Kisu. Then Carolina messaged me to say she was in the bar but couldn’t find us. By which point we’d figured out we were actually next door. Ah well.

The meet & greet was the same as it had been at the first Icecon. Although the selection of drinks in the bar had improved. This time, there was no book club occupying one room, but a jazz trio in a corner of the main bar. But they finished and packed up not long after I’d arrived. I chatted to friends I knew from other Nordic cons, talked about writing with an Icelandic fan called Birgir, and about conventions and sf with a Danish fan, Jeppe, who hadn’t attended either of the Fantasticons I’d been to.

I was up the following morning at 7:30. The Hotel Apotek’s breakfast had also improved. It now included several Icelandic delicacies. I tried the gravlax and the cold blood sausage, but gave the dried cod a miss.

I reached Iðnó a bit early – it was only a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel – and saw that the comfy upholstered chairs from the last Icecon had been replaced with hard wooden chairs. But they had expanded the café facilities and now offered food and beer. And free coffee and tea all weekend for con attendees.

Icecon had only a single programming track and it was in English. It also holds the record – true for both Icecon 1 and 2 – for my attendance at programme items. I missed only three panels, which is astonishing for me. A couple I only caught part of, but never mind. And one, of course, on climate change, I was actually a panellist. (And yes, I mentioned Brexit, of course.) The panels were interesting, although they tended to stray from their topic – some moderators were obviously better prepared than others, which is hardly unusual. But the con had no real socialising area: Iðnó’s cafe was too small, four tables and eight chairs in a tiny room, and Klaustur was only used in the evenings. But there was plenty to explore in Reykjavik if a panel didn’t  interest me. Like the craft ale bars…

I visited one, Microbar, there was a small group of people smoking/vaping outside the entrance. One spoke to me. He had to repeat what he’d said before I understood: “Demilich”. I was wearing a Demilich hoodie. They’re an obscure Finnish death metal band, known for their singer Antti Boman’s vocal fry register growl singing. They released a single album, Nespithe, in 1993. Recently they reformed, and made some new merchandise – like the hoodie I was wearing – available. I was impressed. I’d never met anyone before who’d even heard of Demilich. At the bar, the barman saw my hoodie and asked who it was. “Demilich,” I said. “Ah, Nespithe,” he replied. “Good album.” Two people in the same bar! I suspect that may never be equalled. And I really liked Microbar too. It had an excellent selection of ales. Including two sours – blueberry and rhubarb. I immediately messaged Kisu, who had told me earlier than she only drank sour beers.

At the last Icecon, a group of about ten of us had had trouble finding somewhere to eat on the Saturday night because everywhere was fully booked. We’d ended up at a fairly ordinary Italian restaurant. Which at least managed to cater for the gluten-free member of the party. This year, expecting something similar, I’d floated the idea of booking somewhere on social media, but nothing had come together. On arrival, I’d been encouraged by the increase in eating establishments I’d seen, but that proved illusory… Five of us went looking for dinner in the area around Ingólfur Square – a Swede, an Icelander, a German, a Finn and a Brit – and the first restaurant we tried was closed for a private function, the second was fully booked, and the third, a Tapas restaurant, managed to squeeze us around a table for four. The food was excellent. I had salted cod. Carolina had the same, and complained all evening it was so salty it had made her extremely thirsty. I hadn’t noticed. I suspect I like, and eat, saltier food (ie, less healthily). At one point, Claudia and I had tried to explain to Carolina why we both thought Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was such an amazing novel. It wasn’t easy…

After the meal, I dragged the other four down into Microbar (it’s in a cellar) and Kisu tried the rhubarb sour. Then it was across to Klaustur to meet up with the rest of the con.

I should write something about the programme. It didn’t appear to be themed, although there were a couple of panels on Icelandic genre fiction, or “tales of wonder”, furðusögur, and mythlogy. Other panels covered international fandom, diversity in genre, disability in genre, talking animals, climate change, and gender and race. It was a good broad mix, with plenty of welcome perspectives. My own panel, the climate change one, was a man down, as an attendee had failed to make his flight from Taiwan because of a typhoon. Ironically. I’d not prepared for it, other than continually reminding myself to mention a couple of things. Which I managed to do. I’ve always believed you can tell how well a panel is going by the number of people snoring (it’s happened to me) and the number of people laughing (at your jokes, quips, witticisms, etc.) The latter is obviously better, so I always make sure to throw in a few cracks. I didn’t get a round of cheers this time, but there was plenty of appreciative laughter.

Icecon’s custom of presenting panels as four to eight panellists sitting in armchairs and sofas on a stage – dictated to them by the venue – actually works really well. Most cons I’ve attended put their panels behind a long table, so you have a line of people behind nameplates and it all looks a bit formal and intimidating. Icecon’s more informal approach works really well. True, the con is much smaller – less than a hundred attendees this year, I believe, most of which were Icelandic, but also including several Americans, a Dane, a couple of Finns, a couple of Germans, at least one Irish, and, I think, myself the only Brit (unlike the previous Icecon).

In fact, I got chatting to one of the Americans, a young woman, in Klaustur on the Saturday night. She told me she had arrived in Reykjavik with no plans – I forget where she’d flown from, but it was in Europe – and seen mention of Icecon and decided to attend. That was her life now, flitting from country to country. I asked her if she was a “digital nomad” and she seemed shocked I knew the term. “I’m not that old,” I complained. She explained she didn’t think the term was that well known among all age groups.

I left Klaustur about one-ish, I believe, and I was not the last to leave. I had plans for Sunday morning. Icecon does not programme on Sunday morning, only starting again with a lunch at noon. But this year they’d arranged for Michael Swanwick to give a writing workshop. I didn’t sign up for it. I’m told it was fully subscribed and very successful. I did see Swanwick and his partner waiting for the lift in Hotel Apotek, but never got the chance to speak to him. I’ve enjoyed his fiction for several decades and while I’ve not read any of his later novels I do rate this early ones highly. Anyway, I had plans…

After breakfast, I went for a wander around the harbour area. The area next to the concert hall was a giant hole in the ground on my last visit. Now it looks like this:

Rekjavik, in fact, seemed to be doing very well. There was a lot of construction going on, but also a lot of new places: food and drink and, er, tat, I mean tourist, shops. I revisited Hafnarhús, a modern art museum, which was half-price as only half of the galleries were open. But they were worth seeing. There was a video installation by Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir called “Land undir fót” (take a wild guess what it means). I love video installations, and this was a good one. There was also a gallery of photographs by Ólafur Elíasson (but sadly no book on it in the shop) and an exhibit entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ that I found a bit hit and miss.

I bought myself a souvenir:

I saw the artwork the book covers on my previous visit to Reykjavik, and was much amused by the sticker on the cover.

For lunch on the Sunday, I decided to try the shawerma place I’d spotted on Ingólfur Square. I was later told there are actually two shawerma restaurants next door to each other, and they’re mortal enemies. I, unfortunately, picked the lesser of the two. Their shawerma didn’t resemble any I’d had in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t convinced the young woman serving understood what lactose was… And given how I felt later that afternoon, I may have been right to suspect as much…

The con wrapped at six o’clock, although there was a dead dog party, and pub quiz, at Klaustur later. I had to be up at three am to catch my bus to the airport for an eight am flight, so I’d only planned to to attend the dead dog party for an hour or so. Myself, Kisu and Carolina, on a recommendation from Einar Leif Nielsen, ate at Sjávargrillið, a seafood restaurant. The food was excellent, but something I’d eaten earlier had been contaminated and I was not feeling well. The dead dog party was out for me. I remarked at one point that I used to be able to recover from a weekend of drinking and late nights and early mornings in a day or two, but then it started taking a week or so… So what did I do? Started attending Nordic cons – so I now have to cope with jet lag on top of the drinking and late nights and early mornings…

But not for me that night. I went straight back to my hotel and straight to bed. At eight pm. Later, I discovered the Northern Lights had made a rare in-town showing, visible even outside Klaustur. Which was just bloody typical.

I left early the next morning, catching a minibus at 4:30 am, flight at 8 am… then on arrival in Manchester, a massive queue at passport control. Would it be too difficult to put in more electronic passport gates? They’re machines. You don’t have to pay them to sit there when they’re idle. Or would too many machines make the UK too welcoming for EU citizens? One day, someone will come up with a really good explanation for why we need to control our borders, and it will still be total bullshit. Border control is a nineteenth-century invention, so we managed pretty well for millennia without it. Then, to add insult to injury, the taxi I’d ordered was running twenty minutes late. Not the taxi-driver’s fault, it has to be said – his previous fare’s plane had been delayed. I don’t think any plane I’ve flown on this year has arrived on schedule (although this one actually landed twenty minutes early.)

We chatted during the drive over the Pennines. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living because “I knew a lot about a lot of things”. I was tempted to reply it was a sign of a misspent youth reading too many science fiction books. But instead I just said I worked with computers. It’s a lot easier than trying to explain science fiction. In fact, when people asked me why I visited Iceland, I told them I was visiting friends…


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The megalodon in the room

A couple of nights ago, I watched The Meg, a big-budget Warner Bros attempt to cash in on the type of film normally made by The Asylum. In it, Jason Statham plays a submersible driver persuaded out of self-imposed retirement when the submersible containing his wife and two scientists is trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Well, below the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Because the trench’s bottom is actually a thermocline, a layer of near-freezing hydrogen sulphide, and beneath it is a veritable deep sea paradise, cut off from the rest of the ocean for millions of years. Which is why it contains a megalodon, a giant shark, which went extinct 2.3 million years ago.

It’s the megalodon which trashed the submersible and, after the crew is rescued, the megalodon escapes into the Pacific Ocean. Where it wreaks further carnage. Until stopped by Statham.

This is not a film that is intended to be plausible. It’s not just the existence of the megalodon… or the underwater Shangri-la beneath the thermocline… or Statham’s various encounters with the megalodon…

The Meg is, essentially, one of those films ostensibly set in the present day but the tech is much better. Like 007. It could be a few years from now, but everything looks pretty much as it does in 2018. Except for the fancy tech. You expect this in Hollywood films. And even in television series. CSI was notorious for showcasing tech which didn’t actually exist. So the research submersibles in The Meg are better than the current state of the art. Fine. At least they mostly resemble current deep-diving research submersibles. Just better. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t even blip from neutral. Okay, the “glider”, which has a clear bubble for the pilot and can apparently reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench… well, maybe materials science is way better than, er, now… although that does beg the question: why not have clear bubbles on the research submersibles?

But the problems here all fall from a single mistake by the film-makers. The Mariana Trench is 11,000 metres deep. The pressure at the bottom is about 1100 atmospheres. That’s around 7.5 tons per square inch. Only three people have ever been that deep – Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960, and James Cameron in 2012. At that depth, 100 kg of water, which is 100 litres of water at sea level, actually has a volume of 95.27 litres. Because of the pressure. When the USS Thresher, the US Navy’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine, sank in 1963 in 2,600 metres of water, it’s estimated when she imploded the two sides of her pressure hull met at a combined speed of around 75,000 kph.

The pressure in the hadal zone cannot be stressed enough (no pun intended). The effect of increasing pressure with increasing depth cannot be stressed enough. The current record – simulated on land – for a human being with saturation diving gear is 701 metres. The current freediving depth record is 253.2 metres. Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines generally do not go deeper than 300 metres. The deepest diving whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, has been recorded reaching 2,992 metres. The sperm whale, perhaps the most impressive mammal on the planet (a personal opinion), can reach around 2,250 metres.

So when The Meg opens with Statham involved in a rescue of a downed USN fleet submarine on the floor of the Philippine Trench, 10,000 metres below the surface… Well, I was not impressed. Unfortunately this rescue – and Statham’s failure to save two of his colleagues – is important to the film’s plot. Because he failed to save his two colleagues, he retired. Because he’s the only person to have rescued some people from 10,000 metres, he’s the first choice to rescue the research submersible below the thermocline in the Mariana Trench…

But… but… but… That first rescue, the movie’s opening scene, is complete nonsense. An intact fleet submarine at 10,000 metres? The USS Thresher sank in a quarter of that depth and its wreckage was scattered over 13.4 hectares. But, I hear you cry, maybe this future sub – 55 years after the USS Thresher after all! – was made of much stronger materials. Given how expensive fleet submarines are – the USS Colorado, SSN-788, launched December 2016, allegedly cost $2.6 billion, and has a test depth of probably 250 to 300 metres – well, building a fleet submarine with a crew of 134 capable of reaching depths forty times deeper… would probably cost more than President Trump’s opinion of his own worth as a human being.

And yet… this is, I hear you say, completely irrelevant. It’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark. Which reached lengths of 18 metres (bigger in the this film). Why cavil about submarines and submersibles and depths and pressures when the film is about a giant fucking prehistoric shark? All those facts quoted above, they mean nothing because it’s a film about a giant fucking prehistoric shark!

This is where we part company – myself, that is, and my imaginary critic(s) – because the megalodon, as the title of this post indicates, that’s the central conceit. The story is its scaffolding. Science fiction tropes work the same way. They’re either bolstered by the plot, or by exposition, or by the entire corpus of science fiction. Such as FTL. Or AI. Complete nonsense, both of them. But no one quibbles when they appear in a science fiction because the scaffolding for them has been built up over a century or more of genre publishing. There’s no willing suspension of disbelief required – it’s entirely unconscious. And yet it’s instructional what readers will willingly disbelieve. As Joe Abercrombie once tweeted (and I paraphrase as I don’t have the exact tweet to hand): “giant flying lizards who breathe fire? No problem. Female blacksmiths? INCONCEIVABLE!”. I had a similar response to my space opera, A Prospect of War. I decided my universe would not have gunpowder. Giant plasma cannons, yes; but all personal combat would be using swords. FTL? No problem. Giant plasma cannons? No problem. No gunpowder, not even bows and arrows? UNBELIEVABLE.

In every science fiction, we have a megalodon in the room. Sometimes it’s the central conceit, sometimes it’s what we have to tastefully ignore in order for the conceit not to destroy the reading experience. But that science fiction, that conceit, is embedded in a world, either of the author’s invention or recognisably the reader’s own. While space battleships can flit from star to star using FTL, stars are still stars, planets are still planets, and yes, okay, the vast distances between stars might be compressed in order for the space opera to better follow its eighteenth-century adventure template… but space is still space and vacuum is still vacuum.

So why isn’t the hadal zone still the hadal zone?

The megalodon: that’s the conceit, and the willing suspension of disbelief comes wrapped around it. Reject that and you reject the story. The rest, that’s world-building. That’s the setting for the conceit. So it requires some sparkly tech that doesn’t yet exist? Shrug. No problem. That’s what – in a movie – production design is for. And they generally do an excellent job. But that doesn’t mean the laws of physics, for example, which pertain in the world, and which are not bent out of shape in the presence of the conceit, should be flouted. It’s not trainspotting. It’s not even expecting the science in a science fiction to be accurate. (I mean, when a science fiction novel which sells itself on its absolutely correct science gets it wrong in the first chapter, who would be foolish enough to expect science fiction as a whole to get the science right?)

It’s an expectation of rigour; it’s an expectation of craft. Sometimes, these faux pas are either easily avoidable or easily justified within the text. Take the most egregious example to have occurred recently: dropping bombs in space in The Last Jedi? WTF? Bombs? In space? Did the director of the film not understand what zero gravity is? I mean, bombs? WTF? It’s just so fucking stupid. And yet… and yet…

All it took was one line: “Are we in the Star Destroyer’s gravity field yet?”

One line and… Woah! It actually makes sense.

To me, leaving out that line, failing to even think viewers would like an explanation… that smacks of contempt from the creators. They think viewers are too dumb to notice.

When failures of rigour or world-building could be explained in the story, and the creator does not do so, that’s a failure of craft. Of course, it could be deliberate. A lack of rigour could be a deliberate characteristic of the narrative. But when that’s the case, it’s generally obvious. It’s not the same as having a fleet sub survive at forty times its test depth. There are things a reader or viewer expects to have to disbelieve and things they don’t expect to have to disbelieve. And unless indicated otherwise, by signals in the text, convention dictates which is which.

There’s room to manoeuvre there, of course. Sufficient room, in fact, for some writers to have built careers in that space. But The Meg is not high literature, there’s nothing liminal or slipstream about it. It is a somewhat obvious attempt to cash in on a film genre previously occupied by mockbusters and low-budget B-movies. It does everything it needs to in order to meet the expectations which might accrue to it, given what it is and what it purports to be.

But if criticism means anything, if the study literature, or cinema, is of any worth, then no text should be considered as just “what it is” or “what it purports to be”.