On Friday evening I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Jack Cohen, one of the world’s leading reproductive biologists. On Sunday, I attended an equally fascinating lecture by Dr. William Sarjeant, a geologist at the University of Saskatchewan.
I wasn’t at a scientific conference or a university lecture series: I was at ConAdian–the 52nd World Science Fiction Convention, held over the Labour Day weekend in Winnipeg.
Dr. Cohen’s talk, you see, was on “Designing Credible Aliens,” and Dr. Sarjeant was detailing the geological forces that shaped, not the Earth, but Middle Earth, the realm of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.
No other branch of literature has anything even remotely resembling SF’s (please, don’t call it “sci-fi”) extensive network of conventions, where authors, editors and fans come together to discuss a remarkable variety of topics.
WorldCon, as the World Science Fiction Convention is generically known, is the biggest of the lot. ConAdian was less than half the size of the largest WorldCons, those held in California or New York, and it still drew 3,500 people. As Winnipeg’s mayor pointed out during the opening ceremonies, it was the largest international convention in Manitoba this year.
Naturally, it attracted a lot of media attention, but almost without exception, the media missed the point. The casual visitor to a WorldCon is probably struck by the, um, eclectic manner of dress. Even on the first day, buttons, propellor-beanies (a defiant flaunting of stereotype), the occasional cape and one or two Star Trek uniforms are in evidence. By the end of the con, you can’t walk without tripping over Klingons, medieval monks, wizards and giant blue-furred aliens. These costumes exert an irresistible attractive force on television cameras, which in turn relegates con coverage to the “humorous item before the weather” slot in the newscast.
Where the cameras and reporters never seem to go is into the real heart of the convention, the hundreds of panel discussions. SF fans are passionate, both about science fiction and many other things, highly intelligent, and voluble. In other words, they love to talk.
Of course, many of the panels focused on specific authors (such as guest of honor Anne McAffrey), books, films or TV programs. There were also unusual topics such as “Being a Pagan in Professional Society” and “So You’ve Been Taken Aboard a UFO: An Etiquette Guide for Abductees.” Other panels focused on writing-related topics.
But there were many others that wouldn’t have been out of place in a UN-sponsored conference, with panelists whose credentials would not have been out of place, either. For example, one panel on virtual reality included Dr. Arlan Andrews, manager at Sandia National Laboratory in the U.S. (He also writes SF.)
Other topics included “Solar Power Satellites and Energy Politics,” the future of libraries (Will the paper book become a thing of the past?), and, on a grander scale, “The Long-Term Future of the Universe.”
Genetic engineering and the ethics thereof came up for scrutiny, as did censorship: one panel provocatively noted “Hitler burned books and Canada still controls the news,” then asked the question, “When does political correctness lead to censorship?” Among the things some people would like to censor are “slasher films;” Dr. Carl Matheson, a professor of philosophy, presented a lecture on the social implications of their popularity.
“Changing Paradigms on the Verge of the 21st Century” (definitely UN-conference material), ran concurrently with a panel on global warming, while the changing paradigms of another era were the focus of “That Krazy Kepler…Basic Astronomy from the Past,” presented by Dr. Martin Clutton-Brock, a professional astronomer.
“Can Technology Help Us Save/Manage Our World?” was discussed by a chemist, a mathematician, a mathematical engineer and a historian. Alternative methods of launching satellites into space and the “ozone hole” came up for discussion that same day.
Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau appeared to talk about the Canadian space program. (He also presented two of the Hugo Awards, awarded by the fans to the best science fiction of the year, on Saturday night.) In the same vein, spaceflight historian Hugh Gregory presented a lecture on Russian interplanetary probes; other panels looked at the future of spaceflight.
“The Economic/Political Aspects of Future History” asked, “Are we moving toward a global economy or just re-entering the Dark Ages?” The Internet and what one writer called “the information super hype-way” came up for discussion in other panels.
“The Future of Education,” a discussion of solutions to the global overpopulation crisis, and a lecture on quantum mechanics were just some of the science-related panels mixed in with “How to do Celtic Knotwork,” a slide-show tour of Transylvania and the “Hands-On Parliamentary Procedure Workshop” (which I stayed as far away from as possible).
Panels were scheduled concurrently, sometimes as many as 11 or 12 at once. They started at 10 a.m. each day and ran hourly until at least 5 p.m., with additional panels in the evening. By my estimate, there were at least 300 of them. Throw in the gaming tournaments, the art room (featuring work by some of the top illustrators in the field, including Michael Whelan’s original artwork for the cover of the new Meatloaf album), a dealer’s room where you could buy everything from a T-shirt that said “Give me chocolate and no one gets hurt” to a first-edition copy of H.G. Well’s “The War of the Worlds” (not that you could afford it) to a two-handed broadsword, the Hugo Awards ceremony and the Masquerade (featuring costumes as finely made as anything in any Andrew Lloyd-Webber spectacular) and you had an event unlike any other.
Historical fiction looks at the world of the past, which is immune to change. “Mainstream” fiction looks at the world today–and quickly becomes historical fiction because of the pace of change. Science fiction, however, thrives on change: in fact, change is what it’s about. “What if such and such happens? What if this thing that is happening now continues to happen? How could this change our country? Our world? Our species?”
These are important questions. They’re the questions science fiction has always asked–and the questions governments and individuals worldwide are finally starting to ask, too. They’re the questions SF readers and writers were discussing at the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg.
The propellor-beanies were just window-dressing.