I didn’t exactly have what you’d call a relaxing Easter weekend; but “awesome” just about begins to describe it.
Having spent the previous week getting weird looks from my colleagues whenever I tried to explain how I was planning to spend my four-day weekend, I was quite looking forward to being with people Got It. I wasn’t disappointed.
See, I went a science fiction convention, and I met lots of interesting people: writers, environmental scientists, astrophysicists (quite a few of those actually), psychologists, and lots of other people whose day job I know nothing about but who throughout the weekend offered great entertainment, stimulating conversation and food for thought; and a substantial addition to my already unmanageable reading list. I also learned lots of new things – about the Roman history of Chester, about potential ways of tackling climate change, about Komodo dragon genetics and conservation of mountain chickens (which are, actually, frogs!), about how the human brain essentially runs a simulation of the world around us, and – just to confirm a stereotype or two – about zero-g sex. (What I learned about that was not to try it.)
One of the distinguishing features of this year’s Eastercon was the significant programming track happening outside and taking advantage of the superb location. Having spent six days in Glasgow at Interaction in 2005 and not seen anything beyond the hotel and the Armadillo, it was refreshing to be able to walk around Chester with people who knew the place and could point out the best spots for photos or tell us something about how the Romans lived there. (Apologies to Tony for confusing him by running off and then coming back halfway through his guided walk – both Paul and I were a bit sketchy on Sunday.)
Tying in with the local/outside track was also the Komodo dragon presentation by Kevin Buley from Chester Zoo. Paul has since declared Chester to be Land of Cute Animals and we are planning to go back and actually spend some time at Chester Zoo. The talk itself, while plagued by technical difficulties to start with, was really fascinating and inspiring. I’m not a massive fan of reptiles, but baby Komodo dragons with their noses taped up so they don’t bite chunks off each other are damn cute. Also, I was one of those people who read the press coverage around Christmas on the Komodo dragon virgin birth and thought it was awesome and really quite interesting but never got a chance to get into the science behind it. Kevin’s talk was a good way of getting some of the science background without being a geneticist.
Another interesting track at Contemplation was all around the challenges of climate change – a first, I am told, at recent conventions. I made it to two of the four items (I’d already seen “An Inconvenient Truth”, and the room for the “Where is my ice age?” was appropriately refrigerated, which I decided I couldn’t cope with at the time – any summaries of the content of that one would appreciated.) The two panels I did make it to revolved largely around what we can do about climate change, looking at both small- and large-scale approaches to the problem. Lots of ideas were thrown into the room – some new to me – though (unsurprisingly perhaps) no real conclusions were reached at either of the discussions. I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but when faced with the whole climate change discussion, I feel overwhelmed with choice and less than perfect information. My big question on the subject at the moment is around how we, both as individuals and as a society, make an informed choice on which of the available options to investigate further and invest money in. Judith Proctor is, of course, right in pointing out that on the individual level carbon labelling would go a very long way towards helping us choose, and I very much hope that it is introduced sooner rather than later. On a macro level, however, I don’t think my question was answered. (I, for one, welcome our new Chinese overlords and think that technocracy is the way forward; with slide rules, of course.)
One unexpected aspect of Eastercon was the Teledu. When I arrived in Chester on Friday, I had no clue what Year of the Teledu was. I had seen referenced to it in the programme, and there were posters of badgers all over the place, but I was confused. Then on Saturday morning, I got cornered by the lovely Teledettes in the dealers’ room, and now I’m potentially having my arms twisted to run a kickboxing session at Teledu. (And yes, I’m going to find my cheque book and join eventually…) The Teledudes and Teledettes ran a very successful mixer game on Saturday night (and I was sober!), featuring naked women, girls snogging, boys snogging, and all sorts of other shenanigans. Not content with that, the Teledudes and Teledettes continued their shameless self-promotions throughout the weekend, winning awards in both the general and adult paper doll masquerade. I have yet to see the doll which won the special award for breaking the judges, but the Badges Song display still makes me chuckle.
There were three programme items at Contemplation which really provided food for thought for me in the area of people, how they relate to each other, how they interact with the external environment, and how their brains work: David B. Wakes’ serious play “Inveigle”, the panel on continuity of identity, and the George Hay memorial lecture on the “Braintrix” delivered by Dr. Guillaume Thierry.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the “Braintrix” lecture. My worst-case scenario was a dull academic muttering at the board in an incomprehensible French accent. Dr. Thierry, as it turned out, not only had but the slightest of accents but was also extremely entertaining in the way he spoke about a fascinating subject.
The “Continuity of identity” panel raised interesting questions around the human mind and its relationship with the body and how this topic is explored in SF through concepts such as the Star Trek teleporter and uploaded personalities. The one SF work which kept coming to my mind throughout the panel but none of the panellists mentioned was Christopher Priest’s “The Prestige”, both the novel and the film versions of which had interesting things to say on the subject. Oh, and if uploaded personalities seem awfully fancy and futuristic to you (they did to me until recently), have a look at the Blue Brain Project.
“Inveigle” explored the concepts of group intellects and mental illness in an engaging and entertaining way. I actually rather suspect that the play is somewhat more dense in content than can be appreciated from a single viewing, so I’d love to get hold of a copy of the script. But for now, let me whisper something in your ear…
There were lots of other interesting items at Eastercon, some of which I made it to and some of which I didn’t. The panel on transitional comics has blown my comics budget for the foreseeable future and I suspect will comfortably feed the three comic shops I frequent for a while. Despite Fran Dowd’s entreaties not to watch porn in my room and go to the slash panels and drink gin instead, I didn’t make it to any of the adult programming track. This was largely due to Paul feeling unwell on Saturday night and me being very sleepy on Sunday. The other panel which I would have loved to go to but which tricked me with a programming change was the one on Farah Mendelsohn’s “Glorifying Terrorism” anthology. By all accounts though, it consisted of lots of fluffy liberal types violently agreeing with each other. Nevermind, I’m half way through the book and rather enjoying it. I should probably not take it through airport security in my hand luggage again though.
Contemplation was the first con I actually volunteered at, which was a fun experience and one I intend to repeat. I ended up doing security for the dealers’ room, which involved sitting around, knitting my sock (the pattern for which remains tragically lost) and staring at people’s chests looking for their badges as they entered. It did give me lots of opportunity to walk around the dealers’ room before and after shifts, but the financial damage was surprisingly small. Paul picked up a collection of truly inferior literature which he seems to be having lots of fun with at the moment. In what I can only explain as a freak temporal shift of some sort, I managed to acquire a copy of Time Pieces on Monday just before we left: I’d been keeping an eye out for the all weekend to no avail. Then on Monday I had ten minutes spare waiting for Paul to emerge from a panel on children’s literature and popped into the leader’s room, and there is was, the pile of nearly stacked, signed and numbered copies of “Time Pieces”. Overjoyed, I bought one. When I went back to the dealers’ room ten minutes later with Paul, there was absolutely no sign of “Time Pieces” ever having been sold there. Which, of course, was a fitting closing chapter for a great convention.
Finally, a big thank-you to the committee, who had done a brilliant job with Contemplation, against all odds!