Saturday, 11 September 2010

Aussiecon 4 in review

So. I finally have time to write something about Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, held in my home city of Melbourne, 2 - 6 September. Since all the days have now blurred together, I'll just go through, what were for me, some of the most interesting aspects of the convention.


The academic track, convened by Andrew Milner and Helen Merrick, brought a diverse range of papers on many interesting topics. I heard some fascinating papers on: myth and history in Neil Gaiman's Sandman; the progeny of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; Doctor Who and the 'coolification' of nerds; Doctor Who and fairy tale; and speculative science in the writings of Johannes Kepler.

Evie taking questions after her paper
Evie, my wife, delivered a fantastic paper entitled "Science Fiction: The Language of Bioethics Philosophy," in which she examined the (mis)use of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Andrew Niccol's Gattaca in bioethical debates on cloning, genetic engineering and genetic discrimination. People really enjoyed it and it sparked some good conversations afterwards. Evie has her own blog, too.

On the last day of the con I presented my paper on generation starships in science fiction, which was quite well received. Question time was far less terrifying that I had anticipated and overall it was a very positive experience.

Me presenting my paper


There were some fascinating panels during the convention. I attended "Creating believable space travel" and "Hand-waving, rule-breaking and other dirty tricks of hard sf," both of which included panels of hard sf authors and scientists, including Gregory Benford. There was a great panel on copyright in the 21st century, which had Cory Doctorow as a panelist. A panel titled "Capes and skirts: the plight of female superheroes" was very heated, with two of the panelists discussing the objectification and mistreatment of women in comics, while the other (male) panelist became (unnecessarily) very defensive — much arguing ensued! There was, however, a very good panel on the history of women in Australian sf, which included panelists Lucy Sussex and Helen Merrick. There were also some great academic panels covering the environment and climate change, race in sf and feminism.

From left: Tom Moylan (m), Jonathan Cowie, John Clute, Glenda Larkin, Kim Stanley Robinson

I particularly enjoyed a couple of the panels that John Clute was on. One was "How to Review," which was both insightful and fun, since Clute's approach to reviewing was the opposite to the approaches taken by the other two panellists, John Berlyne and Dirk Flinthart. For instance, whereas Berlyne said that he was writing to tell readers whether or not to buy and read a particular book (without giving away any 'spoilers'), Clute adopted a more literary approach by reviewing books in more critical terms, examining how they work (and giving away 'spoilers' freely). Personally, I much prefer Clute's reviews, but I understand the need for both. Another interesting panel was on "slipstream" fiction and sf/f genre conventions. Again, Clute was at odds with the other panelist, G. David Nordley, but Clute clearly had a better understanding of genre and how it works (I have no idea why Nordley was selected for the panel). Clute said that genre is pure until you actually look at texts, since no text conforms perfectly to a single genre. Quite true. He also said that most near future sf could now be considered 'slipstream', since so much now plays with genre tropes and distinctions, traversing and transcending traditional genre boundaries.

From left: John Clute, Ian Nichols (m), G. David Nordley


The Hugo Awards Ceremony on Sunday evening was brilliant. Garth Nix did a fantastic (and hilarious) job as Master of Ceremonies and Kim Stanley Robinson did very well announcing that there had been a tie for best novel (China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi both won). I was very glad that our very own Shaun Tan won the Hugo for best professional artist, that Moon won best long form (film) and, most of all, that StarShipSofa won best fanzine. This was the first time a podcast had won a Hugo award, and you must head over to the StarShipSofa website to see Tony C. Smith's reaction during the live video podcast of the Hugo award results (fast forward to 40:00 to see him react to winning the award). I was, however, disappointed that Dollhouse's "Epitaph One" didn't win best short form (TV), since I strongly believe it was much better written than any of the Doctor Who specials nominated. (In fact, Dollhouse got the most primary votes out of the five nominees, but after the preferences were counted — with everyone who voted for a Doctor Who episode preferencing another Doctor Who episode — the three Doctor Who specials claimed the first three places and Dollhouse came fourth. Grr. That doesn't seem fair!)


On our way to one of the panels my wife and I got lost and ended up attending an impromptu game show! Paul Cornell hosted an absolutely hilarious game of "Just a Minute," a BBC radio comedy game show, featuring a great panel which included Patrick Nielsen Hayden, China Miéville and John Scalzi. I stuck around until it finished, even though it meant missing a couple of the panels I had intended on going to, because it was just so much fun!

The "Just a Minute" group

Kim Stanley Robinson's guest of honour speech was brilliant. Originally planned as an interview of Robinson by Sean Williams (who could not make it), it ended up being Dr. Kim Robinson interviewing sf author Stan Robinson, and it was great! There was also an on-stage conversation between Robinson and Robert Silverberg, where they discussed archaeological hoaxes, the New Wave of sf, and whether or not it is advisable to write in the nude. A very funny conversation indeed!

Robert Silverberg and Kim Stanley Robinson

There were relatively few costumes or TV/film-centric events, but there were a bunch of people wearing Star Wars outfits. I couldn't resist getting my photo taken with this group of stormtroopers! I believe there was, at some point during the con, a Star Wars event with choreographed lightsaber battles — I'm sorry I missed it!

Me with three stormtroopers!

Another highlight was the screening of Shaun Tan's new short film The Lost Thing, due for release in November and based on the picture book of the same title. Introduced by Tan, who discussed it's making-of, The Lost Thing was absolutely beautiful and amazingly done.


I picked up some great books from the dealer's room and I was able to get many inscribed. Among them:
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo's Dream (paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • John Clute, Canary Fever: Reviews (first edition, paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • China Miéville, The City & The City (paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm (signed)
  • Shaun Tan, The Bird King and Other Sketches (first edition hardcover, launched at the con) (signed & inscribed)
  • Lucy Sussex, A Tour Guide in Utopia (signed & inscribed)
  • Gregory Benford, Timescape (paperback) (signed)

I also picked up some other cool things, like an issue of Postscripts with the as yet uncollected Gene Wolfe short story "Comber" (2005), some issues of The New York Review of Science Fiction with Wolfe-related articles and reviews, and some pulp magazines, including Aurealis #2, the cover of which is the first piece of artwork that Shaun Tan sold.


I've come away from Aussiecon 4 with not only a nice stack of beautiful books and another conference paper to add to my curriculum vitae, but with quite a reading list. Towards the top of this list is now Robinson's Galileo's Dream, Miéville's The City & The City and Benford's Timescape — I've only read short stories and non-fiction articles by these authors, but after having met them I really want to read these books. I'm currently reading selected reviews from Clute's Canary Fever and I am constantly finding myself jealous of his amazing vocabulary and lyrical writing style. Attending the con also introduced me to authors who I now, having met them in person, have absolutely no desire to read — as tempting as it is, I won't name them.

The convention also introduced me to the sf/f fan scene for the first time — previously I had attended academic conferences relating to sf/f, but never a con. Now I'm tempted to go to Perth in Western Australia next year for Swancon Thirty Six / Natcon Fifty and if the 2014 WorldCon does end up being held in London (and I hope it does!) then that would provide a wonderful excuse for my wife and I to visit the UK!

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