By Jo Lindsay Walton
It is Wednesday. I am in Helsinki. So is everybody else.
There are a few issues of Vector and FOCUS on the freebies table, courtesy of Dave Lally; but, of course, not for long.
I put in time in Messukeskus 209, the academic track. On Wednesday, Merja Polvinin introduces the Finnish Society for SFF Research (Finfar), its journal Fafnir, and the theme of the next five days. The theme is ‘estrangement.’
Speculative fiction isn’t about other worlds, it’s about this world! In speculative fiction, we encounter real, familiar things, only made strange! There is a kind of political value to such encounters. In the movie Elysium, we encounter something real and familiar (unjust access to healthcare), only that thing is made strange.
By making the world strange, we can unsettle the distinction between what is possible and what is not. By making the world strange, we can see the world for what it really is, including all its promise and possibility.
At least, that’s the idea. Over the five days, I am struck by how accommodating and flexible and familiar the concept of estrangement has become.
When Darko Suvin first floated estrangement, way back before science fiction studies was really A Thing, he made a distinction between ‘cognitive’ and ‘non-cognitive’ estrangement. Or (to really boil it down), between ‘good’ estrangement and ‘bad’ estrangement.
Suvin’s ingenious distinction has never really caught on, and never really gone away. I think we need to get back to the root of Suvin’s project, which is about selecting and elaborating aspects of speculative fiction texts that can contribute practically to radical political struggle.
The 75th World Science Fiction Convention, aka WorldCon 75, is the third-and-a-half con I’ve attended. And I finally understand the ribbons thing! It all starts innocently enough. Each stripe attaches to the previous, or to the name-badge. Some have some practical ID-like function: Programme Participant, Staff, Operations, Access …
… and then maybe you collect another stripe or two to show your support for future WorldCon bids or something like that …
… but then (and this was my epiphany) there are those ribbons created by anyone, for any reason, and just added to your rainbow for any reason, or even for no real reason, just for the sheer brio of bricolage …
… and before you know it, you’re wafting a Fourth Doctor scarf to and fro, and there is a complex pattern of traces, traces of chance and not-so-chance encounters, spreading across the convention. Fans secrete ribbons on each other like semiochemicals. By Sunday, a swarm intelligence is stirring. Olaf Stapledon writes in Star Maker:
In time it became clear that we, individual inhabitants of a host of other worlds, were playing a small part in one of the great movements by which the cosmos was seeking to know itself, and even to see beyond itself.
Badge ribbons are how WorldCon seeks know itself, and even to see beyond itself.
I put in time at BarCon. The theme is of the drinking track at WorldCon 75 is salmiakkikossu, a salty liquorice liqueur. There is political value to such encounters. They unsettle our sense of what is possible and what is not. No, salmiakkikossu is not ‘nice.’ But I am not convinced the eldritch intelligence we are randomly building out of bright ribbons is ‘nice’ either.
I am accustomed to transporting my sense, with a bottle of Homeric Malbec, down into the wine-dark sea. But salmia drowns its tourists in forests of dark pine.
I seem to have come unstuck in time. It is Monday. On the plane home, I read from two things people have given me. Some poems by Ivaylo “Evil Ivo” Shmilev. Some some draft novel chapters by Mike “Nice Mike” Krawec. “I am lying in the dark before the dawn / and waiting for you to be reborn,” says Ivo. “I’m sure you’re aware,” says Mike, “a Hellish visa may negatively impact your chances of entering the Kingdom of Heaven, should you ever want to visit or reside there.”
It is is Friday and Jeff VanderMeer is removing his bear mask. Underneath he’s wearing a bear mask.
Wednesday. Opening ceremonies.
It is Sunday. I am at the Strange Horizons tea party. We have drunk all the tea. Moving the chairs is especially a blast. I can’t explain but it was. Niall Harrison, once of Vector, now standing down as editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, is getting semi-ambushed by people saying embarrassingly nice things about him. “The cuddly kind of ambitious.”
It is Friday. An academic paper at a convention can be tricky, obviously. Who’s going to be in the audience? What will they know and what won’t they know? Where do you pitch it? I admire Tiffani Angus‘s paper. It is full spectrum. It is about some of the things that are often missing from post-apocalyptic fiction: tampons, pads, contraception, period pain, menstrual diarrhoea, childbirth, menopause. They go missing from other kinds of fiction too, but they go missing from post-apocalyptic fiction in a special way. The phrase “Chekov’s tampon” is both funny and kinda the crux: what gets suppressed on the basis that it isn’t necessary to the story? Who defines ‘necessary’ and ‘story’?
Saturday. NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren and his Public Affairs Officer Norma J Knotts are talking.
Emma just namechecking loads of Dragrace queens and brilliantly deflecting GRR’s effort to steer gently toward epic fantasy #worldcon75
— Jo @ #CurledWan (@JolixJoverflow) August 9, 2017
One of the many beautiful, fitful, tangled conversations threaded across the week is about breaking the fourth wall. Can you break the fourth wall during a fourth wall break? That kind of thing: apparently Deadpool can. Can you intercept somebody else’s fourth wall break? Am I a fourth wallflower? Is the fourth wall a supporting wall? Can you break the wrong fourth wall, like you can talk into the wrong camera? If we broke the fourth wall now, what would we see? Even more Jo Waltons, Malkovich Malkovich style?
Nazis and nukes?
My panels go OK! When I make a joke, some people laugh. When I make a serious political point, everyone laughs.
I have moderated a panel on Systems of Healing Magic. I find out, too late, about the healing magic used by Väinämöinen, the hero of the epic Finnish poem The Kalevala. If you take an axe to the knee, the recommended course of action is to relate the origin story of the iron the axe is made of:
She who squeezed black milk from her was born soft iron; she who squeezed white milk from her were made things of steel, she who showered red milk from her was got pig iron.
In order to impose your mastery upon the iron and its effects you must, I guess, say some shit about the iron’s mommas. When that is done, Väinämöinen can boss around his own blood like Sebastian tries to boss Ariel:
Blood, stand like a wall; stay, gore, like a fence; like an iris in a lake stand, like sedge among moss, like a boulder at a field edge, a rock in a steep rapid! But if you should have a mind to move more swiftly then move in the flesh and in the bones glide! Inside is better for you, beneath the skin is fairer [...]
Magical healing is surely a theme of everything in the con.
Apparently the trade hall is a bit small by US standards. Maybe it is for the best.
I feel childishly at ease with practically anybody who is a bit Scottish.
It is Sunday before I realise why the fourth wall conversation is so captivating. WorldCon is when Twitter denizens step through the screen and become flesh. Paul Weimer. Adrian Tchaikovsky. Ian McDonald. Berit Ellingsen. Effie Seiberg. Erin Roberts. Remote Voices. Galoot. Crystal.
Crystal Huff and I have found each other. We are at the China party. We take an otherie. Crystal knows how to do this. It is like a selfie, made strange.
I’m not sure who the hunter creeping up on us is. I think it might be Dalibor Perković. Falling in with the Croatians is a delight. They organise SferaKon, and they are organising large chunks of WorldCon. I want to go to Croatia next year. SferaKon is mostly in English, so I might.
WorldCon feels huge and brilliantly organised. There are thoughtful touches everywhere. On the first day, attendance is much higher than expected.
We are the second biggest Worldcon ever.
10516 Members and Day Passes
7119 Warm Bodies on Site.#Worldcon75
— Worldcon 75 (@worldcon75) August 13, 2017
[…] Someone, I think Kevin, said that Helsinki had scored a Critical Hit, but that doing so was not always good. No, I said. You have scored a Critical Hit. You are now covered in the intestines of the huge monster that you have slain with a single blow […]
The intestines Cheryl mentions are mostly queues. It is Wednesday and the rooms are rammed. The queues are shaped like Dave Lally’s badge ribbon tally at the Dead Dog.* The queues are shaped like Shai-Huluds made of shy hellos. But I’m impressed by how quickly and smartly the convention adapts to the numbers. By Thursday, new larger rooms have been secured, and the programme has been re-jiggled, conservatively but effectively, with the changes well-advertised. Vast new seating vistas open. There are still queues, but no more crushes.
Ready to go sad to leave #WorldCon75
— Jo @ #CurledWan (@JolixJoverflow) August 14, 2017
Thank you, WorldCon, you have been lucent and crystalline. You have been an omen whose every atom is a minuscule Moomin. And WorldCon 77 is coming to Dublin.
* I learned a little Fanspeak. ‘Concrud’ is what you call the pathology that develops in the individual neuron-humans as the gestalt convention grows perilously close to sentience. ‘Dead Dog’ is what you call the party at the end of the con. Sort of a cross between a GP waiting area and paradise.