Saturday, 12 August 2017

Worldcon 75: Saturday

Day 4 of the Worldcon, and the queuing is getting more efficient.

First I went to a panel on Why Are Finnish Schools So Good?  Finnish schools do have a good reputation internationally, and a couple of teachers tried to explain why.  But it seems that maybe they don’t really know why.  They suggested it could have something to do with the autonomy of the teachers, trusted to roam freely in their teaching within certain guidelines. There is also a low authority gap between teachers and students, with mutual respect rather than scary teachers.  But this does mean it is hard to push lazy pupils.  All teachers are well-qualified, with Masters degrees.  However, not all is well.  Refugee children do worse on average, maybe because they aren’t expected to excel.  And boys do worse than girls, because they don’t read.  The culture doesn’t allow them to be enthusiastic about reading, and it isn’t cool to get good grades.  They recover later in the system, but the lack of reading reduces their vocabulary; reading from the web doesn’t seem to build as much vocabulary.

Next to a panel on Gender and “Realistic History”.  Some people who are happy with elves and magic in their medieaval fantasies object to female or gay characters as “unhistorical”. But such people were much more prominent than later histories would lead us to believe. Some erasure happens deliberately.  There’s a book about Inca beliefs, written in Spanish after their conquest, which has a section on a cult who worship a particular deity; the Spanish original talks of “hermaphrodite native people”, which was deliberately erased by the English translator who said only “native people”.  All written history says more about the time when it was written, than the time it writes about: we can’t look at the middle ages without all the subsequent times being “melted” into them.  History is narrative, and stories leave things out.  Narrative focuses on protagonists, heroes, villains; people not important to that narrative get left out, and minorities are not seen as critical to events. Most women in historical Paris had part time jobs – we know this from tax records – and they included barbers, night guards, locksmiths, goldsmiths…  Don’t tell others that their narrative is wrong; instead say, here’s my narrative, it’s better.

The panel on Maintaining Your Scientist Character’s Credibility discussed ways not to drop readers out of their immersive experience by having a scientist character do something utterly ridiculous.  Don’t put in unnecessary detail that can trip you up.  Some writers are tempted to prove they have done the research. even if it doesn’t add to the story; the characters need to be perceived as the experts, not the writers!  Don’t include a number you don’t need: someone will do the calculations to see if you are being consistent!  The science can be right, but the environment wrong: laboratory practices; hospital dramas are unwatchable because of the lack of hygienic procedures and ethical concerns.  Risk management is consistently handled poorly.  The further in the future the story is set, the more you can get away with: things can have changed.  The problems arise with things the writer doesn’t realise are important.  Get experts to be your beta readers: they’ll love pointing out the mistakes. [Personal experience: never be a beta reader for a family member writing their first book.]  Very credible phrases to have your scientists say: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”.

The next panel I attended discussed Science Fiction Gone Wrong: science and predictions that SF got badly wrong.  Stapledon’s Last and First Men purports to predict the next 2 billion years of human evolution, from the early 1930s on.  There are vast changes, 18 successive species, it’s a staggering visionary work.  But wherever we can check on a prediction, Stapledon gets it wrong.  He failed to see Hitler, and has Germany as a pillar of enlightenment while France conquers most of Europe.  Most evolutionary changes are natural biological mutations, but the 2nd men eventually discover gene editing, 40 million years from now.  The 7th men discover space travel.  When the book was re-released in the 1950s, the publisher deleted first 6 chapters, because they were all wrong.  Later editions have restored them, but they are still all wrong.  Yet it’s one of the greatest SF novels; it’s not a work of prediction, but of poetry.  On the other hand, the Handmaid’s Tale seemed totally implausible in the 1980s: how could a mature democracy evolve that way?  Today, it seems more prophetic.  Political situations can change seemingly overnight, think of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Atwood says that world is far too complex for speculative fiction to make accurate predictions; its role is to conjure a possible scenario.  Sometimes errors can be useful.  MIT students proved Ringworld is unstable, so Niven made his next book about fixing the engines that kept it stable!  Try to understand as much about how the Earth works as possible – ecology, geography, climatology, everything – and then use that understanding in your world building.

unlikely to be seen in a real lab
After a break for lunch, I went to the panel on Portrayal of the Scientist and Science in SF. The bad: every single variant of the Frankenstein archetype of the lone mad scientist building something that gets out of control.  BBC’s Horizon, for a period, got it into its head that the way to tell a story was to have a hero, and make the story is about him, which does not reflect reality.  A couple of good examples of scientists as part of teams: Sagan’s Contact, and Arrival.  It is easier to make the hero be an engineer than a scientist; there’s more action in building things than working things out.  In Armageddon, for some reason it’s easier to teach Bruce Willis to be an astronaut than to teach an astronaut to use a drill; it’s part of the anti-intellectualism, the suspicion of intelligence.  Real science, of course, is 99% tedium; when scientists write up their own work, even they leave most of it out.  Mathematicians do this too: Gauss would only publish when he had polished to perfection; the reader couldn’t work out how he got there. He would say, when a fine building is finished, the scaffolding should not be visible.  Jacobi said Gauss is like the fox who erases his tracks in the sand with his tail.  Science in SF is not about the process of doing science, but about the changed worldview when the new body of knowledge becomes current, about the world where this new science exists.  Frighteningly, the only view most people have of science is from books and movies.

After three panels on science and scientists, I next went to a panel on Folklore and Myth in the Fantastic.  This had some overlap with Wednesday’s Invented Mythologies; see there for definitions.   Myths are deeply embedded in their cultures: how do we create a myth that feels embedded in that way?  Accounts can be emic or etic: etic is the outsider’s experience and account of another culture – emic is an insider account of one’s own culture; it’s more emotional, closer to the heart.  We should  look for this emic, not the etic, view.  Folklore was often designed to answer questions alien to our culture yet very important to the culture in which they originated;  it was devoted to the violation of mores, which differ across cultures; it can be incomprehensible to us, being set in a social mileui we don’t share, so we can’t tell when it’s funny, or why the ending is satisfying.  The original tales were often gnarly, violent, and socially destructive; the prettified Victorian versions we know were adapted to fit a view of what’s a satisfying story or ending.  What groups your group has been in contact with will work its way into the stories, and stories will be rework to re-understand the world when things change.  As myths and legends develop, they may co-opt earlier myths, which may have been designed for different people in different circumstances.  Imagine the folklore of a people that says “we have always lived on water” being told in a future when there is no more water.  All these reworkings are layered on each other, with multiple versions of each story, which gives a richness to the mythology.

Back to SF with a panel on the Morality of Generation Ships.  You set off sub-lightspeed for a far distant world, forcing your children and theirs to grow up on a generation ship.  Is this moral?  The first question: why are you doing this? Are you facing certain death if you stay, or “just” emigrating?   Is it the first attempt, or is it commonplace?  Do you know the conditions at the destination, or is this a shot in the dark?  The context frames the moral questions.  To get an idea of timescales: if the Neanderthals has launched a space probe 10,000 years ago, going at the speed of Voyager 2 [57,890 km/h], it would only be half way to the nearest star. [Actually, it would be much less than half way: only be half a light year away!]  If they have been living on the ship for so long, why would they want to stop and move to a completely unknown environment?  If the ship could go at near-relativistic speeds, the passengers wouldn’t experience a long duration; but it’s hard to get to these speeds, and then you have to slow down again.   How big would the population need to be to maintain technology? Literacy reduces the number of people needed to maintain working knowledge; take along eggs and sperm for genetic diversity.  The technology for building and maintaining such ships would be a spin-off from self-sustaining space colonies; if we have these, why build the ships?  Is it moral to raise children in space colonies or on the moon, where the low gravity means they can never come to Earth?  Is it moral to emigrate and raise children in a foreign land, or in a different societal structure like a commune?  [Is it moral to have children at all?]

My final panel of the day was The Singularity: Transhuman Intelligence in Fiction and Futurism.  There are two paths to the Singularity.  The first is building super-intelligent self-improving AIs.  The second comes from Fyodorov’s Russian Orthodox Christian heresy of transhumanism: striving for immortality and, as a corollary, colonising space and bringing people back from the dead.  Most modern transhumanists are atheist rationalists, but they have latched on to a Christian pattern!  The idea of the singularity is that we cannot predict what the world will be like after: the transformation will be too great.  Hence it is difficult to write about a post-Singularity world.  But the Singularity has already happened – twice!  The first was 75,000 years ago, with the invention of transmissible culture.  The second was 250 years ago, with invention of limited liability companies; these are very slow alien intelligences, but they are getting faster as they replace their biological components [us!] with computers.  Augmenting human intelligence is limited by the size of brain that can pass through the birth canal; the answer is kangaroos: gene engineer us to be marsupials!  AIs are being used to identify email spam; spam bots are being engineered to fool these; there’s a fully automated Turing test arms race in progress: the first AI to pass Turing test will be a spambot.

The final event was the Masquerade.  There were excellent great entries, classified into the Novice and Open classes; there were no specifically Journeyman or Master entries.  I suspect the more experienced go to the dedicated costuming events nowadays.  During the judging, we had a great concert by Sassafrass, including their complex songs about Norse mythology, some Renaissance music to change the tone, and an emotional Somebody Will.  They had to keep on going until the judges returned.  The judges gave out a variety of awards for many of the entrants.  When Halley cam to Jackson in 1910 (Halley’s Comet) won Best in Show: a stunning first entry by Olivia Flockhart, who refused to enter the children’s class in favour of the novice class.

So, only one day left!

No comments:

Post a Comment