A Short Con Report

Yesterday I went to Picocon 25. I think this was my eighth Picocon; I know my first was in 1999, and I think I’ve missed one since then. In the past few years it’s been a sort of marker for the peak period of activity in British fandom, which runs through Eastercon and Sci-Fi London to the BSFA/SFF AGM event, so 2008 now feels like it’s really started.

It was neither the best nor the worst Picocon I’ve been to, but it was a pretty good one. Notable bits: Paul Cornell’s perhaps slightly disorganised but very entertaining talk on “doing it all” as a writer (ie working in tv and comics and prose and etc); lunch at what I fondly think of as the Princess Diana Memorial Pizza Restaurant; much good conversation in the bar with too many people to mention; very briefly meeting one of the Whogasm girls; and, along with Paul, Paul, Liz, Alex, Nick, Andrew, Tom, Simon, and a guy called Matt who none of us knew but seemed to be a decent chap, winning the annual Picocon quiz, thus gaining copious amounts of Lindt and a signed proof of Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Little Brother. (This will now be slowly passed around the members of the winning team. What we do once we’ve all read it I’m not sure, unless only one of us likes it.)

The afternoon panel — traditionally Picocon has one programme item for each Guest, then a panel with all the Guests on it in the afternoon — was not terribly well structured. The topic was “Futurism Sucks!”, which seems to have been suggested by Cory Doctorow based on an impromptu talk he gave at some other event and not discussed by the panelists beforehand such that before long there were several competing definitions of futurism in play, never mind the question of whether they each sucked or not. As a result, the discussion had a habit of touching on (to me) an interesting question, and then wandering off again, although a large part of the time it circled around environmentalism and portrayals of global warming (or not) in sf. And there are a couple of points that were raised that I just want to note down.

  1. Kim Stanley Robinson aside, there are not many major works of science fiction written in the last decade that have climate change as a central subject. There are dozens of novels where global warming is mentioned as a background detail; it’s just not treated as a part of the world the protagonists will be engaging with.
  2. Someone suggested that climate change was a more common subject in YA sf, suggesting Julie Bertagna’s Exodus as an example. I haven’t read Exodus, so I don’t know how it tackles climate change, and I haven’t read enough YA to know whether the assertion is true in general. (I have to say that from reading The Inter-Galactic Playground it is not true, but I’d be happy to hear of other examples.)
  3. Personal assumption: the scarcity of climate change sf is both noteworthy and significant. This is something sf should be dealing with.
  4. Caroline Mullan suggested a possible reason: that climate change has rapidly moved from being a scientific problem to a political one. Sf writers are (in general) still more interested in the former kind of problem than the latter, not least because it tends to be easier to make stories from them, which is why we don’t see much climate change sf, and the stuff we do see comes from writers who (like KSR) are interested in politics. Possible counter to this: we’re seeing a lot of political sf dealing with the War on Terror, its rationale and consequences, so we do have plenty of political sf writers.
  5. Final observation: when Paul Cornell suggested that it is still possible to imagine a future in which humanity comes to terms with climate change, most of the audience laughed. That, to me, suggests another reason why we don’t see much climate change sf: people don’t believe it can be dealt with, and don’t want to read about it being coped with. Which is a bit depressing, really. It seems to me it should be possible to think about meaningfully dealing with climate change in a way that isn’t wish-fulfillment. I’m reminded again of the quote from the LRB article on this topic about needing “pessimism of the intellect combined with optimism of the will.”
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31 thoughts on “A Short Con Report

  1. I wonder if the “Futurism sucks” topic might have been inspired by Cory’s Locus column here. Not that knowing this would necessarily have made the panel more coherent, because it’s not at all clear to me that the column makes a coherent argument, but at least everyone would have been starting from the same page.

  2. Bresnihan, Jeanette. The Alphabet Network. Dublin: Wolfhound, 2000.
    Cave, Patrick. Sharp North. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
    ———. Blown Away. London: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
    Davies, Nicola. Home. London: Walker Books, 2005.
    Dickinson, Peter. Eva. London: Gollancz, 1988.
    Farmer, Nancy. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm. New York: Puffin, 1995.
    Fisk, Nicholas. Escape from Splatterbang. New York: Wanderer Books, Simon & Schuster, 1978.
    ———. On the Flip Side. Harmondsworth, Essex: Puffin, 1983.
    Fuller, Kimberly. Home. New York: Tor, 1997.
    Gates, Susan. Dusk. London: Puffin, 2004.
    Haddix, Margaret. Among the Hidden. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
    Halam, Ann. Siberia. London: Orion, 2005.
    Harrison, Troon. Eye of the Wolf. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2003.
    Hughes, Monica. Ring Rise, Ring Set: Juliet MacRae, Franklin Watts Ltd, 1982.
    Lawrence, Louise. Star Lord. London: Bodley Head, 1987.
    MacDonald, Caroline. The Lake at the End of the World. Melbourne: Knight, Hodder and Stoughton, 1988.
    MacLeod, Ken. The Highway Men. Dingwall, Scottland: Sandstone Vista, 2006.
    McGann, Oisin. Small Minded Giants. London: Doubleday, 2007.
    O’Brien, Robert C. Z for Zachariah. London: Victor Gollancz, 1975.
    Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi. Zahrah the Windseeker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
    Patchett, M. E. Adam Troy, Astroman. London: Lutterworth Press, 1954.
    Pausewang, Gudrun. The Last Children. London: Walker Books, 1983.
    Sedgwick, Marcus. Floodland. London: Dolphin Books, 2005.
    Stephens, J. B. The Big Empty, The Big Empty. New York: Peguin Razorbill, 2004, 2005.
    Swindells, Robert. Brother in the Land. London: OUP, 1984.
    Thompson, Kate. Missing Link (2000)
    Only Human (2001)
    Origins (2003)
    , 2002.
    Westerfeld, Scott. Uglies. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

    27 of them. And that’s only the ones where it was the major issue in the book (Bertagna is much more about refugee crises, although set against global floods). They all argue the world is going to hell in a handbasket. They all tell children there is Nothing You Can Do, and You Are All Doomed. The best are Dickinson, Halam, MacLeod, and Harrison which are very politicised and offer much more active roles for children/teens.)

  3. Well, right now we’ve got Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six, though I admit that at least part of his appeal is the freshness of an SF writer (for adults) facing head on the consequences of what we’re doing to the planet, which rather makes your point for you.

    One of the things I liked about Bacigalupi’s stories is that they do imagine ways in which humanity copes with global warming (and other looming catastrophes), many of which are quite horrific.

  4. Stephen Baxter’s Transcendent may not be strictly about climate change but it does feature it as a fairly major element of its plot and/or its depiction of a near-future earth.

  5. Ted: Somewhat embarrassingly, I can’t actually remember what Doctorow’s starting point was. I don’t think that column was it, though. Maybe someone else who was there can remember?

    Farah: I do admire a good database. My Amazon wishlist has been updated. :)

    Abigail: yeah, I did have Bacigalupi in the back of my mind (especially since I’d just been reading your review …). I do hope he manages to make his novel work. And finding a UK publisher wouldn’t hurt!

    Iain: Indeed, although I tend to think of that as one where the climate change is more setting than story. His next book is called Flood, which sounds extremely promising until you read the description and discover (a) it involves a sudden rapid rise in sea levels, which makes it sound more like The Kraken Wakes than a climate change book per se and (b) the sequel is called Ark, which does sound a bit like the wish-fulfillment approach (we can go and find a new Earth!). That said, I can’t really imagine Baxter writing wish-fulfillment, so I’m still looking forward to it.

  6. Cor, I’ve never been ret-con’d out of a pub quiz team before. Though admitedly I think my contributions cancelled each other out, and I’m kicking myself about the Bester!

  7. On point 5 – there’s something more in that isn’t there?

    In that outside of the con I’ve talked to folk who are in the head in the sand approach and don’t want to change their behaviour and don’t believe. At the other end of the scale are those who believe the catastrophe is coming and believe changing their behaviour won’t make enough difference. Which I suppose makes it a political problem.

    I think Cory said he based it on a talk he gave at Foo Camp which is a closed con for friends of O’Reilly publishing, but I think if he was imagining the panel being about the topics of how our visions of the future are all hacked up versions of the present and past that column lines up with his argument pretty well. Certainly he referenced Stumbling On Happiness yesterday as well.

  8. Nice little con I thought, despite the hotness and dryness of that lecture theatre.

    I’m pretty sure that if Cory Doctorow had suggested we march on Downing Street that quite a large number of people would have followed him :-)

  9. There were plenty of sf novels about climate change *before* it started being an Oscar winning topic – maybe climate fatigue set in at some point. Although Farah’s impressive list suggests otherwise.

  10. I felt extremely frustrated by that panel which hit some very good points and in each case was immediately derailed every time that happened by someone else.. On global warming, surely it’s obvious that something which is happening NOW is the stuff of media coverage more than hard core sf? Most of us are bored with hearing about it already:) and as I said to my neighbour, if I wanted to know more about global warming right now I’d be far keener on reading New scientist or the Economist than an sf novel about it. Also, yes, writing genre fiction is largely, problem, resolve problem. Since we don’t know how the only possible novels are about talking/politicking about it, cue KSR and zzzz. Compare the glory days of sf – global warming ain’t obviously curable by salt water, reversing the polarity, or a crowd of peasants with pitchforks. This makes for lousy hard science fiction. Add in the fact that about 99% of sf readers seem to be middle class geeks who have no intention of breeding and thus have no incentive to care about future generations and you produce a bit of a marketing no no as well..

    And yes, par contraire, YA sf has always been fond of a good stupid-adults-went-and-fucked-up-the-world plot line. (Look at the multitude of dead-earth-post-holocaust tales of my own young adulthood – everything from Louise Lawrence’s Andra to The Chrysalids to the gloriously miserable Z for Zacharia. Kids love this stuff – why do you think so many young sf readers are proto-goths > :) Global warming is just the latest shtick they can blame their parents for.

  11. Aargh, sorry Alex — fixed now.

    Jonathan — so you were there! We were looking for you but, er, weren’t confident about what you looked like. More coordination needed at Orbital, methinks.

    Andrew — so the question I was throwing around a bit earlier was, what’s the first global warming sf novel? I’m not quite sure whether to count The Kraken Wakes. The Drowned World?

  12. I was indeed there. I was with the shortish red and woolly-haired girl (who completely freaked when another short and woolly-haired girl walked in as the two of them could have been twins).

    I think I spotted a Raven but yeah… more coordination needed :-)

  13. Well, you should have said something, J.

    It was a nice day out, though – I don’t get to geek out with the people enough. A very pleasant preliminary for next month’s main event, wot?

  14. If you want adult orientated climate change novels, I suggest looking for novels published around 1988-1992 or so. That’s when David Brin’s Earth was published which I tend to think of as the quintessential climate change/global warming novel. It was also the last time that the environment was high on the political agenda and in the public consciousness, what with the ozone layer crisis and acid rain a few years before.

  15. Whoops, hit the submit button too quickly.

    We’re now sort of living in the future described by Brin back then; climate change is no longer an interesting future development, it’s going on right now.

  16. Swindells, Robert. Brother in the Land. London: OUP, 1984.

    Wasn’t this about a nuclear war? I’ve not read Z For Zakariah but I thought the same was true of that. This is a rather different issue to climate change.

  17. Jonathan: Ah, I think I did see you at one point, then. Oh well. At least at Orbital we’ll have name badges …

    Martin W: Yes, the one I already had in my mind from that period was Turner’s The Sea and Summer. I’m not sure I’m convinced by the “going on right now” argument that you and Lilian make, though; the same is true of the War on Terror, and that’s given us The Execution Channel, HARM and Little Brother, to name just the first three from the last twelve months that come to mind. I also think that in the long term, of the two phenomena climate change is the one that’s going to have the greater effect on human history — its full impact is still to come.

  18. I found the panel frustrating but interesting all the same. I think it would have helped a lot if the panelists had been on the same page before the panel, the moderator had been a bit stronger in pulling out the interesting points and sticking with them, and also if everyone could learn to put their hand up and in some cases use 50 words instead of 500. Still, it was interesting and I thought Doctorow was a good speaker.

    Hooray for Lindt and for all the knowledgeable fans who stayed in the bar instead of doing the quiz. I look forward to reading Little Brother once the team copy works its way round to me.

  19. Martin Wisse wrote:

    “…I suggest looking for novels published around 1988-1992 or so.”

    A few more from that period that may apply could be:

    Heavy Weather, by Bruce Sterling

    Mother of Storms, by John Barnes

    Hot Sky at Midnight, by Robert Silverberg

    and maybe:

    Greenhouse Summer(?), by Norman Spinrad

    The only one of which I’ve read is the Barnes, which is ok but features some fairly unpleasant scenes.

  20. There are two strands of climate change novel: those where it is the focus and those where it is the background, a precipitant factor in the scenario played out in the novel. Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army fits the latter category.
    Kim Stanley robinson or George Turner the former.

    The earliest Climate Change story I recall is Arthur Clarke’s haunting short story ‘The Ancient Enemy’ which i read aged about 11 and have never forgotten.

  21. Kev: I’d say at least half the novels I read for the Clarke last year contained elements of indirect response to the war on terror, and probably half a dozen more were direct and specific responses. Much higher than the numbers for climate change in either case.

  22. Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, which I’m reading at the moment to complete my reading for the BSFA Awards, is a very direct response to the War on Terror.

  23. Niall: That’s interesting because though i’ve read several such stories/novels I haven’t hard it discussed as a recurrent theme. In fact the only commentary that leaps to mind is about Battlestar Galactica’s portrayal of terrorists.

  24. I’d say that popular culture as a whole is responding to the issue, from 24 and Battlestar Galactica to the barrage of Iraq- and War-on-terror-themed movies in theaters this year to, yes, science fiction novels.

  25. Abigail: Yes it plays a part in ER and The Wire and so on, but am I just missing the bloggers writing about it? Not about the war itself, but about the responses of culture to the war?

  26. I think in our set you’d be most likely to see discussions of BSG, but at least one movie blog I read has more than once discussed the film aspect.

  27. Another big recent voice in ‘scifi taking climate change seriously’ is Peter Watts, especially in his RIfters Trilogy. Also one of the most overwhelmingly pessimistic approaches that doesn’t feature total extinction of humanity.

    Still a minor subset, though. I bet the eventual scifi representation/reaction towards recent economic meltdown will exceed the representation of environmental impact manifold over the coming decade.

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