Swearing with @cadigan, @gavingsmith & @cstross #worldcon #loncon3 Rat’s Monkey’s Ahem

One of the other more interesting panels I went to at WorldCon was “Rat’s Monkey’s Ass”, a panel with Pat Cadigan, Gavin Smith, Mihaela Marija Perkovic, and Charles Stross on the use of swear words in genre fiction. Many pieces of work feature constructed swearing, such as frak in Battlestar Galactica and some of the more farcical attempts at science-oriented swearing in earlier science fiction. (Let’s not even start on Harry Harrison’s bowbidy-bowb.)

Image from tshirtbordello.com. It is a strangely satisfying word, though.

Image from tshirtbordello.com. It is a strangely satisfying word, though.

I’ve met Mihaela before, when she visited Australia, and she did a great job on keeping the panel going, as well as contributing some excellent swear words of her own. Of course, the authors present did a great job of swearing like a variety of troopers from a range of different timezones and militaries, but there are important aspects to this, which were also excellently covered.

The blurb for the panel reads:

 Swearing in science fiction and fantasy is occasionally a minefield of anachronism, but then, there’s often nothing weirder than hearing someone yell “frak”. Or even worse, a teenage character that refuses to curse at all. This panel will explore swear words in the genres. What purpose does swearing have within a society? What purpose does it serve in fiction, and how important, or not, are profanities to the narrative? When are invented curses more (or less) effective than real (contemporary or historical) examples, and why?

The general feeling was that conveying emotion is important and that swearing is an important part of this. It feels really hollow when a hardened space pirate says something like “Oh, dash” and this matters when you’re trying to convey the sense of reality required to hold up the parachute silk of disbelief.

There is one issue, which I raised in question time. Given that many young people do not have the delightfully proper middle and upper-middle class upbringing we see so often in Young Adult fiction, it’s positively disingenuous to remove swearing from certain works because that is the world those kids are growing up in. When people have fewer words at their disposal, they make use of the ones that they have. We know that children in the US from non-educationally successful backgrounds, with few books, can have a vocabulary deficit measured in the thousands of words and, probably, a lot of their emotional conveyance is going to come from the use of swearwords, whether we like it or not.

When someone picks up a book, they have to have a reason to keep reading, either by seeing themselves in there or just being really interested. When YA is a sterile “Boy’s Own” adventure of “Gosh” and “Golly”, this would seem farcical to a teen who is told to take out the f-ing garbage at night or they’d be in the s*. (Bowdlerised to keep my blog’s general rating, embarrassingly enough.) There’s an important issue in reaching the reluctant reader and we’re already aware of how much certain areas of education, such as Computer Science, have to be hidden from peer groups for not being perceived as “cool” enough.

I’m not recommending that Harry Potter has to start calling Ron an *#&*&#$@ piece of #(*#$ that wouldn’t *&#($ in a (()#$# )()#$, but there is a wider world that swearing can constructively reach, if we’re going to try and engage some of these borderline readers. (Of course, the frequency of pseudo-racist slurs between pure bloods and non- in the Potter world is astoundingly awful when you come to think about it, but I’m not actually as positive on that. There’s a big difference between giving people a voice that sounds like theirs and having a large number of cheerful racists mostly getting away with constant, casual racism.)

Panellists may have a completely different opinion on this so I welcome followups! Thank you!

Memories in Amber: How I possibly mildly embarrassed Christopher Priest by Emphasising the Influence of His Writing. #loncon3 #worldcon

Many, many years ago, I read a short story about a young man and woman who, on an English Summer’s day, are frozen in time by visitors from elsewhere, probably the future. There’s a good story that follows, which I won’t go into here, and I really enjoyed it. The only problem was that I read it when I was about 10 and I was at someone else’s house, flicking through their book collection. After that point, although I remembered the story, I did not remember either the title or the author.

Now, this begin before the age of easy searching, I really had no simple way to find the story, unless someone else had read it and recognised my telling of it. When you tell your version of a story to someone else, it’s much like when you make a map – you put the things that interest you on there and this often reveals how much difference there is in interpretation.

Some years went by, probably about 25 or so, and I had taken to browsing collections of short stories in second hand book stores, looking for the work. It wasn’t a full-time occupation but, if I ran across a new store, I’d duck in and see what they had. I must have looked over about 10 countries, on three continents, idly looking for a story that I (by now) dimly remembered.

One day, I found it. The name of the story was “An Infinite Summer” by Christopher Priest, who was actually someone I had read and enjoyed for his novels, in a collection of the same name. I was so delighted after so many years of searching that the bookseller asked me what was up and, on hearing the story, gave the book to me for free.

This happens to be there version I have now. A simple cover belies a complex set of stories.

This happens to be the version I have now. A simple cover belies a complex set of stories.

And it’s still a great story. Character driven, well-written and with just enough time travel to make it work, without bogging down in the unnecessary mechanics of impossible machines.

Let’s move forward to this year, some 10 years later, and I happen to be at LonCon3, the World Science Fiction Convention for 2014, in the room for the sessions “In Conversation: Naomi Alderman and Christopher Priest”. I’m rather excited as I’d never seen Priest in the flesh before and his story is a part of the unfolding of my life. It wasn’t exactly a Golden Fleece but it was definitely a plank on the ship!

So the conversation unfolds and, delightfully, Priest is fiery, smart, opinionated, unrepentantly definite about things that I also happen to be unapologetic about and then he talks about his writing.

“I don’t believe in aliens, space ships or time travel”, he says, which explains much of his work and its fascination with a very human future, devoid of most of the tricks that are used to bring tension into the narrative. But the time travel thing piqued my curiosity, because “An Infinite Summer” is a glorious tale of time and time lost, told within the mythical context of the endless English Summer.

Question time arrives and I pose a question: “You say you don’t believe in time travel but what about ‘An Infinite Summer’? That’s a fantastic time travel story!”

There’s a pause, some time for recollection, and he says” Well, yes, they stopped people in time.” A pause.

I went on, “But weren’t they people from the future?”

And he pauses again, nods, and there is a bit of a chuckle from the audience as the moderator notes that I appear to know that work better than he does now.

“Yes,” he says, “thank you.” I must be honest that his “thank you” sounded a little… cool but I suspect that this was because I was terribly embarrassed myself for putting him in that position.

And yet, what a testament to the strength of the original work and its concept! There I am, transfixed and frozen in time at a moment where a much younger Christopher Priest is writing this story – this story reaches out to me and holds itself in my memory and it is a part of the mythology of my own life. Yet, he, having set the tableau down, moves on to do other things. This is “An Infinite Summer”, told with new players, and possibly, having written this down, somewhere it will be told again.

You never know how people are going to remember you and, in the short span that I’ve been blogging, it’s come back to me how some of my posts resonate deeply with people (not many) and they remember the contents more than I do. Yet I’m already moving on and looking ahead to other things. I should have known this because, as an educator, I sometimes have a bigger place in someone’s world than they do in mine – which I’m trying to change by getting to know my students better. I’m an okay person but I’m a lousy creature of myth.

I don’t actually think I bothered Mr Priest with this and I still love that story – now it’s helped me to realise and appreciate how your works can be seen over a lifetime but also, before I actually get much older, to realise that what I have done is another set of steps towards what I’m going to do.

Thank you, Christopher Priest, for a wonderful story, an experience that echoed it, and being extremely willing to participate with a community that obviously enjoys your work.

WorldCon Panel: “We Have to Talk About TED” #loncon3 #worldcon

Sorry for the belated report, I’ve been catching up and a little unwell. I was lucky enough to participate in a panel entitled “We Need To Talk About TED”, which was chaired by Chad Orzel and featured (in programme order) Dr Sarah Dillon, Andrea Phillips, Vanessa Harden, and me! The panel was split into two groups based on who had and who had not given a TED talk (and for the record, I haven’t) so we focussed on the experiences of people who had undertaken TED talks and, from the academic perspective, the impact, reach and curation issues of TED talks. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the basic idea is that TED is used to disseminate “Ideas worth sharing” and has been for about 30 years. In recent years, electronic delivery has increased the reach of TED and TED talks have a very high impact across the video streams of the world.

From those who have attended, a big TED event is an absolute blast. You do a full rehearsal the day before, it’s high production, you get a big haul of high-quality swag, and it’s a reputation booster. Vanessa, an artist who works in interventions (altering spaces to get people thinking and interacting with the space in new or other ways), made the really good point that there was such a big divide between those who had been part of TED and those who were looking in from it, as an academic perspective. This is a great point, because it helps us to remember that TED talks (the big ones) are something that you strive to get to present. The main conference is limited to a smallish number of people and is very expensive, so you have to be showing something pretty good to get there. Chad commented that, from his experience, TED talks were pretty well-balanced in terms of demography and inclusion and this was reiterated by other panellists as well.

My issue stems from my outsider’s view on TED, looking at what we are seeing, the impact of these highly professional and appealing videos and what has come from them. I’m a bit of a numbers guy so let’s look at the numbers. (The other panellists should feel positively inspired to jump and down in the comments to get their points further exposed too. Please!)

Overall, if we look at the top 20 TED talks, they are roughly 15:50 minutes long (on average), which is longer than the usual TED average of about 14:10, and they have, in total, over 88 million views. If people are watching them to the end, then that means we have spent:

416,000 years

watching the top 20 TED talks alone. That’s quite a lot of time, so are all of these videos worth watching? Well, a few of them deal with technology that has … for what of a better word … never quite worked outside of the TED talk or delivered on the scale promised. If we look at SixthSense technology, people have spent about 400 years watching videos on something that has never quite delivered. Why are these videos still in the top 20?

There’s something called the Matthew Effect, which basically means that success breeds success (you might know it as ‘accumulated advantage’). Because these talks made it on to the top 20 a few years back, they get watched more because they have made it on to the top 20. Now, within the top 20, we do some movement up and down the rankings, and, yes, the SixthSense stuff is dropping (about 5 places over the last 2 years) but it’s still there because you look for a list of top 20 videos (this one is from 2012) and that’s what comes out. New videos do make it on and make it higher up – the video on things you didn’t know about orgasm is (quell surprise) 5 places higher after 2 years – but, in terms of a video, success breeds success because of the way that our recommender and listicle based web culture works.

So, even thought TED can distribute ‘ideas worth sharing’, there is inertia in getting rid of “ideas that would have been worth sharing had they actually worked properly”. Don’t get me wrong, the tech world is full of “tried it, didn’t work, try something else” but the problem here is that the well-produced and lingering TED videos can make something look current and attractive when, in reality, it’s over and done. As far as I know (corrections below please), there is no TED expiry mechanism.

TED really shines at Entertainment and Design because TED is a platform for 15 minutes of inspirational wonder – there is no doubt that some of the best talks on the Internet can be found at TED. (My favourite is Dan Pink, to no-one’s surprise.) But as those who had given TED talks on the panel noted, if your rehearsal was too technical in nature, it was time to remove slides and keep the message moving along a little more simply. And this is where we started to head into murkier waters with technological issues.

There’s nothing special about technology and giving inspirational talks about technology, as long as we’re clear on what we’re talking about. There is a big difference between talking about something that works and talking about something that might work. An idea in entertainment and design can be realised by many people and shared widely. An idea based on technology and the development of a key platform will need that platform, which is where SixthSense appears to have fallen down.

So the next thing about TED that we really have to talk about is that it’s always going to be light on the detail of technology and it’s easy to confuse wishes with reality, presentations with progress. Not a problem if we’re clear but a real problem if we’re not.

The final thing that I wanted to address was the curation of TED because not every TED talk goes up on the web. It’s a big deal to make it up onto the TED site, or associated YouTube channel, especially if you’re coming from one of the TEDx local talks or something other than the big talks. And one thing that happens in that curation is a demographic shift. Suddenly, the balanced environment of the conference turns into a video presence that is only 27% women, and a vast over-representation of Californians. There also appears to be a (questionably subtle) bias against certain issues, including women’s reproductive health and some less conventional approaches. If we were getting all of the TED talks then we would see what was going on. Instead, what we see is a snapshot that appears to refine the TED message seen by people at the talk into something that we get to see from the outside. And that’s not ideal.

So, if TED inspires you, that’s great but you need to keep in mind the list of things I outlined above, which comes from the whole group of people on the panel:

  1. TED talks are popular, at least in some part, because they are popular and there’s no clear way of telling if a TED talk is a good presentation for an idea that is proven, yet to be proven or has in fact been found to need a lot more work.
  2. TED is great for the E and the D but the technology can be light on. That’s fine if you’re looking for inspiration but not always so great if you’re looking for platforms that work and work now.
  3. The curation of TED appears to have some bias issues and, whether that’s a deliberate or an accident, it’s skewing TED to being a bit of a “things Californian guys like” and, while that isn’t necessarily a problem, it doesn’t appear to reflect what TED is when you get inside.
  4. TED may not set out to be elitist but its exclusivity and curatorial approach appears to cultivate an elite aspect that could fall into that trap.

It was a fascinating panel to be on and I learned a great deal from talking to the other panellists! I’m sure that they will pull me up on things that I missed.


WorldCon 2014: LonCon3. Why I was wrong not to come sooner and why you should be here next time. #LonCon3 #WorldCon

Stolen from the LonCon3 Website.

Stolen from the LonCon3 Website.

I’ve been at the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) for the past few days – as anyone with a Twitter account knows if you’ve been following the #LonCon3 tag. Before I say anything else, let me be up front and say that I was pretty stupid not to have made the effort to come to a WorldCon before but, and this is a big but and I cannot lie, you shouldn’t change your mind on WorldCon and SF Cons in general from listening to me, because if you’re not quite sure about them then you should probably look deeper. SF Cons don’t need the external approval of the temporary visitor to make them worth doing so let me remove myself from the role of anthropological validator.

I am, and have been for years, someone who enjoys Science Fiction and Fantasy. I grew up on it and viewing and reading SF&F was an essential part of my fascination with reading. But I had never considered myself a fan as I had some weird ideas in my head about what fannish culture is. And, like any stereotype, I was stupidly, badly, and offensively wrong. Of course I’m a fan. I like things in the SF&F domain and I follow them, think about them and (occasionally) study them. So I’m a fan.

But I’m not validating this space because (a) it’s offensive to think I have that level of authority and (b) it comes pre-validated by the 10,000 people who showed up. This is a strong community and, as I discovered, it’s a diverse, accepting, warm and friendly community, full of interesting people. Are there some jerks? Yes. But far fewer than I’ve run into outside of this space so let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this is some sort of amazing jerk space. You’ll meet more jerks in the average pub and you won’t be able to talk to them about something that fascinated you when you were 12. 🙂

So let’s go through some reasons why, if you like any SF&F, you should try to make it to one of the big cons.

  1. WorldCon has spent a lot of time making this a safe, inclusive and accepting space.

    Some years ago, and in the news recently, we’ve heard a lot about people being creepy at Cons and semi-powerful people who abuse that power. This year, I saw a couple of jerks, but WorldCon has a Code of Conduct that clearly accepts non-harmful behaviour but totally rejects anything that cause problems for other people. I’ve seen it in action and it works, swiftly. People have a right to feel safe and the new Code of Conduct policies guarantee that.

    Having said that. this is such a queer/trans/body-shape/everything accepting space (not tolerant, because people aren’t putting up with it, they’re accepting it) that it’s hard to imagine a place that would be more so.

    This is a city of 10,000+ people where everyone is accepted unless they are being an arse. This is, thanks to oversight and fantastic volunteers, a very safe space.

  2. Someone here is as interested in your interests as you are.

    I have lost track of the discussions I’ve had with total strangers in lifts, escalators, walking around and the amount of information we’ve shared. If you like it, someone else does too. Better still, they may know something about it you didn’t and you can enjoy talking about that.

    Hate something? I guarantee that you can have a bile-rending discussion over a beer with someone who also thinks that (insert popular thing here) is a blight upon the history of our species. But these are fun discussions, controlled and shared knowledge between equals. I saw very little knowledge snobbery here.

  3. You will get to meet, listen and talk to the giants of the field, other fans and experts as they talk about everything.

    LonCon3’s problem was not that there was not enough to see in the way of signings, discussions, panels and talks, it was that it was impossible to fit everything into one track for all of these days so collisions in the schedule were inevitable. But if you like Charles Stross, well he’s talking over there. Big fan of Culture politics? There’s a panel for that. Do you like Karaoke with SCA members? That’s an event from 11pm.

    And everyone is just wandering around and you can talk to them if you want to. Better yet, do you think that you have something to say – let them know and you might be able to get onto a panel or a talk.

  4. The people are lovely in the vast majority.

    I have spent the last four days being amusedly tolerated in my wide-eyed cluelessness by a large number of lovely people but, even when bumping into someone, the mutual apologies have almost become farcical. Yeah, there are a very small number of clueless jerks but I had worse experiences getting here on the Tube than I did for the whole Con.

    I was fortunate enough to come here with my very generous cousin, Curt, and quickly caught up with Australians, but I also fell in with a very nice (if slightly mad) group of Canadians who have welcomed me (or at least been astoundingly polite about not getting rid of me.) Everyone is here to have fun and enjoy the community. The code of conduct covers those who can’t play well.

  5. There is a lot of stuff here.

    There is art, books, items, t-shirts – the Dealers’ room is regularly travelled and things are at a reasonable price. There’s a bar and lots of food so that if you are eating and drinking at weird hours then you are catered for. Better still, you will run across people who know where to find what you want if it doesn’t happen to be here.

  6. It is a whimsical, beautiful space.

    Seen the Lego Movie? The random and ephemeral beauty of Cloud Cuckoo Land captures the sense of this very well. Want to dress up as Holmes and Watson but you’re two young women in love and walk around hand-in-hand? This is your place. Do you like Tiki Daleks? Welcome. Every so often, bubbles drifted through the space and lent a strange and alien air to the proceedings.

  7. They are very kind to newcomers.

    I  stumbled around slightly lost and looking for all the world like some kind of alien anthropologist who had finally deigned to look at the ants’ nest rather than following random ants. But people realised that my curiosity and questions came from a desire to understand and, as I said, now I’m a fan.

I was expecting it to be good, but I wasn’t expecting it to be great. And if I’d known how good it was, I would have started making time to come years ago. Three friends of mine made it possible for me to undertake this but two of them couldn’t make it this year and I miss them, firstly because it would have been great to see them, but also because I know how much delight they would have taken at me finally getting my head out of my arse on this and realising how good it was. Thank you, Curt. Thank you, D & J.

I certainly hope to be back!