Worldcon: Thursday August 15

Worldcon 2019 was the reason for my being in Ireland this year. If you don’t know about Worldcon, here is a teeny capsule summary: the World Science Fiction Convention is a combination of panels on a wide variety of topics of interest to fans and creators of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (collectively known as speculative fiction, or sometimes SFF to people who downplay the horror element), plus events relevant to the hosting location, cosplay, and shopping (largely books, which you can sometimes get a chance to have autographed). Plus, the big item that’s relevant to fans who don’t go: attendees and associate members vote on the Hugo awards, which are presented in a big ceremony (on Sunday night this time).
Today I went to four panels:

I tried to get into Throwing Grandma out the airlock , but by the time I got to the end of the queue an back, Odeon 5 had filled up. The following summaries are based on very brief notes – I didn’t want to take so long writing that I missed something interesting – and the passage of time is fuzzing my memory, so by now this is primarily my own reinterpretation of what was said.
Because of overwhelming interest, the Dublin team had to split events between two venues 850 metres apart: the Conference Centre Dublin, and the Point Square complex (primarily the 6 Odeon theatres, but also some meeting rooms at the adjacent hotel). I have had trouble walking long distances in the past couple of years; a kilometer once per day seemed to be my recent limit. This led me to buy a 1-week Leap pass, which might have been overkill unless I make time to travel around the city during gaps where there aren’t events I want to attend. Getting the Leap pass was an adventure in itself, which I chronicled on Facebook One of the side effects was showing me that I could, indeed, probably walk back and forth between the two, but by then I’d bought my pass.

Crime and Punishment in the Age of Superheroes

My first actual panel was Crime and Punishment in the Age of Superheroes One of the first points made was that comics completely ignore some natural reactions of the population: in the age of doxxing, secret identities would be the instant target of significant numbers of people, and some people would try to hunt superheroes down. Aliette de Bodard pointed out that in France, masks are illegal, and people must be prepared to present ID at any time; later she mentioned that citizen’s arrest isn’t a thing in France, so a French Batman couldn’t capture miscreants and hand them over to the police.
Regular police don’t like people trying to do their jobs, but there is no specific crime in the US for vigilantism; people have to be charged with something like assault, kidnapping, excessive use of force, and so on; a defence lawyer said that “vigilante” is a label police apply to people they don’t like. In Britain, one novel suggested a bureaucracy would grow up around superheroism; you might need a licence, plus training in evidence handling (which apparently is sufficiently sloppy in so many stories that the villains would get off on technicalities). On the subject of evidence, someone asked what would happen if Spiderman refused to show up at a criminal trial, unmask, and testify? Others suggested that usually with Spiderman there is a big enough crowd that there would be other witnesses, cellphone recordings, CCTV, and so on.
There was some discussion of inhumane treatment of captured villains, like being consigned to Arkham Asylum, or imprisoned in the accelerator in the TV version of the Flash. There are two issues: continuing to treat criminals as human beings, versus finding ways to confine villains with superpowers. Someone pointed out the imprisonment of Magneto in a plastic cell as a humane way to keep locked up someone who can manipulate the normal metal bars; he had comforts, visitors, things that don’t happen in black sites (which is what the Flash’s cells essentially were). They didn’t take quite enough precautions, because he and his minions worked out something the jailors didn’t think of, but I gather the panelist thought it was the right way to treat Magneto anyway.
Someone pointed out that having something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe’ Sokovia Accords is a really neccessary idea, but they got passed unbelievably quickly. International treaty negotiations take a very long time and involve “horsetrading” and, sometimes, dishonest negotiations. Someone gave the example of the likelihood of some countries refusing to admit they had superheroes, if those heroes were part of a secret government program (which, for example, the Captain America supersoldier initiative originally was).
Someone else suggested fighting crime might not be the best use of superpowers; Thor could generate huge amounts of clean energy, as could the Flash (by running in a giant hamster wheel). There was also some discussion of how rehabilitation instead of imprisonment might apply to various specific villains, but I didn’t record details.
During the questions I did That Thing You Aren’t Supposed To Do: making a statement instead of posing a question. In my case I wanted to point to the book The Law of Superheroes , which I misremembered as Superheroes and the Law. It raises great questions like, if Commissioner Gordon summons Batman with the Batsignal, does that make Batman a state actor subject to restrictions like those on the police?

How to Build an Evil Empire

To get to the second panel, How to Build an Evil Empire , I took the Luas tram to Point Square, where the panels are in a collection of movie theatres. Odeon 1 was the largest, and didn’t quite fill up for this panel.
A recurring theme is Diane Duane’s statement (which I think was a quote from someone else) that “I am blameless” is the default existential self-view of almost everyone. I’ve heard something similar about writing villains: “Everyone is the hero of their own story.”
Emperors need minions, who might commit “bureaucratic excesses” since a hypothetical good emperor can’t monitor everyone. Could an empire just be “evil at the top?” One answer was that accepting evil orders makes the minions evil – but someone else asked whether they had a realistic choice; they might have been in the position of “do this or face some nasty consequences.”
Suggested examples of evil overlords who know they are evil: the villain from the old Worm Ourobouros novel; Duquesne from E.E. “Doc” Smith’s stories; Voldemort (at which place someone pointed out it was dumb of him not to monitor his horcruxes). Someone wanted to list successful real-world evil empires, and the three main suggestions were North Korea (which I’d call a regime rather than an empire), old Assyria, and the British empire (which saw itself as good and justified, but for which the colonized peoples have a different opinion). A successful empire has to exploit resources effectively and be ruthless.
Several people’s other short observations where I didn’t record much discussion.
  • One panelist asserted that “empire” is inherently evil since it must have involved conquering someone.
  • An evil empire can’t abide a free press.
  • A Fascist regime needs an enemy to blame things on, so needs a constant war; if it “wins” it has to find a new enemy.
  • We don’t usually see the propaganda that convinces a population to go along with what the evil empire is doing.
  • An evil technological empire needs enough education to maintain and use the technology, but not the kind of education that leads to self-awareness and reflection.
The moderator recommended searching for the Evil Overlord List ; I think the TV Tropes page is also valuable (though there’s no such thing as a quick trip to that site; it’s a black hole that sucks down huge amounts of time if you aren’t disciplined enough).

Creating wonderful new worlds

The panel on Creating wonderful new worlds was a little less on track than some others, allowing a diversion at the start into discussing Dr. Who, and a couple of other minor diversion later, but there were several interesting suggestions, the first of which was that all the worldbuilding is useless if the reader doesn’t care about the characters.

Oneidea was to take some real-world element and ask a “what if” question. Asimov’s Foundationseries was inspired by the fall of the Roman empire. Tolkein’s work was inspired by celtic and anglo-saxon mythology and culture. It matters a lot that the world be internally consistent, with implications of the differences from our reality being well thought through. Some of the panelists alluded to stories where they got part way through and though “that can’t work, given this other thing that happened.”

Quite a bit of time was spent on talking about how worldbuilding details make it into the story. The iceberg analogy came up: the author may understand a huge amount about the background, but only a small part of it should be revealed to the reader: just what is important to the viewpoint character in the moment. Infodumps almost always lose the reader; it’s very hard to do well; the same was said about long passages of description.

More than one panelist had the experience of putting in some detail where they weren’t initially sure of why it was important. Writers needs to trust their subconscious, that they will eventually realize why the detail will matter.

Other points:

  • If you discover that “the problem” is too easy for the character, it’s better to change the problem than the story.
  • In a panel where some authors enthused over the value of maps in their books, China Mieville asked “Have you considered what we lose by having a map?”
  • The Windup Girl was highly recommended

Making the asexual textual

By this point in the day (9pm local) I was getting tired so not taking as many notes as I had with some previous panels which I’m sad about because one of my ace friends especially wanted to know what was said.

The issue at the heart of Making the asexual textual was that an asexual and/or aromantic character often isn’t identified as such because in many kinds of novels, sexual attraction and romance aren’t issues that comes up for every character, so an ace or aro character isn’t naturally labeled as such if they are just going on with their life or their career. How much would an asexual character even think about their asexuality?

One panelist writes secondary world fantasy where queer identities were never medicalized (as abnormal in some way), so the cultureswouldn’t use the same terminology we do (asexual means “without sexuality” which suggestssomething is lacking). So she uses constructed language (conlang), or describes rather than labeling. Terminology might also be awkward in fiction about futures that are better than our current society. One panelist pointed out that asexual and aromantic are independent attributes; one can be either or both or neither.

I found the moderator Darcie Little Badger especially fascinating because she is Apache, and in her native language there is no word for romance. There is however the concept of a “special other”.

They listed some harmful tropes: asexuality as inhuman; asexuals as ignorant of biology; the idea that they’re “just waiting for the right person.” Someone suggested that pressure to label might be tokenism, but it seemed to me that clearly identifying a character as ace and/or aro is important for readers who want to see themselves in the story.

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