Tuesday, August 25, 2009

To Your Scattered Panels Go: Anticipation

For an event oriented toward the world as a whole, it was surprisingly cozy. Anticipation SF - the 67th World Science Fiction Convention - was fairly lightly attended, with only a few thousand people navigating this way and that through the wide and very long halls of the Palais des congrès de Montréal in downtown Montreal, Quebec from August 6th to 10th. It was a place where one could easily find oneself sharing an elevator with Larry Niven or shaking hands with Cory Doctorow, and I should know, because that's what I found - among other things, to be sure.

This was the first time I've attended a Worldcon, and considering that the next two are in Melbourne and Reno, it may be the last for a while yet. It was the closest I've ever been to science fiction fandom as a unified force. Though its attendance was a drop in the bucket next to the Fan Expos and Comic-Cons of the world, that's all right with me. While I was at Worldcon I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with the genre as a whole, from its elite grandmasters down to everyday fen.

Everyone gets something different out of a convention. For some it's the costuming and masquerade, and others find themselves amid the crowded tables of the dealer's room. Personally, I was most interested in the panel discussion. There were panels held every day of the convention, from 9 AM to 10 PM - some even went head-to-head with the Hugo Awards presentation on Sunday night - and even if I had slept five hours a night and spent every waking moment in the Palais, I wouldn't have been able to attend all the ones I was interested in.

It wouldn't have been as fun of a convention either, at that rate. I'd have never been able to tour the Montreal Metro - but that's for another day.

The panelists for Saturday's Is Climate Change Storyable? panel


The first panel I attended set the tone for much of what was to follow. Intellectual Property and Creative Commons, held on Friday the 7th at 10 AM, included Cory Doctorow among its panelists and he had a great deal to say, as well as a great many questions from the audience to answer. I'd not considered the idea of a Laffer curve in copyright, but from what the panel said meshes with my own experience, not to mention common sense - beyond a certain point, additional rights reserved to creators or rightsholders do not translate into a greater incentive to create.

Later that evening I attended the presentation for the 2008 Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, and compared to the Hugo Awards presentation ceremony two days later, it was brief and informal and, to me, reminiscent of what science fiction itself might have been like a few decades ago, before it hit the mainstream in a big way. It was nice. Only twenty-five people, approximately, were in attendance, and not even the two winning authors - Mary Rosenblum for "Sacrifice" and Chris Roberson for The Dragon's Nine Sons - were among them. Both were accepted by sf author and editor Lou Anders. The program had budgeted it an hour slot, but it wrapped up after fifteen minutes.

I came to the conclusion, while in that room, that I'd like to win a Sidewise one day. All I need to do is write something that's worthy of one.


My first priority on Saturday was to tour the Montreal Metro, and that ate the whole morning. Once that was settled, I returned to the Palais for the Alternate Canadas panel, looking at alternate history in a specifically Canadian vein. This was the first of two panels I attended that included S.M. Stirling - who, when questioned on the Draka series, answered "I wrote that in law school. I was full of anger and hate." Which, if you've read or even heard of the Draka, explains a great deal.

What I took out of this panel is that there are a great deal of potential points of divergence, but only a handful of well-known ones. AHs that include, say, a successful Quebec referendum in 1980 or 1995, or the success of the Avro Arrow, tap into issues that are relatively familiar to the public at large. The way I see it, there is great potential in Canada's more obscure history. Possibilities like a Huguenot exodus to New France - which would have completely upended the manner in which Quebec and Canada developed - no expulsion of the Acadians, the settlement of Prince Edward Island by Norse seafarers in the 11th century, a Canada bilingual in English and Swedish, or the survival of Sir Isaac Brock and Tecumseh all have great potential, but are only rarely used because of the general lack of familiarity with Canadian history.

One thing that's always galled me is a tendency in science fiction to look gleefully into a future where cities are obsolete, and the people scatter like seeds into a new rural lifestyle made possible by new communication or transportation technologies - Sir Arthur C. Clarke had his personal helicopters, and Transhuman Space has the ubiquitous Web. The City of the Future panel took a long, hard look at this issue. The panelists traced possible roots of this idea to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when cultural nostalgia for vanished village life led to the increasingly common portrayal of cities as dystopias. I don't have any truck with that kind of belief, and it was refreshing to find that the panelists didn't seem to, either - cities are far more efficient in energy use per capita, and there's nothing more isolating than rural life. I learned that while travelling through Amaranth Township.


The first panel I attended on the last full day of Worldcon flowed smoothly from the day before. Which Histories Get Alternates? was even better-attended than Alternate Canadas, and explored the same subject matter on a grander scale. One of the ideas presented was that the frequency of alternate histories that focus on the American Civil War or Second World War, and the lack of ones that explore differences in, say, the Napoleonic Wars or the First World War, stem from a lack of "blazing moral questions" in the latter two conflicts. It's easy to cast the Civil War as a war against slavery, and the Second World War as a war against Evil, and they're both intensely familiar to a story's potential audience. That doesn't mean writers and readers shouldn't try things they're not as familiar with, though.

Later that evening I shuffled to the Is Climate Change Storyable? panel, which is of particular interest to me. It's the sort of thing writers are going to have to acknowledge in their visions of the future, or those visions will soon look as anachronistic as stories set in 1999 which include a prominent Soviet Union and vacuum-tube computers. Geoffrey Landis was there, and his comment on potential mitigating solutions for climate change was instructive: "There are quick solutions, and they're usually stupid and wrong."

What issues are there to be explored with something like climate change? The panel discussion came up with a few - what happens when environmental Quick Fixes go awry, what happens if developing states "leapfrog" the 20th century, political and cultural issues that stem from the decentralization of power generation, or the consequences of the Midwest drying up due to water depletion - Landis advised Great Lakes cities like Chicago and Toronto and Montreal to start building walls now. I think he was only half-kidding.

Saturday night was dominated by the presentation of the Hugo Awards, held in the single largest room in the Palais and filled to the brim by most of Worldcon's attendees. I was there for a short while, but ducked out; I'd been on my feet most of the day, and I'm not really an awards-show kind of dude. It really was science fiction's Academy Awards, though, and the scope and scale was impressive.

Monday, the final day of Worldcon, was more of a whirlwind for me. As we had to check out of our hotel room by noon at the latest, my roommate and I spent the last couple hours just hanging out in the Palais, like I'd seen so many people do beforehand. The last event I attended was a reading by Robert J. Sawyer, where he read a "prose poem" he did for the Harbourfront Centre and his short story "Mikeys." Once the applause came up, that was it for me, and I was hustling towards Place-d'Armes metro station to get to Berri-UQAM and the Central Bus Station on time.

It'll be difficult to forget, Montreal will. I just can't figure out, though, what the convention guide cover illustration - an anthropomorphic skunk playing hockey - has to do with Montreal.

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