The first event was the BSFA lecture, an annual talk about “ideas of interest to SF fans, but not SF”. These have been uniformly brilliant, but I was concerned about this one, as it was about Revolutions and Revelations in Hamilton, and I haven’t seen Hamilton the musical, and didn’t know much about it, not even that it was hip hop, or that it casts across race and, sometimes, gender. [Yes, I do live under a rock, it seems.] I needn’t have worried, prior knowledge was not a requirement, and Dr Sarah Whitfield gave a excellent presentation: informative, funny, and thought-provoking. The talk included several YouTube clips, demonstrating how the work follows traditional musical theatre structures, such as the I Want song—illustrated with a clip from the Buffy musical episode unexpectedly accompanied by an audience sing-along—and also references many earlier hip hop songs. In addition to lauding the staggering success of Hamilton, Whitfield was also careful to point out some of its shortcomings: its minimal coverage of Hamilton’s bisexual reputation; its “whitewashed” version of history, ignoring the contribution of people of colour at the time; the fact that it being lauded as “the most diverse musical ever” wipes out the extraordinary racism of Broadway and the history of PoC in early musical theatre. This layered history, combining the historical events being depicted and the history of the medium in which they are depicted, provided a nice parallel with Will Tattersdill’s talk on dinosaurs the previous day.
Next off to Colin Harris’ Guest of Honour talk about his Life in Pictures: how he became an SF art collector, and his role in various SF conventions.
The panel Timeless Speculative Technology. Or Not discussed when tech in SF becomes outdated, and how to write about the near future without running into problems. There are parodies that describe real life as if it were SF: how you walk up to a door, press a lever, push to open, and so on. [I was tempted after this to write a parody of hotel breakfast buffet tech, such as how if one passes a slice of bread through the provided bread warmer multiple times, it eventually gains a gently singed surface.] Tech should not be over-described – it should be real and almost invisibly embedded in the culture – but should also be somehow dreamlike, to evoke a different feel. It is easier to predict tech than its knock-on consequences: it is easier to predict the car than the traffic jam, and once you have predicted the ship, remember that there is now the possibility of shipwreck. In Galaxy Quest the aliens had to reverse engineer the tech from what the actors were doing. Computers are difficult for visual drama: hacking into a bank, doing taxes, and writing a love letter all look exactly the same. MS-Word has the wrong metaphor, of a giant scroll: it encourages over-editing at the top of the scroll, rather than allowing more even attention across the document that you get with individual pages. The mobile phone, once magical tech, has now become so ubiquitous that there is a resurgence of period crime drama, to a time before so many plot tropes became unrealistic. That past was different: 25 years ago, think what would happen if you said “I have 500 people following me...” The future is looking bleak, though. However, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels show how to imagine a way out of climate change; they demonstrate a responsibility to synthesise something positive, not wallow in dystopia.
Next was the George Hay Lecture, a science-themed talk at Eastercons. Prof Debbie Chachra, a materials scientist, talked on 3D Printing, Biology, and Futures for Materials. 3D printed materials can be carefully designed to have even loading and strength just where it’s needed, and then they can come out looking remarkably organic. Biological materials are fascinating; they have structure on all levels from atomic to macroscopic, and each level’s structure contributes to the overall properties. For example, spider silk is not only stronger than steel, it absorbs impacts, otherwise flying prey would just trampoline off a web. Biology provides a form of nanotechnology: not the precisce atom-by-atom placement of The Diamond Age, but a more stochastic yet reproducible model where biological machinery creates organisms from the bottom up with many levels of structure. We can engineer biology on the nano-scale, too. CRISPR allows DNA editing. DNA codon degeneracy (64 triplets code for 20 amino acids, plus punctuation) allows us to design in new amino acids. We can create new DNA bases beyond ACGT. This is all highly complex machinery, and we are only just beginning to understand what is possible. However, materials are the infrastructure of design.
|Bill and the Doctor running through corridors|