WorldCon75 – All bound for Helsinki

 

My first World SF Convention (WorldCon) was LonCon3, and my second was the one in Helsinki this August. Some of those involved with pre-con planning were the same for both WorldCons, and during the build-up to Helsinki hosting WorldCon 75 I had learned enough about Finnish conventions to know they had organised relatively big events before. And Helsinki was a draw for me; I’d never been to Scandinavia before and so leapt at the chance.

Twitter followers will know that I did Nine Worlds London Geekfest the weekend before, which is what I did for LonCon3 as well. That meant needing to fly to Helsinki from London, but because one of the Helsinki pre-con volunteers had said that the ferries between Helsinki and Sweden and Germany are a great way to travel I investigated that for the return trip. So, yes, I signed up for WorldCon 75 to get a bit of a holiday as well.

Anyway, I arrived in Helsinki on Tuesday afternoon after a good flight from Heathrow. I got to my hotel easily and after checking in headed out for a wander to get my bearings. It’s a lovely city, especially when bathed in sunshine. I found one of the harbours, and an outdoor market, and then a place for dinner – Nepalese. I love how different countries affect restaurants like this. It was pleasant, and nicely threw in rice and salad with the main meat dish I ordered.

I had an early night, recovering still from Nine Worlds and an early morning for the flight.

The venue for WorldCon was, so the advance information said, an easy train ride from central Helsinki. That was indeed true, but as Wednesday dawned with blue skies I decided to check it out on my phone’s map and saw it would be less than an hour to walk it. As it ended up, the walk goes through two parks and then alongside the railway. Straightforward, and I ended up walking in every day. I walked back twice, the other times going by train.

On arrival, I saw quite a few Nine Worlders and we joked about our wisdom in doing two conventions back-to-back. I also met a lovely woman Doctor Who fan I know from Twitter. Check-in to the convention was efficient, and I ended up spending time familiarising myself with the venue and saying hello to lots more friends. I went to the large room for the opening ceremony and started to hear about the over-crowding – not everyone was able to get in. Not so great for people with access needs, but as I understood it the convention responded very quickly. The opening was quite good, and I appreciated the introduction to Finnish culture. Those long, cold winter nights… and then the long summer days. I was born and bred in Sydney, Australia, where there isn’t really that much difference. I’ve adjusted to living in London where there is a difference, but it’s not as extreme.

I stayed for Tea and Jeopardy – about the only thing I really, really wanted to see. Emma and Peter Newman are so talented, and George RR Martin a most excellent foil for the live version of their podcast. I was so delighted when Emma and Peter won their Hugo for Tea and Jeopardy. Well-deserved, and while I didn’t get to see much of the Hugo ceremony I did see their win. Also, I really enjoyed what I did see of the Hugo ceremony and related gala. I am delighted that Emma and Peter are going to release a video of their show as soon as they are able to. A few words for the spoiler-shy: there is only one direct Game of Thrones reference, and there are no spoilers in it.

The things I love about SF conventions are the chance to meet people and share views about things, learn from others about science, history (not just English-speaking or western), mythologies, pedagogy, linguistics, and whatever else takes people’s fancy. The vast array of people’s interests and experiences are mind-blowing. Honestly, the thing that I find most exciting about SF/F/H at the moment is its breadth and depth. I already have a lot of books on my to-be-read pile, and I have now added to that pile – both physical books, and electronic. And there are a few that I hope will be translated into English at some point. I think I saw all those who I knew were going to be there, plus a few. I had a few chats with people I met just at the convention, and others I had met briefly at other conventions. All fascinating. All lovely. Plus, of course, I spent quite a bit of time with old friends who I only really ever see at conventions.

Panels are the big thing at these conventions. Loads of people go to them to learn stuff – whether it be facts about all the subjects that you could possibly want (it’s really not just about space and rockets, even though space itself is endlessly amazing and surprising and the rockets humanity has built have taken us to reaches of space that were SF when I started reading Asimov as a teenager), or hearing favourite (or new) authors talk about their creative processes.

The panels at WorldCon were listed as going for an hour, but in order for people to move about they really only went for 45 minutes, or 30 minutes if the panel opened up to the audience for questions or comments. The number of people on panels varied quite considerably over the convention, and the smaller ones were able to better get into the topics while the larger ones barely touched on them. As ever with these things, the skills of the moderator to keep on topic and deal with any issues that might arise. Their job is to keep the conversation flowing, and then to wrangle questions from the audience. I’ve seen a few people take to social media pointing these things out, and if ever you do end up moderating a convention panel it really is a good idea to take note of this advice. As an audience member of poorly moderated panels, it is a relief to see a good moderator at work. As a panellist who has worked with both poor and good moderators, it really does matter when you have a good moderator to work with. I have moderated a few panels now, and I’m not going to claim perfection, but I have learned what works and what doesn’t.

Anyway, I didn’t end up seeing too many panels. I heard about some excellent ones, which will no doubt be highlighted in other reviews and reminiscences. The one that I did see that stood out was the one supposed to be on pre-Harry Potter magical schools. While I quite enjoyed it and found some of the panellists interesting – and I would have like to hear more about Italian versions, rather than just the Anglophone ones – it was a victim of too many panellists for 45 minutes, and the moderator was less than optimally effective, especially when a latecomer arrived on the panel and took over.

The Resistance panel was also good, but very heavily US-centric, saved by Kameron Hurley talking about her experiences in South Africa and drawing on her academic work in the field.

I enjoyed the one on Cyberpunk with Pat Cadigan (but, honestly, I could listen to her all day), and I found Quifan Chen’s contributions to be fascinating about real-life now cyberpunk cities in his native China. I’m reading Pat’s Synners, at long last, and greatly enjoying it.

I had a lovely set of panels that stretched one a day over four days, all but one at 3pm. Two of them were on military SF, and I moderated both. Jean Johnson was on both, too, which was good – she’s entertaining and interesting and I have made a note to read some of her work… once I get my reading pile down a bit. The first panel we were on was on women writing military SF and joining Jean was Walter Jon Williams. While Walter was lovely, and a guest of the convention, it seemed odd having him on a panel about women writers. I didn’t want to pitch “men against women”, or to ignore trans and non-binary people, and I also believe that people want to see their favourite authors talk about their craft at these things. Anyway, they were both brilliant and we discussed quite a few women who write military SF. A Japanese woman approached me afterwards and gave me a copy of the first instalment of the manga Wombs by Shirai Yumiko. It would be fab if her work could be connected up to the project about space marine midwives, if it isn’t already.

The second military SF panel I moderated had Jean again, two US veterans (Jack Campbell and Jonathan Brazee), and an Irish writer (Edmond Barrett). It was about characters in the sub-field, and this one was easy to moderate. All four were interesting, none were retiring and none dominated. We talked about individuals and groups, and the drawing on what’s authentic, and ditching what might be accurate but slows stories down because you would just have to explain it too much. We also talked about characters who end up becoming main characters even though they were only ever supposed to remain background. Jack very kindly gave me a copy of his book, The Dragons of Dorcastle, which I am very much looking forward to reading.

The last panel I moderated was called On the Side of the Law and featured writers Max Gladstone, T.G. Shepherd (also an Emergency Services Dispatcher from Canada), and public prosecutor Britt-Louise Viklund from Sweden. The panel was quite late on the last day, but ended up being a rather energetic and interesting one – despite too many people wandering in throughout from a door up the front. We discussed the tensions between making characters and situations recognisable in real life also drive narratives in fiction. We explored the use of easy tropes that we see day-to-day in TV and film and other books – many from the USA – and how they emerge as ‘truth’ in fantasy and SF. The obvious example was the reading of ‘Miranda rights’ in non-US set fiction.

I was a speaker on a related panel on Friday, moderated by the lovely Melissa F. Olson. My co-panellist was Icelandic author Emil Hjörvar Petersen who has written a series described as Nordic noir (a favourite genre of mine) meets fantasy. We explored the works of Paul Cornell (his Shadow Police series) and Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Peter Grant series. We had a good little romp through their books and others that are similar.

Five days with a packed series of different strands means that It’s impossible to go to everything. I’ve enjoyed both WorldCons I’ve been to immensely, and mostly it’s the meeting people who you can just chat with, listen to and learn amazing new things from, and just enjoy being with others who don’t find thinking about extreme possibilities as remotely odd. Kiitos again to our Finnish hosts for their hard work in bringing this WorldCon to us.

Finally, I am really pleased that Dublin won their bid and I am fully signed up for it in 2019.

NineWorlds London Geekfest, 4 – 6 August 2017

This was my fifth 9Worlds London Geekfest, and it is a convention firmly in my calendar. It was in its second year at the Hammersmith Novotel, and once again the hotel staff were pretty good. Check in was certainly a much better experience for me this year. I do love the fact that the hotel fielded a team in the Shark game.

This year I had actually submitted two panel ideas, and I was delighted that both were accepted. The convention programme planners assigned me to two other panels: both squee (a word going in the Oxford English Dictionary). One on queer Dax (Star Trek), and one on the transgressive nature (alleged) of Miss Phryne Fisher. That last one proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that 9Worlds is not all about the SF/F/H.

This year is also the second year that I have done the 9Worlds one weekend, then the World SF Convention (WorldCon) the next. This time the second convention is in another country – Finland. More on that later. So, I intended on pacing myself, including in the hotel department. That meant I arrived on Friday morning rather than Thursday. Sad to miss the Cheese and Cheese – from all the reports I saw, people enjoyed it immensely.

Anyway, on arrival I met with several friends, but I sought out a space to get my head into panel space. Especially since I’d been told that based on the pre-con selections on the Grenadine app the first panel I was going on was among the most popular. In Cremant, the huge room, no less. That panel was one I had put forward and proposed to explore the police in the supernatural novel series of Ben Aaronovitch (PC Peter Grant) and Paul Cornell (Shadow Police) from the points of view of three women who work in policing. First thing a disclaimer – none of us were talking from the points of view of our agencies, but from our generic experiences. I’m really pleased that the audience enjoyed it – and the questions were thought-provoking and intelligent. Far from easy, but respectful, particularly about our views on inclusion and diversity in the modern UK police forces. I said it at the panel, I love the fact that both Aaronovitch and Cornell ensured their books are fairly representative of London, which the police do try to bring – following Sir Robert Peel’s ethos the police being of the people to police the people. The police lead in some areas, and do lag behind in others. We spoke about many other things, but that’s an important point for me. To bring home the point, quite a few colleagues of mine took part in Brighton’s LGBT+ Pride march on the Saturday of the convention, led by our Director General flying the rainbow flag that also has our emblem.

I’m a participant at a similar panel at WorldCon, and I’m fascinated to see how it will be different.

The rest of my Friday and all of Saturday I could attend what panels I wanted to, catch up with friends, and spend a bit of time in my hotel room to decompress. Plus admire the imagination of cosplayers – highlights were the 13th Doctor, the TARDIS full of bras, and the lemmings for their choreography. Loads of others, but they stand out.

I attended Marina Berlin’s talk on women writing about war, which skated over a complex topic. As she said, there is a long history of women writing war in SF/F, but she limited herself to three authors writing war in the 21st century – Naomi Novik, Karin Lowacher, and Kameron Hurley. I’ve not read Novik or Lowacher, but devoured Hurley’s Belle Dame Apocrypha. Berlin compared them with tropes identified in men writing war in SF/F, which irked even though I could see where she was coming from. Still, it gave me some pointers for the WorldCon panel I’m moderating on women writing Military SF at WorldCon.

On Saturday I attended the panel on race in SF/F with a wonderfully diverse panel in terms of gender and ethnic backgrounds. The panel’s strength lay in discussing the rich variety of experience through which they both write and read/consume. Pretty much all of them had grown up in one culture, some as part of a diaspora, others not, then all moved elsewhere. I agree with them that SF/F’s gift is the ability to grab tropes and tear them apart, and the issue of SF/F being metaphorical. They discussed the damage caused by people being scared of accusations of cultural appropriation – but that there is of course a responsibility to check and avoid stereotyping and making the alien other exotic. White-washing is damaging, and a panellist noted that other cultures (Han Chinese was singled out) do the same and it doesn’t make it any less damaging. They also discussed complex issues to do with translating from one (mostly English, but not exclusively) flooding out other voices. All in all, a thought-provoking panel.

I attended John J Johnston’s talk about archaeology in Doctor Who, which was great fun.

Sunday was my day of panels. I was on three, and I am so glad for the generous gap between them. My panels also bounced from squee to serious to squee.

The queer Dax panel was a lot of fun, but made some really good points. Neth is a great moderator who took pains to ensure that everyone on the panel had a different queer perspective. I had been a bit nervous that I wouldn’t be able to contribute much and I had to confess that I’m not a Trek fan. I do love the love of the Trek fans, though, especially those on this panel. But, my fears were unfounded, and once my brain busted through the laying Stargate memories over DS9 ones, all was good.

I had also been a bit nervous about the Robots, AI, and the Labour Market panel I had put forward, was moderating, and was in the second biggest room. Back in February 2017 I listened to a BBC World Service programme about robots and AI, and the fear of them taking over work as we know it. It was an excellent panel (available here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04rq0px?ocid=socialflow_twitter)  that I thought ripe for discussion at 9Worlds. Turned out I was correct with an incredibly knowledgeable panel from both a diverse set of writing and other work experience. To open up to the audience meant we could only really talk for about 45 minutes, and we could have spoken for a lot longer. I fear we only scratched the surface of some difficult questions, but I am pleased that the point of ‘AI’ coding being value neutral was totally trashed. It’s actually a really dangerous idea thinking that coding is value neutral. We also brought in a fair bit of real world stuff, and the role that SF can play – again the let’s explore and bust open the tropes point. I think the panel also strongly made the point that definitions matter – most of the robots and AIs cited as doing certain things are neither robots or AI. The audience again didn’t disappoint with some excellent questions, and also some good Twitter conversations.

Final panel for me of the convention and a fabulous one about just how transgressive the Honourable Phryne Fisher is. Wonderfully, one of the panellists cosplayed as Dr Mack and there are some fab pics out there of her with some Miss Fisher cosplayers. While the show does have its problems, the love we all have for it shone through (I adore the fact that Pat Cadigan is now going to give it a go on the strength of our enthusiasm!!). Personally, I am grateful for the audience member who knows far more about Melbourne’s socio-economic history than I do who chose to share that knowledge fully in the spirit of 9Worlds.

Then, all too fast, the inevitable end of another wonderful 9Worlds. My only regret – not being able to go to all the panels I wanted to, and not catching up with all the people I wanted to. Some of them I hope to see in Helsinki, but otherwise, next time.

I tweeted at some point that if there was a motto for 9Worlds it would be to: keep on learning!

Finally…

I could just link to a bunch of articles written by friends and acquaintances about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who because pretty much all of them have written what I’ve been thinking since the reveal on Sunday afternoon.

I hadn’t planned to watch it. Watching tennis bores me (sorry), but not as much as the post match guff. I also refused to allow myself to think that I would be that interested. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked every single actor and performer who has played Doctor Who over the nearly 55 years the series has been running. Genuinely, whenever people ask me who my favourite Doctor is I say all of them because it’s true. I learned a long time ago when I was researching and writing my Masters thesis on the show and its fans that my appreciation of each actor and era depends mostly on my mood at the time.

My interest in the show has ebbed and flowed, too, and not necessarily because of the quality of the stories. I loved the 2017 series, even though my interest had been ebbing a bit. As I have said often at convention panels when I’m talking about the show and my relationship with it, I am far less of a fan of the post 2005 series than I was from the years 1979 (or so) to 1984, and then 1987 to 1989. My fandom then was intense, by the way – publishing fanzines, rocking up to day events in costume, winning trivia quizzes, and writing to the writers and actors. One reason why my viewing has changed is because I know too many people working on the show – either directly, or on the industry around it. I’ve kept away from secrets – that’s never really appealed anyway – but it’s different.

I still love to show. Have missed very few episodes. Rewatch a fair number. Enjoy writing about it still, and writing in it (if you consider the widest possible definition of what the family of Doctor Who is… like I do).

So, it was with low expectations that I kept an eye on the Wimbledon men’s singles final and on Twitter. I had heard no serious rumours, but japed along with mates, and started to feel a little bit nervous. The people I know who normally know these things (or fairly close to guess correctly) didn’t know.

And then finally the tennis stopped, and the post match guff, and the 60 second clip of a person in a coat and hoodie stepping through a lush green forest… I blinked at the feet shot… then the hand with the key… thought no. A tease… and then the pan around as she pulled down her hood and that little quirky smile as she sees the TARDIS…

I feel little chills still as I re-watch it. As I think about it. I smile.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor in those few seconds.

My friends and others have written eloquently and passionately about the hatred of some. I’m not going to add to it. Nick Barlow very cleverly lances the fan sense of ownership and outrage when their thing does something they think it shouldn’t (On the new Doctor, fandom’s reaction and how it all reaches back to a Who story from 1980), and Una McCormack published two excellent pieces about the misogyny of some fans, one written after hearing some people being angry on the radio and the other earlier the same day channelling Ursula LeGuin. All three are brilliant. As is this by Chris Mead, and this excellent piece by Sarah Gailey is sheer perfection.

My piece in the book Queers Dig Time Lords traces how my coming out as gay was inextricably intwined with my love of Doctor Who and its fans. No, it’s not as simple as me having crushes on the companions (though that didn’t not happen in some cases). The theoretical basis of my Masters thesis was queer theory – about otherness. About how those who are ‘othered’ seek out those who are like them… and I found a very few others like me in the amazing world of Doctor Who fans I grew up in as a teenager and young adult. Deep breath here, but I am not exaggerating when I say they saved my life.

Now, as I reach my half century, the wonderful people I have met through this barmy show of many guises (not just the actor who plays the lead role, but the show itself – why it’s possible for so many to love, hate, be indifferent to each offering) are opening up what gender means. I have never felt comfortable being a girl, or even a woman; no. More uncomfortable about the Western cultural pressures of femininity. It’s still not a wholly comfortable fit for me, but I am trying out the label ‘non-binary’, and then trying to grapple what that means in the sense of my homosexuality.

Along comes Missy. Brilliant in her own right, but clearly also an experimental push from Steven Moffat and the rest of the Doctor Who crew.

The production crews over the years have toyed about casting a woman to play the Doctor. Most people think it was a tease – and maybe at times it was – but I think it was just that TV just couldn’t. Unless as a joke (as in the Curse of Fatal Death). Without really thinking about it (I have never played the game of casting anyone in the role, but just having faith in the decisions made and never actually being disappointed) I guess I must have thought that an older woman would play the part as an spinstery geek. Think Amelia Rumford…

For all of how Doctor Who has pushed boundaries, it is also a remarkably small c conservative show. Radical as well as reactionary. The old series as well as the new, and also the books and comics in between and running parallel. Television production has changed over the last fifty years, and Doctor Who has both led the charge with new techniques and resisted others. None of this in an easy progression. It’s always been a few steps forward, a few back or sideways, and a reset here and there. It’s made mistakes, and been absolutely brilliant – in the eyes of different beholders those mistakes and moments of genius have occurred at the same time.

I am gay, a woman interested sexually in women, but more comfortable with the idea of gender being fluid and me being more male than female. I am aromantic (and so, so pleased to know that term now!). I’ve had some fabulous relationships, and one bad one, and now am happily single.

… and one of the things that struck me on Sunday, which surprised me,  was just how cute that little quirky smile is on the Doctor’s face as she sees the TARDIS and the key materialises in her hand.

So, it’s not just about representation and feminism – both powerfully positive things, by the way – but for the first time ever in the 50 years I’ve been watching this show and reading the books I think I have fallen a little bit in love with the Doctor. Like the guys and gals who fell in love with Davison, Tennant, McGann, Smith, Capaldi, McCoy, the Bakers, Troughton… actually, all of them.

It’s a feeling I never thought I would ever feel, and it’s a feeling I’m finding I like.

Review: Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion (Angry Robot Books)

I had been looking forward to this book for some time, and finally got to it on my increasingly large to-be-read pile. The audience of a panel I was on at LonCon 3 (the 2014 World SF Convention) told me about Kameron Hurley’s God’s War trilogy, which I sought out and read with great interest. If you’ve not read them, and are interested in SF/fantasy/(body)horror that makes you think about more than what it throws in your face, then I strongly recommend them. They are also terrific adventures with a cast of astonishing characters.

The Stars Are Legion is a one-off (though the demand for other stories set in this universe is strong, and I understand if you support Hurley’s Patreon/sign up to her newsletter you may well get what is demanded). It is a totally different conceptual framework from the God’s War trilogy – the Legion is a fleet (?) of generation starships that have become organic (or so is hinted at the end), and are sickening and dying. Wars rage within and between the various peoples who inhabit the various levels of each. These generation starships are huge – world-size huge – and have existed for a long time. Hurley excels at conveying just how complex these two facts make world-building (a theme that captivated me in her God’s War books – these are not mono-cultures, but richly diverse, and internally logical).

The novel is told from the first person present tense views of two main protagonists – Zan and Jayd. They are lovers who concoct a terrible plot to save the Legion, but it’s far more complicated than that. I won’t go into how – spoilers! – but the two strands of plotting are neatly woven together so that the conclusions aren’t predictable, but are once you reach the end inevitable. The one criticism I have of the book is the use of present tense; there is a clever non-linear time component to the book (cycles within cycles) that the use of present tense jarred against. Emma Newman’s Planetfall needed first person present tense to carry off the denouement, but the Stars are Legion didn’t. A minor point, though, all things considered.

Fascinatingly, this book has no men in it. No males of any kind, in fact, because the world-building has rendered what males bring to reproductive biology redundant. What Hurley succeeds at in this book is making that absence not matter. In the lives of the characters, males have never existed.

The book is viscerally biological, and like Hurley’s God’s War trilogy not for readers who don’t like body-horror. It doesn’t revel in it, though. It’s not gore for gore’s sake. One of Hurley’s real skills as a novelist is to simultaneously make what is normal for one group of people monstrous for others without judgement. Everything in the Stars are Legion is the consequence of something else.

So, all up – this book won’t appeal to all (like any book ever does!), but I wasn’t remotely disappointed by it.

(Also posted to my Goodreads account, 7 May 2017.)

The X-Files… extreme paranoia

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J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC © SJG 2013

I had just re-watched all of this rather odd little but wildly successful US TV series before they announced its brief revival last year. My thoughts on that I have copied below, taken from my previous blog-site. Most of my observations from then still stand, but some have shifted because of how the world has changed, politically. Plus, of course, there now exists six additional episodes with our old friends and tropes.

Overall, I am surprised by how fresh and lively the first few seasons still are. What caught the imagination of the world back in the 1990s still catches. It’s not until principal filming moved from Canada to California that the shine starts to dull. The Doggett and Reyes year suffers from the show drowning in its own heavy mythology. A shame, because those two characters, and Scully, are great and could have done so much. C’est la vie.

I like the second movie more each time I watch it. There’s an odd moment in it when Scully and Mulder are in the Hoover Building, flanking a portrait of then President George W. Bush. The X-Files theme tune echoes, and they give each other a weird little look. Then knowing, now…

I watched the first two episodes of the 2016 season close to its transmission. I enjoyed them, but work got in the way. I bought the DVD, and then decided to watch the whole series again. Glad I did. I do wonder how comprehensible five episodes of the six would be to the more casual viewer, even with the voice-overs and flash-backs.

The exception – ironically given the in-jokes – was Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. Great fun, silly, and caught the essence of the brilliant stand-alone stories of maximum quirk from the first few seasons. It’s also a good tale, imaginatively told, with some fascinating characters.

The first and last episodes of the run top and tail it all, and when watched during the first sixty days of the current presidency of the USA is bizarre. I mentioned in my blog below my thoughts on how the shift in real-world politics also affected the show. My thoughts have sharpened on this.

Most of the X-Files aired during the Bill Clinton administration. There were conspiracies and lies, just as there had been during other presidencies, which is what the show picked up on and ran with. People believed some of what was depicted in the show. I remember smart people at my work who bought into the ‘based on truth’ advertising campaign way back at the start. I talked this over with a friend recently, and they observed that the series caught that comforting type of conspiracy theory where ridiculous things are believed of the government because while presenting a punching-bag to hit at, it simultaneously reassured them that the government was competent.

The 2016 season was made and aired during the end of the Obama presidency; eight years of bonkers conspiracy theories, but not a lot of actual scandal. An interesting shift in the socio-political zeitgeist that the first and last episodes gleefully dive in to play. The role of the internet in airing huge and whacky conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ is poked at, as is the problem of how to work out what is true and what isn’t.

And now we are in a world where during the first days and weeks of a new administration the lines between rumour-mongers, partisan propagandists, and conspiracy theorists and official announcements by the Executive Branch are short. Congress – both main parties, by the way – is also playing these games, but the sound and vision of the White House communications is deafening and blinding those others through sheer volume and boldness. What was obviously planned in an amusing little TV SF show to push boundaries to extreme possibilities mere months ago now looks woefully timid.

I enjoyed my re-watch. I will always have a soft spot for the show, and I am glad they made the 2008 movie and the 2016 episodes. Only one episode truly stood out, though, which makes me ponder just how bankable nostalgia is on a sustainable basis. By the way, by bankable I don’t just mean money; I include the emotional and intellectual investment by viewers and fans.

I’ll end this with a small observation I spotted this time around: the X-Files traces the history of the mobile telephone. At first they are rare, car-bound (pretty much) bricks. The models our heroes use change each season, but most of the show’s run came before cameras became intrinsic to mobile phones. I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone has observed that the number of UFO sightings has decreased as the number of phones with cameras and internet connections increased, with a fairly obvious assumed causality between the two phenomena.

The X-Files, re-watched, re-assessed, & re-analysed

Posted originally on 5th January 2014.

When I was in Washington DC in September 2013 I was lucky enough to visit the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover building (pictured above). As a fan of a fair few fictional depictions of FBI agents (Clarice Starling, Dana Scully) it was a highlight of my visit.

On my return to London I decided to watch the TV series I like set in DC. I had the West Wing and the X-Files to choose from, and I plumped for the X-Files because someone had pointed out it was twenty years old.

Twenty years! Gosh. I remembered watching it when I still lived with my parents in their new house in North Sydney. Friends David and Kyla were about the only other folk I knew who watched those first few episodes on its first run on Aussie TV; they because of the links to Kolchack the Night Stalker me because it was like Project Bluebook and had the FBI in it. People picked up on it on its second run, if my memory serves me correctly, and then Australia went nuts about it. Seriously nuts. Gillian Anderson visited and got mobbed. It rated highly, and it was the first ‘genre show’ that got discussed by people not into sci-fi and all that at work. Well, so far as I was aware, at any rate. Though some work colleagues of mine had believed the line about the stories being based on truth and thought it was a series of dramatised documentaries. Oh, dear.

Anyway, I watched all the episodes and the two movies. I didn’t watch the Lone Gunmen series interspersed with the season of the X-Files that they should be. Not too much of a problem, that, although I did have to look up the plot synopses to make sense of one X-Files episode. I love the Lone Gunmen, by the way, just was one of a few underwhelmed by their short-lived series.

Things that struck me were just how good the first few seasons are. Then it seemed to get a bit lost in its own hype, and while I don’t think the quality dips there is a change and it becomes less enjoyable, somehow. Not bad, just missable. That’s roughly when the filming moves from Canada to California, so way before Doggett and Reyes get assigned. I think it’s because it loses a quirky sense of humour and takes itself and its own mythology way too seriously.

Given that it was mostly filmed in Canada those first few seasons get DC amazingly well. Obviously the production crew had access to interior shots of the Hoover Building, and external shots would have been easy. The geography made sense, and many of the first set of tales took place in the states close by to DC. I was also rather impressed that places that looked like the DC, Maryland or Virginia locales were used, too. I don’t think there are too many series that would bother if they didn’t need to.

And I loved all the little jokes about how much the X-Files unit costs the FBI in travel expenses.

I know there are a few reasons put forward by various, including Chris Carter and the production crew, about why the X-Files suddenly dived in popularity. I think it was partially that they ran out of stories after nine years, without having to recycle the same old. Also the bizarre paranoia thing about the US government and crazy conspiracies got a bit weird with real-life. Without ducking off into a history lesson, the fact is the USA is no different from any other country or political system in that in order to keep the status quo ‘safe’ there are steps that need to be taken that run counter to that system and its beliefs in its own status as ‘right’ or ‘most ideal’. Hoover pioneered many of those techniques with the early days of the FBI, and he and the Bureau weren’t alone. And, yes, of course they run the risk of being hooked up to a political ideology, and running rampant. There are well-documented cases of this, which makes for fertile ground to sow and reap great stories. In the early Bill Clinton years this all made sense. It wasn’t real, well not excessively so, so we could have some fun with the idea of a global conspiracy hiding aliens.

What fascinates me is just how George W. Bush’s presidency made it impossible to have fun with all this. Why? Because it became too believable. And I don’t think Barak Obama’s presidency is one where having a bit of fun with preposterous government conspiracies is viable for a TV series. Too many people believe the nonsensical – ‘birthers’, UN spoiling to attack the USA, ‘Obamacare’ having ‘death panels’ as a medical treatment strategy…

Yeah. The X-Files was a product of its time.

But, the X-Files was a lot more than just the conspiracy arc. The last time I watched the series (just before the second movie came out) I was really struck by how good many of the standalone episodes are. The oddball in particular. The ones where we never know just what it really was that caused the murders, or disappearances, or whatever it was our FBI Special Agents had to investigate. This re-watch confirmed that for me, and I still adore War of the Coprophages, Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – just to name a few.

I hadn’t noticed the recurring insect people arc until this time.

One of the things that makes the X-Files enjoyable to re-watch are the characters. Despite neither Duchnovy or Anderson being particularly lively, both bring their characters to life, and their characters are pretty cool. There is character development, particularly with Scully, and by the last few seasons she’s rather weary in her shouldering responsibility for Mulder’s mission in life. Her reaction to loving him is fascinating. Anderson grew, I think, as an actor during the nine years she worked on the series and performs the role an increasingly assured but subtle way. And, hurrah, the writers didn’t screw up her characterisation.

Mulder is the main character, though, and even when he’s off hiding in the last few seasons his mark is indelible.

During the last year or so I’ve been reading up on Jungian theory and Meyers-Briggs. Yeah, that stuff that certain management and HR gurus like to whitter on about. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff gets it wrong, which leaves it open to a lot of (justified) attack. However, those attacks were so obvious that Myers-Briggs warned against mis-using it… If only people would read original texts. Even read the stuff from those trained in it – some of whom are trained psychologists! (By the way, any critique that starts off with or includes that Myers and Briggs were ‘housewives’ betrays itself as lazy at best and also sexist.)

Anyway, my take on it all is this: it’s a theoretical model through which to try to explore / explain the different ways in which people understand the world, which manifests as personality. It’s based on models and ideas that have existed for millennia (yes, really). It’s being refined all the time as understanding grows, particularly in relation to physiology. But, it’s a difficult area. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I’ve never had formal training in it. I do know that it doesn’t pretend to be a series of robust experiments, and it is susceptible to confirmation bias… but, it’s a tool that I’ve found useful in terms of understanding why I react the way I do and why it’s different to other people’s reactions. I’ve also found a bunch of folk, amateurs like me, who like exploring this stuff. Key word being ‘exploring’, there, not ‘believing in’. And part of that exploring is playing with it.

So… just doing a quick Google and it seems that there are some folk out there who argue Mulder is an INFP or INTJ, and argue against anyone who ‘types’ Mulder as an INTP. Well I think Mulder is an INTP… and it’s not wishful thinking. It was a continuing series of ‘OMG, that! Wow. He is so INTP’ as I watched the whole series.

I’ve been ‘typed’ professionally by different people – first time in Australia, second and third times in the UK – over the last 20 odd years. I’ve consistently come out as INTP. To spell out the letters to those of you who are probably thinking ‘WTF?’ – I’m an introvert (meaning I need to re-charge in quiet), intuitive (meaning I use my imagination to take in the world rather than my five senses), a thinker (meaning I consider logic over consideration of people) and a perceiver (meaning I keep my options open). That’s my four letter combination out of sixteen possible permutations.

For many, that’s enough. For others there is a slightly more complicated but ultimately more rewarding approach to do with functions and how they appear in the use stack.

Okay, a little diversion. The idea is that these are all preferred ways of taking in and interpreting the world. They are not the be all and end all. The common analogy is handedness – most people are either right or left handed, but if their dominant side was incapacitated in some way can use their other side. Some people are genuinely ambidextrous. So, in the Myers-Briggs world this translates most easily for those who are extroverted / introverted – plenty of introverts can extrovert (and vice versa). If you’re interested, Susan Cain’s book is rather good, as is her TED talk. Easy to search for 🙂

Function theory operates a fairly simple formula which looks at what the sixteen letters represent, asks whether the Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling pairs are extroverted or introverted and what order they come in – there are four preferred and the remaining four are what becomes dominant when I’m stressed.

For me as an INTP my function stack are, in order: introverted thinking (Ti, meaning I think and analyse obsessively – cannot switch it off, feel better when my brain is working on complex problems); extroverted intuition (Ne, meaning bouncing around from possibility to possibility); introverted sensing (Si, meaning I have a pretty good encyclopaedic memory of things that have happened before); and extroverted feeling (Fe, meaning I care obsessively about what other people think). The below brief explanation summarises it beautifully:

Ti: *masterminding* So, lets find a concise explanation for how this works…
Ne: *extremely excited* IDEAS! FROM MARS! On x and y and z and what about sigma??
Si: *serious and knowledgeable* Well, previous experience tells us that….
Fe: *worried* I do hope nobody minds…
(It’s from some folks on Tumblr – © 2011-14 Red Striped Alibis)

The higher up the stack, so the theory goes, the more developed the process is. The lower down the less developed. They all work together, too, with their varying levels of development. And all that is affected by personal experience, growth, etc, which is why we are none of us clones. But, it is scary when you discover other people who think and feel in ways similar to you, and even scarier when they’ve had similar experiences growing up despite being in different countries – not all English speaking.

Okay, enough about me. What about Mulder?

If he’s INTP then he is Ti, Ne, Si and Fe.
If he’s INFP then he is Fi, Ne, Si and Te.
If he’s INTJ then he is Ni, Te, Fi and Se.

So, what does that mean?

If he’s INFP then he values and considers importance, beliefs and worth first; interprets situations and relationships and picks up meaning and interconnections to other contexts; then reviews and recalls past experiences and seeks detailed data; and then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts.

If he’s INTJ then he foresees implications, transformations and likely effects; then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts; then values and considers importance, beliefs and worth; and then experiences and acts in the immediate context.

Yeah, I don’t think he’s an INTJ at all. Most of the time he’s in trouble because he hasn’t foreseen the implications of what’s going on. His acting in the immediate context is usually because he’s a trained FBI agent. He’s clearly got Ne in his stack, and fairly high up, too (‘extreme possibilities’ is his thing, after all).

What about INFP? Hm. Maybe. But I’m not sure he puts other people first ahead of his quest for the truth.

Regardless of whether he’s INTP or INFP – two of the stack are the same for both, it’s the primary and last ones that are different – and their placings do have an effect – he’s consistently driven to find out the answer to the mysteries presented, and contrary to an idea that pops up when people summarise the characters from the X-Files, he doesn’t automatically plump for the paranormal. In fact, he spends some of the series actively rejecting the idea of the aliens running everything (against Scully and against the evidence, arguably).

I think it does boil down to whether he’s driven by the need to analyse or the need to consider people’s beliefs.

Rogue One: Adding to that Story from a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Away

My first blog post at this new location was all about Star Wars, written just after I had seen The Force Awakens. I won’t go over old ground too much because my views haven’t really changed since then. Suffice it to say, I was in the slightly younger edge of the target age for Star Wars IV: A New Hope when it first came out back in the 1970s, bang in the age bullseye for Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, and slightly over the target age range for Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. I was disappointed by the first trilogy, but loved Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

Having read some reviews and dipped into the new ‘established wisdom’ (or so it seems), I’ve been thinking about why I like the ones I like, and where I think the discordance is.

A New Hope remains a cracking good adventure that deftly introduces a bunch of characters you quickly begin to like. It helps that they’re tropes, to a large extent, but with elements of originality and played well to take the predicable edge off. Its place in the annals of successful blockbuster film-making is well-earned. Empire is the near-perfect sequel – characters and situations flow almost seamlessly from Hope. It doesn’t seem to be a re-hash, but actually the story beats are similar enough. Empire remains a firm favourite of mine, but truth be told I know it would struggle as a standalone. Jedi is immense fun, and while the adventure continues apace I have trouble with the character arcs. I think it’s where the flaws in how George Lucas approaches storytelling are first made obvious. I am referring to the jarring revelations about Luke and Leia’s relationship. I remain of the view that Lucas made that bit up as a tack-on.

Even though I was never part of Star Wars fandom, I did feel the gap between Jedi and Phantom Menace. In a way, it was similar to that experienced by Doctor Who fans of the original series that stopped regular TV broadcast in 1989 and didn’t return to TV until 2005. There were rumours, often quashed, and then when the rumours became real it never seemed quite real until cinemas were booked and tickets went on sale.

And, yes, I was one of those terribly disappointed by how Star Wars returned. I think that the main trouble was in the casting of Anakin (too young in the first, and the worst actor possible to play him as a troubled teenager and young adult). We should have seen a study in the descent from troubled good to pure evil that is yet redeemable by Luke’s innocent belief that his father cannot be all bad (or what does it mean for him?). Also, I don’t think the story beat was in sync with the middle trilogy. After all, why the need to have a whole series added in to tell the key story of the Clone Wars if it was all done so masterfully?

Having said that, though, I do still enjoy watching them.

I was wary of Force Awakens, but blown away by it. I rarely go to the cinema these days (lots of reasons why) so to go an see a film twice on its first release is a bit deal for me. I recognise that nostalgia plays a role in my love of it, but there is more to it than that. I’ve seen comment that it’s just a copy of A New Hope, but I don’t think it’s that simple either. I think people are confusing a particular plot structure that works because the characters and set-pieces flow (Jedi’s the same as Hope, only it didn’t work quite as well because the character arc rang a discordant note, in my opinion).

My ranking of the Star Wars films in order are: Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, Force Awakens, Jedi, Revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones, and then Phantom Menace. My favourite watching order is IV, V, (I), II, III, VI, VII.

Which brings me to Rogue One.

I am aware of a lot of nonsense surrounding it connected to the horrible political space the world is in currently. Some of it surfaced around the time Force Awakens was released and is entirely in the GamerGate and Sad/Rabid Puppies world as far as I’m concerned. I’m a Doctor Who fan and I have never been able to fathom the ‘fan as hater’ thing. Rabid hatred totally out of all proportion, and so often targeted against people who are just making entertainment, and in some small cases trying to make said entertainment reflect and appeal to a wider audience than just white, straight, cis men who speak English as their first and only language.

I watched some of the trailers, which made me smile as I realised the whole object of the film was to tell the tale of the many Bothans who died bringing the plans of the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance. Only it doesn’t, really, but that’s okay. It tells the story of Jyn Erso and a rag-tag bunch of interesting characters thrown together – mostly reluctantly – to steal the plans of the highly secret Death Star to a Rebel Alliance struggling to stay allied. It’s a great romp, with real heart in terms of the terrible effects of tyranny on mostly ordinary people.

I have a feeling it has made as many continuity errors as it fixed.

I admired the CGI that brought back Peter Cushing OBE to the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, but was also distracted by it. The odd twitching of his facial muscles…

But, the character arcs were terrific, and the battles spectacular and actually awful. If you know the Star Wars saga reasonably well, then you knew the inevitable conclusion, and it drove to it in what I thought was perfect sense and with a chaotic sense of humour (the rebellion are clearly not great strategists). It neatly stitched the first trilogy to the second with Senator Bail Organa getting his adoptive daughter Leia into the action to take the stolen plans to safety from a terrible space battle via an old friend in hiding who might be able to help…

Nine Worlds Geek Fest 2016

I have been to each and every Nine Worlds to date, and have blogged my thoughts about them previously: 20132014 and 2015.

The big change was the venue. Nine Worlds has shifted from Heathrow to Hammersmith, in part because of the trouble that the last venue caused, but also because of location and the plans the organisers have (as I understand it – apologies if I’ve got that horribly wrong! Happy to amend). This year we were at the Novotel West London, a large convention hotel quite close to the bus, overground and underground hub and near a range of food options. Ironically, perhaps, because the venue put on reasonably priced food and drink, and a decent range (given the usual caveats of convention food). Not a lot of choice, but they did cater as far as they could for diverse diets. Even though it was in the convention handbook,  I think people didn’t realise that the convention had a minimum spend to meet – I don’t know if they did, but I hope they did.

The main bar was fab, and we were lucky with the weather being sunny. It meant we could spill out to the outside areas. The bar staff were such a contrast to the staff last year it’s really not fair to compare them. They actually worked as you would expect bar staff to – actually serve you drinks you want, and then deal with the payment, in a reasonable time. They responded to peak times, and were efficient in clearing away mess. They also replenished the much-needed water supply in a way that I don’t think people really noticed – apart from those of us who had noticed the tardiness at the last hotel over that very matter. The other bars were a not quite as well stocked, but that was to be expected, and all the staff I interacted with during the convention were polite and keen to help. I learned during the convention that Nine Worlds had trained some of them in diversity matters, which showed. I heard and saw a few people say that staff had commented favourably about the convention, too, which is nice.

I had no problems at all with the free wi-fi in any part of the convention space, or my room. That was an astonishing contrast to the last four hotels I’ve stayed at either for Sf conventions or my work where it’s been abysmal.

(Outside of the convention the hotel was a little bit less brilliant; the check in on Thursday was slow even for those of us who had checked in online, and I noticed the difference in breakfast – and reflected how I was more used to better service once the convention deal had stopped. Nothing dramatic, by the way, but noticeable.)

The convention itself featured many cool cosplayers, and I massively rate the tokens method having been at another convention this year where they have a costume event. I have too many to list that were amazing – I did think the Zombie London 2012 Gamesmaker was fab, and I loved the two EU flags.

There was the same sense of learning from errors of the past, but also settling into an expectation of being a safe space for the diversity of sexual orientation and gender, and disabilities (including invisible), and for families and children of all ages. There is still a problem with being overwhelmingly white, but I am aware the organisers are painfully aware of it and trying loads of things to address it. My own personal commitment is to step down from any panel if there is a person of colour who wants to be on it but for whatever reason wasn’t invited.

My interactions with the various volunteers were all positive, and helpful. Clearly they knew what they were doing, and loved it.

I wasn’t involved at all in the organising, but have always been on panels. I knew they experimented with a slightly different approach to the past organisation along tracks. I think it worked quite well, but there were a couple of things that need improving for next time. Timing being one – seemed a bit long at some stages, and then at meal times a little rushed. Not a drama, and I wonder if it was because there was a lot to do with the change of venue, and four years in a row is a substantial commitment for any convention. Words can be hollow, but I would volunteer in a heartbeat (or two) if my job, writing life and health weren’t quite so demanding. I don’t want to volunteer and then not deliver. If things change, then I will reconsider. I love Nine Worlds and its ethos, and enjoy being a part of it.

I was on three panels, all of which were tops. Really good other panellists, and terrific audiences. They were the one on Star Wars and canon, Doctor Who canon (2005+ series, but of course we went back – timey-wimey allows that, nay encourages it!), and Ewoks! I had been a little bit nervous about the Star Wars ones because while I love the movies (in general) I don’t consider myself a fan. My fears allayed very quickly because both panels were about diversity of experience, of course. It’s Nine Worlds. Which meant that the usually fraught with danger discussion of Doctor Who‘s canon was lovely and fun. Little note: we were able to talk about Rogue One for the first Star Wars panel in the light of the new trailer released just before the panel; and in total contrast, we held a minute’s silence for the memory of Kenny Baker, who died over the weekend and we got the news just before the Ewoks! panel. We then celebrated his life, especially his role as an Ewok.

No blanket forts this year (as far as I’m aware), but there was Panel Panel before Bifröst (the disco bit of it). I do hope it returns next year.

But, mostly, for me the three days were full of great conversations about all sorts of things with an incredible range of people. If there’s a mark of how much I enjoyed it, it might be this. I am going to World Con in Helsinki next year. There’s a little bit of uncertainty with my job next year (nothing bad, but I am aware that until I know for certain what I’ll be doing after May next year I can’t really plan beyond my already made commitments) and I had decided to give Nine Worlds a break and just do World Con. But, instead, I’m going to incorporate planning around the potential to do both Nine Worlds and World Con, and have a bit of a holiday in and around Helsinki.