mirrorshard: (Sabalom Glitz)
[personal profile] mirrorshard
It turns out that the best thing for my (usually rather unpleasant) travel sickness is milkshake. McDonald's thick milkshakes particularly, but others will do, and "Primo Coffee" (if I'm remembering the name right - found one at a random service station) does one which is rather tastier. Five hours on a coach is still not fun, but at least I met a couple of other London fans on the way up.

The Midland Hotel is lovely - delightful Victorian interiors, comfortable quiet rooms, friendly staff, and very functional showers. Not staying in the con hotel was a bit of a pain, but on the plus side it meant I got a decent amount of sleep and could get up in the mornings. The Midland coffee, incidentally, is shite, but the breakfast is otherwise v. good.

Didn't manage to get to much of the Friday programming, since I was travel-lagged and worrying slightly about my first ever con art show. (Which proved of course not to be worrisome in retrospect, but that's the thing about retrospect...) Went to a panel on Re-creating History - the only notes I have from that are a sketch of a ruined abbey and the legend "*MEMENTO*MORI*ARCH.*", which refers to the 18th century habit of constructing false follies (as seen in Arcadia and Headlong Hall) as a kind of large-scale equivalent of keeping a skull on your desk.

After that, I went and signed up to the Kunji Revolt LARP, and found myself playing a commander of the revolutionary army. This carried on throughout the weekend, and makes a very good way to meet people (which I am admittedly quite crap at generally). I did actually mostly ignore the note on my character sheet about looking for any excuse to abandon the revolution and find myself a cosy niche elsewhere, but then I don't find roleplaying that sort of thing fun... and frankly, the rest of the revolution were making up for it! Weirdly, the game was actually scored at the end - apparently, the con committee had asked for that. I've never had that done for a LARP before. No idea what I scored, or for that matter how the GMs knew. I'm happy with having survived it.

Saturday: Alternate Socialist Britain, which mostly concentrated on the 80s and got sidetracked into the minutiae of socialist infighting. Music of the Spheres, which was rather good - all about the way music and mathematics and historical ideas of the structure of the universe map onto one another. It's Grim Up North, which looked at depictions of the North of England in SF - is it a grim post-industrial wasteland, or a quiet folksy reservoir of old magic? I brought up Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the latter, and we agreed that the North varied widely - consider Liverpool, Sheffield, Bradford, and York. I'm a White Rose person myself, since I went to university in God's Own County, but North Wales where I grew up has a lot of similarities too. I'm tempted to suggest a panel on Welsh SF&F for next year, since there's plenty of depictions around - even if you ignore Torchwood, which I really rather would.

Bad Sex in SF - a riotous collection of readings, including of course "Houseplants of Gor" and some Israeli SF in translation. (Apparently, Hebrew just does not have the native vocabulary to talk about sex.) Excelsior Victorianus talked about the medical uses of the violet wand (there aren't any, but it's still fun) and demonstrated various attachments on volunteers from the audience. The comb didn't noticeably make my hair stand on end, which was mildly disappointing, but it was still fun. I hadn't been electrocuted since 2001.

Sunday: I headed in for 9am, for the Easter service, but the vagaries of the shuttle bus meant I got there at nearly ten past. Late enough to miss singing Lord of the Dance, but not quite late enough to miss the prayer, which was talking about "going back amongst the mundanes". Mundanes? I've never even met someone mundane. It was a lovely service overall, though. After that was The Appeal of Steampunk, moderated by Kim Lakin-Smith, with Tim Powers, Peter Harrow, Toby Frost, Cory Doctorow, and Venetta Uye, which I actually paperblogged going along. Herewith! [NB: This is not an accurate transcription of a whole conversation, just a set of scribbled notes about things I wanted to remember or comment on.]

Frost: Steampunk allows us to use a colonialist view of other cultures without feeling guilty about it, and ignore the servants. [Ed. note - yeah, I have problems with this too.]
Powers: Steampunk doesn't come within miles of saying anything important about this world, or any world. Mine certainly doesn't.
Uye: The darker underbelly of Victorian society is implicit in the genre. [Cites Perdido Street Station.]
Harrow: Steampunk can embody the Victorian values of self-improvement and philanthropy. [Ed. note - cf. The Diamond Age. Also, values? Debatable.] Is the current recession returning us to a more Victorian idea of nation-states, rather than the corporate states cyberpunk shows?
Doctorow: [Cites The Maker Manifesto - if you can't open it up, you don't own it.] One important feature of steampunk iconography is gauges and instrumentation. Steampunk answers powerlessness.
Powers: Steampunk iconography assumes beauty is a good thing. Victorian floridity and excess of ornamentation. [Ed. note - a lot of the Victorian obsession with random twiddly bits is because it had just become possible to do that on a large scale, with the beginnings of mass production. Still, he's got a point.]
Frost: The importance of individualism. Decorating it makes it personal.
Uye: Form follows function, but steampunk appearance is mostly cosmetic.
Harrow: The ornamentation is there to make it unique & personal - allows us to have pride in our possessions. [Talks about the importance of recycling and re-use, and how steampunk allows us to do that to consumer electronics.] [Ed. note - I'm dubious. It might work in theory, but I doubt he's actually going to recycle any useful bits out of that pretty iPhone's internal works himself. It sounds more like lampshading the culture of obsolescence to me.]
Doctorow: Legibility in computing. For instance, someone I know runs workshops to help schoolchildren build chemical sensors into robot dogs, and then sets flocks of them free on cleaned-up land to demonstrate that it isn't really very cleaned-up after all. The Clock of the Long Now is a good example of this. [Ed. note - cf Anathem, which is a takeoff of that idea too.] Don Norman says "The natural state of technology is broken". So a lot of our response to technology depends not on how we use it when when it works, but on how we feel about it when it breaks. Making Harrow's iPhone beautiful really does make it work better.
Harrow: Yes, actually, it does! It started working more reliably after I did this. Maybe it's to do with animism.
Powers: Modern car engines baffle me. They say "This is for an expert, and you aren't one". [Ed. note - cf. Anathem again, and Rainbow's End.]
Doctorow: We are the Morlocks. [Ed. note - cf. Kipling's Sons of Martha.]
KLS to Uye: Does "punk" fit? Isn't steampunk rather light and frivolous, rather than really being rebellious?
Uye: It's down to the DIY aesthetic. It brings the traditional sense of "punk" back.
Doctorow: The best embodied text I can think of is Disney's Tomorrowland.
[Your editor asks a question about William Morris and the Victorian movement towards mindful hand-crafted objects.]
Doctorow: Nothing to do with us, guv. Steampunk is about the subversion of modern material culture - Morris wasn't street. These days, we can leverage information technology to reproduce & distribute data, blueprints, FAQs, howtos everywhere cheaply. [Ed. note - this still sounds like another instance of the same principle to me, albeit an integral thereof. It's the same object/process distinction as calculus and wave-particle duality.]
Frost: Some kind of pastoral fantasy. Ref. Orwell. [Ed. note - I'm not entirely sure what this means in context, but it's in my notes.]
Doctorow: Steampunk means that other peoples' technology enables us. It's not something to reject, it's something to subvert.
Question from the audience: To what extent does steampunk embrace Victoriana without actual machinery? That is, how much science rather than engineering turns up in steampunk texts?
Frost: Well, there's Jekyll & Hyde. Steampunk is about attitude as much as engineering - looking at characters as well as machines. [Ed. note - Clute on thinning?]
Q: How about biology? Is The Island of Doctor Moreau steampunk, and if not why not?
Doctorow: That's a really great book. I'd say it was, on the principle of "if you can't open it you don't own it". This is how cyborg technology turns up.
Same Q: Optimism without a cautionary element...
Q: Aren't we just applying a Xena lens to the Victorian period? The Victorian writers were writing techno-thrillers. Steampunk is not derived from Victorian SF.
Powers: It's as much derived from Mary Poppins as from Mayhew.
Q: Victorian sewage works are temples to technology, with all that vaulting and that stained glass. Are we trying to get back to that?
Doctorow: Remember, the Eloi who designed the sewage works didn't have to work in them. We're Morlocks.

Later reflection on the part of your editor: All industrial establishments look like Dark Satanic Mills to outsiders. We're not prepared to be outsiders for much longer.

After that, I'd planned on lunch, but annoyingly the hotel were serving from 12:30, not from 12, and the art auction started at 12:30. I couldn't stay long enough to see the one I'd bid on come up, never mind to see if any of my own work had made it into the auction (and I hadn't managed to get along to the show and check for bids since the middle of Saturday), since I had to head off to eat and to the green room for my own panel. That was on Pacifism & Nonviolence in SF, and turned out to be quite difficult - it's a complex subject, after all. I like to think I didn't make more than a slight fool of myself at my first ever con panel. It turned out later on that I'd sold two pieces (this one, and a blue and gold mask that I really didn't want to have to carry home), and both for more than the minimum bid. Next year, I shall be setting my minima higher, since the strategy of setting them very low to encourage bids clearly didn't work.

Science of Chocolate: the food chemistry was a bit basic for me, but that's only to be expected, and I could tell most people were getting a lot out of it. The low-GI truffles were delicious, but the clear winner was cocoa-dusted garlic. Will definitely have to make some of this myself.

Monday: a fairly lazy morning. Spent a while chatting to various people, found out that Juliet McKenna has a new book coming out at the end of the month (the first of her third series - Irons in the Fire, which seems to be set in the same world as the first). It's about warring dukes and a popular revolution, and looks at the problems of keeping things going after the revolution "wins", apparently. Definitely one to get. Also went to see the panel Juliet was moderating, on Merging Fantasy with Reality, in which they talked about narrative techniques and the emotional "feel" of a book - whether it felt right, rather than whether the details were all right. Given the way Elaine Isaak was talking about material culture, I'm going to have to look up some of her work too. This reminds me of something Shana Worthen said in Friday's panel on recreating history, too - the appearance of a wastepaper basket in The Hobbit means wastepaper, which means that someone, somewhere, has a mechanized paper mill using woodpulp, which needs a whole technology tree and infrastructure to support it.

After that, I went to find next year's con chair Judith, and pitched a talk about information (and materials) decay, archiving, and the tradeoffs involved in keeping data in existence, accessible, and accurate. Should be fun, and I can certainly rant for an hour or so on that from an artistic, materials-science, and IT point of view.
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