Sunday, 16 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Sunday

Sunday at Eastercon: the busiest day, with eight different events!

the garage of the future?
First was a panel on Biohacking, defined as “amateur biological science and body modification”.  Of course, some body mods already exist for medical purposes: pacemakers, insulin pumps, contraceptive implants, …  The panellists included academic biologists and medical researcher. Quizzed about their “dream body mod”, their answers ranged from chloroplasts (they would be green, would need to eat less, and would have an excuse to stay out in the sun), enhanced vision (telescopic eyes for bird watching, microscope eyes for work), breathing underwater, and wifi connection directly in the brain.Social implications of these could be interesting: wifi would make pub arguments more complex, and might have a short term effect on exams (exam halls with wifi blockers) and a longer term effect (questions change to how well you can look things up).  And microscope eyes would be bad for germophobes. On the amateur biology side, it was again noted that it is now possible to run a microbiology lab in your garage.  There is a lot of good kit on eBay, from labs that have shut down due to loss of funding.  Some things are easy, but when you start trying to produce new things, there will still be issues with contamination and variability.  As the kit becomes cheaper, more small companies could set up producing designer meds, and more small companies could set up to analyse the purity of such meds.

Then was a change of scope, from inner space to outer space, with the panel strangely titled Seven New Planets! Squeeeee, about the seven “terrestrial” planets recently discovered orbiting red dwarf TRAPPIST-1.  (Moderator Nicholas Jackson dryly observed that “squeeee” was not a word he tended to use himself.)  The panellists included biologists and astrophysicists.  Conversation ranged over the physical characteristics of the planets, to the psychology of space exploration.

Next was a panel on Expanding Artificial Intelligence: is it already here, or will it never arrive?  Panellists included people interested in the legal and ethical implications of AI, in trying to spot AIs being used for trading, and in processing big data using machine learning.  A small amount of time was spent discussing how it is not easy to even define AI.  It was also noted that a fair number of human posters on Twitter are indistinguishable from trash bots: these people fail the Turing Test!  Will Asimov’s Three Laws be needed for cases like autonomous cars?  [Personally, I think any AI that truly followed the second clause of the First Law – “or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” – would be useless for its designed purpose, as it would immediately be off to relieve Third World hunger, cure cancer, or whatever, or become a gibbering wreck as it realised it couldn’t do all of this.]  SF has become fact: we all walk around with a device that is both a Star Trek communicator and the HHGTTG.  But there is still a huge way to go to a device that can intelligently recognise images (even just cats are hard), and recognise speech, and move and manipulate the environment, and …  Maybe the right way to go is hybrid intelligences: us, plus our super-smart phones.

Pat Cadigan fighting on
Pat Cadigan’s Guest of Honour talk was an hilarious romp through the two times she died (once as a small child, once after anaphylactic shock brought on by penicillin), and her current two-and-a-half years into a two year prognosis for terminal uterine cancer.  It was hilarious: trust me, you had to be there (and it explains the T-shirt).  From all this, she has learned that “you might not be able to cure it, but you can treat it”.  She exhorted us: “don’t hate your life”: even if you can’t make it perfect, you can change it for the better. Fandom’s reputation for monomania can be summed up by one incident from this talk: Pat’s the anaphylactic shock story included a part where she, while dazedly waiting at home for help, decided she needed to get a book to read in the emergency room, so crawled to the bookshelf to select one; one audience member asked, “what was the book?”

The panel on You Want A Revolution? I Want A Revelation! complemented yesterday’s BSFA talk on Revolutions and Revelations in Hamilton, discussing incidents in SF, from Star Wars to The Hunger Games, from Orwell to the graphic novel series Saga.  Revolution needs a change in thought; the revelation gives the reason for needing that change, that things can be different.  Real revolutions need a narrative, and sometimes fiction can provide that narrative, such as the relationship between Braveheart and Scottish Nationalism.  Even bad art can inspire: “I don’t need accuracy to be emotionally inspired”.  However, revolutionary fiction can often have an undercurrent of small-c conservatism: the protagonist is special for some reason, and the fight is to return to the status quo.  And the metaphors need to work: the X-Men may be a minority, but their mutations make them physically dangerous in a way that being gay/black/female does not.

Simon Bradshaw, RAF engineer turned lawyer, and long term con-goer, gave a fascinating talk on Vorkosigan’s Law: Legal Concepts from an Imagined Universe.  He analysed several incidents from Bujold’s series, ostensibly to pick apart the legal system of Barrayar, but actually to educate us in aspects of English law.  His talk was illustrated with some interesting real life cases and laws: the snail in the ginger beer bought by a friend, divorce law, the Human Fertilisation Act, Murray Pringle and inheritance law, the Lord Chancellor and land rights over Grand Junction Canal, General Pinochet’s extradition hearings, and more, all linked to analogous events in the science fictional series.  Fascinating.

The final panel of the day was In Search of Optimistic SF.  Everything seems to be grimdark or dystopian: where is a better future depicted?  It is hard to believe there’s a future at all! Bad things can happen, yet the underlying tale be optimistic, to have a sense of hope: it needs a belief that things can get better, and that there are things we can do to make those things better.  [Shades of Cadigan’s GoH talk here.]  Even a post-apocalyptic story can do this: Station 11 argues that survival alone is not enough, there needs to be more.  But as SF has upscaled timescales and distances, it has upscaled villainy: the psychopathic plutocrat who kills millions to hide the kidnap of the plot token.  Yet upscaling the villainy runs the risk of normalising these atrocities.  Stories help us construct our world – what we believe possible, who we are, where we are going – they provide vision and imagination, and so authors have a responsibility.  Real life good news stories, such as scientific and medical advances, are not very dramatic, because they are collective efforts: these don’t fit our conventional narrative structures.  There are three main classes of SF: rejecting the other, embracing the other, becoming the other.  The first could be optimistic if it is about maintaining community, not being engulfed by a larger, less fair society; the other two are more optimistic forms.  SF can have a special passport to saying things other genres can’t – but there’s a time to be influential: 1984 inoculated society to some degree … but only for a while.  Writers and stories influential in their time – Zenna Henderson, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, Delany’s Dhalgren, … –  can be sidelined, as later works (eg cyberpunk) argue only against the big writers of the time (Heinlein, Niven etc).

The final event of the evening was the Thomas Bloch and Pauline Haas Recital. featuring an Ondes Martenot, a cristal Baschet, a glass harmonica, oh, and a harp.  The Ondes Martenot sounded like something the early BBC Radiophonic Workshop might have invented, and that might have inspired The Clangers sound effects.  The cristal Baschet sounded like a bull in a scrap metal shop.  The glass harmonica sounded like someone playing a load of wine glasses. Okay, I’m not a modern music aficionado.

Thomas Bloch on the cristal Baschet 

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