Con Report: WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

I recently contributed the following convention report to the Milford Writers’ Conference blog

welcome-to-worldcon1WorldCon 75 was my second time attending the World Science Fiction Convention (the first was in London three years ago) and it was both a terrific con and a wonderful opportunity to explore a fantastic city. Helsinki is a beautiful, hugely walkable place. It’s all trees and parks (make sure to check out Eila Hiltunen’s stunning Sibelius Monument!) and everyone seems to speak perfect English. During the convention itself, I was delighted to be involved in several popular events. I took part in the ‘Science Fiction in University Courses’ panel, which was a fun opportunity to talk about what I do for a living at Aberystwyth University (and a chance to have some great discussions with fellow panelist Helen Marshall from Anglia Ruskin University). I was also part of the ‘Stargate at 20 Years’ panel, during which I had the rare treat of testing out ideas from an academic article in progress on an enthusiastic audience of genuine fans. Finally, I delivered a paper on the convention’s academic track titled ‘The Cause of the Incident was Human Error: Irish Nuclear Anxiety in Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House’ (feedback on this was very positive and I intend expanding it into a full length article in the near future).

Other panels and talks I attended which have really stuck with me included the ‘Resistance’ panel featuring Tiffani Angus, Liz Hand, Kameron Hurley, and others talking about, well, the things that we need to be talking about these days (‘We have a problem with empathy,’ Angus says. ‘One on one we’re good; with family we’re iffy; and then we have the internet…’). I enjoyed the talk by Jenny Knots of NASA’s Public Affair Office (‘Bagpipes were once taken to the space station but… those weren’t very popular’) as well as the contributions of E.G. Cosh to the ‘Visual Language of Comics’ panel (‘The language of comics comprises symbols within the art and what happens on page/how it’s read,’ she says. ‘Accept that you’re going to need to read the page a few times’). Meanwhile, on the ‘Engineering in Science Fiction and Fantasy’ panel, Fran Wilde was the standout participant (‘Engineering is a way for science to interact with the world,’ as she put it. Also, ‘where do all the objects come from in Harry Potter? Where is the Hogwarts School of Engineering?’). There were also interesting, informed panels discussing ‘Hard Science Fiction’ (a ‘state of mind which manifests in various sub-genres,’ says Andrew Barton) and ‘Mighty Space Fleets of War’ (‘In space, shrapnel is forever’). Another highlight in terms of quality and diversity of material was the academic track (really great to see these integrated into conventions more and more these days) which I found to be one of the most successful elements of the whole convention.

There was honestly so much going on that it’s difficult to sum up! We ate reindeer, experienced an exceptional Helsinki thunderstorm (‘Everybody is advised to stay inside between 20:00 and 22:00’), were awed by the ceaseless dance of construction cranes near the convention center (#CraneCon), got to meet Daveed Diggs and Clipping (though unfortunately I could not make their concert as it clashed with my ‘Science Fiction in Universities’ panel), and enjoyed wine and nibbles at a City Hall reception welcoming WorldCon to Finland for the very first time. We attended the Hugo Awards ceremony (shout-out to Ada Palmer’s acceptance speech: ‘There are more kind people in this world than cruel people so never give up on working to what you want in the world’) and, at one point I found myself in a room with an actual astronaut and the director of the Vatican Observatory (‘People must follow the robots!’).

Beyond the convention, a personal Helsinki highlight was the visit I took to the spectacular sea fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on a series of islands just a short boat trip from the city’s famous Market Square. I spent a good five or six hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the fortifications, Suomenlinna’s museums (and submarine!), as well the site’s complicated history, but that was hardly long enough time! It was a terrific trip-within-the-trip and a real boon in terms of the ideas it sparked off (I definitely plan on using a version of these islands in future fiction projects). Indeed, getting the chance to see and be inspired by places like Suomenlinna is one of the big advantages of a WorldCon which truly travels the world.

See you all in Dublin in 2019!

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‘Freedom of Navigation’ published in Interzone

freedom-of-navigationI’m delighted that my story ‘Freedom of Navigation’ has recently been published in the January 2017 issue of Interzone (#268) accompanied by a striking illustration by Richard Wagner (I’m massively impressed by how much of the story he managed to capture). It is my second story published in Interzone.

‘Freedom of Navigation’ follows a cybernetic interplanetary fighter pilot dispatched with her drone escorts to enforce a territorial claim in the asteroid belt. It should be a routine mission but space is a dangerous place and when things go wrong the pilot finds herself outgunned over enemy territory…

The story’s origins lie in my curiosity about the widening gap between crewed and autonomous aircraft. The drones of the stories – the ‘Centaurs’ – are inspired by contemporary research on ‘human-machine teaming’. The term originally comes from chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who described human players using chess software as an adviser, but ultimately making the final decision, as ‘centaur chess’. ‘Freedom of Navigation’ offers one possible outcome of such a marriage between computational speed and human judgement.

Interzone #266 also contains stories by Julie C. Day, Christien Gholson, Michael Reid, Mel Kassel, and T.R. Napper, along with the usual book, cinema, and DVD reviews. The issue can be purchased via TTA Press (and they, in turn, can be followed via Twitter here).

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Thirty More Thoughts about Aberystwyth (After a Year-and-a-Half!)

december-3rd-2016

I’ve been in Aberystwyth for almost a year and a half now (!) and it continues to be a fantastic place to live and work. Also continues to be an endlessly fascinating experience so I have, as with last year, been collecting observations and reflections on my time here…

  • Bumble Bees Love Aber!
  • The overlook in Penglais Park offers arguably the best view of Aberystwyth. Even better than Consti.
  • On that note, I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to realise everyone called Constitution Hill “Consti”. But now I can’t stop!
  • Come spring, the bluebells transform the forest in Penglais Park into a kind of magical fantasy landscape. This is reinforced by the fact that you occasionally run into people wearing medieval garb there…
  • The Old College on the seafront is stunning. That this was true of the outside was apparent to me from my first few days in Aber, but by now I’ve had a chance to poke around the interior a bit and have found it to be one part romantic Victorian hotel, one part labyrinthine castle (think Doctor Who’s ‘Heaven Sent’), and one part Hogwarts. Indeed, as my colleague Beth Rodgers discovered, it used to be the haunt of one Professor Snape who taught Po… erm… Chemistry.
  • If there is one business to be in here in Aberystwyth it is doubtlessly scaffolding (looking at you, storms!).
  • That wasn’t a tornado or a hurricane that hit Aberystwyth back in November, I’m told it was a “straight line wind event”.
  • Abergustwyth
  • Abergeddon
  • Aberpreneurs
  • Abercadabra
  • Aber Daber Do
  • Walk the Prom early enough on an autumn morning and you’ll be treated to the starlings departing from their roosts beneath the pier. They look like spacecraft leaving a mothership and it’s spectacular.
  • This is my current favourite graffiti in Aberystwyth: 20160918_145728.jpg
  • Speaking of graffiti, who or what is “Pigfart”? Sometimes I ask people that and they look at me funny. But the word is scrawled on walls and footpaths (mostly but not exclusively on the south side of town). Is it a name? Is it a phrase? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s a mystery! Someone please stop me going full red-threads-across-a-board-covered-in-maps-and-photos about this (Update: I’ve been told that this is a reference to A Very Potter Musical).
  • Aberystwyth has an unexpected historical relationship with a Japanese town called Yosano. A local man named Frank Evans was a Japanese P.O.W. there during World War II (I recommend reading his 1985 volume Roll Call at Oeyama: A POW Remembers). In coming to terms with his experience, and in the hopes of promoting friendship between West and East, he eventually forged links between Wales and Japan. Young people from Yosano have been visiting Aberystwyth for many years but January 2016 was the first time Aberystwyth University sent student ambassadors to Japan. I had the opportunity to lead this group as the staff representative and it was an exceptional experience for all involved. Yosano is a beautiful place fully of friendly, generous people (and wow but the food is amazing!). The enthusiasm of our hosts for the relationship between the towns was undeniable and I am delighted that I will be leading a second group of students back there in a few weeks’ time (though this year I have sources my own indoor slippers to bring with me as, to the amusement of our hosts, none of the local slippers came anywhere close to fitting me!)
  • It took me a long time to get around to visiting the Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth but that was an oversight I recently corrected. Housed in a restored Edwardian Theatre, and full of (among other things) stunning paintings of old nautical scenes and landscapes, it ought to be an essential stop for anyone passing through the area.
  • When I lived in Galway I used to see big ships all the time. Less so in Aber (I hear the shallowness of Cardigan Bay is to blame). In the year and a half I’ve been here I’ve only seen two sizable craft on the horizon: the vehicle carrier California Highway back in September 2015 and the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Richmond in early December of this year. In the latter case I had just given a ‘Writing and Place’ class about the sea, including a segment on this-is-why-we-rarely-see-big-ships-near-Aberystwyth, and then I walked straight across the hall to my office to see the Richmond staring back at me.
  • Last summer my colleague Malte Urban took me out onto Cardigan Bay on his boat (a trip from Aberystwyth to Pwllheli). Felt like a proper adventure! I was struck by just how busy the Bay is with fishing boats and pleasure craft (it is one thing seeing the little arrows on the Marine Traffic app; quite another to see the variety of boats plying the waves in real life). A highlight was definitely seeing the ‘Patches’ buoy, a navigational marker the size of a bus turned on end, as well as gaining a whole new perspective on the coast and mountains of mid-Wales.
  • I have an amazing view over the Irish Sea from my office… but I’ve also got the campus’s Llandinam tower right in the middle of it! It’s sometimes fun to (digitally) imagine what it might look if the tower was a few floors lower: Skyline.jpg
  • Every winter the beach in Aberystwyth migrates onto the Promenade. And, because it’s such a Sisyphean task to clear it during storm season, the sand is… just left there, and paths are cleared through it for pedestrians. It lends a surreal atmosphere to walking the Prom. Almost as though one is strolling through the trenches.
  • Speaking of, Aberystwyth used to have a tank! The site is now a playground.
  • I never cease to be amused by the incredulity of the recorded voice on the Arriva train en route to Aber: “We will shortly be arriving at… Shrewsbury?”
  • A student writing a comicbook recently asked to base the character of a wizard on me. No word on if it’s a good wizard or a bad one…
  • Meanwhile, numerous final year Writing Project supervisions over the last term have gone as follows: Student voices concern that their dystopian Britain story will be clichéd; Tutor voices concern that it will actually be a non-fiction project (then notes that they’re at least paying attention to the world around them).
  • This:
    flowcharts
  • The Promenade is lined with flags from countries and regions all around the world. It’s a nice nod to the spirit of Internationalisation that exists in this small Welsh town (Aberystwyth voted Remain in the Brexit referendum). Plus it really simplifies making arrangements to meet people: “See you by Norway at noon?”
  • You think you’re at the top of the hill but you’re not. Stop fooling yourself. There is always more uphill in Wales.
  • A sign that you live in a very small town: wandering around the new Tesco with a silly grin thinking, “Ooh, they have… stuff!”
  • Finally, I have been continuing the “Walk to Mordor” which I began last year (that is charting my distances walked – though only those walked in Wales – against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). In my first term in 2015 I had reached Rivendell (737 km). By the end of the first week of May 2016 I had travelled through Moria, to Lothlorien (an additional 743.5km) and by the start of October I was at Rauros Falls (another 626km). I am now well on my way to Mt. Doom having walked 489km of the remaining 756km. A little under 270km to go! That seems… manageable, right? (All distances via Nerd Fitness).

So here we go with 2017! I’ll let you know when it’s time to send the Eagles…

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Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

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Retreat to move forward!

20161114_141526Fifty undergraduate students, two days, and (supposedly) one of the most haunted houses in Britain… but the only ghosts to be found on our recent Aberystwyth English Department reading week retreat were those of literary predecessors: writers and critics whose work serves to point our third year English and Creative Writing students in fruitful directions as they begin their final dissertations and long-form creative writing projects.

With students and staff bussed to Gregynog Hall, a stunning country mansion four miles outside Newtown, the retreat began with a trio of talks on process: Luke Thurston discussed how he had recently gone about assembling an edited collection, Beth Rodgers showed the students how she had researched an academic essay for the same volume, and finally I walked the students through the research I have been conducting for a story I’m currently working on.

That, I admit, was dangerous! But I think I side-stepped the major risk here (never tell anyone your story before you’ve written it because then you mightn’t want to write it!) by not discussing the plot or characters in any great detail. Instead I covered my approach to online research, best practice for interviews, the pros and cons of sourcing details and insights from photographs (mostly pros… but beware the cropped image), as well as the value of visiting the place that one is writing about (or visiting a similar place; for instance, I thought Gregynog’s magical Dell – let alone the estate’s Tolkienesque sculpture of a giant hand reaching out of the ground – offered ideal inspiration for any students writing about fantasy landscapes).

***

Later that afternoon, and again on the second day, students and staff alike became ghosts of a fashion in our own lives during a series of “Shut-Up-and-Write/Read” sessions (though, as Beth put it, “writing is permitted at all times”!). We switched off our smartphones (uhh, sure we did…) and sat quietly, haunting the rooms of Gregynog with the sounds of our keyboards and scribbles and our pages turning. It seemed appropriate to the wood-panelled surroundings and, by all accounts, these sessions were highly productive for the students (for some of us, of course, it was more like “Shut-Up-and-Mark-Papers”!).

20161115_102545On day two, as everyone grew more comfortable with Gregynog, it was interesting to watch how the students began to inhabit both the physical and imaginative spaces of the venue. Most clustered together in the library or the seminar rooms in a manner which reflected the core, recognisable interests of any English and Creative Writing cohort. Though naturally there were always a few students to be found wandering the grounds – probing the outer edges of discourse, if you will, or seeking inspiration from less mainstream writers – and one got the feeling that the contemplative atmosphere was having a real effect on them.

For the rest of us there was Gregynog’s basement bar, site of giant Jenga (our students are really good at that!), an insanely difficult staff Vs students quiz courtesy of Mike Smith, as well as some end-of-night ghost-themed storytelling. Indeed, I think it was the combination of these casual activities with the formal benefit on student projects which helped make the retreat (brainchild of our brilliant Department Head Louise Marshall) such a great success. Taking the work of our undergraduates out of the four walls of the classroom setting and into the twisty-turny nooks of Gregynog hopefully helped them to see their projects from new and less rigid perspectives. For staff members too it offered a chance to indulge in our enthusiasms and, perhaps more importantly, the conversations we had there served as valuable reminders that all of us remain students at heart.

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I’ve finished reading Revenger by Alastair Reynolds and, look at that, just in time for Talk-Like-a-Pirate-Day…

revengerRevenger
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £14.99
Review: Val Nolan

When ya first clamp yer lamps upon the nightblack new tome from Welsh landlubber Alastair Reynolds yar grey’d be wonderin’ what it is dis author’d be at. Cove’s tellin’ tall tales in a mismatch ‘a piratespeak ‘n technobabble? Ancient skulls whisperin’ t’each other across the night? Fifty million worldlets circlin’ the Old Sun like islands in the sky? Yet when the book spills its secrets like so much fancy loot ya quickly sight the glimmer o’somethin’ worth yar quoin, a swashbucklin’ ‘n unapologetically pulpy tale filled with sly-eyed characters ‘n daring-do. Whereas the last Reynolds voyage, Poseidon’s Wake, dallied for sure with Gulliver’s Travels, Revenger is more’a piece with Treasure Island: a comin’a’age yarn run through with’a cutlass o’moral ambiguity as the young sisters Adrana ‘n Arafura Ness light out inta the Empty with Cap’n Rackamore in search o’baubles ‘n fortune.

The Ness sisters be green but they both got the aptitudes, the skills for readin’ the alien bones which allow ships to communicate instantly over the interplanetary seas. That makes ‘em valuable to a captain like Rack, atop a’which they’re eager to tackle their share o’hazard by pickin’ over the ruins o’dead worlds shielded behind dense energy fields “like god’s own scab”. But things ain’t all peachy out on the edges o’the Swirly ‘n when their ship is murderously jumped by the ruthless pirate Bosa Sennen, Adrana ‘n Arafura are separated. The former is taken prisoner by the vicious Bosa; the latter carried by fate ‘n law back to her family ‘n an insidious bout o’pharmaceutical gaslightin’.

Things are thus knottier at the sharp end o’the story. The yo-ho-ho o’the opening salvo gives way to a darker aft half and the development o’Arafura, the prim and proper book-learned “girlie”, into just Fura, someone “harder and scowlier and [who] knew what needed to be done…” Her arc rigs a taut plot cuttin’ quick through a universe rich for the narrative plunderin’. Reynolds doesn’t hold back on the blood ‘n violence neither, not when close action is called for, while his taste for “wrong things […] things against the common laws o’nature” seeps through in the “Ghostie gubbins”, the high-tech treasures buried in the shivery places o’long gone civilisations.

Settin’ a course ‘tween the near-future plausibilities o’the Poseidon’s Children trilogy ‘n the cold hard sci-fi Gothicism o’the Revelation Space series, Revenger offers an adventure that t’aint hard to sign aboard for, an engagin’, shipshape, ‘n standalone (for now) Reynolds space opera which the author anchors deep in character. Tis a fast read for all the right reasons ‘n, with more than one unexpected tack that’ll have ya gaspin’ for lungstuff on yer way to its satisfyin’ final port o’call, Revenger is a story that oughta put the spur for more in any reader.

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Ten thoughts about Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsFor the last fortnight I have been making my way through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 700 page generational saga following two North American logging families from the late-1600s to the present day. It’s a novel that brought me terrific enjoyment (it wasn’t unknown for me to wander around the house reading passages aloud to anybody who would listen!) and one which I’m somewhat bereft to have finished (and yet I couldn’t not finish it).

Here are ten things (be warned, *minor* spoilers ensue) that stood out to me about the book…

  • If there is an underlying structure to Barkskins, it goes something like: beautiful prose, beautiful prose, beautiful pose, SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS, beautiful prose, beautiful prose… In that way the novel has a rhythm. Like chopping a tree until it comes crashing down and then starting again on the next one.
  • Barkskins feels like the LitFic novel you give your friend who only reads Science Fiction: colonists arrive in a distant new world, begin to exploit it to the detriment of the native inhabitants, and along the way develop new social structures and technologies (an unexpected aspect of the novel was how it touched upon the development of things such as modern paper, plywood, and prefabricated buildings). Moreover, Barkskins ends where an environmentally focused science fiction novel, say something by Kim Stanley Robinson, might begin.
  • The novel is a masterclass in showing and telling as appropriate (the “gearbox” approach as I like to think of it). Long stretches of time are covered quickly via telling and then Proulx slows things down to bring to life – to show us – the figures who intrigue her the most. One appreciates the richness of these dramatized sections all the more for the deftly sketched historical backdrop which Proulx plays out their lives against.
  • The reader ends each section reluctant to leave the character(s) they have been following. Thus one begins the next section almost resentful towards the new cast… until Proulx works her magic and one falls in love with/reconnects with the next set of protagonists, ending that section hungry for more, and beginning the cycle anew.
  • This passage:
    Barkskins Page
  • “Ships get built in the woods”. I love that observation.
  • The multitude of characters living through the novel’s three hundred years allows Proulx to explore a whole spectrum of sexualities and relationships. Which she does with maturity and sympathy. It goes a long way towards humanising the book’s protagonists and ensuring that each generation is not merely a carbon copy of their predecessors.
  • The obvious way of summarizing Barkskins is as a novel about the denudation of the vast North American forests but, flipping that around, it is also a story of just how destructive the relentless accumulation of capital can be to both one’s humanity and to the environment.
  • Lavinia Duke is such a wonderful character! This is all.
  • Proulx’s prose is obviously a major draw here but she always remembers that a novel has to not just be beautiful but also to entertain. She therefore weaves an almost pulpish quality into Barkskins, especially as the book progresses: for instance, the reader is regaled with the ghoulish tale of a burning railroad car rolling through America full of charred corpses; a key character freezes to death instantly on the shores of the Great Lakes where their body is left standing like a statue; a mad scientist reveals that his greatest invention is actually just a gigantic block of stone, and so on. Such moments have a borderline Pynchon quality but, simultaneously, one wonders just how many of them are based on real anecdotes which turned up during Proulx’s research…

Last year the English Department where I work asked staff members to recommend a book for a shelf – a miniature library of sorts – from which students could borrow and read. If we do that again this September then I might just name Barkskins as my pick… 700 pages be damned!

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