Friday, 15 August 2014

Loncon 3 : Friday

Day 2 of the Worldcon started with breakfast in the hotel.  We were late enough down to have to move into the overflow space.  We were joined first by someone who worked in the hotel, curious about the convention.  Next we were joined by a couple from Canada.  In fact, they were from St John’s, Newfoundland, where I had spent 10 days only a couple of weeks earlier! One of them worked at Memorial University, and knew the person I was visiting there.  It just confirms my theory that there are only 400 people in the world, 200 who you know, and 200 who act as backdrop.

First off was a talk by Prof Ian Stewart on The Science of Discworld, partly about the content of the four books he wrote with Jack Cohen and Terry Pratchett, and partly about the history of their production.  The aim is to explain science, which isn’t a problem.  The problem is that the Discworld short story that  forms part of each book must make sense in its own right, yet have no impact on the overall Discworld canon.  He told the story of reading a biography of Darwin, with all the accidents that nearly stopped his voyage of discovery, and the coincidences that then put him back on track.  Ian explained to his co-authors: “It’s the Wizards at work!”  Jack asked him what he was on.  [But, as my breakfast conversation shows, coincidences like this happen all the time.]

Next was the panel on The Pleasures of a Good, Long Info-Dump.  Science fiction often uses the info-dump, or the “As you  know, Bob…” scene, to provide essential background information.  In mainstream literature, this is thought to be A Bad Thing.  Here Kim Stanley Robinson had a long, interesting rant on why he rejected the term “info-dump”, a pejorative term invented by the Turkey City Lexicon, and called it “a failed attempt to assert you know how fiction works”.  Older fiction, like Les Miserables or Moby Dick, revel in the “expository lump”, and so modernism invented rules as a reaction to that, requiring “show, don’t tell”.  But science fiction is different.  It should not feel it has to conform to these other rules, which can be turned into an ideological control, suppressing SF’s way of being subversive, by reducing its power to blow people’s minds.  Alternatives to a lecture include using snippets from fictional encyclopedias (we were told Matt Ruff’s Mirage takes this to another level, by including the edit wars in an on-line encyclopedia), or use of what Jo Walton calls incluing.  Quote of the panel (from Cory Doctorow, of course): “The best dumps come at the end of a lot of anticipation”.

Next I took a break, and went to the enormous hanger-like room housing the Art Show, the Dealers’ Room, and several related exhibitions.  Having them all in one place like this was great.

welcome from the Hawaiʻian Dalek (yes, the brown lumps are coconuts!)

At 1:30pm I went to Dr Tori Herridge’s talk on How to Make a Dwarf Mammoth.  Starting from fossil hunter Dorothea Bate’s 1904 adventure on Crete, we had a whirlwind and fascinating tour of the paleontology of mini mammoths in the Mediterranean, including how they have evolved and gone extinct multiple times, and in parallel on different islands.  I can now safely say I know at least an order of magnitude more about elephants than I did before.  The answer to the title: get  a mammoth (or two), get an island, and wait 50 thousand years.

The Interview with John Clute was very Clutean.  He talked about his early days, his first novel, being a critic, his use of Fantastika as a term for “the literature of the fantastic as a whole”, how Fantastika is essentially to be read literally not metaphorically, his novel Appleseed (written from a synopsis for a tie-in novel for Elite), and the Encyclopedia [of which more later].  Quote of the interview “To accept that to reveal a book is to spoil it privileges the reader’s first reading”.

In the Ian Stewart Interview, Nicholas Jackson interviewed Ian Stewart about his life in mathematics, his popular mathematical writings, his undergraduate rock band, and his work with Jack Cohen.  After Ian’s earlier descriptions of the coincidences in Darwin’s life, it was interesting to hear his own stories of how he got his university place at Cambridge without applying for it, and his first academic job at Warwick without applying for it.  Quote of the interview: “Agents alternate between saying ‘don’t write so many books!’ and ‘when’s the next book?’”

My final panel of the day was What's New in Maths, which included some discussion of the recent Fields Medal winners.  Quote of the panel, of the Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize Problems: “There are easier ways to earn a million dollars”.

We rounded off the evening by going to the Worldcon Philharmonic Orchestra concert.

And so to bed.

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