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Science Fiction Association of Bergen County

Convention Reports:

The Scottish Convention -- Worldcon 53 (1995)

A convention report by Taras Wolansky

[Editor's Note: This material originally appeared in FOSFAX, Issue #178, December 1995. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

Copyright 1996 Taras Wolansky

Table of Contents

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The Scottish Convention -- Worldcon 53

Intersection, Worldcon 1995, was held August 24th through 28th at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Center (SECC) in Glasgow and the adjacent Moat House hotel. "Guests of Honour": author/deconstructionist Samuel R. Delany and schlock TV producer Gerry Anderson; second-rate artist Les Edwards; old-time fan Vinc Clarke. "Toast Mr & Mrs": fantasy writers Peter Morwood and Diane Duane.

Three years before I had voted against a Worldcon in Glasgow, on the advice of an Edinburgh fan who warned me that Scotland's second city was not set up to host a large convention. And in fact Intersection proved to be the most inconvenient Worldcon in my experience. The SECC itself was very well-equipped, with restaurants, a news stand and a bank. It had to be: aside from the Moat House, there was nothing nearby. (Presumably some kind of government boondoggle, it is set where Glasgow's shipyards used to be. One towering crane stands as a memento.) The Frugal Scots: at their closest approach, the SECC and the Moat House were separated by twenty paces of lawn, yet no corridor had been built between them. Instead, you had to go outside and walk a couple of hundred cold, wet, windy feet under an awning. The rest of the hotels--including both of the party hotels--were between one and two miles away.

As if things weren't bad enough already, the SECC's train station had been flooded the previous winter, and had yet to reopen. (The Frugal Scots: no notices were posted; I found out only when I tried to change trains.) You could walk; though it was usually cold and often raining. You could take a cab for several pounds. If you had lots of time, you could take the convention shuttle bus that ran once every hour from 8:30 AM to midnight to just four of the con hotels. The Frugal Scots: convention members had to pay--one pound per trip, or seven for a pass--to ride the convention shuttle. When I first opened the door to my room at the Charing Cross Hotel, I thought I was back in my old dorm at Columbia. The Frugal Scots: the bed was the smallest I've ever seen in a hotel or motel; the lone pillow was the thinnest I've ever seen, period. Also (this may have been simple incompetence) several times I had to leave notes to the maid just to get my soap and shampoo; and I eventually realized that while my bed was made every day, the sheets weren't changed. On the positive side, the hotel provided an in-room teapot, and a free breakfast of haggis-and-eggs. (Not bad.)

Down the Tubes

Early Friday afternoon, the glossed-over details of spacecraft design were the subject of "The Spaceship and the Bilges". It featured a panel of authors with their minds in the sewer: moderator Geoffrey Landis, who observed that a Romulan attack never caught Capt. Kirk in the ship's head; Diane Duane, a psychiatric nurse who has seen a few bedpans, and who put Paramount in a tizzy when she put the crew of the Enterprise on a shift rotation; Bob Forward who, when he designs a space ship, designs the bathrooms too, because it has an effect on "the atmosphere of the story" [groan, groan]; Elizabeth Moon, and David Feintuch.

On a spaceship "somebody's got to get down there and scrub the heads", said Feintuch, which is why the crews of his spaceships in the "Seafort Saga" include people suited to "mundane chores, cleaning, low-tech jobs". Feintuch said he spends little time on the scientific background (unlike Forward), choosing instead to concentrate on the people--though he later said he "could tell you where every item in every room is in my craft". A spaceship should be arranged "logically and reasonably for people to be able to stand" a long voyage, he said. "The metaphor that comes to mind is the ocean liner." In her novel, Hunting Party, said Moon, a faked inspection of sewage treatment equipment plays a role: few people know that sewer gas is deadly. In stories set in the near future, she researches her spaceships. However, if you overdesign far-future spaceships, you merely prove you don't understand how technology changes over time. In such cases, Moon concentrates on making the vessel real to the characters.

The talk drifted to what the conquest of space will really look like. Moderator Landis described self-replicating robots spreading out over the solar system. That's not very dramatic, protested a member of the audience. She doesn't care, said Moon, "so long as it gets us into space." Landis: "What exactly do you mean by 'us'?" Moon: "Me, personally!"

Giving People a Hard Time

Early Friday evening, "Need Hard SF Be Hard" was the question raised by: Kathryn Cramer, co-editor with David Hartwell of the hard SF anthology, The Ascent of Wonder; writer/physicist Geoffrey Landis, the moderator; writer/physicist Greg Benford, who answered, "Yes!"; and writer/attorney Valerie Freireich (Becoming Human), who said hard SF was a matter of "partly style, partly plausibility".

The stories chosen by Hartwell and Cramer for their alleged hard SF anthology came under discussion. It was a case of "Cramer vs. Cramer", wisecracked Landis; that is, editor Kathryn vs. her physicist father, John. Benford said he disagreed with the choices about 30% of the time, either because the story was not hard SF, or because the story was not good SF. For Benford, a hard SF story has to be scientific; while for Cramer (Kathryn), it is enough that there be some relationship to science.

Landis offered what he termed the "mainline, boring definition" of hard SF: that "science and technology is integral to the plot". From the floor, I suggested that a story is still hard SF if the setting is speculative, even if the plot has nothing to do with it--if you just drive through, for example. Military SF is often lumped with hard SF, noted Freireich. There is "nothing inherently scientific" about killing things with big machines, said Cramer. Nonetheless, she ruminated, there are "commonalities"; there is a "gray area or slippery slope" between these genres. Both science and war, said Cramer, involve "making decisions with really severe constraints." Non-scientist Freireich expressed her displeasure with the scientific elitist tone of the panel, especially Benford's contributions. It was as if only a scientist can write real SF. (Interestingly, David Feintuch, on the previous panel, was also a lawyer fallen among technologists; but he remained unintimidated.) The purpose of the panel, Landis remarked wryly, is "so we can say we're better than you are--nyah, nyah, nyah!"

After the panel, I asked Benford why, if science fiction need not be about science, then why must hard science fiction be about science? Isn't De Camp's rigorously researched and reasoned time travel classic, Lest Darkness Fall, hard SF?

You're Just the Author, What Do You Know

Early Saturday afternoon, critic Paul Kincaid and mere author Harry Turtledove collaborated on "Deconstructions: Guns of the South". Turtledove said the idea for the book came from a wisecrack in a letter from fantasy writer Judith Tarr, in which she called a piece of cover art "as anachronistic as Robert E. Lee holding an Uzi". (Later, in response to a question from the floor, he explained he made it an AK47 because it can take a lot of abuse.) Turtledove, a specialist on Byzantium, has done a lot of work using that empire's fragmentary history as a source of inspiration. The problem with using the Civil War, however, is that unlike Byzantium the historical record is voluminous, and many people know a great deal about what went on. Turtledove gave an example of just how voluminous and detailed that historical record is. In one scene in the book, Robert E. Lee rides past the Confederate War Department, on an 1864 visit to Jefferson Davis in Richmond. In the original version of the scene, the War Department is a beehive of activity. But then Turtledove found a diary that showed that the War Department was closed that day!

Question: Why begin the alteration of history in Spring, 1864? Answer: If the South had won in 1862, the lesson learned would have been, "We were right all along." But by 1864, the South was being forced to face certain facts, like black troops in the Union Army, and was thinking about black troops of its own. (Even so, the voluntary emancipation of slaves that eventuates is, to me, the one really implausible thing in the book.) Question: Why is the portrait of Lee a traditional (i.e., positive) one? Answer: Turtledove read Lee's letters: "practically everything that Lee says" in the book is borrowed or adapted from them; Lee remains the Southern gentleman he always appeared.

Turtledove had mentioned that, during the Civil War, twice as many soldiers had died of disease as of wounds. Then why not give the Confederates modern medicine instead of weapons, asked an audience member. Turtledove thought that 1864 was too late for something like this to make a difference. Turtledove said he will never do a sequel. The infusion of 21st century technology into the 19th opens so many possibilities, it is hard to pick the most probable. He did sketch a scenario for a different book, however, in which McClellan doesn't get hold of Lee's plans in 1862 (in our history, prior to the Battle of Antietam), and Lee defeats him in Pennsylvania. Also, Turtledove has branched out into the alternative history of another American war, the Revolution, in collaboration with actor Richard Dreyfuss. In The Two Georges, a valuable painting is stolen, a Gainsborough of George III and George Washington--shaking hands.

You're Only the Author, part II

In a similar vein Sunday afternoon, critic John Clute and author Michael Swanwick collaborated on "Deconstructions: The Iron Dragon's Daughter". A particularly interesting aspect of Swanwick's book, said Clute, is that a great many readers hate it. Swanwick did not seem particularly perturbed by this, nor mystified by it. In conventional fantasy, he explained, the protagonist travels from our, mundane world to the fantasy world, finding fulfillment of some kind in the process; in The Iron Dragon's Daughter, the heroine reverses the process, starting out in a rather grim fantasy world, succeeding after many struggles to return to our world, and finally settling down in a mundane research job.

"The profound impulse of fantasy is not to explain the world, but to decipher it", said Clute, whereas science fiction seeks to explain. In its presentation of a sequence of arguments, The Iron Dragon's Daughter is more like SF than fantasy, naturally tending to displease fantasy fans attracted by its title and cover art. From the floor, I recalled the fantasy reviewer who spoke dismissively of the "dragons"--fully realized alien beings--in Jack Vance's classic SF novella, "The Dragon Masters", as "not real dragons". Swanwick considered what attracts readers to fantasy. "What makes magic special is not the power of it," he said, but the spiritual connection it implies, "a connection with the lowest level of heaven." If we were really interested in the mere power to, say, light up a room with a gesture, we need only buy The Clapper.

Techie Folklore

"All right, let's get these squishy guys out and let us mechanics in!"--Aleta Jackson, pushing through the crowd exiting from the previous (bad) panel on biological myths in SF, Saturday evening. The "mechanics"--Jackson, Geoffrey Landis, Jordan Kare, Dermot Dobson, and moderator William Higgins--were coming in for the panel on "Tall Technical Tales": anecdotes and stories of remarkable experiences, occurrences, and oddities in the real-life practice of science and technology. The audience proved to have as many stories and the panel.

In the historical division, Landis told the cautionary tale of "Rutherford's last mistake". Convinced that tritium, hydrogen with two neutrons, was stable (i.e., not radioactive), the great physicist repeatedly centrifuged samples of heavy water (deuterium oxide), hoping to concentrate the tritium impurities he thought were there. However, the weight of the "concentrate" proved to be the same as the original heavy water, and Rutherford set it aside as just another unsuccessful experiment. Years later, a grad student found the sample and tried a Geiger counter on it. Sure enough, it still contained radioactive tritium; Rutherford had succeeded but his preconceptions have forbade him to find out.

Members of the audience contributed several anecdotes from the world of aerospace. Pilots of the SR71 Blackbird, we were told, would sometimes hit the fuel dump button, creating a miles-long streak--and UFO reports from the commercial pilots cruising below. Then there was the story of the drone ramjet with razor-sharp wings edged with asbestos; an EPA representative ordered that labels be placed on the wings every six feet, reading "Do not ingest"!

A military air base, a few years back, was harassed by journalists hoping for a glimpse of stealth aircraft. So the technicians built a plywood triangle about 30 feet long, tightly clad it with black plastic garbage bags, and dragged it outside in the middle of the night. Then, just at dawn, they ran outside and "desperately" dragged it into a hangar and out of sight. Such spoofing was not just for fun Kare, a physicist at the Livermore National Laboratory, pointed out. To confuse Soviet photosurveillance during the Cold War, airplanes were provided with phony, miniature AWACS domes, festooned with 96 Sidewinder missiles, and otherwise decorated. (Kare also told a story about an "ICBM" which is not appropriate for a family magazine; let's just say it involved a sewer pipe at the British Antarctic base.) The world of private enterprise was also represented. From the audience, Dale Skran of Bell Labs told of a baffling problem in which production runs of silicon came out of the furnace just fine during the day, but went bad every night. After checking everything that could possibly be checked and finding nothing, the technicians finally resolved to stay overnight and see what went on. Hour followed hour; then, at about 3 AM two guys came in and put a pizza in the furnace.

Ghod is Dhead

Noon Sunday (convenient for churchgoers), a huge audience witnessed a panel suggested by author Harry Harrison: "SF and the Death of God", or, is SF atheistic in nature. Aside from Harrison, the participants were: moderator Stephen Clarke, a philosopher at the University of Liverpool who has argued that, if we find aliens we can talk to, this is evidence for the existence of God; David V. Barrett, who has written a book on alternative religions or "cults"; and Stephen Gould, not the SF writer but an arrogant Jewish banker. (What can I say: he identified himself as a banker, and argued the superiority of Judaism over Christianity!)

Though the general trend of the discussion would probably have made a religious believer uncomfortable, only Harrison spoke for what might be termed the militant atheist position. "Not only is there no one upstairs, there's no upstairs!" he said.

Science fiction is not atheistic, but heretical, said Gould. At least in a Christian context: Jesus is missing, and miracles are pretty much ruled out. The attitude of Christianity toward such speculation is intermediate between that of Islam (which forbids any questioning of Mohammed's words) and Judaism (which doesn't care).

Science as well as science fiction embodies a faith, said Clarke, the faith that human beings, by the exercise of reason, can understand the universe; the faith that we can discover truth in spite of our species limitations. Once this "theological" underpinning is gone, the result is "post-modernism".

At least one religion has grown directly from an SF story, said Barrett, the Church of All Worlds, whose Bible is Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. And, a member of the audience pointed out, SF frequently warns us that "man must not play God".

Only about a half dozen audience members got a chance to ask a question. I would have liked to ask Harrison if he slept through the 20th century, to not notice the scores of millions killed by atheistic and post-Christian movements.

Panel Fragments

"According to the Manchester Guardian, I ruin science fiction as much as Piers Anthony ruined SF."--Jack Chalker.

"Far too many Scandinavians [are] ruining what would otherwise have been an excellent convention."--Marlborozine, Issue #1, 28/8/95 (the inside of an unfolded cigarette pack, densely packed with writing, and posted in one of the party hotels).

"I wouldn't dare take on the central [Arthurian] story; too many people have done it too well.--Darrell Schweitzer.

Arts and Other Trivia

The Intersection art show was the antithesis of this year's NASFiC art show. At NASFiC, the art show was so tightly packed with material that they had to make the aisles one-way; at Intersection the art show had far more space than it needed, with display panels standing lonely and apart. As at Winnipeg the year before, it seems that customs regulations effectively kept out most American artists. This of course permitted some fine artists like Jim Van Houten and Fangorn to get a little attention, but it seems that the local talent could not make up for the missing Americans.

Saturday afternoon, Samuel R. Delany gave his Guest of Honor speech. To my surprise, I had heard most of it before: as Delany's Guest of Honor speech at another convention.

Sunday evening, the Hugos were awarded. My notes are few and, scribbled in the dark, largely illegible, so I will say little about the ceremony. As to the results of the voting, I took violent exception to only one award. Later that evening in a hallway at one of the party hotels the winner of that award blithely waved the statuette at me in greeting; and may have been puzzled when I darted through a doorway rather than attempt insincere congratulations. (Teddy, you're not an artist, any more than Gary Larson is an artist; you're a cartoonist.)

As I think back on the con's open parties, it seems to me they were pretty dismal, perhaps the worst I have ever encountered: inconvenient, impersonal, appallingly crowded, increasingly drunken. The Worldcon bid parties were all located in parts of the same room; so much for atmosphere. Food and drink were in short supply everywhere; I stood in line longer than I had for the "Star Wars" ride at Disney/MGM; which is not much fun if the people around you don't speak English. (There were starving Rumanians everywhere!)

One thing I rather enjoyed at one party was a whiteboard with "100s of Reasons to Vote for Australia in '99": "The birds laugh ... Least likely nuclear target ... Barbies (not the dolls) ... Drop bears [killer koalas] (not in Melbourne) ... Alleged birthplace of Einstein [my suggestion] ... Disease-free camels (we export to Arabia) ... Vegemite (if you dare) ... Giant clams ... We've got bigger states than Texas ... Friendly sheep (and kangaroos if you buy them a drink)".

The convention souvenir book is your standard, large-format paperback, with the traditional color cover by the Guest Artist, plus a color portfolio of his work inside. Unimpressive, as I have already implied. There is an article of some kind on each of the guests. The one on Gerry Anderson is substantial; it is after reviewing his oeuvre that I called him a "schlock TV producer". On the other hand, the article on the Fan Guest, Vinc Clarke, is seriously inadequate, especially considering that for the vast majority of Intersection members this would be the first they ever heard of him. The program schedule booklet was not very well done. For some reason it was in a small, two-hole looseleaf (about 4" x 6") binder. This would seem to have permitted changes and additions to be made during the convention, but in fact there weren't any. The small size of the pages made the program grids rather terse, even with tiny print: each box contained an (abbreviated) title and a reference number, which you had to look up in the "Programme Details" in equally tiny print, to get a brief explanation and a list of scheduled participants. (It didn't help that the evening grids followed all the daytime grids.) Fortunately the Details section was--roughly--in chronological order (unlike the idiotic Lunacon program schedule it otherwise resembles), so I was able to use it directly, instead of endlessly bouncing back and forth between grid and details. Even so, toward the end of the convention I found myself using the daily pink sheets more and more, which were a strictly chronological listing, one line per item.

The convention newsletter, Voice of the Mysterons, was very well done. One might even say it was overdone: I'm still not sure I picked up every issue produced. There were fourteen regular, numbered issues, plus an unnumbered "prequel"; a parody, Voice of the Mooseterons, numbered pi; and a special, black-bordered collection of tributes to John Brunner, a day after his shocking, sudden death by stroke on Friday afternoon.--Taras Wolansky

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