Friday, 14 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Friday

This year’s 68th Easter Science Fiction convention saw us driving to the Birmingham Hilton Metropole, next to the NEC, the same hotel as used for Illustrious in 2011.  We left plenty of time for the drive, as the travel-pundits were predicting road chaos.  There was no road chaos. That left us plenty of time for lunch before starting to go to the sessions.

The first session I attended was a two-person panel on Biotechnology and the Law.  Dr Helen Pennington and Dr Colin Gavaghan talked on a variety of aspects of how the law is maybe failing to keep up with scientific advances.  CRISPR/Cas9, a technique to edit out genes from the genome, was mentioned a lot, including the fact that it can be used to produce GM organisms that are indistinguishable at the DNA level from organisms “naturally” bred to have the gene removed.  The consensus was that items should be labelled so consumers could exercise choice: some don’t want to eat GM food, some prefer GM food, as it doesn’t tend to have the trace amounts of natural fungal microtoxins that organic food does. Nevertheless, Scotland and New Zealand have banned the growing of all GM crops, not just food crops, in order to present a clean “green” image; this is ironic, given that Scotland does not exactly have a healthy food reputation!  The current “over the counter” availability, cheapness and ease-of-use of CRISPR led on to discussion of potential dangers; the panellists weren’t too worried, given the difficulty of keeping the GM organism alive: “any back-garden bio-terrorist is likely just to kill themselves, and a couple of neighbours”.  Given the potential untraceability of GM organisms, the suggestion was the most important legislation change is to require registering trials and publishing results, as is now beginning to happen for medical trials, to stop the covering up of “mistakes”.

Victorian times: Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, 1854
Next I went to a talk on Dinosaurs in fact and fiction by Dr Will Tattersdill. Dinosaurs are complicated: there are the “real” dinosaurs that existed in Deep Time, and there is our changing knowledge of dinosaurs since their discovery in Victorian times, to our better but still imperfect knowledge today.  They form a perfect link between the “two cultures” of arts and sciences: you can’t have a dinosaur without scientific activity and physical evidence, but you need imagination and art to “flesh out” a whole animal from a few bones or partial skeleton.  As science advances, our knowledge increases, but out dead images, our wrong images, stay with us, too, in books, in toys.  Arguing that these “old” dinosaurs are wrong is robbing us of our pasts, of our childhoods, in much the same way that arguing Pluto is not a planet does.  We have a nostalgia for outmoded science. In his essay “Dinomania” Stephen Jay Gould writes “When I was a child, ornithopods laid their eggs and then walked away forever.  Today these same creatures are the very models of maternal, caring, politically correct dinosaurs.”  Just look at the tenses and model of time in that quote!  Will speculates that dinosaurs are perfect for SF readers: we have the “cognitive agility” to hold multiple worlds, each with their own rules, and complex models of time, in our heads; this skill is needed to hold all the different “human pasts” of dinosaurs, too.  The talk covered more: history, cultural imperialism, phylogenetic trees, gender, SF stories, … you name it.  Brilliant stuff; I’m looking forward to his book due out end of 2019.

Next came David Allan’s quiz, loosely based on Pointless.  The team of 4 did well, hampered as they were on occasion by one of the options not appearing on their sheets, only on the screen visible to the audience.  Picture round: Name the alien.  Alternate letter round: Fictional planets: _A_I_O_R (Majipoor), _A_L_F_E_ (Gallifrey), A_R_K_S (Arrakis), M_D_E_I_ (Midkemia),  Title of First Novel in Trilogy on Being Given the Second, … When the surprisingly low scores for some of the more obvious options were revealed, the audience demanded to know who on earth the consulted panel were.

Then it was time for the opening ceremony.  As traditional, the Guests of Honour were invited up onto the stage, as were the con committee, for applause.  Afterwards, Dr Emma King from the Royal Institution gave an excellent presentation that involved lots of things going bang.

For the final item of my day, I went along to a panel on Making Money from Art and Craft in the SFF Community.  I am not myself an artist, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a friend who is, who sells a few fantasy-related items on eBay.  I went to find out if there is more they could do.  In summary, and unsurprisingly, if you want to make more than just your costs back, you are going to have to move from a hobby to a profession, which many crafters don’t want to do.  But I did discover the existence of something called silver clay.  I won’t do anything with this knowledge, other than enjoy the fact that I now know about this.

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